“Puedo ayudar?” (can I help?) my son asks. He only has a few words of Spanish, but it doesn’t matter here. The concepts of art, ritual, religion and community are universal and little common language is required.
The question is answered with a surprised but delighted expression and an affirmative response. He is taken by the hand to a basket of flowers and shown where to place them.
Thomas is helping to make ‘alfombras’ (an Arabic word for ‘carpet’). During Semana Santa, Antigua’s dull cobblestones are cloaked in beautiful works of art. The elaborate designs are made by residents and businesses along the route of processions celebrating the passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
Offerings can be as simple as a handful of petals laid directly onto the cobblestones.
More often, a bed of pine needles is laid down first to level the surface. Flowers, fruit and vegetables are usually placed on top, although we witness materials as diverse as fabric scraps, sweet wrappers, paper, cacao, coffee, eggs, loaves of bread and even Cheetos being used.
We wonder how easy it would be to walk on marbles and macadamia nuts!
As the week progresses, so does the intricacy of the designs. Aserrín (sawdust) or viruta (wood shavings) are dyed bright shades of pink, purple, blue, green, yellow, and orange. They are sprinkled freeform or placed in geometric patterns and trimmed with fresh flowers.
The most luxurious of street coverings are made in the final days of holy week. A bed of sand is formed to create a level surface and complex stencils are used to create scenes reflecting mayan or biblical symbolism.
On the evening of good friday, residents work through the night to have the most detailed alfombras ready for mid-night parades. I put Thomas to bed at 9 and wake him at 11.30pm to watch the formalities. We go back to bed at 2 and are up again at 4am to witness the dawn. He handles the interrupted sleep like a trooper and his enthusiasm for looking at alfombras never wains.
Preparations can begin months in advance, though the construction of the carpets is timed so that they are finished just before the processions arrive. We spend many hours walking the streets a block or two ahead of the parade to gaze on the freshly made carpets and lend a hand where possible.
The first contingent carefully walk around the mats but the carriers of the main float walk over it. Then, in a scuffle of feet, it is gone. The making of the carpets is thought to be sacrificial as hours of painstaking work are destroyed when the procession passes over it.
Children (Thomas included!) delight in running into the street and collecting ‘treasures’ that have survived the trampling.
But they have to be fast. The ‘tren de aseo’ (municipal cleaning team) follow hot on the heals of the cortège, quickly sweeping away any evidence of the carpet and leaving the street bare and ready to receive the next work of art.
Which, of course, gives Thomas many more opportunities to ask “Puedo ayudar”!
This is the second post about Semana Santa (holy week) in Antigua, Guatemala. You can read the first one here.
Lots (and lots and lots) of pictures from the actual processions coming as soon as I can get enough bandwidth to upload them. Sign up for wonderwanders updates if you want to catch the next post, or check back again in a few days.