A Travellerspoint blog

May 2013

Reading to My Heart’s Content:

Books from Across the World


  • Two new articles were published this week: One--Fighting over Dokdo--discusses a little island of contention between Korea and Japan and the other celebrates one of the top spots in Turkey, an amazing desert--Goreme--I'd not heard of before living there in 2010.


I will start by noting the wondrous site which supplied the books (free postage to Guatemala) to be briefly reviewed in the following post. Better World Books: Not only are you saint to the expat in need of something better than James Patterson’s best-selling action novels, but you also raise funds for literacy, donate books, and encourage recycled/used book conglomerates. Kudos!

After my seven used books arrived at the Antigua post office some two months after ordering them, my intellectual life has gotten a lot better. No longer am I watching reruns of Big Bang Theory over breakfast. Lately I’ve been waking up slowly, curled on the sofa with fresh reading, and learning a lot about the world, the world of writing, and perhaps being worldly.

When I first began writing about what I’m reading, I imagined myself reaching back into the annals of what I’ve read throughout my life (or at least my travel reading life). Never did I expect to have gotten through so many books in a month that I’d triple-up on a blog post. Nevertheless, I fear I’ll forget the impact each of these three most recent selections made on me, so I will not delay and I will strive to be brief.

The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival among America's Great White Sharks (Susan Casey)

I couldn’t wait to start this one. I’m without a doubt one of those people who’d make note of “shark week” on The Discovery Channel and try to catch every episode. My wife periodically buys me stuffed sharks, I scuba-dived in a shark tank in Korea, and now that I don’t have Discovery Channel (they have dropped the “The”) it isn’t unheard of for me to download shark shows. Suffice it to say, I liked this book before I read it.

That, however, is not to say it wasn’t fantastic on its own merits. Susan Casey is a first-class adventurer, researcher, and writer. This book, largely centered on and around the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, weaves just the right amount of facts, history, action, and honesty to make even the ninetieth shark sighting exciting. Plus, she doesn’t rise into hoity-toity-ness and deny us of the gruesome details of attacks, both on humans and animals.

On the writing side of things, there was plenty to take from this book. The breadth of her research is incredible, and not just about sharks: Even though it was the Great Whites that’d gotten me aboard this little vessel, the history of the Farallon Islands, the biographies of the scientists that live there, and her life aboard a rickety yacht in famously shark-infested waters all felt relevant and interesting. I really want to learn how to distill facts so fully and seamlessly.

Reading Advice: Do a subject search for a book written about something you love to learn about. Too often I found myself seeking out classics or authors I felt I was supposed to read. I always grind through those books, but give me something on sharks: two days and it was done.


God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre (Richard Grant)

Balls. It takes a pretty pert set of nads to undergo a project like this. The Sierra Madre is known as one of the world’s most dangerous places, both remote in an un-touristed and inaccessible way and in a full of drug lords, murderous bastards, and banditos way. Nonetheless, Richard Grant, taken with the place for reasons only foolhardy adventurers can attest to, decides to cross it. A couple years back I wanted to drive down to Guatemala from States but got talked down.

I’ve come to appreciate this kind of book lately. Writers who attempt such ill-advised feats tend to do so with a fairly clear sense of humor about it. Responsibly, Grant works hard to prepare himself for each new endeavor, including learning to ride a horse before he goes, but he also purposely puts himself out there for the experience. I won’t say he’s fearless, but he’s certainly willing to scare the shit out of himself. Most of us, including me, could use a bit of that.

As a traveler, it makes me think of self-imposed limitations. I really like this sort proposition travel (and the consequential book to follow), willing one’s self to rise above a challenge, akin to running a marathon or finishing a bottle of whisky. I admire taking simply moving and making it into a goal-oriented adventure, accomplishing something. Traveling can be so much more than going places, and travel writing so beyond quaint things and sun-soaked details.

Reading Advice: Look for a book that’s about something you wouldn’t mind doing. I don’t know that I’ll be going to the Sierra Madre anytime soon, but I’ll definitely be giving myself such proposition challenges on upcoming travels. It’s nice to feel inspired.

Travel as a Political Act (Rick Steves)

Traveling has undoubtedly changed me politically. Before I left the States, I’d never boycotted anything, didn’t what NGO stood for, had only ever volunteered as a homework assignment and believed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had been going on for centuries. I grew up the Deep South with a family whose livelihood centered pretty squarely on Exxon. In college, my leanings slowly turned tree-friendly, but none of it really affected my life one way or another.


My new awareness has, at times, stymied folks on my visits back “home”. And, I can’t fault them: It was me who changed. Suddenly, I can’t shop at Wal-Mart, don’t eat McDonald’s (or meat), won’t drink Coca-Cola products, would never go to Starbucks, and the list has grown each time they see me. I must seem like a self-righteous prick. For that reason, and lacking the eloquence to present my findings, I’ve done little in the way of explaining these changes.

Rick Steves nails it. To my chagrin, he promptly announces himself as a Lutheran and America-loving white guy (I’d more or less guessed this from his picture), but it was I who turned out to be the stereotyping a-hole. Steves presents an amazing collection of insightful and mild (note: not just mildly insightful) essays about politically-charged countries and conflicts, and he manages to capture what it is to be truly changed by going somewhere. I enjoyed it such that I actually plan to read this book again.

Reading Advice: Read to change and/or clear your thoughts. Watch a movie or TV show for bland entertainment. I actually bought this book expecting strong lefty politics, a little back-patting for myself, and came across something that was much more rewarding. I’d love for my family and friends to read this as I feel they’d understand the expat version of me better. I know I now do.

Well, folks, I hope one of these latest books appeals to you and that you promptly buy it and buy it from Better World Books at that. I certainly enjoyed reading them, and I look forward to telling about the other good stuff I’ve got on the go. Until then…

Posted by jonathonengels 08:50 Archived in Guatemala Tagged me books expat Comments (0)

Are you AWARE?

Saving Domestic Animals in Guatemala


My lovely wife Emma is both revered and infamous for her consideration of animals. My favorite story to tell is when she once spent two days with a humane “orange juice trap” to remove a population of fruit flies that had come into our house in search of breakfast bananas. She’d let a ten or so flies enter a glass with a quarter-inch of OJ in the bottom of it, quickly cap it off, then release the offending insects outside, just beyond our doorstep. Most people mocked her about the life span of fruit flies, but it didn’t stop her.

Not surprisingly, Emma has influenced me greatly in this area over the last eight years. In the moment this became clear to me, freshly stung by a scorpion, my first inclination was to scoop it up and throw it out of our cabin rather than squish it. She’s had this effect on loads of others as well. Many people who’ve watched her painstakingly care for or save animals have later contacted us to say the can no longer stomp on a cockroach or spray ants. Of course, as you’ve read before (or, at least, I’ve blogged before), it’s not just a mission to save bugs.


To the point, in my monthly, self-imposed homework to promote the work of an NGO based here in Guatemala, and in honor of my wife’s great effort to spread inter-species peace, I’ve selected Animal AWARE as this month’s NGO:

Animal AWARE (Animal Welfare Association – Rescue/Education), to be clear, is an animal shelter that has been working to improve the lives of domestic animals in Guatemala for over fifteen years now. Located just outside Antigua, the organization’s name has been a byword for me over the last few years, both as a place for tourist to visit (every Sunday from 10:00 to 3:00) or volunteer ($5.00 a day with a place to stay). Currently, the shelter houses more than 400 animals, all of which need love, care, and attention.


In an effort to save Guatemala’s domestic animals, AWARE campaigns, a la Bob Barker, to have pets spay and neutered to prevent more stray animals, including monthly “Castration Days” (ouch!) on which the procedure (as well as spaying) is provided at huge discount. Additionally, it’s the biggest no-kill animal shelter in Central America, looks for both adoptions and sponsorships for its resident animals, and even has program for sending puppies to the States. Therein lies the Rescue side of AWARE.

As the acronym suggests, another large part of the NGO is based on education. One of the many issues going on in Guatemala is the mistreatment of animals. As in many cultures, the value placed on the lives of animals is often viewed no more than their usefulness. Dogs might be tied to a stake for its entire life in order to “guard” something, or when the cute puppy grows up into a dog, it’s abandoned. Street dogs in Guatemala, throughout Central America really, are plentiful and simply hard to look at: matted fur, ribs protruding, often at the end of a swift kick from a child who knows no better. AWARE works to teach those children a different way.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s possible to help the AWARE project by visiting on Sundays or volunteering your time at the shelter, as well as animal sponsorships and adoptions. And, of course, interested parties can bestow a plain old donation to help cover the costs of food, grooming, walking, equipment, and vaccines. Perhaps one of the coolest things going is sponsoring a FeLV cat (a cat with feline leukemia), which would be put to sleep elsewhere but is provided with special separate housing at Animal AWARE.

I hope you’ve found this organization as inspiring as I have, and even if you won’t be found catching fruit flies in an orange juice trap any time soon, remember there are many other ways to help animals. This might be a nice way to start.


  • Don't forget to check out my new Facebook page -- Expat Expeditions: A Life Abroad -- for links to various great travel websites and a variety of articles by yours truly.

Posted by jonathonengels 13:12 Archived in Guatemala Tagged animals ngo expat Comments (0)

5 Dastardly Moments of Rainy Seasons Past

April Showers Got Nothing on May



The month of April, as it does here, showed a significant and predictable change in the weather. The lucid blue and virtually spotless skies of dry season slowly began to cloud over, even giving us a couple of afternoons of rain. My walk home from work has begun to feel a bit like a crapshoot, the early evening threatening to drench me on my cross-town commute at the end of every shift. Ladies and gentlemen, rainy season is again rearing its ugly little headwinds.

For those of you unfamiliar with Antigua Guatemala’s particular weather phenomenon, it is thusly: November through April is Southern California without the smog, and June through October is knee-high rubber boots and water-logged hearts. The rain cometh and cometh with fiber-enriched regularity. In our first year in Guatemala, my cane-style black umbrella was such a fixture at my side that our staff manager, Hergil, nicknamed me Mr. Peanut (as seen with a monocle, top hat, and black cane on Planter’s brand products).

Anyway, it seems our days of arid summer fun are reaching an end, and so in preparation for the stormy days ahead, I thought I might recount some of the highlighted atrocities of my life under Guatemalan rainclouds. I will not succumb to fear. I will not succumb to fear. I will not succumb to fear, I say!

Tropical Storm Agatha: Earth Lodge 2010


We’d been back less than a month when Guatemala seemed to be naturally imploding: Volcan Pacaya had just spewed about three-foot of ash onto Guatemala City, a massive sinkhole suddenly swallowed an intersection, and Tropical Storm Agatha was bearing down. The rains had come unrelentingly, knocked out our power, washed out sections of the road and caused mud and rock to block others. Guest arrivals and departures had become questionable at best.

We had a yoga retreat at the Lodge that weekend. They’d rented most of the place, and the sessions were to be held outdoors. They were not. The storm simply pelted us inside. The main communal space, under major construction at the time, had rough concrete floors and garbage bag windows. The yogis, to their credit, sucked it up (often with a shot of whisky) and did classes on the concrete, a small circle of candles providing the only light on those sunless days.

We went nearly a week without electricity, cooking for a full-house via candlelight and torch. Finally after a few days, I had a mental breakdown and could no longer sit inside. In torrential rains, I talked a guest into playing muddy cornhole with me, which sounds a lot dirtier than it is. The storm resulted in terrible mudslides throughout Guatemala, some of which buried the nearby town of Cuidad Vieja in a bad way. El Hato was not without slides of its own.

Kayaking to Livingston: Rio Dulce 2012


A few weeks back, Emma and I traveled to Rio Dulce near the Caribbean coast of Guatemala for a visa run and some R&R. The day after we arrived, the sun was like a heat lamp, almost unbearable, the sky unblemished. We stayed around our wicked jungle hotel, Finca Tatin, swimming and lounging the day away, both of us sunburnt pink by that first evening. It was more or less the last sun we’d see for the remaining three days we had there.

Trying to overcome the deluge, we took a kayak out for a trip to Livingston (on the coast), the nearest city and about two-hours’ worth of paddling. We figured that a little drizzling wouldn’t dampen the spirits of water-sporters. About midway down the Rio Dulce, the drizzle turned into an all out water hose in the face. We could barely see beyond the tip of the kayak. There was around an hour to civilization in either direction.

Following the lead of some local fisherfolk, we pulled our kayak under an outcrop of rocks along the walls of the canyon. There we sat waiting the storm out, stuck soggy-bottomed in the kayak. It lasted long enough for us to discuss when we’d just go. Having followed the locals under the shelter, we decided to follow them back out. After it slowed down to a drizzle, they set off as did we. Could’ve been worse: we’d only waited there a little less than an hour.

Mr. Peanut & Shell: El Gaute 2008


That first year in Guatemala, when Emma and I were working in the city, one of the first classes I got was an off-campus account with the Shell (Oil) Corporation. The office was about a thirty minute walk from our school, and every afternoon I’d head there to teach my class, little black cane-umbrella in hand. Generally, the weather would be fine on the walk to it.

When I left Shell, the rain had always just reached its peak. Without a car, without a good command of the buses, I was stuck walking back to work. Umbrella or not, those walks nearly made me pack on out of here. I’d get back to work late afternoon, two more classes to teach, with my pants soaked from thigh to foot, my shirt disheveled from rogue wind gust that would turn my umbrella inside out.

Mom’s Day in Antigua 2008

My mother, against better knowledge of Guatemala City, came to visit us in 2008. Visiting the city can be a little limiting as walking around after dark, riding the bus, or wandering into one of the omnipresent unsavory areas basically keeps you indoors 90% of the time. We’d done our best to entertain my mom, taking her to Zone 1, where the historic buildings and tat market is. But, by and large, we were banking on our trip to Antigua as the clincher, the jaw-dropping finale.

We took the chicken bus and basically arrived in time to escape a downpour by ducking into Red’s Bar, a little hole in the wall sports joint. After a couple of hours, my mom’s day in Antigua got reduced to being rained in and increasingly intoxicated, not always a bad thing but not exactly a cultural eye-opener. We’d gone to Red’s to wait out the rain. It never really stopped.

Rain on a Wet Tin Roof: Earth Lodge, Todo El Tiempo


On shit days at the Lodge, usually the thing I most wanted to do was bury myself under communal blankets in the movie room and watch as many of the 1000-plus DVDs as possible. Generally, the anemic WiFi just completely coughed out, books were less appealing without a hammock to swing in, and it was an excuse to not have to earn my keep via construction work. I just could sit on my ever-plumping ass and watch crap.

One problem: When it rains, it typically rains hard. The lodge’s roof is made of tin, and not the plush, heavily insulated and silenced kind my father put on our farmhouse in Baton Rouge. At EL, it’s loud. Though we had a subwoofer-surround sound system hooked up to the 1990s hand-me-down TV, the cacophony of rain on the tin roof could drown out a clown riding Harley wielding a machine gun. I just wanted to some Sons of Anarchy.

I’d usually battle with it for an hour or so until I finally gave up and grabbed a beer. And, least be honest, starting on the booze at 10 AM is probably not the best remedy for warding off a gloomy day.

  • * *

This year I will not succumb. This year I see myself as a pedestrian Lt. Dan shouting out to the heavens to bring it on. Rainy season, you suck.

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Learn about one of my favorite spots in Ferrying to Princes' Islands in Istanbul--my latest publication on BucketTripper.com.

Posted by jonathonengels 12:48 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

Brooklyn in Guatemala?

Fun with Fundraising


Thanks to those of you who've been bestowing likes, tweets, and comments on my articles. It's a great help for me to have pieces perform well for the websites that buy them. So, without further ado, here are the latest publications: How to (and Not to) Volunteer Short-Term on Transitions Abroad and Walking Istiklal into the Heart of Istanbul on BucketTripper.com

The Brooklyn Banner Flying at Earth Lodge

The Brooklyn Banner Flying at Earth Lodge

A couple of weekends ago, I got to take a little Sunday retreat up to Earth Lodge, an occurrence that isn’t all that foreign to me, a presence not all that surprising for the folks up the mountain. Earth Lodge, as is often the case, was hosting yet another fun-loving event on its serene and hippie-friendly front lawn. However, this time I’d come hungry for blood, my competitive spirit on heightened alert, my taste buds thirsty for…Brooklyn.

For those of you unfamiliar with Guatemala’s suds selection, for many years it basically boiled down to Gallo, which (like Budweiser or Michelob in the US) has several varieties that are fairly similar, or Brahva, the equivalent to Natural Lite. However, unlikely as it sounds, Guatemala has recently become a massive outlet for Brooklyn micro-brewed beer, imported into the country by none other than Mono Loco showman extraordinaire Boston Billy Burns, a Yankee-hater and world-class…cornholer.

Cornhole—that’s why I was arriving with a mean competitive streak. For those of you unfamiliar with cornhole, a beanbag game invented in the states, it is one of those “sports” that both yields a lot of poop-talking and is best played with a beer in hand. And this is why Boston Billy and his Brooklyn brew have suddenly entered the picture: Brooklyn was sponsoring the fourth annual tournament, with discounted beer and proceeds going to our favorite NGO, Las Manos de Christine.

Billy Battling with His Brother-in-Law Charlie

Billy Battling with His Brother-in-Law Charlie

Now, for yet another fact to clue you in on: When I was a resident of Earth Lodge, I was known to be one bad mammi-jamma on the cornhole boards. Some might even have said (at my heavy suggestion) “the best they’d ever seen.” However, like so many greats before me—Dan Marino, Ted Williams, Pistol Pete Maravich—I had never won the big one, never taken down the best Antigua had to offer. So, Brooklyn in hand, I attempted to remedy that situation.

What I learned that Sunday afternoon, however, is that without regular practice, as I had when living at the Lodge, skills diminish. All was going well. Emma and I had taken our first two games with relative ease, never really breaking a sweat. Then, we hit a buzz saw in competing couple, Bryant Hand (Las Manos founder and cornhole amateur at best) and Mari (Las Manos teacher and professional gardener). They smacked us around: 11-1.

Shaken but not completely stirred, we rested confident that we were still in this thing, a double-elimination type situation. Then, we had to match up against Boston Billy himself, and his wife Kate, hot off a win and rolling their way towards the finals. Kate was so cocky as to have played a couple matches with a baby strapped to her chest. They, too, handled us as if we were a pair of LeBron James clones in the 2011 playoffs. From there, I had no choice but to became a spectator, something akin to washed up has-been cheering from the sidelines.

In the end, it was the Cinderella team of Jeff Duncan (husband of Salina, the Las Manos leader), and Elias (a basketball-enthused Swede) who took down Billy and Kate in the finals. Handshakes were exchanged, celebratory and consolatory beers hoisted, and in the end, we all accomplished what we’d set out to do: Had a great time raising some cash for a great cause. On a mission to keep the spirits of us losers up, Drew (owner of Earth Lodge) made the rounds with Earth Lodge’s new freshly smoked cheeses on the house. It worked. thirty minutes after the tournament, pick-up games with side bets commenced and the heavy tension of stoic competition dissipated.

I love this about living in Antigua, a place with some serious business and equally as serious support happening. It seems just about every weekend something tremendous is going down, something both fun and philanthropic to be part of: Runs, barbecues, music shows. Without a doubt, swilling some Brooklyn brews over games of cornhole at Earth Lodge to raise money for Las Manos de Christine basically sums up the ultimate amalgamation of fundraising for me. I just wish all my friends, from Baton Rouge to Russia, could be part of it.

Until then, I'll keep you informed. Cheers.

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The Earth Lodge Crew Slightly Askew

The Earth Lodge Crew Slightly Askew

Posted by jonathonengels 13:26 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

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