Just about the first thing I do after arriving in Antigua, Guatemala’s former colonial capital, is walk into a protruding window ledge. I’d been trying to avoid disturbing a couple sat on the curb of the cobblestone street — good intentions that are unfortunately dashed as I curse loudly, drop my suitcase, and swipe a hand across my forehead to see how much damage I have done. No blood, thankfully — and although I am slightly dizzy, I recover my case and go on, heading for the hostel I’ve been assured is just a few blocks further ahead.
Disorientation, however, proves the theme of the evening. As I head further down the street, the clusters of people I had noticed earlier are now congealing into crowds. It is Semana Santa, I know — Holy Week, for which Antigua’s celebrations are world-renowned — but I’d not expected to be confronted with all of its baroque ostentation so immediately. Elaborate flower-petal-and-sawdust carpets rendered in burnt orange, fuchsia and chartreuse, fringed with candles, blanket the streets. Penitents in their characteristic robes of purple — the colour of suffering — waver past me in a languorous cadence. It soon becomes obvious that moving through the throngs will be impossible, so I find myself placing my case down on a street corner, wedged in among a Guatemalan family, children hoisted on the shoulders of their parents.
Just when I start to think that all this pomp and circumstance might be better appreciated after a solid night’s sleep and without a potential concussion, from the darkness to my right issues a glistering, encrusted float, bearing down on the crowds like a ship. The top of the float is comprised of four figures: the serpent, wrapped around a tree trunk, followed by three representations of Christ. The first kneels humbly, in brown sackcloth; the second is resplendent in embroidered purple, a gaudy gilt-and-silver cross across his shoulders; and the last is in red, gesturing in front of him with his index finger. Original sin and its redemption, in a striking anachronism, share the same glittering platform.
I am, however, even more struck with the expression on the faces of the men carrying the float. Some grimace under its weight; in the left hand of one, there’s the temporal solecism of an iPhone. Most, though, are impassive, staring ahead at their destination — as if the distraction of the crowds has no effect on them.
As they pass, a plangent orchestra of trumpets and drums strikes up behind them; men hawking balloons of cartoon characters start playing their trade, and further back still, people with brooms begin to sweep up the dust from what had been the beautiful sawdust carpets — now destroyed. For the second time that night, I hitch up my suitcase, and make my way towards my hostel.
The winner of the National Geographic Traveller (UK) Travel Writing Competition 2017 will be announced on natgeotraveller.co.uk on Friday 18 August