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, October 21, 2014

A Market Full of Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Circus Was In Town

For weeks the big blue tent occupied a huge chunk of parking space behind the bus terminal in Antigua Guatemala. And just when I had decided to go, of course the tent was swiftly broken up, loaded into an impressive amount of unlikely vehicles and gone, just like that.

I love the circus. I think the last time I visited one was in Copán a year or maybe two ago. It was tiny, the tent made of Tigo and Claro* leftover vinyls and besides a scruffy dog, two chickens and an even scruffier goat, there were no animals. Because, explained a bubbly and charismatic teenager who turned out to be the star of the show, the circus had a policy against the mistreatment of animals. Lack of resources seemed more likely, but indeed, the dog, goat and two chickens scavenging for popcorn under the bleachers appeared to be happy enough.

I’m probably not the only person in the world who dreamed as a kid to run off with the circus. But few were might have been as prepared as I was. My biggest dream was to work with the tigers and lions but I was realistic enough to realize that that was a job probably not given to an inexperienced nine-year old. So I practiced juggling and tightrope walking instead. I learned quickly (the hard way) that juggling wasn’t my thing and the tightrope, well, that might have worked out if only I had been able to practice on a real steel cable, not a piece of rope attached to a table and the living room couch.

So becoming a clown was about the only option. Now that I could do, I figured. And in my mind I prepared scripts, designed costumes and received a standing applause after the audience fell off their seats crying with laughter. I saw myself travelling the world in a colourful circus wagon, becoming everybody’s friend while keeping my expression reserved, marking that distinguished distance between the happy clown and the sad but wise person behind the mask.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, who’s to say), no circus caravan ever crossed my way and thus I stayed put, for the time being. But that circus itch never went completely away.

About ten or twelve years ago we were having a meeting at my place in Copán Ruinas about some sort of community project when all of a sudden we heard this roar.
“It sounds like a lion,” I said.
“Don’t be crazy, it must be a cow in heat,” a colleague answered.

But it was a lion… That night a circus had set up business in the field across the creek, right next to my house. I found out when I went walking the dogs the next morning. How exciting!
That night I rounded up some kids (never a lack of those and a great excuse to go to the circus) and there we went. Since I was paying for a whole bunch we didn’t take the more expensive seats (white plastic chairs) in the arena, but placed our butts on scarce planks on rackety bleachers. And the show began…

The guy with the python was impressive and also incredibly handsome. The clowns were very vulgar and totally unsuitable for a young audience, but that made them even funnier… The lions… Look, there was “my” lion! They came into the arena without a cage, without a leash or any other attire to refrain them from eating some juicy kids in the front row (and how happy I was to sit high up on the bleachers!). Then there was this round thing, almost like a hamster wheel, that circled up and down. The acrobats went inside first and then started running the wheel on the outside. Every time the wheel went up, they had to duck so they wouldn’t touch the roof. Scary I thought, what if… Because of course there was no safety net.

Even in the small, shabby circuses, things are way harder than they look and I think the artists deserve a tremendous respect. Especially in the small circuses, where the clown is also the acrobat on the tightrope, the musician, the driver, the lion tamer and the one who sells the tickets. And sometimes things do go terribly wrong…

I wasn’t there when it happened, but a few days into the show, one of the acrobats didn’t duck when he hit the roof and he fell all the way down. He was taken to the hospital and while he was recovering the circus stayed put. First for days, then for weeks that slowly turned into months. And I woke up every day to the roar of the lion.

In a small town as Copán Ruinas you can sell only so many tickets, so when everybody not overly evangelical had seen the show, the tickets became cheaper, just to keep the show going on. The show itself also became more routine, the jokes more vulgar, the performances less inspired. I would see Handsome Snake Guy at the market, Grumpy Circus Director at the auto repair shop and the Lovely albeit quite chubby Lady Acrobat at the creek, doing laundry. Little by little the glow, the glitter, the illusion of the circus was fading away. But not for me. The more human I saw them, the more magic they became to me. And that old circus itch was bothering me again, although now I was old enough to see myself travelling in an old beaten-up Ford, not in that colourful cart.

But one day I woke up and the circus was gone.
Just like that, gone, leaving only a yellow patch of grass and some trash behind.
They hadn’t warned me, they vanished into the night the way they had come.
So yet again I missed my chance to run off with the circus.

*Local cell phone companies

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Mystery of the Vanished Maya Glyphs

(Or: Miracles Do Happen in Honduras)
The Missing Maya Glyphs
In March of 2012 I painted a series of Maya Tzolk’in calendar glyphs for a friend of mine who lives in Costa Rica. After emailing back and forth about colours, size and dates, we agreed on six glyphs representing the birthdays of herself, her husband, their wedding date and their three kids in colours that fitted the paintings’ future surroundings. 
I happily went to work and my friend was pleased with the picture of the results I emailed her. There was no need to send the paintings to Costa Rica, because she was planning a trip to Honduras soon, even though she probably wouldn’t be able to make it to Copán Ruinas. No problem, I wrapped the six canvases neatly up, wrote both her and my contact details on the front and was ready to send it off by bus to the capital where she could pick it up.
But in the end she came to Copán anyway, so I hand delivered her the package. Much safer, we both thought. She didn’t even want to open the package since it was such a nice and tight fit.
My friend left Copán soon after, back to the capital to catch her flight back home.
And that’s when things went terribly wrong.

Minutes before boarding the plane, my friend made a last pit stop to the bathroom. She had the paintings with her as carry on luggage (so nothing would happen to them) and placed them on the water reservoir behind her while using the toilet. That’s when she heard a last boarding call for her flight. She quickly finished her business and ran to catch her plane.
It wasn’t until the plane was about to take off that she realized that she had left the paintings in the bathroom…

As soon as she got home she called the airport in Tegucigalpa. Alas, no report of a found package. Next she wrote to me, to confess she had lost the paintings, which made me laugh more than anything else, because her recount of the incident was hilarious.

Despite it being slightly funny, it was also a big loss so my friend never gave up. She had never even seen the paintings! She kept on calling and emailing different offices at the airport in Honduras, with no results. She called a many-times-removed-cousin who happened to work at the airport, but the woman in question was just as unsuccessful in her efforts to retrieve the paintings. My friend updated me almost daily on the progress, which was still nil and made us wonder…

Where the hell were those paintings???

Had the package been considered suspicious and maybe destroyed in a controlled explosion by a group of disposal experts?
Unlikely. Which idiot of a terrorist would write his or her address on it? And security in Honduras is just not as secure as it is in the US.

Had it been lost I the Lost & Found department?

Had a cleaning lady found the package and taken it home? Maybe. It that case it was quite likely that my canvases of ancient Maya glyphs were now hanging upside down in someone’s toilet or being used a placemats.

Had another passenger taken the package with him or her and after opening it thinking the paintings were worth a fortune? (Unfortunately they’re not. A small fortune, yes, but not quite worth hanging onto a bunch of highly customized date glyphs made for someone else.)

Had somebody maybe thought the package was part of a drug exchange deal??? Unlikely. Too flat, too big.

Was it all a scheme on my part in order to re-do the paintings and make more money???
Interesting option, but I wouldn’t know how to pull that off. I mean, how do you make someone forget something at the right time and place???

Many scenarios crossed our minds and were exchanged per email, but that didn’t change the fact that the paintings had vanished into thin air.

We waited for weeks and then for months. Finally my friend decided she did want those paintings on her walls, so she asked me to make a new series.
And so I did. You see, it was a lucrative deal for me after all, even though I gave her a big “Disappointment for Reasons of Disappearing Discount” on top of the “Friendship Discount” she had already gotten in the first place.
This time we didn’t take any risks. The new paintings were handed over personally and attached to my friends wrists with a pair of handcuffs. Well, so to speak. And yes, this time they did make it to Costa Rica…Happy ending for my Maya Glyphs and a satisfied customer.
End of story.

Well, not quite!
Yesterday morning my friend got an email from Interairports (whatever that maybe. Maybe a place in between airports where long lost items are stored?) Anyway, the sender said he had paintings from Carin Steen addressed to my friend right there in his office and to email him back for more information.

Can you belief that, after two and a half years???

So in two weeks time my friend is coming back to Honduras and will pick up the paintings personally. That is, if she’s not required to pay a huge ransom, fine, deposit fee or bribe.

For now I keep my fingers crossed. I’ll really belief this miracle the moment my friend will mail me a picture of her having the paintings in her hands. And then she will have two sets of basically the same paintings.
Her reaction?

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

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Road Blocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Thursday, August 21, 2014

My People: The Story behind the Paintings

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

Thank you, mi gente


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







Tuesday, July 15, 2014

La Dolorosita: The Story Behind the Painting

La Dolorosita,gouache on watercolour paper, 55 x 70cm
Sunrise wouldn’t be there for another half hour, but already the sky was streaked with purples and reds. The ringing of church bells carried loud and clear through the crispy early morning air. Despite the ungodly hour, the sound of shuffling feet echoed off the sleepy walls in my street. So it was happening indeed…

I had been living in Guatemala for less then three weeks and was excited to be able to be present for Semana Santa for the first time in my life. Not that Easter was anywhere near yet, it was only April 6th, but processions were already in full swing in Antigua. One of the biggest processions would be the one of San Bartolo, the village I happen to live. It’s not much of a village although it has the cutest mini-central park with its typical white church and public pila (washbasin). I’d read in the newspaper that around 100,000 people were expected to participate in the procession, which I laughed off as misprint. No way 100,000 people would fit in the whole of San Bartolo!

I woke up the friend who was visiting me that weekend and we quickly got dressed. Armed with nothing but our cameras and keys we left home. The first rays of sunshine made it over the mountains in the East of the valley. My street was busier than ever with people streaming out of alleys, front doors and backyards, all huddled up against the morning chill before joining the steady flow of people heading towards the church.
When we turned around the corner we could barely believe it: hundreds of people poured into the narrow street that led to the church, carefully avoiding the colourful sawdust carpets in the middle. Apparently the central park was already filled up, because people stopped half way down the street, politely lining up. Whole families were present and surprisingly, many adolescents too. I saw people carrying stools, iceboxes and toilet paper rolls. Well prepared for an event I myself barely know what to expect of.

Instead of getting stuck in the long line in front of the church, my friend and I decided to go against the stream and try to make it to the main road that leads to Antigua. It took a while, but we made it. More sawdust carpets followed, one after the other, every one even more colourful and stunning than the previous.
Although the road was much wider, it wasn’t easy to continue walking towards Antigua with the hundreds, thousands of people going the opposite way. But it was our first procession and at the time we still insisted on seeing each and every sawdust carpet.

About an hour later we had progressed maybe a mile when we realised that we were totally unprepared. The sun was getting fiercer by the minute and we had no water with us, much less money to buy some coffee or delicious smelling pastries that were offered alongside the road. Luckily enough I had lived long enough in the community to know about a back road, so we decided to walk around the multitude and go back home to pick up what we had earlier forgotten.

An hour and about 4 miles later, we where back on the main road, halfway between Antigua and San Bartolo. We had been afraid we might miss the procession, but there was no need, Crossing the sawdust carpets, swinging sideways and back, praying and singing, the procession proceeded very, very slowly.
By then I was convinced that the number of a 100,000 people might indeed not be exaggerated. Thousands lined the 2 mile road, thousands more followed the procession, not to mention the street vendors and Cuchurucos, the men in purple who were taking turns carrying the anda (altar).

First came the Romans, proclaiming the crucifixion of Jesus, followed by a band of more scarily realistic looking Roman soldiers. Then some altar boys carrying incense burners that filled the street with acrid smoke. Finally, finally, the big anda came into view, moving sluggishly forward and sideways on the sad melody of a funeral march. The cuchurucos seemed to be in trance, suffering even, below the heavy load.

One mesmerizing image immediately caught my eye. One of the Cuchurucos held hands with a little girl, I assume his daughter. She was dressed in a white dress sharply contrasted against the deep purple, with the traditional veil of Las Doloras, the female version of Los Cuchurucos. I aimed my camera and saw her looking right into my lens. Click! I hoped my auto focus had done its work, because this could be a good one…
Later, when going through hundreds of pictures of a few hours of procession, I found out that the girl not only looked straight into the lens, she also had one finger delightfully in her nose. Great serendipitous moment! I knew then that one day I’d do something with that picture.
And I did.

And by the way, it’s for sale… :)

Friday, July 4, 2014

Orange in Guatemala

“You want a bag for that?” the guy at the counter asks routinely without making eye contact.
“Nah, thanks, I’m good.” I answer, not overly polite either.
“You from the US?” he asks while packing my groceries anyway.
“Nope. Holland”
“Ah! Holland!” The guy looks up with a big smile and sparkling eyes.
“They play really well this Cup!”

And there I made yet another best friend solely based on football and my nationality.
Where were they last Sunday when I needed them?

Holland – Mexico. It was the first match I was going to watch in public and I was looking forward to it. None of my orange garments survived my last move, which was okay. It was after all my first game out, all by myself and, -what if we lose??? So I subtly opted for a pair of jeans with a red and white border (the Dutch flag, from my upside-down point of view) and a pair of sneakers you can call sort of orange. I avoided the most popular sports bar (too loud, too big, too Mexican) and went instead to a family run restaurant with great breakfasts. It was, after all, a Sunday and only 10am.

Leaving home to watch the game turned out to be a good decision, because as it happened there was no cable service in the whole of Antigua. But Guatemalans are as creative as Copanecos when it comes to wanting to watch a game (oh, the many times we climbed mountains, crossed municipal and even international borders whenever there was no electricity or cable signal…). In this case the problem was solved with two good old-fashioned antennas quickly bought at the hardware store and attached with tape to both widescreen super-duper HD flat screens. I don’t know why we couldn’t watch the live internet broadcast that was on for a few minutes, although I admit it looked more like a video game than real football and made me feel like pushing a button and blowing Ochoa’s head off. But after some fussing and fondling with the antennas for the first ten minutes of the game, we were ready to go, watching Mexico getting the overhand on a screen as snowy as my own little TV at home.

The problem was…. I turned out to be the only Dutch citizen in the whole place. Worse, I seemed to be the only person rooting for Holland in a restaurant that was quickly filling up with Guatemalan families supporting anything Latin rather than cheese-heads.

At half time I considered going to a place a bit more orangey, but what if other bars were without cable and antennas? So I stayed put and changed coffee for beer. Even when the cable signal finally came back in the 51st minute and the screen suddenly turned a crisply clear green. But with a 0-1 hanging over our heads, I wasn’t going anywhere.

Well, for those of you who watched the game, you know how it ended, and for those who don’t care, you probably know too, so no need to describe the rest of the agony. I was sure we were going to lose… I was already thinking of replacing my crazy supporter profile pic on Facebook for a mourning Mexican llorona.

And all of a sudden the game was over and Holland had won. Not very gracefully in my opinion, but we were through! And how weird to cheer for that among a crowd of disappointed Latinos who saw yet another Latin country make way for those Europeans… Yes, I too felt bad for Mexico. But not that bad…

I didn’t linger much (I’m such a good sport, I don’t glee) and rode my bike back home, feeling oddly detached from Guatemala and the rest of the planet. All of a sudden loud honks sounded from behind and a cheering blur of red, white blue and orange flew by on a scooter. It took me a second to realize it was Alejandro, a Guatemalan from my neighbourhood who’s married to a Dutch woman and hence a fierce supporter of La Naranja Mecánica. His neon orange fluffy clogs brought a big smile to my face.

For tomorrow I’m better prepared. I’m going to watch the game in company of quite a group of Dutch ex-pats and beforehand I’ll go by a Dutch friend to dress up with some of the orange stuff she has accumulated over the years. Hats, crowns, scarves, shirts, wigs and more stuff that’s been multiplying in a far corner of her storage room, surviving spring cleanings and yard sales. After all, you can’t really donate a bunch of orange wigs to the poor, homeless or needy.

Can’t wait… The pre-fun has already started!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Solitary Soccer

And there we are again! The World Cup is in full swing with tons of goals, many surprises and my favourite team qualified for the next round. I couldn’t be happier! I transformed my office / studio into a multimedia control centre so now I can paint, post on Facebook and watch the games at the same time! Ha! I sing the Honduran national anthem out loud (position 1, hand on heart) and mumble along with the Dutch one (yes, seventeen years in Honduras has left its imprints). I yell, swear, scream trilingual and upset my pets. Brazil 2014, I’m all for it!

I do miss my football buddies. I’m pretty much settled since I moved from Copán, Honduras, to Antigua Guatemala three months ago. I’ve met a lot of amazing people and of course there are plenty of terrific bars and restaurants here to watch the games, but I haven’t found “my” scene yet. I also miss getting congratulated on the street for one of Holland’s achievements (as if I had anything to do with Van Persie’s dive) and the group of fellow supporters that root for Orange or at least pretend to do so when I’m around. Yes, watching football with friends in a bar is a lot more fun. But then again, it is also much more expensive. And I get a lot more work done watching the games at home, drinking tea instead of beer.

Watching the Cup in Guatemala is quite a different experience from living it in Honduras. Not that the Guatemalans don’t live for football, they absolutely do. Even out on the street you don’t have to miss a beat. Every restaurant, bar store or market stall has a TV turned on, and if not, peoples’ cheers or swearing will keep you informed. But Guatemala is not one of the happy 32, and thus there’s not one team to nationally root for. Instead, people’s favourite teams are as diverse as the number of countries, with a slight and understandable preference for Central American countries such as Costa Rica and Honduras. That preference will shift soon depending on the outcome of the next few rounds, but staying home as close as possible is the norm. People might hate Brazil now, but if Brazil will have to face, let’s say, Holland, in the finals, then Latin America goes first. Understandable.

I support Honduras, of course, because I feel so connected to the country after living there for so long. I never expected Honduras to win the Cup (or even the first round, but that would be a mean thing to say), but “my” team is, of course, Holland. Amazing, as little patriotic as I am, watching those Dutchmen fly over the field gives me goosebumps. Even sitting here all by myself at home surrounded by nothing but cats and dogs.

Gotta go…Game is starting….

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Thirty Years of Companionship

I’m writing this while looking at my old, battered copy of One Hundred years of Solitude. Old and battered because we’ve been on quite a trip, that book and I, since I bought it in 1994 in Antigua Guatemala.

But that was not the first time I read the book. That memorable event happened about ten years earlier when I was fourteen and on vacation in France with my parents. A terribly boring vacation (of course, when you’re fourteen and traveling with your family), so I found my escape in an equally battered and borrowed copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, although this one in Dutch. I remember sitting on a rock in the Atlantic Ocean when I finished it and a wave of panic came over me. What to do next? I’d been so absorbed in the terrific tale of flying carpets, brilliant descriptions on how ice burns at a touch and babies being born with pig’s tails… I didn’t experience the magical realism as strange or foreign. On the contrary, the whole story seemed oddly familiar, a magical world in which I felt inexplicably but completely at home. The biggest regret was that I had just finished reading it. The other the fact I couldn’t read the book in its original language and probably never would. I mean, I didn’t speak a word of Spanish, I had no connection with Latin American culture whatsoever and had never even visited Spain! But the first problem could be solved: ten minutes after finishing the book, I started reading it again until high tide ran me off my rock.

Years went by and somehow I got to work in the fashion industry. I was making decent money working long hours and I got to a point I really needed a break. A break in a sunny place, preferably with palm trees and nice beaches. Portugal seemed interesting, but not warm enough to my taste that time of the year. I couldn’t care less about the destination, as long as there was sun… So I went to a travel agency (the thing we used to do before booking online) and asked for any destination available within my scheduled vacation time, as long as it was exotic and tropical.
So that’s how I ended up in Cancún, Mexico.

My first thought was that I’d made a terrible mistake. Egyptian pyramids, huge high-rise hotels, big-bellied noisy herds of tourists… What the heck was this place?
Within 24 hours after arriving I took a bus to Mérida and some magical happened right there and then when I was walking around the cobble stoned streets of this colonial town: I felt at home! Seriously, it was such a strange and unexpected feeling, to arrive in a entirely unfamiliar environment and sense a complete and intense feeling of belonging. How odd!

And of course One Hundred years of Solitude came to mind… There was the Buendía family’s home …the almond tree… the scruffy dog… the sweltering heat… Merida is not Macondo or Aracataca of course, but the element were there all the same and I felt suck back into that wonderful but tragic history…

Needless to say; I very much enjoyed that first vacation in Mexico, mostly spent in a tiny village at the Gulf of Mexico called Progreso. See, I’m not much of a traveler, I just like to be in places. And the place got me hooked.

So year after year I traveled back to Mexico, each time going a bit further south, but not advancing much. Until I came to the realization that working my butt off for eleven months a year to be delightfully happy for four weeks out of a year seemed absurd. So after one more trip I decided to give up my job, travel back to Mexico and stay there as long as my money lasted.

This time I made it as far south as Antigua Guatemala. That had been sort of the plan, because I’d heard that there were some excellent Spanish schools and indeed there were. I spent a few delightful months in Antigua, picking up Spanish fast and within less time than I expected I felt I was ready to read One Hundred years of Solitude again, but this time in Spanish.

My Spanish was far from fluent at the time, but what amazed me was the simplicity of that newly purchased novel in its original language. Not only was it a completely different book now that I knew a little more about Latin American culture, it was also the language that struck me: simplistic is not the word, it’s just that the vocabulary used in Spanish seemed to be so much more basic and to the core than the elaborate translation I had read in Dutch. I loved every sentence of it and kept on repeating whole phrases as if they were mantras.

Unfortunately I ran out of money, as I tend to do, and I had to go back to Holland. But not back to the fashion industry. I had decided I wanted to study Latin American literature, and Gabriel García Márquez was to blame for that.

Starting at university in the middle of my twenties wasn’t easy, because I wasn’t any longer entitled to a scholarship, but what the heck, I enjoyed it tremendously. Besides the whole oeuvre of García Márquez I got to know many more terrific writers. But still, García Márquez was my all time hero.

A drawback to my new life was that financially I wasn’t doing that great, being a student and all. Despite my three odd jobs I could no longer afford yearly visits to Latin America. When I got a fax (Indeed! A fax! We’re talking middle nineties here!) from friends of mine who had started a restaurant in a small town of Honduras, asking me to take care of the business while they had to go back to Holland, I jumped at the opportunity. Two months of free room and board in the tropics? Oh yeah!

So off I went and of course I packed my copy of One Hundred years of Solitude in my backpack. The only tiny change in my travel plans was that I didn’t return to Holland after two months, but stayed on for two more. And then till the end of the year. And then till…

Actually, until I’d spent seventeen years eight days and one hour in the mountainous border town of Copán Ruinas.
By then of course I realized that magic realism doesn’t exist, it’s realism instead. I had experienced weirder things than I’d read in One Hundred years of Solitude and that made me love the book –and Latin America- all the more.

Despite a wonderful, amazing, inspiring and challenging seventeen years, eight days and one hour in Copán Ruinas, I decided it was time to move on somewhere else. So that’s how I ended up back in Antigua Guatemala, where one of the first things I did was building bookshelves for my García Märquez collection, One Hundred years of Solitude of course leading the row.

I had not even been living here for a month when I heard the sad news about García Márquez’ passing. Not totally unexpected, but sad nonetheless. A giant has left us, but thankfully his writings will be with us for ever more.

Sitting here at my desk, my copy of One Hundred years of Solitude as an icon next to the monitor, my mind is wondering about the unexpected turns life takes and where I’ll be in ten or twenty years from now. At least one part of my life has come full circle now that the book and I are both back in Antigua.

I guess it’s time to start reading it again.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mission Accomplished!

Argi, Teresa and me

A week ago we were on our way to the doctor in Guatemala without a clue about what could possibly await us after that split-second decision to leave Teresa (a 56-year old woman from a small village in Copán with a terrible infection in her face) behind for emergency surgery.

This whole week has been about Teresa. Each morning started with excited yells back and forward as my roommate Argi  and I happily exchanged how many more donations we received overnight in our Paypal accounts. The next thing would be a call to Teresa to see how she was doing and how many times she went to the bathroom. Yes, life turns surreal when your first thought on a Sunday morning is: I hope Teresa peed well! Not that the danger was anything surreal, because the medication is very hard on the kidneys and at the first sign of kidney failure, we were to take her of those specific antibiotics. Which could lead to yet another problem, since Teresa already turned out to be resistant to the first antibiotics prescribed. But all well, she had a blood analysis yesterday and there’re no problems on the kidney front.
Next I’d start writing people thank you notes, update the blog, inform people how to donate and so on while Argi would call the doctor in Guate for a daily update and make sure the right medications were taken on the right time. It was not so much time consuming as attention absorbing. And besides Teresa’s health, it was also the uncertainty whether we would be able to raise enough money that was quite stressfull.

Yesterday we went to visit Teresa who’s staying at her colleague’s house, just outside Copán. Logistically it’s much easier to stay there, with of all the nurses’ and doctors’ visits, but also because Helda’s home is, though tiny, well built, meticulously clean and much easier to maintain that way than Teresa’s own house where it’s a coming and going of neighbours, kids, dogs, cats and chickens. I think she’s secretly also happy to be away from the family and village hubbub for a bit. After all, a lot of people in her village, including some family members, believe that the maggots that were crawling out of her face were a result of witchcraft, which doesn’t do much good for relationships within the community.

Anyway, Teresa was doing great when we saw her, talkative and joking around. I think she only half understands the effort it has been on behalf of so many people to get her were she is now, which is fine, because she’s the last person to worry about that. She told us how friendly the people in the hospital had been and that it wasn’t half as bad as she had expected (Little does she know that she stayed in a private hospital, because the surgery was anything but regular, and yes, that’s why she didn’t have to share the bed with two other patients!) and how great people have been in general. She is very grateful for all help received. And it’s just about the money, it’s knowing she was not alone when she most needed help. 
On Thursday she’s going back to the clinic for a check-up and from there probably back to her mountain. Unless there are some major changes or complications, I guess this will be my last post on Teresa. Weird. Sad somehow too. Of course we’ll continue to visit and monitor Teresa in the following weeks, but all the excitement of last week will leave a strange hole behind.

On behalf of Teresa, her family, Argi and me, there are really no words that can thank you enough, all those wonderful people who stepped up and generously donated to help out a poor women many of you have never met. It has been an amazing experience, starting in great anguish, ending in a jubilant success, making Teresa’s health a small victory, if not for entire mankind, then at least for Teresa and for all of us involved, learning yet again that there are so many people full of compassion and generosity among us, and that makes all the difference.

Well, that leaves us here. Mission accomplished! We have raised more than enough money, a whooping total of $3,611! Please don’t send us any more money (but if you do, we’ll make sure it gets to Teresa anyway).

Thanks so much to the following people:

Agueda Interiano, Al Steele, Alejandro Ferraro, Alice Dearden, Alice Wilbur, Amanda Mopeth, Anna Smith, Annemie van Nieuwenhove & Geert van Vaeck, Argi Diez, Beatriz & Aura Martínez, Bill Corba, Bill Sain, Café San Rafael, Carlos Alvarado, Cesar Borregón, Darlene Carlton & Gary, Diana Pineda, Elisa Orsburn, Elizabeth Butler, Elsa Rubin & Lizzette Soto, Fito Alvarado, Flavia Cueva, Frida Larios, Hacienda San Lucas, Heather Butler, Helena Ihamuotila, Hilda Santos, Jennifer Casolo &; Pedro, Jessica Fashun, Jody Patterson & Paul Willcocks, John & Marianne Bodrug, Josue, Karen Leiva & Bill Hare, Katie Miller & Marc Wolf, Kristin Landau, Mark Zipperer, Michelle Fitz, Michelle Vandepas, Miguel Raymundo, Missy Kluth, Nina du Mée & Ingrid Schreuder, Open Edge, Paola Carías, Personnel Hacienda San Lucas, Oneida Rivera, Radiant Health Institute, Rina Peña, Robyn & Geoff Affleck, Ronald Speer, Señor X, Shannon Kring, Suzette Cardona, Wendy Russell and Yvonne Santiago. 

Teresa in the hospital with one of her sons