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

Monday, 28 June 2010

Antigua Guatemala... music and mud

So appologies for the moan last time I wrote, was feeling pretty sorry for myself, but once I got over the homesickness and the parasite I started to really enjoy Antigua Guatemala. As it´s known for its Spanish colonial architecture and cobbled streets... bumpy in the are a few of the classic shots of the city;

Antigua is a peculiar place because there are so many short-stay tourists mixed amongst long-stay foreigners running tourist-aimed businesses, mainly bars, mixed among wealthy Guatemalans, mixed among street vendors and shoe shiners and street artists. A lot of backpackers complain that it is too touristy and not ´Guatemalan´enough, but the other way of looking at it is that it is contemporary and cosmopolitan, it is small enough to feel safe and friendly, it´s clean, and more than anything I loved the creative vibe it has. I kept thinking of the Eagles song Hotel California... you can check out any time you want, you can just never leave.. I understand why so many travellers end up staying there, its got a pull to it.

I was certainly drawn into the bar scene after meeting Pananmanian Aldo, North American Brandon and French Franc in the Onvisa Hostal the first night...collectively La Banda de La tierra Madre... an incredible bunch of musicians who had met in San Cristobal in Mexico are making their way south by swapping their music for food (so if you see them on your travels buy them a meal or give them a tip - their music is well worth it!) They played a mix of blues and rock and at times would wander off into really long jams... Branon had some seriously impressive super-quick-finger-picking going on on lead guitar, Aldo was giving it the 60´s feel on the bass and Franc was astonishing on percussion and was a real priviledge to listen to them and Aussie Tim, who I met while drawing a more traditional folk band in the park on Sunday, became their temporary groupies for the week and had many a long night in Bar Muro listening to their sets.

My main reason for stopping in Antigua was to help out with the post erruption and storm clean up efforts going on in the surrounding communities - as Juán at Hostal Onvisa pointed out the day I arrived, if you want to do any volunteer work in a country and there has been a natural disaster, that is where your free time would be most needed. I signed up for Spanish lessons for the week too, so after my first morning´s classes my teacher José dropped me off in Ciudad Vieja which had been particularly badly hit by mudslides following Tormenta Agatha. I spent three afternoon´s cleaning mud from the walls of his friend´s father-in-law´s home, and through the monotony of brushing and scraping brushing and scraping brushing and scraping I had plenty of time to reflect on the impact of the damage on the family´s life. Strangely it took a while for the gravity of it all to really sink in on a personal level... perhaps because it was hard to imagine the empty mud-coated space I was cleaning as ever having been someone´s home. Yet just weeks before Tomas and his son and daughter in law and their two toddlers had been living there and running their bicycle repairs shop alongside. I had to try and think how it would have felt for me and my family if our home and newsagents had been comletely destroyed when I used to live in Scotland. Not only have you lost all your belongings furniture and your back wall, you have no income because you have lost your business.

Tomas´son Concepcion explained how at 6.30pm on the day of the mudslide the river of mud had knocked open their metal doors (now bent and ´locable´by a piece of twisted wire), knocked out their concrete back wall, and filled all the rooms to chest level within 20 minutes. The same thing happened to their neighbours homes, so looking out the back of the house where the wall used to be you are faced with a mud field. The family escaped by clambering over the roof and have been sheltering with relatives ever since, higher up the hill on an unaffected street. Within the community there were 3 deaths, imagine if it had happened during the night when everyone had been sleeping.

One of the afternoons as I was scraping and brushing Tomas came running to beckon me into the mud field at the back where a crowd of locals circled a couple who I was introduced to. After shaking hands and passing a few words with them, they thanked me for cleaning and I replied as a traveller I have a lot of spare time, I ought to help, and my heart is with them, then Tomas walked back to the house with me and explained that that was the Guatemalan vice-president and his first lady. I´m glad I didn´t know that before hand or I would have been even more Spanish-tongue-tied! They were doing a solidarity visit and following along behind their convoy of big shiny black government cars (incongruous amongst the mud filled streets, some still in the process of being bulldozed clear) was the daily beaten up pick up truck distributing government relief, basic meals of beans and tortillas.
Tim came with me one of the afternoons and being a big bulky rugby player worked quickly, and I hope our small effort made some difference to the family, but they still had so much to do, get rid of the destryed furniture, paint the walls that though they were now clear of mud were badly stained. But more than the stress of all the remaining work I imagine would be the worry of another mudslide. As the kindly old lady they were sheltering with asked me ´Would you want to move back into that same house?´No, but what other choice do the family have?

The Antiguan host family I was staying with was incredibly welcoming. Energetic scatty-delightful Gilda, and her three musical lads who play drums in the bars and all spoke English probably better than I speak Spanish but were very patient with my pigeon efforts. On my final day Gilda, me, Isaí and his mate Che headed up to the local outdoor swimming baths on motos, where we played ball games and all burnt a little bit, before heading into town for typical Guatemalan dish ´pepían´- chicken with rice in a spiy tomato based sauce, and tortilla. I spent the rest of the evening henna ´tattoing´them each in turn, Gilda, Che, Isaí, Isaú, all except Jonathan who had a gig to play at... but anyway, it was a rubbish first try at henna because my mix was wrong and by the next morning all of us had lost our designs. Ach weel... better luck next time!

Peace & big love from Antigua xxx

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