Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala

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When my friend Lotta emailed me two weeks before Easter to remind me that she would be travelling through Guatemala, Carlos and I jumped at the chance to join her in Antigua (a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the central highlands of Guatemala).

We flew to Guatemala City on Palm Sunday, and went straight to Antigua. Our driver explained to us that the city was host to one of the biggest Easter processions in Latin America, and that dropping us off right in front of our hostel may be problematic; sure enough, as we arrived, the procession was actually going right past the door of our hostel, so we tried and failed to look inconspicuous with our backpacks as we made our way through the crowds.

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Children’s procession from La Merced church

The processions took place at least three times a day throughout the week, with some starting at three in the morning. Most of the processions started with men carrying incense, followed by lines of men dressed in purple robes. Groups of up to eighty men then carried huge wooden platforms with scenes of the Holy Week (such as Christ carrying the cross or the crucifixion), followed by a marching horn and flute band playing funeral marches. A similar procession would follow with groups of women dressed in white and black, carrying scenes of the Virgin Mary. It was obvious from the faces of those carrying the platforms that they were extremely heavy, and that the walk was a momentous spiritual experience. Despite the hundreds of people watching, the streets were often silent, save from solemn and slow drumming.

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Families preparing for the march

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Marching bands

On Easter Friday, everyone in the procession was dressed in black, and the floats got larger and even more impressive.

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The Virgin arriving through a cloud of incense

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By 5am on Friday morning the streets were full of Roman soldiers and scenes of the crucifixion

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Throughout the week, Antiguans lined the streets with carpets made from coloured sawdust, flower petals, pine needles and tropical fruits, as a symbol of the streets of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Each carpet was often the result of weeks of preparation in designing and creating large stencils and then hours of work on the spot. These carpets would exist for a few hours, often created in the wee hours of the morning, and then the processions would walk over them and reduce them to a messy mix of sawdust over the streets.

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Just like the Desalpe in Switzerland, the cleaning team was never far away

Besides the processions, Antigua is a beautiful colonial city, surrounded by volcanos and endless blue skies. Over Easter it was full of tourists (mainly Central Americans and US/European backpackers), but it’s no wonder why: there is an incredible amount of local handicraft for sale, and churches and streets to explore, the restaurants are excellent, and people are extremely friendly and open for a chat.

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I bought a huipil, a beautiful handwoven traditional blouse. I had a chance to have a long chat with the woman who wove it and she told me that it took six months to make. The designs follow those from the municipality of Chajul in Guatemala.
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Weaving huipils by hand

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We spent the week mostly eating small tortillas filled with guacamole, cabbage, meat or fish, beans and chilli, walking around, buying beautiful handicrafts, exploring abandoned churches destroyed by earthquakes, and drinking hot chocolate sprinkled with chilli.

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Three volcanos surround the city: the Volcán de Agua, the Volcán de Fuego and Acatenango. We decided to climb the Acatenango with an organised tour, and camp at the summit overnight. The Tropicana tour was extremely well organised, with incredible and serious guides, good food and equipment.

We knew that it would be a difficult climb and to prepare for almost freezing conditions at the top, but I definitely underestimated just how difficult and steep the hike would be, and most of all how affected I would be by the altitude. At times it was so heavy going that I would take five steps and stop to catch my breath. As we walked up, hundreds of Guatemalan families ran and practically skipped down the mountain, on their way down from Holy Monday mass at the summit.

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Carlos told me to make a warrior face and this is all that I could muster…

By the time I had reached the campsite at about 3700 metres, I’d made all sorts of drastic promises to myself (to never climb above 3000 metres again, to never run a marathon, to never claim to like hiking ever again) and I collapsed into the tent, only to come out to throw up during the night. Tips for future Acatenango hikers: pack rehydration salts!m20ILWqmQlSEQUyj%HqItA_thumb_db4

 

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Photo courtesy of Cosima (I was too busy trying to get down the mountain to see this)

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The descent the next day however was an entirely different experience. In a matter of a few hundred metres I started to feel more human, to notice the incredible eruptions of the Fuego volcano and the lava dribbling down the sides of the mountain. I stopped to observe the mountain flowers and even spotted a high altitude hummingbird. I was able to appreciate the different types of forest from the pine trees at the top to the dewy cloud forests and then agricultural lands. The descent almost made up for the trauma of the day before, and as usually is the case with this type of experience…it was worth it in the end.

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All in all it was a beautiful week with friends and a great opportunity to explore a small corner of Guatemala. We hope to be back soon!

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A love letter to you, Puerto Rico

Oh those first six weeks of a relationship. Constant surprise, a lightness of heart, tinted vision. Those weeks when any small gesture will inevitably etch itself to the walls of one’s heart, as the indelible marks of our own personal romance.

Take that time we were driving through farmland in the south, looking for the infamous ‘La Frutera’ fruit truck. The forty minute detour was worth it, not just for the smoothie, but for almost eight minutes of absolute joy, Hector Lavoe’s ‘Vamos a Reír un Poco’, on the radio. Percussion against the dashboard, stars in my eyes.

Or the sight of a whale, out past La Perla, and two days later, seven dolphins jumping over each other on their way out of the San Juan Bay.

My hued glasses on, I secretly love your clichés: the way you can hear ‘Dura‘ blasting from at least one car driving by every day, and catch every word, even when the car windows are fully wound up. Dancing to Plan B in a dirty dark alleyway was one of the highlights of my weekend, but I also laughed at the poster in a bar that said ‘No reggaeton, no trap, no Despacito, no Marc Anthony’. And though the postcard palm trees have taken a hit recently, lop-sided and barren on one side, they remain resilient and lush on the other. A metaphor for life after a hurricane, perhaps.

Sometimes you make me feel like a second character in a magical realism novel. Take that Airbnb with the dock between the mangroves, and the view onto the rusty abandoned sugar mill. As we drove up, a half-naked, fully-tattooed, sinister-looking neighbour observed us. I felt slightly on edge, until he whistled, and a troupe of goats trotted down the road and into his gate. Or when I peeked through the window of a house in Old San Juan to try and find the source of some wonderful piano music, and I saw a woman standing by the piano, under a chandelier, dressed to the nines, with a white cockatoo on her shoulder.

I married one of your compatriots so it’s no surprise I’m attracted to your collective humour, but the open cheekiness still sometimes catches me out. On an sunset run through a suburban area, I crossed an elderly lady walking her small dog. I looked out of place and I expected her to stare me down, as she would have done back ‘home’. Instead, she gave me the cheekiest wink I’ve ever seen. Or when I went to buy soap from a shop down the road, and my mother-in-law introduced me to the lady at the counter ‘we used to go to middle school together’. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I used to check out the boys in her class!’.

I love the raging relentless wind over the old city: the wind of schooners and pirates, the rattles and whistles through the Spanish courtyards, the 17th century A.C. When I lie awake at night listening to the wind filing down the walls and the torrential rain appear from nowhere, I think about the previous inhabitants of these streets. Corsairs, scoundrels, hideaways, slaves, passersby. I think about the women who lived in these houses. Inevitably you get me thinking about my freedom and my existence, as any good lover should do.

There’s a leitmotif in my exchanges with family, acquaintances and friends, a response to any uncertainty, future plans or change: ‘Lo más importante, es que te guste‘ (the most important thing, is that you like it), I’ve heard, again and again. It’s so blatantly obvious, yet it’s never been repeated to me so blatantly explicitly. I’m still trying to understand the implications this little phrase could have on my life, my immediate and distant future. Now that its crept in, I’m not sure it can leave.

New loves teach you about old loves, old loves teach you about new loves, and love teaches you about yourself. These six weeks of uncertainty have most likely changed me more than a year of four seasons ever would. And for that, I’m eternally grateful for this time spent here, with the opportunity to drop everything, contemplate and investigate. Like a summer romance, we both know this will end eventually. Yet know, dear Borinquen, that a small part of me will forever be walking down the rainbow streets of Old San Juan, dodging drains and peeking into houses. Or running across the grass of the El Morro fort at sunset, trying not to get blown away. Peering into bromeliads to find a coquí. Playing dominos and drinking rum with guanábana juice.

Yours,
Suzy

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Freedom

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A melodramatic title, I’ll admit. But three weeks ago, I handed in my MA thesis, took a week off work for a much needed break, and went on the perfect holiday at a yoga retreat in Portugal. After so many months of intense work, it really did feel like freedom. Just looking back at these pictures transports me to such a happy place and gives me an unforgettable sense of peace.

I flew very very early from Geneva to Faro the day before the retreat started. By 9am I was sat in a sunny roadside café drinking coffee, eating natas and reading a novel. I had a wander around the town, and sat on top of the cathedral reading and enjoying the light sea breeze. I then went to a great little restaurant for lunch, and another for dinner, and ate garlic prawns, sea bass, monk fish and some local wine at a table-for-one. Travelling solo can be so so nice.

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On Saturday, I took the train to Lagos, where a large taxi picked up six of the retreat guests. We drove through windy country lanes, and then off-road down a dusty rocky path through a national park and towards the sea. The retreat was held in a house in the middle of park, a five minute walk to the beach. It was perfectly secluded, with only the noise of the waves, the birds, and the crickets as company. The power came from solar panels, filtered water from a well, wifi was limited to one small corner of the house, and there was absolutely no light pollution so the stars were incredible. The scenery was wild and absolutely magic.

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The leader of the retreat and yoga teacher, Shaini, made us all feel welcome and at ease with her humour and friendliness. Each day involved two hours of yoga in the morning, and two in the late afternoon. Some of us took surf lessons, others took cooking lessons and had massages. I did all three (albeit, taking it easy on the surfing, but that’s a story for another day) and also went on a couple of early morning walks and runs. Shivani, the cook, made the most incredible vegetarian food. It was so delicious that our group gained the reputation of being a ‘wolf-pack’. We all joked that this was possibly the only retreat where you could spend four or more hours a day doing exercise and eating healthy vegetarian food, and actually gain weight.

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The whole experience was perfect: from the yoga, to the setting, to the peace, to the food and sunshine. Best of all, we bonded as a group and spent evening after evening laughing until we cried and our abs hurt.

What a way to celebrate two intense years.

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Restart, Reboot, Reset

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Here is a picture of me, embracing 2017, in the warm Andaman sea. A very welcome, special holiday, to celebrate a marriage (a late honeymoon), and a huge year.

The second half of 2016 felt like the fast lane. Working full time and studying part-time, my brain felt pushed, electrified, frazzled. I got to the end of the year, guilty about how many times I had dropped the ball with friends, about how many invitations I had turned out. Guilty about how I couldn’t manage to maintain a conversation about anything too far beyond the boundaries of the humanitarian sector. And guilty about procrastinating in my little time off, for lack of creativity or energy. No time for blogging, no mental space for creation.

The final days of 2016 were slow, sweet and quiet. I rolled out my dusty yoga mat and started to reconnect with the untended corners of my self and work through the kinks of stress. I’ve done the occasional yoga class for years, but never often enough to notice any change, or to reap more than small moments of calm. Every time I did it though, I heard a voice in my head ‘you should do this more often, you should do this more often‘.

So, I thought, as the New Year grew closer, what if I did do this more often? What if I did it every day? For 31 days? For 100 days? For a year? What would happen if I could turn down the constant whirring of my mind, shut off the demands of the day, and carve out some quiet, every, single, day?

I didn’t want to make a resolution, as resolutions inevitably fail. But I signed up to Yoga with Adriene’s January challenge, with 31 days of yoga videos. Each video, complete with a theme, emotional or inspirational, arrived in my inbox every morning. As I packed to leave on my holiday, I fitted my mat into my suitcase, along with some extra t-shirts and leggings. And suddenly I was off, and I was practicing yoga every day.

I practiced in my hotel room at 11pm after 24 hours of flying, when all I wanted to do was shower and sleep. I practiced on a balcony overlooking the Andaman sea. I practiced in the torrential tropical rain, under a giant wooden roof, in a class taught by a fierce Thai teacher. I practiced in the corner of a treetop hut, between the bed and the door, in one of the oldest rainforests in the world. I practiced on the 24th floor in my hotel room, over-looking the sun setting on Bangkok. And then I came home, and I kept going. Before work, between essay writing, last thing before bed.

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Railay Beach
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Outdoor yoga studio on Koh Yao Yai
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Khao Sok National Park
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Some days, all I could manage was 15 minutes of a slow, relaxed practice. Other days, 40/50 minutes of something stronger. Most days, somewhere in between. Some curious things started to happen. Instead of hearing the voice in my head ‘you should do this more often, you should do this more often‘, the voice became quieter, with less to say. I began to see change, a little more strength, better posture. I felt the millennial plague of needing to reach for my phone lessen. It became easier to listen. Easier to remember who I am, who I want to be.

Now it’s February the 14th, which means I’m 45 days in. This weekend, I went to the mountains with friends, and a few of us practiced together. My friend Tamara even took pictures of me: pictures that reveal postures to improve, feet turned slightly wrong, shoulders to relax.

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I intend to keep going, both with Adriene, and with some classes. Hopefully, this will help me glide through 2017, with a little more rhythm, a little more peace, and a lot more deep breaths.

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A Sardo Celebration

One year. They call it the Paper Anniversary, so we chose Easyjet boarding passes.

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For five days we wandered around the capital of Sardinia, Cagliari. We meandered through colourful cobbled streets, queued for the best restaurants down in hidden alleys, and revelled in agenda-less days and bright blue cloudless skies.

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We tried the local Sardo cuisine, from ‘pasta-bombs’ stuffed with pecorino and nuts (culurgiones), roasted pig (su porcheddu), tiny circular pasta that looks like lentils in a seafood stew (sa fregula), more pecorino, dried meat, and more pecorino. It was delicious, but somewhat…heavy.

We stayed in an Airbnb, a few streets removed from the main centre of the old town, so we did spend a fair bit of time speaking Ital-nish in corner shops to buy tickets, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible (or lack of adherence to) timetables and running after the number 6 bus. The public beach, Poetto, was absolutely packed with Italian families and their deckchairs. We took our trusty volleyball with us every day, which was a surprising (to me at least, who has never taken more than a book to the beach before) amount of fun.

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Selective photo taking on Poetto beach to create the optical illusion that we had it to ourselves!

Luckily we did manage to escape the hustle of the city one day, as we went on a little adventure with our good friends H & Q, who were also holidaying in the same spot. They had hired a car and so we went off to find a more secluded beach. Obviously, being August in Italy, this was no easy task, but we managed to find a beautiful spot on the rocks. We spent the day snorkeling, reading and eating ice-cream.

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‘Sweaty post-hill climb’ dream team!

Cagliari wasn’t the most picturesque of all spots I’ve visited in Italy, and felt a bit run down. But it had some wonderful details that stuck out: pink flamingos flying in the distance at over the deepest orange and crimson sunsets, poems typed on papers stuck to the walls of the city, all the ways possible that you could ever eat pecorino, ice cold spritzes, and on our final night, a local man named Carlo who overheard us speaking Spanish and saw an opportunity to practice the language he was learning, showed us the city from a special viewpoint, taught us some words of Sardo (the local language), and introduced us to the mayor of Cagliari. Wonderful.

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Above all, it was a perfect opportunity to spend quality time together, and reflect on and be grateful for our first peaceful and happy year of marriage. On that note, I revisited my favourite words from our wedding ceremony, written and led by my dear sister-in-law one year ago:

“We are here to celebrate the wisest and holiest paradox of humanity: that the greatest individual freedom can only be achieved by connecting us with, and committing to, other human beings.

This is the profound truth we are here gathered to acknowledge and to celebrate:

that the best of us can only be achieved with the help of an Other.

An-Other, who, like a mirror of clear water, can return us to ourselves. Because we cannot stand face to face to ourselves.

An-Other, who puts our lives at risk: who makes us question all we thought we knew about ourselves, suffer the loss of our identity and become someone we never thought we could or would be.

An-Other, who is willing to embrace our continuously changing selves, not out of worn-out or prescribed loyalty, but because they know our transformation also brings them forward.

An-Other, who does not expect us to follow them till the end of time, but who would ‘simply’, humbly, wish our company on their way to eternity – so long, and as long, as we want to.”

To my Other, felice anniversario!

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Violet

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Last month I found the perfect gift for a friend’s birthday: a beautiful recipe book filled with ideas and pictures of baked goods, the stylish cover catching my eye on the shelf and calling out: “pick me, pick me, pick me!”
So I did; the reduced sticker winking at me with a knowing look, you’ll be back, and oh how it had me at hello as I did go back to buy a second copy for myself, and I love it.

It wasn’t just the bargain price tag that made me covet the gift and will me into buying a second copy of my own, but there was something else which rang a bell, as if I had come across ‘Violet’ before. On reading the foreword I realised perhaps my instincts were correct. The ‘Violet‘ bakery finds itself in Hackney, East London and started life at Broadway market before opening as a café and bakery in 2010. I think the darling little bunting bedecked stall was in fact pointed out to me by my friend Sarah when I was in London with her in March, so I knew there was something magical about this purchase a few months later.

Four recipes have already been followed to great success, and I took great pleasure in seeking out the shop front itself when in Hackney once again last week on a wee holiday.

20160819_095234 The summer light rain that morning was the only thing which dampened the mood as my friend Sophie and I sat sheltered under the peach coloured awning of the unassuming ‘Violet’ bakery. We started the day right with black coffee and a slice of sponge cake with coconut cream icing. I may have been slightly overwhelmed by the strange familiarity of finding somewhere I had seen in pictures in a book yet had never actually been to and therefore in retrospect I might have made the wrong cake choice. I don’t actually have a very sweet tooth,  however not a crumb was left and even if the cake was a little too sweet for 9 o’clock in the morning I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of sitting watching the world go by and smiling at the worthy locals popping in and cycling away again.

 

Tucked away on an unassuming residential street in Hackney, ‘Violet’ was a gorgeous find and is truly worth a look if in the area and like me enjoy feeling like a local, people watching, and sampling delectable baked goods at any time of the day.

The successes so far from ‘The Violet Bakery Cookbook‘ are:
-Chewy ginger snaps
-Banana buttermilk bread
-Wild blackberry crumble tart (made for my return from London by my mum for my birthday cake)
-Tomato and marjoram tarts (which we had for tea this evening/as a snack on returning from a dance class later on)

Alpentraum

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For the past three months, it’s been all go, trying to navigate an internship in a humanitarian organisation and a masters degree at the same time. I’m starting to get into the rhythm of it all, coming up with ideas rather than just pleas for clarification at work, getting my essays done in little chunks rather than cramming sessions the night before. However, I have been operating somewhat on survival mode and so I’ve been stumped to find a topic of inspiration to blog about.

Luckily, oh so luckily, this weekend I managed to slow time down a little, and enjoy some peace, as Carlos and I escaped to the mountains in the Valais. On Saturday we set off ready for my favourite hike in Evolene, which involves taking the cable-car up and then walking down across a barren mountain top, through lush forests, past a lake and then down back to the village. Prepared we were with our picnic packed, only to find that the cable-car was closed. However I pulled my bottom lip back in soon enough, as we meandered with no particular aim for a while, taking pictures of little wonders found by the walking trail.

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My mum is an excellent photographer (check out her main website here!) and so for many many years of holidays and traveling, I have never picked up a proper camera or attempted at more than a few heavily filtered instagram snaps on my iPhone. But after appreciating many wonderful blogs lately, and feeling a need for some creative exploration, I decided to bring Carlos’s camera along. While I have no notion of photography beyond the difference between manual and automatic focus (embarrassing to admit – I know plenty about refugee law and would be happy if anyone wants to do a tandem, any takers?!), we all have to start somewhere! It was wonderful to walk slowly, notice the movement and colours in the various wee nooks and crannies on the way.

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Walking slowly in nature is what my main man Carlos does best. As an evolutionary biologist, he spends much time in the lab and in front of impossibly complicated looking datasets on his computer, but his spirit lies outside observing different species and pondering the majesty of nature. He also has an uncontrollable need to get as close as possible to these different species, as demonstrated in the following photos. (Disclaimer: no animals were harmed in this post, they all scuttered, swam and scrambled back off to their pals after a few terrifying seconds in the hands of a very gentle biologist)

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Look how happy he was to catch a lizard, salamander, frog, and to see a snake:

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Stoked.

We then decided to make an effort and climb up half the mountain.

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2016-07-02 carli ok

It was definitely worth it when we got to a tiny hamlet with a cafe selling ice tea in five decilitre glasses. Again, stoked:

2016-07-02 queque

2016-07-02 aplen

Now we are back to the world of humanitarian crises and datasets, but with a renewed burst of energy and peace. A bientôt, Evolène.

2016-07-02 chalet