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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.
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.
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.
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.