On Saturday, we left in search of the giant devil. We had heard that in the Old City, a three-story Satan stood watching over the people for all of December 7. Legend told that the devil watches over the town for a day, and at night the residents would rise together to burn the Hellenistic edifice to the ground, exclaiming victory once again against the evil forces of the world. Though we never found the sky-scraping Lucifer, we returned from our venture with many a demon of a story to tell.
The first Saturday of each December is crowned “Day of the Devil” in various countries. The purpose of this day is to recognize the malevolent hold on our lives caused by the accumulation of stuff- of possessions- our inevitable hoarding of piles of junk throughout the year. On the first Saturday, every household collects their old papers, their rotting wood, and their dusty boxes to pile in the streets and reduce to ashes. At 6pm, as the sun is setting, church bells ring and children set off fireworks as families set the year’s clutter ablaze. At the same time, young boys drag devil piñatas through the dust and heap them onto their bonfires as they rejoice in the destruction of idle possessions. The entire country celebrates together as they loosen the burden of the material world.
After the hour-long ride on El Herocito, Hilary and I pulled into Guatemala’s second colonial capital, Ciudad Vieja, or “Old City.” On a bright afternoon around 1, we set off to find the rumored devil structure. After looking amongst the dusty cobblestone streets and exploring the vibrant town square, we began to ask people where the devil was hiding. A stagehand in the concert area told us that it would arrive at 6. A traffic director told us all the devils were in the parade. Though we had planned to drop by for a glimpse and head back home, we decided to stay for the festivities planned for later in the afternoon. We were excited, but we had been warned not to drive back at night due to the streets being on fire and the village boys that might enjoy shooting a few gringos with a Roman Candle. We asked around and eventually found a quaint hotel named Santa Valentina, that offered clean rooms and hot water for $31 a night. We dropped off our helmets, scraped together some cash and headed back to the town square.
The parade was lining up and the Carnies were piecing together their makeshift festival rides. Street vendors heated up their Churro machines and the taco chefs started to mince their meat. The parade started around four and Hilary and I watched as float after float went by depicting verses from Revelation’s apocalypse and staged the scene for blonde-haired devil creatures that plotted the demise of each human onlooker. The actors on the paper-mache hellscapes appeared to be writing down the names of sinners in the crowd who they would no doubt rejoice to capture and damn to the underworld for an eternity. As I watched the acts unravel, I thought to myself how strange it is to make such a big deal of idle possessions- we have storage containers full of them in the US, and it’s hard to believe that accumulated junk could be such an attractive playground for the Prince of Darkness himself... or is it hard to believe at all?
When the parade ended, we decided to make the rounds at all the food stands. Although we were putting our stomachs in grave danger, we committed to enjoying all the delicious street food and suffer the consequences another day. Our bowels rumbled as we piled up spicy beef tacos, chocolate-covered Churros, fried corn-kernels, and grilled filets of steak. The next logical step was to ride the Ferris-Wheel- a romantic idea on a beautiful night that later on almost drove me to tears from pure terror. As we stepped up to the carnival ride, I asked the attendant how much it costs to get on, and he replied Q10 per person. That meant less than three dollars total, which I thought was a fair price for such an experience. As we ascended the stairs and began to more clearly understand our fate, Hilary leaned to me and whispered, “At Q10 a person, death is cheap.”
Upon closer inspection, we weren’t paying for a romantic whirl on a classic carnival favorite. We were being locked into a death trap, a spinning wheel covered in loose/live wires that hung in a wad from the creaking giant. The seats, stands, and connector bars were welded together in someone’s backyard and the entire contraption was operated from the chassis of a semi-truck that had been stripped from its cab and jerry-rigged to a deteriorating metal cable responsible for spinning the iron beast. The seats were made of rotting wood and had no system of maintaining balance other than the precautions of the scared-stiff riders. The entire scenario was a front-page catastrophe headline waiting to happen and somehow Hilary and I had just paid $2.50 to be a part of it. As the wheel turned, Hilary and I stared straight ahead, not risking a movement that could flip us over in such an unsure seating arrangement. To our surprise, the wheel increased in speed until we were completing an entire revolution in under two seconds. Hilary sang praises to Jesus as I apologized profusely for leading us to such an early death. To our amazement, the ride slowed to a stop with everyone on board still alive but very shaken. As we began to breathe again and readied ourselves to step off onto still ground, the semi-truck engine roared as the wheel started to move again- repeating the entire experience in reverse.
We made it out alive, but we have a newfound respect for America’s safety standards. Once back on the ground, we moved towards the bustling concert area, navigating an ocean of people and guarding ourselves against pickpockets. I held Hilary close as we watched the Salsa-band perform their choreographed number on stage as fireworks burst overhead and the volcanoes loomed in the darkness. We wandered through the park until we found an open spot and started dancing, repeating the only four salsa moves in our dance repertoire. As we moved together through the old colonial park, other pairs of young lovers joined us to create a little heat by spinning on the cobblestones in the brisk Antigua night.
Like I said, we never found the towering devil rumored to be in the Old City. Instead, we encountered a beautiful celebration that gave one of Guatemala’s oldest cities a young and intoxicating spirit. We experienced the magic of Guatemala that permeates the evening air and entices cold feet to dance. After having some time to reflect on our spontaneous encounter, I believe it’s true that the devil is present in our junk more than we like to admit. It seems to be worth celebrating when we loosen ourselves of our festering possessions to join our community and rejoice in our triumph over pettier things. When we open our homes and our lives to harboring community instead of collecting dust, we expose the devil and force out his demons. When Hilary and I set out to find the giant devil, we didn’t find a structure, but we found out where he was hiding- and all of Guatemala burned that sucker to the ground.