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...

Monday, November 20, 2006

In the run-up to All Saint`s Day (1st Nov), otherwise known as the Day of the Dead, Guatemala becomes even more colourful than normal as street vendors display gaudy decorations to adorn graves and big kites in every shape imaginable appear everywhere, fluttering in breeze. November is kite season, and the skies of Guatemala become ablaze with flitting shapes of colour. The tradition originates from the desire to enable the spirits of the dead to connect with living relatives and the kites symbolise the spirits flying overhead.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Hallowe`en Guatemala style

In the run-up to All Saint`s Day (1st Nov), otherwise known as the Day of the Dead, Guatemala becomes even more colourful than normal as street vendors display gaudy decorations to adorn graves and big kites in every shape imaginable appear everywhere, fluttering in breeze. November is kite season, and the skies of Guatemala become ablaze with flitting shapes of colour. The tradition originates from the desire to enable the spirits of the dead to connect with living relatives and the kites symbolise the spirits flying overhead.

For me, this time of year indicates something more celtic in origin… Hallowe`en, of course! It was interesting to be in the mix of Hallowe`en and Day of the Dead and to draw comparisons between the two. I have also learnt more about the origins of Hallowe`en here than anywhere else, because rather than taking it for granted as we tend to do back home, it is a relatively new concept here, thereby fuelling an abundance of Hallowe`en descriptions, stories and articles in the press.
I managed to maintain some steadfast Hallowe`en traditions this year with an added Guatemalan twist. Mistress Jecca, the other half of my Manhatten Hallowe`en parade double act jumped on her broomstick and we celebrated Hallow`s eve in true festive style, dancing and twisting around the fire like true witches, bonding with a medley of the usual ghoulish creatures and other worldly beings. We, deciding to conform to the American style of celebrating Hallowe`en, picked a costume out of the all-encompassing hat of “whatever” fancy dress and transformed ourselves into a pair of very colourful ostriches, complete with appropriate “quetzal tail” feathers (the quetzal is the extremely elusive and stunningly beautiful national bird of Guatemala, famous for its long tail feathers) and trays of giant insect-inhabited sand to bury our heads in, should any untoward circumstances arise. We had a fine time partying in the courtyards of a truly spectacular Antiguan colonial house, with the usual ghosts and bats, uprooted from their usual glamfrockeresque haunts, comfortably installed in residence for the occasion.
The dressing up did not stop there. I took Jecca to the lake of Atitlan, destination: La Iguana Perdida, a fun backpackers place with a long-running weekly trans-gender dressing-up affair, an event I felt I could not leave Guatemala without experiencing. Sadly with such high standards in the costume party world, it did not live up to my expectations, but we had a royal time trying on an array of extremely questionable garments (when was the last time they were washed, we wondered, choking from the clouds of spores released into the atmosphere every time we moved!) along the lines of extreme bad taste (Jecca in a taffeta ballgown, Anita in an awesome 70s embroidered denim jumpsuit and moi in a true cross-dresser`s red sequinned fantasy. Priscilla at her best! All held together with clothes pegs…!)

We bumped into some friends and went hiking around the crater of the lake – the entire lake is the crater of a long-extinct monster volcano, and the impressive cones looming around its shores are mere baby younglings – stopping for stunning views, breath recovery sessions and jeep advertisement promotions. At the end of all the fun, the much-loved Jec returned to her silicon homeland leaving me to prepare for my next adventure…

On November 1st, the whole of Guatemala takes to the cemetery to spend the day with the spirits of their deceased. I hopped over to Sumpango, famous for its kite competition. You have never seen kites as big as this. I mean, they are huge! So huge that the biggest ones are not designed to be airborne. Associations and families create exquisitely detailed works of art and compete in categories according to size. One by one the kites are launched into the sky with teams of men heaving and running and pulling, and most scurry briefly overhead before flailing and plummeting down to earth again, sometimes crashing upon impact. The fact that there was very little wind that day did not help, although we all marvelled as one floated aloft for over half an hour. For an artist, it was a rich experience indeed. ¡Que linda tradiciòn!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Into the wilds...

Within the space of a month I have covered more of Guatemala geographically than in the last nine months put together. After my trip out east to Rio Dulce and Tikal, I spent a scant few days in Antigua before heading off again, this time to the north-west highlands. Huehuetenango is famed for being the most isolated, rugged, wild region, and deservedly so, in addition to being home to some of the most tenacious Mayan cultures. “Huehue”, pet name for the capital of the region, is considered by most as being really far away (from Guatemala City, for example, which is 7 hours away by chicken bus). So you can imagine the gasps when I related that I had been 5 hours north of Huehue. That is far! Almost in Mexico, in fact. And those 5 hours on a chicken bus, despite playing the same Ranchero CD (another grreat type of Guatemalan music – wait till I get back!) over and over again, were some of the best hours in have spent in Guatemala. That journey was breathtakingly beautiful, described by Oliver LaFarge and Douglas Byers in 1931 as “a shaggy, rugged country of fine, tall pines and uncanny live-oak groves, fog, cold, wheat, sheep, and very Indian-looking Indians…The place was mournful with rain and the constant rush of water… And all that land was so beautiful it hurt.”

My destination was San Mateo Ixtatàn, where I went to visit the Ixtatàn Fundation, a project set up by an American woman to provide a much-needed school for the village 5 years ago. Now there is a school, internet cafè and a ceramic water filter programme among other projects and I arrived to find an IT room being equipped with 30 donated computers which had just arrived in a private jet- another compassionate sponsor!

San Mateo Ixtatàn`s remoteness makes Chichè look like the centre of the world, although there is a reasonable road and it is not actually difficult to get there. It is just really far away from everywhere. It was interesting to be in such an isolated place and find myself in the heart of a thriving community project manned by a multi-national mix of volunteers. It was an inspiring trip and I certainly hope to offer my own services as a volunteer some day. I am sure San Mateo would love to have some crazy huge sculptural elements featured in the fiesta parade or some such thing…

From there I witnessed plunging forested valleys, high wind-blown plateaux and a stupendous descent from the wall of the Cuchumutanes mountain range down into the plain of Huehue below and beyond to Xela (Quetzaltenango), 8 hours chicken bussin` non-stop. Boy was I thrilled to be welcomed into the flat of a Londoner friend who has made Xela his home. So strange to be in an environment filled with good music, all the domestic luxuries and imported English tea and chocolate! It is interesting how sometimes it is so easy to fall in with somebody from one`s own homeland. Culture shapes us in ways that we do not appreciate until we step outside of the mould. We had one of the best nights so far in Guatemala dancing to a live reggae band in a lovely open-air courtyard. Good live music is something I have rarely experienced in Guatemala, and less so nights out dancing under the stars together with a bunch of fun-loving people. The vibe was perfect and we had fun!

From Xela I headed out towards the Mexican border, this time due west. A mere four hours on various chicken buses transported me to Brooke, another Artcorps artist, who was there to greet me off the bus. We hiked down the mountain for 40 minutes through gorgeous landscape and pine forests until we arrived at her cute house. I had been warned that this was rural living, and they weren`t kidding! The community where Brooke is living in spread out across the skirts of a valley and until recently the only access was to walk down the mountain path. The altitude in this region is over 4000 metres, so hiking up at 5am the following morning was (little) preparation for our plan for the day; to climb Tajumulco, the highest volcano in Central America. I had just seen the most astonishing photographs of views from the top, the sunrise casting a perfectly triangular shadow of the volcano reaching out across the coastal plain, because my friends in Xela had just bagged it two weeks before, so I was excited. However, even the idea of this vision was hard to motivate me when the lack of oxygen made my lungs feel like lead weights and my muscles seemed to be failing! It was hard, but as we got higher, the clouds gathered until we arrived at the summit like beings lost in the fog. View? What view! All we could see was whiteness. Then the rain drops started falling and we got wetter and wetter the lower we descended. We arrived at the bottom like drowned rats, cold, tired and in need of a roaring fire or hot bath…no luck! We managed to dry out without catching cold, ready for my mosaic workshop the next day in the library in Tajumulco, nestling beneath the looming heights of the volcano.

The workshop was a success and I left with invitations to come back and join in the festivities for New Year by climbing the volcano (again! But it is dry season in December, so at least a view is more or less a cert). I also bid farewell to Brooke, who has a mere three weeks to go before returning to the US. It has been fantastic and special that I have been able to meet with the other artists fairly frequently throughout my time here, to see how each one is working and the very different communities we are living in. Onward to Cabrican, near Xela, the last library on the list, and the only one I still had not visited. I did a workshop with twenty women who were extremely accomplished in mosaic work, despite having never done it before, and finished my library tour very satisfactorally.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

El Oriente

Recently I went on the most inspiring trip! Immediately following my departure from Chichè, I embarked upon a journey out east. The reason? Fun, of course! Oh, and the obligatory crossing of the border in order to renew my visa. The borders between Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua have, since June this year, become “open”, meaning that we foreigners cannot get our passports stamped if crossing between these countries. A big headache for all the ex-pats living here, but for me it made the perfect excuse to head for the beach in Belize! I cunningly combined this exit with a reunion with the other two Artcorps artists in the most beautiful place…Rio Dulce.
First, I met up with Aryeh, who is doing fine theatrical work with youths in El Salvador.
We boarded the bus in Guatemala City on a lovely sunny day and stepped off 5 hours later into the muggy heat of El Oriente. The range of climate in Guatemala is quite astonishing, because of the varying altitudes. Quiché, where I have been living, is considered to be “frio”, a description which is handily printed on the signs at the entrance to each town in the region. “Cold”, I scoff, although real cold is becoming a distant memory for me! The Oriente is never referred to without the words “¡que calor!”
We found a lovely tree-house cabin in the watery jungly world of Lago Izabal, and our first excursion was off to Finca El Paraiso. ¡Que maravilia! It is a hot waterfall cascading into a deliciously cool, clean river. We clambered atop the falls and lounged around in the bath-tub temperature pools before descending to the river, where we got pummelled by streams of hot water massaging our heads and shoulders. ¡Que rico! Hot springs! I love `em!

Our next destination was the jewel of our trip: Finca Tatin, a haven hidden in the watery wonderland of Rio Dulce; a proper get-away-from-it-all laid back lodge with cabins immersed deep in the jungle, the river providing the only access. There, we met up with Brooke, the other artist who is working in the mountains near the Mexican border, with her husband Ian and their mate Greg. We experienced a very special day kayaking around the Manatee Biotopo reserve, intrepidly exploring inlets and hidden lagoons in the mangroves, moving through tunnels of green, the greenness so bright and intense in the sun it almost hurt the eyes, the tropical plants growing wildly, crazily, forming impenetrable walls all around us. We had two wonderful days together, and then we all had to go our separate ways. It has been very special being part of such a great team, and despite the great distances between our placements, we have managed to get together several times and share ideas, experiences and good times.

We parted in Livingston, which is a pretty little town only accessible by water, mainly populated by black Garifunas. The vibe is Carribean and laid back; its differences setting it apart from the rest of Guatemala. From there I took a boat to Belize, the day the tropical storms hit. I hooked up with some Dutch wanderers and we spent a rainy day and night on the beach enjoying ourselves despite the torrential downpours. Not quite the Carribean beach experience I have been dreaming about since I arrived here 10 months ago!

The next destination was another jewel in the trip: Tikal, magical world of the Maya, where towering temples rise out of the jungle, flocks of toucans and parrots flitting between the trees, howler monkeys filling the air with their screeching cries. I loved Tikal. It was so wonderful to finally see the ancient stones and to imagine how it would have looked with the feathered and bejewelled Mayan nobility populating the city; a city which is now shrouded in greenery and mist, where nature has reclaimed the workings of man.

Flores is the main base from which most tourists visit Tikal. Situated on an island with gorgeous views across the water, it is a lovely little town with very friendly local people, surprisingly unspoilt given how much tourism passes through there. I really liked Flores and had a great time hanging out with my new Dutch pals for a couple of days. From there I stopped off at Finca Ixobel, an eco-farm renowned for its great organic food, beautiful setting and relaxing atmosphere. I stayed in a fantastic tree-house, in a beautiful foresty field, the only occupant, where I felt like I was lost in the woods. I swam in the pond at twilight, and watched the stars twinkling their light into the darkening sky while I bathed in the refreshing water..