Monday, December 24, 2018
Twas the night before Christmas, but twasn’t as quiet as a mouse in Guatemala. It rarely ever is, but in the days leading up to Christmas, things get even louder and louder.
For weeks already there have been processions and celebrations in my neighbourhood. There’s the daily children’s procession with kids carrying a brightly lit statue of the Virgin Mary, preceded by children playing, if you can call it that, turtle shells and singing songs. There’s the popular tradition of the mobile disco with different dance groups such as the Abuelitos (dancers dressed up as old people), the Monsters (which speaks for itself), the transvestites and the Wild Beasts, the latter seeming to consist of a bit of everything.
This year we even had real drama on the streets with a theatrical confrontation between angels and demons. Then there are of course the “normal” processions. And last night Santa visited too.
Employees receive an extra salary this month and many stores gladly help them spend it by offering great discounts and having huge speakers in the doorway. Because, as every one knows in Latin America, the more noise you make the more you sell.
The market, a busy beehive on any day, is almost impossible to visit right before Christmas. Half of the people try to make a bit of money while the other half haggles for the best deal. Ambulant vendors sell everything imaginable, from underwear and Christmas decorations to curtains, remote controls and selfie-sticks. The vendors who have a permanent stands fight the ambulant ones with foot and nail to get them off their turf while the municipal police try to stop the stand owners from invading the public space with their merchandise. It’s a lost battle for al parties involved. Only the pickpockets thrive.
The yearly Christmas market is an explosion of colour and sound, offering everything for a traditional Christmas. I love the backdrops for the nativity scenes, hand painted on drab coloured cardboard that gives them a gorgeous vintage look. There is moss, sawdust in every colour, cribs, complete three-story stables, pinecones, glittery streamers, bells and whistles… Lights, lights, Christmas lights everywhere, flickering and beeping their high-pitched Christmas tunes all at ones. And maybe best of all, hundreds, no thousands of small ceramic figurines for the nativity scene. Colourful men playing the marimba and maracas, pastors with sheep, chickens, geese, dancers, horse, infants, kings and many, many more. I thought it would be a nice idea to buy small ceramic dogs for my dog-loving friends, but it turned out dogs never attended the nativity scene. Apparently chickens, geese, marimba players and even one zebra did attend, but dogs, no. It let to some hysterical conversations with the vendors but in the end I went home empty handed.
Tonight there will be mass and family visits. Lots of tamales, music drinking and to top it off, lots of fireworks at midnight. And that’s basically it. Tomorrow at noon another round of fireworks, but besides a few kids in their new clothes scavenging for recyclable firecrackers, there’ll be hardly anybody on the streets.
That’s Christmas in Guatemala.
So for now, as they say here: Ho-Ho-Ho, Feliz Navidad!
Saturday, November 3, 2018
Death where I come from is cold, sterile and colourless. It’s not even daunting black, but a solid dull grey. Death scares us because we can’t control it. It keeps its own schedule, disregarding our needs, feelings and conveniences. In the worst case Death is devastating; at best it’s uncomfortable. That’s Death in the First World, where the living are still waiting for an app to be invented on how to deal with it.
Not in Central America. Here Death is High Definition Full Colour. It’s noisy, fragrant and very much alive. Death is bright orange against sky-blue. Death is Mariachi music and delicious food. Death is being together, sharing and remembering. Death is a part of Life and nobody around these parts is silly enough to forget so.
The multisensory experience of Death accumulates on November 1, All Saints Day, and bursts out into a circus of colours, smells and flavours. The streets leading to the cemeteries are lined up with stands selling sweets, toys, souvenirs and pizza. Women sell flowers, pine needles and wreaths made of colourful paper flowers dipped in wax. At the entrance of the cemetery a dozen of men are offering their surfaces, armed with buckets and ladders. Do you want me to clean your tomb? Maybe a fresh layer of paint? For just a few Quetzalitos your grandfather’s eternal resting place is as good as new.
All Saints Day is not a sombre day of mourning. It’s a family outing, a reencounter with those on the other side. Graves, tombs or burial vaults are being cleaned and decorated before the family sits down for a meal, often the favourite food or drink of the deceased. Children run around traditionally playing with kites and nobody cares that they climb on tombs or stumble over graves.
There is social and racial hierarchy in Death too. Antigua Guatemala has a gorgeous cemetery, completely white in ancient colonial style. The paths and gardens are well maintained, the luscious tombs of the rich and simple burial vaults of the rest of the people all freshly painted an eye blinding white that makes the multi-coloured wreaths and flowers stand out even more.
You know you’re at an indigenous or at least mixed cemetery when the tombs are of simpler design but making up for it with vivid colours. There are no tombs, not even vaults for the poorest of the poor. They are laid to rest under a mound of dirt, a cross at the head with the deceased’s name.
This year I was thrilled to visit the cemetery of Sumpango. The area with the simplest graves was the best visited and by far the most impressive. Colours so bright and numerous, there can’t be names for them all. Mariachis played mournful ballads in the shadow of a tree right in the middle of the graves. Hundreds of Maya men and women in their most beautiful outfits lovingly covered the mounds of dirt with pine needles and marigolds, traditionally the flowers that with their bright colour and pungent fragrance guide the spirits along their visit this day. The air was dense with the smoke of burned incense. A scruffy dog scavenging for leftovers, lured by the smell of food everywhere. Babies comfortably dozing off on their mamas’ backs undisturbed by the heat, noise and presence of the living dead. What a fantastic, delicious sensory overload.
Oh, and then, of course, the gigantic kites! Nothing is more spectacular than the kites in Sumpango or Santiago. They seem to be getting bigger and bigger every year, some over 35 meters in diameter! And not just one, but dozens of them, dangerously swaggering against bamboo poles. And yes, sometimes they do tip over.
Thousands of people gather at the field near the town of Sumpango for this yearly festival, thousands more trying to make a little money selling ice cream, cold beers, yarn for kite flying or renting out bathrooms. Nobody with a few coins in his or her pocket will go hungry today.
Kites of all kinds and sizes are up in the air. Simmering heat, but smiling faces everywhere. And colour. If there is a paradise for colours, then this is it.
Day of the Dead is my very favourite holiday.
Friday, November 2, 2018
|The very last leg...|
East Hounslow, the dodgy suburb where my dodgy hostel was located, was a pleasant surprise with an intriguing mix between Indians and Poles. And fortunately much more affordable than Central London.
I left the dodgy but otherwise perfect hostel after a good night’s sleep and left early for Heathrow airport. I wanted to have some of time to spare because I anticipated long lines for security and endless walks along futuristic corridors. But for once the lines where nonexistent and the departure hall was either right next to the entrance or the airport was not half as big as I remembered. Anyway, exactly 30 minutes after I left the hostel, I sat down at the food court with an overpriced cup of bad coffee. Only two more hours to go.
The trip to Miami was as smooth as can be and even clearing migration in the US was not as stressful or time-consuming as usual. I arrived at the gate for my flight to Guatemala a little early, but not too early to get bored. A short wait, boarding, two more hours in the air and I’d be home again.
Everybody was waiting patiently for the boarding call except for one gringo (yes, a bit of a derogative name, but much deserved) who was already lining up way before the airline employees occupied the counter. He was screaming and yelling into his phone that it was HIS money and that they should do something about it NOW and that he wouldn’t accept this kind of treatment and on and on. I crossed my fingers not to be seated next to him and felt genuinely sorry for the person on the other end of the line. Whether that person had sequestered large amounts of Gringo’s money or not, the treatment received in return definitely made the alleged crime not worth it.
Boarding started and -sigh of relief- Gringo wasn’t seated anywhere near me. The flight was only two hours, but such pouring-out of negative energy could seriously spoil an otherwise perfect trip, even from across the isle.
Departure time was approaching, just a quick check-up on the brakes.
Departure time passed, brakes needed just a little bit of maintenance.
An hour after departure time and it was getting really, really hot in the plane. Brakes needed a bit more work.
An hour and a half after departure time we were told to get off the plane and head to another gate.
Three hours late we were boarding again. Same crew, different plane.
All well, although this international flight doesn’t offer entertainment or refreshments. But it is only a two hour flight after all.
But when we flew over Guatemala City, another surprise: due to bad weather, the airport was closed, so we’d fly on to San Pedro Sula in Honduras.
Once in San Pedro Sula we waited for about an hour in the very hot plane before a decision was made on how to proceed. In the meantime, I had no way no contact the neighbour I had hired to pick me up at the airport to drive me to Antigua.
Finally, and it was almost midnight by then, we got word from the captain. We were heading back to Guatemala City. We just needed to fuel up and then we were ready to go.
But. They over fuelled the plane. The captain tried to explain several times what had happened but the PA system was malfunctioning and after three times he gave up, just announced: “This flight has now officially been cancelled. “
We were all herded off the plane, including some rightfully cranky babies, a guy with two corgi puppies in a crate and oh-no, a very grumpy Gringo.
San Pedro Sula’s airport is not very exciting at best of times (I’ve flown so many times to and from SAP that unfortunately I know it intimately), let alone at 1am under those circumstances. Actually, we had no idea what our circumstances were at the time. But first we had to pass through migration.
Everybody, all of us 200+ passengers, were weaving lines in front of an unmanned migration station. Everyone was pretty tired and subdued except for Gringo, a head taller than most of us, again yelling into his phone about how this all sucked big time, how he was sure he’d be put up in a shit hole of a hotel and how someone was going to pay for it. We, the other passengers looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and rolled our eyes.
Soon a migration officer showed up, then another and finally and thankfully a third and fourth. Considering that scanning a passport, taking photos and scanning thumbs and fingers on both hands takes about three minutes minimum per person, go do the math. And this was without the interrogation. When it was my turn, the guy actually asked me what the purpose of my trip was, rather routinely I guess, and when I gave him a questioning and very tired look, he apologized and let me through. I was glad to see that the guy with the puppies got through too, because his dogs’ paperwork was for Guatemala, not Honduras, which of course is a whole different ballpark.
Now it was 1.30am and I was lining up at an AA counter (yes, this was an American Airlines flight). Having lived in Honduras for a long time, I marvelled at the fact that they actually managed to get some people together to help out with this logistic nightmare. Having to impromptu accommodate 200+ cranky people in the middle of the night can’t be a fun responsibility. The irony too was that I have a few real good friends living in San Pedro Sula, but 1.30am was hardly the time to call them.
About an hour and a half later it was my turn at the hotel-voucher-counter. I had already asked the girl behind me, who had been sitting next to me on the flight, if she minded sharing a room if necessary. She said that was fine. But when it was our turn at the counter, there were no more hotel rooms available. Patience please, they were working on it… And indeed, ten minutes later they did have arranged more rooms, but doubles only. No problem, I said, I can share with her, and pointed at my fellow passenger. But she started making a fuss, insisting that we should each get a room. There were still around 80 people behind us in line, all needing a bed,so I thought it was rather odd and selfish, but the girl insisted. But there was another girl standing next to me and she had no problem sharing a room. So off we went into a shuttle and me and my new friend Madison had a huge room with two queen sized beds and a noisy airco all to ourselves. At 3am I finally lay down in a horizontal position and had the nicest, if not the longest sleep in years…
Breakfast was fabulous, I had forgotten how sweet and luscious Honduran watermelons are, how tasty the refried beans and plantains, all of it with lots of cream of course…
Off to the airport where we would leave somewhere around noon. There was no official departure time, as long as there was a twelve hour rest period for the crew between leaving the plane and starting a new shift. And no need to announce anything officially anyway, this was sort of our own private flight.
Time at airport flew by due to the fact that two good friends from Honduras happened to be there too. Also, Gringo caused yet another scandal by screaming at a nonplussed airport employee because the previous night, when he had received his suitcase, he had found his laptop completely smashed up. By one of her colleagues. And on purpose too, apparently.
Gringo got a bright orange vest on which meant he got priority treatment, whatever that means, and everybody else seemed to be fine with it, whatever to keep Gringo quiet.
Besides Gringo's grumpiness, the ambience was great. The weather was picture perfect and everybody felt rested, well fed and happy to continue the trip soon. We all had bonded over this whole ordeal. Everyone was chatting with their neighbours as if they were old friends. The toddlers on the plane had become best buddies and were running around playfully, being watched by all.
When it was time to board, again, we greeted the crew as old friends too. The captain made a joke that he would take us to any destination, at no extra cost. And two hours later, we indeed landed in Guatemala City. A burst of applause filled the plane. Not standing of course, the seat-belt sign was still on.
And that was the end of my trip. Well, almost…
Since I had lost my private transportation I had arranged for the previous night (which I would have to pay anyway) and it was still early in the afternoon, I decided to take a shuttle home for only $10. No problem, I was told, the only thing was that I’d have to wait for 3 other passengers in order to make the trip worthwhile for them. No problem for me, I could wait. Had become rather good at it lately.
Except that, upon leaving the airport, it turned out that so far the only other passenger was Gringo. Oh no!!!!
After about half an hour of waiting and no new customers, the shuttle driver offered me to drive the two of us to Antigua for $18 each, because $36 was the very minimum he needed to make the trip worthwhile. I thought that was not a bad deal at all and said yes, but warned him that Gringo might not be as open to the proposal. And indeed, when the kid politely asked him, Gringo started to yell and scream, yet again, that he was not to be taken advantage of. He took his bag out of the van and hurried away, looking for a taxi.
A few minutes later he yelled to me from across the street. He had found a taxi that would take both of us for $ 35. I said no, thank you very much.
Half an hour later a real nice girl from Brazil showed up for a ride and we took the $18 each offer. For once there was hardly any traffic on the road through the capital and I made it home within the hour. Home! Finally! And childishly I found great satisfaction in that fact that Gringo had to pay the whole $35 cab fee by himself.