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, March 17, 2007

Living in luxury in Uruguay

Note HRH Lizzie gazing from an excellent viewpoint on the stairs
The union jack is not flying because, of course, the Ambassador is not at home
Afternoon requisite

La Residencia Britanica

I have been in Uruguay for a month now and it is having several notable effects:

1. I have become a dulce de leche addict. How did I ever live without it before?

2. I have reformed and become a mate-drinker. Yerba de mate is a green herb that grows in Uruguay, Northern Argentina and Southern Brazil and nowhere is the tradition more fervently upheld than in Uruguay. As my Argentine friends commented, “In Argentina we drink mate, but we wait until we arrive at our destination to sit down and drink it”. In Uruguay absolutely everywhere, in every situation, people can be seen carrying thermos flasks under one arm, mate in hand, sipping, refilling, sipping, refilling, all day long. So, now I own a mate (recipient carved out of a gourd), a bombilla (metal straw) and a thermos flask recently purchased in a duty free shop on the Brazilian border. Never in my life have I seen people so excited about the qualities of my thermos flask! So I can now pose as an Uruguayan (pronounced Uruguashan with plenty of emphasis on the “sh”) with my new-found national preferences.

3. I have become a proper carnivore. Parilladas, barbeques Uruguayan style, are truly excellent here. It makes our BBQ tradition look pathetic in comparison. Argentina has all the fame for the quality of its meat, but Uruguayans are perhaps even more obsessed. The mountains of sizzling steaks served at any given moment are hard to believe.

4. I am a rare breed. It’s great to answer “Scotland” when people ask where I’m from and watch the look of astonishment which follows. You would think that I’m the first Scot they’ve ever met and it’s probably true. They are always intrigued as to how I ended up here whilst simultaneously expressing surprise that more people don’t know their country. I have at least met one other Scot here: the British ambassador, who hails from Lothian. After spending a month in some fairly basic accommodation, I have arrived to Montevideo in style: I am now safely installed in the palacial-like British residence where my private quarters are several times larger than the average 3 bed house! Thanks to Emily, my new friend, who just so happens to be wife to the ambassador. So here I can feel like a true ex-pat, admire the many portraits of the royal family, swirl down the grand staircase like Scarlett to take afternoon tea in fine bone china with silver spoons. I am getting used to be waited on by several maids and a butler. Long may it last!

Apart from that, I can vouch that the beaches in Uruguay are paradasaical. I should know, having just spent a solid month lying on them. I don’t think I’ve ever been so tanned! Uruguay also has an extravagant carnival tradition full of dance, music and costumes and it is still going on, which is a treat. Now I’m off to a marimba concert at the Guatemalan embassy, being an old-timer when it comes to marimba and all that Guatemalan jazz! Hasta luego,

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Cabo Polonio

Three weeks ago, I entered a magical world, a secret place where, after dark, objects reveal their form only by flickering candlelight or by the light of the moon if she´s willing to show herself. One´s eyes grow accustomed to the darkness and one´s soul is revitalised by closer contact with the earth, free from convenient distractionssuch as telephones, computers, televisions; free from electricity. Water is hauled up from wells and is used sparingly, a precious resource.

Cabo Polonio, Uruguay is one of those places that leaves a huge imprint on your senses. In this day and age, a popular beach resort without roads, electricity or running water yet which draws up to 5000 visitors daily (during very high season) seems hard to believe. During the winter it boasts a population of 82, mainly fishermen, who live primitively, as do the tourists, when they come, thirsty for an escape from the demands of modern life.
I arrived in Cabo Polonio on carnival Monday intending to stay a couple of days and stayed three weeks and even then found it so hard to leave. I watched the influx of visitors diminish radically from the two long beaches flanking the cape. At first crammed with bronzing bodies, they soon became peaceful oases, a few surfers riding the waves and a few people dotting the beach, nada mas.

Cabo Polonio boasts the largest sealion population in South America. Originally exploited for their valuable pelts, the population is now protected and is expanding successfully. The outer-lying islands are a mass of sealion harems and at all times of day and night strange shrieks and cries travel across the water providing a backgroundof weird and wonderful Hallowe´enish sound... During the day sealions play in the sea along with cormorants and dolphins and while I was there, a huge whale appeared on the beach, dead but fascinating.

It is impossible to be alone in the Cabo, as the Uruguayans call it. I made so many new friends, easy as the Uruguayans are so friendly. The nightlife is wild, especially considering the remoteness. It is like a permanent festival. But don´t tell everyone! It draws visitors from around the globe but it still manages to retain an air of secrecy. Let´s hope it stays that way.

Welsh Patagonia

My Patagonian odyssey concluded in Puerto Madryn, on the Atlantic coast of Argentina. This area was colonised by the Welsh towards the end of the 19th Century, who, seeking freedom from British repression, and having been granted permission by the Argentine government, arrived expecting to establish farms and instead found avast barren desert promising little hope of survival. Many died and the colony only survived because they befriended the indigenous tribes who taught them how to hunt. Interestingly, this is the only occurrence in the history of the colonisation of Argentina wherein a friendly relationship existed between the natives and the settlers. I went to visit Gaiman, one of the "Welsh" villages where they still speak Welsh. Part of the typical tourist circuit, we went to a Welsh teahouse (since when was Wales famous for tea? I thought it rude to sing the more obvious praises of Devonshire cream teas in too high a voice but I did let my travelling companions know sotto voce). Anyway, the remarkable thing about this particular teahouse, appropriately called Caerdydd (I did not fail to let them know where I live when I´m in the UK), is that it is a shrine to Princess Diana (Lady Dee as she is affectionately called in Patagonia) This is THE teahouse where she took her tea when she visited Patagonia and sure enough, her lipstick-imprinted teacup is encased in a glass display cabinet, together with a cornucopia of Diana kitsch filling the whole building....! Fabulous!

I walked with penguins, 700,000 of them, in Punta Tombo. Funny, curious creatures, crossing your path. I did feel a touch of moral unease about being able to walk through their colony, especially when I saw a child taunting a penguin with a plastic bottle. Hmm. Not so good.

I visited colonies of sealions and elephant seals and saw Commerson`s dolphins playing in the waves, all around the Valdès Peninsula, a natural haven for the animalitos. You need to go in the Patagonian winter to see the awesome sight of whales splashing in front of the boat, so that I did not see. But all in all, I was living a veritable wildlife David Attenborough stylie documentary. ¡Que barbaro!, as they say here!

I visited colonies of sealions and elephant seals and saw Commerson`s dolphins playing in the waves, all around the Valdès Peninsula, a natural haven for the animalitos. You need to go in the Patagonian winter to see the awesome sight of whales splashing in front of the boat, so that I did not see. But all in all, I was living a veritable wildlife David Attenborough stylie documentary. ¡Que barbaro!, as they say here!