As we reach the top of the wooded track and the hill flattens out, a man is lying on his back and writhing on the floor. He twitches and jerks in convulsions, and I wonder what the hell I’ve let myself in for.
The middle-aged woman, Corona, had approached me in the market at Chichicastenango and offered to show me a Mayan altar outside the town. Ceremony, now, she said. Real Mayan. Perhaps sacrifice chicken.
What the hell, I thought, as we agreed a price and she led me out of the town centre down a winding cobble road. In the Mask Museum she pointed to the dark faces of Mayan Gods and the pink blancmange faces of the Conquistadors. Up through apple orchards and pine trees, and not a soul in sight. Have I been stupid, I think? This is Guatemala, after all. Not necessarily dangerous, but it’s not exactly Eastbourne either, unless Eastbourne has just emerged from thirty years of civil war and has bandits in the hills. Corona could be leading me anywhere, to anyone.
When we saw the choking, wheezing white man, I wondered what the ceremony entailed, but in fact he was an American tourist having a fit or a heart attack. His wife was sobbing, his friends wanting to run for a doctor. We gotta get him down. But it’s too far. What else can we do? Oh God, oh God, weeps his wife. Four soldiers turn up, rub his hands, comfort his wife, trickle water on his lips. Very high up, says Corona. People forget. Come, he will be OK.
At the end of the clearing is the altar known as Pascual Abaj, the Sacrifice Stone, dedicated to Huyup Tak’ah, the Mayan God of the earth. A Mayan man in the rather untraditional costume of a brown pullover and trousers is swinging an incense burner and chanting. Oration Maya, says Corona, Quiché language. She points to the small statues that surround the oval clearing, which is grey black from ash on the ground. This San Anton, dios de los ninos. San Miguel, dios de la agua. San Diego, dios del sol. San Jeronimo, dios de la luna.
I’ve just decided this is probably a tourist trap, designed to let guides like Corona bring visitors here every market day and earn a few dollars, when an Indian family arrives. Two men are dressed in black and carry bottles of water, some eggs and an incense burner. No chickens, I’m relieved to see. One of the men takes some more charcoal, lights more incense, lights some candles on the low black altar stone. Charcoal made from copal, Corona tells me, especial arbor.
Two women are shredding flowers and the man sprinkles red and white petals around the altar. Then he kneels and prays to the statue standing on the altar, next to a large stone cross. Both men move round the clearing, chanting and filling the air with smoke from the burners. Beyond the smoke the American man is sitting up, supported by his friends. As I leave and walk by, he is gazing out towards the roofs of Chichicastenango, rubbing his hand over his pale face.