The Spens Saga

Countess Aimée Spens

1899 ~ 1969 

 Recollection of

Aimée Cook-Spens

(Daughter of the Countess Aimée Spens)

In the summer of 1946 my mother and I set out on our first trip to Guatemala from our home in Miami, Florida. After a short stay in Guatemala City, we boarded a bus to Panajachel to explore the beautiful lake we had heard so much about. Mother lost no time in arranging for at least a month's stay at the lovely Hotel Tzan Juyu located on the shores of Lake Atitlan. In a very short period of time, i knew she had found that special place in which to build her inn. It was a busy and happy time for us both and the beginning of a new life for my mother .Upon our return to Miami, our house was sold, I was off to college, my brother Eiler already away from home.The following year, 1947, mother was to travel via ship, actually a freighter carrying a handful passengers, to Puerto Barrios on the Atlantic coast of Guatemala. Accompanying her, and securely stowed in the ship's hold, was our trusted family car

- a 1936 Cheverolet. After a rough passage, mother and car arrived safely in Puerto Barrios. The ensuing drive to Panajachel was no doubt an adventure in itself as road conditions in those years left much to be desired.A rented house in which mother opened a small gift shop was to be her home for the next year, while a suitable lot was purchased and plans for the inn were drawn up. 

It is interesting to note, thatafter studying architectural magazines, mother created her own plans and, with the assistance of local laborers, acted also as part contractor.Work on the Inn began in 1948; later that year, when near completion, mother moved in and a devastating flood hit Panajachel. There was heavy damage - power and communication cut off leaving the village isolated and on its own. Particularly hard hit were the Indians whose huts had, for the most part, been washed away. El Cakchiquel (the name chosen for the Inn) stood on slightly higher ground and was spared severe water damage.Learning of the Indians' plight, mother opened her doors to several homeless families. The large sala, permanent flooring not yet laid, was to accommodate these families with mother explaning they might use the big fireplace for their cooking needs. She was awakened  that first night by smoke seeping into her bedroom; coughing and with exes smarting, she hurried out to the sala which was filled with smoke as each family had chosen to build their own individual little fires on the dirt floor! The families reamined for several days - small fires burning every evening, mother sleeping with her bedroom door to the garden wide open! She was later to learn that the Indians of Panajachel had dubbed her new Inn "the house of many Fires". In the months and years that followed, many of the Indians who had found refuge at El Cakchiquel during the big flood would stop by with gifts of strawberries, onions, or whatever they were growing. An American writer of chidren's books (Alida Vreeland) staying at the Inn some years later was so captivated by mother's account of the story surrounding "the house of many fires", she chose to incorporate it in a book called Carlos and Conchita in Guatemala.El Cakchiquel prospered during most of the 1950' with United Fruit Line Tours, as well as others, introducing tourists to the beauty of the country from coast to the highlands - Lake Atitlan always a popular stop-over. Guests at the Inn often included finca owners, artists, writers and an occasional spill over from one of the hotels. Today, El Cakchiquel would be called a "bed and breakfast" as guests always enjoyed a breakfast of fresh fruits, local honey and, of course, excellent Guatemalan coffee. The residents - a small gift shop at the entrance to the Inn was to occasionally attract passers-by.Mother became keenly interested in Mayan mythology, took up painting in pastels and always found time for daily swims in the lake and long walks when time allowed.The late 1950's and early 1960's were difficult times in the country with on-going political upheavals and revolutions. As a result, tourist travel diminished drastically with U.S. travel agencies discouraging travel to Guatemala. Hard times followed for most everyone in the tourist business.A grand event, particularly memorable for me was my wedding in 1960 which took place in mother's lovely back garden - a local marimba band entertaining after the ceremony.No account of my mother's life in Panajachel would be complete without paying tribute to her devoted helper, Rufino Vasquez Figueroa. They were, through the years, to experience good times, hard times and sad times. Rufino remained with mother from the time of his employment in 1949 to the time of her death in 1969. Now in his early 80's, he lives with his wife outside Guatemala City. Mother is buried in a small cementery above Panajachel overlooking her beloved Lake Atitlan. 

Sept. 2006 - Santa Barbara, California  

Recollection of

Eiler Cook-Spens

 (Son of the Countess Aimée Spens) 

 This is a defining installment of what has been named the "Spens Saga" My mother, Aimée Spens, was born in Lund, Sweden, March 24, 1899. Her father was Count Harald Spens, Captain of Cavalry in the famed Skaanska Hussar Regiment. Her mother was Countess Herta Spens, also from a distinguished military family. My mother had one sister, the younger Countess Elisabet Spens. Incidentally, the roots of the Spens family originate in Scotland and the first Spens to settle in Sweden was Jakob. "Sir James" Spens of Wormeston, who arrived in 1608 as a mercenary colonel with troops sent to assist King Carl IX.My mother spend most of her childhood in Sweden although, for a short period, the family lived in Italy when her father was assigned to Rome as Military Attache at teh Swedish Embassy. As a young woman she was sent to school in Germany. She met and married my father, Robert Cook (of Cleveland, Ohio) in 1923. He had been attending the University of Stockholm on an SKF engineering scholarship granted by the Amerian - Scandinavian Foundation.During the first years of marriage, the Cook family lived in Colorado, Ohio, Denmark, France and Connecticut. Following a separation and finally a divorce, my mother's adventurous spirit took her to Palma de Mallorca, Italy, France, and Havana. The start of World War II found her in Miami, Florida, where she remained until her move to Guatemala in 1947.By that year, i had been mustered out of the U.S. Marine Corps, graduated from Harvard College and entered the U.S. Foreign Service. Still during 1947, she was joined in Panajachel by both her mother and sister who had left Paris at about the same time i was posted to the American Embassy there. Shortly after i was able to visit my mother in 1950, her sister and mother moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico.During the following years of various diplomatic assignments, my Norwegian wife Bitten and I with our two sons were able to make periodic visits to Panajachel. A tumultous political climate in Guatemala and Central America in general had scared tourists away, and mother's El Cakchiquel Inn suffered accordingly. By good fortune, my family and I were stationed nearby at the American Embassy in El Salvador during the last years of her life, and were able to visit frequently. Her devoted helper through the years of 1949 - 1969, Rufino Vasquez Figueroa, remained a loyal godsent to the end.  

Hendersonville, NC, October 2006 

La Casa de muchos Fuegos

From the book Carlos y Conchita en Guatemala - written and illustrated by  Alida Vreeland  in1952 and dedicated to the Countess Aimée Spens and Casa Cakchiquel for the help to the indigenous population during the disaster in 1949

The House of Many Fires:

It was not surprising that Carlos didn’t see Conchita. The big room was so filled with smoke that he could hardly see anybody except the countess and her sister. They stood in the doorway to the kitchen holding their handkerchiefs to their noses and coughing.
“I can’t understand these Indians,” the countess was saying. “I built a beautiful fire for them in the fireplace so they could keep warm and cook their food. And look what they have done. They turn their backs on my fire and each family builds its own fire on my floor-and with my firewood,” she added laughing.
“I could have told you so,” said her sister. “Didn’t you know that an Indian’s fire is the symbol of his home-no matter where he is-by the roadside or the patio of a public inn. That is why each family here has built his own fire-to feel at home even with their huts washed away. Lucky for you the new tiles are not laid. The fires can’t harm this dirt floor.”
“Yes, that is fortunate,” the countess agreed. “But I’m grateful that we got the roof on just in time to shelter all these homeless people. Where could they have gone?”
The countess began to wander from fire to fire. The smoke made her eyes water so she could hardly see. She finally found herself face to face with Carlos.
“Why, my poor boy!” she exclaimed. “How did you get here all the way from Chichicastenango?”
But before Carlos could explain, she had seen his swollen hand. “This looks serious,” she said, leading him toward the bathroom. “We must clean and bandage it right away.”
So, while she bathed and bandaged the hand Carlos said, “I am looking for Conchita Chocol, the girl who makes corn dolls. Some Indians told me that she was here. I have something to give her.”
“She is here,” said the countess. “Everybody knows Conchita. She has made many of her dolls for my shop.”
The countess looked around. By now the smoke was all mixed up with the steam from coffee pots. Against one of the walls leaned several ladders that the builders had left when they finished the roof. “Look, there’s Conchita,” she said, pointing. “Way up there on top of the ladder.”
Sure enough. There was Conchita trying to reach her chickens. They were perched on the rungs of ladders and on the rafters, cleaning their feathers. The higher she climbed the higher the chickens climbed. They thought it was a game.
So Carlos came to the rescue. Quickly he climbed up the ladder and before the crowing rooster knew what had happened, Carlos had grabbed his two feet and held him tightly. Then Conchita saw Carlos, “Carlos!” she cried as she climbed down. “How did you get here? How could you find your way in all this storm?”
Without answering her question,Carlos handed her her doll. “Here is your doll, Conchita,” was all he said.
Conchita’s dark eyes danced with joy. “O-o-o-oh! And she’s wearing your Good Luck sandals! Thank you, thank you. This is my only doll. All my corn dolls were washed away.”
“We were almost washed away, too.” said Carlos. So he told her all about his adventures through the storm and how he had finally come to the countess’ home.
“But how did you dare to leave your home in the worst part of the rainy season?” Conchita asked.
“It was all because of this hand,” he told her. “My family believed I was cursed by a witch-doctor and they wanted another witch-doctor to break the spell. But I do not believe in these things,” Carlos added. “I am going to the Indian woman doctor who lives in Antigua. She can cure this hand, I know.”
“Antigua is a long , long way from here,” said Conchita.
“If I got this far, I’ll get to Antigua, “ said Carlos bravely.
“But you will have to stay here a long time, Carlos,”said Conchita. “We are like prisoners in this valley. No one can get out. Now come and see our house inside of this house.”
And Conchita led Carlos out of the big room to a small room near the entrance. A bright fire blazed on the floor and a couple of blackened pots and pitchers steamed on top of it. Carlos squeezed in and sat in the family circle around the fire.
While Conchita showed her parents the doll that Carlos had made for her, baby Cruzita was peeking over her mother’s shoulder. She was stretching her little brown hand as hard as she could to reach the doll, so Conchita let her rub its hard wooden head.
Poor Angelo tried every which way to fit into the small room, too. But he had to be satisfied with his head in the room while his black tail went thump-thump-thump on the floor outside.
“Let us hope we have no more of the Xocomil tomorrow,” said Papa Chocol as he spooned up some beans with a folded tortilla. “His spirit has brought us trouble enough.”
“Who is this Xocomil?” Carlos asked.
“Ah, you have never heard of Xocomil!” Papa Chocol exclaimed. “He was a great Mayan chief. The Spaniards captured him when Guatemala belonged to our Mayan forefathers. When Xocomil tried to escape from his captors in a boat, great black storm clouds smothered the peaks and valleys around Lake Atitlan. And the rain from the clouds swept and beat the waters into towering waves so that the boat of the Mayan chief was overturned and he was drowned.
“And now, ever since that time people call this great south wind the Xocomil because it brings the misty rains to veil the ghost of the great chief when it sails across Lake Atitlan in the boat.”
“I hope by now that even his old ghost has drowned,” said Conchita. “Panajachel has seen enough of Xocomil.”
The fire on the floor was slowly dying. Cruzita’s eyes were closed and her little black head had fallen on her mother’s shoulder. One by one other heads began to nod. Conchita tied a scarf around her shoulder and tucked the new wooden doll inside. “I am going to call you ‘Christa,’ she told the doll quietly, “because you have been blessed by the waters of the flood and rescued with the image of Christ. Now you can sleep in safety.”
And so the Chocols and Carlos and Angelo slept in the shelter and comfort of the great house of the countess, while the terrible winds of Xocomil finally blew themselves away.
In the morning the great rain was over.

La Casa De Muchos Fuegos

No fue sorprendente que Carlos no haya visto a Conchita. El gran cuarto estaba tan lleno de humo, que el difícilmente podía ver a alguien, exceptuando a La Condesa y su hermana. Estaban en la puerta de la cocina con sus pañuelos tapando sus narices y tosiendo.
“No puedo entender a estos indígenas” decía La Condesa. “Les puse un hermoso fuego en la chimenea para que pudieran estar calientitos y pudieran cocinar su comida, y mira lo que han hecho: ¡le dan la espalda a mi fuego y cada familia hace su propia fogata sobre mi piso y con mi leña!, “agrego riéndose.
“Yo te pude haber dicho”, dijo su hermana. “¿No sabias que la fogata de un indígena significa su hogar – no importa donde esté – ya sea a la orilla del camino o en el patio de un hospedaje público? Por eso es que cada familia ha puesto su propia fogata aquí, para sentirse en casa, aunque sus ranchos hayan sido llevados por la corriente. Que afortunado que no hayan instalado todavía el nuevo piso. Los fuegos no le harán daño al piso de tierra.”
“Si, eso es afortunado”, estuvo de acuerdo La Condesa; pero estoy agradecida que logramos poner el techo justo a tiempo para refugiar a toda esta gente sin casa. ¿A dónde hubieran podido ir”?
La Condesa empezó a circular de fuego en fuego. Casi no podía ver por el humo que hacían llorar sus ojos. Finalmente se encontró de frente con Carlos.
“Ay, mi pobre muchacho”, le dijo “¿Cómo llegaste hasta aquí desde Chimaltenango?”
Pero antes de que Carlos pudiera responder, ella vio su mano hinchada. “Esto parece serio”, le dijo, llevándolo hacia el baño. “Tendremos que limpiarlo y hacerle su curación rápidamente”.
Así que mientras que le hacían la curación en la mano, Carlos le dijo: “Estoy buscando a Conchita Chocol, la niña que hace las muñecas de tusa. Algunos indígenas me dijeron que ella estaba aquí. Tengo algo que darle.”
“Ella está aquí” le dijo La Condesa, “Todos conocen a Conchita. Ella ha hecho muchas muñecas para mi tienda”
La Condesa miró por todos lados. Ahora el humo se revolvía con el vapor de las cafeteras. Sobre una de las paredes habían varias escaleras que habían dejado los constructores cuando terminaron el techo, “Miren, ahí esta Conchita; señaló ella a donde estaba. ¡Está hasta arriba de la escalera!”
Y cabal allí estaba Conchita tratando de alcanzar sus pollos que estaban sentados hasta arriba, limpiándose las plumas. ¡Mientras más alto subía ella, más alto subían los pollos; ellos pensaban que era un juego!
Así que Carlos fue a rescatarla. Rápidamente se subió a la escalera, y antes de que el gallo se diera cuenta de lo que pasaba, lo agarró de sus dos patas fuertemente. Cuando Conchita lo vio exclamo “¡Carlos! mientras se bajaba, ¿Cómo llegaste hasta aquí? ¿Cómo encontraste tu camino en esta tormenta?”
Sin contestarle, Carlos le dio su muñeca. “Aquí está tu muñeca, Conchita”, fue lo único que le dijo. Los ojitos oscuros de Conchita brillaron de alegría “¡Ay, y esta usando sus caites de la buena suerte! ¡Gracias, gracias!. Esta es mi única muñeca. Todas mis muñecas de tusa se las llevo la corriente.”
“A nosotros por poco nos lleva la correntada también, dijo Carlos. Así que le contó todas sus aventuras en la tormenta y cómo había finalmente llegado hasta la casa de La Condesa.
“¿Pero cómo te atreviste a dejar tu casa en la peor parte de la época de lluvia?, le preguntó Conchita.
“Fue por esta mano”, le dijo. Mi familia creía que yo tuve un maleficio de un brujo, y fueron con otro brujo para quitarlo. Pero yo no creo en esas cosas, y agregó: Voy a ir con la Doctora Indígena que vive en Antigua. Ella me puede curar esta mano, ¡estoy seguro!
“Antigua queda muy, muy lejos de aquí” le dijo Conchita. “Si llegué hasta aquí, llegare a la Antigua” contestó muy valientemente Carlos.
“Pero tendrás que estar aquí bastante tiempo, Carlos”, le dijo Conchita. Estamos aprisionados en este valle. Nadie puede salir. Ahora ven a ver nuestra casa adentro de esta casa”
Conchita lo llevó desde el gran cuarto a un cuartito cerca de la entrada. Había un fuego fuerte en el piso y unas ollas y picheles encima sacando vapor. Carlos se acercó y sentó junto a todo el círculo de la familia que estaba alrededor del fuego.
Mientras Conchita le enseñaba a todos los muñeca de tusa que Carlos le había hecho, Crucita, la bebé miraba sobre el hombro de su mamá. Estaba tratando de alcanzar con su manita morena como podía, así que Conchita la dejó que sobara la cabeza dura de madera de la muñeca.
El pobre Angelo trataba también de meterse al cuarto. Pero no cabía así que metió la cara y su cola se movía sobre el piso afuera.
“Ojalá que no vayamos a tener mas Xocomil mañana, exclamo, Papá Chocol. El era un gran Jefe Maya. Los españoles lo capturaron cuando Guatemala pertenecía a nuestros Antepasados Mayas. Cuando Xocomil trato de escaparse del barco de sus captores, se asomaron enormes nubes de tormenta sobre los picos y valles del Lago de Atitlán. La lluvia de las nubes era fuertísima haciendo que el agua tuviera enormes olas para que el barco del Jefe Maya diera vuelta y él se ahogara. 
“Y desde esa época la gente le dice al viento del sur Xocomil, porque trae sus lluvias brumosas que son como un velo que cubre el fantasma del Gran Jefe Maya cuando navega en lancha por el Lago de Atitlán.
“Espero que ya ahora el viejo fantasma se haya ahogado” dijo Conchita. Panajachel ya ha tenido suficiente del Xocomil.”
El fuego sobre el piso se estaba apagando lentamente. Los ojos de Conchita estaban cerrados y su cabecita negra había caído sobre el hombro de su Mamá. Una por una de las demás cabezas empezaban a adormecerse. Conchita tenía su muñeca en un rebozo de un pañuelo en su hombro.
“Voy a llamarte Crista, le dijo suavemente a su muñequita, porque tú has sido bendecida con las aguas de la inundación y rescatada con la imagen de Cristo. Ahora te puedes dormir con seguridad”
Así fue como los Chocol, Carlos y Angelo durmieron cómodamente en el refugio de la casa de La Condesa, mientras los terribles vientos del Xocomil soplaban hasta que terminaron y se fueron.
En la mañana siguiente, la lluvia ya se había ido.
(Tormenta e inundaciones de 1949) 
Este texto dan de el libro Carlos y Conchita en Guatemala

First takes... 

before and after restauration

Part 1

Saving the cultural heritage 

2006 ~ 2010

Don Rufino Vasquez

 Bitten & Eiler Cook Spens Hendersonville 2008 

...to be continued