A Travellerspoint blog

Saving Sea Turtles in Hawaii—Guatemala

& Another Attempt at a Blue-Green World for Akazul


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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)

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

The true meaning of vacation and how to get there anytime


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:


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".


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.



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.


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



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.


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)

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