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, 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…