Renowned photographer Zung Heng shares his experience of life and Covid-19 in Central America
It has been months since I left Malaysia and my hometown of Sekinchan, Selangor. I had to travel to Costa Rica to photograph [celebrated American speaker and author] Anthony Robbins, someone whom I admire greatly and, over the years, have had countless opportunities to collaborate with. It was a smooth journey to its capital of San Jose, despite my having to transit in Singapore and Frankfurt.
I spent 10 days in Costa Rica before catching a short flight of about 1.5 hours to Guatemala where I was hoping to be booked for another job. As luck would have it, I fell very sick on my second day in the Central American country, only to discover later that it was Covid-19. All I can say is that, one month on, the virus is real — it is dangerous and it is frightening.
Adding to the fear of the virus was the fact I was far away from family, friends and home, stranded indefinitely in a country to which I had never been to before. Things were unfamiliar and I was pretty much alone but the fact that I am still happy to be here, months on, speaks volumes about the wonderful country that is Guatemala.
The warmth and friendliness of the people, sometimes referred to as Guatemaltecos, remind me of Malaysia and, all elements combined, made my Covid-19 ordeal bearable. Special thanks must go to my friend Ana Monteros who helped me recover by getting me whatever medication and help I needed during this strange and scary time. Ana is Guatemalan and we met when she joined one of the trips I’d organised, travelling around and discovering Malaysia. She enjoyed herself so much and made me promise that I would, one day, visit her country too.
My slow road to recovery, naturally, put paid to all my other carefully laid-out plans. Instead of moving on to other destinations and other jobs, I had to stay on, unexpectedly, in Guatemala for what seemed like a very long time already. However, it is never my nature to sit and complain. I also never like dwelling on problems. Yes, Covid-19 drastically changed all my plans but complaining doesn’t help you or your situation. So once I decided the worst was over and the doctor confirmed
I was no longer infectious, I made it a point to discover this beautiful, exotic country.
See: The visual storyteller: Photographer Steve McCurry on his new exhibition and the iconic Afghan Girl
Not many of us are familiar with Guatemala but we should be — it is beautiful. It is a land covered with jungle, dotted with volcanoes and is home to some of the greatest Mayan archaeological sites on earth. We usually think of Mexico first when it comes to Mayan history and civilisation but Guatemala is all too often underrated in this aspect. Moreover, Malaysians do not need a visa to travel to Guatemala and it was during this time that I was reminded of the power of our passport.
Once I was fit enough to travel, I made my way to Lake Atitlan, where I spent a month — partly to rest and recuperate but also to explore and soak up this magical part of the country. Lonely Planet has described it as “the closest thing to Eden on Earth” and you cannot leave Guatemala without experiencing it. Perched in the Sierra Madre Mountains, 1,500m above sea level, Lake Atitlan is vast (130 sq km) and deep (340m, making it South America’s deepest), and housed in a massive volcanic crater. Three volcanoes — Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro, collectively known as the Three Giants — surround the lake as well as a number of Mayan villages. Due to the elevation, it feels like springtime every day. You don’t get hot and bothered and the weather is always so pleasant. The sunrise here is particularly spectacular and it was a joy for me to be able to photograph it day after day, waking up without fail every day to catch the morning light and the sun’s first rays.
Another wonderful place is Antigua Guatemala, not to be confused with the Caribbean island by the same name.