This here's a quick ¡Hola! from the lakeside town of San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala, where my compañera Pamela and I have been studying Spanish and digging deep into the muy tranquilo. I can't say I'm psyched to be returning to snowy Alberta, but one thing making it a lot more appealing is the thought of reuniting with the Second Chances for a few choice dates right away:
Fri Jan 25 • Innisfail, AB • Ol' Moose Hall • call or text Ken and Maddie at (403) 391-4120 for tickets
Sat Jan 26 • Calgary, AB • Bow Valley Music Club • SOLD OUT
Sun Jan 27 • Sherwood Park, AB • R.Ouse Concert • SOLD OUT
Wed Jan 30 • Edmonton, AB • Alberta Grown Series • tickets • Facebook event
I'll be flying out to Folk Alliance in Montreal shortly thereafter, then me and Bram will be heading back down under to tour and make a record with our Aussie comrades Liz Frencham and Esther Henderson. We've added a few new dates since I wrote you last, including shows in Benalla and Echuca. For those folks in places we aren't visiting this time around, I'd love to hear from you about listening venues for our next visit in October and November, when we'll be releasing the album. On our return to Canada in April, the Second Chances will be playing some shows around Alberta and BC, and then I'll be doing a solo tour of the Pacific Northwest in May before gearing up for a summertime run across Canada. It'll be my first in a long while, and Pamela's first ever. There are a few festivals I'm not allowed to announce yet, but all the news that's fit to print, as always, is on my news page.
There's not much to report music-wise in this Travelogue, but I do want to say a bit about Guatemala while I'm here, since it's done such a number on my heart already. It's been ages since I've been to Central America––eighteen years, in fact, since me and a bunch of pals flew to Costa Rica for a two-month visit that forever changed my life. I'd just finished an undergrad degree in Philosophy, and was gearing up to go into the masters program at University of Toronto, but I'd never been overseas. With all that happened in those first couple wide-eyed weeks, I suddenly knew that I couldn't go back to school. At least not then. Here I'd spent years reading philosophers who presume to talk about all possible worlds, but I knew next to nothing about the actual world! I had to see more of it. It was that same eye-thirst that drew me to Taiwan less than a year later, and has drawn me around the world since then. I'd thought it wouldn't be long before I was back down south on my side of the world, speaking Spanish. I'm surprised it's taken me this long, but god, it feels good.
This is Pamela's first trip overseas, and naturally (being a mother and a generally responsible person, rather than a reckless partier like I was then) she read a little online about Guatemala beforehand. Both the Canadian and US government websites have some pretty strongly-worded warnings about traveling here, and I'm not saying their statements aren't based on facts. I just hope that they won't discourage anyone from experiencing this beautiful country, and opting for a "safer" option like an all-inclusive somewhere instead. Though we've seen very little of it, I've fallen quickly in love with this land and its open-hearted people.
We packed light, but I did bring along a Honduran cigar-box ukulele that my pal Maurice Jones gave me before he died, and it's instigated plenty of beautiful moments so far. When anyone asks what it is, I offer them to play it, and I've been pretty amazed so far at how well they seem to pick it up, perhaps in part for its closeness, tuning-wise, to the charango. It's wonderful what music and even the sight of a unique instrument can do to bridge the distance between strangers.
We spent our first night in Antigua Guatemala, which was the old capital until it was partially destroyed by an earthquake, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with crumbling colonial architecture, rough cobblestone streets, and a really international feel (Pamela called it the Portland of Guatemala). From Antigua we made our way to Panajachel, on the shores of Lago Atitlán, a gorgeous caldera lake nestled between three volcanoes. The Mayan villages around the lake have seen plenty of backpacker traffic over the years, but most of the guesthouses, restaurants and such are down by the water, while the town centres, up the hill, have kept their beautiful, ramshackle local flavour. We spent the first three days in Santa Cruz la Laguna, a tiny, mostly car-free village, where we studied Spanish with a young Kaqchikel gal. We went to San Marcos to play a show, and serendipitously met up with some old pals including fellow Taiwan alum Eric Mandala. We marvelled at handmade textiles in San Juan, saw spider monkeys and pizotis (coatis) at the nature reserve in Panajachel, and were planning to head off the next morning to see some of the rest of the country, but after batting various imaginary itineraries around all day, we opted instead to spend our last week in San Pedro la Laguna, studying Spanish, and getting to know the place a bit rather than rushing through.
My teacher, Francisco, is a young fella who lived and studied in Guatemala City for years but has returned home for the quieter life in San Pedro. Besides helping me immensely with Spanish, he's taught me lots about the town, the lake, Mayan culture, and Guatemalan history. He told me about the struggle to clean up the lake, and the difficult transition away from resource extraction back to more sustainable ways. He told me about the endemic corruption in the country, and the current president, a TV star with no political experience that many people hoped would change things, only to see him slide into more of the same. He told me about Rigoberta Menchú, whose mother, father, and two brothers were murdered in the Guatemalan civil war, and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 in recognition of her long struggle for the rights of indigenous Guatemalans and prosecution for the crimes of the Guatemalan political and military establishment. He told me it was her book that awakened his conscience, and first got him to see the world from an international perspective. And I said thanks again for Noam Chomsky, who had a lot to do with the birth of my own class consciousness and my awareness of the propaganda in the stories I'd been told.
As I'm sure many of you readers know, Guatemala's had a rough go, from the brutal Spanish invasion and exploitation onward. After independence they suffered under a succession of dictatorial rulers who oppressed their own population in service of foreign business interests, particularly the United Fruit Company. Jorge Ubico ran one of the most repressive regimes in Central American history with American backing, torturing and murdering political opponents, creating a vast network of spies and informants, and consistently favouring American business and the local elites against the peasant population, whom he forced to work without pay. In 1944, his brutality led to a popular revolution, an era known in Guatemala as the "diez años de primavera" (Ten Years of Spring), when Juan José Arévalo and then Jacobo Árbenz carried out massive social reforms, including vast improvements in literacy and labour standards, and an ambitious land redistribution program. Naturally, the United Fruit Company lobbied the US government to get rid of Árbenz, and the CIA engineered a coup in 1954, just as they had done the year before, when the democratically-elected leader of Iran got on the wrong side of US and British business interests. They installed a military leader named Carlos Castillo Armas, whose return to the brutal policies of his predecessors sparked an armed rebellion which lasted from 1960 to 1996. During the civil war, the military government carried out genocide against the indigenous Mayan population, with US knowledge and support. Whole villages were slaughtered, women, children and all, on suspicion of communist sympathies. If you find any of this hard to believe, I sincerely hope you'll read more about the history of US foreign intervention, particularly in Latin America, and consider what the past actions of the world powers might have to do with the current wave of refugees fleeing that part of the world.
On Sunday we had a day off, so we went up the hill to the stadium for the fútbol season opener, which our boys won one-nil! It was so good to be out among the fight songs and firecrackers and coloured smoke, the hawkers with nuts and ceviche and shaved ice, the old campesinos in their cowboy hats, women in traditional huipiles, and youngsters in green and gold San Pedro F.C. jerseys. When the time ran out, the young victors knelt and prayed, and whatever you think about sports or Jesus, there was something undeniably beautiful about it. During our stroll back through town after the game, we came upon some kids playing with kites made out of little black garbage bags and red string, and my heart soared along with the kids' laughter and those little plastic sails.
That night there was a total lunar eclipse, which we watched from the hammocks at the house we were staying in. We wondered about indigenous peoples' ideas about lunar eclipses, and recalled how the villain Columbus had used his knowledge of an upcoming eclipse to trick and intimidate the indigenous people of Jamaica into provisioning his men. It's another example of a common type of story, much like the one we've been listening to in Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano's book The Open Veins of Latin America, of how people with technical knowledge use it to exploit those without.
On our last morning in San Pedro, we got up before four in the morning to climb up a nearby mountain called Rostro Maya (so named because it resembles a sleeping Mayan face) with a guide we met on the street one day. We caught one of the local "chicken buses" (American school buses that get a redecorated second life on the broken roads of Central America) and strained up the staggeringly steep hills in the dark, then hiked through cane-fields and forest in the moonlight to look down on the lake from above. We could see five volcanoes from the summit, one of which, Volcán Fuego, was periodically coughing glowing lava and billowing smoke out into the twilit air. Venus was incredibly bright in the morning sky, sitting right next to Jupiter in a lucky conjunction. I was also surprised to spot the Southern Cross, which I've never seen from Canada, hanging low in the sky, with the pointers to its left. Marking the line, as my Australian friends have shown me, between the pointers and along the axis of the cross, directed me straight down, behind the mountains and around the world, in the direction I'll be heading soon.
I'm finishing this Travelogue from the Houston airport, where we arrived today for a long layover. It's day 33 of the longest government shutdown in US history, and hundreds of thousands of government employees just missed their second paycheque in a row, but the folks here were in surprisingly good moods. One tall black older fella asked me about the ukelele and then said "Start playing! Donald Trump got my money, y'all make me happy!" When I obliged, he started singing "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog", danced some seriously impressive footwork, and made all of us happy. He broke through the soulless game we've been told to play like it was nothing. He made America great again, right there and then.
Before I sign off, friends, one last word about a bit of news we got while we were in San Pedro, that Mary Oliver had died. I only came to her in recent years, and I'm already incredibly grateful for the gifts she left with us. If you don't know her, but you love life, dig into her work. You'll find a friend. She writes beautifully about dogs, and days, about this world and our place in it. But for now, I'll just leave you with a poem of sadness and hope called "Of The Empire":
We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will also say that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.
The promise in those words, for me, is the hope that we'll survive to look back on these days––to see them for what they were, and to grow beyond them. Here's hoping.
I shot a bunch of photos along the way, if you wanna have a look here.
Thanks as always for reading, and for all you do. Big love,