Saturday, June 20, 2009

Riding Down Volcano Agua

David is an English bloke who runs CAT Tours here in Antigua. I kept running into him and finally decided to try a tour, on one of his bikes. We took the bikes up to about 8100 ft, about 2/3 up the volcano.
This is my freshman attempt at video production :)
volcano agua
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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Antigua Crack Party

I have met some amazing people while being here in Antigua, the town attracts a unique breed for sure. It's a small town so it doesn't take long before you start running into the same faces, and hearing the same names. It has a nice hometown feel in an amazing setting that makes it quite desirable - and hard to leave.

For some odd reason, there is not a chiropractor in the area - nada. So, when word got out about want I did, I started getting "requests", and started making house calls. Always finding a massage therapist's table, or hotel floor - whatever worked. Finally, I ask my friend Kristen if she would round up a group that would like a treatment, and find a donated space that we could use, and I would trade adjustments for pizza and beer, making a party out it.

It was a lot of fun. Luckily for me, Tuesday night was two-for-one entree' and two for one martini night at Bistrot 5, the best French restaurant in town. So, I got upgraded!


Joking aside, there is a great opportunity here for a quality chiropractor. Apply here.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Good, Bad, and the Ugly.

Thursday 6-11-09

In general, driving through larger cities really stresses me out.

Today was the day to take the taxi back up to Guatemala City to pick up the bike. I was having a new rear tire put on and some general maintenance done. The city is the largest in Central America, and just the thought of riding the bike around there really jacks up my blood pressure. The week prior, I had hired a taxi driver that was a friend of my neighbor's to take me to the BMW dealership in the city, I followed on the bike, and I rode back with him to Antigua. On the initial trip, we left early on a Saturday to avoid some of the week-time traffic, but it was still a mess. Today was worse. Six lanes of chaos with motorcycles and ambulances splitting the already crowded lanes -while chicken buses coughed out black smoke nudging their way where ever they pleased. It's a "time suck" if you get lost in one of these cities - and a vulnerable feeling that I am not too keen on, like getting lost in the wicked forest without any breadcrumbs.

Just to goad me a bit more, yesterday a new law went into effect, where all motorcyclists must wear a vest with their license plate number displayed across the back, and a sticker with the same on the back of their helmets (a similar law has been in effected in Colombia for several years now - for the similar reasons). The reason is due the the high crime rate in the city, specifically the assassinations of local bus drivers. The diseased minds of the netherworld's finest began blackmailing the "wealthy" bus company owners of Guatemala City by simply killing a bus driver and then demanding money to stop killing more. Bus companies started putting armed guards on the buses, but the assassins adapted and started riding two-up on motorcycles -riding up to the side of the bus allowing the rear passenger of the bike to pull out his gun and blammo! With dark shields on their helmets and license plates removed, the bikers just disappear in the ever present chaos. This disturbing fact, and the presence of armed guards everywhere, does not exactly say "Welcome" to me.

(THAT SAID, Guatemala is an absolutely wonderful place to visit. It is an easy place to fly into (just be sure to immediately jump onto a shuttle to Antigua from the airport), and has so much to offer in such close proximity. You could hike to the top of an active volcano at breakfast and be at Lake Atitlan for a late lunch - one of the most beautiful places I have ever experienced! This weekend, I will fly to Flores to see the ruins at Tikal, the "Manhattan" of the Mayan empire. There is sooo much to do and see here, and the people make it even enjoyable. Yes, there is more risk than going to Orlando.)

After picking up the bike, I was soon out of the city, and enjoying the 30-minute ride of twisty tree-lined roads, cooling off as I gained some elevation - ah, out of the netherworld. Blood pressure back to normal. As much as I hate to leave Anitgua, and I really do hate to leave, being on the bike again reminds me of how much I miss being on the road, and how much fun it is.

Upon arriving in Antigua, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was market day with ingenious food vendors lining the street along the square. Mmm, it was lunch time and time for me to "go Bourdain* in the streets!" "If you don't eat the street feed, then get back on the bus!", thats why you bring plenty of Cipro (antibiotic) with you when you come. I enjoyed a "tamale" roasted over hot coals - like a dense piece of cornbread with a delicious meat filling and a dish of sliced marinated flank steak (I think) with homemade tortillas and guacamole (avocado trees are ubiquitous here), and roasted corn on the cob with chili and fresh lime. I sat on a bench in the shade and watched Volcano Agua puff smoke (rather than chicken buses), and thought less about assassins, and more about a nap.

*My two favorite celebrity travelers are Anthony Bourdain (Travel Channel) and Michael Palin (BBC, and of Monty Python fame). I really appreciate how, and why, they travel.

Project Guatemala

I can't say that everything on this trip has "fallen into my lap", but I have been fortunate to say the least. Arriving in Antigua, I was both excited and anxious. I was excited to be here after hearing so many people rave about it - "how could it possibly live up to the hype?" And, I was anxious because while I was here, I was to find a worthy project for our non-profit's first venture.

Write Around the World's mission is to support schools in areas of extreme poverty, by supplying basic school supplies to those without. I desperately wanted to find the right project, in order to make a meaningful impact, but also ensure a healthy "launch" of WATW. I have some dear friends who have put a lot of time and energy into this, and it was up to me to find a project worthy of their efforts. How was I going to do this?

Rolling into town on May 11th, I did my usual hotel search, or rather a search for a secure parking area with a hotel attached. I only needed something for a couple nights, so that I could look for an apartment to rent for the month. Erin was coming for a 10-day visit, and I was going to enroll in Spanish classes after she left. I found a walled courtyard with a hotel for $17 a night.

The next morning, I woke with one purpose: to find the coffee shop that I had walked by the night before (they roasted their beans) while getting the lay of the land. Found it. While waiting for my "cafe negro con leche aparte" I picked up the magazine on display, the kind that every coffee shop in a tourist town has and always includes a useful map of the town. Now drinking my cafe negro, I came across a short story about an ex-pat that was living here in Antigua and that was busy opening preschools in the Guatemala's rural villages. Reading more, I learned that up to 30% of Guatemalan kids dropout of the first grade, or never even attend, giving the country the highest illiteracy rate in Central America! A title that can't be too easy to achieve, nor desired. The project, Pequenos Esto Listo (we are small but ready) was preparing kids, and parents for the first grade. He had ten schools successfully operating with the goal of doubling over the next ten months. But he needed help. Within 20-minutes I was at an internet cafe to see if we could meet.

Knowing that whatever project we were to get involved with had to have a key figure that was reliable and trustworthy. We would be relying on this person fully, investing in him as much or more than the project itself. Several meetings later, and a couple school site visits, concluded that Fred Zambroski was our guy. We had found our first project.

I have learned a lot since meeting Fred, and visiting the schools. Preparing for first grade doesn't simply mean learning how to count or saying your A,B,C's (eventually it does), but many of these kids have never seen a pencil, let alone hold one. I often heard how when some of the 4-year olds first arrive to school that they don't even know how to play! Put in front of a pile of blocks, they don't always know what to do with them. There are cultural issues at play too. A sad statistic is that very few people here associate reading with pleasure, but instead, always with more work or legal matters - which they are rarely on the winning side of. "Why learn to read if it only brings you more trouble?" Therefore, a big part of Pequenos Pero Listos is training teachers how to read with enthusiasm and with interactive practices, engaging kids in the process.

I can't tell you how excited I am to get this project underway. We have committed to help Fred with his upcoming 12 school expansion. We will supply all the materials needed to open the schools, and then send a box every four months to replenish many of the consumables. We will provide funds to purchase larger, or easily obtained items locally. The local villages must take ownership of the program by providing the facility for the school. Many of the parents or local craftsmen make the shelving, desks, easels, etc.... With our help, Fred can focus on training his teachers, finding sponsors for the schools ($3,300 a year), and working with village elders to get the schools open. Please read more at Lets Be Ready.

How are we going to supply all these materials and ship them down here, when at this writing, we have $325 in the bank? We are going to have fun with it, that's how! On our site, Write Around the World, we have outlined how people can collect items from our Wish List by having a house party or backyard barbeque. Business owners can have office drives where employees, clients or patients bring in needed items - from the store, or from cleaning out their closets. (This can be a great way to reach out and reactivate some of your old clientele.) We will also be importing indigenous handicrafts to be sold at house parties, farmer's markets, and through our own Ebay store (coming soon). If you would like more information, or would like to help please contact me, or one of our board members.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Road to Palenque

After four days in San Cristobal de las Casas it was time to get back on the road. I was enjoying my time in the "troubled son" state of Chiapis, the poorest in Mexico. Up until now (with a brief stint into central Mexico) I had been hugging the Pacific coastline from (almost) Canada to the end of North America. The change in scenery and climate was welcomed.

The further south I went the drier the air seemed to get - even though I was right next to the ocean. I had started lining my nasal passages with a saline gel product to keep the inside of nose from drying out, and stopping about twice a day to rinse my eyes out with bottled water. In addition to the dry air (at 80 mph), people often had controlled brush fires along the sides of the road, or my favorite - a roadside trash dump set ablaze. After driving through a few of these toxic smoke gauntlets, my eyes would be on "fire" and need a rinse. In contrast to all of this, the air in and around San Cristobal was sweet and rich. No doubt, due to all the lush flora pumping more oxygen into the atmosphere than any Vegas casino could ever wish. Even at an altitude of just under 7,000 ft, the air was sweet and nourishing to the lungs.

There was so much to like about San Cristobal; the wide clean streets, the amazing afternoon light, the Chamala indians. The Chamala people would come into the town everyday to sell their crafts. They were absolutely beautiful, stunning actually, the women always in their long black skirts and dark embroidered tops. I was intrigued. Looking at the map and asking a few questions, I had decided to take a smaller, less traveled, road north on my way to the the ruins in Palenque, traveling through some of the Chamala villages, rather than the two lane "highway". Taking the main road would get me to where I wanted to go in about three easy hours.

Leaving at about 8:00 in the morning, I had a taxi take me to the start of "this road". There were no signs or designated numbers for it on any of the maps - I just asked for the road to Tenejapa (Tenny-hapa). The cabbie stopped at the edge of town, pointed further up the road, and announced, "Tenejapa". When I told him I was going to Palenque, he offered what sounded like a pretty strong opinion about my choice. What I could understand was something about "loco" and "ocho horas". Now, I knew that at one point about 2/3's into the trip that I would have to jog over to the main road for the remaining 1/3, and there was the presence of a road on the map to do so. This must be what he was talking about, right?

The road was beautiful, I was getting deeper and deeper into the green hills. Then mountains. I was enjoying myself thoroughly. Putting along at 30-mph taking it all in; women walking along the road with bundles balanced atop their heads, little girls walking behind like miniature versions in their matching outfits. Men collecting firewood on their backs or on donkeys. I turned heads as I rode through makeshift markets. Waves were always returned. I came across a bizarre cemetery where the prominent grave mounds all had large wooden planks balanced on top, sometimes actual doors - even I could grasp the symbolism. The presence of the dirt mounds made all the graves look fresh, like something horrible had just passed through here, and the tall spindly crosses mixed within the grove of spindly trees made the whole place feel a bit ominous - which for a cemetery I can respect.

There were no road signs of any kind, anywhere, so every once in awhile I would stop and ask,
"Tenejapa?" to people walking along the street (where are they going? where did they come from?) and point up the road, to get some sort of conformation that I was going in the right direction. Then the asphalt stopped. I welcomed the idea of a dirt road and kept going. The road worsened. There was sudden increase in the number of "Y's" in the road, which meant asking every person I came across, "Tenejapa?", but at the same time was seeing less-and-less people. I started thinking, "either I am choosing correctly every time, or these people are very agreeable". Are these people were just telling me what I want to hear?

At the next Y in the road, I picked left - it look more traveled. A few minutes into it, the road started up, way up. There were a lot of ruts and potholes in the road but I managed to creep up in first gear. As I got to the top, to what I thought was a switchback to the right, was actually a dead-end. If that little surprise wasn't enough, I was shocked to see about ten kids at the road's end digging and picking into the side of the mountain. In the absolute middle of nowhere! Apparently, this road was built to access this "quarry", for, I what am guessing, was sand for cement.

I was surprised, but not as surprised as these kids were when they saw this beast of a bike with an astronaut looking fellow atop driving up right behind them. I circled around, waved and started back down the mountain. Now, my bike has enough power and torque to climb up the side of an office building, but when all that weight is transferred to the front wheel while going downhill on a dirt road things get a little dicey. I turned off the ABS brakes and feathered both front and rear brakes making sure not to lock up either tire, which would start an uncontrollable skid. I was going as slow as possible, trying to navigate around the larger ruts when the inevitable happened. The front tire lost it's hold on the gravel and washed out from under me, and when she goes, she goes fast and hard. Damnit!

I picked myself up, hit the engine kill switch, and turned around to look up the mountain. About 100 yards up, at the crest of the road stood 10 kids standing and watching silently. I quickly thrust both fists high above my head in "celebratory defeat". There was an instant burst of laughter and shouts from my audience of 10, as their arms also pumped high into the air. I laughed, and waved for them to come done. Waved again, and they all rushed down towards me. I was happy to find out that a couple of the "kids" were actually small-statured men. They helped me pick up the bike and hold it while I got back on. We all did it again about another 50' down the hill.

I don't want to pat myself on the back too much, but I am guessing I gave those kids (and men) something to talk about at the dinner table later that night(?)

Enough was enough, I backtracked from which I came to a place in the road where I could cut over to the main road. I rolled into Palenque almost exactly eight hours after I left the taxi driver. The next day I enjoyed the ruins... almost as much as I enjoyed getting there.

(Palenque is one the three most significant Mayan city sites. The other two being Tikal (Guatemala) and Copan in (Honduras))