Weekend Warrior: Guatemala Edition

Yes, you’re reading this right – it really is a blog post, finally put together by yours truly.  I know I’ve been remiss in my resolution to keep up with this blog, but I promise that the writing efforts that are not being spent here are being expended on my dissertation (which is one chapter closer to completion this month!).

Recently, I’ve been living and working in Guatemala City, at a place that is officially called Salón 3, even thought that literally just means “Room 3” (I don’t know where Rooms 1 and 2 are, if they exist).  Salón 3 is a warehouse where Guatemala’s Institute of Anthropology and History stores excavated archaeological materials – a little bit like the place where they put the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, though even saying it’s “a little bit” like that might be a stretch. Salón 3 doesn’t have those nicely packed wooden crates, but rather is mostly filled with old, reused cardboard boxes (even some boxed wine containers) that are often disintegrating and leaving pieces of pottery all over the floor. It’s also housed within the same complex as the Guatemalan equestrian team’s stables (sports and culture are part of the same ministry here), so sometimes there are horses chewing on the plastic covering the windows.  Lastly, Salón 3 is just behind the Guatemala City zoo and they have apparently found some large rodent escapees making nests among the ceramics and stone tools.

Salón 3 is one of the places where I’ve been piecing back together artifact fragments for the past few months, making this:


into things more like this:


The point of this blog post, however, is not that I spend my weeks in a dark, dusty place tediously gluing together pieces of old pots that all look the same (although, as it turns out, thousands of pieces of red bowls, jars, and plates are a greater challenge than any I’ve yet faced on the Garrisons’ puzzle table).  The point is that after spending all week doing so, I’ve had some extra motivation to enjoy my weekends and discovered a few newfound gems in Guatemala.

The first of these little hidden treasures is a magical place called Mundo Petapa, run by an organization called IRTRA.  The acronym doesn’t sound that enticing, but it’s basically the Institute for Recreation for Employees of Private Companies.  Mundo Petapa is a combination theme park, water park, and zoo, hidden right in the middle of Guatemala City.  Now, to be honest, I was more than a little skeptical when friends suggested we go to a Guatemalan theme park.  There are some amazing things that this country is known for, but I think it would be fair to say that safety regulations and fully functioning, reliable equipment are not on that list.  I also couldn’t help but picture the local ferias – carnivals that are set up in towns for patron saints’ days.  Ferias usually have some bumper cars connected directly to power lines, some kind of lottery game where I only understand enough to know that parakeets pick the winning numbers, and a rickety Ferris wheel powered by a tractor, run by someone wearing flip-flops and putting the pedal to the metal (as an interesting little aside, I recently learned that Ferris wheels are called ruedas de Chicago [Chicago wheels] in Spanish since the first one was debuted at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago).  Fortunately, Mundo Petapa was a little more Disneyland than street carnival.



The ruedas de Chicago from the feria in Momostenango (above) and Mundo Petapa (below)

My friends Mily and Martín and I rode the Brinca Kangaroo bounce ride, the Tronco Splash log flume, and the Moto Bala and Raton Loroco roller coasters, perused the zoo’s wildlife (which included an African lion in addition to the local Central American critters), had lunch in a miniature replica of downtown Guatemala City, meandered through the Valle de Dinos, and watched some impressive juggling clowns over ice cream.


Mundo Petapa (we did not, unfortunately brave a ride on the Rascacielos [Skyscraper] drop in the background)


Mily and Martín getting ready for a bouncy kangaroo ride


Wouldn’t have been a day at the theme park without the classic log flume photo


Dinosaur Valley’s biggest swinger




A few choice specimens from the Mundo Petapa zoo, caged and uncaged

Although it wasn’t technically occurred during the week, the day after Mundo Petapa I had the chance to take a little day trip to Tikal.  Another archaeologist and I gave a tour of the site to 70(!) people from the Los Angeles Chapter of the Young Presidents Organization, which consisted of CEOs under 45 years old.  The day’s schedule was pretty hectic: we flew from Guatemala City to Flores, drove to Tikal, did lunch and an abbreviated tour of the ruins, then flew right back to Guatemala City again (a 13-hour day in total, with three hours spent at the site).  The group seemed almost equally divided between hating the jungle’s abundant mosquitos and humidity and being genuinely interested in the site and the experience.  They were a little hard to reign in for most of the tour, as you can see in the picture in front of Temple 1, where maybe half the group is poised and ready for the photo.  All in all, though, they were generally friendly and funny and I had a good time jetting off to Tikal for the day.


Kings of past and present: the Young Presidents Organization members in front of Tikal’s Temple 1

Fast forward through a few more warehouse days and we come to Wonderful Weekend #2: Tom’s visit (his last one – which means I’m getting close to heading home!).  Since I’ve been living down here for such a long stretch, Antigua has lost a little bit of its vacation feel for me and Tom and I decided to take a vacation within his vacation and head to the beach on the Pacific coast.  Although we had some difficulty getting out of Guatemala City (who knew a highway could have three different names within one city’s limits?) and had to wait out a parade for the feria in Itzapa, we eventually made it to our destination: the quaint little village of – no joke – Hawaii, Guatemala, and the Hotel Honolulu.



The beaches on the Pacific coast of Guatemala are always take a little getting used to.  It’s not just the black volcanic sand, it’s the way the beaches are totally unmodified and largely undeveloped.  No jetties, no dredging, no artificial dunes; just a scattering of largely inconspicuous hotels and thatched roof homes.


The black sand beaches look and sound intriguing, but really they just turn into a foot-scalding obstacle between you and the water once the sun has been up for a bit


The Hawaii Church: Saint Xavier of the Sea

Mostly, we spent the weekend enjoying our hotel’s pools and very fresh seafood and occasionally braved this Hawaii’s notorious undertow enough to wade in a bit.


Tom getting his feet wet

On an early morning walk along the beach however, we also happened to save some sea turtles.  Hawaii, Monterrico, and other nearby beaches are well-known turtle nesting grounds, although eggs are usually taken from the nests by poachers and predators long before they hatch.  Near our hotel in Hawaii, a non-profit organization buys eggs from poachers and then reburies them in nests within a protected area of the beach.  When the turtles hatch, they dig their way out of the soil and then are counted and measured by the non-profit’s volunteers.


Tons of tiny turtles just waiting to hatch



After the hatchlings are accounted for, volunteers carry them in buckets to the beach, where they are let loose on the sand and make their way toward the sea.  As they scurry down to the waves, the smell of the beach sand is imprinted in their memories, allowing them to return to the very same beach to nest 10-20 years later.  Supposedly, only one in a thousand hatchlings survives to adulthood under natural conditions and the simple acts of protecting the eggs and giving the turtles a little head start to the sea make a big difference in overcoming those odds.  Since the turtles swim for around 72 hours once they hit the water, let’s hope most of the few hundred turtles we let loose on Saturday are happily frolicking about in the great big blue.


 And they’re off!  Keep your fingers crossed for the little guys – they still have a long way to go…

On Dictators and Delays

Most of the time, I love living in Guatemala.  I love the abundant sunshine, the lush and rugged landscapes, the friendly and generous people.  I love being overwhelmed by the piles of produce and products at the local market.  I love catching snippets of conversations among the old men who sit in the Parque Central during the early morning hours and visit with one another while having their shoes shined.  I even secretly love the fact that fireworks aren’t reserved for any particular special occasion here, but can be set off in full force anywhere, any time, for any reason.

I’ve gotten more accustomed to the slower pace of life, the unpredictability of supposed “business hours,” and the total disregard for safety in everything from changing a light bulb to driving a passenger van.  Most of the problems I encounter here are simply annoyances.  They range from major to minor inconveniences, such the official letter with four signatures that is required every time I want to look at a new box of artifacts for my dissertation research (major) or, now that it’s the height of “summer,” the freshly hatched crop of ravenous mosquitoes that left me with over 20 new bites from last night alone (right now this one feels pretty major also), but are generally forgiven and forgotten with a volcano-framed sunset or two.

Recently, however, I’ve lost a little love for Guatemala that I don’t think scenic vistas can replace.  The reason?  The ongoing spectacle of the trial of Guatemala’s former dictator, Jose Efrain Ríos Montt and his chief of military intelligence, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, for genocide and crimes against humanity during Guatemala’s civil war.  Although the conflict spanned 36 years, the trial is limited to a period of 17 months between 1982 and 1983, when Rios Montt was in charge and over 81% of the gross human rights violations committed during the entire war were carried out (resulting in more than 200,000 dead or forcibly disappeared, over 80% of whom were from indigenous Maya communities). The case is not only a major event in Guatemala’s history, but is also the first time that a former head of state has been prosecuted for war crimes in the country where the atrocities occurred (as opposed to an international court).  It represents a rare instance in which Guatemala’s young democracy and judicial system have been the focus of international attention for something other than their notorious corruption and futility in the face of rampant violent crime.  Within Guatemala, it is one of few prosecutions related to the murders or massacres that occurred during the civil war (all of which have been brought in the past five years and included only two senior officials among the 30 or so cases).  Unfortunately, the trial has devolved into something of a circus, with political maneuvering and theatricality taking center stage and pushing justice aside.



Jose Efrain Rios Montt:  Above, in a press conference in Guatemala City on March 23, 1982, shortly after overthrowing the government in a military coup.  Below, during his trial in Guatemala City, just after his defense team left the courtroom in protest (the top is an AP photo, the bottom from a blogger named Xeni Jardin).

To start off the grandstanding and legal machinations that took place this week, a group of 12 former officials (including two former vice-presidents and a number of negotiators from the 1996 peace agreement that ended the war) released a statement on Tuesday saying that if the trial resulted in charges of genocide against Rios Montt, the conviction would implicate the State of Guatemala in its entirety and risk creating serious dangers for the country, which the current president supported and offered to add his signature to as well.  On Thursday, Rios Montt’s lawyers requested that the trial be postponed due to pending decisions that still needed to be made by the Constitutional Court (the Guatemalan version of the Supreme Court), which relate to the preliminary proceedings that took place before the trial even began.  When their request was denied, the defendants’ entire legal team got up, made a dramatic statement about the legality of the trial, and walked out of the courtroom in a show of “peaceful resistance.”  Not long afterward, a judge who had initially been recused from the case by the Constitutional Court and recently reinstated, basically ruled that all actions taken since her stepping down (which took place during the preliminary proceedings) were null, rolling the case back to the pre-trial phase before Rios Montt was officially charged, where it stood in November of 2011 (at this point in the proceedings, a large group of Ixil Maya women silently got up and left the room).  This was immediately followed by the Attorney General’s declaration that the first judge’s annulment of the case was an “illegal ruling” and that her office would act immediately to reverse the ruling.  Another judge also rejected the ruling to annul the proceedings, but they have now been officially suspended and await a review by the Constitutional Court, which is supposed to reach a decision on the matter by May 3.



Photos from Alain Keler (top) and the AP (bottom) show scenes from massacres between 1982-1983, the period when Rios Montt intensified military operations against indigenous Maya communities in northern and western Guatemala.

Complications and delays are typical, if not expected, in Guatemala, particularly when it comes to legal or bureaucratic matters.  What makes these particularly infuriating and unacceptable, however, is that this trial has already been a long time coming and an uphill battle, to say the very least, for the prosecution, international legal and human rights groups, and, most importantly, the survivors and other witnesses.  This case was originally brought against Rios Montt in the Spanish National Court (which allows for prosecution of international crimes such as piracy and terrorism, in addition to genocide) in 1999, but Guatemala’s Constitutional Court rejected the arrest warrant and extradition order from Spain, leaving the case still pending.  The case against Rios Montt within Guatemala was brought forth in 2001, but the former dictator had slid into a position as a Congressman after the war and was granted impunity until he resigned from Congress in January of last year.  Even now, with the proceedings finally underway, the trial’s coverage is restricted to events that occurred between 1982-1983 (some witnesses have already had their testimonies edited to remove described atrocities that occurred in either 1981 or 1984).  It is further limited to 15 massacres against the Ixil Maya populations in the highlands of Guatemala during that time, which resulted in 1,771 deaths, the forced displacement of 29,000 people, sexual violence against at least 8 women, and the torture of at least 14 people.  A second case will be heard separately in relation to a massacre at a town called Dos Erres in the Peten region, where an entire town and its 201 inhabitants were obliterated as part of the Guatemalan Army’s scorched earth campaigns under Rios Montt during the 1982-1983 period (if anyone’s interested, the NPR program This American Life did an entire episode about the massacre at Dos Erres, which you can listen to here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/465/what-happened-at-dos-erres).


Another AP photo showing a woman and her child in a refugee camp in Mexico in November of 1982.

Aside from the legal setbacks to the trial, bringing the case has involved great risks for those associated – witnesses, prosecutors, and judges have all been threatened.  In December of last year, one of the prosecutors from the Attorney General’s team was murdered.  Ex-military witnesses have had to testify via video-conference from undisclosed locations, wearing hats with brims and sunglasses to hide their faces. 


An Ixil Maya woman helps another adjust a set of headphones that provide instant translation, allowing the mainly Ixil-speaking attendants to follow the Spanish-language trial (photo by Xeni Jardin).

Perhaps most importantly, however, over 100 indigenous Ixil survivors have come forward to tell their stories publicly, some for the first time in thirty years.  With the aid of interpreters, men and women have described not only the horrific acts their entire families murdered in front of them, their houses burned, their crops destroyed, and their animals slaughtered, but the subsequent years spent hiding from the military in the mountains, where many more members of their communities died from starvation or sickness, in refugee camps in Mexico, or as forced members of civilian patrols responsible for offering up remaining members of their community to the military as scapegoats.  Women covered their faces with shawls and tried to avoid providing their names as they recounted seeing their husbands and children killed, being raped alongside daughters and nieces as young as twelve years old, and afterward being forced to cook a meal for the soldiers.  Younger men and women, who were small children during the conflict, told of being taken by soldiers in forced adoptions and given new identities by Spanish-speaking people.  One man related the story of how he and his two brothers were later reunited with aunts and uncles who had survived the attacks on their community, though in the twenty-two years since they were taken they had lost their ability to speak Ixil and no longer knew the customs of their family.  On cross-examination, the main defense attorney asked him: “But your life has been successful, no?”  The defense lawyers have repeatedly implied that the Ixil witnesses are lying in their testimonies, even asking outright whether they were paid to give their statements.  The main defense lawyer claims that the testimonies of the massacre survivors are too similar to be true, even though part of the evidence that distinguishes these events as genocide is the consistent pattern to the violence and the use of the same techniques, over and over again, which make it clear that the massacres are not individual groups of soldiers getting out of hand, but troops following orders.  When one woman said during her testimony that people should pay for the deaths of her husband, her family, and her community, one of the defense lawyers asked her during cross-examination how much she thought the blood of her husband was worth.  Many reporters and bloggers present during the trial have noted that a few people shed tears during their testimonies, but most wait until they are finished before breaking down in the hallway outside the courtroom.  If the trial is annulled, the men and women who have been brave enough to recount their horrors in public for the first time will have to stand up and do it all again.

Although the trial is a long-awaited opportunity for many to come forward with their stories and evidence, it is as much about the future as it is about what happened in the past.  Many young Guatemalans have been covering and commenting on the trial through social media websites, using the Twitter hashtag #sihubogenocidio (“#yesitwasgenocide”).  Young Ixil protesters chant and sing outside the courtroom, calling Rios Montt a murderer and demanding justice and truth. The trial is a rare chance for Guatemala to gain back a fraction of the faith that its people have lost in their government through years of persecution, violence, and corruption, but it is one that it looks like it’s about to be wasted.


Ixil youth protesters outside the courtroom.  Their signs read: “We young people have a right to know the truth” and “So that history never repeats itself” (another photo by Xeni Jardin).

Gestas You Won’t Be Seeing Those Alfombra Photos: Semana Santa (Part II)

Well, folks, the Semana Santa reenactments just got a little too real.  Looks like Dismas and Gestas (the two thieves crucified with Jesus) were out roaming the streets of Antigua and up to no good today – my camera was stolen (well, actually it was Tom’s camera, which makes me feel even worse about it), along with all the photos I took during the eight-hour long process as we created our very own alfombra in front of the Casa Herrera.

Unfortunately, this means I won’t be able to execute my blog post as planned and show the whole process of dyeing the sawdust, cutting out stencils, and actually building the carpet layer by layer.  Fortunately, however, I have a small back-up camera and several of the Study Abroad students and spectators took photos throughout the day and have offered to share them with me.

In the meantime, here are some choice examples from various processions over the past few weeks, so that you have an idea of what I mean by alfombra (in short: carpets of dyed sawdust, pine needles, flowers, and/or fruits and vegetables laid out ahead of the processions).  Ours was a little less religious (and a little shorter) but every bit as fabulous as the ones you see here, but now you’ll have to wait until I do some sharing and downloading for proof.

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Varieties of alfombras: dyed sawdust (left; Jesus’s head isn’t there yet, but he’s calming the storm), pine needles and flowers (center), and fruits and vegetables (right; notice the loaf of bread in the shape of a crocodile at the edge of the sawdust!).
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Indoor and outdoor alfombras.  On the left, people are waiting in line to visit Jesus Sepulcrado (entombed Jesus) in the Cathedral, while on the right the cucuruchos getting ready for their turns walk to the sides of the street to leave the carpet untouched for those carrying the anda.
And now, leaving all my valuables safely behind, I’m off to see Pontius Pilate sentence Jesus.  I’m hoping those thieves will get their due as well.

Holy Moly: Semana Santa in Antigua (Part I)

Before I dive into Antigua’s impressive and definitely blog-worthy Holy Week festivities, let me apologize for having not posted anything in two full months.  It’s not that the past eight weeks haven’t provided worthwhile material, but rather that there’s been too much going on and the potential blog posts and photos just keep piling up!  Antigua celebrated a small festival with free concerts and museum exhibits, I visited the beautiful restored colonial home of the Popenoe family, “The Fam” came down (which involved jungle tours of Tikal and Yaxha, bumpy boat rides across Lake Atitlan, zip-lining through coffee fincas, and LOTS of haggling for textiles, pottery, and any other souvenir you can think of), I visited the Kaqchikel Maya community of San Juan Comalapa (known as the “Florence of America” for its indigenous mural painting traditions) and participated in a ceremony with a Maya priest, and developed something of a boot problem thanks to the nearby leather artisan town of Pastores, not to mention the many guests and lecturers who have been swinging through the Casa Herrera as part of the Study Abroad program here.

Here’s a quick sample of some of those adventures, though each could have probably filled its own full post:


Free concerts in the Parque Central in Antigua


Tour of the Casa Popenoe, the restored colonial childhood home of Dr. Marion Popenoe de Hatch (a local archaeologist), whose father purchased and refurbished it while working for the United Fruit Company


Two-thirds of the Newman Sisters and Temple IV at Tikal


Lake Atitlan, looking decidedly less choppy than when we had to cross it the next afternoon


The fearless zip-lining ladies getting geared up and ready to go


Our driver for most of the family vacation, Don Lalo, also happened to own a workshop where a few older men weave tablecloths, dishtowels, aprons, and other fabrics on traditional wooden looms


A visit to the textile museum in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, one of the towns near Antigua famous for their weaving traditions


The candle-making factory at the Hotel Santo Domingo, a ruined convent revamped into a 5-star hotel in Antigua


The number of souvenirs visible in this photo is probably close to what went back to the U.S. in the Nash/Newman suitcases


The Kaqchikel murals of San Juan Comalapa, the “Florence of the Americas”


Our contemporary Maya priest and the nearly complete preparations for the ceremony in San Juan Comalapa


Weaving lessons from the pros of San Antonio Aguas Calientes at the Casa Herrera


My custom-made boots from Pastores: traditional huipiles (women’s woven clothing) from San Pedro Sacatepéquez and red leather

And now on to the main event: Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Antigua.  Whether or not you’re one of the faithful, Holy Week here is nothing short of a spectacle (and one that can’t be ignored even if you wanted to – Antigua’s celebrations are said to be the largest ones in the Western Hemisphere).  All year, every year, cofradías (Catholic brotherhoods) from each of the churches in and around Antigua (of which there are many) prep and plan for the celebrations and processions to commemorate the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus.  Alongside the religious activities, Antigua comes alive with flowers and banners decorating the town, enticing street markets selling local foods and seasonal sweets, and a massive influx of thousands of both national and international tourists.  Although there are several different kinds of Holy Week events, including special masses, evening prayer vigils, candle services, and Eucharistic worship, the processions are the heart and soul of Semana Santa in Antigua.

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The street market in front of La Merced selling everything from mangos to meat to mariachi guitars

Holy Week officially began this past Sunday with Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos), but the processions have actually been taking place all throughout Lent (this is mainly for logistical reasons – if all the churches around Antigua tried to process during Holy Week, there would definitely be some collisions!).  During the processions, each church parades floats bearing effigies of religious figures (known as andas) along different routes through Antigua’s streets and back to the church.  All the processions include one anda for Jesus Nazareño (the cross-laden Jesus) and one for La Virgen de Dolores (a grieving Mary), but some also include smaller statues of Mary Magdalene and Saint John.  Men in purple robes (though they’ll be in black on Good Friday) carry the anda bearing Jesus, while women in white or black dresses follow behind carrying the anda with Mary.  Although serving as a cucurucho (the term for the men carrying Jesus) or cargadora (the term for the women carrying Mary) used to be a form of Lenten penance, performed with the face covered, it has been transformed into a special honor within church communities and men and women often pay significant amounts of money to carry the anda as it passes particularly popular viewing areas, such as the Parque Central or the Cathedral.


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Palm fronds made and sold in front of Antigua’s churches for Domingo de Ramos

Some of the most elaborate andas can weigh up to 8,000 pounds and require nearly 100 men to carry.  Due to the immense weight of the anda, each cuchurucho usually only carries for a block before switching out with another waiting bearer, though some people pay for multiple turns throughout the processions.  Many of the processions begin early in the morning, continue through the night, and return to their churches the next day, covering several miles.  There are also children’s processions, which include both older children who carry smaller versions of the church’s main andas and younger kids who simply walk along with the procession with their parents.

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Cucuruchos big, small, and teeny tiny

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Late night procession from La Merced – the anda and clouds of incense smoke are lit up thanks to the cucurucho with the job of wheeling a generator behind the procession 

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Children’s processions from La Merced (and their grown-up helpers)

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A cucurucho and cargadora that I don’t think will be all that helpful in carrying the andas…

The andas are the focal point of the processions, but they are actually in the middle of a much larger parade of people.  Ahead of the andas, a man carries an elaborate banner with the name of the church, another raises a sign to let the cucuruchos know when to change carrying turns during the procession, a few cucuruchos swing incense burneds loaded with copal, and family members follow the route alongside parents, siblings, or children as they shift in and out beneath the andas.  After Jesus and Mary pass, a band follows closely behind, playing a funeral march during each turn.  Behind the band, street vendors follow on the heels of the procession, hawking balloons, candy, hats, sunglasses, and even robes and gloves should a cucurucho come unprepared.  Finally, the clean-up crew takes up the rear of the procession, scooping up the sawdust, flowers, and pine needles of the elaborate alfombras (carpets) that local families create in the streets ahead of the processions.  All around, spectators and waiting cucuruchos fill the streets wherever the procession passes by.

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Post-procession party favors


The clean-up crew waiting for the andas to make one of their tight turns through the Antigua streets before they sweep up the sawdust, flowers, and pine needles of the alfombras

Antigua’s alfombras definitely merit their own blog post, so they’ll be “Part II” of my Semana Santa blogging (plus, I want to wait until tomorrow so I can include some photos of the one we’re making for the procession passing by the Casa Herrera!).  So stay turned – there’s more to come with alfombras tomorrow and Good Friday’s biblical reenactments, which are surely not to be missed – they’re raising Lazarus from the dead, Roman soldiers on horses will be looking for Jesus throughout Antigua, and Judas will be hung outside the main church…

Warmest Thanks!

It’s a little chillier than normal tonight in Antigua, so I’ve had to combine some of my recent Christmas presents in unusual, albeit stylish, ways.  While I know those of you in the frigid Midwest or Northeast will have little sympathy for my complaints about a dip down into the low fifties, I like think the lack of insulation and heating in the homes down here works kind of like a wind chill factor.  Regardless, I thought you might still enjoy my fashionable Guatemalan Geisha look:


Thank goodness Santa’s little elves stuffed my stockings so well!  Thanks Jeanne and Bink!


Correction: ¡Fuego! (Fire!)

If the New York Times can ask forgiveness for their errors every week, I think you’ll have to pardon one short, but necessary, correction to my earlier blog post.  First of all, don’t worry – I’m not talking about the Volcán de Fuego (though major points go to anyone who remembered the names of Antigua’s volcanoes from the last post and was duly concerned).  What I am talking about is my mistaken assumption that the fully-functional fireplaces in the kitchen, my bedroom, and the library of the Casa Herrera were just for show.  Turns out these chilly Antigua nights just got a little more delightful!


The Casa Herrera: My sweet new digs

Welcome to the Casa Herrera!

The Casa Herrera's enormous main courtyard.

View from the Casa Herrera’s entrance into its main courtyard.

This seventeenth-century mansion was originally the colonial home of the Herrera family and their centuries-old family business: the Grupo Pantaleón Sugar Holdings Company.  Grupo Pantaleón is not only the largest producer of sugar in Central America (and fourth largest exporter of the sweet stuff in the world), but, more recently, has also added ethanol production and investments in major shopping malls (three in Guatemala City, one in Honduras, and another in the works in Colombia) to its repertoire of commercial pursuits.  Nowadays, however, the Casa Herrera is a sort of satellite campus/research center operated by the University of Texas at Austin and my home away from home in Antigua for the next several months.  Get it?  My “sweet” new digs?

Some remnants from the Casa Herrera’s days as the center of Grupo Pantaleón’s sugar business. I particularly like the old safe in the righthand side of the photo.

A smaller courtyard off of the kitchen and dining room.  The spiral staircase leads up to a rooftop terrace with amazing views of Antigua and its surrounding volcanoes.

One of the house’s smaller courtyards.  This one is just off of the kitchen and dining room. The tree in the background is loaded with limes and the spiral staircase beyond leads up to a rooftop terrace with amazing views of Antigua and its surrounding volcanoes.


View of the volcanoes Acatenango and Volcán de Fuego (looking west) from the Casa Herrera’s rooftop terrace.


View of Volcán de Agua (to the south) from the Casa Herrera’s rooftop terrace.

If you can’t tell from the photos included thus far, this place is pretty swanky.  The original house was built around 1680, but once the Herrera family moved on to even bigger and better things, they had little use for the place and it fell into disrepair.  In 2008, however, the Fundación Pantaleón (a not-for-profit arm of the Grupo Pantaleón Sugar Holdings Company) completely renovated the Casa Herrera’s twenty-six rooms and loaned the house, more or less indefinitely, to UT Austin.  Conferences, seminars, workshops, and other events are held here throughout the year, as well as occasional English courses for locals and a semester-long study abroad program for undergraduates from the states.  And, most beneficial to yours truly, the Casa Herrera houses a Residential Scholars program for Master’s students, Ph.D. Candidates, and professors working on research and writing projects.  So, here’s where I will be for most of 2013, in a give-away mansion belonging to Guatemala’s upper echelon of elites, which is probably the nicest place I’ll ever live.


My loft bedroom.  That bed is loaded with four layers of blankets and the room has an additional space heater, because if it drops below 60 degrees in Antigua the locals start pulling out parkas and bracing for apocalyptic snows.

The downstairs area in my bedroom, which connects to the library.  The fireplace is just for show.

View from the upper level of my bedroom.  My room connects to the library through the doors on the left. The library is still underdeveloped, but has quite the collection of bootleg DVDs left behind by previous residents and students, ranging from Burlesque to the complete collection of The Wire.  The fireplace in the corner, unfortunately, seems to be just a decorative element nowadays.

Aside from the architecture and volcano views, staying at the Casa Herrera comes with lots of little perks that make life almost too easy (which I’m sure will disappoint those of you who imagine all my time in Guatemala to involve tents, latrines, and tomb raiding): an enormous, fully-equipped kitchen; a washer, dryer, and dishwasher; a dedicated office space; housekeeping several times per week; high-speed wireless internet; and guards at the front gate 24/7.  It’s also right in the center of Antigua, just a few blocks from the central plaza, the main cathedral, several banks, a grocery store/deli, and most other necessities.

The seemingly rustic but modernly equipped kitchen.  There's a wood-burning stove in the corner, but I think it's about as functional as the fireplace in my bedroom.

The aesthetically rustic but modernly equipped kitchen. There’s a wood-burning stove in the corner on the right side of the photo, but I think it’s about as functional as the fireplace in my bedroom.


My sparse, but spacious, office.


The courtyard view from my office desk. I’ve read that views of daylight and vegetation improve productivity and reduce mental and physical stress. Based on the relaxed tone of this blog post and the fact that I not only thought about writing it, but typed it out, inserted photos, and published it, I would say it’s working.

Of course, there are a few cons to the many pros of living here, but so far they are just strange quirks rather than actual annoyances.  For example, Fundación Pantaleón has cameras installed all over the house, so it can feel a little Big Brother-ish when I make my way to the kitchen in my pajamas in the morning (though I hear I should count myself lucky – apparently the cameras also recorded sound until former residents complained about having their personal conversations constantly overheard).  There is also supposedly a complete ban on alcohol inside the Casa Herrera, but the fact that wine glasses are the most abundant kitchen accoutrement suggests that might be a flexible rule.  Finally, even though having the guards at the front gate is comforting for security reasons, it’s a little strange since I’m the only resident in the Casa right now (though I’ll have a companion after Sunday).  I almost forget they are here (the guard station is on the opposite side of the main courtyard from my room) until I’m suddenly startled after dark by someone coming out of one of the house’s many rooms.  Sounds also echo easily throughout the cavernous Casa and across the open courtyard, especially at night when Antigua is fairly quiet.  A couple of times I’ve woken up in the middle of the night thinking someone is speaking to me, only to find it’s just one of the guards talking on his cell phone while making his nightly rounds.  Oh, and the place is supposedly haunted.  I have yet to witness a free floating, full torso, vaporous apparition, but I’ve only been here three nights.  If and when I do, I know who to call.


The Casa Herrera at night – tranquil and, except for guards and ghosts, empty.

So, for those of you who may be making a visit to Guatemala during my stay here, you can look forward to sneaking a glass of wine on the rooftop terrace and maybe catching a glimpse of the lava atop the active Volcan de Fuego (Volcano of Fire).  And for the rest of you, think of me when you put some sugar in your café in the morning and know I’m thanking you for it!

An Explanation: Sara(h)Guate and saraguates

I know that smell is supposed to be the strongest trigger for memories, but for me there are two sounds that epitomize Guatemala.  Since most of my time there has been spent divided almost equally between town (Antigua and Guatemala City) and country (the archaeological site of El Zotz and its surrounding jungles), it seems fitting that one of these two auditory stimuli represents each of those very different places.

The first is the distinctive cry of the ayudante (assistant) aboard any of the dozens of Chicken Buses (revamped American school buses used for transport between communities) bound from Antigua to Guatemala City daily.  The ayudante leans out the front doors of the bus yelling “¡Guate! ¡Guate!” (short for Guatemala City), jumps down to tear baggage from the hands of waiting passengers and hurl it into the rack atop the bus, and hops back aboard just before the bus rolls on and leaves behind its characteristic cloud of acrid black smoke.


A colorful crowd of Chicken Buses in Antigua. Tom and I once took one of these from Chetumal, Mexico to Belize City, Belize (a journey that took an unexpected six hours). That bus still had signs posted along the interior, warning that any behavioral problems would be reported directly to Principal Stevens (unfortunately for us, either “behavioral problems” are cultural conventions or the threat had lost some of the intimidation factor).

The second is the ear-splitting, unmistakable roar of the saraguates (howler monkeys). Trying to capture that racket in writing is impossible, but fortunately National Geographic has done that for me (see the video below).  What NatGeo or Planet Earth still fail to convey, however, is the incredulity of hearing that sound echo through the thickness of the jungle and seeing the tiny critter responsible for it (I truly thought I was about to be eaten by a jaguar the first time I heard it) or the test of sanity it provides when you unknowingly place an excavation beneath a family of howlers’ favorite tree and they spend all day, every day, trying to convince you to move.

I realize I haven’t sold these as particularly pleasant aural experiences, but, at least for me, they are singularly representative of the two different, but complementary, halves of the whole of Guatemala I have come to know so far.  So, to explain my word play in this blog’s title (because it’s always a good sign when a joke requires an explanation), I hope these updates of Sarah in ¡Guate! might evoke Guatemala for those of you reading this as much as the saraguates do for me.