Halfway to Heaven: Travels in Guatemala

In addition to writing stellar books herself, Thrums author Deborah Chandler has recommended many a good book to me, from the novels of Miguel Asturias to Diné bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story by Paul Zolbrod. Last fall she gave me a collection of poems, Seated on the Bank of the Yichk’u River by Maya writer Daniel Caño:
 
Life and death
are an enchanting couple
and I walk in between them
holding their hands
like a child
who hasn’t yet learned to walk.

So when Deborah recently sent a copy of Halfway to Heaven, I paid attention! Deborah stumbled onto a copy of this old book at a book fair last summer and searched for more copies to send to friends and fans of Guatemala. The book is a wonderful first-person account of photographer Jean Hersey and her painter friend Gertrude as they wander the whole of Guatemala in the late 1940s. Nearly 75 years later, her descriptions are apt as ever: “Markets in Guatemala are a wild, weaving pageant of color, fragrance, and sound,” or “Indians swinging their braziers of smoking copal” on the steps of the Santo Thomas church in Chichicastenango.

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Swinging braziers of copal on the steps of the Santo Thomas church. Photo by Joe Coca from his book The Human Thread.

On Lake Atitlan, Hersey explains “Each village had its characteristic costumes. You could tell the women from Santiago by their red halo headdress, and the men from San Pedro by their trousers embroidered with animals and flowers.” 

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Lola Sapalú and Manuel Reanda, her husband of 40 years. She wears the “red halo” of Santiago Atitlan called a tocoyal. Photo by Joe Coca from Traditional Weavers of Guatemala.

Reading about Hersey’s adventures reminded me of all I’ve learned in the pages of Deborah Chandler’s books. Hersey describes the symbolism of the double-headed eagle, which I first learned about in Deborah’s Traditional Weavers of Guatemala. The double-headed eagle, or k’ot, is a powerful symbol, still being woven today and Deborah carefully details the history and possible interpretations. Hersey mentions staying at the Mayan Inn in Chichicastenango, which is a hotel Deborah recommends in A Textile Traveler’s Guide to Guatemala. The same Mayan Inn? I’m sure it is. These reminders of Deborah continued throughout Hersey’s book until I began imagining how fun would it be to traipse about Guatemala with Jean Hersey and Deborah Chandler as your knowledgeable guides. I guess you can, technically, with each authors’ books tucked in your knapsack.

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Maria Raymundo weaves the k’ot or double-eagle design at her home in San Gaspar Chajul, Guatemala. Photo by Joe Coca from Traditional Weavers of Guatemala.

Hersey’s descriptions are truly funny, but in an honest observational way, not critical or condescending as can so easily happen with travelogues. And the book is full of beautiful descriptions and poignant moments of understanding as when she watches a group of boys in Todo Santos dig shallow holes in the ground then bend their heads close to the openings. Her companion explains, “They dig, señora, and they listen–listen that they may hear the earth’s heartbeat.”

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about Halfway to Heaven is the reverence that Hersey has for the Maya people, their traditions, and creation stories. In the chapter “Colors from the Gods,” she recounts a rendering of stories from the Popol Vuh and learns how the Maya adopted specific designs and colors for their clothing directly from the gods. She grows to understand, appreciate, and to eventually feel the living weight of another world: “Beyond the infinitely old and wise volcanoes—beyond the witches brewing their caldrons of boiling lava—somewhere Hurakan, the Storm God would always be streaking sharply on one leg through the heavens. Somewhere in the shining circle of light, Indian gods would ever be, even as now, passing great thoughts back and forth among themselves.”

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Lake Atitlan surrounded by volcanoes, photo by Joe Coca from Traditional Weavers of Guatemala.

Lay hands on a copy of Halfway to Heaven if you can and thank Deborah Chandler for introducing us to this treasure. And of course, learn more about Guatemala in Traditional Weavers of Guatemala: Their Stories, Their Lives, A Textile Traveler’s Guide to Guatemala and about the Maya creation stories in Maya Gods and Monsters: Supernatural Stories from the Underworld and Beyond by Carol Karasik. 

—Karen, still learning to walk



2 thoughts on “Halfway to Heaven: Travels in Guatemala

  1. Toni Myers says:

    This book sounds wonderful. Just the kind of book I like. I am now on the hunt for it……I, too, stayed at the Mayan Inn in Chichi. Thx.

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