Sexteando in Guatemala City

avenida sexta GC

Guatemala City.…home from home for a Scot!

Porridge for breakfast and a bus system that lets you ride all day for one Quetzal…about 10p….as long as you don’t get off.

I should qualify the porridge, though, known as ‘mosh‘….it is made very thin to resemble a drink and is flavoured with cinnamon and sugar. The sort of Scot who takes his oatmeal standing and flavoured with salt would find it effete…but I liked it as a starter to the breakfasts we took each day in a caff we found while looking for one recommended in the ten year old guidebook which Higher Authority was using as a vade mecum on the grounds that

A….buildings could not be moved.

and

B…it was a false economy to buy an up to date guide when only visiting for a week.

This policy led to many architectural discoveries…from Spanish colonial to art deco

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via pure fantasy….while pounding the back streets in search of long vanished Argentinian steak houses.

post office GC

Returning to the caff, that too would delight a Scots heart…a full breakfast for one pound fifty….mosh, followed by a plate of refried beans, cheese, fried plantains, sour cream and a choice of eggs cooked several different ways or, if feeling like making a splash, a pork chop for thirty pence more, accompanied by coffee and bread such as I had not tasted since leaving the U.K. all those years ago…a crisp crust , feather light within…not a Glasgow morning roll, to be sure, but not far off!

There are twenty two zones in Guatemala City and I suspect that some of them bear out the reputation for dirt and danger which was proclaimed by the guidebook but the experience of the zones down the spine of the city was decidedly different. I have never in all my puff seen so many street cleaners to the square yard…..they wash down the pavements early in the morning and then spend their day picking up litter and sweeping away rubbish. The place is spotless.

As to danger, the city crawls with police of all sorts, from the ones who mind the zebra crossings who wear gaiters at one end and pith helmets at the other to those in black who pile out of pick up trucks in response to goodness only knows what and the paramilitary ones in green fatigues who patrol fully armed.

Many shops have their own security guards, armed to the teeth with pump action sawn off shotguns, while chemist shops, in particular, look like old fashioned zoo cages – you half expect Guy the gorilla to appear to take your order – so I imagine that security could be a problem if control were to be relaxed.

The original city bus services had had a bad reputation for crime, whether it was robbing passengers or shooting the drivers to extort protection money from the owners and in response the city has set up two systems which avoid the drivers carrying cash – the Transurbano which covers a great deal of the city and access to which is made by a card which can be topped up, rather like London Transport’s Oyster card, and the Transmetro which is accessed by paying a Quetzal into the slot machine at each station, guarded by a policeman, and is the one on which you can make a tour of the city just by changing lines at the junctions. The old red buses are still there though, belching fumes as they lurch round corners  with the young conductor hanging in the open doorway to hoist potential passengers aboard…

transmetro

There are two types of taxi… white ones with black chequerboarding and yellow ones. The first roam the city and charge by agreement, the second is summoned by telephone and charges by the meter. There is also Uber apparently, but as I have no wish to encourage the leeches who run it I don’t use it.

We met the first type when starting on the museum visits….we were staying in Zone 1, the historic centre of the city, as it is good for walking. The museums we wished to visit were in Zones 10 and 13…a long way down the spine and mostly set in parkland, way off the bus routes.

You have not lived until you have sat behind a Guate taxista who, in heavy traffic, is driving with a tablet in one hand to access a map and a mobile ‘phone in the other, over which a mate is giving him directions. And even then he took a wrong turning…..

church GC

I thought it might be a Russian Orthodox church…but it was certainly not the museum we were heading for. Still we made it eventually and were assured that the museum staff would call us a taxi for the return trip.

Indeed they did. A yellow one.

Given the traffic, exacerbated by repairs on one of the main roads through the city, the meter was mounting up alarmingly…so Higher Authority commanded a change of destination.

‘The nearest Transmetro station’.

Money ceased to hemorrhage and we were back at the hotel for a Quetzal.

I had never felt much attraction for the pre-Columbian cultures of Central America, but the exhibitions of the Popul Vuh museum changed my mind. The flowing movement of the painted ceramics, then the melancholy of the incense burners and  the funerary urns  recalling the canopic vases of ancient Egypt was that which, finally, gave me the human link which had previously eluded me.

museo-popol-vuh pot

 

Interest in the Maya thus kindled I was sorely tempted by reviews of a restaurant offering a fusion of modern and Maya cuisine, just round the corner from the hotel.

La Cocina de la Senora Pu.

The lady in charge is an anthropologist and her message is that Mayan culture survived the colonial period in its essentials…as demonstrated by the syncretism of religious practice and the perseverance of cooking styles.

Temptd by the blurb on her website I ventured out to take a look but was repulsed by the style of the place. The customer eats at a bar surrounding the cooker at which the owner exercises her arts and that is much too close for comfort for me. I like to have a table far from the maelstrom without interaction with other diners…let alone the chef… and the reaction of Higher Authority on learning that he was expected to sit on a stool at a bar to eat his dinner would certainly have ruptured any idea of social harmony and drawn unflattering comparisons with the conquistadors.

la-cocina-de-la-senora

Do I regret it? In a way, yes…I was curious….and in a way, looking at the photographs of the food supplied by the restaurant, no. The sauces would have to be jolly good to make me eat some of those veg.

la-cocina-de-la-senora dish

As a one time spinner, dyer and weaver I was keen to learn more about the traditional arts of the Maya women.

A friend had given me addresses in Antigua where I would find the real thing…natural dyes and natural fabrics… but as Higher Authority overdid the walking and was thus confined to the hotel for a day I had had to renounce a visit to that sanitised home of yoga mats and boutique hotels.

Instead I visited the Ixchel museum,  home of indigenous textiles…alongside the Popul Vuh.

I was intrigued by the clay figures of Mayan women of the classic period with their geometric hairstyles…the Mary Quants of their time….. but less intrigued by the failure of the museum to demonstrate more clearly the  techniques of dying and weaving, particularly the use of the backstrap loom

backstrap loom

though the exhibits did show the colours and patterns typical of each area when producing the huipil, a rectangular garment with a hole for the head

Huipil-(Guatemala)-45317

and the cortes, a wrap wround skirt secured by a sash.

cortes

 

Dress changed in the colonial period…to be assimilated, men wore more European style clothes…but traditional  dress was preserved in the ‘cofradias’ the groups of people who held themselves responsible for the upkeep of venerated statues and the like….again, something more marked among women than among men.

The museum was good at showing how weavers now use ready dyed artifical thread…and a lot of sparkly stuff…to produce their wares, while still keeping a link to the traditional colours and designs of their area which went a long way to explain the forty shades of bling encountered on the streets where the vast majority of the women wore Mayan costume.

And there was, of course, the railway museum.

museo-del-ferrocarril

Not only could I wallow in photographs of steam trains crossing spidery viaducts

steam-locomotive

but I also learned that the Guatemala and El Salvador rail systems had a unique gauge, that a bankrupt government handed the Guatemalan railways over to the United Fruit Company whose hold was so complete that Guatemalans had to pay to use the port they built on the Caribbean coast and that it was to break that monopoly that a later president built the road to the coast which in turn broke the railway.

A long conversation with the staff about the role of the unions in advancing social welfare, a joint rant about neo liberalism…and my day was made!

Staying in the old city centre I was well placed to see the procession which brought the Immaculate Conception from the church of San Francisco to the Metropolitan Cathedral….complete with petards, men selling balloons and a band playing lively pasadobles which incited those pushing the attendant saints  on brown wheelie bins to pass at a fair lick.

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Two gallant gentlemen had hoisted me up on the wall of the park to enable me to take photographs while below us an elderly lady was  informing her neighbours that this, for example, was Saint Theresa. Presumably the Avila one rather than the Lisieux one.

‘No’ said a gentleman with the lapel badge of one of the cofradas ‘That is Saint Clare’

Then she spotted Saint Francis….no it wasn’t, it was Santo Domingo…and so it went on while the float bearing the Immaculate Conception made its solemn way to the cathedral steps. Just as well that the eighty odd men bearing it were able to ignore the band as trying to leg it to a pasadoble would have led to instant disaster and possibly thirty years more in Purgatory.

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Assisted to the ground by the two same gallant gentlemen I made my way back to the hotel, passing the bar where Che Guevara downed a few beers in his time, in a gallery off the main square.

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I would return to the cathedral to take a closer look….

cathedral GC

You see the pillars in front? They form a monument to those who ‘disappeared’ during the bitter civil war in Guatemala, where villages were razed to the ground on suspicion of aiding guerrilla bands trade unionists and activists were snatched on the street, never to be seen again.

cathedral pillars

Twelve pillars….but there could be twenty and still names would be missing.

Ordinary people, a baker, like the chaps who made my breakfast rolls, snatched and never seen again. His wife sought information for years…and found it when a building housing police archives collapsed. She learnt that he had indeed been snatched…and, amazingly, that he had been under surveillance for seventeen years previously.

Just take a moment to think…seventeen years in an age of pen and paper and police informers… in our era of camera surveillance and interception of electronic communication any government fearing dissent could act in an instant.

We too have our secret…and not so secret…police.

But across from those grim memorials a Christmas Fair was taking place in the square….music, fast food, loos whose posters announced ‘Two Quetzals to get in, exit free’…and an ice skating rink where a hard hat was issued with your ticket.

I soon saw why…clearly the locals are not adept at the art of skating. Crowds shuffled along the sides, holding on for grim death and wailing in unison when some bold soul headed out for the middle, only to fall in a heap to be picked up by the attendants.

I left Higher Authority sitting on a wall while I went to fetch him a hot coffee and was impressed to see that the patrolling police homed in on him at once…an elderly man on his own in a venue meant for families with kids..

It was all very discreetly done, but they had no intention of having any risk of unsavoury behaviour so we were all relieved when I turned up with the coffee and the subject turned to policing in Europe!

The hotel was nearby…the Pan American…an art deco institution in the city.

hotel-pan-american

We did not have one of the rooms with balconies overlooking the streets below but were perfectly comfortable…the water was hot, the shower pressure was great and the bed was comfortable. I could not have wished for more amiable staff…we needed the lift to travel up and down to the reception area and one call to reception had it at our disposal…and what a lift! A hand operated Otis, all gilt and mirrors, run by one or other of the two young men who did all the running, fetching and carrying around the hotel. It was a privilege to travel in it!

Further, the hotel was situated alongside Avenida Sexta  – 6th avenue – once called the Calle Real and for years the shopping centre of the city before the glitzy malls took over. Despite the prevalence of fast food franchises it still attracted people…en masse before Christmas…and so we did what those before us had done and went window shopping on Avenida Sexta….

Sexteando.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Puzzled of Honolulu….

http://withinthekstreets.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/wacky-wednesday-walk/
http://withinthekstreets.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/wacky-wednesday-walk/
Unaccustomed as I am to the role of Agony Aunt, doling out sympathy to Distracted of Devizes, a blast from the hosepipe directed at the vitals of Lustful of Lostwithiel or suggestions of a good book and a bus pass for Bored of Balham (and wouldn’t you be if you lived there) I felt that I could not ignore your predicament as set forth in your post of today’s date: Wacky Wednesday Walk.

With all the sophistication to be expected of an experienced ‘flaneur’ of the K Streets of Honolulu you can take in your stride the notion of three young male singers being labelled as ‘The Three Fruits’, an internet cafe which forbids potential clients from trespassing on its premises and the delights of a Japanese discount store where it seems that live octopus have taken possession of a range of televisions….but surfing in Paris was a step too far.

You have doubts as to the viability of such a project…somehow you do not see in your mind’s eye lightly clad surfers mounting the waves of the Seine in the wake of the bateau-mouches under the eye of the gargoyles of Notre Dame de Paris…

You are right to have doubts. Despite the efforts of the city authorities to persuade people that Paris is actually on the sea by dumping tons of sand along the river bank in summer so that right thinking eco warriors can fall off their bikes while ogling the sunbathers, surfing is not a recommended activity…indeed, until a set of norms are invented for it, it is a forbidden activity, French law running on the principle that if something is not clearly permitted (within the limits of the six volumes of norms annexed) then it is forbidden.

Being forbidden, the producers of the tee shirt exhibited to public gaze in a shop in Honolulu should be careful not to step foot in France….
Incitement to upset the fabric of French society by encouraging surfing on the Seine will be viewed with severity, and, given the state of the public deficit, probably punished by a fine equivalent to at least one percent of the Gross Domestic Product, currently running at several leaky nuclear power stations and a few striped jerseys.

Situated as I am at this moment, on a balcony in the Costa Rican countryside wondering whether plunging my feet into a bowl of mango pulp would be effective in removing hard skin from my big toe I am unable to respond to your request for information on surfing conditions in Paris….but I trust to the goodwill of those kind enough to follow this blog to link to yours at Within the K Streets and give you the information you seek.
Though thinking of some of them and their sense of humour…naming no names, Adullamite… you might well be advised to check before use.

To Market, to Market….

busescostarica.blogspot.comUnder normal circumstances we take the bus to San Jose….it’s a lot cheaper than taking the car and it doesn’t get lost, despite the best efforts of traffic policemen, accidents and roadworks to divert it from its destination…like the bomber, the Comtrasuli bus will always get through.

It’s a good service, in clean modern buses, although whatever the age of the bus there are always those signs of religious observance which strike the eye of an anglophone protestant….Jesus bearing a crown of thorns hovers over the entrance; you are informed that He is Lord; His mother is asked to pray for you and some buses even bear the information that one is travelling the same road as Jesus and if one does not return to base it is because one has followed Him.

Whether this has any relation to a new notice behind the driver’s cabin on all buses I am not at all sure.
This one asks passengers to observe the driver and, should he use a mobile ‘phone when at the wheel, they are to take a photograph and denounce him to the bus company.
Perhaps Comtrasuli are worried that the Almighty, omnipotent as He is, will use technology to summon the driver to His bosom and, more to the point, that he’ll take the bus with him.

Taking the car is an altogether trickier operation.
The diesel costs a lot more than a bus fare….which is about 85p per passenger….and The Men are driving and navigating.

Leo – navigator – is used to London driving where you are either quick or dead.
Danilo – driver – has no direction bump.
The combination makes for an interesting ride for the passenger – me.

The whole thing is further complicated by a collapse on the capital’s ring road which has turned the rush hour into the plural at both ends of the day and has led to roads unfit for major traffic being pressed into service.

First port of call is a major clinic, the Moreno Canas, where Leo has an appointment.
With shrieks of ‘Go, go go!’ from the navigator at the Sabana Park interchange The Men manage to get themselves onto Avenida 10 and we crawl past the concrete fortress of the Municipalidad – the town hall – its forecourt sporting a pink cow which was left behind when the Cow Parade hit town.
It also has fairy lights in a tree – perpetually Christmas for our worthy administrators.
Then past the Mercado Mayoreo – the city’s official wholesale fruit and veg market – though much better bargains are to be found up at the Mercado Borbon – where, The Men permitting, I intend to do some shopping later.

panoramio.com
panoramio.com
Past more traffic lights and we are alongside the cemetery – or cemeteries: first the Cementerio Obrero, the cemetery for the poorer classes – the workers

cemetery general sj

and then alongside it the Cementerio General, where the better off lie under a gallimaufry of urns, spires, domes and angels…but both places of rest are protected by razor wire and have police in attendance to deter theft, which is endemic in Costa Rica since the drugs trade began to regard the countries of Central America not just as being in transit for drugs on their way from Columbia to the U.S.A. but as new markets in their own right.

Turning right…and squeezing past a lorry which has come to a halt across the junction…we head for the clinic through a depressed area of the city…roadside garages, broken down pavements…and past the waterworks to the clinic entrance. Cars parked in every roadside bay and taxis double parked beside them.
Leo gathers his papers and heads for his appointment. Danilo and I head for the shops.

Swinging back right handed up between the cemetery and the waterworks – what a combination, I think – with the Numar factory behind us, souce of the palm oil cooking fat which fuels Costa Rica’s kitchens, we turn once more onto Avenida 10, squeeze past the lorry again and we’re off on the four lane downhill slalom past the Raul Blanco Cervantes geriatric hospital on the hunt for the shop which carries the best value for money house cleaning products that I know.
We have the car and we’re stocking up.

panoramio.com
panoramio.com
Well, we will be, when we get there.
We have to get to Avenida 6 and thanks to the one way system that means a left turn and then another…but how far to go before we turn?

At the garage – the bomba?
No, at least another block….yes, by the Castillana…
Are you sure?
No, but we can always go round again..
Yes, look, there’s the.Chinese tat shop. Go straight on another block and then left again.

Yes, we’re on the right road. There’s the dubious looking discotheque and the butcher advertising meat from a nearly virgin cow; but we’re stuck in traffic.
Avenida 6 serves as roadside terminal for a number of suburban buses; its high quota of bars means beer delivery vans litter the place and there’s always someone who just has to park right outside the barbers.
We approach the side street where the shop is situated…is it this corner?
No, we haven’t passed the booze shop yet.
Yes, here we are…that’s the Ropa Americana (new and second hand clothes shop) …turn left.
We’ve made it – and as we’re early there’s even parking right outside.

Loaded up, watches checked – yes, we have time to do the Mercado Borbon before returning to the clinic.

BN SJUp the street, another left turn and eyes peeled for the tower of the Banco Nacional to make our turn into the centre.
We crawl up to the junction with the main road through the city – the six lane Avenida 2, wait for the lights and then we’re across and into the street running past the coffee shop on one side and the Banco Central building on the other, with the bronzes of the ordinary people of Costa Rica in front of it.
banco central statues sj

Down Avenida 1 – an accident between a car and a bus, so a quick right turn up to Avenida 3 with all the tool shops in creation and then left again to return to Avenida 1 and the undercover parking lot.

mercado borbon sj Now, I like a bargain and I like the Mercado Borbon where you can buy retail at wholesale prices, but if you read the guide books it’s more a question of ‘here be dragons’ so you don’t find many foreigners doing the weekly shop there.
It is a noisy maze of alleys, steps, stalls and warehouses, but once you have your bearings all is well: I buy bacon on the bone to slice and freeze; kilos of tomatoes; Scotch Bonnet peppers; whopping prawns and then cheese for maturing at home.
I seek out cheap potatoes – only just over half the price of my local shops – and strings of onions.
We load the car and walk over to the better known Mercado Central to buy ten kilos of well fleshed bones for soup…a bargain at about 50p a kilo….and corvina to make ceviche.

Off to the clinic…down traffic clogged Avenida 1 and out onto Paseo Colon….looking for the towers of the tax offices to judge our turn up to Avenida 10.
Yes, there they are…turn left, up through the little park at Don Bosco and we’re back by the Muni….traffic lights, the lorry still not towed away and we’re back at the clinic where Leo is waiting by the chap selling fresh orange juice.
We’re off again, but this time following the road by the Numar factory at the back of the cemetery, to join the road home at Sabana.

How did the appointment go?

He said my optician must have good eyesight if she could see cataracts that small….I have to go back in two years’ time but he doesn’t think much will change.
Hoy….where are we going? This isn’t the right road!

No, but the police are up ahead and the traffic’s piling up….we’ll go back on the old road.

And so we do…crawling through the suburbs until we emerge into the countryside high above the Central Valley and head for home climbing up through the hills.

No joke, San Jose traffic…but then I came across this video which shows that things could be worse….pity the poor train drivers shown here!