2 weeks of school and salsa :-)
Trip Start Apr 10, 2006
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...when I ended my last letter I think I was in the recovery stages from my amply celebrated birthday... ;-)
Since then it has been a very interesting week although I've managed to pick up the flu that has been bouncing from person to person - lucky me!
I've been absorbing so much here - sensorily speaking... the little house that I'm staying in literally rattles every time a chicken bus thunders down the cobbled street outside. A chicken bus is a fabulous form of public transportation - outrageously painted in really bright colours with anything from disco lights to tinsel festooning the railings! Just my style! It also contains anything from 3 to 300 guatemaltecos, their children, their bags, baskets, groceries and yes, their chickens. Squawk. So it's an experience everytime you ride one! Once you get on you actually don't ever really need to get off because the vendors leap on at every stop selling everything from their children and vitamins to a really yummy icecream (urgent sales needed when you're holding a tray of readymade cones in 30 degree heat!)
Another exciting part of guatemalan life is their love for explosives. I would like to be generous and call them fireworks except that they have all of the bang and none of the sprinkles... they are let off 24 hours a day for any excuse of reason - kind of sounds like the signal hill gun going off - you can imagine! I'm still searching for the meaning in it all - premature deafness maybe? The explosions harmonise (!) with the merengue / raggaton music that at any one time hits your ears from 12 directions and the welding / blacksmithy sounds from the 7 iron forgeries that surround my house.. oh and let me not forget the coop full of roosters that seems to be in my room at times! The most confused roosters I've ever encountered - they crow all day!
My achievement is that I've developed my auditory sense to a point where I can now sleep peacefully through all of the above (and even the odd bit of angle-grinding or jack hammer drilling...)
Anyway, let me fill you in on the other things that I've been doing. I've been on quite a few fascinating excursions with my school - as part of the package they organize an optional activity every afternoon. Last Wednesday we went down to the Casa de Popenoe - a house from the 1600s that was in ruins and has been completely restored. It is totally furnished with either original pieces or authentic reproductions. The house used to belong to the Spanish Governor of guatemala (or something like that). The house still has the original bread ovens, and various other interesting bits. Afterwards we strolled down to the cemetery - a graveyard of tombs because only the very poor get buried in the ground. The wealthy have tombs constructed to hold their families - some of them are really like miniature mansions. The coffins of the middle class are inserted into spaces in the wall and then have a tombstone on that space - huge parts of the cemetery wall are quite literally a wall of the dead. It was quite hectic to see the recent walls that have been built with their empty slots waiting to receive the coffins. The cemetery was really peaceful though, not so much a place of sadness as a place of rest and reunion with family - and once a year the whole family comes down for a picnic... However if your family fails to pay for either your spot in the wall or in your family tomb, your coffin is removed and burnt on the rubbish heap! We saw one coffin being burnt exactly like that - oops.
On Friday we went on an outing to a village called San Andres about an hour outside of Antigua. The people there are still very traditional and although some have converted to Catholicism, many more still practice pagan religion. We went to a shrine dedicated to San Simon, a man reputed to have lived and been possessed of special powers. An effigy of him has been constructed in the shrine - a somewhat cheap looking plastic mannequin clothed in velvet, gold braid and more, staring out though glassy eyes, a moustache, a manky hat, with cigars and money in his hands, surrounded by a really dirty glass cabin, although the door is open so that you can stand in his, um, "presence", with disco lights, plastic flowers and candles draped and distributed liberally all around, lots of incense and devotees mumbling prayers. San Simon is very partial to Rum (as well as offerings of cigars and money - lucky priests he has) and so there are bottles of the stuff all around. His clothing is drenched with it since the devotees throw some of their bottle onto him for added blessings - and then have a quick dop on the rest! I decided to have the whole experience (no harm in extra blessings!) and so bought candles outside with some of the others - each colour has a different significance - and a bunch of "herbs". Inside we lit our candles and proceeded to file past san hermano. Once you get to standing in front of him, you pour rum on your herbs and hand them to the person next to you who then slaps you all over with this bunch of bedraggled weeds in order to cleanse your spirit. Thus cleansed you continue on and out. Outside, devotees - lots of them prostitutes -construct sacrificial pyres - fruits, vegetables, chickens, cigars, incense, money etc and burn them while they make their requests and ask forgiveness for their bad doings. Fascinating but hectic because most of the people are really poor and they spend a huge amount on these sacrifices. Something has to be working though because the whole of the inside of the shrine is covered with plaques thanking him..
Friday evening, I went to the airport to fetch my friend Clare, also from South Africa who co-incidentally had planned to be in Guatemala at the same time as me. Her plane was delayed by 2 hours and then they lost her bag! So it seems I'm not the only one who had a tough time getting here! It was so great to see her - haven't seen her for about 2 years! So we had a little catch up session that night - big smiles when I told her I had brought rooibos, biltong and cadbury's with me from SA!
The weekend was pretty chilled - did some studying (I even bought myself a highlighter...) and went out for a few toots on Saturday night. The bar, as per usual, closed at 1am and we decided to go off to the afterparty - this time not at someone's house but a highly illegal gathering in the ruins of a house! It was like a varsity party but such fun and really beautiful being under the stars, a couple of fires going, a good bar of course and about 200 people who also weren't ready to let the night go!
Sunday was another chill day, late brunch at the Bagel Barn - the only place in town with a wireless internet connection and great bagels. Went out for dinner to a Chinese place - we all ordered different things but when they arrived we came to the consensus that they were actually all exactly the same... no Chinese version of the Fatti's & moni's Italian granny in that kitchen...!
Monday was off to school again, no outing in the afternoon because we had the first of the rainy season storms! It was kind of like a joburg storm - the clouds gather from after lunch and then it started pouring at about three with lightening and thunder exploding across the sky. I love storms so I just stayed home and enjoyed it.
Tuesday was a sparkling day due to the rain and I took some stunning pics. I had my third salsa lesson with Gloria - fabulous dancer and teacher - and went off to La Sin Ventura in the evening for some daynsing! - after popping in to Mono Loco for ladies night - drinks are 3 quetzales - about R2.50 so the place is packed with every gringo and social guatemalteco in town.... had a fab night with a bunch of girls from school and around - I've really met such great people - that I can really connect with which is sometimes not easy to do when you are traveling. But when I started this trip I knew that things would come my way and they are ;-) one friend, Stina, from Norway, had her first tequila on Tuesday night... after me having worked in a Mexican bar in China for months etc etc, it was quite an honour to be with someone having her first tequila, ... and her second.... And .... ;-)
School on Wednesday was a little challenging after the jollies of the night before - I'm starting to feel old, I can't cope the way I used to ... ;-)! That afternoon we went to a museum of the history of Mayan clothing - it was amazing because their clothing is such an art form and has such significance and symbolism. They use really bright colours and they have been weaving and embroidering for about 2000 years so it's just about as perfect as can be.
On Thursday we went to a macadamia farm - organic and such a great example of creating a profitable enterprise from natural resources in a creative, sustainable and conscious way, creating jobs that pay the locals decently. (hmm - that sounds a bit like a pamphlet hey?)
Friday was a little difficult because the flu was really starting to set in - fevers etc - what fun - but we went out for a farewell dinner with some friends. Had some divine red wine, me being a big fan of that, and since it worked for my broken rib a few years back I figured there was a good chance of it having medicinal uses for my flu.... Some might call it wishful thinking, I see it as experimental cerebral activity...
On Saturday, Clare and I went through to Guatemala City - about 40 mins from Antigua with a bunch of people from a salsa school. They were taking part in a festival so we thought we'd go along for the ride. It was fabulous! It was a festival in honour of Guatemala's national day of dance. So everyone at first formed themselves into a procession - all in costumes - brass bands, drummers, ballet dancers, indigenous dancers, clowns, stiltwalkers, etc etc - we were also in the procession! - and paraded - so many colours and music from all over- through the streets until they reached the central park where a stage had been set up and every group then did their performance for the crowds. Such a cool vibe - although there was a really strong police presence - big strong guys in black with huge guns! Apparent Guatemala City is really dangerous and so it's necessary for there to be serious security at such events - even more than in South Africa!
On the subject of that and in a completely different tone, i was really shocked and so saddened to hear about the murders of Brett Goldin and Richard Bloom in Cape Town. I had known Brett since my first year in Cape Town, and we lived in the same block of flats for a few years, and he really was a cool guy and i hope he rests in peace. For the rest of you, please take care of yourselves - my heart has been aching about this since i heard - i really love south africa and i'm proud to say that i am south african whenever someone asks but we do have such problems as well - so just do what you can to help with whatever - every little bit means something -and be safe. say what you mean as well, to those you care about, because you might not get another opportunity.
lots of love to you all xx