How dangerous are Central America and Mexico?

Is it dangerous outside of the U.S.?  Here are some photos from living over a year in Latin America.  You decide.

(The following photos are from 2 separate trips, a year apart, paid for in full by working entry level jobs at restaurants.)

Everything is always falling apart

STOP! – Put on some music.  Music and pictures go together well.

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One of the beautiful things about the Guatemalan culture is their practice of total impermanence.  Everything is a quick, temporary fix, because after all, everything is always changing.  Leaky faucet?  Put a bowl under it.  Need new door hinges?  Install them under the old ones and then paint over the bad ones.  Paint peeling after 2 months?  Slap on another coat.


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This is the same shoddy craftsmanship that drives us Westerners crazy (Europeans really) when we are having a defensive, egocentric day.  On our peaceful, observational days, we admire and muse over these same modifications.

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“Awareness is without choice, without demand, without anxiety; in that state of mind, there is perception.  Perception alone will resolve all your problems.”

-someone

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Life came to this planet a long time ago.  It mutated into what we’ve discovered and not yet discovered using the same basic elements of an ever changing code.  We are here as long as life has use for us.  I plan to take pleasure in as many irrelevant, useless activities as possible.

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Sadness is like photography in the morning.  There’s plenty of light, so open your aperture and turn up the shutter speed to 1/200.

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Humans are like bacteria.  Different cultures all trying to take over their host.  Sometimes the cultures mix and one tries to annihilate the other.  It’s interesting to read about wars and then afterward the cultures return to doing what the humans do most which is just living and consuming.

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This is one of the local bars I worked at called The Snug.  Probably the smallest bar in Antigua.  It felt full every time there were between 3 and 39 people.

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They have some tasty treats, too.

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It gets easier living somewhere after you accept things as they are.  It’s good to challenge things, but trying to change too much just makes you frustrated.  I realized that I can’t change every person living in Guatemala to my liking.  Reminding myself this allowed me to laugh when salespeople lied to my face and everyone (including myself) was 30 minutes late if they showed up at all.

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It’s not actually that I love a place, but rather my adaptation to it.  When things aren’t going my way, I do not enjoy the place.  But,today I finished work swiftly with a few bucks in my pocket and went home to sit on my comfortable cot and play music.  Things in my work and home life are set up the way I like.  My mentality is set to view the happenings with a neutral, abstract tranquility.  This style of management can make any town seem like the place to be.

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The best description I’ve heard so far (by David Gerow) is that Antigua is like a cartoon.  Illegal mezcal bars and blues singers with one-eyed dogs.

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Guat City is bike and art friendly.  And their coffee/food scene kicks ass.

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The mercado is definitely the place I’ll miss the most in Antigua.

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I lived 2 blocks away and went almost every morning for a chihuahua-sized bag of freshly chopped fruit for 5 quetzals = $0.65
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I’d like to know where us gringos learn to get angry when we aren’t in total control all of the time.  It’s not all gringos, only about 80% of them from what I’ve seen.  I think it’s a misconception that latin people explode with anger.  Maybe I’m in the wrong parts, but in the 16 months or so of living/traveling in 9 latin countries, I can only remember once someone going on a yelling rampage.  Guatemaltecas just don’t have that emotional eruption inside themselves.

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I’ll miss walking aimlessly around town with my camera.

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And of course I’ll miss free bananas in the back yard.

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The inside is like Cracker Barrel, but the food is fancier.  Pretty decent cappuccinos.  My guess is a gringo from the South got homesick.

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I asked my friend if the guy lying on the sidewalk needed help.  She said, “He’s just drunk from watching soccer.”  I laughed and said that’s just like football fans in the States.  Pan y circo.  I used to think it was trickery to control the masses with entertainment, but on this day I realized it’s not control.  They need it.

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I joined my girlfriend Gaby for coffee and dessert.  After our how-are-ya?s I start talking about how I am working too much.  Instead of sympathizing as usual, she said, “Always.”  That stopped me in my verbal tracks.  

“Always?” I asked.

“Yup.” She said.

I didn’t know what to say.  I guess I’m always whiny.  Why is this?  All of a sudden, I realized Guatemalans are better at life than me, probably better than most white people.  They have far fewer resources, a relatively higher cost of living, and still pay the bills.  If 2+2=4 in the U.S. then 1+1=3 in Guatemala.  Man, I suck.  Back to the drawing board.

 

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Rio Dulce

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Instead of dealing with volcanic ash, my brother has to sweep mayflies off the boat.  They come for half an hour every dusk to die.

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My friend Eli noticed that our eyes can’t track their flight, so I turned down the shutter speed on my Nikon.

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Stop taking home monkeys!

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Instruction manuals are rulebooks.  Children are told what is and is not possible.  This severely limits imagination and reasoning skills.  If you don’t understand then you’ve probably never left the land of guard rails and warning labels.

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That’s CARVED from a TREE.  Good luck even trying to imagine doing that.

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My good friends Karlita and Elito.

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Separating Lake Izabel from Rio Dulce, this is supposedly the tallest bridge in Central America.

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Side A – When I walked around the tree and noticed this guy was 2 feet from my bare feet my voice got all cartoony and high pitched like Butters on South Park.  I said something like, “Ugh guys, I don’t think we should walk on this nature trail!”  Looking back I just think: What a pansy I was!DSC_0076

Side B – The middle of this 5′ dude was easily as big around as my calf.

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So if you’ve never been stoned for 7 days in a jungle with naturally heated water falls, howler monkeys, some kind of skin-softening hot spring mud, and the Nat. Geo. soundtrack on ∞.1 surround sound, go ahead and put that on your calendar.  I finally understand why people like living in Rio Dulce.

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“Anything that challenges what you believe is going to make you feel unsafe.”

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If you want the majority of a country to be trained a certain way, you DEFINITELY don’t want them traveling.  Even the most unobservant people start questioning their belief systems.  

It’s nobody’s fault for the things they were taught when they were 3 years old.  The understanding of what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” probably starts with breast feeding.  Happy emotions vs. angry/sad emotions are learned from family, teachers, church, and all other members of society.

When you go to a new cultural system, people do things that they were taught are “right”. In parts of the world it’s perfectly OK to pee on the side of a busy road in daylight or to stand against the next person in line at the grocery store or to set a backpack in a stranger’s lap on the bus.  In one part of the world it’s ok to let children run and yell because they are kids.  In other parts of the world kids are punished for acting like kids, depending on who’s around or where they are.

What I’m getting at is this: what is “right” in one place is “wrong” in another but both are possible and don’t really harm anyone or improve survival.

We get information about different cultures, not from the culture itself or even people who have experienced that culture.  We learn about the world through the tinted lenses of television, Hollywood, and the news.  Only after enough people have been paid do the remnants of truth trickle down to us in our plastic bubbles.

As a young American from a small town in Georgia, this is what I learned: 

Mexicans and Indians are roughing it.  Africa is fucked.  Europeans have a little bit going for them.  At least they look like us.  And they drive nice cars.  Even if they talk funny and wear clothes a little too tight, they are the most similar to us.  So, we’ll consider their method of living to be acceptable even though they aren’t quite “right”.  One thing is for sure— you don’t want to end up in a place where you can’t blend in.  All other species of humans, especially the one’s that look different, are very, very dangerous.

It amazes me how much of the U.S. believes this.

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Nothing grabs your attention quite like a pack of little kids sprinting toward you with huge smiles and even bigger knives.

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Birth right is a pretty messed up concept.  Natural born citizens act as if they demonstrated some herculean effort to have earned their “rights”.

“Pride is a sense of worth derived from something that is not part of us.” -BL  

To visit the U.S. requires total proof of returning home and costs a Guatemalan $150 (a month’s rent in Antigua) plus all associated entrance and exit fees and transportation.  This is possible if you have adequate sponsorship from a U.S. resident.  Multiply the cost of your rent by 6.  That’s the relative price to step foot in this country.

Some argue this difficulty is to prevent immigrant labor from working harder and cheaper and longer hours than the spoiled citizens of ‘Murica.  It’s ok to manufacture goods in less developed places like India or China and pay them next to nothing, as long as we don’t have to look at their ghettos every day.  It’s smacks of the same flavor when we send our youth to foreign soils to get shot at and kick down strangers’ doors.  Do we really have to ensure our way of life at the expense of theirs?  I have to admit it was thoughtful of them to install those nets at the Foxconn factory (Apple and Hewlett Packard) in China to catch the employees after 14 killed themselves by jumping out the windows.  But, I digress.

So what is the real reason we defend our borders from our more friendly, lively, and compassionate neighbors?  My mind immediately goes to real estate value.  No doubt the problem is complex.  The way I see it, my life could have just as easily started in Madagascar.  I wouldn’t know the difference.

One thought on leveling the playing field is that the rich will lose at the gain of the poor.  I think lazy people will stay lazy and the only change is that the lazy Americans will either get it together or fall behind.

They already have huge advantages with being able to read and speak English.  A taste of the world’s reality might give them a touch of humility and appreciation instead of blindly hating anything different, groping desperately for more stimulus, and following whichever side is predicted to win the next election instead of consulting your own dust covered intuition.


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“People already made up their minds [about what they believe] and only listen to supporting evidence.” – Eli Vellieux

 

More reasons to go to Guatemala

Here are some reasons to visit Guatemala.

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Go to an art school

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with a view

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and connected to the state of Georgia.

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Start with the basics

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and learn how to do this

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or learn to bake a delicious cake

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or paint madness.

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They have carpentry classes, if you are looking for something more practical.

DSC_0024Here’s a reason for Mama to visit.

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for $100 / month

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in a nice neighborhood.

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You can visit weird stores

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and impressive parks

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or chill in the woods

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just don’t forget to smell the flowers. 

What else do you want to learn about?

Ask in the comments!

Culture Insight: Women in Guatemala

The most requested topic from last week’s comments was: What are women like in Guatemala?

To get closer to the female population, I started saying yes to opportunities and let (insert belief system) lead me.

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At a local wedding, my Nikon camera got me hired as the professional photographer.

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My going rate is 2 cold beers/hr.

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My friend’s that brought me to Amatitlán.  Population: 100,000. I may have been the only green-go.

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To see another laid back version I went to the black-sand beach at Puerto San Jose.

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Unlike the famous beach at Monterrico, most visitors here are Guatemalteca.

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My data was still scarce.  How could I get closer to hundreds of local women?  …Zumba!!!!

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Antigua’s first Neon Zumba Party was expecting 150 people.  Over 500 showed, along with teachers from all over the country.

Being 10 inches taller than hundreds of people in the same room, I feel the occasional burn of self-consciousness.  This feeling flips between scoffing those in front and imagining what the people behind you think of you.  But, it’s all in my head.  This intricate self-sabotage is all but absent in the mind of the latino.  Passionate, friendly, humble – these are Guatemalans.  It’s as if the sun cooks out the paranoia their northerly neighbors exhibit.

Guys are there, too.  Dancing is part of life.  Like breathing air, Latins have to listen to music at all hours.  There are probably Guatemalans that don’t start dancing at a young age, I just haven’t met them.

In the U.S., our culture provides our first rhythm lesson as an awkward middle school dance.  For some of us, it’s the first time we’ve tried moving to the music since the last time we were laughed at.  It seems customary of the “developed world” to criticize those acting on their own intuition.  All ants should march in line with the others.  The marching orders in Guatemala range these days from Enrique Iglesias to dubstep salsa.

Another guy from the States said, “Man, you are crazy!  How did you lose all inhibitions?”  I told him, “It’s always a battle.  I constantly have to resist my western habits.  When I realize the people behind me aren’t judging me, I just listen to the music and it all falls into place.”

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One American girl sat by the stage and made negative remarks about one guy’s dancing.

One thing about Latin women: they appreciate effort and understand that not everyone has been dancing since they were 3 years old.  

The same goes for Spanish.  Ask a German a question in German and they answer in English.  If a foreigner gets one word wrong, American’s think it’s hilarious. Down here, the locals display infinite patience to help you learn their language.  They are honored by the gesture.

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In addition to this research, I work with women and have lived in Antigua for 6 weeks.  Here’s what I learned:

Women in Guatemala are the same as at home or anywhere else; that is, they are all different.

There’s a common misconception that people are different in different locations around the world.  Of course there are changes in diet, depending on economy and what grows nearby.  Construction materials and architecture have an impact on psychology (think Montana mindset vs. Manhattan).  There are also varying levels of fashion promiscuity.  But, the animal under the clothes is the same.  It makes no difference if it’s a businesswoman in Tokyo or a traditionally dressed Mayan on the bus with me and her two chickens.  The fundamental motives are the same: eat, sleep, reproduce.

Also, within any group of people, there are varying degrees of individual courage.  This determines how much that person can resist the influence of society to be “normal”.  Get 4 people from 4 different corners of the globe and you’ll have a wimp, a boss, a prude, and a slut, relatively speaking.  It’s a broad spectrum of people out there that can never be neatly grouped in categories.

That being said, there are some irrelevant trends that seem at first interesting and later invisible.

Religion 

On the surface, everyone seems to be a Christian, believing in one and only one God.

The “ancient” religions ended when the Spaniards came down to rape the people of their gold, while simultaneously spreading the love of Christ.  Before they believed in a Sun god, a Moon god and a bunch of other gods.  One list of Mayan gods has 37 entries beginning with the letter ‘A’.  When I expressed my interest in the idea of a Sun god and a Moon god, my most open-minded Guatemalan friend looked at me like I had a pelican beak.

But, being Christian doesn’t keep most people from having pre-marital sex like rabbits and a ton of other things that the bible prohibits.  “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals…”  So, once the thin cultural veil is lifted to drink a couple of beers, the rules are pretty much the same as anywhere else.

Diversity

***Antigua is an anomaly.  It is a cultural hub with enormous western/liberal influence.  Any night of the week you can walk into one of the 20+ hostels and find citizens from 6 continents to party with.  Therefore it is not an accurate representation of Guatemala.***

Guatemala City is only an hour away by car.  Lots of hard working Guatemalans come to Antigua on the weekends.  Last week I met a young Guatemalteca from “the city” looking for a way to keep her bed warm through the cool mountain night.

The bar scene is much like the bar scene in any other city and depends on the bar itself.  There are at least 30 to choose from.  Hopefully, you are starting to see how difficult it is to answer the question: How are the women?  Answer: Awesome.  The same as anywhere else.

Some More Boring Trends

According to one website, the average female height of a Mayan Guatemalan is 4′-6″.  In Spain, it’s 5′-3″.  Antigua is influenced from all over the world.  One of the local girls I work with has bronze skin and goes up to my chest.  Another looks slightly Japanese is almost as tall as me.

Most local food is cooked in grease or oil, so like the southeastern United States, a lot of Guatemalans are fat.  Luckily, there is an abundance of quality fruits and vegetables, far cheaper than the addicting, unhealthy food.

A strikingly large gym culture exists also, which produces people that look like they go to the gym.  My Zumba teacher can wreck my whole week just by smiling and saying “Hola!”  Someone asked me if Zumba was for women trying to get back in shape after having kids.  Some members of the class fit this description. Others are like looking into a fiery jet turbine.

A lot of Guatemalans marry and start families young.  In Antigua, the weight of society varies depending on background, occupation, and many other factors I don’t pretend to understand.  A bartender born in Guatemala but who grew up in California will have a different way of moving through life than a girl selling fruit in the market.

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To find a new party, you have to travel through the unknown until you hear the music.

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What other subjects are you curious about?

Antigua, Guatemala and “Where ya from?”

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Agua Volcano (one of 3 forming the town’s perimeter)

When I arrived to Antigua, I planned to stay for 10 days and then go to a workaway agreement at Lake Atitlan for 6 weeks.  The first night in the city I realized this was where I wanted to be.

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A week later, I cancelled with the place at the lake and decided I am going to live here.

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Above: An exhibit at one of the many art museums.

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Southern biscuits are one of the best things since the big bang. Now I have the power to create them.

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It’s your ride.  Good or bad, you decide.

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“Ignorance better means ignore-ance” -Alan Watts

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I didn’t know after the rockstar years I’d enjoy my own company more.

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There are two clerks and two customers each buying half a dozen things.  I stand in line for 10 minutes for a notebook and a few pens.  Is everyone in this town as high as I am?

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Mocha lattes make me feel normal.  It takes me about 15-20 minutes to drink one.  I take tiny sips, analyzing the microfoam texture, temperature, sweetness, flavor, and strength of the espresso.  I ponder things, breathe slow full breaths, and sometimes share thoughts with fellow homo sapiens.  All of life’s events are put on hold until the drink is complete.  This is my reset button for fresh perspective and energy.

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don’t think too hard, it’s just art

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Spanish Architecture. In the 1770s, the population was 60,000 people. Today it has a population of about 35,000.

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My least favorite question is “Where are you from?”, especially when it is the first thing to come out of a stranger’s mouth.  Sometimes when I am asked that question I tell them that is the only question I don’t answer right away.  I tell them that I have 4 reasons and if they would like to hear them, I’ll gladly share. 

The reasons are: Accuracy, Extrapolation, Embellishing, and Small Talk.

Accuracy, because the question is extremely vague, and requires either an equally vague or very long and complex reply.  The question also speaks to the past and doesn’t allow the person to display the growth since they started their journey.  Unless a person lived in one town for their entire life and then flew straight to where you are asking the question, it just leaves out a lot of important information.

Extrapolation is an estimation between a limited number of data points.  The only way to know a lot about a place is to spend a significant amount of time there.  When a stranger tells you they are from a certain place, the chances of both people being from the same place is astronomical.  When you learn that a person is from a place you don’t know much about, your mind projects any known data about that place to that person.  A lot of times it is bad data and most of the time it is completely unrelated to the person.  So the person gets a false representation before they have a chance to display any of their characteristics.

Embellishing happens a lot on resumes.  I know this because I am really good at making resumes.  Resting on laurels restricts growth and trying to sound cool is usually stretching the truth.  Someone might say they are from Seattle when they are really from Bellingham.  The person answering the question has control over the interrogator’s perception.  

In the end, it’s all just really weak, unoriginal small talk.  Talking about the weather would be better, because at least it’s in the present moment.  If you are going to lead into a conversation by asking about someone’s origins (which I think is kind of personal), try to be original.  Using, letter for letter, the exact same phrase that six hundred and fifty million other people have used that same day, just makes you a boring person.  Don’t be boring.  Think about the sounds your face is about to make. Try to show more cognitive awareness than a bowl of yogurt.

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Biggest people’s market I’ve seen in Central America. I got lost and it took me about a half hour to find my way out.

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Another group of expats from the U.S. that go to Central America after retirement are school buses.

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There is a factory that renovates the “chicken buses”. You can get a ride 20 minutes out of town for 1.5 Quetzals = $0.20   DSC_0170

I took a picture out the window while we were driving down the mountain.  Pancho is very polite and his natural reaction was to pull over.  Wrong place to pull over.  He realized almost instantly, but it was too late.

Some road workers came over to check on us.  Then they left and came back with very heavy branches from a tree.  Two layers of these 6-foot logs and the SUV drove right back on the road.  The entire ordeal lasted about 15 minutes after which we drove to town to run errands.

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Flan

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Central Park has public WiFi

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I have about 80 pictures of Antigua’s unique doors.

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I did not adjust the colors.

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Today I was told it’s the volcanoes surrounding the city that make people want to stay.  I can dig it.  Who’s gonna argue that a volcano isn’t a powerful force?DSC_0157 DSC_0039 DSC_0033 (1)

It all comes down to balance.  Working too much turns paradise into hell.  DSC_0060 (2)