Sour in Guatemala

Gustav Tønnesen, frontside heelflip, Puerto San José

SOUR in Guatemala

Skateboarding is filled with chance encounters… Having these useless wooden toys really brings people together from far-flung places and all walks of life. Guatemalan skater Paulo Franco was visiting the skateboarding Mecca (Barcelona) last year with his friend Ches and just by chance he met the Sour team. The next thing you know the whole Sour team are on their way to Guatemala. We spoke to Paulo, Sour head honcho Björn Holmenäs and Sour filmer Jack Thompson to hear exactly how it all panned out.

Photos by Nikwen
Interviews by Will Harmon

What is the skate scene like in Guatemala?
Paulo Franco: The skate scene in Guatemala is in the process of developing… I’m gonna call it a ‘small scene’ that is divided into small groups depending on what part of the city the skaters live and what social environment they are surrounded with. For example, there’s a few zones in the city (Guatemala City) that are called ‘red points’ because they’re drug distribution points or a gang operational zone, so the kids there skate to try and have an escape from their reality, but they don’t have any skate culture to stick with and to use as a role model. They don’t have any access to magazines and they don’t have the chance to feel free to go skate other spots with other skaters from other parts because they feel insecure, and many other reasons. There’s a few more groups that just go to the skate plaza, for example, and 50% of them skate hard every day in that park, and the other 50% are dealing with non-integrated families, drugs, robbery, etc. I’ve been skating here my whole life, so from my point of view skateboarding is free and different for every skater in the country, but we don’t have this reinforced culture of skateboarding here because society always puts personal development last; we still act as a primitive society and that reflects in a poor and very small skate scene.

Barney Page, backside 180 kickflip, Puerto San José

How do you guys get skateboards? Are there skate shops in Guatemala?
PF: We get skateboards from a few skate shops that are operating in the city. There’s three real skate shops working in the city right now, so as a skater you usually have to save money for a month or two, and then you can go to the shop to get your board or your shoes. Personally, I am a big fan of physical skate shops, but we are now facing a problem as a developing skate scene, which is ‘virtual shops’. I mean buying online is cool, but it’s cool when you know that there’s a physical store too. These ‘virtual shops’ are doing some kind of weird move and they don’t pay taxes, so they sell boards half the price of a board sold by a local skate shop. So my point is that these ‘virtual shops’ makes real, core, skate shops suffer and they run the risk of disappearing altogether at some point.

How did you meet the Sour team?
PF: Ha ha, it’s funny… So Ches (Hernandez) and I had been watching the Sk8mafia videos for more than ten years;
I think since the Sk8mafia Saturdays… So a few years later we started seeing that there were some guys skating with them that looked amazing in the way they skated. It was very attractive because it was totally different, so we started identifying some of the Sour guys in those videos, and they were absolutely incredible… So then we went to Barcelona a few times and we knew that some of them were living there but WE NEVER SAW THEM! Ha ha, until last year…
We went on a trip from July to August and in the last 12 days I was battling for a trick in El mercat de les flors… So we decided to head there but we didn’t go the way we usually do. By chance, we happened to see a skater going out from a half closed metal door, and it was Gustav! We didn’t say anything to him, we skated the spot. At the end of the session we start talking… Ches and I were like ‘hey man we should go and see if the Sour shop is open right now’. We thought it was a Sour skate shop when we first saw it, so we started walking down the block, and yeah, it was open, but we didn’t see anyone. So we decided to leave, but suddenly Björn appeared and said ‘quieren madera?’ So we thought let’s buy a deck for the memories, and he nicely told us to come inside. He told us that on that Saturday they were gonna have a sale and that we were welcome to come and buy some Sour product then. Man we got so excited, because we were about to get Sour product and bring that product home were no one knows anything about European brands, especially Sour.

Josef Scott Jatta, backside Smith grind revert, Guatemala City

You’d be the envy of all your friends…
PF: Yeah, so that Saturday came and we went and we met Sami, I think Jack was there inside and also Josef. It was a gnarly sale, they gave us beer and treated us very nice and we talked a little about Guatemala. Björn told us that he had been to Mexico some time ago and that he was a little curious about Guatemala, and he showed me a used board with a Guatemalan sticker on it… It was a board that a friend of mine, for some reason, left behind in Barcelona when he went to the Red Bull skate arcade contest. So that day Björn asked Sami about going on a tour in 2018 to Guatemala and he was like ‘fuck yeah!’ Then Björn asked Josef and he agreed too! So we bought some clothes and some gym bags from Sour and we got a Gustav board. We left it in the office because Björn asked Gustav to sign it. So we came back two days before we were heading back to Guatemala, picked up the board, and Sami showed us the computer with the Sour Guatemala tour on the schedule! Ha ha, man I was fucking excited, but I don’t know for a moment I thought ‘hmm maybe they’re gonna find a better destination later’ or ‘maybe they’re not gonna go’ but at the same time I’m thinking about how mind-blowing it will be for people in Guatemala to have them there skating!

Have pros or a pro skate team ever been to Guatemala to skate before?
PF: Yeah, we have been visited by a few pros, Jerry Hsu and Chris Dobstaff, when Jerry was riding for Maple a long time ago. Later Raymond Molinar and Milton Martinez came. Then Nate Jones, Dennis Busenitz, Max Schaaf, Adelmo Jr, Guru Khalsa have visited over the years… But an entire pro skate team, never man! It’s the first time we’ve had a whole pro skate team here, and an absolutely incredible team as well!

Koffe Hallgren, kickflip, Guatemala City

So what was it like having the Sour team skate in your home country?
PF: In the beginning I was kind of worried because I really wanted them to have a great time here, and I don’t know, many of them haven’t been in this part of Central America because it is an unexplored country for skateboarding. So I just really hoped that they’d get everything they wanted here. I remember I started spreading the word to the local skaters… ‘Hey guys the Sour team is coming!’ Most of them knew Albert, Barney, and Gustav from videos, but then when Sour came my friends were shitting their pants, ha ha! When we started going to the spots it was really dope man, because every one of them can see a skate-able thing out of nowhere. Their creativity is at 500%, so it was very inspiring to see them in real life and to share moments at skate spots with them; an all around amazing experience! The Sour guys really reflect the type of person they are in their skating. They’re an amazing group, on and off the skateboard!

Thanks Paulo. OK now Björn I’m going to ask you about you and the team’s experience there. What did you know about Guatemala before you guys visited?
Björn Holmenäs: I actually didn’t know anything before Ches and Paulo stepped into the office. I mean I knew where it was located and that they had good coffee and some pyramids, but that’s about it. I didn’t know anything about any skate spots there or the political situation, I just knew it was a poor country. I think it’s ranked 31 out of 33 Latin American countries in terms of poverty. I had been to the south of Mexico, which borders Guatemala, and I really liked it, so I figured it would pretty much be the same as the there. I really wanted to take the guys on a trip somewhere where we could see something completely different.

Albert Nyberg, frontside 180 kickflip, Puerto de Iztapa

So before you left Barcelona, did you ask Paulo and Ches what there was to skate over there? Do any skate spot research beforehand or anything?
BH: When they got back I asked them to send us some photos of spots over there that they thought were interesting. To be honest there were spots there, but it wasn’t like ‘wow, wow!’ spots around every corner like Barcelona. It was also way rougher terrain. I’m always sure that when we go on a trip and shoot photos for an article there’s gonna be something, and we were right! There was definitely something, but they weren’t the easiest spots to skate.

So what were your first impressions of Guatemala when you guys first arrived?
BH: First of all our first flight was cancelled so we got there 24 hours later, so Oscar (Candon), Nikwen, Koffe and Spängs came before us. They said that the house was amazing, but everything else around was really weird. So when we got there we got a van and rode down to where the house was and the road was super sketchy. Also the van was supposed to be a 15-seater, but there were 12 of us in there at that point with all of our stuff and we were all sitting on top of each other. The suspension was all down on the ground and all the trucks in Guatemala don’t have any rear lights so we didn’t see anything. All of a sudden a massive truck would just be there right in front of us! There were motorbikes without any lights with three people riding on them. And the locals had told us to be careful, as there were a lot of highway robberies… So it wasn’t really like we felt super safe. Also there was no Internet. It didn’t work for anyone on their phones so we had no GPS. All we had was screen grabs of maps so we were constantly getting lost. We’d end up in dark alleys with police with big guns… That first night I thought: ‘what have we done? That’s it we’re lost; we’re gonna get robbed and perhaps even by the cops!’ But eventually, when we were about to give up, we ended up by this gate. We expected it to be a gated community, but it was actually just one out of four nice houses in a really poor neighbourhood. And so that’s where we were staying.

Nisse Ingemarsson, noseslide pop over, Puerto San José

And this is Guatemala City?
BH: No this is Puerto San Jose. So we parked the van in there and we asked the guy taking care of the house to get us some beers and then we pretty much just locked ourselves into the house. But then you wake up the next day, it’s light outside and everything looks different. But it definitely took us two days until we realised it was actually really nice and safe there.

Oh OK.
BH: We didn’t see anyone that wasn’t from Guatemala in that city for those two weeks. We were the only foreigners in the village.

Oh man, Gringo alert!
BH: Yeah! All blonde guys mostly from Sweden so yeah, we stood out. But over the days, in a very short time we realised everyone was happy to have us there and no one meant anything bad. They were the most humble and nice people, the Guatemalans. I didn’t have one bad encounter the whole two weeks we were there.

So it just looked sketchy at places but everything was OK?
BH: Well the locals were saying it can be sketchy there, but it can be sketchy in London, in Barcelona and in Stockholm as well. If you’re unlucky then you’re unlucky. More than anything it didn’t feel safe driving as the roads aren’t like autobahns and we didn’t really have any seatbelts.

Barney Page, slappy 180 to fakie 5-0, Antigua

And didn’t you mention that the locals said to not wear new shoes and to look too flashy?
BH: That’s what they said and obviously everyone showed up in their new Nikes and adidas. Someone asked us like ‘how much are those shoes?’ And we were like ‘uh, I don’t know?’ But the new looking shoes… That was taken care of in like five minutes. As soon as you walk out the house your shoes didn’t look new any longer; everything was dirty.

So when you guys finally got used to being there, what was it like trying to go skating?
BH: Looking around where we were staying at first it didn’t look like there was anything. So we thought we’d do the majority of the skating on Guatemala City. But the drive to Guatemala City was hectic. First of all the drive there wasn’t the nicest as there were so many people in the van (16 in all) and it didn’t really feel safe. And Guatemala City was harder to skate than we thought. There was quite a lot of distance between each spot and it felt a little bit like being in the US sitting in all the traffic. So since we didn’t have much luck on our first days in the city we decided to skate locally. So we hooked up with this crew of tuk-tuk drivers. We had like four tuk-tuks, we’d pay them for like three hours (the equivalent of ten Euros) and we’d just tell them to go in a certain direction and take all the small streets until we say ‘stop’ if we see something. By doing that that’s how more than half of the article came about.

Oh sick OK.
BH: And wherever we’d stop, everyone around would stop too, even the police! They would stop the traffic so we could skate… The taco stands would move out of the way and everyone would be applauding. Security guards with shotguns would move motorbikes for us…

As most of you guys speak Spanish did you talk to the locals and ask them what they thought of you guys being there?
BH: They were extremely surprised that we were there. Everyone was super-friendly and curious about what we were doing. Even the local newspaper interviewed us. There are 20,000 people in the city (Puerto San Jose) and pretty much everyone knew each other and they knew there was a big group of foreign skaters around. So when we were out skating and people heard about it, everyone would go there to watch us.

Daniel Spängs, switch backside tailslide, Puerto San José

So you guys were quite a spectacle.
BH: Yeah and I think you see that in some of the photos. For Barney’s backside flip I think there was probably 150 people watching and surrounding the spot.

And did you meet all the local skaters?
BH: Yeah as Paulo mentioned not many foreign skaters come to Guatemala for obvious reasons. If you’re gonna do your skate trip somewhere where you really want to get the best skating it won’t be your first destination. I’m not saying you shouldn’t visit there, but you need to take some time and have the locals with you when you go skate otherwise you’ll be pretty lost. Every country has the embassy website that warns you about certain stuff and Guatemala is a high-risk country where it says you shouldn’t go, but that’s also complete bullshit. So I’d say anyone that wants to should definitely go there… But it’s not an easy destination.

So I know you said nothing sketchy happened to you guys, but I heard there were a few non-skating injuries… Care to share?
BH: We had a barbecue at the house and there’s a swimming pool there, but it wasn’t very deep. So Barney tried to front flip into the swimming pool and landed on his head straight at the bottom of the pool.

BH: Yeah we thought he had broken his neck. It was a heavy hit, but it’s good that he’s got a thick old English neck there. We were worried in the beginning but then it was all good. He was OK, but that was the heaviest one I guess. Then Josef almost cut his entire finger off trying to cut some meat or something at another one of our barbecues. And then Oscar fell into the sewer. He just fell through like a manhole when we were hanging up laundry in the backyard. Simon stepped on a blowfish, a poisonous blowfish on the beach.

Holy crap!
BH: Yeah but he was OK as well. No skate injuries, but I guess that Barney one was really scary when it happened. He was sore for the last two days of the trip. Josef’s cut didn’t look that bad, but he still needed to get seven stiches.

Erik J Pettersson, kickflip to fakie, Puerto de Iztapa

Tell us about the van story.
BH: I’ll let Jack tell that one.

Jack Thompson: We were at Paulo’s summerhouse having a barbecue, which was 45 minutes away from where we were staying, and Josef had just cut his hand. The driver was coming to pick up Josef and the driver had already said that we had needed to get out of there by 11pm, because it gets kinda sketchy there after that. So we were kinda panicking and rushing to get ready, as we needed to follow the driver back to the city because we didn’t know the way. Sami had parked the van last, on the hill by Paulo’s summerhouse. So we all got in the van hoping to go (I hadn’t driven yet this trip) and I went to put my foot on the clutch and what I thought was the brake and then suddenly we just started rolling backwards. Sami hadn’t put the handbrake (emergency brake) on. So it was me, Oscar, Gustav and Barney in the van and it was on a pretty steep, narrow hill. So I’m frantically trying to push in the clutch and brakes trying to start the van and we’re just flying backwards. Oscar’s trying to find the handbrake but it was in a weird place like under the dashboard or something – I didn’t know where it was. We couldn’t find it and Gustav was trying to open the door to jump out. Barney was just sat there accepting what was happening… He had just accepted that we were gonna die. Sami had run over and was hanging onto the steering wheel from outside the van window. He was trying to steer us backwards down the hill. I was just standing on the brake, or what I thought was the brake, trying to make the thing stop. And all that was going through my head was that the brakes were out. Then I thought maybe there was a beer can under the brake, so I started to kick the brake or what I thought was the brake, then I felt the real brake, which was actually to the right of what I was stamping on and there was some big chunk of plastic between the accelerator and the brake. So as I tried to kick the thing I thought was under the brake I managed to find the real brake and I stamped on it and we were like half a metre from going backwards off a cliff.

JT: Yeah Oscar never found the handbrake, because it was a hidden lever that you pull under the dashboard somewhere. That was why Sami never put it on in the first place because it was a real awkward handbrake. He thought he’d just leave it in gear, but he never thought we wouldn’t be able to find the brake. So after we almost fell off a cliff we all got out and just sat there shaking. The driver had left us by now and we had to find our own way back to the city.

What an ordeal! So Björn what other impressions did you have about Guatemala?
Björn Holmenäs: It’s such a beautiful country and it has the most insane volcanoes. We’d see lava pouring out of volcanoes and we’d see smoke and shit and then old beautiful colonial towns. There were lakes up in the mountains and such extreme nature it was like Game of Thrones and Jurassic Park at the same time. It was just so nice and so different from everything else that you normally see. But at the same time it’s a relatively poor country where people throw plastic bottles and shit everywhere and that’s pretty sad to see. And it’s not entirely their fault… I guess the education about it and recycling is almost nonexistent. That was probably one of the only negative things about the place. And you’d see all those old American cars that that been just shipped down to Guatemala and they’d just spew out bad fumes and pollution. There were plenty of toxic old cars and old school buses going everywhere. Most of us, we think about our own, we think about our own country and ‘let’s get electric cars and just ship our old cars to other poorer countries’. I mean it affects the entire planet. I mean I feel like no one talks about it (pollution) in Guatemala. They are just concentrating on surviving you know? But it was a bit shocking to see people just throwing their garbage out the window right by the jungle. Hopefully those things will get better over time.

Martin Sandberg, frontside rock ‘n’ roll, Guatemala City

Hope so. So all the guys on the team had a great time?
BH: Everyone could come – no one was injured so we were pretty lucky to get the entire team out there. We all stayed in this amazing house with the most amazing host family there that helped us with whatever we needed. Everything just turned into the best trip. No bad things really, well maybe some of the food and the water made some of us… Well they said 70% of European people that go to Central America get the shits and that was pretty much spot on.

Seventy per cent of the team!
BH: Ha ha yeah. Everyone had their day that they weren’t 100%.

Any last words or thoughts?
BH: Looking back on it all I just want to say we’re super-grateful to Paulo and all those guys. I wanna give the biggest thanks to all the locals and everyone in Guatemala; everyone was so nice. And the family where we stayed, they were so nice and helpful. All in all they were some of the most humble and genuine people I have ever met. That’s the main thing I want to say I guess.