Saturday, April 05, 2014

Back in Playa

Ah, Playa. One has so much to choose from when it comes to getting a souvenir for that special person back home. 

Anyway, here I was just about to start writing my magnum opus on all the ways Mexico and Mexicans get right up my nose*, when I arrived back here in Playa for the umpteenth time in 26 years and then suddenly all seemed well again with the world. 

The layers of tack keep getting laid down, one on top of the other. This time I note that since I was last here in June '13 one of my favourite sections of the Quinta has been demolished in its entirety and further up towards Constituyentes there's a really ugly new mall selling $90 plastic flip-flops. 

And yet still, I cannot find it in me to hate this town. 

* Not the food, I hasten to add. 

True Detective

Not sure I liked the way this wound up, especially Rust's epiphany. It seemed to be heading down the familiar James Lee Burke route - Louisiana as America's eschatological dumping ground, where unholy alliances between child molesters, soul-less capitalists, evangelical bullies and corrupt old southern dynasties form with the regularity of storm fronts. 

But then it sort of veered off into Texas Chainsaw Massacre territory. Frankly Reggie the Douche or whatever his name was, would have made a better principal nasty, though really the problem here was that the narrative was really about the mismatched relationship between the two guys from CID. They called the other cops Suck and Fuck, but were at times better deserving of the names themselves. 

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Isla Aguada

Soggy Island. 

Old school Yucatán; off-the-grid: no credit cards, no wi-fi, and no decent coffee, anywhere. 

I used to find these sort of locations relaxing. Nowadays there's hardly anywhere more stressful! 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Vendiendo el alma de El Panorama

En mi opinión, es obvio que quien permita la instalación de ésta antena en su propia vivienda le vale un rábano lo siguiente...

  • Los valores, respeto y sentimientos ajenos

  • El medio ambiente

  • El bienestar de su propia familia, sus amigos, conocidos y la comunidad en general

  • La salud de los niños en los colegios y hogares en sus alrededores

  • El esfuerzo constante del vecindario para mejorar y mantener el valor de sus propiedades

  • Más de tres décadas de empeño comunitario con el desarollo considerado de la colonia 

  • Convertirse en eterna persona non grata en su comunidad

  • La vigilancia del Consejo Nacional Para la Protección de La Antigua Guatemala en preservar el aspecto bello de ésta ciudad y el polígono protegido dentro de cual han ubicado ésta monstruosidad de acero

  • Quienes le hicieron una lavada de cerebro también quizás tratarán de lavarse las manos sin consciencia alguna

  • Y así, la posibilidad de hundirse solito a sí mismo con las consecuencias de tal contrato. 

El Panorama sin sus paisajes especiales sería como Bosques sin árboles or Jardines sin flores. 

Si existe el Infierno, habrá un lugar especial dentro del mismo  y más profundo aún del nivel reservado para los materialistas, los altaneros y los testarudos   en dónde seguramente terminan los desalmados. 

Irónicamente, pareciera que te lleva al cielo...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

El Renegado

Gonzalo Guerrero, as the better-informed Mexican schoolchild will tell you, was the father of the first mestizo

What they might not add is that Ixmo, the first-born daughter of this Spaniard himself born around 1470 in Palos de la Frontera (Huelva) ended up being sacrificed at Chichen Iztá in order that the Mayan deities might go a bit easier on the locusts * 

Reports of Guerrero's early career show little signs of the coming apostasy. He participated as an arcabucero in the conquest of Granada in 1492 and then left for Naples. With his fortune still unmade, he subsequently decided to cross the Atlantic, ending up at the Darien colony in what is now Panama. 

On August 15th 1511 he boarded a ship bound for Santo Domingo. One reason the Maya had singularly failed to branch out further into the Caribbean is that the seas between the Yucatán and Jamaica are more than occasionally treacherous with strong north-south currents. And so it was that a sudden storm in this very space put an end to Guerrero's voyage and he ended up on a raft with twenty other survivors, eighteen men and two women, including the captain Valdivia, regidor to Núñez de Balboa

Only eight were still alive when the raft washed up on the Riviera Maya. Unfortunately the welcoming party consisted of the notoriously non-pacific Cocom tribe who immediately halved that number by sacrificing four of them - Valdivia included - and then deposited the remainder in a cage and proceeded to fatten them up with a view to repeating the ceremony in the near future. 

Somehow the quartet escaped and made their way to Xaman-Há aka Playa del Carmen, then run by Taxmar, cacique of the Tutul Xiúes. 

The chief gave them to a sacerdote and general so-and-so called TeohomTwo were duly worked to death, leaving just Guerrero and a Catholic priest called Gerónimo de Aguilar

Taxmar felt sorry for the pair and had them removed from Teohom's residence. Guerrero repaid the chief's compassion by making himself handy as a military advisor - Taxmar duly defeated the Coco Bongo Cocomes using an ancient Macedonian-style phalanx and then gifted his new prize asset to to Na Chan Can, headman of the Cheles** in Ichpaatún (north of the bay of Chetumal). 

Guerrero was assigned to the tribe's leading warrior Balam and achieved a near equality of status after saving his mentor from a caimán and then leading the Cheles to many victories of the flowery sort. Needless to say, he was starting to go native with only his untended beard still a bit of a give-away on his now thoroughly tattooed and pierced person. He married Na Chan Can's daughter Zazil-Há and started Mexico's first mestizo family. 

Meanwhile, Gerónimo de Aguilar was less prone to aculturation; being a celibate man of the cloth he chose not take a Mayan wife.

In 1519 Cortés landed on Cuzamil (Cozumel) and heard rumours about two Mayan-speaking compatriots over on the mainland. According to a member of his expedition, Bernal Díaz de Castillo - future mayor of La Antigua Guatemala and ancestor of the brewers of Cerveza Gallo - the conquistador imagined that the pair would both jump at the chance of rescue after eight years of living rough and would no doubt also immediately sign up as translators. 

Gerónimo de Aguilar did, but his former shipmate decided not to give up his life as a Mayan warlord, helping his adopted people repulse various Spanish expeditions to the peninsula. The well-organised resistance met by Francisco de Montejo at Champotón in May 1527 is also suggestive of tactical nous that Guerrero instilled in the townships of the Yucatán. 

In 1536 Gonzalo Guerrero's days as traitorous thorn in the side of the Spanish empire came to an end beside the river Ulúa in Honduras. He had come to the aid of the cacique of Ticamaya, then under attack from an offshoot of Pedro de Alvarado's invasion force led by Lorenzo de Godoy. Wounded at first by an arrow that pierced his navel, el renegado was finished off, rather ironically, by an arquebus. 

* That's her at the back of the group in the statue, tugging rather plaintively on her mother's skirt. 

They might also fail to mention of course that he was almost certainly the first European hippy to visit Playa del Carmen. 

** My cat Osli has a chronic case of cheles

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Hairy Bikers' Asian Adventure

The Hairy Bikers, aka David Myers of Cumbria and Si King of Geordie-land, have already established an audience across the pond via The History Channel. So its hardly surprising that the BBC has decided to kowtow a bit to the North Americans in this new 'Asian Adventure' series - for example, by labeling Burma as Myanmar on the illustrative maps. 

One might suppose that our former-colonial cousins might struggle at times with the northern English accents that the intrepid and hirsute pair bring to the table, but the Beeb have stopped short of providing subtitles...except when Myers suddenly essays a Brummie accent, thereby taking the verbal obfuscation to the next level. 

For balance, an English-speaking member of a Thai hill tribe was also later subjected to the humiliation of encoded captions. 

Tecs Mecs

The more I think about it the more cross I am with AA Gill for describing Mexican food as 'just nappies'. In many ways this is worse than the infamous 'sick with cheese on it' remark made by Richard Hammond on Top Gear. 

It's true that a lot of what goes for Mexican grub internationally, especially in Europe, ultimately derives from the northern deserts and admittedly does tend to resemble stodgy cowboy fuel, over-relying on flour, cheese and pinto beans. 

But what of the food one encounters further south in the area with deeper links to ancient cultures of Mexico - Aztecs, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Toltecs, Olmecs, even the wretched Chichimecs. 

Lets call this Tecs-Mecs as opposed to Tex-Mex. This is a culinary heritage that has shared big ticket ingredients like avocado, tomato, chilli, chocolate and corn with the rest of us. It surely remains the basis of one of the world's great original cuisines. 

Still not convinced? Well try some of the great moles of Oaxaca and Puebla. Or if one is still a tad risk-averse to Mexican streetfood (I'd have to admit that a pozol in Chiapa de Corzo nearly killed me) then have a mosey around this rather enticing menu from the Casa de Oaxaca, Nappies? I think not. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mirrors and beads

It is practically axiomatic that the sixteenth century colonisation of this neck of the woods was a sort of cynical con-trick carried out by dastardly Iberian desperados, who erupted into the naïve Edenic paradise then inhabited by the American natives and 'traded their tiny mirrors and beads for all the wealth available in gold, silver and precious metals and stones.'

How much truth is there in this version of events? Not a great deal I would say. In the specific local case of Mesoamerica the initial cataclysm was more akin to a confrontation between two ruthless imperial powers, in which tactics and microbes ultimately made all the difference. 

We tend to forget that Mesoamerican society at that time was remarkably similar to that of late medieval Europe in terms of its social stratification and inequitable sophistication. 

Seville, then the largest city in Spain was but a quarter of the size of Mexico-Tenochtitlán. The rich of this city had a fairly diverse diet while the poor had to make do with around three pounds of maize a day, ground into tortillas. While there was near-universal education, the high-born had exclusive access to special schools called calmécac. If this is a "lost way of being human", it is nevertheless a familiar one. 

Only members of the nobility - the pipiltín - could drink chocolate or wear cotton. Sumptuary laws further specified that the upper classes alone could use glazed pottery or could sport cloaks that hung below the knee and that the poor had to shed their sandals when in the presence of their social superiors. 

The bulk of the population of old Mexico were labourers characterised as macehual, most of whom had right of access to a specific plot of land which they could pass on to their children. They tended to be organised into calpulli, a cross between a clan and a guild, but in the last century before the arrival of the Spaniards the growing wealth and entrenched power of the elite had started to diminish the influence of these collectives. 

The second largest group, roughly a third of the population - were mayeques, a class equivalent to the European serfs who spent their days working on land that belonged to someone else. Poets described them as 'bumblebees' that buzzed around at the edge of public celebrations waiting for the customary handouts of maize stew*.

It is believed that many of the mayeques were descendents of people that had been living in the valley of Mexico before the comparatively brutish Aztecas of Aztlán showed up. Those not thus subsumed into Mexican society were often forced to devote their best fields for growing produce for the metropolis in a manner that forshadowed the Chinese land grab in contemporary Africa. 

Drunkenness among urban labourers was reportedly on the increase in spite of a strict law that decreed death for two-time offenders. Only grandparents over 70 were exempt. The young and the poor were theoretically prohibited pulque except at certain festivals. Adultery was also a capital offence. 

The Mexica's use of a 360-day calendar - the Xiuhupohualli - meant there was a section of the population born on one of the five apparently useless days in the solar year who were basically considered doomed from birth. (And if you were born on the day of 2-Rabbit you were probably even more screwed.) 

By far the worst aspect of being at the bottom of the social ladder in old Mexico was that in the early sixteenth century this was increasingly likely to mean death on the sacrificial block. During the period of military expansion a hundred years earlier under bellicose deputy-emperor Tlacaelel, it was more usually battle captives who were picked to perish under the obsidian knife (actually flint, because obsidian is brittle and thus better as a metaphor). Then, as imperial rule settled into a more stable pattern, tributes - often children - were sent by the subjugated to be sacrificed. But Huitzilopochtli grew ever greedier for blood, and so the numbers had to be made up by ripping out the hearts of Tenochtitlán's own plebs - all of them sold the dubious 'espejito' of thus departing for Omeyocan, the VIP paradise reserved for those who died the 'flowery death' and not Mictlan, the grey airport lounge of annihilation occupied by more conventional cadavers. 

The Nahuatl word for sacrifice, nextlaoaliztli, means act of payment, and in old Mexico, as in old Castile, a key aspect of being outside the elite was not being fiscally-exempt, yet here there was the additional anxiety that one's own person could form part of the tribute system. 

So, one has to ask, were the dirt poor indigenas of these parts really having it so good before the bearded men from the east arrived? 

 Remind anyone of posadas today?


Monday, March 24, 2014


Notorious Welsh-baiter AA Gill took aim again at one of his perennial targets in this weekend's Sunday Times magazine: Japanese food. In this he has quite a lot of previous - as the excerpts from his Table Talk column below seem to attest - and perhaps one can also detect some early inspiration for those infamous remarks made on Top Gear about Mexican food by his pals Jeremy Clarkson and co...

“How can you call yourself a food critic if you don’t like Japanese?” Well, I just don’t feel it. I admire its dexterity and the commitment and obsession of its production. I can follow it, I know what it’s meant to be like; but food has to come with an emotion, a history, a sense of a people or place. It has to have a story, and this one doesn’t translate. I don’t get it from Japanese dinner, it’s a no-play of posing. I’ve noticed the Westerners who want to eat Japanese are generally those who don’t like or trust food — women who think nothing tastes as good as thin feels, and a plate of sashimi and a bowl of miso is indeed what thin tastes of. (Yesterday) 

Although I admire Japanese food, I can't warm to it. I rarely yearn for it, and can barely raise an eyebrow over particularly fatty belly tuna. It's never going to be my soul food. I know that my experience is not of the same order as that of the Japanese man next to me. Every time I watch a sushi chef in a chic western bar, I think: "Pearls before swine." But Japanese food has become the Lego of urban eating out, and as the maki rolls grow fatter and sloppier and more like seaweed wraps, and the sushi gets additional mayo and bacon, I respect it less and less. (2006)

The staff are Japanese and speak very, very softly in English that might have been crossed with birdsong or wind chimes. Every time I bawled “I can’t hear what you’re saying,” they ran off with their hands over their mouths in horror, possibly imagining that I’d said I was going to eat them all with chopsticks. (2013) 

You know Japanese food: bits of very rare, very expensive indefensible fish, rice, green horseradish, seaweed and uncomfortable chairs. Well, haven’t you ever wondered where they keep the real stuff? (2013)

There is a Japanese version — isn’t there always? It’s the thing with the Japanese. You ask them to explain their culture and they say: “You yoghurt-smelly, clumsy round-eyes with sens-ibility of meat, you wouldn’t understand illegible calligraphy, or one-flower arranging, or a musical instrument that’s a single-string tennis racket, or how anyone could possibly cheat at sumo wrestling.” (2013) 

Japan's is a fish- and rice-based cuisine. A Japanese person may go for months without eating meat. There are plenty of communities that survive on staple fish, but I can't think of one as numerous, advanced or ravenous. The Japanese gastronomy is more at risk from collapsing stocks than any other. Overfishing will have a dramatic effect on the culture, so sticking a Japanese restaurant next to a meat market might look like being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or it might be missionary work. (2006) 

Brazilian food is large, generous and sloppy, with masses of meat, chilli beans and palm oil, and Japanese, well, Japanese is like neurotic fish origami. (2009) 

Japan is the only country I've ever been to that wants tourists not to understand what they are looking at. It thinks people who aren't born Japanese are psychologically, intellectually, spiritually and aesthetically incapable of understanding their culture. (2006) 

Because of the Fukushima meltdown, all ingredients from Japan have to be guaranteed radiation-free. That’s tough with fish because they don’t live where they’re landed, and meaty, predatory fish eat other fish. Then take something like hon dashi, a stock made with dry tuna flakes. Where did they come from? The bureaucratic fag of getting certificates isn’t worth it for some Japanese exporters. So they’re passing the stuff through Korea. Korea is fine, no problem with Korea. Unless you’re Korean, of course, when you’ll be eating mud and hair. (2011)

Take Japanese food...the most neurotic, lonely and unhappy stuff - it's like eating obsessive-compulsive disorder. (2003) 

One of the best things about writing about food is that it cures you of any gastro-xenophobia, except, of course, for Mexican food, which is just nappies, and Korean food, which tastes the way their presidents look. (2012) 

This being the southwest, I had to eat Mexican food. As usual, my pitiful pleading was brushed aside with the argument that I had never had good Mexican. As usual, I countered that the only good Mexican is a regurgitated Mexican. (2005)

Virtually the only exception to the "never eat Spanish" rule is restaurants outside Spain - unless they're in Mexico, in which case they're twice as bad. (2006)

If you’ve ever eaten in Sacramento, Guatemala or St Barts, you’ll know it’s not to be recommended. Neither is eating any­thing in the rainforest or the demi-edens of central Asia or Anatolia. You wouldn’t invite friends for a gastro weekend to Madagascar, or the Great Karoo in South Africa. In fact, I would offer Uzbekistan and Madagascar as two of the worst places to eat in the world (2012) 

Here's a book recommendation for anyone who tends to agree with him. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dragons' Den, Chapin-style

Hello Dragons, 

I'm here today to ask for a randomly large amount of money in exchange for a 0% equity stake in my new business idea, a whole load of aggravation. I say 'my' new business idea, but in fact it is really my neighbour's, and he seems to be doing irritatingly well out of it. As there's nothing stopping me blatantly copying him, I fancy having a big car just like his as soon as I - I mean you - can afford it. I anticipate that turnover should be sufficient in the first year for me to concentrate on paying for private luxuries over say, overheads or suppliers' bills, or indeed, God forbid, reinvesting in the business, but costs should be kept fairly low - at least in the short term - because I plan on employing various good-for-nothing members of my family in key roles. Any questions?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A ceviche recipe which isn't kosher

I can always rely on finding something in Revue to give me the Grumpy Cat face. This month it was Amalia's recipe for ceviche de pescado

Firstly, is there really a need to describe any chile in Guatemala as 'Thai'? Back in the days before the Maya swapped chili-peppers for smallpox, the food over there in South East Asia must have been bland, bland, bland. 

But before I could get really worked up about that, along comes 'Kosher Salt'. 

From the perspective of correct Jewish diet, all salt is Kosher* This little misnomer however originates in the use of very thick grained salt to remove blood from the meat of animals that have had their throats cut ritually and left to bleed out in agony. 

Being suited for this kind of desiccation makes it potentially less than ideal for a dish like ceviche - which usually features a limited quantity of liquid - as it will almost certainly fail to dissolve. 

So why has it been included here? Well, these days many menus and recipes are plagued with utterly superfluous adjectives, deployed to accentuate the exotic in what might otherwise come across as generic. Just place the word Madagascan in front of Vanilla Ice Cream and you'll see what I mean. 

So-called Kosher salt also has fewer additives (such as iodine) than ordinary table salt and so its use here might be analagous to 'organic' other words conveying the smug 'I don't shop at the Bodegona' premium of the harder to find and the supposedly ethical-healthy alternative. 

Both rationales may be in play here, especially as a few swigs of olive oil are also deemed necessary for this particular ceviche variant: an example of the pointless Mediterraneanisation of everything that Jamie Oliver has made a career out of. As a general rule, the world's great standard dishes are rarely improved by being cheffed up in such unimaginative ways. Olive oil in ceviche? Just don't.

* Unlike say, all forms of ceviche...

Wednesday, March 05, 2014


For someone of my generation there is something reassuring about this sudden resurgence of near-forgotten east-west showdowns. How cheering indeed to see John McCain urging us to recognise the contemporary relevance of hoary old stereotypes, whilst of course lacking the self-awareness to realise that he might have been talking about himself. And what a relief to see the nation which once blithely and with utter impunity invaded neighbours like Panama and Grenada turning the strategic hypocrisy levels back up to full. 

Having twice visited the good ol' CCCP in the mid-eighties I find it hard not to feel almost warmly nostalgic about that unreconstructed empire. This new Russia, a nation of dangerously misplaced illusions ('First we learned that everything the communists told us about communism was untrue and then we learned that everything the capitalists had to say about capitalism was untrue...') has been rather harder let off the hook. But now we have McCain out there to remind us that Putin* is nothing less than a former KGB colonel and that Mitt Romney was right after all, and suddenly this century's seemingly intractable geopolitical discombobulation is resolved back into the simple polarities of yesteryear...

*What is it about Yanks and their terminal vowel sounds? Ramón is delivered as Ramoan, but Putin gets a Mayan glottal stop and becomes Poot'n. 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

La Hora Chapina

The Guatemalan approach to timekeeping has been a source of both frustration and occasional wonder to me. In this series of short extracts from his essay In Praise of Unpunctuality, legendary Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski goes a long way to setting my mind at rest on this matter...

"In making my promise I also make my decision, thereby depriving myself of the freedom to choose between the two possibilities before me...His expectations will be rational only if he knows that I am punctual; only then can one say of me that I failed to fulfil expectations...Thus, assuming the rationality of all the agents involved, only the person who notoriously fulfils the expectations of others as to his punctuality can fail to fulfil those expectations; only someone who is notoriously punctual can turn out to be unpunctual. To say of someone that he is ‘notoriously unpunctual’ is therefore absurd. The initial definition given above therefore characterizes an empty set, for it is self-contradictory; an ‘ingrained regular habit of failing to fulfil people’s expectations’ etc is an impossible phenomenon...Simple logic compels us to the conclusion that un-punctuality cannot be anything other than an extremely rare and exceptional occurrence.

"The benefits of unpunctuality are manifold, both for individuals and for society as a whole...First, unpunctuality does much to inculcate the habit of logical thought. For if our expectations regarding people’s future behaviour, expectations based on repeated empirical evidence of connections between their behaviour and their promises regarding it, were fulfilled in every case without exception, our illusory faith in the infallibility of ordinary numerical induction would be strengthened, and our ability to guard against the disappointment to which expectations based on induction of this kind might give rise correspondingly weakened...If the conviction of the fallibility of reasoning based on purely numerical induction is to take firm root in our minds, our experience must provide the phenomenon of unpunctuality in the above sense.

"Second, unpunctuality confers benefits of a moral nature. If our faith in the stability of the connections between people’s states of consciousness (expressed in their declarations) and their behaviour were confirmed in every case without exception, our faith in free will would be destroyed, and we would be forced to conclude that people’s actions are entirely predictable. By the same token we would stop treating other people as genuine moral agents...believing that human behaviour is utterly predictable entails failing to believe that people are responsible for their actions. Lacking any grounds for believing in the responsibility of other people, compelled by logic to treat them like machines with no will of their own, we would have no reason to hold their unpunctuality against them and berate them for it. Moreover, if everyone without exception was always punctual, unpunctuality could not be condemned as a bad habit. And since the condemnation of people who are un-punctual curbs or at least in large measure reduces their unpunctuality, the lack of this restraining influence would lead to a dangerous increase in the habit of unpunctuality among the population.

"Thus unpunctuality is essential if punctuality is to exist. In other words, unpunctuality is a necessary condition for combating unpunctuality – not because there would be nothing to combat if it did not exist, but because if it did not exist, it would assume dimensions which would make it impossible to defeat; its spread would be uncontrollable. A pedant might question the validity of this argument by pointing out that it concerns only relations between people who are assumed to be rational agents. For only rational agents would refrain from expecting punctuality until they had repeated evidence, over a long period of time, of connections between other people’s promises and their later behaviour. But what if there are people who expect punctuality without legitimate grounds, thoughtlessly, for no good reason whatsoever? Then the whole argument will be undermined. This objection can be answered as follows: if there are such people, then unpunctuality becomes even more beneficial, indeed virtuous, for it will be just punishment for their intellectual sluggishness, lack of logic and groundless expectations. It would be our duty to flaunt our unpunctuality before such people as often as possible, on a grand scale, enthusiastically and without restraint. Thus among rational agents unpunctuality is highly beneficial. Among non-rational agents it is equally beneficial, though for different reasons. Ergo. . ."

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Pietr the Latvian

For me there have always been two Parises: the abrasive, permanently on-the-edge environment where something might kick off at any moment - the Paris of my own experience - and the romantic and artistic hotspot that has consistently lured Americans in their droves since the end of WWI. 

The latter version of Paris was given its most recent reboot by Woody Allen. Picasso's biography would seem to indicate that there was considerable overlap between these apparently alternate renderings in the early part of the last century, but one slightly fanciful interpretation of Midnight in Paris would be that it sets out to expose the tendency of contemporary American visitors to commence time-travelling inside their heads the moment they arrive in the French capital. 

And as Allen suggests, the Paris of the American imagination is still swaddled in the glamour of the Jazz Age. I had been willing to concede that this Paris - although now preserved largely only through its residual physical representations rather than living human culture - was real enough back then. Which is why my discovery of Simenon's first Maigret novel, Pietr the Latvian, has been so revelatory. He shows us Paris in the late 1920s and it is every bit as rude, seedy and racially combustive as the city we see in Engrenages and many other more au courant native representations of the city. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Homeland Season Three Finale

Nicholas Brody was an amateur adrift in a world of professionals who act like amateurs. As a convert to Islam, he was some way from being an American everyman, but he was at least a freelance dodgy decision-maker, and thus his ethical contortions have tended to carry more dramatic weight than those of the characters working within organisations. Carrie has her vulnerabilities, but remains a career spook. If there is a deeper meaning behind this thriller format, it is that the beliefs we hold about the world lead us into startling moral compromises. Without Brody, Homeland may struggle to recreate the immediacy of this moral jeopardy when the key protagonists are all under orders.

Peter Quinn, that other long-range marksman with existential issues has therefore offered both parallels and contrasts with the former Marine sniper. Saul's function has been to be the man on the fence, essentially decent, but capable of suddenly slipping off either side of the ethical divide given the circumstances.

Yet perhaps the showmakers were right to think Brody had been exhausted dramatically, that the story could either end here or continue without him. They seemed to be experimenting with viewer interest levels in a Brodie-less Homeland when the first few episodes of season three excluded him - though not without his soap opera family, perhaps another reason why they thought the programme might be better off without him...and Dana!

And the sexual/romantic chemistry between Brody and Carrie has been a big gaping absence in the show from the start. There's clearly more going on under the radar between Carrie and Quinn.

Anyway, the opening credits appear to have been subtly tweaked to suggest that this is Carrie's story, with Brody and the whole Middle Eastern mess now merely subordinate.

Going forward, there are loose ends everywhere, many of which could be worked up into new story directions.

While one has to presume that the scriptwriters have long given up on the idea of holding Carrie to account for her role in the death of the Vice President, season one teased us with the possibility of a mole in the CIA. The conclusion of season two and commentary by Majid Javardi in season three then further alluded to inside collusion in the Langley bombing. So perhaps now a new antagonist will emerge for Carrie to fixate on?

The trouble is that the second season ended with very few speaking characters alive at Langley other than Saul and Carrie, so the double-agent may have to be a relative newcomer and therefore, frankly, a dramatic risk.

Saul's masterplan looks a lot less masterful under close examination. If the Iranians knew that Brody played no part in the car bomb attack, they would have had reasons to be suspicious, and even more so when he suddenly decided to kill the general. The would surely have asked themselves if this was anything more than a random act of violence. Meanwhile, after the assassination was announced by major western news networks, the CIA would surely have had some explaining to do. We were never given a chance to see what kind of coverage - and more to the point, redemption - came Brody's way after he completed his mission.

It was a little cheeky of the show's writers to tie back Saul's stratagem to the recent deal with Iran, especially as real-life events as one stage seemed set to overtake them rather awkwardly.

The part I really couldn't buy however was the way that Saul, as director of the agency, had no direct line to the President. Indeed, he seemed almost cut adrift from all the politicians except the man who was after his job. One call to the Oval Office elaborating on how Lockhart had turned traitor, passing classified info on the CIA Director's laptop to Mossad, would have removed him from the picture permanently, with no concomitant public exposé of Saul's wife's infidelity. 

A few more things we learned in this season of Homeland...

  • Majid Javardi might have done in his wife using a broken bottle, yet somehow Andrew Lockhart remains more deserving of an icky end 
  • But of course it is still Dana that we'd have liked to have seen swinging from that crane in the main square of Tehran. 
  • Bonkers Carrie has been explored to the limit now...please.
  • The CIA are not allowed to conduct operations on American soil, yet when seem able to do so more competently there than abroad
  • Caracas looks fun. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013


The production and consumption system depicted here in the movie Samsara emerges out of a much broader range of societal and ethical dispositions than most of us are perhaps prepared to acknowledge. I certainly doubt whether our food choices alone could foster a world like this. 

It used to be jarring to rub up against dogmatic vegetarians or vegans working in the consumer marketing industry. It didn't seem to have occurred to most of them that their unilateral opt-out at the supermarket might not actually be helping all that much, or indeed that their professional activities might actually be making things worse. Yet one could even say that just by living in a big, modern mega-city one tolerates, and to some extent promotes, this sort of food production. 

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Real Guatemala?

I've been musing about Rudy's assertion that Ciudad Vieja and Jocotenango belong within the boundaries of real Guatemala, whereas La Antigua, most definitely lies outside of it. He has promised to expound further on this geography of artifice in a future post, but I suspect it will be hard to pen without lapsing into a form of inverted snobbery. 

If one buys into the Guatemala as 'land of contrasts' paradigm, then a town full of lower-middle class tradesmen, homogenised both in terms of socio-economics and ethnicity, is hardly the nation in microcosm. 

I could point out that here in San Pedro El Panorama by contrast we run the full Guatemalan social gamut, from ostentatious oligarchs to families living in highly provisional wood and lamina huts. But then we don't actually have a functioning indigenous community, or indeed a Garifuna village (though one mustn't forget the good folk down the road at the Pelícano Dorado!) 

But, you might counter, surely La Antigua is not the real Guatemala in much the same way that Cancún and Playa del Carmen are not the real Yucatán? Well yes, and no. Cancún and Playa were small, comparatively insignificant townships which hypertrophied the moment they connected with the global economy. La Antigua experienced a similar encounter with an essentially alien tipping point, but the subsequent metastasis was circumscribed thanks to the colonial city's peculiar history as abandoned capital and latterly protected monument - so that the unreal or at least non-aboriginal aspects of life here have been superimposed on the autochthonous ones, and have not entirely displaced them. 

It was perhaps an exaggeration on Rudy's part to suggest that all the original locals have fled to the burbs, priced out by greedy gringos and capitalinos in search of a comfy weekend pad. Over the years I have got to know many Antigueños, of varied social backgrounds, who continue to live within the casco histórico and will readily claim that many generations of their families have done the same. A number have surrendered the fronts of their properties (shops, restaurants) in order to continue to reside in the space behind. La Antigua is a conservative town in much the same way that Cancún isn't. 

It is also apparent to me that many of the skilled craftsmen and small business owners residing in colonias like Jocotenango are migrants from other parts of the country that have apparently recognised this city for the node within the wider global network that it has palpably become. 

What we do most obviously have here are two parallel economic systems, with a virtual dollar pricing system tossed like a shroud over the more parochial one. Rudy himself markets his photographic images to this half-in, half-out clientele, at foreign currency rates, which only such 'unreal' individuals would contemplate paying. 

This dichotomy in Latin American living is reflected in the Macondo vs McOndo polarity within modern Latin American literature. The question about authentic experience in Spanish-speaking America is very much alive and well. 

Back in Britain we distinguish between multi-ethnic, multicultural London - a community that would seem to have 9000 years of history and inward migration behind it - and 'Middle England', the locus of country pubs, cricket on village greens and 'native' (i.e. white) English people. Which is the more real? I think that's one blog post I will postpone writing for now! 

PS: On a separate note, it is intriguing to me how the four-letter word REAL comes with an entirely different payload of associations in English and Spanish. How many homes (and hotels) have been been pretentiously dubbed 'Real' here in La Antigua? One could even posit that the more REAL a place is in Castellano, the less REAL it is in English! 

Friday, August 02, 2013

The Good, The Bad and El Che

Of necessity the materialist rejects what he or she sees as the religious notion that actions have fixed and lasting moral properties. For how could this be so in the universe thus conceived? 

This explains in part the conundrum we often face with the example set by Che Guevara. 

It would not be difficult to characterise el Che as a 'good' man, one who dedicated his life to pursuit of justice and one who would have understood his own inclinations as towards the side of the 'good'. And yet even the Comandante's most ardent apologist would surely have to admit that, in the name of political expediency, he often committed (or permitted) actions that anyone guided by a traditional Christian theodicy, would almost immediately recognise as bad, if not properly evil.  

El Che was brought up a Catholic and migrated to Marxism. Adherents of the latter creed, at least when they have thought things through properly, have a materialistic view of the cosmos and a dialectical take on history and politics. This leads to a kind of hyper-relativism when it comes to the moral nature of men's deeds, specifically the potential for evil in their own actions.  

Your bog standard relativist considers that the same action might be judged differently in different circumstances. The Marxist-Leninist on the other hand tends to believe that two superficially identical actions are not the same action, if the political context is different. Trotsky was very clear about this when he wrote of the necessity of slaughtering innocent children in the interests of the proletariat; specifically the Tsar's children. And so it would have been with Che Guevara and his firing squads. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

People's: Prolier -than-thou

The latest entrant into the Calzada's crowded fried chicken scene…and one that goes straight to the back of the prole pile. Greasy yet odourless, People's chicken pieces taste like especially unsavoury cardboard. Even our dogs spat out the morsels we offered them. 

The whole bird in the pic above looked like it had been run over by a chicken bus. 

V's theory is that People's is so bad that it may be some sort of rebound-enticement subterfuge operated by Pollo Campero! 

Pinulito still the best though.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Ever since I first came to El Panorama this street has been patrolled by a solitary male street dog, who has in turn been looked after by the majority of the residents. Say hello to the current incumbent: Trompas. 

He might sport a name suggestive of a less-than-sunny disposition, yet Trompas is one of the friendliest dogs I have ever come across  an expert networker adored by the people living behind the gates outside which he reclines, and both jaunty and jovial in his initial approach to any other passing pooch. 

Unlike some of his predecessors Trompas was born on this street. His nominal owners were a pair of quarrelsome boozers who were looking after a bare plot. When they moved out a month ago Trompas initially went with them, but a week later reappeared, having thus clearly opted for collective over private ownership. And one shouldn't really blame him because he had always depended on the community to provide both sustenance and sentiment.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Disarray legitimises dictatorship

Two of the arguments most commonly deployed in defence of the late Baroness Thatcher over the past week have been 1) What a god awful mess the lefties had made of the country before she came in and sorted it all out and 2) that in spite of the short-term pain felt in certain segments of society, the imposition of liberal economic policies and values was ultimately in everyone's best interests. 

That neither can be sufficient for truly getting to grips with Thatcher's legacy on a personal or political level, is evidenced by the fact that both arguments can just as easily be used as apologia for her old friend General Augusto Pinochet. 

Further comparisons would of course take us into the realms of the absurdly overstretched. 

Thatcher, for example, did not have the nation's leading literary light extinguished (probably), and then send a bunch of jackbooted thugs to ransack his house and burn all 8000 books in his library. Etc. 

Yet we all know that even Hitler can chalk up VWs and dangerous roads in his plus column. 

The fact is that strong, manipulative and ultimately abusive government tends to emerge out of periods of disfunction. Look back through the last few hundred years of history and when you find an authoritarian you can nearly always find the clusterfuck that immediately preceded them. Disarray legitimises dictatorship. 

Historians are often tempted to characterise the emergent leader as a sort of aberrant opportunist (right place, right moment etc.), but perhaps there is nothing more natural than a system finding a way to unclog itself after it has become a bit bunged up under a previous configuration.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie...

There are politicians (Cameron is one of them, yet so too were many of the left wing politicians who opposed Thatcher) whose platform is essentially the notion that if you let them run society in the interests of people just like themselves, it will all work out for the greater good in the end. 

Thatcher was not really one of this ilk. That she didn't appear to have hatched from either the aristocratic of technocratic (both essentially male) spawning pools of traditional conservatism made her, and still makes her, especially scary and repellent to many people that grew up in 'ordinary' British communities, because she seemed on some levels to be one of them. 

She was not a politician like Reagan, who adopted a set of ideas that were 'out there'; her ideology was in fact almost impossible to separate from her personality. (I think Blair came to power with a massive majority in 1997 in part because the electorate mistook him for an everyman who would transcend the old problem, only to later discover that he was also driven by peculiar, somewhat over-robust inner convictions.) 

In terms of legacy, much will depend on how the deconstruction of the local manufacturing bases in certain western nations is ultimately viewed by historians. The latter will tend to be more dispassionate/callous about the victims of structural changes that can ultimately be scored as positive, especially as the temporal distance increases. 

Yet similar policies undertaken by Reagan and Bush senior are already coming under closer scrutiny for the long-term weakness and decline they may have helped set up, in spite of the short-term turnarounds they undoubtedly achieved. 

Thatcher's economic reforms also fostered greater income inequality, but had to do so within the context of the sacred safety net of the British welfare state and the NHS. 

I also suspect that historians may come to realise that Europe missed an opportunity to evolve into a different kind of entity in the eighties and early nineties, and that should in part be put down to the way she poisoned the atmosphere during her terms as Prime Minister.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


This has been a week of scandalous social media overshares in Guatemala. 

First there was 'shu-majestad' Jessica Duque (above), who achieved instant national meme-dom after daring to suggest that Ricardo Arjona had only gone and lowered the drawbridge of the sacred citadel of Cayalá, thus permitting the barbarian hordes to pile in and generally sack the place. 

Then there was this shamefully shumungous behaviour from some sentimental ossifers of the PNC. 

One suspects they will have trouble deploying Jkita's official excuse - that it was some other random racista that 'wogged' her mobile phone and used it to post those deleterious comments all over her profile!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Cayalá Phenomenon

Guatemala might not have dual currencies like Cuba, but one doesn't have to look far to see the signs of a two-tier economic system here – there are businesses charging in Quetzales and businesses that are either explicitly or implicitly charging in US Dollars. And the thing that concerns me most is that many of the latter are doing so even when their staff costs and other overheads are effectively priced in Quetzales. 

Now I am no economics licenciado, but I really don't think this can be a good thing for the country in terms of its development both economically and politically, and were I ever in a position of unassailable power in a land such as this, I would tweak the fiscal system in order to seriously dis-incentivise this practice. 

Perhaps the greatest concentration of evidence of its deleterious effects can be witnessed here in Antigua with its mass of empty, overpriced restaurants. 

Yet for me, the poster-boys of what I shall call the Cayalá phenomenon (after Guatemala's brand new walled garden of dollar consumerism, Z16's Paseo de Cayalá) have always been the foreign-owned – and generally less empty – fast food chains. Domino's for example, almost certainly pays no rent in this city as they own the freehold of their site, surely pays its employees at local rates, and buys its tomatoes, as we do, from a local finca at around Q1 a pound, and yet expects the end consumer to pay developed world prices for their pizzas. 

Mark, of the fondly-remembered GuateLiving blog, once suggested to me that these prices reflect the additional risks of doing business here. Perhaps so, but from the outside it looks more like a nice-little-earner rather than a reckless gamble, and there's really nothing to stop companies in Guatemala from putting their own price on this sense of risk, charging according to what they think affluent, dollar-earners can pay, and in a manner that is only loosely connected to things like demand and supply and their cost base. 

It seems to work for the fast food giants, but one can't help thinking that many businesses in Antigua would be better off lowering their prices a bit in order to increase the number of actual sales as well as appealing to a wider customer base. (I'm surprised that more don't at least use flexible prices to bring in more customers on otherwise slow days.)

Anyway, this post is not so much about improving business performance in the retail and restaurant sectors, it's about the affordability gap that exists between the quetzal and dollar-based economies. In Cuba one notes that while the average state salary works out at around $20 a month, the lighter-skinned population are much more likely to benefit from both better-rewarded positions and from remittances sent over from the 'exile' community in the USA. The end result, an economic chasm with some rather insidious racial connotations. There may well be ethnic repercussions of a more recondite nature here in Guatemala, but it is the economic defile that looks the most damaging to me, because it has to be holding up the development of the middle class, for there will be individuals pursuing white-collar careers in this country, earning less than their US equivalents, and yet expected to pay US prices for many of the goods their peers up north habitually consume. 

The problem may not be as monolithic as I have painted it. For every Domino's there's a Cinépolis –  firms offering an aspirational, middle-class products at prices more in line with local equivalent earnings power. But the gap is still there, and not only is a dollar-based pricing system one of things putting the brakes on Guatemala's economic potential, there are also political consequences, for without a middle class capable of providing a genuine bridge between the extreme ends of wealth and poverty in this country, the state is always likely to be the playground of oligarchs and populists, with enlightened, social-democratic governance only popping up periodically as a commitment which will inevitably flatter to deceive. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hora Chapina, Hora Chapona

Over the past few weeks five times I have made arrangements with locals to meet at my house and on each occasion they have failed to show up. I might add that the assignations in question were generally a good deal more in their interest than in mine. 

Is there ever any attempt to communicate an excuse, an apology etc? No. 

Sometimes the offending party tries to put in an appearance at an alternative time and date of their own choosing, still without warning or cover story. I have now decided never to open the door in such circumstances, not in the vain hope of thereby providing an education in civilised manners, but in rather more punitive determination.  

It is for this reason that one individual in our neighbourhood has become a constant source of wonder. She carries a watch and examines it with the old-fashioned assiduousness of the white rabbit in Wonderland, though without his propensity for punctuality fails. And deep though we are in the dry season, she is also never without her flowery umbrella – signs of a preternatural preparedness quite anomalous in these parts. 

Having offered to produce for us, twice weekly, tortillas of black and yellow corn in the traditional manner, each time she has come to deliver them almost exactly five minutes in advance of the agreed time. And when I emerge, regards me as if I have kept her waiting an eternity. 

It is for this reason we have started to have our doubts as to whether she is Guatemalan at all. She has the slightly off-putting appearance of a steely-eyed, middle-aged man in an elaborate draggy disguise, complete with heavy, oversized, bloke's shoes, and for that reason we long ago gave her the nickname of 'El Chapo'. 

Her skin is almost deathly pale and her accent is hard to place in a Chapin context, though there are rumours that she and her brood hail from Amatitlán or thereabouts. The truth is that she appeared one day out of nowhere, and yet, hoy en día, there is seemingly no-one better informed about behind-closed-doors activities in the district.