Sunday, January 28, 2007

Staff Photographer's Wife Actually Better Photographer than Staff Photographer

The internationally recruited staff of the Holla is generally proud of the work we produce for the eight or nine people who read our fine publication. But every now and again, we have to give credit where it is due. Such is the case with the above photo, taken not by our snobby staff photographer, but by his wife. The photo editor's wife thought the photo department as a whole was selling itself short, but one can't really argue with results. The Holla staff photographer's wife serves on the board of a non-profit group that built a school (along with a number of other community services) for the girls pictured above. She took this photo during a recent site visit. The Holla thinks it is great, and would encourage readers to click on the picture to see a larger version.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Big Changes at the Holla

Among other cosmetic changes here at the Holla, we are proud to announce that we actually found the spot where (we think) we can allow comments from readers who do not have a special Blogger log-in. So if any of the two or three readers out there who don't comment already have been aching to "Holla Back," but have been stymied, you might give it another try.

And as a bonus for our readers, here's a photo of the fireworks from the Quema del Diablo. Fireworks season has pretty much come to an end. Christmas eve is the huge fireworks day, way more than Quema del Diablo or New Year's Eve, but we missed our second consecutive Christmas here. The New Year's Eve fireworks were just as raucous as the Quema del Diablo event, if not more so. Supposedly the celebration of the Feast of the Christo Negro (a famous (in Guatemala) image of Christ and supposed site of miracles) in mid-January is the end of fireworks season, but apparently some of our neighbors have a found a few extras lying aroundt the garage.

Friday, January 19, 2007

North of the Border

Originally, we had planned our vacation to be a whirlwind trip to Colorado and Boston for family time, and then just under a week in Panama. As silly as it sounds, we are allowed one trip for "R and R," which involves normal use of vacation time, but the State Department pays for one full-fare ticket for each of us to the nearest point of relief -- i.e. the nearest spot where we could enjoy an American-style standard of living for a little while. So if you're in Cambodia, they'll fly you to Australia. If you're in Africa, it's usually Europe. And for those of us in the less-developed spots of Latin America, we get a free ticket to Miami. Luckily, the key phrase is "full-fare," which means we can get a $900 ticket for the two hour flight to Miami, or use that much money for a flight elsewhere. Thus, we were going to do Guate-Denver-Boston-Panama-Guate and only pay a hundred bucks or so out of pocket.

And then Congress didn't pass the budget on time, which they never have since the days of Martin Van Buren. So, the arcane rules say we had to wait for them to release the December pile of money before we could buy our tickets home. Which meant we had to wait until three weeks before Christmas. The reader will not be shocked to hear that the prices get just a little higher when you wait that late. So we wound up paying just a hundred bucks or so out of pocket just to do the Colorado and Massachusetts legs of the trip, and then went under our own steam to Mexico.

The sliver of Mexico avaliable to us on a seven-day road trip from Guatemala City is not the most developed part of the country. We had ideas in our heads that we might get up early and with a couple long days of driving, go to the Yucatan or Oaxaca, or to see the Olmec remains in Tabasco. But a more realistic schedule limited us to Chiapas. We kept our expectations low -- surely Chiapas would be just like Guatemala, in geography, culture, and amenities.

How wrong we were! Upon crossing the border, the highway was in noticably better shape, cleaner, and (through no fault of the Guatemalans) straighter and flatter, as the sharpest (and prettiest) of the mountain ranges are on the Guatemalan side of the border. On the other hand, the Mexicans realize that you can drive fast on their roads, and have responded in kind with an extremely agressive speed bump program. Any populated stretch of the road -- which can apparently include a random shack five hundred yards off the shoulder -- merits at least two speed bumps, usually so big that even when driving as slow as humanly possible our poor little Nissan was guaranteed to scrape bottom. I'm mostly sure we didn't lose any parts that were actually critical to the operation of the car.

We decided that we couldn't risk hitting an unmarked speed bump at night, so before darkness fell we stopped in Comitán, a surprisingly quaint city celebrating its 500th anniversary. We checked into a charming hotel room, and had a delicious meal of flavorful beer and even more flavorful food. It is an inexplicable tragedy for the people of Guatemala that the cultural meme responsible for mole sauce never managed to permeate the border.

The next day, we decided to take what our bare-bones guidebook (purporting to cover all of Mexico and Central America) promised was a scenic route. The road surely would be lovely when not enveloped in fog. We made it through the sugar-cane fields to Venustiano Carranza, a town claiming to be home of the marimba -- we decided not to mention this boast to anyone in Guatemala lest things get ugly. There were, in fact, quite nice views from the hilltop town. Maybe not really worth going a couple hours out of the way for, but such are the risks the road-tripper takes when allowing the wind to decide his direction. We passed through a couple other modestly interesting towns on the way, including one famous for their handmade giant ceramic chickens. So.

That afternoon, we reached San Cristóbal de las Casas, at the heart of Chiapas. For those who have visited and are familiar with Antigua Guatemala (or just those who have seen pictures of it), San Cristobal (accent to be dispensed with in all further references) is like Antigua if it was still a real operating city rather than a carefully preserved colonial museum. I love Antigua, but it was fantastic to see actual Mexicans walking around the town (even if many of them were also tourists), and to have a selection of interesting bars, many of which happened to have live music on any given evening. In the end The Lovely Katherine and I decided that a large part of this was probably related to the average age of tourists in San Cristobal being about 15 years less than that of the average tourist in Guatemala. And although a distressing number of these young tourists were of the dreadlocks-and-tie-dye variety, we didn't hear any Grateful Dead cover bands, and avoided having any discussions with starry-eyed fellow travelers about the righteous struggle of the Zapatistas against The Man.

As we headed on to Palenque the next day, the full Zapatista scene came into sharper focus. Many towns or even cornfields would be marked with billboards declaring that locale "Zapatista Country." If we weren't more than a little scared of what kind of reaction a couple gringo tourists stopping to snap pictures would elicit, the staff photographer would have loved to snap some pictures of one local schoolhouse that was painted in a vibrant mural showing Subcomandante Marcos carrying AK-47s under rainbows and smiley-face suns. (There is a photo of one of the signs, but alas not the mural, on the Wikipedia page on the Zapatistas - scroll down a bit.)

Along the way, we stopped at the Mayan ruin of Toniná, which is not one of the more famous ruins, but was actually lovely. It is built on a hill, so from the temples at the top, the views are fantastic. And there was very little tourist hub-bub about, as it's a little off the beaten path. We arrived after dark in the town of Palenque, which basically came into being to cater to the tourist needs of visitors to the more famous Mayan ruins of the same name, and it looks the part. It did have plenty of opportunities to buy bootleg movies, or t-shirts with pictures of Mayan temples on them. But it's not all bad, as they did have Mexican beer, good Tequila, and spicy food, so we couldn't complain too much.

The ruins at Palenque are a fairly compact site, at least when compared with Tikal. The big attraction is some of the relatively well-preserved murals, showing various Mayans alternately worshipping or beheading other Mayans. We have no photographic evidence of this, as the staff photographer found the colorful lichens to be more photogenic. Many tourists did seem to want to take videos of the temple carvings, which your correspondent found a little odd, but probably not as odd as they thought him for taking pictures of mold (which didn't turn out that well in the end, anyway). More annoying however, and in sharp contrast with policies at Tikal and Copán, was the ubiquity of tchotchke vendors within the borders of the park. Every pathway up to a temple was lined with blankets on each side selling replica masks or cheap paintings approximating Mayan calendars. It made it significantly harder to get any feeling of the history of the place when you were mostly trying to get away from the mob long enough to breathe. Eventually we got away from the worst of the crowd, enjoyed the historic site, and then started heading back to San Cristobal, which is when your correspondent fell victim to his morning's breakfast.

Your faithful reporter has been in Guatemala for a year and a half now, and has never felt more than mild discomfort as a result of the local cuisine, even when buying food off the street or eating in the dirt-floored homes of the local population. And yet something in the cleaner, more developed environs of Mexico didn't agree with me, and after four hours of valiant struggle on windy roads, I lost it at the roadside with San Cristobal in sight. Montezuma, on the behalf of all people of European stock, I apologize!

Given my delicate state, we decided to check into a slightly swankier hotel for our second engagement in San Cristobal, in case we wound up spending more time in the room than we had hoped. We stayed in a historic building on the main square. The quite ridiculous amount of noise that came with a room facing the main square was surprisingly not much of an obstacle in getting to sleep. Feeling mostly better the next day, we took a boat trip on the river through the Sumidero Canyon, got up close and personal with some crocodiles, and then spent an hour driving around Tuxla-Gutierrez trying to find the road to see it from the top of the canyon without success.

For our last day in the area, we did a quick spin through one of the many small villages outside San Cristobal that are still populated by indigenous groups that maintain many of the traditions of their ancestors from the era when the Spanish arrived. We were there for the annual festival in Zincantán, which was not a ferris wheels-and-midway games kind of festival, but a more traditional gathering on the square in front of the church. Many of the men were dressed in elaborate costumes, with straw hats flowing with colored ribbons and brightly colored robes covering the embroidered tunics that all the men wore. They looked on at some sort of play: Two men, wearing bright red masks and carrying/riding what one could only call ceremonial hobby horses had an elaborate and muffled conversation (in between pulls off the bottle) with two men dressed in white sheets that I took to approximate womens' garb. Another man had a large wicker tent with a (also wicker) cow's head on one end, playing the part of the livestock. They brought a series of carved idols of San Lorenzo of Zincantán out of the church and from across the square, took turns being blessed, and then the whole group decamped to a nearby streetcorner where the next act of the play took place, involving a very acrobatic dance by the gentleman playing the cow. It was fascinating, and the costumes were gorgeous. The staff photographer had sadly (or nobly) made a pledge to his traveling companion not to even get out his camera out of respect for the Zincantans, who aren't much for photography. It was with a mixture of pride and deep regret that he mustered the will to honor this pledge during the colorful and picturesque ceremony.

All that remained after that day were final efforts to cram as many delicious tacos, Bohemia beers, and shots of Don Julio down our mouths as we could before returning to the culinary boredom and work-related travails of Guatemala. I can only assure you we did our able best.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Eatin' Good

I broke a personal pledge to myself yesterday. For 18 months, I have carefully avoided going to American chain restaurants, because I figure that as long as I'm here, I might as well eat at the Guatemalan and/or Mexican chain restaurants. So after some time of avoiding Chili's and TGI Friday's, I had a business lunch the other day where the Guatemalans we were meeting wanted to eat at Applebee's. Applebee's opened here sometime last year, and the bankers we were meeting with seem to love it: "It's just like Friday's, but a lot less crowded!" I don't think I ever ate at an Applebee's in the U.S., so I don't know what their design scheme is, but in the one in Guatemala, all the walls are lined with celebrity head shots. Not that they're trying to fool anyone into thinking that Leonardo DiCaprio and Madonna have stopped by for cheese sticks at the Guate Applebee's, I think they just decided it made the place feel more "American." Or something. I was almost convinced I was back home until the chicken-sandwich-and-fries lunch was followed with complimentary coffee and flan.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Investigative Journalism

The reputation of the Holla is quickly spreading. While on my way to buy milk this morning, the staff photographer made a quick detour to snap some shots of the red, yellow, and blue seating area at the nearest American Doughnuts location. The results were fair at best. The staff photog is now well accustomed to getting odd looks when he takes pictures, as the idea that you might use a camera for more than family snapshots is a bit foreign to many Guatemalans. On this particular morning, the sole employee of the doughnut shop stared curiously for some time, as she set up the morning's doughnuts. Just as the photographer was packing the camera up again, the employee recognized her responsibility to the store, and confronted him. "Are you with the press?" she demanded. He contemplated for a moment, but in the end admitted to himself that the Holla is more of a literary journal than a bona fide organ of investigative inquiry, and attempted to explain to her that he just thought the light on the colorfully painted metal tables might make nice artistic pictures. She looked confused, and repeated everything back -- "Not with the press, huh?" "Artistic pictures, huh?" She seemed genuinely concerned that there was going to be a damaging exposé in the paper on how badly the chairs at American Doughnuts in Zone 13 need to be repainted. Fortunately, the staff photographer convinced her that these pictures were not for publication. So, if you happen to run into her, please don't mention that you saw the above photo in this internationally recognized journal.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Pure Cream

As Americans go, I'm not entirely hopeless with respect to soccer. As a participant, I enjoyed years of childhood rec leagues and college intra-murals, and have made the occasional effort in Guatemala to particiapate in the local sport. As a spectator, I love the World Cup, and am generally conversant in the more important teams that are always playing for whatevery Lesser Cup they're contesting this week. I know the names of a handful of the world's most famous players, as well as most of the guys on US National Team. At the very least, I'm not one of those people who thinks soccer is a terrible bore because they don't keep changing the rules to make sure they score ten goals a game.

That said, I can't figure Latin American soccer at all. First of all, in Guatemala, they play two seasons a year -- the "apertura" and the "clausura." So each year, two different teams are the "champions." They never play each other to see who's the real champion of the year, theyjust settle for two "champions" each year. And they're ok with this. They just act like both of the teams that win are actually champions, like there was nothing cheap about it all. Having one champion each year is, I suppose, arbitrary, but humankind has divided time by years since some time before the invention of soccer. If you're going with two "champions" a year, why not five? Why not have a different "champion" based on who was ahead at halftime and who won the second half of each game? And on top of having two champions a year, there are a mystifying array of other cups and international club tournaments in addition that I haven't even begun to sort out.

Anyway, not to make it seem less important than it was, but I went to the second leg of the home-and-away Guatemalan National League "Championship" just before departing for Christmas. In Guatemala, there are two teams from Guatemala City -- Municipal and Comunicaciones -- and then ten other teams that rarely, if ever, muster the resources to compete with the big guys. Perhaps because "Municipal" and "Comunicaciones" are a bit unweildy to work into a cheer, the teams are mostly known by their colors; Municipal are the Rojos and Comunicaciones are the Cremas. (The Rojos' mascot is a little devil, while the Cremas' is - no joke - Casper the Friendly Ghost.) When these two play, it is officially called a clasico, even if the game sucks, and when the championship is between the two -- a Classic Championship -- the passion of the city's fans hits a fever pitch.

While each team has their own stadium, when they play in a title game, they play both the home and away games in the larger national stadium. For some reason, it was literally impossible to buy tickets in advance, and we figured that for such a monumental event, we would need to get there early to get a spot in the ticket queue. We arrived at 8:30 for a 12:00 game, walked up, bought tickets, and entered the nearly empty stadium. Apparently the Guatemalan passion for soccer was overmatched by the Guatemalan desire to sleep in on a Sunday. And, much to our dismay, we were informed that nobody would be selling anything to drink in the stadium, and that we couldn't re-enter if we left. With a little sweet-talking, we convinced one guard that this policy was absurd (when applied to us), and he took our names and agreed to let us back in later. We found, among many, the sincerest taco stand outside the stadium, ordered too many tacos, and in a internationally understood pre-game tradition I haven't participated in for years, started drinking beer at 8:30 in the morning.

At the designated hour we re-entered the stadium, prepared with sufficient reinforcements to make sure we stayed in 'game shape' for the duration. The rojo and crema fans were spearated from the field and from each other by twenty feet of cyclone fence and barbed wire. The Cremas had the best regular season record, so they were nominally the home team for the second game, which meant their fans also got the center-field seats. The fans from each side chanted and sang and generally made American sports crowds look a bit reserved. Most charming were the family cheers, such as the entire crowd of one team's fans, when the other team took the field, chanting in unison a swear word whose translation in English is probably the foulest word you care to think of. During the game itself, when someone would commit a hard foul, the crowd would chant a particularly foul Spanish phrase, that in English translates as the comparatively benign "Son of a whore! Son of a whore!"

The game was fair. Not particularly well-played, but close throughout. The home team led after a first-half goal, and after a scoreless tie in the first leg, would win the championship if they held on. Of course, they gave up a soft second-half goal and regulation time ended in a tie. Tied! After two games of championship soccer between the two most storied franchises in Guatemalan soccer! What drama would await in extra time? A sudden-death winner? Penalty kicks? A punishing full-time extra period?

Actually, none of the above. Guatemala is surely -- one hopes -- the only league in the world that decides the grand final league championship on the basis of away goals. (Meaning if the total score added up between the home and away games was a tie, whichever team scored more goals on the opposing team's field wins. So after a 0-0 tie and a 1-1 tie, both on the same field, they awarded the team that happened to tie 1-1 in their "away" game the championship.) The rojo fans went crazy, and there was a trophy ceremony immediately. The crema fans stared in disbelief. We were annoyed, we commiserated with nearby crema fans, and then realized that exactly at the moment of the ending gun of the game, they were allowed to sell beer in the stadium, an opportunity many enterprising vendors helped us enjoy.

We sat around and drank beer until we were the last fans in the stadium, at which point your ever-probing correspondent decided to check out if the "emergency exit" through the fence was actually padlocked, or if one could get through in the case of a fire. In a surprise, you actually could unlatch and open the gate, and with no more security around, we let ourselves onto the field while clean-up crews took down the loudspeakers and advertising banners and such. We asked permission from everyone we could, and nobody seemed to have a problem with us going on the pitch of the National Stadium of Guatemala. Not exactly Old Trafford, but still pretty cool. We went into the administration office and asked to borrow a soccer ball, but they didn't have one. We asked all the cleaning crews and trainers and such. No luck. The National Soccer Stadium of Guatemala! And nary a soccer ball to be had! Tragedy! We settled for taking some shots on goal with an empty water bottle. After a morning of drinking and sitting in the sun, it seemed amusing enough at the time. We surely looked like full-on retards to the straggling clean-up crew, but it was worth it.

And after all this, we had no choice but to go to the home of our friend with the biggest TV and continue the day watching American football, until I fell asleep, lobster-red from the sun and completely hung over at 8:00 in the evening. It was a hard day, but one I was willing to put in for the sake of the international unifying power of sport.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

Hello, faithful readers. The Holla offices are ready to start humming again after the staff spent the holidays in various ports of call such as Colorado, Boston, and Chiapas. We'll be back soon with stories sure to thrill and amaze on topics ranging from championship soccer to Subcomandante Marcos. For now, enjoy this picture from the trip described in the previous post.