Nash and I jolt awake in the middle of the night. My first instinct is to start screaming and throw myself on the floor. I have to remind myself that we’re not in a war zone – the civil war ended 20 years ago and barely touched this region of Guatemala. No, this is the sound of less harmful explosives.
There’s a pause after the firecrackers, then, as though to the dropping of a conductor’s wand, a mariachi band begins to play.
I fumble for my phone to check the time. It’s 4:12 am. What the hell is going on?!
I shamble up the stairs to the roof and blink down into the street below. A twelve-piece mariachi band in full costume stands in an arc around a dark and empty doorway. More firecrackers punctuate the night.
Maybe it’s a birthday surprise? A romantic gesture? Either way, I’m too shy to holler down and ask, so I just hover over them like a ghost in pajamas. Their sombreros sway back and forth as they blast on their trumpets and strum ferociously at their guitars.
Nash and I return to bed while the band continues to play for an entire hour. Eventually, they wander off through the streets. The music fades out like a passing dream.
This moment, three nights into our stay, is an appropriate introduction to San Pedro La Laguna. This is a town that loves to celebrate, and they never let you forget it. From our concrete-walled three-story home in the center of town, we hear it all.
During evenings and weekends, all the Católico and Evangelico churches that surround us host simultaneous practice sessions for their choirs. Their members have no fear of belting out the same songs over and over, regardless of musical ability.
A marimba, Guatemala’s national instrument, accompanies some of the groups and gives the night a tropical party flair. However, the most common accompanist is a bass guitar that plays the exact same aggressively upbeat and bouncy backtrack to every song. Try, if you will, to image a polka-esque version of Silent Night.
The musicians’ enthusiasm makes me smile, even when the music starts to grate on my nerves.
Those less musically inclined contribute to San Pedro’s tapestry of sound with a barrage of fireworks. The bombas, which traditionally signal the start and end of an event, are the most startling. They go off with a BANG that makes my heart stall and my ears ring. During the day, the puffs of smoke they give off drift over the town like tiny clouds.
We don’t want to be left out, so we set off some fireworks on the roof with some kids from our host family. When they’ve exhausted their supply, the girls run to the store around the corner, which has no qualms selling explosives to ten-year-olds.
Here they are playing with matches:
Our tiny fireworks can’t compete with the town’s usual background noise. The roar of chicken buses and tuk-tuks fills the streets, punctuated by barking dogs and the cheeping of referee whistles at the nightly basketball tournament.
I never expected that a lakeside town with a population of 13,000 to be noisier than the streets of Manhattan. It’s one of those places where closing your eyes and listening can tell you where you are, like the call to prayer in a Muslim country or the crashing of waves on the seashore. Only here, it just might be a mariachi band at 4am.