Sunday, September 27, 2009

Back at School

What is it about September? Back-to-school time seems to have been permanently imprinted on my mind. So it was that we found ourselves back in school, back in Antigua. PHOTO SCHOOLROOM

Yes, I know, according to the blog we haven't been to Antigua yet! But soon...
In fact we came up for a few days in August to scout around. Antigua is a place every tourist is expected to go, and a goodly number seem to fall in love with the city. We liked it fine, but it's a city of walls, and you're left wondering what's going on behind them. Also, you wonder where exactly you are, since, despite their personalities, few walls sport street signs. Coming to school here was a good way to explore a little further.

So, you might wonder, if we had trouble finding our way around a city laid out in a grid with prominent volcanoes to the south and west and a distinctly different hill to the north, why would we further overload our mental capacities by attending language school?

Mainly, so it's so we don't travel in a bubble. I can get by in Spanish in a very rough and inelegant manner, but the Guatemalans are too polite to correct me even when I ask them to. Doug wants to understand Spanish better too. Quite an language school industry has grown up around the clear and neutral Guatemalan accent in all the tourist destinations, but especially in Antigua. Despite the various learning aids on the boat we just weren't progressing well on our own.

We picked a school with large and meticulously landscaped gardens behind its gate, and really nice accommodations, San Jose El Viejo. The tranquility of our little 'resort', the two-minute commute, the fountains, the pool, ...I could really get used to this kind of upgrade to my life!PHOTO VIEW FROM OUR CASITAview out our window

Doug's teacher had the patience of Job, he announced, and, 'she can write upside down!' Mine had been dealing with people like me for at least half her life, and knew that her job was as much to break bad habits as to cement in some new stuff.

It was humbling to realize just how many bad habits I have. Neither of us expected miracles, especially in 32.5 hours of study in a week. The aging memory thing ...Well, I don't think my memory is that bad. It's just that I have to learn new packing techniques. So that's what I did all week. That, and try to slow myself down for quality production rather than quantity plus hand-waving. I might even be having a little glimmer of understanding of how my grandfather came to be the slow and (overly) precise man he was when he was about the age I am now.
Did I actually master the past and present tenses? How much of my new vocabulary will make a second appearance? Time will tell. I sure did enjoy my little vacation, though.
If anyone reading this is looking for a recommendation, I would recommend everything about this school.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What I Learned at the Museums

PLAIN HEADPhotobucket
We spent several rewarding hours at the twin museums on the campus of Francisco Marroquin University, Zona 10, a half hour walk from our hotel in Guatemala City.

The Ixmel is full of textiles, looms, weavings, old photos, etc, curated in a modern style which I liked a lot. Also, some lovely 'primitive' paintings from an early 20th century Guatemalan artist whose grandchild could be drawing many of the same scenes today. And, some sophisticated watercolor portraits done by a British woman who I think had a coffee plantation in the hills.
After this, no photos were allowed in the textile museum- fragile colors. Lo siento.

In the Ixmel, you'll start to realize just what you're seeing when you look at Mayan women on the street. What I see is an astonishing number of women all wearing the same thing, a voluminously pleated modest skirt plus a blouse, and an overblouse of a lacy material, which strikes me as modesty made practical in a tropical climate. Inland I also saw huipil, which is a different kind of blouse with much embroidery (once done by hand, now more machine embroidered) around the neckline.
Considering the heat, and the need to breast-feed, and the lack of sanitary facilities, I guess it's a reasonable rig, even though it looks like more cloth than necessary, and hot.

What I hadn't fully appreciated before Ixmel was the individuality of the fabrics and the embroidery. Each locale has something special, and for someone who can read the signs (which might be every Guatemalan) there's a wealth of information being conveyed. Also, I hadn't considered the apron as a fashion accessory, but you'll regularly see tucked and ruffled aprons on the streets of the city.

There are plenty of women in traditional dress, but others, including men, and youth, wear the 21st century uniform. A side note about clothing: one of the places you can buy clothes is at a ropa americana. Sometimes there's a storefront, but often you'll see being sold in the back of a truck, on a tarp on the ground, or maybe even on hangers, what looks like the overflow, like what goes to Goodwill, Salvation Army and Frenchy's. Not being a size 1 chica, it's where I'd shop if I needed something, which thankfully I don't.
Here, if you care to dig, you'll find larger-than-Mayan sizes and sometimes better quality- at least it was originally. I see lots of people, especially men, wearing 'ropa americana' t-shirts, without a care about the logo. Howard's Plumbing, Palm Beach Polo Club, it seems that Guatemala is downstream from every t-shirt ever printed. Sometimes it works: a cute little girl in a pink shirt with sequins reading "Precious". And sometimes it doesn't: a skinny older man whose t-shirt read: "Nobody Knows I'm Really a Lesbian".

Popul Voh Museum is artifacts from various ruins throughout the country. You can pay 15Q extra and take pictures. Doug frowned ("there's nothing worse than a tourist with a camera" is his view), but I paid, happily (the camera has a better memory than I do) and here's a little of what I saw.

The Popul Vuh Museum is named after a book, one of the few to survive, which describes the Mayan myth of creation. The collection was once private and is noted for its pre-Columbian (that's Before Christopher Columbus to me!) funerary art and its bowls and vessels.
Pictured below is a photo of a reproduction of part of another of the very few surviving Mayan manuscripts, the Dresden Codex. This is an example of the source material upon which our current knowledge is based.
"The Dresden Codex contains astronomical tables of outstanding accuracy. It is most famous for its Lunar Series and Venus table...The Dresden Codex contains predictions for agriculturally-favorable timing[citation needed]. It has information on rainy seasons, floods, illness and medicine. It also seems to show conjunctions of constellations, planets and the Moon."

I liked all the funerary 'urns', though they did seem rather small.
But what really struck me was the small sculptures and the busts, perhaps because they were so personably captioned. It was like looking at a centuries-old photo album. At last I felt like I was peeking into Mayan daily life.

For instance, here are little heads displaying the variety of hairstyles available, indicating, according to the caption, an interest in fashion. I can relate!
hairstyles cropped

Effigies emphasized feminine charm and sensuality and point out that young goddesses played important mythological roles. The one on the left particularly, I can see in that kind of function. She might be 14, on the streets of Fronteras, or Birmingham, Alabama.
young wome

The youths, male variety, of the nobility, were strenuously educated in the arts and writing, cults of the gods and military arts. These guys look like they're just hanging out on the corner though, as surely those youths also did.
Here's a warrior (not a Warrior), wearing cotton armor, carrying square shield and mace. They often wear masks and helmets decorated with animals, said the sign. In fact, in some cases, the warrior's victims were flayed, which is to say skinned, and their 'features' worn as a mask. What a reminder!
Musicians, players of the drums, turtle carapaces, rattles and trumpets, were an important part of many ceremonies, including sacrifices. This is a pretty terrible picture, admittedly, but you can see the guy on the right is the drummer in this band. The odd colors are interesting to me, but not desirable photographically, since they apparently indicate 'noise'.
The abuelas, "aged women"(!), were important in domestic and religious life too, as midwives, and in myth, where the heroes were often orphans raised by their grandmother. I guess their warrior fathers didn't make it home.Photobucket
nose piercing
Large noses and crossed eyes were considered attractive.

Mainly what I learned at the museum is that, when (okay, if) our culture, like that of the Mayans, mysteriously disappears as a result of environmental degradation and greedy heedless behavior, our successors might have a museum much like this one, same captions, but slightly different illustrations. Let's see, Vogue magazine, Forest Lawn, silicon breast implants, ...

Hope you enjoyed the tour!
for more pictures look at -

Edited 18 Sept.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Morning Soundscape with Howler Monkeys

I love to lie (or is that lay?) in bed a few minutes each morning with my ears wide open. Our boarding plank creaks. Early outboards head out the creek. Some mornings it rains. This morning precipitation was so light that the awning barely spoke. The night watchman makes his final rounds, and if it's Julio, I can hear him pop the shells out of his gun right before he leaves.

Bird song is what I most like to hear. It's cheery and perky and insinuates itself so sweetly into my waning dreams. But I'm getting used to the howler monkeys who live in the jungle across the river and start their day well before sunrise. Howler monkey howlingphoto courtesy of npr

A lovely lullaby their call is not, although doubtless it's music, or at least data, to their own ears. Thanks to an enlarged bone, the hypoid, near their vocal chords, they rank as one of the world's loudest animals, with a range of 3 miles, says the Guinness Book of World Records.

Supposedly they're calling to check in with other groups of howlers at dawn and dusk. As folivores, they inhabit and ingest the jungle canopy; it's a low-energy food supply, so maybe they watch their spacing as well as check in on the daily net.

Howler monkeys to me sound like a slow-motion wreck, or like a terribly sick and suffering someone. Paradigm shift: better to celebrate them as what they are: the thrilling sound of a tropical jungle large enough to support them.

Would you like to listen? Click here.

Like the sound? It's available as a ringtone. You might not have any trouble deciding whose calls to assign this sound to.

If birdsong soothes me, what might a howler monkey find relaxing? Funny you should ask, because just the other day I read about a study wherein scientists recorded both alarm sounds and easy-going sounds of cotton-topped tamarins, another vocal monkey species. A cellist then 'translated' the calls into 'cello-ese', sped the tape up to monkey-chirp speed, and played it to their (captive) tamarin audience. I wasn't surprised to learn that the alarm-based recordings alarmed and the easy-listening soothed the tamarins. Probably the same with gangsta rap.

Wikipedia's listing says:
Guatemalan Black Howler (alouatta pigra) males are larger than those of any other Central American monkey species. On average, males weigh 11.4 kg (25 lb) and females weigh 6.4 kg (14 lb). The body is between 521 and 639 mm (20.5 and 25.2 in) in length, excluding tail. The tail is between 590 and 690 mm (23 and 27 in) long...Lifespan can be 15-20 years.

As with other species, the majority of the Guatemalan
Black Howler's day is spent resting. Eating makes up about a quarter of
the day, moving about 10% of the day, and the remainder of the day is
spent in socializing and other activities.
One activity reported in Tikal was particularly striking.
HOWLER DEFECATING SIGNPhotobucket Doug went out of his way to get out from under the ones we saw there. I just kept my eyes open and my mouth shut, and the monkeys brachiated on by.

Of course, howler monkeys are considered an endangered species, but apparently not critically so just yet. Somewhere I read that these monkeys are too ill-tempered to make good pets. Loss of habitat is an issue, of course. Being used as food is also a problem for these monkeys, but I have been asking around and can't find anyone at least in the Rio Dulce area who has ever participated in monkey killing or eating (or will admit to it). Guatemala Black Howler at Aurora Zoo
This poor soul was one of a troupe trapped in a concrete jungle near the airport runway at the Aurora Zoo in Guatemala City. I mean concrete jungle literally - all of the things, with the possible exception of the tree in this picture= that look natural, like bamboo or wood, even rock, aren't. They're concrete, artistically done, and we can probably guess the reason. The sponsors who support the zoo, like Bimbo Bread, Pepsi, and Purina, well, they're not in the zoo business. But that's another story.