Tuesday, February 20, 2018

considering atitlan

Mexpatriate is broadcasting this morning from the shores of Lake Atitlan.

If you do not know the name, that is quite all right. Even though it is Guatemala's largest lake (and one of its primary tourist magnets), it is not as well-known as some of the world's great lakes. Titicaca. Como. Baikal.

But it is a pleasant enough place. And certainly popular with the international crowd. Backpackers and ex-hippies abound.

For the Guatemalans, it is a prime recreation area. In Mexico, Mexicans head to the beaches during Semana Santa. Guatemalans throng around the shores of Lake Atitlan.

We arrived here (in Panajachel) yesterday for a one-night stand right on the lake. But it was not a day of relaxation. We boarded a boat for a quick trip across the lake to San Pedro La Laguna for a lunch of muddy-tasting tilapia.

At least, mine was. I was the only person to have unwisely chosen to eat the fish grilled.

When we left the restaurant, I noticed this unusual site. A Jewish recreation center and meeting place -- in Guatemala. Apparently, the lake has a sizable Jewish community. Including an Orthodox community in San Juan La Laguna, where their presence is somewhat controversial.

That is where we went next. To San Juan La Laguna. In nine road racing tuk tuks.

Where we were treated to the obligatory lecture on Maya medicine -- complete with a staged herbal garden.

And then to the even more obligatory talk on the manufacture of hand-loomed cotton textiles.

Both presentations gave us the opportunity to leave more Quetzals in the local economy. I walked, instead. A lot.

I am not being churlish. I fully support anything that can transfer wealth from one person to another. It is the free market. And Guatemalans are expert at the art of convincing tourists to buy something they had no idea they so desperately needed in exchange for a wad of bills that the tourist will never miss. Adam Smith at his purist.

It truly is a movable feast of merchandise. Or a kidnapping gone bad.

The lake is surrounded by volcanoes. In fact, it is a volcano. The remnants of one, at least. The lake fills a caldera of a volcano that blew its top 84,00 years ago. Leaving a lake that is quite deep. 1120 feet.

But we have become accustomed to volcanoes on our journey through Guatemala. This volcano in Antigua greeted us each morning, from our breakfast terrace, with an eruption.

And that reminds me of food. Because I have little more to say about the lake, I want to share a few food photographs with you. And tortillas would be a great place to start.

The tortillas here are quite thick. In Mexico, we would probably call them gorditas. They are made of one of the four colored corns of Guatemala. You can see three here.

In the same market, I started negotiating for a taste of the armadillo or the caiman (just out of sight). I was going to pass on the iguana.

But the owner was interested in selling only a full armadillo or a large chuck of caiman. I have tasted both, and I was far more interested in the caiman.

Before I could indulge my itch, I was called away to join the tour group.

I am almost certain it would have tasted better than the pizza at this stand. The real thing looked even less appetizing than the photograph on the front of the booth.

Speaking of signs, let me share three with you. Guatemala is still a pre-literate society in many respects. But signs like this sell sandwiches. Even though I first thought he was eating a turtle.

And if you have too much to drink, there are signs to remind you what not to do.

But this is by far my favorite sign. I saqw it this morning a block from the lake. A perfect pun in Spanish.

I hear my group meeting in the lobby. So, I need to wrap up this episode, We are on our way to the airport in Guatemala City to fly to Tikal.

Tikal is why I came on this trip. Join me there.

Monday, February 19, 2018

barging in

"All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

It is one of my favorite scenes from The Life of Brian. It comes to mind whenever I hear anachronists bang on about how the Spanish ruined Mesoamerica. If you need ammunition to pour oil on that water, come to Antigua. The town feels as if it was frozen in crystal in 1776 when it lost its provincial capital status.

Yesterday we were treated to one of the traditions the Spanish brought to the New World -- a tradition that was ancient when it bobbed its way across the Atlantic. Being the agents of His Most Catholic Majesty, the conquistadors and their priests brought a rich Catholic heritage with them -- including religious processions.

To call what transpires in Antigua during the Easter season as a "religious procession" understates what a visitor will experience. A religious procession may have a few participants hauling a statute around town on a litter.

What happens in Antigua is something quite different. If you like your religion filtered through the camera of Cecil B. De
Mille, or think that a super bowl half-time show would spice up your church proceedings, you are going to love Easter time in Antigua. I certainly did.

To give some context to its importance, Guatemalans come from all over the country to not only see the procession, but to participate in it. Most of the Roman soldiers I talked with were from Guatemala City.

Since the Middle Ages, the Spanish had decorated the streets for their processions with colorful designs of flowers and dyed sawdust, called alfombras de aserrin. The tradition appears to have originated in the Canary Islands.

This was one western tradition the Maya had no problem adopting. They had been accustomed to idol processions where fruits and feathered decorations were strewn in the path of the procession.

In Antigua, the alfombras art form has been perfected. (Even though there are many experts who claim the designs in Tlaxcala, Mexico are superior. I don't know. I have not seen the Mexican version.)

The processions in Antigua are held every Sunday following Ash Wednesday until Palm Sunday. During Holy Week, processions are held every day until Easter.

Early on the morning of the day of each procession, families along the route start constructing their alfombras. The process can vary according to the desired outcome, but most start with a large rectangle of plain sawdust dampened to formed a sound foundation.

The family will then begin adding designs using stencils to create some of the most fantastic combinations imaginable. Because this is all Catholic-oriented, Catholic symbols predominate.

But the Maya were a wily folk and did not give up their own traditions that easily. They worked their own pagan symbols in with the church's designs. You can see similar examples of the same approach in carvings on Mexican and Guatemalan churches. The priests did not care as long as the passion was being portrayed.

And that was the point of all this. In a pre-literate society, the church could use these movable feasts of salvation through the streets to portray the gospel -- or a version of the gospel. Much in the same way that stained glass windows were used in Europe.

That is why most of the designs on the alfombras are allegorical. Either Catholic or Maya.

The alfombras are not solely made of sawdust. Some are decorated with palm flowers and berries.

Some are made of kale -- which only proves it does have some utilitarian purpose.

Some are almost entirely flowers. Tulips in this example.

And some are made entirely of flowers.

The procession passes through most of the neighborhoods of Antigua. From start to finish, it lasts approximately thirteen hours. And you will soon see why.

No Easter procession would be complete without imperial Roman soldiers, persuasively costumed to lead a procession dedicated to the Messiah's crucifixion. The first formation are pictured at the top of this essay.

More Roman soldiers followed carrying placards depicting the stations of the cross, in what has to be one of the best uses of irony I have seen in the service of Catholicism.

What made all of this worth watching was lugubriously wending its way down the street through clouds of incense. It was an andas. The true star of the procession.

An andas is a float the size of a barge. And it really floats -- on the shoulders of purple-robed retainers called curcurachas, devout men working out their salvation through self-mortification. It takes fifty to a hundred of them to shoulder the burden -- a burden that can weigh as much as 7000 pounds.

Watching the andas make their slow way down the street, it is easy to slip into the barge analogy. I said they float. They don't. They sway in an attempt to shift the burdens on the shoulders of the curcurachas. The andas bob up and down, and sway side to side.

Only when it is near can you make out the diorama on top. Jesus in the garden. Jesus flogged. Jesus on his way to his crucifixion. All more than life size.

The Messiah andas was followed by another bearing a stiffly-posed Mary. She was carried on the shoulders of women dressed in black.

I thought this might be another of the church's segregation policies. But when I saw the same procession in the center of Antigua, the women were shouldering Jesus and the men had taken over the Mary litter.

And the alfombras? They are consumed as the curcurachas and the women propel their respective andas down the street. After all, they were constructed as an offering to the procession.

I enjoyed the procession, but I certainly was not overwhelmed by it. In the daytime, that is.

Around 10 PM, the procession was heading toward its final destination when it passed in front of our hotel. What had been large in the daylight took on a dramatic air.

The stations of the cross carried by the Roman soldiers were lit as lanterns for the procession. And the Messiah andas was lit up like -- well, the second coming.

The whole thing is worth seeing once in your life. But if you are coming during Holy Week for next year, you had best book a room right now. To keep with our theme, there will be no room at the inn.

This is not an event where you can just barge in.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

everything's new again

I cannot believe my sense of curiosity failed me so drastically.

I knew our first stop in Guatemala was going to be Antigua. And I know that "antigua" means "old" in Spanish. But I never thought to ask what the adjective modifies.

It turns out that I only knew the city's first name. Its full name is Antigua Guatemala -- to distinguish it from the "new" capital, Nueva Guatemala. What we know as Guatemala City.

Our group arrived here late Friday night. Today was our first day to explore this old colonial city. In some ways, the city seems almost frozen in place when it lost its status as the capital of Guatemala.

We will discuss Guatemala's pre-Colombian history when we visit Tikal next week. But, as far as this area of Guatemala is concerned, its history began with the arrival of the Spanish. There is little archaeological history around Antigua itself to show any Maya settlement.

After invading Mexico, the Spanish spread south. The conquest of Guatemala was part of the move to bring the Maya under the sway of the Spanish crown.

Antigua was established as the capital of the province in 1543 after the site of two previous capitals proved unsuitable. There was no silver or gold here. The sole purpose of the choice of the city's site was that it was strategically located to control Spain's conquest.

Antigua served as the capital until 1775 when the capital was moved to Guatemala City. The authorities decided the city was no longer safe following a series of earthquakes, floods, mudslides, and volcanic eruptions. The remnants of great buildings still dot today's Antigua.

Antigua has to be one of the easiest cities I have ever navigated. And, viewed from the hills above the city, it is easy to see why. The place is laid out on a perfect grid radiating from several well-planned plazas.

Even though it is a UNESCO site, the place looks a good deal like other Latin American cities that appear to be frozen in amber in the late 18th century.  It is pleasant, but certainly not unique.

Because I am on a group tour, I did not get a very good feel for the city. Our day was made up of a trip to see a panoramic view of the city, a coffee plantation tour, a very brief stop at a colonial church, a whirl through a jade factory, and a long trek past fancy shops ending with a visit to a market where the same goods seem to be on offer at your local Import Plaza.

Instead of spending more time like that, I headed off on my own through the streets of Antigua. On the walk back to the hotel, I was propositioned three times. First, by two women who would have been better-suited to market their wares in the soft glow of street lights, rather than in full sunlight. And then by a young man who followed me with an interesting bit of patter and flattery in Spanish. My wallet enriched none of them.

Tomorrow is a special day here in Guatemala. We have entered Lent. There will be a special procession through the streets decorated with designs made of colored sawdust. I have seen photographs of this event. Now, I will see the real thing.

And maybe I can redeem my relationship with Antigua.  

Friday, February 16, 2018

shot down

Timing is everything.

My head is filled with clichés these days. And that is true because today my hands are not filled with a camera.

During the past couple of months, my Sony NEX6 has been giving me various troubles. There was an ever-growing lag between switching it on and the camera going operational. Then the electronic zoom on my workhorse lens started sticking.  Then, not responding at all.

I managed to get through the Peru trip. But I noticed my pictographs were not up to my standards.

This week I have been preparing for my departure this morning to Guatemala. I took my camera out for an experimental shooting session -- the goat-trimmed landscaping in front of my house.

I turned the camera on. Nothing. Then I looked at the screen. The camera could not recognize my lens. I took it off and re-attached it. Nothing.

I cleaned the contacts. Nothing. I returned all of my settings to factory default. Nothing. When I attached my telescopic lens, the camera worked fine.

A little bit of research online quickly found the answer. My lens was dead. Apparently, it is not a rare event with this particular Sony lens. After all, this had been the tird lens of that variety I have purchased

I priced a replacement. Almost $500 with shipment. And the lens would not arrive until I returned from Guatemala.

Here is what I have decided to do. I will take the Sony with the telescopic lens attached to Guatemala. There are plenty of places where that lens should work well. Such as, Tikal.

For closer range shots, I will rely upon the camera in my telephone (or is that the telephone in my camera?) That combination should cover me for this trip. I will just have to take the quality hit.

That now leaves me calling on you dear readers if you have any suggestions for a new camera. Rather then buying a new lens, it is time to move on.

My friend Jordan is a professional camera man. He is working on some ideas for me.

But if any of you have any suggestions, I am all fingers. Anxious fingers.

I did mention Guatemala. If you are interested here are our stops. Antigua. Lake Atitlán. Tikal. With assorted stops here and there.

With my limited equipment, I will shoot what I can. But it sounds as if it is going to be another great trip with Mex-Eco Tours.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

dead dog certain

No good deed goes unpunished.

I could use all sorts of clichés for today's cautionary tale. But that one will do.

After a hiatus for my trip to Peru and a subsequent bout of illness that kept me in bed for a few days, I have started my regular walking routine.

While clipping along through the centro area of Barra de Navidad, I saw a bit of Sophoclean tragedy working out its way on the sidewalk in front of a hotel.

I do not know how many times I have walked past the same scene. An older Mexican man sitting at the edge of the sidewalk with his back to a medium-sized dog tied to a post.

What was different today was the older northern woman bent over the dog fiddling with his collar. In the few steps it took me to draw even with this developing drama, I saw she had stealthily taken the collar off of the dog.

The dog owner (at least, I assume he was the owner) turned to look at the dog at just that moment. A look of horror crossed his face as he grabbed for the dog. The woman pushed the dog away.

Not surprisingly, the dog bolted. That was why he was tied up. But he did not choose wisely. He ran between two parked cars into the street where he met the bumper and front tire of a car driving far too fast. Fortunately, it was not a motorcycle or the woman would now have the blood of two lives on her hands.

I had stopped at that point. The woman was hysterically crying. I could not understand what she was saying. It sounded like: "I was just trying to help." And she said something about "Ontario." As she started walking away, the dog owner grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back.

I did understand what he was saying. He wanted ten thousand pesos from her for the dog. The woman cried.

He forced her to sit down and called someone on his telephone. She cried.

I do not know how this little morality play ended. And it really does not matter. Because the moral was apparent the woman laid hands on the collar.

We learned it in kindergarten. Keep your hands to yourself. It is something the likes of Harvey Weinstein failed to learn. As did this woman.

There is another moral, as well. It is one I have had to learn over and over in Mexico. But it is imbued with the wisdom of my neighbors. The dog owner must have said it four or five times to the sobbing woman. "It is none of your business."

Often times, it is true. It certainly was today.

And a dog had to die to prove the point. 

cart of laughs

While I was on my morning walk in Barra de Navidad centro, I ran into my Mexican friend Alan. He joined me for part of the walk.

As we came around a corner, he burst out laughing. When I asked him about this bout of spontaneous merriment, he said: "You missed it. It went by up there."

I thought that was it. But, when we turned the next corner, there it was. Parked in front of a convenience store.

Alan was laughing so hard, I thought he was going to collapse.

But this is one of those moments where I am going to leave the comments to you.

I will say this. If you can bring a sense of laughter into people's lives, good for you.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

goat boy goes mild

When the architect-contractor designed her dream home (where I now live), she landscaped the planters in front of the house with red flowers to reflect the red highlights inside the house. It was aesthetically perfect.

But, as is often true with life, aesthetic perfection crashes on its first contact with reality.

In this case, it was not the first contact. It took at least 5 years. But the landscaping choice may not have been as perfect as it seemed when it was on paper.

The plants out front, do not require much maintenance. An occasional whack here and there keeps everything under control. Without much urging, the plants crank out red flowers all year long.

When I returned from Peru, I noticed that the planters no longer seemed symmetrical. Where the lipstick plant (as I call it) once was in the western planter, there was now a gap. Not a complete gap. But a large hole had been gnawed in the orderly line.

My neighbor, Mary, solved the mystery for me.

One of the joys of our bucolic existence here is the occasional goat herd that wanders through the neighborhood in search of greener pastures. They regularly stop at the vacant lots across the street from my house.

Apparently, one of the rams decided that the plants were greener on my side of the street. When Mary saw him chewing one of her plants down to a nub, she chased him away. Apparently, the young man who usually tends the goats was too busy on his telephone working out how he could work in a wolf story on his blog.

Before she could play her Marie Antoinette role as shepherdess role, the ram had his way through what must be a very tasty lipstick plant -- at least, to a goat.

But it really does not matter. One of the advantages of living in the tropics is that plants rejuvenate  quickly. The vines I cut down in the patio late last year are a perfect example. They are once again shading the bedrooms they front.

If i still lived up north, this tale would have included calls to one governmental authority or another. Here, there is no authority to call. What I get, instead, is essay fodder.

Rather than fume, I came inside, sat down by the pool with a cold glass of water, and spent a little time chatting with you good folks.

What could be better than that?