Monday, July 20, 2009

So I guess I don't Blog anymore.

or something.

It is called GoNunziGo. And now I stopped.

so I guess is makes sense that I haven't been moved to write. Actually, in Guatemala, I averaged ten pages a day in my journal. I've been back from Guatemala for . . . about three and a half months, and I think I haven't written ten full pages in that whole time.

That includes a month at home in Vermont, then three weeks on my motorcycle, and the returning to Portland, getting settled in and reconnecting with this place and these friends. And I haven't written anything on here since, where was I, Wyoming? I've had photos of the motorcycle ride through yellowstone just chilling but haven't uploaded them to any computers yet. And the rest of the ride through into
- Montana (for about 20 miles),
- Idaho (where I met the fiercest wind I've ever felt on my motorcycle. on my way into the wind, I struggled to                       stay on the highway and had to wrestle my bike up to 60mph. Heading with the wind, my bike sailed                         up to 90 without my even trying.)
- And Oregon. the final state line, around some of the best roads of the whole trip, through the gorge, around                       some waterfalls and into Portland. 

3 weeks from origin to destination, 12 days actually on the road.

now I'm here.

I spent a frantic two weeks looking for a job full time and giving my resume to every coffee related establishment in Portland. My passion is for roasting and working with green coffee but I harbored a secret wish for the opportunity to work as a barista for once. Coffee culture out in Portland is amazing. There's thousands of people here who are way into it, tons of fantastic cafes and small micro-roasters popping up. In Brattleboro I managed the only roastery in town, pretty much had the bitchinest coffee job possible. But out here I feel like a drop in an ocean of dedicated coffee professionals. Many of the people I've met compete in regional and national barista competitions. The dedication to the craft of preparing coffee is astounding. 

So now I'm learning how to pull the best shots of espresso possible and getting my first experience behind the counter at a cafe thanks to Blend Coffee Lounge on N. Killingsworth. You think being a good barista is easy and that there's nothin' to making good espresso? holy crap. During the process of preparing an extraction the variables that you need to control which ultimately effect the quality of the shot include Grind, settling, leveling and distribution of the grounds, tamping, tapping, whether you flush the group head and how long, the temperature of the portafilter, how long since the last shot was pulled, how long this shot is pulled (which depends on things like grind and tamp...), how old is the coffee you're using... and the results in the cup vary significantly with even the slightest change or inconsistency.  I'm getting it, I think. Thanks to the good folks at Blend for giving me the chance.

Also, drums, bikes, friends, shows, coffees, beers, epic heatwaves and ... the river.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Black Hills, Iron Mountain, Big Horns, Chaos

I woke up at the foothills inn in Rapid City, strapped on all my raingear expecting the worst and started heading down route 16 into the Black Hills. I was excited to go be a tourist and see Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument. My idea was to zip around some roads in the hills, see the sights, then zoom way out into Wyoming to Ranger Creek Ranch outside Shell where my friend Mel is working for the summer.

The roads into the hills are amazing! Although, they are loaded with RVs and you can't look anywhere without seeing billboards for INCREDIBLE! DON'T MISS IT! COSMOS MYSTERY AREA! REPTILE GARDENS! VISIT HISTORIC KEYSTONE! CLOSEST HOTEL TO RUSHMORE! ONLY 5 MILES AHEAD! NEXT LEFT TURN! seriously obnoxious. The first view of rushmore was pretty impressive. Some folks say it's smaller than it seems in pictures and on TV but i don't know, I thought they were some pretty damn big carvings.

Then I took Iron Mountain Road. I saw it on the map and thought "oh, that looks nice and zigzaggy, I'll take that road on my bike." There's goddamm corkscrews in it! And tunnels! and the lanes split and it becomes single track through the forest!! The pigtail bridges are unlike anything I've ever seen before. This road, this single stretch of rt. 16A made the whooole trip from Vermont entirely worth it. Iron Mountain Road in the Black Hills south of Mt. Rushmore, I will ride you again.

Then I saw a bunch of these guys. Just chilling, grazing on the grasses on the side of the road. Tons of bison.

Crazy Horse Monument just outside Custer, SD.

This was a long day of riding. I took 16 out of South Dakota after three lovely days in that beautiful state, headed toward Newcastle, Wyoming. Here, it started to rain. Wet weather 50 miles up to Moorcroft, then wet weather another 140 miles out I-90 past Sheridan to 14west. Then wet weather out 14 toward Shell. I was riding through an open valley straight toward invisible mountains. I knew that if it were clear they'd be beautiful but the clouds hung so low that they were severed just above the valley. I reached the foot of the hills and began winding up and up and up. Up into the fog, Up around the switchbacks, Up until...

My front cylinder cut out. I lost half the power on my bike, Zero accelaration, barely able to climb. Then the power came back and my bike JERked back to life. on and off like that. This happened in a downpour in Ohio too, and some guys at a shop told me exactly what I needed to do but I didn't have a can of compressed air with me. The sparkplug gets wet, the drain hole fills with dirt and grime, the plug hole floods and it doesn't fire. You just need to blow it out and you're a-okay.

By this time I'm up into the mountains. Visibility is at about twenty feet, the clouds become full of stinging ice crystals. My winter gloves are soaked all the way through. up and uP and UP. There is snow on the pines and at the roadsides, my sick bike wheezing and coughing as I approach a mountain pass at 8,437 feet. I'm close to Burgess Junction. I'm freezing cold and soaking wet and I can tell that my bike wants power in that front cylinder just as much as I do. If I put my faceshield down I can't see through it, if I flip it up my face and eyes get stabbed by sleet, so I compromise and close it all but just a crack, and tilt my head back to see through the crack and scrunch my face up so the sleet gets my cheeks but not my eyes. I stop at the Burgess Junction station. Nobody is there but the door is open and it's warm inside. I check the map to see that i'm farther than I thought to the pull out for ranger creek ranch. Now I'm starting to wonder if it's going to get dark soon. I'm in the middle of nowhere at the top of a mountain in the Big Horn national forest, my bike is ill and I'm soaked to the bone, my heated handgrips all that's keeping my hands from freezing.

I get that feeling. I have to just get through this weather, my bike has to get to the ranch. I'm either going to make it, or I'm not.

At Burgess Junction I turn left, head downhill a bit into a valley and it clears. Fifteen slow, sputtering miles ahead I finally get to the road that turns off toward the ranch. It's four miles, uphill, and impossibly muddy. With one cylinder out I have to rev it slowly up to about 3 or 4,000 RPMs before I can get it to move in first gear on flat pavement. Up a muddy hill with slick tires, stalling out when I tried to take off, for four miles, I don't know how I did it. Slipping all over the place, I managed to keep my bike upright wishing all the while I was on a dual sport with knobbly tires. Here's to taking inadequate equipment into unsuitable conditions!

I finally got to within view of the ranch. I approached the archway over the road with the Ranger Creek Ranch sign, I was about 5 ft from passing under it. I tried accelarating out of a mud slick and the tire spun and the engine cut out. I fired it up and tried again. Nothing. Again. Nothing. Doc and JP heard the dogs barking and came out of the lodge. As they approached the bike offering to help push I asked.... "does this count as 'making it?'"

I didn't just "make it" to Ranger Creek. I didn't just "Finish my ride" over the Big Horns. I f#&k!n survived it.

Inside the lodge, there was a fire going, and a full bar.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Made it to Rapid City, SD. Speedometer blew again.

Had a great time in Iowa City hanging with Kevin. Rode a long long day to Parkston, SD, 460 miles on beautiful long straight wide flat fast secondary roads. South Dakota has officially overtaken western PA for the nicest rides of the trip.

MY #$%!NG SPEEDOMETER BLEW AGAIN!!!! I'll have to do the whole rest of the ride without knowing how far or how fast because I'll wait for a part in pittsburgh but, forgive me fine residents of Rapid City, South Dakota, not here. I'm upset that I waited in PGH for a whole week to make sure I wouldn't have to do this ride without my speedo and odometer and here I am with over 1,000 miles to go and they crapped out again.

There's way more to report than I have energy to type right now. Forgive the slack upkeep of this page.

Look at pictures.


These roads. They just keep going and going and going and going. When I ride out to the horizon and crest a hill, another scene just like this unfolds again before me. over and over and over again. Red Bull + Saves The Day = my friends.

Taking pictures while stopped in the middle of the road for a construction zone. This one turned out neat.

Trick Photography

All tucked under the eaves anticipating a storm that never came.

Parkston, SD

They don't call them the Badlands for nothin'.

This guy.

Every ride report needs the bike-with-scenic-backdrop photo.


Yes, I actually took this photo today.

Tomorrow I join the throngs of tourists in the Black Hills and take pictures of Mount Rushmore.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Back on the Road: Two Days Ride to Iowa City

Alright!! Thanks to Jason and the good folks at Bentley's in Murraysville, PA, my bike got fixed up with a new speedometer rotor and back tire (albeit a week into my two-day stay in Pittsburgh) and I got back on the road as far out of Western Pennsylvania as I could stand to make it. Of course, that first day back on the road I hit crazy rain, got soaked to the bone and one of my cylinders went out on a highway! That means no power, no acceleration, struggling to top out at about 50 mph with the throttle all the way open. I pulled off at a gas station, soaking wet and cold at about 5:00pm, figuring I'd probably be getting a hotel room in this middle of nowhere town in Ohio. I asked at the gas station if there was a motorcycle repair shop in town, thinking it was a long shot they'd be open. Well. I was 1.2 miles away from a Suzuki dealership who was totally wide open with the lights on and the garage door up. They got me in immediately, blew some air through a little drain hole, thus freeing my spark plug from drowning and getting the engine back running and I was back on the road in less than a half hour. I guess the motorcycle repair gods had their laugh at me in Pittsburgh and decided to help me out this day.

This is why there are no other landscape/road shots from Western PA pretty much all the way to Iowa. because this is what they would all look like. No disrespect meant to Ohio, Indiana or Illinois, of course.

A sad motorcycle with no back tire.

A happy motorcycle that just crossed the Mighty Mississippi River for the first time.

Tomorrow it's on to South Dakota, then through the Badlands to Wyoming, Then through Yellowstone, into Idaho, through to Oregon. I'm almost there, only two-thousand-five-hundred miles to go. Is all.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

At this rate, I'll retire in Pittsburgh

On the first day of my trip, the speedometer started acting up, on the second day, it died entirely. not wanting to go all the way across the country without being able to see how fast I'm going or how far I'm going, a safety consideration and not-getting-stranded-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-with-an-empty-tank consideration, I decided to see if I could get it fixed up quick. A shop in Pittsburgh full of awesome guys got me up on a lift the day I called them, found what the problem was, ordered a part overnight and also cut me a hell of a deal on a new back tire, which I need, and the labor charge.

The part didn't arrive the next day. Friday. And wouldn't get here until Tuesday. Thanks, memorial day observed. jerk. So I made a tough decision to wait for it, totally putting my trip schedule way way off.

So Tuesday rolls around, after being in pittsburgh for five nights instead of the scheduled 2. And the part I'd been waiting for arrived at the shop. right on time, just as we'd expected. but. BUT. . . it had been destroyed during shipping. crushed to bits, the guy told me.

And they're closed on wednesdays.

SO they overnighted a replacement, hopefully with special instructions to pack it with extra care, and I'm going to get it put in tomorrow, unless something else happens, and after a week in Pennsylvania, I ride as far west as I can in a day.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Three days in: Pittsburgh, PA

Day 1:

I met Scott and Mike at the Chelsea Royal Diner for my last breakfast in Brattleboro. Couldn't decide between eggs and a Belgian waffle, so I got both.

We started out route 9 toward Bennington, and stopped at one of my favorite spots, Hogback Mountain.

Then on to NY 7, to 87, to rt. 20 West. 20 is a beautiful, wide, long, straight empty old divided 4 lane highway that should have a 90mph speed limit. We stopped here in Skaneateles, NY, where I was told the Clintons lived while Hillary was Senator. how exciting.

We stopped because my speedometer and odometer stopped working. we gave it a few whacks and when we started up again it worked a-ok. Alright.

We stayed the first night in mecklenburg, NY, in the finger lakes region near Ithaca. It was pretty.

I'd been sick the past couple days and after this ride I was a total zombie. My throat was killing me, my head hurt, I was disoriented and exhausted. which was weird because on the ride I felt pretty focused but as soon as I was off the bike, bam, dude, you're sick, remember?

Day 2:

Felt much better waking up, went to breakfast with Mike and Scott and then continued onward solo as they both had to turn back toward Vermont today. Took some very scenic roads toward route 17 west. The speedometer/odometer started acting up again, coming on and off. Very frustrating, as I'm a total geek about logging trip data on road trips. Miles and hours and gallons and MPGs and such. Also, it's nice to know how fast you're going on the highway. Also, the odometer helps keep track of when to fill the gas tank. Also, I had just paid a bunch of money to get the bike checked out. Then the speedometer died entirely.

On these roads, though, it was hard to care about anything. 949 S from Ridgeway, PA toward pittsburgh was by far the best road I've ever ridden. Boy howdy. long sweeping curves around river bends under a forest canopy? Then opening up into enormous farmlands with barns and silos off into the horizons? then back into the woods? I'll take it.

I pulled into Pittsburgh after ten hours of riding, including stops for lunch and messing with the speedometer.

Day 3: Pittsburgh.

I like this town, and my friends in it. There's lots of fun things to do here, so I guess it's not all bad that I'm stuck here for four days.

I brought my bike into a shop. These guys are awesome, and if you're ever in the Pittsburgh area and need some help with your motorcycle, go to Bentleys in muraysville. for real. they got me in on no notice and checked the speedometer out. At the front hub there's a unit called the wheel speed sensor that has something in it called a speedometer rotor. The speedometer rotor is like a little cylinder that latches onto a part inside the hub by a couple grooved teethy type things, spins around, and measures your speed and distance. The guy showed me what was wrong by pulling the speedometer rotor out and it pretty much crumbled to pieces in his hand. They ordered me a part, had it shipped overnight and I was supposed to get fixed up and on the road today, but the whole overnight shipping thing apparently means "it'll be there on tuesday" to the people at the parts distributor.

So, with a choice to hang with friends in Pittsburgh for the weekend or continue my trip without knowing how fast or far I'm going, I decided to hang around, get the bike all buttoned up and continue on early next week. Sure, it definitely throws a wrench into my timing and trip planning, but I'll make it out to portland in time, no sweat.

Until next time....

Monday, May 18, 2009

Leaving Brattleboro. Again.

The Idea is that this 2002 Suzuki SV 650 with clip-on handlebars will get me from Brattleboro, Vermont to Portland, Oregon. I've added an Airhawk seat cushion and something called the Crampbuster Cruise Assist to help make the ride more comfortable. A pair of saddle bags, my camping backpack and a new magnetic tank bag will carry everything that I'll have with me for the trip of more than 3,000 miles in just over three weeks.

Phase one of the trip takes me to Ithaca, NY tomorrow with two friends riding along. Then one friend turns back to Vermont and two of us continue on to Pittsburgh, then Ohio. Then he starts heading back toward home and from Ohio onward, all the way to Oregon, it'll be me, my bike, and the road.

I'll do my best to keep updates here as regularly as possible. Wish me luck.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Adios, Guatemala

Soooo... been a while.

I´m Leaving San Pedro La Laguna today for the capital, then flying out tomorrow for NYC. My head is spinning and my heart is heavy about leaving. The past few weeks have been wonderful, hanging out with friends, going back to the pacific beach, kayaking, picking, processing, roasting and drinking coffee, having dinners and bonfires, speaking spanish a ton, spinning poi with some incredibly inspiring people. I injured my foot a bit about two weeks ago but it´s getting better, didn´t stop me from climbing a mountain called the Indian´s Nose a few days ago. Such fun, such good people and I´ll miss them all like crazy. All the folks I mentioned in the last post and then a few more good ones since then, too. sigh.

A journal entry about all the reasons I have to be happy about going home begins:

Hot showers with good pressure. Taps you can drink from. Big fluffy comforters. Lost.

It goes on to mention my family, sweetheart, motorcycle, drumset, South Pond, music....all the usual. I´m trying to convince myself once and for all that I´m ready to be back, we´ll see how it works in the end...

And Guatemalan coffee is fantastic and all, but I´ve been missing the yirgacheffe somethin´fierce.

Goodbye Guatemala friends. Vermont friends I´m on my way.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Security, Friends, Coffee and Motorcycles...

The meeting on Thursday, that I mention in the post below (which I´d love for you to read), was about security for the town. I tried watching it on TV for a bit but my Spanish wasn´t sharp enough to make up for the poor sound quality. What I´ve since heard of its aftermath is that nothing got done, lots of talking but no solutions. Early today my friend said he overheard people talking about the idea to require tourists to register, I guess you could call it, with information about where they´re from and how long they´ll be here and what they´re doing. Which sounds ridiculous because a) how are you going to keep track of a bunch of wandering hippies and travelers in a town like this where nobody really seems to know what they´re doing and when? and b) the incident that led to the meeting didn´t have anything to do with tourists, except in the obvious ways that it indirectly did. I don´t know, it´s all hearsay at this point, and I might be leaving town before I hear anything more substantial. I did, however, for the first time in two weeks, see a police presence on the main drag here last night.

In other news, I´ve been having a pretty incredible time mobbing about town with a great crew of kids. England, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Canada, Guatemala (of course), and Japan are represented among the entire group. Oh yeah and the U.S. too. But there´s a core of about eight that hangs in a way that feels tighter than anything I had even in Brattleboro. Incredible people with Incredible stories all overlapping temporarily and I hope very very much to see these kids again somewhere along the Thanks to you Phil, Eric, Andrew, Cody, Jai, Alexandra, Olivia, Bridget, Andres, and Dysheinka. And Pedro, Pablo, Juan Elisio, Phillipe, Pedro, Andres, Carlos, Chano, Ventura, Felix, Israel and all the rest. This is fun.

Lately, in addition to the learning about coffee that I´ve been doing at the beneficios (hopefully at the farms too now that I´m done with my spanish classes in the daytime...) I´ve found some opportunities to teach about coffee too. I didn´t really expect it but it´s been an amazing opportunity. I´ve said in the past that maybe what I´d like to do eventually in the coffee industry is work with farmers and processors at origin to help improve quality and, believe it or not, I´ve done a bit of it here. Of course, I don´t believe that I know enough yet to consult on agricultural topics or anything, but I´ve roasted and consulted on packing coffee with one of the beneficios in town. At the same place I also helped to adjust a milling machine so that it doesn´t break the grains anymore when the parchment is being milled off. At some commercial beneficios I´ve seen fermentation practices that I think definitely compromise the quality of the coffee but I don´t feel anywhere near a position to suggest that they try to alter the procedures they have well in place.

Also, two new friends Andrew and Cody, who happen to be from the town in Cape Cod where I´ve vacationed almost every summer since I was young (the world is still thisbig) , have recently, as of this week, taken control of the Italian bistro they´ve just bought in the middle of town, Fata Morgana. And here, they happen to roast their own coffee. I taught Andrew and the Italian former owners and roaster how to cup coffees, and given some informal seminars, usually over drinks in the palapa, on coffee process, quality, roasting science and green bean selection. Next week I plan to assist in adjusting parameters of the roast that I believe will take the coffee that the Lonely Planet guide calls the best in San Pedro and make it potentially way, way better. We´ll see. But having the chance to share what I know at a country of origin is a little bit like a dream come true. Maybe someday I´ll get paid for it instead of draining my savings to do it. Anyone? Anyone?

And finally, Motorcycles are awesome. The end.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tremors and Aftershocks

If I haven´t mentioned it yet, San Pedro is a weird town...and right now happens to be a particularly special time to be here.

I´ve heard a number of stories about how San Pedro La Laguna came to be this way. One is that it all started with only one hotel owned by a foreigner, and this first installation was followed by a flood of hippies and travellers from all over the world. As they started taking over the shoreline around the lake, the locals made an effort to contain them to only one part of town. Another story is that this part of town by the lake was underwater until 30 or 40 years ago and the foreigners party paradise has been built up on the new dry land since then. To me that sounded like a creation myth that conveniently required no displacement of indigenous communities, but I´ve since heard there´s some truth to it. So anyway, now you have a street and a trail on the water full of white people, restaurants, hotels, massage parlors, drugs, yoga, bookstores with literature in english, bars, coffee shops, and mayan vendors selling bread and orange juice next to the rainbow children in tie dye and birkenstocks selling their hand-braided cord jewelry. Two blocks up the hill you find yourself in a typical conservative evangelical mayan community and you could be the only white person in the center. Two cultures reluctantly overlapping in a tense sociological venn diagram.

Friday night some friends and I were walking up the hill to find a traditional mayan religious procession we´d heard happens every other week. We found it in the center of town, a parade of hundreds of people, most in traditional dress, praying and singing and chanting, carrying a neon cross and a life size effigy of jesus carrying his own. The sight and the sound of it raised the hair on my arms and left me speechless. How I wished I´d had an audio recorder! As we were walking up the hill toward the procession, a local teenager in a group we walked past discreetly asked us... "Cocaine?" I said..."Really?" and kept walking, saddened, considering everything, that the tourist economy has made drug dealers of Tzutujil Mayan kids.

I heard that it used to be even crazier here. No laws, no police, coke lines on bars, needles in the street, total anarchy, name your vice and SPLL was the place to come to indulge or OD. One person described it to me as a whole lot of little kids with an enormous cake all right in front of them, and they couldn´t just take one little piece at a time. I´ve heard from other foreigners and some locals that yeah, it used to be nuts here but things have quieted down a lot. Where in other parts of Guatemala you have to worry about violence and theft. San Pedro is a little haven, a tranquil community where people respect each other and, my friend Pedro was telling me earlier that very friday, you never, ever have to worry about violence in the village. Nunca, nada.

Later that night, maybe around 2am or so, I´m lying in bed in my hotel on the main drag and I heard a sound right outside on the street. A pop. Like one firecracker. Or a gunshot. I didn´t think much of it because there´s noises all the time. And if it was a shot, I´m not running out into the dark street after it. So I finished writing in my journal, fell asleep, and then woke up in the morning, stepped outside and the first thing that Israel, in the room across the courtyard, says to me is "did you hear what happened last night?!"

I...maybe...was afraid of that. The thing that never happens in San Pedro happened in San Pedro. And I heard the sound of the gun in the night time.

Israel and two girls he was walking with on the way back to the hotel came across the body, still warm. It was drug related, between two people, between two families. The victim was the son of the owner of Casa Elena. What you didn´t know? Casa Elena is where all the coke in this town moves. Don Juan?! Yeah, the family´s deep in it, lots of money. They got busted a couple months ago and the cops didn´t find the drugs until they searched the tourists rooms. Casa Elena is where I stayed my first three days through San Pedro! I asked my friend Felix, he didn´t know anything. I asked the Juan who runs the hotel I was in when it happened. He sort of shrugged it off. Yeah, there was a murder, but he was mixed up in all kinds of stuff, lost his mind a while ago, sort of had it coming.

Sooo... it´s okay then? I guess just forget about it? But...what about the guy that did it? Could a town of 13,000 people really not even hiccup after a murder on main street?

I´ve heard a number of things since. The first story I heard is that nobody is talking about it because it´s between two families and not anyone elses business. It was a planned assassination and everyone saw it coming. The cops aren´t going to do anything about it, this is how disputes get resolved here. The act was itself the justice being done. So it´s over, end of story. Don´t ask more questions and definitely don´t get in the way. Then I heard that people in town are completely freaked out and concerned that there will be retaliation and it could be the beginning of a spiral of violence. Thursday at 3pm, which happens to be today, there is going to be a meeting in the center to determine the best way to handle it. They will be discussing accountability and prevention, making sure that San Pedro stays the little peublo that minds its own business and doesn´t bother anyone. Then my spanish teacher told me about how, in the late 70´s and early 80´s during the civil war, this town experienced more than its share of assassinations, disappearances, silence and terror. Many people remember it all too vividly, and the echo of a gunshot off the volcano has re-opened a deep trauma that might never stay closed.

So whatever indeed ends up coming of this situation remains to be seen. The hushed whispers behind trembling hands are full of questions but no answerss. For the time being, the only visible indication that anything happened, except for the funeral last sunday, is the dark brown stain and dirty jar filled with wilting flowers on the street outside of Casa Elena that hundreds of people walk past every single day without noticing.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

La vida diario

It feels nice to be in one place for a little while. Instead of bouncing around and taking chicken buses across the country every couple days I´ve planned to settle down in San Pedro for at least another week and a half or so. This gives me a chance to buy food at the market and prepare it at my little hotel in town, get to know the people of this place and make some friends here while I´m at it. It´s a weird little town, full of hippies and druggies and foreigners and tourists. I know I´m one of them, really, but I´ve been trying my hardest to ignore the stupidity and focus on the coffee. I´ve been putting in hours working at a couple beneficios here in town, getting to know the work that people do here with coffee daily. As I´m heaving around hundreds of pounds of coffee cherry at a time, cleaning the roasting machine at the FEDEPMA association, helping to scoop dried pergamino into bags and carrying them on my back into the warehouse, I´m often wondering exactly what I´m learning about coffee and how I can use the experience in the future to inform my approach to work that I might do in the states. I am managing to communicate with people well enough to discuss the effects of the market price on farmers´ lives and how the changing climate may be effecting the yield this crop year. But most of the time has been spent with damn hard labor. My muscles are sore and I´ve torn the skin off the knuckles of my middle fingers by carrying bags full of coffee cherry around. I´ll be here for another week, at least, working, studying and figuring out how to ask the questions that come up. If nothing else, I´m getting a pretty clear picture of how incredibly hard people work for 12 hours a day, six days a week to make their humble living with this stuff.

One more thing I don´t want to forget...While I was in Monterrico I met some pretty rad people. One of them was Annette, who is currently on a motorcycle trip from northern Alaska to the southern tip of South America to raise money for a children´s charity in the UK. It´s a pretty awesome thing and you should check out her blog at

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sunrise to Sunset in Monterrico


This will probably be the last post of the trip with new photos, so I´ll try to make it worth it. The battery charger for my camera hit a wormhole in my backpack and disintegrated somehow.

Rudy Salvador Florian

I chose to get stuck for a few extra days in the tranquil beachside village of Monterrico, and I´m very glad I did. It was all about the fresh seafood, hammock relaxation time, and playing in the waves. On Monday morning I took the opportunity to take a boat ride through the mangrove lagoons with Rudy Florian. He was the second person we met in Monterrico as he approached us to ask if we´d be interested in the 5:30am tour the next morning. I liked him immediately. He spoke slangy english with an accent from the street and said he liked the dodgers. I noticed the tattoos hidden on his face - one on his eyelid and another barely sneaking out from behind his mustache. Laurel noticed the spiderweb on his elbow but I didn´t catch it. He seemed nice and mellow. I had only this first impression of him but it led me to presume that he´d spent some time in gangs in the US, probably LA, and then came back and chilled out and now is making an honest living in his hometown, getting by on the tourist economy here and hanging out on the beach. He said that 5:30 is the best time to float around the lagoons because all the birds are waking up and they´re most active then, and the sunset. It took five days but I finally took him up on it. It was a little bizarre, waking up in the dark and meeting Rudy outside the hotel, walking up deserted Calle Principal, half asleep. I was glad to be going out on a boat, through the lagoons full of unfamiliar wildlife and some incredible looking trees. I was also glad for a chance to kick it and get to know Rudy a bit.

Volcáns Agua, Fuego and Pacaya

I was curious to hear about his time in the states, and to know whether my suspicions about his tattoos and streettalk were on target. We started talking on our walk to the boat launch about language and how he learned english. He got to LA in the early 80´s during the height of Guatemala´s civil war, when he was 13, and was the only kid in his class who didn´t speak any english. None of the other kids could help him because they were usy enough with their own work and the teacher, though she tried, didn´t have the time or resoures to bring him up to speed. After a couple months of struggling and getting lost every day he stopped going to school and ended up meeting some spanish speaking kids on the street who helped him learn a little english. I was curious to carefully ask about what the rest of his experience on the street was like but thought it might not be too smooth to come out and ask if he was in gangs. Then, he just started talking about it.

When his mom was killed (there were no more details than that,) he and his little brother had nowhere to go and nothing to do, so naturally found support and resources through their peers on the street and became involved in a gang homebased in central america. There were rules to live by that helped them survive. He told a story about having his face and ribs broken by a rival gang with baseball bats, and of getting shot four times at once. These were highlighted as we floated around under the rising sun by stories of being a little kid and fishing these very same waters with his father. The best of those stories being the one where a piece of wood fell from the net into the boat amidst the pile of fish and, at the end of the outing when he grabbed it to throw it out, it turned out to be a baby crocodile, rigid and still until that moment, suddenly began thrashing about when he grabbed it by the tail, launching all their fish back into the water and scaring them both half to death.

As we floated around through the mangroves, the sun rose and the birds were everywhere. Rudy, who comes out here every morning whether he has a tour or not, knew all the best spots to see the sunrise, the egrets and countless other water birds, and the fish that gets around by skipping across the surface of the water. The volcanoes Agua, Fuego and Pacaya rose from the horizon in the distance and the morning was tranquil. I thought, as we drifted, of all the ways and all the times in my life that I´d been taught to be fearful and intimidated by the idea of a Latin American gang member in LA.

Sunset over the pacific

The following day I started my trip back to San Pedro La Laguna by catching a ride on a raft along with an enormous diesel flatbed truck with over 9 tons of water and shrimp larvae. And when we landed on the other side, it seemed like my quickest way to the bus in Taxisco would be to catch a ride the rest of the way there on the back, holding onto the ropes securing the tanks on the flatbed. Sure wish I had a camera for that. I´m now back in San Pedro, killing time, working in a coffee processing plant in the afternoons and eagerly awaiting my spanish lessons that start next week.
Just after sunset

Friday, February 27, 2009

San Pedro to Monterrico

As I answer one question that burns within me about the culture of coffee trade here, three more arise in its place. That wasn´t the idea.

Two days ago Laurel (whose Guatemalan travels can be kept track of at and I left San Pedro La Laguna en route to Monterrico. *sigh*

Monterrico is a little beachside paradise. Expectations here are very manageable. Recreation of choice is mostly playing in the strong waves and warm water of the Pacific, and Hammock-Swinging. The beach is of black sand, the sun is strong, the roofs are grass and the livin´is eeeassyyyy. I may get stuck for a while, but coffee is calling me back.

In San Pedro, the livin´is pretty easy too. But much about the place did make me slightly uneasy as well. It is a little hippie enclave on lake atitlan, where gringos outnumber locals in multiples in some parts of town, owners and workers at bars and restaurants are white european expats, you can do yoga, get bagels with cream cheese, and buy crafts or bread from local folks without much else for a way to get by. The scene and industry and culture is very accomodating. almost...too easy. I´d heard a lot about how there is tension between the hipster whiteness and the native communities and it is evident. That said, I want to go back.

My second day there I stumbled across a coffee mill in the middle of town and watched people loading bags of freshly picked cherry until I was invited to help out. for a couple hours I heaved hundred-fifty-plus pound sacs of coffee out of a pickup truck and onto a scale, off from the scale and dumped into a pit where from there they fell into the depulper, and i asked all the questions my spanish would allow me to. Where is this coffee coming from? Who is buying it here? what´s the price like now? do you guys do the picking? how much do you get paid per quintale? Where is the coffee ending up? how does it get there? the answers to these questions at times surprised me, for some I knew the answers before i asked. Ultimately, I gathered that this was a pretty conventional operation. Coyotes involved, no certifications, not the highest quality processing, water running from the mill to the lake with no treatment...but the kids (late teens... I call everyone kids...) were excited that I was working with them and I was invited to the fields to harvest with them, unfortunately later in the week than I´d be around. and surprisingly, I had a good conversation about coffee markets with the person buying the coffee there at the mill and overseeing the operation. I was also shocked to hear that the price they said the pickers get was over three times more than the price I´d heard was typical elsewhere. This is one reason I need to get back. to clarify.

The next day I heard about another mill just outside of town, so i went there. I gathered with my first visit that it´s a Fair trade and organic association of indigenous maya coffee farmers from around the area, and I was invited back later by Pedro, the agrarian technician of the association, to see the processing. he was inviting, generous, knowledgable, passionate and glad for my visit, it was an altogether different feeling from the mill in town. When I returned later that night (on a motorcycle borrowed from my new friend Phil. Dreamy. Riding a motorbike around lake atitlan to visit a coffee mill? thanks phil!) I caught the first bit of processing the days harvest before being introduced to the president of the organization. All I said was "hello, My name is Marcos, I´m from the United States" and the man´s face lit up and I was eagerly escorted into his office. From here we spoke, strictly spanish, for almost an hour about the organization, the communities it serves, the challenges they face, the assistance they need, the projects they want to start, and the hospitality I would be shown if I were to return. And so I feel I must. I made it clear to him that I came to learn but alone don´t have the resources to offer the assistance they need. I am, after all, only me. But I think that the prospect of having their story heard in the states is enough.

So in San Pedro I have one operation in the middle of town where I have been eagerly invited back by the workers and the buyer to learn more, though the social responsibility of it is questionable. There is much more for me to find out. I have been invited to return and stay with a fair trade and organic certified association of indigenous coffee farmers in the same town. to do both would be tricky. but I think I´ll have to chance it.

one last note:

- President of association, when asked if the coffee in town was produced with just practices and social responsibility.

- Buyer of coffee at the mill in town, when asked where the coffee would ultimately end up.

So there.

Monday, February 23, 2009

¿Really? ¡No Way!

I rented this?

And rode it here?

This is my life? nuh-uhhh.

¡Xela! ¡Chichi! ¡Lago de Atitlan!

Arriving via bus in Quetzaltenango, aka Xela, the trip took a sudden turn. The first couple weeks of this adventure had an agenda. I was running around getting to places that were expecting me, going to meetings, touring beneficios, meeting farmers, and frequently being the only white person or english speaker around (I know, we love that, don´t we. how adventurous...) In Xela, all of a sudden, I was surrounded by extranjeros, mobbing in bands around the city babbling in a foriegn language wearing hawaiian shirts with shorts and sun-hats and cameras around our necks. okay. so not really, but I started feeling a bit more like a tourist than a traveller when I left the coffee farms and got to the very gringo-friendly city with cafés that advertised vegan donuts and whatnot.

As well, it became a vacation. Nobody is expecting me, I don´t have any work to do, there is no itinerary. It is sunny and beautiful, the weather is warm, and I am at the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen. El Lago de Atitlan. Damn. The lake, rung by volcanic mountains, is itself the crater of an ancient volcano. You gotta check this place out. As luck would have it, we wound our way through coffee fields to get here and our hotel is next door to a wet-mill. Eduard, the teenage kid we walked a half hour around the lake with on our way here, told me he´s worked as a picker before and we spoke briefly of his experience. It is here that my spanish skills frustrate me, I have so many questions that I don´t know exactly how to ask and if I did the response would likely be too complicated to fully understand. Nonetheless, I imagine that, among motorcycle and kayak rentals, boat rides, volcano-hikes and the like, I´ll have more opportunities to interface with farmers and pickers and workers while I´m at the lake. Next, the coast. BEEAACCHH!!

(p.s. I´m awfully sorry to hear about all the snow new england is getting...)