Holy Week Processions in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala, is a stunningly beautiful colonial town with cobbled streets, glorious cathedrals and colorful markets filled with exquisite Mayan textiles. In 2008, I was lucky enough to spend a number of days in Antigua during Lent.

It must be quite an honor to take the center position at the head of the float. That man or woman carries the float with their arms spread wide in a position reminiscent of a crucifixion. ©Laurel Kallenbach

It must be quite an honor to take the center position at the head of the float. That man or woman carries the float with their arms spread wide in a position reminiscent of a crucifixion. ©Laurel Kallenbach

On Sundays throughout Lent, there are 10-hour processions up and down the streets of Antigua. They usually start at 1:00 in the afternoon and last until 11:00 at night.

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene. The sousaphone behind her is another band of musicians. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene. The sousaphone behind her is another band of musicians. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Hundreds of participants dress in regal robes and carry gigantic floats (andas) as onlookers watch. The floats are filled with sculptures of Jesus dragging the cross, the Virgin Mary looking beatific, and scores of angels playing herald trumpets.

Antigua has one of the most elaborate Holy Week (Semana Santa) celebrations in the Americas, and the city’s hotels are filled to bursting throughout the week.

For Semana Santa, carpets of sawdust paintings fill the streets as the processions walk through; that doesn’t happen on Lenten Sundays, but would be quite a sight. (A small sample of a sawdust carpet was preserved in the cathedral, and it was amazingly intricate and colorful.)

Mary, the Queen of Heaven looks mournfully down upon the spectators while women shoulder the burden of her holiness. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Mary, the Queen of Heaven looks mournfully down upon the spectators while women shoulder the burden of her holiness. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Some of the floats weight as much as 3 tons, so it takes quite a few people to bear them on their shoulders. The float-bearers take shifts to spell each other, but they all keep shuffling slowly through the streets to the dirges played by marching musicians.

I watched the procession four times along various streets. Because the parade moves so slowly, it was easy to watch it pass, then walk six or eight blocks around the route, and catch the whole pageant somewhere else.

The final time I saw the procession pass by was from the window of a restaurant at about 8 p.m. In the dark, the floats were lit and had a different aura than they did by day. Night or day, the procession is quite a spectacle.

Many of the celebrants were boys in their early teens, all wearing robes?either purple (the color of the Passion) or white like shepherds. Some wore pointed hoods that remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Many of the celebrants were boys in their early teens, all wearing robes?either purple (the color of the Passion) or white like shepherds. Some wore pointed hoods that remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The parade begins with blocks of processing boys and men in robes, hoods and cassocks. That’s followed by altar boys swinging the incense burners. The streets of Antigua fill with the smoky aroma, turning the entire city into a cathedral-like setting.

Then comes the massive float with Jesus carrying the cross over his shoulder. This is followed by musicians.

Next, the Virgin Mary float arrives, borne by women in somber gray and black dresses with lace on their heads. Although the Virgin Mary float is smaller, it’s impressive to see women in heels and skirts carrying what is still a massive burden.

All the locals take these processions very seriously—even mournfully. Bystanders in their jeans and flip-flops (or Mayan clothes if they’re visiting from a small village) gaze meaningfully at the floats. The participants are all very proud and solemn about their jobs.

However, there’s also an air of festivity: hawkers sell cotton candy, toys and sodas. As you’re in the large crowds, you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other bystanders on the sidewalks trying to glimpse the floats and take photos.

Cotton candy and balloons added to the celebration of the Holy Week procession. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cotton candy and balloons added to the celebration of the Holy Week procession. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pickpockets make a healthy living on procession days. Although I felt nothing, for some reason I looked down at my fannypack and noticed the zipper was open—not the way I left it. I checked, and the only thing missed was the granola bar that I had tucked in at the last moment on top.

A friend of mine was not so fortunate. Her wallet disappeared from her purse, but fortunately her passport was safely back in the hotel safe.

Watching the processions made me truly feel like I had sampled a bit of the local culture of Guatemala, a fervently Catholic—and Mayan—country.

Women wearing heels carry the Virgin Mary float through Antigua's bumpy, cobblestone streets. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Women wearing heels carry the Virgin Mary float through Antigua’s bumpy, cobblestone streets. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Guatemala:

Originally published in April 2009

Banner carriers in the Holy Week procession, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

Banner carriers in the Holy Week procession, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

Guitars in the Parking Lot: Nashville’s Bluebird Café

Guitarists and singers warm up while waiting in line at Nashville’s Bluebird Café . ©Laurel Kallenbach

“The best songwriters in the world pass through these doors.” So says a small wooden sign above the doors of The Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tennessee.

I never made it through the doors of this modest café, located in a small strip mall a few miles outside of downtown Nashville—but that didn’t keep me from understanding what it’s all about.

I heard a lot of up-and-coming and wannabe songwriters and performers in the parking lot, all just hoping to get inside for five minutes during Monday’s Open Mic Night to perform. My goodness, there were a lot of talented folks, young and old, who queued up during the late afternoon—all just aching to share their passion for country, gospel, pop, and folk music with other people.

The Grand Ole Opry may be the tippy-top of country music stardom, but The Bluebird Café is definitely the heart and soul of the music industry. Known as one of the world’s preeminent listening rooms, the 90-seat Bluebird Café has gained worldwide recognition as a songwriter’s performance space where the “heroes behind the hits” perform their own songs.

Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks, and Taylor Swift were all discovered at The Bluebird—and you can see that dream of fame and stardom in the eyes of most of the people waiting in line. Bluebird fever hit especially hard in October 2012, when the Café made its primetime TV debut on the ABC drama Nashville. (The Bluebird figures often in the show’s plotline, which deals with Nashville’s music industry and politics.)

Monday Night Open Mic

When my husband and I arrived at The Bluebird at 5:00 on Monday afternoon, a line of people already stretched from the front doors, past the barber shop and the furniture store and the Chinese massage place, past the Porter Paints, and around the corner into the alley.

Musicians of all ages waited for hours on a hot afternoon, but their dreams were not dimmed by the heat or the parking lot setting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At least a third of the people waiting for the Bluebird to open were carrying a guitar. From grizzled biker types to kids in braces, everyone looked expectant. Some women wore sleek mini-dresses; most people were in shorts, but most of them sported cowboy boots.

We took our place at the end of the line of about 140 people in the alley. More and more people kept coming. Luckily, the skies were cloudy, so instead of sweltering on the pavement, we were merely hot and sweaty.

While we waited, we struck up a conversation with 19-year-old singer/songwriter Ari Castronovo and her dad (he’s her backup guitarist). When they mentioned they’re from Chicago, the couple behind us overheard. They were from Chicago too—and so are the folks behind them. Our group quickly became chatty. Except for me and Ken, our little enclave was all here to play for Open Mic night, and the excitement and tension were high.

A 40-something guy behind us clutched a laminated piece of paper bearing the Bluebird logo stamp. Two years ago he was in line for Open Mic Night but didn’t get to play. In compensation, the Café gave him the stamp, which moved him higher on the list of tonight’s performers—he was assigned to the number 9 performance slot—although he still has to stand with us in the alley. Singer Number 9 had laminated his stamped card for safe-keeping over the years. The songwriter’s version of a “golden ticket.”

Ari Castronovo sings outside The Bluebird. We hope she knocked ’em dead when her turn to perform came. ©Laurel Kallenbach

As more than an hour passed, the camaraderie in the line grew. Everyone encouraged each other; everyone commiserated. Ari received a number in the low 30s, and when the Bluebird “bouncer” estimated that at least 40 people could perform during the two-hour open mic, her eyes got wide. She’d have to wait for a couple more hours, but she’d get her three minutes on stage.

The bouncer also explained to us that the first 90 people in line would be seated at the tables for dinner or drinks. The rest of us—performers or listeners—would have to wait outside until tables or seats opened up. This meant that a lot of the hopeful performers would stand outside on the sidewalk or in the parking lot until their number was called. Then they’d wait until the previous performer was finished, walk off the pavement and onto the stage, sing their song—just one per person—and come right back out again.

As a result, the parking lot became a warm-up room. Musicians who had at least an hour’s wait ran down the street and returned with to-go food from MacDonald’s, California Pizza Kitchen, or Whole Foods. The singers who were up soon tuned up their guitars and warmed up their vocal cords. They sang for each other in the parking lot; they clapped for the competition.

We got private performances from Ari, from a 12-year-old from Ohio, and from a singer 15 people behind us the line whose soprano voice soared over the traffic noise from Hillsboro Pike.

It was a nice consolation prize, because we decided by 7:00 that we were tired and hungry. Ari offered to share some pizza with us: she wanted us to hear her sing, and so did we, but the truth was that even when we pressed our noses up to the café’s window, we could barely see or hear the performer.

We watched Singer Number 9 from Chicago walk in, strained to hear an occasional lyric over the speakers, and watched him come out, flushed with adrenaline and excitement and hug and kiss his wife. It made our hearts pound in empathy.

A young singer/songwriter stands poised to walk inside The Bluebird—and into the spotlight. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Regretfully, we abandoned our place in line, feeling a little like traitors, and headed back to our car. While eating our salads over at Whole Foods, we wondered how all the singers were doing on their night to shine—and get seen—at the legendary Bluebird Café. We, alas, would never know.

Would it have been better to have gained admittance to The Bluebird? Yes and no—but ultimately we wouldn’t have traded our “back scenes” glimpse of the excitement for the actual performance. Sure, it would have been nice to sip a beer and enjoy a burger at the table, but getting to know the aspiring talents outside was something we’ll remember much longer. And after all, there’s always next time…

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted November 2013

Ascending to Parnassus Books, the Literary Heart of Nashville

Parnassus Books in Nashville is a must-see for anyone who loves to read. Author Ann Patchett highlights her favorite titles on this shelf.

Making a literary pilgrimage while traveling is always a grand thing. If you love to read, I highly recommend touring an author’s house—like I did at Voltaire’s manor house in Ferney-Voltaire, France.

It’s also fun and meaningful to take a trip to a place you read about in a book. For instance, Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun inspired me to visit Tuscany and to spend four days in her village of Cortona.

While I was in Nashville, I had to make a literary pilgrimage … to a very special independent bookstore. Parnassus Books is named for a mountain in central Greece where the Muses lived—and it’s known as the mythological home of music and poetry, so you know it’s got to be good.

Parnassus isn’t just any bookstore, it’s one that’s owned by one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, who opened it in 2011 right when independent bookstores—and even bookstore chains—were dropping like flies.

Ann Patchett’s books at Parnassus. I wanted to buy one of her titles, but I own them all. In retrospect, I should have bought an autographed copy of “Bel Canto” and given away my old copy, but I was overcome by the riches in the store and couldn’t think straight. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ann is probably best known for her incredibly gripping Bel Canto and her most recent bestseller, State of Wonder. (Yes, I think of her as “Ann,” a friend and kindred, bookloving spirit—even though I’ve never met her).

By becoming a bookseller, Ann wanted to prove that people still love to read—and love to buy books in a place where they can interact with other book lovers and authors. She was concerned by how many good books were going out of print and wanted to start a store featuring the books she cherishes. It didn’t hurt that she’s incredibly well-connected with boatloads of fantastic authors.

Between the Covers

Located in one of Nashville’s more classy strip malls along Hillsboro Pike, Parnassus isn’t large, but it’s thrilling! I was so excited walking up to its display windows filled with new titles that I could barely contain myself. (I suspect more than a few visitors display this giddiness as they walk through the door. Are you one of them?)

The Greek temple is a fun entry into the whimsical children’s section at Parnassus. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Inside, the walls are lined almost to the high ceiling with wooden bookshelves. I felt wonderment, felt like a kid in a candy shop. I felt at home.

I browsed for a while, drawn especially to titles that Ann recommends on her blog. There’s also a special “Ann Recommends” shelf that displays her current favorites.

A cheerful bookseller asked me if I had questions, and before I could say “Kurt Vonnegut,” she was bubbling over about the books she loves most, and offered a few of her own suggestions and other titles popular with Parnassus regulars.

How would I describe Parnassus Books? A clean, well-lighted place (to coin a phrase from a Hemingway book). ©Laurel Kallenbach

With five books in my arms, I sat down in a leather chair and read a few pages of each, just to get a sense of them.

I wanted to buy them all—but alas, I would have exceeded the 50-pound checked-suitcase weight limit had I done so. So I pledged to go home to the Boulder Bookstore (another fabulous independent shop) and buy them there instead.

I did purchase one light volume: the hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I definitely wanted to do my bit to support Parnassus—and to take home a piece of its literary magic. Long live Parnassus Books!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. If you’re visiting Nashville, you should know that Parnassus Books is just up the street from Bluebird Café, another not-to-be-missed site for music lovers and songwriters. Read about my unique experience at the Bluebird: “Guitars in the Parking Lot.” 

Originally published in November 2013

 

The Black and White Tale of Two Tennessee Plantations

During my visit to Nashville, Tennessee, I dropped in on two historic plantations: The Hermitage, the home of president Andrew Jackson; and Belle Meade, famous for its Thoroughbred horse breeding.

The Belle Meade mansion, Nashville, Tennessee ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Belle Meade mansion, Nashville, Tennessee ©Laurel Kallenbach

Both are museums that offer historic tours through Southern mansions that are beautifully restored as they were during their 19th-century heyday—and both offer a small glimpse into the lives of the enslaved people who kept the plantations running.

Magnolia blossom at The Hermitage             ©Laurel Kallenbach

Here’s the lovely part of these estates: Vast Greek-Revival houses with carpets, silk draperies, gold-embossed wallpaper, four-poster beds, and fine china on elegant dining tables. Outdoors there are beautiful gardens, acres of lawns, stately magnolia trees with dinner-plate-sized blossoms, and well-equipped horse barns and carriage houses. Knowledgeable tour guides dressed like Southern ladies and gents tell visitors about the plantation history, including juicy gossip from yesteryear.

Betty and her family. Photo courtesy of  The Hermitage

Here’s the dark side: Tiny, log cabins with stick beds and rag blankets where as many as ten enslaved people lived. Posts where slaves were whipped.

Now that more attention and scholarship (historical, anthropological, and archaeological) has been turned to the lives of enslaved people in the United States, historic plantations like Belle Meade and The Hermitage are including what few stories they have about these people.

Historic People I “Met” at The Hermitage

Andrew Jackson: The seventh President of the United States (1829–1837) was nicknamed Old Hickory as much for his hard-as-wood stubbornness as for his tall, skinny physique. He was a tough guy and a staunch believer in Western expansion. Jackson was responsible for the forced relocation of the Cherokee from their eastern homelands to Oklahoma, a horrendous and fatal march called the Trail of Tears.

The Greek-Revival front of The Hermitage, Nashville. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Greek-Revival front of The Hermitage, Nashville. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Jackson also had a bullet an inch from his heart, embedded there during a youthful duel. Old Hickory’s heart softened, though, when he met Rachel Robards, a married woman. They married not once, but twice, because Rachel’s divorce hadn’t been legal when they first wed.

Charges of bigamy, decades after the couple was legally married, were unveiled during Jackson’s presidential campaign, and Rachel died soon thereafter, partly because of the strain and shame of the campaign.

Andrew Jackson purchased his first enslaved African American in 1794. Over the next 66 years he owned more than 300 men, women, and children—as many as 150 at one time. In the Jackson museum are photos of a few of the slaves, including Old Hannah, a house servant, whose grandson Alfred, is buried near the Jackson tomb. Alfred stayed on as a paid worker after the Civil War. I saw his cabin, refurbished as it looked in 1901 when he died. It was spare, but pretty comfy compared to the slave cabin of his earlier life.

Historic People I “Met” at Belle Meade

Isaac Murphy: The most famous African American jockey of the 1800s, and one of the greatest jockeys in American racing history. He won three Kentucky Derbies and 44 percent of all races he entered.

Although Belle Meade estate is no longer a working horse farm, this Thoroughbred poses in the green fields of Tennessee. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Although Belle Meade estate is no longer a working horse farm, this Thoroughbred poses in the green fields of Tennessee. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Bob Green: In 1839, the owner of Belle Meade, William Giles Harding brought a young enslaved boy, Robert “Bob” Green, to work at Belle Meade, where the Hardings raised and raced Thoroughbreds. At the end of the Civil War, Bob continued to work for the horse farm, and he became famous for his horse knowledge. As the head groom at Belle Meade, Bob always wore a white apron, and he appears in many paintings with the family’s horses.

Coping with the Contrasts

I grew up in Kentucky, and decades ago barely a peep was mentioned about the fact that the wealth and leisurely lifestyle of white people was made possible by the forced labor of African Americans. Slavery was politely overlooked when I was a kid in the South.

Things have changed, and I’m glad that plantations make an effort to tell (as best they can) the mostly untold and still mostly anonymous stories of enslaved people. Still, the acknowledgment of the horrors of the past can be discomforting. It’s much harder to revel in the beautiful aspects of elegant homes and gardens knowing that they were rooted in intense human suffering.

Slave cabin, The Hermitage ©Laurel Kallenbach

A “duplex” slave cabin at Andrew Jackson’s cotton plantation, The Hermitage ©Laurel Kallenbach

It’s easy to point fingers at the ugly heritage in Dixieland, but the truth is that northern cities such as New York were built by slave labor. So was the White House and the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

So, how does a visitor reconcile the dichotomies? At The Hermitage and Belle Meade mansions, I saw wedding portraits and libraries filled with leather-bound books. In slave quarters, it was illegal for people to marry or read and write.

I must admit, though, that I was quite taken by the hand-painted French wallpaper in the foyer of The Hermitage depicting nymphs and goddesses from ancient Greece. And I loved seeing the portraits of racehorses—the ancestors of Sea Biscuit and Seattle Slew—lining the walls of Belle Meade. And sitting on a rocking chair in the shade of the mansion’s porch, was a treat. I did enjoy experiencing all this, yet I was uneasy with that enjoyment.

The gravestone of Alfred Jackson (Uncle Alfred), who lived at the Hermitage longer than anyone else, black or white. After emancipation, Alfred continued to work at the plantation, and he asked to be buried beside Andrew Jackson’s tomb. ©Laurel Kallenbach

That’s what makes visiting historic places important: they can delight us, but they can challenge us too. And, ultimately, they make us look at where we are today in a new light. We still live in a world with huge economic and social discrepancies. Slavery and human trafficking exist even now.

So, despite the sad and awful tale that must be told of plantation life in the South, it’s better to come, and see, and enjoy, and learn, and grieve. That’s what history has to teach us.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted: November 2013