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...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Patagonia - Lake District

I feel like I have landed on another planet. After two and a half days` solid travelling, covering several thousand miles, I arrived in Patagonia, south Argentina, to be welcomed into the warm embrace of my dear friend Micala and her Danish travelling crew. Micala and I, for the last three years, have established a pattern of meeting once a year in a different country, so where better than Argentina to start 2007 with a bang! One would think that Guatemala is in closer proximity to Patagonia than northern Europe, being on the same side of the world, but in actual fact, the distance is about the same, i.e. really far away. And it feels like it. Central America is a world away from Argentina. This is civilization proper; very different from Chichè, that`s for sure!
This country is vast. There is so much space. Guatemala has spectacular scenery, but nowhere seems to be untouched by human hands. Here nature dominates everything. In a short few days we took in so many breathtaking views; lakes, waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, virgin forests, crystal-clear rivers… One day we hiked for hours through an exquisite forest alongside a stunning lake to hot spring waterfalls gushing out of a wall of rock. We bathed in steaming pools before returning to feast at an estancia (country ranch) which had surely been sent from heaven, in a remarkable and isolated location on the shores of another wilderness lake, where we sat on the lawn and dined on exquisite food (very much appreciated after 5 hours trekking) in the company of extremely amiable hosts, who, it turned out, had attended St. Andrews School in Buenos Aires. They seemed delighted to have a real Scot amongst them and invited me back with the promise of bagpipes…

After four intense days I sadly but fondly bid farewell to the Danish posse – we shared much fun, laughter, excellent food and even more excellent wine. (Argentinian wine is a must! That`s what we`ll be drinking when we land!) Then I went back to the estancia, where I joined the clan for a couple of days. Sure enough, Brian had arrived, virtuoso piper by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen and to many other visiting dignitaries from far British shores. So there we were, surrounded by the trees and the mountains, the sound of Scottish bagpipes floating on the breeze…another unforgettable experience in this grand adventure I am undertaking. I have been showing my Scottish hardiness by swimming in the icy waters of the many lakes every day – something the Argentinians consider utter madness, but it`s good for body and soul, I am convinced. A few days ago I arrived in Bariloche, Argentina`s hub of summer and winter mountain sports, where I have been royally hosted by the family of an Argentinian friend I met in Guatemala. Bariloche is like Switzerland in Argentina – small wonder so many Swiss and Germans settled here – right down to the growth of a fine chocolate industry. I am currently sitting in a chocolate parlour partaking in the delicias! Soon I will be heading for the glaciers and the end of the world…Love to my Patagonian chums and keep on suppin` that vino argentino!

Chichè feria

from Chichè

Friday, January 12, 2007

Christmas in Chichè

I have just had the best week! I was invited to return to “my” village in Quiché for Christmas, a tempting invitation with a double incentive because the annual feria of Chiché starts on the 25th of December. After hearing about the feria all year, I felt it was a requisite to attend, and how great a way to end my stay in Guatemala. In fact, my last 10 days in Guatemala have included Christmas, the feria in Chiché and New Year. What a wonderful culmination to a year in this amazing country.

Christmas happens all at once in Guatemala. Everything takes place as the clock strikes twelve on Christmas Eve. Huge quantities of fireworks are set off – the skies above every village, town and city become ablaze with colour and light, not to mention the auditory assault casued by ceaseless explosions for a good half hour. After that, tamales and ponche (hot fruit punch) are consumed and then the present opening starts, lasting until the small hours... Throughout the evening family and friends are visited, and always tamales and ponche are offered. By 1am, I could eat no more tamales or ponche, even though it must have been the healthiest Christmas I have ever spent.

So nothing is left for the 25th of December, making it a day of rest and relaxation. For me, it was strangely one of the most “normal” Christmas Days I have ever spent, whilst simultaneously being one of the most abnormal. In Chiché, the evening of the 25th heralds the beginning of the feria with a social event in the town hall, namely the coronation of Señorita Chiché, Señorita Simpatia and la Novia de los Ganaderos (the Cowboys´girlfriend). This was a solemn event for which everybody dresses in formal attire, followed by a dance with a live marimba band. I managed to find a dance partner who lives in Miami with more moves and grooves than most Chichelenses and over the course of the feria, with dances every night, we earned a bit of a reputation for our outlandish (by Chiché´s standards) spins and turns on the dancefloor. Fun.

From the 26th to the 30th December the “convites” take centre stage. Each convite is a group of masked dancers who dance in the streets all day long until the unmasking ceremony after dark. Each convite is made up of up to 20 couples with matching or complementary costumes, and the themes for the costumes generally seem to have been picked out of the latest computer game with endless variants on futuristic intergalactic warriors. Occasionally somebody comes up with an original idea, but in any case it`s quite something to see, with very well made costumes including full-head masks, lots of fibre glass, leather and long wigs…hilarious!

The much-anticipated women`s convite (which only started five years ago) was on the 29th and was really something. How those she-warriors danced on spiky heels for 12 hours is beyond me! Sexy tombraiderish stuff there!
Throughout the feria there were folkloric national dances every day with the dancers (always men) dressed in outrageously glittery sequined costumes with masks depicting white bearded faces and feathered headdresses. These dances “celebrate” the conquest of Guatemala by Spain and the costumes contain a curious mix of conquistador and Mayan emblems. Amongst the bearded men dance the toros (bulls) who scamper about with horns pointed. Every day there was a procession from the Mayan church, in which the village elders, wearing their stunning ceremonial indigenous dress, accompanied life-size effigies of various saints (completely Catholic in appearance) ensconced within multi-coloured feathered litters around the town to the tune of live marimba. Quite a spectacle.

One of the funniest traditions I saw was the “toritos” (little bulls), a pure Guatemalan tradition of a man dancing around the square with a structure on his back laden with fireworks, which ignite and explode over the course of about 10 minutes, treating the spectator (and the torito) to the thrills of unpredictable bangs, explosions and twirling shows of colour and light. Health and safety? Fiesta!

The last day of the feria was cowboy day, when the local cowboy contingent show off their cowboy skills with various competitions and contests involving feats such as riding buckin` bronco bulls (man, those cowboys are crazy. Total fear!) The feria ended with a cowboy/girl dance, when everyone has to go dressed appropriately (stetson, boots, checked shirt, etc). Shame I had left my newly purchased Mexican cowgirl boots in Antigua – you know how I love to dress up!

Back to Antigua for New Year`s Eve, which I spent with friends. In complete contrast to the torillas, tamales and frijoles of Chichè, we dined in a stunning new sushi restaurant (exquisite food), and decked in top hats, tiaras and blowing horns and rattles, we celebrated the striking of the clock on the streets of Antigua with impressive firework displays filling the night sky at every turn, the streets and square thronging with happy people. Then we danced all night and I won the record for last to bed (11am on the 1st…) fabulous! That was my final fling in Guatemala.

Gracias, beautiful country, it`s been an incredible journey, and thanks to all the amazing people I have got to know and share with. You will stay in my heart and hopefully we will meet again. Hasta la proxima vez!