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, 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.


At 9:24 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The world needs more mosaic mirrors, the more the better. Keep up the good work.


At 12:45 pm, Blogger Martin said...

Hmmm, looks just like Scotland ...on acid.


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