Monthly Archives: June 2013
My partner and soon to be hitchhiking accomplise Nassima helped to smooth over some human relations problems at Popis, specifically she was able to convince the employees that I was not in fact there to steal from them, that I was not inherently loaded with money simply by way of being a United Stater, and that I was not just withholding the money that their previous employer had failed to pay them. They were going to try and sue me for the debt that Don had incurred.
Now given that I thought I was there to save their jobs and reestablish the business; having used the last of my money to pay them until Popis was able to, I was incredibly frustrated. I was done, ready to leave, and started packing. I felt the skills I was gaining were more valuable than gratitude, but disrespect I wouldn’t stand for.
Suffice to say things were tense at Popis for the first 4 months or so.
In any case, Nassima explained to them with an extreme degree of clarity, that I in fact did not have much money at all, that I was only helping out of love, passion and interest, and that in the best case of scenarios, should I leave, the business would fall apart just as it almost had. As she explained this, I packed.
All of this had been explained before, dozens of times, but Nassima was able to communicate much more effectively and gently than I. She carefully went down every hypothetical path they offered, and in the end, it came down to money; if I left, Popis would close and all property would go to the landlord first to recoup his debt.
It must seem a little crazy; I was an unpaid and unappreciated volunteer. However, I was gaining a tremendously useful skill-set: how to speak Spanish. how to run a business and negotiate in Central America, how to run a restaurant/hotel, and develop community ties in a country new to me. I’ve felt since my last business that should I need to I can make a job for myself almost anywhere I land within the US, I wanted that feeling in all the Americas. I wanted to be my own safety net, to be able to travel without fear of running out of money thus freeing myself from a life deferred even if for some reason I might require bits of paper.
Nassima convinced me to stay.
Things improved after that, albeit slowly. Lorena even became almost motherly, eventually making it her goal to fatten me. Margarita warmed up not long after. Once it was accepted that I was broker than them things eased over.
And once they did that freed up Nassima and I to travel! We would hike to the edge of town on the only road leading out, get on the first truck that would pick us up, and head in whatever direction it happened to be going. It was amazing fun and such a great way to see the country.
Now, many of you may be wondering how wise hitchhiking in Guatemala is; but first consider that bus drivers here consider themselves the kings of the road, they careen down winding mountain trails hurtling into the oncoming lane should theirs be blocked by more reasonable traffic, even on blind turns. Really, at least one of these things crashes a month. Not only that but a bus full of travelers is basically a pinata for thieves. Small trucks on the other hand have little to offer anyone, the drivers do not have a profit incentive or cultural archetype to fulfill and so they generally drive sanely, and finally the segment of society that has trucks in Guatemala on average has more money than we did.
We had some great adventures in that way and even hitched into Mexico, we got a lot more laughs in Mexico(apparently gringos hitchhiking is hilarious).
So I made it back to the States, Miami, Florida. It was a hard landing; coming back to a place so impersonal, where the gap between people was so wide. Cycling in Cuba I hadn’t a single negative experience with drivers, not even in Havana; bustling metropolis that it is. Taxi drivers would actually yield to me if I was going up a big hill despite them having the right of way. But within minutes of getting on my bicycle in Miami I was having obscenities hurled at me from drivers speeding by inches away; it was a harsh welcome back.
In addition to the already growing sense of alienation I felt upon my return, my girlfriend with whom I’d been having troubles with for some time met me in Miami and the problems I’d left came right back with our reunion.
We hitched a ride with a mutual friend to the home of a traveller and couchsurfing host named Xochi in Key Largo. Xochi’s father, Don, had just passed away weeks before our arrival and left behind both a school for disabled children (Mayan Hope) and a restaurant (Popis) that was intended to support it in the Ixil region of Guatemala. He had grown both over the course of the last decade but throughout the last year the restaurant had fallen into a state of disrepair and inprofitability due to his course of extended illness. This in turn prompted the other board members of the school to sever ties with the restaurant, angry that the relationship had been reversed; Mayan Hope had been supporting Popis.
This immediately struck me as an opportunity to apply the intentions I had set in Cuba. So I volunteered to go and fix it. I’ve always admired the model of having the profits of a business diverted into charity, it seemed a more sustainable system than any donation based operation. And so with that I made the decision to end my unhappy relationship and chase this new dream; leaving behind my life in the States. At the time I thought I’d come back in a month or so.
Xochi sent her daughter, Xotchil along too and in just a matter of days I was off again heading to Guatemala on one month of Spanish picked up on the streets of Cuba to a country I’d never been to,with a woman I just met, to fix a not-for-profit business I really didn’t know much about. It was surreal in all the right ways.
We arrived in Popis on my second night in Guatemala to an emergency meeting regarding the outstanding issues regarding the business, namely: the employees hadn’t been paid in full for 7 months and calculated their debt at around $3000 and intended to file a lawsuit, the rent was overdue and underpaid and the landlord had instructed his local representative (Donawalt) to close the doors and liquidate assets to recover the money, this same representative had it in his mind to take over the business and turn it into a for profit venture, and on top of all this there were animals everywhere. Really, everywhere. Ducks, rabbits, a dog, cats, chickens; the smell was overwhelming. This wasn’t a big open air farm kind of place, it was a squished building stacked 3 stories high with a small central courtyard in the middle of a small city.
I had to learn Guatemalan tax law, fend off the business from Donowalt, gain the proper legal standing to take control of the business but we did pull through.
In my time there I took up mountain guiding both as a way to bring in more profit and to keep my life balanced. I’d trek off into the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America: Sierra de los Cuchumatanes. It was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been to, I’d spend days guiding tourists to places no vehicle could access, sleeping in villages where maybe 2 or 3 families spoke Spanish. I fell in love with this place and took every opportunity to photograph it.
I also fell in love with my partner Nassima, a researcher from France who I guided a trip for.
My first foray into both the world outside my own and photography. I went with the intention of meeting my family and cycling through the country, I found more than I expected. Initially I had intended on spending the majority of my time cycling and a minority meeting the family, but the opposite happened. Often in my life I’ve felt rootless. As it turns out I’ve had a family of my own this whole time, they were just a short sea and a wide embargo away.
This trip was my first concerted effort into photography and while in retrospect my photos seem somewhat scattered in subject, it was where I began to lay a foundation of confidence upon which to build this current endeavor.
While there my life took an entirely unexpected turn. I was taking a day off from cycling, drinking and chatting with a very large Italian man and two Cubanos in an open air bar in Santa Clara when an elderly woman sat in the empty seat next to mine. She started a conversation in perfect English (a rare thing in Cuba, Russian being the most likely second language). She was educated, intelligent, eloquent, and full of experience. We talked for some time discussing politics, the state of the revolution (which in her youth she had supported but with age came to resent, particularly with the advent of the “special period”) and modern life in Cuba. This amazing and insightful conversation culminated surprisingly when she asked me for money. It struck me that such a well educated, intellectually present individual would be reduced to begging, when so many young Cubans speaking only rudimentary english were making a decent living in Santa Clara guiding tourists. Here was a woman in fine shape, very articulate, yet unable to support herself.
I asked instead if I could pay her to give me a tour of the city the following day; I decided to stay longer than I had originally intended and seize the opportunity to interact with a piece of the social fabric of Cuba that I’d otherwise be unable to touch.
And so we met the next morning and set out; she led me on a wonderfully informed tour that was enriched by the substance of her incredible experience. We visited the hotel that was the HQ for Batista’s forces after being driven out from Havana and the site of one of the battles that marked the end of the Cuban revolution. We eventually found a place to sit and to discuss history and politics. It was an amazing day.
And still I could not believe that the only option for this wonderfully beautiful human was to seek subsistence through begging; I could not accept it.
So I asked her if she’d let me help her set up a guiding business. She thought it would be impossible, but I insisted and told her that I’d cover the expenses; we might as well try. She agreed, doubtful of any possible success. It’s important to note that the nature of her reality was to think of business as an impossible endeavour; it wasn’t allowed until fairly recently for individuals to own private businesses and so for the majority of her experience in Cuba, this really was not an option.
It took only that day. We had bilingual business cards printed (at a black market printer no less; the state run print shop had been out of ink for the previous 3 months), bought her an entire set of maps and guidebooks, and arranged for an old estranged friend who was in possession of a telephone to take her calls for a commission. The entire business would be based on the same model she was previously using for begging, but instead of asking for money she’d be offering tours.
And throughout the day she allowed me glimpses into her life that was so far removed from what I had experienced in my own or my observations of life in Cuba; to see beneath the surface.
Throughout this process there was a profound change in my understanding of the nature of business. I had previously started a small business to some financial success but great personal dissatisfaction. I’d come to associate the act of business with selfishness and a necessitation of mercantile behavior that I wanted no part in. For this and also the personal discovery that time is all I will ever have, I dissolved it.
However, In applying the skills I had developed in an altruistic way this perception changed; it widened. I decided from this that I wanted to apply my entrepreneurial skills in some charitable way.
The opportunity to do so occurred by coincidence only days after returning to the US…
NOTE: To all whom it may concern: I traveled legally to Cuba on a general license provided by the State Department; I have blood relations less than three generations removed currently living in Cuba.