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...

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Chiche weekending

I have just spent my first weekend in Chiché. I couldn`t face another 4 hour journey in chicken bus. Practically the only public transport available and most ubiquitous throughout Guatemala is the chicken bus; recycled school buses from the US, which are transformed into garishly multi-coloured, gleaming mean machines, always emblazoned lovingly with a female name, and filled with religious slogans, plastic crucifixes and prayers to bless this bus and carry its passengers safely to their destination. These benedictions are probably what keep all who travel in these buses alive. Usually the bus drivers act as if they are Grand Prix racing drivers, cutting corners of the treacherously steep, winding mountain roads and overtaking everything that appears in sight. My last experience, last week, coming back to Chiché after Semana Santa, kept me on tenterhooks the whole way, until the driver clipped another vehicle in Chichicastenango whilst attempting to overtake right in front of the police station! Hah! Caught red-handed! So the police ordered all passengers off the bus and detained the driver. I then took two more minibuses to reach my destination. These microbuses, which are usually crammed to over double their designed capacity with additional bodies clinging on to the open doorways, have even less legroom than chicken buses, as they are crammed with as many rows of seats as can possibly fit, leaving enough space only for dwarves or Guatemalans.
So this weekend I decided to stay here, design my garden and find out what really happens here on Saturday nights. Answer: not a lot! However, I had a lovely weekend. The scenery around Chiché is really breathtakingly beautiful; hills dotted with pine trees stretching off into the distance, amazing geological formations manifesting the vivid coloured striations of their composition, revealing tones through white, yellow ochre, pale rose pink and terracotta to grey and black. We went rambling through this scenery to pick guayabas, which were tiny and ripe, with deliciously pink centres.
The rainy season started this week. From one day to the next it changed from hot scorching sun to torrential rain, which typically falls every afternoon/night and in Chiche it is often causes a power failure, which means long evenings listening to the rain pelting on to a tin roof by candlelight. (Sounds very romantic, but in reality...!) They are predicting a hard winter, which means heavy storms and rainfall. Much of Guatemala is still reeling from the devastating effects of hurricane Stan last September, which claimed many lives and much destruction, so the idea of more and worse is worrying. The rainy season lasts for 6 months; the rest of my time in Guatemala! I was just getting used to perpetual summer. Still, I can`t really complain, after all, I have just missed the coldest winter in living memory back home, I believe. (More reason to come and visit! The rain’s not that bad, really!)

Semana Santa

Easter week in Latin America is big. Big processions with huge numbers of followers carrying enormous effigies of Christ and the Virgin, showing them off to the populace, the atmosphere heavy with clouds of incense and solemn dirges so mournful. These processions started four weeks before Easter week, getting bigger and more extravagant the closer to Easter it became. By Good Friday, the effigies were the width of buildings, with up to 80 bearers straining and sweating under their immense weight; the processions lasting for up to 20 hours. For every procession, groups of families, friends, schools and associations diligently work for hours along the procession route creating carpets made of brightly coloured sawdust, leaves, flowers and fruit. Once completed, these offerings await their fate; the swaying effigies and endless files of purple-robed processors bearing down upon them, instantaneously sweeping the delicately placed rose petals and carefully moulded sawdust patterns underfoot, trampling them to death.

It wasn’t until the last moment that I actually remembered that our tradition of celebrating Easter comprises of stuffing ourselves with more chocolate than any reasonable person would ever consider buying, let alone feeding the hyperactivity receptors of millions of children on Easter Sunday! So we were chocolate free this year. Understandable considering the only so-called chocolate available is the despicable Hershey bar.

Semana Santa for me kicked off in Copan, Honduras, where I met up with Aryeh, one of the other Artcorps artists, who is doing theatre workshops in El Salvador. We marvelled at the Mayan ruins, wined and dined, soaked ourselves in hot springs where a steaming, boiling waterfall flows directly into a deliciously cool river; the two temperatures blending to form a perfect bath. We went horse riding on two very sorry looking small steads, but our lovely guide took us to a Mayan ceremonial site, which was very special indeed. Only discovered in the last few decades, it was a birthing ground, complete with stone carvings of sacred animals believed to aid fertility and a stone bed and maternity seat for actually delivering the child. Quite beautiful.
After Copan, we returned to Antigua, where I had more visitors, which was fanastic. My first visitors from the UK; Lawrence and Louise dropped by to experience the famed Antigua Semana Santa celebrations, and after 2 days of enough carpets, incense and processions to last a lifetime, we escaped to Lake Atitlan for a couple of days of tranquillity. Only that Lawrence managed to injure himself so badly falling down a staircase, he had to be rushed to the local hospital and ended up recuperating flat on his back for the rest of their holiday!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Jinava: ¡Que maravilla!

This hotel is special. I found it in no unusual fashion; it jumped out at me when I saw the words “heaven on a hillside” in one of my guidebooks, however it is not easy to actually get there. It is located in the tranquil oasis of San Marcos La Laguna, a tiny cluster of hotels serving the alternative traveller with all manner of therapies, all set against the breathtaking backdrop of perfectly conical volcanoes looming over Lake Atitlan.
The first time I went to the lake, I had Jinava in my mind, but it is not listed in the directory and I believe that the owners, Jean and Elizabeth, would rather keep their hotel and their lives less busy than rake the money in. There time has no meaning; we asked Jean how long it takes to get there by car from the other side of the lake and he responded with an emphatic “¡No lo sé!”, explaining that he doesn`t use a watch or clock and never needs to know the time! I managed to obtain the telephone number from a friend of theirs who owns another hotel, which happened to be full that night; otherwise I doubt we would have ever discovered the delights awaiting us…

So this past weekend, it being my birthday weekend, we booked the campanita, our favourite room, a detached mini edifice with a bell suspended over the roof. (So they can summon us for cocktail hour!) This hotel really is like a tropical paradise; the garden is astonishingly beautiful, laid in terraces stretching from the top of the hill right down to the lapping shores of the lake and has been planted with luxuriant species form all over Central America. Like every hotel or luxury home there (of which there are many! Apparently Lake Atitlan is home, or rather second or third or fourth home to some rather exclusive residents), there is a sauna, shaped like a geodesic dome, equipped with wood burning stove, right on the lakeshore, nice for a roasting followed by jumping in the lake…mmm.
So I had an incredibly gorgeous romantic birthday treat and am already checking out when I can possibly get back to la lindisima Jinava!

Mi dos casas

I thought I might show you where I live. Well, actually I have two homes; one is with the formidable Carmen, in her spacious town- (or rather village-) house in Chiché, which is filled with kitschy trinkets and souvenirs and religious slogans and images, complete with one room dedicated to her saints. My room is rivalling with the house now as I am building up a collection of masks which are displayed on my wall.

In the patio garden there stands in pride of place the pila, an indispensable resource in every Guatemalan home, and its function is to store water (in a vast quantity, which is vital considering we sometimes do not have running water for days on end), as well as sink (in Carmen`s house there is no other sink) for washing clothes (Guatemalan style, i.e. scrubbing against the built-in washboard) and washing everything else. There is also a lime tree heavy with budding limes and another tree which is simultaneously losing its leaves and sprouting new buds, under which is my hammock (vital for post-lunch siestas).We are moving from summer, which traditionally lasts the months of March and April, (although this year it seems to have gone a bit haywire and summer has only just arrived), straight into winter, which is the rainy season and lasts for six months (well I shouldn`t complain I suppose!).

My other home is in Antigua, and is where I hang out at weekends. It is the home of three marvellous Peruvians, Rafo, Pancho and Margarita. This house is pretty special. It is at the very top of one of the main avenues in Antigua, nestling under the wooded hills above, with spectacular views over the volcano Agua and beyond. It is incredibly capacious, with very little furniture and therefore lots of space. The gardens are the pride of the property; imagine a luscious verdant haven dotted with avocado trees laden with fruit, lime trees on the way, the air filled with birdsong and a resident pair of large rodents (tacuasin) which show themselves when we turn on the floodlight, leisurely ambling up a stem to the wall (their escape route) in true laid-back Latin-American style. The ambient temperature always seems to be very agreeable (the coldest months in Guatemala are November and December, which are the only months I will miss) and some evenings we take all the cushions and mattresses out into the garden and stay there, wrapped up in lovely Peruvian blankets, watching the stars slowly blinking their way into the darkening night sky.