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The Tormenta and The C.I.A.


The next day, Nanette and I took the bus to San Pedro Sula, a big, bustling, not particularly attractive city, near, but not on the Caribbean. This was a 3 or 4 hour trip. We had a two hour layover in the hot, dirty bus station, and then continued on for another 4 hours to La Ceiba. Our destination was a small garifuna village, Sambo Creek, about 12 miles further down the coast. We had been given the name of a hotel there, The Canadienne, from a young woman in Antigua, who had spent a year working in nearby Trujillo. She said it was a great place to spend some time hanging out on the beach, just what we needed after a hard month of studying. From there, we figured we would try and make it to Utilla. We arrived at the busy market and bus station, tired and hot after the long ride, and decided to spring for a taxi (about $7US), to take us the rest of the way.

The Canadienne did not turn out to be quite what we expected. It looked like a smaller version of a Miami Beach hotel. Although right on the beach, none of the rooms actually faced the water. The room was spotless, but antiseptic, and we seemed to be the only people there. Clearly the hotel was not always lacking business, as they were building what appeared to be an exact duplicate, right across from our room. Unfortunately, the beach itself, was nothing to rave about. It was, for the most part undeveloped, but narrow, with little vegetation, and course sand.

To get to the village, I had to walk another 200 yards along the beach, and then wade across a channel, thigh deep. By now it was starting to be dusk. Sambo Creek was obviously very poor, almost entirely black, with a few beaten up fishing boats on the beach, and a couple of shacks that served food. The men and teenage boys that I passed did not seem especially friendly. I walked up to another restaurant that I had been told about, relatively more upscale compared to the others, but if I wanted to get back to the hotel before dark, it would have to wait for another night. Tonight we would have to eat in the hotel. By the time I got back, the beach side gate was locked, and I had to walk down another 50 yards to nearby house and climb the fence, in order to get around to the front side of our hotel. It seemed a little over the top with security, considering that there wasn't that much around, but perhaps they were afraid of the poor villagers breaking into the place.

We had the hotel terrace dining room all to ourselves, and unlike the rooms, it did look directly out over the sea. We spoke to the middle aged French Canadian owners, and after a short time it became clear that they were evangelistas of some kind, highly religious, and somewhat rigid, whose primary business came from religious tour groups. So that explained the weird vibe we had picked up. We probably should have asked more questions before coming, especially since the young woman who recommended the place had worked in a church related volunteer job in Trujillo. Oh well. Dinner on the terrace was nice enough, but then, when we were sitting around relaxing with a beer, we heard the owners listening to the radio, and then directing one of their employees to take down the tables and chairs. We asked why. “Another storm coming. Tropical storm, possibly a hurricane. Not sure how bad. You'll be safe here of course. This place is made of reinforced concrete and we've weathered several other storms without any significant damage. Plenty of food and water too, so you'll be fine.” Great, just what we wanted to hear. The thought of being marooned here, with two religious zealots, for several days was not particularly appealing. Although still exhausted from the long bus trip, we decided to leave in the morning, and try to make it back further up the coast before the main part of the storm set in. It was now the middle part of November, and although still the rainy season, we figured we'd be safe from tormentas. Not this year though. They were already going back around the alphabet for the second time with named storms, and this was a record. No wonder we were the only people here. The rest had the good sense to stay away.

The next morning was overcast, but calm, as we waded across the channel with our backpacks to find a taxi to take us back to La Ceiba. Nanette waited on the beach, while I found the taxi stand and negotiated the price. By the time we caught the bus a couple of hours later, it had already started to rain. It was mid-afternoon before we arrived in Tela, a beach side town of perhaps 25,000, two hours from San Pedro. We decided to spend the night there, because it was still possible to make it to Utilla if the weather cleared, and San Pedro was not especially appealing. The bus dropped us in the center, which was small, but bustling with traffic and people.


It was hard to find the hotel we had looked up in the guidebook, but after a while, someone was nice enough to give us a lift in his pickup. Unfortunately, when we got there it was noisy, and not particularly cheap. For the next hour or two, we took turns trying to find another hotel, while it was raining. One of us waited under an awning with the backpacks, trying to stay dry, while the other checked out places. Finally, Nanette came back saying she had found a room at the Hotel Tela, on the main drag, but a room in the back that was relatively quiet. It was an old wooden place that had obviously seen better days, but it was relatively clean, and quiet, and the staff seemed friendly enough.

Our Hotel in Front of Coke Sign

We changed out of our wet clothes and then donned rain jackets for a walk around the town. It was not especially appealing. Tela seemed to have some pretensions of trying to be a beach resort, but didn't quite make it. It gave the impression of going up and down the economic scale simultaneously.


There were a few newer upscale hotels that were in good shape, while others had fallen into disrepair. Many looked seedy with large patches of mold both inside and out, and a several had suffered from some kind of storm damage in the past. The houses were basic cinder block, and looked ramshackle, though the main streets were busy, and the stores full of people. Maybe it was the coming storm, or the various warnings in the Lonely Planet not to venture to beaches far away from the center of town, but the place had a vague air of menace about it. We stopped at an internet cafe to check out the weather. Sure enough, a very large and slow moving tropical storm Gamma, was headed directly our way. It didn't look like it would have time to develop into a hurricane before hitting the coast, but flooding could be an issue. It was starting to look like we might be here for a few days. Somewhat dejected , we walked back to the hotel. So much for our relaxing time at the beach. At least we had gotten away from the Canadienne. We ate dinner that night at Luces del Norte. The excellent seafood and ceviche cheered us up. Perhaps after a couple of days the weather would clear and we could get to Utilla after all.

The next morning it was raining harder and the wind had picked up. There was nothing to do, but read, or watch the television in the lobby outside our room. We had breakfast in the cavernous and nearly empty dining room. It once had a certain faded elegance, now very faded. The food was awful, and a leak had developed on one side of the room, and so we sat on the dry side. I walked over to the little balcony in the front of the hotel and looked out on the street which was now deserted. As the day went on the rain began to fall harder, and I made several trips back to the balcony to observe the sheets of water falling into the streets and cascading off the rooftops. We retired early, as there was nothing else to do. In the morning, more of the same gusty winds and unrelenting rain. It was hard to believe that that much rain could fall. Even the 6 inches I had witnessed in the Peruvian jungle many years before, didn't seem to compare. We watched the TV and saw that several nearby villages had major flooding problems, and apparently people had died. We talked to the staff at the desk about taking the bus to San Pedro Sula, but the bridges were washed out. The road was blocked in the direction to La Ceiba as well. It seems we were stuck here, at least for the time being. Another day of reading and writing passed slowly. During a slight lull in the rain, we walked out to get a breath of air and had lunch at a nearby restaurant. The storm drains were already flooded and there were several inches of water in the streets. It was beginning to look like we might have flooding here in Tela. The damaged hotels we had noticed earlier should have been a warning.

During the night the rain picked up even more, which hardly seemed possible. There was now a very large puddle in the dining room , and it was starting to flood in several of the rooms. Luckily, our room had a large overhang which prevented the wind driven water from being forced through the wooden shutters. Later that morning I went into the bathroom and turned on the sink. No water. Great. With all that water coming down, why should there be a problem? A few hours later, still nothing. I went over to the desk to ask what the problem was, and they explained that no one in the town had water. Apparently the pump had shorted out, and it was going to be at least several hours before anything was fixed. Getting a bit stir crazy, we went outside to get some lunch. It was still pouring, so we got wet in a few minutes. We noticed a Chinese restaurant which looked closed, but wasn't. Tiene agua? (Do you have water?) No Problema, they said. We ordered some kind of wonton soup, and saw someone leave go outside with a bucket a few minutes later. I glanced out, and could see where rainwater was gushing from a pipe coming off of the roof of a nearby building. Ah, now I knew where the water for our soup was coming from. I could only hope that they boiled it before serving it. It took quite a while to get the soup, which I took as a good sign, and when they finally did bring it out, it was indeed steaming hot. Another good sign. It didn't taste all that bad, but we ate it with some trepidation.

When we returned to the hotel, there was still no water and when we asked, they had no idea when it would be back on. “I can't stay here,” Nanette said. “This is crazy.” “Where are you going to go? No place has any water”, I said. “I'm going to call some of the more upscale places", she replied. "What about that place on the hill, the Maya Vista? If there's worse flooding it's better to be up there anyway? “Yeah, but the wind might be worse, I said.” “Well I'm going to call.” She went off to the desk and came back a few minutes later. It seems they did have water because they had their own backup system. “Alright, let's go check it out.” We waited a little while for another lull in the rain, walked the 10 or 15 minutes to the other end of town, and trudged up the hill to the hotel. It was an interesting concrete building with odd angles and various levels, vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright in style. They showed us a few different rooms, and we agreed on one at the discounted price of $30US. It was windier, but the place sure didn't look like it would come crashing down anytime soon. We had lunch in their restaurant, and spoke to another couple who came down to eat with their two children. It was nice to know that we would not be the only people in the place. They were French and seemed to know the owners quite well, who were French Canadian, but not overly religious, unlike the other duenos at the Canadiennes. We walked back to the Hotel Tela after lunch and got our things together to check out. This time we took a cab back to the new hotel.


Our room felt a little like being in a tree house, a damp tree house. Some of the rain got in underneath the door, and we kept a towel there to try and keep some it out. Occasionally, we could see the ocean, but most of the time it was too socked in to make it out through the rain. We went for tea in the restaurant, one level down, hoping to get some idea how long the storm was likely to continue. The French couple worked in an NGO in Tegucigalpa, the capital, (known as Teguc), and had just come down to Tela, for a brief vacation. Now they were stuck here, like us. There was also another American couple, Christine and George, from somewhere in Florida, smoking like crazy, who didn't seem to fit in. It seems they had never been to any kind of third world country, and just came down for about 10 days on the spur of the moment. They had spent a couple of days going on tours around Tela, but had barely been out of the hotel since. They seemed, well, a bit on the red-neck, white trash end of the continuum. Nascar types who, it would seem, would be unlikely to choose Honduras, especially Tela, as a vacation spot. Maybe they didn't know what they were getting into. The were friendly enough, and we spent a while talking to them, as there certainly wasn't much else to do. They told us that the rain was supposed to continue for another day or two, but then how long it would be before the roads were back in commission was anyone's guess.

We ate at the hotel that night, not wanting to venture out. The next morning, more of the same. Chris and George were concerned that they would miss their flight from San Pedro back to the states in another day or so. The French couple was feeling that they needed to get back to work, and contemplated leaving their car in Tela and trying to get out in some other way. We all felt trapped, and it was clear that the weather and road problems were starting to get on everyone's nerves. There was talk of some food shortages in town as no deliveries had been made in several days. Nanette and I took another walk back into town during a lull in the rain to check this out. Many of the streets were now under a foot or two of water. We went back to Luces del Norte, which was closed because of the water. We walked back to the beach, which looked like it had been partially eroded in the last few days by the big surf. After a while we returned to the hotel. It was difficult to find out much of anything, and there was nothing to be done other than wait it out. At least, we didn't have just a 10 day vacation. Later that day the rain became more intermittent, and we had a few glimpses of the sea from our room.


We talked with the owners about the options for getting out of town. There didn't seem to be any until the road opened, and who knew when that would be. We ate in the hotel another night. By the next morning the rain had finally stopped, although the sky was still threatening and overcast.


We went for a walk around lunch, and this time Luces was open, the water having receded so that it was no longer seeping in under the door. Despite any shortages, we had good meal there, and then continued walking past the bridge to see the old headquarters of the United Fruit Company, the same one as in Guatemala, on the edge of town. Bananas had been what kept towns like Tela and others along the north coast going, and Tela had been one of the major ports during the 20's, as well as the center of operations for the Tela Railroad, a subsidiary of United Fruit. In fact, the country had been controlled for many years by United Fruit, and another large corporation, Cuyamel, in conjunction with the US government. Although largely free of the civil wars that have devastated so much of the rest of Central America, Honduras has been just as corrupt.

The wealth has always been skimmed off the top by outsiders, such as banana men like Sam Zemurray, or by the puppet governments controlled by them. As an example, in 1910, Zemurray plotted to overthrow the government and replace the president with his own man, Bonilla. He hired a black US mercenary, Lee Christmas, who successfully attacked Trujillo in 1911. Christmas has the distinction of having introduced the machine gun to Central America. When Bonilla later became president, he appointed Christmas as commander in chief of the Honduran army, and a former New Orleans policemen, Guy, Machine Gun, Maloney, as his chief lieutenant, and used them to control the nascent labor movement in the banana fields. Later, in 1954, the country was used by the CIA as a staging area for the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala. In the early 60's it was used by Kennedy in for the Bay of Pigs, and again in the 80's, it was used by Reagan and the Contras, who were trained and funded by the CIA, in their unsuccessful attempt to defeat the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. For this reason Honduras has had some trouble developing its own identity. Some, such as the government of Roberto Cordoba in the early 80's, have even suggested that it become a protectorate of the United States, which is more or less what it has been. There have been a few democratically elected governments, and some reforms have been instituted. However, there has recently been another army coup, per capita earnings remain extremely low, and street crime and gang violence, high.

We returned to our hotel, and Chris and George told us that if the weather did not deteriorate, they were going to try to make a run to San Pedro Sula, the next day. “How?” we asked. It seems there was another American, Carl, staying at the hotel with his Honduran girlfriend, and he had bought her a new four wheel drive truck. He needed to get to the airport the next day, and apparently there was a way around the bridge through some little towns and banana fields. "Can he take us?"we wanted to know. "I'll speak to him," said George. A few hours later I saw George again, and asked whether he had a chance to talk to Carl. “He's not sure that there's enough room, but we're all thinking of going out somewhere for dinner, and if you want to come, you can ask him yourself.” “Sure,” I said, but I was not feeling optimistic when I related the conversation to Nanette. “We'll, just have to throw ourselves at his mercy. Maybe if we act desperate enough,” I continued, which we were certainly feeling by then, “he'll squeeze us in.”

At six all we met in the dining area. Carl and his girlfriend were an interesting couple. He lwas in his early 70's, complete with paunch, and what looked to be a rolex on his wrist, while she was attractive, and in her mid to late 20's. He spoke almost no Spanish, and she spoke no English. They were both dressed considerably better than we were. As we piled into his truck, I asked if he thought they would be able to take us to San Pedro. “Yeah, no problem, we'll get you in somehow.” That was a relief. Dinner, once more at Luces, was just as good as it had been, and after we had a few beers, and knowing we would get out of Dodge tomorrow, my mood was considerably lighter. I asked Carl what he did, and he said something about having his own business that required frequent trips to Honduras. He seemed to know the area rather well, although he was vague about just what the business was. We also talked to Paulita in Spanish. Her family's house, near the bridge to San Pedro, had been badly flooded and partially destroyed by the storm. They were farmers, and the fields that they worked were also flooded. It was difficult to tell how long they knew each, although we got the sense that it had been a matter of months. They had met on an earlier trip Carl had made to Honduras. I couldn't help but wonder about the brand new truck after such a short time. Naturally, she was extremely happy with it, and told us that it would be a big help to her and her family. We drove the 5 minutes back to hotel, and Carl indicated he wanted to leave early, and try and make it to the airport by 10AM. If all went well, it would take about 2 & ½ hours.

Sunset from Hotel

When we got back to our room, Nanette and I looked at each other. “Strange couple,” I said. “My fantasy is that guy is an ex-contra or some kind of ex CIA adviser. He seems to know a lot about the place and obviously has a great deal of money. A thirty thousand dollar truck for a girlfriend he's had for a few months. I'd love to know the real story.”

The next day we left about 7AM. It remained overcast, but dry. It was now almost 24 hours since we had significant rainfall, though we heard an unbelievable 30 inches had fallen in some places and the flooding was worse than Hurricane Mitch. I rode in the back of the truck with George, while Carl drove and the women sat in the front. We got to Paulita's house after about an hour and you could see the bridge was out up ahead. Men were clearing rocks off the road by hand, and it looked like it would be a long time before the main road was reopened. We stopped to pick up her brother who would drive the truck back after we dropped Carl off at the airport since Paulita couldn't drive. We continued on, away from the river through banana fields and villages. Some of them were still flooded, but the water had obviously receded. We had to ford a few streams, and then managed to cross the main river further upstream, where there was less water than where the bridge was located. We then made our way back to the road to San Pedro, without any significant obstacles. In an hour, we were at the airport, where Carl and the American couple got out. Paulita's brother was kind enough to take us to the bus station, where we planned to go to Teguc, hoping the bus was running. Indeed it was, and our timing was excellent as it left in about an hour.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:20 Archived in Honduras Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

Excursions Around Antigua

One of our side trips involved hopping the bus for the mile or two up to the next town of Jocotenango. Very different than Antigua, it is a rather nondescript kind of place with few tourists visible on the dusty main street. It was however, home to Fraternidad Naturista. Written up in the Lonely Planet, it sells all kinds of medicinal herbs for ailments ranging from pulmonary to GI problems. More importantly they offer messages for about $8 US. It is not meant for tourists, and the building and surroundings are on the funky side. After we paid, I was directed down the hallway to the inner sanctum and changing area. In another part of the room there were four or five massage tables, though only one person was being worked on during my first visit. Not knowing the protocol, I waited on a bench for the masseur to finish. The place smelled like a gym, and water was dripping on the other side of the room. I began to think it was a mistake to come, especially with no other gringos in sight. Eventually, my turn came and I walked over to the table. As I was being slathered with oil, the masseur asked, in Spanish, how I liked the massage; duro, normalmente, or soave. " Normalmente,"I said, not quite knowing what was in store for me. After an hour of delightful, mostly, pummeling, I forgot about the rigors of studying, and became oblivious to the surroundings. It was one of the best, if strongest, messages that I have ever had. Thank God I didn't say duro to begin with. For some, it might be a little too intense, but a few words to communicate menos duro should suffice. On the way out we were handed a cup of herbal tea, vowing to return. We did come back twice more during the month, once dragging a somewhat reluctant friend who had never had a massage in her life. She loved it.


Another trip we took was to Santiago de Sacatepequez for the Day of the Dead. The origins of this holiday are somewhat obscure, being a combination of the Spanish, All Saints Day, and earlier Mayan celebrations. Normally a sleepy place, Santiago comes to life with both tourists and locals on November 2nd. People line the streets to watch the annual flying of the kites.


And the cemeteries.


The dead are thought to identify their families through the colors and words used on the kites. Some of them are as large as 35-40 feet high, and are constructed of wood and tissue paper.


The largest are usually stationary, but there were still some big ones that managed to get aloft, even though the day we were there it was almost too windy


The atmosphere is festive, like a carnival. There is music and even some dancing.


Families stroll around eating fiambre, a meat, cheese and olive concoction, thought to be a favorite of the dead. Many also sit around the graves of their family members, decorated with flowers, while offering food and drink to their dearly departed, as well as drinking cerveza. Tourists do much of the same, eating and drinking the offerings from the many street vendors, while taking pictures of the locals.




On a somewhat different note, my favorite trip was a climb of Volcan Pacaya. Below is a picture of the top of the mountain.


At 2552m or 7000 feet, this is not one of the higher volcanoes near Antigua. It is one of the most active. Just a month earlier. there had been a major eruption and no one had been allowed to climb it until recently. This excursion was organized by our school, although they actually subcontracted it to one of the many tour agencies in town. Cost was about $5 US, and it was exciting. We were picked up by bus around 1PM, and stopped to get a 2nd group from Academia Sevilla, another Spanish school. In all we were about 20. The ride took about 1 & 1/2 hours. It was only about 40 miles or so, but there was a lot of traffic and no direct way of getting there without going through Guate City.

When we arrived, close to 3PM, our guide gave a short talk about the mountain, now a national park, and said that the hike to the summit and back would take about 4 hours. Damn, I should have brought my headlamp, despite being told I wouldn't need it. We were also accompanied by a security guard who carried a gun, as there had been some tourist robberies on the mountain in the past, though none recently we were assured. The hike was fairly easy at first, but as we got higher to areas that were still warm from recent eruptions, the rocks were loose and sharp. Care was necessary to pick through the ash and boulders. The day was overcast and seemed to threaten rain, but intermittently the sun would come out and illuminate the clouds and steam from the fumaroles, which at times were difficult to distinguish from each other. We continued up to a point where the rocks were very hot, and it became hard to breath because of the heavy sulfurous fumes.


We had to cover our mouths and noses with our shirts in order to continue. As I peered over the edge of the largest caldera, through the clouds of boiling steam, I could make out the molten lava below. I threw a rock in, and with a sudden whoosh it exploded into flame and vaporized. This was about as close as you could be without actually being inside the volcano. What if this thing decides to blow again without any warning, I thought, remembering that this had happened a few months earlier. What indeed! In Guate they are clearly less rule bound and less concerned with lawsuits than in the states. But hey, this enabled me to have an experience that I could never have somewhere else.


Picking our way


It is hard to overstate the raw power of seeing the earth transformed, literally before your eyes. I felt it viscerally, and it was intimidating. After an hour or so of poking around at the top, I was not unhappy to be heading down. By then, some of the clouds had dissipated, and it was possible to Volcan Agua and Arcatenango through the setting sun. So much for getting back before dark.

As we continued to hike, everyone was high from the experience. We chatted, shared food, and talked about travel plans and experiences. It was a very international group, though I spent much of my time talking to another norteamericano, whose name happened to be Jonathan. The last hour was almost totally in the dark, and our pace slowly considerably. A few did have headlamps, and tried to assist those of us who didn't, but it was not easy to follow the constantly bobbing lights, without being able to see what was directly on the ground in front of you. At one point I twisted my ankle on rock, luckily not too badly. When we got back go the bus it started to rain,
the clouds having moved back under cover of darkness. Perfect timing. We finally arrived back in Antigua around 10PM. Tired, dirty, but elated.

Posted by jonshapiro 11:17 Archived in Guatemala Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

An Interesting Connection

One of the more interesting social connections we made during our time in Antigua was actually through some friends of ours in the states, both writers/professors. They strongly encouraged us to contact Carolina while we were in country, and so we did. She and her husband drove up from Guatemala City, and met us for dinner in what turned out to be one of the most expensive restaurants in Antigua. When they arrived, they seem to know half the people eating there that night. We exchanged the usual pleasantries over drinks, including how they knew our friends, and then got down to the usual question, at least in the states, of what we all did for a living. As it turned out, Jorge is the owner of one of the largest supermarket/department store chains in all of Guatemala. This was somewhat surprising to us as our friends are left wing and don't usually befriend people with this kind of wealth. We later understood that they barely know him, and had spent far more time with his wife, who is a poet and novelist, and is frequently in the states to visit her children. We spent a few minutes discussing the family business, and Jorge was understandably proud of his father who had started it from scratch. It was however, clearly Jorge's own hard work and competence that enabled it to expand to become such a large corporation.

None the less, it was somewhat disconcerting to be having dinner with people who were obviously among the 20 wealthiest families in the country. My wife, who was chattering away in Spanish to Carolina, revealed my own red diaper roots before this was apparent. The conversation became still more interesting when we began to discuss the current political situation in light of the 35 years of civil war. They felt that the present government was doing the best it could under difficult circumstances. This opinion was in marked contrast to that of our teachers, who felt that it was just as corrupt as the others that preceded it. While saying they were not apologists for the military, Jorge told us how one member of his extended family had been kidnapped and then ransomed by the guerrillas. As a result, he felt that the true story of what happened during the war was not completely one sided.

Jorge went on to tell us that he had just entered into a partnership with a large US multinational. While I understood this from a business perspective, when he defended how progressive this company was in its treatment of its employees, I had to disagree. After I questioned the actions of this corporation, he and Carolina told us how well they had treated their own employees, as well as the other philanthropic things they have done throughout Guatemala. I had no reason to doubt their veracity or sincerity, and they were also lovely people who insisted on treating us for dinner;a good thing since it was out of our budget. They invited us to come down and visit them in the city, and said they would send a car to pick us up and bring us back. They then insisted on walking us back to our room, and it occurred to me that our teachers may have viewed us in the same light that we saw Jorge and Carolina.

A few days later, we took the tourist bus into the City to have lunch with our Guatemalan friend, Alphonso. We had met him the year before in the air airport, after which he was kind enough to drive us to Xela, a trip of about five hours. Alphonso divides his time between Guate and Utah, where he lives with his wife and children. He has a business importing fabric from the states and other countries to Xela, a bit ironic since most of us think of the beautiful Guatemalan fabrics that are imported to the states.

We told Alphonso about our dinner with Carolina and Jorge. He asked if we saw their retinue of body guards. "No, we hadn't." "Well, I'm sure they must have been there," he said. "Two or three at least. With machine guns." We explained that we had entered the restaurant first, but where were the guards when we walked back to the apartment. "Must have been damned good body guards. Kept out of sight until they are needed, but they were there, believe me. People like that can't go anywhere in Guatemala without body guards. Everyone knows who they are and how much they're worth, so they're always targets. They can't walk around the block without guards."

This seemed to put Jorge's story about the kidnapping of his relative in a somewhat different light. It must be very difficult to have to live like that all the time.

Posted by jonshapiro 11:38 Archived in Guatemala Tagged living_abroad 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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