From January 2006 I am spending 9 months working on a voluntary art project for the Artcorps in Guatemala. I am working for Fundación Riecken, an NGO who are constructing libraries in Honduras and Guatemala. I will be artist-in-residence at libraries in Chiché and Zacualpa, in the Quiché region of Guatemala. I also plan to do a little travelling along the way...

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

El Quichè

I have finally arrived at my destination; Chichè, a municipality of 25,000 inhabitants including 35 outlying communities. I must admit, it conceals its numbers well. This small, sleepy, dusty little town would hardly lead anyone to believe that such a populace is contained within its perimeters. But then these perimeters extend for 30 kilometres or thereabouts. The library is excellently situated, fronting the main square, a source of pride for the Riecken Foundation, being their most centrally located library. It consists of one ample room, with plenty of light and the usual racks and shelves of books and magazines, three computers and a children’s corner painted with appropriately bright colours. To us, this may sound extremely familiar and not particularly notable, but to the Guatemalans, this library is extraordinary. As far as I know, until the Riecken Foundation commenced its project of constructing libraries here, most libraries in Guatemala were and still are `closed`, in that one cannot see the books available and in order to gain access, one has to read through a list of titles, usually filed on old-fashioned filing cards, and then only to gain referential access, meaning the books cannot be removed from the premises. The internet is still to arrive, which would improve the facilities no end, for at the moment Chichè has one tiny internet service and to call it a café would be a grand title indeed, with an extremely poor connection (sometimes it does not work for days on end) and Zacualpa cannot lay claim to any internet connection at all. As I write, La hora de cuentos (story time) is in progress, and the wonderful Alba (prize-winning librarian) is enchanting a group of young, mainly indigenous kids with the tale and morals of Pinocchio. Last week we had a session for youths entitled `self-esteem`, which was very well attended, with activities energetically run by Alejandra, a colleague from the foundation office in Antigua. The following day she ran another youth session at the library in Zacualpa, where the group watched `Maria Full of Graces`, a Colombian film about cocaine mules and the sad consequences. I was told that almost every family here has a member or knows someone who has taken this perilous route, so it seemed so much more poignant to be watching it here, in this company, compared to when I watched it at the cinema in Cardiff last year, far removed from the reality. Visiting Zacualpa for the first time was memorable indeed. I knew that the region of Quichè was one of the regions that suffered very badly during the 30-odd year civil war, which only ended in 1996, and it turns out that Zacualpa was one of the villages that was hardest hit. The militants used the convent there as one of their centres of operation, which means they turned it into a hell of captivity, humiliation, torture and assassination of many many innocents. I stayed the night in a cavernous room, full of some 50 beds or so, me being the sole occupant. Alejandra disclosed that she will not enter the premises, following the one and only night she ever spent there, hampered by insomnia and fear, unable to rid her mind from dwelling on past histories imagined. With this knowledge, I was not exactly enthusiastic about my impending lodging, however we had had such a long, exhausting day, for once, ironically, sleep presented no problems for me. The following day I looked around the convent and was enlightened as to its secrets and I considered myself fortunate that I was able to discover more about Guatemala`s tumultuous past, aiding my understanding of this country and therefore becoming closer to the spirit of the people. When the war ended, the convent was regained and its dark secrets spilled forth. A well was found to be full of the broken and mutilated bodies of men, women and children, and each and every one was exhumed and properly buried. A small, enclosed room was found, all four walls stained with blood, and it is presumed that this was a torture chamber. It is difficult to write these words but it is necessary to understand the past to understand the present. Guatemala is recovering from this hideous and recent history, but it has a long way to go. Today a chapel stands over the well, full of religious icons, candles and blessings for the dead, as is the small room with the stained walls. I spent a quiet time, alone, in both, thinking about the new experiences I am discovering every day and marvelling at the resilience of these people, who have endured so much over centuries past.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Pacific coast ¡Que calor!

My second weekend in Guatemala was my first trip to the beach, after I met a group of photographers who were going to Monterrico (a black sand volcanic beach, like the whole Pacific coast in Guatemala, I believe) to photograph birds. We arrived, got out of the car and just melted in the blissful heat. It´s amazing that you only need to drive 2 hours and you find yourself in a completely different climate. Most of central Guatemala is at quite a high altitude, up to over 4000m in some places. So we left Antigua, which is usually sunny but can be quite chilly, and arrived in the tropics! I met so many Guatemalans who had come from the capital city (and undoubtedly very stressful lives, like most cities) who were just loving it! Everybody had a huge grin plastered across their face, a drink in one hand and only positive words to say. More, please! I found myself commenting that in Europe we just don´t have the option of travelling for a couple of hours and arriving in such heat and therefore finding such a fabulous way to unwind. Well for me, anyway! I love the heat! As for the wildlife, we dutifully rose at 6am to get into the boat and spent a few hours drifting along a canal running horizontal to the seashore, snapping shots of herons in the cool early morning calm. I also witnessed a bundle of baby turtles being released into the sea. Their tiny black bodies were barely distinguishable against the black sand as they raced each other into the foamy waves.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Apparently the most beautiful lake in the world

El Lago Atitlan. ¡Que bonito!
It really is stunningly gorgeous. This lake is about 3 hours from Antigua and it is famous for its incredible setting. Around the shores of the lake rise several immense volcanoes and many villages are clustered around its edges. I spent a week at San Marcos La Laguna, which is famous as a healing centre. Yoga, massages, saunas and all kinds of alternative therapies abound, but it is still a small, quiet place with only a handful of hotels and eateries, all nestling under the cover of trees so that from the shore you can hardly see them. Many of the villages around the lake suffered very badly in Hurricane Stan last October and San Marcos was one of them, so as a result there is a decline in the tourist population, which meant is was probably quieter than it normally should be.

I stayed in the most amazing hotel, Aaculuux. I was drawn there by a description in a guidebook containing references to Gaudí and fabulous art work. Fabulous it was, with every room full of unique artwork in the form of stained glass windows and lamps, glass mosaic tables, gourd-lamps etc. My room was hexagonal, with four stained glass windows reflecting the view of the mountains and volcanoes and lake beyond, in green and blue glass. I discovered, to my amazement, that all this glass has been made with paper maché as a substitute for lead. Many of the windows contain bottles or glasses, both cut up and complete, and ceramic tiles - almost a ´whatever you can find, stick it in´! So this was a grand discovery, given that I had been thinking how much I would like to work with glass in Chiché but do not have a budget to allow such luxuries. Well, this could cost very little, if the paper and off-cuts of glass may be free, so I am already thinking ´glass´!

I popped over to San Pedro La Laguna, on the other side of the lake (a 10 min boat ride away), for an afternoon and upon venturing into an internet cafe, discovered that the lovely Aryeh, one of the other Artcorps artists, was in town. So we met the following day, she rather glad to get away from San Pedro, which is the antithesis of San Marcos, full of party goers and much bigger and therefore completely lacking in the wonderful calm and friendliness which San Marcos pervades. We skipped off to the beach for the weekend with a couple of friends from Antigua. We went to El Paragon, a surf camp with nothing more than three bungalows each equipped with 2 bunk beds, and a dining hut with ubiquitous hammocks sheltering from the blazing sun. I attempted my first ever surf! The extremely amiable Australian Brett gave me a quick how-to, including a nifty little move involving springing from a prostrate pose into a crouching position, until I quelled his enthusiasm by explaining my total lack of experience. Belly boarding was enough of an accomplishment for me, and anyway, I have 9 months to master standing, if it´s not too far to get down there for the odd weeekend.


What a country! I flew across the Atlantic Ocean reeling from the effects of completing everything and preparing all for the impending 15 months or so in Latino América having decided that, despite the need for more time, a sojourn in Cuba would be worth whatever stress it took to leave a week early, and I dropped down in La Habana and boy was it worth it! Cuba is fascinating. It is truly unique, of course, due to its political situation, but you don´t know what to expect until you arrive. Cuban people are great. So friendly and welcoming, interesting and educated. Wherever you go you are bound to meet someone who is genuinely interested in you, what you are doing, where you are from and will reciprocate in kind.

I arrived with a few numbers jotted down of friends or family of Cuban friends or lovers of Cuba back home, so I called them all and as a result, did not really have a ´tourist´experience. I went to dinner with a party of French Canadian artists, hosting by the fanastic Sandra, a talented artist succeeding against such odds. We may think it´s hard enough to live as artists in Europe, but Cuban artists not only get no support from any councils or government, they can only sell their work abroad as the market in Cuba is really too small to support them and then they have to struggle to get permission to leave their country in order to do an exhibition or residency. Alejandro, an extremely talented percussionist, had his jazz trio selected for a tour in Denmark; everything was set, the venues booked, the visas accepted and processed, when the authorities told him that one document was missing and the band lost the tour.

Cuba is music. The most fun, energetic, thrilling music and of course dance. The dancing has to be seen to be believed in Cuba. I stayed with Alain´s family and his little six year old sister Valeriana showed me some moves for La Rueda, possibly the most beautiful Cuban dance, which is danced by partners grouped in a circle, with the men passing the girls around the circle in response to the calls made by the leader. When it is done well, it is gorgeously harmonious. I think I may have to return to master those moves (there are so many!). I went to see several of the biggest salsa bands in Cuba performing live: NG La Banda, La Charangua Havanera, Los Van Van and more. On my last night we went to see Van Van at La Casa de la Musica, who played for hours. At about 2am, they invited a selection of girls up on to the stage and ecouraged them to strutt their stuff. Madre mia, ¡que caliente! As far as I can tell, every single Cuban has mastered a move that involves grinding the pelvis up and down at a speed which would shame a hummingbird. Then they grab a partner and grind into each others´ pelvises, the girl´s back to the man. I was invited to try this move and I am sorry, but (apart from the fact that I absolutely cannot do it) my British sense of decency, even with my love for all things latino, let me down on that one. But then I guess it depends on which guy is asking!!

I got to the beach - Varadero for one paltry night only, as I had a concert date to get back to Havana for. However even one day was worth it. I don´t believe I have ever seen such emerald turquoise water. The heat - ah bliss, the white sand underfoot and I just love the fact that everything slows down when you arrive at the sea ( in a tropical or at least warm environment, that is. Now that I think about it, things don´t slow down that much at the British seaside. Although other lovely thoughts like the feeling of a sandy floor and a whistling kettle in my grandmother´s Devonshire beach hut come to mind...!) On the way back from the beach we stopped for the best piña colada I have ever had, made with fresh coconut milk and freshly juiced pineapple. Then back to a concert by Manolito (who treated us to a live rendition of ´En la calle, (a fuera de mi casa´), for those salsa dancers out there!). That concert took place at the top of the Havana Libre hotel, one of the biggest in Havana, on the top floor with stupendous nighttime views across Havana and when the concert began, the roof opened, and we were dancing under the stars...

Guatemala, here I am!

Antigua, city of beauty, peace, fun, learning and creativity. This has been my home almost since I arrived in Guatemala on the 16th January. The first 3 days were spent in Guatemala City, where I was priviledged to get to know the other 3 talented Artcorps artists, who are all now working with differing NGOs in various parts of Guatemala and El Salvador; Brooke, a visual artist is working high up in the mountains near the Mexican border, Alexis, a muralist, will be my closest chum in the region of Quiché, where I am going too, and Aryeh, a theatre artist is in El Salvador. We are all going to be working with local communities using art as a means to express whatever objective our affiliated NGO is working towards.

I consider myself very fortunate to have been placed with the Riecken Foundation (, who are setting up libraries in Guatemala and Honduras. So far there are 7 libraries in Guatemala and about 26 in Honduras. I am going to work in Quiché beacuse there are two libraries in the region; one in Chiché and the other in Zacualpa, and the intention is that I will work in both. I am going to live in Chiché, which is a village not far from the capital of the region Santa Cruz de Quiché (although the word ´capital´does seem rather grand for the size of the place!). I have been there twice so far to meet the wonderful, effervescent and muy amable Alba, librarian of the year so I´m told, and I am really looking forward to working with her. I will be living with Carmen, a señora full of beans, with grown-up children and various grandchildren, although sadly for her, most of whom live in the US. She showed me into her home and the first thing I saw was the best nativity I have ever seen (one thing you are sure not to know about me is my interest in latin American nativities. The last time I was in S America, it was around Christmas time, and I commenced my collection of nativities, photographing them wherever I found them - in shops, banks, houses, in squares, on balconies and rooftops.) Doña Carmen´s was huge, full of hundreds of figurines; shepherds, wise men, followers, children, animals and of course the holy trio. Alas the next time I went to visit, it had disappeared, turning the sala from a secret haven full of wonder and marvel to a normal living room. But at least they don´t follow the tradition of ridding their homes of Christmas decorations by the 6th of January or I would never have seen it! Carmen clasped my hands and declared that not only will we have fun living together but when I come we will go dancing. Where the dancing may take place remains to be seen, considering the size of the village, but I am game! I found out that in the past there have been two foreigners (not simultaneously) doing voluntary projects in the village, but I will be the only one at this time.

So I leave for Chiché on Thursday. Up until now I have been in Antigua, topping up my Spanish and organising myself at the delightful Riecken offices. Imagine a courtyard full of lush vegetation with the sun beaming down and every office opening on to the courtyard. This is far removed from office life at home (not that I know much about office life, I must admit!). Antigua is great. It´s small, so it doesn´t take long to know everybody in town, it´s full of artists (and loads of foreign students studying Spanish) and it is surrounded by the most impressive circle of volcanoes and mountains, all verdant and strikingly green in contrast with the azure sky. Bougainvillea is in bloom everywhere; hot pinks, reds and oranges set off fabulously against the warm earth tones of the colonial architecture. As Antigua is a Unesco heritage site, the architecture has to be preserved so there are strict rules about paint colours and the like. The cobblestone streets look beautiful but once bumping along in a car or worse a little 3-wheeler tuk-tuk, one realises that cobbles were not designed for 21st century transportation! Today is Valentines Day, or as they charmingly call it here, El Día de la Amistad, so it is not just a day of celebration for lovers but also friends, and I have been invited to lunch with all my work colleagues, which should be lovely and soon!