Jun 30, 2005

Our Clothes are Following Us!


For those of you following the blog from the Albany area here is a picture you might get a kick out of (and not only because Tyler looks like he is happily sleepwalking). This is a picture of Tyler taken at a booth in the annual festival de San Pedro, a three minute walk from our home here. Check out the shirts behind him, one of the "Pine Bush Basketball League from 1997-98" Another is for the "Hudson Valley Team" at the Empire State Games. Both refer to teams local to Albany which is where we left from.

So in all likelyhood after a fit of spring cleaning someone dropped off some clothes at the same Salvation Army in Albany that Tyler and I have many times. And somehow, after being shipped all over the country and down to Central America it found its way to being sold at this festival.

Upon seeing this, Tyler and I both took a solemn oath that if we ever see some clothes we´ve ever abandoned we´ll reclaim them on principal. If they track us down on another continent they deserve a happy retirement.

Life near a Mountain Sea


We´ve got pictures! I found that if I use my camera as a card reader I can convince a computer at at a local internet cafe to read it. So I´ve started the long process of posting a week backlog in photos. Most are up on the Flickr site and I´ve added a few to other posts. Now we´ve got to see if Tylers camera will do the same trick.

This picture is Tyler eating lunch in Panajachel on our way to San Pedro. The town we´re in now, San Pedro, is a 15 minute boat ride directly across the lake from where this picture was taken. It´s a little town located right under that big Volcano.

Jun 28, 2005

Rolling Blackouts


And no, you silly drunken readers, I don´t mean THAT kind of blackout. Last weekend Tyler and I ventured to Panajachel to run some errands. While there, we found an internet connection and started posting pictures. There was much rejoicing as the pictures started flowing up into Flickr. But then, after a few quick pictures suddenly the power went out. Throughout the entire village. For the rest of the afternoon. So, with only a couple of our least interesting pictures up we´re once again stalled out. I´ve updated one of the old posts (with my ugly mug), and posted this one of the boat ride to San Pedro (under the Volcano San Pedro, which this is a picture of). But now we know where to go and it´s only a twenty minute boatride away.

Life hereabouts is going really well. We were lucky enough to arrive in San Pedro a week before their weeklong annual festival. So we got to see the preperations and now we get to frolic in the crowded blissful chaos.

For example, last night, I rode on the scariest amusement park ride of my whole life. And I´m no slouch when it comes to taking on roller coasters or bafflingly centripetal rides. And I´ll bet you are curious what the most terrifying ride I´ve found in all my travels?

It´s a ferris wheel. Yup, a ferris wheel. And not even a huge one at that.


Life in Guatemala, while satisfying, isn´t exactly OSHA approved. There are plenty of corners cut in day to day life that in the states would generate countless lawsuits. Here, people are left to their own common sense with a lot of things. For example, there are no fences around this ferris wheel so you can walk right into a chair rotating up and knock oneself out. If you do it´s your own damn fault. The Ferris Wheel looked mostly familiar, although it was a little disconcerting to see that it was powered by the front end of a tractor. But if the locals trust it, I will too.


So I paid my 5 Quetzales (about $0.60) and Vym (a great Dutch amigo of mine) climbed aboard. I started getting nervous when I saw that the ´lock´ holding the restraining bar in place was an old bent and rusty nail.


Slowly we ratcheted up as it loaded getting better and better views of the festival. And then, once loaded, it started rolling faster. And faster. And faster. Suddenly I realized this was nothing like wheels I´d ridden before. They were for the view. This was for the ride! It got so fast that the centripetal forces flipped us around in the chairs as we felt like we were being hurled out over and into the crowd of hundreds. Suddenly, it dawned on me that that the Dutch are some of the tallest people in the world and that Vym is no exception. He was complaining earlier about never being able to find clothes down here large enough to fit him and I know I certainly could spare to lose a few pounds. As we were hurled up I started to wonder if they had planned for huge Gringos to sit in these tiny seats. That thought combined with the rapid rotation and the rusty nail led to a blissfully terrifying endeavor. By the time it slowed down we were laughing, delighted at our survival, pulled out cameras and started snapping pictures.

Then it started going backwards.

Jun 24, 2005

May Many Mayas Make Me Merry


While trudging up a narrow mudsoaked paths snaking between buildings bearing an unweildy pack I couldn't help but question the wisdom of packing in a full size Latin American History textbook. That bloody thing is heavy! And by bloody I mean it both in the derogetory English slang as well as noting that it contains a long tale of gorey woe. If I make it through this thousand page opus I'll never have to prove my stubborn bullheadedness in any other way.

The good news, however, is that history is coming alive around me. While lounging in a hammock I read up on the history of the Mayan people and was shocked and fascinated. The Mayans are one of the oldest great civilizations of the Americas. By 900AD they were very advanced with a lot of sophisticated culture. They had ornate arts and crafts, systems of weaving that have yet to be replicated, advanced mathematics and astronomy that makes my head spin. For example they knew the earth wobbled on its axis once every 25,000 years; how could they possibly have figured that out?!?!

But then an odd thing happened. The organized part of the civilization just up and dissappeared. From around 900AD to 1200AD they were in a declining age, and things just collapsed for the two centuries after. Over fifty years BEFORE the Spanish got there the Mayans had long abandoned their great cities and splintered off into thousands of little villages doing their own thing slowly evolving their own language and culture. The Toltec civilization started moving in to take over, but even that didn't have as central a hold as the other great civilizations of that time (The Aztecs and Incas). And to this day historians don't agree, nor really know, what happened.

One positive effect it did have, though, it caused no end of trouble for the conquistadors. The Spanish had a relatively easy time conquering the vast and powerful centrally organized civilizations like the Inca and Aztecs. They pretty much captured or killed the leader and the will of the populace was broken. In Guatemala, however, they had to wage war with each and every little village they came across. And oftentimes even gunpowder failed so they needed to send their priests in to convert villages to Catholocism. The fact that the Spanish had such a hard time taking over has a lot to do with why today the vast majority of the population of this country is native (and the highest concentration in the Americas).

What blew my mind, here, was yesterday I was chatting with Clara (mi profesora) in the mistake-ridden painfully slow way I do en espanol. She was telling me about Mayans today, in the country of Guatemala. She said that there are 32 different Mayan languages and cultures in this country right now. And that because of the splintering of civilization a millenia ago they can't communicate with eachother. And this affects things really deeply and profoundly. First of all, Spanish is the closest thing to a common language people share here but the many rural youth are not sent to school (or, if they happen to be born female, not allowed to)so don't speak it. They only speak a language that a small subset of their country shares. So it'd be almost impossible for a Mayan musician or author to make a living writing for their people. And it makes it so that politicians elected (or appointed) exclusively speak a language that many of their fellow countrymen don't share.

Suddenly it's easy to see where many (certainly not all) of Guatemalas political and social woes come from. And it also makes it that much harder for me to think of a way to make things work better. Do they try to standardize the language to Spanish and thus lose much of the beauty of one of the more profound civilizations that walked the earth? Or do they embrace the rich native culture at the cost of a functioning representative democracy and an efficient economic system? I certainly don't know what the answers are, but I'm curious to see what the very honest, faithful, and cultured Guatemalan people do.

Jun 22, 2005

Merrymaking MacAllens

Greetings from San Pedro, Tyler and I have stumbled across a really wonderful little town on the lake nestled between the Indian Nose mountain and the San Pedro volcano. The town itself has a number of major streets, but most places one gets to by wandering through tiny, tiny alleys between buildings, homes, and gardens. Its quite a maze to navigate, particularly when picking our way home from the Salsa bar late last night. There aren´t too many lights which is great to see stars but not so hot for late night navigation.

Our classes seem to be going really really well, and I´d enthusiasticly recommend Casa Rosario to anyone who´d like to come down here to learn Spanish. The school is well thought out, with a gorgeous garden, and run honestly by a pair of brothers. My teacher, Clara, is really clear, kind, and fascinating. She is a Mayan and is proud to talk about a lot cultural things while patiently letting my Spanish appear. Although it´s hard work, I´m looking forward to my four hours of class each day. We´ve met some really great people, and have had to forcibly stop ourselves from taking more and more of the same shots of lake/volcano/and town (Soon we´ll find a way to upload them, soon!).

One fascinating thing I have found is there is a sort of constructive optimism here. Most of the buildings are formed concrete and invariably there is steel rebar poking out of the roof. This is so when they have a little extra money it´s simple to add another floor. It makes sense for many reasons, for example children here don´t move out of their parents home partly because it´d be difficult to pay a mortgage. So, instead families subdivide their homes and build up. It seems to be working out well so when I look out at a skyline of rebar I can´t help but wonder how the whole town is going to look in five or ten years. Is this how Manhattan got its start?


The engineer in me also can´t help but wonder what a structural engineer would say about continuing to add floors above and beyond the original simple design. And how exactly the stiffening effect of rebar would be able to cope with some of the earthquakes that Guatemala is famous for. Fortunately, however, the backpacker in me really enjoys the culture and charm of this city and overrules the engineer whenever I start to whine. I love it here!

*Hey, we got a few pictures up. So I added a shot Tyler took of me and the rebar on top of our first hostel in San Pedro, Casa Elena

Jun 19, 2005

The Curse of 1998

A couple hours ago Tyler and I floated into San Pedro de Laguna. We had to cross a huge lake well into the mountains. We are well over a mile above sea level but took a twenty minute ride to cross the 300m deep Lake Atitlan (over 900ft!) ringed by huge volcanos that wear thick clouds like wispy undergarments. It is one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes I have ever seen and that includes the Grand Canyon, the Rocky mountains and countless Norwegian fjords. This place needs to be seen to be believed.

But, thanks to the curse of 1998, it will not be seen by you (yet). This computer is running Windows 98 which could not care less about me plugging in my flash card reader, so I cant upload any of the dozen pictures we have already taken.

That year, while Bill Gates was busy pushing his crappy Win98 software Guatemala had troubles of its own. After over thirty years of a harsh brutal military dictatorship (set into power by the CIA) a Bishop published a long awaited investigation into decades of military atrocities. Two days later he was bludgeoned to death in his garage by three military personnel and a priest, breaking the heart of a population who thought a long national nightmare was over. Since then things have started to shift, and some significant and profound changes occured. For example, the Bishops murders were caught and convicted, thus signaling an end to centuries of unrivaled military impunity.

The whole idea that this happened, at a time well within my recent memory, is bewildering to me. More so than most places I have been I have a sense that Guatemala is actually making its own history now. As important as I earnestly believe US politics are its easy to forget that a lot of our more critical values have long been decided and entrenched. As much as I complain about corporations controlling the US government, we have never had a coup inspired by a single foreign corporation (like they have here). And I take for granted that the government calls the shots over the military, not the other way around. Here, these ideals are being worked out now.

I am currently working my way through a textbook on Latin American history and have been fascinated, enraged and inspired by much of what I found. But even more exciting and interesting is the history thats being made right here and right now.

Jun 17, 2005

Geek post

I know a subset of our readers aren't nearly as interested in tales of our derring do as they are what sorta gadgetry we've got. Being a geek on the road, I feel I should fill in my brethren about the conclusion to my previous pondering post:


We're packing:
-Two digital Cameras, a 3MP Canon Elph and a 5MP Nikon CoolPix
-An iRiver H340 MP3 player with all our music (about 25Gigs)
-Tungsten T5 Palm with a folding keyboard
-An SD card reader (Thanks Sam!) and a compact flash reader
-A couple headlamps, and a couple regular flashlights
-3 Electronic keyring size mosquito repellers
-One AA battery charger, a useful device foolishly left in NY
-A Garmin GPS
-A small bag with a steel mesh built in, that we can put a padlock on. Already used to lock all the electronics we don't want to carry daily to a bed in a hostel.

The most useful thing we've discovered as yet, is to load the Flickr uploading software onto our cameras memory cards. That we we plug them in an open USB port at random internet cafes and upload all our pictures while working. We also intend to type out messages and blogposts on the palm pilot, save them as text files onto another memory card, and paste them online when we get to a connection.

Cool, Ain't it?

Hola Antigua!

The day before we left my apprehensions were running out of control. Every moment closer to the flight the worse of an idea this whole caper seemed to be. I recognize the tumultuous emotions they have happened every time I've gone abroad but it doesn't make them any easier to manage. But then, as before, the moment we hugged Mom goodbye and stepped foot into the airport an eerie calm descended on both of us. Suddenly, once in the thick of it, there wasn't anything to be nervous about. I've experienced something similar to this before but until now I've never experienced it with anyone else. So it was great fun to look over at Tyler, smirk, and laugh at the delicious feeling of anticipation.

We landed in Guatemala City, but high tailed it out of there to the former colonial capital city of Antigua. It's well up into the mountains (Volcanos), peaceful (aside from the occasional chattering sound of what could be gunfire), and brilliantly colored city. The food has been wonderful, the other travelers fascinating and the locals kind. Here is Tyler, on a mountain overlooking the city, trying to blend in by pretending to be a another volcano.


We've already climbed up an active volcano, got hopelessly lost in a huge market, and had a merry night with other travelers. One bearded traveler we met, Mark (right side in the picture below), is at the very first stop of a year long trek off the beaten path. I'll be following his fascinating travels at his website GibsonTravels.com.


* As always, click any of these picture or the pictures to your right to see a lot more!

Jun 14, 2005

The Joy of Infectious Diseases

It's been a wild few days. There has been all sorts of drunken mayhem, teary goodbyes and white water rafting treks. Things got so bad that, at one point, our father (a State Trooper and Vietnam Vet) took to hunting down his two progeny and hammering us with paintballs 'til we squealed and begged for mercy.

Goodbye Party!

Every time I've travelled abroad, before I leave, my concerns rachet up into a fever pitch of raw fear. It's a good thing I don't have to buy flights the day before I leave because with the departure so near I could never muster up the courage to actually do it. This time is no exception. At the slightest suggestion my paranoia kicks in and I expect the worse. Like, a couple days ago while at my fathers farm Elizabeth noticed a small mark on my elbow. A red circle with another concentric circle around it. It only took a moment for me to realize it was the worst possible thing: I had just contracted Lyme disease from a tick (a not uncommon occurence in upstate NY). I started freaking out, wondering with only one weekday before my flight left I could see a doctor, get diagnosed and be treated. I was wondering if I should start on a course of my freshly purchased antibiotics BEFORE I left the country (oh, the irony). I even started wondering about delaying the trip to deal with this, because Lyme disease is some really serious stuff. This is the mark that led to all that stress:

Micahs Fake Lyme disease

It wasn't until several hours into my ordeal with Lyme disease that Elizabeth realized that when I sat in her car my elbow rested on her doorlock in exactly the same place. And that, pressing it just so, would make a mark exactly like my "tick bite."

Nope, I'm not nervous and leaping to conclusions. Nope, not at all

Jun 9, 2005

Can Lightning Strike Twice?

The spring of 1998 found me hopelessly confused. I was in my third year at the University of Buffalo studying engineering and all I knew was that I wanted out. I didn't see myself as an engineer, was profoundly uninterested in what I was studying and desperate for meaning. After struggling for years, I finally came to the conclusion that I was wasting my time and my life and that I needed to switch to another discipline or simply drop out of school. The only thing holding me back was I'd made a promise to myself; I needed to switch to something not away from something. And that, to my dismay, turned out to be the problem.

I've always had a lot of competing interests. At the time I was fascinated with disciplines of philosophy, english, or ecology. I was working for our student magazine as a writer, and loved it so daydreamed about journalism. I'd gotten back from a year abroad in Wales, so imagined a life doing international relations. I wanted to help people, and couldn't help but notice that the basic requirements for and engineering and degree and entry into med school weren't too different. And better yet, I'd met people who lived out my fantasies on the road. I met a man who spent the last decade traveling by doing origami, a women who'd circumnavigated the world as a volunteer sailor and professional scuba diver, and another who was riding across the country on his bicycle. With so many options, ironically, I had no inspiration for any of them. They all sounded cool, but none sounded like me.

So, instead, I found myself at the door of a stranger, Dr Mook, the engineering Dean for international studies and begged him for advice. He listened carefully, asked me to fill out some forms and before I'd known it I had been offered an all expense paid grant from a generous engineering association, GE3, to study abroad at ITESM in Monterey, Mexico for the summer. It was an amazing opportunity but I felt guilty accepting it. I later found out the ITESM is one of the top technical schools in Latin America, and they asked someone ready to turn his back on technical academia to spend the summer there. So I called the GE3 office and asked politely, 'What classes do I need to take?" and when they replied, "Anything" my mind started racing. "So I can go through this list, and choose any class I want and your grant will cover it?" When they agreed I felt bad, but deliciously devious. That summer an engineering association was about to fund a soon-to-be engineering dropout to study Spanish, Mexican cooking, and Latin American dancing.

PuertoAngel, Mexico

That summer will go down in my personal history as one of the all time best summers. I lived with a generous and kind Mexican family, met some wonderful people and fell in love with a beautiful country. I studied spanish with a charismatic teacher who brought us into the city to experience the joy of authentic Mexican life. I cooked elaborate Latin dinners in a mansion on the edge of the school, plucking limes from the tree outside the window for each dish. And in the outdoor courtyard of that same mansion we learned Salsa and Merengue with a Cuban woman so lovely and charismatic sometimes it was hard to breath. Once classes let out I spent a little over a month going south to explore the wildly varying but inevitably fascinating, beautiful and friendly country of Mexico.

The wildest part of the journey came in the end. My travels finished in the Chiapas, in southern Mexico and my return flight left from Monterey in the North. As I sat on the bus watching countless hours of mexico roll by I noticed that I finally knew what I wanted to study. And it was something I hadn't really even considered when I left, but it seemed so obvious and satisfying that I no longer had any doubt. I have always been interested in environmental causes, and technical solutions to them. So then it just seemed natural to stay, focus on my interests, and leave with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. But by the time they tried to graduate me I realized I was nowhere near done and ended staying until they gave me a Masters degree also in Mechanical Engineering (with an emphasis on sustainable buildings). To this day can't tell you what exactly happened that summer in Mexico, but it was so bright of a light I've steered by it for nearly 7 years.

And that brings us to today. I've spent the last two years working as an engineer in a small consulting firm in Amherst Massachusetts. We did a variety of work but much of it came down to making 2D drawings into 3D models which we converted back into 2D drawings that turned into a 3D reality. It's valuable work; by bringing things into our models we are able to see problems, and opportunities, that previously wouldn't have been clear. We designed materials processing plants so they could fit together just so. We played a small, but critical, role in making a world class architectural masterpiece fit together as its designer imagined it. By designing in a virtual world we save waste in the real one. Our company was small, but never once have I doubted our value. The principle of my company has a special genius for visualizing and absorbing and considering a lot of information. We could 'see' things before they appeared, and would guide the process to solve problems before they arose.

Center for Theater and Dance at Willaims College Massachusetts

I've learned a lot over the past couple years and am certain I could've learned a lot more. But, in much the same position I was 7 years ago I'm awash with ideas but completely lacking a sense of what I should do. While good, I'm pretty sure the job I left last month wasn't for me. Some things have changed; I'm looking for what I should do rather than what I should study. I'm not sure if I should stay in engineering, the US or even hold onto my idealism.

So, although we've got a lot of things we'd like to do on this trip I really only have one thing I hope to accomplish. I'd like to find a vocation.

The Americas once gave me everything I didn't know I was looking for, and offered me more if I kept moving south. So I ask today, with an open mind and open heart: What Next?

Breezing Up A Fair Wind

Jun 8, 2005

Aye, Ms. Hugh *

So, its almost been a week since I moved away and I can't believe how much I'm missing Massachusetts. I would've thought I'd be good at leaving by now (I've had 20 homes in 28 years), but more than any other time I feel like I've left a big chunk of soul behind.

The Valley is a pretty place with a vibrant culture but it's the people I've met there that is making me pine for it. It's not often one gets to work for and with people I count as dear friends, share a house with best friends and the coterie of good souls that surround them . I've been generously invited to share in the life of close families, fall in love with someone who dazzles me and connect with so many good people it's bewildering. Thank you so much for everything, I miss all of you!

*Puzzled? Say it aloud.

Jun 6, 2005

Flickr is Frickin' Fantastic

I spent much of this afternoon trying to puzzle out how we're going to keep feeding y'all pictures from random internet cafes throughout Central America. I put a number of photo hosting services through their paces, tried to do it on my webhost and ultimately went with Flickr.com

I wanted to keep our hi-res pictures but I also wanted to be able to post smaller pictures into this weblog without photoshopping them. Flickr does all of that, and more. To those of you not reading this blog on an RSS reader you'll see that we now have my recently posted pictures scrolling up the side. And even you folks that are on RSS readers, try clicking on these pics. You should be able to get the hi res shots if you want them, see other pictures I've posted but not blogged and you're now able to add your own rude remarks in the picture comments.

So, without further ado, here is Flickr in action. The Holyoke Range, a range of mountains also known as the Seven sisters is visible from much of the valley. For example from the top of the Noho parking garage you can see them peeking out from behind my old house:


Although many a day trip found me in various parts I spent two full years planning to hike them all in one go but almost moved out of valley without doing it. Fortunately on my last weekend in town Elizabeth and I did the whole range. Heres a view from the top looking down at Northampton.


PS I'm already missing folks from the valley so much I can taste it.