A Travellerspoint blog

August 2013

How to Check Off Your Bucket List More Regularly

Lessons for and from a Weekend in Antigua


I’m fairly excited this week because, after waiting patiently for nearly six months (for, of all things, my mother-in-law to visit), I got to experience three of the five things I most wanted to do in Antigua that I had yet to do. It only took a weekend and about $50. And, it occurred to me how easy it was to do them, how little effort it really took, and how rewarding it felt. It got me to thinking about “bucket list” type things we tend to make and, ultimately, our ability to ignore them.


A New Article on Transitions Abroad: 10 Ways to Experience a Culture Authentically While Traveling. I would love this one to get some attention, some likes and love, maybe a Tweet or two, a comment if you are feeling especially generous. This site is tops in my book, the best paying (for me) and truly informative (for you).


I—and I think many of us—have spent a lot of our lives disregarding the things we want to do. I recall putting off great weekend camping trips because of a two-hour drive then watching six hours of television instead, sometimes 90% of which was composed of nature programs. I was too tired or hadn’t taken the time off to do it or needed to get this or that done. There was always a reason to procrastinate, and it was—is—usually enough. Why do we do this? It’s so unfulfilling and so easy to change.


1. Schedules are worth ignoring for a day. (Friday)

Schedules are a pain, no matter how much you've stripped them down. Since I’ve been living in Antigua, my average day consists of 3-4 hours at Bagel Barn working on the writing side of my life, and 3-4 hours at Oxford Language Center working on the still got-to-pay-for-stuff side of my life. In between, there are lunches, grocery shopping trips, walks across town, occasional basketball games, and a night or two out on the town. I managed to negotiate a schedule of a 15-hour work week before agreeing to my current job then take that and fill up the rest of my day with seemingly non-negotiable obligations. It’s life.

Visiting the Choco Museo this past Friday, however, defied the busy-ness of things. I rearranged my life a little, going to Oxford earlier than normal, putting the writing side of things on hold, and doing something I’ve wanted to do for over a year. But, was it really necessary to wait until there was a mother-in-law here to do it? It seemed that with very little sacrifice or effort I was able to do something that was on my list. My mother-in-law’s presence simply provided the outside influence necessary for me to do what I wanted.

And, the Choco Museo turned out to be awesome, something I’d highly recommend to visitors. Our guide, Pablo, was fun and lively, able to mix a good wealth of information with a healthy dose of tourist-y foolishness, and in the end, I got to make my own chocolate. In fact, we made two types of hot chocolate—Mayan and Spanish (they are very different)—and I made a tray off imaginative chocolates, the type of fabrication that involves a table full of ingredients and someone telling you to mix them and make something funky.

2. If you don’t know how, it’s not that hard to figure out. (Saturday)


Valhalla is an organic macadamia nut farm about 20-minutes outside of Antigua. It’s too far away to walk to, which means for Emma and I, a visit either required talking someone else into going or braving the chicken bus system, which I’ve been told is not even that difficult and even been given directions for. Whatever the case, it’s something that’s been on the backburner for months now because it required…something new.

Then, again, with the mother-in-law in town, it was time to wow her something else, so Friday morning, I talked to Bryant (my boss at Oxford) about going this weekend. He’s a Valhalla veteran, has a car, and loves to host folks. Saturday, a mere fifteen minutes late (Bryant, Guatemalan at heart, is late for everything), he picked us up outside our apartment, our friends Jeff and Salina in tow, with their two children. It was a proper outing, with friends and family. All it took was asking.

And, Valhalla was our type of place. The food was amazing: Macadamia pancakes topped with homemade blueberry jam and macadamia nut butter, coffee grown by people who work on the farm, and free samples. The farm was beautiful and open for exploration, nooks with cool machinery invented by the owner, crannies stuffed with vegetative oddities and experiments. There are opportunities to volunteer there, to camp, to get free facials with macadamia beauty products…The owner, Lorenzo, will entertain you with an old-school, welcoming wit.


3. It’s not too far if you can do it in a day. (Sunday)

We joked at six a.m. over coffee: Emma, her mum, and I had gotten up go to Chichicastenango, and Emma’s mum, let’s call her Sheelagh, has been studying Spanish. Here in Guatemala, many places end with “-tenango”—Acatenango, Quetzaltenango, etc. In Spanish, boobies—read it again, BOOBIES— are often referred to as chi-chis (odd that I used to eat at restaurant called Chi Chi’s). So, to the point, I was caught up explaining to Sheelagh how Chichicastenango was a “land of boobies”. I’m clever that way.

Anyhow, the shuttle picked us up at seven a.m. Emma got a little queasy on the ride, and we were there by nine. Chichicastenango is famous for market shopping (not the aforementioned) here in Guatemala. It’s one of the big destinations to “experience”. I found it a bit disappointing. Perhaps, I’m tainted by having been to a plethora of foreign markets and bought more Guatemalan tourist tat than any one person should ever. We walked around for about two hours, slithering through throngs of people, stopping for the occasional picturesque photo op, and wound up finding a bar balcony to kill time on.

Still, it’s not on my mind anymore. I’m not wondering if I really do want to go to Chichicastenango. I don’t regret going. Most of the time, we don’t regret going, doing things that we want to do. For me, for the weekend, two out of three ain’t bad. I loved the Choco Museo, and I’ll definitely be back at Valhalla. Going to the market at Chichicastenango means, when I leave here this November, it’s one less thing I’ll be wishing I would have done. That makes me feel good, a little more complete.


Admittedly, Antigua is a top tourist destination in Central America. It’s got stuff to do, but as I think back to my life in Baton Rouge, in Memphis, and other places, I know that I had similar lists there: Taking an airboat swamp tour, bike-riding along the Mississippi River, overnight canoe trips, taking full advantage of Memphis in May, the Jazz Fest…there were things, things to create those lists wherever I’ve been, things—new and old—wherever we are, and there are lessons to be learned from a good weekend in Antigua. Yes, we can.

Posted by jonathonengels 07:40 Archived in Guatemala Tagged chocolate shopping guatemala farm antigua expat Comments (0)

Small-Town Living in an International World

Another B-Side Love Song to Antigua Guatemala



Nearly every morning, I write in The Bagel Barn, a rather westernized coffee/bagel shop near the southeast corner of Central Park in Antigua, Guatemala. I sit in the corner at one of the bigger tables, where two two-tops have been pressed together to make a four-top with plenty of space to spread at my collection of notebooks, mouse pad, and coffee mug. Mostly, I come here for that space, for the WiFi I need to work, and for the fact that the staff just lets me at it—one cup of coffee and to work. I come here so often that, when people need to find me, they don’t call, they just stop by here. My old boss, Bri, says I’d be an easy man to assassinate.

On the surface, Bagel Barn is not an especially cultural experience. The food is vanilla in that, if anywhere in the states, even rural Louisiana, you’ve been exposed to 90% of the menu items. At least 50% of the clientele is foreign, many of them plunking down large backpacks next to their chairs as they are fresh off of shuttles or awaiting departure. Others, like me, meander in every morning with laptops and focus, and we are pleased to be here rather than another Starbucks. Well-to-do Guatemalans, the more westernized side of the population, come here, but I’ve yet to see a woman in traditional traje (outfit) stopping in for a quick jolt. The staff is Guatemalan except for the Swiss manager, Isabella, who immediately befriends all.

Still, it’s possible to order in English, and the waitresses—who don’t speak English—have heard it all so many times that they can decipher orders in a foreign tongue, even the hold this-es and add that-s, and manage to get it out right. Isabella knows me by name, smiles at me and always offers a “Buenos dias” and little conversations, making me practice my Spanish rather than her practice her English (which is better than my Spanish). Every day, one of the staff asks me to turn on or turn off the switch behind my seat, adjusting the fan to people’s demands. They often give me a free Maya nut cookie—over a full box’s worth now. Recently, they stopped adding the automatic 10% gratuity to bill, depriving themselves of a quetzal a day (about 12.5 cents).

As a traveler, this is the type of place I’d probably scoff at—hissing at the overtly tourist-y set-up, ostensibly pining for the “real” experience. However, in reality, that authentic experience is something I never really want: Life for most locals is very poor, difficult, and involves an abundance of tortillas, not by choice but bargain necessity. I’ve seen lots of backpackers on lots of tight budgets, but I’ve not seen many so penny-pinched that tortillas and salt is their daily sustenance. Truth be told, as a traveler and/or resident, I rarely deny myself anything I want—beer binges abound, as do well-fatted breakfasts and however many freshly prepared cups of coffee I desire.

As a resident, I feel I’m allowed certain liberties, or more brashly put, I live here so if some tourist-traveler wants to tssk me for being sell-out and frequenting a bagel shop in Guatemala—well, I’ve always got that “This is my home” ace up my sleeve. In my case, I’ve lived here three times, including a stint in Guatemala City, where most people are scared to go let alone live, and nearly two years in Aldea El Hato, a village small enough that most Guatemalans I’ve met away from it have never heard of it. So, can’t have my coffee wherever the hell I want without any authentic experience guilt hanging over my head. Is it really necessary to question that?


In general, Antigua is the destination equivalent to a Bagel Barn. People scoff at the clean, preserved feel of the place, at the abundance of tourists and tour groups running around with cameras and matching t-shirts, at the ready availability of pizza and WiFi and English-friendly locales, and whatever else—the fact that a group of expats regularly frequent a bagel shop at the corner of the what-should-be culturally iconic Parque Central with our laptops and flip-flops and websites/blogs/social media accounts to maintain. For backpackers hell-bent on experiencing the country, this side—though most certainly a real part of modern-day Guatemala— is not particularly suited to their tastes, which are not particularly salivating for the aforementioned vanilla-familiar eateries that much of the world is moving towards.

Living in a place like Antigua is wonderful, unconcerned with the motivations of the raging traveler looking for places where no foreigner has ever tread. In fact, it’s a town where I say hello to Donald, a computer programmer, every morning for the simple fact that we work in the same place (A stout shout-out to Donald for helping me with web-hosting problems last week). It’s a town where my fifteen-minute walk to work might yield a dozen hellos, high-fives, or nods to folks I know or recognize. I’ll see lots of cars. I’ll get offered taxi rides by the same group of taxi drivers I pass everyday because, after seven months of walking this same route, many of them still don’t recognize me from the other internationals. Maybe I should introduce myself? Would that be weird?

Anyway, my time here—the end of it—is nigh again, with less than two months to go, and for the first time ever, leaving Guatemala this time feels less permanent, as if there is little doubt about returning at some point and likely some point soon. This has become a home of sorts, for a person who has all but abandoned “home”. And, one of the main reasons for that warm feeling, that welcoming feeling, is that it’s such an international place, such a small place, where neighbors are often neighbors you know and from somewhere else. It’s not the sort of place I’d want everywhere in the world to be like, but it is the sort of place in which I like to stay and to which I want to return, not to get away from it all but to feel comfortable. A bit like The Bagel Barn, I suppose. I've always enjoyed loitering in breakfast joints. I'm not sure it's something to be ashamed of.

View my blogs and publications at Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad or follow direct links to more articles and odes to Antigua: New Life in Old Guatemala, An Expat Right of Passage in Guatemala, and Ode to Antigua: Central America's Tourist Capital.

Posted by jonathonengels 07:38 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Books in the eGeneration:

“Travel Writing” is More than Travel Books



I started my travel blog over a year and a half ago. I read that it was a non-negotiable aspect of becoming a contemporary writer, even a writer who wanted to earn a living through the craft rather than blogging opinions on the latest iPod (which incidentally earns a lot of people a living). I’d made it my mission to put seven years worth of university towards something related to the degree it earned me: Creative Writing. It was not fiction, as I’d once planned, but travel writing, something much more in-tune to my life since graduating in 2005.

Starting off, I wrote about life as an expat in Russia and the grammar qualms of being an EFL teacher. Some of it was interesting (I think), some of it humorous (to my wife), and all of it fairly self-indulgent. I was writing about me for an audience of people who knew me, or potentially were in need of a new and distant friend who liked to write about himself. Most of the entries, however, I enjoyed writing, and I was sure they were improving me as a writer. It felt right in some way, but I also recognized that I had not garnered the thousands of readers necessary for a blog to earn you some income.

This month, when the last of my internationally-shipped travel books had all been read and my new shipment was in the abyss of Guatemala City’s post office, I stumbled upon a fantastic article about 10 of the Most Inspiring Websites for Aspiring Digital Nomads. I bookmarked it and ignored for the next week. Then, in a fit procrastination—I’ve been having trouble getting the travel words out lately—I opened it up. Lo and behold, I was inspired. Many of the websites/blogs were about creating websites and blogs. Others, such as Nomadic Matt, were more travel-y. Whatever the case, a new fire was set alight.

Firstly, I downloaded an ebook. I’ve not been much of ebook reader, partly because of a dusty pre-Twitter/rugged nomad attitude and partly because my wife uses the iPad and I the laptop. (Seriously, who reads a book on a laptop? Or, for that matter, calls himself a rugged nomad then mentions using a laptop in the same sentence?) Anyway, inspiring website number one was The Art of Non-Comformity, which sounded fairly heady but proved to be as practical as philosophical. The suggested reading for said website was How to Be Awesome, which I enjoyed. Next thing I know, I’m downloading a book: 279 Days to Overnight Success.


Now, I’ve never read a self-help book in my life, feeling that I’m pretty adept at helping myself. This seemed like Chicken Soup for the Writer type thing, but Chris Guillebeau had sucked me in a little (and it was free). I wanted to read what he had to write. Fresh coffee on the coffee table, reclined on the sofa, Emma in the bed reading Spanish Harry Potter on the iPad, I mouse-d my way to the .pdf on my desktop and started. It was really good. Interesting. It was, as promised, very inspiring. I began making notes for a new blog as I read. I began thinking of how blogging might provide me a little more stable income than freelancing. I took another step into the 21st century world of writing.

After his book, after having looked at all the inspiring websites on the list, I got sucked in again with the list’s honorable mention: Smart Passive Income (Smart Passive Income wasn’t in the top ten because the blogger is stationary). However, the site has officially stoked me and pushed me over that final hurdle into acting on my impulse to blog for dollars. Patt Flynn, the generous author, takes readers through a step-by-step recounting as he makes his own income-generating site. Honestly, I’ve read a few of these sorts of articles, trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing, and for once I feel as though I understand what that is.

So, while my book review is a little unconventional this week, maybe less book-y than normal, not quite 100% vagabondish, I’m recommending these two sites. Travelers and aspiring writers, curious cats and kitties of all sorts, I think, would get a great deal from them. Over my last couple of months in Antigua this year, I will be working on this project—my new blog—with the hopes of “launching” it before I leave. What better can one say about a piece of writing than it has literally inspired me to change something in my life.

Don't forget to visit my current website/blog, Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad, for loads of articles and thoughts about travel and being an expat. And, while you're at it, join my Facebook page.

Posted by jonathonengels 09:40 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Saving Sea Turtles in Hawaii—Guatemala

& Another Attempt at a Blue-Green World for Akazul


To those of you who enjoy my blog, you are cordially invited to befriend me on Facebook, include me in your Twitter feed, Link up, Pin me, and/or encircle me with your Google-y world. It's a great way to let us lowly bloggers know we are doing something worthwhile.

Hawaii, the city not the state, is located on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, a mere stone’s throw from the border of El Salvador. It’s a place famous for sea turtles, particularly the endangered leatherback and the olive ridley, and in the same breath, it is known for being one of the last commercial distributors of sea turtle eggs. Herein lies the inspiration for another great NGO working in Guatemala: ARCAS.


ARCAS, a non-profit formed by concerned Guatemalan citizens in the late-80s, has centers throughout Guatemala: in Peten, where monkeys and jaguars are; in Guatemala City, where environmental education takes precedence; and in Hawaii, home of the ARCAS sea turtle hatchery. However, today, perhaps because I’ll soon be visiting the Pacific coast and the hatchery, I’ve come to talk turtles.

While much of the southwest region’s volcanically fertile land has given way to agriculture, the brackish mangroves along the shoreline have remained a healthy contrast and are still rich with life. ARCAS has been working here since 1993 when, alarmed by the depletion of leatherback turtles in the world, the NGO settled in Hawaii to try to prevent the over-harvesting of turtle eggs by the local communities. (Not to be left unnoticed, adult turtles are often victims of the tuna and swordfish industry.)

As it seems is often the case with over-harvested things, the big draw to turtle eggs was not the makings of a really wicked omelet but the belief that it was an aphrodisiac, a la tiger penis and bear bile. (How the world does fall into the whims of impotent men!) Sadly, there are reportedly only around 2000 leatherbacks—the second largest reptile in the world—left in the Pacific, and eggs are pretty important to repopulation. In its hatcheries in Hawaii and El Rosario, ARCAS manages to collect 50,000-plus eggs a year.

But, ARCAS hasn’t stopped at turtle eggs. The NGO also has programs for community development and conservation in the area, with opportunities to volunteer. They are petitioning the Guatemalan government to create 4000-hectare protected park centered on the important mangroves around Hawaii, and ARCAS has even gone so far as to purchase Finca El Salado to start the project off and buffer the mangroves from the encroaching sugar cane farms, as well as monitor the factories effects on the coast. The Hawaiian ARCAS branch also does a lot of work with local iguanas and caiman, two indigenous species, like turtles, in need of population recovery.


Another of the many great turtle projects in the area is Akazul, a UK-born NGO located in La Barrona, not far from Hawaii. In 2010, Akazul was formed by members of a program, Project Parlama (the local word for the olive ridley), that was begun by ARCAS and another UK-based NGO, Ambios. Akazul, derived from the Mayan word “ak” (great cosmic turtle) and the Spanish “azul” (blue, as in the ocean), is also working hard to make sure these turtle stick around a while longer.

Akazul is trying to connect all the turtle hatcheries along the coast in order to build up and standardize the conservation efforts here in Guatemala. As well, they do a lot to educate local communities, preserve the environment, and monitor how all the various projects are going. Like ARCAS, Akazul offers volunteer opportunities, or for those interested in helping from afar, the NGO accepts outright donations, membership fees (which includes a subscription to an e-zine about the project), or nest sponsorships.

Both of these organizations are worth exploring online. I can’t wait to check them out in the flesh in a couple of weeks.

Interested in more awesome Guatemalan NGOs? Check out my NGO page with fresh profiles on some of the great projects to be discovered in Central America's do-goodery capital.

Posted by jonathonengels 08:55 Archived in Guatemala Tagged animals guatemala profile ngo Comments (0)

Opossum—Oh, Possum

and More Solvable Mysteries of North America’s Only Marsupial (More from the Emma Files)


It seems an unlikely travel topic—the opossum—but, with my animal-loving wife at the helm of blog requests, all bets are off. This week hosted a little tragedy in our life when children at the Oxford school found “a rat” helpless on the ground. Unexcited by another mainstream rodent, mostly likely deceased, Emma did not drop what she was doing to check it out.


It was until later, when school principal and sometimes animal handler Bryant Hand came chugging around the corner holding the thing by the tail, that Emma found out it was a whole new animal she was dealing with: a baby opossum. Soon, calls were made to try to locate an organization to take on the little tyke, and with minimal success by mid-day, she left unaware but concerned about the fate of the animal—the first of this type she’d ever seen.

My experience of the opossum as a species is a shaky one. I’ve only seen a few in my life and remember them mostly for needle-like mouthfuls of teeth, weapons that were bared with convincing intent when my flashlight hit them. Near a garbage can, alongside road kill—they were never exactly an animal I wanted in my house, temporarily or permanently. However, upon hearing about the Oxford opossum over lunch, I was fairly certain that would soon happen.

I arrived at school and discovered that this thing had been boxed up and put on the counter in reception. When I peeked through the slits in the side of the box (unwilling to open it), there was but a tuft of fur and a few squeaks to suggest anything more than being your common box full of sticks and grass. I worked on as usual. Then, Bryant started snickering regularly, telling me that Emma had emailed him another link about opossums.


They were coming in rapid-fire. I’ve been on the receiving end of the inbox when my wife gets fired up about something, and let’s just say she’s no stranger to the search engine. Information comes in abundance and with varying focus. And, there is little to stop her when the fate--a mercy death or nursed to health turn of events--of an animal is in the balance. She’d only sent me one email that afternoon, asking if she should come and get the opossum.

When I left the office at around five, Bryant was poised to deliver the opossum to our house that evening. When Emma got home, she’d bought canned dog food for it, was thrilled to be providing me with facts like the opossum can drink soy milk but not cow milk, and had been to a pharmacy to buy a something from which to nurse this thing, recounting how she felt like a junkie when the pharmacist had delivered her a syringe instead of a pipette she was trying to ask for. And, she added, “I’m not an idiot. I know we can't keep it.” That, however, didn’t mean we weren’t going to help it.

Funny idea she presented me with as we went to work preparing dinner and awaiting Bryant’s arrival: Once people touched the animal, “letting nature take its course” was out the window (which is yet another argument for me to proffer on the "don't touch the opossum" websites). By interfering, the course of nature had already been disrupted. Smelling human on the baby, a mother wouldn't accept the thing back anyway, which meant in some sense, one I found myself wholly agreeing with (as is often the case when Emma rationalizes about wildlife), we—the people aware of what was happening—had a responsibility to this animal.

Within a span of about twenty-thirty minutes, I went from feeling as though this was not a task for us to looking forward to watching my wife at work. Bryant arrived in a slight drizzle, donning a six pack of beer and a box of opossum, which he set on our bed. Emma immediately noticed the opossum wasn’t doing as well as it had been earlier in the day. She asked for permission to use one of my t-shirts to wrap around it, completely moved by my consent to do so with a pit-stained three-year-old work shirt, and she took the little baby in the bathroom for closer examination. Unfortunately, the examination revealed why things had gone down hill.


Suffice to say, not all animal rescues end happily. There was only what was humane left to do, and I was glad Bryant was there to take the reins on that one. Over a few tears late that night, I agreed to dedicate a blog to the little guy, and to make Emma’s effort to become knowledgeable about opossums a little more rewarding, I’ll now provide you all with a few fun facts about this wondrous specimen of nature. (Truthfully, the baby was pretty cute.)


  • Mothers nurse the young for two to three months after which they carry the toddlers on their backs, not in the pouches, for an additional month or two. This is how many babies end up in rescue situations: Mothers drop them and don’t notice (Litters are often a dozen or more babies).
  • Contrary to popular belief and cartoon lore, opossums do not hang upside-down by their tails. They do, however, use them for stability while climbing.
  • These suckers are omnivores all-the-way. Not only will they feast on carcasses and road kill (one of the leading causes of opossum deaths is by car while eating road kill), but they also snack on berries, leaves, grass, overly mature fruit, and the occasional snake or egg.
  • I was very surprised to learn that most opossums in the wild don’t live beyond one year, well below their natural possibilities. The large majority perish at the claws of predators or grills of cars. In captivity, they have been known to last up to ten years in some cases.
  • We humans are often cocky about our opposable thumbs, as if no other animal has the right, but we have nothing on opossums. While there front feet don’t have them, the two back feet are equipped opposable digits to help with grabbing, climbing, and clicking the space bar while they type.



  • Never feed an opossum milk from cows or goats. Instead use ESBILAC powder, the formula for weaning puppies. The proper mixture is one part ESBILAC to three parts water.
  • While on the subject of drinking, Gatorade, regular or clear flavors, whichever you generally fancy, can be used to safely rehydrate thirsty opossums.
  • After all of this drinking, both urination and defecation must be stimulated from the babies. This is done by stroking the genital area with damp cotton balls or tissue. Umm…I’m sorry to have seen the little guy go, but I’m glad I didn’t have watch that.
  • Rescued opossum youth will interact socially with pet cats and dogs and, hypothetically, that would be fairly cute. However, it’s a bad idea because, once released back into the wild, an opossum’s survival depends on the fear of these types of animals.
  • Lastly, should the next rescue be so lucky, opossums can be released at 20-22 weeks old but should live in an outdoor cage two weeks prior to release so that they can acclimate to the weather.


Visit my website, Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad, for the latest publications and blog backlogs from Russia and Guatemala. And, by all means, while you are following links, lend a like to the Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad Facebook page--I'm but 21 likes away from 200 and would love to exceed it.


Posted by jonathonengels 07:31 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

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