A Travellerspoint blog

October 2013

In the 'Nook versus Myths of Home

A Vagabonding Expat's Thoughts on the Qualities of a Home, Wherever He May Be


In Loving Memory of Bobby Fisher, The Not Goldfish


Every now and again, when people question my wife Emma about being homesick or missing this or that due to our vagabonding, she likes to point to my armpit and tell them that’s home. We call it the Engel-nook, a name inspired by a vintage of wine we once saw in Korea—Inglenook—and a moment of snuggling before bed. While it’s silly, the Engel-nook also explains a lot about “home”.

I’ve never been a person particularly prone to feeling homesick. As far back as I can recall, and though it did take me a while to expand my horizons, adventuring was always something I longed for. Emma was much the same, and lo and behold, we met in our respective first years of expat life and have remained together and on the go ever since.

What I never expected was just how “at home” I would become in just about any location, places where I can’t speak the language and have to learn how to do routine things like buy groceries. But, in Korea, it was a park that I walked through on my route to school, tofu and spicy noodles for lunch nearly every day, and wild nights at noribangs (private karaoke rooms). In Guatemala City, it was the 101 bus into Parque Central on Sundays, watching sports at a Cheers (the bar) knock-off, and Earth Lodge at least once a month.


And, on it goes: Each place with distinct memories and features that made them home. Food—olives for breakfast in the Middle East, pickles & rye bread at lunch in Russia. Landscapes—that Earth Lodge view, the hills of Istanbul rising over the Golden Horn. Smoking a hookah. Drinking teardrop glasses of tea, tankards of beer. Bowling on Tuesday nights. Found furniture. Get-togethers/friends. Apartment layouts and elevators and walks home and public transportation and…

…strange bathrooms, including one with a fiery electric and shock-delivering showerhead, one which was simply a wet room in which the shower snaked from the sink and soaked the entire bathroom, the one in Palestine with no hot water on freezing nights in a house with no heater, the one we have now where we have to wash our dishes next to the toilet, the ones at Earth Lodge with their myriad of insects to discover and views to behold while…sitting.

I’ve come to learn that home is inevitable, the acceptance of where you are whether you can’t wait to get out—as I remember Baton Rouge, the place I was born and I still envision first as “home”—or you can’t seem to leave: We are about to finally embark on our third departure from Guatemala, over a year late. I’ve learned it’s not where you were born or where you have a storage unit or where you’ve lived the longest or where you know the most people. For an expat, I think for anyone, home always follows you if you let it.


Also, if you let it be, home is variable, beyond “driving distance” or right next door, three bedrooms largely void of furniture or a tiny staff room stuffed with all your belongings and tucked behind a hotel. It might have a TV, or not, or a kitchen sink, or an oven, or a sofa. Refrigerators can be tiny or giant. The view might suck—Guatemala City, Korea, the first half of Turkey—or be incredible, like in Moscow, at Earth Lodge, the second half of Turkey. Home is not a set square footage or obliged to meet expectations. It is what we make of it.

This year, for me, home has been a struggle, mental breakdowns from cold showers when the gas ran out on Friday afternoon and was replaced Monday evening, laundry getting rained on then having to hang it all over the apartment to fester into dryness, having a draining board full of pots and coffee cups on a stool in the shower most of the time because there was no kitchen sink, mosquitoes and wood louse, the 20-minute walk from the market with massive bags of fruit and veg, walking on cobblestones, running into window ledges that take up half the sidewalk, worrying about money. At times, I’ve made home far worse than it is.

But, it’s also been a street with a beautiful volcano to the right and colonial Antigua to the left, fruit trees in the gardens around our complex, five-minute walks to our favorite restaurants and bars, our friends crashing on the sofa couch and the ridiculous heavy room divider we used for privacy, basketball afternoons and evenings with the boys, Earth Lodge at our beck and call, fall freaking football at normal time of day, incredibly delicious fruit and veg, making it work on a two-burner stove with a dorm refrigerator and shotty surge protector, happy hour Fridays, having to wash our dishes next to the toilet, having a draining board in the shower…


…in retrospect, don’t many of those bads turn into fond memories. I remember the good and I laugh at the bad, thankful that it’s over and just as much that I got to live it, wearing the experience something like badge of honor, showing off pictures like certificates of accomplishment. Home is and has always been a survival story.

Home, for me, gratefully, has transformed and continues to do so. As a travel-happy expat, it’s become something far less permanent and luxurious than I envisioned as a college student in the US while, at the same time, every bit as cozy and comfortable as I ever wanted. Home has become fluid and transferable, something in which I welcome change rather than fear it, as I may have done on those first slow steps into life abroad. Home, too, is wherever my wife decides to burrow into Engle-nook and say it’s so because home is more about life than any place or appliance.

So, I suppose it is in this vain, with pleasure and pain, that I bid Guatemala goodbye once more, safe in the knowledge that home is again somewhere out there and that I know this one will always welcome me back.


Posted by jonathonengels 14:06 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Guatemala in Retrospect

A Year's Worth of Articles about My Expat Home



The last year and a half of living in Guatemala has been an unexpected bonus in my life. Somehow a three-month visit/art project turned into a series of delayed departures and fantastic opportunities to remain in a place that I’ve come to affectionately refer to as home. There is so much to appreciate while here, so much to miss when I’m gone, and alas so much more of the world to see.

This will be my last blog entry (at least for this go round) about Guatemala as a travel destination. In November, Emma and I will be embarking on a long-awaited adventure to South America, a trip we’ve managed to forego at the end of our two previous stints as expats here. Knowing we can always return, as we’ve done twice now, our desire to see more of the world has finally outweighed our desire to stay here longer. It’s no reflection on Guatemala (or our great friends here) but more on the equally inescapable intrepid traveling spirit.

For this grand finale, I thought that, rather than rehashing all the great things yet again, I would compile for my dear readers an easy-access collection of all the articles I’ve had published about this place, a source of great inspiration, over the last eighteen months. So, I hope this finds you on a lazy afternoon or in a state of procrastination in which you are able to explore just exactly why we keep returning to Guatemala and why we find it so difficult to leave.


Teach English in Guatemala (published by Transitions Abroad): An overview of my experience as an EFL teacher in Guatemala, specifically Guatemala City, as well as links and thoughts on the nuts and bolts of getting a job here

Entering Tikal, Jungle Heart of the Mayan Empire (published by BucketTripper): A quick look at Guatemala’s premier archeological site, a beautiful Mayan city over 1000 years old

Dual Voluntourism: Help More for Less (published by Transitions Abroad): A guide to working at hostels as a means to helping with the cost of living while volunteering with NGOs

On the River at Finca Tatin in Guatemala (published by Bucket Tripper): An appreciative remembrance of an awesome trip into the bio-diverse jungles surrounding Rio Dulce

An Expat Rite of Passage in Guatemala (published by Matador Network): A labor of love that delves into what is enticing about living here, a country noted for being a difficult mix of danger and beauty

Feeling Antigua, Guatemala's Local Vibe at Earth Lodge (published by BucketTripper): A well-deserved love fest with Earth Lodge, where Emma and I have spent two fantastic years living and working and playing

New Life in Old Guatemala (published by Travel Thru History): A look at the history and historical progression, the making of, one of the Central America’s top tourist destinations, my home, Antigua Guatemala


Swimming in Sacred Water: Semuc Champey of Guatemala (published by BucketTripper): A brief how-to on experiencing one of the most beautiful and tucked away places in Guatemala and, many would say, the world

Ode to Antigua: Central America's Tourist Capital (published by BootsnAll): A confession of love for Antigua and an expat coming to the defense of this fair city, often referred to as the Disneyland of Guatemala because of the abundance of tourists that frequent it

The Shopping ‘til You Drop Tour of Antigua (published by BucketTripper): A blow-by-blow walk through Antigua in which followers get inside info on all my favorite shopping spots and how to make that spree a little more culturally defensible

Your Guide to Traveling Long on the Cheap (published by the Expeditioner): Another look at the hostel culture and tips on how to stay here indefinitely by doing work-trades with hostels, guesthouses, and eco-lodges throughout Guatemala

Most Popular Destination Blog Entry: La Antigua Detestable--A look at the really irksome things about living in a wonderful place

Well, welcome to the end of the list. Hopefully, an article or two enticed you to read on, but looking back at the collection, I notice that it doesn’t take reading all of these to know what a special place this is to me. Let's sum up: Highly recommended.

==Read more here:==


Posted by jonathonengels 09:39 Archived in Guatemala Tagged travel guatemala writing expat Comments (0)

Traveling with Purpose & Panache

Lessons from the Greasy Rider & via Getting Stoned with Savages


Visit The NGO List, my new labor of love, built to connect international volunteers and grassroots NGOs from around the world:

Make no mistake, I like to tell myself in fits of reflection, one learns lots from books but just as much from experience, from going out into the world and doing, grabbing the good of what there is to be grabbed. This month’s contributions to the blogs de book reviews are two fine providers of both of these lessons, and not just that, these are two divinely entertaining specimens.


Inspired (as I can relate) by a very conscientious wife and perhaps a sense of mischief (also, relatable), Greg Melville sets off on an innovative and groundbreaking adventure across the continental US: He and his sidekick, an old college buddy called Iggy, are going to be the first men ever to traverse the country by car without buying gasoline. It’s not exactly On the Road. It’s not exactly Travels with Charley. But, it’s a hell of an interesting adventure.

Unlike other road trip memoirs, Melville’s is unique in that, more than a search for the nostalgic American identity, he and Iggy are getting there as fast as possible, hoping to avoid dive diners with that much-beloved small-town charm, and driving towards the future. The two characters play off each other so well, just like buddies will do, rather tirelessly annoying and challenging one another but stepping up when the time is right.

The result: Iggy challenges Greg to go beyond just the symbolic French fry car trip and investigate several green-themed items, which provide some fantastic detours from the main narrative, including trips to Al Gore’s house (in search for the greenest house in the US) and a visit to Arkansas and Texas to find out about Wal-Mart’s green initiative.

As for me, I moved through this one quickly. I love the idea, the mix of travel and social conscientiousness with Greg and Iggy’s somewhat opposed personalities but shared background. I was reminded how important the trip is, and I was reminded why the trip isn’t enough. Like the Greasy Rider, we as people, as travelers, and as writers must accept the challenge to investigate beyond point a to point b, to move ourselves mentally as well as physically. And, keeping a sense of humor about the whole thing isn’t a bad idea, either.


J. Maarten Troost becomes the first author to appear in this blog twice. A follow up to his very funny (and different) bestseller, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, this book starts with Troost bored of the D.C. corporate life, missing the simplicity, even the diet of rotten fish and threat of lurking sharks, of living on an isolated atoll in the South Pacific. His wife, Sylvia (the girlfriend he’d followed to Kiribati in his first book), who works with development organizations, finds the solution: Another new job in the South Pacific.

This time Troost knows exactly what he’s getting into: a land where cannibalism has been practiced for centuries, where volcanoes are gurgling molten lava and burping ash, where cyclones decimate cities, where young boys chew the root of pepper shrub to produce a saliva-based intoxicating drink called kava, where life is different and maybe easier than on Kiribati but is still filled with all the things that go along with a life abroad.

For me, from a writing perspective, this book is much better than the first. Troost feels in control of his rants and language, his observations still ring hilariously true but more like an investigation on which we are invited along. And, it’s fun. Knowing that this trip was supposed to produce adventures for a new book, he goes out of his way to pursue whatever seems interesting, things we all (or, at least me) want to do but sometimes just don’t manage to.


I dig these books, and I’m excited about the idea of traveling with purpose and panache, especially knowing that my own trip is coming up soon. In support of The NGO List and our own seemingly unquenchable sense of adventure, Emma and I will be setting off this November, from Guatemala to Patagonia by May, with plans to volunteer and check out cool projects doing good things in the world and linger in places that suit us. I can only hope for the wherewithal and drive (literally and figuratively) these two authors had. Some great writing coming from it would just be gravy.

For more writing and ramblings, visit Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad--more blogs, articles, and more:

Posted by jonathonengels 08:06 Archived in Guatemala Tagged me travel books living ngo writing expat Comments (0)

UPAVIM: United for a Better Life

The DoGoodery Marches On In Guatemala


As many of you know, last week Emma and I did our first official promotion of our new website, The NGO List, which was a great success. It never ceases to amaze me the readiness of people to help us. We can throw whatever crazy new project we scheme—an Amazon wish list material drive, a yarn-bombing program, and now another website—and friends rally to the cause. Thank you.

Appropriately timed, this week’s blog entry is my monthly NGO profile, and oddly enough, not twenty minutes ago, I was introduced to this NGO by my friend Bri. She’d come in to find me, as usual, perched in Bagel Barn, flipping through social media sites as my little workday warm up. She told me she’d checked out the site, loved it (of course), and that I should check out UPAVIM for the Guatemala page. Bri is a smart cookie, so I did as she instructed.


UPAVIM (Unido para viva major/United for a Better Life) is a super cool organization originally founded on a sort of fair trade model. They began by making simple handicrafts to employ women and help to pay for a program for the community. The women in the organization wanted to get out of relying on foreign aid for social improvement. So, they took charge.

The handi-craft project was a major success, so much so that it garnered a national award in 2001 for non-traditional exporting. With the cash flowing in from UPAVIMCrafts.org, the ladies who have taken charge of their own fates have helped to start several other amazing ventures. The business has grown so successful that they’ve had to start building an “Annex”, a second complex to house all the good things happening:


1. First and foremost, UPAVIM Crafts has been the lifeblood of the organization since 1991, providing the funds to run a nursery and school, as well subsidize a clinic. A member of the Fair Trade Federation, UPAVIM not only produces its own crafts but also buys from organizations around Guatemala, ensuring that everyone receives adequate money for their work. UPAVIM has an inventory of products in the United States, and the company has shipped to several other countries throughout the world. It’s truly what all NGOs should be trying to do: Creating a sustainable model not reliant on donations and truly empowering the people involved.

2. The Bakery & Store employs a few people from the community: a baker, an assistant, and shopkeeper. Like UPAVIM Crafts, these folks were given a hand up, and ultimately, they have taken charge of their own thing. The bakery and store support themselves and contribute to a general UPAVIM fund, which helps to pay for more expansion.

3. UPA Soya products are another project finding great success. While dairy milk is really expensive, soya milk can be sold at a much more affordable price throughout the community and provide a much-needed nutritional boost. Milk alone, though, just didn’t do the job, so UPAVIM soya production facility uses the pulp to create protein-rich additions for sauces, the base for veggie burgers, and pancakes. And, there’s ice cream! This branch is currently working on being a milk and cafeteria supplier for local schools. Um, as a raging veggie boy, I’m pretty hip to this.

4. The Annex, aside from housing the awesome aforementioned businesses, is also devoted to being a building for building the future. Tutoring programs, a library, and classrooms are spread throughout the complex. Kids are getting cared for and educated, the community now has access to an awesome library (with hopes to expand it) and computers, and there is a plan to start a senior program where elderly folks could come in a get a little something to eat.

5. I haven’t mentioned a lot yet: the medical programs in place, especially the Growth Monitoring program to insure the children are doing well but also the affordable clinic with $2 consultations, the scholarship program helping kids who might not otherwise be able to afford to attend even public school, the English program, and on it goes—cool stuff centered around people finding a means to better their situation through their own efforts.


Want to take part? There are great volunteering opportunities available through UPAVIM, including tutoring, teaching English, and providing medical care. Or, do it from home: Visit their online, fair trade shop to buy a few of your upcoming Christmas gifts--free shipping in the continental US for purchases over $75.

So, there you have it: Another great NGO for the Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad blog and another great volunteer opportunity added to list on The NGO List. Thanks for the tip, Bri, and if by some off-chance someone has made it to this last line of today’s blog but hasn’t visited The NGO List yet, I cordially invite you to take a look after you’ve checked UPAVIM’s website.

Posted by jonathonengels 09:00 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

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