Sunday, 12 March 2017

A Postcard from Guatemala - 3 - Chichicastenango and Lake Atitlan

The journey from Antigua, Guatemala's former capital, to Lake Atitlan in the north, takes about three hours by road. My journey took a little longer as I made three stops along the way. Two of these were scheduled in order to visit markets. The other stop, to which we will return, was due to one of those chance encounters that can make travel such a rich experience.

A smile at Chichicastenango
Shamans on the road to Chichi
Perhaps one hour outside of Antigua, we came to Chupol, a small town with a weekly market. Chupol receives few visitors and as the only non-local I attracted a fair amount of attention, mostly surprised looks, a number of greetings and one or two questions about where I had come from. The market is geared exclusively towards local people, selling just about everything including fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, flowers, electrical goods and second hand clothes. The stalls are arranged on each side of an extremely busy dual carriageway with people crossing backwards and forwards, dodging the heavy traffic to shop, bargain and swap news with friends and relatives. I spent a little money here. A small boy noticed my scuffed footwear and gave me the best shoe shine I have ever had whilst I attempted to use my few words of Spanish with an elderly lady whose husband was waiting his turn for a shine. I also allowed myself to be tempted by a peanut seller carrying his produce in a wheelbarrow and weighing them in one of two plastic basins suspended on a pole before succumbing to the charms of a persistent orange seller who provided me with healthy citrus sustenance for the rest of the journey.

Back on the road and my guide noticed a colourful gathering of local people as we passed through another village. It was a small group of shamans, gathered around their leader who was about to perform a ceremony before setting off for their church. The vast majority of Guatemalans are at least nominally Catholics and church attendance rates are very high. However, as in Mexico, many of the indigenous people continue to keep the old religions and beliefs, combining them with aspects of Christianity. This includes belief in Maximon, a "bad saint" and enemy of the church whose origins are unsure. He is associated with a number of vices including drinking and smoking and one story places him as a Franciscan friar who chased local women. Representations of him are used during rituals including at a special Maximon house in Santiago Atitlan.

Back to our group of shamans. After a short prayer, the group of about 10 men dressed in brightly coloured shirts and jackets together began their march to the church, accompanied by the villagers  as they carried a statue of Maximon and waved to us as they went on their way.

Peanut seller at Chupol
Shaman on the road to Chichi
Little drummer girl at Chichi
A couple of hours later we arrived in Chichicastanago, known locally as Chichi, to find the famous twice weekly market in full swing. It attracts vendors and shoppers from a wide area, some of whom walk for as much as four hours to bring their goods here. In recent years the market has also begun to attract many tourists but despite this it is still an authentic Guatemalan experience. Outsiders come to see the avalanche of colour made up of the local's clothing, the brightly coloured produce and the spectacular textiles being sold almost everywhere in the town. The market is a photographer's paradise but be warned, some traders may ask for payment before having their picture taken. My preference is to buy something from them rather than paying to take a picture. Making conversation with people also helps to ease the way.

I have already mentioned the combination of Catholicism with traditional beliefs and further evidence of this can be seen in Chichi in the church of Santo Tomas in the main plaza. Francisco Ximenez, the parish priest from 1701 to 1703 was particularly sympathetic to the Maya, even reading their holy book the Popol Vuh and allowing the installation of Mayan altars in the church. Visitors can still see representations of both Catholic and Mayan saints inside the building. Please note, it is strictly forbidden to take photographs inside the church.

Before entering, locals make offerings in a fire on the church steps. This is followed by performing a ritual inside. I saw several people lighting candles, sprinkling petals and alcohol on the floor and chanting in one of the Mayan languages, appealing for help with some family issue, business or other matter. Special respect is paid to the souls of the dead, both in Santo Tomas and in the town's amazingly colourful cemetery. The tombs are painted in bright colours and are set out in an arrangement resembling a small town. The more affluent the deceased, the larger and more ornate the tomb is. As I left the cemetery I noticed a hint of humour as the shop nearest to the cemetery is called Tienda El Ultimo Adios, which in English means the shop of the last goodbye. Mmm.

On the steps of Santo Tomas
Fruit seller, Chichi
Making tortillas, Chichi
Colourful tombs, Chichi cemetery
In the late afternoon we arrived at Panajachel. The town sits on the banks of Lake Atitlan, which is itself surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. Unfortunately, the mountains are often obscured by mists and this was the case at the time of my visit. Panajachel has a busy main street, Santanader which is lined with cafes, restaurants and tourist oriented shops, all offering pretty much the same craft items. There is an excellent book shop, Libros del Lago which stocks a good range of books about Guatemala as well as Latin American fiction in both English and Spanish. I spent just one night in the town and chose to eat at Deli Llama de Fuego, a great little place that offers a range of tasty local dishes, many of them vegetarian and although it may sound strange my curried banana soup was delicious as was my side dish of fried plantain. Ok, so I like bananas. There is also a great coffee shop - Cafe Loco, a Korean owned business where they make the coffee according to your taste. It was a bit crowded with backpackers early in the evening but I managed to find a space at the bar later on. Great coffee.

Ritual with Maximon, Santiago Atitlan
Traditional headdress, Santiago Atitlan 
There are several villages around the lake. Santiago Atitlan is the largest and has a strong Maya identity with many of the people still wearing traditional clothing. The women's clothes include purple striped skirts and blouses embroidered with brightly coloured birds and flowers whilst many of the men wear striped and embroidered trousers. 

The church of Sant Iago Apostle is the focus of religious life here, again combining Catholicism with traditional Mayan beliefs and practices. As well as figures of the Catholic saints, there are carvings of figures from Mayan traditions, albeit hidden behind the main altar. This includes a representation of Maximon, although it was obscured by a large flower display when I visited. I was to come across him again in Santiago Atitlan - at a ceremony in a small house on the hillside. A family had come to consult a shaman and received advice in the presence of a lifelike Maximon model.

The town also has a colourful market, many crafts people and is home to several good artists who paint in the naive style. I was lucky enough to be shown how the local women put on their head dresses which consist of a bright red, belt-like piece of cloth wrapped round and round the head to give the appearance of a hat. The material is at least 7 metres in length and often longer.

The small villages of San Antonio Palopo and Santa Caterina Palopo are also worth a visit. Traditional crafts are important to both villages and in San Antonio Palopo I was invited into the house of a family of weavers. The house consisted of two rooms, the first of which was completely taken up by two large manually operated looms where a married couple worked producing exquisite scarves, blouses, skirts and other items. The second room was for living in and was shared with two of their three children, the third one having left the village to study. In neighbouring Santa Caterina I enjoyed bargaining with two elderly ladies who may well have been sisters and who drove a very hard bargain before breaking into big smiles once the scale was agreed. And then it was back to Antigua for one more night.

Weaver, San Antonio Palopo
Sisters, Santa Caterina Palopo

You can see more pictures of Guatemala here.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

A postcard from Guatemala 2 - The People In The Street

Saturday afternoon
During my recent stay in Guatemala, I took a five hours photo walk through three villages in the company of professional photographer Rudy Giron. Rudy not only helped create opportunities for me to take pictures of many of the local people but also gave me some great technical advice. I chose to go on one of his walks after reading about sensitivities relating to photography in Guatemala, particularly amongst the Maya, the indigenous people who make up perhaps 50% of the population. Anxious not to offend anyone but wanting to come home with some great pictures, I thought that he could perhaps give some guidance. I thought correctly and through talking to and generally showing interest in the local people he made it possible for me to capture the best shots of my trip and to feel confident about taking them.

Introvert and extrovert
Playing up for the camera
Are they taking our picture?
The three villages we walked through, are just a ten minutes drive from Antigua, Guatemala's former capital city and major tourist attraction. Despite the short distance, life has changed little in the last 100 years. The pace is slower, few tourists come and there is still a very strong sense of community. Many of the residents are Maya.

At first glance it seems that nothing is happening there but taking a closer look, there are many things to surprise and delight those who venture to visit. There is the constant "flamenco" of the women preparing tortillas for sale three times a day, patting the corn flour between their hands in preparation for cooking. There is the communal washing facility or lavanderia, an open air wash house with several stone units arranged in a square so that the women stand beside and opposite each other whilst working. I am certain the designer's intent was to facilitate the exchange of news and enable gossip without the evidence trail of Facebook. Then there is the industry of the tiny tailoring shop with three men squeezed into a dark, tiny room, working on aged but lovingly maintained machines and each with a tape measure draped around their necks. When entering the shop and greeting them with  "buenos dias como estas?" one of them looked up, replied and then proudly said in clear English "I am a tailor".
Time for a chat (that's Rudy with the camera)
All dressed up with somewhere to go
Pretending to be shy
And we came across the absurd - a family gathered around a huge rabbit - as well as a man looking and laughing at us from behind a barred window. Some opportunities arrive by chance. As we descended a steep, narrow street, a door opened and out came three young women, dressed in their best clothes and about to go to a wedding. On show you might say. All real life and all inviting the attention of the camera.

The people we met generally fell into two types - those who were shy of the camera and those that loved it. Introverts and extroverts. You can see both in the pictures on this post. Towards the end of the afternoon, we came upon a family selling bread. The father, a teenage son and a little girl stood outside their shop and as Rudy chatted with the father we began to take pictures. The teenager became shy and turned away, putting his head down on the counter. But after a few seconds, a younger boy pushed his way through to see what was happening and became very animated, smiling, raising his arms and laughing. Then another, much younger child joined us, holding up his toy car for us to see whilst also looking beyond us to the activity in the street.

I am a tailor
Tortillas, three times a day
I can take pictures too
Some people need a little encouragement. We came across a Mayan family at one of the lavanderia and although friendly they were a little reticent about being photographed. We met them again later on and they were very different - all smiles and giggles as they posed happily, the youngest child pretending to be shy and peeping from behind her sister before emerging to look directly at the camera and demand her picture be taken. One little girl turned the tables on us. Whilst we photographed her mother making tortillas, she picked up a mobile phone and started taking pictures of us. An Eve Arnold in the making.

I have picked a handful of my favourites from the five hours photo walk based on the quality of the pictures and in some cases, being me, because of the story behind them. No portraits were taken without the permission of the subject and no pictures were taken of children without the permission and co-operation of the parents.  A big thanks to Rudy for his time and advice. You can see his website and book a photo walk here. Thanks also to the people of San Pedro Las Huertas,  Santa Catarina Bobadil and San Gaspar Vivar. You can see more photographs from Guatemala here.

At the lavanderia
Through my window
Team shot
In case you didn't believe me about the rabbit...

Saturday, 25 February 2017

A Postcard From Guatemala - 1 - Art Deco In Guatemala City

Few visitors do more than just pass through Guatemala City on the way to more established tourist destinations such as Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Tikal.  

The city gets a bad press, a hangover from the dark decades of civil war that ravaged the country between 1960 and 1996. True, it lacks the glamour of better known Latin American capitals such as Buenos Aires or Mexico City and there is a definite grittiness about the place but a couple of hours spent walking around the historical centre convinced me that the city is worth a longer look, in large part because of the astonishing number of art deco buildings clustered around Avenida Sexta (6th Avenue).

Edificio La Perla
Facade, Edifico La Perla
The Avenida was long the most fashionable street in the city, with its mid nineteenth century structures and plethora of art deco buildings from the 1920's and 30's including department stores, cinemas and cafes. Unfortunately it was colonised by street traders during the 1980's to the extent that it became difficult to get into the shops or even stroll along the pavement. Many long established places closed as a result of this and the Avenida deteriorated. The decline was arrested in 2009 when the traders were cleared, trees planted and traffic banned. There is still much to do to improve things, not least removing the trashy signs that adorn the facades of many of the most beautiful deco buildings but it is easy to imagine the Avenida in the 20's and 30's when it must have matched any European boulevard.

Edificio La Perla stands at the junction of Avenida Sexte with Parque Central, the city's main square. Built in 1927 for the Asturias family it originally contained residential units on the upper levels and retail on the ground floor. La Perla was designed by a trio of German architects - Robert Hoegg, Wilhelm Krebs and Anton Holzheu and was recognized as a National Heritage building in 1970. The facade has several decorative elements including trapezoid columns, stylised lettering bearing the building's name at the top of the central tower and linear moulding showing the separation of levels.

Edifico Engel
Moving away from the main square, Edifico Engel occupies another corner spot on the Avenida. It was built for a German Jewish businessman called Enrique Engel. Engel came to Guatemala in 1892, following his father, Jacobo, who came to the country via San Francisco initially to sell costume jewelry. Things went well and the family established a shirt factory and opened the Guatemala's first department store. Enrique went on to become the leader of the German-Jewish community, established a cemetery and used his influence to enable a small number of Jews to enter the country just before the Second World War.  I have been unable to confirm the date of construction, with different sources quoting 1937 and 1950 as the date of completion. Quite a difference, although I suspect the relative simplicity of the design would place it more at the later date. I have also been unable to find details of the architect. Anyone reading this who can supply this or other information about the buildings in this post is very welcome to add them in the comments section below!

A little further along the Avenida we come to two cinemas. The Lux and the Tikal. Designed by Rodolfo Bader, Cine Lux was completed in 1936.  Since 1956 it has operated as the Centro Cultura de Espana, showcasing Spanish cultural activity in the city. The Tikal has fared less well and despite retaining its jolly lettering and beautiful blue mosaic tiles on the facade, it looks a little sad with the ground floor now occupied by cheap shops.

Centro Cultura de Espana (Cine Lux)
Cine Tikal
Imprenta Hispania is possibly the most beautiful art deco building in the Centro Historico. Originally a publishing house, it is located in Avenida 5 and visible from Avenida 6, its blue facade is a delight with its deco swirls, speed stripes and fabulous lettering which runs both vertically and horizontally. Completed in 1927 it was designed by the already mentioned Wilhelm Krebs, one of several German architects responsible for the city's collection of art deco buildings. 

Imprenta Hispania

Elsewhere in the old centre, it is hard to walk down a street without spotting at least some deco features. Look up to find beautiful balconies and stylised lettering and peep behind the cardboard signs to find exquisite deco doors. And it's not just in the centre that you can find these treasures. I stayed in Zona 10 and discovered the building pictured below, just a short step from my hotel. No details of its original function but today, almost shamefully, it is being used as a car parking space. Zone 10 is a trendy, affluent zone with many cafes, bars, restaurants and fancy shops. Surely better use could be made of this elegant building with its rotunda, curves and speed lines, than just a car park?

Building in Zona 10, now a car park
Guatemala City's art deco heritage must be one of the country's best kept secrets. It is one that needs sharing and that could help attract more visitors and more investment to the city. I am unaware of any groups or individuals working to promote this part of the built heritage but would love to hear from anyone who knows otherwise. In the meantime, some more pictures to enjoy...

Balcony on Avenida 6
Deco neighbors in side street off Avenida 6
Deco building near central market
Hotel Fuentes
Detail, Imprenta Hispania

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Simpson of Piccadilly - a Modernist Masterpiece

Simpson of Piccadilly opened in April 1936 as the largest menswear store in the country. The company had successfully launched its luxury DAKS brand in 1934 and wanted a central London location from which to sell their entire range. The site at 203-6 Piccadilly became available in 1935 when the former Geological Museum premises were offered for sale at auction. Alexander Simpson purchased the site for £11,000 and commissioned architect Joseph Emberton to design a new store.

Simpson of Piccadilly was to be the height of modernity and Emberton did not disappoint. The ground floor concave windows at the front and rear were the first in the country and still surprise passers-by today. A steel frame supports the building and the front is clad in Portland stone, divided by windows that run the full length of the facade. Inside, a Travertine marble staircase is the star of the show, with its low 1930's bannister and glass wall running from top to bottom of the stairs. And as if this wasn't enough the original internal display and storage features - sadly long gone - were designed by none other than Bauhaus hero Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. This included three aircraft being exhibited on the fifth floor, a marketing idea designed purely to bring in more potential customers. The Simpson logo and advertising were also influenced by the Bauhaus School and were designed by Ashley Havinden. The 90 feet long chromium light fitting that still hangs in the stairwell was designed by Emberton. As well as menswear, the store had a restaurant, barbers, dog shop and other retail offers. However, clothing remained the main attraction and customers were able to see tailors at work in a bespoke section.

The high level specification and the size of the site - a total of 11,000 square feet - resulted in a very large bill for the Simpson Company and Alexander Simpson warned that it would take a number of  years before a profit would be made. Sadly he was not to enjoy the building for very long, dying of leukemia in 1937 aged just 34. Emberton had earlier designed the former Austin Reed building in Holborn. Completed in 1925, it too is a striking modernist building but Simpson's was to be his masterpiece. 

The Second World War commenced just three years after the store opened. General retail operations were suspended and replaced by production of uniforms whilst the top floor became a club for off-duty soldiers could sleep, bathe and make telephone calls. Normal service resumed at the end of the war and there are stories of queues stretching the length of Piccadilly and tailors being sent out to measure people in the street in order to have a selection of trousers to offer them once they reached the shop! That's what I call service.

The DAKS company was acquired by a Japanese firm in 1999 and the shop was sold to Waterstones Booksellers who have made to their flagship store. Alexander Simpson's vision and Joseph Emberton's design eventually resulted in their building achieving Grade l listed status - the highest possible. The Simpson store is sadly no more, but it is still possible to enjoy this beautiful building today...and to browse thousands of books at the same time. What a combination.

More London Art Deco items here.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Jewish Yangon

The Musemah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon's 26th Street is a glorious reminder of a once thriving Jewish community. Today there are no more than 20 Jews resident in the city - the remnant of a community that peaked at about 2,500 before the Second World War. The main Jewish holidays are still celebrated in the synagogue with the congregation augmented by visiting tourists and at least some of the up to 100 Jews from other countries who work for various organisations in Myanmar. 
Synagogue entrance
I was able to visit the synagogue during my recent tie in Yangon and to admire the light, airy, beautifully maintained building, on the edge of Yangon's India Town and not far away from the city's last remaining Jain Temple. The entrance is discrete but clearly signed and visitors are offered a warm welcome six days a week - the building is closed on Sunday. Completed in 1896, it has beautiful stained glass windows, ornate decorative details around the bimah and beautiful bamboo and teak seats, reflecting local traditions and tastes. Despite being tucked away in a side street, the interior is very light and airy and does not have the air of sadness of many European synagogues with communities of similar size but different history. 

Myanmar's first Jews arrived in the early 1800's - merchants and traders from Calcutta, most of them members of that city's Iraqi Jewish community, originating from Baghdad. They were involved in a range of trades including textiles, timber, ice production and bottling. Some members of the community became influential and prominent in civic life and one place was allocated to the community on the Yangon (then Rangoon) Municipal Committee. Participation in public life reached a peak in the early part of the twentieth century with the appointment of Jewish mayors to both Yangon and the smaller city of Pathein (then Bassein). 

Brothers Judah and Avraham Ezekiel came from Baghdad to Myanmar in 1840, settling in Mandalay and worked for the Burmese monarch, King Mindon, as accountants or bookkeepers. At some point the brothers quarreled, separated and Judah moved to Yangon where he became so successful that a street was named after him possibly due to his philanthropy which included paying for the metaling of the road. He ensured the care of "his" street by leaving nine rupees per month in his will for its ongoing cleaning. He appears to have been a larger than life character in all senses of the term. Almost Englishmen a short history of the Jewish community in Myanmar includes a story describing the reluctance of rickshaw drivers to carry him due to his large size which on one occasion caused him to go through the floor of a carriage.

Sofaer building, Merchant Street
Isaac Sofaer was another prominent member of the community. Born in Baghdad in 1867, his father brought him to Yangon at the age of nine. On completion of his education he worked for a wine and spirits company before going into business with his brother Meyer in 1893. Messes Sofaer and Co also sold wines and spirits and became involved in exporting rice. Isaac was not only a successful businessman but also took part in civic life supporting organisations such as the Agricultural Society and the Burma Pasteur Institute.

He was also responsible for the design of the elegant and imposing Sofaer building, completed in 1906 and which still stands today on the corner of Merchant Street in the city centre. The building once housed the Reuters telegram office, a Filipino hairdressers and shops selling Scotch whisky, Egyptian cigars and English sweets. The design included ceramic floor tiles, imported from Manchester and arranged in a green, gold, lapis lazuli and burnt sienna mosaic. Some of the original tiles still remain. The building today is a shadow of its original self but there are signs of recovery with Gekko, a very successful Japanese restaurant taking space on the ground floor as well as one or two shops selling tourist items. The Lokanat Gallery on the first floor is the city's longest established independent gallery.

The golden age of the community ended abruptly in 1941 when most of its members fled as a result of the Japanese invasion. Although some people returned at the end of the war, the much reduced numbers made it difficult to sustain community life. In addition to this here were various disputes about the management of the community, which did not help matters. These and other issues are detailed in Ruth Fredman Cernea's excellent book Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma which charts the history of the Jews in Myanmar. There was a second wave of departure in the 1960's following nationalisation of almost all the country's businesses. There has been no rabbi since 1969 and kosher meat is not available. Community members compromise with halal produce.

Shop sign with a Magen David "for luck".
Despite this, you could be forgiven for thinking that Yangon's Jewish community is much larger than it really is. This is because it is possible to see a Magen David (Star of David) displayed outside many businesses across the city. This is not that the businesses are Jewish owned but rather that some locals believe the symbol will bring them luck and success. However there is at least one building with a Magen David on its facade that does have strong Jewish links. The wooden building in the picture below, close to the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda complex was once Jewish owned and the location for an ice factory. Look closely and you can see the Star at the apex of the facade. The community may be very small, but its presence and achievements live on through the synagogue, the Sofaer building and through symbols such as these.  

Former Jewish owned ice factory with Magen David on facade
Visitors wishing to know more about Myanmar's Jewish history might like to contact Myanmar Shalom  which can organize visits to the synagogue and to the places connected with the community's history.

You might also like - Myanmar Journey Part One - Yangon

You can see more pictures of Myanmar here.