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, 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. 

Daily free Corona Mini Art paintings for someone somewhere on this planet!


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!)


Friday, September 27, 2019

Guatemala`s Plastic Ban


Guatemalan Landscape I (Painting by Carin Steen)
n the fisrt day of 2019's Global Climate Strikes, Guatemala’s government announced it will ban all single-use plastic bags and disposable utensils. The country will have two years to find alternatives for plastic cups and straws.

Great news! But is it?

Everyone who lives in Guatemala has been stuck at least one behind one of those (in)famous chicken busses and knows about its big black clouds of exhaustion fumes. Mining companies dump their waste wherever they bloody like it.  The gorgeous Lake Atitlan is an open sewer. The pollution of the Motagua River not only poses a serious risk to public health, but is also destroying the Mesoamerican Reef. So is a plastic ban really going to make a difference?



The problem is that there are too many problems.



One of them is people´s attitude. Of course children learn at school where trash should go and to take care of the environment. But it`s a sort of a theoretical knowledge that isn`t often applied. Or thought through. Example: Last May I was painting a mural at a school while the children celebrated National Tree Day. Besides the regular national anthem, prayer and many speeches (including a looong one by the director about all the obstacles she had overcome in order to get the school some computers), the celebration mainly consisted of each grade presenting a huge tree made of paper. Made of PAPER!!! And to make matters worse, while the festivities were going on, some workmen were cutting down a big tree on the schoolyard. And no one even blinked.
People know. But people don´t act.



Another problem. Trash collection. In Antigua Guatemala, trash collection is a private affair. You pay one of the “companies” to dispose of your trash. On specific days guys knock on your door and haul your crap to a lorry from which the trash is dumped at the municipal garbage heap. Or so you hope. Who checks where the trash really goes? Not that I doubt those guys, the thing is, there is just no control. As there is no control of who pays for garbage collection and who doesn´t. In the small town I used to live there were plenty of people who didn´t and dumped their trash at the creek. Or behind my house. But to be fair, in the town I used to live in Honduras, garbage collection was serviced by the municipality, there was no way not to pay, but people still threw their trash on the streets anyway. 
Guatemalan Landscape II (Painting by Carin Steen)


Of course there wouldn’t be as much trash if there wasn`t so much single-use plastic. And the poorer people are, ironically enough, the more plastic. If you walk into any tiny neighbourhood store, the amount of plastic packaging is simply appalling. Besides some eggs, tomatoes and onions, everything else is covered in plastic and most of it individually wrapped. Because people are poor. It is less money (not cheaper) to buy a sachet of shampoo than a whole bottle (and no, those fantastic packaging-free shampoo tablets are NOT widely available to the poor!).  Cookies, drinks, oil, sauces, chips, candy, everything comes in mini amounts with maxi packaging, so you think you get something worth your money. While wat you really do is buying trash, of course. But hat argument doesn’t fly when you only have a few cents in your pocket, just enough to buy some crisps and a soda. 


For years, in my work with kids in Central America, I’ve addressed the trash problem in any possible way I could think of but it seems to be a lost fight. Garbage slogans and songs got forgotten, bins got stolen, signs got ruined and pollution continued. And I still don`t know why. Of course, if you go to small mountain villages, it wasn`t all too long ago that trash wasn`t a problem at all. You threw everything, all organic, out through the window and it got taken care of by dogs, pigs, chickens or bugs. The transformation from pure organic waste to an avalanche of single-use plastic went much faster than the disposal of it, not to mention recycling.



Funnily enough, if you ask a kid, or anyone, for that matter, whether she/he prefers a clean environment over a littered one, the answer is always yes. But oh so little is being done about it. Although, I must say I was thrilled to see that this year some schools in Central America instead of marching for Independent Day, cleaned their community or planted trees. Isn’t taking care of your country real patriotism? Please people keep that in mind next Semana Santa when you flock to coast and rivers and leave literally tons of your CRAP on shores and beaches! Not fun at all! And you know what, it can be done! Spending much time on the beach in Northern Spain this summer, I’m baffled every time I find the beach squeaky clean in the early mornings, knowing that just hours earlier hundreds of people spent their day there.  Every morning. It CAN be done! Really, not difficult at all.



In August last year, Antigua Guatemala announced its new law to prohibit single-use plastic, a law that went in effect on February 10. As much as I applauded it, I was very sceptical. It’s a great initiative, but to see it implemented is another thing. There`s also a law that forbids animal abuse.  And one that says you can`t kill people, but that one isn´t taken very seriously either. But I must say, I have actually seen quite a difference.


At the market the regular bags were quickly replaced by biodegradable ones. That is a step forward, although of course not a solution. By the way, I strongly mistrust some of those bags that look just the same to me, but with an “ECO” label printed on them. Is there any control out there? But now that the plastic ban will be implemented nationwide, things can only approve. Plastic won´t be able to be imported from other towns any longer and hopefully there will be more variety in alternative packaging as well as better prices. People are already coming up with solutions that are probably as ancient as the world anyway: French fries in a cabbage leaf, cheese wrapped in banana leaves and a return of brown Kraft paper. Nothing new under the sun.



I thought that the plastic ban would mostly be applied in the visible tourist industry in central Antigua. But to my surprise and delight, it has trickled through all layers of society and now even in the smallest shops you don`t get a bag any more. Want some tortillas? Bring a napkin. Eggs? Basket. You know, just like it used to be not so very long ago.  And if your walk around in my neighbourhood and see the amount of trash scattered around, you realise this could really have an impact.



But enough talk. Let`s try to make some real changes. Forget for now about reusing and recycling. Let`s start with some serious reducing. Deal?




Guatemalan Landscape III (Painting by Carin Steen)


Friday, September 13, 2019

Half-Countryside-ness

There’s this word in Dutch that often pops up in my head and that I love: halflandelijkheid. It means something like “half-countrysideness” and refers, quite obviously, to places in between urban and rural areas. The word was invented by the poet Simon Vestdijk who used it in his poem Zelfkant (“Self-Side) in 1931. Badly translated, the first strophe goes something like this:

What I love most is half-countrysideness:
Where woozy meadow winds play with clotheslines
Full of laundry; industrial sites where Between miserable grass a lorry rides.

(Ik houd het meest van de halfland'lijkheid:
Van vage weidewinden die met lijnen
Vol waschgoed spelen; van fabrieksterreinen
Waar tusschen arm'lijk gras de lorrie rijdt.)

A lifetime ago, when I was a young art student who knew everything about everything, we got the assignment to “do something” with the theme of half-countrysideness. Even then I was already intrigued by this word and its implication. I set off for an abandoned train depot near my house, the Oostelijk Havengebied in Amsterdam, for those in the know, and spent many happy hours among forgotten railway carriages covered in rust and graffiti. The rails where overgrown with grass, the environment quiet and still despite the short distance from grand central station. I made sketches, I painted and took many pictures. And in the end, I burned everything in a self-invented ceremony to honour the half-countrysideness. Or something like it. I can’t remember exactly except that at the time I thought it was pretty cool and sophisticated. The place doesn’t exist anymore. Humans have won and turned one of the last spots of nothingness in the city into a fancy neighbourhood.

A couple of days ago the weather here in the north of Spain was too miserable to go to the beach but not miserable enough to stay in. A perfect day to explore the trail I suspected to exist leading from my small village to the nearest town. I did find the trail and it was quite nice. There were some goats grazing around freely as well as a horse and a few cows minding their own business, as was I. However, when I turned around a corner of some blackberry bushes, I found a big fat bull lying right in the middle of the trail. The bull was lazily chewing some grass and seemed very mellow. I guess I could have walked around him without a fuzz but I’ve seen a few too many bull-related incidents on TV lately (quite normal in Spain, where people run with bills for fun), so I decided to calmly retrace my steps. Which led me to an area just outside of Llanes that I hadn’t explored yet. It was a perfect example of “halflandelijkheid” where human interventions had invaded the countryside but where pure neglect and force of nature had given the latter the upper hand.

I love those areas that are neither inhabited nor completely forgotten, with small human interventions that seem to get along great with the plants and bugs that consider the space theirs. Which made me ponder half-countrysideness in Guatemala and Honduras and realized there’s very little of it. It’s countryside OR urbanization, even on the edges of towns where urbanizations stops when there is absolutely no physical way to build yet another level or expansion to the existing shacks. It made me think that half-countrysideness is, rather than a sign of deterioration, a bit of a luxury, available only to those who can afford to forget or neglect. And that makes me end this entry with the depressing realisation that yes, everywhere in the world and for whatever reason, half-countrysideness is in danger of extinction. What a shame.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Talking about the Weather


Asturias beach in September
Guatemala is the land of eternal spring, they say. And yup, besides the occasional downpour, the weather is pretty cool. In the Antigua area the days are filled with sunshine that might get a bit too much around noon but is otherwise reminiscent of spring in bloom. The nights cool off substantially and the rainy season is obviously (much!) wetter than the dry period, but other than that the weather is pretty constant. No need for different summer or winter wardrobes, an extra layer when cold will do. There’s also little difference between summer and winter time. In the summer, dusk starts around 6.40pm and at 7pm it’s pitch dark. In the winter that’s 6pm. So, all in all (not taken in account the noticeable effects of climate change), life just calmly goes on without dramatic changes between seasons. That feeling of loss at the end of summer… The falling of leaves and shortening of days that remind you that all will come to an end. Nope, not in Guatemala. Day is day and night is night. Green leaves and flowers year-round. You can harvest lettuce from your own garden any month of the year. Day after day is pretty much the same and that does bring a sense of calm. It also made me always forget everybody’s birthday back home because I strongly associate those with different seasons. No wonder I’d forget my mother’s birthday in December while drinking coffee on my rooftop terrace dressed in shorts and a tank top. (But that was before Facebook started to remind us of our loved ones’ B-days, thank you very much.)
Spanish Bougainvillea
After more than two decades in Central America I just settled in the North of Spain (which is very different from the rest of Spain, climate-wise and all) and one of the most fantastic things I’ve experienced in the last two months is SUMMER!!!!! I had totally forgotten how absolutely amazingly wonderful real summers are! And I mean REAL summers, of course, that start its days with crisp blue skies and corn yellow sunshine. Summer days that seem to last forever and allow you to go to the beach in the EVENING!!! Not a cooling down, dusky sort of evening, but sitting on the beach at 9pm with your feet in the ocean and an ice-cream in your hand kind of evening! Swimming in the sunset at 10pm!!! Loving it!!!



But that is all coming to an end. Almost. Summer hasn’t made up its mind yet. Every time you think it’s over and done with, summer comes back with a few splendid days. The ocean is still pretty warm and as long as you stay out of the shade, you can easily pretend that nothing has changed. But as soon as you enter the shade, the chill creeps into your bones, Even on the beach, the gentle sun might caress your face, but a chilly draft bites your butt. And then the smells… Sun warmed walls and wafts of ripe fruit no longer there… The not unpleasant smell of wet, rotting leaves has already taken over the smell of sunscreen. Yellowing leaves and reddening apples announce fall. And yes, there is that sense of loss… I cherish every ray of sunshine; I spend every minute I can outdoors and still go to the beach for my daily swim. I soak up the very last bit of summer, unwilling to let go. I really, really don’t want summer to end.


But to be honest, I’m actually also very much looking forward to what autumn has to bring and can’t wait for it to start!


Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Chicken Bus Experience


There is no public transportation today from Antigua to the capital in Guatemala. Yet another bus driver was shot by gangs that charge transportation companies excessive fees in order to be allowed to ride the roads. Not the first assault (fortunately the driver survived this time), but all public transportation is now on hold while demanding from the government measures to guarantee safety in public transportation.

I couldn’t agree more but also see the irony here. Sure, the extortions are a massive problem, but it is not the only issue on the road. Anyone who has ever travelled the roads in Guatemala knows that many bus drivers are suicidal maniacs who put the lives of the passengers in their overcrowded busses in peril. As colourful and fantastically decorated those chicken busses are, as soon as they hit the roads they turn into lethal beasts. In their hurry to haul in as many as paying customers, the ayudantes basically drag people into the busses, quite often doubling the maximum number of 52 passengers, as a forgotten sign over the drivers head mentions, a forgotten relic from when the bus was yellow and used to haul schoolchildren, two per bench, in grey but quiet suburbs.

Chicken busses, I love them as much as I hate them. As big and fast and scary as they are on the roads, especially when the bus driver starts racing a bus from a rival company, they are absolutely fascinating. Riding a chicken bus while, often quite literally, hanging on for dear life, is an experience that assaults all your senses at once. The smells may not always be the best (the aroma of food sold by vendors squirming through the isle is by far preferable over some more human odours); the music simply deafening; the touch factor a little too close for my taste (don’t forget to hold on to that hand rail with all your might!) and the visual impact not more than a colourful blurs; it all adds up to being totally emerged in the chicken bus experience. If you haven’t ridden a chicken bus, you haven’t lived Guatemala…

The very best are of course the busses’ make-over, both inside and out. The more work, the better, although it’s all for looks and little is done to make things more comfortable for the passengers. The springs are poking through the seats? Can wait. The whole bench is bend so you keep gliding off? Not the driver’s problem. A new dashboard sticker on the market? YES!!!

Many busses have girls’ names. It’s not always clear what the driver’s relation is to the person the bus is named after. A bus on route to my neighbourhood is called Angela, featuring the name in big read letters over the windshield. Underneath it says: Explosión de Amor. Let’s assume Angela is the legal wife or girlfriend in this case, not the driver’s little girl.

It is also very important to ask for God’s blessing in loudly coloured stickers and to decorate the area around the driver with significant cultural icons, mostly Playboy’s bunny, the silhouette of a topless girl and Jesus Christ. Stickers are printed to fit the surface, not to respect the original image, hence the sometimes weirdly warped eyes of Our Lord staring at you.

Many busses now have TV screens up front with a typical mix of music videos (with girls as barely dressed as the chrome ones that decorate the bus) or extremely violent movies. The music is ear-splitting and can somehow always be turned up a notch. Nobody is ever bothered by the distorted sound, not even babies that tend to do the whole chicken bus experience while sleeping anyway.

I think my very favourite chicken busses are the ones from the town I used to live to the terminal in Antigua. The whole route takes no longer than five minutes. The busses are never full (except at the end of a school day) and it beats me how eight different busses can make a living of this route, charging people Q1.50 ($0.20). Students only pay Q1, after a short but fierce war when the fare went up from Q1 to Q1.50. Not that expensive, but a 50% increase nonetheless and it adds up when you have several kids taking the bus to school every day. In the end the war came to a peaceful end when the compromise was made to keep the rate for students at Q1.

The busses from San Bartolo to the terminal and back are not the most beautiful ones, but they are the dearest to me, I guess because they are so much part of the community. No bus would ever leave when someone started running a whole block away (well, what Guatemalans call “running” anyway), holding up the bus for a couple of minutes. Every person getting on gets a heartfelt Buenos días from the driver and the rest of the passengers. And best of all, when the buss arrives at its destination, a whole five minutes later, the drivers says: Servidos! And then you get up, pay the driver and get off with well wishes to and fro.  

And after a day in town the bus is waiting for you at its regular spot. Always and every day.