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…

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