A Visit to Our Neighbor (December 2010)

When we moved to Latin America one of the things that we most looked forward to, in addition to living in a new country, was the opportunity to explore other countries in the region. In fact, one of the reasons that we chose to live in Central America was proximity and ease of access to other countries (whereas in South American one can spend 2 days on a bus just to get to another country). Bordering on 4 other countries (Mexico, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras for those that are a little behind on their Central American geography), Guatemala is a great base for exploring the region.

Recently we took advantage of a long weekend to head to El Salvador. It turns out that our house to El Salvador is the same distance as New York to Boston, though the highways aren't quite as good and the scenery is better. Since El Salvador isn't very big (a little bit smaller than Massachusetts), one can really see a lot there in a short amount of time. And with 6,000 foot volcanic peaks within 45 minutes of beautiful beaches there is plenty to see.

We started off by driving the Ruta de Flores, a road that winds through the mountains connecting small, picturesque villages. After a lovely night's stay at the Hotel Casa Blanca (complete with the movie poster in the lobby) in Ahuachapán, we went to check out the bubbling pools and steaming rocks in the region, which provide 15% of El Salvador's electricity through geothermal sources. We tried to visit a power plant, but the guard informed us we could only come in if we had an appointment made in advance or had a "friend or relative that works here". Based on those strict guidelines and the sign out front saying the last accident had been 15 days ago (the all time record for time without an accident is one year), we decided maybe it was better to skip it anyway. So we paid the woman down the street 50 cents to go see the mud pits in her (smelly) back yard:

After lunch in the town of Juayua which had many of its buildings decorated with interesting murals:
Driving through the wicker furniture capital of the region (we didn't get any despite Jed's attempts to convince Meg that it would definitely fit in the car and surely wouldn't pose any customs problems), we drove past the beautiful crater lake of Coatepeque en route to Santa Ana.

When we were originally thinking about where to live in Latin America, Santa Ana had been high on our list of possible places. We decided on Guatemala early in our scouting trip and thus never had the chance to visit Santa Ana. After seeing Santa Ana we were happy that we'd decided to live in Xela instead. While Santa Ana is perfectly nice, it feels dirtier and more hectic than Xela without as big a colonial core or as picturesque surroundings.

Then it was off to the coast, where we encountered a lovely beach resort at the end of a very long dirt road. Backed by a river and fronted by the ocean it was very beautiful and a great place to go for a kayak in the mangroves and boogy boarding in the ocean in the same day.

You May Know Us From TV (November 2010)

If you're reading this blog entry then you probably already think that we're famous (largely because we're convinced that our mothers are the only ones that actually read this). But unless you are a television viewer in Guatemala or Latin America, you may not know the extent of our fame. As such, we thought we'd share a couple of experiences to demonstrate how we've worked ourselves into the Latin American cultural fabric.

As a precursor, it is important to know that in Gutaemala, and Latin America generally, that sport is an essential element of culture. Anyone that has been to a Latin American sporting event or even been in Latin America during the soccer World Cup knows what a central role sports plays in everyday life. People are passionate about sports here- sometimes to an extreme, which results in things like soccer riots. If you haven't seen this first hand then trust us sports are more important here than in the US (when is the last time you heard of a baseball riot?).

Also given their popularity, for many people television is the central means of watching sports. At any given time you can turn on the television here and find no less than a half-dozen soccer games on. And during playoff time even baseball makes the front page of the Guatemalan newspapers (even though all sports other than soccer are a VERY distant second in the hearts of sports fans).

With that background, you will now be able to appreciate our new found television sports fame. Our first moment of fame occurred during the baseball playoffs when the Yankees were playing the Texas Rangers in the American League Championship Series. We were watching the Spanish language broadcast on TV. But just to built the suspense, first a few quick notes on watching American sports on TV in Latin America:

- First, watching sports you know on TV in a foreign language is pretty fun since they have some great terms for things; for example a homerun is "jonron" (which sounds exactly the same when pronounced in Spanish) and the right fielder is the "jardinero derecho", which literally translates as right gardener.

- Second, for most US sports they simply take the US broadcast and add Spanish commentators doing voice overs. For the most part this means that they do what you probably did at home as kid when you were practicing to be a sports commentator: turn down the volume and talk over the real commentators. This means that you can often hear the US broadcasters in the background. It also means that often images on the screen have no relation to what the Spanish broadcasters are talking about, but relate solely to US broadcast commentary. Thus the Spanish language commentators (and viewers) are left to come up with their own explanation for why they are showing a replay of a game from 5 years ago or an image of a moose in the woods.

- Third, for the most part and with the exception of special events (like the World Series), the Spanish "commentators" are sitting in their living room (or more likely a TV studio in Mexico or Atlanta), not at the actual game. This makes sense since the cost of deploying an entire broadcast team for each game would be prohibitive, especially when there isn't a big market for such games, and it allows them to show more games (since they can use the same commentators for a whole day of football games). But it does detract of the point of having commentators since the people in the studio have no better viewing perspective on the game than the viewers at home (and are often left with no explanation for something that has happened on the field). This means that the commentary tends to focus less on the action of the game and becomes more like the commentators having a conversation related to the particular game. Sometimes, especially during boring games, these conversations are very loosely related to the actual game on the field; such as the recent football game we were watching where the commentators engaged in a 10 minute conversation about the best NFL quarterbacks of all time while completely ignoring the action on the field (by the way, the answer was Joe Montana, who Latin American football broadcasters seem to be completely obsessed with- to the point that one time they even had Montana as a guest host, even though he speaks no Spanish whatsoever, which made for interesting television).

Back to our fame and the American League Championship Series that we were watching on TV. From time to time, the commentators of the Yankees/Rangers game would give shout-outs to people watching at home. For example, they'd say things like "Hello to my friend Jose Gonzalez and his family who are watching this game from Monterrey". Towards the end of one of the games, at a key point when the outcome of the game was going to be decided, Meg (not being a Yankee fan) was nodding off when she heard the broadcasters say: "Queremos decir hola a Meg y Jed Herrmann en Guatemala; Neoyorquinos y fanaticos de Los Yankees que estan mirando el partido desde Guatemala, saludos Meg y Jed Herrmann" (translation: We want to say hello to Meg and Jed Herrmann in Guatemala; they are New Yorkers and Yankee fans watching this game from Guatemala, greetings to Meg and Jed Herrmann).

Of course, it always great to get a shout out on international television, but is even more gratifying when you really get your wife's goat. First, Meg hasn't taken the Herrmann last name (it is unclear why anyone would turn down such a great name but she is very proud to be a Sullivan). Second, Meg isn't from New York (as she constantly reminds people) even though she's lived there for the majority of her post-college life. Third, Meg most certainly isn't a Yankees fan (in fact, she refused to allow me to even watch the Yankees-Twins division series with her). So now Meg is known as a Herrmann, New Yorker, and Yankees fan all across Latin America.

Our second moment of fame did not have quite as broad an audience though since it concerns soccer the people who did hear were likely very dedicated fans. We went down to the pacific coast of Guatemala for the weekend and there was a Guatemalan league soccer game in the town. Our hometown team (the Xela Super Chivos, or Super Goats) was visiting so we thought it would be fun to go and cheer them on.

Being visiting fans we thought it would be better to sit in the classy "club section" to avoid harassment (there aren't huge soccer riots in Guatemala but they still take their rooting pretty seriously) and because these fancy seats had a roof to shield the sun, which was well worth it since the game was played at noon when it was approximately 100 degrees (celsius, just kidding but it felt like it). It turns out that the club section as serves as the press box. Given that even local soccer games in Guatemala seem to be broadcast on multiple radio and TV channels, there were quite a few commentators with microphones there (though in an interesting reversal from US television broadcasts in Latin American, which we discussed above, these TV commentators don't have any monitors so they are literally just calling the game as they see it- since we were watching in person we can't say whether this makes for a better or worse TV broadcast than just sitting in the studio far away).

When we arrived the game had just gotten underway and the only available seats were between two dueling sets of commentators. So we spent the whole first half with a pair of commentators screaming in one ear and a trio of commentators screaming in the other ear. We could have learned a lot soccer knowledge in theory but we couldn't really hear what either group was shouting about the game.

At halftime, the trio of commentators introduced themselves and asked where we were from. We told them that we were from New York but living in Xela, which is why we were rooting for the Super Chivos (who were losing 1-0 at this point). We had a nice little chat with them. When they went back on the air at the beginning of the second half, they welcomed everyone back to the game "including our special visitors from New York City: Jed and Meg." Then he handed me the microphone (presumably for a welcome greeting) and I shouted "Go Super Chivos" to the viewers at home. Shortly into the half, the Xela team put in a substitute and we gave the player coming off the field a good cheer, leading the commentator to note "that our friends from New York are giving him a strong applause for a job well done".

Also shortly into the half, the Super Chivos scored to even the game at 1-1 leading us to cheer very loudly. So, of course, 15 minutes later when the home team scored the commentators screamed especially loudly and directly at us "Gooooooooooooolll". In all, our second brush with fame was a little more personal than our first, even if the TV audience wasn't as big.

It was also nice to meet the commentators (who at the end of the game told us a very long and not particularly funny joke about Guatemalans working in the US). We did note that the play-by-play guy who talked very fast in an exagerrated spanish accent during the game (think most words being said in the same tone as "Goooooolllllllllll") spoke in a perfectly normal and moderately paced Spanish when not doing his announcing (which must be a real relief to his family and friends since things like "Pleeeeeeaaaassssse passsssssssss the kettttt-chuppppppp" would probably get annoying on a daily basis).

So we haven't had to start beating away the autograph seekers who know us from our television fame yet, but we are anticipating that will occur any day now that we're so famous here in the Latin America sports community....

A Guatemalan "half marathon" (October 2010)

(The below describes Jed's recent experience running Medio-Marat├│n Los Altos, a half-marathon in our hometown of Xela, Guatemala)

As a general rule, I think that when there is a half-marathon in the town that you live in and it costs $6 to enter that you sort of have to give it a shot, even if you're only partially in shape.

Some may think "that sounds like a fun adventure" while others may be saying "that sounds like it is going to end in disaster". Well, both groups are partially correct though many would probably tip into the latter camp when hearing that Xela is at 8,500 feet above sea level and extremely hilly. But what resulted from the application of this rule was a (mostly) fun and uniquely Guatemalan experience. In fact, in many ways Medio-Maraton Los Altos is a good microcosm of life in Guatemala.

The race was slated to begin at 8am and while I had pre-registered for the event (but only after three visits the local toilet supply store where the registration booth was located), a friend had not. So we thought we should arrive a few minutes earlier than we normally would so that she could register. She suggested we arrive at 7:15am, I said I thought that 7:30am would be fine, we comprised and arrived at the start (located at a Texaco gas station outside of town) just after 7:20am. By 7:25am she was registered. Then we waited for the race to start as the delivery vans of the race sponsors blasted music from their rooftop bullhorns (anyone who has ever been to Latin America is familiar with these ubiquitous "mobile units" that drive through the streets blasting messages about such irresistable products as concrete blocks). And we waited....

Around 8:05am an announcement was made from one of the sponsor trucks, but we couldn't hear it as the other sponsor truck continued to blast music at top volume. Ten minutes later another announcement was made that we could actually hear (only because it happened to be at the closer of the two sponsor trucks not because the other truck turned down its music while the announcement was being made). The organizers informed us that "some people called from the highway and asked us to wait for them to start the race". So we waited (at this point Meg was already waiting at the rendezvous point we'd arranged at mile 3 of the course and wondering where all the runners were). Then at 8:30am the Guatemalan runners started to warm up (in hindsight we probably should have been suspicious about the race's start time when at 7:55am no one had started doing any warmups).

Finally at 8:45am, the organizers (and at this point I'd already started to use that term loosely) directed people to line up on the starting line. A few minutes later, the women runners started (not sure why they decided that the 25 women runners needed a separate start). Then, finally, the 200 or so male runners took to the course.

At this point, it became clear that the late start was not an aberration on the part of the race "organizers" but standard operating procedure (at this point it became clear that "organizers" wasn't the correct word to describe them). First, there were no course markings whatsoever (no signs, no race marshals pointing the way, nothing). While this was potentially very problematic (I pictured myself getting lost and ending up many miles outside of town), it worked out fine (for me) in the end as luckily I was running at a similar enough pace to others that there was always someone just in front of me leading the way.

Second, the race course was not closed. In fact, there was nothing to warn cars that there was a road race or any type of safety precautions at all. For most of the course this wasn't much of a problem since traffic was light on this Sunday morning. However, towards the end of the course as we neared downtown traffic started to pick up. This was most annoying when the race course intersected with a major bus route:

Finally, the good news is that I managed to finish the race in 1 hour and 24 minutes. For those of you that know anything about running, you'll note that is a world class time (just over 6 minute miles for 13 miles). This might make you suspicious about the actual length of the course- with good cause. In fact, by my estimation the "half-marathon" was at most 10 miles (making for a more reasonable 8 minute miles).

I first became suspicious about the length of the race when I met Meg for the final time on the route. She encouraged me by saying that I was almost there, but one look at my watch convinced me that I was most assuredly not almost done with 13 miles. At this point, I had two thoughts: either this course isn't a full length half-marathon or we are about to run about 25 laps around the central park (where the finish line was). To be honest, I wasn't sure which option I preferred; while I wanted the satisfaction of completing a half-marathon, I was also pretty tired by this time and wasn't looking forward to 3-4 more miles.

There are several possible explanations for why Medio Maraton Los Altos was only 10 miles. Perhaps the race "organizers":
a. didn't bother to measure the course and just estimated (very poorly) the length of the route
b. measured the length of the course but did so incorrectly (perhaps by counting paces?)
c. correctly measured the length of the original course but then changed the route at the last minute (for example at one point we ran a slightly different way because there was a parade ahead)

Another possible answer is that given the lack of any actual course markings or race marshals that one of the early runners decided to take a short cut and everyone in turn just followed (almost like a giant running version of the game telephone).

With its grand aspirations, its delayed timing, its overall lack of organization, and its attitude of fun, care-free adventure, the half-marathon presents an analogy for life in Guatemala. Though I did read a few days later that the winners of the race were complaining that they had yet to receive their prize money from the "organizers" (perhaps also indicative of Guatemala).

As our landlord said when I told her of the 10-mile-half-marathon, "well, here in Guatemala one word can mean many things and people use words to mean whatever they want." Next month there is another half-marathon here, we'll see how long this one is...

(At the "finish" line)

Banana Republic Tour (September 2010)

Recently, Meg’s brother Jake came for Guatemala for a brief visit. After spending a few days touring Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and Guatemala City, Jed and Jake went to Tikal (while Meg went to the US to teach medical board review classes):

Then Jed set off to explore the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, which is geographically and racially distinct from the rest of Guatemala. Dominated by tropical low lands, filled with fruit plantations, this portion of the country also has a significant Garifuna population (the Garifuna are descended from African slaves) and thus looks more like Barbados than Guatemala. In addition to the Garifuna, this area of the country also contains another vestige of the America’s commercial history, albeit a more recent one: bananas. So Jed took this opportunity to do a little banana republic history tour.

First some historical background- as many know, Guatemala was one of the original banana republics. The United Fruit Company played a huge role in Guatemala for much of the 20th Century and became to be known as The Octopus for the manner in which its tentacles reached into all aspects of society. United Fruit’s business in Guatemala was banana export. In Guatemala, United Fruit owned hundred’s of thousands acres of land and also controlled Guatemala’s railroad lines (which crisscrossed the banana plantations) and Guatemala’s only modern ports (Puerto Barrios on the Atlantic coast and Puerto San Jose on the Pacific coast).

In fact, United Fruit was in part behind the 1954 presidential coup in Guatemala, through which the United States help to depose President Jacobo Arbenz (who, not coincidentally, had just put in place a major land reform though which United Fruit was forced to give up some its unused land- United Fruit was compensated with a payment equal to what they had declared the land to be worth for tax purposes, but they claimed that they should actually be paid ten times that amount). Interestingly, at the same time that the CIA and the State Department were orchestrating a coup, the Justice Department was preparing to bring suit against United Fruit for monopolistic practices. (There is much more information on the 1954 coup and United Fruit in the interesting book, Bitter Fruit.)

As a result of this suit, United Fruit was forced to sell a portion of its Guatemala assets to its rival, Standard Fruit (now known as Dole), and in 1960’s sold its Guatemala operations to Del Monte. Nonetheless, bananas remain big business and even on a short trip to the Caribbean coast it is impossible not to witness the impact of this banana history.

First, the Atlantic Highway in Guatemala is packed full of tractor trailers representing every brand of banana you’d ever see on a supermarket shelf in the US. Second, while the land next to the highway is dedicated to more commercial uses (restaurants, fruit stands, hotels, etc) a short drive off the main road and you’re engulfed in a banana plantation. Third, a quick look at the map reveals a vast (and now defunct) rail network that runs from these banana plantations, in towns like Bananero, to the coast.

So Jed planned his own tour of Guatemala’s banana past. The most common relic of the country’s banana past is the vestiges of railroad network where old tracks and the wrecks of railroad stations still dominate the center of many towns.

(Near Bananero's town center)

While any towns are content to let these facilites serve as an informal local dump, the town of Zacapa has created an interesting rail museum, where it turns out that the last train in the country ran some five years ago.

While the railroad is out of use at this point, having been replaced by modern container shipping, United Fruit’s shipping facility in Puerto Barrios is still very much in use (though it has been converted to a container facility). And still in use, though certainly not modernized like the port, is the old banana baron hangout Hotel Del Norte- a classic company town wooden structure facing the port in Puerto Barrios (all the better to monitor the banana exports) with the word's widest porch:

While Puerto Barrios is not much of a company town anymore, it turns out that some banana enclaves remain in the region. For example, in Bananero there is still a banana company town. Next to the defunct railroad station, Del Monte has a little town with wooden houses and sports facilities (note the logo at center court):

And best of all, the town a Del Monte landing strip cum golf course- a good way to fully take advantage of the land and to allow the banana executives to step off the plane and play a round (see golf flag in foreground and landing strip behind):

Jed is thinking of turning all of this into the Guatemala Banana Republic Tour (maybe we’ll even include a round of golf on the Del Monte course)….

One Night in No Man's Land (July 22, 2010)

The below describes Jed's work to try to officially import our car to Guatemala

Some advice to anyone that wants to import a car to Guatemala, when you go to do the paperwork:
1. Bring a good book (that you aren't more than half finished with)
2. Have a good sense of humor
3. Bring a toothbrush

When I went to do the vehicle importation paperwork at the border, I was prepared with the first two items, but not the third (which turned out to be a pain). As background, for some reason, don't ask me why, you can't do the importation paperwork at the local branch of the Guatemalan tax office (which is 3 blocks from our house in Xela) but you have to go back to border. When I originally entered Guatemala from Mexico, I got a tourist permit for the car since I was anxious to get to Xela to see Meg and didn't have enough money on hand to pay the import tax. So this process was simply switching from a tourist car permit to a permanent car permit. Since the Mexican border is only about 2 hours from Xela, I didn't think this was such a big deal since the customs broker I was using told me the process would take 4 hours. So I figured I'd wake up early, get to the border when the broker's office opened, and be back home in time for dinner.

I executed the first part of the plan well, arriving at the custom broker's office at the border before 9am and filling in the necessary paperwork within an hour. Then since, I knew that I'd have 3 or so hours to kill, I decided to cross the border into Mexico to check out the Walmart in Tapachula (to look for an Ipod compatible stereo and to see if prices were much different than in Guatemala). Aside from a minor run-in with the Mexican police at a checkpoint- where they were very curious as to why I had so many stamps in my passport, especially the stamp from Singapore and a supposed stamp for Saudi Araubi (where I've never been)- the trip to Mexico was great (including an especially tasty lunch at a street stand, courtesy of my local guide from the customs broker's office). When I returned to the Guatemalan side of the border is when things went awry...

Apparently, the Guatemalan tax office custom's computer system was down across the entire country. This meant that no customs business could be conducted at the border until the system was back online. Despite lots of inquiries as to when the system would be working again- including one point where they promised there would be information about whether the system might work again that day (not information that the system was working but just information about whether it would work again) in half an hour- there was no progress.

While incovinient, I figured this wasn't a huge deal as I'd just get back in the car, drive home, and come back tomorrow when the system was working. That's when I learned that my car was officially in no man's land. Since the car's tourist permit had been cancelled as the first step in the process, it had been stamped out of Guatemala (even though it wasn't actually leaving the country, it had been stamped out of my passport so that I could import "back" to Guatemala). As the car was officially not in Guatemala, I couldn't drive it back to Xela for the night, which meant I was stuck at the border (unless I wanted to take a 2 part, 5 hour bus ride back to Xela for the night only to repeat the same trip again in the morning).

At was at this point that it struck me why the verb for "waiting" and "hoping" are the same in Spanish (esperar). In fact, it wasn't clear to me whether my expressions were being interpreted as "I hope the system gets fixed" or "I will wait until the system is fixed". While I was trying to convey hope, I suppose there wasn't much difference because I was also going to wait until the system was fixed.

For those of you that have spent much time at international border towns, you know that they aren't always the most pleasant places (to say the least). Given that one of the products of our around-the-world trip was a lot of time at borders, I knew that I was fairly lucky because this wasn't in the category of really terrible border towns but it still wasn't a place that I particularly wanted to spend the night. But I found a decent hotel that had air conditioning (since in contrast to most of the rest of Guatemala this town was very hot- adding to the pleasure of spending lots of time there) and cable TV.

After getting the hotel squared away, like any good American I decided to head back to Mexico to accompany my new best friends from the customs broker's office on a trip to pick up some cargo. After a couple more hours in Tapachula, Mexico, including a stop at Sam's Club to round out the tour of Walmart Corporation's Mexico holdings, I returned to Guatemala to find that just after we'd left the customs system had miracously come back online (yes, I was a little suspicious that it started working right after I left for Mexico). Nonetheless, by that point it was too late to drive back and in any case I'd already paid for my plush hotel room and bought some cold Mexican beer (which is much better than Guatemalan beer). So I bedded down for the night (50 feet from Mexico) in lovely border town of El Carmen, Guatemala- without a toothbrush or any other toiletries (hence item #3 from the list of things to bring when you want to import your car).

But all is well that ends well since when I woke up the morning, after a refreshing cold water show and using my bed sheet to dry myself (no towel which I figured out too late to ask the front desk for one), my paperwork was ready. After another half of hour of irrelevant paperwork and vehicle checks, I was on my way back to Xela after a fun 24 hours at the border.

Oh, and by the way, I recommend the guys at Gramajo y Aguilar Customs Brokers- they were very nice. Now all I have to do is spend another day at the tax office (fortunately the one down the street from us in Xela) to get the license plates for the car....

Settling down in Guatemala (july 14, 2010)

After Jed's drive and Meg's flight, we were finally both in Guatemala. First a little background on where we're living in Guatemala.

We're living in the western highlands of Guatemala in a city called Quetzaltenango. Quetzaltenango (or Xela as it commonly known based its ancient name in the indigenous language) is the second largest city in Guatemala with a population of about 400,000 people. It is located about 125 miles from Guatemala City though the drive takes about 3 1/2 hours because the road, while a very good 4 lane highway, is mountainous (it passes over the highest point on the Pan-American highway, which is just over 10,000 feet). Xela itself is at just over 7,500 feet.
This altitude makes for spring like weather conditions where it is warm in the sun but cool in the shade with daytime highs in the mid-70s and lows in 50's at night. Of course, there is some seasonal alteration, during the rainy season and other times, so it can be cooler as well. While Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala, it is only 1/10 the size of Guatemala City. This makes Xela is big enough that there are big supermarkets, movie theaters, and every other type of service you can imagine but small enough that it still has a historical core that feels like a small city.
We quickly settled into our apartment in Xela, a furnished place that we've rented for the first few months we're in the country. The apartment is one of 5 apartments surrounding a small garden and fountain and is 2-bedroom duplex with a nice kitchen.

There is also a view of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes from the terrace.
So far we've found Xela to be a great place to live. The colonial center is a very walkable and picturesque area. Just 4 blocks from our house there is a lovely central park, where there are always people doing something. More updates will follow as we continue to get settled into our life here, but so far so good.

The Tail End of Mexico (July 2, 2010)

After our great trip to the tequila region of Mexico, we headed for the pacific coast for the final legs of the drive towards Guatemala. A stop for lunch in Acapulco was enough to convince us that we weren't missing anything in Acapulco (except maybe the cliff divers that we didn't get a chance to see before we hightailed it away from the mess).

Then we spent a great couple of nights along the southern, pacific coast of Mexico in small beach towns. The town of Playa Ventura certainly provided the most adventure; we hadn't been listening to the news so we didn't know about the approaching hurricane. The resulting rains succeeded in flooding our hotel room, causing the power to go out, and creating a leak that landed next to Jed's face for half the night. Oh, that isn't mentioning the earthquake that also happened that night....

However, the oddest aftermath of the hurricane was that while driving the next day we suddenly began to pick up Louisiana radio stations on the car radio. And this isn't just one station being rebroadcast locally, every single frequency had a Louisiana radio station that would fade in and out. The only explanations that we could come up with were that there was some weird electrical pattern in the atmosphere or something related to aliens- probably a 50-50 shot of each.

Aside from Louisiana radio stations, the only other excitement was an anti-government protest and roadblock. Well, that makes it sound a little more exciting than it was, here was the conversation (in Spanish) we had with a random Mexican man when we pulled up and saw the traffic backed-up behind the roadblock:

Jed: What's going on here?
Mexican Man: They are blocking the road
Jed: Why are they blocking the road?
Mexican Man: Who knows? Something about a protest against the government.
Jed: When will it be over?
Mexican Man: I have no idea; where are you trying to go, Puerto Escondido?
Jed: Yes, Puerto Escondido, is this the only road there?
Mexican Man: Yes, this is the only road to Puerto Escondido. At least you're stuck on the side of the blockade nearest town, why don't you go have some lunch?
Jed: Good idea.

So we went and had lunch, returned to the blockade, waited 25 minutes until the protesters went back home, and continued on our way.

Our next night in the town of Augustinillo was less eventful and more beautiful:

Our last hurrah in Mexico was a day spent with the Mexican Army; well not literally all day but most of it. By way of explanation, those of you that have been following Mexican current affairs know that over the past several years there has been a rising tide of narco-trafficking related violence and that one of the federal government's strategies to combat this trafficking has been to dispatch the Army internally.

There has been a considerable amount of controversy, and some backlash, to this move as the Army's mission, and therefore training, is not traditional domestic law enforcement. During our drive through Mexico, we saw many of these Army checkpoints. We were stopped a couple of times, but nothing compared to our last day driving through Mexico when we were stopped and searched 3 times within 3 hours. While, of course, there was nothing to find in our car, it still gave vivid insight into this controversial policy. And gave one particular officer a chance to ask for a bottle of tequila "para la raza" (we turned him down). After that crossing the border into Guatemala was fairly easy and we were through in under an hour.

Mexico and Tequila (June 30, 2010)

From Laredo, Texas, we crossed into Mexico (after a brief farewell visit with our friends at US Customs and Border Patrol), where we drove straight to Monterrey (no hanging out in border towns these days...). Monterrey is a very nice city with well designed system of parks, museums, and cultural buildings. There was clearly a significant amount of urban planning that went into Monterrey- most of it in the 1970s judging by the dominance of the concrete monolith in architecture.

(Central Monterrey, with park in the foreground and mountains in the background)

Then we passed through Zacatecas (a nice town with a good colonial core) before spending the night in Guadalajara. Then came the highlight of our time in Mexico: a visit to Tequila country. While we probably should have done more planning, we really just happened to head to the town of Atotonilco el Alto on whim. Atotonilco is the town where aged tequila was invented and is one of two main tequila producing towns in Mexico- the other being the town of Tequila.

After some driving around we were lucky enough to end up at the distillery of 7 Leguas tequila. We ended up at 7 Leguas because it was the easiest to find, but it was a fortuitous choice. Though we hadn’t made a tour appointment, we ended up with a private tour of the distillery with Arturo Valle, the head chemist for the company. The tour consisted of visiting both of 7 Leguas factories, one of which produces tequila the old fashioned way, including using burros to crush the agave plants, and the other of which is a more modern plant.

(The agave plants before being pressed the old fashioned way)

In contrast to our tour at the Maker’s Mark factory (which was a lot of fun), this was not a half hour canned tour with a script and a professional tour guide. At 7 Leguas we got an hour and a half tour from people who’s main job is to make great tequila and whom only give tours on occasion. And we got to see every step of the tequila making process- from tasting the agave plants to sticking our noses in the vat of tequila straight out of the still. It was fantastic!

Aside from the tour itself, which was very informative, we got to have a tasting with Arturo who led us step-by-step through 7 Leguas various kinds of tequila, describing the process, the tastes, and the chemical reactions that create those tastes. Then we got meet the owner of 7 Leguas, Juan Fernando Gonazalez, who gave us some of the brand and family history: the company was started by his father, who was a great Pancho Villa admirer. 7 Leguas, which means 7 leagues in English, was name of Pancho Villa’s favorite horse. After that Juan’s assistant, Berta, hooked us up with some 7 Leguas hats, shirts, and tequila samples. Then we got to sign a tequila barrel to commemorate our visit (much cooler than a guestbook):

In all, we had a fantastic time at 7 Leguas, where we learned a lot about the tequila making process, got the royal treatment from the incredibly nice team at 7 Leguas, and got to enjoy a great tequila (don’t worry we took some bottles to go)! A big thank you to Juan, Arturo, and Berta for a great experience.

Nashville to Texas (via Oklahoma) (June 26, 2010)

We got a slow start from Nashville (due to World Cup soccer) so we decided to stop in Memphis for the night, instead of heading to Little Rock. And a good choice it was, as it is hard to beat a night of minor league baseball, great ribs, and a wander around Beale Street.

In fact, we were even happier with our choice to sleep in Memphis when we stopped in Little Rock for lunch the next day and asked a local what there was to do in town and his response was “you’re pretty much doing it now”. If we had stayed in Little Rock longer, however, we could have watched the World Martial Arts Championships (though it is a little odd to drive into a strange town and see everyone walking down the street dressed in white martial arts outfits).

In front of the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock

An evening in Tulsa, where bar trivia was the highlight, checked Oklahoma off the list of US states to visit. On our way to the Texas/Mexico border we passed through some interesting places on our drive through Texas, including the town of West, which was an entirely Czech town (complete with a Czech bakery, a Czech Inn, and a biergarten)- as someone said: the Czechs were told to go west for greater opportunity and they took it literally. And in Manville, Texas, a record 11 water towers were visible from a single point on the highway. Next stop Mexico!

Charleston to Tulsa (June 23, 2010)

After a lovely night at the Red Roof Inn Charleston-Highwayside, it was off to Tennessee via the land of Kentucky. The first stop in Kentucky was lunch in Lexington, a rather nice little town and birthplace of Mary Todd Lincoln; interestingly Abraham himself was born just down the road near Hodgenville, KY and also lived New Haven, KY as a child. I always thought as Lincoln being from Illinois- perhaps attributable to the fact that its license plates say as much- but it turns out he was originally from Kenucky- who knew?

(Lincoln's Boyhood Home)

Another highlight in Kentucky was a visit to the heart of bourbon country. The Bardstown area is chock full of distilleries and we visited our friends at Maker’s Mark. We had a lovely tour where we learned about the secrets behind production (the use of red winter wheat rather than rye apparently produces a sweeter, smoother taste than most other bourbons). Thanks to the folks back at corporate headquarters (specifically one Andrew Slater), we got to experience the highlight of the tour: dipping a special “Founder’s” bottle of Maker’s Mark’s into its trademark wax.

And since no trip to Kentucky is complete without at least one reference to the Kentucky Derby, we saw the house that was the inspiration for the song My Old Kentucky Home (the song that is sung before the Derby). Lets just say that the song is better than the house. Then it was back on the road and over the border into the Tennessee, where (thanks to our kind hosts the Greenes) we had a great night at the Honky Tonks on Broadway in Nashville.

On The Road Again (June 21, 2010)

After 6 weeks back in the US, including trips to California, Maine, Connecticut, and Washington, DC for a wedding, a bachelor party, a reunion, a birthday party, respectively, it was nearly time to head the road again and head to Guatemala once and for all. After weeks of completing errands and working on logistics, the most time consuming being the purchase of car, and waiting for our nephew to be born (Devin Spencer Sullivan arrived on Friday, June 18), we had everything set to go. In this case, however, “go” meant different things for each of us. Go for Meg meant buying a plane ticket and getting a ride to LaGuardia airport. Go for Jed meant getting in the car and driving to Guatemala.

As for the need to drive to Guatemala, we knew that we’d need a car there and after doing some car research while we were in Guatemala in early May, we determined that we could get a better deal on a better car in the US. So after much research and looking at used cars in 8 different states, we finally bought a Jeep Liberty, which checked off the boxes of not too big, not too fancy, but dependable and with four-wheel drive.

Jed and Jimmy: The Before Picture

Our last stop, before going to Guatemala was Jed’s brother’s wedding in Charlottesville, VA. Highlights of the weekend included a tasty southern style dinner on Friday night, followed by speeches and songs from family and friends; a beautiful outdoor ceremony in the garden of an historic inn; a great photo booth at the reception which captured many great memories and some less great ones; oh, and it was 95 degrees the entire weekend so there was some good sweating too.

After some last minute car maintenance, Jed and his cousin Jimmy set off south towards Guatemala. The first stop was the “wild and wonderful” (that’s their state slogan) West Virginia. A night in Charleston contained many great sites and adventures; well, actually the only really great site was the capital building (its dome roof is covered in gold).

For that matter, the only real adventure was the Hackensack New Jersey Marching Band RV getting stuck on the protective bollard at that gas station. After making too tight a turn while pulling out of the gas station the band leader managed to smash the back of the RV into the cement post and get the RV situated such that no move backward or forward could free the post from where it was embedded in the back of the RV. After offering our assistance (to no avail), the band leader went with the next option, which was to “load up a van pull of tuba players” and get them over to the gas station to try to push the RV off the cement post. While we don’t know if they ever freed the RV, the tuba players did arrive:

Latin America Here We Come (May 7, 2010)

To cut to the chase: We're moving to Guatemala!

After 50+ meetings, in 3 countries, over the course of several weeks, we've found our ideal situation in Xela, Guatemala. If you had asked us 3 months ago what kind of place we wanted to live in Latin America, we would have described exactly Xela (or Quentzaltanango), Guatemala. Guatemala's second city, Xela is a medium-sized city of 300,000 with a large indigenous population, a beautiful colonial core, beautiful scenery, good restaurants and the full range of services anyone could want (see here for what Lonely Planet and Wikipedia have to say).

A view of Xela's colonial central square

On top of that, Meg has found her perfect job there. She'll be working as the Medical Coordinator for the Pop Wuj medical clinic. The clinic sees medically underserved local residents and is connected to the Pop Wuj Spanish School which supplies many volunteers from US medical schools. Officially Meg will be an employee of the Timmy Foundation, a US-based organization which organizes medical brigades of American doctors, medical students, and others that come to Guatemala for week long trips to provide intensive medical care to many of the underserved communities surrounding Xela.

Jed also has some great opportunities consulting with Guatemala municipalities- a field he didn't even know existed 3 months ago! But there is actually quite a robust group of organizations that are working with Guatemalan cities and towns to better service delivery and improve transparency. So Jed can actually do work that is related to his work in New York City government, which means the last 6 years of working at the Department of Consumer Affairs isn't totally inapplicable (which is nice!). At present, Jed is planning to begin consulting with the Inter-American Development Bank starting this summer.

And to top it all off, we've already got a short term place to live in Xela- in an apartment a 5 minute walk from the central park and Meg's work. The place is twice as nice and 4 times the size of our last New York apartment- all for 15% of the monthly rent! In addition to a garden area and a terrace it has a guest bedroom so start planning your Guatemalan vacation....

A view of Xela and environs

In all, this is a great ending to what has been an amazing journey over the past 6 months. We're incredibly blessed to have seen so much of the world and to end up in as worthy a place as Guatemala. And stay tuned to our blog as we hope to give updates on our lives in Guatemala.

El Salvador (April 29, 2010)

Other than a brutal civil war (in which the US was intimately involved) and a variety of natural disasters (which the US had nothing to do with, we think), most Americans don’t know much about the recent history of El Salvador. In fact, when Meg’s contact with a rural clinic brought us to the country, we didn’t real know what to expect. We found a fun, beautiful, friendly, and modern country. Despite its small size (about that of Massachusetts), El Salvador has great geographical diversity. From the mountains and the beach to the cosmopolitan capital and cute colonial towns, El Salvador really has it all and all within a few hours drive. As we heard on multiple occasions, for Salvadorians a drive of over two hours is “a long drive”.

We started our time in the country with several days of meetings in San Salvador; from people at the US embassy, US AID, NGOs, and more we met with many types of people. And almost universally we found them to friendly and forthcoming. As capital cities in Central America go, San Salvador is among the best (perhaps only Panama City might eclipse it). To those who know Central American capitals this might seem like faint praise, but found the city to be a pleasant, even if not particularly full of tourist sites (which may account for nearly complete absence of tourists).

After San Salvador, the medical clinic we visited in the province of Morazan was a sudden change. The Morazan province is among the most rural in the country and although only a few hours from the capital, it feels very removed. The town where the clinic is has no electricity (though it is scheduled to receive power later this year) and limited running water. As such, the work that is performed at the La Estancia clinic is both impressive and much needed. After learning about the clinic from American volunteers and the local staff, we spent the night and soaked in the local culture in the town of 200 people.

Morazan was also a rebel stronghold during El Salvador’s long civil war. Many of the families in the area escaped across the mountainous border to Honduras during the war while the men resisted the government forces. There are many reminders throughout the province of the war. Among them is the Revolutionary Museum in the town of Perquin. While it isn’t the world’s most interactive museum, the chance to see many remnants of the war firsthand with a former guerilla as a guide is worth the trip.

After the mountains of Morazan, we headed down to the coast (with a short stop at the airport to change our flights- lopping our planned trip to Bolivia and Peru off our itinerary and replacing it with a return to Guatemala to investigate some more job leads). A night in the little beach town of El Zonte was a very pleasant experience. El Zonte is a small cluster of houses on lovely beach with a great surf break- all under an hour from San Salvador. While we probably won’t end up living in El Salvador (as we found better professional opportunities in Guatemala), we would highly recommend it for your next vacation.

Post Script: Guatemala

 After a brief stop in the United States to do our laundry, do our taxes, see our families, take a break from our blog, attend Jed's brother's engagement party, go to Jed's cousin's christening, celebrate Meg's brother's birthday, and meet with some people at the State Department in Washington, DC (phew! In some ways our trip to the US was more parapetic than our trip around the world), it was off on a reconaissance mission to Latin America. 

Our Mission: Meet with contacts, scout cities/towns that we might live in, and find jobs
First Stop: Guatemala

As we've told people many times over the last months, our goal is to live in Latin America for a couple of years in a Spanish speaking country, where our work will be of public service, and which isn't too dangerous or unstable (sayonara Venezuela). 

 More specifically, going into this scouting trip, we were ideally hoping to find (in this order): 
 1. A job for Meg in her field (at least some degree of clinical, primary care pediatrics mixed ideally with some elements of public health and health education work)

 2. A good  country to live, preferably in Central America, since the need is greater there than in many parts of South America and it is easier to get back to the US (the flight from Guatemala City to New York is shorter than New York to San Francisco)

 3. A good town/city to live in- we were hoping for some place that wasn't too big or too dangerous but was still cosmopolitian enough to have cultural activities and things like internet and a supermarket where one can buy peanut butter and Heinz ketchup (the availability of the latter is on indicator on Jed's economic development scale)

 4. A job for Jed that was somewhat related to his work in NYC government- ideally this would be working with a municipality (or possibly an NGO) on improving service delivery to citizens and/or tracking the effectiveness of projects

 We were lucky enough to stay with some friends in Antigua, Guatemala who let us camp out in their guest room for several days as we went to meetings with NGOs, government agencies, and other organizations in Guatemala City.  Over the course of 5 days we had numerous meetings with various contacts. Combine that with several hours of traffic (and getting lost) in Guatemala City and it was a busy week. Though we had several fun diversions including a couple of fun dinners out on the town in Antigua and a day spent climbing a volcano with the US Ambassador (who was extremely nice and full of great advice).   We then headed up to Quetzaltenango (aka "Xela.") where Meg visited some clinics and Jed introduced himself to the mayor (literally; even gave him his resume; the mayor is "looking for possibilities for him.") 

 Next stop on on the Latin American reconnaissance trip: El Salvador

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Many people have asked us over the course of our trip a variety questions along the lines of “what was the best [fill in the blank]?” So from food and foul ups to sites and surprises, we thought we’d give a quick run down of the best of and the worst of:

Best place: Wadi Rum, Jordan

Best place runners up: Summit of Kilimanjaro, Gili Islands (Indonesia), Mumbai

Place we would most recommend visiting: While we visited many beautiful places that should be visited. Many of them, however, are fairly well known: the Pyramids at Giza are great, but they aren’t exactly untouristy. Here are the places we’d recommend to get off the beaten track:

1. Syria: while we may not be on most friendly diplomatic terms with them (“Axis of Evil” anyone?), we found Syria be a fun place to visit with super nice locals, good sites, cheap prices, and not a lot of other tourists

2. Burma: Getting a Burmese visa is a process and the government is like a repressive bad joke, but the scenery is fantastic, the food is surprisingly tasty, and the culture is very interesting; this is probably the most different place that we went

3. Namibia: There are certainly some well known sites in Namibia, like the iconic dunes at Sossusvlei, but it is a huge country with very few people and is much less traveled than its neighbor South Africa. Thus relatively speaking Namibia is a great way to get see all that Africa has to offer with less people, lower prices, and better beer than other places in the region.

Places that lived up to the hype:

1. The Pyramids, Egypt: Yes, they are crowded; yes, there are lots of touts; and they are one of the world’s original tourist sites. But there is a reason for this: they are truly remarkable. Their size, their perfect shape, their natural setting, their age… wow!

2. Safari in Tanzania: “Are you going safari?”; “You must see the animals while in Africa!”; etc… We heard all this and more about how great a safari was and how we must do it- turns out everyone was right. Seeing exotic animals in their (jaw-droppingly beautiful) natural setting is fantastic!

3. Cape Town, South Africa: This city is world-renowned and righltly so as it has it all: beautiful mountains, the ocean, good food, great wine. It is a wonderful place to spend a week.

4. Istanbul: Istanbul gets it right- the history, the mix of cultures, the energy, the architecture, the food. Again this is a place that people highly recommended to us and we’ll do the same- Istanbul is great!

Most surprising place (that we thought we wouldn’t like as much as we did):

- Nairobi, Kenya: This city has a very bad reputation but we found it to be a pleasant city; in fact, the nicest city we saw in Africa with the exception of Cape Town

- Victoria Falls: After Niagara Falls, we didn’t have high expectations for another big waterfall. Turns out when you take away tourists and the barriers- allowing you to walk right up to the edge and even lean out over the falls (literally)- it is pretty awesome.

- Jogykarta, Indonesia—we went there as a means to see the temples of Borobudur and Pramadan outside the city but ended up really loving the city. The people were incredibly friendly and it was a great introduction to the vibrancy of the Indonesian culture

Best Food overall: Malaysia

Best Food compared with what you get in the U.S.: Middle East

Best meals: 1. Falafel in a back alley in Amman, Jordan 2. Dinner in Selcuk, Turkey 3. The Copper Chimney Restaurant, Mumbai

Worst meal: Nkhata Bay, Malawi

Best hotel value: Hoang Van Hotel, Kon Tum, Vietnam (beautiful, spotless, modern room with all the conveniences (wifi, satellite TV, bathtub, mini-fridge, etc) in a prime location for $15.)

Worst hotel value: No Name Hotel, Damascus, Syria (noisy, dirty craphole with bathroom filled with bugs for $29)

Best decision: Going on a 6 month honeymoon (we highly recommend it!) Others include:

  1. going through the hassle of figuring out how to get to Burma
  2. not booking Kilimanjaro trip in advance as booking it on the spot cost 30% less
  3. renting car in Thailand allowing us to escape the hordes of tourists and find “the real Thailand"
  4. opting to buy plane tickets on the fly, rather than buying a pre-arranged around-the-world ticket- ironically not buying this gave us more flexibility and cost us 75% less

Worst decision:

1. Trying to go from Nkhata Bay, Malawi into Tanzania in one day: turns out this trip is long and slow and drove us to the brink of insanity

2. Changing money (from Zambian Kwacha to Malawian Kwacha) with scammers at the Zambia-Malawi border: they cheated us out of $8 with their tricky math

3. Not changing money with scammers at the Malawi-Tanzania border: this reactionary move (see #2 above) cost us $50 since no else one in the entire world will exchange Malawian Kwacha (trust us, we asked in every subsequent country we went to).

Best Cities: Saigon, Mumbai, Istanbul

Worst City: Mandalay, Burma (although the surrounding sites are great)

So that is the wrap up on our around-the-world honeymoon. We look forward to being a source of advice for our travel friends in the future. Now on to finding a job in Latin America....

Hong Kong, April 5, 2010

Hong Kong was a good transition between the rest of Southeast Asia and New York. With a diverse population, many familiar stores, and westernized prices, Hong Kong felt like a cross between Madison Avenue and Chinatown.

The efficient transportation system makes Hong Kong a very easy place to spend a pleasant weekend. In fact, even Jed had to admit that Hong Kong’s public transit system was better than New York’s in many ways. With an integrated system of subways, buses, ferries, and street cars, the transit system is a model. Where New York has tried (though largely failed) to use its maritime assets (it was originally a harbor city for goodness sake), Hong Kong has succeeded; there are cheap, regular ferries that go all over the city.

Hong Kong (as well as Bangkok) has engineered a very efficient way of transferring between subway lines. Rather than walking up or down stairs and all over the station (as one does in New York), they have set it up so subway lines between which travelers regularly transfer are across the platform from each other. This certainly is not that difficult an idea to think of, but it makes life a lot easier for the average rider.

You have a close to perfection when you add a (very fast) direct train from the airport and the “Octopus Card”, a great stored value card that can be used on all public transport and many stores as well. While the logistical challenges are great, an Octopus card (we could call it the Hudson Card) would be great in NYC. 

Hong Kong also has great food assets. Like Singapore, the unique merging of many cultures has led to very tasty buffet. Jed tried to eat as many meals a day as possible to take advantage of all the culinary treats (despite great efforts,  six meals in a day was the most he managed to fit in). And after a trip of shunning Chinese food in favor of local food, Meg was finally able to enjoy Chinese food without feeling guilty. 

Jed enjoys some Hong Kong pork jerky

Despite the fact that Hong Kong was shrouded in fog the entire time we were there (which is better than the sandstorm that had blown down from China a few weeks earlier), we still marveled at the fantastic scenic beauty of the place. The juxtaposition of green mountains towering over beautiful aqua water with skyscrapers sprouting in the foreground makes for a unique and fantastic visual fabric. However, it was the non-urban parts of Hong Kong that we found most invigorating. While the island of Hong Kong is the main urban center there are dozens of other smaller islands that make up the city. On Hong Kong island itself but also on the myriad of smaller surrounding islands, there is much untouched nature and many small towns and fishing villages. For example, we were able to take a 30 minute ferry ride and spend a few hours hiking around mountains and through small villages. 

 And so with a long weekend in Hong Kong, our epic around-the-world honeymoon came to an anticlimactic end. Stayed tuned for the our awards for the best, the worst, and in betweens of the trip.