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…

Friday, September 13, 2019

Half-Countryside-ness

There’s this word in Dutch that often pops up in my head and that I love: halflandelijkheid. It means something like “half-countrysideness” and refers, quite obviously, to places in between urban and rural areas. The word was invented by the poet Simon Vestdijk who used it in his poem Zelfkant (“Self-Side) in 1931. Badly translated, the first strophe goes something like this:

What I love most is half-countrysideness:
Where woozy meadow winds play with clotheslines
Full of laundry; industrial sites where Between miserable grass a lorry rides.

(Ik houd het meest van de halfland'lijkheid:
Van vage weidewinden die met lijnen
Vol waschgoed spelen; van fabrieksterreinen
Waar tusschen arm'lijk gras de lorrie rijdt.)

A lifetime ago, when I was a young art student who knew everything about everything, we got the assignment to “do something” with the theme of half-countrysideness. Even then I was already intrigued by this word and its implication. I set off for an abandoned train depot near my house, the Oostelijk Havengebied in Amsterdam, for those in the know, and spent many happy hours among forgotten railway carriages covered in rust and graffiti. The rails where overgrown with grass, the environment quiet and still despite the short distance from grand central station. I made sketches, I painted and took many pictures. And in the end, I burned everything in a self-invented ceremony to honour the half-countrysideness. Or something like it. I can’t remember exactly except that at the time I thought it was pretty cool and sophisticated. The place doesn’t exist anymore. Humans have won and turned one of the last spots of nothingness in the city into a fancy neighbourhood.

A couple of days ago the weather here in the north of Spain was too miserable to go to the beach but not miserable enough to stay in. A perfect day to explore the trail I suspected to exist leading from my small village to the nearest town. I did find the trail and it was quite nice. There were some goats grazing around freely as well as a horse and a few cows minding their own business, as was I. However, when I turned around a corner of some blackberry bushes, I found a big fat bull lying right in the middle of the trail. The bull was lazily chewing some grass and seemed very mellow. I guess I could have walked around him without a fuzz but I’ve seen a few too many bull-related incidents on TV lately (quite normal in Spain, where people run with bills for fun), so I decided to calmly retrace my steps. Which led me to an area just outside of Llanes that I hadn’t explored yet. It was a perfect example of “halflandelijkheid” where human interventions had invaded the countryside but where pure neglect and force of nature had given the latter the upper hand.

I love those areas that are neither inhabited nor completely forgotten, with small human interventions that seem to get along great with the plants and bugs that consider the space theirs. Which made me ponder half-countrysideness in Guatemala and Honduras and realized there’s very little of it. It’s countryside OR urbanization, even on the edges of towns where urbanizations stops when there is absolutely no physical way to build yet another level or expansion to the existing shacks. It made me think that half-countrysideness is, rather than a sign of deterioration, a bit of a luxury, available only to those who can afford to forget or neglect. And that makes me end this entry with the depressing realisation that yes, everywhere in the world and for whatever reason, half-countrysideness is in danger of extinction. What a shame.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Talking about the Weather


Asturias beach in September
Guatemala is the land of eternal spring, they say. And yup, besides the occasional downpour, the weather is pretty cool. In the Antigua area the days are filled with sunshine that might get a bit too much around noon but is otherwise reminiscent of spring in bloom. The nights cool off substantially and the rainy season is obviously (much!) wetter than the dry period, but other than that the weather is pretty constant. No need for different summer or winter wardrobes, an extra layer when cold will do. There’s also little difference between summer and winter time. In the summer, dusk starts around 6.40pm and at 7pm it’s pitch dark. In the winter that’s 6pm. So, all in all (not taken in account the noticeable effects of climate change), life just calmly goes on without dramatic changes between seasons. That feeling of loss at the end of summer… The falling of leaves and shortening of days that remind you that all will come to an end. Nope, not in Guatemala. Day is day and night is night. Green leaves and flowers year-round. You can harvest lettuce from your own garden any month of the year. Day after day is pretty much the same and that does bring a sense of calm. It also made me always forget everybody’s birthday back home because I strongly associate those with different seasons. No wonder I’d forget my mother’s birthday in December while drinking coffee on my rooftop terrace dressed in shorts and a tank top. (But that was before Facebook started to remind us of our loved ones’ B-days, thank you very much.)
Spanish Bougainvillea
After more than two decades in Central America I just settled in the North of Spain (which is very different from the rest of Spain, climate-wise and all) and one of the most fantastic things I’ve experienced in the last two months is SUMMER!!!!! I had totally forgotten how absolutely amazingly wonderful real summers are! And I mean REAL summers, of course, that start its days with crisp blue skies and corn yellow sunshine. Summer days that seem to last forever and allow you to go to the beach in the EVENING!!! Not a cooling down, dusky sort of evening, but sitting on the beach at 9pm with your feet in the ocean and an ice-cream in your hand kind of evening! Swimming in the sunset at 10pm!!! Loving it!!!



But that is all coming to an end. Almost. Summer hasn’t made up its mind yet. Every time you think it’s over and done with, summer comes back with a few splendid days. The ocean is still pretty warm and as long as you stay out of the shade, you can easily pretend that nothing has changed. But as soon as you enter the shade, the chill creeps into your bones, Even on the beach, the gentle sun might caress your face, but a chilly draft bites your butt. And then the smells… Sun warmed walls and wafts of ripe fruit no longer there… The not unpleasant smell of wet, rotting leaves has already taken over the smell of sunscreen. Yellowing leaves and reddening apples announce fall. And yes, there is that sense of loss… I cherish every ray of sunshine; I spend every minute I can outdoors and still go to the beach for my daily swim. I soak up the very last bit of summer, unwilling to let go. I really, really don’t want summer to end.


But to be honest, I’m actually also very much looking forward to what autumn has to bring and can’t wait for it to start!


Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Chicken Bus Experience


There is no public transportation today from Antigua to the capital in Guatemala. Yet another bus driver was shot by gangs that charge transportation companies excessive fees in order to be allowed to ride the roads. Not the first assault (fortunately the driver survived this time), but all public transportation is now on hold while demanding from the government measures to guarantee safety in public transportation.

I couldn’t agree more but also see the irony here. Sure, the extortions are a massive problem, but it is not the only issue on the road. Anyone who has ever travelled the roads in Guatemala knows that many bus drivers are suicidal maniacs who put the lives of the passengers in their overcrowded busses in peril. As colourful and fantastically decorated those chicken busses are, as soon as they hit the roads they turn into lethal beasts. In their hurry to haul in as many as paying customers, the ayudantes basically drag people into the busses, quite often doubling the maximum number of 52 passengers, as a forgotten sign over the drivers head mentions, a forgotten relic from when the bus was yellow and used to haul schoolchildren, two per bench, in grey but quiet suburbs.

Chicken busses, I love them as much as I hate them. As big and fast and scary as they are on the roads, especially when the bus driver starts racing a bus from a rival company, they are absolutely fascinating. Riding a chicken bus while, often quite literally, hanging on for dear life, is an experience that assaults all your senses at once. The smells may not always be the best (the aroma of food sold by vendors squirming through the isle is by far preferable over some more human odours); the music simply deafening; the touch factor a little too close for my taste (don’t forget to hold on to that hand rail with all your might!) and the visual impact not more than a colourful blurs; it all adds up to being totally emerged in the chicken bus experience. If you haven’t ridden a chicken bus, you haven’t lived Guatemala…

The very best are of course the busses’ make-over, both inside and out. The more work, the better, although it’s all for looks and little is done to make things more comfortable for the passengers. The springs are poking through the seats? Can wait. The whole bench is bend so you keep gliding off? Not the driver’s problem. A new dashboard sticker on the market? YES!!!

Many busses have girls’ names. It’s not always clear what the driver’s relation is to the person the bus is named after. A bus on route to my neighbourhood is called Angela, featuring the name in big read letters over the windshield. Underneath it says: Explosión de Amor. Let’s assume Angela is the legal wife or girlfriend in this case, not the driver’s little girl.

It is also very important to ask for God’s blessing in loudly coloured stickers and to decorate the area around the driver with significant cultural icons, mostly Playboy’s bunny, the silhouette of a topless girl and Jesus Christ. Stickers are printed to fit the surface, not to respect the original image, hence the sometimes weirdly warped eyes of Our Lord staring at you.

Many busses now have TV screens up front with a typical mix of music videos (with girls as barely dressed as the chrome ones that decorate the bus) or extremely violent movies. The music is ear-splitting and can somehow always be turned up a notch. Nobody is ever bothered by the distorted sound, not even babies that tend to do the whole chicken bus experience while sleeping anyway.

I think my very favourite chicken busses are the ones from the town I used to live to the terminal in Antigua. The whole route takes no longer than five minutes. The busses are never full (except at the end of a school day) and it beats me how eight different busses can make a living of this route, charging people Q1.50 ($0.20). Students only pay Q1, after a short but fierce war when the fare went up from Q1 to Q1.50. Not that expensive, but a 50% increase nonetheless and it adds up when you have several kids taking the bus to school every day. In the end the war came to a peaceful end when the compromise was made to keep the rate for students at Q1.

The busses from San Bartolo to the terminal and back are not the most beautiful ones, but they are the dearest to me, I guess because they are so much part of the community. No bus would ever leave when someone started running a whole block away (well, what Guatemalans call “running” anyway), holding up the bus for a couple of minutes. Every person getting on gets a heartfelt Buenos días from the driver and the rest of the passengers. And best of all, when the buss arrives at its destination, a whole five minutes later, the drivers says: Servidos! And then you get up, pay the driver and get off with well wishes to and fro.  

And after a day in town the bus is waiting for you at its regular spot. Always and every day.









Saturday, May 4, 2019

Cycles of Life






Why an exhibition of round paintings?
Well, why not?
Just wanted to do something a little different this time.

Not half as happy as you normally paint, commented a friend.
True.
Nothing like my colourful portraits of cute puppies. These paintings are based on events I read about in the press and no, that is not something to be happy about.  WTF was mostly my reaction, followed by disgust, anger and sometimes desperation. Here, judge for yourself…

Not One Less… (59cm)
Hardly a day goes by without a woman being brutally murdered in Guatemala. In 2018 there were 228 reported victims. It seems 209 is going to be even worse. 



 Survivor Series (65cm, 56cm, 34.5cm. Double portrait Milagros: 39.5cm)

On June 3rd of 2018 the Fuego volcano erupted and covered several communities under a thick layer of ashes and other debris. To this day there are still people buried at what was named Zone 0. Other people (and animals) did survive. These children were some of the kids I worked with at the shelter. The dog Milagros eerily had “Ayuda” (help) written on her side. We never knew whether help was asked for her or her owners. Milagros (“Miracles”, as I named her) was very sick but made it against all odds en is now living the life in the USA.





Ghost Towns (41 and 20cm)
There are ghost towns and there are ghost towns… The first one is deserted and completely unliveable as is San Miguel Los Lotes after the volcano eruption (although reconstruction of parts of the community is under way).
Another sort of ghost town is a community you invent, such as El Paxtal, so the government will invest in a state of the art highway to this non-existing community. That’s what you do if you’re a congress woman and you happen to own a spa in that place.


Golden Balls (50cm)
February 2018. The Board of Veterinarians decides to raise the price of castrations for cats and dogs to Q950.
In a country where there is a huge overpopulation of dogs and cats and where people barley can afford to feed them, this is completely ludicrous.


Guatemalan Landscapes (41cm, 35cm, 21cm)

Guatemala is a fantastic country with incredible natural resources. However, if you look around it’s mostly trash you see. I would really like to see patriotism being expressed though a better care of this beautiful land…



“Rapists and Murderers” (34.5cm (without frame), ink and watercolour, )
Rosendo Noviega, a 38-year-old migrant from Guatemala, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America en route to the United States, holds his daughter Belinda Izabel as he walks along the highway to Juchitan from Santiago Niltepec, Mexico, October 30, 2018. An estimated 2,300 children are travelling with the migrant caravan headed north to the U.S.-Mexico border, UNICEF said, adding that they needed protection and access to essential services like healthcare, clean water and sanitation.
REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Someone else said the migrants were “murderers and rapists”.


Bones of Memory (50cm)
Mass graves from the civil war are still being found and forensic scientists relentlessly work to identify the victims. On June 24 of 2018, 172 Victims of the civil war are finally officially buried in San Juan Comalapa.   


Hogar Seguro /Safe House (75cm)
At first glance quite a happy, colourful painting of a bunch of butterflies in a shadowbox.
However, each butterfly carries the name of one of the 41 girls who lost their lives sat the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home in San José Pinula, Guatemala.
This government-run children’s home had been under investigation for multiple reports of abuse of the children. In March of 2017 a group of adolescents decided to escape the home. They were hunted down as if they were dangerous criminals. While the boys were sent back to their dorms, the girls were locked in a classroom without water or access to a bathroom. After long hours, the girls lit up some mattresses in order to get the attention of the two police officers guarding the padlocked door. The fire got out of hand; the door wasn’t opened until it was much too late. 41 girls lost their lives, another 15 were badly injured.



Cycle of Life (Gouache 27cm) / Survivor of Life (46cm)
And those two beautiful ladies have just seen it all…

This show is on till May 6th, 2019 at Galería Mesón Panza Verde, 5a Avenida Sur, Antigua Guatemala.

All works are for sale except for Survivor: Superhero and Golden Balls. All materials are acrylic, unless otherwise mentioned.
For more information, please contact the artist at carinsteen at yahoo.com



Friday, March 1, 2019

The Story Behind the Painting: The Volcano Eruption Superhero




Superhero, acrylics on metal, 56cm diameter
It was less than a week after the Fuego volcano erupted and it was still chaos. People who left or lost their homes were accommodated in schools and churches. Rucks full of donations kept arriving in causing so much congestion in the centre of Alotenango that it was decided to cordon off the whole town for traffic. Many solidary souls wanted to give directly to the victims while the municipality tried to keep control by storing the goods away and closing the shelters. Still, there were tons of people around, doctors, nurses, psychologist, church groups and others. Some helping, some gawking, but in general too many in too small a space.
And then there was us. Swept along the emotional wave of wanting to do something we had worked our way into the shelter to offer some art activities and story telling to the children. Not such a bad idea, since so far the only distractions for the kids had been one piñata after the other and loads and loads of candy.

That first experience (we went back a total of 25 times) was surreal. While in Zone 0 fire fighters and residents were still looking for the remains of their loved ones (and wouldn’t stop for many months to come), life in the shelter was, little by little, taking shape. Children played hide and seek behind a pile of coffins stacked high up in a corner. Some boys were paying football with the balls they had just been given, dodging women hanging their laundry and making their way to the improvised showers.
Over a cacophony of sounds of too many people in too small a space, the sombre sounds of funeral marches wear still audible. However, most kids were completely oblivious to their surrounding and happily absorbed in their art work. All except one. A little boy with a superhero mask and cape was running around as if the world belonged to him. He ran through corridors, jumped up and down on benches, barely missed a pregnant woman, evaded a man carrying donations before ducking under a table. Nobody told him off or even seemed to notice. Surrounded by many he was all by himself in his own world, very busy saving it. Watching him was like a movie scene in which the world slowed down while the superhero flashed around. I asked the boy if I could take a picture which was allowed. But only for a split second before he was off again, to save the world that needs so much saving.

For more information on our first visit to the shelter, please visit: http://www.muralarteguate.org/2018/06/art-workshops-at-alotenango-shelter.html