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, September 30, 2006

Since I got back to Chiché a sense of well-being has been blossoming within me. At the moment I am loving being here. The projects are producing fantastic results; I feel truly integrated into the community and I am getting to know surrounding parts of Quiché, which is such a beautiful region. Last Sunday I boarded the bus to Joyabach, the end of the chicken bus line which runs from Santa Cruz del Quiché and through Chiché and is also where the paved road ends. I attended the Sunday “plaza” (market), which was a sight worth seeing. Being the only substantially sized town in a very rural area, this market attracts thousands from the surrounding communities and beyond. I got waylaid by a cluster of beautiful young girls who showed me around the market and introduced me to their market-vending families. I got to know a fruit seller and discussed the politics posed by the enormous influence of the USA facing countries such as Guatemala. He, like so many thousands of Latin Americans, has spent several years in the US, having paid $6000 to a coyote to cross the border. Some stories of crossing the border are horrendous, involving trials of endurance, thirst and extreme hardship. Not only has the US recently initiated severe restrictions facing illegal immigrants, they have just announced a proposal to spend over three thousand million dollars building an “invisible” barrier along both the Mexican and Canadian borders consisting of security towers with extremely high-tech surveillance, basically ensuring the borders are impenetrable.
In my mind this heralds the beginning of a super-technological, super-defended, paranoic world like those represented in any number of futuristic movies, where basically the importance of humans is left behind in the bid for power. ¡Que triste! This blocking of the border will affect the Latin population immensely, as a huge percentage of every Hispanic nation lives and works in the US, usually illegally, providing the money that their families live on back home and also creating a labour force the US relies on. If you get the chance, rent the movie “The day the Mexicans disappeared” (called something like that). It is a bit shallow, but quite funny, basically demonstrating what happens in California without its latino population.
Life is hard here. Guatemala has one of the highest rates of poverty in Latin America, and as I become closer to local families, I am understanding so much more about their lives and social situation. I feel so privileged to have been embraced by such wonderful people. They make me feel as if I have touched their hearts as they have touched mine. I love the friendliness here. It would be rude to pass someone on the street without offering a greeting. When was the last time that happened to you in London or wherever you are? I will miss that, as I will miss so many things about being here.

Last week I went to visit a friend in Sacapulas, a pretty little town nestling at the bottom of a huge open valley which dwarfs the town, especially when viewed from way up high on the ascending road to Nebaj. This road is breathtakingly beautiful in proper Quiché form, with rolling hills carpeted with elegant pine; the greenness impossibly intense at this time of year. The September rains have tardied this year, but now are well and truly under way. Rain in Sacapulas is a blessing, as it is hot due to its low altitude. Coconut palms and banana trees abound, the Rio Negro offering a treat in the form of pools of natural hot springs all along its banks. I was most warmly welcomed by Dominga, a señora I met at a party in Chiché, and her entire extended family. The traditional Sacapulas traje is flamboyant, and within 5 minutes of arriving I was learning how to dress my head with the elaborated “cinta” consisting of several metres of gorgeous woven braid with huge fluffy pompoms at either end. We had a cinta-dressing session with all the women in the house and I was presented with my own huipil (blouse) and corte (skirt). I bought a cinta and then wore my traje for the rest of my time in Sacapulas, which caused quite a sensation with the locals! What fun and what wonderful people!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Things that make me laugh about Guatemala

I`m back! Back in Chiché after an absence of almost 6 weeks! Why? I succumbed to the inevitable fate awaiting most Westerners whose internal systems are a little too clean for the array of bugs and bacteria abundant in this continent. Yep. I drank a glass of clear water which looked so pure and innocent but alas! Invisibly concealed within were a selection of wee nasties just waiting to do me in! And done in I was, well and truly, as coming on for two months later I am still suffering the consequences… but eventually I had to bite the bullet and get back to work, ill or not. So here I am, and very pleased to be here. The culture shock (after spending six weeks in Antigua) lasted two days, and now I feel content and at ease. Admittedly there are still a few hangers-on of the flea population which had colonised my house before I went away, but so far even their bites are not too bothersome. Probably so used to it by now… (better not speak too soon!).

So it was straight back into massive production of decorations for the library float for the Independence Day parade, on the 15th of September. Whilst fully immersed in the making of super-giant butterflies, Queen providing a suitably energy-stimulating soundtrack (whilst allowing me to relive my youth!) and I found myself wondering how I ended up with a career doing this? Especially when the butterflies were chased by a dragonfly, all hovering over a quivering garden of enormous flowers and books…

I am compiling a collection of anecdotes; images of Guatemala which make me laugh…

Everyone`s a chav in Guatemala. Or at some point in their life they are… but here there`s a gender variation; chavo or chava. I guess chava must be like chav-ette, like ladette. No, I am being grossly unjust. Chavo just means “guy” and likewise chava “girl”, but in the wake of chavism sweeping the UK, I could not help but giggle.

Directions. The Guatemalans are hopeless. They are so bad at giving directions, it`s funny. I know better now than to hope to actually find my way to a destination by asking a local. The answer is always the same, with a generous sweep of the hand and an inclination of the head, they utter some directional words of vagueness, such as “está por allá” (it`s over there) or better still “recto y después se cruza” (straight on and then at some completely undefined point you cross over). Cross what? When? Where? It`s hilarious. After 8 months of receiving such vague responses, I may have worked out why. I think it is because these people have lived all their lives in the same town and imagine that you just must know. It`s a small place after all. Well that theory works for small towns, but they`re just as bad in cities. So therefore I must just give up and give in and be charmed instead of finding my way.

Teeth. I know it`s all the rage in Hackney, but man, you ain`t never seen gold teeth like these! The variety of crowns, caps and pure aesthetic decorations displayed in every full-frontal grinning your way must be seen to be believed! I used to wince whenever I caught a flash of a set of gold stars mounted in the centre of every incisor, but now it`s par for the course. Cosmetic dentistry is a sure bet if you`re looking for a career in Guatemala.

Marimba. The national music of Guatemala, essentially several very large xylophones each manned by several musicians, has finally found a foothold in my heart. I was at a “15 years old” party the other night (coming of age celebration for girls), dancing in the sala, walls crammed with family photographs and proudly displayed certificates of achievement, a glance in the mirror proving that I was a full head above every single other person in the room, all waltzing to marimba. Since that night, one song (probably the most popular marimba song ever) has revealed itself to me again and again. Wherever I go, it follows me. I humbly accept that this must mean I like it. Of course this means I will now have to acquire it so you can all be initiated into the love of marimba at my return party…!

¡Los nervios! This is an enchanting trait. At first, I was surprised that so many people seemed to be suffering from some kind of nervous disorder, until I realised that nerves are blamed for most illnesses. And it is exclaimed with such conviction. “Ah, ¡son los nervios!” So people are constantly popping tranqillizers (albeit natural) and injecting themselves with calming preparations. Not to say that we aren`t all a bunch of hypochondriacs all around the world, but here the amount of medication that gets prescribed is awesome! Hugito, my host mother`s son, currently has a sore throat, and Judy came back from a visit to the doctor with a carrier bag full of remedies. Last week Alba, the librarian, had an upset stomach and returned from the doc with 4 prescriptions. And then there`s me, recently having completely my sixth set of drugs (antibiotics or whatever) to try and kill the nasties which are lodged in my guts, and now I`m taking friendly pills to counteract all the damage caused…welcome to Guatemala Kay! Now I`ve joined the drug-consuming clan!

The lingo. One of the most charming aspects of being in Guatemala is learning to appreciate the nuances and local variations in the language. And no, I`m not talking about the Mayan dialects (of which there are over 20!). I turned down the opportunity for free classes in K’iché, preferring instead to concentrate on the old español. This is muy diferente from castellano in España and I am picking up some wonderful expressions which are pure Guatemalteco. Pues, si, Voz, ¿que onda?

Queens. Guatemala is obsessed with queens. There is always a spread every day of the week in the national paper of local, regional, national or international queens, recently crowned and beaming with their sashes proudly announcing their status. The giant fruit project I did back in July was for a float for the queen of one of the schools in Chiché. There she sat, proud and regal, amid a selection of giant pineapples, avocados, bananas, apples and oranges. Chiché accepted the deviation from a more normal display with very good humour indeed.

The headgear. Absolutely fabulous. As you can imagine, I`m in my element! I have never, ever seen such an incredible variety of headdresses, and here, it`s not fancy dress. It`s real life! I love them all, from the old geezers with brown, wizened faces wrinkled like prunes beneath their jaunty wide-brimmed cowboy stetsons to the indigenous women with 10 metres of woven braid wound round and round their skulls, or a cluster or large, bushy, multicoloured pompoms arranged all down one side of their heads. Then of course, with each headdress goes the traditional costume. The more I get to know Guatemala, the more I am appreciating and learning about the dress culture. Every town has its own unique traje and they are all incredibly varied. It`s quite mezmerising; the colour overload assaults one`s senses and boy does it make our dress culture look drab! All this, and only in Guatemala! So pleased I am here to experience this! I know what you`re all thinking… what will she be wearing when she comes back? Just wait!!!

What will she be wearing.....

A selection of traje as modelled by la señorita escosesa!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Triangulo Ixil

I finally ventured up to one of the most alluring parts of Quiché, the region I live in, to Nebaj. Nebaj is one of three towns consituting the Ixil triangle, famous for its outstanding beauty and unique language, as Ixil is only spoken within this small area. A mere two hours chicken bussing from Chiché and I felt like I had landed in a new world. It is so special and interesting in Guatemala that so many different cultures continue to thrive within relatively close proximities. The most defining factor, of course, is language, but each culture is characterised by customs, traditions, physical appearance and ultimately, dress. Each of the three villages in the Ixil triangle boasts a very distinct costume (traje) and my are they beautiful! Sadly, as in most indigneous communities now, the custom of men wearing the traditional dress has almost completely disappeared, save for formal or religious ceremonies. The women`s traje in Nebaj is spectacular. Their huipiles (back-strap woven blouses) are heavily embroidered with very detailed, geometric patterns in vibrant primary colours, with traditional maroon cortes (loom-woven wrap-around skirt) held up with a faja (embroidered belt) and every head is crowned with a tassled headdress. FABULOUS.
Wandering through the market, an old woman asked me if I wanted to buy “tipico” and led me to her house, where she emptied bags of huipiles, serviettas (shawls similarly embroidered like the huipiles) and cintas (headdresses). I realised she was trying to sell me her own wardrobe, as all were well used and rather shabby, however I ended up with a huipile and cinta at bargain basement prices. Now I just need lessons in how to put on the headdress! She told me her husband was killed 25 years ago, just at the height of the terror during the civil war, which apparently started in Nebaj and left the surrounding area one of the hardest hit. In the Western highlands, indigenous people were persecuted and hundreds of communities were completely erased from the map. Rigoberto Menchu, current-day politician, Nobel peace prize winner and author of various books about this persecution, comes from this part of the country. Although it is always hard to learn about atrocities, I have found in learning about Guatemala and its people, it is so important to know their past, especially when it is so recent. The peace accords were signed in 1996, a mere decade ago.
My first night in Nebaj I was awoken before dawn by the increasingly familiar sounds of a marching band rehearsing. In the run-up to independence day, the whole country is resounding with the battering of drums, tinkling of bells and the blast of trumpets. Nebaj, among many places in Guatemala, resisted the hour change imposed by the government in May (to conserve energy supposedly), meaning that two times exist, and when making any plan one must always inquire whether it is at “la hora oficial” or “la hora de dios” (God`s time). For this reason I suppose, the band started practicing at a decidely ungodly hour, before the clock had even struck 5am, so I was up and gone before sunrise, to explore the Ixil triangle. First I went to San Juan Cotzal, a pretty adobe village arranged over hilly terrain in a gorgeous valley; rolling hills carpeted with vibrant green trees and corn felds providing breathtaking vistas at every glance. It was market day, so the village was bustling with life, the day when all the locals make a trip to town to buy, sell and socialise. I provided quite an attraction, discovering I was the only foreigner in the whole village, and I found myself most warmly welcomed by the very friendly populace. I sat in the market drinking atol de elote (a thick, hot, yellow, drink made with maize – delicious) and learnt about the local traje from the extremely amenable market women and their adorable children.

From there I went to Chajul, which, in comparison to the busy market activity in Costal, was “silencio”. Another sleepy village constructed entirely of rich brown adobe houses set in a spectacularly lush, green, landscape. Everywhere against the earth tones, women attired in the vivid colours of the local traje stood out like beacons. The costume of Chajul is astonishingly bright and beautiful. The huipiles are decorated with bold geometric designs of “animalitos” and they wear fabulous pom-pom headdresses. As I wandered through the village, again the sole tourist, at first I attracted looks of suspicion, which I realised was directed at my ominous black camera which I thenceforth restrained from showing. This suspicion soon converted to shy giggles once I reappeared freshly pom-pommed up with my new purchase wrapped around my head! By the end of my tour I had an army of children and youths in tow, accompanying la extranjera around their pueblo. Wonderfully touching and very special.

Things about Guatemala that I could do without…

Chicken buses: crammed to overflowing and then double it (imagine the inhuman way animals are transported and you`re nearly there). It`s a marvel to see a bus, designed for children, three adults crammed to each seat for two, and then one more squashed across the aisle, suspended in position by the bodies to either side, and then more standing passengers manage to find a toe-hold in an non-existent space, people hanging out of the doors at front and back, the roof cargoed to the max with life`s necessities and of course the odd hessian sack vibrating with high-pitched chirps (the reason chicken buses are so called). And between all this, the conductor manages to squeeze, squirm and bend his way from one end of the bus to the other, collecting fares. Ear splitting music is the norm, be it marimba, techno, meringue, disco or latin rock. Actually the music is sometimes the only saving grace, alleviating the monotony of many hours being chucked all over the place, squashed in from all sides, being assaulted by all manner of unwelcome odours and worse; gripping on to strategically (and v. necessarily) placed bars for dear life, wondering if this will be my last trip on this planet due to the daredevil antics of the driver… Yes, it is an experience that must be had, but once is enough; and knowing that I have survived 8 months regularly fulfilling this essential aspect of being volunteer in Guatemala and that I only have one month left makes me happy!
Well they are never popular, are they? But even after developing such an intimate relationship as I have, I can vouch they are definitely not my best friends. In fact more like the devil incarnate. They are such tencious wee beasties, nothing I can find in Guatemala will kill the cretins!
I have had it with the extremely questionable sanitary standards in this country. Give me a decent, clean, properly functioning toilet that one can even flush paper down and I will repent all of my sins.
Why is it that decent shower technology seems to have skipped Guatemala? Or has it just not reached here yet? The ubiquitous electrical Guatemalan shower boasts dodgy wiring threatening a potential electric shock if one`s head touches the shower head (that means anyone over 5`5”), and the necessity of diminishing the flow of water to the pathetic drizzle to make it hotter, but wait! If you turn it down too far the electricity switches off! I know proper showers can exist here, because once in a while I come across one, for example one of the main attractions of a swish hotel in Antigua which occasionally lures me for a swim in its delicious acclimatized pool are actually the showers…boy do we appreciate what we normally take for granted when we don`t have it. Those showers are heaven.
I know now that we Brits are absolutely unjustified in complaining about the rain
(with the sole exception of Glaswegians, who really do have to put up with pants for weather!). Come to Guatemala and revoke that moaning attitude.
My next project with the library aims to stimulate awareness of this country`s huge problem with rubbish disposal and to provoke a reaction to take the matter in hand. Guatemala boasts one of the most luscious, spectacular landscapes I have ever seen, yet it is literally trashed on a daily basis by all of its inhabitants. I imagine that the readiness with which rubbish is dropped everywhere stems from a past culture when everything biodegraded, leaving no trace, however this does not excuse the current situation. It does not take long to understand that manmade materials such as plastic do not disappear, so then one should alter one`s actions accordingly. It is partly a question of indolence on behalf of the government, who are totally failing to take this matter on board and instigate a campaign towards cleaning up the country. The populace are no less guilty, who agree about how disgraceful the problem is while simultaneously chucking empty food containers out of the bus window!
Very unfortunately, robberies, assaults and assassinations are extremely commonplace in this country, as the papers gleefully inform us daily, with disgusting photographs showing grieving relatives at the scene of the crime and far-too-meticulous diagrams showing each stage of the incident. No compassion is displayed in these grotesque reportages. Guatemala has the highest rate of femicide in the world, a horrifying and shocking reputation which is increasing annually. With unemotional frequency, the daily papers broadcast the latest statistics of how many women have been killed in the last month, since the beginning of the year, over the last five years. However, the papers also reveal that statistically more men are assassinated here than women. The governing authorities are helplessly corrupt, with policemen often implicated as the perpetrators of the crime, but of course no action is taken against them. Many politicians genuinely attempting to do good work are assassinated. One such example of this occurred in my village a few months ago. I saw the rescue dispatch screeching past my window one morning while breakfasting.
Male Chauvinism.
The classic Latin trait. It`s alive and kicking all right. It`s a snare endorsed by the culture that women are caught in, regardless of their social situation. Even those who are embracing modern society, e.g. successful career women, have an even harder life because in addition to their exhausting work schedules they still manage everything domestic and with latin standards of order and hygiene this makes for a great deal of housework!
Guatemalan cuisine.
The staple diet of all Guatemala is a meal consisting of the following: tortillas (corn patties made from milled maize paste patted into shape by millions of female hands every day and toasted on a lime-covered stove fuelled by a log fire), frijoles (black beans), which may be whole or refried (mashed to a pulp and fried). Frijoles are actually delicious. These staples are accompanied by eggs, fresh cheese (very salty) or sour cream and picante (hot sauce). This meals constitutes both breakfast and dinner in Guatemala and is actually what I consider to be the best typical food on offer, leaving the only diversity at lunchtime. Being not a huge fan of meat, my enthusiasm has dwindled even further after countless servings of dry, overcooked meat on the bone, a hunk of chicken containing more bones than flesh swimming in an oversalty gloopy sauce accompanied by over boiled veggies and tortillas. Vegetarianism is calling me loud and clear.
The idea of a fistful of crisp, freshly minted tenners delivered into my palm has never seemed so inviting after months of handling grubby, tattered, limp fragments of time-worn relics from the ark which frankly disgust!