A Travellerspoint blog

July 2013

Mescal Mornings: Y Tu Pina’s Rise to Power (in My World)

The true meaning of vacation and how to get there anytime

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Thanks for tuning in to this week's blog. If afterwords, you'd like to sample a few more of my recent endeavors in writing, check out these: Camping in Yosemite Village & Skywalking over the Grand Canyon, or link up to all my musings at Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad. Now, let's get started...

It’s a few past one, Saturday afternoon, and I’m two drinks in on slow start to the weekend. I think I originally vowed, at least to myself, not to move down here and start becoming a promotion whore for places, but Y Tu Piña, Tambein’s recent renovation and menu reboot has left me feeling charged for the second weekend in a row. I’m writing this not as a service to them but more as a service to the world: We need more breakfast joints/cafes geared specifically towards thwarting (or starting) the hangover, coffee shops with more cocktails on the drink chart than different ways of saying coffee with milk. Y Tu Pina and Illegal Mescal have won my heart all over again. Here's how in two steps:

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Step One: Finding My Weakness

A friend of mine once said, “If you can’t drink a beer for breakfast, you’re not on vacation.” Antigua’s indie-vibe coffee shop, Y Tu Piña has picked up on this need and run with it. My drink of choice: the Illegal Maria, a combination of Illegal Mescal and amped-up Bloody Mary mix with chunks of garlic and coarsely cracked peppercorns. It comes in a beer tankard. There are other worthy choices, twists on morning drinking classics like the tequila sunrise (also done tankard-style with mescal), Bloody Marys, and screwdrivers. Coffee, con or sin leche, is available, but the hair of the dog is the feature, i.e. your choice of cocktail with your brunch.

I’m not vacation, but by god, after a morning at Y Tu Piña, I feel I should be. I even had to talk myself down this week: I went Thursday morning to do a little writing—a coffee and loiter type affair—when my mouth started watering for one of those Illegal Marias. A slight perspiration on my brow, a little shake in my typing hands, I kept my head down, kept working, and prayed it would pass. I had teaching to do that afternoon, and it’s probably a good thing I did, else my wife would have come home from work to find a slightly slurring spouse. I’m just saying they are good.

Step Two: Funking Up Breakfast

I love going for breakfast. I love it so much that, when a college student, I’d come home from bars at three and eagerly wake up at six when my father would call me to meet him. While I neither go to bed that late or get up that early anymore, my affinity for hash browns, grits, and biscuits—all that Southern heart attack medicine I grew up with—has not diminished. Not to say, Y Tu Piña offers any of it. However, they are offering something a little different than the same old, same old running around town.

So far, my favorite has been the "desayuno erecto", or shall we say erect breakfast, which more bluntly put inspires a bit of a breakfast erection, aka morning wood all over again. Two fried chicken drumsticks, four donut holes, and a handful of sweet potato fries are skewered and hovering above a spiked breakfast beverage. It’s artful, it’s magical, and it’s picturesque enough to make me question eight years of vegetarianism. Other options include the Cheesus is the Way fancy cheese grilled cheese sandwiches with a likeness Christ branded into your bread or the "egg mcfuckin' muffin".

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So, if you happen to be in Antigua, I’d definitely say it’s worth a shot, and that that morning shot at Y Tu Piña, Tambien is more than worth it. If you are not here, then do what you can and ride that vacation vibe. It’ summer people! Get some alcohol in your system before the day turns into grocery shopping and laundry baskets. Eat something fried and fattening. There is always tomorrow to get back to the straight and narrow.

I want to thank my readers and friends for their continued support and interest. This week my blog got its 10,000 unique visitor and has nearly 12,000 page views. That may mean little to you guys, but it means a great deal to me. The better my stats, the more likely this blog will eventually help me earn some money, so please keep reading and I'll do my best to keep something interesting coming your way.

Posted by jonathonengels 12:00 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

The Fiction Side of Travel Writing

Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast: A reminder that stories--even travel stories--don't have to be true to reveal truths of the world.

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Well, six months into this year’s tour of travel books and I’ve taken on a novel. Paul Theroux is a legend in the field of travel writing, both for his fiction and non-fiction accounts of the world, and The Mosquito Coast is perhaps his most well-known book. And, rightfully so. Like many from this year’s list of recommendations, this book doesn’t need my seal of approval, but I’ve come to give it anyway.

The Mosquito Coast is the tale of an American family leaving a working class life behind to try their hand in Honduras. More so, an American family follows a big-thinking Father into the jungle. I must admit straight off: There is a movie, an 80s classic starring Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, and River Phoenix. I’ll also say that, having seen the movie only increased my enjoyment. Ford does such a stellar job with the character of Father, an opinionated anti-capitalist inventor, that it was him I pictured thundering through the Father’s decrees.

And, it’s Father who drives this book. He waxes philosophically about the decay of America, what people need to be doing, his own prowess and achievements, and how he’ll improve the jungle communities of Honduras through ice and ingenuity—all topics that pique my curiosity. In a haunting way, the assuming declarations of Father ring familiar to my ears. In many ways, they sound sensible. Ultimately, his madness reminds me not to go too far or get too vocal, or at least to think first. He’s insightful and inspiring but, in the end, equally as difficult to believe in.

The story itself is a great look at the lives and possibilities of rural communities, and especially recognition of why life there is the way it is. It’s an interesting foray into a dream many of us travelers have, that moment where we finally pack it up and start our own world on brawn and wit, teaching some locals the tricks of our trade. Father leads his family and his deftly purchased village, complete with villagers, to great heights initially, but he learns some hard lessons. I hope I remember them when my time finally comes.

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Most of the us, from time to time, dream of falling off the grid, but many of us—certainly me—fail to grasp just exactly what that means: No more ordering books with free international shipping! WiFi! 80s classic films! Afternoons in really nice café bars with a Bloody Mary, nothing to do, and friends from all walks of life. While this is nice in spurts, is it really what I want? The Mosquito Coast was a great reminder of just how great I have it, regardless of whatever frustrations that seem pertinent to escape forever. It moved me to consider differently where all the traveling will take me in the end.

As a writer, and especially a travel writer who once specialized in fiction, Theroux provides a nice reminder of the possibility of combining those old ambitions with my new life. I knew it was out there, but it was nice to see it living on the page. This one is definitely something different from the memoirs I’ve been delving into lately. It’s something—travel fiction that is—I hope to try my hand at when all is said and done, which is probably a better idea than founding my own village in the jungle.

Check out more blogs, travel articles, photos, and NGO profiles on my website--Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad

Posted by jonathonengels 12:35 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Hug It Forward Inspires Communities with Garbage

Building Schools with Bottles, Rallying Communities with Education

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It was in our first week living at Earth Lodge, over three years ago now, that Emma and I first learned of Hug It Forward. They came down in a massive group, and as their t-shirts suggested, the entire group was delivering big hugs to everyone they passed. I couldn’t help but think: Who the hell are these people and who do they think they are?

Then, a man I would later learn to be Vice President Heenal Rajani—a big smile on his face and an ease about him, where steps almost seemed to bounce beneath him—came right up and laid a warm one on me. Hug that is. Then, he continued on his merry way, making the rounds before coming back for a chat. The entrance created such a nice vibe, and I’ve never forgotten it.

What’s all this hugging about, then? Hug It Forward is an NGO, a grassroots type thing, that helps communities build special eco-brick schools from trash, both empowering the community with education and cleaning up the world by using garbage constructively (quite literally). The hugging side of things was once used for fundraising but I think has always been more or less for producing smiles. It works.

Great Ideas from Hug It Forward

Since that first meeting at Earth Lodge, in which Heenal actually took off his shirt and gave it to me because I so wanted one, I’ve been continually impressed with organization. They really have a great approach to their mission:

Hug It Forward also strives to raise awareness in developed countries about trash, consumption and the power of community. This mission is equally important to us as facilitating the construction of bottle schools in developing countries.

They do so many pointed and important things on this mission, things that make them more than a crutch but rather an inspiration to the communities that they work with. First and foremost, unlike many NGOs, Hug It Forward doesn’t come in a build a school for a village, but rather helps the community build the school themselves, creating a sense of ownership and achievement and independence. It means those who get the benefits are willing to earn them.

Two of the biggest problems in Guatemala (or the entire impoverished world) are an excess of trash, especially in litter form, and substandard education. Hug It Forward found a way to combat both of these issues in one great package. They’ve taken trash, built something useful from it, and in turn, taught thousands of people about the environment and their own power of community, including the ability to provide their children with a quality learning environment.

By now, those of you new to Hug It Forward are probably wondering how exactly one builds a school out of trash. Basically, the technique uses “eco-bricks”, created by stuffing plastic bottles with inorganic material, as opposed to typical cinderblocks. In other words, using the trash both cleans the place up a bit and saves the environment by not contributing to the use of more cinderblocks. That’s it in a nutshell, but true to form, the Hug It Forward folks, wanting the projects to stretch beyond just their NGO, created a free Bottle School Manual.

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A History of Hugging

Since late 2009, Hug It Forward has helped communities build 27 schools, and as of May 2012, the organization completed its first project outside of Guatemala (in El Salvador). There are three new schools in progress. Hug It Forward has average a new school every two months. In other words, a lot has been happening since those early days at Earth Lodge, and a lot of people have reaped the benefits of hugging.

Additionally, great new programs and ways to become involved have evolved. Now, in collaboration with Serve the World Today, Hug It Forward offers one-week voluntourism trips, allowing conscientious holidaymakers to work hand-in-hand with a community to build a new school. It allows anyone to become part of this great project, to really get a feel for Guatemalan history and culture, and truly help to improve the lives of people working for that change.

Otherwise, it’s possible to support the organization through outright donation (it’s a registered NGO, which means tax deductable), shopping at the Hug It Forward store, or doing any one (or more) of the “Easy Five-Minute Things to Do”. So, make the most of reaching the end of this article, scroll back up, and start following some of these links. These folks can get you fired up on helping the world and will likely give you a few nice squeezes in return.

Posted by jonathonengels 11:46 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Saying Adieu: Celebration of Life on the Go

(For Charlie, Bobbi, & Max)

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Yesterday, I delved into what was supposed to be this week’s blog sampling of expat life, a harrowing tale of our recent and epic visa run to Mexico. Last night, though, we attended a leaving party for our friends Charlie and Bobbi. They’ve been Antigua regulars for quite some time now: home owners, parents with children enrolled in school, frequent attendees of Earth Lodge Sunday music shows. Quietly—and I use this word loosely in Charlie’s case, they’ve been people with wide smiles and warmth whose presence always made a day a little more pleasing.

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They are leaving at the end of the week. It’s been coming, and we all knew it, slowly growing colder to the idea. It’s a bittersweet goodbye I’ve experienced many times in my life abroad: Friends, fellow expats with adventures of their own to undertake, set off on the next phase of their particular path. Charlie and Bobbi are heading to Kenya to take new positions at an old craft: teaching. Max, their awesomely bright son, has talked incessantly about the animals he’s going to see and maintained a running count of the days until. It sucks, but more so, it’s fantastic.

Last night at the party, a Mono Loco event with a locally star-studded cast (including Mike Tallon—whom I hadn’t seen in ages, which is far too long), it became very clear that this week’s expat rambling, despite the 2000-plus words I’d already written, would need to be changed. It became clear when I walked back in after a smoke break to find Charlie, Bobbi, and Billy atop the bar dancing to some eighties tune about going to Africa. There were the smiles and, on the faces of the customers, looks of mild confusion. Billy began shouting down to Grant (the bartending maestro) what to play next.

I’d heard of nights like this at Mono Loco, where sports gave way to juvenile madness and Billy and Co’s devious sides take over. I’d never seen it, which made it all the more enticing and all the more painful to see my friends go. Charlie has one of the faces that is raw expression: happiness bursts like bliss from his smile, surprise seems to spring from his eyes, and laughter echoes from somewhere true and deep within. It was in not-so-rare form atop that bar. There has been a rash of man-love going out to him lately, a lot of us grieving his inevitably disappearance, but alas the world tour must continue.

So, I’ve let my departing friends inspire me to remember the many I’ve met along the way to today, from those that remain in Baton Rouge, in Memphis, to those that passed through in Korea, Russia, Turkey…Guatemala and those on the travels in between. It’s been a hell of an adventure getting here, and it’s been even more fun for having met, gotten to know, and gotten to say goodbye to so many memorable, impactful folks. I hope to see Bobbi and Charlie and Max again, and I really hope to do so in Kenya next to a giraffe or some such thing, if only by photo should I not make it there.

A great thing about life on the go is that that—seeing them again—is entirely possible. In the past few years, I’ve met up with old friends in Istanbul, in Nablus, in Guatemala, England, Oregon, and Missouri. I’m never without somewhere to go, never without someone to see in some place I’ve never been, and that’s a fantastic excuse to keep going. I’ve kept in touch with many, if only by scrolling through a few photos on Facebook every now and again and dolling out a Like or quip, gawking at the great places they are seeing.

And, I suppose that’s why it’s worth it to take those arduous visa runs to Mexico every now and again: To get but a slice of fine folks to take with you to the next place and, at our best, give a piece of ourselves to them. Bon voyage, guys. See you soon.

New articles for old friends: How to Survive and Thrive Living in Korea as an EFL Couple and Traversing the Mississippi on Mud Island in Memphis, Tennessee

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Posted by jonathonengels 10:49 Archived in Guatemala Tagged guatemala antigua expat Comments (0)

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