A Travellerspoint blog

Still Getting Kicks Out of Route 66

Learning to Learn from the Most Unlikely Sources

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More Publications for the Masses: Take a moment to explore (like and share) my latest articles, including a practical piece on how and where to volunteer/travel through Guatemala for cheap and an up-close look at the ruins of Tikal, one of Guatemala's top spots for touring.

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This past November I did something I absolutely hate doing: Sitting in my father’s attic, I resigned myself to needing to thin out my book collection a little. Basically, I’d been holding onto four massive boxes—too heavy to be moving up and down that rickety attic ladder—of books from before I expatriated, some eight years ago. It was time.

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In the page-ruffling fury of sorting, I started pulling out titles, stuff bought long ago but never read, which I thought might be of interest now. My plan was to bring a few books back to Guatemala with me, and here, they would either sink (wind up on take one, leave one shelf in a hostel) or swim (be read before being left on a take one, leave one shelf).

That’s how I would up reading On the Back Roads: Discovering Small Towns of America, a book I’d bought used some years ago in Korea. Even now as a travel writer, the write-up left me guessing as to why a younger me (let alone the current me) would chose it. Written by Bill Graves, an ex-military grandpa, On the Back Roads is one man’s campervan journey across the Southwest US, published by the meager press of AtticusBooks.com. Who knows how it got to Korea?

However, having finally reached the last dregs of the literature I rescued that day, it again was time. Honestly, for me, the book started off much like it sounds. Graves, who features primarily in RV enthusiast magazines, has a sort of Lake Wobegon tone to him: A wholesome, gun-toting, responsible-cocktail-in-the-evening persona. The type of guy goes out, buys himself a caravan, and takes trips on his own. That fella striking up conversations at a truck stop diner.

Soon though, I got over that. It’s something I really try to do when I read these days: Find the thing that made someone publish the book. The first time I noticed it with On the Back Roads is when Graves writes about the old Harvey House restaurants that used to line the railroads heading out west. This is before dining cars were a thing. Consequently, these fancy eateries were spaced out about the distance it took to travel from breakfast to lunch or lunch to dinner. The history was peculiar and made me want to know more.

Then, I started looking for it. Graves was a master of details, of catching great moments of characters, of history, of characters dealing with disappearing histories. The stories were short and sweet and stacked with a finite knowledge of small towns at once unnecessary yet somehow fascinating. What he was discovering on those back roads was that little-life America has never disappeared nor lost the quirkiness that has garnered it such infamy and intrigue.

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Great oddities began to surface: A town in Oregon where it is illegal not to have a gun, a guy who “hunts” ants in the desert or more accurately harvests them to send them off to ant farms. Everywhere Graves goes (at least in the book), he finds these unusual good ole folks or these every-town-has-them stories of triumph or regret. He is obviously fascinated; thus, it is difficult not to be as a reader. Hey! Old Man Graves was teaching me something.

It’s something I often forget in my travel writing. I get lost in wanting to live out some great adventure, to excavate from within an unbelievable tale of myself. However, much more interesting than me traipsing across ruins or hiking amongst giant sequoia are the stories that brought me there in the first place. Graves had a great nose for finding the yarn of wherever he was, from California to Wyoming, Oregon to Arizona, and in between.

His extensive research of the minutiae of each minute place rendered something worth reading, even if written by and from the perspective of someone vastly different from me. So, yet again, a book has taught me about the world, myself and how to see myself in the world. My adventures in travel reading continue to be worthwhile, and I hope it’s fun for you to read about, an inspiration to pick up the odd book or two or even take-on your own reading expedition.

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Posted by jonathonengels 13:31 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Las Manos @ El Hato

Three Years Running

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Three years ago this month, Emma and I officially began the Las Manos @ El Hato project for Las Manos de Christine. It was a humble start, Emma disappearing up the Earth Lodge hill every morning as I scratched my head behind a computer. There was a website to revamp, newsletters to write, funds to raise, and new ways to find to acquire those funds. There were classes to be taught but no textbooks from which to teach them. Even so, material raisers and generous donors had supplied us with a library of story books, art supplies, and classroom paraphernalia. In the nasally (and unusually clear) words of Tom Petty: “The future was wide open.”

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Las Manos @ El Hato was originally meant to be English classes at the public school in the village, an impoverished community about twenty minutes outside of Antigua, Guatemala. Emma was to teach the classes and develop a curriculum, while I handled fundraising, volunteers, and other administrative stuff. Within the first quarter, that concept ran away from us. The school was incredibly obliging and open to anything we presented, and people back home were equally as eager to help. An onslaught of material raisers (more books, PE equipment, more art supplies, little prizes to give the kids, school supplies) got underway, a playhouse was built, and extra-curricular activities became the norm.

By the end of that first year, our vision for Las Manos @ El Hato had morphed into something far beyond anyone’s expectations. Instead of Emma taking on a couple of grades, the project then adding another each year, she was teaching first through third, and I was tackling fourth through sixth—the whole school was getting English. The kids were elbow-deep in weekly art projects. Las Manos had begun supplying Saturday English classes for middle school students and helped fund a carpentry program. “Summer” school programs had been enacted to grand reception. A new El Hato English building was being built, as well as a permanent staff house at Earth Lodge.

It was difficult to leave, to walk away from something we’d poured our hearts into for a year, to trust that the program would continue to grow. Ultimately, however, one’s (my) do-gooding ego could only contain so much: I was both exhausted and immensely proud of the work I’d done, and Emma…well, she had gone into that school, filled it with new life and her love, and more or less single-handedly created something that had everyone—students, staff, and volunteers—crazy with enthusiasm. She was pretty tired as well. It was time to put into the hands of others. Two new teachers Stacy and Pearce took the reins, and we were gone.

Two years later…

When we returned last May, it was obvious we’d done the right thing. The program was humming along. The third generation teachers, Heather and Katy, were on their way out and the fourth generation arrived, Rainey and Becca—were teaching, classes were learning, textbooks were in, and a new general—Salina Duncan—was at the helm, steering this thing in all sorts of new directions.

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The classroom Las Manos had built began to form into something quite amazing. As the year progressed, the teachers finally had an office to work out of, a functioning computer lab opened and was available to the kids, a loft library was constructed (finally, a proper space to utilize all the incredible books that had continued rolling in), and ultimately a whole new generation of El Hato children got to go to school. By the end of last summer, Salina, along with new staff members, Sally and Alejandra, had kicked off a pre-school program for the village. It was an absolutely amazing thing to see the list of Las Manos deeds extend in ways Emma and I had and hadn’t even dreamed of some two years prior.

To our delight, the new Las Manos members welcomed us back into the fold. Salina called on me from time to time to contribute something or in some way to her revived edition of the NGO newsletter: Hands on with Las Manos. For a couple of weeks over the summer, we got to cover classes and reunite with our students. Emma conducted a three-month yarn-bombing art project for another NGO called Unfinished Picture Project, with full and amazing support and supplies from Las Manos de Christine. We both participated in a new after-school initiative started by Becca for super-keen students to advance their English more quickly. When the third annually summer school session came round in November, Emma got to do more art projects and I got to play sports with the kids. In other words, Las Manos—with or without us—roared right along.

In fact, one of the happiest feelings I took from being back at the school again was just how much it had grown without us. Salina had come in and just brought the program to a whole new level. In fact, by the year’s end, she’d managed to not quite win a competition for a massive grant to build a new pre-school building on campus. Not to be deterred, she contacted the foundation awarding the money and finagled a sizeable sum to put towards a new classroom, play area, and Montessori materials for the toddlers. She was bringing a fresh, crazy passion to the place.

And year three…

This year, Las Manos came in with a staff of six, including two English teachers for the grade-schoolers, two pre-school teachers, an after-school activities coordinator, and Salina bouncing between them all. Rainey, a Floridian, has returned for her second term, as has Alejandra, a local woman who leads the Spanish side of pre-school classes. In addition, Las Manos has its first European mainlander, Manon (from the Netherlands). Rounding out the crew is Mari, who was short-term volunteer in 2010 and has returned to work with the toddlers, and Nikki, the resident artist and founder of partnering NGO, Unfinished Picture Project.

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With Emma and Nikki leading the charge, new joint ventures are underway. Mr. Las Manos himself, Bryant Hand owns OBMontessori, an Antigua-based elementary school, where Emma is working this year. Emma has had the kids down in Antigua doing an art project in a spirit of collaboration with Nikki’s kids from the El Hato. It’s a cultural exchange that is very exciting, the children from El Hato going down to visit the school in Antigua and kids from Antigua bussing up to visit El Hato. We are hoping that this is just the beginning of the schools becoming frequent partners in education. It should prove to be eye-opening exposure for both sides.

Not surprisingly, other fresh initiatives continue. After exercising extensive patience and persistence, Salina finally got the new Montessori pre-school building started. Now the biggest structure on campus, Las Manos’s latest adventure in classroom construction is nearly finished, materials soon to follow. One of Salina’s great achievements has been Las Manos’s involvement with younger kids, catching them early to help not only with schooling but also things like nutrition and parental support. The pre-school program has been instrumental in building a better bridge between the NGO and the community, as well as empowering young mothers to take a leadership role in the children’s lives through the process of educating their children.

Other upstart programs are continuing and/or developing. Since last year, starting with former Earth Lodge chef, Thom, then with Emma, Las Manos has taken over state curriculum art classes for the El Hato’s middle school students and is now doing so in official stipend-ed capacity. The art classes, being handled by Nikki this year, are part of national requirements for graduation. Upcoming, Mari will be instigating an organic farming workshop at the school (She’s already started one at OBMontessori, and it looks fantastic). While the children already have a strong background in the industry, in the fields even before they can walk, hopefully Mari’s new project will introduce ideas for sustainability, farming techniques, and crop possibilities to the children and the community at large.

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So, here I sit, three years later, pleased to see that Las Manos @ El Hato hasn’t slowed a bit. I can’t help but feel proud for having been a part of it, but watching from the sidelines now, that first year seems a distant memory, something almost irrelevant in the grand scheme of where Las Manos has gotten to. It’s a wonder to recall only a three Januaries back, Emma and I were sending out emails asking people to buy supplies to start the program. So many friends and family helped us then, so many have helped Las Manos since. It’s still such an inspiring thing to witness what can happen. If you are one of those people who have contributed along the way, then know that Las Manos de Christine is still going strong. Thanks to you all.

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The latest in publications: On the River at Finca Tatin in Guatemala

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Posted by jonathonengels 13:13 Archived in Guatemala Comments (2)

The Call to Happy Hour

Living the Low Life

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===A New Publication for Your Reading Pleasure: Land of the Rising Penis: Peculiar Park in Korea===

I remember working in restaurants and hating the “early bird” menu, a perk that seemed to draw in the tight pocketbooks of senior citizens, who spent less thus tipped less despite the work being the same or often more. From 5:00-6:30 every evening, I’d curse under my breath with each ice tea delivered, each 6 oz. rib-eye done medium-well: Cheap bastards.

Being a waiter, at least my experience of being one—fine dining black-and-whites and wine lists— turns you into a snob. I’d get off my shift and go to the bar to partake of Ketel One gimlets (vodka and lime juice) and spend half my tips on being more refined than the patrons who’d left them. Truth be told, I’ve worked across the world, literally, and have never made as much money as when I was a waiter, age twenty-four.

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To the point, the young twenties’ early bird special, for all intents and purposes, is called happy hour. It’s a time when house boozes are poured in abundance, low quality beer goes for low quality prices, and those of us with budgets chug it all down as quickly as possible because, when the bell chimes, we’ll have to call it a night.

Somehow, in my twenties, I managed to skip all of this. When most college students were pleased with a case of Milwaukee’s Best, I was drinking single malts, cognac, and $10 six packs. The days of my youth slipped away, or it seemed they had: The price of becoming a full-time expat is that I’ve lost my exquisite taste, or better put, most of my money now goes into traveling. In short, my ears now perk to the call of happy hour.

Consequently, every Friday, my wife Emma and I plot out our happy hour destination. At around six, we head to some unsuspecting bar in Antigua to loiter as we sip drinks specials. We might order an appetizer, but usually slamming three or four rot-gut cocktails or Brahva Extras (Guatemala’s Pabst Blue Ribbon) is enough. Usually, we settle for Ramen noodles when we get home.

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Recently, thanks to a friend Eric Fry, we discovered a place that offered two beers for the price of one—all day long. On a recent Saturday night, we took full advantage, about seven hours’ worth, at the end of which, our bill amounted to just under thirty dollars. In the morning, I would have paid sixty to have thought better. I spent Sunday, the last gorgeous day of our spring vacation, with the curtains drawn.

Shortly thereafter, it occurred to me that there was a higher mission in what we were doing, perhaps a grand adventure to come from it. Emma and I had been wasting time, sampling new happy hour places here and there, piecing together a playlist happy hours that occurred between six and eight, as if we were early bird pensioners. I needed to be better than that, but I also needed those happy hour prices.

So, I shrugged off the constraints of time? In Antigua, I learned, there are enough bars with enough varying horas felices that it's possible to plot out an afternoon, evening, and night to remember. Starting at noon: A new happy hour at a new place every hour until ten o’clock at night, when my shift at the restaurant used to end. That sort of irresponsibility could never be confused with early-birding.

As a expat travel writer, it seems my duty to sample as many places as possible, but I want to do it all in one, fun-packed day. So, good people of Antigua, guests and residents alike, shall we toast to our youth by getting toasted in our fair city? If you are interested in the Antigua all-day happy hour, contact me in the next couple of weeks, and I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s going down.

Posted by jonathonengels 14:48 Archived in Guatemala Comments (2)

When in Antigua...Semana Santa

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The city of Antigua, at least many of its many expats, cringes a little as the Holy Week grows nigh. The streets begin to clog a bit more readily than we’d like. The cacophony of dying trumpet, bongo beats, and ice cream bells interrupts our otherwise honk-free days. For a short while, there is no slowing down the processions, not that they are moving particularly fast.

During the six weeks of lent, Sunday crowds seemed to expand each week that passed. I’d go for weekend jogs around the outskirts of the city and run into a whole new assortment of food stalls and makeshift markets. Streams of people would all be moving with purpose in similar directions. The clear sky, the molten sun of dry season—they were normal, but the pulse of Antigua was quickening.

The streets finally completely spilled over with procession a couple of weeks before Easter. Emma and I, out for our customary Sunday morning pupusa, got caught up in a crowd that blocked every path we needed, people lining the streets to witness yet another grotesque depiction of Christ swaying under his cross. Not unlike my well-versed reaction to Mardi Gras parades, a shrugging recognition of repetition, I wondered what was so great about this Jesus float.

We weren’t even to Holy Week, and that evening cars stood for hours in gridlock on 7th Calle. Not to mention the climb in tourist numbers, an obvious increase in the average age of the artificial Antigueños. Suddenly walks to work became infested with map-totting pensioners and church groups, navigating the ruins and breakfast buffets. I was looking forward to get out of town for a while, getting a breather down in the stifling jungles of Rio Dulce.

It’s a strange and privileged position to live in a place everyone is coming to visit, to leave that place at the exact time everyone wants to be there. Emma and I had confused our departure with visa requirements and vacation time, but for sure, a large part of leaving was avoidance: not another procession, not another blocked street, another group of sightseers following a hand-held flag.

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Of course, we’d predicted feeling this way weeks in advance, booked our tickets early, and left the morning of the Saturday that jumped off Semana Santa. Not to be total humbugs, we’d made arrangements to be back on Wednesday, in time to see the main events, so to speak: Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, when Antigua is nonstop alfombras and processiones.

Getting back after dark on Wednesday night, we headed out for dinner, unaware of any great thing happening. Outside the restaurant-bar, the familiar, off-putting wail of the trumpet blasted through the street once more. We hadn’t even been back for an hour. Emma plugged her ears as the float glided passed the window. But, when we realized it was the Wednesday before Easter, (what I now know as “Spy Wednesday” or the day Judas spilled the beans) a new sort of reverence resonated with the event. This one actually meant…more?

I went home that night feeling ready to take it in, prepared for the intensity of the next two days. I wanted to mingle with the crowd, feel the unique vibe, and see the beautiful carpets of flowers and fruits. I even resolved to subject myself to at least one of the horribly somber processions, largely lacking the debauchery and pectoral displays of my native Mardi Gras parades. I was glad to be home. I was glad to be a tourist if only for a couple of days.

Using Que Pasa, a free circulation magazine out of Antigua, we plotted the next two days of the full-on experience: The Thursday evening church crawl, the midnight street stroll in the wee hours of Good Friday, and the culminating tour de alfombras on a sleep-deprived Friday morning. It was the least we could do: Participate in one of the great famous festivals of the world, you know just outside our front gate.

Posted by jonathonengels 12:58 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

The Traveler Beyond Me

Thoughts on Tim Cahill’s Hold the Enlightenment

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A New Publication on Transitions Abroad: Teach English in Guatemala

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As a reader, one of the most inspiring things to me is to find an author that seems so beyond me as a writer, a sort of icon upon which to emulate. I remember this feeling when I first discovered Kurt Vonnegut, gobbling up near half a dozen books in a couple of weeks. The simplicity of insights, the simplicity yet punch of his sentences, enchanted me. I was dying to think that way, to imagine worlds so succinct in their reflection of our own. I’ve never come close.

In this year’s exploration of travel writers, I’ve had a similar experience with Tim Cahill. Cahill is a decent enough writer, no Vonnegut we’ll say, but what I came to admire in him was his prowess as a traveler. Reading one of Cahill’s classics (He’s been around for decades), Hold the Enlightenment, I was struck by how differently two people of similar tastes—Tim and me—can travel: Somehow he manages to get himself involved in these missions where the destination is an afterthought.

Sometimes, I get caught up in my own experience as a globe trotter, losing myself in the list of countries I’ve lived in, seen, and bookmarked for later reference in chronicling. I know about street food in Thailand, hiking on the Great Wall of China, snorkeling Shark and Ray Alley in Belize…but I tend to travel to a place much more than with a specific purpose. The latter of the two seems to yield the sort of wild adventures that I only get by chance and bad luck.

Hold the Enlightenment, however, is a series of tales of high jinks. Cahill is one of those people, at least via his stories, that seems to sniff out mischief, from seeking out the last tiger in Turkey (“The Search for the Caspian Tiger”) to putting himself through a yoga retreat (“Hold the Enlightenment”) to swimming with great white sharks in “Swimming with Great White Sharks”. Wherever he is, it seems more about the adventure than the place. And, that’s a place I’ve not yet reached.

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I suppose at some point, say over thirty years into the biz, you’ve been around more than once and the draw of ticking another beach, ruin, or world wonder off the list just isn’t important. As pleasing as his stories are, full of research and interesting facts and crazy characters, it’s the thought of having the gall that often drives me through them and on to the next one. I still try to stay out of trouble while traveling, but Uncle Tim just puts on a helmet and runs toward it.

However, as the cliché goes, there’s always someone who’s seen and done more. Even Cahill gets to meet his match. In “The World’s Most Dangerous Friend”, Cahill travels with Robert Young Pelton, bestselling author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, a guidebook for the kamikaze traveler. Pelton takes Cahill on a hilarious press trip turned to ill-advised mission to interview guerrillas in the jungles of Columbia. Cahill is out-of-his-depths from day one.

This adventure into the world of travel writers has been mostly about me learning the craft, the journalistic values of successful authors. Though Tim Cahill certainly has merits as a penman, what I took away from his book were new ideas on the craft of traveling. It’s been a long time since my vagabonding ego got slapped with “you’re just not adventurous enough”. It’s been an inspiring feeling and one that I hope I can harness better than I did Vonnegut’s short sentences.

Posted by jonathonengels 13:18 Archived in Guatemala Tagged books expat Comments (0)

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