A Travellerspoint blog

September 2009

An Inauspicious Beginning

A tragedy occurred during the evening of our third day. A U.S. woman in her mid-20's, who was staying near us with her boyfriend from New Zealand, suffered a fatal asthma attack. Susan had been out drinking and apparently died before anyone could get her to a hospital. Her boyfriend, Colin, was not with her, and didn't find out until several hours later. We had only just met and talked with her briefly the day before.

The next morning, the "duena" of our house spoke to Nanette(whose Spanish was better than mine), to ask if she could talk to Colin, and do some translating, as decisions would have to be made about the body almost immediately. Colin was distraught and completely shocked, as his friend's asthma had never been particularly severe. He too, had only gotten the story second hand, and so the details were vague. We both talked to him at some length, and then Nanette spent time on the phone with the Guatemalan authorities. Eventually, the American embassy got involved, but the whole situation was complicated by the fact that it was difficult to find Susan's parents or anyone else from her family. Eventually, her body was shipped back to the states and Colin followed shortly thereafter so that he could attend the funeral. The experience was, needless to say, deeply distressing, and almost surreal. We never imagined we would use our therapy/ crisis management skills as soon as we left home.

Another unfortunate event, though of a very different magnitude and not at all tragic, occurred a few days later.
We went on a short excursion with a our school to a park, about 20 minutes outside of town. To get there, we had to take the chicken bus going to Guatemala City, and as is often the case, the bus was packed with people standing in the aisles and often pushing three or four into a seat meant for two. On the way back, when it was less crowded, there was a somewhat elderly( late 60's), Indian woman, who was sitting next to me. The strange thing was she kept bumping into me, even though there wasn't anyone else in the seat. She was a bit fat and smiled as she said a few things in Spanish, so I didn't really think anything of it. Two hours later, while working out at the gym we had joined for the month, I noticed that my pants had a tear on the outside pocket. I soon discovered that my debit card was missing, and it was only then that I realized it must have been her. She had actually sliced my pants with a razor blade or small knife, while bumping up against me to feel for the card and make the cuts. As unlikely as this seemed at first, I had gone straight to the gym after the park, and there really hadn't been anywhere else where it could have happened. I wasn't that alarmed, because I figured that without the password the card would be of no use. Wrong. By the time I got back to the house to call my bank, $700 had already been charged. Eventually, the credit card company made good on the money, and other than the hassle of spending several hours on the phone trying to straighten things out, no real harm was done. On one hand, this was clearly a professional job, and in a way, I had to respect her skill at slicing my pants without cutting my leg, all in a bouncing bus. At the same time, it alerted us as to how easy it was to be ripped off, and put us on guard for the future.

Safety is an issue in Guatemala, as it is in many Central and South American countries. In parts of Antigua, there were men with machine guns guarding bodegas and hotels. Usually the issue is money, however caution is needed, especially in the larger cities. Stories abound about people being held up at gunpoint and even raped or killed, though pickpocketing and simple thievery are more common. We were of course, instantly identifiable as gringos, and as such, obvious targets for "banditos and ladrones." This is somewhat understandable when you consider that maybe 20 families control 95% of the wealth of the country. However even our teachers were fearful of taking the bus to Guatemala City. One of them had been given a scholarship to go to the university in "Guate,"
but after being threatened at gunpoint on a city bus, she stopped going to school. This should not be a reason to avoid going, but certain places are probably best avoided, and any kind of wealth should not be displayed in an obvious fashion, ie, jewelry.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:28 Archived in Guatemala Tagged events Comments (1)

Arrival in Guatemala

Finally, at long last, we did actually leave and flew to Guatemala City without a problem. We had made a hotel reservation in Antigua, our only advance reservation, aside from the Spanish School in Xela, and we went directly there from the airport. Guate City is big, dirty, dangerous, and best avoided if possible. Antigua, only 45 minutes away, is the opposite. It is relatively clean, safe and charming, though arguably the most touristy spot in Guatemala. We spent the first couple of days walking around and getting used to speaking Spanish again. Our initial plan was to spend just a few a few days here, and then to go on to Xela, several hours north, to study Spanish for a month. However at the end of the week, the road to Xela remained closed because of "derrumbes" (mudslides), and so we decided to stay in Antigua and study here instead. Both Xela and Antigua are full of high quality, well organized schools, as well as private teachers. The difference is that Xela, or Quezaltenango, is bigger and much less touristy, so you more or less have to speak Spanish. It is also colder, at 7500 feet, (2300m), compared to Antigua at 5000. The days in both cities are usually warm, but the nights in Xela can be quite chilly, especially in winter. There are many guide books that describe both cities in detail so I won't do so here. Suffice it say, that Antigua is the old Spanish capital, full of authentic colonial buildings, some in disrepair, some renovated.

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It is small, about 50,000, and surrounded by lush, green, 14,000 feet (4200m) volcanoes, some of which are still active. It also has a lively night life with many bars and restaurants. Not surprisingly, it is also one of the most expensive places in Guatemala, though still cheap by US or Euro standards.

We began by apartment hunting and school shopping. Many of the schools have websites and are listed in the Lonely Planet. Often the schools will let you sit in on some classes for free, but the most important thing is your particular teacher, so make sure you have a lesson with her (and it usually is a her), before making up your mind. Schools are often a good source of information about rooms and apartments, although most also offer the opportunity to stay with a family. This is a good, cheap option, but usually the accomodations are very basic, and some families are much more simpatico than others. The cost for individual instruction is anywhere from $80 to $120 US for 4-5 hours daily. The instruction in our school, Ixchel, was excellent, but there were few extracurricular activities, the administrative staff not particularly welcoming, and they did not treat their teachers particularly well. Nevertheless after a month we learned a great deal and met several interesting people. Most, though not all, were younger Europeans and Australians, long term travelers like us. Traveling is a great age leveler, and one of the pleasures was being able to spend time with folks much younger than ourselves, who treated us like peers despite the fact that we went to sleep much earlier than they did.

Rather than renting a completely separate apartment, we ended up in a large room in a colonial house, with a shared kitchen($350 a month). What sold us was the large, 2nd story inner courtyard, a fantastic place to sit and hang, with views of the buildings and volcanoes around town. Also a regular apartment would have been more money, anywhere from $400-700.

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Our typical day consisted of getting up around 7, making a quick breakfast in the communal kitchen, and then attending classes from 8-12 or 1. We would then walk back in a leisurely way, perhaps stopping off at Dona Luisa's bakery to buy banana bread. We might also go to the large, open air market to pick up fruit and vegetables for lunch or dinner. We ate a lot of "pinas" (pineapples) @2 for 5 quetzals, or about 30 cents a piece. The market was a great place to practice our Spanish, not to mention our bargaining skills. We could often wile away several hours going from one stall to another, buying string beans, tomatoes, potatoes, or whatever happened to be in season. We usually passed on the non-refrigerated meat, buzzing with flies. Most of the stalls were run by indigenous women, clothes as colorful as the veggies they sold. Near the market there were also several inexpensive restaurants, often with a Menu del Dia, always a bargain. The trick was to find places clean enough so that we didn't get sick from the food, and so we got several names from our teachers. For all its tourists, the market is an authentic place, as are other parts of the city.

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After lunch we would rest for a while, do some homework, and sit on the courtyard talking with other students or travelers.

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Perhaps we would go for another walk around town and check the internet, have a beer, etc. As restaurants could be expensive, most of the time we cooked dinner, and brought it up to the courtyard to watch the sun set over the volcanoes.

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There were 10 or 15 other people staying at the house, but most did not use the kitchen at the same time. Two young German girls were especially engaging. They were volunteering at Camino Seguro. This project, started by a woman from Maine, was set up to help kids and families who lived off the largest garbage dump in Guatemala City. There was a school which provided meals for kids and families right near the dump, and for older kids there was training for work in the tourist trade. The German girls(18 and 19), were spending 6 weeks there. They stayed in Antigua because it was just too dangerous to stay near the dump, and so each day, they had to take the chicken bus an hour each way. I found them to be remarkably self-reliant and mature, much more so than most US kids who had just graduated high school. We often ate dinner together and discussed their work at the project and their own families. They were only the first of the many young, European women we met, traveling on their own, often solo, sometimes to very dicey places.

At one point we considered volunteering at Camino Seguro, but the prospect of riding on the crowded bus two hours a day was enough to dissuade us. We also considered volunteering to help the flood victims. Antigua was in relatively good shape, but many of the nearby villages had been inundated by mud and water. We talked to several other people who had spent time digging out homes, but the work seemed so physically demanding that we didn't know how we could manage it and study Spanish at the same time.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:00 Archived in Guatemala Tagged educational Comments (2)

Preparation and Leaving for Latin America

This blog began in the form of group emails at the start of our travels, 3 years ago. Reworked and added to, it describes the adventures of a couple of middle-aged psychotherapists, who gave up their careers to become "jubilados," retired. Although both of us had traveled before, we had never left home for such an extended period of time (8 months), and it was for us, especially the first time, a big deal.

First came preparation. In some ways the hardest part of our journey came before we left home. In addition to the decision to undertake the trip(s), which was several years in the making, and involved considerable psychological teeth gnashing, (what else would expect from a couple of therapists), there were the demands of closing our practices, renting and moving out of our house, simplifying our finances, and arranging to do our bill paying on line. We moved out of our house in September, a month or so before we left for Guatemala, and saw our last patients about one week before getting on the plane. Obviously, bad planning. I don't think we fully took into consideration just how stressful and time consuming the process would be. While this would probably be true for anyone in our positions, with family, kids, career, etc., it was compounded because we couldn't just tell our bosses that we were leaving, but had to tell our patients, who were not always pleased to receive this news.

Many of the mundane details of getting ready to leave took far more time than I had assumed. For example paying our bills on line. All of the banks and credit card companies tell you how easy this is to set up, but for technophobes, this ain't necessarily so. Not only that, it wasn't all my fault. I had to mail in a check and a form in order to have my credit card deducted directly from my checking account. I did this several months prior to our departure. After I got confirmation from Chase, I went online to see if my credit card bill had been taken out of my account. Sure enough, the website indicated the bill had been paid, but strangely the money had not been deducted. When I called Chase, they said not to worry, there was always a delay of several days. About a week later, I checked again. Still no deduction, so I called back. "Oh yes," they said, the bill has definitely been paid and the money withdrawn. I went in to see the manager of my bank. After an hour or more on the computer and time on the phone, he concluded that the money must have been withdrawn from a different account by mistake. Several forms later, I was notified that someone had entered an incorrect account number, and the money had indeed been taken out of the wrong account. "Take the money and run," you say. I should have, especially, when Chase had the nerve to charge me interest because of a "late payment."

Shutting off my electric bill turned out to be more difficult than I imagined, as did the home phone number, garbage pick up etc. Nothing was simple and easy. Often I had to give an in depth explanation as to why I wanted to shut off service, a justification really. I thought about how hard it would be to start things up, when we returned, but quickly realized that this would not be a problem. Companies only hassle you if they're losing business.

The psychological teeth gnashing involved dealing with the anxiety of leaving our careers; who were we anyway other than therapists? Did we have enough money? Health insurance? How would our kids do without us? Our youngest was 22 and had just graduated college, while our oldest daughter, 26, was working. My wife was worried about her 84 year old mother who lived independently, despite a bad hip. Both my parents were dead so I didn't have that concern. What would we do with our two cats? What would happen to our 200 year old house over the winter. How would our friends feel? Would they still be our friends when we returned? How would it be to spend all our time together and never have a separate room to go to after a fight, or to sleep in because the other was snoring. I even had some concerns as to how I would stay in touch with my broker since it was apparently unacceptable to use email because of security concerns.

You get the idea. Two over-controlled analytic types, we over processed and dissected the decision ad nauseam.

Some of our friends said we were crazy. Others only thought so, but didn't say it. A few were admiring, others jealous. Our children were outwardly supportive. They had gone on some of their own adventures, some with us, and others, on their own. However, when the oldest asked us who she should list as an emergency contact, that gave us pause. It's one thing when your children leave home, but it's very different when your parents do.

We spent a good part of the proceeding summer painting and redoing the bathrooms because we thought it would make the house easier to rent. However, because we wanted to be back in Albany by the following summer, this meant we could only give a 9 month lease. We also wanted to leave all of our furniture, pots and pans, etc. As it was, we spent a lot of time getting rid of stuff accumulated over the last 19 years, and then moving our clothes and a few of our possessions into a back bedroom. Just when it seemed as though we might have to give up, along came the perfect family, other professionals with 2 young children, who had recently returned from abroad with no furniture and few possessions. For them, our stuff was an asset.

The night before our plane left, our friends threw a small going away party. We were finally relaxing a bit after all the last minute details and the packing(very selectively), had been completed. The phone rang, and it was the director of our Spanish school in Xela. "Don't come now. There's been a serious "tormenta" (storm), the remains of Hurricane Stan, and there's serious flooding here, and in the rest of the country." After several more frantic calls to our friend, Alphonso, who is Guatemalan, and about to leave for Xela himself, we decided to try and postpone our trip for a few days. We contacted the airline who said flights were landing in Guatemala City, but finally agreed to give us another flight a few days later. So our last night stretched into 3.

Posted by jonshapiro 11:08 Tagged preparation Comments (0)

Why Travel?

Having spent more than half of the last 3 years on extended to trips to Latin America and to Asia, I begin by asking this question.

In some ways the answer is not so different than the mountain climber who says he/she climbs "because it is there." In part then, my answer is that I travel because there is a world out there, far greater then my own, and I want to experience it first hand. Why not just read about it? Why give up the comforts of your own home and travel to out of the way places and put yourself out there? Why take those risks? Isn't that the point; to go beyond your comfort zone so that you can have a fuller understanding of yourself, and how you cope with experiences and cultures that are alien to you. How can you really understand your own culture without getting outside of it? How can you understand yourself?

So I travel to gain this understanding. An understanding that can only come from deliberate dislocation. This dis-location creates the space for me to see what I could otherwise only intuit; what it is like to be a foreigner, to be "the other." Of course, many people experience this as immigrants or refugees, often under duress. My experience will never be that, and yet it gives me some insight into their lives, not so different than my own ancestors. It is so easy to forget. I see the children of my foreign English students, already so American in the few short years they have been here, and so different than their parents, who will always remain foreigners. Perhaps if I was not two generations removed from that experience, I would not be so eager to seek it out. And yet, unlike my forebears and my literacy students, I can and do return home. I climb down from the rarefied air of the high mountains of travel, and return to the everyday, the mundane, the easy ways of the familiar. I bore my friends with stories and pictures of where I have been. I resume the everyday chores of cooking and cleaning, and the not so everyday projects of filling in a large area of erosion, and building a retaining wall so that the stream on my property does not swallow up more trees along its steep banks. I hurry to take care of other neglected areas, both inside and out, in order to maintain my old house before the winter sets in, and before I set out on my next journey.

I consider the ways in which my extended trips have changed me. I find that with the richness of my experiences of the past few years, the real question is not "why travel," but rather, why stay home? And home doesn't feel quite the same. Despite living here in upstate New York for more than 35 years, I find myself less attached. Perhaps it is partly cutting way back on my work life, but perhaps some of the bonds have been loosened by being a vagabond. The paradox is that I'm somehow more connected to any number of places, but less so to my home.

A question that I am often asked is, that after being away from home for so long, aren't I really glad to be back? "Well," I hesitantly answer, "in some ways, but not in others." "Aren't you glad to see your children, your family, your friends?" "Of course, but...." It's hard to explain to someone who has not had the experience of long term independent travel. Many of my friends have traveled, but not in the same way. The people who do understand are out there, working or wandering, and perhaps creating new homes in far off places. In some respects I feel more of an affinity for that community than to my own. Those folks understand the ambivalence of ending a journey and yearning to plan the next one. No need to explain. Perhaps some of them choose to become permanent expats, or else wanderers living on a shoestring, avoiding all but temporary attachments. Are they just running away? Some of them, but aren't all attachments temporary?

And my own attachments? My wife, Nanette, came with me when I traveled and my children visited me abroad. My extended family has never been that close. My close friends are still there, but the peripheral relationships seem less important. Yet I have made some new and important relationships, with the Burmese monks who are my English students for example, and with the local Burmese refugee community, which I never knew existed before now. My attachment to things, to stuff, was never that great, but it is even less now. Living out of a backpack and wearing the same clothes for months on end makes it easier to realize how little I really need. Ok, so I do have 4 pairs of skis in my garage. My house? Yes, I'm attached to it. It's been here a long time, 200 years or so, and I want to see it loved and cared for. Yet in some ways its become an albatross preventing me from getting away and taking up my time. My cat . She holds a grudge if you go to move her, and has been known to counter-attack hours later. She's mellowed some after I accidentally ran over my other cat Spenser, who was my favorite animal, always affectionate. I try to assuage my guilt by telling myself that he was old, and wouldn't have been around that much longer. Neither will I of course, so I can't wait too long before setting off again. A temporary, fleeting stage of my life? No question, but one that I feel blessed to have, thankful for what I have seen and done, and looking forward to the next great adventure.

Posted by jonshapiro 11:59 Tagged living_abroad Comments (3)

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