Wednesday, January 31, 2007

800 pages too long?

I have enjoyed the minor furore in the lit-blogosphere created by the refusal of (paid) Newsweek reviewer Malcolm Jones to push through to the end of Vikram Chandra's new 900-page novel Sacred Games.

Frankly, I'm with Jones on this one. The first, and less spurious of his self-justifications, is based on the opportunity cost that a "good but not great" (and clinically obese) novel presents to mid-life consciousness:

"My time is precious. Your time is, too. Who has enough time in the day to do all that we want? When I go home after work, it’s triage every night. I can listen to music. Or I can play music. Or I can answer letters or write. Or I can read a book. Or watch TV. Or watch a DVD on TV. Or go out to a concert or a movie. And those would be the nights that I don’t have to clean up the kitchen, do the laundry or help with homework...If you’re going to write 900-plus-page novels, you’d better be as good as Dickens, or I … or I’m going to read Dickens."

Though of course he's supposed to be reading fiction as his day job, which is the part that most irks the lit-bloggers.

I'm less sympathetic to the line his second excuse takes: If the conscientious sort of literary reviewer dedicates the kind of time to reading a mighty, mediocre tome that might otherwise be spent picking his children up from school, he ends up compromised, unable to assume a position of mild indifference to its quality:

"Most reviewers get invested in the books they review, one way or the other. So the books are either panned outright or praised. The praise isn’t necessarily over the top, but it is praise. The reviewer has an investment now. He or she has spent a lot of time reading this book. Can’t just say, oh, it was OK. So you wind up with positive reviews that lack something—heart, maybe?"

V has very set views on the appropriate BMI for fiction. She still hasn't forgiven me for reading War and Peace (in Spanish) and is currently singing the praises of The Outsider, mainly because of its brevity. I have just embarked on a book that certainly looks dauntingly podgy to me, Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories, but when I flicked through to the final page last night to check out its payload in pages, I discovered that it has but a paltry 705. The qualities of the first chapter nevertheless suggest I may yet make it all the way through. The plants only need watering once a week anyway.

Photoblog excerpts

A nice pic of Tikal at dawn here, and a few clicks back this one of two girls beside the lake at Santa Catarina Palopo.


The second series whereof is proving to be very entertaining, especially now that the main characters have filled out and seemingly settled into their correct dramatic groove within the historical narrative. This week's episode had the delightfully menacing Mark Anthony pissing into Cicero's pot plants and Octavia and her Sloane Ranger girlfriend "inhaling hemp". It also featured more of the kind of zesty dialogue that we've come to expect:
"Nobody in my family sucks cock without I say so."
Meanwhile Titus Pullo continues to explete his way through the story, a "cack!" here and a "Juno's cunt!" there, with the occasional more obviously anacronistic "oh bollocks!"

I'm glued.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ideologically suspect

Back in my post-student days I applied for a job at Waterstones in Notting Hill and was asked in the interview to name a writer I particularly admired. I suppose this was my opportunity to align myself with the rather scruffy bunch sitting expectantly across the table from me. James Joyce or D.H. Lawrence would have done the trick, but the name that formed on my lips immediately drew out grimaces of disapproval: Plato.

There's no denying that my sympathy for this particular philosopher, and perhaps by implication his elitist masterplan for solving the general problem of politics, might be said to place me on the same bench as all those whose commitment to egalitarian democratic principles is at best lukewarm.

Yet Plato's principal mouthpiece is close to being a Jesus-like figure of love and self-renunciation for all non-believing rationalists. And underlying the parable of the cave is surely one of the best metaphoric ideas anyone has ever had, anwhere, anytime.

Anyway, wouldn't it be worth at least trying to let a selected panel of intellectuals run at least one small country somewhere as a kind of test?! Surely they can't make a worse hash of it than the fuckwits that currently control most of the world's polities?

Strangely enough the people I know who are most vociferous about democracy and freedom (especially information technologists turned amateur social engineers) tend to get by by ignoring the potential the masses have for spoiling their cosy peer-to-peer utopia. Computers inherently filter out a given percentage of dummies and the rest can largely be delimited by virtual barriers that are at present not legislated against. Nevertheless this smart, participatory Athens is without doubt surrounded by the babbling barbarians of trivia. And they want in.

For the last few years this horrible horde has spread their ideology of inverted snobbery to almost every corner of the mass media. Jade Goody, herself something of an iconic figure within this movement, surely had every reason to suppose that her treatment of hoity-toity Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetti would win further burps of approval from the habitual Big Brother constituency. Indeed, previous voting patterns suggested that foreigners and/or anyone native with a basic education and standards was likely to be villified.

Yet many of the Asian community in the UK remain as straightforwardly bourgeois in their aspirations as television (or at least the BBC) itself used to be before the mid-80s, and the dissing of their idol by this cackling pack of oiks not only had them rushing to exercise their television suffrage but stimulated, through their many complaints, the rest of Britain's slumbering middle classes to stir themselves into a decisive confrontation in which the offending vulgarians have seen their future earnings startlingly diminished and their dreams of celebrity perhaps trashed forever. Instead three vaguely eloquent, vaguely already successful foreigners came through. Unheard of.

Democracy is a system not a state of mind. But strangely enough a society permeated by snobbery and prejudice, such as Guatemala, can in some ways function better as a democracy than one permeated by the kind of inverted snobbery that has seemingly taken hold of our popular culture in the UK. A snob society does at least benefit from elite (and middle-class) participation. An inverted snob society tends to suffer from mass apathy, because to have what in the ancient world was the basis of status in civic society, is nowadays a sure way to single yourself out as a "tosser", and our current crop of politicians are only vaguely cool when they invite slobs like the Gallagher brothers round for a spot of vino.

A gang of teenagers behind the Phoenix theatre threw a rock at me tonight as I made my way home. I think they had just been to see Blood Brothers.

Teide petition

Teide on Tenerife, the world's third largest volcano, is using the Web to petition for inclusion on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites.

Travel insurer's nightmare

Scott Esposito laments the loss of Kapuściński to the literate world, yet uses his obituary in the LA Times to suggest that we were actually quite lucky that he made it to the ripeish old age of 74: "He was beaten and nearly set on fire by soldiers in Nigeria. He was rendered unconscious by cerebral malaria, came down with tuberculosis, then survived treatment in a Tanzanian hospital, where his injections were given with a communal syringe. Four times, at the direction of various despots, he was sentenced to death."

Spain, my ten favourite spots (2): Cuenca

It's taken me nearly four months to get this list moving along again.

Cuenca sits on top − or rather hangs over the edge − of a deep gorge where the Júcar and Huécar rivers meet, making it hard to detect a seam between the walled medieval town and its ancient geological seat.

It sports Spain's earliest Gothic cathedral and its famed "hanging houses" have earned it a place on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites.

The town's name may come from the Latin conca, meaning river basin, or perhaps from that of its ruined Moorish fortress Kunka.

Driving back from the south, we decided to return to the east of Madrid and Cuenca is pretty much the only significant urban attraction on that route. Just the day before we has been basking in January temperatures of over 20 degrees, but on our approach to Cuenca up a winding hillside road our car was dusted with snow and the thermometer showed outside temperatures of below zero for the first time on that particular journey.

We discovered that Cuenca is one of the best places in Spain to buy top quality ceramics at very reasonable prices. The bedroom in our hotel, the Leonor de Aquitania, afforded us a spectacular view across the gorge of the local Parador, which occupies a well-situated building, formerly the convent of San Pablo.

Next time we pass through V is keen to visit the nearby Cuidad Encantada, a landscape of bizarre geological protuberances. (That's her standing on that particular protuberance overlooking the gorge.)

Amazing Discovery

Amusing little story here describing how the Texas Video store in Zone 13 of Guatemala City was 'denounced' by neighbours for harbouring pirated movies. The headline reads "Another pirate shop is discovered".

The uncovering of this stash of VHS tapes is no doubt a huge victory in the battle against copyright theft. Nevertheless, just round the corner from the market in Antigua (where plenty more of these fortuitous discoveries could readily be made) there's a DVD rental shop called JennyStar, which proudly describes itself as an NGO whose "purpose is to donate ALL profits to support disabled and poor children around Antigua."

"By renting a DVD," they add "you agree that your money, after deduction for our costs, will be made into a donation." Fortunately, costs are kept to a minimum by renting out bootleg copies.

Chapinismo: Chiriz (Small kid)

See also Patojo and Güiro.

We spotted this young and growing Guatemalan family on New Year's Eve in Antigua: six chirices and one more on the way.

V still regrets not having asked how far they had come to see all the acts in the Calle del Arco that night. But they'd made the effort, and they seemed very happy.

It occurred to me later on during my stay that I can think of very few examples of lastingly happy (or at least stable) marriages amongst the people I know out there.

Monday, January 29, 2007

"Come and discover the mistery"

Last night V asked me to check out Not sure why yet, but I did.

It has a few good pics and this excellent little glossary of chapinismos. I only picked up amishado myself this winter.

Ladinos, we are told, are "a race product of the biologic and cultural crossing between Indians and Europeans," Gringo "a term frequently used to name the US citizens" and Baboso, a "dummy".

Meanwhile Ala!, is an "expression of astonishment or surprise," and not something you'd want to exclaim mid-tunnel on the London Underground these days, unless you want burly off-duty firemen throwing themselves on top of you.

Later this week I reckon will blog about my favourite Guatemaltequismos missing from this list.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Island

This is the second film in a week to make me think of Logan's Run...and Capricorn One and... and...

It's an entertaining if formulaic grand-conspiracy black chopper chase caper.

Djimon Hounsou clearly didn't make a great impression as a ruthless French mercenary as he is back doing noble Africans again in Blood Diamond; though towards the end, having already laid waste to LA, Monsieur Laurent does seem to be experiencing weird transplanted memories of these anterior, more honourable roles.

Sean Bean isn't at his best. He was more sinister as the by-the-book pilot in Flightplan than as would-be-God Dr Merrick here. Nor is Steve Buscemi's comic turn especially successful.

On the plus side I hadn't quite got the point of Scarlett Johansson before seeing this film. (Though at one stage she pauses to watch her 'sponsor' in a Calvin Klein ad. Blatant. )

One of the problems here is that the director seems to assume everyone already knows where the plot is headed, and so doesn't waste much time setting up (or exploding) the mystery of Lincoln 6 Echo's anodine existence. Alas black choppers alone do not a Philip K. Dick paranoid nightmare make.

Overall, there's a bit too much mayhem and general running around, and the fugitive agnates have far too many fortuitous getaways. Plus the plot ultimately hinges on the ease with which firearms can be smuggled into secret underground facilities.

Along with all the other movies it is a messed-up clone of, perhaps it needed to borrow a few chromosomes from quieter, more poignant sci-fi stories, like AI: Artificial Intelligence.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The chapel at the finca

Gliberal comments from Kermode

"Water cooler issue-tainment at its most issue-taining," was Mark Kermode's take on Blood Diamond yesterday. He seems aligned with my view that in order to get this kind of issue into mainstream consciousness you have to make a mainstream, multiplex movie, with all the silliness that that usually entails.

Interestingly though, the McClatchy Washington Bureau has reported that the extent and lethality of conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa is "down sharply", just when this film has made it the hottest topic amongst Hollywood's rock-wearing classes.

"Gliberal...a lovie fest" were the key soundbites in his review of Emilio Estevez's oh-so well-meaning Bobby. (He then quoted another neologism he'd overheard: "Thinkronise" Euugh.)

As for The Fountain, Kermode quipped that "you wait six hundred years for a Mayan movie and then two come along at once".

New Spitalfields

I rose early this morning in order to watch the impressively one-sided final between Serena Williams and an intimidated-looking Maria Sharapova.

So I used the opportunity to get myself up to Leyton and the New Spitalfields Market where you can buy fruit and vegetables by the box at quite remarkable prices, and be skewered by one of the many fork-lift trucks that career around the place like dodgems.

Talking of which, the roads in East London are dominated at that time on Saturday by drivers whose vehicles really ought to carry the warning sticker My other car is a white van. As I made my way north-eastwards one of these weekend family saloon maniacs started ferociously effing and blinding at me for daring to assert my right of way on a roundabout.

Whilst I'm on my own, purchasing massive boxes of perishable produce isn't all that sensible, but I did get myself a box of 8 Peruvian papayas and a box of 12 large avocadoes for a fiver each. They even threw in a few loose plantains, but these will take time to darken enough for frying (or microwaving). Meanwhile, the papayas are an essential part of my morning smoothie and general weight-control programme, and usually cost a pound each at Tesco. As for the avos, I am a fully assimilated panza verde.

I stopped at Magri's Pet Store on Hamlets Way near Mile End because the three-year-old African Grey that belongs to the owner was doing some gymnastics in his cage by the window. I asked how much a bird like that would cost and was told "eight and a half", by which I suppose he meant eight and a half thousand, but I have seen prices of $2000 or less quoted online. It's chastening to think that if I were to buy one now it would almost certainly outlive me. As the pet shop owner wryly observed: "You take them with you."


The Armchair Orchidist blog has some nice pics of orchids and other parasitos from Guatemala and Belize. The video clip below kicks off with V in the process of acquiring some of these from a tree at the finca.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Various ungulates at the finca

Don't drink and download

Regretably, I have discovered that the strength of my objections to iTunes and Apple's DRM are inversely related to the quantity of wine I consume while surfing the Net and as a result the quantity of 'protected' music on my hard drive has increased of late.

I may not be able to share these files, but I would like to share a couple of discoveries. The first is a remarkable set of twelfth century tunes released by Naxos. They were composed by two almost anonymous composers that worked at the newly-constructed cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris.

Léonin was the earliest known composer of polyphonic organum. He also introduced a rational system of rhythm into polyphonic music and created a method of notation for it. Some suspect that he is the same person as Leonius the Parisian poet. Pérotin, also attached to the cathedral, further developed the new form and his works were preserved in the Magnus Liber, Notre Dame's 'great book' of early polyphonic music. Monophonic Gregorian chant can be soothing, but these pieces are really eerily ethereal.

Another classical 'disk' that has found its way into my iTunes library is a newish recording of a comparatively rare item on the repertoire, Mahler's orchestral arrangement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden string quartet. Fish first introduced me to it, and I soon cherished an earlier EMI recording in my record collection at Cambridge. The Austrian composer re-spun the intimate and reflective classical textures of the quartet with a far thicker weave, bringing out Romantic drama of striking urgency.

I might have woken up with a sore head and buyer's angst, but beautiful music that never dulls is a fine tonic for such afflictions. Shame about some of the other stuff I downloaded.

The Guatemalan Maya Centre

Has a re-vamped website with several galleries of excellent images. The centre is based in Wandsworth and holds regular exhibitions.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Svetlana Sucks

Keeping me out of cinemas at the moment are three of the most annoying adverts ever made.

First there's the MTV commercial about the boy diagnosed with a bad case of brass band. It does consider itself so very clever doesn't it? Then there's the Carling ad with the swirling birdies. Belong, the call to action at the end, makes me want to start digging my bunker. (And it now seems to have spread to TV too.)

But the suckiest of the lot is the little Orange "Good things happen" film designed to get people to turn their mobiles off before the movie starts. It is set during a black-out in New York, and is turned into torment by its soundtrack, a song called This Side of the Blue by Joanna Newsom − very much in the cooky/retarded tradition of American folk, and seemingly about San Francisco not the Big Apple.

This morning I googled Newsom and it turns out she looks (and dresses) like a sibling of Fiona Apple's recruited at a young age to work for Father Christmas at the North Pole. Bring back the Orange Film Marketing Board...please!

Has bean and blogged about it

Stephen Leighton of the Has Bean Weblog has in fact just been to Guatemala, visiting a number of specialist growers, such as El Bosque in the municipality of Amatitlán.

Stephen is the owner of Has Bean Coffee Ltd. based in Stafford, a micro coffee roaster dealing in high quality coffees from around the world.

He writes that he "left the [Anacafe] boardroom with the same warm feelings for Guatemala. For years they have sold coffee on their Hue Hue’s and their Antiguas and have sat there saying our coffees good. On the whole they were but its not enough in the modern market you need more. You can see this very clearly in Costa Rica. The Costa Rican model for me has meant they have dropped down the specialty pecking order to the poitn I rarely get exited and it has become very one dimensional. Guatemalan coffee has a lot more to offer in terms of Varity of tastes and I think they are building on that."

On El Bosque, the Has Bean site informs visitors that the farm "is situated on volcanic terrain between 5,000 and 5,500 feet" and "covers 32 hectares, all dedicated to the cultivation of strictly hard bean Bourbon. Although not an organic coffee no pesticides nor herbicides are used on the farm. In the cup sweet, its clean, good body with wicked hints of spice, awesome espresso and fantastic filter, a must try. " (Filtered through the pure crystaline waters of Lake Amatitlán?!)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ryszard Kapuściński has died

Sadly Ryszard Kapuściński died yesterday of a heart attack while recovering from surgery in Warsaw.

In my opinion the veteran Polish foreign correspondent was one of the world's most outstanding writers, and was deservedly nominated for the Nobel prize in 2005.

To get a taste for the very special reporting talent of this most literary of witnesses, you can start with The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life.

Also worth reading is The Soccer War, his account of the background to the 1969 conflict between El Salvador and Honduras, which was sparked by a World Cup qualifier.


"I wanted to explore the contradiction between the impression that the world has become quite small due to all the communication tools which we have, and the feeling that human beings are still incapable of expressing themselves and communicating amongst themselves on a fundamental level."

Well, if that's what Alejandro González Iñárritu set out to do with Babel I think he was largely successful. I did not detect any of the pretentious "we are the world" whacko-Jacko preachiness that Mark Kermode reported on Five Live last week. In fact, this movie is a fair way from being classically arty-farty, though it does have its roots in Mexican art-house.

Ok, the preview was rather pretentious, but the movie itself no more so really than Crash or Traffic. It may seem so simply because it isn't rooted in a very concrete topic like the narcotics trade or racism. The problem described above by the director is that much more nebulous. (The scene where Pitt blubbers all over the phone is a bit unnecessary though! And the one where he picks a fight with a disagreeable English tourist made me laugh.)

A friend of mine that walked from the cinema before the ending of the film complained, like Kermode, of the tenuous connection between the three main stories. Some seem to single out the Japanese thread as the loosest. But I detected a common theme of neglected children in all three.

Iñárritu and his usual collaborator Guillermo Arriaga are the acknowledged specialists in the manufacture of multi-stranded narrative, and unlike their native Hollywood equivalents (such as Paul Haggis, the writer-director of Crash) they don't literally litter their scripts with unmissable links between their characters. The result here is a composite story that is perhaps more intriguing than gripping.

If you like your empathetic encounters with human truth to be very clearly sign-posted (like the scene in Crash where the racist cop saves the woman he abused the night before from a burning car) then perhaps you will find this film just a little dull. I found it quite moving, and it resonated with an idea for a story that has been gestating in my head for a while, about miscommunications and misconceptions between the citizens of Antigua and those that visit it. It has the working title of Gringos...and has no plans to adopt a global perspective.

Arriaga seems to experiment within his standard formula each time he fashions a script. In The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada only the first half is non-linear. In Babel he develops further the technique of running together alternating stories that are tellingly shfted in terms of chronological time.

One thing that follows from the stated aims of this movie is that it isn't all that interested in revealing to us the full consequences of the plot for each of the characters, though Amilia, the deeply unfortunate housekeeper-nanny, is the major exception.

There's some great dialogue for connoisseurs of Mexican Spanish, such as "Este pinche buey anda bien pedo" and a fine original score from Argie composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who also worked on Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Walter Salles' Diarios de Motocicleta.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Devuélveme el rosario de mi maaaaa-a-dre...

Y quédate con todo lo demáooo...

A couple of years ago we were watching Gente de Primera on TVe. Compared to the X Factor the production values might have been a bit wobbly, but the sheer talent of the young artists competing for the big recording contract was vastly superior. And given the comparative longevity of most of the stars of Spanish and Latin pop music, so was the prize they were competing for.

One of the contestants was a young boy called Israel. Almost every week the judges failed him and he had to face the public vote, not for lack of vocal gift, but because, a bit like Ray on the X Factor this year, he was seen as a one-trick pony, able only to make his mark in the cante traditional of Andalucia's gypsies. But what a pony. For me Flamenco is a hit or miss formula. It will either make you want to hold your ears in pain, or it will contrive to leave you an emotional wreck, throttling your soul with a potent mix of sadness and joy. There was one performance that Israel gave on this show I will never forget. He sang El rosario de mi madre, and it left us both with tears in our eyes. Duende, as they say.

At the time we heard the song attributed to the legendary Camarón de la Isla, who I guess you could describe as the gypsy Elvis (or Bob Marley). Yet there was something about the lyrics that made me want to investigate further: in all honesty the sentiments were just a bit too cheesey and sentimental to have come out of the slums of Sevilla. Sure enough, I found earlier Latin American versions of this song, such as a plaintive bolero, and eventually tracked its origin to Peru and Don Mario Cavagnaro, famed and quite prolific composer of Peruvian waltzes. Anyway, the full lyrics are here.

The first series of Gente de Primera was deservedly won by the Flamenco-inflected Yanira Figueroa and the second, equally deservedly in the end, by Nauzet from Tenerife.

Here he sings the classic Maná track Vivir sin Aire. Israel meanwhile is probably hot-wiring cars in the backstreets of some dusty Andalucian town.

It's a good enough rendition, but I think this particualr song needs to be treated a little more delicately. I once heard it being sung by a group of young Mexican tourists in the rainforest near Tikal and it is that version that has etched itself in my memory, even more so than the original.

Monday, January 22, 2007

"Art with a capital F"

Mark Kermode made me chuckle with his dismissive remarks about Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel on Five Live last Friday: "Meretricious, self-important twaddle..."

He wants it to be known that he hated it before anyone else, right from the opening twenty minutes of the first public screening in Cannes back in May last year. And he thinks that González Iñárritu should get back to making "exploitation films" like Amores Perros, because on the evidence of Babel he has become "the film-making equivalent of Michael Jackson".

Instead of coming together as they did in Amores Perros the different strands of this story race apart at great pace, says Kermode, and he likens the way that the director struggles to link them back together at the end to "herding cats".

I shall have to watch this movie tonight to see if he's right!

On the subject of deliberate convolution Gibnut and I had a little discussion about David Mitchell's multi-stranded narratives last week. I stated my misgivings about Ghostwritten but he insisted that Mitchell greatly improved the technique with Cloud Atlas, a novel I haven't yet read, but has perhaps jumped a few places up the queue now.

Children of Men

Alfonso Cuarón's singular vision of a fucked-up future twenty years hence not only looks stunning, it also feels stunning.

Trouble is that what is a triumph on the level of representation, is close to being an abject failure on the level of explanation.

Watching part of Aeon Flux on Frode's big screen this weekend reminded me of how important it is that our dystopic nightmares remain rooted in and relevant to our own contemporary world and its present problems. Aeon Flux struck me as almost totally irrelevant, stylistically a kind of Logan's Run meets Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

There's something rather 70s about Children of Men's version of incipient apocalypse too. In particular I was reminded me of the final Quatermass series which starred Sir John Mills. Social and political order are degrading, human fertility has collapsed completely, Britain alone stands tall etc. Yet at one stage I found myself desperately scanning a wall full of newspaper cuttings looking for a deeper, more joined-up explanation.

Cuarón has certainly tried to bake in some extra relevance into P.D. James's 1992 story, giving us a whole load of Allahu Akbar AK-wavers and destitute illegal immigrant "fujees". But the background to this mess (and even to the key characters Theo and Kee) never properly materialises.

Still, while it may not be the kind of movie that leaves you thinking, it is the sort to invade your dreams, unlike Aeon Flux, which does neither. And if it starts to wobble the moment you start to consider the detail, at the more soupy, holistic level it does actually seem rather plausible.

I have been a big fan of Cuarón's for some time. He can compose a scene with many more textures and dimensions than audiences are generally used to. Here, the scene when Theo, Kee and Miriam escape from the safe house is masterful. Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also deserves a special mention, in particular for the visceral final battle in Bexhill.

Meanwhile London in 2027 seems to have succumbed to the same deadly tuctuc virus that has ravaged Guatemala for the past 3 years.

Executives and the Executive

Following Efraín Ríos Montt's announcement last Wednesday that he plans to run for Congress this year in Guatemala, Amnesty International once again called for him to either face trial in Guatemala (for genocide, torture, terrorism and illegal detention) or be extradited to Spain, a country which specialises in prosecuting other countries' right-wing human rights violators rather than its own.

Meanwhile Guatemalan cops are reportedly chasing seventeen former executives of the failed Bancafe, as well as those of the more recently collapsed Banco de Comercio. Late last Thursday night, arrest warrants were issued for Bancafe founder Manuel Eduardo Gonzalez and for his son Eduardo Gonzalez, until recently President Oscar Berger's executive secretary. Charges of fraud and money-laundering are likely to be issued.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


Chucking shapes on the fabulous white sand dance floor at the rear of the Blue Parrot in Playa. (Newsweek once selected this as one of the ten best bars in the world.)

I tried to upload this clip to Revver but they kept rejecting it for copyright reasons. A pity because the quality of the conversion on YouTube was too poor to share, but this version on Metacafe ended up just about ok, though still much darker than the original.

I have in a way created my own mix here as the five clips in the compilation were originally shot at various stages in the evening when the DJs were playing different tracks. The gringa hopping around artlessly in the background amused V.

Trancers At The Blue Parrot - video powered by Metacafe

The Sheltering Sky

This novel is a feast of rich, thought-laden prose, but the problem I have with it is that the Moresbys are just so un-likeable. You quickly find yourself willing them on over the edge - and out of view - as quickly as possible.

Bowles was possibly aware of this defect as he appears to compensate for it by shadowing his jaded American couple with the Lyles, an exaggeratedly loathsome Anglo-Australian mother and son duo, that Port himself acknowledges are little more than living caricatures.

Whilst Port does retain some interest as a representative of a certain post-war intellectual type, his close-to-estranged wife Kit was never pyschologically convincing for me. I guess I lost interest in her the moment Bowles mishandles the establishment of her persona with a passge revealing her curious obsession with omens.

The way Kit's subsequently gets in touch with her primitive nature appears altogether too contrived to support Bowles' stated intention of telling the story of two parallel journeys here, one into the abrasive Sahara of swirling sand, the other into the abrasive Sahara of the civilised mind.

One other criticism I'd have to level would be that there seem to be only so many ways to describe the comings and goings of the sun and moon and in north Africa. It occurred to me last week that in Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy handles the interposition of atmospheric effects in the desert rather better than Bowles did, but a hundred or so pages further on and I am starting to mutter "get on with it" to myself as I work my way through that densely-packed narrative too. Bowles captures much of what he has to say in terms of the educated man's encounter with the insidious landscape and its exotic culture early on when Port is led to Marhnia's tent. After that the set-piece explorations of the main theme tend to feel a bit repetitive.

When the novel was first published Tennessee Williams found he also had to use weather-based similies to pinpoint the way it manifests its deeper meanings: "Above that surface is the aura that I spoke of, intangible and powerful, bringing to mind one of those clouds that you have seen in summer, close to the horizon and dark in color and now and then silently pulsing with interior flashes of fire."

Doubleday look more than a bit foolish now to have turned down Bowles' work as "not a novel," but I can see what they might have been getting at. There's really a work of non-fiction at the heart of this particular onion, and it is that underlying aspect of its discourse that most distinguishes it in my view. I find it hard to agree with Williams that this is a "startling adventure", but then in the last half century mainstream culture has become altogether more startling.

Two of the more interesting themes in the novel are that of the difference between tourists and travelers, and the (clearly autobiographical) conundrum surrounding the restlessness of the creative consciousness in the desert. Port reports finding it very hard to get into right sort of reflective mood out there. His earlier assertion that travelers, unlike tourists, don't need to go home, shows how he is already underestimating the force that is irresistibly pulling him and Kit further and further away from 'home'. Seeking one kind of liberation they are swallowed up by another kind altogether.

I have been meaning to read this author-composer's fiction for some time after learning how he took the (very good) Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosas under his wing in Tangier. Bowles had visited Guatemala in the 50s and set his last novel, Above the World, in an unnamed Central American country. It too features a doomed American couple.

And so onto the film...

La Virgen de la O

Every year on Christmas Day this little procession makes its way across Antigua from the colonia Candelario to the Escuela de Cristo. Aside from the umpteen fajas tossed on the cobbles in its path, the entry of the Virgen de la O into the church is marked by a lively, if somewhat uncoordinated firing of morteros. This is how they looked in their box before the procession arrived. And this is how they looked after their fuses were lit:

Just under a week ago on January 15th, many thousands of pilgrims from around the region made their way to the Guatemalan town of Esquipulas, proclaimed by the last Pope "the spiritual centre of Central America". The focus of the annual pilgrimage, the Black Christ carved from dark balsam, dates to March 1595 when it was presented to the mayor by Portuguese sculptor Quirio Catano.

Yzquipulas was the name of the local Indian chieftain that surrendered to the Spanish captains Juan Pérez Dardón, Sancho de Barahona y Bartolomé Becerra in 1525, apparently without a fight. The area already housed an important pre-Colombian shrine (perhaps associated with the then abandoned ceremonial centre of Copán) and ancient Maya devotion featured 'black' deities such as Ek Ahau, "the black captain", God of War, and Ek'Chuach, protector of merchants.

In 1934 Aldous Huxley wrote that "what draws worshippers is probably less the saintliness of the historic Jesus than the magical sootiness of his image. Numinosity is in inverse ratio to luminosity."

Scott and I recently debated whether it was Huxley that (originally) observed that Atitlán is "the most beautiful lake in the world". The remark is sometimes attributed to Hemingway (amongst others) but we're not sure that that particular author ever came to the Guatemalan highlands.

Can we please get real?

Trevor Philips, Chairman of the Equality commission, is on the Beeb right now voicing the opinion that racism starts the moment one starts talking about someone in terms of their group identity; in this specific instance when "she" becomes "they". That's crap Trevor.

He also described as racist an incident when the man at the gate at BBC Television Centre asked him who he had come to pick up. (So when someone once approached me in Borders and asked for my help finding a book that was racist too? )

Rudeness, ignorance and all kinds of bizarre assumptions are part and parcel of social interactions and whatever the Archbishop of York and Tessa Jowell may think, very hard to regulate.

Society is an eclectic mix of individual and group identities and stereotyping is very much part of our evolved psychology. I find it more than a bit dubious that the dangerously emotive term 'racism' is being deployed whenever a bias occurs across a social or cultural divide where there is also an ethnic component. (Trevor Phillips thinks it is completely irrelevant that Jade herself is of mixed race, but I'm not so sure.)

Last week's goings on in the BB house were a long way from representing the ugliest side of grass-roots prejudice in this country, and to outside eyes it is the collective fear of looking bad they have revealed, that must in fact look particularly bad in this instance.

If what happened to Trevor Phillips on his way to the TV studio were the very worst aspect of bigotry in the modern world, then we would have cause indeed to celebrate. Let's hope the week that starts tomorrow has some real news. Good news of course.

Walking with Amy in Jardines

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Blood Diamond

Whether or not Africa itself deserves to be described as a little bit OTT this flick certainly does.

And at first it seems to lack the underlying sympathy for the plight of the continent that marks out other recent films that have successfully evoked its heart of darkness, such as Hotel Rwanda and The Constant Gardener. Instead it appears to be assuming a combination of the perspectives of its two white protagonists, the one cynical the other voyeuristic. Yet there's also more humour in this bloodbath, and as the story and its key characters fill out, it becomes more moving and disturbing, while the tension winds up very nicely.

De Caprio is superb. Like Brosnan in Matador, his performance is often the most engrossing thing on view. He's one actor I would not have expected to be so convincing in an action role. There's something unequivocably real about his ruthlessness. Bond may shoot to kill, but when have we seen him put a second bullet in the back of the prone body of the goon he's just taken down?

Jennifer Connelly plays the American reporter who "gives a shit", though not apparently about her press pack colleagues who are mowed down all around her without provoking a single word of sympathy or regret.

If certain aspects of the plotting are unsubtle, at the level of dialogue the script is deceptively good. And I particularly liked the way Hounsou's character Solomon Vandy is carefully held back, a quieter brooding presence a step or so behind the others, that is only properly unfurled in the final act.

Blood Diamond doesn't manage to shake off all of its contradictions, and those who stop to consider its most obvious public information messages are likely to end up a little confused. Does it really want to stop grooms and gangstas buying those big rocks? (Or is it more concerned about child soldiers?)

The civil war in Sierra Leone belongs to an earlier era − just − and a good deal has changed in the way diamonds are sourced and marketed since then. Yet although the conflict is now over we are told at the end, the onus is still on the consumer to steer clear of the conflict diamonds. And against the grain of the pervasive didactic intent, Jennifer Connelly's character at one stage seems to be pushing the message that no amount of awareness-raising in the rich world's media is ever going to make much of a lasting difference.

Nevertheless, such as it is, this film will probably reach and influence a far bigger audience than a more serious and consistently well-meaning one might have done. Not bad at all.

Friday, January 19, 2007

A crime of bias

This week in the UK we have suffered both the biggest storm in 17 years and the biggest storm in a teacup since God knows when.

The bating of one stuck up woman by three rather extremely stuck down ones in the Big Brother house has caused an international diplomatic crisis, and has today prompted our future PM to exort the British electorate to spend their half-quids on evicting this (undoubtedly ugly) stain on our national reputation for conditioned politeness.

Now I've been called rosbif before by some frogs in Southern Spain and I didn't at the time think it was a racist slur (just a bit rude!), but apparently calling an Indian woman poppadum is beyond the pale.

My mother, herself periodically prone to a bit of bigotry, snobbery and cultural prejudice, reliably informs me that the problem here is one of class, not of race. Certainly in a TV format that actively seeks the lowest, common-as-muck denominator, the participation of a rich and successful person from a country where mass poverty is known to prevail surely poses something of a provocation risk. Just how much though, is something the Channel Four executives that were burnt in effigy this week clearly hadn't given enough thought to.

Yesterday the New York Times revealed that crimes in LA motivated by racial, religious or sexual orientation increased 34% in 2005 over the previous year. This was put down to "demographics in transition" and power-politics between different ethnic groups, especially blacks and latinos. Interestingly, these crimes are being referred to as "bias crimes".
This is one indication that instead of clarifying what an irrational prejudice like racism actually is, it is proving easier to make the description of this mindset less specific. Here in Britain we can't decide if Jade Goody is an overt racist, but biased she most certainly is.


Great tourist promo video for Guatemala (in German). Last year Guatemala had a record 1.5 million foreign visitors, with overall income from tourism exceeding $1bn. This represents a 70% rise compared to 2003 and authorities expect further increase this year due to important international events: in 2007 Guatemala is to host the annual convention of the Inter-American Development Bank, the General Assembly of the International Olympic Committee and a cruise line convention.

Yo no puedo tia...

Boys perhaps ought to be better at this kind of thing than girls, but V's niece Amy puts her two city-soft cousins to shame. She has quite a bit of V's all-terrain agility and general fearlessness:

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Is the new, slightly more self-important moniker for what used to be known as the Gaucho Grill.

"At Gaucho we pride ourselves on the basic philosophy of provenance. To us this means authenticity, assurance and rigorous attention to obtain the finest quality ingredients at source."

Which means you can't order a steak these days without being treated to a little lecture about all the different cuts and the best way to cook each of them, and you will be sternly corrected every time you use herd-speak words like sirloin: "Chorizo...sir"

Indeed our waiter last night was the over-attentive sort that usually drives my father up the wall. (Though not as bad as his equivalents next door at Awana where you are afraid to put your wine glass down on the table because each time you do several black suited loiterers practically trip over each other in their mad rush to refill it.)

Anyway, the point of this post was not a restaurant review, but to comment on the range of ceviches now on offer at this chain. Few would be recognisable as such to your average chapin.

I picked the Fire and Ice: "Tuna cured in a coconut, lime and citrus sauce with red onion, jalapeño, coriander and shaved coconut."

My mother told me that she would normally have asked for a mouthful but as they had only served me one, she'd let me keep it. It came in the sort of cocktail glass that hobbits might use to drink vodka martinis. In spite of the downsized, tight-fisted Argie nature of the portion it was so delicious and delicate that it did take a while to spoon down (and the spoon provided was halfling sized too.) I might try to make this at home.

This bit of copy on the website got a grin out of me. Since when was Sloane Avenue "one of the coolest avenues in London, if not Europe". (Ok, there's the Conran shop in the fabulous old Michelin House, but the only other landmarks of note are a Texaco garage, dreary-old Nell Gwyn House and a dirty brick C of E primary school. )

The wine we drank was lovely.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Non-paying critics

In the end Mel Gibson reversed his decision not to attend the Mexican premiere of Apocalypto.

He had planned a boycott as he claimed to be too hurt by all the derogatory comments made by the Central American viewers of (pirated copies of) his movie.

Nevertheless Maya activist and bootleg-DVD enthusiast Amadeo Cool May was reportedly impressed with the prophetic speech made early on in the movie by a Maya child: "That was really Maya. Her monlogue was well done". (Other cast members were less easy to understand. This might however have been due to the quality of the fake DVD being viewed.)

Mexican film director Juan Mora Catlett has claimed that Gibson has borrowed visual elements from his 1990 film Return to Aztlan, such as the inclusion of a group of natives in full-body white make-up. He doesn't plan to sue though. (Not that well-timed eclipses, waterfall jumps and quick sand struggles are all that original either, but they are all part of the immense fun of this film.)

Mint condition

To help solve the prevailing seasonal glitch in the state of Guatemalan happiness the Central Bank has announced that a new shipment of currency has arrived from foreign mints. (Canada, England, Germany and France all print Quetzales.) $20m has already turned up with a further $100m due by the end of this week.

The Central Bank had earlier apologised for forgetting to order new notes to replace those it had earlier destroyed. The resulting cash crisis provoked a major capital flight, exacerbated by the collapse of Bancafe.

Telediario reports today that the Superintendencia de Bancos is investigating the role of a "ghost company" in the collapse last week of the Banco de Comercio.

Que seas feliz, feliz, feliiiz

A Pew research centre poll has found that people living in Guatemala are the happiest in the world. (Strange, I thought they were a bunch of inveterate gripers.)

The research found that 71% of Guatemalans were happy with their life in general. The study covered 44 countries including Germany, Canada and the US. No surprises that the world's most miserable gits reside in Bulgaria, and that in Latin America the Argies are the least happy, with 98% saying their situation is "really bad".

Smoking peak

More volcanic belching action from Fuego as we walk the dog in Jardines.


Over on the left the volcano sits within a loop of cloud. You get a fairly good impression of Guatemala City's extravagant topology from this short clip too.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


How many reviews of Apocalypto have I both read − and listened to − that refer to the Maya sacrificing people to their "sun god".

Watch the film maties; nowhere is a sun god mentioned. All these rolling heads are in fact accidental decapitations resulting from fully dignified, non-sectarian executions, dedicated in fact to Kukulkán, Maya God of the headless chicken. (Illustrated).

In seriousness, the Maya sun god was known as Ahau-Kin, "Lord of the Sun Face". Between sunset and sunrise he doubled up as the Jaguar god, a lord of the Underworld, for at those hours he journeyed from west to east through the lower regions of the world. Itzamna, the great god of knowledge was also associated with the sun, but not human sacrifice.

Kukulkán was the Toltec-Maya equivalent of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god. Human sacrifice to this deity, as depicted in Mel Gibson's movie did indeed occur, though animal sacrifice was more common. The great temple at Chichén Itzá, known to the Spanish as El Castillo, was a centre of quite visceral devotion to Kukulkán.

The Mexica ('Aztecs') sacrificed on a monumental scale to their gods of war, night, fire and rain. The tribal deity Huitzilopochtli did however have some associations with the sun.

One day someone will make the movie of the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlán . It's frankly amazing that it's never been done. I'd like to try to develop a script myself. It's actually really more mini-series material because there are distinct phases and the audience would need to appreciate the passage of time. There would be some amazing set pieces. The Pizarros in Peru would make a natural sequel! (I guess that the only way to include a significant female role would be through La Malinche, recently the subject of a novel by Mexican authoress Laura Esquivel.)

It strikes me that the late-classic Maya would have been more likely to sacrifice to their gods of corn or of rain (Chaac), than their sun god, whose prominence in the western re-imagination of pre-Colombian cultures owes a great deal to the Incas. Gibson's eclipse at the temple scene has antecedents in Tintin and the Picaros and several B movies before that.

As ever, Wikipedia has the low-down on Mayan mythology.

The Last King of Scotland

No question that this is an immensely powerful, and certainly very scary performance from Forest Whitaker as Amin. He has not only captured the menace and malice, but also the unavoidable charisma of the man. This film is to be highly recommended.

Yet does it provide any deeper insights into the psychology of tyrrany? Not really. In fact the interesting characterisation in this story ought to be that of the fictional composite Dr Nicholas Garrigan, whose mis-judgements are its dramatic engine.

You don't come across them as often as the do-gooders that are only really interested in the raw deprivation, but alienated, nascent sociopaths, mouths open basking for adventure in all its available forms, are hardly that unusual out in the developing world. I recognise the outline of the type in myself, but have come across it in far purer concentration in others.

The trouble is that aside from Dr Garrigan himself and Idi Amin, the other protagonists in the story are comparatively thin, leaving the young doctor with the screen-filling dictator as his primary interlocutor. He functions well enough as a suitable witness to the murderous Ugandan President's dialogue (actually mostly monologue), but he needs some more of his own to better manifest his inner turmoil and transformation. The moments where he floats in water flashing back to key scenes earlier in the film don't really cut it.


Alexandra organises twice-weekly games of kickball in her garden, gathering a pool of players from all the ages, sexes and classes in the neighbourhood. If you have ever played a competitive team sport with Guatemalans, you will be aware how nine tenths of available playtime is habitually lost to argument and general histrionics:

Immense fun though. It always takes me a week to feel physically comfortable in Antigua because of the altitude. The first time we played on December 24 I sprained a finger on my right hand quite badly. The thights hurt like mad from kicking at the end of our second session. I was just reaching the full match fitness when it was time to go!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Danger man

This fine looking fellow, was one of two 'dangerous' mareros captured in Guatemala City's Zona 18 on Friday morning.

The report I read speaks of this individual's "multiple entries" into Guatemala's penitentiary system, though makes no reference to what must also have been his multiple exits from the same.

He is also said to have participated in the riot at Pavoncito.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

New Year's Eve in Antigua

A final selection from the entertainments laid on in the Calle del Arco both before and after the stroke of midnight. If I do have to have one complaint about New Year's Eve in Antigua it is that midnight never seems to strike; instead there's a less precise three minutes or so of extended noise that marks the transition of one year to the next. Some people in the crowd do the 10,9,8,7,6...thing, but usually a bit prematurely.

And lastly this group with its drum section made of turtle shells:

Another one bites the dust

Banco de Comercio - a small bank which began operations in 1993 - is about to be suspended by Guatemala's central bank after it apparently loaned out more money than it is allowed to under law.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Tulum's peerless beaches

I wrote about Las Ranitas when I passed a couple of nights there in December. It's one of those places one might be reticent about recommending too strongly in case it were to be spoilt by 'them'. The French owners spoke of their own concerns that the airport at Tulum might soon be upgraded to cater for international flights.

Nevertheless, you can already get a cheap return flight to Cancun from London from as little as one hundred and fifty pounds, and the peerless beaches of Tulum are just a couple of hours' ride further south.

Before departing for Belize I got up around six and went for a last stroll along the beach...

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Tommy Lee Jones approached Guillermo Arriaga (Mexican novelist and writer of both Amores Perros and 21 Grams and now Babel) and asked him to write a script for his directorial debut. The result is a fascinating modern Western, filmed on and around Jones's west Texas ranch and over the border in the state of Chihuahua.

It's about one man's slightly deranged committment to seeking justice for his dead Mexican friend, and how that comes to involve taking his killer along as he fufills his promise to return Melquiades to his pueblo for burial. The first half of the story features much of Arriaga's trademark temporal scrambling, before it straightens itself out for the journey south.

I loved this movie; it's just the sort of thing I needed to see while reading Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. It reminded me a bit of Central Station, where the key moments in the personal and geographical odyssey are all in the pathos of the chance encounters along the way. (Yet but for the very last scene I still didn't have that much to counter Agent Norton's wife's assessment that her husband was "beyond redemption".)

Ebert picked up on one interesting aspect of Arriaga's storytelling technique: "Some of the hidden connections produce ironies that only we understand, since the characters don't know as much about each other as we do."

Jones apparently gave each cast member a copy of The Outsider to read so that they might understand alienation. I'm not entirely sure I understood alienation that much better after reading Camus' novel, but I'm sure it helped. It's nice and short anyway.


El Loco has decided not to attend the Mexican premiere of his Apocalypto.

Gibson has said that he wants to make the Mayan language "cool" again and encourage young people "to speak it with pride." Shame then that he gave all the main roles to non-Maya native Americans and that many Yucatec Maya report not being able to understand a word they are saying!

Mind the parrot!

Woman's best friend

Friday, January 12, 2007

Los Cool-itos de Gallo

Having started out the evening in Gaia, the Gallo girls and their drummers later took to the tarima and performed in front of a mildly enthusiastic audience.

They claimed they were going to throw free beers into the crowd, which sounded interestingly dangerous, but the only freebies they had in the end were those tight red shirts, which look rather less appealing when they no longer have a Gallo girl in them.

When the fireworks had died down a bit V and I clambered up there and danced to a clanking marimba beat with a whole bunch of others; we stayed as close to the edge as possible in case it collapsed. V described my dance style as matando cucarachas (much like the guy on the right in the Baile de los Campesinos video.)

A smartly-dressed young Mexican appeared below me with hand extended and alerted me to his pressing need to ascend by shouting "Dame la mano cabrón."

A trip around the ficus

Baile de los campesinos

Folkloric dance that formed part of seventh annual Festival of the Calle del Arco on New Year's Eve. Mayan peasants always remove their hats to eat.

Feliz Año!

Thanks largely to the considerable loss of life in the fire at La Terminal before Christmas, the local authorities in Antigua have finally seen sense and moved the firework stalls out of the main area of the market and posted some bomberos on permanent watch in their new location behind the buses. It has seemed like the obvious thing to do for years. (Though look where this girl is resting her elbow!)

Time to remember the big display on New Year's Eve that acted as a kind of appetiser to all the private rocket launches that burst the silence of the first few moonlit hours of 2007.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Matador

The script is a few slugs short of a full clip, but Pierce Brosnan's performance as Julian Noble, friendless "facilitator of fatalities," is so completely captivating that you hardly notice. I could watch it over and over, just to re-enjoy all the nuances of this seedy character.

"Just consider me the best cocktail party story you ever met," Noble tells under-performing suit Danny Wright as he leaves him sitting in an open-air bar in Mexico City. Just one of many memorable quotes, such as:

"I wouldn't do that for all the teenage twat in Thailand."

"I look like a Bangkok hooker on a Sunday morning, after the navy's left town."

"Margaritas always taste better in Mexico...Margaritas and cock."

Indeed, the homoerotic underside to this buddy movie comes out much more strongly in the deleted scenes.

Yet another soundtrack for the Fabulosos Cadillacs to grace.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Guatemala's presidential commissioner on racism, Ricardo Cajas has had his own pop at Apocalypto now, claiming that Gibson's madly entertaining movie has hindered understanding of the Mayan people, setting it back 50 years.

A propos of this I recently watched (thanks to Scott) a "sensationalist" documentary movie about Guatemala's natives made back in 1934, which seriously questioned their commitment to personal hygiene and wrongly identified their ancestors as "the Toltecs". The film was titled The Menace of Guatemala and can be downloaded here.

Two other bits of Chapin news. Firstly it seems that the recent cash crisis has now evolved into a gathering credit card debt crisis, and secondly it is being reported that the US is getting ready to deport thousands of Guatemalans, some of which have lived up there in the north for over twenty years. (There are said to be some 200,000 outstanding asylum applications from Guatemalans dating back to the 1980s.)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Toritos and Mariposas

The journey in was just that little bit more bearable this morning. Soon I won't even be noticing how bland the bananas are here.

On the other hand, I am feeling a sense of release at having put some distance between myself and V's Guatemalan cocoon of light-hearted, yet still profound paranoia.

No longer is every human shape on the road ahead a potential perp. Motorbikes are especially sinister for her - undoubted harbingers of approaching doom. She spotted one the other night and recoiled. "He has a little kid on his back," I pointed out. "It could be a dummy," she retorted. It was kind of inanimate.

A couple more videos. Not in fact a cruel form of public execution, but standard entertainment for evenings of great celebration such as New Year's Eve - the Torito (Little bull).

Followed by the Mariposa (Butterfly).

Fire Dance

My first night in Mexico; the Blue Parrot. I had wanted to post a fun little clip I made of trancers chucking shapes on the white sand dancefloor, but Revver seems to think I lack the necessary copyrights for the music! So instead, here are the fire dancers that perform every Saturday at Playa's famous nightspot, giving the amateurs a chance to pause and watch:

Silent Night...

...unholy racket.

You'll need headphones to appreciate the din that attends the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve in Antigua. I saw some gringos apparently fleeing for their lives!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Beach Club

No need for an iPod at Mamita's Lounge, Playa del Carmen.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Goodbye again

My final evening in Antigua is always such a melancholy experience - I hate it when the light starts to seep away and I have to come to terms with the fact that I have yet again used up my precious supply of luminous, birdy-trilled mornings.

On Friday the twilight found us in the market stepping between the candles the last few sellers use to illuminate their produce. On previous final-night occasions we have made for Lloyds' (now Cuzcatlan) corner in the parque − our corner − as the old bank's steps are ideally placed to absorb and retain the warmth of the sun from early in the morning until the time it drops behind Fuego.

I have reorganised the sets of images I took in Central America this Christmas to make them a bit easier to review.

New Year's Eve in Antigua was particularly spectacular this year. The main event was the seventh annual Festival of the Calle del Arco and such is its regional fame these days that many hundreds of visitors came from neighbouring countries and beyond. There was hardly any room to throw fajas de cohetes. ("¿En donde estan nuestros amigos de Mexico?" a an organiser asked into her microphone. "En Pollo Campero!" a member of the crowd shouted back.)

The festival began the year after the Millennium celebrations. They had been pretty good, but the main engines of fun had been the myriad of semi-private parties dotted around the city. At the end of 2000 the committee of the Calle del Arco formed and Antigua has seen in the New Year in an increasingly loud, colourful and public manner ever since.

In London you get about ten minutes of premium explosions shortly after midnight courtesy of the mayor, then everyone troops home in the cold and damp. In Antigua the fireworks are still lighting up the sky several hours after midnight. On Monday morning at 2am the parque central was as packed as it gets on a Saturday afternoon. I've been to Rome and Seville on the 31st of December during those seven years − riotously fun nights both − yet still a notch or two short of Guatemalan exuberance.

Time for me to hit the sack now. I didn't get any sleep on the plane last night and have been doing all I can to last through to a reasonably nocturnal hour tonight. I've started to notice the strange lacunas in the flow of my consciousness over the past hour or so...

Marimbas Voz del Valle

This lot were accompanying the dance of the viejitas in the Calle del Arco on New Year's Eve in Antigua. I have many more little clips like this, from that night and others and will try to get them uploaded over the next week or so.


Some may be wondering if this sort of thing is more or less bigoted now that's there's no longer a need for screaming blonde damsels or seven storey primates to frame our interest in archetypally unfriendly natives?

It turns out Gibson's movie isn't really about the ancient Maya after all. Other than great entertainment, it's another exploration of the meaning of the Amerindians' forced dis-isolation from the rest of the World in the late fifteenth century − some six hundred years in fact after the Classic Maya collapse.

The indigenes hostility no longer needs to be directed at us because they have kindly lined up in the two main teams that we have always consigned them to: In the blue corner we have the noble-savages: wise, fun-loving hunter-gatherers at one with their forest habitat. And in the red corner we have the somebody else's skin wearing types with their penchant for industrial level human sacrifice (matched with a bed-wetting terror of precisely the kind of celestial events that ancient Mayan astronomers had managed to identify and predict with such unique accuracy.)

Even the creatures of this forest aren't the sort to hang around smiling sweetly on Pocahontas' shoulder. Not unless they fancy tucking into her face for breakfast that is.

Yet there's no wanton ignorance of the facts going on here. Gibson has gone about his re-concoction of history with his customary single-minded vision. Everything is carefully calculated to carry out its function in terms of cinematic drama, imaginative storytelling and symbol-making, and all together it works pretty well and was playing to a packed house at Cineworld.

When the Royal Academy held its Aztecs exhibition in London four years ago I remember thinking at the time that the nightmarish qualities of that civilisation had been deliberately played down in order to emphasise the more refined tastes that the RA's patrons would more readily identify with. There's no question that the Mesoamerican tradition of blood sacrifice that most likely began with the Olmecs had reached its apocalyptic apogee in the sixteenth century, with the first Spaniards on the continent witnessing the mass slaughter of up to 80,000 individuals. Controversy will however continue to surround Gibson's use of the Maya here, perhaps driven by the desire to employ actors from a semi-intact native culture speaking their own language (as opposed to Nahuatl).

While I was away I read a chapter in the Rough Guide about the growth of pan-Mayan consciousness, or Mayanidad. Several standard drivers for this were suggested, such as the intensified political oppression of the eighties. The notion that Western culture fascination with the heritage of ancient Maya might also have been important in helping the modern tribes to recover their heritage was not mooted. Yet on balance I think the Maya have benefitted from the spotlight thrown on them by the likes of National Geographic, and Mel Gibson's singular film should do little to undermine this progress.