Just below Mexico next to Belize …………………..5 years on

Just below Mexico next to Belize …………………..5 years on.

Well, I´m still here!  Two years since I last wrote an update, so I apologise for the length.

I now have my Guatemalan Residency and identity card (Cedula) and I am no longer changing nappies … yippee.

We are still living in the same house in San Pedro, just outside Antigua.  It is comfortable and suits us for now.  We were thinking about buying something here, but have decided to put all our money into our next big move to Europe which is planned for 2 or 3 years time, hopefully in time for an upturn in the economy.  We have very reasonable rent here and feel comfortable and secure in this cosy house with the fireplace and the views of the volcanoes.  The neighbours don’t bother us and we have a great ´guardien´ family as our nearest neighbours now.  They have a little boy, Carlitos in between the ages of Paulo and Nico.  It is very common in Guatemala for larger houses to have a family living at the bottom of the garden or in a small house at the gate.  In fact most of the neighbours I know are guardienes.  It is a nice life for lots of local families because very often the people that own the big houses only come at weekends, or once a month, or once or twice a year when owned by foreigners!  So their children can grow up playing in beautiful gardens and living somewhere safe and green in this country of double standards and apartheid.  We now have a babysitter Maria who lives round the corner.  She has 4 boys of her own so is well equipped to handle my two.  We knew her for two years before she came to babysit on the odd night when we get out.  I still

have the same wonderful nanny, known by the boys as Juju and I have been helping her out with medical bills as she has suffered high blood pressure and gastritis this last year.  She is still as fun as ever and loves the boys.

Paulo was just 4 in November and had the usual piñata.  He has become completely obsessed with superheroes, especially spiderman, so spiderman piñata it was.  The two of them run around firing spiderweb and talking incessantly in both languages about strange spiderman things …………   Rafa got them spiderman capes at the traffic lights in the city to facilitate.  Finally, Paulo will start his French classes at the Alliance Francaise in Antigua.  He has been asking me for 2 years to learn French so the swimming classes are on hold and he will spend two afternoons a week with a group of 6 children learning his third language.  Paulo has always excelled in the talking department so I thought I would dare to let him try another language.  Until he was 1 we spent a lot of time with my good friend Bertrand who was French, he wont remember but maybe this has something to do with his interest in learning French, that or Ratatouille.  I have almost forgotten my French all mixed up with Spanish now.  Paulo and Nico were doing swimming classes last year in the city twice a week.  They did really well but it was very time consuming and expensive to drive to the city twice a week.

A Guatemalan woman has opened a new Montessori school in Antigua so Paulo will start there soon, as the school year starts mid January here.  Nico has already started two mornings a week at Paulo´s old school and loves it.  There are only 4 of them all around the same age.  The teacher is Luki, a Guatemalan who lived in California for 30 years and has a masters in Education, she teaches in both languagesl.

Paulo and Nico are very different characters and spent most of 2008 putting their energy into annoying each other!  At times I felt like my days were mainly spent separating them, unable to leave them alone for half a minute, without fights and screams. When we travelled to England, just the three of us, it was probably the worst moment for sibling conflict and it was often physically impossible to separate them, they slept like peas in a pod together, fighting all over England they were.                        Things have improved a lot lately though as Nico is talking more, and has become a more useful and, it has to be said, extremely willing playmate.  Paulo with my encouragement has become more interested in teaching Nico things, instead of hitting him with things, which he is very good at when he puts his mind to it – the hitting and the teaching.  They both love books and we now have quite an impressive library in both language.  In fact my favourite time of day is reading them stories on the sofa upstairs before bedtime.  Paulo likes to be read poetry in bed, mainly AA Milne.  Nico was a bit lazy with the talking partly because his older brother never gives him chance, answering every question for him!  He talks much more baby talk and is quite amusingly earnest with his choice of words.  The boys speak both English and Spanish to each other depending on their environment.  Recently I bought a pirate copy of Mama Mia in the market and they love it memorising chunks of lyrics!  (Their Mum quite likes it too, it reminds her of dancing around Lorraine Robertson´s living room with a mic and her mother´s highheel black boots on, way back in the 70s..)

Poor Rafa has had a very busy and insecure year at work.  Norway, after 7 years, without much warning, moved most of their development funds out of Guatemala.  Rafa and Elias begged for a bit more money to give them time to look for other finance and save Casa Comal.  They got enough to last for 6 months.  So it has been a scarey year for us financially but things seem to be going really well for Casa Comal in their new more commercial role. Support and funds arriving little by little from other places most of them more local.  They have also sold a lot of rights for their films and documentaries to TV stations in South America, bringing in much needed revenue.  The Icaro Film Festival last November was the first one sponsored and paid for by the new government (The president sounds rather like Lester Piggot I realised!).  The opening ceremony was a much more patriotic ceremony and a national anthem that went on just a tad too long like the Fast Show football sketch.  Up until now Norway has paid Casa Comal and The Icaro Festival as their only Central American cultural project but had pulled most of their money out of Guatemalan projects last year and moved their embassy to Nicaragua.  The year before the festival had been a very emotional event as nobody knew if it would continue. So finally it is the Official Guatemalan and Central American Film Festival acknowledged by its government and not just outside aid.  Casa Comal will become the consultants who are paid to organise and produce it.  The Icaro has now spread to all Central American countries and Rafa visits all of the festivals as the founder and director.  Last year we all went to the Festival in San Salvador and had a great couple of days.  We found a really amazing childrens museum and friendly helpful people.  Nico loved all the taxi rides.  The Festival in Guatemala this year brought some of the regulars back and some new faces as ever.  I organised a bus load of people to join me for the opening and closing parties as usual and we saw an excellent Panamanian band.

During all this madness I was selling my flat in London long distance when the markets were crashing around us.  Anyway, thank goodness for Skype, it was a long and time-consuming 6 month long sale with a final gazundering (the new term for brutal price drop by the buyer) at the last moment.  Doing all this from another continent, as well as the ups and downs of Casa Comal meant that it wasn´t the easiest year for us financially like a lot of people, but we weathered the storm and 2009 should be an interesting year!

I am still very close to my Californian friend Heather, who has the dry sense of humour and laid back approach to life, to almost qualify to be British, or so I tease her!  My Guatemalan friend Fatima has been very busy with her business this year so have not seen her so much although we met regularly in her garden café with the children.  Her daughter Iñes, Paulo´s first love, will be going to a big posh private school in the city next week so I think we will see less and less of her.  She makes him hold her hand and confirms to him that they are in love on a regular basis.   Marike arrived on the scene.  She is Dutch but brought up in Latin America as her father was always working for the UN.  She has two little boys, is a single Mum (by choice, so she must stop playing the poor me card) and works on nutrition projects.  She did her Nutrition PhD at Dundee University of all places and is very fond of the Scots!  She fits in well with our little group and has put her boys in the same playgroups and schools as us.

Since becoming a wife and a mother out here I found myself amongst large groups of women for the first time in my life!!!  I got in too far and had to disentangle myself from the ´Wisteria lane´ circle in Antigua ……..woah.  A clique of wealthy international mothers who although very `nice´, it was not really my scene.  I have retreated into a more laid back bohemian circle. This last year I met a couple of nice British blokes living in San Pedro which has been really fun and they both cook which is great.  Felix (from Felixstowe, real name Mark) has been in Antigua several years and was running one of the first internet cafes and then an Indian takeaway until he was recently offered the chance to start his own restaurant in Antigua which he decided to call Pushkar.  Prior to throwing himself into the restuarant world we would spend Wednesday afternoons in his garden with his flatmate, his son Kai (Thai for number 1, I think) and my two boys ……… usually a few tasty nibbles of Indian food too, now he is flat out setting up his restaurant, we pop in and catch up regularly.  At the film festival in 2007 I met Morelia a Guatemalan artist who has become a firm friend, she teaches art in the city but comes to Antigua most weekends.  She lived in Montreal, Italy, Cuba and Bolivia before coming back to Guatemala.   I also met Yvonne last year, another Brit who arrived in Guatemala around the same time as me and set up nutrition projects for mothers and babies in a beautiful isolated part of Guatemala about 8 hours drive from here.  Talking to her really brings home the reality of the situation of most families living in Guatemala.  82% of indigenous children suffer from chronic malnutrition, yet go to one of the big hotels in Antigua for Sunday brunch and you will see some very overweight young children jumping in the pool!  The extremes of the crazy world are never far away in Guatemala so close to the US but so wracked with poverty and corruption.  I have never met people so rich and privileged and others so poor and helpless.  Helicopters regularly fly over Antigua especially at weekends carrying the rich from one mansion filled with servants to another on the beach or the lake.

Rafa´s cousin Taty comes down every summer from California for 2 or 3 months with her daughter Sylvanna.  She designs jewellery and has it made here.  I get on very well with her and the boys love Sylvanna who is 8 and very smart!  We have become very fond of a water park, Guateque which is down towards the coast about 40 minutes drive away and much hotter than here. It has the charm of a vintage theme park and includes a strange zoo selection including Ostrich, deer, parrots, fish, monkeys and one rescued Elephant.  Nico has been pecked by the parrot and Paulo had his hair pulled by the cheeky monkey but apart from that we have a very relaxed time. We took Taty and Sylvanna down there a couple of times and then they took Paulo, Nico and I to stay in a very smart hotel on the beach in Monterico.  The highlight of the trip for the boys was seeing whales and dolphins jumping in the waves I never would have noticed if one of the other guests hadn’t shouted ballena! They boys were very excited and still talk about it and act out the scene, we all ran on to the beach burning our feet on the hot black sand and running back to the pool to cool them off.  My highlight for me was sitting on the terrace listening to the waves sipping Pina Coladas and listening to Taty telling me crazy tales from her early days growing up in Guatemala .  She was always the black sheep of the family and always fun with fascinating stories.

We have also found our place to stay on the coast in an area called Las Lisas on the Salvadoran border.  We spent a lovely weekend there early last year with the boys collecting shells and hermit crabs on the beach and eating fresh fish and prawns.  Our bungalow was right on the sand on stilts and the sea breezes kept us cool at night.  It is a 2 hour drive from here on a beautiful road.  We are planning another trip when Grandma and Papa Grande arrive from England end of January.

We went to England again in September as we had done the year before but this time without Rafa which made it much harder especially beginning the journey with a 12 hour delay stranded at Guatemala airport missing all our connections.  It was one of those occasions where you just thank your lucky stars that you are stuck with such a nice group of people.  There were a lot of children from Central America and the States and Paulo and Nico happily played for most of that time until they fell asleep on the floor wrapped in plane blankets.  I on the other hand was going out of my mind with worry wondering how they were going to sort out the rest of my trip which was via Atlanta and Newark.  Kind young traveller Sam from London helped me carry the boys onto the plane after midnight both asleep.  Everybody had shared food, DVD players, nintendos you name it and after another 13 hour stopover in Atlanta we made it to the UK a day late with no luggage!

I hired a car this time in England and although expensive it meant that I could whizz around and catch up with lots of people albeit for too short a time ….. but it was really great to see everyone and see some old friends.  It is so great to see people and realise you can start again just where you left off.  I just wish I had chance to see more people when I go, without babysitters just getting out for a drink in London is impossible.

So our big plan is to head back to Europe in 2 or 3 years, Barcelona at the moment being the place we have decided on but who knows where we could end up.  We have to start to write a project and looking for funds to set up a Central American Film and Cultural Centre, another Casa Comal in Europe.  It is early days but we have lots of ideas.  I will probably do my first trip, leaving the boys with Rafa, to go to Barcelona in May and start checking things out if anybody fancies escaping for a couple of days to meet me.  Bizarrely, a few weeks ago an article came out in one of the Sunday newspapers here about successful Guatemaltecos living in Barcelona all of them working in the artistic field.  It seems that it will not be too difficult for Rafa to get a Spanish passport, all his family have for asylum or marriage reasons.  This was important for him.  Guatemala and Spain have an agreement and Rafa fits all the criteria.  Rafa would also like to start writing pieces for the Spanish press, even before we leave.  I am beginning to research how to go about exporting things from Guatemala to Spain and what will sell in these hard times!!!  Zacapa Rum, the best in the world they say. … or maybe just worry dolls!

Out trip to Mexico rounded off 2008.  A lot of Rafa´s friends from film school live in Mexico City, known by everyone over here as DF meaning districo federal or something like that.  We were lucky enough to be lent a great apartment and car, round the corner from all our friends, by a domino playing tequila drinking ex priest friend of Rafa´s family.  We saw great museums and parks, were taken to a lovely country house just outside for New Year and walked around the old historic centre of Zocala in between meeting up with lots of friends and children who I have heard lots about but never had chance to meet.

So I have been here 5 years now and I already know that this country and this part of the world is deeply entrenched in my psyche, husband and children playing a big role in that!  Sometimes it is hard to know how to bring children up here where society is so fixed and unchanged and my children will always be ganchitos (little blondies) and me a gringa (rich white girl).  But we always find fun things to do and kind people to do them with and that is about as much as I can wish for! The Credit crunch has not affected Guatemala as much as some other places as it was always xxxxed up anyway!

We are off to the Guadalajara film festival in March in Mexico.  I am escaping for 3 days first time ever!!  Outrageous behaviour.  Will write some more news about Guadalajara ……………..

I am hoping for lots of visitors in 2009, you know where we are ………. Just below Mexico next to Belize.



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