A Travellerspoint blog

March 2013

The Traveler Beyond Me

Thoughts on Tim Cahill’s Hold the Enlightenment

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A New Publication on Transitions Abroad: Teach English in Guatemala

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As a reader, one of the most inspiring things to me is to find an author that seems so beyond me as a writer, a sort of icon upon which to emulate. I remember this feeling when I first discovered Kurt Vonnegut, gobbling up near half a dozen books in a couple of weeks. The simplicity of insights, the simplicity yet punch of his sentences, enchanted me. I was dying to think that way, to imagine worlds so succinct in their reflection of our own. I’ve never come close.

In this year’s exploration of travel writers, I’ve had a similar experience with Tim Cahill. Cahill is a decent enough writer, no Vonnegut we’ll say, but what I came to admire in him was his prowess as a traveler. Reading one of Cahill’s classics (He’s been around for decades), Hold the Enlightenment, I was struck by how differently two people of similar tastes—Tim and me—can travel: Somehow he manages to get himself involved in these missions where the destination is an afterthought.

Sometimes, I get caught up in my own experience as a globe trotter, losing myself in the list of countries I’ve lived in, seen, and bookmarked for later reference in chronicling. I know about street food in Thailand, hiking on the Great Wall of China, snorkeling Shark and Ray Alley in Belize…but I tend to travel to a place much more than with a specific purpose. The latter of the two seems to yield the sort of wild adventures that I only get by chance and bad luck.

Hold the Enlightenment, however, is a series of tales of high jinks. Cahill is one of those people, at least via his stories, that seems to sniff out mischief, from seeking out the last tiger in Turkey (“The Search for the Caspian Tiger”) to putting himself through a yoga retreat (“Hold the Enlightenment”) to swimming with great white sharks in “Swimming with Great White Sharks”. Wherever he is, it seems more about the adventure than the place. And, that’s a place I’ve not yet reached.

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I suppose at some point, say over thirty years into the biz, you’ve been around more than once and the draw of ticking another beach, ruin, or world wonder off the list just isn’t important. As pleasing as his stories are, full of research and interesting facts and crazy characters, it’s the thought of having the gall that often drives me through them and on to the next one. I still try to stay out of trouble while traveling, but Uncle Tim just puts on a helmet and runs toward it.

However, as the cliché goes, there’s always someone who’s seen and done more. Even Cahill gets to meet his match. In “The World’s Most Dangerous Friend”, Cahill travels with Robert Young Pelton, bestselling author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, a guidebook for the kamikaze traveler. Pelton takes Cahill on a hilarious press trip turned to ill-advised mission to interview guerrillas in the jungles of Columbia. Cahill is out-of-his-depths from day one.

This adventure into the world of travel writers has been mostly about me learning the craft, the journalistic values of successful authors. Though Tim Cahill certainly has merits as a penman, what I took away from his book were new ideas on the craft of traveling. It’s been a long time since my vagabonding ego got slapped with “you’re just not adventurous enough”. It’s been an inspiring feeling and one that I hope I can harness better than I did Vonnegut’s short sentences.

Posted by jonathonengels 13:18 Archived in Guatemala Tagged books expat Comments (0)

Nuts?

In the Institute

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The latest publication: Plunging into the Russian Bath on Bucket Trippers.

It’s a little known fact because few people would care, but Emma and I were highly unsuccessful at procuring at-home internet service when we first moved to Antigua. Consequently, I’ve become a bit of a coffee shop rat, one of those people who buy one drink, usually selectively cheap, and plants their ass in prime real estate for three or four hours of free WiFi. One of my favorite spots to do this is Bagel Barn, on 5th Avenida, just around the corner from Parque Central.

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A couple of weeks ago, as I sat typing next to my empty licuado (smoothie) glass, drained about two hours prior, one of the counter ladies delivered a little plate of cookies to me. For a moment, my ego got the better of me: Normally, I feel a bit tolerated at the places in which I loiter, and suddenly, I felt like one of those recognized and valued regulars, worthy of freebies. Then, after a quick grin, she continued making the rounds, dropping off a little plate of cookies at everyone’s table. Anyway, to finish making a short point long, she’d given me Maya nut cookies.

I’d been seeing the signs in the shop for the better part of however long. Unfortunately, I just never squeezed a taste into the budget, not a Maya nut smoothie, slice of Maya nut cake, the cream cheese, or cookies. Honestly, it sounded a bit hokey to me, capitalizing on the location with a trendy name. That said, it wasn’t so hokey as to prevent me—ever the whore for a new article idea--from inquiring for more info. Isabelle, the manager, was all too obliging.

And so, I learned a thing or two: 1. Bagel Barn is actually the only place in Antigua with Maya nut products on offer and 2. the supplier, the Maya Nut Institute, is yet another upcoming NGO here in Guatemala.

Firstly, we should establish that Maya nut is actually more fruit than nut. (You may recall that the peanut, actually a legume, pulled this same misleading name stunt.) Anyway, the Maya nut comes from the fig family. Whatever it is, the Maya Nut Institute is doing some awesome stuff around this little figgy. The NGO has its fingers in a lot of pies, including operations in several Central American countries, reforestation projects, women empowerment programs, and of course the business of feeding people.

Quek'chi Girls Learning to Toast Maya Nut (photo Marleny Rosales Meda)

Quek'chi Girls Learning to Toast Maya Nut (photo Marleny Rosales Meda)

I guess we’ll start with the trees. The Maya nut comes from an evergreen tree that grows naturally in Central America. When the Maya Nut Institute first took up this project, they estimated that nearly 70% of the trees range had fallen prey to logging and other deforestation industries. Since 2001, however, the communities the Institute works with have planted over 1.5 million new Maya nut trees. The new forests will serve as renewed habitats for a lot of wild life (such as jaguars, monkeys, and macaws), as well as provide all those nature-y type things: prevent erosion, create oxygen, and make shady hammock stands. Oh, yeah, and each tree will also be a food source for the next 125 years or so.

In come the women. The Maya Nut Institute has focused specifically on women with this project, believing that “they are a critical link between the family and the environment” and providers of family health care. Thus, in a dozen years of work, over 600 indigenous women have banded together to create twenty-five different companies based around the Maya nut. So, not only have the trees provided families with a better balanced, more consistent diet, but the Maya nuts are also creating some viable income, money that comes from the lady of the house.

Beyond the nuts and forests, the trees are also being promoted as animal fodder. One hectare of trees harvested for fodder provides more animal food than twenty hectares of pasture. The trees are also more hardy, so during droughts (dry season lasts from November to May), Maya nut trees still provide nutrient-rich greenery. The leaves are full of protein and easily digestible. Mexico’s Maya nut enthusiasts are the leaders in trees for fodder; however, in Guatemala, over 1000 acres of Maya Nut plots have been created for ranchers to observe Maya Nut plantations as an alternative to pasture. Win-win-win, as I like to say these days.

Of course, I happened upon the little fig seed in cookie form. In addition to me, it’s enhancing the diets of hundreds of rural communities in Central America. Nestling comfortably into the super food market, the nut contains high levels of calcium, fiber, iron, folate, potassium and

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antioxidants. Like most nutritious stuff, it’s readily available in powder form and is said to last up to five years without losing flavor, aroma, or nutrients. The powder can be added to baking recipes or sprinkled into other dishes for a little bonus bolster. It can funk up a smoothie or make a pretty unique cream cheese if you so desire. The Maya Nut Institute even has a cookbook.

So, having heard what the Maya nut brings to the table (zing!), you are undoubtedly wondering where to get this stuff. Well, unless you live in the mountains of Central America, your options are going to be fairly limited on this one. At the moment, Bagel Barn is the only place in Antigua where you can sample the wares, ready to eat. However, it is possible to order the Maya nut online, either in whole grain form or as a powder. You can even get it medium or dark roasted. And, the Maya Nut Institute ships worldwide.

If you are interested in giving it a whirl, orders can be made through the website (www.MayaNutInstitute.org) or by emailing mayanut@gmail.com for pricing information. Should you be insanely keen and want over 100 lbs worth (that’s even a bit too much Maya nut for me), it can be purchased from Alimentos Nutri Naturales. Either way, check out these websites and learn a little more about another great project going on here in Guatemala.

Posted by jonathonengels 13:05 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Emma’s Ark: And Another Home for Mr. Fisherson

For the Love of Animals

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Also, should you just be surfing about, my website has recently received a facelift: Travel, Mishaps, & More

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When I first met Emma in Korea, she used to spend ample time studying the dirty, overstuffed fish tanks in front of restaurants. She cursed the people who’d treated seafood that way, unapologetic in her volume as to how the aquatic life was being mishandled, in her open-ended questioning of who would want to eat such diseased animals now.

One day, as we stood near a squid restaurant, a man came out for a fresh specimen, which wiggled free from his net and promptly squished on the ground not ten feet away from Emma. In this respect, it was a rough couple of years, and truthfully, the anguish my future wife felt at the side of those fish tanks, like bubbly death beds, was what first converted me to the last seven years of vegetarianism.

Since she was a child, Emma has loved in animals. At the age of eight, after watching a show about sausage production, she announced to her largely agro-family that she would no longer be eating their meat. After that, she has more or less remained on a mission to protect and nurture all animals, from the tiny fruit flies that infested our house in Guatemala City (she caught them by hand to release them outside) to the twelve-foot nurse sharks I swam with in the Busan Aquarium (she didn’t go because sharks should be in the ocean).

Our life together, without me fully realizing it, has been largely based around animals. Looking at it now, we spend a large part of our travels searching out dolphins, armadillos, raccoons, skunks, bears, and all manner of animals not native to England. In the seven years we’ve known each other, she’s probably had a dozen different favorite animals. Big or small, ugly or cute, they’ve all got a place in her heart.

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There always seems to be some sort of lingering animal life around. In Istanbul, we adopted a street cat so foul that one insulting name wasn’t enough. It had to walk the earth known not only as Mank Face, but also as Aidsy, Dying Cat, and Son of Crooks (another similar cat nearby had a permanently tilted head thus was named Crooks).

Only Emma and the wierd “Witch Lady” who was squatting in the house next door—I’ll never forget her walking down our street backwards because the hill was too steep for her high heels— would touch the cat. After Witch Lady was evicted, Emma was the sole caretaker and provider. She ended up packing Mank Face to a veterinarian and getting him checked out, only to learn the cat actually had something called cat AIDS (not communicable to humans).

Though the vet said the cat would not survive, Emma paid for medicine that would help it enjoy what was left of its life. And, it did. About a couple months into recovery, Mank Face perked up and even cleaned up a little, before disappearing for a few days. I’m sorry to say it was to be the last hoorah.

When Mank Face finally did return, he was injured beyond repair, as if hit by a car, with parts broken and blood oozing from several locations. He’d managed to make it back to in front of our house but collapsed there. Emma and I found a box, and when we went to get him, the cat used all of its energy to climb in. Sadly, there would be no more recovering. The vet put him down this time.

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That cat wasn’t the first and hasn’t been the last of Emma’s Noah-like capers. She’s adopted several rodents, i.e. mice and rats, who went under the various aliases of Floyd, Collin, Fridgy, and Jebbodiah. Emma, of course, would never catch or cage these creatures.

Her main task was to dissuade their expulsion from certain individuals who might find it advantageous to not have mice and rats around. Often, she hid the identities of the animals, pretended they just weren’t there, until someone else discovered their existence, at which time she would protest that “You can’t kill Floyd” or “You have to hide Fridgy. Don’t let . . . know.”

Unfortunately for Emma, most of the animals she comes across, adopts but does not own, are either half dead already or considered household pests. In other words, her track record as an animal associate reads a bit like death row minister. She has upheld the faith, but by and large, it’s been too much too late for those around her.

Mank Face passed on. Floyd and Collin each got nabbed by extermination. Fridgy, named such for being found horribly injured on top of refrigerator, didn’t make it beyond the first night. Mr. Leafy, a leaf bug, ultimately got squished by—and I stress this—accident when he refused to stay outside despite several warnings.

Others have survived, like those fruit flies (for the rest of their day of life). We used to catch cockroaches in our basement apartment in Istanbul and throw them out of the window to freedom. We’ve each been stung by scorpions in bed, both (the animals that is) of which survived the ordeal. And on it goes.

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All of this is to say that we’ve now got goldfish living atop our headboard. It doesn’t belong to us, which has prohibited us giving it an official name, but we’ve come to refer to it as Bobby Fischer, Mr. Fisherson, and various other fish-based titles.

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Bobby Fischer (my way of getting his attention) came to us by way of Valentine’s Day. One of the mom’s at Emma’s school bought all of the children goldfish as a gift, a few of which were left in bags on the kitchen counter because some students were absent that day. After Fisherson waited for nearly a week (still in the bag), Emma could no longer take it.

She set into motion a rescue mission, first liberating Little Fish (Native American name) from the confines of the kitchen. On the way home, she bought a bowl about the size of a volleyball (“Not as big as the ocean,” she protests), enough food to feed it for a decade, and a little sunken scenery to make the place feel more homey.

Currently, Mr. Fish is in life limbo above my head every night. If the little girl wants him, Emma has said she will return it. She’s also given serious consideration to finding a pond to release Fishy into, but as of yet, we’ve not located one, let alone one suitable.

She spends a lot of time looking at the bowl, worrying over Bobby Fischer, wondering if it’s happy or floating slightly askew, if it has eaten any food or is getting repetitive disorder from swimming in circles. Last night, I had to have a fifteen-minute conversation about the well-being of a rescued goldfish we never wanted because animals can’t be owned and fish aren’t supposed to live in bowls anyway.

So, good people of Antigua, if any of you folks with the fancy houses have fishy fountains or friendly ponds and wouldn’t mind an aquatic chess champion seeking some refuge, now might be the time to say—free delivery with a complimentary, slightly used popcorn container.

*Emma reserves the right to judge the appropriateness of any habitat put forth. The judgment will not be of the concerned animal-anthropist but rather on their interpretation of suitable goldfish housing.

Posted by jonathonengels 12:00 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

La Antigua Detestable

The Secret Complaints of at Least One Antigua Expat

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Check out the latest publication if you haven't already: Ode to Antigua

For a few paragraphs, I won’t cover up the truth. Much of what I and my kind—travel writers—write tends to be on the positive side, glossing over the warts and barbed wire of a place, getting to the “heart” of a country rather than the gloom and doom. A. We (maybe just I) want readers (friends and family mostly) to fight feelings of jealousy, and B. I (maybe we) don’t want to let ourselves succumb to being less than amazingly worldly in our acceptance of things.

In the case of Antigua, I’ve done my best to dazzle, compiling persuasive lists of the wondrous venues on offer, noting the breathtaking vestiges and fantabulous views to behold. The humble amount of readers I garner with each entry have no doubt taken notice, put Antigua Guatemala on their life itinerary for some point in the near or distant future, and are awaiting yet another installment of nudging in this direction.

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Ha! How in for it are they today. Today I’m going to reflect on the despicable, the loathsome qualities in a place I, and most who visit it, find pretty damned pleasant. Today I will take each pleasantry, turn it on its ear, and reveal the oozing wax beneath the surface. These are the hardships an Antigua expat has to deal with day in and night out:

Cobblestone Streets

Oh, I’ve spoken of them highly before, and undeniably, an old-worldly piecemeal roadway is something quite beautiful to behold. That is until you twist your ankle because, like southern Louisiana pavement, the surface is grossly uneven with street goblins just stalking there to trip you up and make you look a fool in front of flouncy touristas. Or, let’s say you drag your feet a little when you walk, some might say it will jerk the sole right off of your shoe.

And, should you try to outsmart the road, get yourself some mode of transportation, be prepared to be rattled like a freaking maraca at a salsa bar. You’ll get off that moped with shakes worse than a few days of not drinking. Hell, I’d rather take an extra twenty minutes to risk my ankle a-walking.

Now, imagine my dismay, when on Sunday morning, I head out for a jog. Hmmphf.

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Sidewalks, You Say

Undoubtedly, the wisecrackers who’ve stumbled upon this are questioning my intelligence: Ever heard of a sidewalk, they are asking under their breath. And, why yes I have, and in fact, for every cobblestone nightmare Antigua boasts so quaintly, there is a pair of sidewalks running right alongside it, each one wide enough to handle traffic in both directions.

Unfortunately, every ten or twenty feet, there is also a concrete windowsill that protrudes a good shoulder-width into the pathway. The result is either the outside person stepping up and down from the street or the inside person pausing at the obstruction until the path is clear of those other damned pedestrians. Often what happens is a lose-lose game of chicken, one swerving into the windowsill while the other plunges off a two-foot curb into a cobblestone crevasse.

Worst case scenario, you aren’t paying attention, and right in front of those flouncy touristas, you walk headfirst into the damned window. Hmmphf.

Indigenous Flute #246

Guatemala is a land of handicrafts, a country rich with vibrant textiles, clever woodwork figurines, and artisan chocolates or bracelets or juggling balls or hammocks or any number of trinkets. Nobody visits here and goes away wondering where all the souvenirs are, especially not Indigenous Flute #246.

It happens to me multiple times on a daily basis. There I am walking down the street, the same street I do every morning, passing the same vendors, and regardless, I hear a little tweedle-deedle-do and can’t resist looking over to guy selling souvenir flutes. It just a dude making a living, and I can’t fault him for that. However, if I don’t start getting recognized as a non-tourist gringo, I’m going to shove a flute…let’s just say he won’t be tooting that thing at me anymore.

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Furthermore, the guys generally at the corner of 6th Avenida and 4th Calle who, after I’ve rejected their flyer for the hundred-and-fifth time, follow up with a whispering offer of cocaine or marijuana. It’s hard work looking like a tourist in this place, much less a beardy, dirty hippy.

Chicken Bus Alley

Despite the cobblestones and sidewalks, I like being able to walk to work: The crisp morning air still chipper with dawn, the absence of the pedestrian calamity, and less chicken buses making their way down 1st Avenida (norte), what I’ve come to recognize as Chicken Bus Alley. If you’ve ever sat at the basketball court at the end of the avenue, waiting for the one Aldea El Hato bus to Earth Lodge, you know why. There are just so many.

Don’t get me wrong: I love chicken buses. Commuting for 57 cents is a-okay in my pocketbook, as are the funky paint jobs, the chrome tributes to Jesus and Mary, and the patented “Guate, Guate” call of the ayudante (transport touts). It is an iconic institution in modern-day Central America. But, the problem arises when you get behind a chicken bus, long past their prime US school buses, and the tailpipe of that old International (how ironic) is coughing black smoke in your face.

Oxford Language Center is at the far north end of 1st Avenida, the corner of Antigua most opposite where I live. Thusly, I ingest an unhealthy dose of engine tar every week.

Sexual Hissing & Ensuing Ogles

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Life as a gringo, as the husband of a gringa, just sometimes isn’t fair, not when it comes to the Latin American libido and the freedom with which many of the local hombres feel to express it. Emma is, of course, more familiar than I with the tsst-tsst that occurs when a foxy female passes. Call it the equivalent to the wolf whistle, but realize its occurrence is far more omnipresent, so much so I’ve been told that some local women are unhappy when they don’t get it.

What’s more is the shameless eye-groping that occurs. Even when the tsst-tsst is absent, there is often blatant head-turning, a telltale moving from chichis to culo as the unoffending lady negotiates her high heels on the cobblestone or cinches her backpack on a little tighter. Those of us raised by my parents have been taught to operate with a bit more tact, i.e. using peripherals. A smidge uppity with my prudish nature, I tisk at the corner boys tsst-tsst-ing and staring so hard at the fair maidens (no doubt) that be.

About a month ago, on one of those Sunday jogs, I was passed by a dump truck literally filled with young Guatemalan men, many of whom treated me as if I were running in high heels. I felt like just another chica, as if the boys didn’t really mean it.

Hey, no matter how wonderful a place is, nowhere is paradise. Sometimes there are hurricanes or mosquitoes or cobblestone streets always under repair because, well, they are old-ass cobblestone streets that are still hammered into place by some poor bastard on his knees in the middle of road. Sometimes an expat writer needs to vent about the situation. Then, we can get back to “living the dream”, relaying the highlights to our enamored audiences.
The truth is, when I leave a place, I almost always look back on the quirks as fondly as anything else, even if only to say, “I survived that.”

Posted by jonathonengels 11:36 Archived in Guatemala Comments (2)

The Great American Road Trip (Not by Kerouac)

How to Find a Place in the World

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Having spent much of my twenties in the classroom, subjecting myself to the harsh workshop feedback of fellow aspiring writers, all of us snooty in a our pre-professorial tweed, I learned to look down my snout at anyone who lowered themselves to work in a genre, to pen less than literary articles for the purposes of sale as opposed to purebred art. I spent years in recovery, sitting before my computer screen with those haunting, judgmental voices in my head.

It wasn’t until a little over a year ago, with much trepidation, that I finally buckled down to writing with the intent to really sell the product. I declared myself a travel writer and began using—as so many say we beginners should—what I’d come to know best. It was a difficult admission at first. Like maybe I’d sold myself short. Like maybe I’d admitted defeat, owned up to not being able to hack it as a fiction author. In other ways, in the long run, the switch has reinvigorated a piece of me that had gone dormant after years of constructively critical abuse.

Recently, I’ve found myself in good company. Travel writing is undoubtedly filled with its own great voices, but I’ve also rediscovered some of those classic caricatures of literature—Twain, Hemingway, Hunter S.—were all into my new scene. These were authors of the highest caliber who’d found purpose in writing about the great exploits of their lives abroad. So, how pleased was I to discover that John Steinbeck, one of the most readable fogies I can think of, also took some fine diversions into the genre of travel.

Travels with Charley: In Search of America finds the aging authorial superstar loading up a custom-designed camper truck and hitting the open road with his best friend, Charley, an expressive canine companion also just a smidge past his prime. Steinbeck, a most astute observer of American life, wanted to go out and rediscover the muse that had inspired his gaggle of great works. What lucky readers we are that he also felt inclined to bring along a journal.

One the great parts of this book is that it seems to happen so organically, like a crafty veteran going about what he does best. Unobstructed by the linear length of a novel or the trappings of any particular plot, our old friend John is left to reflect in whichever ways he feels fit. From the tiptop of Maine, across the country, down and back, he partakes of the idiosyncrasies each state has to offer, slices of culture that are pure Americana but also purely Californian, Texan, and several other –ans.

Beyond the insight into 1960s USA, there is also a portrait of real travel, something more honest than “living the dream”. Steinbeck ponders some of the great quandaries faced when existing out of backpack (or camper truck in his case). In each vignette, he intertwines his own up and down of emotions with what’s around him and what’s to come. He anticipates the next adventure, dreads the next long leg of the journey, and provides a reality that mixes the mundane, incredible, and uncertain—what exactly it is to be vagabonding, even forty years later.

Before ever picking up Travels with Charley, a tattered coverless copy my friend Drew lent me, I’d come to terms with my new creative endeavor, completely at ease with writing pieces less artistic though more publishable. The bulk of my reading came from online travel magazines, save for the occasional good find on a “leave one, take one” shelf of our hostel. If I must admit, the envious oohs-and-aahs calling myself a travel writer elicited, even if loosely earned, had felt better than any recognition I’d received over a short story.

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I took the borrowed copy with me on a trip back to the States this past December and found it hard to put down. It was making me examine my own trip, even if it was only to my father’s house in rural Texas, in refreshing new ways. I was thinking differently about the politics, belt buckles, and easy-moving oil rigs. My perception of the world around me was changing a little, if only in that I was developing one for places less than ostensibly amazing. That, perhaps, is the literary-side of travel writing. It’s not all press trips and ten-best lists.

It hardly seems necessary to recommend a John Steinbeck book, even if Oprah once did and set new audiences all a flurry for one of the great authors of the last century. However, lost in the world of literary fiction, in the bright light titles associated with the Steinbeck brand, I had simply never heard of this book. Amazingly, it reads with humbleness appropriate to its place amongst the classics, as if penned—as it was—by an author who had nothing more to prove but simply wrote from the heart.

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Posted by jonathonengels 09:13 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

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