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…
For weeks the big
blue tent occupied a huge chunk of parking space behind the bus terminal in Antigua Guatemala. And
just when I had decided to go, of course the tent was swiftly broken up, loaded
into an impressive amount of unlikely vehicles and gone, just like that.
I love the
circus. I think the last time I visited one was in Copán a year or maybe two
ago. It was tiny, the tent made of Tigo and Claro* leftover vinyls and besides
a scruffy dog, two chickens and an even scruffier goat, there were no animals.
Because, explained a bubbly and charismatic teenager who turned out to be the
star of the show, the circus had a policy against the mistreatment of animals.
Lack of resources seemed more likely, but indeed, the dog, goat and two chickens
scavenging for popcorn under the bleachers appeared to be happy enough.
I’m probably not
the only person in the world who dreamed as a kid to run off with the circus.
But few were might have been as prepared as I was. My biggest dream was to work
with the tigers and lions but I was realistic enough to realize that that was a
job probably not given to an inexperienced nine-year old. So I practiced
juggling and tightrope walking instead. I learned quickly (the hard way) that
juggling wasn’t my thing and the tightrope, well, that might have worked out if
only I had been able to practice on a real steel cable, not a piece of rope
attached to a table and the living room couch.
So becoming a clown
was about the only option. Now that I
could do, I figured. And in my mind I prepared scripts, designed costumes and
received a standing applause after the audience fell off their seats crying
with laughter. I saw myself travelling the world in a colourful circus wagon,
becoming everybody’s friend while keeping my expression reserved, marking that
distinguished distance between the happy clown and the sad but wise person
behind the mask.
fortunately, who’s to say), no circus caravan ever crossed my way and thus I
stayed put, for the time being. But that circus itch never went completely
About ten or
twelve years ago we were having a meeting at my place in Copán Ruinas about
some sort of community project when all of a sudden we heard this roar.
“It sounds like a
lion,” I said.
“Don’t be crazy,
it must be a cow in heat,” a colleague answered.
But it was a lion… That night a circus had set
up business in the field across the creek, right next to my house. I found out
when I went walking the dogs the next morning. How exciting!
That night I
rounded up some kids (never a lack of those and a great excuse to go to the
circus) and there we went. Since I was paying for a whole bunch we didn’t take
the more expensive seats (white plastic chairs) in the arena, but placed our
butts on scarce planks on rackety bleachers. And the show began…
The guy with the
python was impressive and also incredibly handsome. The clowns were very vulgar
and totally unsuitable for a young audience, but that made them even funnier…
The lions… Look, there was “my” lion! They came into the arena without a cage,
without a leash or any other attire to refrain them from eating some juicy kids
in the front row (and how happy I was to sit high up on the bleachers!). Then
there was this round thing, almost like a hamster wheel, that circled up and
down. The acrobats went inside first and then started running the wheel on the
outside. Every time the wheel went up, they had to duck so they wouldn’t touch
the roof. Scary I thought, what if… Because of course there was no safety net.
Even in the
small, shabby circuses, things are way harder than they look and I think the
artists deserve a tremendous respect. Especially
in the small circuses, where the clown is also the acrobat on the tightrope,
the musician, the driver, the lion tamer and the one who sells the tickets. And
sometimes things do go terribly wrong…
I wasn’t there
when it happened, but a few days into the show, one of the acrobats didn’t duck
when he hit the roof and he fell all the way down. He was taken to the hospital
and while he was recovering the circus stayed put. First for days, then for
weeks that slowly turned into months. And I woke up every day to the roar of
In a small town
as Copán Ruinas you can sell only so many tickets, so when everybody not overly
evangelical had seen the show, the tickets became cheaper, just to keep the
show going on. The show itself also became more routine, the jokes more vulgar,
the performances less inspired. I would see Handsome Snake Guy at the market,
Grumpy Circus Director at the auto repair shop and the Lovely albeit quite
chubby Lady Acrobat at the creek, doing laundry. Little by little the glow, the
glitter, the illusion of the circus was fading away. But not for me. The more
human I saw them, the more magic they became to me. And that old circus itch
was bothering me again, although now I was old enough to see myself travelling
in an old beaten-up Ford, not in that colourful cart.
But one day I
woke up and the circus was gone.
Just like that,
gone, leaving only a yellow patch of grass and some trash behind.
warned me, they vanished into the night the way they had come.
So yet again I
missed my chance to run off with the circus.
In March of 2012 I painted a series of Maya Tzolk’in calendar glyphs for
a friend of mine who lives in Costa
Rica. After emailing back and forth about
colours, size and dates, we agreed on six glyphs representing the birthdays of
herself, her husband, their wedding date and their three kids in colours that
fitted the paintings’ future surroundings.
I happily went to work and my friend was pleased with the picture of the
results I emailed her. There was no need to send the paintings to Costa Rica, because she was planning a trip to Honduras soon, even
though she probably wouldn’t be able to make it to Copán Ruinas. No problem, I
wrapped the six canvases neatly up, wrote both her and my contact details on
the front and was ready to send it off by bus to the capital where she could
pick it up.
But in the end she came to Copán anyway, so I hand delivered her the
package. Much safer, we both thought. She didn’t even want to open the package
since it was such a nice and tight fit.
My friend left Copán soon after, back to the capital to catch her flight
And that’s when things went terribly wrong.
Minutes before boarding the plane, my friend made a last pit stop to the
bathroom. She had the paintings with her as carry on luggage (so nothing would
happen to them) and placed them on the water reservoir behind her while using
the toilet. That’s when she heard a last boarding call for her flight. She
quickly finished her business and ran to catch her plane.
It wasn’t until the plane was about to take off that she realized that
she had left the paintings in the bathroom…
As soon as she got home she called the airport in Tegucigalpa. Alas, no report of a found
package. Next she wrote to me, to confess she had lost the paintings, which
made me laugh more than anything else, because her recount of the incident was
Despite it being slightly funny, it was also a big loss so my friend
never gave up. She had never even seen the paintings! She kept on calling and emailing different offices at the
airport in Honduras,
with no results. She called a many-times-removed-cousin who happened to work at
the airport, but the woman in question was just as unsuccessful in her efforts
to retrieve the paintings. My friend updated me almost daily on the progress,
which was still nil and made us wonder…
Where the hell were those paintings???
Had the package been considered suspicious and maybe destroyed in a
controlled explosion by a group of disposal experts?
Unlikely. Which idiot of a terrorist would write his or her address on
it? And security in Honduras
is just not as secure as it is in the US.
Had it been lost I the Lost & Found department?
Had a cleaning lady found the package and taken it home? Maybe. It that
case it was quite likely that my canvases of ancient Maya glyphs were now
hanging upside down in someone’s toilet or being used a placemats.
Had another passenger taken the package with him or her and after
opening it thinking the paintings were worth a fortune? (Unfortunately they’re not.
A small fortune, yes, but not quite worth hanging onto a bunch of highly
customized date glyphs made for someone else.)
Had somebody maybe thought the package was part of a drug exchange
deal??? Unlikely. Too flat, too big.
Was it all a scheme on my part in order to re-do the paintings and make
Interesting option, but I wouldn’t know how to pull that off. I mean,
how do you make someone forget something at the right time and place???
Many scenarios crossed our minds and were exchanged per email, but that
didn’t change the fact that the paintings had vanished into thin air.
We waited for weeks and then for months. Finally my friend decided she did want those paintings on her walls,
so she asked me to make a new series.
And so I did. You see, it was a lucrative deal for me after all, even
though I gave her a big “Disappointment for Reasons of Disappearing Discount”
on top of the “Friendship Discount” she had already gotten in the first place.
This time we didn’t take any risks. The new paintings were handed over
personally and attached to my friends wrists with a pair of handcuffs. Well, so
to speak. And yes, this time they did make it to Costa Rica…Happy ending for my Maya
Glyphs and a satisfied customer.
End of story.
Well, not quite!
Yesterday morning my friend got an email from Interairports (whatever
that maybe. Maybe a place in between airports where long lost items are
stored?) Anyway, the sender said he had paintings from Carin Steen addressed to
my friend right there in his office and to email him back for more information.
Can you belief that, after two and a half years???
So in two weeks time my friend is coming back to Honduras and
will pick up the paintings personally. That is, if she’s not required to pay a
huge ransom, fine, deposit fee or bribe.
For now I keep my fingers crossed. I’ll really belief this miracle the
moment my friend will mail me a picture of her having the paintings in her
hands. And then she will have two sets of basically the same paintings.
I still wonder where those paintings have been all this time…