Living in 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…

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Rescuing the Wrong Dog

Some portraits I painted of dogs that were rescued off the streets of Antigua
(Charlie, Bruno, Einstein, Cleo, Aggie, Milagros, Maco, Jacco)

It was busy this morning on the Alameda Santa Lucía, as it always is on this street in Antigua Guatemala. The rough cobblestones slow down the speed of traffic but never the amount. This is where chicken busses take a turn towards the terminal; shoppers head to the market while motorcycles and tuc-tucs weave in and out of long lines of cars, on both sides of the treelined strip of cement that divides the lanes. The sidewalk wasn’t much better. I was hopscotching my way to the hardware store when out of the corner of my eye I saw something quite out of place. A dog lying in the middle of the street. Not quite in the middle, actually, more like next to the curb of the midsection. But ON the busy street. Very likely to get hit by a car, if he hadn’t been hit already, because his hind legs lay in a bit of an odd angle underneath his body. Damn!

I kept on walking, as if by ignoring the dog the problem would miraculously go away. But I couldn’t. After a few more meters I stopped and turned around. I managed to cross the street and made my way to the dog. He was dirty but friendly. He let me pet him and ate a few pieces of kibble. (Yes, I quite often carry kibble around in my purse.) I tried to lure him onto the curb, but the dog made no effort to get up. It looked he was paralysed indeed. So, I’d have to lift him up. That was a little scary because it was a big dog and although he seemed friendly, you never know ho he might react, especially if in pain. But the dog let me lift him up without a problem. I put him on the curb and got my phone out, thinking of a strategy. Whom to call, which vet to take him?

As my brain goes highwire thinking of how to save this dog’s life, the animal in question gets up (!!!) and casually crosses the street at the exact but rare moment when not a car is in sight. He then walked up to this kid in a wheelchair who apparently was laughing his butt off at my attempt to “save” his dog.

The kid mentioned for me to come over and when I made it through the stream of traffic, we chatted a bit. I had seen this kid before, he can’t walk (as opposed to his dog I tried to rescue, how ironic) and is often panhandling on this part of the Santa Lucia. He told me his dog just wanted to lie in the sun a bit. I told him the road was not the right place to let his dog do so. He then told me he had another dog too, but it died when it got hit by a car. I told him that’s why his dog shouldn’t be on the street.

Anyway, he then asked if I could spare some change for breakfast. I gave him enough for breakfast for the two of them.
And that’s how I ended up rescuing a dog that didn’t need rescuing.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

No more dogs!

There is lots to like about Guatemala but also a few things not to. Let’s not talk trash today, but about something else that bothers me.

Street dogs.

On my short walk through town yesterday I saw no less than seven dogs in different spots and different degrees of shabbiness. Some might have owners but they were nonetheless wandering around town in search of food or a short-lived love affair, resulting in even more unwanted puppies. Each of the coffee farms near the place I’m staying at has its own pack of dogs. Many of them are injured from fights with their peers, traffic accidents or from purposely being hurt by people with machetes. And needless to say, the packs keep growing and growing. These dogs sometimes assault people who’re walking their pet, chase motorcycles and rip open garbage bags. They’re definitely a pain in the butt. But it isn’t their fault.

One of 6 puppies we've so far been unable to catch, in its "home" at one of the coffee plantations

Being born poor in Guatemala as a human usually means a tough life ahead. Being born an unwanted puppy is basically having no future at all. Even “proper” pets are often not well taken care of. People take on pets without a thought (and to be honest, in many cases the same counts for kids), not realising it is a serious and long-term commitment. Despite the fact that hardly anyone is ever forced to have a pet (unfortunately the same can’t be said about unwanted babies in Guatemala with its skyrocketing number of cases of sexual abuse), few people seem to think of what a dog’s life involves. I’m not talking about puppy day-care, designer booties or pricey wet food from a tin with a sprig of parsley on top. Just basic stuff, like actually having enough food to spare. A dry, safe space to live. Medical care when needed. Care in old age instead of being dumped on the street. And preferably, playtime, exercise and socializing.

Although I think that in many “developed” countries the way people treat their pets is sometimes way over the top, around here even basic, fair treatment is not a matter of course. But it doesn’t mean people don’t love their animals. I think it’s mostly a matter of education.

Luca, Monster, Saudi and me, Honduras

When I lived in a small town in Honduras, I was appalled to see that people’s first reaction to seeing a dog on the street is to kick it. I even saw toddlers barely able to stand, swing a leg at a passing dog. Dogs were obviously considered dirty and a pest. But not MY dogs! Everybody loved MY dogs! Cars would stop on the street and let us pass when Monster would drag his four feet long stick back home from our walk. The kids I used to teach were always more excited to see my Luca than me! They’d spend hours playing with her, teaching her tricks and would even share their lunch with her. (No wonder she was fat.) But none of these kids would ever consider doing the same with their own dog, which they all have in the rural areas. And when I would ask why not, they answered their dogs don’t play. Because they were never taught to.

But the times are a-changing. More and more upper-class Guatemalans who previously would only be interested in overpriced full bred pedigree puppies are now considering adopting. Even in rural areas, small changes are visible. My friend and patron saint of dogs in San Martín Jilotepeque, Cristy Velasco, mentioned how dogs are mostly used as doorbells, but more and more often she sees people walking their dogs or putting food outside for the strays. More people are willing to spay and neuter too.

Tessa and Gerson with cats in recovery

When Linda Green made her dogs rescue efforts official in 2010 with the NGO Unidos para los Animales, she quickly realised that picking up abandoned puppies off the streets and shipping them off for adoption to the US was just a drop in the ocean (although not for the puppies, obviously). Stronger measures were needed in order to prevent puppies on the streets altogether. But when Linda started her first spay and neuter campaigns, she almost had to beg people to have their pet sterilised. It wasn’t a common thing and especially castration of male dogs was not considered “natural” in this macho culture. But how times have changed! The main focus of Unidos para los Animales is now on sterilization campaigns with a target number of at least 2.000 dogs and cats a year, in communities in and around Antigua Guatemala. And these days people are begging for a spot on the waiting list! Considering the fact that each pregnant cat or dog can easily be responsible for a thousand puppies or kittens (because her babies will eventually have babies too), this has a huge impact on the canine and feline community.

Linda and her paharmacy

Due to Covid-19 the target of 2.000 animals wasn’t reached in 2020, but this year we’re off to a good start. The first week of January, veterinarian Jim Bader (from Mapleview Animal Hospital, Holland, MI, USA) and his daughter Karina came down for a full week of surgeries. Dr. Jim did a total of 161 surgeries, including some complicated cases other than sterilisations. Today another 82 cats and dogs were spayed/neutered in Jocotenango.

The logistics for today’s clinic were in the capable hands of the Dirección de la Mujer (Women’s Office) of the Municipality of Jocotenango. We did a clinic there last December, but the demand was so overwhelming that a new one was scheduled so soon after. As usual, the ladies of this office were fantastic. They did a pre-sign-up last week and in no time the 100 slots were filled. They closed shop with no less than 132 people on the waiting list! And today everything went as smooth as can be. Volunteering for the clinics in Jocotenango is borderline boring, because everything is so well organised and so many people are helping out. From the traffic police out on the street to the ladies at the entrance disinfecting everybody; the ones at the inscription table; the strongman who carried the dogs and cats from the operating room to recovery; the cleaners afterwards… The three Guatemalan vets and their techs did an awesome job and were done operating around lunch time.  And 82* happy humans went home with slightly groggy cats or dogs.

Our strongman of the day

Today was actually a little weird because we got a lot more attention than usual. We got no less than four visits by politicians and the press and were live streamed on several social media. Turns out we are great (although unwilling) propaganda and were reported to have done 150 surgeries with more to come in the following days. (Not.) All that with “international support” and no mention of Unidos para los Animales. Not that the dogs or cats don’t care, but we humans do.

People and patients waiting for their turn

See, these clinic cost money. Each pet owner pays a small contribution (50 Quetzales or USD 6.50) whereas the cost per animal is four times as much (surgery and vaccines). If people can’t afford the required contribution, they can “pay” with whatever they can. A bag of rice, some avocados or a few pounds of sugar will do. The clinics are organised and run by volunteers. And although they are officially offered by Unidos para los Animales, it is in close collaboration with Tessa and Gerson of WOOF Guatemala and Francesca of Patitas.

Volunteers Jimmy and Bobbie

It is great to see how animal welfare is slowly going tin the right direction. Sterilisation is becoming the norm, as is clear from the number of inscriptions. New too is the increasing number of male dogs and cats. It would be great to walk the streets of Antigua one day and not encounter a single stray.

If you’d like to contribute towards the sterilisation program, please visit the following websites. Thank you!

USA, Canada, Guatemala, Europe: Unidos para los Animales

Holland: WOOF Guatemala

 




*The number of surgeries is usually a bit lower than planned because some animals are rejected because of medical history, not having fasted or nor being healthy enough.

 

 

 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A Christmassy Thing for Dogs

 

‘Twas a few days before Christmas and it wasn’t snow but a light traffic that covered the roads to San Martin Jilotepeque, a town in mountainous Guatemala. After many twists and turns in between steep walls of soothing green, the town of San Martin Jilotepeque is surprisingly buzzling and urban. A cacophony of sounds and colours hits you in the face with motorcycles whooshing by with women in their indigenous dress apparently comfortable sideways on the backseat. Chicken busses honk, rev and roar on the narrow streets covered in bright signs, posters and banners. If you don’t have a specific reason to go there, you probably won’t. But we were on a mission.

See, San Martin Jilotepeque is the town where Cristy Velasco lives and works. Cristy is the patron saint of street dogs in that part of the world and cares for over a hundred dogs in her shelter, not counting the twenty or so she has at home, the dozen that stay at her restaurant or the never-ending number of strays that she feeds. So, after an eventless journey, we went by Cristy’s restaurant to pick her up to direct us to the shelter, only a ten-minute drive away.

Well, not today. The asphalt of the road near the shelter was being renewed and we got stuck in a humongous traffic jam. After sitting put for about 45 minutes (entertained by a puppy that Cristy had just rescued off the street), we decided to park the car at a carwash across the road, walk to the shelter and then return to the restaurant to drop off our donations. And that turned out to be a very good idea, because on our way back, the line had barely moved an inch.


Up until last week, Cristy kept her dogs at an abandoned construction site of what was once supposed to become a maternity clinic. The place consisted mainly of walls and a roof, but it was spacious and offered dry places for the dogs to sleep and enough areas for play. Recently the town council decided to resume building the clinic. Not a bad idea by itself, but what to do with over a hundred dogs? The mayor offered to build a new place. And he did. Which was a very nice thing to do, but unfortunately the new place is very small and there is no space at all for the dogs to play. 

On our way to "the end of the world..."

The shelter is located on the outskirts of town, right there where you think you’ve reached the end of the world. It consists of two wooden / aluminium sheets structures with kennels divided by chain-link fences. The kennels are clean but bare, with just one wooden pallet for the dogs to sleep on.



Cristy at the shelter

This is not a shelter as you know them up North or in Europe. This is a place where, with all efforts and good intentions, the dogs are dry, safe and fed, but not much else. All because Cristy does this basically singlehandedly, on a shoestring budget. Just the cost of feeding al those dogs is staggering, not to mention medical costs. So Cristy can use all the help she can get and that’s why we went up there with a few bags of food, dog beds, used collars and leashes, cleaning supplies, some cash and a bag of bulky sweaters that can be used for beds.

Cristy had to stop on the way back to buy some food for some street dogs we encountered.

After a delicious lunch at Cristy’s restaurant it was time to head back. During our ride home I already received pictures from Cristy of the donated bed and collar being put to good use. She had even made puppy sweaters out of the sleeves of the cardigans we had left. Darn cute!

Puppy Sweater, design by Cristy Velasco!
Dog bed and red collar approved!!!

It was a wonderful day and I couldn’t believe to be back in San martin Jilotepeque this soon. It was only a few weeks ago we were there to paint a doggie mural. You can read all about that project and more about Cristy by clicking here: MuralArt Guate.

The idea to go to San Martin Jilotepeque to drop off donations was a fantastic one, and all credits go to Catherine Corry, who not only offered to drive, but also supplied much of the donations. Many thanks too to Ana Maria Ackermans, Irene Saletan, Ellen Cristenson, Linda Green, Unidos para los Animales, Alice Lai, Cat Langley and Catherine’s friend whose name I forgot.

Today's donations.
A few bags of dog food will help, but won’t last. So in the future we hope to continue supporting Cristy taking care of the dogs of san Martin Jilotepeque. If you’re in Guatemala and would like to donate, please contact me at carinsteen at yahoo.com. You can also donate directly through Paypal using the following link: https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/sanmartindogs?fbclid=IwAR3xy3CqLuRQkBsbSxWEL9NlLfi2zP7h__szn4J74E6ci3X_qBJ0-VW9XwI

 

Donations pup approved!

One very tired but lucky puppy....

Thank you so much!

Wooof!!!


 


 



Tuesday, November 10, 2020

A NeverEnding Disaster

Worldwide people heaved a sigh of relief when the American elections were over, but for a lot of people in Central America it’s the last thing on their minds. The sun’s out, the storms reduced to a gentle breeze, but more than a week after Eta ravaged Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala (and a short but not too bad comeback last night), the disaster is far from over.  

Although Category 5 hurricane Eta was quickly downsized to a tropical storm when it made land, the damage done is tremendous. Large areas are flooded, mudslides caused many deaths, roads are destroyed and crops are ruined.

You’ve heard it all before.

And you’ll hear it again. 

The vicious cycle of poverty, corruption and corporate greed amplify whatever nature throws at us. Time and again it magnifies deep-rooted problems in these countries, only soon to be forgotten again. Poor people will rebuild their houses with cheap materials in risky areas, simply because they have no choice. Roads and bridges will be rebuilt, often with materials of a quality inferior to what they were budgeted for, with the difference disappearing in someone’s pockets.  Massive deforestation will be business as usual, causing ever more catastrophic mudslides and flooding.

It’s tempting to close my eyes and Netflix the day away. It’s easy to ignore the search for cadavers and the sense of hopelessness these people must feel at this exact moment while I sip my morning coffee in the sun. For a little bit. Because I can imagine what is going on. It’s been 22 years already, but I will never forget Hurricane Mitch and its aftermath. The surge of adrenaline while evacuating people, the all surrounding brown muddy water. The pain in people’s eyes seeing all their possessions gone, just like that. The feeling of hopelessness, despair, loss. It clung around people for days, weeks, months.

But there were also moments of heart-warming solidarity, as there are now. Of tremendous physical efforts to rescue and evacuate. The sheer hard physical labour of cleaning up tons of mud in the days after. And then the process of healing and rebuilding.

The amount of international help Honduras received after hurricane Mitch was staggering. At the time I was naïve enough to think that something good might come from this disaster, that a better Honduras might re-emerge, with improved infrastructure, safer communities, job opportunities, hope for the future. Of course, I was terribly wrong.

Copán Valley 2020

It hurts to see places I’ve been, worked or lived in, being so devastated. Copán Ruinas in western Honduras, my hometown for 17 years, looks very similar to when Mitch turned the valley into a lake Thankfully no lives were lost this time, but about 80% of the roads in and around Copán have been destroyed. 74 Families lost their houses and the coffee production this year, if still salvable, won’t be able to be cut or sold. And this just after the town was severely hit by Covid. Many of my friends in Copán are working hard, in collaboration with the municipality, to help those in need.

Copán Ruinas, entrance to Hacienda San Lucas
Copán Ruinas, 2020



Up north in Honduras, closer to the Caribbean coast, the damage is even worse. In El Progreso, the children’s home of ProNiño, where I painted a series of murals a couple of years ago, is now under water. Children and staff were evacuated on time, but it will take a while before they can go back to start the process of cleaning up.

ProNiño , El Progreso, Honduras in 2015

ProNiño now

In Guatemala, the search for survivors, or more likely, cadavers, continues. Entire communities were buried under tons of mud. The victim count will go up in days to come. The disaster is not over yet.

Among thousands of pictures that show up in my newsfeed, I found this one from Guatemala that speaks more than a thousand words. The three so far unidentified bodies are of two children and one woman, in the catholic church of the hamlet of Quejá in Alta Verapaz. (For more pictures click the link in the caption).

Photo by Yeimi Alonzo, Plaza Pública. (At noon today it was announced that rescue efforts have stopped, due to the improbability to find any survivors and the dangers of more mudslides. 88 People are still missing in the village of Quejá, San Cristobal Verapaz.)

In the meantime, I’m unexpectedly taking care of the tiniest of Eta victims: a little hummingbird fledgling, upheaved by the strong winds, flew against my window last Friday. Too small to fly, I’m taking care of her until she’s ready to be released.

Funny, how in the midst of all this bad news and this abominable turd of a year, this tiny, feisty little bird has become my symbol of hope and perseverance. And I’ determined to keep it alive!

So yes, you’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: the people in Central America need your help. They really do.

If you can, please consider donating to one of many organizations active right now. Below a few NGOs that I know very well and can vouch for.

 

Thank you very much.

Be well.

 

Honduras:

Special Missions (Please specify if you want your donation to go to Copán Ruinas)

GoFundMe action for relief in Copán Ruinas, organized by two ex-students of mine


 Guatemala

CasaSito, emergency relief for their scholarship students in Alta Verapaz

GoFundme by my friend Alce Lai



For people in Holland who want to help:

Voor noodhulp in Guatemala: Stichting Uno Más, o.v.v. Noodhulp


Kindertehuis ProNiño in El Progreso, Honduras:

IBAN: NL11TRIO 0212487167 t.n.v. Homeless Child te Vlagtwedde


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Corona in Guatemala III

Time's a funny thing. Still wrapping my head around the fact that October is only a day away and that my last “recent” update is actually from three months ago. So where are we now, here in Guatemala?

I have to admit, I had to look it up. It's been weeks, months even since I follow the Covid situation in Guatemala on a daily basis. But here are the numbers as of today:

Guatemala occupies the 42nd place with 90,968 cases and 3,238 deaths recorded. In comparison, Holland, with a similar number of population, ranks the 32nd place with 117,551 cases and 6,393 deaths. A significant difference is that in Holland the number of tests per 1,000 inhabitants is 143 while in Guatemala it's 18. So well, what's in a number. But overall, things don't seem to be going too badly. The number of daily new cases is slowly declining and the hospitals are no longer saturated with Covid patients. Have we flattened the curve? Or is this just the calm before the storm of the second wave?

While schools are still closed (the new school years starts in January, so that hasn't been much of an issue yet), masks are obligatory in all public places and social distancing is recommended. Seven and a half months after the state of emergency was announced (which will end October 5th), we still have a curfew (from 9pm till 4pm) and dry law from 7pm till 5am. Most public transportation is back in motion with increased fares and many pictures on social media of failed social distancing. The president has become a Covid case himself but appears to be stable, despite the need to be hospitalized and his preexisting medical conditions.

Restaurants with outdoor areas, as most are in Guatemala, are open for business. The airport and borders reopened on September 18th. Not quite business as usual, but at least we can now leave or enter the country.

In a few hours, the president will announce the new measurements that will start October 1st. Although 18 of the 22 provincial departments are still in red, it has already been announced that as of October 1st bars, movie theaters, recreational parks, public pools can be reopened. Events, church gatherings and concerts are allowed with up to 100 people, and with social distancing according to the scale of the departmental traffic light system (10 square meters for those in the red, 1.5 square meters for green municipalities).

People are still waving their white flags on many a corner, asking for food

But as far as Covid goes, and compared to the US and Europe, it seems we're not doing too badly here in Guate.

Quinceañera with matching mask

As for me, now that the airport has reopened, I can finally go home!!!

And guess what?

I have decided to stay.

Since I was planning on coming back in January anyway, it doesn't make much sense to leave now. Especially not when the dark days of winter are approaching in Europe. Here there's sunshine, hopefully some walls to be painted and nice houses with cats and dogs to stay in. I'll just stay put for now.

For some reason, emotionally this changes EVERYTHING! For the first time in eight months I'm not vaguely planning on leaving next month. Finally, I'm here to stay, at least till spring. That means I can start planning some projects and stock up on things that I've been putting on hold. I've also found the peace of mind to go for long walks into town, enjoying the absence of tourists and people in general (not in the weekends, though!), appreciating Antigua for the stunning place it is. Yes, it is a little weird to decide to stay after all those months of focusing on the possibility to leave. But it feels like the right decision and I'm determined to enjoy my extended stay as much as I can. So... for now and the next few months, greetings from Antigua Guatemala!





Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Corona in Guatemala II

Antigua Guatemala, 6am

Today it has been 116 days since the first COVID-19 case was detected in Guatemala.
Exactly a 113 days ago the state of emergency was declared.
A solid 105 days of curfew, first 4pm-4am, now 6pm-5am, as well as Sundays.
And 85 days of mandatory masks wearing.

After a long period of a slowly rising number of infections and deaths, the situation is now changing, fast. As of yesterday the number are:
Total number of cases: 23,972
Deaths: 981
Antigua Guatemala, 6am
Compared to Holland, a country with more or less the same population and 50,000 COVID cases (6,000 deaths), Guatemala seems to be not too bad off. But whereas Holland is reopening, in Guatemala we haven't reached the peak yet. And things might get much, much worse before they'll get better. For about a week now, roughly 40-50% of all tests turn out to be positive. But only 2,000 tests are administered per day, often much less, so these numbers are not very telling on a population of 17 million people. Except that they're BAD. But the real number of infections is likely much, much higher.

So what does that mean for daily life I Guatemala? Well, life goes on. Sort of.

I remember once listening to an item on the radio about civil obedience. Someone gave the example of a lone pedestrian he once saw in South Korea on a deserted street in the middle of the night. Despite the total lack of traffic, the pedestrian didn't cross the street until the light turned green.
The very next morning I noticed that a huge sign had been painted on a wall at the bus terminal, saying it was forbidden to urinate there. Right below the huge letters stood a guy pissing.
That pretty much of sums up the difference between Asia and Latin America.
Antigua Guatemala, 6am
The challenges Guatemala faces (a pandemic on top of an infrastructure of severe poverty, a poorly functioning health system, inequality, corruption etc.) aside, the restrictions imposed by the government are mostly considered an inconvenience that just need a bit of tweaking and twerking. It's like trying to block the way to a colony of ants. Whatever object you put in their way, they'll crawl over, around or under to get to their destiny. Guatemalans are incredibly resilient and creative in their ways to make a living. Before the words mask and disinfecting gel were even uttered, they were for sale on every street corner. No public transportation? Every guy who owns a motorcycle now offers rides for a fee. Restricted circulation of cars? No problem, we'll carpool!

When people ask me how things are in Guatemala and if the government is doing a good job, I find it hard to answer. In theory yes. We probably have way more restrictions here than in the US.. Schools, restaurants and other public institutions have been closed. Public transportation has been shut down since the beginning and interdepartmental travelling is prohibited. Even Easter was cancelled! And there is of course the curfew, mandatory masks and social distancing. It has changed the look of the country. Most people take the restrictions seriously. It's rare to see someone without a mask on the streets. If you go to La Bodegona, the famous supermarket in Antigua, your temperature is taken and you're asked to disinfect your hands with gel. Only a certain number of people are allowed in (and it still is always crowded, except at 6am which is now my favourite time for shopping). Most of the times there's and employee disinfecting shopping carts and baskets. The cashiers not only wear mask and gloves, but also a face shield and they work from behind a partition. Every so often a siren sounds throughout the store reminding employees it's time to disinfect their hands. A serious effort has been made to protect employees and clients.
Still plenty of toilet paper in La Bodegona! And you get a plastic fork for free!
For more on La Bodegona and crazy things taped togethers, click here.
But that's not always the case everywhere. In many small neighbourhood stores, no precautions are being taken at all. And pandemic or not, if you want a haircut, your nails done, a massage or a tattoo, no problem! There's plenty of traffic to and from the capital, including from people who have properties in Antigua and who come down in the weekends to party. Social distancing is being practiced on the streets up to a certain point. The Central Park has been closed off and is now the sole territory of pigeons. The already long lines for banks are now even longer due to the marked positions, although never as far as the recommended 6 feet or 1,5 – 2 meter. Other than that, social distancing in reality means that you refrain from getting together in public. Behind doors, birthday parties, meetings and lunches in private homes pretty much take place as if closed doors could protect you from getting infected.

In the meantime, every day I see more obituaries on social media. Nurses, policemen, firemen, doctors, acquaintances of acquaintances. It really is coming closer.

If you'd like to help out Guatemalan families in need (meals or food packages), please contact Sumate Antigua or Antigua al Rescate

Please be safe.




Monday, April 13, 2020

Corona in Guatemala


Daily free Corona Mini Art paintings for someone somewhere on this planet!
The plan was all set out for Sunday, March 29th. I would have had my suitcase packed for my trip back to Spain later that day, but first I would get up before dawn to walk to San Bartolomé Becerra, the small town on the outskirts of Antigua where I used to live. Here, on the fifth Sunday of lent, one of Antigua's largest procession leaves the church after mass at 5 am. No less than 90 carriers are needed to carry the platform with a baroque statue of Jesus bearing the cross. A total of 7,000 bearers called cucuruchos and 85 turnos make up the logistics. Signing up starts way back in November and often involves hours of waiting in line. But people don't mind the line, nor the inscription fee. Participating is considered a great honour for many Guatemalans.

There is something magical about those nights before the main processions. Streets are closed off and whole families stay up all night to make the famous and fabulous sawdust carpets. Others sell coffee, sandwiches or any other kind of food imaginable. Or rent out their bathrooms in that wonderful entrepreneurial spirit of Guatemalans making a buck out of any event.
Thousands of people, very young, adolescents, middle-aged and the elderly, fill the streets that are more crowded than any time during the day. The atmosphere is magical. The surrealness of the early hour combined with the smell of incense and delicious food, the colourful carpets no one would ever dare to step on and the anticipation the procession to come... It is truly special and for many people here a deeply spiritual event.

But that was before Corona.
This year Easter was cancelled, something no one could ever have foreseen. Not only did Antigua miss out on the revenue about a million visitors would have brought in, the fact that the town's main religious event had to be celebrated in solitude has been a big blow to many. 
A FREE colouring page for you to download or share!
If you'd like one in a higher resolution, please email me at carinsteen at yahoo.com.
On the bright side, Guatemala as a nation has reacted incredibly well in this crisis. The brand new president Alejandro Giammattei has stepped up as a real leader, making unpopular but brave decisions. Even before the first case was detected (March 14), all flights from Europe were stopped short. On Monday the 16th, the last flights from North America were allowed in and the country went under lock-down. Social distancing was highly recommended, schools were closed and public transportation suspended. On March 22nd, a 4pm - 4am curfew was added, prohibiting anyone without a valid reason out on the streets. The police is actively patrolling the streets and being caught will land your butt in jail with a hefty fine to pay. All stores that remain open have modified their business hours and the bigger stores have carried out a number of measures to protect the customers and employees, such as an obligation to wear a face mask, keeping distance in line, limiting the number of customers and having disinfectant gel available at the entrance and other strategic places. La Bodegona, the one and only famous supermarket in town, has even placed a bin outside with basic necessities from which those in need can take and to which those who can, can donate.

Wearing a face mask is obligatory as of today. A lot has been said about the usefulness of wearing a mask, but I guess if everyone does, it probably helps. And it doesn't hurt, if used properly. Most people were wearing masks anyway, but now you can and will be fined if you don't. I just went out to run an errand and was struck by how much the scene has changes in such a short time. The traffic is as light as it was when I lived here about 25 years ago. Parking is no longer a problem, neither is crossing the street. The lines in front of the banks are still there and actually longer than ever because of the distance between people. And yes, except for one, everybody was wearing a mask. And no, there is no shortage of masks. Within days after the lock-down, street vendors were selling homemade masks on every corner. Now you can get them in about every store, of any design possible. As well as disinfecting gel or anything else for that matter, even toilet paper! The only thing not available for a week was alcohol, during the whole Easter holiday, normally the time of the year to go to the beach or river and have a drink (that is, those who don't spend Easter in Antigua). But this year the beaches were closed and the sale of alcohol strictly forbidden.

So now the numbers. As of yesterday April 12th, there were 131 active cases, 19 recovered and 5 deceased, making the total of 156. And that is, compared to other countries, not bad at all. Of course it is impossible to say if this is the result of measures taken, which are stricter and taken sooner than those in many European countries. Or whether the number will stay this low. Because one thing is very clear here in Guatemala: social distancing and quarantining is a privilege. Social distancing is not possible when you live in a shack with an entire family. Many people here live from day to day and will starve to death before dying of Covid 19. And not everybody sticks to the rules. Many markets in small towns have been operating as usual -up until now- and there are always those individuals who challenge authorities. Families with a Covid infected members have received death threats. In El Peten, a couple that owned a store was shot dead because they refused to sell alcohol. And about 500 families thought the rules didn't apply to them when they decided to spend a week at the beach anyway (they were sent back). As in any country, there has been opposition against the measures taken, but all in all, the overwhelming majority of the people is acting in a very responsible and solidarity way.

But. Guatemala is a developing country. Two emergency hospitals have been built, but as I understand, there are only about a hundred ventilators in the whole country. Poverty here is tremendous under normal circumstance. Now, with so many people laid off... What if food becomes scarce and prices surge? And how to wash your hands if there is no water? How to keep your distance when you live in a slum? What about the planes full of deported Guatemalans that the USA keeps sending, some of the deported confirmed Covid cases? What about people illegally crossing the border with Mexico, where the virus hasn't been taken as seriously by the president as it has in Guatemala? What if...???

So many ifs, but I guess only time will tell. I do hope we can keep up those numbers low here in Guatemala. I also think that this country might come out of this crisis stronger and better than some other “developed” countries Well, let's see. As for now, I'm stuck here in Guatemala, and quite happy about it. And funnily, what I miss most, now that everyone is wearing a mask, is seeing people's smiles.
Stay safe, stay home. 

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Friday, January 31, 2020

Where You Can Expect the Unexpected – An Ode to la Bodegona

It's fascinating how distance creates an appreciation for things we tend to take for granted. Not just the big things, even more so those daily details we're barely aware of until they're not there anymore. Oh, daily life in a Guatemalan neighbourhood... The early morning crack of the whip announcing the herd of goats with their fresher than fresh milk. The scarp collector (“Chatarraaaaaaaa!!!!!”), the fish seller (fresh filet and shrimps every Friday), the cutler's pan flute (also to be heard where I live in Spain!) and the cobbler's weekly visit to the neighbourhood. The Sunday morning rush of people in their best clothes hurrying off to church and the peace and quiet in as soon as mass starts. Small gems of life that I have come to treasure.

Of course there's plenty I don't miss at all. Fireworks about 300 days out of the year? No thanks, not for me. The colourful chicken busses? Love them. But their driving is breaknecking and the exhaustion fumes are brutal. The weather (“Eternal Spring”) is pretty damn perfect, but I could do without the regular earth tremors. Not to mention the garbage you see just everywhere, which is.... No, don't get me started!

Now that I'm travelling back to Antigua next week, something I am looking forward to, is a visit to the local supermarket La Bodegona. I happen to seriously dislike supermarkets in general, but La Bodegona is different. It is not just a supermarket, it's an experience. Granted, you better make sure you you have time on your hands to fully appreciate that experience. If you're in for a quick purchase, you're at the wrong address.

Me and La Bodegona, we're going way back, from the late nineties when I used to travel from Copán Ruinas (Honduras) to Antigua to renew my visa (way before the whole C4 thing). A visit to La Bodegona was always on the agenda. Compared to Copán, Antigua was the First World and a real supermarket close to heaven on earth.

Now, Supermarket Store Layout Design, Brand Marketing and Retail Strategies are acknowledged scientific approaches, seriously applied in most supermarkets, even in Central America. But not in La Bodegona.
Starting with the layout of the store, it consists of two big halls between two streets, connected by a smaller hall, for lack of a better description. Two entrances/exits with cash-registers and merchandise in between. And that's where all comparisons with regular supermarkets end. It's more like visiting Harry Potter's school of magic with its whimsical displays, disappearing isles and unexpected combination of goods than what you'd expect from a store. The isles are narrow (while many Guatemalans tend to be WIDE) and the psychology behind the sorting and stacking of goods is completely baffling. By brand? No, not the case. By type of food? Well, sort of, but not completely. There is sort of a dairy section, but then there's this another fridge in the meat section that contains dairy too. And a few veggies. And fresh parsley.
One week the eggs are next to the candles. And then they aren't. The brand of oatmeal you have been using for years, every day? Miraculously gone never to reappear again.
Is stuff stocked by supplier maybe, according to a plan only known to the initiated? Maybe. I should ask, there are ALWAYS plenty of suppliers' stock clerks around. They tend to know where their own product is located only, so maybe that is the secret after all. In the mean time, if you need something, look for an employee with the Bodegona logo on their ever changing outfits (more about that later on), whom are numerous and omnipresent but as absent as a tuc-tuc when you need one. If you happen to find one, they're usually very friendly and helpful, although sometimes with that bored look of having to -yet again- answer a really stupid question. Dried plums? In the meat section, duh...

Branding strategy exists in having people standing all over the store (but preferably in the connecting hall, where space is scarcest and the crowds the biggest. Mostly on Saturday afternoons, of course) offering clients little bites or swigs of whatever. Guacamole from a bag, wine, all kinds of very pink cold cuts... The promoters are pretty feisty and don't take no for an answer easily. Worst is when people right in front of you decide to sample everything and you're stuck between sanitary pads, carrots and the nuts display. But this can be prevented if your agenda allows it. A friends of mine does her shopping early Sunday mornings (as early as 7am!) and that way she avoids crowds as well as promoters and store clerks. It's an idea...

A rather unique and much more sympathetic way to promote business is the way La Bodegona dresses up for each and every special event. And big time too! Not just a few Christmas streamers and a jingle here and there for the season, but bigger than life decorations and even “real” snow! Not just for Christmas either, think Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Easter, Summer, Father's Day... Huge displays, some a storey high, hang from the ceiling. Hearts! Fish! Neck ties! Suns! It might be me, but they seem to get bigger every year. And decoration is not limited to the store itself! The employees dress up in lederhosen in October (because of the German Oktoberfest) and Hawaiian shirts during Guatemalan summer. Superheroes, polar bears, Santa, sexy elves, all can be found in La Bodegona in due time...

But maybe best of all are the”atados”, the special offers, tied together with meters of tape. Not because of the free stuff you get, but the most wonderful and mystifying combinations. A bottle of whiskey with a plastic spoon. Toilet paper with a cup. I wonder if there's a full time employee at the Bodegona coming up with this stuff. I'm not the only one fascinated either, there's a group on Facebook called “Shit Taped Together at the Bodegona”. Check it out!

So yes, soon I'll free up some time in my schedule and venture into the store for a much missed fix of The Bodegona Experience.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Doggies in Heaven


Luca (Honduras, painting by Carin Steen)


Today is World Animal Day. It is also exactly two years ago I buried my dog Luca on a beautiful mountain overlooking the valley of Antigua Guatemala. It was grey and rainy that day, quite fittingly, but just when we covered her grave with dirt, the sun came through as if paying its last honours. A little later, just after we purchased a much needed bottle of wine, the skies broke open into a torrential downpour. Also quite fitting.


Monster (Honduras, painting by Carin Steen)

As sad as it was to burry my dog, it was also beautiful and harmonious. Luca had been with me for a long 15 and a half years. I met her the day she was born and she died in my arms. In between she had a wonderful life and I’m happy I was there for the beginning, middle and end. But World Animal Day is now forever the day that Luca died.
Ganja (Honduras, painting by Carin Steen)


I usually couldn’t care less about what International Day of What it happens to be today, but World Animal Day has always been special, ever since I was a little girl. I was one of those animal nerds, who rather crawled into the rabbit cage than playing a game with other kids. World Animal Day was almost as good as my birthday. At school we did animal-related activities and some teachers even let us bring our pets to school. Which might actually not be the best of ideas, stressing those poor kittens, hamsters and Guinea pigs out for educational and recreational purposes. Even stupider was the idea of a teacher at a school in my neighbourhood in Guatemala to build a cardboard arc of Noah and telling her kindergarten students to bring a live animal, to celebrate the love of Noah for animals. So every kid grabbed a random puppy or kitten, always plenty of those around in Guatemala and brought it to school whether the poor thing was ready to be separated from its momma or not. Those kittens and pups, all unvaccinated of course, spent the whole day cuddled up together in a cardboard boat. When it was time to leave each kid was given one animal to take home. I really wonder how many of those animals are still alive today.
Noah (Guatemala, painting by Carin Steen)


So that’s how I got Noah. My neighbours were not pleased at all when their 5 year old daughter came home with a puppy. She was only 3-4 weeks old, way too young of course to be separated from her mom. Big brother went to look for the mom and siblings but couldn’t find them. And that’s how she ended up in my home-Noah turned out to be the craziest and funniest pup I’ve ever met. Unfortunately, she died when she was only 13 months old, probably of a brain aneurysm. That really sucked an there was nothing beautiful or harmonious about it.
Gaviota (Honduras, painting by Carin Steen)

By the way, I always thought World  Animal Day is celebrated on October 4th because it’s Francis of Assisi’s day, patron saint of animals. But as it turns out, it´s an initiative started in Germany in 1925 by cynologist Heinrich Zimmerman. And a cynologist is someone who studies dogs. Who knew! Thanks Google. (Now I think I want to be a cynologist, later when I grow up.)
Tres (Honduras, painting by Carin Steen)


Anyway, going through the dog portraits I have painted over the last few years, it was sad to realize that so many have already passed the rainbow bridge. So here a little tribute to all those fantastic dogs, our buddies and besties. Cheers to you all, dear doggies, I hope you’re having a ball in heaven! (Pun intended.)
Lupita (Honduras, painting by Carin Steen)


And in case you´d like a portrait of your own dog, check out the Shop section on this blog!
Murci (Guatemala, painting by Carin Steen)
Bambi (Honduras, painting by Carin Steen)
Roxie (USA, painting by Carin Steen)

Bombero (Honduras, painting by Carin Steen)

Hazel in Heaven (Guatemala, painting by Carin Steen)
Unidos para los Animales shelter, Guatemala (and not all deceased yet, thankfully!)