“Why did you change your style?” I asked Reanda, trying to mask my disappointment.
“I opened my mind to new styles when I traveled to the United States, Spain, Italy, the U.K. and Israel,” he said. “I was influenced by the work of the other artists I saw. Cubism. Realism. Abstract modern.”
I was delighted by Reanda’s artistic growth but pleased that we had snapped up one of his primitives.
Back on the street, we browsed through shops selling all sorts of textiles — pillowcases, purses, blankets, bedspreads, huipiles, shawls, table runners and handbags — priced from a few dollars to several hundred, depending on quality and size. Although Santiago’s offerings were generally finer than anything we had seen in Chichi, we vowed not to make any purchases until we’d combed the town.
Our patience was rewarded the next day, when we spotted a weaver outside the Santiago Apóstol Catholic Church, selling huipiles with unusually detailed designs. After a negotiation that lasted all of 15 seconds, we acquired two of Marcela Damian’s beauties for $120.
We enjoyed five days on the lake, also hiking, horseback riding and checking out cultural sites. But now it was time to move on. In Panajachel, we rendezvoused with the driver we had hired to take us into the remote Ixil Triangle, where Chajul was calling me.
With limited sleeping accommodations in Chajul, we based ourselves in nearby Nebaj, the largest of the three main Ixil-speaking towns in the region. All these communities suffered enormously during Guatemala’s civil war from 1960 to 1996, when an estimated 200,000 people were killed.
The day we arrived, eager to stretch our legs after a four-hour drive, Nebaj was deep into its main annual festival, honoring the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. But we saw few foreign tourists in the town’s main square and even fewer in the artisan’s market, where the quality of textiles was impressive.
One rainy afternoon, we spent several exhilarating hours perusing the huipiles, which bore a mix of human, animal, bird and geometrical designs in every imaginable color. Competition among the dozen or so weavers was fierce. As they called out to us in Spanish, we sensed that we were their first customers in days. But the service was gracious. After we’d plunked down $150 for four gorgeous textiles, one weaver insisted on walking us to a restaurant we’d inquired about, 10 blocks away.
The next morning, we squeezed into a public minibus for the misty 45-minute ride to Chajul, where we faced a familiar shopping challenge: finding folk art in a town with no folk art shops.
Wandering through the dirt streets, we made our first inquiry at a shop that sold thread.
“Do you have any huipiles to sell?” I asked the shopkeeper.
She didn’t. But one of her customers did.
“Come to my house. It’s only a block away,” the woman implored. “I have many things to sell.”
Six blocks later, we were sitting on Isabela Sanchez Xinic’s front porch, overlooking an outhouse and a menagerie of roosters and pigs.
Over the next three hours, Isabela darted in and out of her small adobe house, emerging each time with a skillfully embroidered huipil for our inspection. There were blouses in reds, blues, purples and burgundies, and most were decorated with mythical creatures. We had stumbled onto a folk art feast.
We quickly surmised that most of Isabela’s offerings had come straight out of her wardrobe. As the pile of used clothes on her porch grew, I felt as though I’d just hit the jackpot at Goodwill.
Isabela’s asking prices matched those at the Nebaj market, which were eminently fair, so we bought almost every piece in the pile. (Our Christmas shopping was done!)
After packing the weavings into an empty 100-pound fertilizer bag, Isabela told us, “Don’t go yet. I have something else to show you.” She opened a black plastic bag and revealed a collection of slingshots with wooden handles carved in the likenesses of rabbits and Mayan deities.
“My husband made these,” she said with a laugh. “We use them to kill mice.”
More fabulous gifts, I thought. Sold, for $5 each!
Then she reopened the fertilizer bag and threw in a huipil she had forgotten to show us. “ Un regalo,” she said. A gift.
In a few days, we would be enjoying the comforts of Antigua, a wonderfully walkable town of galleries, clubs, restaurants, colonial churches and high-end hotels. By any measure, Antigua is a cultural gem, worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. It’s also a must-see for collectors.
But it was in Chajul that misty afternoon, as we hugged Isabela goodbye before returning to the dirt streets with our new treasures in tow to find a minibus, that I recalled the question that student had posed some months earlier.
No way, I told myself again.
Not when I’m having so much fun.