yummy color

an old fashioned letter

Left my glasses at a tortilla shack in town today, will go back and get them tomorrow. In the meantime, just a post of things I’ve been playing with, lately, and not a lot of soulful writing… because I can hardly see what I’m doing!
an old fashioned letter
In the first three photos are some of the art I put into old-fashioned letters to friends…though I’ve since learned that Guatemala’s post office no longer functions. (The government put a Canadian company in charge, but hasn’t paid the company’s fees in past months, so the postal services have shut down.) Bummer. May just have to post these from Mexico.

colonial architecture

Also, some meaningless photos of paint…I’ll be going home to Australia later this year, and I’ve just realized that I can’t take my paints with me. Arrggh! So I am doodling, playing, experimenting, and being quite heavy-handed with the palette knife these days, trying to use up as much as I can. Hopefully they won’t dry out before Kris gets the boat (and all my art materials) back to Darwin…though they’re at least a couple of years old, already, and dry out very quickly on the palette.

Untitled
UntitledThat’s all for now…have a great weekend!

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Rio Dulce
To one side of the river’s mouth was the town of Livingston. We made it over the notoriously shallow sandbank that guards the entrance to the river, and cleared in with officials of the town.

peanut butter & banana smoothieAt a backpacker’s café where we went for a late breakfast and I was introduced to the peanut butter and banana smoothie. Anything with peanut butter has a special place in my heart…this was so amazing that I had two. And then I drew the recipe into a letter to a friend (though I don’t know whether she likes peanut butter).

Rio Dulce, GuatemalaBy late afternoon the paperwork was done, and we continued up the river.

Rio Dulce, GuatemalaAt the second bend in the steep gorge, the wind died. A strong current started to push us back, the sun was setting, and it was too deep to anchor. We tied Kehaar to a couple of trees growing out of the limestone walls of the gorge (to the scandalised rubbernecking of the herons) her mast grazing the branches overhead, and hunkered down for the night.
Rio Dulce, Guatemala
No people live around the gorge, and a spell settled over the river as darkness fell. The jungle came alive around us: the movements of animals rustled and crashed in the treetops. Unseen river creatures surfaced, splashing and glub-glub-glubbing around our boat. Big shadowy birds crossed overhead, silhouetted by the narrow strip of moonlit sky visible between the limestone walls, their wingbeats smacking the air. Something buzzed a few inches over my head that I will always think of as “the 2 lb. bumblebee.”

Rio Dulce, GuatemalaAt midnight a torrential rain came down, blotting out the last of the moon’s light. The rain pattered onto deck from the trees overhead, and an army of ants began to cross over onto our boat from the branches, intent on moving into our dry home.

It was a long, long night.
Rio Dulce, GuatemalaMorning was glorious, though, and with our moods improved we went for a row around the banks of the river, getting in close to admire strange flowers and disturb the many snowy herons that favour this bend for fishing.
Rio Dulce, GuatemalaRio Dulce, Guatemala

We waited most of the day, hoping that the wind would rise and we could sail out of that tight spot, but it never came. By late afternoon Kris decided that we would have to move upriver some other way.

“Warping, or kedging, is a method of moving a sailing vessel, typically against the wind or out from a dead calm, by hauling on a line attached to an anchor or a fixed object.”

Kris went for an exploratory row further up the river and came back with the news that yes, there was plenty of wind ahead, and it was coming from the right direction. We just needed to reach that point. So we tied several lengths of rope together and attached one end to the boat. Kris got in the dinghy with the bundle, rowed as far ahead as the rope could go, tied an anchor to the other end and dropped in the water. Standing at the front of the boat, I pulled Kehaar along this length of rope, arm over arm until my arms ached.

We had to do this three, maybe four times, to get out of the dead spot. Then it was dark, so we anchored, had dinner, and went to bed.

The next day the wind came, at mid-morning, and we sailed for a stretch. We came to a second hairpin bend, with the wind blowing from the very direction we wanted to go. This time, however, we knew better than to hope for better sailing conditions. We warped the boat right away, five times, and made it to where we could pull up the sail once again. Fishermen and passing water taxis cheered us on. By this time the word had gotten around that we had no engine and were trying to get up the river.

That same night found us anchored in Lake El Golfete, a wide open expanse of water with plenty of good sailing wind. From there the rest of the voyage upriver was beautiful, and we made it all the way to our final destination, a small marina on Lake Izabal, in one day.

Río Dulce is where we will be based for the next 4-5 months.

Rio Dulce to El Golfete

Where have all the good men gone?

THIS is the standard by which we should be judging our presidential candidates—indeed, all of our government officials.

The great José ‘Pepe’ Mujica, of Uruguay. He has been described as “the world’s ‘humblest’ president” due to his austere lifestyle and his donation of around 90 percent of his $12,000 monthly salary to charities that benefit poor people and small entrepreneurs. He has also been called “The World’s Poorest President”.

This is what a president should be…a servant of his people, not a celebrity. A man with his feet on the ground, his head clear and unswayed by power or money, and his heart filled not only with his people and his own country, but also with his planet and every other human being on it.

INCORRUPTIBLE. Not because it was his platform or because he was being ‘watched’ but because wealth and power simply did not interest him.

A selfless, simple man who refused to live in the presidential palace, or drive a presidential car (he drove his 25 year old Volkswagen to work every day when he was president) In 2010, the value of the car was $1,800 and represented the entirety of the mandatory annual personal wealth declaration filed by Mujica for that year. In November 2014, the Uruguayan newspaper Búsqueda reported that he had been offered 1 million dollars for the car, which was manufactured in 1987; he said that if he did get 1 million dollars for the car it would be donated to house the homeless through a programme that he supports.

A president who chose to spend taxpayers’ money on a rescue and medical helicopter for remote areas, instead of on a presidential jet. A man who never thought of his own comfort or pockets when he was in government. Who did not allow himself any luxuries that the most ordinary citizen of his country could not have.

After his 5 year term he refused to run again…and he went back to his old profession of flower farming with his wife.

Singing in my chains like the sea

painted Moleskine
painted Moleskine

The friend from university who first introduced me to Dylan Thomas went into a coma last December, and everyone who knew him left messages on his facebook…in the hopes that he would wake up and know that he’d been missed. In honor of our Thomas connection, I (mis)quoted* these lines from the poem Fern Hill.
painted MoleskineThree weeks ago Luis passed away…a mercy, really, after being so long in coma. We were not close, but his death was made more poignant because he was so young (we were born the same year, 1974). To me it seemed an urgent message to get as much as I can out of this life, because we never know when it will all come to a halt.

The lines of the poem have stayed with me… sometimes I lull myself to sleep with them. Dylan Thomas was a sorcerer of lilting, musical  language…his words dance, surge, rise and ebb like the ocean he was named after. I had a sudden urge to write them out somewhere that I would see them often, and decided to whack them on the cover of this Moleskine watercolor sketchbook. The curly waves were inspired by what I could remember of Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa.

* …Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas

A backward glance

 At the last turn in the path
“goodbye—”
—bending, bowing,
(moss and a bit of
wild
bird-)
down.
Daitoku-ji Monastery
—Saying Farewell at the Monastery after Hearing the Old Master Lecture on “Return to the Source” by Gary Snyder

 

Forcing myself to shake off Cartagena’s hold on me, today. The spell this city cast was so strong that even though we have been in Guatemala for three weeks, I felt duty-bound to pound out a few more posts about Colombia before I could start on Rio Dulce.

When I try to write, though, I find that, loathe as I am to abandon the topic of Cartagena de Indias, the urgency rests mostly in vague things that are difficult to impart to readers on the internet: like a sense of homesickness for a city I only spent three months in. Nostalgia for a past that was never mine. And an intense feeling of love that I have nowhere to put. There is nothing concrete left to say.

I thought perhaps I could write a post dedicated to Garcia Marquéz and Love In The Time Of Cholera. About the park where poor Florentino Ariza used to sit, waiting for the wealthy young Fermina Daza to walk past. Or the bench opposite The Arcade of Scribes where Florentino put his love-letter-writing skills at the disposal of strangers, simply to unburden himself of all the love he wanted, but couldn’t, share with Fermina (and where I always sat to enjoy a café granizado.) But I’ve briefly mentioned these things in other posts, and today’s Arcade of Scribes is so dilapidated that a photo would only disenchant fans of the novel, anyway.

Sometimes the impulse to go on is nothing more than a desire to keep something precious from fading into a memory. A sincere love and friendship bloomed, for a time, and by casually moving on to write about the next country, I feel as though I were ruthlessly mining my life for mere blog content, and betraying the experience. Becoming unworthy of it.

Not everything can, nor has to, be shared. Some things exist only in their moment, for those who were present. But I will try to describe one afternoon that I hold close to my heart, because something in me wants closure, wants to write at least one purely personal blog post about Cartagena. MY Cartagena…the impossible-to-photograph moment that no other traveler to the city will have on his map, or among his “Things To Do in Cartagena” list.


Liz

On my last day in Cartagena de Indias I went to the house on Calle de Las Maravillas (The Street of Wonders) to say goodbye to Liz. I found her sitting in bed with her 16-year-old son, Nahuel. The power was down—an almost daily occurrence in Getsemaní—and neither fan nor lights were running. I took my shoes off and joined them among the pillows (the house is shared with Liz’s siblings and their children…the only place Liz has to call her own is her tiny bedroom, which is also her craft workshop, her storage room, her clothes closet, her office, and her reception room when friends drop in. Everyone gets into bed…well, there are no chairs. Pillow fights with Nahuel are a condition of entry.)

Liz was in the process of sorting her collection of tiny treasures—souvenirs gathered from travels around South America, jewellery inherited from her mother or purchased from antique shops, others that she had made—into two piles: objects she would keep, and the ones she would sell. Despite her day job at a tourist gift shop and the nights she spends selling her own work on the streets, she needs more money to singlehandedly support the growing needs of a teenaged son.

Hundreds of little things were spread in the centre of the bed. A solid silver rosary. A chunk of raw emeralds still clinging to their rock. Pre-Colombian buttons and a large bronze nose ring. Fabulous and incredibly valuable gold earrings, a thousand years old, from a Zenú burial site. Horn figurines small as coffee beans. Clay pendants shaped like ears of corn from Peru. Jade beads. Agate vials for cocaine. Liz’s own first pieces of jewellery, from when she first learned to work with silver and stones. A lady’s turtle shell comb inlaid with silver from the 1800s. A flat stone with seven fossilised fish the size of rice grains. There was an old iron house key that I ooh-ed and aah-ed over (I’d just had a dream that I’d bought such a key, from a palenquera with gold teeth, on the bridge into the medieval city, a weeks or two before) and she told me it had been unearthed, during renovation work, in the courtyard of the very house we were in.

Each time Nahuel or I picked something up, Liz would supply the story: who made it, how old it was, where she got it, and at which time of her life. As I became aware of the connection she had with each item, its value grew. It represented a lifetime of travelling and living. I lamented, more than once, that she could part with such special things.

A few times she chose something, held it in the space between us for me to see, and then gave it to me. “Para ti.” At first I protested, but Liz’s zodiac sign is the maternal Cancer, and she would not take no for an answer.

“I’m telling you to TAKE it, niña.”

And, very much like an eight-year-old niña, I dropped my head in apology, said thank you, and tucked the little treasure away.

There was a fish carved from bone, two frogs—one of horn, the other a Pre-Colombian replica in terracotta…
ranita
A chunk of raw amethyst (my birthstone) and another, polished and set into a pendant. A large ring of silver and amethyst, a braided leather bracelet and matching choker with a round bone bead, a hand-stitched leather coin purse, a bone hair pick, and a gourd dish decorated with pyrography and colored inks…all made by Liz. She also sent a piece of raw emerald, and two real Pre-Colombian buttons for Kris.
Totumo
The hours passed too quickly…the dying light from the window told me the sun was setting. Kris wanted to depart that very night, and the only thing that kept him from finally raising the dinghy onto the deck was Me. I had to get back.

Nahuel wandered off to kick a ball around with his cousins in the street. I put on my shoes and made sure I had everything packed away into my backpack. Finally, we stood facing each other in the shadowy room.

“Tu sabes que te quiero…” she said in a tight voice.

“Si, yo sé, mi amor. Y yo te quiero igualmente,” I choked back.

We hugged each other for what felt like an eternity. She put the iron key in the palm of my hand, and closed my fingers over it.

“Lleva la clave para la casa de las maravillas, con cariño.” (“Take the key to the house of wonders, with love.”) My eyes blurred with saltwater.

More hugging, more thankyous, and I don’t know what else…goodbyes are always so hard to deal with that my mind shuts down and I tend to rush through the final moments, in a hurry to get away from my own feelings. The cousins come noisily in from the street and Nahuel is browbeaten by his mother into saying goodbye. He gives me an awkward hug and a pretty boy’s smile, cluttered with braces. The mood changes. I am smiling, now, chattering last promises; Liz is smiling, nodding, waving…

And before I know it, I am on the street, charging past the new graffiti mural taking shape on Calle de Las Tortugas. Past the young whores getting ready for work on the corner of Calle Media Luna. Past the shell pink, sky blue, and orange houses of Getsemaní. I cross the bridge for the last time…and the sun setting is like a logo for telecommunications among the skyscrapers of Boca Grande.
sunset behind Bocagrande
I outpace the dogwalkers, the lovers, the strident palenqueras wailing the names of their fruit as though calling for long-lost children, the yuppies power-walking through the twilit park. I hurry home, to my one true love, to my own life—this strange thing, compact and contained within a boat—and this liquid, shifting existence.

Returning to the source.

Just erotic. Nothing kinky.

the bird book

It started with a book that I bought to read on the flight from Johannesburg to Capetown: The Search for The Rarest Bird In The World by Vernon R.L. Head, a South African bird-lover. It was a strange book, surprisingly dreamy with a lot of beautiful language, images shimmering like a tree shot with sunlight and a thousand cherry-sized birds. An emotional book, with just touches of natural science. I read that book 8, maybe 9 times…it was not very mentally taxing, just a pleasant ramble through forests and savannahs, chasing birds with one’s thoughts. I wanted to keep it, but didn’t want to read it a 10th time…felt strangely compelled to interact with it, somehow.

I started doodling and painting in its pages…beginning with the catalog of eggs used for the endpaper design, the large white spaces around chapter titles, then moving into the text…
the bird book
the bird book
the bird book
the bird book
the bird bookAt some point this feather thing took over, and I set aside the altered book project to explore feathers in my sketchbooks. Colours, brush marks, how to make a feather using a single stroke of the brush…
the bird book
the bird book

Moved from sketchbooks to watercolour paper, with a mapping pen to draw fine lines, and a lick of gouache to sometimes give a highlight.
the bird book
the bird book

The final version is at the top of this post…a series of feathers using yellow and sepia paint, on rough watercolor paper. A present for my Colombian friend Liz.

“Just erotic. Nothing kinky. It’s the difference between using a feather and using a chicken.”     ― Terry Pratchett, Eric