CHICHICASTENANGO, GUATEMALA — ON the night before market, the roads to Chichicastenango are crowded with Indians and their wares. Some arrive in brightly painted school buses that groan and crawl their way up the steep canyons. Others travel on foot carrying huge loads of produce, pottery, and textiles in baskets strapped around their heads. The town's rain-stained square is still dark as they set up their rickety wooden stalls and light their cooking fires. But when the sun comes up the Guatemalan mountain town of Chichicastenango explodes in a festival of noise and color.
Market day in ``Chichi'' is one of the great gathering places for Guatemala's Mayan Indians. On Thursdays and Sundays they come from villages throughout the western highlands, dressed in their native costumes, to buy and sell, to gossip, and to participate in the spectacular and mystical rituals of folk Roman Catholicism. Once an ancient settlement of the Maya-Quich'e Indians, Chichi today is one of the most colorful places in Central America.
BY six in the morning, Chichi's narrow cobblestone streets are choked with people. Indian women in brilliant costumes press past each other. Men loaded with baskets of goods careen between the stalls, and smooth-faced children munch on tortillas. Wood smoke fills the chilly mountain air and mingles with the smell of frying eggs, steaming coffee, and black beans. Under the tarpaulins that cover the square, little girls clap their hands softly as they shape breakfast tortillas in their palms, and men sit at long tables finishing breakfast.
Plastic shoes, polyester pants, brightly dyed threads, tomatoes, peaches, and broccoli are among the goods brought to market.
Almost everything is for sale in Chichi. Tall burlap bags are rolled back to show spices, noodles, and black and white beans. On the steps of the whitewashed El Calvario chapel at the plaza's edge, men in straw hats sit by their bundles of firewood for sale. Hens roped into baskets cackle and flap their wings. Pots and pans hang from the stalls. Old men pull on your elbow, offering to sell you brass weights or bells or machetes with jade handles.
The most breathtaking displays are the weavings brought to market from remote highland villages. Brilliant reds, greens, and purples are woven into wraparound skirts that hang like royal banners in the wind. Vivid woven sashes and richly embroidered huipiles, the blouses worn by Indian women, are piled high on tables, watched by women as they gossip together and tend their children.
Visitors to Chichi are expected to bargain, and the bargaining is world-class. The influx of foreign tourists has pushed up prices for textiles and folk art. Judging the true value is hard work: The serene almond faces of the Mayan traders give nothing away.
Even small children are experts in feigning disinterest; they lower their prices only slowly, wearing down the buyer. If he gives in too easily, he will hear, as soon as his purchase is in hand and his back is turned, giggling among the Indians.
Alongside the frank commerce, however, lies the mystery of Chichicastenango's market day. The 16th-century church of Santo Tom'as looms above the market square. Like a Mayan pyramid, it sits on a huge pile of masonry. Indian prayer men, called chuchkajaues, gather there to ask the saints and Mayan idols for help. They light fires at the foot of the stone steps and stand before the church door, praying. The effect, especially at night, is awesome. A prayer man stands alone, his face lit by dozens of candles at his feet, shrouded in smoke from a chalice that he swings in circles around him.
Anything can happen on market day in Chichi. Scores of little boys offer their services as guides and all answer ``Thom'as'' when asked their names. An old man, bent double, drags a giant wooden cross down a cobblestone street. In the monastery next to the church 15 little girls in huipiles and wrap skirts play ``Sounds of Silence'' on a huge marimba, a xylophone-like instrument whose sounds come from gourds.
CHICHICASTENANGO is one of the few Guatemalan towns that still maintains a separate government for Indians, who make up 97 percent of its population. A separate mayor and councilmen, as well as an Indian court take care of matters that affect Indians exclusively. This is a reason why Chichi remains the center for Indians of the highlands and why it still holds much of the mystery of the Mayan culture.
Some of the trading in Chichi is dominated by Ladino or other non-Indian merchants, and large numbers of foreigners dilute Chichi's atmosphere on market day. But the Mayas still wrap the town with a veil of their own.
Like sentinels, hundreds of hand-carved wood masks guard the entrance to the market square. The specialty of Chichi's artisans, they hang in long rows in the stalls along the square: dogs, owls, unicorns, horses, monsters, and spirits. In the brilliant colors for which the Mayas are famous, they grin and grimace, leer and laugh at all who pass by.