Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Life in Linda Vista

As I have mentioned in my recent blog posts, I am currently living in Villa Nueva, the second-largest municipality in the department of Guatemala in the country of Guatemala. Confused? For the sake of comparison, Guatemala (the country) is divided into 22 departments like the United States is divided into 50 states. There is a department named Guatemala which is the largest of the twenty-two in terms of population, and it is comprised of 17 municipalities. Villa Neuva is the second-largest city i.e. municipality in the department of Guatemala after Guatemala City. Within the municipalities, the smaller towns are often referred to as pueblas or colonias. I live in Colonia Linda Vista, which is essentially a village within the sprawling municipality of Villa Neuva. Within the colonia, I am in a small neighborhood which is comprised of two streets (13 Avenida and 14 Avenida) that form a U-shape with a gated entrance at either end.
lake and volcano in guatemala
view of Lago Amatitlan and Volcan Pacaya from the curve
in the U-shaped road in my gated neighborhood
Linda Vista has a few blocks that are lined with fruit and vegetable vendors; tiny bakeries and butcher shops; cage-enclosed convenience stores (meaning you can't walk through the store and browse; you walk up to a small window-like opening in the gate and tell the shopkeeper what you want); second-hand clothing stores; a few churches and mechanic shops; and even an Alcoholics Anonymous. There are a couple of schools wedged in among the residences and shops. There is also a small supermarket named Super del Barrio where you can buy some basic groceries.
small town in central guatemala
There are no restaurants except a couple of tiny counter-service places in the Pradera Express, a small shopping strip adjacent to the next closest supermarket, Despensa Familiar, which is a one-mile walk each way from the house. The nearest restaurants are almost all fast food e.g. Pollo Campero (Guatemala's answer to KFC), Burger King, McDonald's; and they are a 15-minute chicken bus ride away at the larger shopping complex "Centro Comercial Santa Clara" that is also home to a Walmart and a movie theater.
small grocery store in guatemala
walking through the parking lot of the Despensa Familiar
Once a week I walk 20+ minutes each way to the Despensa Familiar, which has a limited selection but is sufficient for purchasing most basic supplies. Alternately, I take the bus, which costs the equivalent of $0.26 each way, to Walmart if I want a better selection. But my favorite excursion is to the Mercado Concepción, the traditional local market. It is farther away in the city center of Villa Neuva, only 3.5 km as the crow flies but it is not walkable, so I have to take the bus which follows a more indirect route over 10 km. It still only costs $0.26 per ride, but takes an hour each way due to traffic and making multiple stops.
chicken bus and produce stand in guatemala
catching the chicken bus to go to the Mercado Concepcion
The Mercado Concepción is a typical Latin American market housed in a large corrugated metal warehouse which is generally divided into sections according to the category of item sold: frutas y verduras (fresh fruits and vegetables), carnicerias (butchers for meat, but in this area you will also find pescaderia or fish and seafood vendors), ropa (clothing), miscelaneas (everything else). You can truly buy almost anything here from baby formula to pirated DVDs; paintings or pots and pans; pets, like a chihuahua puppy for only 450 GTQ or $58, or a handmade leather belt. You can even get a haircut in a 5' x 5' stall with no running water. There are also dozens of comedores (literally, a dining hall; in this case a large seating area lined with food vendors) selling everything from ceviche to pupusas, jugos (fresh juices) to hot dogs.
fruits and vegetables from the market in guatemala
the haul from my first trip to the market
My neighbor Miriam took me to the market for the first time last Thursday so she could show me how to get around by local bus. She also pointed out areas in the city center of Villa Neuva that she cautioned are frequented by pickpockets and purse snatchers. I was a little surprised when she didn't try to bargain on any of the quoted prices for fruits and vegetables, especially at stalls where I bought multiple items, but then I realized the asking price was pretty reasonable to begin with. It was fun to wander through the multiple aisles of stalls which were packed to the gills with whatever range of products they were offering. We had some good laughs, too, particularly in the "alternative meats" section when we were eyeing a glass display case filled with the internal organs of various animals along with hooves and other body parts. I pointed to a pile of large ruddy globes that would each more than cover the palm of my hand and said "corazón" the Spanish word for heart. But Miriam immediately burst out laughing and said "no, no, testículos!" I think you can figure that one out for yourself. I did not take photos at the market that day because Miriam did not seem comfortable with me having my phone out, even though it was securely leashed to my purse. So here's one from the Mercado La Merced in Mexico City to whet your appetite:
sheep's head and other organs at the market in Mexico City
at least items like this are inside at the Mercado Concepcion
but they are still not refrigerated while on display
It gets completely dark by 6:00 p.m. and it is generally unsafe to be out at night alone or otherwise. In this area it is not necessarily because of crime but mostly because it is dangerous to be anywhere near a road (there are no sidewalks) which are in horrible condition for the most part: there are no marked lanes so people drive all over the place, weaving in and out of traffic; there are tons of motorcycles, pedestrians, stray animals, trash, and large potholes to dodge; there are few street lights so you can't really see where you're going; and people drive without headlights even when it's dark! Walking during the day is not exactly pleasant for those same reasons and also because the chicken buses and other large transport vehicles continuously belch out black clouds of diesel fumes which burn the eyes and lungs.
my favorite chicken bus is blinged out with pink accents
In general life is pretty quiet here in Linda Vista minus the random fireworks, dogs barking, cats fighting and rooster crowing, which I wrote about in my last post. It is the perfect place to hole up at home and read, write and study. The only other welcome distraction is every Friday morning when Miriam comes over to clean the house. I'm very organized and keep things neat and tidy anyway, but she cleans the bathrooms, dusts, mops the floors, changes the sheets, etc. It is always nice to end the week with a spotless, fresh-smelling home plus it's a good opportunity to chat with a native Spanish speaker and catch up on the latest news and neighborhood gossip.

Monday, October 8, 2018

At Home in Guatemala

The neighborhood rooster starts crowing as early as 4:30 a.m. every morning. Sometimes he will wait until 5:30 a.m. (first light) for which I am thankful. Even with the window closed I can hear him. I lie in bed thinking that the next time I spot him when I'm out walking I will catch him and strangle him.
I took this photo in Hawaii; I have not seen any roosters this handsome here yet.
If it's not the rooster it is fireworks. Yes, at 5:30 in the morning! Apparently it is a tradition here to set off firecrackers in front of a home when it is someone's birthday. This can happen at any hour of the day or night and often does. Any cause for celebration, not just a birthday, is an excuse to light a few fireworks, so it is a daily occurrence that I have had to get used to, even in the small village of Linda Vista where I am living.

I usually try to stay in bed until around 8:00 a.m. Once I am up and dressed, the first thing I do is open up the house. Most houses here are made of cinder block with a corrugated metal roof. The house I am living in is well-built and has a solid, concrete roof. If a house has glass windows, most do not have screens. There is no air conditioning, so in order to get air to flow through the house, I have to open doors and windows in the front and back to create a draft.
standing on the roof looking west - Volcan Agua is on the right obscured by clouds
It is still the rainy season here, which starts in May and usually tapers off by the end of October. Some days it's just party cloudy with no rain at all, but most of the time it rains off and on throughout the day. The overcast skies keep the temperature lower (around 65-70 F) which is perfect for me. On the days that it is sunny, it is typically at least 80 F with little or no breeze to cool things off.

After opening up the house, I fill a large measuring cup with water from a five gallon plastic bottle and then make coffee or tea using the purified water. The water here is unsafe to drink or to cook with due to high levels of bacteria from contaminated sources. Some newer homes and most upscale hotels and restaurants have their own purification systems, but the average residence does not. Thankfully you can purchase five gallon jugs of water at most grocery stores for just over $2 and there is also a home delivery service for convenience.
buying bottled water at Walmart
While the coffee is brewing I check email and social media and glance at my calendar and To Do list in Google Docs to make sure there isn't anything time-sensitive I need to address. Around 9:00 a.m. I am ready for breakfast which alternates between a bowl of yogurt with granola or some combination of an egg, cheese or fresh avocado, a slice of ham, toast or tortilla, and fresh fruit. I hand-wash all of the dishes immediately to decrease the likelihood of attracting insects into the house.

By now it is 10:00 a.m. and time to settle into my writing routine. My goal is to write and publish either one blog post every other day (at minimum on Monday, Wednesday and Friday), or generate at least 2,000 words of content for the book I am writing.

After a few hours of writing, I take a break for a light lunch which is usually a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a toasted ham and cheese sandwich with a piece of fresh fruit.

Now it is around 2:00 p.m. and, if I've accomplished my writing tasks for the day, then I switch to Spanish lessons. I studied Spanish for less than a year in college because, even though I wanted to master two foreign languages by the time I graduated, I was majoring in French (with a minor in English writing) and found that my brain could not handle three different linguistics studies at the same time. Since I will be traveling in Spanish-speaking countries for the next year, it makes sense to increase my vocabulary and listening comprehension and to improve my conversational skills.

I had thought it would be fun to attend language classes for non-native speakers, but there are no language schools near the town where I am living. So I am teaching myself using a variety of methods: using free apps like Duolingo; reading books like Fluent Forever or Spanish Short Stories for Beginners; doing free online lessons like Transparent Language or Living Language; watching free YouTube videos like the series from Professor Jason; watching or listening to Spanish-language movies, TV shows or music; and by conversing with locals whenever possible.
one of the hardest things to learn in Spanish
Around 5:00 p.m. I take a short break to close up the house. It begins to get dark then, and the inside lights attract insects, particularly mosquitoes.

Sometime between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. I have finished my studies for the day and am ready for dinner. I love to cook and am trying to make typical Guatemalan foods. For now I'm sticking with simple dishes: black beans, rice, fried plantains, sauteed chard. Last week I made a big batch of each dish and have been enjoying the leftovers every night along with some type of meat (most recently, pan-seared pork steak).
a delicious homemade meal
There is no TV or cable here at the house so at night I usually stream a YouTube video of a Spanish-language TV show or movie with or without subtitles. It's a great way to immerse myself in the language and get a dose of the culture, too. After I take a shower and retire to my bedroom I read on my Kindle Paperwhite. Mostly I read travel literature (fiction or nonfiction) or Americas history; think Eat Pray Love or Jungle of Stone.

Around 10:00 -11:00 p.m. I drift off to sleep to the sound of barking dogs or caterwauling cats. This word, caterwauling, is one I don't think I've ever used before in my writing, but it is the only appropriate word in this situation. The first time I heard it I couldn't decide it it was a wounded animal or a baby crying. As it escalated from continuous low and high pitch yowls to hissing, growling and, eventually, a definitive and insistent MEOW, I realized it was definitely a feline(s). This caterwauling can easily go on for 20 or more minutes, or until a neighbor ventures outside and claps their hands loudly to shoo away the cats. It seems that no one ever tries to quiet the dogs, so that is another sound I have had to get used to or else wear earplugs if I want to get a good night's sleep.
an innocent-looking cat in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Life of a Vagabond

This post is basically a summary of my lifelong love of travel and where it has led me to this point. Some of it has been adapted from the very first post I ever published on my blog; much of it has been revised or is completely new.

I've had the travel bug for most of my life. My parents always took my sister and I camping at the many state parks in the Tennessee area, along with an annual extended family trip to Panama City, FL. But I think I really caught the fever during junior high, in Ms. Freeman's French class. My first trip to Europe (a whirlwind tour of France, Switzerland, and Italy in one week) was in 1990 with a small group of kids from my high school. In 1991, I lived with a family in the suburbs of Paris for three weeks. My own family even hosted an exchange student from The Netherlands my entire senior year of high school. But it wasn't until I had graduated from college (with a French degree no less) and was on the back end of a failed marriage and several demanding jobs that I decided to take some time off for a more thorough exploration of Western Europe.

In the fall of 1998 I set out for two months of backpacking and train travel in The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. That trip changed my life -- I returned to Tennessee and immediately got a job, but I kept looking for an opportunity that would involve traveling (and getting paid for it!). As luck would have it, Delta Air Lines ran an ad in the local paper, specifically looking for foreign language speakers. I secured an in-person interview at their headquarters in Atlanta, GA and was hired on the spot.

I graduated from flight attendant training on May 28, 1999 and immediately transferred to New York City, where I was based for the entire six years I flew for Delta. For the most part I took full advantage of the free flight perks during those years, and I often say I spent more time exploring the world than at home. My most frequent layover destinations were Paris and Brussels, but I was always swapping trips for something different and exotic: Istanbul, Athens, Rome, etc., as well as long layovers in towns and cities in the U.S. that I may have never visited otherwise: Whitefish, MT; San Antonio, TX; Milwaukee, WI... In addition, my independent travels during that time took me to places like India, China, and South Korea.

I had actually made a pact with myself that I would not fly for more than 10 years and after almost seven I gave it up to live and work full time in New York City. Believe it or not, not once did I ever miss being a flight attendant after I quit. I segued into the 8-to-5 routine fairly effortlessly (to my default career of Executive Assistant) and worked hard and saved money by living with roommates. When I was able to take time off I traveled to islands in the Caribbean, as well as Costa Rica, Europe, and some more remote places in the U.S. like Hawaii, Alaska and the Grand Canyon to name a few.

After about four years of working many long and mentally draining hours at the office and spending a lot of money just to live in the city, I realized I needed to rethink my life and refocus my priorities. I started saving as much money as I could with the goal of being able to take at least a year off to travel around the world and do some volunteer work. By June 2009, I had paid off all my debts and had enough money stashed away to set my plan in motion. I notified my employer that I needed to quit my job and they agreed to a transition plan that allowed me to work remotely for a few months before terminating my employment completely. I shipped my remaining possessions back to Nashville for storage at my family’s homes and started the process of planning my around-the-world adventure.

One small diversion: In late 2008 I had reconnected (via Facebook) with an old classmate from high school and we started long-distance dating in February the following year. He told me I was crazy to quit my job and travel around the world, but at the same time he was also intrigued by the idea. I convinced him he was the crazy one for living in Nashville basically his entire life to that point and for having visited only a couple of countries and a small portion of the U.S. As I was not necessarily in a rush to start my world travels (I wanted more time to research and plan), we decided to travel around the U.S. together as an "experiment" to see how we functioned as a couple sharing small living spaces and being together almost 24/7, while also testing out areas we might want to live long-term in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii.

After almost one full year of the living experiment, with our relationship still intact and my research complete, Greg and I set off together on an around-the-world adventure in August 2010. We ending up traveling for 278 days through 22 countries on four continents. It was an amazing experience to say the least, which I have written about in great detail on this blog. We returned to the U.S. in May 2011 to rest and visit our families. In July 2011 we got married in Nashville and then departed for our extended honeymoon that September, traveling through another 23 countries over 92 days.

With my dream of traveling around the world now at least partially fulfilled, Greg and I moved to Portland, OR in January 2012 to start our new life together. I have written about all of the things that happened during the past six years on my blog, although I haven’t always posted as frequently as I might have liked. Greg and I continued to travel, especially around the Pacific Northwest by train and by car, but only for more traditional one- or two-week vacations as he has been working full time since spring 2012.

I did really well for most of the first five years all things considered, meaning I loved my life in Portland with Greg, made a lot of friends, drank a lot of fantastic craft beer, worked several different jobs, and explored my creative side a bit. But in 2016 I started feeling restless and unfulfilled, and I knew the time was coming for me to make a change again. I started taking one- and two-week trips on my own, vacationing with friends, visiting my 50th state (North Dakota), and doing “beer research.” Then, in April 2017, I departed on a months-long trip through Eastern Europe with no set end date. I eventually returned to Portland exactly four months and 20 countries later.

That trip reaffirmed my love of long-term travel and I spent the better part of the next 12 months thinking about my life, my relationship with Greg, and what it would mean to hit the road again indefinitely. I eventually came to the conclusion that I would not be truly happy until my bags were packed and, since one of my goals after our around-the-world adventure was to explore all of Central and South America (the main region we did not visit during our trip), I decided that’s where I would go to “find myself” again. Greg was not ready to embark on such a journey, so we began the process of simplifying our life in Portland to make it easier and more cost-effective for him to live and work there while I traveled.

I left Portland on August 30, 2018 and flew to Nashville to visit my family, then departed the U.S. on September 11. I spent three weeks in central Mexico and am now living in Guatemala for the month of October with the intention of improving my Spanish, working on the book(s) I am writing, and reflecting on my life to this point and what I want for the future. I have no set itinerary and no return date. I am, once again, a vagabond.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Adapting to a New Life

Why is it that no matter how much you've traveled, it seems you can never be completely prepared for departure, especially on a trip of extended duration?

When I left for eastern Europe last summer, it felt very stress-free, even though I knew I'd be gone at least two months (and ended up traveling for 120 days). The lead-up to my current yearlong trip was quite different. First, my husband Greg and I moved in mid-July and I had to sell all of our excess furniture, pack and unpack everything, and organize my personal possessions and clothing for storage in a friend's basement (thanks a million, Paul!) for the next year. I also was traveling for 17 of the 43 days from the time we moved until the time I left Portland. Plus I was sick and essentially bedridden for an additional three days.

Now here I am in Guatemala, just over a month since I left Portland and 22 days since I left the U.S. I'm still adapting to life on the road after traveling through central Mexico (Mexico City, Teotihuacan, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Guadalajara, and Tequila) by bus and sleeping in hostel dorms, but thankfully things should slow down significantly after arriving here on Monday, October 1.
Guanajuato is a picturesque town in central Mexico
As planned, I am living in an area called Villa Nueva about 20 kilometers south and slightly west of the capital Guatemala City but, due to traffic, it takes an hour to reach the city center by car. I am staying at the family home of my friend Hilda who used to own a beer bar in Portland, OR. She and most of her family now live in Houston, TX but kept their house here to relax and visit relatives and friends in Guatemala during the winter months. I will be here alone for the entire month of October, focusing on improving my Spanish, writing blog posts and working on a book, and researching my travel plans for the next 12+ months.
Casa Perez, where I'm living in Guatemala for the entire month of October
So why do I feel so unprepared for the upcoming year of travel? There are many key differences in my departure for this trip versus when I left for Europe last April or when Greg and I left to travel around the world at the beginning of August 2010. Last summer, even though I was traveling alone, I knew I would be back in the U.S. in a matter of months and also that I would be coming home to the same apartment in Portland I had lived in for several years. In 2010, Greg and I knew we would be traveling outside the U.S. for around one year and also that we would be doing it together. While I had already moved out of my apartment in New York City, my belongings (and Greg's) were spread out among our family's houses in Tennessee, so even though we didn't exactly have a home, we had a jumping off point and a place to land whenever we returned to the States.
Greg and I at the airport on the morning we left for our around-the-world trip in August 2010
Now, I am traveling alone for at least one year through a region of the world I have barely visited (just a few cities here and there in Central America) or never visited (all of South America except Cartagena, Colombia) and where I don't speak the language (yet). There are U.S. State Department warnings for most of the region, which only follows the Middle East, parts of Africa, and Russia in terms of the scope and level of the advisories. Whenever I do return to the U.S., I no longer have a home to call my own even temporarily as Greg's new apartment lease is for only one person, not two. I do not have a set itinerary or even a rough itinerary, other than I have to be in Buenos Aires, Argentina on February 20, 2019 to meet up with Greg, my mom and my stepdad for a two-week cruise around the southern tip of South America, which ends in Santiago, Chile on March 8. Afterward, I will recommence my solo travels with a trip to Easter Island.
Me on the General Jackson riverboat in Nashville three days before I left the U.S. in September 2018
Suffice it to say there is a lot of unknown in my life right now, and even though I thrive on adventure, exploration, and not having a day-to-day routine, it is definitely a bit unsettling to not know what the future holds in almost every respect. Even though at times I may feel unprepared for this year of travel, I have to keep reassuring myself that everything will work out in the end, as I have accumulated years of experience wandering around the globe, assimilating, adapting, and learning from my mistakes.
Me in Siena, Italy in 1998 during a solo backpacking trip through western Europe
I have much to accomplish in the months ahead and I am hopeful that the challenges I face, the people I meet, and the knowledge I acquire will all help guide me through the next phase of my life. One small personal goal that I have set for myself is to abstain from consuming any alcohol for the entire month of October. I am doing this mostly for health reasons as test results from my full physical exam and lab work prior to leaving the U.S. show that my liver is inflamed. I also hope it will help me lose a few extra pounds and generally feel better overall. I am four days in and so far it has been easy but I know the difficulty will come when I am out socializing or when I encounter a beer I haven't tried.

Thank you all for following along on my journey and for checking in to see how I'm doing, commenting on my social media posts and encouraging me to keep going. I enjoy hearing from you and hope you'll continue to interact with me online whenever possible.

Until next time!