Antigua and My Guatemalan Family

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

“Much gusto, Richard! Bienvenido a mi familia!” said a smiling Elsa, the matriarch of my new Guatemalan family, as she showed me my new, personal veranda overlooking Lake Atitlan here in San Pedro La Laguna. Struggling to grasp the Spanish word for “view,” I resorted to, well, the English word for “view.” “Esta…uhhh…view…es muy bonita!” Elsa smiled knowingly, looked out towards the lake, and proclaimed “la vista!” And so my Spanish immersion attempt begins, one conversation in broken Spanish at a time.

My arrival at San Pedro La Laguna this afternoon was preceded by an action-packed last 24 hours in Antigua which began with a rousing cultural and historical tour led by the resident historian, Elizabeth Bell. Bell is no amateur historian —  she’s published multiple books on the history and culture of Antigua which are for sale all over town (this includes at least two coloring books of major Antigua sites which demonstrates the depth of the woman’s passion for this former Guatemalan capital). The tour began strong, as Bell showed us around the major sites off the Parque Central and pummeled us with her knowledge of all things Antigua (history, politics, religion, current events, and fun facts, i.e. the 1938 Tarzan movie was filmed in none other than Antigua). However, this momentum came to a screeching halt about an hour and half into the tour as Bell ushered us into the Jade Museum. For those of you who don’t know, jade is a precious mineral found in Guatemala that is popular in jewelry. Then there is a lot of other boring stuff about jade that the Jade Museum covers in detail. After about 45 minutes of that yawnfest of a museum, Bell did capture a bit of the momentum back at our final stop on the tour, the Casa Santo Domingo. The highlight of this stop was a crypt that includes exhumed human skeletons from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Pretty cool stuff.

After the tour, I meandered around some parts of Antigua I had yet to explore. This was going swimmingly until I met Oleg, a Ukrainian now living in New York City. Oleg asked me to take his picture in front of Iglesia San Francisco. Then his picture from a different angle in front of the church. Then his picture in the church’s garden. Then his picture in the middle of a park down the street. Then his picture from the end of the park down the street. Then his picture in the Parque Central. Then his picture in front of the church by the Parque Central. Then his picture in a picturesque street on the way to my hostel (I was now heading there for “a nap”). Then his picture in front a church next to my hostel. Then his picture in front of my hostel. Then his picture from inside my hostel. Then…OK, so the last two pictures did not happen! But literally all of the other pictures are true pictures that did happen. And when Oleg finally agreed to part ways, I was disappointed I did not receive a tip from him given my instrumental role in the creation of his masterful photo album entitled “Oleg Standing in Front of Places in Antigua, Guatemala”.

As evening approached last night, I debated whether to have a quiet dinner and call it an early night or head back to Cafe No Sé to see if my new bartender friends had anything going on. I opted for the latter given that the first option felt like defeat. Sure enough, Cafe No Sé did not let this wandering soul down. Marissa, an American teaching at a local school that works at the No Sé on the weekends, invited me and my other new friends from the bar (a gay couple from San Francisco down for a long weekend) to a local salsa event. Given that “I know how to do salsa” (said the mezcal in my body at that moment), I agreed and found myself in a school gym with several hundred Guatemalans that were absolutely ripping up some salsa. There wasn’t too much for a gringo like me to do other than watch in awe at the scene, which was highlighted by a legitimate salsa performance by locals in costume. I did make a brief foray onto the dance floor which ended with a small, personal victory in the form of a “compliment” from Marissa. (“I thought you would be terrible at salsa and you actually weren’t terrible!”). After a few hours of this otherworldly salsa scene, my new friends and I ended the night back at the No Sé  in a scene much more familiar to me — in a crowded bar, singing along at the top of our lungs to “Proud Mary” by Ike and Tina Turner.

I pulled out of Antigua in my shuttle this morning around 8:30 am, feeling satisfied about my three days there and properly launched into this adventure. The four-hour journey from Antigua to San Pedro La Laguna only helped to build my excitement for what lies ahead as I listened to the wealth of travel stories being recounted by my shuttlemates. And as I now find myself living with Elsa, Bartolo, Juanita, Elsita, and Bartolito, I am interested to see how the next chapter of my own story unfolds.

 

Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Illegal Mezcal, Oh My!

Antigua, Guatemala

As my good friend Mitch informed me via a text this morning, “el terremoto” is Spanish for earthquake (Mitch comprenders Spanish). However, “El” and “terremoto” were certainly not the first words that came to mind as my shaking bed woke me around 11 pm in my room at the Yellow House last night. Rather it was “Wow! This wind is…strong!” As I came to and slowly realized that an earthquake, as opposed to a stiff breeze, was the likelier cause of my shaking room, I hopped out of bed and racked my brain for the proper response to this category of natural disaster. My extensive terremoto training in elementary and middle school taught me to leave the classroom and kneel against the hallway wall headfirst; however, this training was not translating well to the hostel environment. (“Is an outdoor patio the same as hallway? Where’s the teacher? The pretend shaking floors is a for real shaking floor. Hmmm…”). The barrage of panicked, mostly incomprehensible Spanish coming from outside my room certainly was not helping, although the fact that the shaking was slowly subsiding was. In the end, I decided to do what I did in the only other earthquake in which I’ve been involved — leave the relative safety of my shelter and go find some people to talk to about how crazy this earthquake thing is outside. (PSA: This is the #2 WRONG thing to do in an earthquake. Best thing to do is drop to the ground, cover your head, and move under some sturdy furniture if possible. Doorframes are not a good option.) After I socialized with my hostelmates through several minutes more of shaking, the ground returned to its normal, nonmoving status. Once we learned that this earthquake was a whopping 8.1 on the Richter scale (earthquakes of 8.0+ strength quality for the highest grade of intensity — “Great” — on the scale), we were relieved that the effects were relatively mild for our spot in southwest Guatemala; unfortunately, this certainly was not the case further north and into Mexico.

In an interesting twist, a few hours prior to the ‘moto, I had booked a trip to rendezvous with another notorious geological phenomenon — an active volcano. A hike up Volcan Pacaya is actually a standard tourist activity for visitors to Guatemala City and its environs. And it’s certainly safer than a trip into Guatemala City itself. (A fellow hiker on the Pacaya trip reported that a car directly in front of him had been robbed at gunpoint in traffic in Guatemala City; another member of the hike described how he physically fought off three potential muggers at once in the streets of the city — impressive because he actually got away with all his valuables but…really? Downsides to the “fighting back” strategy are extreme.) So this morning, I began my Pacaya adventure from Antigua by packing into a large van with me and 26 of my new best friends. The van drove us roughly 1.5 hours into the Volcan Pacaya park, taking care of a lot of the elevation gain before the hike began. I signed up for the the standard, guided hike, which took us from the parking lot (~5500 ft) up above the treeline (~7200 ft), which offers a fantastic view of the volcano’s dome, the opportunity to hop around an open field of volcanic rock, and a trip to the “Lava Store” (Motto: You will “lava” our trinkets and things.) Aside from coming face-to-face with a real, live volcano (last eruption: 2014), which is, well, friggin’ cool, I enjoyed meeting the other turistas. I spent some time chatting with an international couple (Australia and Switzerland, respectively) taking ~10 months to take the scenic route from Berlin to Brisbane (Australia), an Australian guy cycling (no joke) from Berlin to Argentina (via the classic Berlin to Amsterdam to France to the UK to NYC to San Francisco to Guatemala City to Argentina route), a guy from Atlanta, Georgia in his late 20’s who had quit his tech job to spend some time traveling before moving cities (read: me?), and some British gals that had just graduated from “uni” and were doing traveling before starting Life. At the end of the trip, we all agreed to meet up at Café No Sé this evening, where a Dutch woman I met on my shuttle from Guatemala City to Antigua works. (Don’t worry ladies, she moved here for her boyfriend!) The “illegal mezcal” bar coupled with nightly live music makes this one of the more popular spots in town for those looking for a little nightlife.

I will be in Antigua, which is exceeding my expectations as a town of historic, quaint beauty and tourist-friendly vibes, until Sunday morning, at which point I will grab a ~3 hour shuttle to report for duty at San Pedro Spanish School up in Lake Atitlan. I’ll be checking back in here in a few days for those interested souls. Muchos besos!

Upper left: Volcan Pacaya and I, Upper Right: Roasting marsmallows over a fumarole blowing hot air from the volcano, Bottom: From Antigua, Volcan Fuego spewing ash

A Fun Trip Where I Will Learn El Español

Yesterday, I moved out of New York City, just short a few months shy of a five-year stint. Despite those 5 years, the 10′ U-Haul truck I rented was more than enough to handle my supplies (notable inventory: a queen bed, chest of drawers, a desk, and a bookshelf). I’ve never really considered myself a big “stuff buyer,” and cramped NYC living did very little to reverse this natural tendency of mine. The moving job was finished in less than three hours, with the help of my younger (but not littler) brother Wes and my new-ish roommate Yohan (who was already showing great potential to fill the great void of “surrogate little brother” that Colby Pines had left in my life just a few months prior).

After a relatively quick journey of 8 hours, I find myself back in my hometown of Richmond, VA, gearing up for my next adventure — 4-6 weeks of studying Spanish in Guatemala (literally: studyspanishinguatemala.com) followed by some traveling around that area of the world. My initial stop is Antigua (~3 days), then San Pedro La Laguna (https://goo.gl/maps/dM2V1kKdUPB2) for classes, then, well, you’ll have to stick around to find out!  Once back from this adventure, some uncertainty looms, but, several months removed from this uncertainty, I’m mostly excited to be embarking on a Fun Trip Where I Will Learn El Español.

As I go on this fun adventure, I will be firing up the ole’ blog for a few reasons:

  • To let people I know and love that “Yes, I am still alive” and “No, I have yet to buy a Guatemalan homestay to support my new Mayan wife and her three children from a previous marriage”
    • “…Or have I?”
  • To document my experiences so I can better remember who/what/when/where of my travels
    • This will be not just for my own reminiscing but, more practically, so I can give others headed to these spots specific references/contacts and a general sense of “the vibes”
  • Because it is fun talking to yourself on the Internet

I plan on keeping posts relatively short just so I can keep it up and so y’all don’t get bored. Hope y’all enjoy!

Picture: My phone informing me that I am quitting my job in NYC

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Trying out a Pithy Press Release (in Response to Charlottesville Attack)

President Andrews’ Reaction to the White Nationalist Demonstrations and Violence in Charlottesville on August 12th, 2017:

“We condemn the messages of hate that the Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, and Ku Klux Klan that gathered in Charlottesville stand for. The violence that these groups have both enacted and incited is awful and goes well beyond the freedom of speech that our nation holds dear and that our Constitution protects. We mourn the death of Heather Heyer and stand against the evil that caused this act of terrorism. However, as we take this stand, the way forward is not to fight hate with more hate, which regrettably some of the counter-protesters in Charlottesville fell victim to. Rather, it is to stand firm in the belief that this nation is stronger,  more vibrant, and richer when we open our hearts and minds to folks of different races, colors, religions, and viewpoints. When we do this, we are affirming a core founding principle of our nation — that all people are created equal and each are deserving of the freedom to pursue their own happiness.” – President Richard Andrews

The Solo Artist

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Whistlebinkies

A Story from Edinburgh, Scotland

Mums is well-lit, full of cheerful Scots, downing healthy portions of affordable comfort food. This is the spot I have chosen for my initial meal in Edinburgh, the location of my first foray into solo traveling. I hesitate at the door as I gaze into Mums. I notice there is no bar, only tables. As a party of one, this is not ideal. What is ideal is a scene I can recall countless times from TV shows and movies. A suited, dapper man strides confidently into a restaurant and saddles up to the bar for a drink and possibly some food. It is clear to the audience that there is mysterious and important business that awaits him on the other side of this solitary meal. The man leans into the bar and orders his Man drink of choice (a neat scotch, a “shaken not stirred” martini, or — bonus mystery points for this order— a tonic water with no ice). In most cases, before the man even gets a chance to look at the menu, an attractive, equally mysterious woman slides in beside him at the bar, lights a cigarette, and proceeds to engage the man in highly intelligent and flirtatious banter. This woman, defying all odds, is actually not a prostitute, and it soon becomes clear to the audience, has some very important business that awaits her on the other side of the inevitable lovemaking in which she and the man will take part after a few more minutes of witty banter.

“No, Mums will not do, Mums will not do at all,” I think as I take in the family-friendly scene from the street, where it is clear that each and every person is genuinely enjoying the food and having human conversations that actually happen in real life. “No, what we need is something…different. A place with a bar that I can just…saddle up to.” Images of the solo man traveller compel me onward, and I move away from Mums with a newfound confident yet mysterious hitch in my gait.

In less than a block, I find myself outside of Doctors, a Scottish pub that offers the ideal bar-side eating option. A quick flip through the TripAdvisor reviews for Doctors confirms that eight completely random people of unknown degrees of intelligence, taste, and class have given the spot at least 4 stars (which is dwarfed by the number of exclamation points contained in each review). The only negative review is the last one — from a man furious that Doctors had the guts to not only list a relatively high price on their menu for a cheeseburger but also charge this price after he had eaten the burger which confirmed that the price did not meet the quality. I am able to disregard this last review and let the effusiveness of the first eight propel me forward through the doors of Doctors.

Immediately, I am struck both by the high proportion of men and the lack of a stool at the bar. However, I do my best to convey the aura that important business awaits me in Edinburgh as I try to the avoid the envious eyes that — must be — inevitably gazing my way. I take a seat to the table beside the bar. An empty box of cigarettes has been carelessly left on my table of choice, offering a subtle warning in all caps on the front of the box: “Smoking kills.” I think of the sexy woman smoking a cigarette with the solo man and marvel at her rebellious spirit. I then divert my attention to the laminated menu in front of me on the table. A quick glance through it makes it clear to me that Doctors is no stand-alone pub; rather, the pictures of food and their corresponding descriptions are downright Applebee’s-esque. I overcome the brief wave of disappointment that flows through me and order the lamb stew and a local pint from the cheerful bartender — who is decidedly not the mysterious sexy woman. Instead, the banter comes from another direction.

“You order tha’ stew?” an older, sporadically toothed man says to me through a grin.

“I did. Looks alright. Why do you ask?” I respond.

“18 quid for a-stew ain’t roight! But, the beer here, s’alroight.” I nod my head in agreement, but balk at diving into a conversation that will divert my attention from the highly attractive, highly single, highly intelligent woman that is sure to stride through the pub’s doors any moment. I sip my beer and attempt to develop some interest in the local football teams duking it out on the television screens above the bar. “The green team of white British guys is certainly quicker than this blue team of white British guys. However, the blue team is absolutely doing a better job of controlling the ball, which is why they have a narrow 1-0 lead over the green team.” My imagined commentary behind the muted screens struggles to grab my attention, so I settle on people-watching through the rest of my meal of overpriced lamb stew and not so bad (“alroight”) beer. The crowd is a mostly local-looking bunch of beer and football-inclined males, not so different from sports bars in America. I notice one woman eating alone — the lamb stew (must be the meal of choice for solo’ers) — and consider approaching her. However, my hesitation costs me as she downs her last bite with a swig of beer and then heads for the exit. She, clearly, is not the mysterious woman I am destined for.

I consider my next move as Doctors is not panning out as hoped. I had read about a local Scottish folk bar, Sandy Bell’s, that offers traditional folk music across the street from Mums (the bar I had eliminated visiting earlier due to its overwhelmingly high emphasis on reality). I flip through TripAdvisor to read some reviews and am, once again, overwhelmed by effusiveness: “OMG, this place is ADORABLE and AMAZING and YOU HAVE TO GO THERE. I came with some of my girlfriends…”, “Nice spot for a toddy and a dram of the ole stuff!” “Make sure you go when Bobby Neil and the Highland Boys are playing. Your ears will be overcome with the heights of melodic bliss,” “They have some good whiskeys that can GET YOU DRUNK! U-S-A! U-S-A!” This mishmash of positive reviews convinces me that at least some people who were living at some point enjoyed Sandy Bell’s for some reasons that they have attempted to explain on a website (to various levels of success). This was enough to inform my next move: to Sandy Bell’s.

I arrive at Sandy Bell’s to a crowd at the door and have to push my way to the bar. This lively bar has a decidedly upbeat feel as dozens of conversations fill the air with a pleasant buzz. I don’t see any signs of music yet, but, after I order a Scotch (“neat” — in case anyone is holding a manliness contest that I have unwittingly entered and this is the first test and there are millions of dollars on the line), a woman with blue hair begins to chat with me. This woman is certainly mysterious (she has purple hair) and — within a few seconds I realize — she is certainly not a woman (he is a cross-dresser) and she/he is friendly. She/he soon informs me that there is live music in the very back of the bar but there are no speakers, so you need to head that way in order to get the full experience. Before making my moves to the back, he/she then raves about “Whistlebinkies,” a rock music bar not so far away. I thank him/her for the solid advice and move to the back of the bar.

The band at the back has just started playing when I roll up and the first thing I notice — besides the delightful Scottish folk music bursting forth from their various stringed instruments — is how old these guys are. I worry that the concoction of sonorous melodies bouncing off the walls in the back of the bar are the only thing keeping these ancient Scots alive and upright. However, my worries abate when they finish a song, and, defying all odds, do not topple over, but, rather, engage in pleasant conversation with one another and the surrounding listeners. After some time,  the music lulls me into a silent reverie that leads me to consider whether or not I may have just met the mysterious woman I am destined for — in the form of a purple-haired, cross-dressing man. This disturbing thought perks me out of my daydreams and leads me out of Sandy Bell’s and onto my next destination: Whistlebinkies, Edinburgh’s finest Scottish rock music bar.

On my way to “the Binkies” (I had already given this bar an abbreviation in my head in order to save time), I meet an extremely drunk Englishman, asking me where one could find Cowgate. I tell the man I am heading to “the Binkies” and that Cowgate is actually in the opposite direction (I am not exactly sure that it’s in the opposite direction, I am just hoping). The man thanks me but continues to walk alongside me, spewing forth excitement for the night ahead. “This place…this place…is mental! Le’s go to Cowgate, mate!…We’re goin’ to Cowgate, eh?…Le’s get some piiiinntsss in Cowgate, maaatttee!” At this point, I am not concerned, but do wonder what a woman in my position would do. Run? Kick the guy in sensitive regions? Call the Bobbies? Fortunately, I am not a woman and can listen with amusement to my newfound “mate” carry on about how great Cowgate will be as we make a beeline for Whistlebinkies (which I confirm is most certainly not in Cowgate after a quick check of Google maps). However, before we reach the door of our destination, the Englishman abruptly stops and offers his hand out to shake mine,”It’s been….been…a great time! Great meeting you! Chee-yas!” A bit disappointed, I amble on — solo again — to the “Binkies.”

Within moments of entering Whistlebinkies, I realize, I have found my spot. The band onstage is absolutely shredding some Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the dance floor is packed. After taking a brief tour of this spacious, basement venue, I saddle up to the bar where all my notions about exotic foreign solo travel melt away when I spot the Brooklyn Lager — and realize that this is exactly what I want. A few minutes later and I am making my way over to the dance floor, fresh Brooklyn Lager in hand. The band then rolls into a near perfect cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” transporting me to the shores of America where my mysterious solo persona completely evaporates and my true self is revealed — a classic rock junkie who wants nothing more than some space on the dance floor in order to allow the modest buzz of American-brewed lagers to propel my dancing to stratospheric new heights. And suddenly, I am no longer alone but filled with the warmth of familiar music and long-perfected dance moves. The solo artist has had his day, but now, succumbing to the pull of the joyful chorus surrounding him, joins in.