I am cycling to raise money for the fantastic UK based chaity Macmillan Cancer Support. Big thanks to everyone who has sponsored me so far! Justgiving is a quick, easy and secure way to donate online. See my other fundraising page, specific to the Macmillan organized part of the trip

Thursday, 20 May 2010

...and settling further...magic at los Cobanos

So to continue with the tales of the Cobanos days... it feels like the last weeks have really been one long explosion of creativity... apart from all the drawing and the mural and the jewellry making, in Kali I have met I think the first ever person whose rubbish-collecting-for-recyled-craft-projects enthusiasm actually outweighs mine! Her collections of plastic and glass rubbish generated by the hostel guests puts my Willesden Green days of walls of colour coded bags of rubbish to shame, whoever could´ve thought that possible? (eh Joe, Mike, Fish?!) One of my favourites is the can-top-thead ring design I came up with after struggling to work with the main body of a can, and Kali´s oyster shell necklace wins hands down on the sleek and wearable-for-fashion-front - it´s really beautiful, while I am dripping in Saint Patrick´s tears (the seed of the Lagrima´s de San Pedro river plant) threaded into jewellry and my hair by José, I´ve even started on the mini book mission again, using a matchbook and recycled painted newspaper for my first reminder attempt.

Perhaps it all started that afternoon of the not-camping in Mizata, where with the help of Sydneys´s drill and a beach sadly full of rubbish I was finally able to satisy my bottlecap recycling urge by combining them with coloured straws to make earrings... after a little persuasion Vanessa began to help and by the end of the afternoon we had a fair collection, though the wire needs replacing with wearable jewellry wire before they can be worn properly through the ear... Vanessa modelled them by hanging them off her studs and mum Idalia seemed keen to try them on too!

Kali got on the wall-painting-wagon fairly early on too, asking me to chalk up the Kalindigo logo for her in the hostel carpark, a strong design by a friend of Kali´s which I managed with the help of Ladina, a ladder and a length of string. Kali did a fantastic job of painting it, so for a week the whole hostel felt like an open air studio, with José and I working long days, punctuated by bathing in the sea and pool and getting our little helpers involved...

In fact that´s been one of the most enjoyable parts of painting the mural, the little kids who come along at random times to help. There is 12 year old Wilbur, the youngest of 15 kids (!?!) who has a real natural talent for drawing- Kali showed me a schoolbook of his with some brilliant observational drawing- he´s been helping with the palm tree and lanches. Then there is another Wilbur, the older brother of Lazaro and Jeremias (of the stone-traced footprints), who´s painted a shell and some lanches while the littler ones have been painting shells and drawing on recyled newspaper. They´re a real delight to have around, and José seems to be a natural teacher as well as painter, bopth of us showing them how to hold a brush and different ways of using it to get different strokes.

We´ve had another helper in the form of Kelly, the oldest daughter of neighbour Dora. We´ve had a few different folk from the community admiring the progress as we go, it´s a real warm feeling to get good feedback about the painting and word seems to be spreading...apparently a lady with a shop down the road wants us to paint for her too. Kelly had been watching from afar for a while, but after a bit of hesitation got involved and has been doing a great job on the lanches and rooftops. And as well as through the painting we got to know each other a lot better when she and Dora took over the hostel kitchen for the weekend of the magicians...

Magicians without borders came to stay & play last weekend... two professional magicians from the US, 6 (so named because of an extra finger on his left hand) and bilingual Devante, led classes in how to perform magic tricks for a group of 10 teenagers from Santa Ana. It was a real priviledge to be able to listen in on the classes, Devante was a really strong teacher who got results from even the shyest of students and Six´s tips on details you can add to a performance to aid audience understanding and characterisation linked back to character animation for me.

Part of their stay that we had been so excited about were the two performances they put on at the local park, both the official pro´s and the kids, who were pretty pro themselves. In our preparation for the weekend I´d drawn up characters (with a lot of influence of Mia´s illustration, thanks Mia!) that Kali painted on her posters advertising the events, so we got a good crowd out both days. After the first couple of audience volunteers, José and Wilbur, the initial hesitation to participate melted away and the kids and adults alike were loving the show... there were some astonishing tricks, disappearing ketchup, bags appearing from empty bags, torn up newspaper putting itself back together and little Lazaro couldn´t stop giggling throughout 6´s disappearing water trick... fantastic stuff... think my favourite was the jumping card trick Devante played on us in the last minute private show back at the hostel, the 6 of clubs Dora had signed was in my hands and the next second in his mouth.. no way... wicked!

One of the lovliest things was that as they left each of the kids and the staff hugged each other, then all of us individually before leaving.. so I was glad that I´d painted a reminder of them into the mural, a little version of 6 and Devante surrounded by the symbols of the playing cards swimming in Cobanos bay... should really hasve each of the young magicians in there as well, seeing as they are what the wortkshiop was all about. As I understood it they are kids whose lives have been affected by gangs and these workshops provide an alternative interest for them, an alternative future than that offered by the gangs. Some of them are really interested in the performance and magic side, like Peter who was incredibly enigmatic on stage, and for others it is less about aiming to become a magician than building confidence and self esteem. A fantastic project and I really admire 6 and Devante for putting their time into the NGO, since when you work in entertainment like magic, or animation like me, sharing your skill and talent to give other folk inspiration and new-found interests is perhaps a way to make an otherwise gratuitous job socially useful. I took some details from America, one of the group leaders, with the hope that perhaps I could help out with her artisan projects at some point in the future.

One of Kali´s fantastic ideas is to take an old bus, the same old US school buses that are used for chiocken buses, but one that is just a shell, and to convert it into a cinema in her back yard... wicked.. we were chatting about planting grass and flowers on the roof as a natural insulation against heat, and painting it with hidden glow in the dark imagery on the outside, and perhaps UV hidden imagery on the inside (after Caeser´s and Luis´chat about using lights on our mural)...Not only is Kali full of awesome idea like that, she is also a massivly talented muisician... she only moved to Los Cobanos last year, before that she was a city girl living in the capital and involved in Opera performances and bands, José was happily star struck when she mentioned the band she´s sung ska with, Groovy Times.
I think perhaps coming to a halt here was meant to be for all sorts of reasons, but perhaps one of them was to be in the company of such good friends as José and Kali have so quickly become to hear the really sad news of my grandmother´s death. At 89 Nanna had been frail for a while and a recent operation led to her passing away this week. Again, as with Auntie Jem, it is strange and disorientating to hear such sad news when you are so far away from family, especially amidst all the excitement and joy of the magicians stay... I am just glad that Nanna will be at peace and not suffering now. And it somehow seems appropriate that seeing as the artistic part of me comes through Mum from Nanna that I am in such a whirlwind of creative productivity at this time, a soprt of homage perhaps to my wonderful grandmother.

Another benifit of spending all this time with José and Kali is the Salvadoreño influence on my cooking and language... After sharing in-hostel home cooking with Alex in Juayúa I´d carried the habit over to los Cobnanos and with José around have been introducing more local ingredients... platano, frijoles, tortillas and probably more than my year´s quota of eggs...I was impressed at José`s knowledge of cooking seeing as how in Mizata the chores seem to be divided pretty firmly along tradtional male/female roles, Vanessa helping her Mum with the cooking and washing dishes and clothes, and the boys collecting firewood and food, coming back with fish, crabs and shellfish. José´s obviously been paying attention though, since he´s more than competent in the kitchen, and more than willing to help too. He´s a fascinating character, a keen surfer whose in the sea every day, so that I get the impression sometimes that he is half fish half man.. so having a house that is literally on the sands of Mizata beach is perfect for him, and his eyes were honestly glowing with pleasure and satisfaction when he showed me how you step out his front door to the sea, and said ¨What more could you want from life¨... he´s certainly at one with his environment and very much at peace, which is perhaps why he is such an inspiration painting wise... Know amongst his friends and family at Rocco or Rasta, I find it interesting that for him his 6-year-long dreadlocks are a symbol of putting behind him all the excesses and bad behavious of his teen years.

On the language side, Kali is bilingual after years working in bilingual jobs, but José knows less English than my Spanish so between the three of us we speak Spanish with the caliche tang of El Salvador, finally the `El Salvadorenean slang`box in the guidebook is making sense! ¨¿Qué ondas?¨Suave... How`s it going? Chilled (roughly translted- directly meansd ´soft´!) is one of my favourites, though I realise just how patient they both are with my limited understanding when other friends pop by, talking at normal pace, and it all flies totally over my head... same story at the Tanchis performance in the communal hall the other night... a drag queen reminiscent of pantomime drag characters back home, dressed as a market woman and apparently talking all kinds of filth and ridiculousness that had the whole crowd laughing and me feeling perplexed until the multiple underlayer strip show that surpassed all language barriers and got me giggling too!

So, the mural is progressing slowly, I´m not really sure if you could say steadily, it´s been so long that I´ve had to renew my 90 day visa in the capital, with Kali as my witness (thanks chuckadee!)... I´ve been taking Peggy out for the odd hour or so stint to stop her feeling totally rejected and to stop her and my legs rusting up completely... I know it will be hard to eventually get back on her, but I know when the time comes the excitemtent of the random encounters and the unkown will override the aching muscles and sore bum! Also, I am excited to take all this painting practise to the El Nahual Community in Xela in Guatemala which is the only specific destination I have when I leave and that I´m really excited about getting to...

But for now it´s back to Los Cobanos, back to my brushes and my muse and lazy evenings in the pool and hammocks... delici-lovely!

Peace and big love xxx

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Settling into El Salvador at Los Cobanos

Hmm... such a long time since I`ve written that I don`t really know where to start...

I`ve ended up settling into a little nest of El Salvador called los Cobanos... a beautiful spot on the Pacific cost that proudly protects its coral reef, the only one in the stretch of the Pacific running from Panama to Mexico. It makes this the only white sanded beach in Salvador...and also means that all of the goergeous shells with natural perforations that make them ideal for threading into jewellry are protected and can`t be removed from the beach.... actually its a liberating feeling to collect them, oogle at their beauty and variety and imagine all the combinations they could make in bracelets and necklaces, but then to throw them back to the sea... feel somehow like you`re living more for the moment and the pleasure of the present now...

Many a morning José and I take our mugs of morning coffee down to the beach, just the other side of the hostel gate, and just by running our fingers throiugh the sand where we sit come up with endless colours, forms and patterns of shells...some days I`ve made faces with them, other days collect all of the one colour or shape... another day we collected all the worn down seaglass for Kali... sadly each time we come back with armfiulls of washed up rubbish too, especially plastics.. its fascinating the stuff you find, the best one was part of a he-man like toy that Jeremias loved! Little Jeremias is one of the local kids, one morning he and I were tracing our footprints and handprints with stones, which made me romantically start thinking of Anthony Goldsworthy`s non-obtrusive intervention art with nature, though his are apparently gradually removed by time and the elements, whereas ours were wiped out by the dramatic energy of a 3 year old!
So anyway, to go all the way back to Juayua and that rainy afternoon... I spent four pretty lazy days in the town, drawing in the park and reading at the hostel run by lovely French Alex... A former winemaker back home who left France to travel, and spent 2 years a-roaming south and central america before coming to a pretty permanent stop in Juayua. Alex was a chilled bloke who introduced me to the rythyms of French hip hop and the astonishingly raw Brazilian film Ultima PArada 174, about the street kid living in Sao Paulo who survived the Candelaria Masacre and ended up hijacking a bus in 2000.

The other two folk who stand out from my days in Juayua are Mario and Tony. Mario was my young guide for the 7 waterfall tour, ending up at the popular spot Los Chorros where he did an amazing dive from a 7m high rock that got a whole crowd of young visitors applauding. The best part of the tour for me was going through the tunnels that are mostly man made as part of the hydro electric energy plant that runs off the falls... the flow of the water practically sucked you through which for some reason reminded me of a particular episode of baywatch when a kid gets stuck in a typically red-swimsuit-demanding scene... thankfully we were spat out safely on the other side and headed back to town, popping into Mario`s house on the way to pick up a bag of red seeds he offered me for more jewellry making, yay!

Tony was a sadder story... he came up to chat to me as I was drawing in the Central Park one afternoon and our general chatting eventually came round to the subject of his two young daughters, 9 and 3, who are living in Boston with his ex-wife... he shyly asked me if I`d help him write a letter to them in English as they read better in English than Spanish, as it is what they are taught at school. So we sat in a local cafe drinking coffee while Tony dictated his message, telling his daughters he missed them and wished he could be with them... I felt really sad for Tony, as he seemed so vulnerable and lost when talking about the girls, he hopes to go back to he US as soon as possible, but had to leave because of disagreements between himself and their mother, and from the sounds of it his life there was incredibly hard, working 3 different shift jobs to make ends meet. I was reminded of Tony again recently when I got chatting to a security guard at the Sonsonate bus station, Vincent told me he was grateful for his job at the terminal as it kept him busy and stopped him becoming sick with grief at missig his family, including a daughter just a bit younger than me, who he`d had to leave behind in the US when he was deported.
Leaving Juayúa, following up Alex´s recommendation of his friend Kali´s hostel Kalindigo, I headed straight downhill and into the extreme heat of this beach at Los Cobanos where it is possible to be sitting outside in only a bikini at 11pm and still have sweat rolling down into your eyes... luckily there is a pool to hop in and out of and of course the sea at the end of the garden, though I have a helthy level of respect-fear for the strong Pacific currents and with my lopsided-breast-stroke-doggypaddle-mish-mash technique of swimming I never venture too far in.

This really is the most stunningly beautiful place, high palm trees laden with yellow cocunuts, white sands because of the coral reef offshore (the only one in the Central American stretch of the Pacific coast, which is proudly protected by the local Funda Reciffe who also work with turtle conservation) snorkelling amongst the rocks at low tide totally blew my mind the first time, to be eyeballed by a curious fish in the 30% magnification of underwater feeling like you`re in a vast otherworldly realm and then to stand up and realise you`re barely shin deep is a disorientatingly fascinating experience. Also the sunsets here are such a myriad of cloud patterns and the colours ...the colours are just stunning...all the blues and greens, yellows oranges, purples, even fierce blood red some days as if the sky`s on fire... it feels like every day the sky takes on a new personality. I`d have to say this was a perfect idyllic place, if it wasn´t for the persistence of the mosquitoes who feast on me at night and their smaller pesky cousins (sandflies?) who gorge on my open wounds in the mornings...but with my recently reinforced supplies of vscious deet based repellent I can just about forget about that small blip in perfection!

Round the other side of the rocky outcrop to the left is the main bay of los Cobanos where the fishermaen`s lanches bob in front of the shorefront of their homes and comedors where you can eat the most delicious seafood, my favourite being the fried red snapper, though the spicy ceviche comes a close second. Weekends here are really busy, with lots of Salvadoreñan tourists coming down from the cities to enjoy the food and waves, but weekdays are fairly quiet and one of my first days here as I sat drawing a small crowd of locals came to watch. As a handful of boys ran up and down in the sand in front of us training for football some of the older lads looked through my sketchbook, three little girls ran around doing forward rolls in the sand and collecing shells in a polystyrene bowl for me and a slightly older lad Oscar got chatting to me, keen to swap observations of differences between Europeans and Salvadoreños... he thought it peculiar that us tourists spend so much time reading and writing diaries whereas with their freetime Salvadoreños prefer to play football and drink beer, so I tried to explain British pub culture and point out that travellers have an excess of free time and so are not the best example of your average Brit back home. He also had the impression from his brother who`s living in Switzerland that all Western relationships are open or unfaithful, so again I offered a different point of view, whilst thinking it a funny thing that I had been thinking similar things about Latino relationships after hearing so many reports of how the Latino machissmo culture means that it is socially acceptable for a man to have more than one partner here, and often respected.

The morning I arrived at Kalindigo, all hungover, covered in sweat and bike grease and persistently ringing poor Kali at barely 8am to let me in, I showered in salt water, collapsed into the sofa with a superstrong coffee, and began chatting with artist and muisician Sydney, finding myself relaxing into the warm vibes of the place which have kept me here ever since, other than a few jaunts up the road to Sonsonate, Mizata, and Zonte. Sydney is a fantastic person, a US ex-pat who`s been living in Guatemala for the last 3 years and is now setting up here in El Salvador with her father, she has the most incredibly powerful singing voice ... I was well chuffed when she sang Jolleen one night at my request, taking me back to Byam Shaw days...She had just finished a dolphin mural by the pool at Kalindigo when I turned up, and we got to comparing sketchbooks which led to Kali looking through my drawings and offering me a free bed and a blank wall to paint... and so began the weeks of the mural which Anna Maria and Wilfred of Fundareciffe modeled for!

It was also through Sydney that I met José whose been helping me these last weeks with the mural and who it turns out has a real natural skill for painting... he`s like a muse for me with his chilled company (and perhaps a little halp from his pipe!) my painting`s got to a whole new level of detail and trippiness that I haven`t reached for a good few years, and it feels like a great place to be back at, that level of absorption in painting that when you stop to chat to someone it feels like you`re coming back across distance... a meditative space, is that sublimation?

So the first weekend on the coast I helped Sydney and her Dad, Bob, with moving all their stuff from a house they`d been renting to a plot of land they`d just bought where they plan to build a cob house, much like the permaculture house of Maria and Oscar in Lagartillo in Nicarqagua from the sounds of it. It was a long hot day, but in the Karmic scheme of house moves it was definiely my turn to help someone else, and as well as giving me a chance to see more of the coast from the back of their pick up, and an insight into how it is to live as an ex-pat abroad, it also meant I met the family who are the guardians of their plot of land, the Cortez family, whose dad Rossandro had a terrible infected welt on the side of his head yet was still cheerful, showing us his well heavy weights made from food tins filled with cement.... José is the oldest of the family, who are all fantastic individuals who I got to know a lot better when I cycled back to Mizata beach... 2 hours down the road past a giant Coca-Cola can... to set up camp alongside Sydney a few days later.

The camping side of the visit didn´t really go to plan, in that I never actually made it into my tent, since it was flooded out by the first big storm of winter...the word for storm in Spanish is tormento, somehow that seems to fit really well methinks! That night was astonishingly beautiful with the lightning illuminating the entire skyline at times.... in the storms that have followed on other nights I`ve learnt to appreciate just how awe-inspiring lightning displays are...the veins that they shoot out are fantastic. Visual treat though it was, we were soon chased off our beach-log-perch by the cold of the rain added to the cold of wet clothes from night swimming in the powerful waves just before. Luckily I was able to sleep in the outhouse where Sydney and Bob´s stuff was being newly stored and was able to leave the drying off of the tent til the next day back at Kalindigo.

I`d been slightly worried throughout the storm that the mural design that had taken two days to draw up in chalk would have been washed away but luckily most of it was still intact, and even luckier my first helper turned up in the form of lovely Swiss Ladina. Ladina and I had actually met already in Bar Cadejo in Juayúa the night before I same to Cobanos and the reason for the stinking hangover I had when I got here! She´d introduced me to the dice game Yatzee that night and Kali became another keen new recruit, perhaps something to do with how similar the game sounds to the name of her huge-for-a-6-month-old labrabdor Ziatzee, which I can only remembersince being told to imagine it written as C@c. He and tiny kitten Ishka make a hilarious pair to watch, Ishka´s antics reminding me of brilliant Simon´s Cat animations (e.g.

After a couple of days of sponging in the background of the mural Ladina and I headed back to Mizata to leave the hostel free for a group reservation. Again our log-night-sitting was interrupted by a huge storm, although this time we were drier and warmer to start off with since we´d been sat round a palmfrond-bonfire, and got back under shelter quickly, though I was soaked to the skin the next day as the rain continued and continued... it seemed somehow a funnily incongrous image to see hawain-shorted José walking along the palm lined beach carrying an brolly. Rained in we spent a lot of that day drawing and making anklets, Ladina and José both knew different knots for thread jewellry and of course there was an abundance of shells to thread into the the end of the weekend we all had at least one anklet.

Before she had left for a wedding in the US Sydney had suggested I help the lads draw some ideas for a mural of a surfer they want to paint on the kitchen wall, so the afternoon before they´d spent drawing while I drew them. Surfing is one of the big attractions of El Salvador, with the powerful Pacific waves, and at Mizata the waves are always that bit bigger than at the other beaches in the country, and surfing is a huge part of life. José and Henry are really pro, both have their full boards, (I helped Henry with copying a design onto his board while at the same time he gave a surprisingly slick haircut to local gringa Matteo with a pair of what looked like garden shears!) and younger `I´m-going-to-catch-an-iguana´Jayro 13 and volley-ball-Vanessa 11, are already well slick on their body boards... Vanessa took me out one day, doing most of the work for me, and seemed shyly proud when I pointed out how exciting it was that she´d be the first female surfer of Mizata when she upgrades to the full board.

Vanessa and Jayro were a real delight to spend time with, racing and cartwheeling along the beachfront the first morning of fresh sun, the same day that Ladina got her poy out and tried teaching me and Coyote, a cousin of the family. Coyote´s back in Salvador after 5 years in LA and his style of dress and tattoes linking him to gang culture are causing him a lot of trouble with the police, but he had no tough act going on as he tried to spin the ribbons in the wind on the beach, in fact he was more humble and patient than me about it, perhaps because of his crush on Ladina.

Ladina is one of those fellow travellers who I really hope I will see again one day. It seems interesting to me that you come across so many people doing this kind of travelling, and the majority you get on with and have a great time with for a day or so... of those there are a handful who you get on really well with, travel well with and spend more time but when you part ways it seems unlikely you´ll meet again but there´s no saddness in that, it feels natural... and then there are the few people who you make a real strong connection with and when you part ways really hope to cross paths again, and know you´d make the effort to meet in the future, like Jesse, Yukon Dave, now Kali and José. Ladina was also one of those, so when we hugged goodbye at the Zonte surf beach where I didn´t take my first ever surf lesson cause of an ear infection-off-balance-day (another time hey) I was thinking I´m sure we´ll see each other again someday, perhaps even follow up our dream of having our jewellry-making surf-board-painting backpack-decorating travelling business! Ah... dreams....