Living in Honduras or Guatemala as a foreigner is sometimes hard, mostly fun and never boring. This Blog is about more than just the oddities of my years in the not-so tranquil, cobble-stoned town of Copán Ruinas and, more recently, Antigua Guatemala. Hence Serendipity, the gift of finding without seeking…

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The King: No Opinion



Living at the other side of the planet from where I was born and raised will always keep my heart in two places. As much as I love Honduras, as long as I’ve been here and as adapted as I have become, I’ll always be “from Amsterdam”.
It is doable, but hard when I can’t be with family or friends when tragedy strikes or when there is something to celebrate.

Today Willem Alexander is crowned as the new king of the Netherlands. And I am not there. And I can’t decide whether I care or not.

For those who do not know, the 30th of April is Queens Day in Holland and by far the best celebrated holiday of the year. Not because the Dutch are overly fond of the royal family (I think the soccer team throws higher marks), but it is a great celebration nonetheless, starting in the wee hours of the night before. Children set up the stalls to sell whatever they have been hoarding for months. People sell pies, sandwiches, hotdogs, drinks, all preferably orange. Bars set up outside their properties with dance parties until the wee hours of the morning after. The Vondel Park is dedicated to children and is probably one of the best places to be. You can have your face painted, throw eggs, walk on a rope or whatever crazy creative act or game people come up with each year. Queens Day is not organized by the government or municipality, but by the people themselves. You can expect the unexpected, everything goes.

But today is extra special, because it is Queens Day no longer. For the first time in over a hundred years we now have a king. And from what I read in the online newspaper and see on CNN, it has been quite an event.

This is the second crowning I miss. The last one, when Willem’s mother Beatrix took over the crown, was on April 30th, 1980. I was ten and excited about Queens Day (couldn’t care too much about the change of royal power) but was extremely disappointed and resentful when my parents decided that my mother, brother and me were going to spend the day at my grandparents on the country side. The reason was that riots were expected and my dad was for his work involved in the security preparations. There were riots indeed, but hardly anything that would have stopped a stubborn ten-year old from celebrating her Queens Day.

Thirty-three years later I’m missing the crowning again, and as I said, I’m not sure what to think about that. Now that I think about it, I don’t even know whether I’m happy or not about having a new king. I know there’re pros and cons, but I simply can’t come up with something sensible to say.
Oh my God! I have NO opinion!

That is weird, because I’m Dutch and the Dutch always have an opinion about everything. Annoyingly so! The Hondurans however are usually much less opinionated. Up to a point that when you want to know someone’s thought, you’ll just get a shrug of the shoulders.

What do you think about World Peace?
Shrug.
What do you think of President Pepe Lobo?
Shrug.
Do you like your food?
Shrug.

Carin, what do you think of Holland’s new king?
Shrug.

Oh my… I’ve become Honduran after all…


Saturday, April 20, 2013

Living in the Most Dangerous Country in the World



Every day I wake up, shivering with fear, hoping I’ll make it to see the light of another day here in Honduras. I live behind doors enforced with triple bolt locks and I barely dare to go out on the street. I trust no one, I never go out at night, instead I lock myself up, turning up the volume of my TV to drown out the sound of gunshots.

If that’s what you want to hear, there you have it.
But the truth is quite different.

I don’t deny there is a serious problem with violence in Honduras. A huge problem. A problem so big, it is hard to imagine there is a solution to it, and even if the situation would better, it will take generations to get over the trauma of it.

The problem with the violence in Honduras, as in many other countries, is that there is not just one cause for it. Violence is deeply rooted in Honduran society, caused by corruption, lawlessness, lack of justice, lack of education for that matter, poverty, narco traffic, gangs, hopelessness, all of which lead to a vicious circle of more resentfulness, hate, vengeance, frustration and loss of morals. And the fact that Honduras is constantly in the news as being the most violent country in the world doesn’t help at all. Quite the contrary.

I live in Copán Ruinas, a quiet town in the west of Honduras that heavily depends on tourism. Since a year or so, we’ve all seen a gigantic drop in the number of visitors and when you ask tour operators or tourists, the answer is that Honduras is considered too dangerous to visit. The fact that nearby Antigua Guatemala and even neighbouring countries as Nicaragua and El Salvador are doing blooming business, proves it. But is Honduras really that dangerous for tourists?
I say it’s not.

First of all, let’s look at the numbers. It is now common knowledge that Honduras has the highest murder rate per capita in the world. But, just as in Mexico, that number is closely connected to gang activity, drug trafficking and mostly takes place in certain areas in the big cities. Places that tourists never visit. If you’d discount the number of deaths in certain neighbourhoods, the national average would be much lower.

I won’t deny that there haven’t been incidents in the past, but overall, the violence is not directed to tourists and the main tourist destinations are considered to be pretty quiet and safe. I can’t find any data on it, but if I hear from tourists that they were assaulted in their hotel or on the street, pick-pocketed or molested, it usually happened in Guatemala.

I can’t guarantee a tourist a risk free trip through Honduras, but I think that the dangers are highly overrated. You know a dangerous city for tourists??? Amsterdam! I recently visited my hometown, and talk out dangers! Not so much violent assaults, but deathly incidents nonetheless. Every year an astounding number of tourists die because they ride a bicycle (often for the first time in their lives) in the centre of town without understanding the unwritten rules of survival. They take the silent but oh so big and hard trams for granted while crossing the street without looking left or right. Each year, about thirty people drown in the famous canals, many of them (drunken) tourists who fall in when urinating, unable to climb back up the steep walls. And not to mention the number of people (I think it was three last year) of tourists who underestimate the power of Dutch marihuana and think they can fly out of a window, just like that. But those victims never show up in lists with numbers that show how dangerous Amsterdam can be.

The “Honduras = dangerous” slogan has become a bit of a hype and is being repeated time after time for no apparent reason, and without any effort on behalf of the Honduran ministry of tourism to prove the opposite. And that’s a pity, because Honduras is a country of an incredible natural beauty with great archaeological sites and terrific tropical islands, just to name a few attractions. Yes, Honduras has its problems, but so do other countries in Central America, as well as the rest of the world. The world we live in is not becoming a safer place, and Honduras is no exception.


To wrap things up, what I mean to say is that numbers are relative and that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear. My roommate is from Chicago and says she hears more gun shots outside her apartment there, than in Copán. I can tell you from personal experience that Copán is a great place to live or to visit and, relatively safe. Relatively, because a lot depends on your own behaviour.
And just to speak for this beloved town I’m luckily enough to live in: please come and visit Copán Ruinas! And not just because we need you! The archaeological site is breathtaking, the town itself is charming and fun and there’s tons to do: hiking, horseback riding, visiting the bird park or coffee farms. And yes, I do feel completely safe here. I go out at night, I hike through the mountains, I do whatever I like. Heck, with this heat I even sleep with my windows and doors wide open. But that’s something I maybe shouldn’t share on the internet.

Bottom line, come and visit Honduras. It’s worth it!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Why I hate weddings



Oh, that dreadful moment when someone knocks on your door and stands there with the biggest smile, handing you an envelop with on it your misspelled name in golden letters…
“You’re coming, right?”
I sigh inwardly, grind my teeth and force a smile.
“I’ll try.”


I hate weddings. I’m not a big fan of formal parties anyway, but weddings, Honduran weddings in particular, are not my thing. But since it appears to be socially desirable to have at least one gringo or gringa at the event, I get, to my regret, my share of invitations.


I’ve nothing against two people in love vowing eternal fidelity (and I’m not even going into the Honduran (male) interpretation of the word “eternal” or “fidelity”), it’s just that I find attending weddings a waste of time, energy and money.


For starters, there’s the wedding present. I gave up long ago trying to buy something that I think is beautiful or useful, because tastes differ. Tremendously. My most successful presents were those that I found most horrendous, so now I go to the store and pick the most hideous and expensive thing I can find, the more frills the better. If I manage to avoid attending the event, I buy an even more expensive gift, to ease my guilt and to stay on good terms with the happy couple. That’s socially acceptable and I suspect in some cases even desirable.


The second torture is what to wear. Oblivious to the latest fashion in town, I find it hard enough to find something in my wardrobe that has no paint splatters on it or that looks remotely feminine and elegant. I always end up feeling underdressed and slightly uncomfortable, especially when wearing heals instead of my beloved All Stars.

Then there’s the event itself. Incapable by my Dutch origins to arrive late, I spend sometimes hours by myself at the “random table” (the one for people that don’t fit in any category) politely smiling at the guests that arrive long after the hour mentioned in the invitation. Those hours would be more endurable if there would be a big bottle of some kind of hard liquor in front of me, but usually there’s only a homemade table decoration to look at.


When the ceremony finally starts, I’m usually so zoomed out already, it’s hard to concentrated on the wedding vows. When lucky, there’s a civil ceremony only, but more likely there’s a priest with a sermon, followed by a religious pledging too. I find it baffling how people can actually sign two different documents that contain completely contradictory pledges: during one of the last weddings I attended, the couple was first married legally, promising fidelity and such, as well as respecting the equal rights between man and woman. Not ten minutes later they signed the religious document, the woman promising to be subordinate to her man. Personally I think that irregularity should be reason to nullify both wedding certificates, but no one else seemed to notice, much less care.


Weddings with a mass before the actual wedding ceremony are even more of an agony to me. Last year I was invited to a wedding of a very dear friend, mass included, so I tried, even though I’m not much of a church going person. I found a seat in the very back of the church which was a good thing because twice I had to walk out and take a very deep breath. The first time was when the priest said that the only union between man and woman that has any value was matrimony for the Catholic Church (I already knew that, it wasn’t my first catholic wedding), that the only purpose of matrimony is reproduction and that he was aghast when he met a man the other day who happened to have more dogs than children!!! (I happen to have more dogs than children.)

The second time I sneaked out (and actually went to the bar to have a quick drink) was when the priest compared Honduras with Japan: Both countries are similar in size, but the difference is that Japan is much more developed and has a much bigger population. Hence, the solution to become a more developed country is to REPRODUCE! Not only did I utterly disagree with his reasoning, it was totally out of place during a wedding ceremony.


Back to the wedding reception, the moment of relief when food is finally served. Traditionally a huge chunk of chicken with (because of the special occasion) an abundance of starch: spaghetti, bread, potato salad and, of course, tortillas. And when it’s time for dessert, the event is suddenly over… A lot of guests don’t even stay to eat their dessert, but take it home, covered with a paper napkin. No lingering, no guests getting drunk, no dancing or flirting between bridesmaids and best men. Instead, kids start running around grabbing the decorations of the table, pulling down balloons and anything else that can be taken away. Without exception, the beautifully decorated wedding location looks like a battlefield twenty minutes after dessert is served.


Mission
accomplished.

Time to go to bar…




Monday, April 8, 2013

Brief Encounters of the Human Kind IV: Stripped



I wished I had a camera with me, because it was such a cute sight: two red moto-taxis standing side by side on a small sandy island in the middle of the Copán River. What we didn’t see until we came closer (and when I forgot about the camera altogether) were the two young taxi drivers getting undressed behind their vehicles while sipping from cans of beer. When they were completely undressed they started fooling around, unaware that me and my friend were about to pass by. When they finally noticed us gals, they let out a startled “Oops!!” and they both dove in the river, beer cans still in their hands and thus totally ruining their drinks.


My friend and I tried to ignore the two guys, to avoid any form of embarrassment for either party, but that didn’t work because one of the guys started calling out my name. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they both started apologizing for being naked.


“We’re sorry!” one of the guys yelled, “But we worked all the way through Easter and we haven’t had time to go for a swim yet!”


“Yes, Carin!” cried the other, “Please forgive us!


My friend and I gave them a polite sort of wave in acknowledgements while we walked on, trying very hard not to pee ourselves laughing.

The taxi drivers kept on calling out apologies until we couldn’t hear them anymore. Afterwards I could hit myself on the head fort not remembering to look at the taxis’ numbers. The drivers might have recognized me, I certainly did not recognize them, in their state “au natural”. I bet it will take months before I’ll stop wondering if the driver is one of “them” every time I take a taxi.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

World Famous in Copán Ruinas



Self Portrait 2013

I’m a world famous artist in Copán Ruinas. That’s the lame joke I use whenever people say they see my work everywhere around town. It’s true, but it’s also true that Copán Ruinas is a pretty small town (in a remote corner of Honduras!) and considering the fact that I’ve been painting here for sixteen years now, then well, it’s hardly a feat to have saturated this place with my signs, murals, paintings, posters, furniture and souvenirs.

I must say, it’s convenient and fun to be “La Carin que pinta”, the one everyone interested in art automatically comes looking for when in Copán. Had I stayed in Amsterdam, I would never have reached that status. And that makes me wonder: is it because I am a foreigner living in Honduras? Or because I’m an artist living in a small town?  Because I’m a woman maybe? Or is it because I’m a female foreign artist living in a small town in Honduras? Or maybe it is just my work speaking for itself?

That I stick out, there’s no doubt about it and I have no trouble with that. Actually, I quite like it. I’m in the delightful position of being triple crazy: for being a foreigner, an artist as well as a female artist. (And for just being a little crazy, too...) Although I understand the necessity to adapt, I don’t necessarily want to blend in. I like being the odd one out. 
I’m the one who gets along with everyone and away with everything.

WhenI paint, I usually don’t think about why I paint or what I paint. I don’t consider myself a Dutch painter, nor a Honduran one. Not even a female one, for that matter. I just paint what I like, what comes to mind (and what is commissioned). Of course there’s the influence of the blazing sun, the lush greens, the temperament of the people and the vibrant colours of tropical plants. Maya culture, oh yes, have I used you… Or should I say “reinvented”? “Inspired by”?
When I paint I just paint and I’ll let the interpretation to the rest of the world. I’m happy though, to have been able to make my picturesque contributions to this town.

The only problem is that despite being world famous in Copán Ruinas, I’m still, as usual, bloody broke. I don’t want to become rich. And I’m not the sort of artist looking for fame after death. Why, I’m already World Famous in Copán Ruinas! But being World Famous in Copán Ruinas and less broke, now, that would be great…


So… to buy any number of my World Famous Copaneco art work, visit:

Or at least “like” my page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/carin.steen.artist