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...

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Lago Atitlan

Words would not do justice....

El Salvador

Aryeh, fellow artcorps volunteer and brilliant political theatre artist, is doing her residency in Ciudad Romero, a community in the Bajo Lumpa region of El Salvador. I made a trip across the border to support her and to see the theatre festival which she organised, presenting the work she has been doing with several youth groups in local communities. Firstly, it was hot! I mean HOT. I honestly do not know how Ayreh has been managing to rush around for the last 6 months, almost non-stop, jumping from the back of a pick-up onto a chicken bus and disappearing into the dust to do marvels with the youth groups. It is so hot one sweats simply standing still in the shade. I guess one gets used to it. Anyway the theatre festival was brilliant. The youth shone with energy, vitality and talent, the messages were coherent, significant and poignant and there was a full house very much appreciating the show. Well done Aryeh! It was very interesting to see how different the situations are between the Artcorps placements, and to see how differently one has to live and adapt to each new environment. It was also great to spend some time with Aryeh, who is a remarkable woman doing remarkable work.

Another friend of Aryeh, Naomi, flew out from San Franciso for a week`s holiday, so after the theatre festival we went to the beach for a spot of relaxation, surf (Naomi is the intrepid one) and world cup fever. It was short and sweet, and we were back on the bus after one night heading towards Guatemala, when Naomi and I started feeling the effects of a huge mistake: a glass of water, clear and seemingly innocent, had been consumed by each of us at breakfast, without knowledge of the dangers lurking within. We just about made it to Guatemala City in one piece, but thereafter, on the packed rush hour chicken bus to Antigua (and when I say packed, you need to experience it to believe it!),the nasties started working their evil magic. I got there without any accidents by chanting mantras the whole way and then Bam! We were down with amoebic dysentery, unable to leave our beds, for the next 3 days. The fourth day I managed to get up and a gentle wander into town almost finished me off. The following few days we had our one and only Artcorps reunion, when all the artists (well actually there are only 3 of us now) have a lovely “working” weekend with our coordinator, and what better place to recuperate than Lake Atitlan. Even better, in Aaculuux, a beautiul arty hotel where I stayed for a week in February, in San Marcos la Laguna. By the time I left I was almost back to normal, after a few refreshing early morning swims, stargazing, watching the moon rise, huge and luminous behind the mountains and simply taking in the breathtaking scenery of the volcanoes standing like sentinels over the lake. Of course the main joy was to be with the others; Aryeh, Brooke, a visual artist who is working with youth groups in north west Guatemala, and Blanca Estela, our constant guide and much-valued companion, the Artcorps coorindator. In addition Naomi and Ian completed the group and much discussion, sharing of experiences, and fun was had by all.

Semuk Champey

During my travels around Guatemala making mosaics with women in various libraries, I took the opportunity to stop off and visit one of the most amazing natural phenomena I have ever seen. Semuk Champey is a natural wonder deep in the heart of the tropical jungle cloudforest in the region of Alta Verapaz. The capital of the region is Coban, a pretty town set in a beautiful landscape. Coban became one of Guatemala`s biggest coffee exporters in the mid-19th century, and grew rich from the profits of its predominantly German-owned coffee fincas. Back then it was an isolated empire loftily situated in the midst of extremely inaccessible mountain ranges, which made it one of the last strongholds in the era of the conquistadors, but these days even Semuk Champey is relatively easy to access due to the construction of an asphalt road two years ago. A profusion of banana trees and palm trees shading elegant nineteenth century houses completes the colonial atmosphere.
The road to Semuk is awesomely gorgeous. Rounded hillocks stretch off as far as the eye can see, almost like a set from a children`s television programme. The only down point is that most of these hills have been deforested, with milpas (corn fields) planted on the most impossibly steep slopes. This is very sad, not only because of the lack of one of the most luscious forests I have ever seen, but because the removal of the root structure leaves the soil extremely vulnerable to erosion and the inevitable eventuality, with increasing occurrences of devastating storms like hurricane Stan last year, will strip this once-lush forested pincushion landscape down to one which is stark and wasted. I could not help thinking this as I ventured further north, wishing I had been here even a few years ago to see it before its destruction.
The road turned into a dirt track, winding through scenery so impossibly green, so verdant and lush, words fail to describe the beauty. I cannot remember ever feeling so alive in such a landscape of a thousand shades of green, of living, twisting, sprouting flora. I stayed at Las Marias, the only place to stay in close proximity to Semuk Champey itself, and my first adventure was exactly that – a real proper Hurricane Jones type of adventure! Just myself and a guide clambered up a gorgeous waterfall and disappeared into a cave entrance. The following two hours we ventured deep into the heart of the mountain, following a river 2km in, tiptoeing in the deep black darkness, lighting candles and planting them all along our path so that the return journey was exquisite and wonderful in candlelit caverns. Most of the time we swam, one hand clutching a candle above water level, flickering and casting light on the vacant and secret cavernous spaces above. Absolutely brilliant!

Semuk Champey was even better. It is a natural limestone bridge which over millennia has formed into a series of shallow pools, fed with crystal clear spring water, their impossibly turquoise hue inviting one to dive in and …heaven! Especially after an arduous climb to a view point way, way above in the lofty forest, where the view was preciosa! Underneath these pools the river Cahbon rushes silently. It`s an amazing phenomenon. Just a few hundred metres upstream, the river disappears into a cave, roaring with thundering energy, to emerge several metres lower, tranquilly forming the wide calm river once more from another cavern entrance. ¡Que bonito!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Mosaic mirrors and giant fruit

I am appreciating the inevitable changes that one has to accommodate when living in such a different place. The arrival of the rainy season is having a huge impact on daily life here. I can no longer gloat about living in perpetual summer, and how ironic now that it is beautiful summer weather in Europe. Rather, I am acclimatising myself to getting sodden wet and muddy with increasing frequency. Rather than reaching for the sun lotion, I am now donning my raincoat daily and beginning to eye up wellington boots in shop windows with more than a passing interest! An infestation of fleas in my house has attributed to an unprecedented hatred and paranoia of all things that bite. I am even now expert in detecting the differing sensations between, for example, the chomping jaws of a flea and a mosquito. Sad but true and a nightmare, I can vouch. So I abandoned my house, leaving it full of poison to kill the wee beasties once and for all and have been gone for a good two weeks.

Where have I been? I have been touring Guatemala, running mosaic workshops with women in all the libraries, which has been exhausting, but wonderful. We have been making mosaic mirrors, an activity which is appropriately simple, very effective and gives the participants something beautiful to take away and adorn their homes with. It is wonderful to work with women and very interesting to see how they differ from region to region. In Western Guatemala the population is predominantly indigenous and some of the workshops have been attended 100% by indigenous women, whereas in the east is almost wholly ladino. In Izabal, which is close to the black Garifuña region, we spent a fair amount of our time there dancing punta (local Garifuña dance), or attempting to! Buena gente.

Recently I ran a workshop with librarians from all the Riecken libraries in Guatemala. The idea was to teach them an activity they can do with groups in the future. Ever since showing an initial presentation of my work to the team when I arrived, the member tasked with coordinating the training session had remained fixated with my giant fruit, a theme which crops up pretty regularly in my festival work; in fact food in general and always on a giant scale! So she asked if it was possible to do this activity with the librarians. What I thought was going to be a challenge actually turned out to be a huge success; everyone worked together excellently in teams and turned out some very convincing and wonderful pieces, not to mention the laughs!

So successful was the result, that when the head teacher of a local school approached Alba (librarian and top lady of Chiché) with a request to fit out the newly elected queen of the school in a suitably regal float for the school parade, what better than a giant basket crammed with another array of huge fruity delicacies and said queen ensconced within! I must add that I was not even there to help in this decision; it was made by the head teacher the minute he laid eyes on the photos of the training session! Great folk here in Chiché. Better than that, the students were a joy to work with. Twenty two of the most enthusiastic 16 year olds I have ever come across. When we came to an end on the first day, I had to practically beg them to leave, and when we finished for good, after two days of hilarity and fanastic fun, they sang me a chant to thank me for the project. Why is it that this kind of reaction is so much rarer in British schools? Running workshops with communities here really is gratifying. It makes it all worth while when the kids can hardly organise themselves in position with their fruit for a photo shoot because they are laughing so much, or when an indigenous mother tells me that this has been the first time in her and all her companions’ lives that they have had the opportunity to take 3 hours out of their incessant work schedules (usually at home, cooking, cleaning, feeding many mouths or down at the river or the lake scrubbing their hands raw washing clothes), to do something creative and more importantly something for themselves.

As for the hidden fantasy world in Quiché (i.e. sculpture garden in Chiché); my baby and something I have wanted to realise since arriving here, the go ahead is just about coming to fruition! Great but…, of course there is always a hitch. It has taken the town council 5 months to decide they want it and will pay for it (it is turning out to be a fairly expensive project, what with the increased scale, the preparative ground works, structure building and sculpture fabrication), so now that they have agreed, I have a mere four months left! What to do! Anyone knows that agreements from builders to be finished by a certain (already improbable) date is nonsense, but they really want their garden now. So I believe it must be commenced and then ¡vamos a ver que pasa!