A Travellerspoint blog

February 2013

NGO Profile: As Green As It Gets

Coffee & More


If you, like me, wake up and immediately seek the caffeinated bliss of a cup of coffee, then you are probably aware of Guatemala’s prowess as the cream of the crop, so to speak. It’s hard not to notice the posters in latte emporiums like Starbucks and Costa Coffee, but what we often miss in those feel-good “fair trade” campaigns is that working farmers in coffee-growing countries are more often underpaid and exploited.

Suffice to say, small farmers everywhere have been struggling for what seems to be my entire lifetime. It isn’t just coffee, but corn and soy and any plethora of monopolizing agricultural empires that have undercut, patented, and lobbied the little man out of business. It’s a familiar soapbox these days, with droves and clones of films and books, an on-the-up local farmer’s market movement, and a scramble by big business to jump on the new marketing bandwagon.


In reality, despite all those posters and PR material strategically placed next to the sugar, sweeteners, and variety of cream/milk choices, to get a fair trade cup of coffee at Starbucks, a customer must specifically request it and often wait for it to be brewed (Talk about Coffee). In actuality, Starbucks has only recently increased to 10% of its coffee being fair trade, which does make it the world’s largest buyer of fair trade coffee but hardly supports the face it puts on.

For a moment, however, I’m going to climb down from the soapbox and talk about As Green As It Gets:

The inclination for those of us this kind of stuff bothers is usually to shout, maybe carry a picket sign or two, boycott like mad, and buy things that seem horribly overpriced to people who aren’t that bothered. Truthfully, this has less direct impact than what organizations like As Green As It Gets does, which is to actually provide direct assistance to farmers, artisans, and other small entrepreneurs to get their business going, sustainable, and (most importantly) profitable.

The NGO, as its name suggests, also heads up an educationally “green” and environmentally conscientious mission. As Green As It Gets provides information and classes on intercropping, organic agriculture, and forestry management to the farmers and communities it works with. It supports the production of healthy, natural cosmetics and introduces fiscally and globally useful technologies to its participants. Simply, a real hands-on effort is being made to keep the environment clean and growing while still providing us (and hard-working growers) bounties of fruit and lip balm.

As a result of the effort this NGO puts forth, many local farmers here in Guatemala (less than half-an-hour from my house), with little more than a couple of acres to cultivate, have kicked up a business, joined a cooperative, and are moving forward together. Artisans are producing their goods and have a market to sell them, including an online store hosted by As Green As It Gets. Hundreds of trees have been planted by local communities, not just volunteers from abroad, and over 20,000 seeds have been donated. It’s nice to know improvements are being made at the source.


For me, all those personal boycotts and product protests are for the greater global good, the slow ooze into the big changes. As a result, the markets have changed massively in the last three decades: I never saw organic anything as a child, wouldn’t have known the difference between fair trade and free trade in high school, and have seen recycling move from driving across town to special dumpsters to now being mandatory curbside service in some places (and ridiculously absent in others). All this stuff came about because people who cared enough persisted until more and more joined them and created a windfall.

What NGOs like As Green As It Gets do, which is so important, is include the relevant people in this fight, empowering them to make a stand themselves, giving them the tools to press on if and when their battle is won. It gives those of us bothered by this kind of stuff a chance to help build up the antithesis of that which we are trying to destroy, to make a direct positive impact rather than only combating a negative one from some unknown supermarket. As Green As It Gets is preparing all of these farmers, producers, and dreamers for the long haul and the change, an effort that I often forget when waxing political about this stuff.

I invite you all to check out the As Green As It Gets website. There are opportunities to donate towards the work, to buy products from real people (including Guatemalan coffee), and to participate in the positive, even if you don’t necessarily agree with boycotts and protests. One of the coolest things the NGO has going is sponsoring a coffee field for a motivated farmer, or if you are actually here in Antigua, there are also tours to coffee fincas and artisan workshops (profits going to help the project) for those already in the fold.

Posted by jonathonengels 08:44 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

At Home (Anywhere) Off the Field

Life Lessons in Watching Football from Afar


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LSU-Themed Russian Nesting Dolls

LSU-Themed Russian Nesting Dolls

Jeff said he’d do it, but I never saw him come through. It looked inevitable in the first thirty minutes. The Baltimore Ravens had simply murdered San Francisco. Jeff had spent the better part of the half taunting his mother: “Mom…mom…mom,” he’d repeat until she finally yielded to his beckoning. Then, he’d say, “Flacco”, holding his thumb out and rotating from up to down. She’d made the mistake of doubting the Raven’s quarterback, the same one who delivered three pretty convincing touchdowns early on.

Earlier that day, Jeff had vowed to pour a beer over his head if Baltimore won. When the second half opened with a 108-yard kickoff return, giving the Ravens a three-plus touchdown lead, the intensity seemed to drop. However, the lights of the Superdome malfunctioned, and after the delay, the 49ers came roaring back, Jeff and I (a converted Baltimore fan) grimaced the rest of the way through. Then, at the last minute, our boys stiffened up on defense and pulled it out. And, Flacco seemed the undeniably MVP, despite what mom said.

And, I…I was waiting to see that deluge of a beer, which Jeff had ordered, the 10Q ($1.25) special, Brahva Extra, just after the defense had made that goal line stance. Of course, hugs and high fives were in order first. It was almost as if a line formed to pat Jeff on the back. A collective sigh of relief released to see him so pleased. Slightly exhausted, elated, and hammered out of his mind. The stress had finally relented. Why waste a beer?

Now, I know how people, all those I’ve converted into Tiger fans through the years, feel watching an LSU game with me.

Football has been a part of my life since before I ever donned a set of shoulder pads. I remember noontime kickoffs as a child in Mandeville, hunkering down in front of the TV to watch the Saints, my mother and I erupting into living room end-zone dances when Dalton Hilliard or Eric Martin would break one loose. In those days, the Saints had a ferocious defense led by a quartet of show-stopping linebackers, and the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, had the first stirrings of the “Who Dat?” nation.

In high school, I became a varsity player and developed a more visceral passion for the game, a way of imagining myself as Sam Mills, a linebacker like me, 5’9” like me. For three years, my school never won game: 0-33. By the time I went to university, I was obviously not Sam Mills and had played my last game, but like any purple-and-gold blooded boy from Baton Rouge, I became infected with the Tigers. Gerry Dinardo had brought the team back to prominence my freshman year, but over the next three, the team waned into below mediocrity.

In my last semester in the fall of 2000, a new coaching phenom named Nick Saban took over the Tigers, and a few years later, I was going to graduate school at University of Memphis, working in a restaurant called Paulette’s, and sneaking into the back service kitchen to watch LSU beat Oklahoma for the 2003 National Championship. When I finished my MFA, I left the United States, never to return, but for the life of me, I couldn’t abandon my fighting Tigers.

In Korea, around twelve hours ahead in time, I listened to the games on LSUsports.net broadcasts on Sunday morning, watching the stats click over on ESPN Gamecast a couple of moments later. In Guatemala City, I went to a bar named Cheers (a direct rip off of the TV show), where, when I walked in, the owner immediately began searching for the LSU game. In Russia, I woke up at four a.m. on Sunday mornings to struggle through streaming the games with an internet connection that cut off every couple of minutes.

This year, every game was internationally attended by a whole staff of Earth Lodgers, world travelers, and me, the dinner chef who was ignoring BBQ beans to see what was going on in Death Valley. They rejoiced in my elation, cringed at my pain (after the Alabama game especially), and in doing so, rallied around the team, even though no one besides me really gave two dusty farts about football. Passion—no matter how globally insignificant—is often irresistibly infectious.

Nobody Holds Us Back

Nobody Holds Us Back

This last Super Bowl Sunday is perhaps the most fun I’ve had watching a football game that didn’t involve LSU or the Saints. Baltimore native—Jeff, his parents, and one of his lifelong friends—were all in town, in country even, and representing hard in their purple-and-black. We’d met up hours before the game for presumptuous mimosas and cigars. Sitting in the courtyard of the Antigua mansion-like dwelling that his parents—Jim and Jean—have rented, we discussed in depth the intricacies of offensive and defensive systems, player skill sets, and what the Ravens needed to do.

Just before game time, we paraded across the city in a mix of sobriety, some of us with fresh beers in our hands. Jeff had called ahead to the bar, Travel Menu, which by US standards is less than a hole in the wall, but it is Jeff’s version of Cheers, where every knows his name and more importantly his team. He told the owner to clear the half-dozen or so tables because we were coming to fill them. Something about the trek reminded me of parading in New Orleans, the sun cooking the air, the drunkenness, the camaraderie.

It seems strange to travel the world searching for such moments, moments when the home and life purposefully left behind seem so clear and desirable and so far away. I remember leaving for Korea in 2005, convinced of the changes I needed to make within myself, one of which was my obsession with football. In part, the change did occur: Rather than filling my weekend with an endless blur of ESPN highlights, during the season, I now focus my attention on one game a week. Oddly enough, it took moving across the world to create a better LSU fan.

I’m not sure what will happen next year if Baltimore and New Orleans cross paths. I’m fairly happy, and Jeff will be very happy come next year when Sean Payton has the Who Dat boys thundering back with a vengeance, that our teams are in different divisions. Whatever the case, at the moment, I’m happy for him (Flacco—thumbs up), I’m happy to have learned something about myself (super fans are awesome), and most of all, I’m happy to have found a way (however distorted it may be) to make watching football a redeemable travel option.

Posted by jonathonengels 07:00 Archived in Guatemala Comments (3)

Things to Do in Antigua Guatemala

A Suggestive Reminder & Beginner's Guide



Sure, it helps that Antigua is—to use a cutesy souvenir word—nestled in Panchoy Valley, tiny and innocent at the base of a 12,000-foot volcano, a collection of ruins wedged between storefronts and restaurant-hotels. It helps that there are beautiful plazas and a Southern California climate six months of the year (the other is more rainy, like say Florida in autumn). However, there is a lot more to do in Antigua than sit in awe of its greatness.

Might I suggest:

1. Having breakfast. It seems so obvious, like something you’d do everyday anyway. Not to mention, Antigua is a sanctuary of coffee. This joint is full of places to start the day off right: Y Tu Pina Tambien (indie coffee shop atmosphere), Bagel Barn (the Guate, Guate sandwich), El Portal (sweet diner-style breakfast bar), Escolonia (the beautiful restaurant/garden center at the south end of 5th Avenida), Café Condessa (a swanky taste of the tipico)…

2. Perusing the markets and shops. Again, obvious, as there is a big, bright souvenir market, but there is also a really funky, functional market just north of it—with a paca (cheap clothes warehouse), vegetables and such, a sometimes horrifying maze of cafeterias, and odds and ends of all description. It’s a more eye-opening experience. Also, keep curious while roaming the streets because there are loads of surprise markets that overtake courtyards and alleyways. Still, though, Nim Po't (on the north end of 5th Avenida) is my favorite place to get the occasional tit of tat.

3. Reading in Parque Central. Always littered with loiterers, I was never that much for just sitting around the city’s main square until I recently began walking my wife to her afternoon job. I began veering off on the walk home, finding a bench to stretch out on and read a chapter or two. The fountains are tinkling, people are strolling, and often there is live music or street performers to distract any literature from getting too involved.

4. Visiting all the ruins. Before the notorious 1770s earthquake, there were nearly forty churches here, many of which still remain in different states of disrepair. I’ve been passing them for years now, but to really take a day to simply visit them all (or several) is really quite humbling. As an Antigua regular, it’s easy to forget on the brisk trip to work. As a first-timer, it’s just freaking incredible how many there are.

5. Sampling certain Antigua institutions, even if they aren’t particularly Guatemalan: The ridiculously sized platter of nachos at Mono Loco (5th Aveida), the mescal in the hidden bar behind a tiny refrigerator door at Café No Sé (1st Avenida), those the-idea-is-better-than-the-product choco-bananos (everywhere), Dona Luisa banana bread (4th Calle), love the gelato at the little place tucked next to the pharmacy at the corner of 7th Avenida and 3rd Calle, and definitely pick up an issue of the local expat mag La Cuadra.


6. Taking Spanish classes. It’s easy enough to get around this city with only whatever rudimentary language skills one arrives with, but it’s also easy enough to find private Spanish classes for $5/hour. Every morning, the little grass courtyard at the entrance of my apartment complex (El Rosario—5th Avenida again) fills up with little two-top tables of outdoor classes in session. Or, try one of the dozen or so language schools offering.

7. Making chocolate. I’ve yet to do this myself, but there is a new thing going on in Antigua these days, the opportunity to visit a chocolate museum and make your own delectables. Of course, Central America is the land of cocoa, and the local Mayan culture prides itself on being the originators of the world’s most beloved sweet. The Choco Museo has been one a crowd-pleaser amongst the tourists I’ve met this year.

8. Seeing a movie at Bagel Barn. There is a chalkboard at the door (on 5th Calle near the square) with the weeks’ selections. A film is shown every night, and usually the week will include at least one feature relevant to the Guatemala.

9. Exploring the streets not immediately in the city center. The residential areas of Antigua make for a pleasant walk, and I’m constantly discovering little bakeries, tortilla stands, and specialty shops that are especially un-touristy. For anyone who thinks Antigua is nothing but fantasy land, they haven’t spent enough time getting lost in the spots where crowds aren’t. Take a stroll (or jog), take a wrong turn, and see where it brings you.

10. Getting the hell out of Antigua! On the outskirts of the city, you can tour coffee farms, hike up an active volcano, go on a zip-line canopy tour, mountain bike, motorbike, as well as visit the world’s best view at Earth Lodge for some beer-riddled hammock time with a view. Also, there are NGOs—educational, developmental, agricultural, and otherwise—to see and support and at which to volunteer. Touring Camino Seguro is one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had anywhere.

And, then again, one of the great things about Antigua is that, when all is said and done, you don’t have to do much of damned thing. It’s a town highly conducive to lazing, lounging, and drinking one’s self into a stupor or shaking, caffeinated fit. There is such an array of bar stools, benches, couches, and comfy chairs that one can quite contentedly wile away days doing nothing more than basking in the glory that is.

Choco Museo
The Bagel Barn
La Cuadra
Dona Luisa
Earth Lodge
Café No Se
Y Tu Piña Tambien
Nim Po't
Camino Seguro

Posted by jonathonengels 11:53 Archived in Guatemala Comments (2)

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?

Reviewing One Book with Another


Before we begin: If you have twitter and are not following me, do me the favor: https://twitter.com/JonathonEngels


I’ve taken to calling myself a travel writer these days, but in all honesty, I still feel a bit fraudulent. When some new, unsuspecting soul hears the words “travel writer”, they immediately associate it with the cliché of “getting paid to travel”. Of course, as a freelancer, and far from monetarily proficient in that regard, I know that this view is a fantasized version of what really amounts to hours of hunching over a laptop, ignoring the view, and literally submitting one’s self to a lot of rejection. Still, a piece of me believes if I can only get that one big break…

Then, Thomas Kohnstamm, an author with much more clout than I, put it all into much finer perspective for me. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, & Professional Hedonism follows Thomas on his first big assignment, writing a section of the Brazil guide for Lonely Planet. Most of us, hacks like me, complete novices, and non-writers alike, regard such work—writing for the largest independent publisher of travel guides—as the dream, the pinnacle of travel writerhood. In some ways, Thomas shows us we are sorely mistaken.

It takes Thomas nearly 50 pages of stumbling, bloodied debauchery—telling off his boss, shunning his girlfriend, and street fighting in his goodbye salute to New York—before we actually get to the actual assignment, at which time it’s clear that prudence will not be on the itinerary. Distracted by Rio, a romance with Inga the Lufthansa flight attendant, and unidentified recreational drug use, he is already horribly behind schedule on day one. What’s more is he is expected to cover all aspects of six Brazilian states in the northern nether-reaches of the country in a matter of four weeks. The assignment was impossible before he started late.

Thomas gives himself seven weeks, breaks his budget, and stretches money in ways he’d not imagined: living with a model/prostitute, taking a foray into dealing drugs to tourists, an unexpected twist into used motorcycle sales, and finally, using his Lonely Planet status to get freebies. It’s exciting to follow him through it all, at times enviable and other times just downright head-shaking. Overall, his exploits are a little out-of-realm of possibility or desire for me, not to insinuate I haven’t met folks with stories dissimilar. Which is to say, I think for many travelers (and writers for that matter), Thomas’s Hunter-esque lunacy is living the dream.

That’s where the Lonely Planet comes back into it. Beyond the insanity, there is the underlying current of the darker side of writing guidebooks. The incessant research it requires. The horrible plane/bus/truck/boat/motorcycle rides. Time and money restraints. Formatting. Marketing percentages. Word counts and dejected creativity. Clichéd, inaccurate descriptions. The effects that being written up in the Lonely Planet has on the once-hidden oases it promotes, the sudden onslaught of spring-break vagabonds that crush the soul of a place—the horrible need for it all. Then, the soul-stealing reality of being a starving writer. Ultimately, as Lonely Planet users (at some point we all are), we begin to lose our faith in “the Bible”, perhaps even judge ourselves.

I must admit to buying a Lonely Planet for nearly every country I go to, and I’ll even admit that Emma (the beautiful backpacking wife) and I have prematurely purchased several such guides to places that got pushed back and delayed indefinitely. Australia, New Zealand, India, and South America are all now jammed into boxes of books in corners of closets and attics, and they are all just about as crisp as the day they were bought. Other guides—Korea, England, Turkey, and Central America on a Shoestring—have been thumbed to death and milked for just about all they’re worth. Lonely Planet has been with us, earned its keep time and again.

Thomas, who expresses similar sentiments in his preface—“I almost always take a guidebook with me when I travel, and it invariably helps me in some way that makes it worth its price and worth its weight in my pack.”—pushes one’s respect for the Lonely Planet on its ass. His descriptions of policies, implausible and required inclusions, and dysfunctional information gathering leave little doubt as to why, on nearly every trip, I’ve chased down some restaurant, hostel, or departing bus that no longer exists. Furthermore, the minutiae of subheading text sizes and laundry services in every dirt-road town hardly make it appealing as a career. The Lonely Planet is far from gospel truth or any dream I’ve had.

By the end of the book, Thomas has written himself out of being referred to reverently by last name. He presents a main character (himself) more like that one wild friend in college, far outside the bounds of my compulsive, married, and timid nature. As a traveler and writer, who may just be headed to hell at the end of it all, the book is as unrealistic as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for me. However, I can’t help but admire the persona a bit, the gumption, and the how-to of living this tale and still getting hired by Lonely Planet again. The questions beyond Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? that I’ve gotten from the book have opened my eyes, honestly changed the way I look at some things. For that, you can’t fault a few swashbuckling yarns for being a bit too gonzo.

Get more info @ http://www.thomaskohnstamm.com/index.html

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Posted by jonathonengels 16:23 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

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