Living in Central America (in my case Honduras and Guatemala) is sometimes hard, mostly fun but never boring. Here some of my musings on life in this colourful part of the world where you can always expect the unexpected. Hence Serendipity, the gift of finding without seeking…

Friday, March 1, 2019

The Story Behind the Painting: The Volcano Eruption Superhero

Superhero, acrylics on metal, 56cm diameter
It was less than a week after the Fuego volcano erupted and it was still chaos. People who left or lost their homes were accommodated in schools and churches. Rucks full of donations kept arriving in causing so much congestion in the centre of Alotenango that it was decided to cordon off the whole town for traffic. Many solidary souls wanted to give directly to the victims while the municipality tried to keep control by storing the goods away and closing the shelters. Still, there were tons of people around, doctors, nurses, psychologist, church groups and others. Some helping, some gawking, but in general too many in too small a space.
And then there was us. Swept along the emotional wave of wanting to do something we had worked our way into the shelter to offer some art activities and story telling to the children. Not such a bad idea, since so far the only distractions for the kids had been one piñata after the other and loads and loads of candy.

That first experience (we went back a total of 25 times) was surreal. While in Zone 0 fire fighters and residents were still looking for the remains of their loved ones (and wouldn’t stop for many months to come), life in the shelter was, little by little, taking shape. Children played hide and seek behind a pile of coffins stacked high up in a corner. Some boys were paying football with the balls they had just been given, dodging women hanging their laundry and making their way to the improvised showers.
Over a cacophony of sounds of too many people in too small a space, the sombre sounds of funeral marches wear still audible. However, most kids were completely oblivious to their surrounding and happily absorbed in their art work. All except one. A little boy with a superhero mask and cape was running around as if the world belonged to him. He ran through corridors, jumped up and down on benches, barely missed a pregnant woman, evaded a man carrying donations before ducking under a table. Nobody told him off or even seemed to notice. Surrounded by many he was all by himself in his own world, very busy saving it. Watching him was like a movie scene in which the world slowed down while the superhero flashed around. I asked the boy if I could take a picture which was allowed. But only for a split second before he was off again, to save the world that needs so much saving.

For more information on our first visit to the shelter, please visit:

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas in Guatemala

Twas the night before Christmas, but twasn’t as quiet as a mouse in Guatemala. It rarely ever is, but in the days leading up to Christmas, things get even louder and louder.

For weeks already there have been processions and celebrations in my neighbourhood. There’s the daily children’s procession with kids carrying a brightly lit statue of the Virgin Mary, preceded by children playing, if you can call it that, turtle shells and singing songs. There’s the popular tradition of the mobile disco with different dance groups such as the Abuelitos (dancers dressed up as old people), the Monsters (which speaks for itself), the transvestites and the Wild Beasts, the latter seeming to consist of a bit of everything.
This year we even had real drama on the streets with a theatrical confrontation between angels and demons. Then there are of course the “normal” processions. And last night Santa visited too.

Employees receive an extra salary this month and many stores gladly help them spend it by offering great discounts and having huge speakers in the doorway. Because, as every one knows in Latin America, the more noise you make the more you sell.

The market, a busy beehive on any day, is almost impossible to visit right before Christmas. Half of the people try to make a bit of money while the other half haggles for the best deal. Ambulant vendors sell everything imaginable, from underwear and Christmas decorations to curtains, remote controls and selfie-sticks. The vendors who have a permanent stands fight the ambulant ones with foot and nail to get them off their turf while the municipal police try to stop the stand owners from invading the public space with their merchandise. It’s a lost battle for al parties involved. Only the pickpockets thrive.

The yearly Christmas market is an explosion of colour and sound, offering everything for a traditional Christmas. I love the backdrops for the nativity scenes, hand painted on drab coloured cardboard that gives them a gorgeous vintage look. There is moss, sawdust in every colour, cribs, complete three-story stables, pinecones, glittery streamers, bells and whistles… Lights, lights, Christmas lights everywhere, flickering and beeping their high-pitched Christmas tunes all at ones. And maybe best of all, hundreds, no thousands of small ceramic figurines for the nativity scene. Colourful men playing the marimba and maracas, pastors with sheep, chickens, geese, dancers, horse, infants, kings and many, many more. I thought it would be a nice idea to buy small ceramic dogs for my dog-loving friends, but it turned out dogs never attended the nativity scene. Apparently chickens, geese, marimba players and even one zebra did attend, but dogs, no. It let to some hysterical conversations with the vendors but in the end I went home empty handed.

Tonight there will be mass and family visits. Lots of tamales, music drinking and to top it off, lots of fireworks at midnight. And that’s basically it. Tomorrow at noon another round of fireworks, but besides a few kids in their new clothes scavenging for recyclable firecrackers, there’ll be hardly anybody on the streets.
That’s Christmas in Guatemala.
So for now, as they say here: Ho-Ho-Ho, Feliz Navidad!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Remembering the Dead in Full Colour

Death where I come from is cold, sterile and colourless. It’s not even daunting black, but a solid dull grey. Death scares us because we can’t control it. It keeps its own schedule, disregarding our needs, feelings and conveniences. In the worst case Death is devastating; at best it’s uncomfortable. That’s Death in the First World, where the living are still waiting for an app to be invented on how to deal with it.

Not in Central America. Here Death is High Definition Full Colour. It’s noisy, fragrant and very much alive. Death is bright orange against sky-blue. Death is Mariachi music and delicious food. Death is being together, sharing and remembering. Death is a part of Life and nobody around these parts is silly enough to forget so.

The multisensory experience of Death accumulates on November 1, All Saints Day, and bursts out into a circus of colours, smells and flavours. The streets leading to the cemeteries are lined up with stands selling sweets, toys, souvenirs and pizza. Women sell flowers, pine needles and wreaths made of colourful paper flowers dipped in wax. At the entrance of the cemetery a dozen of men are offering their surfaces, armed with buckets and ladders. Do you want me to clean your tomb? Maybe a fresh layer of paint?  For just a few Quetzalitos your grandfather’s eternal resting place is as good as new.

All Saints Day is not a sombre day of mourning. It’s a family outing, a reencounter with those on the other side. Graves, tombs or burial vaults are being cleaned and decorated before the family sits down for a meal, often the favourite food or drink of the deceased. Children run around traditionally playing with kites and nobody cares that they climb on tombs or stumble over graves.

There is social and racial hierarchy in Death too. Antigua Guatemala has a gorgeous cemetery, completely white in ancient colonial style. The paths and gardens are well maintained, the luscious tombs of the rich and simple burial vaults of the rest of the people all freshly painted an eye blinding white that makes the multi-coloured wreaths and flowers stand out even more.
Antigua Cemetery

You know you’re at an indigenous or at least mixed cemetery when the tombs are of simpler design but making up for it with vivid colours. There are no tombs, not even vaults for the poorest of the poor. They are laid to rest under a mound of dirt, a cross at the head with the deceased’s name. 
Sumpango Cemetery
This year I was thrilled to visit the cemetery of Sumpango. The area with the simplest graves was the best visited and by far the most impressive. Colours so bright and numerous, there can’t be names for them all. Mariachis played mournful ballads in the shadow of a tree right in the middle of the graves. Hundreds of Maya men and women in their most beautiful outfits lovingly covered the mounds of dirt with pine needles and marigolds, traditionally the flowers that with their bright colour and pungent fragrance guide the spirits along their visit this day. The air was dense with the smoke of burned incense. A scruffy dog scavenging for leftovers, lured by the smell of food everywhere. Babies comfortably dozing off on their mamas’ backs undisturbed by the heat, noise and presence of the living dead. What a fantastic, delicious sensory overload.
Sumpango Cemetery
Oh, and then, of course, the gigantic kites! Nothing is more spectacular than the kites in Sumpango or Santiago. They seem to be getting bigger and bigger every year, some over 35 meters in diameter! And not just one, but dozens of them, dangerously swaggering against bamboo poles. And yes, sometimes they do tip over. 

Thousands of people gather at the field near the town of Sumpango for this yearly festival, thousands more trying to make a little money selling ice cream, cold beers, yarn for kite flying or renting out bathrooms. Nobody with a few coins in his or her pocket will go hungry today.

Kites of all kinds and sizes are up in the air. Simmering heat, but smiling faces everywhere. And colour. If there is a paradise for colours, then this is it.
Day of the Dead is my very favourite holiday.

Sumpango Cemetery

Friday, November 2, 2018

A 66 Hour Short Trip

The very last leg...
My recent trip from Amsterdam to Guatemala was going to be a long one, but then again, a 24 hour layover in London was actually something to look forward to. And it didn’t disappoint. The hours spent strolling in the National Art Gallery were a delight and there is nothing wrong with walking along the Thames, Regent Street and Hyde Park on a beautiful autumn afternoon. Getting used again to hopping on The Tube was exciting and only took me nanoseconds, the sounds and smells exactly as I remembered them.
East Hounslow, the dodgy suburb where my dodgy hostel was located, was a pleasant surprise with an intriguing mix between Indians and Poles. And fortunately much more affordable than Central London.

I left the dodgy but otherwise perfect hostel after a good night’s sleep and left early for Heathrow airport. I wanted to have some of time to spare because I anticipated long lines for security and endless walks along futuristic corridors. But for once the lines where nonexistent and the departure hall was either right next to the entrance or the airport was not half as big as I remembered. Anyway, exactly 30 minutes after I left the hostel, I sat down at the food court with an overpriced cup of bad coffee. Only two more hours to go.

The trip to Miami was as smooth as can be and even clearing migration in the US was not as stressful or time-consuming as usual.  I arrived at the gate for my flight to Guatemala a little early, but not too early to get bored. A short wait, boarding, two more hours in the air and I’d be home again.

Everybody was waiting patiently for the boarding call except for one gringo (yes, a bit of a derogative name, but much deserved) who was already lining up way before the airline employees  occupied the counter. He was screaming and yelling into his phone that it was HIS money and that they should do something about it NOW and that he wouldn’t accept this kind of treatment and on and on. I crossed my fingers not to be seated next to him and felt genuinely sorry for the person on the other end of the line. Whether that person had sequestered large amounts of Gringo’s money or not, the treatment received in return definitely made the alleged crime not worth it.

Boarding started and -sigh of relief- Gringo wasn’t seated anywhere near me. The flight was only two hours, but such pouring-out of negative energy could seriously spoil an otherwise perfect trip, even from across the isle.

Departure time was approaching, just a quick check-up on the brakes.
Departure time passed, brakes needed just a little bit of maintenance.
An hour after departure time and it was getting really, really hot in the plane. Brakes needed a bit more work.
An hour and a half after departure time we were told to get off the plane and head to another gate.
Three hours late we were boarding again. Same crew, different plane.

All well, although this international flight doesn’t offer entertainment or refreshments. But it is only a two hour flight after all.

But when we flew over Guatemala City, another surprise: due to bad weather, the airport was closed, so we’d fly on to San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

Once in San Pedro Sula we waited for about an hour in the very hot plane before a decision was made on how to proceed. In the meantime, I had no way no contact the neighbour I had hired to pick me up at the airport to drive me to Antigua.
Finally, and it was almost midnight by then, we got word from the captain. We were heading back to Guatemala City. We just needed to fuel up and then we were ready to go.

But. They over fuelled the plane. The captain tried to explain several times what had happened but the PA system was malfunctioning and after three times he gave up, just announced: “This flight has now officially been cancelled. “

We were all herded off the plane, including some rightfully cranky babies, a guy with two corgi puppies in a crate and oh-no, a very grumpy Gringo.

San Pedro Sula’s airport is not very exciting at best of times (I’ve flown so many times to and from SAP that unfortunately I know it intimately), let alone at 1am under those circumstances. Actually, we had no idea what our circumstances were at the time. But first we had to pass through migration.

Everybody, all of us 200+ passengers, were weaving lines in  front of an unmanned migration station. Everyone was pretty tired and subdued except for Gringo, a head taller than most of us, again yelling into his phone about  how this all sucked big time, how he was sure he’d be put up in a shit hole of a hotel and how someone was going to pay for it. We, the other passengers looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and rolled our eyes.
Soon a migration officer showed up, then another and finally and thankfully a third and fourth. Considering that scanning a passport, taking photos and scanning thumbs and fingers on both hands takes about three minutes minimum per person, go do the math. And this was without the interrogation. When it was my turn, the guy actually asked me what the purpose of my trip was, rather routinely I guess, and when I gave him a questioning and very tired look, he apologized and let me through. I was glad to see that the guy with the puppies got through too, because his dogs’ paperwork was for Guatemala, not Honduras, which of course  is a whole different ballpark.

Now it was 1.30am and I was lining up at an AA counter (yes, this was an American Airlines flight). Having lived in Honduras for a long time, I marvelled at the fact that they actually managed to get some people together to help out with this logistic nightmare. Having to impromptu accommodate 200+ cranky people in the middle of the night can’t be a fun responsibility. The irony too was that I have a few real good friends living in San Pedro Sula, but 1.30am was hardly the time to call them.

About an hour and a half later it was my turn at the hotel-voucher-counter. I had already asked the girl behind me, who had been sitting next to me on the flight, if she minded sharing a room if necessary. She said that was fine. But when it was our turn at the counter, there were no more hotel rooms available. Patience please, they were working on it… And indeed, ten minutes later they did have arranged more rooms, but doubles only. No problem, I said, I can share with her, and pointed at my fellow passenger. But she started making a fuss, insisting that we should each get a room. There were still around 80 people behind us in line, all needing a bed,so I thought it was rather odd and selfish, but the girl insisted. But there was another girl standing next to me and she had no problem sharing a room. So off we went into a shuttle and me and my new friend Madison had a huge room with two queen sized beds and a noisy airco all to ourselves. At 3am I finally lay down in a horizontal position and had the nicest, if not the longest sleep in years… 

Breakfast was fabulous, I had forgotten how sweet and luscious Honduran watermelons are, how tasty the refried beans and plantains, all of it with lots of cream of course…
Off to the airport where we would leave somewhere around noon. There was no official departure time, as long as there was a twelve hour rest period for the crew between leaving the plane and starting a new shift. And no need to announce anything officially anyway, this was sort of our own private flight.

Time at airport flew by due to the fact that two good friends from Honduras happened to be there too. Also, Gringo caused yet another scandal by screaming at a nonplussed airport employee because the previous night, when he had received his suitcase, he had found his laptop completely smashed up. By one of her colleagues. And on purpose too, apparently.
Gringo got a bright orange vest on which meant he got priority treatment, whatever that means, and everybody else seemed to be fine with it, whatever to keep Gringo quiet.

Besides Gringo's grumpiness, the ambience was great. The weather was picture perfect and everybody felt rested, well fed and happy to continue the trip soon. We all had bonded over this whole ordeal. Everyone was chatting with their neighbours as if they were old friends. The toddlers on the plane had become best buddies and were running around playfully, being watched by all.
When it was time to board, again, we greeted the crew as old friends too. The captain made a joke that he would take us to any destination, at no extra cost. And two hours later, we indeed landed in Guatemala City. A burst of applause filled the plane. Not standing of course, the seat-belt sign was still on.

And that was the end of my trip. Well, almost…

Since I had lost my private transportation I had arranged for the previous night (which I would have to pay anyway) and it was still early in the afternoon, I decided to take a shuttle home for only $10. No problem, I was told, the only thing was that I’d have to wait for 3 other passengers in order to make the trip worthwhile for them. No problem for me, I could wait. Had become rather good at it lately.

Except that, upon leaving the airport, it turned out that so far the only other passenger was Gringo. Oh no!!!!
After about half an hour of waiting and no new customers, the shuttle driver offered me to drive the two of us to Antigua for $18 each, because $36 was the very minimum he needed to make the trip worthwhile. I thought that was not a bad deal at all and said yes, but warned him that Gringo might not be as open to the proposal. And indeed, when the kid politely asked him, Gringo started to yell and scream, yet again, that he was not to be taken advantage of. He took his bag out of the van and hurried away, looking for a taxi.
A few minutes later he yelled to me from across the street. He had found a taxi that would take both of us for $ 35.  I said no, thank you very much.

Half an hour later a real nice girl from Brazil showed up for a ride and we took the $18 each offer. For once there was hardly any traffic on the road through the capital and I made it home within the hour. Home! Finally! And childishly I found great satisfaction in that fact that Gringo had to pay the whole $35 cab fee by himself.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Market Full of Magic

It took me a while, but I have finally figured out where the main entrance to the market is here in Antigua Guatemala. Or at least the place that people refer to when they speak of the entrance of the market, because in fact, it doesn’t exist. The “Main Entrance” is basically a street going around the market. Around the back of the market, depending on which side you consider the front of the market.
Anyway, if you start at the busy Alameda Santa Lucía and have the luck to find a traffic controller who holds up his stop sign just long enough to hold the busy traffic for you to cross the road, you’ll get into that narrow street, a continuation of 3a Calle Poniente, with market stalls on both sides, and there you are, at the Main Entrance of the Market. If you keep on walking, that street veers to the right. On your left, the market turns into the bus terminal, the two only separated by a thin line of wooden shops of all kinds and flavours.

This open air market street is interesting enough with a wide variety of produce, plastics, clothes, toys, fabrics, tools, phones and ambulant vendors loudly advertising their ware. DVD dealers (of illegal copies, of course) try to outdo each other by cranking up the volume of their TVs way beyond distortion. Women loudly promote their fruits and vegetables, little girls mimicking their mothers in the same detached and mechanic voice. Buses, only a wooden partition and some mangos away, honk to announce their arrival and departure. This street is loud, busy and a little crazy like all markets everywhere in the world. But this is not even the real market…

From this, well, let’s call it “Main Street”, there are several entrances to the right into the real thing. These entrances are not well displayed or logically located, so entering is either a case of know-how or serendipitous luck. I can tell you there’s one on the far end between the bananas and papayas. Usually it is, because it seems these entries change as often as the stairways at Hogwarts, which is totally my own imagination, but that doesn’t make it less mystifying.

Whenever I walk from the Main Street through a narrow corridor into the roofed-in market, it seems you enter a world of silence. Not that there are no sounds, quite the contrary. But as opposed to outside, where the noise of selling and buying seem to echo off the asphalted street, inside the market sounds are being absorbed by simple wooden structures, sacks full of cereals or herbs, heaps of today’s fresh fruit, fabrics in fantastic colour combinations, wooden kitchen utensils, clay pots, plastic woven shopping bags and brightly painted saints with their love and good luck potions.
Not a square centimetre is unoccupied here, not an inch without some sort of product. Vendors with stalls have their merchandise stacked up all the way against the zinc lamina roof. Women with baskets occupy the already narrow pass ways and ambulant vendors make passing through sometimes next to impossible, not to speak of those heavily burdened men and women supplying the stalls or just moving huge amounts of goods from one place to the other.

When I first entered that magic world of the Antigua market, I didn’t think I’d ever find my around. I quickly found a section with great vegetables, but just as quickly I lost it and it took me weeks to find it again.
But by now I can at least identify some sectors of the market and their own specific ambiences. Not that a clothing section means it only sells clothing, it just means is sells mostly clothing, along with anything else.

Least interesting I find the indoor section close to the Main Entrance (whether it exists or not) with its new cloths, fancy sport shoes and salespeople more interested in the current soap opera on a tiny TV screen among the merchandise than in actually selling something. Way more intriguing is the food court, the meat sellers (not for the fainthearted or vegetarians), the fruit and vegetable section and oh, the flowers, both fresh and dried, clean cut or neatly arranged for weddings or funerals. The smells, the colours, the sounds, the textures, each visit is a feast for the senses…

When you enter the true heart of the market, if feels like travelling back in time. That wrinkled old Maya lady over there in a corner, selling dried herbs, she might have been sitting there for hundreds of years. That woman there pouring atol in a gourd cup, she has been doing that since the beginning of time. Those tiny dried fish, the sweet smell of ripe fruit, grains I don’t recognize and huge stacks of dried chile… Time stood still in this part of the market.

As always I find it hard to leave this labyrinth of colours, this maze of things familiar and unknown,  to return to the world of tuk-tuks and cell phones. But on market days (Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays), the transition is less harsh, because there’s an extra bit of outdoor market where (mostly) Maya women sell their fruits, vegetables and flowers under colourful umbrellas, in a world where Spanish is not the first language. More of the magic, but in the blazing sun and under the watchful eye of the Agua volcano.

What a world! I’ve never enjoyed shopping so much.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Circus Was In Town

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.
Unfortunately (or 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 away.

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 the lion.

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.
They hadn’t 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.

*Local cell phone companies

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Mystery of the Vanished Maya Glyphs

(Or: Miracles Do Happen in Honduras)
The Missing Maya Glyphs
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 back home.
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 hilarious.

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 more money???
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.
Her reaction?

I still wonder where those paintings have been all this time…

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Road Blocks

Honduran joke: How do you know when a driver is drunk? - When he drives in a straight line...

Being a foreigner while risking the roads in Central America can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. When traveling in groups, usually with a driver or guide, there’s hardly ever a problem. Driving your own car can be a challenge, because a chele (pale faced person) means there might be some money to get.
Personally I have never experienced any problem because I don’t drive. The worst that ever happened to me using public transportation (besides the bus breaking down, roadblocks because of strikes, floodings or yelling evangelical missionaries in the vehicle), was when our bus was stopped and a huge bag of marihuana was found right above my seat. Everybody had to leave the bus while both police and militaries searched the bus. 
The police officer in charge asked whose seat that particular one was, and I confessed it was mine. So the weed was mine? 
No, of course it wasn’t. 
Well, but it must be, if it is above your seat?!
Do I look so stupid that if I wanted smuggle in a bag of weed I would actually store it above my seat???
No. That argument made actually sense to the officer. 
Next I saw a humble old lady  I recognized from one of the front seats discretely put some money in the officer’s hand and that was it. We were all, minus the marihuana of course, allowed to continue our travels. I saw one of the military guys arguing with the police officer when we drove off, but that was not of my concern.

But driving your own or hired car as a foreigner can be challenging or at least lead to some frustrating, dramatic but often funny stories. A gringo friend called me once, howling with laughter when he was on his way to the vet in San Pedro Sula. This was before he got tinted windows, so as usual he was stopped by the police. When all the paperwork appeared to be in order, the policeman noticed the two dogs in the back. So he requested the passports for the dogs.
Passports for dogs???
Yes, the officer said deadpan. All dogs in Honduras are required to have passports.
Then my friend remembered he carried the dogs’ vaccination booklets, since he was on the way to have them inoculated anyway. And the booklets happened to be roughly the same size as a passport. So he took them out and politely showed them to the policeman who awkwardly studied them.
Next time, make sure the dogs’ pictures are on it, was his comment, and my friend was allowed to drive on.

Not so long ago, that same friend went to the vet in Chiquimula, Guatemala, much closer by than San Pedro Sula for people and pets in Copán Ruinas, Honduras. The border had never been a problem, but my friend got stopped not far over the border anyway. He graciously showed the car insurance, driver license and of course the “pet passports”. This time it was the driver license that caused the problem. It was issued in Honduras and clearly said “licencia internacional”, but according to the police officer, it wasn’t valid in Guatemala.
Of course it is, argued my friend, here it says internacional!
No. that won’t work, according to the officer. Because international means: within the country.
No, it doesn’t. It means “within nations”.
No, it doesn’t.
This time it was my friend who was lost for words. In the end he didn’t have to pay a fine, but from now on he will always travel with dog passports and a dictionary.

Okay, just one more, even though this is an old one, but still so accurate from what I hear.
An American friend of mine drove her little Toyota all the way down from Washington State to Copán Ruinas to teach at the local bilingual school. In the weekends she enjoyed taking road trips except for the fact that she got stopped at every single police post along the way. Usually they couldn’t find anything wrong with her paperwork or the car itself, but then she would have to open her trunk and tadaaah!!! A fine for not having a warning triangle.

Now, it’s probably true that in Honduras you are obliged by law to have a warning triangle in your car. Not that I have ever seen one in the many years I traveled thousands of miles in Honduras and beyond, even though there are plenty occasions to use one. There’re enough of flat tires or horrendous accidents. But if so, people just cut a big branch from a nearby tree and place it at a short distance behind the vehicle. But a triangle? Never seen one.

But to get back to my Toyota friend, she got so sick and tired of the inquiries that one time coming back through San Pedro Sula she bought no less than three warning triangles. And of course she got stopped yet again on the way back to Copán.
But before the officer could ask for her paperwork she held up her hand, got out of her car, opened her trunk and took out one triangle after the other.
You see, she said in her bad Spanish, Triangulo, triangulo, triangulo!!!
She put them back in the trunk, got into her car and drove off, leaving the officer speechless.

Almost six months ago I made the move from Honduras to Guatemala. I loaded up a van with tons of stuff. There were two old mattresses and a bunch of paintings on top of the roof and inside my assorted house ware, tools, art supplies, two cats and a dog. I was pretty nervous when crossing the border (because anything can happen), but leaving Honduras was no problem. We got stopped while entering Guatemala and a border official asked me to open the van. He took a look inside and then called his supervisor over.
You better have a look here, there’s a lot of stuff!
I explained I was moving to Guatemala and the stuff was mine.
Oh, okay. But where were the permits for the animals???
I know there are no permits for animals, but I just played along.
Oh, those animals are not mine. We’re just going to drop them off at the vet in Chiquimula.
Okay then, have a safe trip!


About half an hour into Guatemala we stumbled onto a big truck with a flat tire. We were warned, because about a hundred yards before the parked vehicle was a warning triangle! And apparently it had just been run over because it was shattered into countless bright red pieces scattered all over the road.

Now at least I know why people don’t use warning triangles around here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

My People: The Story behind the Paintings

Last March I moved from Honduras to Guatemala, a change that was as hard as it was exciting. It wasn’t easy to leave Copán, a town I had called home for the last seventeen years, a town that had become an inerasable part of my life. Although making a living as an artist hadn’t been easy for the last two years or so, life was still easy and comfortable in a town where I knew everybody and everybody knew me. A cash flow problem was never an issue because I had credit in the local pulpería, on the market, in the pharmacy, with my land lord, doctor and favourite restaurants. I never had to look for assignments, because people came looking for me. But moving to a new country of course meant to start all over and having to prove myself as an artist again.


What hurt me most when I left Copán was not to leave my best friends behind, we’ll be in touch, no doubt, but those dozens, maybe even hundreds of people I had some sort of relationship with, even without knowing each other well. Such as Don Mingo, the owner of a herd of cows I encountered on many an early morning hike. We always said hello, but that was it, day after day, year after year. The day before I left I stopped him in his car because I wanted to tell him that I was leaving for good and just to say goodbye. He gave me a big hug and had tears in his eyes. And so did I.


The old toothless lady who sold me bread every day, my dog’s best friend, was another constant in my life even though I didn’t know her name. Another one of the very few people I actually said goodbye to. Then there’s Doña Berta from the pulpería; the old man from the mountains who always tried to sell me crystals, not understanding that a person only needs that many pieces of rock. There were the town’s drunks, a bit of a ghastly sight maybe, but always polite. My favourite encounter with them was when I asked them to let me through one day while they were occupying the stairway leading to the park. Very politely they stood up and let me pass. “Have a good day, Tanya!” said one. Another drunk punched him in the shoulder. “That’s not Tanya, you idiot! That’s Cathy!!!”


So many people, so many familiar faces, so many “buenos días” and “qué tal”’s. Will they miss me as I miss them???


The move to Guatemala was unexpectedly smooth. I quickly settled into my new home in a small village just outside of Antigua, not that different from any barrio in Copán. I quickly became a regular in the pulpería and yes, just as in Copán, I stumble in there every morning I my pyjamas, wearing my inelegant rubber flip-flops (Suaves Chapinas), just as I did in Copán. A custom I didn’t think I would ever repeat in more sophisticated Antigua. Well, apparently you can get the girl out of Copán, but not Copán out of the girl…


What amazed me in my new neighbourhood was how many people I “recognized”. There was that same sympathetic shop girl, although here she sells bread and not tomatoes as the one in Copán. There’s the old lady going her way in the old ways; the neighbourhood kids who swarm around me as if I were a magnet and of course a whole assortment of local drunks. And dogs, plenty of dogs. Even chickens, roosters and an occasional horse. No wonder I feel so at home here.


As soon as I got settled, I set to work, mostly visiting shops, galleries and restaurants with my port folio. Not unsuccessfully, because soon I was hired to do some painting here and there and my paintings and products are for sale at several locations. Not a bad start, but not quite good enough yet for a steady income. And here, no money really means no money…


At the same time I started to work on a new series of paintings for a future exhibition. I had no idea where yet, but in order to find a gallery that would be interested, I of course first had to show some work. The World Cup was a perfect excuse to stay home, work on my new pieces while with half an eye following the games. My idea was to paint a series of portraits of the new people in my life, some known to me, others just passers-by, but mi gente, my people nonetheless.


The opportunity to exhibit came much sooner than I had expected. One day I went to a film presentation in a new gallery (I quickly learned to go to all openings and cultural events, great for contacts and often a free glass of wine) and I left my card with one of the owners.

To my surprise they called me two days later, asking if they could come by my studio. Sure, I said, and an hour later they were there, in my tiny and hopefully temporary “studio” that also doubles as office, living room and dining room. Not undone by my not-so-professional workplace, they did like my art. They literally took all my paintings off the wall to exhibit in their gallery and were enthused about the idea to have an opening with my new work. How much time would I need? Optimistically and quite unrealistically I answered: three weeks.


So the date was set and I started to work my butt off. The paintings were coming along fine, but what worried me was how to frame the works on an extremely tight budget. I decided to buy the cheapest board as possible, have glass cut and use little aluminium sort of hooks to fasten the glass, all by myself and a little help from my neighbour Paul. Well, my scheme didn’t work out. So I invented a new system with a sort of paperclips. That sort of worked out, at least for the smaller paintings. By then I had broken no less than seven out of nine glass plates and I was down to my very last quetzal. I was so desperate that I even sent a message to the gallery owners to cancel my show. “Don’t worry,” one of them wrote back, “I’ll be there in ten minutes and have a look.” He did and came up with a simple and creative solution that made the sun shine again.


To make a long story short, on Saturday August 9th I had my opening in Mayan Creations Arts & Crafts Gallery. And it was great! There were plenty of people despite the heavy rain and I even sold some work. I wouldn’t have been able to do it all without the help the gallery owners Juan Pablo and Luis Pedro and of course my great new friends Ana María and Chrissy, who single-handedly managed the whole bar and wonderful snacks of spech kuche and home-smoked shark with cream cheese.


I’m indefinitely grateful to all the people who have given me opportunities here in my new world and those who have offered me their friendship and support. Today, exactly five months after moving here, I’m proud and happy to already have my first solo exhibition and one assignment after the other coming in. Antigua truly begins to heel as home.

Thank you, mi gente


My art work is on exhibit till September 8, 2014 at Mayan Creations Arts & Crafts Gallery 4a Avenida Norte #22, Antigua Guatemala. If you missed the opening, no worries, because we’re planning a closing ceremony too. Why the heck not? Especially if there’s free wine… J