On a recent trip I took to Guatemala with OverseasAdventure Travel, their marvelous Route of the Maya adventure, our group had the experience – and privilege – of observing the people uphold some of their oldest and most cherished traditions; kite making, firework making , and pottery making. And we were able to experience this all in one day!
The first stop was a small village and meeting with a man at a school and village famous for their kites which they fly in a special kite fiesta November 1 and 2 when people honor their ancestors. This is the celebration known as the Day of the Dead, and the kites add to the celebration in a most unique way. Two towns which practice this tradition – and they were likely ones we visited – are Santiago Sacatepequez and Sumpango.
The kites are beautiful, many over 40 feet in diameter and held together by a bamboo frame, and prepared by actually removing the color from the paper. The discoloration creates other colors which they use to glue onto another large kite paper to create the multi-layered effect. The kites are huge and fantastic, and only used once. The tradition is passed down from family to family, and generation to generation, as the kite makers (typically children learning from their parents and teachers) add multi dimensions of color to the paper to create unique patterns.
During the actual kite fiesta, the kites are flown over the local cemetery to both honor the dead, and create a spirit of peace and harmony in modern times. According to legend, the impact of the wind against the paper removes bad spirits. You can see actual YouTube videos of the kite fiesta here.
After time with the kites, we went up the street of the small village and met people who make gunpowder and fireworks! We were treated after to quite a loud display of the fireworks! This is very popular in Guatemala, especially on Christmas. But they believe in firing the works off during mass when they pray with hopes that if God is sleeping it will wake him and hear their prayers. We met the locals who take the gunpowder and then create the fireworks, and we saw, heard (and smelled) how they preserved this tradition. We were treated to a loud display once we were out in an open field. I have no idea when Guatemalans started doing this, but they display fireworks on many occasions, and the children are often working on this endeavor as well.
The last stop we made was to a family that specializes in pottery. They don’t use a pottery wheel. Rather, they use their bodies to do the turning of the clay when it is ready, and a 76 year old Mayan women showed us her technique. We literally saw this woman become a pottery wheel as shown in the photo, and her daughter as well as her grandchildren were part of this effort to create and later sell the pottery. It does not have a finished look; rather, it is very earthen and unfinished in appearance. A few days later, when we were in Antigua at the Jade Museum, I saw the exact same style on display as part of Guatemalan tradition. It wonderful to be able to connect the dots between what we had seen as a practice, the family we met, and what we saw in a museum.
What these three stops all had in common was that the artistry involved in all three was part of the family’s Mayan tradition, and had been passed down for generations.