sanimtacá

The origin of the name Sanimtacá (sometimes pronounced Sanimta’a) is not disputed. Sa’ is ‘In,’ Nim means ‘Big,’ and Tak’a means ‘Hole.’ In a big hole. It stirs the imagination.
(Incidentally, Watemaal is derived from an ancient Toltec-Mayan name meaning Place of Many Trees, which is where we get the modern name Guatemala).
But what Sanimtacá’s name lacks in inspiration, it makes up for in literal accuracy.

There is only one road to Sanimtacá, the same road that passes through Samac. But beyond Samac, the road degrades into a winding course of muddy ruts and rock. A traveler can make the rough trip with a four-wheel drive vehicle or a sturdy motorcycle, but few do. No one in Sanimtacá owns a motor vehicle of any kind.
Instead, we walk. It’s about an hour on foot from Samac to the edge of Sanimtacá. The road ahead is always winding out of sight and one has to look across the valleys at the distant emerging curves to get an idea of where they’re going.
At the outskirts of Samac, tomato farmers whistle ‘wank chik helloes from their steep plots, but beyond Samac, the only people to be seen are the occasional road travelers.
Women balance wide baskets of produce and bags of supplies on their heads. Men wear huge loads of cargo on broad leather straps over their heads. They can support more than 100 pounds with their necks and backs for the hour-long hike over the broken road.
There’s a fork in the road just after Samac that leads to Chituj, a neighboring community. In Chituj they don’t speak Q’ekchi’, they speak Pokomchí. My capacity for confusion has been exceeded. So when I meet anyone on the road, I say hello in Q’ekchi’ (actually goodbye) and let them sort it out themselves.
But during the hour, passing travelers are few. Usually the only signs of other people are the tracks in the mud; rubber boot soles, small sandals, and occasional bare footprints.
Independence and solitude don’t have much value in Guatemalan society. So when I have somewhere to go, there are always offers for company (someone needs to be around to keep the gringo from crying). But I did eventually convince Samac that I don’t need help getting to Sanimtacá.

So here I am, ascending the bends alone, stopping for water, checking the time. I pause in the curves to scan with binoculars and take advantage of the last splash of shade before continuing. The quiet is welcome; I’m finally free to slip on loose rocks without safety reminders.
On one side, sheer rock faces are painted orange and green with lichen and maidenhair. On the other side, the earth drops away into grassy slopes, pine groves, and low shrubby thickets before rising again across the valley. On either side of the road, pink-flanked Sceloporus lizards scramble noisily for cover. Buff-throated saltators and purplish-backed jays bicker in the stands of secondary-growth pine. In the morning the intricate metallic notes of the brown-backed solitaire weave through the valleys while huge banded millipedes pull smoothly across the path like tardy commuter trains.

Approaching town, the road widens and reveals the remarkable valley that is Sanimtacá. On a relief map, the valley appears as a distinct rounded triangular pock in the middle of rippled but otherwise ordinary terrain. The valley is probably the product of an oblique meteor strike. Laguna Lachuá, the perfectly round lake 45 kilometers to the northwest was likely formed from a fragment of the Nim Tak’a meteorite.
Sanimtacá would itself be a lake if not for a cave system that opens at the very bottom of the valley, a geological drain. It’s not known where the water goes, but there’s probably a village somewhere in Alta Verapaz that owes its mysterious freshwater spring to Sanimtacá’s unique geology.
From the edge of Sanimtacá, it’s a three kilometer descent to the center of town. Despite its beauty, this descent makes me question the wisdom of locating a village in the center of a crater.

Like Samac, Sanimtacá was part of Gustavo Helmerich’s coffee and cardamom-producing property. The isolation of the village was probably an obstacle to the planter’s ability to develop the area. Sanimtacá doesn’t have the original architecture or historical artifacts that Samac retains.
In fact, except in natural magnificence, Sanimtacá is the poorer of the two communities in every way. While Samac has more than 700 inhabitants, Sanimtacá has only slightly more than 200. Samac has electricity and occasional cell phone signal. Sanimtacá has no electricity and no signal inside the valley. Sanimtacá has a lower standard of living and less assistance from government and volunteer agencies.
But while the people of Samac can be a bit eager with their courtesies, Sanimtacá is more reserved. They are interested in working with me; they solicited Peace Corps for a volunteer, but they don’t readily trust outsiders.
When I first arrived, they took me to the coffee patio at the bottom of the village. The president blew a few notes with a conch shell that reverberated through the valley. Within an hour and a half the entire population had congregated in the main hall. They introduced me, I introduced myself, and they discussed (me?) in Q’ekchi’ for a few hours.

In my pre-service imagination I had considered the prospect of living without electricity for two years. Pan comido, piece of cake. Electricity’s a luxury, not a necessity; if they can live without it, so can I.
When I received my site assignment and the dossier explained that Sanimtacá has no power (and omitted the fact that Samac does), I suddenly discovered that I wasn’t as hardcore as I had imagined.
Even though I prefer Sanimtacá, I live in Samac for the electricity (something I won’t admit to either cooperative). But I regularly spend the night in Sanimtacá.

The Sanimtacá day ends at dinner. As soon as the natural light is gone, the productivity of the day plummets. The opportunity to write or read wanes at 6 pm unless by candlelight.
And as a result of its geography, Sanimtacá has incredibly short days. Since the town is at the bottom of a big hole, the sun appears late and disappears early. After four pm, a shadow falls across the center of town and the sun starts to vanish. A few hours after dark the air starts to cool and clouds begin to roll into the valley. For the rest of the night and into the morning, the village is entirely hidden under a blanket of clouds. Sanimtacá remains hidden until late morning when the sun finally burns the mist away. In total, Sanimtacá only receives about six or seven hours of full sunlight on a clear day.

When I descend the road early in the morning I like to watch the sun rise as many times as I can. I wait for the sun to come up from behind the ridge and then walk a little further down and watch it again. The mist thickens in the descent and rich oil colors give way to bleeding watercolors until the sun rises as a soft circular moon. Still further and by degrees, the morning light is completely blotted out by blankets of vapor.

With the fleeting sun, heavy mist, and lack of electricity, one could assume that Sanimtacá ought to be the most well-rested society in the whole world. And if the villagers ever decide to put down the coffee, they just might get some rest.
But even without day-long caffeine benders, the people have no time to lounge in the gloom. The work day starts early, whether they can see or not. So when I wake up and the air is still soup, I’m met by the morning sound of machete bites in the vegetation and the angry early mutterings of chainsaws across the crater.

The slopes are planted and populated, but the valley top is an unbroken crown of protected forest. The forests are a part of the Sierra Sacranix system. The Sierra Sacranix contains a variety of habitat types, from pine woods to cloud forest. With the intermingling of different habitats, there’s a convergence of animal species that are not usually associated with one another. Counting native and migratory species across the seasons, The forests of Sanimtacá are projected to accomodate 350 species of birds. Sanimtacá is a promising destination for bird-watchers, and cultivating this potential will be my focus in this community.

They took me to the forest to show me around. The ascent is steep and dry. Guatemalans are mountain goats; sure-footed and tireless. Suitable footwear is the only advantage I have over them. The steep trails are muddy then grassy as we pass from cardamom plots to maize fields to montane woods. But entering the high forest, the heat shuts off.
Cicadas switch on, like tiny electric power tools in the jungle. Heavy boulders seem to defy gravity as they protrude along the muddy trail with broad vertical sides and narrow bases. The vegetation is thick and pendulous, bursting and hanging on all sides, making a tunnel out of the path. The air is cool and clean.
“How rich the air is,” they say (because clean air deserves recognition in Guatemala).
They name the jungle for my education. This is the k’iiche’, there’s a cojoj, that’s a tz’unun, watch for the k’anti. I’m able to nod at the nonsense, even repeat it. But I can’t retain their abstract syllables without paper. They tell me what they know about the forest and I tell them what I know.
When we find a column of leafcutter ants I explain that the ants (eb’li teken) don’t actually eat their scraps of leaves, but instead use leaf litter to grow the fungus that they eat. Like little farmers.
My guides don’t seem impressed.
But when we find a bright green pitviper, nearly invisible against the other swarming forest greens, I tell them it’s deaf. They politely inform me that I’m wrong because when they approach, the snake hears them and retreats. So I explain that it can feel vibration through the ground, but it can’t actually hear. As the snake lifts up to a branch, I clap and whistle. No change. This was a revelation.
Maak’a eb’li xik!, no ears!
And to find a formidable reptile on my first trip to the forest was more than I realistically expected. How long was it waiting here in the leaves? Was its existence inspired by my approaching imagination? Or is the forest’s chance combination of mystery, virulence, and color coincidentally faithful to what my eyes are always looking for? We stare at the incandescent green of its solid length. Paired black stripes run sharp from glass eyes through wide venom glands like details on a dangerous racing machine.
To the natives, my enthusiasm was strange and entertaining. Their nervous tension slid easily into laughter and discussion beside my wide-eyed, professional excitement.
She moved away without the haste of vulnerability. While she assumed a position of indifference in a low tree, a small group of humans clapped silently and cursed themselves in the same silence for leaving their cameras in the valley.

Dinner was lit by the cooking fire. While shadows stretched and wavered across the dirt-floor kitchen, the family conversed in Q’ekchi’. They asked me if I was going to watch the procession as if I knew about it, as if it weren’t my first night in town.
The descent to the center of town was easier in the cool of the night. The black valley flickered with fireflies like an immense stadium lit with camera flash. At the bottom, we found a wooden building thick with incense and people. They were reciting prayers at candlelit altars draped with flowers.
Sanimtacá, like Samac, is a Catholic community. To me, this discovery was a disappointment. When I set out for indigenous Mayan country, I had visions of feathered serpents, cave portals to nine winding levels of underworld, and black jaguar princes. But instead, the people worship the less relevant Christian saints.

During the Spanish conquest in the 1500′s, the conquistadors entering this region (Alta and Baja Verapaz) encountered the Rabinals, exceptionally ferocious and warlike Mayans. The Spanish were unable to defeat the Rabinals in combat. Instead, the natives were pacified and converted by Fray Bartolomé and his clergy. This bloodless conquest is what gives the region its name: Verapaz, True Peace.

The faith-based invasion was a complete success. Today there are the same distant, bearded expressions of holy virtue in every dining room shrine. But it’s puzzling. Their icons and saints look more like me; fair-skinned and fed, unbent, unbruised, and untouched by the smoke and strain of life in Guatemala.
Is it fair for me to feel personally cheated out of a fascinating cultural dimension? I’ll admit that I’m grateful that human sacrifice and ceremonial bloodletting are a thing of the past, but the replacement of the colorful ancient Mayan religion with a staid European faith seems unfortunate. My consolation is in the indisputable Guatemalan flavor they give their Catholic ceremonies.

Once the prayers concluded, the people gathered up two great wooden images. Eight women carried Mary and eight men supported a cross-bearing Jesus. The rest of us trailed the procession with candles. They pressed the images with difficulty through the dark overgrowth on the way to the road. A generator-powered stereo played a cassette of old-fashioned symphony music. The tape was repeated many times during the procession. A man with a guitar filled in every time the tape had to be rewound.
Even in the dark, the people continued to stare at me. Two little girls, paying more attention to the gringo than to the road, rolled past me in a giggling tangle of huipiles.

This has been my reception in both communities. The people, especially the young people, are completely fascinated with every ordinary thing I do. The boys are eager to be my friends and they call my name on the road or whisper it through the walls when I’m indoors. When my window’s open, they come up to stare silently for as long as I will let them.
The girls have a more discreet style. Sometimes when I’m a dinner guest, I can feel the eyes on me. When I look up, I usually catch them ducking behind a door or squeaking and skittering out of sight. On the road, they try to play it cool. They usually cover their smiles with one hand and steady their baskets with the other. We exchange customary greetings as we pass, but as soon as I’m five paces away, I hear their overflowing squeals and laughter.

For some that night, the foreigner was making the procession difficult to focus on. For me, the steep road of loose rock was a renewed challenge. By scant candlelight, just staying upright required intense concentration. The idea of carrying heavy wooden icons up the valley in the dark seemed prohibitively difficult. But this emphasized the power of symbol and tradition in the community. It’s a physically difficult ceremony, but it’s too important to skip or change.

Without electric lights, the sky was clear and complete. Instead of darkness, the night was a glistening jelly teeming with stars I’d never seen before. As I watched, a passenger plane blinked across the exposed circle of air.
I imagined that the plane was headed to Rio from Los Angeles, passing above Guatemala in the dark. I knew there were laptops blazing up there. People had earbuds in. Someone was messing up a Sudoku. Someone was watching Transformers with director’s commentary on a portable DVD player. Someone was browsing remote-controlled mini-blimps in the Skymall catalog. I knew all of these things. But no one up there could have any idea that there was a Catholic Mayan candle procession picking its way up a black mountain road in a pre-electric crater valley below.
The plane was a stray fleck of pond water, alive with foreign life, dripping between metropolises. Down here, I knew and recognized that life. Surrounded by villagers that had never even been to an airport, I was suddenly aware of how alien I really was. Piebald concerts, LOLCats, Star Wars movies, Calvin and Hobbes comics and a sea of now-culturally-irrelevant material filled my head. I found myself straddling worlds; a mental citizen of one, and a physical resident of the other.
Ernesto was standing next to me, also looking up.
“What a big world it is,” he said.
“It’s certain,” I replied.
And I brought my attention back to the slipping rocks on the candle-lit slope and tried not to fall into the flickering crater below.
And the clouds seeped in like phantom cushions just in case.

One Response to “sanimtacá”

  1. taylor Says:

    oh you know, just sitting here at my office job, passing time… reading the news… looking for more coffee…