“I know this guy, he has a diamond”

Okay, so our landlord (Edgar) called me last week and said he needed to talk business and that he’d be waiting for us in the intersection outside of village in 15. Right away I’m thinking he’s going to raise the rent or something. So we head over there and end up waiting half an hour for him to show up (Guatemala time).

Anyway, he shows up and tells us that a guy who works for him claims to have found a diamond and is keeping it hidden, wrapped up in old newspapers in his house. He trusts Edgar and wants to know what to do with it. So of course, Edgar says something along the lines of “man, I don’t know, but I know this Gringo! I’ll ask him” and here we are. Being a gringo in Guatemala apparently makes you a diamond expert?

Edgar thinks it might be from some ruins in the jungle nearby that people occasionally pillage and/or excavate, depending on the party interested. But who knows; there’s all kinds of shady stuff taking place along the border.

So of course I’m going (try) to do it. Just need to figure out how to tell the difference between a zircon and a diamond, right? It’s probably fake anyway…

Sometimes my life feels like a grocery store novel.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized

A Guide to Hitchhiking in Guatemala

The case for hitchhiking in Guatemala:

It may seem crazy to the uninitiated, but hitchhiking is by far my favorite way to get around Guatemala. It’s fast, it’s often free, and most importantly, it’s safer than the camioneta (chicken buses). This is where my readership collectively double takes. “Safer than buses? But what about kidnapping and car crashes and lions and tigers and bears?” Well, beyond the fact that most of those things, especially the ones that don’t involve wild animals, are far MORE likely to occur on the public transit system than while hitchhiking it’s also a much more comfortable experience. Why’s that?

Hitchhiking somewhere before Sacapulas

You can make a sign like this, but you don’t really need to. We were just getting started when I took this.

For one, buses are basically giant rolling pinatas for thieves. If you were about to risk your life holding up strangers for valuables, do you pick the truck that has 3 (probably) locals or the giant bus jam packed with 50 individuals, many of them rich foreigners if you pick the right route. It’s basic risk versus reward, you stand to gain so much more for equal risk and if there is one thing we can count on it’s that humans will generally act in self interest.

Now in regards to vehicular safety. If you have to ask this question, you’ve probably never been on a camioneta. These guys feel they are the kings of the road and demonstrate this by swinging into the oncoming lane in their, albeit, beautifully and immaculately painted buses, on tiny 2 lane mountainous roads; as if daring anyone who might have been around the corner to challenge their almighty authority. They are the brazen peacocks of the Guatemalan driving world. I’ve been in more than one camioneta that came up on 2 wheels around such turns, it can be hair raising to say the least.

Trucks on the other hand don’t have this cultural archetype to fulfill. About 80% of the rides I catch are considerably safer than the camioneta, and the other 20% may approach chicken bus levels of crazy, but never quite make it. Furthermore the drivers of private vehicles have no profit incentive to go extremely fast all the time. It’s generally a much safer and more comfortable experience.

And that brings me to the next pro: comfort. It is so much more comfortable to recline in the back of a truck winding its way through the highlands of Guatemala watching the clouds pass lazily by than it is to be horribly compacted in seats designed for people half your size and half the number of people crammed onto them. The back of a truck however, is the perfect place to take in the incredible landscapes of this beautiful country.

So with all that,

Things to carry when hitchhiking in Guatemala:

I don’t buy gear often (or really anything), but when I do I research extensively to make sure my limited resources stretch the furthest. When possible in this guide, I’ll make recommendations.

  • A nice big backpack with a rain sleeve (don’t forget the rain sleeve!). Bigger than you need on your way out; you never know what you’ll find along the way that you want to keep. I use the Osprey Aether 70 Liter
    and it’s the best backpack I’ve ever owned, but it seems to have been designed specifically for people with my body type. That is to say long and lanky. If you’re short and burly I imagine it wouldn’t be as comfortable for you.
  • Rain gear
  • Warm clothing (if you’re passing through the highlands, carry a scarf)
  • Cool clothing
  • A map. Anything with the roads will do.
  • A headlamp! I’ve never owned a more useful tool. I’ve never been disappointed by Black Diamond’s line. I’m currently using the Storm

Optional:

  • A camera and something to waterproof it. For the amateur photographer I’d recommend the Cannon “s” line, it’s the best of the best and as close as you can get to a dSLR without actually having one. When I bought mine the s100 was the latest and greatest and it served me well until it’s theft. The S120 is the latest successor. The best thing about this camera is that, unlike most point and shoots, it allows you full manual control over everything and so it’s a great stepping stone into the world of photography. Its worth noting that the older models are still available, can be picked up cheap on Craigslist, and are still some of the best point and shoots to be found.
  • Headphones, music and a few episodes of This American Life on hand for those rides that go on forever.
  • A water filter, you never know when you’ll end up camping or just needing some clean water in a remote place. My water filter of choice is the Katadyn Vario. It’s easy to use, long lasting, reliable, and has a high output volume, which is nice for when I find myself guiding.
  • I carry a big knife, for utility purposes; knives come in handy all the time as levers, hammers, and even sometimes to cut things. I use the Ka-Bar Black Tanto and have been really happy to have it. Keep it polished.
  • It can be nice to have a GPS, but then it can be even nicer not to have it (or even a map for that matter). But for those times when you will be trekking into the jungle on unmarked paths, it’s nice to have. I use the Garmin eTrex 20 Worldwide Handheld GPS Navigator .
  • Compass, with the same caveat as above. I use the Suudo M-3D as it makes using topographical maps a breeze (but really, usually it’s more fun to get lost, only carry this if you have to).

 

on to the guide to hitchhiking in Guatemala:

 

  1. Get out on the road:
    Get yourself to the exit of whatever town or city you’re in. You can walk, tuk tuk, taxi, or even just hop a camioneta to the first stop outside of town. The best place to wait is next to one of the many giant speed bumps to be found in the satellite villages of most cities; people are much more likely to pick you up if they have to slow down or stop anyway.
  2. Smile
    Really, it helps.
  3. Point in the direction you’re going.
    Don’t put your thumb out, half the time people will think you’re just giving them a thumbs up and return it enthusiastically. Hitchhiking Guatemalans point towards their destination and then the driver will either pick you up, point down to signify their staying in town, or point in some other direction that they will soon be heading in. It’s rare that you won’t get any response.
  4. Let them know where you’re going, hop in the back of that truck and enjoy the ride.

 

On payment, when hitchhiking in Guatemala:

I’ll be asked to pay between 10% and 50% of the time. Of about 25% of those times, if I leave it up to them to tell me a price, they will try and rip me off. The easy way to handle this is to calculate how much the trip costs yourself and just hand them the correct amount. You can do this either by asking other passengers (often those who charge will have several) or just keeping track of the time, it’s 10Q an hour for chicken buses and trucks in Guatemala. Don’t argue or debate, just hand them the money and walk away.

But that’s really only a small fraction of the time, typically it’s free and a good amount of the time they’ll actually try and buy you lunch or a drink. You eventually get an eye for who’s going to charge, who isn’t and who’s going to try and rip you off.

Some tips, when you’re hitchhiking in Guatemala:

me hitchhiking, blurrily.

A blurry photo of me, hitching a ride on the back of a truck.

  • Be friendly, everyone else is here.
  • Move quickly, don’t make people wait for you; they’re doing you a favor.
  • Unless its raining, I prefer to ride in the back of trucks for comfort and security reasons; it’s easier to escape if necessary (although in a year of consistently hitchhiking everywhere I’ve had not a single bad experience). Most vehicles in Guatemala are trucks so that’s not hard.
  • Don’t shy away from those semis, they are some of the most fun to ride.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Guides Tagged , , , , |

On the California wage increase, occupy, and PACs.

When running Firefix, my former IT business, I had the (most often) pleasure of meeting between 50 and 100 small business owners. Amongst all of them I never met a single one who considered minimum wage to be less than 10 dollars an hour, even when hiring temps from the local community college to stuff envelopes. In fact, I was specifically told by more than one that they considered anything less than 10 an hour to be an nonviable wage.

Time and time again in our society the small business man/woman has been shafted by political incentive coming overwhelmingly from corporate America, resulting in a gamed system where GE, Bank of America, and Star bucks end up paying little to no income taxes for the year by taking advantage of loopholes that their lobbyists helped design, while small businesses pay upwards of 30% of their income in the first year of business. Yet still find some way to pay their employees a living wage.

In juxtaposition to that, we have mega-conglomerates like McDonald’s, paying an unlivable wage. And when confronted with that reality, what do they do? They distribute unrealistic budget pamphlets that in no way reflect the reality of life. Was that to assuage some corporate concession or simply to convince the breadth of middle America to dismiss the complaints of the working class as the frivolous whining of the poor spenders. When did we get so off track so as to ignore the suffering of our fellow-man?

I’m glad California raised its minimum wage, it’s about time; but the problem runs much deeper than any single piece of legislation can repair. The problem has become one of culture, of corporate greed, and our greatest foe: the apathy of the American people. And where there is not apathy, there is ineffectiveness. The tools exist within our democracy to fix it, anyone can start a PAC to lobby congress to turn around citizens united, anyone can raise money to push our legislators to set and hold a livable federal minimum wage, anyone and everyone who calls themselves a US citizen has access to the tools by which we can fix our democracy that is crumbling into an oligarchy. Every US citizen can vote; congress has a less than 10% approval rating, yet only 15% of California voted in the last mid terms and incumbents are overwhelmingly likely to retain their seats.

If only a small portion of the occupy crowd would simply occupy a voting booth the legislator of our country would be swept off its feet. We can usher in a new age of prosperity and social consciousness,
the tools are there, waiting to be picked up.

1900_New_York_polling_place

wikipedia commons

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Popis, rich Americans, and the rational of hitchhiking in Guatemala.

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).

Hitchhiking somewhere before Sacapulas

Nassima and I, hitchhiking from Huehuetenango to Nebaj. We were stranded on this road for a couple hours, just long enough to enjoy an incredible sunset.

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Popi’s – restaurant, hotel, and debt ridden shipwreck.

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.

 

 

 

 

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Cuba

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.

 

Posted in travel log

a bit of history from the old blog

A very brief history of my time leading up to leaving the US. Taken and slightly edited from my former blog.

 

Our modern way of life is killing me. Sitting all day long hoarding nuts for the coming storm seems just a comfortable way of whittling the alarmingly short amount of time I have on this planet away. I came into this world with only one resource and I will leave only once it is entirely depleted; money is an idea, land will outlive me, time is all I have. And of that time the only control I have is over the quality with which it passes; in the depth and value of the stories I create. Any moment could be my last and 25 years was the cost of now.

Three years ago I was caught firmly in the path of least resistance. I went to school because it was expected rather than to expand my understanding of this universe and I worked to pay bills rather than in pursuit of my passions. I was wasting my consciousness and squandering my intellect. I had passion but no direction and most of it fizzled into various small adventures; rock climbing, backpacking and eventually bicycle touring.

On a whim a friend and I decided to fly our bicycles up to San Fransisco and ride back to LA. Neither of us had toured before and we did so wholly under prepared; sleeping on cardboard and attempting to use foil bivvies in lieu of sleeping bags. We froze most nights and lived off ramen most days but despite this the experience proved remarkable for me; it was so removed from any lifestyle I”d ever experienced. It gave me a new perspective with which to contrast my earlier and much more conventional life.

When we reached LA, I just kept going, I never wanted to stop. It went on until I ran out of money in Tijuana and rode back on 4 dollars, a bottle of Excedrin, some cheese and a bag of bagels.

I arrived back to home without a dollar to my name and only a slight bit of cheese left; with purpose for the first time in years. I had to do this for the foreseeable future, I wanted to cycle around the world.

To this effect my first goal was money. I felt that I needed money to fund a never ending adventure and for an adventure to be never ending I needed a source of income that was self sustaining. With my limited to no experience I narrowed my options down to starting some kind of business. Seeing as I had no access to any significant amount of capital I decided on forming a business around the most profitable skill I possessed: IT. So I started a yelp page (Firefix, it’s still up), seeded it, and off I went.

One year later I’d snowballed enough business to open a shop and did so in Redondo Beach, California. One year after that I had a couple employees and the business was making some money, but not enough to travel the world. I hated my life. I was spending the one and only resource I have in this existence turning screws, taking and giving orders biding time for a life deferred while my youth passed me by. It all seemed so tragically comic; that this animal, this ape would spend his time locked away in a tiny room planning adventures under fluorescent lighting while a world went on unconcerned outside. I felt as though I had been duped into believing a conventional and horribly distorted reality centered around the fulfillment of the “American Dream”.

I tried to sell the business but each buyer fell through for one reason or another. I eventually just dissolved it, keeping a few of my larger clients to pay rent and moved forward. Isolating my existence to those few pursuits I value; from that moment I lived deliberately, changing my goals away from what was either expected or easy and towards the fulfillment of my goals and dreams.

Such is the foundation of my life now.
 

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First post, old blog

Pulled from my old blog; I wrote this just days before leaving for Cuba.

It is done. My gear is bought, my bike is prepped and I leave Thursday for Cuba via a 3 day bus ride from Los Angeles to Miami and a short plane ride from there. My Spanish is more rusted than rusty but I have a first aid kit; I’ll make it. At some point I’ll list out my gear, or at the very least I’ll intend on doing so for a minimum of 3 months. I’ll be starting from Havana and heading East, carving my way along the perimeter of the island by bicycle for as long as I can convince whatever bureaucrat I must to keep me visa’ed. I’ll be keeping a journal, taking copious amounts of photos, and uploading all of this to my blog whenever possible. Along the way I’ll be meeting most of my family for the first time, staying with them when possible.

Posted in old blog, travel log