Friday, November 29, 2013

WHEN COLD, GO TO SOPHOS ... OR FLY A KITE.


Capital City Guatemalans all wrapped up (Photo: Prensa Libre)

Weather these days:  It is SO DAMN COLD!  (And I love it!)

Guess what!  I was the featured "Expat of the Month".  So if you want to read the interview and know a bit more about yours truly, check it out by clicking here.  Please feel free to leave a note, if you are so inclined.

So, what's new?  The sudden sharp cold is what.

Buildings in Guatemala don't really have centralized AC or heat, unless they are recently built.  The weather doesn't tend to extremes, being temperate and in the 70s (F) most of the year. Hence, people use fans or heaters, or else, open windows in order to control the climate inside.  Of course, that means that one's stuff is always covered with a fine layer of sandy dirt, no matter how much you dust every single day.

Highlands villagers playing with snow (can't find photo credit)

The highlands are cold and dry, and enjoy (suffer?) a bit of snow, enough, it seems, to make a lopsided snowman. We're planning a trip to the highlands in December, so maybe we'll see snow.

I like the cold so much I keep all of my windows open--and I live on a 10th floor!  My nose is always cold. So I wear chunky socks, layer soft knits one over the other, add a scarf if necessary, and spend the day enjoying the chill wind that blows in smelling of fresh pine and eucalyptus, and even some burning wood. Lots of hot lattes and mocha get consumed.

November Skies in Guatemala (can't find photo credit)

This is my favorite season of the year in Guatemala not only because of the cold, but because of the amazing sunset views every single day.

Downsides?  Because people are shopping and school/college kids are on vacation and outside, the traffic is a bear and pickpockets and petty thieves are running rampant. 

The time of year when one is most tempted to walk outside because of the lovely weather is when one should be most prudent.  Don't carry all your money in your wallet. Rather, distribute it through your pockets.  And don't do stuff like pull out your Blackberry or iPhone to talk as you drive or walk. Not the smartest thing to do in general, and much less these days.

Sophos

It is a great time to go check out Sophos, one of my favorite bookstores here.  Sophos ROCKS, you all. Seriously. It is definitely worth a visit.  The owners are French--or maybe Belgian--and not only import a wide variety of books from Europe and other Latin American countries, but also have current US paperbacks.  That is where I found all of the series of A Song of Ice and Fire (the base for the famous "Game of Thrones" cable series) at only US$6 each.  Aaand... Sophos is always warm when the weather is cold.

Sophos

In general, though, books at Sophos are pricey.  If you want better deals, you are much better off at the used books bookshops in downtown Guatemala. I will blog more about that soon. But going to the readings and presentations at Sophos is free, and the café is not only not expensive, but a good place to read (for free) local papers and other publications. Also, their hot chocolate with chile or cardamom is to die for.  

Sophos is located in Plaza Fontabella in Zona 10 (in the trendy "Zona Viva" area).  An Italian-ish shopping center that features mostly restaurants, pubs and cafes (Japanese, Spanish, Chinese, Italian cuisine, among others), there is always something going on during this time at their open plaza. From "Farmers Market" days on weekends to a Christmas gifts bazaar, puppet shows, jazz concerts, a bagpipe player, and you know, just ... stuff.

Plaza Fontabella

It's nice for a walk and sit around having a coffee, an ice-cream, people-watching.

Try the gelato store on the first floor.  All of their colors are silky and totally hyperreal, the flavors are delicious, but the sugarfree strawberry gelato is AMAZING.  I walk there to have it even when the weather is cold, it's really that good.

If you prefer to do outdoor stuff during this season--it may be cold, but it is sunny and clear--you can do as the locals do and go to an open site (the countryside, a park) and fly a kite.  It is traditional to fly kites during this season.

Child flying kite in winter, Guatemala.

The kites are handmade, somewhat fragile, and not very user-friendly, though.  The thing about them is that they are beautiful, and would look wonderful framed or encased in glass plates.  I once bought a bunch of them and used them to decorate the premises for a children's birthday party, many years ago. It was one of my most successful ideas. All the kids wanted them. They ended up taking them home.

Mayan woman selling traditional kites. Photo: Prensa Libre.

Anyhow, always something to do around here.

Well, that is about it. I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving.  We usually celebrate it with other expats but this year I guess we've behaved like hermits. Restaurants and hotels around here always offer a Thanksgiving dinner, but we've never gone.  More importantly to us, it is Hannukah and I wish I were in the US with the family, but it is not to be.

For now, however, I am quite content to be here.  Lots of writing assignments, but I can work from home and in my own time.  It will get more hectic when classes start again. So life is good around here these days, flowing on in its tranquil way.  I leave you now with another great afternoon view of Guatemala City. Enjoy!


Monday, November 25, 2013

COOKING "SOUTHERN" IN GUATE AND OTHER IMPORTANT INTERNATIONAL NEWS

Nocturnal view from our balcony (yes, those are fireworks in the distance)

The weather these days: Strange but lovely. Cloudy, windy, misty, with very scattered drizzles.

Reading right now: Günter Grass's The Box and Jeanette Winterson's The Passion.

This blog post is about Guate in the international news and of course, it starts with MY news. Life is all about me, y'all.

We seem to have found an adequate apartment!!!  It does not have the views that this one has, but the space and noise situation is much better. We will still get to enjoy the panoramic view from the balcony of the daily fireworks around the city during November and December, since we will be moving towards the end of next month.

Kitchen detail with my home-made preserves (I can get so disgustingly "Martha Stewart" sometimes)

In order to squeeze as much use from the balcony as possible (our friends just LOVE that balcony), we threw a dinner party last week:. The first of many ('Tis the season and all that, you know). Sitting at the dining room or living room, one still has an awesome view of the city.

 Some of our friends enjoying the balcony (no, I swear I had not served space brownies)

 Jambalaya, artichoke salad, home-baked cornbread and fig pie were served. The idea was to end with pecan pie, since I was going all "southern" with the menu (I'm from NOLA), but the pecan pie was not to be found. And I may bake bread, but I am not going to go all out baking a pecan pie.

You can buy pecan pies here at the Ciro's bakery chain, but they are more like "dulce de leche" pecan pie than molasses pecan pie. In other words, not the real thang.

Also, the jambalaya was not quite like real jambalaya, since one cannot find all the original ingredients in Guatemala, so lets just say that it was more of a jambalaya-like dish than the real thing. (Jambalayish?) One of the things of being an expat, you know, is all this "making do" with what is available locally.

 My artichoke salad

The artichoke salad, if I may say so myself, was very colorful and tasty.  As mentioned before, I also made the cornbread and baked a pretty decent sourdough bread that was still warm from the oven when it was served with the main meals.  The mixes came from boxes I shipped from the US, I must confess.

Lots of wine was consumed, as usual.   That did not come from a box. We are lucky that our friends are wine connoisseurs and they were in charge of bringing the wine.  I know nothing of wines, so if you leave it up to me, it will most probably come from a box, too.

Another view from our balcony: The smoking volcanoes at sunset

Anyway, talking about food.

Last time I blogged about making mixtas.  Just as a follow up, I share with you a recent blog post by Expat Mom, recommending La Casa de las Mixtas in Antigua (I plan to go try them).  To read her post, click here.

My workspace on the balcony 

Guatemala in the news:

The Ríos Montt case drags on, which has more pro than cons.  The cons are that by the time trial takes place again, he may be dead (he is close to 90).  On the other hand, it may take a long time and go slow, but you know the saying, the wheels of justice may grind slow ... Anyhow, if you are interested in reading something recent about it, I share with you the article titled "Glimmers of Hope in Guatemala" by Stephen Kinzer. To read, click here.

Condé Nast Traveler Magazine's Top Five cities in Central and South America lists Antigua, Guatemala.  To read click here.

Guatemala often ends up in the top 10 most dangerous cities of the world, although not always (these lists seem highly subjective and depend upon what variables or indexes the person writing the list is using). Nevertheless, it is good to read some of these lists if only for general information.

Business Insider lists the 50 most dangerous cities in the world, with the top 20 being in Latin America (no Middle East cities?) and several big Central American cities, including San Pedro Sula in Honduras and the capital cities of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Panama. Two US cities are among the top 20, I believe.  To read, click here.

Among the ten most dangerous cities worldide is Guatemala City, according to some blog titled Escape Here.  To read, click here.

Just so you can see how subjective and, pardon my French, bullshitty these lists can be, a list published in News 2 (an Indian broadcast) lists among the top 10 most dangerous cities several in Africa and the Middle East, and no Guatemala City or any other Central American city listed there. To see, click here.

Our bookcase wall in the living room

So that's about it for now.   I have to write several articles in December and prepare two graduate-level seminars plus move the household, so it is going to get pretty interesting. Especially with all my plants and books (see pic above).

I am already giving away a lot of stuff, including my recent New Yorker, Harper's, Rolling Stone and The Atlantic Monthly magazines, as well as dozens of books, and it just doesn't seem to make a dent...

Monday, November 18, 2013

SHIPPING YOUR STUFF ... AND EATING MIXTAS

View of volcanoes from the airplane window

Well, we just got our box last week.  We ship a huge box of stuff two or three times a year from the US. It takes 3 to 6 weeks to get here, depending upon the season--the closer to Christmas, the longer it'll take--and for a 200 pound box of books and magazines, as well as some munchies and hair products I cannot find here, they charge about US$80. 

If you bear in mind that airlines are now charging $35 to $100 for an extra suitcase or for a bit of overweight on a suitcase, you will see how worthwhile it is to just use a shipping company to send your stuff.  Many airlines have reduced the suitcase weight from 50 pounds to 40 and will soon be reduced to 35. You can buy insurance for the box if you are nervous about your stuff getting lost.  I have never had them lose a box, but I have heard stories, so it behooves one to buy insurance.  Airlines also lose suitcases, so, you know! It's a risk.

My half-yearly shipment of books, magazines, hair products and a few groceries

One shipping company we use is Worldwide Traders in Miami (305-885-2587), but there are others, such as Zuleta.  I cannot recall the name of the other shipping companies, but if you do your research, make sure you are able to get some comments from satisfied as well as dissatisfied customers.

One of the things I enjoy is shopping for fresh produce in the barrio markets

I have to start preparing classes. Soon. I teach in a couple of grad programs in universities here. They don't go by semesters, which is nice, as that means the courses are shorter but more intense.  I have lots of off time in between, during which I keep busy. Doing stuff. Like reading. And ... going to pubs and artsy events with friends. These are the slow months, so I am a bit of a lazy bum.

As soon as I finished writing that I got an assignment for writing a few academic articles due in December, which is a pretty short span of time for a sloth such as moi.  Looks like I will actually have to work, after all.  Ah well. It doesn't hurt. I write from home in Central America, they deposit a check in the US. The good side of globalization in the internet era.

 Mixtas (yeah, I know, the paper plates are cheerfully horrid. They were on sale.)

Today I will blog a bit about mixtas, because they are easy to make and a great dish to have with a cold drink on a Saturday or Sunday noon.

Mixtas are a traditional Guatemalan dish that is not only delicious, but easy and fast to make. Like I said, they are perfect for a weekend repast when you want something tasty but don't feel like really cooking or going out to hunt for your food. 

 
 Guacamole

First order of things, mash some ripe avocados with a fork (you know they are ripe if they are soft but not way too mushy).  Add lime or lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Some people add cilantro, raw onions and/or cumin. To each his or her own, but I keep mine simple.

 Shredded cabbage (doesn't matter if it is green or purple)

Shred some cabbage ("repollo") in your food processor or by hand, add lime juice or vinegar, salt and pepper and let stand for a while. That is the Latin American version of coleslaw.  You can add shredded carrots and/or chiles to add color and spice if you like.  

Like I said, I keep my cooking simple, so I buy mine at the supermarket. The Miguel's brand has a jarred version of this which is pretty good.  Just buy it. Unless you want to go all artisanal on the stuff.  The traditional cabbage for this dish is the green kind but, frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn like Rhett Butler so wisely said. Use whichever you prefer. I'm not a purist when it comes to food.

 
Final product: The Mixta

Bake, grill, roast, or fry some wieners.  I use the beef  "Astoria Especial" wieners they sell at the Astoria Deli chain.  They cost double what the supermarket ones cost but are worth it.  And we grill them on the Foreman grill.  Just make them whichever way you prefer.  I find that the quality of the meat, however, is going to determine the quality of the mixta.  So what else?

Handmade corn tortillas

Oh yes. The tortillas. Buy handmade corn tortillas if you have access to any, for those are the best. You know, the type they sell at the market or tortillerías. DON'T used prepackaged corn tortillas, those are too fragile and break up.  You can also use prepackaged flour tortillas.  Not the same, of course, but it works.  You pile up the cabbage, the guacamole, the wiener, you top with chile sauce, spicy mustard or ketchup ... whatever you like on a hot dog, you will like on this one ... and voila!  Mixtas, ready to eat. 

If you are wise, follow my advice and use paper plates and paper napkins.  The less dishes to wash on a weekend, the better.

Ablación (removal). A piece created by artist Juan Pensamiento for the exhibit "Querida Familia" (Dear Family) at the Alianza Francesa.  It is embroidered with a paragraph from Timothy, 2, 11-15.

So, having told you how to make a pretty simple and slapdash dish with a lot of make-do, plenty of store-bought stuff, I think I am well on my way to being the new Martha Stewart. This is how we survive on weekends, when our cook is gone.  If it weren't for the good woman, we'd practically never really eat 3 square homemade meals a day. We`d subsist on stuff like mixtas and take-out.

Which is why you won't soon see me in an apron or pinafore. I share with you all the one above, made by my friend Juan.  It reads (in Spanish): "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet."   Of course it is in the context of a statement of the situation of women in Guatemala, not really of his beliefs.  I thought it was a pretty clever and effective piece.  

Other than that, nothing new. The weather is wonderful. We still haven't found a new apartment that suits our needs.  But still looking.  And so it goes.
 
View from an apartment building in Zona 10. Or maybe Zona 14.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

LOOKING FOR A ROOM WITH A VIEW

Panoramic view of Zona 14 in Guatemala City, as seen from an apartment balcony

Before I proceed, I must recommend you visit this excellent blog-radio station: Mesa Pública, which offers talk and cultural radio in English, dealing with entrepreneurial and social issues in Latin America, especially Guatemala.  It is a great source to check out what is going on in different arenas of the region.  To check it out, click here.

View from balcony, building in Zona 10 (the area known as "Zona Viva")

What's current these days here?  The same as last time I wrote, the Barreda-Siekavizza case. Now they know that the suspected murderer, Roberto Barreda, was provided with funds all these years by his wealthy parents.  He would travel from Mexico, where he was living in not-so-much-hiding, to Belize, where he would meet with his father or the family attorney to receive the funds. Nothing surprising in all this.

Think about it, though. If this is an example of how the parents raised this son, nothing surprising in how things worked out in the end.  The trial promises to be intensely covered by the media. There will be no respite ...

View of buildings and mountains from a balcony on zona 14

Also, the new thing with thieves and social media.  Facebook is periodically awash with cellphone photographs taken by Guatemalans of guys in motorcycles mugging somebody in a car during peak traffic times.  This is a common occurrence and all of us have been victims of it:  being held up while in a car, the target of the muggers' interest being our cellphone.

The purpose behind people circulating these photographs is to beware of the guys in the motorcycle or the raise awareness about the increase in that type of robbery in certain areas of the city.

View from balcony, building in Zona 14 (A block away from Avenida de Las Américas)

A recent article titled "Latin Americans Combat Crime with Smartphones and Social Media" speak of this phenomena across the continent:

"In Latin America, where violent crime rates are six times higher than in any other region, and where most residents have reported distrust in the state's ability to fight crime, several communities have taken to social media to boost security, say analysts."  In order to read the rest of the article, you can click here

View of the famous Avenida La Reforma (Zona 10, Guatemala City) as seen from a balcony

This has dovetailed with a second phenomena: Naive and moronic thieves taken pictures of themselves with the stolen smartphones or laptops and posting them on Facebook, making their identification and capture much easier.  The drive to "perform" a lifestyle on social media is such, that criminals seem unaware of the ways in which that will cross into real life to bring them to trouble.  All this, of course, compounded by the general lack of strong and effective police action and the widespread impunity for crime that characterizes many of these nations.

 Walking through lovely Mexico City.

Which is why I love Mexico City. Or el DF as it is more commonly known. People feel so safe in Mexico City! They walk around with expensive cellphones and laptops, they wear their jewelry openly and women feel safe to walk their dogs late at night.  At least, that was my impression when I stayed in the areas of Colonia Roma, Condesa and Polanco. But I digress.

 View from inside apartment in zona 14: the balcony and neighboring buildings

Most of the photos of this post are from pictures I took from building balconies.  We like rooms with a view.

We've been on the hunt for another apartment for months, even as we love the one we currently inhabit.  The Hard Rock Cafe across the street has made life untenable.  Our specs for another apartment are a balcony, space for two cars, guest room, plenty of closet space, at least 2 full bathrooms, and reliable security.  Most apartments have most of what we want but not all, or else, are ridiculously expensive.

View from a balcony, Guatemala City

What is ridiculously expensive? Well, given the average rental prices for city apartments, 900 - 1,500 US$ for a narrow apartment with a very small kitchen is ridiculously expensive in my book, no matter how trendy and cool the area and the building.

A lot of buildings offer pools and gyms, but the apartments are small and dark.  Or have only one and a half bathrooms. Or the closet space is nil. Or parking space is very limited.  Or are completely out of the way from anything interesting. Or are completely furnished, but the furniture is not to my taste and anyhow, I much prefer my own stuff and don't want to get rid of it. 

Pool and gym are often included, but the apartments may be narrow and/or dark

Because we travel so much and there is a lot of break-in crime in empty houses, we prefer an apartment. Because we have a lot of stuff, it has to be ample. Because we are total city rats, we reject the suburbs and gated communities, which we find utterly boring. No, we're not the barbeque-with-the-neighbors type, no.

Anyhow, there are many empty apartments in our building right now, in the area known as "Zona Viva", and there are currently about 2 or 3 apartment-office complex buildings being constructed close by in the same area.  With the abundance of empty apartments and the new addition of hundreds of units more, one wonders what is going to happen to the local real estate market.

Still, we are not in any hurry to move, and we wouldn't move if it were not for the blasting noise from the Hard Rock Café and other nightclubs around.  We can wait for better prices.  And better spaces.

View from inside an apartment in zona 10, in the area known as "Zona Viva"

We do want somewhere where we can walk around and be surrounded by pubs, cafes, bookstores, small grocery stores, restaurants, green space, etc. Thus, our search has been long and mostly fruitless.  I wouldn't mind an old house with character in the Historic Center, but that has been another impossible goal. Just today we went to see another property there: it was dark, dingy, with the painting and tiles falling to pieces (and not in a cute "rustic" way), not enough car space.

And so it goes.

Are we asking for the impossible?

By the way, have you noticed the strong preference here for buildings made of red brick and white trim? Very uniform in that sense.  It is the same with fashion here, people all tend to dress the same.

Ah well. Something will come up, we hope. The search continues. I will keep you posted.

 Green area at an apartment complex

Sunday, November 10, 2013

SOME INTERESTING PIECES: THE MODERN ART SCENE IN GUATE CITY

Casa Enriqueta. Historic Center, Guatemala City. 
(Located at 7th Street between 10th and 11th avenues. Parking in the back, on 8 calle)

Weather these days: Alternately sunny and cloudy, very scattered rains. Breezy. In the 70s. T-shirt and light jacket kind of climate.

The news around here these days is that General Ríos Montt's retrial for genocide has been postponed till 2015---I assume they are hoping that the 88-year-old geezer dies before that so that they don't have to deal with doing the right thing for Mayan communities and the survivors.  

Also, that Roberto Barreda, a guy accused of murdering his wife---the circumstantial evidence is heavily slanted against him--was found in Yucatan, Mexico. He had managed to get fake papers and escape, kidnapping  his two little kids while the investigation was going on. His mother (A former head of the Supreme Court!!!) and hist best friends have served jail time for aiding and abetting.  Indeed, the maid gave testimony that the mother of the alleged murderer (remember, she is a judge!), helped him wipe up the blood and dispose of the body.

The telenovela continues. People won't talk about anything else, and the media and social networks are abuzz with it, day after day. With how corrupt the legal system can be here, would not be surprised if the guy just walks.

Roberto Barreda. Photo: Prensa Libre

Anyhow.  

Of course I was feeling righteous about it all ("They cannot let him walk! This would never happen in the US!"). Then again, I just read that the US government--in this case, the CIA--refused to turn in the Nazi Klaus Barbie to the Government of France who wanted to put him on trial. Barbie headed a concentration camp in France and was guilty of thousands of deaths. The US government even aided him to escape to South America, where he lived out the rest of his life peacefully.  The US government has known how to be corrupt and unjust too.  

 Photo exhibit, Casa Enriqueta

This afternoon we went to a photo exhibit downtown, part of the 16th Historic Center Festival, at Casa Enriqueta, a historic house turned café and cultural center. Everything downtown nowadays--any hole in the wall!--is a "cultural center". Go figure.   But this one is worth the moniker.

Detail, Casa Enriqueta. Colonial Baroque Mirror.

An antique artifacts bazaar was going on with lots of very neat stuff, pennies on the dollar for what they'd cost in the US.  Of course, some of the antiques are "iffy."  Sorry but banged up copper kitchen containers from a decade ago don't count as "antiques"!

Either way, as with all bazaars, it is all about the hunt, really.  And Casa Enriqueta is really cool. The food looked good.  Check it out if ever you are in downtown Guatemala City. It has wide parking space with security. 

Painting, "Querida Familia" exhibit, Alianza Francesa (French Alliance)
 
I had to go give a talk at an event at the Alianza Francesa--an international institution belonging to the French Government, in charge of all things French culture abroad.  They had an exhibit titled "Querida Familia" (Dear Family) which consisted on interesting takes on the meaning of "family" by a collective of local artists, some of whom are friends of ours.  

One was the painting above, titled something like "Guatemalan Export" or "Made in Guatemala" and which clearly alludes to the older, white foreigners coming to the country in droves to adopt Guatemalan children (usually Mayan). Pretty interesting.

Painting, "Querida Familia" exhibit, Alianza Francesa (French Alliance)
 
I found the whimsical/disturbing painting above an intriguing mix of Murakami---the painter, not the novelist--and a postmodern take on Bruegel. Okay, I sense I am getting way too nerdy here, so I will quit the amateurish theorizing.  An art historian I'm not.

Painting, "Querida Familia" exhibit, Alianza Francesa (French Alliance)
 
Damn, I wish I had better memory and could recall the name of the artists!

I really liked the drawing above:  A panhandler with her child.  Or with the child she rented in order to panhandle more successfully.  Sadly, that is a very common phenomenon here.  I think the scene--a camera with her picture turned towards us, the spectators--is full of interesting meaning.  I will let you figure it out on your own, as that is a crucial part of the fun when looking at art. 

The drawing is pretty good, don't you think?

Art, young artists exhibit, CCE (Cultural Center of Spain)

The very realistic image above is from another exhibit from some months ago at the CCE (Cultural Center of Spain), a very happening place right on the main (pedestrian) street downtown.  They are big on promoting local music, theater, screening of local and foreign cinema, and much more.  I love their library and reading room. It is the only library in the City--perhaps even the whole country--where you can borrow books and take them home.  It is open to the public from 10 am till 4 pm.

Reading Room, Cultural Center of Spain, Downtown Guatemala City

I just went to see an excellent monologue drama piece with some friends at the CCE's theater. It is housed in an old cinema from the Art Deco era.  They recovered and refurbished all the seats from the 1950s. Indeed, most of the interior design comes from recovered architectural stuff and they made a great job of it.

Back to the drama piece, titled Soledad Brother, was so good and moving, that some people there were telling me that it was their second and third time going.  Completely based on a poem by writer Javier Payeras, it was so full of anguish some people were crying and others gripping their seats.  Really powerful, well written and excellently performed.

Monologue theater drama, CCE (Centro Cultural de España)

There are a bunch of cafe's all around the CCE, so you can walk to any kind of exhibit and event at the CCE and then go have a coffee with friends. Or by yourself. The people-watching is fantastic. Very safe and convenient parking just around the corner on 5 avenida and corner with 11 calle.  You can't miss it.

So, that's it for now. If you want to learn about other interesting spaces in Guate City, check out this blog post by Guatemala Daily Photo, full of very useful information about shared work spaces right smack in the middle of the city, very convenient and comfortable.  I can't wait to go check them out myself.  To read and see, click here.

Early morning view (all shops still closed) of the main downtown avenue, La Sexta (6th avenue), a pedestrian space, from the windows of the CCE.