Monday, August 31, 2009


Last week I had cause to wonder whether Guatemala's tramitadores might have become as endangered as the axolotls.

For my induction into the process of dealing with the local bureaucracy at the Finanzas building in Guatemala City (pictured) turned out to be a whole lot less painful than I had anticipated.

In fact I was at first caught out by the speed of service: having been given a number and a form to fill out, I hadn't managed to complete said form before my number was called...and so was duly sent back to get another one!

I was soon back at window No23 and the expected barrage of trabas was immediately forthcoming. My assembled paperwork was sifted through dismissively and I was informed that I appeared to have turned up without the necessary documentation from the shipping company i.e. I was screwed.

But then, somehow, I managed to achieve an almost complete turnaround in the attitude of the bureaucrat allocated to my case. What followed was a veritable arrebato of calculated leniency, which included letting me off a missing photocopy. (OK, this was a page without any actual relevant information on it.)

Adopting a gentle manner akin to that of an indulgent parent, he painstakingly collated all the sheets of paper I had presented to him and at last informed me that there would be one final piece of sidetracking: a trip back down to the ground floor to pay Q50 to Banrural before returning for another numbered position in the line. But don't worry, he told me with a knowing smile, there's hardly a queue today. I'm sure he could spot the look of utter bewilderment on my face.

I was soon on my way out of the building, passing a few rather resigned looking tramitadores, surely destined to be victims of the Guatemalan state's leisurely modernisation. Nevertheless, the fact that this particular tramite still requires a visit in person to a government building in the capital regardless of where one actually resides in Guatemala, probably means that their final extinction will yet be posponed for a few more years.

Anyway, as part of this recent undertaking I've discovered an interesting little local tax called the Boleto de Ornato. Every January or February Guatemalan citizens (and, as it turns out non-citizens too if they want to get anything done) are obliged to pay a small sum for their boleto, which is supposed to cover any costs the local Muni incurs each year relating to the beautification or indeed just the tidying up of the local urban environment.

Here in Antigua the 'cheapest' one costs Q10, but if you decide to buy it any time other than the first two months of the year you pay a 100% fine: so in my case I paid Q20. It won't matter if you weren't in the country in January.

Now the intriguingly barmy thing about this tax is that it is in a sense voluntary: nobody will come knocking on your door if you don't pay it. Yet in spite of being a local tax tied to local services, the key incentive one has for paying it is not in fact a nicer set of lights in the parque at Christmas, it's the fact that one can't expedite any paperwork with the national government without presenting this year's Boleto de Ornato.

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Piety, n. Reverence for the Supreme Being based on His supposed resemblance to man.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Justice, n. A commodity which in a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sin Nombre

Another of those docudramas about the extraordinary risks some will take in order to make it up to el Norte.

Cary Fukunawa's Sin Nombre is pacy, moving and beautifully shot but, taken as a whole, is less satisfactory than Maria Full of Grace, largely because its docu and drama elements haven't gelled together quite so well.

The factual underpinnings of the story derive from Fukunawa's field trips on top of freight trains traversing Mexico and the homework he subsequently did on the Salvatrucha subculture.

These provided him with his two main protagonists and their convergent plot strands of trek and chase: Sayra, the young Hondureña following her father and uncle on their New Jersey-bound odyssey, and Willy/El Casper, the fine-mannered fugitive marero,

Edgar Flores and Paulina Gaitán are both gratifying screen presences, but Fukunawa's skill with character depth and dialogue falls short of what Joshua Marston achieved in creating Maria for Catalina Sandino Moreno. So, while the drama of their journey never ceases to be gripping, at the same time it never ceases to feel essentially rather contrived. There's ultimately more truth in the background than in the foreground of this tale.

BTW, if you've never been to Tapachula this movie may well scare you off for good, but it's actually a pleasant little town!

Grade: B+(+)

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Architect, n. One who drafts a plan of your house, and plans a draft of your money.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Illustrious Visitors

Every so often someone with a certain amount of international fame or notoriety shows up in Antigua. This week it was the turn of Paris Hilton, whose presence in town was heralded by the following Tweet: "I'm in such a beautiful city right now, the people are so kind and gracious. So happy to be here."

Next day Paris followed up with "On my way to go visit some of the most poverty stricken villages in Central America. Going to be a very emotional day, God bless them all." and posted this pic from her helicopter-bound poverty tour in Guatemala's highlands.

The heiress had not long been gone when "some people that know" were saying that she had left binned in her hotel room a beautiful painting given to her by the kind people of Comalapa.

Such obsequios are a common feature of the illustrious visit, but rarely do they end up in pride of place on a far-off mantelpiece. When the King and Queen of Spain turned up in 2007 the rules of international diplomacy stipulated that they should say "muchas gracias" for every little trinket pushed their way, but at the end of the trip these would all be collected up, labelled and thereafter dumped in a cellar somewhere back in Madrid.

Locals have discovered to their cost that selling stuff to the famous can be almost as problematic as giving it away. Both the Clinton and the Borbón shopping bonanzas were much anticipated at Antigua's leading resellers of fine jade schmutter...but rows of smartly-attired, salivating salesmen and a dazzling array of tasty boquitas were not in the end to tempt these heads of state to whip out their wallets.

HRHs Juan Carlos and Sofia had been programmed to make an official visit to Jades SA but instead went to La Casa del Jade (and were retroactively-picketed by the staff of the former establishment when they left, I'm told.)

Such abrupt changes of plan are all part of the cunning strategies devised by the minders of famed vacationers, intended to confound potential trouble-makers. President Bill for example, was rumoured to have booked into the five-starred Casa Santo Domingo, but ended up at the boutiquey Posada del Angel instead, a hotel which has also played host to HRH Prince Alexander Prinz von Sachsen of Saxe-Gessaphe and his wife Princess Gisela of Baveria no less.

I can't imagine there was a queue of people lined up with gifts for George W. Bush when he came visiting in March '07. After all, the Maya priests made a big show of ritually purifying their sacred site at Iximché after the arbustito departed.

At a nearby village which the President had passed through earlier, his secret service detail had forced every inhabitant to walk through a scanner the size of my garage, and the local priest had eventually prevailed after a stand-off with a some snipers wishing to take up positions in the bell-tower of his church.

Twittler losing it

O Matador (The Killer)

I outlined the plot of Patrícia Melo's novel back in August 2006 when we saw the film that it had been adapted into: O Homen do Ano (The Man of the Year).

Máiquel was played there by Murilo Benício as a careless ingenu who never quite squanders our sympathy as he makes his way along a Tony Montana-like career path.

That all his misfortune and that of his victims can be traced back to an unfortunate wager which prompted this ineffectual gamma-male to change his hair-colour and with it to transform himself into a dark angel of social sanitisation is an ever-present visual joke in the film.

The gags are generally thinner on the ground in O Matador. ("I stood on my head for fifteen minutes. The coke still wasn't working.") and the outrageous social implications of this story are given the full overtone treatment.

Melo's Máiquel is a more transparently psychotic individual, whose compassionate asides are swept away by sudden tsunamis of incontinent savagery.

The key female character — Érica — is also handled considerably more perceptively than by screenwriter Fonesca.

It's still a fun, ironic and stylish experience, but falls short of being a significant piece of Latin American literature; a failure I've put down to the intermittent hokeyness of Melo's stream of consciousness format.

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Misfortune, n. The kind of fortune which never misses.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"No green shoots, not even yellow ones"

Pessimism is our state of mind of the day.

After all, as I think I might have mentioned once before, even the chap who invented optimism defined it as the understanding that one has no right to expect things to be any better than they are.

It was reported yesterday that Sir Supreme Dalek reckons that the recovery will be italic I shaped: "A gentle rise maybe - back half of this year or second half of this year will look better than the first half. I think 2010 will see a recovery of sorts, a pretty anaemic recovery."

The cycle certainly appears to have bottomed earlier than a lot of people anticipated back in March, but aren't we still a bit, well...fucked? Indeed, are we not still, in the words of John Lanchester, "like the cartoon character who's run off the end of a cliff and hasn't realised it yet."?

In the UK national debt will soon hit 79% of GDP and will cost up to £47bn to service...more than the current transport budget. The average British household still owes 160% of its annual income. This is bleak enough and will surely take decades to sort out.

The optimist might say that everyone, banks included, is now starting to emerge from what was after all a severe, but temporary liquidity crisis. What would the pessimist say?

Some of the most important global financial institutions undoubtedly possess holes of an unspecified magnitude on their balance sheets. In a normal world we'd declare them insolvent, but in this particular world we've collectively decided that their situation is more like the kind of negative equity that many of their customers are suffering from in other words, time for the banks to just carry on as best they can and hope a future rise in asset prices will provide the de-tox.

Bail-outs, recapitalisations, TARPs and TALFs have all been deployed to deal with the terrible uncertainty that has come to surround the solvency of the banking system. Truth is though that this 'uncertainty' is rather convenient, because it suits the banks (and now a whole load of taxpayers) that certainty about the true value of some of their assets should be postponed indefinitely. Like..walk slowly and hope your arm doesn't drop off and maybe nobody will spot that you're a zombie!

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Pessimism, n. A philosophy forced upon the convictions of the observer by the disheartening prevalence of the optimist with his scarecrow hope and his unsightly smile.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

RIP Guide to Food and Drink in La Antigua

Having reached such a momentous landmark yesterday, I have been in a somewhat nostalgic frame of mind. The result, this elegaic post about the eateries and drinkeries in La Antigua Guatemala that are sadly no longer with us.

Several memorable venues had already gone patas arriba by the time I made my third trip to Guatemala in 1993. These included Mio Cid (behind the cathedral), once the most popular evening venue for visitors, and a smaller, less frequented nightspot called Moscas y Miel on the 5a Calle Poniente, which was run by an unceremonious catalan who used to slam the Gallos down on his mostrador.

One of the best Asian restaurants in La Antigua at the time was Zen, at the corner of 4a Calle Oriente and 3a Avenida Sur, within a private property which still catches the eye with its oriental flourishes. There were rumours that the owner, a Japanese ex-pat, had been gunned down. But being dead by popular consent is a surprisingly common condition here in Antigua, and one is forever running into people who have suffered from it.

Our favourite dining spot was the Mistral from yesterday's anecdote, an establishment once located opposite Doña Luisa's and run by a moustachioed French Canadian called André, who offered the best local rates for changing traveller's cheques by anyone in town who wasn't Chinese. His restaurant also used to do the best French onion soup my wife has ever tasted....and she HATES French onion soup!

And then there was the bizarre little vegetarian cafe called Govinda's, run by Israeli buddhists. This was situated in the two storey house which huddles up against the ruins of San Augustín on 7a Avenida Sur. Later this became Onis, the bar-restaurant where we were to spend the first few hours of the new millennium drinking Zacapa Centenario on the house. In those days Onis was the pride and joy of a young Guatemalan called Christian and he ran it more or less as a semi-private club for his mates...and their mates. It was never quite packed to the rafters with Guatemala's jeunesse dorée like some of its significant competition in the late nineties/early noughties, such as El Afro (now La Sala) and Collage (now Mito's).

For these were the boom years here; quite literally so. The area around the Arco de Santa Catalina was La Antigua's zona viva, and the coked-up scions of finqueros were known to fire their pistols into the air as they exited La Casbah. The then mayor, Victor Hugo, was a dapper young man himself and was considered guilty by the more sober residents of the Calle Real of encouraging all these shenanigans.

These were also the days of la ley seca, a kind of drinker's curfew which will be very familiar to Brits who have the bells of last orders please still tolling in their ears. (OK, it was 1am and not 11pm, but the cops did tend to enforce it quite enthusiastically.)

A bar whose name would certainly have resonated with exiles from Blighty was the Dog and Fox on 3a Calle Oriente, one of those places that seems to have been shut down because it was becoming too much fun. (And Fenix probably went because it sounded too much like a farmacia, but it did have a pool table.)

A precarious association between particular watering holes and banned pharmacologicals was often not so easy to spot for visiting patrons. Which is why the sudden disappearance of a whole batch of local negocios when the 'German Connection' was rumbled, may have come as a bit of a surprise to many, notwithstanding the constant churn in the food and drink industry here. One of our favourite chophouses — the ever tranquil Oasis — would appear to have been another casualty of this particular instance of investigative enthusiasm.

Another fine restaurant, perhaps La Antigua's most authentic trattoria El Capuchino — finally closed its doors a few years ago when its owner returned to his native Italy to expire.

La Erupción at the Radisson (Once the Ramada and now Soleil) was also briefly rather trendy, and I suppose the Macondo pub next to the Arch is worth a mention here too.

But the stand-out joint of the era was surely Mojito's, well hidden in the grotto that now forms part of El Sereno on 4a Avenida Norte. This was a Cuban bar serving Cuban beers and inside one jostled with the sort of achingly cool individuals one usually only sees in those adverts back home for Bacardi rum. Where did they come from? You never saw their like during the daylight hours.

Anyway things are generally much quieter these days, even at the weekends. Many of the city's erstwhile merrymakers have either grown up or driven off the edge of the precipice which skirts the highway at Las Cañas.

I've probably missed a few places that others hold in fondest memory. I wish I could remember the name of that little unpretentious Japanese comedor on 5a Calle Poniente run by a sad-eyed sushi chef from Tokyo. He was ahead of his time.

Some of course will not be so sorely lamented. El Punto was fairly pointless for example. If you went in and asked for pasta the manager would tetchily dispatch her son to the La Canche's tienda to get some spaghetti.

The picture inset above shows V patiently awaiting her meal at Welten, and was taken during our honeymoon visit to Guatemala. Now I know that Welten is still very much vivito y coleando, but I think it deserves a few wistful bars within this little requiem, because it is not quite the place that it used to be.

For back in the late eighties Welten epitomised the kind of hobby restaurant set up by wealthy middle-European ex pats which didn't appear to make any effort to court the passing trade. Nowadays the manageress (who inherited the business from its late founder) tends to leave open the smart wooden portal on 4a Calle Oriente, so that random pedestrians might wander in...God forbid. But in the days when V and I used to drop in for a piña colada, one had to knock first.

And on a Sunday one would tend to find within small gatherings of Germans of shall we say a certain age, amongst whom I've been told, one could nearly always spot a lovelorn former U-Boat captain, besotted unrequitedly with la patrona.

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Habit, n A shackle for the free.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Big Foot threw an ice-cream at Ronald Reagan"

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of my first visit to Antigua. I'd come to Guatemala the year before but hadn't made it down here.

But on August 25 1989 Surfer and I rolled into town, presented ourselves at the Mistral and were soon embroiled in a marathon drinking session with James Stewart — a retired engineer from Dundee and a true Scottish gent — and the nephew of Guatemala's most famous living ex-dictator. (One of Mr R's most memorably oblique contributions to the conversation that evening has now been immortalised as the title of this blog post. ) We then decamped to James's house near the Tanque de la Union, by which time only his parrot was talking any sense.

The next morning I woke up with a la gomota del infierno and the kooky premonition that this place was going to be very important in my life and that I had to return to spend more time here.

But first we had to be ejected from our hotel — ostensibly for all the laughing and babbling that had been going on into the small hours. The manager apologised profusely for our expulsion (she clearly had a soft spot for the pair of us) but there was no appeasing the trenchant American couple in the room next door. She introduced us to her delightful little niece Blanca, who escorted us to a replacement hospedaje around the corner.

Once Surfer had packed himself off back to St Andrew's, I made my way back down to Antigua from Placencia at the end of the following month. And the rest, as they say, is history!

A Chapin curry

Rudy suggested to me the other day when we had lunch that the restaurant food in La Antigua is generally very good, there just isn't enough Indian and Thai. And he's right.

V and I are big fans of Asian food and you can generally get — or grow — most of the necessary ingredients here in Guatemala. (Anyone spotted any galangals?)

But the incomplete nature of the local ingredient portfolio encourages a bit of experimentation. I've always thought for example that the Asian diet could perhaps do with a bit more avocado in it.

My recent guest post on Rudy's blog
has encouraged me to do a few more culinary pieces here as well, so let me tell you about a dish that V prepared the other day.

We dubbed it a 'faux curry' because, in spite of appearances, it was conceived to be very mild on the palate (and intestinal tract). The chicken breast pieces had been marinated overnight in olive oil, tumeric, paprika, Guatemalan basil and star anise. V then 'sealed' them by frying them in a lightly-oiled wok for a couple of minutes, before adding chopped red peppers, onions and grated carrot.

This mix was then fried for a further five minutes before three cups of water, a few squirts of cream and some strips of coriander were added. It was then covered and left to simmer on a low heat for a further 8-10 minutes and then served with the guicoyitos and broccoli that we had boiled separately and a bowl of basmati rice with raisins.

You can of course heat things up a bit by adding some chillies along with the red peppers.

We have discovered a source of wonderfully large, fragrant and gently piquant red peppers just a few hundred metres from our home which awaken memories of the fabulous piquillo peppers of Navarra. And in my view these fully complement the well-tempered nature of this recipe with its subtle tanginess of anis and coriander. In some Asian dishes there tend to be too many sharp spicy flavours competing for your attention at once.

Devil's Dictionary Word of the Day

Lawyer, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.

[This little gem from Bierce reminds me of the old gag about accountants: How much is two plus two? What would you like it to be?]

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Market Day

Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays are market days in La Antigua. The market is still there on the other days...just not so crammed.

V has a fairly strong antipathy towards shopping on the days of maximum bulla.

When forced her preference is to the trail up and down the uncovered area at the rear where, in spite of the best efforts of the current municipal authorities to control who can sell which produce in which area, a good cross-section of local fruit and veg can be purchased from women either seated on the ground, or themselves strolling amongst the throng.

I'm expected to keep a safe distance...for it's a given that my mere presence in the haggling zone will result in my wife being destripada — in the financial sense!

We were apart yesterday for just a few minutes and she returned gleefully clutching a set of black bags containing 20 lemons, 2 cucumbers, 1 bunch of radishes, 3 guicoys, 10 guicoyitos, 3 bags of carrots, a dozen bananas (criollos), 4 broccoli, a large stalk of celery and a manojote of coriander...all for just Q28.50. (£2 / $3.4)

Over at the Bodegona a pair of wrapped aubergines alone would set you back roughly half that.

For avocados however, one really does have to venture indoors to the large covered hall where the reggatonas sit surrounded by their wares. V's a native panza verde and has known some of these women since she was little, but rarely manages to do better than I can: Q2 per aguacate.

Back at the Casa Escudo

We went back to La Escudilla last night and this time we weren't hussled out the door.

My indignant post from October '07 had attracted the following comment: "Thinks are changing [sic] mangement is changing and I hope we have the goodtimes back."

So perhaps it was time to accept this challenge from the nueva gerencia. I'd actually been back once before last year with a visiting friend and we'd had a very pleasant Sunday buffet lunch...but getting my wife back in there after the embarrassment caused to her own friend was always going to take a bit more cajoling. I eventually achieved it largely by declaring an inexorable antojo for Cordon Bleu earlier in the week.

So, what's changed aside from the management?

Well, they don't sell litros of Brahva any more...and this was the place that earlier in the decade temporarily swapped out all its rustic wooden furniture for bright red Brahva-branded director's chairs and sun umbrellas. (A customer uprising ensued, but it was nice to have something other than Gallo to drink.)

The two rather squat fellows who handle security at the entrance— and who seem to have been there since Riki first opened that door to patrons — are still there, but the perennial crew of sullen meseras has been whittled down to one survivor; fortunately the least elusive and sulky, and the new staff all seem to go about their jobs with an air of cheerful efficiency.

The weekend buffet is a really good idea and reasonably priced. However, the rest of the menu doesn't manifest quite the same mouth-watering price to quality ratio that it used to.

Being something of an Antigua institution is clearly a double-edged sword. Some of Escudilla's offerings, like the Cordon Bleu of fond memory, are part of the fabric of the joint. But chefs change and we were left thinking last night that perhaps we ought to have plugged for one of the upstart entrées. For what arrived in front of me was a fine lump of battered white chicken for sure, but the cheese didn't do the sort of oozing that it always used to, and I felt a bit like a surgeon in my subcutaneous quest for the ham.

And V's escalope was a slipshod affair, served with a perfunctory 'salad' and a few pommes frites — not quite the 'two fried potatoes' advertised. These were sent back and replaced with a really superb guacamol, but it couldn't really make up for the unfastidious nature of this dish in terms of both taste and presentation. (If you must do bland here in Centroamérica, Personajes currently has the edge with the basic chicken escalope I would suggest.)

Naturally I felt obliged to share my mashed potato, which I have to say the current crop of cooks prepare in far more savory style than their predecessors. Another blip of real satisfaction occurred when I asked for some salsa picante and the green chile sauce that turned up — eventually — was one of the best I have ever tried in a Guatemalan restaurant. Thankfully they've adiosed the Picamás!

And the good times do seem to be sticking a toe in the water again. The majority of our fellow diners were a smart — if somewhat staid — crowd of youngish capitalinos, with a smattering of gringos and gente del otro bando. Not quite the roaring atmosphere of the late 90s, but an improvement on the regressively funereal ambience of recent times. Anyway, a good number of Riki's erstwhile revellers are probably sprogged up and perched in front of Sabado Gigante these days.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Doggy style

Relations between felines and canines in our house occasionally come unglued, but between Osli and Cherry at least there has always been an unusually close bond.

White Squall (1996)

I've always felt I liked this movie. But I'd only ever seen the last third (on a cable channel in Belize back in '97) so I suppose that is a bit like saying you like Saving Private Ryan when you've only seen the first 20 minutes. Or Titanic from the iceberg strike onwards...

So, now I've seen the whole thing and I still think I like it, but with one or two pangs of viewer's remorse. For just about every enjoyable aspect of White Squall has a flipside that is just a touch vomitous.

Take Ridley Scott's visual style for example. He delivers some stunning vistas and jaw-dropping cinematographic drama, but he also over-extends his use of his signature filters — to the extent that V ended up fiddling with the controls for the backlight of our LCD TV.

This is a first rate boy's-own adventure, but it's also a tale which misses every chance to be anything other than casually dismissive about the role of women in the the same time it trots out a load of retrograde tosh about male character building.

And if I were the kind of person who professes to detect the hidden tropes of fascism in all the nooks and crannies of our culture, this is one movie which would probably trigger my phobia.

But if there's ever been a truly bad Jeff Bridges movie I can't remember it. Last night I re-watched Iron Man just so V could see the great man's latest piece of work!

Grade: B(+)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Smile, though your heart is aching

Áxel Danilo Ramírez Espinoza, alias el Smiley, is periodically Guatemala's most wanted man.

He tends to spend the rest of the time locked up, but they let him out every so often so that he can kill a few more people. Back to jail he then goes; he is after all not that hard to spot in a crowd. Smiley's a member of the Mara 18 in case you hadn't noticed.

I watched an interview conducted with Smiley the last time he was detained. "I don't just kill anybody," he explained. "Only the ones who get on my tats — que me chingan — and they'd be dead soon enough anyway." So, no big deal.

Bus drivers are a particular speciality
and it would appear that Smiley's entire family (teenage relatives included) are involved in his killing trade because just two days ago we watched them all sitting in a makeshift dock in a shabby tribunal room doing "whatevaaar" faces as a judge ticked them off without making a great deal of eye contact.

They were all wearing kevlar vests that were just a couple of sizes too big in court. Hardly surprising, observed V, given the number of people who will have been stimulated to 'clean' them as a result of this TV exposure. Maybe Smiley should stay in there this time.

According to PNC stats, there have been 2548 murders so far this year in Guatemala (with an additional 3011 people wounded by firearms) and 12,428 robberies.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Cat Flap

That the number of private houses around here with significant basements or even bunker complexes was next to zero, is one of those fixed assumptions that I have carried around with me for two decades.

Not so in the capital with all its weird gradients, but here in La Antigua underground levels would be expensive, inconvenient, rather pointless and perhaps even a little dangerous...surely?

So I was gobsmacked the other day when I witnessed an SUV passing through a big wooden gate and then down a steep ramp into a home that had clearly been constructed from subterranean first principles. We're not talking about a dusty old cellar here; the main entrance and all of the reception rooms appeared to be below ground level. ('Beneath a cliff,' said V) Indeed the windows in the exterior street wall may well have been a sham.

I wonder what the consejo make of bunkers? Do they disapprove of building down as much as they seem to of building up? The room I'm sitting in now — my third floor office — had to be architecturally disguised, or at least hidden behind the two-level facade, in order for us to secure their approval. (It might be worth mentioning at this point that someone told me recently that the Guatemalan state owns everything below ground level and everything above a certain height by default.)

Anyway, one assumption that is perhaps still worth hanging onto is that the traditional English distinction between one's neat little garden and the insulated interior world of one's castle, simply doesn't exist here in colonial-style architecture.

The other day my father helpfully suggested that we should install a cat flap. Tricky, I replied. Aside from the garage gate, we have 18 doors, exactly half of which act as a barrier between 'indoors' and 'outdoors', plus three full-length iron and glass balcony exits, which the cats would make use of given half a chance.

Last night as we walked the dogs, we once again touched on the idea of building a house on our other plot. If we do, it's going to be a lot more open plan, with fewer rooms...and doors.

At 7km from the centre, strict colonial adherence will be less of an issue. (V says her principal inspirations will be the work of César Manrique — especially the house at the Mirador del Rio — and the terraced layout of the Royal Observatory Garden in Greenwich.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Great atheists go where the money is

As for that shirt...Just because something makes you feel good it doesn't make it cool. (Maybe Ridley Scott needs someone to play a jaded CIA agent in the tropics in some future movie?)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Big families, small lives

Chuchos callejeros

Stray dogs with a red plastic tag in one ear
Have been licensed
By the city to be safe and allowed to live in the street,
So they wander around, or more likely just lie there,
Healthy, checked by a city vet, without a care.
They're red-tagged Turks and they're an elite.
You walk past them in the street.
They're bums, they're the homeless, not educated.
It's complicated, but they're regulated.
It isn't complicated.
The red tag is their fez.
That's what the republic Atatürk founded says.

From the poem Istanbul by Frederick Seidel.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lies (Mentira) by Enrique de Hériz

In Newman and Mittelmark's hilarious How Not To Write A Novel the opening chapter on setup blunders kicks off with The Lost Sock...where plot is too slight.

Enrique de Hériz's setup in Lies looks as if it has indeed the necessary oomph to avoid the kind of criticism one might have to level at novels "where the main conflict is barely adequate to sustain a Partridge Family episode"!

A prominent Spanish anthropologist called Isabel Azuera is the sole occupant of the Posada del Caribe on Lake Petexbatún in Guatemala. One morning while out swimming she collides with a floating corpse.

There has been an accident involving a lancha on the lake and a woman has drowned after having her features eradicated by the boat's propeller. Add to this circumstance, a mix-up involving Isabel's backpack and and you have a situation in which this academic, celebrated for her studies of tribal death rituals, is considered to have expired in Central America.

Unfortunately de Hériz doesn't make consistent good use of this rather promising scenario.

Once the basic confusion has been established, the novel alternates between the notebook scribblings of Isabel and her daughter Serena; apparently a real stickler for truth. We learn that Isabel's husband, an artist come ship's captain suffering from dementia, has been an inveterate mythomaniac, and that all of their children have been brought up to believe a possibly fallacious family history involving an abuelo named Simón.

This character and his astounding story of survival are related with flashes of the sensibility which runs through that other recent Catalan bestseller: Carlos Ruiz Zafón's La Sombra del Viento. It sure sells books, but I found it rather slight myself. But my real concern here was that by isolating these matters of truth and falsehood within a single rather self-obsessed Spanish family, de Hériz left me constantly struggling to expand the broader appeal of his plot.

There are interesting factual asides deriving from Isabel's anthroplogical papers and some less interesting ones, such as an over-laboured retelling of the naval battle of Les Formigues in 1285. You can add to these a nested Chinese legend, but all feel a bit tacked on, and suffer from being contained within the shut off world of Azuera storyland. (This is a family group who appear not to be able to hang on to serious relationships outside of the tribe.)

It's the kind of novel that reviewers tend to describe as "a powerful meditation", which tends to mean, if not the kind of book that leaves the reader in a state of lowered consciousness, then the kind that isn't entirely successful as a piece of storytelling — often because the characters turn out to be less inherently fascinating than the themes their interactions are designed to explore.

Isabel is certainly a more intriguing creation than her offspring, in part because she has apparently seen through some of the untruths which underly her family mythology, but also because we see her reaching certain conclusions which, however logical, turn out to be wrong.

However, I'm not quite sure that the author provides enough psychological detail for us to fully understand why she briefly flirts with living her own death, other than the fact that her fieldwork has constantly exposed her to the distressing notion that life always seems to go on without the deceased. (Except, as we are told in one of the novel's more striking passages, amongst the Wari of the Amazon, a tribe which really shakes things up every time one of its own passes. )

Disappointingly, Guatemala is a purely incidental location here : any other remote location with incompetent officials could have stood in.

Anyway, I can't say I didn't enjoy this book — it has its captivating moments — it's just that in the back of my mind I often had this strange sensation of something misplaced. A sock perhaps...

Monday, August 10, 2009


Ecofiltro is a great project that operates out of one of our neighbour's homes in Panorama.

Inside a large, hand-made oven they bake pot-like ceramic filters made from clay and sawdust which are then fitted within plastic tubs of various capacities. The filters are impregnated with colloidal silver, a natural antibacterial and provide an ecological alternative to boiling or chlorinating.

The method, first developed by Guatemalan scientist Fernando Mazariegos back in 1981, allows water to be drawn from contaminated lakes and rivers and then safely consumed after the filtering process.

The 20 litre 'community-sized' tub costs $37.

Ecofiltro has received a World Bank Marketplace Award for sustainable technology and is now also manufactured in 13 countries outside of Guatemala.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


After watching Knowing I tweeted that the difference between an averagely bad movie and a truly abysmal one was in this case a pair of white rabbits...and of course, Nicholas Cage.

And yet this is the movie that Roger Ebert rates as one of the best sci-fi films he has ever seen. Er...Hello?

Ok, chop off the icky sub-Spielbergian section which has been blended rather awkwardly with the glum 70s sensibility of the rest of the final act, and you do have almost two hours of often quite gripping entertainment. And the grisly consequences of seemingly contingent events are portrayed strikingly.

I've always thought that the better kind of science fiction is that which teases out thought-provoking insights from striking conceptual premises. The trouble with Knowing is that it makes a clumsy conceptual mis-step almost from the get go, from which, on a purely intellectual level, it never really recovers from.

Anyone who thinks it's a complete waste of time to critique the ideas behind rubbishy movies can stop reading here...

In an classroom supposedly packed with America's finest young minds, astro-physicist John Koestler sets up the philosophical distinction between causal determinism and randomness in a way which leaves the door wide open for theology (not to mention UFOs).

He's simultaneously over-simplifying and misrepresenting this pair of apparent opposites: either 'shit happens' or everything happens for a reason'. Now this might be how the happy-clappies like to see the world, but it's hardly a position that's going to appeal to many academics out there in the real MIT.

But plot-wise the conflation of determinism with destiny is relevant, because the extra-terrestrials here don't just have advanced knowledge of events here on Earth, they have been manipulating our causality in a way that's bound to look a lot like Divine Providence to anyone experiencing it.

Anyway Koestler has in fact crystalised one of the great uncertainties of human existence. People tend to handle this uncertainty in different ways. A small minority — let's call them the religious nuts and the nihilists — go into flagrant denial: there is no uncertainty. Shit happens in ways that are either absolutely meaningful or absolutely meaningless.

Fortunately the vast majority of human beings still fall into the altogether less zealous zone between these alternative head trips. Some like to refer to the uncertainty as the 'spiritual dimension of life'. Others go a bit further in their affirmative reponse to the conundrum, subscribing fully to what philosophers call the God hypothesis — a placeholder for a real explanation, but nonetheless one that enables them to manage the uncertainty within the context of their own lives (and mortality).

Many of these individuals will refer to their God hypothesis as 'faith' but in fact it is usually a more rationally-constructed response than either they themselves or the likes of Richard Dawkins are willing to admit, and therefore also perhaps less infantile than it is has tended to be characterised by some contemporary atheists.

I'm happy to admit to being an infidel myself...but one who is comfortable with uncertainty and who senses the obligation to seek tentative rather than absolute explanations and solutions to the problems arising from the fundamental mysteries of our condition.

This movie bothers me because it's central protagonist has by the end gone from 'shit happens' to 'I know'. But how does he know? What is it about this close ecounter with the 'whisper people' — alien meddlers got up like a late 80s German techno band — that has convinced him to renounce uncertainty?

And why did these all-seeing aliens screw with the mind of Lucinda back in the 50s when she clearly wasn't going to be one of the chosen? They could also not have settled on a more annoying breeding pair of young yanks than Caleb and Abby. (The latter getting over her mother's plot exit discomfortingly quickly.)

Poor old Rose Byrne. The last three movies I've seen her in have been sci-fi flicks in which she falls just short of the finishing line.

Grade: B -