Tree Cutting

There is a traditional ceremony in scattered parts of Mexico and Central America, where men hang upside down from a tall pole and swing around in descent to the ground. They are called Los Palo Voladores which literally means ‘the pole flyers.’ If you read my 3-part post last year that began with ‘Feria 2017 Pt 1’, you will have seen photos of them. The feria lasts a full week and then continues with a few days of special events in the weeks after.

Last year, each day of the feria was incredible to me. I fell completely in love with the many cultural events. Somehow they spoke directly to my indigenous DNA.

In my town (which unfortunately, must remain nameless for security reasons), the pole stands in the town’s central plaza. The plaza is bordered by the municipal offices, the main cathedral, and the main street, and on three days a week the plaza is home to a bustling outdoor market.

Every two years, the pole is taken down and a new tree is found to replace it. Cutting down the new tree requires a day long effort of about two hundred men. The palo voladores tradition is very masculine and in fact, women are not allowed to touch the pole. The ceremony to cut down the new tree is for men, not women. But a small group of women who are central to the Mayan ceremonies of the feria, are able to attend. My Peace Corps site mate and I were lucky to be allowed to attend the ceremony with them! I waited for months for the special day in April.

On the appointed day, I arrived at my friend’s home. She made sure that my site mate and I were wearing proper traditional clothing. Once attired, we drove to the woods to find the men who were already gathered for the event.

We found a large gathering of men so we found a place to sit apart from them. All eyes were focused on one gentleman who was about to ascend the chosen tree.  The man was extremely agile as he shimmied up the tree. The tree was very tall but he appeared to climb it easily with only a rope that tied him to the tree. I don’t know what he was doing on the tree but the process took more than an hour.

Finally, he climbed down the tree and another man set to work with an electric saw to fell the tree. Everyone ran back from the tree to watch it fall. I was so excited, I could hardly believe that it was happening! The tree started to sway slowly before it fell and landed with a boom. Everyone ran forwards towards the tree to remove its branches, attach it to ropes, and clear its path so it could be carried out. Watch it here: https://youtu.be/c9FzrnOsqGw

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I met the man who had climbed the tree. He is in fact, in charge of the Palo Voladores. He was older than I had imagined so his strength and agility was all the more impressive.

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A couple of men did a fire ceremony to thank and bless the remaining tree stump. We, women, gathered to participate in this ceremony, kneeling to kiss the tree and make offerings and prayers.

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Eventually, the tree was loaded onto a tractor and dragged back to town about thirty miles away.

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The next morning, the tree was readied to be set into the plaza. Men stood ready to help in any way they could while women gathered under the shade or shawls to watch.

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The tree had to be shaved, blessed with incense and it’s top had to be carved to hold smaller poles that would hold rope and the flyers.

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After a lot of time, the pole began to rise. At luck would have it, I could not wait to see it be set into place but I heard that it took hours. I had to jump on a bus to leave town or I might have missed my Peace Corps shuttle a few hours away. I was utterly grateful to have witnessed such a phenomenal cultural event that would be unfold more completely in four more months (August). I was happy and so were my ancestors, I am sure. Below:  the new tree which yes, is slightly bowed at the top.

lorespolestandingFive hours after I boarded the bus, I found my favorite coffee shop, La Bohemé, in Antigua. After the intensity of the bumpy, winding roads, I needed to unwind and write a few notes. If you have questions about the posts, feel free to post a comment.

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