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

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Most Beautiful Girl in the World

In the late nineties, this remote corner of Honduras, Copán Ruinas, was even more remote than it is now. Although even then a major tourist route and sort of cosmopolitan in the sense that it was visited by interesting people from all over the world and was home to some pretty cool bars, without the World Wide Web it was still a far-away place where we celebrated the happy arrival of a piece of Gouda cheese, a bottle of rancid wine, or a few months old magazine from the home country.

It must have been early 1999 when I laid my hands on a much valued and relatively “recent” Dutch magazine, a HP De Tijd from July 1998. The cover was long gone, but what immediately caught my eye was a photo on the index of what I instantly thought was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. Even though not my favourite magazine (politics and economics mostly), I immediately went to page 62 that featured the article, and a chill went down my spine when I read the by-line: “She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen….”

The article was quite uncharacteristic for this magazine, but fascinated me from the start. It was written by author and journalist Tim Krabbé and told the story about how Krabbé travelled to the remote area of east of Lhasa, Tibet, joining a group of Doctors without Borders to visit several water projects. On the way back a group of locals stopped the visitors to invite them to a party to celebrate the fact that the community now had clean water. Worried about how to avoid the local Yak butter tea (but even more worried about the local water conditions), the only way to refuse both water and butter tea, was to accept the locally brewn beer called Chang. As good Tibetan customs go, you take one sip and your glass is almost mysteriously filled again. You sip, they applaud, then pour and you receive a white scarf of honour. This ritual was repeated until every local happy with the new potable water system had poured the visitors some Chang.

This lasted about two villages, and by then, the author couldn’t remember how he made his way back to Lhasa. But, as he states, the real miracle happened a week later when he was back in Amsterdam and went to pick up the prints of his photos (yes, we used to do that in the nineties). Of the many hundreds of pictures he apparently had taken during the trip, there was one standing out: of the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, without remembering taking any of those pictures.

The girl appeared on at least six photos, every time closer to the photographer. Krabbé states:

How old is she? Twelve? Sixteen? Do the other children realise how stunning she is? A thousand white scarves of honour to her, juts for appearing on my photos. May she lead a happy life.

At the time, I’d been in Honduras for a year or two and hadn’t done much of what I considered to be my profession since age nine or so: painting. But that photo in the magazine got me going again. I got myself a piece of plywood, some brushes and painted the Most Beautiful Girl in the World. Not an exact copy, because I depicted her as a local girl, since one of the things that struck me was that as Tibetan as she was, she just as easily could have been Honduran. I painted her without the green head scarf, put some Diego Rivera lilies in her arms, some unpretentious curtains in the back, as well as a mobile I had just made with my kindergarten students from a egg carton. Definitely not the best painting ever, I know, but an important one for me, because it meant the next step into a whole new career. 

 That one painting resulted in an art show which turned into an art NGO which I gave up twelve years and hundreds of students or so later to go back where I started in the first place: painting.

Right now, I just finished a new art show which is a tribute to Honduran women. When I finished eleven portraits, I was looking for photos to inspire me for the twelfth and last piece, when this Tibetan girl crossed my mind again. And I thought… why not? Why not paint her yet again? She’s not Honduran (but she could have been), but in not being so, she also makes the circle complete, and turns my exhibition not only into a tribute to Honduran women, but to women in general.

So I did it again. With lots of love, I painted this beautiful girl once more, and here she is, taking the centre piece of a wall in a restaurant in this remote corner of Honduras. She’s a (local) star all over again. 

Gouache on posterboard, 75 x 55cm. For sale! 
I can’t thank Tim Krabbé enough for bringing her into the picture.

And I can’t stop thinking:
How old will she be now? Is she still alive? Does she realise how beautiful she is and how she has touched people’s hearts all across continents and oceans?
Anyway, whoever she is, wherever she is, I hope she leads a happy life! 

To read Krabbé's article, visit: 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Painted Tribute to Honduran Women

“Ellas” is the name of my latest painting exhibition that opened last night in Café Via Via, Copán Ruinas.
The year 2012 was centred on Maya culture because of the alleged Maya prophecy of the end of the world and I won’t deny I’ve been taken advantage of that event in my art work as much as I could. But while the “End of the World” came closer, I was more than fed up painting Maya calendar glyphs. Time for something new and completely different!

Inspired by a conference for women artists I attended, organized by Mujeres en Las Artes in Tegucigalpa (Encuentro de Mujeres Creadores, December 3-5, 2012), I decided to prepare an art show dedicated to Honduran women. So I chose photos of strong women who have a special meaning to me and started painting in a –for me- completely different style, depicting the women in bright bold colours against abstract backgrounds. Even if women here lead harsh lives with many shortcomings, I wanted to paint them in bold, joyous colours, letting their sense of humour, their strength and beauty shine through. So here they are, “Ellas”:

I’ve known Cecilia since she was about three years old, when she first started attending my art workshops, dragged along by her older cousins. Cecilia always reminded me of myself when I was little, physically as well as in her behaviour. Just like me she would find herself a quiet corner and sit there for hours, completely focused on her artwork. Both Cecilia’s parents are in the US while she and her brother are being raised by her grandmother. She rarely speaks about how hard that it is not to be able to see her parents (for years now) but every once in a while it comes to the surface. I remember Cecilia singing a heartbreaking ranchera once during a talent show we had organized, about a father abandoning his child. Tears were streaming over her cheeks while she sang her heart out. It was truly heartbreaking. The good thing, however, is that she won the first prize.

Isabel, better known as La Chave, is one of those women who touch so many hearts without even realizing it. La Chave works as a cook in La Casa de Todo, but she is so much more than just an employee. La Chave is a presence, a hurricane, the one who can get anything done. She also has a very sharp tongue and doesn’t shy away from scolding just anybody, tourists, colleagues, customers or her boss alike. She also masters quite a nasty vocabulary, but there is no woman with a bigger heart and a more contagious laugh than La Chave. 

Kensy used to be one of my students and since I’ve known her, I’ve always wanted to paint her, because I think she’s so incredibly beautiful. Not just pretty, but really beautiful. She’s also very witty, full of initiative and has a great smile that makes it very hard to refuse her anything. Definitely a young woman worthy to be in this tribute. 

Helen is a young woman from the village of La Pintada and as the other girls, I’ve known her for years and always had a weak spot for her. Whereas many girls from the indigenous communities are very timid, Helen is outgoing and always the first to volunteer. When I went up to la Pintada in December with a camera crew that wanted to film indigenous women making cornhusk dolls, Helen was, as always, the first to invite us into her home and show us her craft making. I just hope she’ll keep studying…

Sonia is five years old and also from la Pintada. I’ve known her basically since her birth, because she is the daughter of a student of us, unfortunately a girl herself. Sonia’s short life hasn’t been extremely difficult, but whenever I see her, she’s always full of smiles and ready to play. I hope she never loses that playfulness. 
I met Maritza when here daughter participated in the first Children’s Council in 2002 and we have been friends ever since. Maritza is from a tiny village about two hours from Copán (nowadays. It used to be more like 4, back then), in a very remote corner of the municipality of Copán. Maritza is a fighter and a doer and nothing will stop her. Despite her lack of education (she never finished elementary school herself) Maritza decided to open a kindergarten in her village. She started with a small group of children in her own home, but a few years later she managed to get a real classroom donated to the community where she now teaches about 50 kids. This kindergarten happens to be named “Carin Steen” which is a great honour for me (albeit also a great obligation…). And she and her family have honoured me even more when her first grandchild was called Carin Maritza. May she turn in such a strong woman as her abuelita Maritza!
I have thousands of pictures of kids, but not so many of older women. The opening of my show was coming near and time was running out, so I asked around for some good head shots. My good friend Fredy Rodriguez sent me a few great pictures of women in the village of Carrizalón. So I don’t know these women personally, but I’m fascinated by their features and hope I’ve managed to express, through their hardship, their beauty and dignity.


Elsa is from a small village and dropped out of school in grade 3, because her father didn’t think she needed any more education. But Elsa didn’t agree and decided to educate herself. So through the Maestro en Casa program (classes broadcasted by radio), she graduated from elementary school. And then she went on and struggled her way through high school in the same way. Five years ago, Elsa started to work with me as a facilitator in our Maya education project. Besides her job, she kept on studying, started a successful sowing business, sells AVON (lots of it) and is a mother and wife as well. I was extremely proud when last December she asked me to be her godmother at her graduation, because Elsa is now an elementary teacher herself. 

Destiny was the cutest thing when she came to live in Copán about nine years ago. Cute is not quite the word anymore, she’s just drop dead gorgeous. She’s a terrific kid and what I really love about her is that she LOVES TO READ! More than that, she devours one book after the other. Much like I did when I was a kid, but not something you see a lot in this country. So I’m more than happy to lend her my books and enjoy our conversations about what we’ve read. 
In June of 2012 I had the opportunity to accompany two girls from the small indigenous village of la Pintada to Spain to attend the Fourth youth Forum on Cultural Patrimony. It was an amazing trip, visiting al these majestic places throughout Spain. But for the girls, who had never left their village before, it was so much more than that. It was an eye-opening, inspiring, scary sometimes, but mostly life changing experience. For this painting of Dilcia I chose a photo I took in Cordoba, where we visit the famous mosque. Dilcia was super tired at the time (who could blame her), but I love her pensive expression. The background of this painting is based on the wooden carved windows of the mosque. What a symmetry!
There’s one more woman to go in this series, but more about her later.
All these portraits were painted with gouache on watercolour paper and measure 51 x 36cm (Except for “Kensy”, 75 x 55cm).
Except for “Helen” and “Destiny”, all works are for sale (with or without frame) and can be shipped. For prices and shipping details, please contact me through email.

Friday, January 25, 2013

National Women’s Day

Today is National Women’s Day in Honduras. I hope it’s good for something. In the meantime, I’d like to invite you to the opening of my new art show “Ellas”.
Ellas" is the name of an series of paintings dedicated to Honduran women. Not so much to the women who have been social or cultural icons in this country, but to the women we meet every day in our life and without whom the world would stop turning: mothers, workers, peasants, the neighbors, the vendors, as well as the next generation of Hondureñas. Those women are the ones who are the true pillars of society, and therefore deserve the respect and attention they do not always get.

Saturday January 26, 7.00pm
Café Via Via
Copán Ruinas
, Honduras

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Some thoughts on feminism in Honduras

I’ve been brought up in quite a feminist way. Since I was little, my mom told me to not ever become a slave of a future husband; not to let anything be taken for granted; not to waste my life doing laundry, cleaning and cooking for family members who don’t appreciate it.

Well, I guess I learned my lesson well. I’m single, no kids and I’m a slob. I don’t iron, I have holes in my clothes (not to mention the paint spatters) and I’m eternally grateful to my washing machine that does my laundry for me. I clean when lifeless objects start moving around the house by themselves; and cobwebs don’t bother me in the least. It’s not that I hate doing domestic chores. Actually, I quite love cooking and cleaning. Just not everyday.

The one thing I never quite understood in the lesson my mom tried to teach me is that as a woman I should never feel any less than a man. Simply because I never did. And that’s why I never quite got the whole feminist ideology, because I feel it somehow implies that women are lesser than men, a thought I don’t share at all. Quite the contrary, I must say.

But that was then, growing up in Holland where, as a woman, I never felt to be at a disadvantage.

In Honduras, though, it’s a whole different story. I don’t feel discriminated on a personal level, because I have such an outsider position anyway, being a foreigner and an artist too (and “crazy”, for that matter). But you must be blind not to notice the fact that women are at a serious disadvantage in this country. Machismo reigns while it’s women’s tremendous effort that keeps the motor of society running. However, they barely receive acknowledgement for that fact.

For over twelve years I’ve worked with kids here in Copán and over the years I’ve always had a group of boys that come by, just to hang around, help a little, have some fun. Much the same way I used to hang around interesting adults when I was a kid. But I hardly ever had (or have) any girls hanging around. And the reality is, they can’t. From a very early age (six or seven), girls are in charge of their younger siblings. From the age of ten and on, girls would stop coming to my art workshops because they had to help at home. Running errands, doing laundry or cooking, while their brothers are free to play and do whatever they want. It’s true that girls mature earlier than boys, but the responsibilities thrown onto girls from an early age on, are way bigger than the ones for boys. And then, when their brothers slowly grow into adolescence, girls get interested in boys. Of course they are warned about the dangers of “running around with boys”, but hardly with any decent sexual education. Instead, they are threatened not come home pregnant (but without proper knowledge about how to avoid that). Then there’s that whole myth girls devoutly believe in that when you’ll bear a man’s child, he’ll take care of you for the rest of your life. Gee. Just look around and you should know that THAT is the biggest misunderstanding EVER! However, girls don’t seem to learn. They drop out of school, spend their little money on sexy clothes, and by the time they’re in their twenties, they’re already multiple moms and very often single. I don’t know if anybody ever investigated the statistics, but Honduras seems to be overpopulated with single women, while I yet have to meet a single MAN! Even if a marriage doesn’t work out (usually the man leaves the woman for another), it’s the women who become single while the men, obviously, don’t. Even the women that have a man on the side (or an ex-husband) are single women, while you can hardly consider a man single when the sleeps with the one woman, has his laundry done by another, while having dinner served by a third. And the women keep bearing their children, because, you know, if…

No. It doesn’t work that way. But as long as moms keep educating their daughters the same way they were brought up, I see little chance for change. Not that I think women are to blame here, it’s a responsibility of the whole society. But yes, I do absolutely believe that feminism is an important movement with much work ahead here in Honduras. So while I’m living here, I’m thinking of becoming a feminist after all. Just for the sake of all those terrific, hardworking, suffering women who need to stop thinking of themselves as lesser than men. Women, you’re NOT!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fried Chicken Frenzy

December 5 is Día Nacional del Pollo in Honduras. National Chicken Day doesn’t celebrate the existence of the feathery kind, but its fried variety.  

Hondurans are obsessed with fried chicken. In Copán there are no major fast food restaurants such as Popeye, Pollo Campero or Church’s Chicken (yet), but we do have a Super Pollo Express (expanding from Santa Rosa de Copán) and several small fried chicken joints. The latter are very basic but resourceful, using handmade frying equipment to sell chicken at the most unexpected places. Their overhead is low, and so is the price of their product: a piece of chicken, French fries, 4 tortillas (of course) plus plenty of mayonnaise and ketchup on a Styrofoam plate, wrapped with cellophane and put in a plastic bag, sets you back 30 Lempiras ($1,50). It’s affordable, even for the poorest campesinos, so the lines are long, from 7 in the morning until after lunch.

I lived the fried chicken experience from rather close by when my landlord decided to rent out one of his spaces to a “Rapi Pollo”. As much as I like my landlord and the guy who sold the chicken, I was not happy. Sharing a patio with a fried chicken joint, without any kind of air extraction was not fun. Some kids commented that my neighbour and I were so lucky to be able to smell fried chicken all the time, but we were less amused with a bed room, living room, laundry, everything reeking of fried chicken. And I don’t even like fried chicken! So it was us or the chicken. That war we won.

I happened to be in Tegucigalpa on National Chicken Day and was blissfully unaware of the fact, until I was on my way to a cultural event a block away from the central park. Hundreds of people were lined up and for a split second I thought they were waiting for the poetry reading to start. That thought really only lasted a nanosecond or so, because people lining up for culture? Pffff…. And indeed, they weren’t. They were waiting for two pieces of fried chicken that Church’s was giving away to anyone who showed their ad from the newspaper. After obtaining the much desired piece of meat, people hurried off. No one waited around to listen to poetry.

The next morning I read in the newspaper a raving report on how successful the event had been and how much happiness the chicken had brought to the people. I found it all very disturbing.

Which led me to the idea for a new art project. If people will line up massively for a free piece of chicken (but not for art), would they line up for a painting of a piece of fried chicken??? 
So right now I’m looking for sponsors who can compensate me for painting a few hundred canvases of fried chicken. I’ll then place an ad in the newspaper, offering a free painting of fried chicken in exchange for that ad.

Will people line up????

Or will the lynch me?

I just remembered a Japanese theatre group that toured through Honduras a few years ago, also visiting Copán. Throughout the whole municipality a lot of publicity was being made, inviting people to the play called “A Hundred Sacks of Rice”. Surprisingly enough, a lot of people from all over the place actually showed up. But when the play was over, a riot almost broke out: the people hadn’t come to town to watch the play, but because they thought that a hundred sacks of rice were being given away.

So maybe my painted chicken is not such a good idea. Coming between a Honduran and his fried chicken might not end well…

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Puma, Nike and Jesus

Whereas buses in Guatemala are beautifully decorated in vibrant colours, the Honduran transporters prefer a different style: slogans! And it’s not just the slogan that matters, the font is just as important! Sticky letters have taken over painted texts. The Coca Cola font is very popular, as is any letter type that appears to melt or has blood dripping from the letters. Spelling is not a big issue and often words are creatively adapted to the space they need to fit in (or maybe to save on a few letters). Who cares that “Río Amarillo” is being spelled as “Río Amarío”? You save two letters and the pronunciation is the same!

Here some slogans that I’ve seen driving around town:  

I’m on my way, cry-babies!

You suffer just watching me

Losers, here I come!

Only God knows if I’ll come back

May God give you what you wish to me

I trust that God will protect us on the road

I love the odd combination of macho flirtatious show-off behaviour with religious awe, often decorated by logos of well-known sport brands, Puma and Nike being the most popular. I’m not sure what the connection is between Puma and God, or Nike and Jesus for that matter, but they often go together. “Jesus loves me”, it says on the window of a big bus, in funky graffiti-like letters. In the corner the Puma logo.
Or another intriguing one: a Nike swoosh with above the words ”Jesus live”. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be English (Jesus lives, maybe?) or that it refers to a live performance of Jesus in a Nike commercial. Or maybe it is simply misspelled Spanish, meaning to say “Jesús vive”.

Silhouettes of shapely naked ladies are popular too, of course, as are Playboy bunnies. But religious imagery predominates. Apparently you can now order any image you like and have it printed at any desirable size. Even if the proportions of the window or door that needs to be covered are a far cry from the original image. Hence the many very broad-faced Jesuses and Marias stretched out over the whole width or length of a car. It looks a bit silly to me, but I seem to be the only one to notice anyway. 

The slogan thing is not just limited to buses, coasters or vans. The moto-taxis in town are covered too, so are many personal cars. I even noticed that my assistant Toño covered the front of his motorbike with inspiring lecture. It almost makes me wish I had a car of own.

You’ll cry when I leave!

No capacity . I believe in God - Because you'll grow - If only God is Great - Obsession (Photo by Gustavo Poublanc)

Matter of Faith (Photo by Gustavo Poublanc)

Who better than Adam, who had no Mother-in-law (Photo by Gustavo Poublanc)