A Lesson in Watercolors: Snippets of Guatemala
Admittedly, prior to touching down in Guatemala City I knew very little about the country of Guatemala. Perhaps I drew parallels to its neighbor Mexico to the north and shared Mayan history prior to current day boundaries – but not what made the county unique. Over the coming week I came to learn the richness of the Mayan history, the diversity of the landscape from volcanos near the Pacific and the jungle to the east bordering Belize, the warmth and pride of its people, and insight into the country today following a turbulent election two months prior and in recent history a 36 year civil war.
My goal of this scholarship was to better my watercolor skills during my stay in Guatemala. I’ve always learned better when I pair it with drawing in some way, taking time to cement a view in my memory while solidifying the memories and stories in my brain. I’ve always detested watercolors. Their whimsical nature is a challenge for me, likely due to a lesson in patience I had not yet rehearsed. So without further ado, the following are a collection of pieces I created. During my trip, I learned that watercolors can be more forgiving and exacting than anticipated. I learned that an interest in my subjects was the most important factor of all. To accompany these paintings, I’ve provided the true beauty of travel – all the little facts, fictions and tidbits that accompany one’s travels and shape your perception of a place as you experience it in the flesh.
Flores – The second oldest settlement in the Americas
Notably, flying low across the length of the country, basketball courts could be made out, dotted between hills, on rooftops, and nestled in the pockets of little villages. Despite soccer winning out as the nation’s favorite – basketball requires less space for a court and is ideal for the varied terrain of Guatemala. What’s more, basketball holds a link to the past in its familiarity with the Mayan Ballgame. A rubber ball is used, however hips and shoulders would make contact to move the ball to score. At Tikal, adjacent to The Temple of the Great Jaguar (Temple 1) sits a ballcourt.
This basketball court sits opposite the church in the town square of Flores, once the site of a Mayan temple that was destroyed when the Spanish conquerors took hold of the city. Layering history upon culture in this once great Maya State that holds the record for the second oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the Americas.
Tikal, Mayan Biosphere
Visiting Tikal was overwhelming with the scale of the temples, the age of the structures, and the overgrown nature of the jungle hinting at once was. Evidence of the site being inhabited stretches as far back as 1000 BC, with construction growing strength in 400 BC. Tikal grew to be a sophisticated city, with royalty living in limestone structures with wooden lintels and townspeople likely inhabiting surrounding huts that have long since disappeared. Notability, the structures, particularly temples were ever changing as new rulers took power. Often remodeled to grow in scale. Attributed to overpopulation and a lack of food or water, Tikal was deserted in the 11th century.
One of the most interesting themes in learning about Tikal was the dichotomy of the historical site itself that was mostly left unexposed and the positioning of the site for tourism. Driving in the thick of darkness, entering the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, the road transformed to what felt like a runway – perfectly maintained and illuminated with markers for visitors. There is much left to be discovered and restored at the site, yet with visitors already at astonishing annual numbers, what motivation does the Government have to continue to excavate?
Mayan utilized masks as a ceremonial tool, taking on the persona of various gods and animals to embody power and honor. Throughout my visit, wood masks could be seen everywhere, often decorating walls. The fox I painted was a favorite of mine as it reminded me of the gray fox I came face to face with after lunch one day. I was told they come to drink water from a basin near the kitchen and often wander up. Limestone carvings can be seen decorating the temples of Tikal, like Chac, the God of rain.
Local building techniques – Moon wood
Much of the housing that can be seen around Lake Petén Itzá is made of cinder blocks and tin roofs. While more affordable, this building technique unfortunately is not a match for the hot climate. The scarcity of local wood and palms means many turn to housing that acts like an oven in the jungle climate. The more traditional housing, my local guide explained, has to be harvested properly in a way that generations have done – moon harvesting. The practice involves harvesting trees during the waning moon, which allows the water/ sap content to result in a denser, more resilient wood. Without it, the wood structures are more susceptible to termites and general decay.
Wildlife in the Guatemalan Jungle
Much of the conversations I both had with locals and overheard regarding the wildlife were similar. Visitors wanted to know if locals had seen a jaguar? Were they dangerous? What was the most dangerous thing in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve? Typically, jaguars are a very rare encounter. On the road and at night, the big cat is caught off guard when a car is passing. Otherwise, I was told that they have no record of animals harming humans in the Reserve, even when travelers are lost in the jungle for days at a time. It turns out the Fer-de-lance, a viper, calls the region home and is one of the deadliest snakes in the world. One of the reasons the Tikal park is kept tidy, a guide reassured me.
Tikal at sunrise
Tikal at sunrise is an experience like no other, although few of the 200,000 yearly visitors take this opportunity. Walking amongst the temples in the moonlight, while the jungle is silent feels cinematic. I climbed atop the wooden staircase, constructed for the safety of visitors, to reach the top of the astrological complex, Mundo Perdido. As the sky began to lighten a howler monkey began to scream in the distance. Within minutes, the jungle erupted with howler monkeys – waking up birds as the noise can reach nearly 3 miles in the dense jungle. At eye level, I spied a collared aracari toucan eating a breakfast of berries.