Thursday, April 27, 2006

All Hell Scheduled to Break Loose: Monday, 7:00 AM

Energy prices are high everywhere. While President Bush presents his own modest proposals for dealing with gas prices in America, Guatemala is taking a more revolutionary approach: Daylight Savings Time. Apparently they tried it once before, five years ago or so, decided it wasn't for them, and haven't tried it since. But this year, they're trying again. The results for a country that is generally not familiar with daylight savings time as a concept, not really all that big on time as a concept to begin with, and not much on trusting the government or consuming any news media should be interesting. At The Lovely's school, they were trying to explain it by saying "You have to show up an hour earlier, but you get to leave an hour earlier," without really noting that the clocks would still say the same time when you showed up. There were newspaper ads explaining that you didn't actually have to get up at midnight to change your clock, you could do it before you went to sleep and it would work out fine. I concede that it is sort of a weird concept to grasp if you haven't grown up with it, while still hoping that they'll wind up screwing everything up and we'll wind up with sunset at 10:30 PM.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Baby-holding Record Set

As previously alluded to, we tried to take advantage of the last weeks of summer by heading to the beach this weekend. And none too soon. The rainy season officially started yesterday. It has rained here in the last month, but occasional sprinkles are not Official Guatemala Rainy Season Cloudbursts, which is what we got yesterday afternoon, and again this evening.

The staff photographer was punished for his profligacy with the Holla budget the week prior and not invited, so the event has not been recorded. But the ratio of grown-ups to pipsqueaks on the trip was 8:7, a hairs-breadth victory for maturity in terms of numbers, if not in terms of weight. The other three couples we went with are all of the Foreign-Service-as-child-care-opportunity school of thought. One couple brought their six-month-old girl, who is thankfully one of the more chill babies I've had the pleasure to meet. Which led not only to me besting my personal baby-holding record, but shattering it, the result of an surprise pass by the doting father, mostly so he could reach the chips and guac we were enjoying at poolside. Anyway, in case my mother was wondering why her psychic state inexplicably improved drastically from 6:36 to 6:42 on Saturday night, it is because I was holding a baby and not trying to get rid of it for a whole (estimated) six minutes. Previous record had been however long it takes to hold a baby and say "she's cute" and then pass it on to the next cubicle-dweller.

Just so nobody's hopes swell too much, it's a record I'm certain will stand for many years.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Much Delayed Semana Santa Report

The photo department finally got through editing all 500 pictures down to a brisk 85 or so and getting them on-line, just in time for the editorial staff to make a hasty end-of-"summer" trip to the beach. We know that our loyal readers are sitting at home on Saturday nights hitting "refresh" on the Holla website every five minutes waiting for news. So, we apologize, and will forgo our usual lengthy introduction and cut to the equally lengthy chase.

We had heard that the crowds in Antigua were unbearable for the Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions, and were almost ready to skip the whole thing. But we figured it was worth a try, and if we couldn't find anywhere to park we would just turn around and head home. Lucky for us, the rumors of unbearable crowds were greatly exaggerated.

On Thursday afternoon and evening, and Good Friday morning, we wandered around the town, seeing how they make some of the less elaborate alfombras and seeing a few parades. "Alfombra" translates as "carpet," and refers to the elaborate decorations that the local residents build on the cobblestone streets in front of their homes and businesses. It is a painstaking process of collecting bushels of flower petals and seeds, arranging them in elaborate patterns, outdone only by the even more elaborate and intensely colored sawdust artworks. The ones we saw on Thursday were mostly pretty basic, but on Friday morning they were incredibly intricate, often the work of the entire night by a team of laborers. Each alfombra is then trampled by a parade. There must be some sort of symbolism there.

We managed to catch three parades, which ostensibly had scheduled stops around town, though they were best thought of as a rough suggestion of the route rather than a real timetable. Each parade follows a fairly standard pattern:

1. The Roman guards. Sometimes on horseback.
2. Guys in the purple robes start lining the street, then guys with censers of incense amble through, accompanied by guys in non-purple robes. For the Good Friday procession, the sea of purple robes was particularly thick. These guys mostly just stand around -- they may carry special poles that lift power lines out of the way of the very tall sculptures to follow, or may just be waiting their turn to carry the sculptures. In fact, you see people of all ages running around in purple robes all over the place, all day.
3. An anda featuring Jesus carrying the cross. An anda is like a giant sedan carried by sixty or seventy people, half on each side. Nobody I know has been able to come up with an equivalent word in English -- since "float" generally conjures images of the goofy Rose Parade floats with animatronic dinosaurs and whatnot.
4. A marching band
5. Anyone who feels like joining in the parade for a bit, mostly apparently very devout elderly folks.
6. Some other random folks on little four-person andas. Maybe if I'd been to a bit more church in my day, I could tell my Mary Magdalenes from my Josephs and John the Baptists.
7. Mary, carried by women, all in black veils, probably because the ladies wanted something that they would be able to wear again, unlike the purple robes.
8. Another marching band.
9. Cleaning trucks, backhoes, etc.
10. Everyone else in the world, selling all manner of food and toys.

The processions were as spectacular as billed (book now for Semana Santa 2007), even without the main event, which is the candlelight procession on Friday night. Instead, we shot up to Lake Atitlan, where a friend was working as a volunteer at a medical clinic in the small town of San Lucas Toliman. The big bonus of this was the extremely friendly family she was staying with that allowed us to -- or perhaps begged us to -- help build the alfombra on their street. The San Lucas processions were on a smaller scale, with far more indigenous flare and far fewer tourists, but the alfombras were still impressive and the joy of seeing our own work trampled brought us closer to to the event. We saw Jesus taken down from the cross in the local church, and had an amazing view from the bell tower as his body was led out for the final procession of the day.

One interesting note in Toliman was the local version of Maximon (whom faithful readers may remember) was hanged from the church, apparently because one of the many figures mixed into his composite character is Judas.

It turns out that nothing actually happens on Holy Saturday -- it's mostly just a day for fun with the family between the processions of Good Friday and the churching up of Easter Sunday. There were lots of families at the lakefront, and a mini-carnival with food stands and midway games in the main square. We spent the day wandering and allowing the staff photographer to play with his new toys.

Unsurprisingly, Sunday is all about church -- though there is one last procession (I hear it features the empty coffin coming back to the church, although your correspondent was unprepared for the early start required on Sunday morning to see it). But life also seemed to be back to normal, with things feeling a little sleepy. Maybe everyone was in church, or maybe your correspondent wasn't the only one with a hangover, or most likely, both.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Photo departement incapacitated by new photo technology

When first we began this adventure in Guatemala, an anonymous donor suggested that perhaps we would like a nice new digital camera to help the photo department appropriately document the strange and exotic culture. We demurred -- if you read the State Department warnings, it looks like the second you walk out the door with anything with more resale value than the day's newspaper some young ne'er-do-well will be robbing you at gunpoint and probably shooting you afterwards just for kicks. Your correspondent would like to state officially and for the record that anyone coming to Guatemala should seriously consider the risks and should take the State Department travel warnings seriously. That said, we relented in our objections to said anonymous donor providing the photo department with a snazzy new camera which has seriously hampered our reporting efforts.

The camera takes fantastic pictures, and has a ridiculous amount of storage capacity. As such, there was nothing to stop the photo department from taking nearly five hundred pictures over the four-day Easter weekend. The features editor is ready to go to press, but really the story of Semana Santa in Guatemala is all about the visuals, and editing five hundred pictures is taking longer than the photo department anticipated. We can only pledge to the reading public that the full story and photos will be published in the next couple days and will be worth the wait.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Passing the torch

As I advance in my Foreign Service career, there comes a time for reflection. It's been a long eight months, and I'm not sure I can keep up this pace. There are youngsters out there with more energy and more desire than I can muster anymore. The creeping onset of career senesence is upon me; time waits for no man; none of us is getting any younger.

So it was that I served as the administrator for the Foreign Service Written Examination here in Guatemala, where a crew of ex-pats (mostly Peace Corps) took the first step towards getting hired for my job. Not the best way to spend a Saturday, but it earned me a full day of comp time which I can use to turn some made-up-Guatemalan-holiday three-day weekend into a four-day weekend. Mostly it was a day of sitting and staring and occasionally checking the clock, as the proctor is not allowed to pass the time reading, which would just open the window for skulduggery among those hoping to usurp me. Weary is the head that wears the crown. Weary but watchful! The most unsettling part of the experience was when 15 of the 17 examinees had finished a given section of the test, and were not allowed to read, either, so we just sat there and stared at each other for ten minutes until the time expired on the two slowpokes. Perhaps we should have just gone ahead and had a staring contest -- winner gets to do 100 visa interviews on Monday.


Perhaps they betray the lack of creativity of the Spanish conquerors who generally used the crutch of saints' names for their prosaic place-names; or perhaps there is simple poetic grace in their straightforward names. In any case, the volcano near Antigua that used to have a lake in its crater is called Agua (water), and the one that is still actively spewing lava is called Fuego (fire). Pretty clever. While Fuego gets all the attention when it occasionally showers Guatemala with ash, it is the now-waterless Agua that dominates the view from Antigua, and to a lesser extent, from Guatemala City.

(The water in the former crater lake atop Agua rushed out in the last eruption, hundreds of years ago, and destroyed the first Spanish capital, now known as Ciudad Vieja (Old City). This prompted them to move the capital a few miles over to Antigua, which was leveled by an earthquake practically the next day, so they moved the capital another twenty miles to what is now Guatemala City. Guatemala City has since been more-or-less leveled by subsequent earthquakes, but they'd apparently grown weary of moving the capital down the road a spell by the time that happened. "Ciudad Antigua" means "Ancient City," even though the merely "Old City" is actually older. It's a country filled with mysteries.)

Having taken enough taunting from its looming presence, I climbed Agua yesterday. (The photography department has informed us that our cliché-averse staff photographer is the only person to ever go to Antigua and not come back with a picture of Agua towering over the quaint colonial architecture. He has been put under the lash. For now, here's a picture from some other random guy.) Your correspondent was accompanied by five of the other fine gentlemen who represent the United States in this fair country, including one American Diplomatic Security guy and accompanied by a Guatemalan National Police officer who is assigned to the Embassy beat, each of these two "packing heat" but inexplicably unwilling to shoot their guns off into the sky at 12,336 feet. Maybe due to the effects of altitude, the DS agent forgot we were in Guatemala. I don't know what the Guatemalan's excuse was.

The climb was not actually that painful, in part because your correspondent's SUV-owning colleagues were able to drive us much further up the mountain than any of us had anticipated. As such it was only a three-hour climb, on a well-beaten, switch-backing trail. The views from the top were predictably amazing. What had started as a clear day wound up fairly cloudy, but we had climbed above it. Only a few other nearby volcanoes peaked out above the clouds (Fuego included, pictured above with its more traditionally-named twin, Acatenango). While the views of the cloudtops and mountaintops were magnificent, the predominant feature of the summit was antennae, antennae, and more antennae. Between radio, tv, and cell-phone towers, the many small shacks built at their bases, and the many cables and guywires holding the towers up, the top of the mighty volcano turned out to be less solitary than one might think. The technology still provided some interesting contrasts, and only partially obstructed the fine views, which we enjoyed with sips from the one beer that one of the group laggards turned out to have been lugging up the hill packed in ice.

Despite the antenna-strewn summit and trash-strew hiking trail and the unwillingness of our escort to shoot his gun at the city a mile below, all parties were agreed that this was a far better way to spend a sunny Friday than in the concrete bunker that is the US embassy, and that in fact, volcano ascents were really the essence of Foreign Service life. Except, I suppose, in those countries that lack volcanoes.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Great Moment for Consular Work

Today, at 10:36 AM, Guatemala Time (Same as Mountain Daylight Time), after a little less than eight months in Guatemala, I adjudicated my 10,000th visa. Doing my best Rickey Henderson impression, I grabbed the passport of lucky applicant 10,000 and held it triumphantly aloft, then handed it to one of the assistants for appropriate enshrinement in the Guatemala Consular Hall of Fame. Work was interrupted for 11 minutes as the hundreds-strong line of patient applicants erupted into spontaneous applause. As a footnote to history, the applicant was granted the visa to go to Disneyworld with his parents.

More reporting on recent events and travels forthcoming...