CHICHICASTENANGO, GUATEMALA - It's a bolt of thunder. No, it's an explosion. No, it's an army of revolutionaries entering town.
Market day in Chichi, as the town is known, literally starts with a bang - las bambas. Guatemalans love their fireworks, and these, blasting off at 5 a.m., signal the start of another shopping extravaganza in the K'iche' Mayan town that draws both culture lovers and bargain hunters from all over the world.
Vendors come from all parts of Guatemala. They represent many of the country's 20-something Mayan linguistic groups and hawk their products in a wildly kinetic spectacle of color, costumes and street clatter. It's a virtual sound and light show, but it all takes place in broad daylight.
My husband and I have come to witness this largest outdoor market in Central America with a group of 12 seasoned travelers, many of whom have been here before. They tell us that the best preview of what's to come takes place the night before the main event. So we take their word and stand on a street corner, watching countless trucks carrying merchandise and set-up materials inch their way through the traffic-clogged streets. They vie with pedestrians staggering under weighty blanket-wrapped loads of goods and men pulling similarly overladen animal carts. On the sidewalks, women stir bubbling concoctions in pots set over make-shift grills. Later, they'll feed their families, then bed down on the pavement under the portable stalls they've erected that afternoon. Watching all of this commotion is a sensory overload experience that makes it hard to fall asleep that night.
The following day is is even more chaotic. Although it's not obvious to us newcomers, the market is highly organized, with vendors of specific goods occupying long-established sites in the market area. For example, the women selling flowers spread their wares on the steps and in the courtyard of Santo Thomas Church, the venerated 400-year-old centerpiece of Chichi's main plaza. Here, it's easy to feel faint from the olfactory double whammy of sweet-smelling flowers and pungent incense.
While the locals are here to buy the mainstays of their lives - food, flowers, medicinal plants, candles, copal (traditional incense), cal (limestone for preparing tortillas), pigs and chickens, and machetes and other tools, we turistas are overwhelmed by the choices we have to make before the day ends. Will it be a huipil (exquisitely embroidered blouse), a tablecloth woven on a back-strap loom, an intricately carved wooden box or a brightly painted ceremonial mask? Whatever the product, we know that it's a tradition - and expected of us - to bargain for its best price.
By noon, we can barely walk through the crowded market alleyways. Still, hawkers manage to keep up with us, some of them remembering our names from the night before. Unfailingly, they are polite and back off when the answer is "no." By contrast, pickpockets stop at nothing, keeping us constantly alert.
Throughout the morning, my camera clicks nonstop. But close-ups of the locals are off-limits. Even a camera pointed in the general direction of these shy Mayans makes hands fly up to cover faces. Never mind: I'm storing plenty of lasting visual and auditory memories in my mind as I go. Two that I won't forget: the beautiful traje - the traditional village-specific native costumes worn by Mayans from various parts of the country, and the lovely rhythmic clap-clap-clap sound of women whose flattened palms form blue maize dough into the tortillas we enjoy every day for lunch.
For those who overdose on shopping, other sights to see in Chichi include religious processions, street musicians, carvers of masks used in traditional dances, antique and relic shops, a museum of Mayan artifacts and a colorful city cemetery. At the latter, Mayan ceremonies take place all hours of the day. One that features a shaman with a live chicken in one hand and a cleaver in the other prompts us to pick up our pace and quickly move on.
But we are charmed by the array of mausoleums the size of single-car garages and painted bright pastel hues. Men are repainting many of them - turquoise blue, orange, lavender, lime-sherbet green. They seem to be making the chore into a big boisterous party.
On market day in Chichi, everyone seems to have fallen under the same spell.
Carolyn Schwartz calls Frisco, Colorado and Pittsboro, North Carolina "home."