Would a trip to Guatemala be complete without busking in the pedestrian mall in downtown Guatemala City?  Betty and I are passing through the city on the way to Tikal and there were crowds around the buskers in the mall that took up the entire width of the street and sidewalks, blocking pedestrian traffic.  So we went back to our hotel, grabbed the accordion and kazoo, and got back out there.  At times, we had a significant crowd around us and they applauded enthusiastically.  A couple of people offered us money, which we turned down.  Apparently we’re more popular here than in our home country.  When we stopped playing, one guy talked with us in English for a while.  He had lived in the U. S. until he was deported.


Reflecting on our first week back in Santiago, we went there in order to hear the Semana Santa music.  As I noted, the original “San Lucas” sound appears to be gone forever, but we did hear some bands.  I have to explain a little bit of complexity regarding the church here. As I wrote in this blog back in 2013, a cofradía is a place of worship located in a house, outwardly Roman Catholic, but actually a syncretistic mix in which the local Mayan deities are renamed as Jesus, Mary, and Christian saints.  For Semana Santa, there are two parallel and competing sets of public observances; the cofradía guys and the Catholic church guys.


On Thursday night, Crucifixion night, two separate brass bands play dirges in close proximity to each other in the church and out in front of it. On good Friday, two giant coffins of Jesus are marched around the streets, each procession accompanied by its own brass band. The marchers plod through their separate sawdust carpets, the bearers swaying under the weight of the decorated wooden caskets, a guy with a huge coiled extension cord following behind to ensure the entire display stays brightly lit. The paths of the processions are marked by evergreen-wrapped poles and horizontal bars from which hang decorated fruit and musical Christmas lights.


The patron saint of the town of Santiago Atitlan is Santiago, and his statue lives in a cofradía, which rotates to another house annually.  On one of those holy week nights, the statue of Santiago is taken down from the cofradía to the church in a procession, and on Easter Sunday night a procession returns him to the cofradía and they have a big party with lots of drinking and music.


So I want to describe two bands that I found interesting.  One was the Thursday night band of the cofradía guys.  This was the one I mentioned earlier, with the Tuba player who blew only one note.  I think it may have been a high school band. They were interesting not because they played so badly, although that did add a certain aura, but because they were playing in a style that I think owes something to local indigenous tradition.  Betty made some recordings on her phone, but I don’t think you can attach audio recordings to a blog entry.  I think some of the tunes they played may have been traditional local things, but at one point I recognized the melody of “Nearer My God To Thee,” played so slowly and so out of tune as to be almost unrecognizable.


At the other end of the spectrum of musical skill was the band hired by the Cofradía Santiago.  This is a professional dance band called Marimba Sonora Dimension.  They have a couple of marimba players, percussion, keyboard, bass, and a bunch of saxophones and trumpets.  The saxophones in particular play interesting harmonies (in tune).  They played a mixture of popular dance tunes and traditional songs from that area. One of the band members came over to us with their CDs and I bought one.


Betty and I went over to the cofradía on Easter night to hear this band play for the party.  They were up on the roof of the house, which like many houses in Guatemala, has a flat concrete roof that can become another floor, with re-bar sticking up out of the walls around it, and no guard rails. The band used a sound system suitable for a sports stadium. We didn’t go inside the cofradía, partly because it was so crowded, but mainly because the music was unbearably loud.  We sat down about a half a block down the street and listened to them.


Thus ends our quest for the Semana Santa music of Santiago Atitlan.


I have a story.  Betty and I went on an overnight excursion to the town of Quiche, to see the ruins at Kumarcaaj, where indigenous people still worship. And by the way, Betty commented that they don’t call them chicken buses because they have chickens in them, but rather as a description of the driver’s technique.  After the ruins, we went to the town of Chichicastenango to spend the night.  The first hotel we went to was locked up and no one answered the bell.  The second hotel no longer exists.  Finally, we tried the Hotel Maya Lodge, which our guide book says “has a colonial air, though it’s a bit frayed at the edges.”  This hotel was an elegant place about a century ago, when the couple who own it were young.  Ten rooms, all on one level, surround a pleasant inner courtyard.  Each room has tall double doors, high ceilings with wood beams, and a fireplace.  The double doors can be locked on the outside with an ancient padlock, and from the inside with a sliding bolt.  The proprietress handed us towels which were left over from Alvarado’s conquest of Guatemala.


It’s relevant to this story to describe the exits from the courtyard.   One goes out through the restaurant in front, in which we never saw a single customer.  The owners’ living quarters are attached to the restaurant.  There is also a side exit, out to a street.  During the night we noticed that there was no water in the bathroom, and the toilet was soon in need of flushing.  So at dawn I woke up with some anxiety, and began exploring our surroundings.  The other nine rooms in the hotel were all padlocked, so we were the only guests in the place.  The side entrance was padlocked on the inside and also braced shut with a board.  The front entrance into the restaurant was bolted shut from the other side, that is, the proprietors’ house.  So the story becomes a little gothic.  We were prisoners in a hotel in which we were the only guests.


Looking around, I found a laundry tub full of water and a 5-gallon bucket, so we were able to flush our toilet and wash our hands and faces.  After a little while, the elderly proprietor appeared and the first thing he asked was whether there was water.  I said no, and he rushed off to turn on the pump, which fills the water tanks from the town water supply.  So the story ends happily.  We packed up pretty quickly and departed.  Three buses later, we had a nice breakfast back in Panajachel.


I’ll say a few more words about the Kumarcaaj ruins.  This was the capital of the Quiche empire up to the time when the Spanish came and destroyed it.  It is mostly un-restored, and is a relatively quiet and peaceful place. There is no prohibition against climbing on the temples and other ruins.  A  number of different groups of people were chanting prayers, burning incense, and laying out flowers.  There is a cave, which I think is really a man-made tunnel in the rock that goes quite a distance, and they burn stuff back at the end of it.  When we were there, some guys were burning stuff outside the mouth of the cave but not inside.  The ever-resourceful Betty brought along her head lamp, so we were able to go into the cave all the way to the end.  A family of Guatemalans who had no light followed us in, with the benefit of our light, and thanked us.


Here’s a picture of Betty standing on top of one of the temples.  Behind her is the ball court, the only partially-restored structure in this complex.


Just a quickie.  Here’s a gravestone of a kid who died at age 4 in Panajachel.


I think of this trip as tourism so I didn’t know whether there would be anything interesting to say in a blog (previous trips having been about doing nothing, an important topic).  Betty and I are in Santiago Atitlan where Semana Santa (Holy Week) is taking place, at the same time as Passover.  Santiago Atitlan is world-famous for its extreme, over-the-top pageantry during Semana Santa, and I wanted to be here to hear the marching bands.  Plus, we have three gigs in Guatemala, making this an international tour for Bellows & Squawk.  We played to a very enthusiastic audience last night in the Posada de Santiago, where we are staying in great elegance.


I can’t begin to describe the processions in this town.  They close the whole center of town to vehicles and many people spend many hours lining the streets with elaborate “carpets” made of colored sawdust.  Then the casket of Jesus, which must weigh tons, is carried by about 50 or 60 men slowly around the streets all night long, obliterating all the art.  Actually, there are two such caskets being marched around in competition with each other, because the mainstream Catholic Church is in conflict with the Cofradia guys (never mind the Evangelicals, another faction).  Here are a few pictures.






I’ll  recount a couple of tidbits of our adventures.  We rode in a tuk-tuk with Hebrew printing on the windshield and I asked the driver what it said and he said, “Yeshua ha-moshiach.”  (Jesus is the messiah).  Then he went into a long rap in Spanish of which I only understood snatches, but the gist was that Jesus was crucified on Thursday and resurrected on Sunday and they carry his casket around the streets in between, and he ended with “Shalom Aleichem.”  Another adventure, from which Betty and I have just returned, is that we started to hike up to a viewpoint overlooking the lake on one side and the coastal plain on the other.  An old guy asked us where we were going and told us to be careful of robbers and we ignored his warning and walked on until a guy carrying a machete and wearing a ski mask came out of the woods and tried to rob us, but I brandished my “REI Bicycles” water bottle and scared him off.  More precisely, he demanded money and I said no, and then just as I was about to give him my money, he ran away.  A short while later, a police pickup truck came by and they gave us a ride up to the viewpoint and another guy gave us a ride back to our hotel in the back of his pickup truck, along with one of his daughters and another guy who was carrying a load of firewood, and that guy’s dog.  So it was a short hike.  Betty has commented that I am exposing her to new experiences.


A word about the bands. I’ve written before about the San Lucas band, and I came here to hear that unique sound, but it appears that those days are gone.  There is a new generation of musicians who play almost as badly as the old San Lucas band, but they are reading sheet music and playing recognizable melodies.  We did, however, notice that the tuba player always played the same note, regardless of the changes of harmony, and he played it loud and long, once per measure.  You’ve got to admire the stamina of a tuba player who can do that for 12 hours straight as they march slowly behind the casket of Christ.  Semana Santa isn’t over yet and we may yet hear something more exotic in a Cofradia.  Meanwhile, Betty has made several recordings of the bands on her smart phone.  If we have arrived too late in history to hear the “San Lucas” sound, we’re having a great time anyway.  After all, this trip is tourism, besides being the first international tour of Bellows & Squawk.

I periodically play poker with a group of men whose children, now grown, went to school with my children, now grown. We play for stakes so low that really nothing is at stake, and we tell jokes that pertain to a generation of Jews even older than we are, so that we are engaging in nostalgia for Jewish life as a past generation thought of itself. A while back, as Israel was bombing Gaza, I got impatient with the complete avoidance of that topic, and at the end of the game asked a father about his daughter, who had had just returned from a Birthright trip to Israel.

Three of the six people present refused to engage in the brief discussion that followed, including the father I asked. The two most liberal, left-leaning people in the group defended Israel. To me, this is not just a question of a political disagreement. This is serious because: (1.) I am seriously alienated from the community of families that my children grew up in, and (2.) I am alienated from Judaism as a whole.

Let me briefly argue my position. Defending Israel rests on the premise that Israel has a right to defend itself against an attack by an external force. To me, this is not an attack by an external force, and it is not a war. Israel has created intolerable conditions for an entire ethnic population, which guarantees that there will be resistance. Israel then periodically crushes the resistance with overwhelming military force, while collectively punishing the civilian population. In the case of Gaza, “collective punishment” is an understatement; it is mass slaughter that could be called genocide.

What about Hamas hiding their soldiers and their rockets in mosques, schools, and hospitals? What can Israel do? I have two answers to that. One is that the rockets were not really doing any substantial damage, and Hamas was teetering on the edge of oblivion and had lost the support of the Arab regimes, so that Israel could take the moral high road and also the strategically wiser path, and not respond militarily to Hamas. Let Hamas publicly act out their desperation, without actually harming Israel.

But my second, more existential answer is that there is nothing Israel can do to save itself because it has already crossed the line of apartheid. Maybe Israel’s fate was already sealed even before statehood, when the hard-line Jewish terrorists (who later became prime ministers) murdered the moderates who argued that it was necessary to recognize that there were Palestinians who lived in the land they intended to take. In any case, whether there was ever a window of opportunity, there is no possibility of a two-state solution. A two-state solution would be a formalization of the apartheid status quo, with the West Bank carved up into isolated cantons separated by Israeli areas of settlement. If Israel does not become a multi-ethnic state (which is unlikely), then it will continue to be the heavily armed apartheid state that it already is, for as long is it can sustain that.

Secondly, I have thoughts about ISIS. ISIS is a totally heinous group of ignorant, bigoted fanatics. They are the extreme example of why I have turned against religion in general. The world would be improved if ISIS could be bombed into oblivion. Can the U.S.A. maintain order in the mideast by bombing ISIS into oblivion, in concert with a coalition of despots in the more reactionary states? Can the U.S.A. keep track of the many radical groups that are arising in the mideast, at cross purposes to each other, and bomb the ones that are a threat to us, without harming our friends such as Turkey, and without helping our enemies such as Assad? Does Assad even look so bad anymore? Can the U.S.A. achieve its military objectives with drones and without boots on the ground? Can it achieve its military objectives even with boots on the ground? Are there realistic military objectives at all?   What do we mean by keeping order, anyway? Do we mean protecting our petroleum interests? We’ve already backed out of Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving them in chaos, and we’ve allowed Syria to remain in a state of perpetual civil war, so how meaningful is it to defeat ISIS? If we do defeat ISIS, will ten new groups spring up in its place?

So what would I advocate doing about ISIS? Luckily, it doesn’t matter what I advocate because I have no influence. To me, ISIS is a manifestation of the unrest, chaos, and disorder that comes from diminishing resources resulting from global climate change, combined with increasing population.   The chaos will only increase out of control for the foreseeable future.

On a quick trip to NY to visit my daughter.  Having my usual New York angst, too noisy and crowded for me. Even inside a Starbucks it’s too noisy to use a cell phone, but I’m staying in an apartment in Harlem, which is a cool place to be and to walk around.  In the Schomberg Center there’s a small exhibit on Maya Angelou, including some letters. James Baldwin and Maya Angelou were impressive writers, even in letters to each other.  Here’s an excerpt out of a letter Maya Angelou wrote to Julian Mayfield:

“I’ve heard some of the funniest jokes and can’t wait to get back home and share them with you over a bottle of some thing [sic] good and strong. I won’t write them to you, not only because with you and me we need the facial expressions, the descriptive hands, and the raucous laughter to put over a joke, but also because I vaguely believe there’s a law against sending the kind of filthy jokes I’ve collected through the mails…  Can’t you see the theses of historians years from now…. [ellipsis hers] ‘While leaders were being assassinated, while Africa was in turmoil, while the young red guards were guarding and the [illegible] were having their heads broken, Mayfield and Maya were serving 18 months for pornography.’  No, they’ll (the jokes) will just have to wait.”


I went to participate in a protest Sunday outside the Marriott Hotel, where AIPAC was having their annual brunch. Most of the attendees ignored our “Good morning” at the entrance, and walked past us staring straight ahead. One AIPAC guy engaged several protesters in an argument, and he was having a great time getting 4 people screaming at him, each with their own agenda, which confirmed his conviction that we’re all a bunch of crazy cranks. I’m done with these protests. I’d rather be a crazy crank on my own.


I’ve been thinking lately that there are two separate issues which may have nothing in common, except that my thinking about them has followed a similar trajectory. Those issues are climate change, and the Israel/Palestine conflict. Up to about ten years ago, I was operating on the idea that we could do something about these issues. I believed that having a homeland for the Jews was a good idea, and I had the hope that it would still be possible to get to some kind of peaceful resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. On the climate, although it was too late to prevent climate change, I imagined that people could possibly come to their senses and do something to at least mitigate it, or to plan for coping with it and mitigate its effects on us. I mean, I didn’t think either of these scenarios was likely, but not impossible.


Around 10 years ago, I entered a pessimistic phase in relation to each of these separate issues, where I decided it was too late to do anything. On Israel/Palestine, it was too late for a two-state solution because Israel had already carved up Gaza and the West Bank into permanent disjoint apartheid cantons and a Palestinian “state” would merely be a formalization of the existing apartheid arrangement. In my mind, the best “solution” would be a single, secular state, which meant the end of a Jewish state. On global warming, we had not yet reached the tipping point where the climate has changed enough to disrupt human civilization, but it was no longer preventable no matter what we did. I won’t dwell on the arguments for these points of view, I’m just expressing here what my points of view were.


Now I’ve come to a third phase, which I regard as less pessimistic in its own way. To summarize this phase: How can it be too late if it was never not too late? This is not something to wring our hands over; this is how it is. We are a species of animal governed by certain biological qualities. We are capable of modifying the earth more than most other animals are, and this capability gives us the illusion that we are in control of our destiny. In reality, we are subject to the same forces of nature as other life forms.


Any life form will increase, in the absence of limiting factors such as predation and disease, until it overwhelms its food supply and then the population will decline or collapse. Populations fluctuate, and not smoothly but jaggedly. Homo sapiens has had the ingenuity to consistently increase the food supply and fight diseases for many centuries now, which leads him to believe that these fluctuations don’t apply to him.


For example, take deforestation. We all know that deforestation is a bad thing, but is it reversible on a global scale? In fact, it is increasing and will inevitably increase at an accelerating rate because we need more and more land to produce food for more people. In the “developed” nations of North America and northern Europe, this is disguised by the fact that forests have actually increased over the last century or two, because this is not where the poor people are. We’re not burning wood for fuel, and we’ve temporarily increased food production per acre by using fossil-based fertilizers and fossil-fueled machines. If a future civilization can exist on the earth we leave behind, and if they can reconstruct enough knowledge of us to figure out what happened to us, they will ask how we could have knowingly wiped out our own sources of sustenance. Analogously, we might ask how the Easter Islanders could have cut down all their trees and doomed themselves. They weren’t stupid, they just overwhelmed their resources and did what they had to in order to survive for as long as they could. Any one of us would kill the last chicken in the world if we had hungry children, even knowing that this would only postpone the inevitable.


As far as Israel/Palestine goes, it is possible to imagine a pluralistic secular state where Jews and Palestinians co-exist. My point is that it was never NOT too late for that. It was always contrary to human nature. We are capable of imagining things that won’t happen. Jews co-existed with non-Jews in the Islamic world for many centuries, unlike in the Christian world, where Jews were considered Christ-killers. Arabs and Persions were relatively tolerant of a small, non-threatening minority. But in Palestine, the Jews didn’t try to co-exist, they took over. There’s no going back.


To come back to my point, this is not something to wring our hands over. This is how it is. I would say that grief is an appropriate response, and for the time being I’ve come to acceptance, which is said to be a stage of grief. Acceptance is liberating.