Monthly Archives: October 2015
Nuestra Señora De Las Avispas
A Purpose, A Project, And A Plea
Encarnacion Perez Gonzalez is 91 years old and comadrona (midwife) to thousands of children around Lago Atitlan, among them my friend Rene’s son and daughter. There is a larger than life mural of her adorning a wall near the muelle Santiago.
These are some of the 190 sea turtle hatchlings released by a man named Jorge at the tortugario in Sipacate. He has worked there for sixteen years, guarding millions of turtle eggs and shepherding the babies to the sea.
My friends Jen and her brother Doug worked for many years as EMTs. I once asked Jen how many lives she had saved. “More than I can count”, was her reply.
One of the most important things I took from my marriage was an appreciation for those who devote their lives to helping others. Jane was and is a stellar example of this. As a young woman she worked in AIDS hospice, then went to work at the VA, and now works at the University of Arizona Center On Aging. She volunteered helping to create self-sufficient clinics in Honduras, which in part brought me here to Guatemala. All along she has given freely of her time to mentor young people seeking a similar life.
As an artist, especially one whose work was, for years, non-objective painting, my ability to use my work to help others was limited. Of course I see the value of art to the world. Those who spend their lives creating instead of just consuming perform a vital service to humanity. Still, I felt the need to help individuals more directly, more concretely. My only option as a painter was to donate one of my pieces to a silent auction for some charity or other. Unfortunately, such events are attended largely not by those who wish to support the cause, but rather by those seeking cheap art. It is common for a piece of fine art at one of these auctions to sell for less than the cost of materials.
My transition, over the past decade, from abstract painter to photographer has afforded me an opportunity. Because photography documents events and tells stories, I am able to communicate in ways that I couldn’t with my painting. I can also use my art to benefit others directly and indirectly.
I currently have two projects underway. One is a series called Artists Of Tucson, In which I am attempting to document as many of Tucson’s creators as possible, working in their studios, with their art around them. I hope to bring this to the Tucson Weekly as a feature, and to publish a book, something of a catalog, in celebration of those who spend their lives making the world a more beautiful and thought-provoking place.
My second project involves the Mayan elders living around Lago Atitlan. The photos above and below are the first of what I hope will be many, documenting this vibrant culture and lending a voice to those who have lived through both revolution and civil war to carry on ancient traditions. Sometime in the coming year, I will initiate a Kickstarter campaign to publish a book containing portraits of these remarkable people, and, from their mouths, their personal stories and advice to future generations. All copies of the book funded by the Kickstarter will be donated to the community here to sell for the benefit of those who need it. If I am successful in this effort, my dream is to take the idea to other places where ancient cultures are in danger of being absorbed into the mainstream and forgotten.
I hope, when the time comes, that you will support and help publicize this project so that, one day, if I am asked “How many people have you helped?”, I will be able to respond as my friend did: “More than I can count.”
Agapito Rodriguez Rocche, 90 years old
Picking At The Heart Of My World
An amiable if somewhat pungent Swiss hippie was sitting in the coffee shop as I wandered up. I am fairly sure we had spoken earlier in my visit here, but he didn’t remember me. He had a number of items arrayed on the table in front of him, apparently for sale, although he denied as much. There were a few 3″ x 3″ cards emblazoned with computer generated mandalas, some brightly colored pens, and several smooth, jet black stones, some flat, some cut into pyramids. He told me they were 2 billion year old Shungite from Russia. My response was: “What a coincidence, I have a 2 billion year old rock around my neck”. I showed it to him, my piece of river-polished Vishnu Schist which I brought myself from the bottom of the Grand Canyon, masterfully set in sterling silver by my friend Joseph Black Coyote in Tucson. I was told, when I rafted the Grand Canyon, that Vishnu Schist is the oldest exposed rock on the planet, only seen there and in China, where it has since been submerged by the Three Gorges Dam. I can only assume this Russian rock comes from a mine, although if you follow the link above, you will find speculation that it is from outer space. He told me of various mystical powers attributed to Shungite. I half listened, knowing mine to be more powerful because of the connection I have to its source.
I was fortunate in the late eighties and early nineties to have the experience of rafting through the Grand Canyon several times. I had a friend who worked as a boatman for one of the handful of companies licensed to operate commercial trips on the Colorado River. He ran the large, motorized pontoon rafts, rather than the smaller, oar powered boats. A typical trip consisted of two rafts, 30 passengers, and four crew; two boatmen and two swampers. A swamper was responsible for tying up the boats, unloading the passengers’ gear, setting up the kitchen, helping to prepare food, cleaning up, and then reloading everything, in addition to pumping up the air filled boat when it began to go soft. One swamper was the employee of the rafting company, the other (me) a volunteer, working for passage. Possibly more important than the duties enumerated above, we were also guides, on a journey often as much spiritual as physical.
That first trip, I was more passenger than guide. It was a truly transformative experience for me. I don’t have the words to adequately express it. Suffice to say that, whenever I speak of it (even now), tears well up in my eyes, and, whenever I drive past Lee’s Ferry (where river trips launch), I go down and stand in the frigid water and cry. I am not the only one so moved my the experience. I watched and guided over two hundred people in the course of my time in the canyon. None were untouched. An Englishman on that first trip told me that, although he had traveled the world, no experience could compare to a Grand Canyon river trip. It was his third. I was consumed by the wonder of the canyon, so I took him at his word, even though, at that point in my life, my travels as an adult consisted only of a couple trips to Canada and a handful to northern Mexico.
Now, a quarter century later, I too have traveled the globe, from Vietnam to India, from Jordan to Peru. I have driven from Arizona to Guatemala and back, seen Angkor Wat, Tikal, Petra, and Machu Picchu, but, as the Englishman said, nothing can compare to descending through time in the depths of the Grand Canyon on the back of the Colorado.
I volunteered on six trips, worked as a paid swamper on one, went as a passenger on my eighth, and then volunteered one more time. On that last trip I found a small, polished piece of Vishnu Schist in the inner gorge, and brought it out. It took me a decade to find the right person to set it for me. Joseph Black Coyote does not take commissions, but he too felt the power of this stone and graciously consented to fashion the silver pendant which I now wear day and night.
This is why I was not impressed by the “2 billion year old Russian rocks”. I have no connection to them. The one I wear touches my soul because of what it represents, the memories it invokes, and the way I acquired it. I have been thinking recently about taking my Social Security early and retiring to Lago Atitlan, but, since arriving on this trip, I have begun to question that. Maybe the dream of moving here is like the Russian rocks, an illusion, when I already have the real thing in the place where I have set down roots, and where I found my Vishnu Schist: Arizona.
Juego De Palabras Y Juego De Politicos
I love a good pun, and it makes me especially happy to find one in another language. On the right in this photo is a sign prohibiting the throwing of trash, with the threat of a $70 fine. The signmaker made an error, however, which my Spanish speaking friends who also read the language will see immediately. “Botar” means to throw, and is pronounced the same way as “votar”, which means to vote. So the sign actually says “It is prohibited to vote for trash”. To the left is a promotion for one of Guatemala’s many political parties, this one called “Convergencia”. The convergence of these two signs is most amusing to me.
Elections are in process in Guatemala. The former president and vice president having been thrown in jail on corruption charges. The two candidates who garnered the most votes in the first round of voting will square off on the 26th of this month. They are Sandra Torres Casanova, wife of a former president, and Jimmy Morales, a wealthy entertainer with no political ties. Sound eerily familiar? In another disconcerting reflection of American politics, both are apparently on a first name basis with their supporters.
Jimmy Morales has come on the scene recently and upset the normal progression of Guatemalan politics. Typically, when a president has finished his term of office, whomever came in second to him succeeds him. To the consternation of those who supported Lider candidate Manuel Baldizon Mendez, he was upset, creating this contest between an outsider and a former first lady, who would become the first female president of Guatemala.
As my friends will attest, I am overly interested in politics. One thing I have noted during my travels in Central America is the fear of dictatorship amongst the nascent democracies of the region, and the subsequent distortion of their constitutions. The president here in Guatemala is limited to a single term, as is the case in El Salvador and Honduras. I am opposed to term limits of any sort. I believe they are a restriction of the electorate’s right to vote for whomever they please. Term limits in the United States insert artificial and often dramatic upheavals into a system which the framers of our constitution wisely designed to inhibit drastic change in favor of stability.
Central American countries have taken this to the extreme. Limiting the presidency to a single term removes all consequences for not delivering on one’s promises, and all incentive to act for the benefit of voters. To make matters worse, here in Guatemala, when the presidency changes hands, so do the governorships of all the departments (states) who are appointed by the president, and all the positions within the departments, who are appointed by the new governor. There is a complete transfer of power, top to bottom. Hence, any projects initiated but not completed by a former president are abandoned and replaced according to the priorities and political allegiances of the new leaders. There is no continuity, no consistent bureaucracy to maintain progress.
No party in Guatemala has ever won the presidency twice, and many of the parties in each election are newly formed, including, this time, that of Jimmy Morales, who is favored to win election.
As an aside, one aspect of Jimmy Morales’ platform is to reclaim Belize as a part of Guatemala, which makes about as much sense as building a wall between the US and Mexico, but is equally effective at energizing a certain demographic.
I believe change is good. I voted for it in 2008. I also recognize the importance of stability in government institutions and the right of the electorate to decide what change happens and when. Term limits create artificial instability and restrict the rights of the voters. Any restrictions should be on the ability of elected representatives to use their position to gain advantage in elections or to solidify their power. No restriction should be placed on one’s right to vote as one chooses.
Whomever is elected at the end of the month in Guatemala will have four years to do as they please, and, if history is any lesson, to enrich themselves and their friends. If they had to stand for re-election, Guatemala would be a very different place.
Vista De Pajaro, O Vista De Hormiga?
I was a scrimshander for a few months, in or around 1980. I scratched three or four different simple designs into bone knife handles for something like $3 each. I remember making around $7 an hour, which was a great wage back then. After being infused with ink, the knives were sent off to Alaska to be sold in souvenir shops, probably as native handicrafts. More than 30 years later, I wouldn’t be surprised to find one of my knives in an antique store.
I have noticed a couple of things during my travels over the past decade. One is the tendency of people in a heavily touristed location to develop a signature style of artwork. I think this might be in response to the success many indigenous cultures have had in marketing their traditional handicrafts, textiles, and pottery. I have also noticed a tendency towards mimicry. One creative, enterprising person has a good idea and exploits it, successfully. Soon after, there are dozens of copycats, hoping to cash in on the profits.
In Taxco, a picturesque, formerly wealthy, silver town in the hills near Mexico City, the streets are narrow, steep, and winding. The perfect vehicle for navigating the Taxco maze is the VW Beetle, so someone had the clever idea of using them as taxis. They were successful, so more and more people jumped on the bandwagon. Now, hundreds of white, numbered Beetles buzz around the town, usually empty, the drivers making just enough to survive.
Some years ago, before I first visited Guatemala, an artist was inspired to paint colorful canvases of Guatemalan markets from a bird’s eye view (vista de pajaro). This concept lent itself to the creation of some very interesting and pleasing abstracted depictions of village life, all one dimensional as seen from above. Naturally, these paintings were popular and sold well, so people began to copy them. Now, the local souvenir shops are filled with these images, along with paintings of indigenous women weaving, seen from behind, also created from a limited palette of colors and designs. Curiously, behind the graffiti covered door above, one can spend a few quetzales and learn to paint one’s own vista de pajaro canvas in 1-3 hours!
When I was here six years ago, I met an artist in San Juan La Laguna who had developed a response to the ubiquitous vista de pajaro paintings. He called his paintings “vista de hormiga” (ant’s eye view). They were also of traditional scenes, but seen from below, in exaggerated perspective. Very interesting work, and much harder to execute than the uni-dimensional vista de pajaro paintings. I have yet to return to San Juan, so I don’t know what became of him. His gallery was in a row of shops now below the level of the lake.
In the quest for the tourist dollar, indigenous artists risk pigeonholing themselves, limiting their art to a couple of repeated themes. Now that the mainstream Mayan artists at Lago Atitlan have not only reduced their art to a formula, but are also teaching tourists to make their own, maybe the vista de hormiga will finally get the respect and exposure it deserves.
Para Incendiar La Bomba
BOOM! … BOOM!!! And then the sound of a car alarm, running through its sequence of annoying horns, sirens, and whistles.
The first explosion didn’t even make me flinch, a sign of how accustomed I have become to the perpetual state of “fiesta” here in San Pedro. Someone is always celebrating something, usually by setting off giant fireworks. Not pretty, just loud. Today is the fiesta of La Virgen De Rosaria.
The second boom made me start a little. It was louder than usual. I wonder what it must be like living in a war zone. Does one stop cringing at the sound of planes overhead, or jumping at the sound of a bomb exploding nearby? I would imagine so, despite the knowledge that the planes are a threat to one’s well being, and people are almost certainly dying in the bomb blasts.
Humans persist because we adapt. Whatever our environment, whatever horrendous conditions we face, we find a way, collectively, to survive. We survive because we cooperate. Individuals in the face of extreme circumstances might persevere heroically, but more often will succumb, overwhelmed, either physically, emotionally, or both. When we bond together, we become more than a collection of individuals, we become a force of nature.
This phenomenon exists on a smaller scale as well. When two people join together as partners, friends, or lovers, they are able to rise above difficulty much more easily, each lending a helping hand to the other when it is needed.
Since cooperation is so beneficial, conflict would seem counter-intuitive. Why, as a species, when we could achieve so much united, do we squander half of our resources fighting and killing one another? I don’t have the answer to this question. Maybe there is an innate desire within each of us to control our lives, to create stability and security. This, in some individuals, could lead to the quest for power. In others, it could manifest as a desire to belong to a collective, possibly led by the one driven to power.
We live in a world of dwindling resources and a growing human population. The fight to control the world’s oil resources is different only in scale from the fight 10,000 years ago to control the best hunting grounds around the watering hole.
Is it possible to transform conflict into cooperation? Most certainly. Evidence of this having happened is abundant. For example, the United States is fast friends with the Axis Powers of World War II, just a few short decades after brutally bombing them to stop their equally brutal quest for expanded power.
BOOM! BOOM!!! And then all is quiet, except for the car alarm asserting itself down the street. If we turn off that strident echo of the explosion, quiet will prevail. If not, the noise might drive us insane.
The Dance Of Love, Life, And Language
This is my brain after Spanish class. I have heard that, if one learns multiple languages as a young child, they are all “deposited” in the same region of the brain, making translation and multilingual conversation much easier, almost natural. If, however, one learns a new language as an adult, the brain must carve out entirely new pathways, separate from your native tongue. This would explain, among other things, why, when I have been speaking Spanish for a while, I will often not be able to retrieve the most basic of English words in order to ask for a translation.
I just spent four hours learning how much Spanish I have forgotten. Part of the difficulty I experience in learning a foreign language stems from the fact that I was never taught grammar in the kind of detail they use in my classes. I learned, as do most people, to speak by osmosis, by hearing my language and using it. I learned more complex sentence structure, usage, and grammar by reading, lots of reading. If you ask me to translate “I would have said that” into Spanish, I have no problem coming up with “Lo habria dicho”, but if you ask me to say something in the pluscuamperfecto using the verb “decir”, I am lost.
My best teachers have understood and accommodated my idiosyncrasy. Others, including the one I have now, have learned one way to teach, and are not comfortable enough with English to modify that method.
I’ve already done it my way, so, over the next 3 1/2 weeks, I’m going to try theirs. On the good side, I got 70% right on my evaluation. On the bad side, I got 30% wrong.
A few years ago, I tried to learn to tango, so as to be able to dance with my then wife, Jane. I took eight lessons, one hour a week. It felt like learning a new language. Dance in general (I speak as a non-dancer here) and tango in particular is about communication between two people. One must learn the vocabulary (steps), grammar (the various ways of connecting the steps), and then one must learn how one’s partner uses the language (nuances of movement, slang, idioms) in order to communicate (dance) fluently, fluidly, and effectively.
The eight one hour classes I took were the equivalent of two days here at four hours a day. When I first began studying Spanish, it was three weeks of intensive classes before I was comfortable in the present tense alone, and nine before I achieved relative proficiency across the spectrum. So you can see that eight hours was a decidedly inadequate length of time to learn the language of tango.
I have recently grown close to a remarkable and wonderful woman. When asked, I often say that “we are dancing around the idea of a relationship”. I love the sound of this phrase, and the way it describes without defining our tango of affection. In essence, we are learning each other’s language, refining the steps of our dance, open to whatever it might become and wherever it might lead.
I almost bought land here, when Jane and I were first married. It measured 20 x 120 meters, stretching up from the lake in three terraces, planted in corn. We planned to build and eventually move there. A year later, we decided, mostly for financial reasons, to abandon the idea. I forfeited a sizable deposit, but saved much more.
It is technically illegal for an extranjero (foreigner) to buy lakefront property in Guatemala, but the prohibition appears to be enforced about as diligently as speed laws are in the United States, possibly even less. Recently, I have come to the realization that the prohibition, at least here at Lago Atitlan, is more a caution and protection, also similar to our speed laws.
Lago Atitlan lies in a valley formed by three volcanos and a number of high ridges and peaks. It is nearly 1000 feet deep, with no visible egress. It is thought that there is a subterranean river which allows water to escape from the bottom of the lake, thus maintaining its level.
The level of the lake has fluctuated over the centuries, at times higher than it is at present, at others much lower. There are stories of ancient Mayan ruins hidden beneath its waters.
Several years ago, a seismic event blocked or partially blocked the egress at the bottom of the lake, and, in the ensuing years, the water level has risen by close to 20 vertical feet, drowning cornfields, homes, businesses, and 2/3 of the property I decided not to buy. The remaining third is under threat still, and useless for construction as it is too close to the water.
Many of the buildings either completely or partially submerged belonged to foreigners who, like me, did not know the history or geology of the lake.
I have visited Lago Atitlan and San Pedro five times now. The first time one photographs a place, everything is fresh, interesting, and different. Even on my second and third visits, I was still finding new ways to see and record. The last time I was here, six years ago, I took very few photos, concentrating predominately on my Spanish studies.
It is challenging to find new ways to photograph in a familiar environment. I have been trying to exercise this skill at home, going into the alley behind my house and seeking new images in the mundane, everyday surroundings that I take for granted.
I am currently frustrated because, although I can do the same thing here, photographing San Pedro as an already familiar place, I am aware that, since my early visits, my abilities as a photographer have grown. Many of the photographs I took when this place was fresh and new to me are crude and amateurish. I am struggling to learn how to photograph San Pedro as if I had never seen it. If I am successful, I would like to photograph Tucson in the same way.
For the moment, the inundation of so many hopes and dreams by the rising waters has provided me with subjects that I love, ruin and decay, while giving me something of the experience of a first time visitor.
Waiting In Guatemala
Waiting is something I do a lot of. In large part, this is due to my propensity for early arrivals. Invite me for dinner at six, and I will have to drive around the block a couple of times so as to be merely five minutes early.
My sense of time urgency stems from my father. We lived an hour from Newark Airport when I was growing up in New Jersey. My father insisted that we leave the house four hours ahead of our flight time, just in case. So, I learned to wait, sitting in the airport for hours, whether we were flying somewhere or merely meeting a guest. Once, over the course of 20 years, we were caught in traffic and arrived just in time to catch our flight.
I have a much moderated sense of time urgency. I am usually early, but never to a ridiculous extent, and, occasionally, I am a few minutes late.
Still, I often find myself waiting for the world to catch up. This has taught me patience. I also learned patience from my mother, who is still in a loving marriage with my father after 58 years. I won’t go into detail, but my father, who is a good, kind, admirable man, nonetheless could tax the patience of all but the most remarkable of persons. I suspect I also inherited this trait.
My flight arrived early yesterday in to the Guatemala City Airport. I was bringing a large box containing a refurbished iMac desktop computer for my friend Rene, who owns the Orbita Spanish School, where I will be aumentando mi Español this month. I expected difficulty with la aduana (customs), but, after ascertaining that the computer was not a new one, they waved my through, and I pushed my cart out on to the sidewalk outside the terminal to be accosted by the familiar crew of touts, offering taxis, shuttles, or phone calls for a small, undefined remittance. I repeatedly said “No, gracias. Espero mi amigo”, until they all got the message, and then I waited.
Across the street, behind a metal barricade, 100 or more people waited, some with signs indicating the name of a hotel and/or tourist. There were less of these than usual. It is the rainy season, so most of the passengers on the plane had been Guatemaltecos.
I scanned the crowd for Rene, expecting to hear him call my name, but he wasn’t there. I waited. I had been one of the first through customs, my long, American legs propelling me through the maze of corridors ahead of my fellow passengers. One by one, they came through the glass doors from the airport to be whisked away by friends and family. The crowd behind the barricade dwindled to a couple of dozen, then to a handful, and, finally, I was left on the sidewalk with four or five people also waiting for rides. The touts started coming up again, asking if I wanted to make a phone call. “Lastima,” I said sheepishly, “No tengo el numero.”
After an hour and a half, the last of the passengers was picked up by her daughter. I went inside for a much needed pee, and then returned curbside to consider my options.
I learned from one of the touts that there had been a terrible derrumbe, or landslide, in the city, causing extensive disruption of traffic, along with several dozen deaths. Landslides are common at this time of year, bringing sodden hillsides down upon roads and often, tragically, homes.
At this point I began to wonder if Rene was going to make it, and I was feeling progressively more foolish for not having written down his phone number.
Usually, upon arrival in Guatemala, I take a shuttle from the airport to Antigua, stay a day or so, and then catch another to Lago Atitlan and San Pedro.
I was considering this option when a small car pulled up and out popped Rene, with a big smile on his face. He had been delayed not only by traffic in the city, but also by severely deteriorating roads around the lake.
Thanks, Mom and Dad, for making me a patient person, comfortable with waiting.
Women washing clothes in Lago Atitlan