Sawdust Carpets

I was so glad to hear that Comayagua, Honduras was going to be one of the stops on our Central American tour. My youth group would make small sawdust carpets every year during Holy Week. One of the members went to Comayagua on a family vacation and brought back the idea. I was ecstatic to find out I was going to see the real thing.

Each year during Holy Week, the residents paint the street in colored sawdust along the religious processional route. Some people use colored beans and seeds in their designs, but for the most part they use sawdust. I wanted to get there early to see how it was done, but we could only come in on that Thursday evening. By then, most of the streets were already decorated.

As we settled into the hotel, the exceptionally pretty housekeeper told us to hurry up and get dressed so we could go see the reenactment of the Last Supper in the Parque la Libertad at 6:30 p.m. It was a nice experience. Afterwards, we went to eat our own supper because we were all hungry from the trip. While at dinner, the waiter, who recognized us as tourists, suggested we go to some street I’d never heard of and watch a man and his family make the last sawdust carpet. He told us this family starts working at 12:30 a.m. and finishes around 6:00 a.m. That’s exactly what I came to see, so I was definitely in! So I knew I’d have to take a nap if I was going to be there at 12:30 a.m., so after dinner I went to bed.

My alarm went off at 11:45 p.m. I couldn’t believe I’d slept so long, but I was excited to get out there and see how these famous carpets are made. The streets were practically empty. I’d heard of an overnight silent processional taking place but I didn’t see anyone along the route I was going. With the empty streets, I got out there at about 12:20 a.m.

There was a layer of tan-colored sawdust that covered the street with the outline of the finished product stenciled across the sawdust. The father saw me admiring the stencil and asked if I wanted to help. I got really excited and told him yes. He called for his daughter to come outside with the sketch of the outline he’d drawn on paper. His daughter came out, wiping her eyes, and handed me the paper. I saw the amazing color and the attention to detail and I was excited to help out.

saw_dust_carpet_comayagua_honduras

The father gave me a section of the carpet to work on and gave me the drawing to go by. The section had very specific colors, so he gave me the bags of the colored sawdust that corresponded with the section. The family was very serious about their work, so they didn’t really talk. I got the occasional smile and nod, but not much conversation. I couldn’t hold my eyes open by about 4:30 a.m. I took a few pictures of the work I’d done and the almost completed project and went back to the hotel. Unfortunately, I slept through the actual Good Friday processional but I did get to a chance to help make this festival a success.

Activities:

  1. Explain the tradition of sawdust carpets in Comayagua, Honduras.
  2. Does your family celebrate Good Friday? Do you know of any US traditions on or around Holy Week?
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Tegucigalpa

Today we landed in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. It’s such a beautiful city. We could see that the city is surrounded by mountains as we were flying over. It seemed like the city came out of nowhere. It would make sense that Tegucigalpa is surrounded by mountains because it is a mining town, but I honestly wasn’t expecting it to look like an inland oasis. From above I saw this huge soccer stadium. I was hoping we could catch a game, but of course first we had do the tourist thing, so we went to the city.

I’ve never been to Honduras before, but I must say, Tegucigalpa kind of looks like my hometown. There was a Burger King, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, advertisements for Coca-Cola, and a sign telling us the total jackpot for the lottery. It’s funny to see all of this in a foreign country. I read somewhere that the city didn’t start building structures over two stories tall until the 1980’s and now all of a sudden it’s a modernized city!

Tegucigalpa Image Collage

When we got to the museum, which used to be the Presidential Palace, I noticed the crowd of people start to pick up. It seemed like all 1.3 million Tegucigalpans decided to come to one place. I was thinking to myself, “Seriously, guys, you can come see this stuff anytime you want. Why do you wait until I’m here to want to come out?” I mean, there were soooooo many people and no elbow room. Finally, I had to stop and ask someone what was going on. The man told me that it was a holiday, so many people had come to see the Virgen de Suyapa in the Basilica. That was a new one to me, so I asked him who she was. He said it’s a two-inch statue of the Virgin Mary that performs miracles. Miracles? I guess he saw my puzzled look, so he told me the story of two little boys who fell asleep in a cornfield. One boy woke up because he felt something like a rock under his back. He saw it was small and threw it as far as he could. A little while later he felt it again. He looked down and saw it was the same thing as before. Finally, he put it in his pocket and went back to sleep. The next day, in the daylight, he saw it was a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary, so he took it home and put it on his mother’s prayer altar. From then on, the statue started performing miracles.

virgendesuyapa

I have to admit, this was a little farfetched for me, so I went to the Basilica to see the statue. Of course I had to wait for a bajillion other people to go before me, but it was true, there was a tiny, two-inch statue that had drawn all this attention. It was placed in an enormous, gold and glass case that was beautiful to look at while I waited though! The devotion of the people in the church was very inspiring, and many people were lighting candles and singing while they waited for the next service to start. I couldn’t stay, though…it was just too hot! I bought three bags of water (yes, BAGS of water, not bottles!) from a local vendor, and I gave one away to a little kid who was waiting outside with his baby sister and a dog. What a long day for such a tiny statue!

Activities:

  1. What is the story of the Virgen de Suyapa?
  2. Go to Google Maps (https://www.google.es/maps) and find Tegucigalpa. Describe where it is located and how the geography of the city might affect the lifestyle of its inhabitants.
  3. ¡A escribir! Look at the pictures of Tegucigalpa. How is it similar and different from your hometown?
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Joya de Cerén

We’re on a side trip to El Salvador for the weekend. This morning my mom woke me up and told me to get dressed because we were going to see the joyas de Cerén. I was super excited because I needed some new jewelry, and I really wanted to buy some gifts for my friends back home.

It didn’t take me long to get ready. We all loaded into an air-conditioned bus and took off. We passed by market after market, and I couldn’t help but wonder why we didn’t just stop already. Finally, we pulled into a parking lot and I saw the sign that said “Parque Arqueológico de Joya de Cerén.” Whoops! I tapped my mother and kindly told her that she needed to practice her Spanish a lot more. I had to explain to her that joyas are jewelry and joya is jewel. She had said we were going to look at Cerén jewelry when she really meant the Jewel of Cerén, which is an archaeological site. This is a common mistake, but it was enough to confuse me.

On this trip, mom and I opted not to take the guided tour. Instead, we read the signs as we passed them. I learned that Cerén is a small town located near a volcano named Loma Caldera and was famous for its rich farmland. In 590 AD the town was evacuated because the volcano was going to erupt. Little did the people living there know that their homes would not be unearthed until 1976. They were soooo lucky that day because archeologists have not found the remains of any humans, which means that everyone got out safely.

joyadecerenbymario-robertodurano
The coolest part of the site was that this place was covered by fourteen layers of ash and was completely preserved. We passed by Andy and Janet’s tour group. They told us that when archeologists first uncovered the site, it was so well preserved that there was still uneaten food in the bowls, perfectly intact. How beautiful and gross at the same time. It’s so cool to get such a keen insight into how the people lived, but would 2500-year-old food smell bad?
We tried to hit all seventy of the buildings that had been uncovered in the site but it was too hot. I went through four bottles of water! Where’s the prehistoric bathroom?!?!
It was a pretty awesome experience. I’d like to go there again after they uncover some more of the town. Bonus: I was able to grab some jewelry at the air-conditioned gift shop. So I got my joyas and mom saw her joya.

Activities:

  1. Why is the writer of the post confused when her mother tells her they are going to see the joyas de Cerén?
  2. What happened in Cerén in 590 AD?
  3. Take a look at the gallery of pictures from Cerén: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/675/gallery/
  4. Are there any historical sites like this in the US?
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El Güegüense o Macho Ratón

Have you ever been to a masquerade ball or a costume party where everyone’s face is covered and you don’t know who’s who? That’s what it’s like on some days at the Festival of San Sebastián in Diriamba, Nicaragua. It takes place every January 17th to the 27th. People take to the streets to celebrate Saint Sebastian, the city’s patron saint, and to watch a theatrical reenactment of Nicaragua’s first literary work, El Güegüense o Macho Ratón. All of the colors are vibrant and the people are very friendly.

I felt bad because I didn’t have a mask on but I soon forgot about it. First, these three indigenous-looking men came down the street playing small, woodwind instruments. They were followed by a little boy playing a wooden drum. I think the little boy could have been one man’s son because they looked alike. The small band contained the only people that were unmasked. Then around 20 men in horse masks with brightly colored manes came galloping down the street in neat rows with no shoes on. Barefoot on the street! Behind the horses were around 20 men in colonial Spanish dress and Christopher Columbus-style masks. They danced around each other for a few minutes, then around 20 of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen came through the rows of holding their gorgeous fan dresses. It was definitely telling a story, and thankfully I knew what the story was.

gueguense-diriamba
I did my homework before we came to the festival: El Güeguense or Macho Ratón is a story that was originally told in Nahuatl. It’s like pioneer stories of the United States that were told orally, then written down generations later. This story, however, is not a happy one. It all started when the Spanish conquistadors came to Diriamba. They asked to speak to the indigenous leaders, who agreed to a meeting. During the meeting the conquistadors told the people of Diriamba to surrender to their rule. The leaders went back to think about it and ultimately declined, at which time they boldly attacked the Spaniards. Pretty brave, huh? This led to a revolt, in which the Spaniards proved too powerful for people of Diriamba. Unfortunately, many of the indigenous population were killed and the survivors were forced to live under corrupt Spanish rule.

A short time later, an anonymous writer created a theatrical play called El Güeguense or Macho Ratón, mocking the Spanish rulers’ style of oppression and greed following their victory over the people of Diriamba. It was passed orally though the generations until one day in 1942 it was written down and published in a book.

So every year, during the Festival of San Sebastián, people dance to the same beat and portray this time of oppression for the people of Diriamba. It seems sad to think about, but the people are celebrating. They’re celebrating the bravery of their ancestors, celebrating Nicaragua’s first literary works, and the advancements the people have made since that dark time in history. I was glad I was able to celebrate with them.

Activities:

  1. Go to Google Maps (https://www.google.es/maps) and find Diriamba. Describe where in Nicaragua it is located. Zoom in to see the satellite image and some of the photos that were taken around the town. What can you infer about this town?
  2. What is the sad story behind El Güeguense or Macho Ratón?
  3. Do you know any US celebrations that pay homage to a historical event? Name a few.
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El chicle

So today we took an off-road tour of the Guatemalan rainforest. Our guide, Mr. Rico, was an older gentleman and he was a former chiclero, which is Spanish for a chicle gatherer. Mr. Rico took us to see the Manikara zapota trees, also known as sapodilla, and inside those trees is the chicle. I always knew that the word chicle was Spanish for “gum,” but it’s also the name for the latex-textured sap that comes from the sapodilla tree.

It was easy to listen to Mr. Rico’s stories about when he was a chiclero. He was a great storyteller, and I found myself looking out the window and seeing exactly what he was talking about as we traveled through the rainforest. He said that dozens of young men would go out in bunches to gather chicle. They would use machetes to cut into the trees and drain out the chicle.

Rico also told us about the history of gum. The Aztec and Mayan civilizations had been tapping into these trees for centuries. The sapodilla trees also produced delicious, tropical fruit, so these cultures would use the fruit to flavor the chicle. The rest of the world didn’t know much about chicle until American inventor Thomas Adams tried to figure out what to do with the material. Mr. Adams added sugar and flavorings to the chicle and he created his own version of chewing gum. Soon after, William Wrigley started purchasing chicle from Guatemala and Mexico, and he began one of the most successful chewing gum companies in the world. Wrigley provided gum to the troops in World War II, and the troops introduced gum to different countries around the world. Who knew that something as simple as chewing gum had such an interesting history?!?!

Sapodilla Tree

We toured around the rainforest a little longer and went back to Rico’s tour office. He said he had a surprise for us, and I was hoping he would show us how to make gum. I was so very excited when my wish came true. There he had a sample of the chicle in raw form, and he told us he was going to show us how to make gum from scratch. He put the chicle in a pot and boiled it for a little while. Then he added sugar and some kind of fruit juice. After it boiled for a little while longer, he poured the mixture into little gumball molds where it had to cool.

While the mixture was cooling, I asked Rico why he stopped being a chiclero. It seemed like a cool job, and I was curious why he would change from being a chicle gatherer to a tour guide. He told me that in the 1940s people switched to a synthetic version of chicle because in some places people were not harvesting the chicle properly and ended up killing the sapodilla trees. Rico said that after you get the sap out of the tree, you have to wait about five years before trying to get more out. Also, you have to know when to stop before you take too much out of the tree. Unfortunately, chicle was very popular and people were not waiting long enough and they were not respecting the tree. So the big companies switched the base of the gum from chicle to something more synthetic to save the trees and the tree population.

It all made sense. We should protect our environment and respect the things that come out of it. I think they did the right thing by slowing down the demand for chicle. Some companies still use chicle as the base for chewing gum, but there are guidelines they must use to harvest the chicle. After I bit into my first piece of gum, I knew that the chicle made it taste so much better and the feeling in my mouth was much smoother. I was taken back to my days as a kid, walking nicely in the supermarket or using my inside voice in the library, all so I could have a piece of gum from my mom.

Activities:

  1. Explain where chicle comes from.
  2. How did Thomas Adams invent the first chewing gum?
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