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