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…

Monday, December 30, 2013

Labyrinth Homes


When I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude at age fourteen I wasn’t at all put off by García Marquez’ magic realism. Quite the contrary, I found it oddly familiar. I completely went for the flying carpet and the baby being born with a pig’s tail. The only thing I found completely unrealistic were the repeated names within the same family and the homes decaying into inaccessible labyrinths.
That is, until I came to live in Central America.
I’ve already written plenty about name antics in Latin America, so now a bit about family homes going wild.
I happen to live in one of those houses that started out, if not as a mansion, at least as an estate, right behind the Catholic Church on the central park. The original property occupies about a quarter of a city block. I guess in the old times land was cheap and available, money was plenty, so people built huge houses, often in the Spanish colonial style with rooms constructed around a big centre courtyard. The property where I now live has been divided between three brothers. One of them built a hotel, the next a house for his family and a corner store where he set up is agricultural business. Brother number three has over the years divided his share, just around the corner, into a number of small venues facing the street for business while he and his family live in a house on the back patio. I rent the house owned by the brother who still runs the agricultural business on the corner.
When he started to build his house he had only just finished his studies and had come back to town with his new bride, soon to be followed by two babies. Money was tight, as for any beginning entrepreneur, so there was only money to build two rooms and a bathroom around an open patio. In the front, they built a wooden storage room from where the family ran their business.
When money started coming in the family built a real store on the corner and the storage room became living room, kitchen and a garage attached to it. When the kids grew older, they built two more rooms on the second floor facing the street with a huge cement water tank on top. By then business was apparently flourishing, because the family built themselves a real nice house on a huge property on the edge of town. They started renting out their starters’ home and that’s how I came to rent it as an office for the cultural organization I was director of. The patio was divided in two by a wooden partition. The garage was turned into an art gallery; the living room became our office while the two original rooms were converted in art studio and video editing room. We rented the rooms upstairs out to friends to help cover the rent.


But my landlord wasn’t finished building. He added an apartment on top of the two original rooms (that was actually my idea) and then started building four more rooms on his side of the patio, on top of his store, a place that until that time served as a hangout for his goat (talk about magic realism!) and later his two vicious Rottweilers. A huge black plastic tank was built on top of the older one to provide water for the new rooms. Unfortunately renting out the rooms was not too successful because his tenants tended to be people very good at tearing the place down, but not at paying rent.


In the meantime I had given up my organization but kept the house on (because I liked it) and I moved into the apartment upstairs while renting out the other rooms to help pay the rent. A few months ago I decided to reopen the art gallery, combined with a store and a little café. I told the landlord about my plans and asked him if he could replace the wooden partition in the patio that by now was in such a bad state that even my cats stopped crossing it for fear of it falling apart under their feet. My landlord‘s reaction was:  why not tear the whole thing down? And thus was decided that I would fix up the whole courtyard, the rooms and help renting those out. We closed off one wall, opened another, changed the entry to the courtyard and did a whole lot of much needed fixing up. The result is colourful and cute, but it feels like the whole place is hanging on my rubber bands and masking tape. But then again, I love the serendipity of the place, even though it makes no sense whatsoever and gives me a headache when trying to maintain it, all these odd corners, useless niches, tiny balconies but corridors.  On “my” side of the building there are seven rooms on no less than six different levels! The steps of the three stairways are all different in height and oh! The water pipes! Since the house was built in different stages, some faucets are provided by one pipe, the faucet next to it by another while the drainage goes in opposite directions too. And let’s not get started about the electricity!!! Burned out equipment and showerheads are too regularly an unpleasant event to even mention it.

When I read One Hundred Years of Solitude  that time long ago, I had a hard time picturing how a house could fall apart, be put back together and be divided into a million rooms, some long forgotten and rotten away. But now I have seen first hand how buildings change, how family homes become beehives of small rooms, every time a son or daughter is born or getting married. This doesn’t require major remodeling guided by an architect or engineer. Hell no, everybody can tear a wall down, add another, put some zinc laminas on top. It’s no big deal.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Why Hondurans Are the Way they Are


 A couple of days ago I wrote a post on how the tropical weather might be the cause of the Latin-American "mañana mañana culture", the tendency to take things easy and not doing anything today that can be done tomorrow. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced it goes much deeper than that… Although I’m not an anthropologist, much less a genealogist, just a curious artist, here some of my thoughts…

Hondurans are renowned to be lazy and easy going. If you hire a Honduran to get something done, you better pay when the job is done and not per day or week, because the laborer in question probably won’t show up again once he has some money in his pocket.

I’ve lived long enough in Honduras to see through these stereotypes, but still, I think that in general a lack of longterm vision can be seen as one of its people’s characteristics and also one of the country’s biggest problems. It‘s not easy to get things done in a culture of unpunctuality and wit a lack of involvement that leads in its turn to a lack of initiative, responsibility and creativity.  Problems on every level are resolved with a quick fix that isn’t a solution on the long run. New projects are set up with as little investment as possible and without taking the consequences in account. That’s why potholes in the road are being fixed with a bit of cement instead of being properly repaired. Houses are built with the cheapest materials that won’t last or withstand the heavy threats of a tropical climate and no politician looks beyond the four years of his public service.

I live in an apartment that is only five years old but already falling apart. Since I moved in three years ago I’ve already replaced faucets, showerheads, locks, window screens and power outlets, and not because I’m such a rough tenant. The roof leaks, the ceiling is being eaten away by termites, the woodwork in the corridor is rotting away, water leaks through the wall, the PVC system that fills my water tank is going to give in one of these days and paint keeps flaking off the walls, no matter how well I treat them, and I know about those things because I’m a painter.  If I complain to my landlord, he thanks me for letting him know and if he makes repairs at all, it is always with the same cheap materials that yet again won’t last long. 

How different it is in my home country Holland. During every visit I’m always surprised about how everything or at least most of the things are in such good state, although Holland has a very damaging climate too.
My parents live in an old Amsterdam neighbourhood in a house that was built in 1904. And it is in a perfect state. No leaks, no flaking paint, no rotting woodwork. (Now that I think of it, in Holland I have never lived in a house with a leaking roof, whereas in Copán the opposite is the case.) I remember looking out the kitchen window at the backs of the houses from the neighbouring street, and was amazed how even the backsides of the houses were in such perfect condition. Only the house straight across from my parents showed a few cracks in the paint and for some strange reason, that imperfection moved me. But not for long. The next morning a team of professionals in white outfits set up scaffolding and repainted the house.

If you think of where these differences come from, the climate might again be the deciding factor. It was not too long ago that In Holland (and most parts of Europe) the common people had to do a whole lot of thinking ahead. Way before the time of supermarkets and imported goods, people in cold countries had to plan six months ahead. During the summer they would work there butts off cultivating and harvesting, all to survive six months of harsh winter. Not only did they have to make sure to have enough food for themselves for a period of six unproductive months, but also for their live stock. They needed enough firewood, the houses needed to be in good shape for the winter, warm clothes needed to be knit. Weeks of potting, drying and storing were needed before they were ready for wintertime. Now, that requires a whole lot of thinking and planning.

In Honduras on the other hand, the climate is much gentler. Harvests go year-round and if it’s not mango season, then there’re avocados, bananas and other fruits and vegetables. The weather is not so harsh that special clothing or housing is required. I’m sure working the land in Latin America isn’t any easier than it used to be in Europe, but well, why worry now when tomorrow there’s another day. That has probably always been the case and still is to this day.

I think you can even say that our physical appearances go back to those climatic factors too. The Dutch for example are tall and lean (me being the exception to the rule, of course). In the old days they would work hard during the summer to have a relatively sedative life during winter. But that didn’t result in obesity. (Also because food was probably pretty scarce by the end of the winter). In other words, I think the Dutch have a genetic history that keeps them  pretty much in the same shape no matter what, which keeps up to these days (not that obesity recently has become a problem, but that’s for different reasons). In Honduras however, farmers are used to walk up and down the hills year-round and do hard physical labour . Besides working the land, water needs to be hauled, kids to be carried… In the villages you still see no fat people at all. But the ones that move to town and have taken on an office job and take mototaxis to that job turn fat almost instantly.
Of course social factors such as oppression, education (or lack thereof), hierarchies and religions also have a huge influence on people as a whole, but still they’re more recent than the thousands of years of genetics  focused on how to survive that we carry in our bodies. In this time an age people from different countries (especially in the cities) live lives that are more similar than ever, but before those genetics that make us who we are will change, that might take another thousand years or so.



Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Copán Christmas Story


He liked her, even if he didn’t know her name. 

And although he didn’t know it himself yet, his heart already knew the boy was lost to this nameless girl with the pretty smile right after that first encounter. 

Sebastian was his name and he worked as an assistant bricklayer at the construction of a new hotel. It was, at sixteen, his first real job, thanks to his father’s connections and although he was neither particularly thrilled about the job nor opposed to it ‐he just did what he was told to do‐ the best moment of each day was when he was sent to the market to pick up the lunches for some of the workmen.
Because it was there at the entrance where he first saw her. The third girl on the left. Standing there behind a shelf that held their baskets filled with tortillas wrapped in embroidered cloth. As soon as anybody entered the market place, the girls cried out:”Tortillas! Tortillas! How many do you want?”
They repeated the same line over and over, hundreds of times a day, until it had long ceased to be a question, but an impersonal mantra, a sound and nothing more.
But not her. The girl was quiet, didn’t even lift her chin up in the defiant way the others did. Rather, she lowered her chin slightly to her chest. Then, all of a sudden, they made eye contact in a flicker of a second and a smile appeared on her face. A smile that locked their eyes. A lightning struck his heart.

Sebastian stopped in his tracks, felt even like his heart stopped beating, and smiled back. Well, it was more of a smirk, he thought later, when he had already practiced the perfect smile for her dozens of times in front of the mirror.
From that moment on he eagerly went to the market every day to have a glimpse at the girl. He hated the fact that the lunches he was to pick up already included tortillas, so no excuse for him to address the girl. But then again, he barely needed nor dared to speak to her. Just looking at her, two glimpses a day, on the way in and out, were enough. 

Every day he discovered something new about her. The way she moved the hair out of her face with a subtle flick of her right index finger. The tiny mole just below the left corner of her bottom lip. Her hair that on sunny days seem to glow almost reddish. The way she flashed her eyelashes twice every time she looked up. And how somehow that shy smile reflected in the light of her eyes… 

Sebastian couldn’t think of little else but this mystery girl. She appeared at night in his dreams and during the day in his fantasies when he was mindlessly laying brick. He asked around, but couldn’t find out anything about her. Nobody knew where she was from, nobody seemed to know her family.
The anonymity started to bother him. This girl felt so familiar after a few weeks, so much a part of his life after months, that he decided to giver her a name. Carmen. Yes, Carmen suited her. He didn’t know why, he didn’t know any Carmen, but Carmen it was.

Months went by and with time, the construction of the hotel came steadily along. The goal was to finish before Christmas, and it seemed that that deadline was actually going to be made. But then the woodwork for windows and doors arrived later than planned, the swimming pool didn’t quite turn out as planned, so extra man-hours were needed and the workers were asked, or rather told, that they had to work extra long shifts all the way up to Christmas. Not only made the men extra hours, they also worked harder than ever before. At least if felt that way to Sebastian. Maybe it was just months of hard work that accumulated in even harder work, but at night his mind and body were so exhausted that there was no place for Carmen to enter his dreams.

It was December the twenty-fourth and the job was basically done. One more shift, eight more hours and that would be it. Sebastian was sent, as usual, to the market to pick up food and all of a sudden realized this would be the very last time. Sebastian panicked. What if he wouldn’t see Carmen again? What if a new job would take him elsewhere and he wouldn’t have to go to the market again? He needed to do something and he needed to do it now.
But while he was dragging his feet to the market, he couldn’t come up with anything. He didn’t dare to walk up to her and say… Say what? But then he saw a pickup truck on the corner of Central Park selling rambutans or lichas and on a hunch he decided to buy a bag.

With the bag in his hand he walked into the market. There she was, yet again, the third girl on the left. For a moment Sebastian just stood there, not knowing what to do. But then he gathered all his courage, walked up to the girl and handed her the bag of lichas.
“Here. Those are for you. Because it’s Christmas. And by the way, my name is Sebastian.”
The girl took the bag but didn’t look Sebastian in the eyes.
“Thank you”, she said, while blush crept over her pretty cheeks. Sebastian was thrilled. It was the first time he ever heard her voice and for some reason it sounded exactly the way he had always expected. But when the girl didn’t say anything else, nor looked up again, Sebastian felt conscious about how stupid he felt and quickly moved on to the comedor where the lunches where waiting. Totally embarrassed with a nasty red blush covering his own cheeks he quickly picked up the bags with food and hurried out of the market. He didn’t linger to catch a glimpse of the girl as he had done for so many months, just stared as his feet as he tried to make his way out as quickly as possible.

But just when he passed her, he heard “pssssttt…” and he knew it was her.
“Here,” she said, looking him directly in the eyes with that same shy  but warm smile playing around her lips. It was a bag holding a few still warm tortillas.
“Because it’s Christmas”, she said. “And by the way, my name is Carmen. “

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Jolly Season in Copán



 Christmas in the tropics always seems a bit out of place to me. Tradition and Americanization go hand in hand in Honduras. Families gather to eat tamales with rompopo while Santa joins baby Jesus under the artificial Christmas tree. I‘ve never been able to get really in the Christmas mood in here.  I associate the holiday with cold weather and long dark nights. Santa on his sleigh with snow covered reindeer under the blazing sun? I still find it a little odd.
However, for Hondurans, Christmas is one of the most important holidays of the year. Many poor children who never celebrate their birthdays get new clothes on Christmas Eve and proudly show them off during the next few days. In December people get paid an extra salary and all kinds of businesses eagerly try to have people spend their money. Now is the time for great offers on plasma TVs, refrigerators or DVD players. That is, if you don’t mind standing in line.
But this year is a little different, at least in Copán Ruinas. Whereas Honduras is not alone in its economic crisis, I think that Copán has been hit specifically hard.  Tourism is at an all-time low at a moment that things didn’t go that well in the first place.  It’s been a while since the crisis just affected the pockets of hotel and restaurant owners or others directly depending on tourism. Taxi drivers complain, vendors at the market have less to offer than usual and stores are noticeably emptier than before. Most businesses in town can’t afford to pay minimum wages and few people will receive their additional month of salary this year. Not that that isn’t their constitutional right, but if there’s simply no money…? I know for a fact that many kids in town won’t have new clothes this year and Christmas dinner will be a meager one.
The crisis has led to a whole new sort of unofficial economy. For a while now more and more women have been selling meals from their home or they send their kids out on the streets to sell. The number of street vendors has tripled, at least. Another new development is people selling secondhand clothes from their homes. A new Ropa Americana pops up at least every week. And especially in the weekends there are pickup trucks on every corner selling all kids of things, from melons to jeans and women’s underwear.
People are desperate to sell and if that means to put the whole merchandise on the sidewalk, then they do so. Just around the corner here is a little store that sells a bit of everything cheap (clothes, pots, pans, toys, backpacks, flower pots, firecrackers etc.). The store opened only a few weeks ago, and apparently selling from inside the store was not working, so the girl started to put a few things out on the narrow sidewalk. Then a few more things. And more.  Recently, she started occupying the parking spot in front of her business. Then the neighbours started to do the same and within no time the whole narrow and heavily trafficked street turned into an outdoor market. This new strategy has been spreading around town like the plague and now you have people occupying the sidewalks with tables, counters and complete awnings everywhere. All this of course combined with the Christmas tradition of putting huge speakers outside the store to attract customers, usually at the highest distorted volume, and you can imagine the scene. Walking through the streets of Copán has become sort of an obstacle course these days.  It’s not a particular pretty sight and probably illegal as well. But it is also understandable that everybody tries to make a living in those hard times.

 Well, let’s hope that everybody is making a bit of money this holiday season. And if the merchandise can go back indoors in January, that wouldn’t be a bad thing either. For now, we just have to hopscotch around Copán to avoid dangling bras, stacks of buckets and flying firecrackers. Because despite of the crisis, there’s always money for firecrackers. Lots of them. 



Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Under the Weather





I’m feeling miserable. There’re momentarily plenty of reasons to be miserable for, but for sure the weather is the most oppressive one.

For days on end now it has been miserably grey with a precipitation that can’t decide between drizzle and rainfall. The clouds hang low over the mountains without the slightest clearing that will let a ray of sun come through. I feel almost claustrophobic. Depressed and frustrated. I don’t want to get up in the morning for my regular hike. I can barely bring up the energy to make myself a cup of coffee. And then back to bed.

This kind of weather is the main reason I don’t want to live in Holland anymore. I can barely deal with a few days of greyness, let alone surviving six months of grey drab. I don’t mind the cold so much. What’s nicer than a snow covered landscape with a blue sky and feeble sun? Unfortunately, there’re few of those days in my home country. Autumn can be nice, with the changing colours of trees and the first chilly breeze among the lingering summer heath. But soon all colours fade and everything turns dreary. The sky is grey, the houses are grey, even people’s skin turns grey. And not a dramatic, threatening grey such as the colour that darkens the sky moments before a storm hits, or even a light, slightly civilized grey that tones down emotions and frivolities in our complicated society. Most of the time it’s just a nothingness sort of grey, that intermedium between two non-existing colours that does nothing to lift your spirit.

I remember cycling through Amsterdam, years ago during a winter visit. I felt just as miserable as I do now and wondered why people would wear “winter colours” in the winter, decent shades of black, brown, dark blue, and yes, grey. Doesn’t the overwhelming greyness cry out for lime green, electric blue, corn yellow and fuchsia pink??? I’d think so… But then I realized that I too was wearing dark jeans with a black bomber jacket, as camouflaged in the winter décor as everyone else. So right there and then, I got off my bike, turned my black bomber jacket inside out and put it back on, the neon orange lining flashing in the grey, slow flow of traffic. I remember how good that felt, a tiny rebellious act against the surrounding non-coulerness.

As long as I can remember I’ve been deeply influenced by the weather. Even as a child, as soon as the morning dawn promised a splendid day, I’d be up and around, not to miss a single minute of it. But oh, those cold and dark mornings when I would drag my feet to school…
So yes, I do much better in the tropics. In a way I miss the seasons, mostly because they’re an indicator of time. I tend to forget birthdays (or at least did so before Facebook), because I associate them with a certain season and if the sun always shines, then it’s not easy to remember a December birthday linked to an early dusk and Christmas decorations combined with birthday cake. 
But living without seasons does give a certain peace of mind. Here in Honduras you hardly ever have to think about the weather. It’s either dry or raining, there’re a few months that are a bit cooler, but generally the weather is just plain nice. That’s very different in Holland, and it shows in its people. In Holland you can never make plans to go to the beach somewhere next week in June, because even in high summer you might expect anything from tropical heat waves to cold fronts that include hailstorms. That’s why the Dutch, as soon as one ray of sunshine shines through, we massively attack the beaches, parks and terraces. Especially after a long winter, enjoying the first real day of spring is a true event that marvels many foreigners. Even at 14°C (57°F) people walk around in short sleeves while brand new summer dresses fondle milk white winter legs. (With those rare same temperatures here in Honduras we all feel we’re freezing to death!).
So, yes, I do think the weather shapes people. That’s why we Dutch are so astute and direct. We have to act now as if there’s no tomorrow. Whereas in Honduras, the weather and even the hour of nightfall is always pretty much the same. So why do something today if it can wait till tomorrow? Maybe the whole “mañana-mañana” culture is not a genetic characteristic, but influenced by the climatologic factors? Just a thought.

Anyway, I hope that mañana the sun shines again…