Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Give a stool sample and win a free trip to Guatemala (or Mexico) - what a deal!

I'm not sure if this is legit or not, but this vaccine company is willing to pay for your flight and accommodation in Guatemala or Mexico:

By James Tozer - dailymail
It must be the only travel agent that actually hopes its holidaymakers will eat something dodgy. 
A drugs firm is offering free trips to Mexico for nearly 1,000 volunteers - on condition that they try out a new remedy for upset stomachs, and come in for tests if they do fall ill.

The manufacturer is hoping to cash in on a potential multi-million pound market by developing a vaccine for that common holiday affliction, traveller's diarrhoea.

Guinea pigs will have to take part in a trial of the medication, and in return the company will pay for flights to Mexico or Guatemala and a week's accommodation.  


The only conditions are that they don't stray more than three hours from one of the centres where they will be required for blood tests, and to provide stool samples if they fall ill.

Drugs firm Intercell hopes the trial will confirm initial findings that the vaccine significantly reduces the chances of contaminated food or drink leading to a nasty bout of Montezuma's revenge.

The eye-catching offer has already been inundated by volunteers, particularly hard-up students looking for a cheap holiday.

Intercell: Diarrhoea vaccine is administered through an arm patch
But the euphoria is likely to be tempered by the knowledge that they will have to take an experimental drug - a worrying prospect for many after a trial at Northwick Park Hospital in North West London went catastrophically wrong in 2006, almost claiming the lives of six volunteers.

In this case, however, the vaccine has already been tested on humans, indeed of 170 American volunteers who also travelled to Mexico and Guatemala, tests found the incidence of diarrhoea was cut by three quarters.

Travellers' diarrhoea is one of the most common and debilitating illnesses experienced by holidaymakers, particularly in the developing world.

Attacks last four to five days, involve 18 trips to the toilet and cause dehydration, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting.

A successful vaccine could be worth £500million a year - making Intercell's apparently insanely generous offer entirely understandable.

It is seeking 900 volunteers via the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London and clinics around the country.

They will receive the vaccine through a patch worn on the arm for six hours three weeks prior to travelling, followed by a booster dose one week before they set off.

In return, flights and three-star accommodation will be provided, but volunteers will have to attend blood tests and will be given a kit to collect stool samples if they do fall ill.

Nigel Thomas, clinical director of Intercell, said: 'We are looking for people who have already planned to go to Mexico or Guatemala and think this would add another interesting aspect.

'We cover their expenses – flights and accommodation – nothing beyond that.

'It is almost like going on a package holiday. They will be met by a concierge who will take them to their hotel and arrange for them to give their first blood sample within 48 hours.'

Takers, anyone?  I'd do it but I'm already here :D

Thursday, October 22, 2009

More information about driving from Guatemala to Texas

Someone emailed me through the blog about buying a car in Guatemala and driving it back to the States.  Never one to waste effort, I thought I'd post my response here in case it could be useful.  Of course, if someone needs more specifics, I'll be glad to help.

I haven't driven from Guatemala to Texas (yet) but I can tell you the route I took down from Texas.  Check out this post if you haven't already:

That post outlines in detail my route.

Based on the paperwork I've had to do to import my car to Guatemala, I would plan on spending a couple of weeks down here, maybe 3 to get the paperwork done.  Could be shorter than that, but it's hard to tell sometimes.  Let me know when/if you do that and I can get you the name of a tramitador who will do all the paperwork for you.

Check the car out well...I can give you the name of a mechanic if you decide to go for it...American who has lived down here for ages.  Great guy.  He won't charge you a whole lot to look at it...maybe nothing, if he thinks you'll give him future business. Of course, I can't guarantee that :)

You do not have to have insurance in Guatemala, but you can get it if it makes you feel better.

Driving through Mexico, I would contact Transmigrantes Mireya near McAllen, TX.  They have partners on the southern Mexican border and can help you with the process of driving through Mexico legally.  Of course, you can enter as a tourist, but you can't carry much in your car.  The number for Transmigrantes Mireya is

1479 S Rangerville Rd
Harlingen, TX 78552

That should be enough to get you started.  I can get you hooked up with some maps, etc, if/when you decide to make the trip.  Just let me know and I'll be glad to help.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Why I love to teach fifth grade...

Something I really appreciate about teaching fifth graders is all of the love they have to give. That sounds really corny, but I always have kids making me cards saying "I love you, Mrs. Adina" or bringing me flowers or making me origami dinosaurs, giving me hugs, telling me jokes or something equally endearing. For me, it is the perfect age.
-The kids are old enough to do some pretty serious, intense conversations and writing about important things in life, even if they are still portraying their parent's opinions for the most part.
-They are old enough to be responsible for themselves, with the obligatory exception or two.
-Their creative side is developing and expressed in many different ways.
-Linguistically they are getting a handle on two languages and are starting to master them both.
-And, usually, fifth grade is one of the first where changing classes occurs and teachers teach one or two, instead of all, subjects. I love having to focus on just language! It is a lot easier to get creative and in-depth with something when your attention is not divided.

On the other side of this equation, teaching in Elementary school has a completely different realm of social norms than middle school or especially high school. The teachers are more involved with each other. You are a lot more likely to get a birthday part, baby shower or marriage gift. In the morning people are more likely to greet you and, overall, interaction is much more a part of work. This has its drawbacks sometimes, but for me, it is mostly a positive thing. I have to constantly force myself to be a part of society for my own good, and I enjoy it when I do, but I need an environment that pushes me that extra bit to interact with people.

In Guatemala, I have noticed all of these things in a more positive way for the most part. Some things are a little different, every school has it's up and down sides, but overall it is a good thing. This is something I have prayed a lot about, since new things are terrifying anyhow and going back to work was hard enough without it being in a new country! :) I think it is interesting the amount of American/Canadian teachers I work with who do not speak Spanish. I am glad that I do because it allows me to interact better with both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking teachers and to more fully appreciate my environment.

If you've ever considered international teaching, I would definitely recommend it.

p.s. Sometimes you also get to participate in the art session and sculpt your own triceratops!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Should expats in Guatemala encourage others to move here?

A discussion I had a couple of months ago with Mark prompted me to observe more closely the dynamic between locals and expats here in Guatemala.  We were discussing how it's incredibly difficult to find information about moving to Guatemala on the internet.  Sure, there's loads of information about tourism and travelling, even about hostels, but virtually nothing about cost of living (besides "it's cheap"), housing other than overpriced luxury homes, and how to get set up in the country.  With the plethora of "gringo" expats in the country, one would think that this information would be easy to come by.

But alas, it's not.

We originally started this blog to keep our friends and family informed about our adventures, but soon it was evident that we could use this to try to develop some materials that could be beneficial for those coming.

But again, that begs the question...why has this not already been done?  And since it hasn't, except for recent efforts in the past year, as far as I can tell, should it be?  Do gringos want to keep this bit of paradise (more or less) to themselves?

Friday, October 9, 2009

" lo pasas después..."

I guess the concept of credit at stores is not dead in Guatemala.  As many who travel throughout Latin America know, and no doubt in other parts of the world, shops don't carry a lot of extra cash.  I was bike-riding the other day, and halfway through I stopped at a corner store in a plaza we frequent.  I've been in the store maybe five times, and not really ever made conversation there.  All I had on me was a 100 quetzal bill (about 12 USD) and was buying a bottle of water that cost Q3.50 (about 40cents US).  The cashier asked me if I had anything smaller, and I didn't, and she just said "me lo pasas después"..."you can give it to me later".  I looked at her in disbelief, thanked her, and walked out with my water without her taking my name or anything.  I fully intend on paying her the next time I go to the store.  Anybody else encountered this?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Yo soy Tecun Uman!" aka Winning a Schoolwide "Fashion" Show

Who ever thought I'd be a Mayan warrior?  Well, I can now add that to my resumé.  Guatemalan Pride Week was a couple of weeks back, commemorating Guatemalan Independence Day (check out ExpatMom's parade pics Set 1 / Set 2 from Antigua), and I was coerced asked nicely by my students to dress up for the "fashion" contest in which I had to dress up as someone/thing typical of Guatemala.  The result, no doubt because of my rugged good looks, was Tecun Umán (map), a legendary Mayan warrior, and coincidentally, the name of the town in which I was surrounded by campesinos with sticks.  Here's the result:  

Fearsome, no?  Anyway, there were several close competitors, but due to some roaring and foot stomping on my part (and perhaps that I stuck my tongue out at the judges surreptitiously) I managed to get first place in the contest.

What did I win?  Mostly satisfaction, but also a good deal of laughs, and hopefully goodwill.  It's great acting like a crazy man every once in a while.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

International calls - potentially useful information here

So the search started when my Dell laptop's hard drive crashed a couple of weeks ago. Since it's only a couple of months old, it's a semi-nice laptop with the requisite webcam/microphone built in that I've been using my Skype calls on from home/café/McDonald's parking lot. The difficulty is that to call Dell technical support, I have to call the USA. No one in their right mind is going to call another country on a prepaid cell phone and pay an astronomical rate and risk getting cut off, since Dell tech support calls can take forever. I didn't have a headphone/mike for my desktop computer, and Adina's little laptop with the 5'' keyboard...well, I don't care to use that one, although in a pinch, it could work. to call the US with the computer I usually use on the fritz?

Skype has a mobile option, for smartphones, so I downloaded it to my HTC cell phone purchased in the US. Try to dial...but guess what? The configuration for most smartphones, unless Skype is already installed, doesn't allow Skype access to the mike and earpiece on the phone! How in the world am I supposed to use the phone if I can't use the mike and earpiece???

The search was on again. I searched far and wide, ended up buying a bluetooth earpiece that does work for cell calls, but not for Skype on the phone (didn't know that when I bought it). Went to Office Depot and bought the headset/mike set, which works for the computer, solving the problem mostly, but now I was curious how I could get the crazy Skype mobile version to work. As SOON as I got home from Office Depot, I saw a web forum referencing Fring. Checked it out, downloaded it, and I can use Skype through it just like a normal phone call! It probably doesn't work for all phones, and the call quality is a little bit less than desired, and a small delay (yeah, that's a lot of "ifs"), but now I can be sitting anywhere there's wifi and use my cell phone to call anywhere in the world! What a relief. And no, I'm not getting any money from Fring to post this. It's got a bunch of other uses, too, but this is main one I'm interested in. Check it out.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Our father/daughter breakfast - no moms allowed!

Today, since Talia had woken very early, way too early for a Saturday, and Adina had risen to the challenge of handling that, it was suggested to be me that I take a turn after a bit. Being the catch-a-hint guy that I am (or perhaps afraid of a sleepy wife), I crawled leaped out of bed to do my duty. Talia was excited to be alive, so I decided to take her outside to see if my morning breath would peel the paint off the playground equipment. We're awaiting the results of that, but no immediate damage occured.

After getting her morning exercise out of the way, Talia began to inform me ("bite, BITE!") that she was hungry.
Of course, she didn't have to tell me twice, baby. We hopped in the truck and headed down to Lourdes (Lourd-es, two syllables in the Spanish version of the word), which is the small area of Guatemala City where we live. I had no idea where I was going except that I wanted breakfast. After driving around for a few minutes and pestering a guy frying chicharrones in front of a restaurant that appeared to be open ("are you sure you're not serving breakfast??"), we found a place that was, indeed, serving breakfast. It had no name and was on a back street, but had wooden chairs instead of the standard plastic ones, and looked fairly clean, so after letting Talia play with a dry corn husk on the street for a minute, we crossed and went in. Have you ever tried to parallel park on a street 12 feet wide with a 3 foot drop on one side...the side you're supposed to park on? Fun!

After wishing the two other customers Buen provecho, we found an out of the way spot. The menu was stapled on the wall, so I decided on the Plato Típico (see photo, which has part of the egg and beans cut out for Talia).
As you can see from the pictures, she was thoroughly enjoying her beans and eggs, and decided to investigate the tortillas later in the meal. The plate I'm eating has ham on the left, longaniza (a type of sausage) at the bottom, and churrasco (thin beef steak) on the right. It was supposed to come with fried bananas, but for some reason (my size, maybe?) they thought I'd appreciate the ham instead. I did appreciate it, indeed, but since my daughter is bananas for bananas, I ordered fried bananas for dessert. That's cream on top with sugar sprinkled on it. We both dug into it, with the person most adept at using a fork eating most of the bananas. Included are a few shots of Talia with her father-inspired hairdo and bean-y face. Breakfast was enjoyed by all.

After we found Talia's shoes again, which she loves to kick off, given 3 unsupervised seconds, I proceeded to pay the bill (30 quetzales, or a little less than 4 dollars; a great deal for a pretty good feast!). I hope I can find it again. We came home to a well-rested wife and mother who wondered where in the world we'd gone. And so ends the tale of the father and daughter breakfast.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Meet the Fifth Grade Team:

I've spent a week preparing for the coming school year with my team and am looking forward to working with them. Here they are:

Mr. VL: 40ish From Chicago, has a son. He is the math teacher for the whole fifth grade. He has the room next to me, poor guy, and has been very gracious when I have a million questions about the procedures in my new environment. His eyes are always smiling and he and Ms. S have an ongoing friendly rivalry about what she assumes his weekend activities include, (though he insists he is trying to watch his health instead.)

Ms. S: >40 matronly Guatemalan lady with a sense of humor. She has several grown kids, one of whom I've met when he came to help her prepare her Spanish classroom. Her dominant language is Spanish, so sometimes she struggles to come up with a quick retort to Mr. VL's quips. She has been very friendly and helpful with my class list information, for which I am grateful.

Mr. H: >25 guy from Canada. He is an adventurer who loves to travel whenever possible. He is always laughing and picking on someone, (usually Ms. S, but anyone is fair game.) He is a super social person who can be found many times walking down the hall playing his guitar and making people smile. With a tactile approach to teaching and learning, I was very appreciative of his help walking me through the routines of a normal fifth grade day.

If you didn't notice, all of them are generally happy folks who enjoy injecting the mundane with humor. I am really honored to be working with them and am looking forward to this year.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

School and Toddler Development

Today we had individual interviews with our principals. I am really looking forward to this year and working with my principal, a generous Guatemalteca (who makes me feel pretty tall) and who has a wonderful sense of humor. It is a completely different environment from my first teaching experience. I anticipate teaching a subject that I am excited about and that can easily be incorporated into every area, and in that way, is relevant to life. My teaching team sounds like a group of unique individuals. I will introduce you as soon as I meet them in person.

Talia seems to be adjusting to preschool little by little. Once she gets there, she really likes the structure and being around other kids. She is reinforcing the Spanish she already knew and we can’t wait to hear her add new vocabulary. She continues to speak in increasingly complex sentences in English. We are planning a trip to a Guatemala City zoo tomorrow with a few other teacher/kid combos… I’m pretty sure she is going to enjoy that! (Especially the little train that takes you through the different areas. Lately she has been lining her blocks up in a row and saying “Choo choooooo!” I’m really not sure where she learned that.) Always a fan of books she is getting more and more interested in them and is starting to repeat all of the phrases after we read them to her.

If you’re part of the family and are scared she’ll forget you, don’t worry. She’s been calling off the role almost daily and then describing something about the person she said. Some examples include “play in the water, Pop’s and Lulu’s house!”or sometimes that one is at “Meme’s house” with Karka and Zachy thrown in the water for good measure. “Jacob sing a song guitar.” “Nonna Rose and Maggie” “T-Maw and Pawpaw’s house! Play the banjo!” “Unky Ooyd drums” “See Gammy” etc.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Our 4th Marriage Anniversary Celebration at Portal de Angel

Today was nice in several ways. We celebrated our 4th year of marriage at Portal de Angel, enjoyed some excellent steak and enjoyed a nice view of the twinkling Guatemala City lights at night from a high vantage point.
If you've never tried Portal de Angel steak house, I would certainly recommend it. The steak and chicken are both very tender and well seasoned and the side options are excellent as well. Here I was first introduced to chimichurri, a salsa like dish served on the side made with olive oil, cilantro, garlic, salt and several different other things. Me encanta. I also finally was able to enjoy some chocolate in the form of a chocolate cake with cajeta.
One of the best aspects is the view. It is situated on the side of a mountain overlooking the Guatemala City basin-like land form with the mountains in the background. Tonight it looked like the clouds were hovering closer to the ground than normal and the lights flickering through it were beautiful. From this view you can see how the roads are arranged from more of a bird's eye angle. It is pretty interesting to try to find the center of the city and follow the lights inching up the mountainsides.

It has been a very peaceful day in the middle of a busy settling-in month. Thank you, Benji.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Refitted belts and Guatemalan police: the events of today

Refitted belts and Guatemalan police: the events of today

Every day is an adventure in Guatemala. The day started off great, but since I’ve dropped a few pounds in the last couple of weeks due to lifestyle changes, I decided to ask the construction workers at the school for a nail and hammer to make another hole for my belt. Well, they thought that was hilarious, but they quickly found what I needed, I think just to see the spectacle. So I walked over to a stack of cement blocks and proceed to gently make a new hole in my belt, with several construction workers looking on. All’s well until I try to put my belt back on and the buckle falls apart in my hands! Now I’ve got a broken belt with perfectly good holes and no buckle, and my pants are so baggy now that they will literally fall down around my ankles within 10 steps. Fortunately, the people in the Transport department are my amigos (more to come on the transport dept later on) and I asked them if I could have some rope to at least tie around my pants so they don’t fall off. This is at 7:30 a.m. and I’ve got all day to be at work. They find some rope and I proceed to tie it around me, and that seems to work (much to the amusement of yet another set of Guatemalans). The upside is that the rope was black, the same color as my pants.

The day goes on as normal, but I have to retie the rope from time to time. After I got out of work about 2 p.m. I decided to go visit this belt and shoe repair shop nearby that Victor at work had told me about (a peleteria). After much drama, I find one that will send my poor belt off to the factory and have it fixed by Saturday. But what is Benjamin to do until then…walk around with twine around his waist?? The quite resourceful motherly clerk suggested that I go look in Paiz, the grocery store in the same shopping center. They didn’t have a belt my size, not that that surprised me, as my waistline is about the same as most Guatemalans’ height : ) just kidding; the store had a belt that was just barely too short. Instead, I got two of the shortest belts and hooked them together. The belt buckles were too big to go through my belt loops, so had to start one at the back and hook it there too. I’m sure the guy that came in the bathroom thought I was doing yoga lol Anyway, the previously mentioned motherly clerk was nice enough to punch some holes in the right spots for me, so it fits right and holds my pants up, but if you see me walking around with two belt buckles in odd places for the next few days, you’ll know what happened.

Back to the transport office: I’m trying to get Guatemalan license plates for my truck, so that requires the services (well, not requires, but sure makes it a lot easier) of a tramitador, similar to the help I got on the borders of Mexico and Guatemala. So the transport office at school told me to drop off my passport and truck documents at their office and they would take care of the paperwork, which means that I did not have any identifying information for myself except for a Texas driver’s license. No big deal, I thought…it’s just for one day. Wrong.

On the way home from my belt excursion, and police truck with a few guys pulls me over, no doubt due to the Texas plates. Of course, they’re asking for something to prove I’m the owner of the truck and it’s all at the school about a half-mile away. I make some strategic phone calls, just about giving a heart attack to the HR people because I’m not carrying my passport (dumb on my part, but anyway), and someone from transport is on the way with the papers. A portly police officer starts talking about having to “infraccionar” me; in other words, pull out your wallet, buddy. I pretended not to really get what he was saying and waiting until the transport guy got there. He arrived after about 20 minutes and the police motioned him over to talk privately. After about 10 minutes of some wild gesticulations and later, low tones and mention of calling the school lawyer, the transport guy Eric brought me my passport, smiling, and said, “Have a nice day.” Apparently the mention of a lawyer and the refusal to pay fees on the street gets you out of there quickly. Good to know.

Another day in Guatemala. Lovin’ it more every day :D

Thursday, July 30, 2009

July 26: Meet the Teachers

This day began with me and Ben leaving Talia at the apartment with Mama, Chel and Blanca. We had breakfast at a place with “Palace” in the name. I had some excellent pancakes with blueberries on top. Mmmmmm. Here we were able to meet with the other teachers who flew in this year. Let me introduce you:

Ms. H: 25(+-) From Georgia and is going to be teaching Middle School World History. She is threatening Mr. M that he will have no geography left to teach them by the time her students get to him.

Ms. K: 23 Cousin to Mr. M coming from the Wisconsin area. She is going to be teaching Kindergarten (and do a fabulous job, she has the perfect personality for it.) She has brought a pirate costume as part of her teaching wardrobe.

Mr. M: 26 Is going to be teaching High School History/Geography. He has a wonderful sense of humor and easy going nature essential to Guatemalan survival.

Mr. A: Gentleman from Ukraine originally and I think currently from Canada, here to teach High School Geometry. He can speak Ukrainian, Hebrew, French, Russian passable English and probably several other languages I’ve never heard of. He has a doctorate in some sort of technology.

Mr. D: Gentleman from Boston area who has experience at many, many International schools. He will be teaching High School physics. Excellent at knowing about everything and sharing that knowledge without making the listener feel inferior.

Mr. C: 25-30 Hired to be the Assistant Principal for the middle school, he traveled here from an International school in Beijing with his wife and 10 month old darling daughter. Originally from Canada, he is interested in sparking interest in rugby in Guatemala City.

Ms. L: 26 Wife to Mr. C., she will be teaching Kindergarten. Originally from Australia, she gets “annoyed” when we insist on calling the rubbish bin a “trash can.” They currently reside in a nice house with four bathrooms, one which, because of interesting neighbors and venting systems, is called the “pot” room.

After meeting all of the new teachers and being impressed with how well we all got along (and very grateful for that) we went to the school and figured out our school email and passwords… and then it was off for shopping! In the shopping mall, where we ended up buying mostly hangers, I was pleasantly surprised to find a Subway… a Subway that served the option of avocado on your sandwich. Yum! They also had a café that served excellent mocha.

July 25: Arriving in Guatemala

We’ve finally made it and are starting to settle in a little bit, though I think it will take another week or so before it feels natural.

Going to the airport was an adventure. My dad and I packed the minivan the night before with 6 bags to check and then we had 2 carry on bags, a diaper bag, my purse and laptop, Talia and her car seat. I was very thankful to not have to worry about the 6 bags I checked because there was plenty to worry about otherwise. Our first flight was from Tyler to Dallas in a puddle jumper and it was pretty uneventful.

The second flight was from Dallas to Miami since the people buying the tickets must have found a cheaper rate going through there. A guy who said his name was Juan Pablo, but who I renamed “Angel” helped me carry my suitcases and store them. This flight was around Talia’s nap time, so it was a bit stressful. I was grateful for the comic relief sitting in front of us in the form of a girl in her mid to late twenties planning to have fried chicken or pot roast at her wedding. And a big bucket of MnM’s, no juice but maybe some coke… And then she went on a long explanation of what the color mauve was. (I also was invited to the wedding since I couldn’t help but express my appreciation of the entertainment by laughing. Alas, I don’t think she has our address.) Angel also helped me unload the plane. Lord, please bless him!

Getting off in Miami, we had to immediately race across the entire airport (it felt like) to get to our next flight on time. To do this, I was pushing two suitcases while holding the three other bags and Talia in my arms. My mom was hauling her carry on and the car seat. (Apparently, in this airport one has to telephone for his/her own assistance via mechanical cart and it would have taken longer to wait than we had time for.) We arrived just as they were calling our seat numbers and filed in line with everyone else. Almost everyone boarding the plane here for Guatemala spoke Spanish. I was a little bit surprised at how most people, when seeing I had a baby, instead of looking pretty annoyed like the Americans tended to do, actually appeared to view Talia as a welcome amusement. On this flight I was able to sit next to a Senor Domingo Roderiguez, Talia and my Mom. This was a super huge airplane! Two seats on each aisle and four in the middle! Mr. Roderiguez worked at an window company in Miami and was going home to Huehuetenango to visit family for a few days. He was a very nice older gentleman and I appreciated his conversation.

We were so grateful to finally arrive in Guatemala City, Guatemala. There, we were immediately offered assistance in getting across the airport, which we wearily accepted. Waiting in the passport line, I got to translate for a gringo who was very upset with himself because he lost his passport. He was very grateful for the translation and I was glad to give something back since so many people had gone out of their way for me that day. We promptly got our luggage, were met by the super nice school facilitators and Chel (who had just finished another medical mission in Sarstun) and my husband; and were whisked away to the apartment where, still wired from a crazy day, I unpacked half of the suitcases and then crashed!

In summary, the trip was crazy stressful, the apartment is beautiful, the people we have come in contact with have gone out of their way to make sure we have everything we need and God has been gracious.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Driving from Texas to Guatemala - almost done!

Driving from Texas to Guatemala

Day 1 - I left from Kilgore, Texas on July 15 and went through Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Kingsville, and Harlingen to Los Indios, TX. The drive was great…glad I’m got the cruise control fixed! It was about 10 hours driving because I left so early (4 a.m.) and missed all the rush hours. I got to meet with one of my former professors and former International Student Director Dr. Mark Walsh from Texas A&M - Kingsville who was nice enough to pass on a couple of contacts’ phone numbers. It was completely unexpected to get to meet with him on my way through, but definitely a pleasure; he’s the one who arranged much of my trip to Chile and got my travel bug in overdrive.

Day 2 - Thursday, July 15, I went to Transmigrantes Mireya, the company who arranges all the paperwork to take a car into Mexico, or in my case, through Mexico. If I had not been taking many personal belongings, I could have just entered as a tourist, but much of the point of driving was taking our stuff, so I went as a “transmigrante,” which is the same class as the guys who tow trucks down with “IN TOW” taped on the back. Actually most of the guys are Guatemalans, taking those vehicles to Guatemala to repair and resell; I always thought they just went to Mexico.

After waiting a couple of hours at the company to get the truck contents inspected (a process that would be repeated many times over the next couple of days) I was able to go to US customs to get permission to leave the country. Apparently, US customs believes that the best way to do this is to have literally 100 or more trucks, cars, and assorted other towed things line up and wait in the sun for two hours, then start to let them through 1 at a time. Hmmmmm. If you need to learn patience, just drive through Mexico….you will develop it or have a heart attack trying. Fortunately, I was mentally prepared for it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t think, “Hey guys, there’s probably a better way to do this!”

Once I crossed, there were guys before the Mexican bridge (if you recall, much of our southern border is a river J Rio Grande for the USA, Rio Bravo is what it’s called in Mexico…same river). These guys are “tramitadores”; basically, they get your paperwork out of the way before you cross into Mexico; believe me, there is plenty to do after you cross, so you’re glad to get the vehicle part out of the way. The short explanation is that these guys take your title and send it to the other border (Guatemala) so that they know you didn’t sell it in Mexico, since you’re not paying Mexican taxes for it. The big packet of papers that Mireya gives you has a list of all contents and approximate value; if anything is missing when you get to the Mexican side, you have to pay taxes on it, because they’re assuming you sold it. Letting go of my title was hard to do, but several people had assured me this was normal. Still, though….you want me to give you my WHAT???

After you cross into Mexico, you have to do several things. You have to get your vehicle fumigated, searched again by guys with big guns (they’re generally nice, though, especially if you speak Spanish), get your visa to go through (21 dollars or so), get car insurance and change money. This can take a while, but the upside is that the coke machine had bottled cokes for only 8 pesos (about 60 cents); downside, it only takes pesos, and you have to change those first lol. Thursday’s legal requirements from start to finish took me all day, so that by the time I drove to Matamoros 30 miles away, it was almost 7 p.m., so I just stayed there for the night. I had planned to get to Tampico the second night, but that proved unrealistic. However, if someone were just driving as a tourist, they could have gone through the border with a minimum of trouble and could have made it to Tampico (about 8 hrs) just fine.

Day 3 – July 17 – Matamoros to Tampico via Ciudad Victoria

Friday the journey to Tampico began…the first “real” day in Mexico. I’ve been this way on a bus before, and the way we went was following the coast. This is a one-lane (each way) road that is always congested and you have to go through 1000 little towns with speed bumps. No thanks. I decided to go through Ciudad Victoria, and then to Tampico. This way was about an hour longer, but the map I had (Guia Roji, buy one!) said that it was a four-lane highway. It was awesome! I basically set my cruise for about 65 mph and drove for 75% of the trip that day. The rest was little towns, etc, but not too unreasonable. Not much notable about Friday, except for seeing an abundance of goats.

Day 4 – July 18 – Tampico – Veracruz

Saturday - Well, Tampico’s not much of a tourist town, and it’s not pretty. I stayed on the north side due to the fact that the loop around the city started there (obvious, no? LOL) So I left pretty early, and not 30 minutes into the trip, this little Nissan Sentra transit cop car pulls me over. I had had no problems with the army with huge guns, but these guys pulled me over for passing a truck going 20 mph, even after 5 cars in front of me did the same thing. Texas plates call attention, I guess. Anyway, short story, they used the same old line about following them to the police station and paying an astronomical fee ($800 – for passing someone??) but after some discussion, they agreed to take $100 USD and I wouldn’t insist on a receipt ;) Fortunately, I had budgeted this in to my trip fund and was really just wondering when it would happen. I never felt threatened, just wanted to get out of there as quick as possible, but not for $800! (which I didn’t even have on me anyway)

The scenery the rest of the way to Veracruz was absolutely beautiful, seeing the ocean for a good part of the way. According to the hotel signs toward Veracruz, this area is a good place to come if you don’t speak Spanish, because they all advertised speaking English. It made me want to stop there for the night, but alas, I persevered : ) I actually made it much further than I had thought I would…all the way to Cosamaloapan, Veracruz. I think I spelled that right. The hotel was much cheaper there…33 bucks a night and that was the pricey place! And it even had internet, although I didn’t take advantage of it much since I didn’t get in until about 9 p.m. Unfortunately, when I went out for a small pizza, I stopped by the grocery store on the way back to the hotel (it was on the next block over). As the grocery clerk was bagging my drink, I THOUGHT he asked me if I wanted him to bag my pizza, too. Well, I strongly replied, “No, no, I’m just walking to the next block, it’s fine the way it is” in a nice tone of voice like “you don’t have to go to the trouble to do that”; well, imagine how bad I felt when he said, “Sorry, I just wanted a little piece…” and realized that he was asking me if he could have a piece of my pizza! Well, I felt bad because I just kind assumed he was asking about the bag and didn’t really hear the question….but isn’t that sort of a strange thing for the grocery clerk to ask?? I was slightly comforted by that fact.

Day 5 – July 19 – Cosamaloapan, Veracruz to Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas (border with Guatemala)

How many good things can I say about this day? I was originally going to go to church somewhere, but since I was out in the sticks pretty much, I had no idea where one was so just took off at about 7 a.m. Compared with the days before, there was practically no traffic. The roads through Oaxaca and Chiapas were good, and I was able to sail through much of it like I had my first day in Mexico. The scenery in the mountains is absolutely beautiful! At one moment, I was listening to a song by Brent Beaugeois (however you spell that; anyone remember him?) based on the book of Job, basically saying “I created all this, who are you?” and I looked up to see the most imposing mountains on all sides of me. Talk about perfect timing. Absolutely georgeous. Coastal drive was great, but very windy.

When I came into Hidalgo, these guys on red motorcycles started chasing me. I waved a couple of them off until I saw a huge group of them waiting on the side of the road. I then realized that they were the tramitadores that John Villanueva with Agape in Action had told me about. These guys basically do all your paperwork for you and you pay them a reasonable fee for the service. It’s worth it! Anyway, the hotel was even nicer, and only $25, with free breakfast (a real breakfast, not “continental breakfast” whatever that is ;)). What a deal. I still maintain that travelling to Latin America is the best way to go, because even if you have to pay a flight, everything is dirt cheap when you get here (some places more than others). On to the fun part…

Day 6 – Tecun Uman, Guatemala, to….Tecun Uman, Guatemala. – Monday, July 20

Trying to import my truck - Today started out with a bit of patience testing, as I had to wait until all the right people got in the right offices to check to see if my title had arrived from Los Indios. Not all bad, though, because if it had arrived right on time, I would not have had the opportunity to enjoy the free breakfast! Anyway, it did arrive about 10 a.m. The tramitadores (I have 2 for some reason; they’ll have to fight over the fee…it’s complicated) were a great help and ran around to and fro. I went with them to most of the places, but they handled the talking to people, making copies, and explained the process very well. Note to anyone reading this: if you do not speak Spanish, this process can be much more difficult, but you can still get it done. I would bring a translator to avoid much confusion. The tramitador will be able to pull out the documents you need, but you will probably have no idea what’s going on, raising the stress level on a day when you basically just hang out and follow these guys everywhere. Did you know that I can fit on the back of a moped? :D

Well, we got everything done by about 1 p.m., including going to Western Union in town to get the money Adina sent for the taxes (I didn’t bring that much cash for security reasons). Well, guess what? WELCOME TO GUATEMALA! There was a strike on by the campesinos, many of them Mayan, over some land that was supposed to be rented/given to them to use for farming. Well, apparently it didn’t work out their satisfaction, because they are blocking the border and 3 other places around Guatemala! I tried to cross back into the customs section from getting the cash, and I literally was surrounded by them, yelling “No hay paso!” (No crossing!) and received a stern lecture by the leader about respect or something. When I say I tried to cross, I don’t mean running like Red Rover come over, I mean I politely attempted to walk through what appeared to be a break in the line. Well, they didn’t like that, and I got a picture taken of me by someone that I’m not entirely sure wasn’t a journalist. I had a chance to catch up with her about 6 p.m. and explain that even though her photo might show me trying to break through a line, that wasn’t the case. I can just see it showing up in a Guatemala City newspaper and my boss going “hmmmmmmmmm”. Anyway, I might just advise them of what happened so it’s not a surprise LOL. Anyway, they didn’t beat me with sticks or anything, and I didn’t even say anything to them, just walked back after it was evident that I wasn’t going to get anywhere.

My tramitador, Esbin, was nice enough to take me his house after we bought some Pollo Campero for lunch and I spent the afternoon there. Turns out he’s an evangelico as well and plays the piano, so we had a lot to talk about.

Anyway, so I’m staying in Tecun Uman, the Guatemala border city tonight, apparently. It’s 7:30 p.m. and the gate to the border closes at 8:00 p.m. Hopefully they won’t be blocking the gate tomorrow because I would hate to have to wait another day just sitting here; I may never know the reason for it all, but here I am. Moving on tomorrow, hopefully!

For more about getting a car from the States to Guatemala, or vice versa read this post.

To read another detailed post about driving through Mexico with my family read this post.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Packing Chaos and Family Love

All of the planning that goes into moving abroad can obviously get a little chaotic. I didn't realize how much of a toll it was taking on my brain until my mom asked me why I put the baby in the bathtub with her shirt still on.
Either it was the packing or the trauma of having to translate over the phone for my sister (who is a nurse) to tell a poor unsuspecting patient that he was going to have to get a suppository. He swore up and down that he wasn't, um, needing one and that it was normal for him to only use the restroom every 3-4 days, really! My sister was kind enough to give him the choice to help himself.
So in the middle of fielding phone translation fiascoes and trying to fit my and my daughter's life into a few suitcases and trying not to worry about whether my dear husband woke up on time to eat with the Quakers or not... (When my mom said that this morning, I thought it was a euphemism for oatmeal, turns out there was a group on a mission project at his hotel;) and resume his travels safely- I've been trying to savor the moments. It's finally sinking in that the waiting is almost over! We've dealt with the reality as much as possible when it is divorced from it's realistic environment, and have tried to be educated and prepared... but there's nothing like actually doing something.
We visited Ben's family in Mississippi the 10th through the 14th, lucky for Ben. He was able to practice on Mexico-quality roads without all of the border hassle! While there, we really enjoyed spending time with his family. We've both been blessed with exceptional, critically thinking, challenge embracing, survivors for family members. They're quite an inspiring bunch. My family is making a special effort to come by and see me (and especially Talia) tomorrow. It's nice to know that when you leave, people won't be breathing a big sigh of relief- but rather reassure you that you are loved and that your presence is an appreciated part of the family. It's a blessing to not have something to run from, just an adventure awaiting you.
So here's to chaotic schedules, unsuspecting patients, amazing families and adventures. May you have less of the first two and more of the last!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

7 days until departure...

Counting down until I (Ben) leave to drive to Guatemala on July 15.

Only the final exam for the last class on my master's degree left, then on to visit family in Mississippi and I will be on the road!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Monday, June 29, 2009

Things have been crazy AND slow at the same time lately. Since getting back from Spain, I've been working on my college class (last one for my master's!) so that's just been steady. We've already taken care of the vast majority of packing and just a few more paperwork things to do remain. I made a calendar for myself for the two weeks left before my departure, and on paper, it all looks relatively simple. That made me feel quite a bit better! Some recent craziness in Honduras that you may have seen in the news is a little disturbing, but I just tell myself that it shouldn't affect my drive down, since I am not driving through Honduras. We'll see...

Not a lot of news, currently. We'll keep you posted.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Spain 9 of 9 - Granada and La Alhambra

Gardens of the Alhambra - one of the best parts of the trip.

Main part of La Alhambra from the summer palace, which was a little higher up and much cooler.

Spain 8 of 9 - Granada and La Alhambra

Sunset shots of Granada as well as the gardens of La Alhambra.

Spain 7 of 9 - Toledo and Costa del Sol

Toledo was one of the highlights of the trip. Absolutely beautiful and cool processions while we were there due to the festival of Corpus Christi. Great photo ops!

The ocean from my balcony window in the distance on Costa del Sol in the south of Spain.

Spain 6 of 9 - Don Quixote's Windmill's

I was so excited to see the windmills that Don Quixote supposedly fought (yes, I know he's not real :))

Shot of windmills and overlooking La Mancha.

Spain 5 of 9 - Oh wait, that's my little girl! :)

Well, I knew I could use a break from the old buildings :)

Spain 4 of 9 - Royal Palace

Royal Palace, used for state dinners, but not usually inhabited by the royal family. Like most things that I found different about Spain when compared with France, the palace, while beautiful, is much more practical than, say, Versailles.

Spain 3 of 9 - El Retiro Park

El Retiro Park in Madrid - sort of like Central Park in's beautiful.
Man-made square lake in middle of park with boating and eating available.

The park also had some cool pruned trees. I've been told that the trees take decades to get this large and varied.

Spain 2 of 9 - Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Shots of Plaza Mayor - Mostly various actors around the square except for the awesome accordion player who played for us while we ate outside.

Spain 1 of 9 - Downtown Madrid and Plaza de Toros

I (Ben) left for Madrid on June 8 with a group of middle school students for a 10 day trip to Madrid and southern Spain, with a side day trip to Morocco. This is a series of pictures from our trip.

This first picture is the statue in front of the Plaza de Toros (bullfight arena) in Madrid.

Front of Plaza de Toros in Madrid.

Shot of me in downtown Madrid.

Downtown Madrid

El Oso y El Madroño

(The Bear and Strawberry Tree - symbol of Madrid and on Spanish Coat of Arms)

Monday, June 1, 2009

Pre-moving, Spain, unpacking, re-packing, and general rambling

I'm starting to feel like the Clampetts!  See first post for our travel song :)   In the last week, we've managed to move OUT of our apartment INTO the in-laws' house for the just over six weeks that we have left until we move to Guatemala.  Muchas gracias!!! to Adina's parents for letting us crash at their place and disrupt their empty nest for a few weeks.  Of course, I think they've been liking having the little munchkin around a little more, but she does tend to get into stuff, as little ones are prone to do.  So, we are finally all the way at their house, anyway, with stuff sort of organized.  I love my wife...she's been working really hard to keep it somewhat normal around the house.  Things were sort of hectic last week, from moving, to a final Spain trip meeting to someone attempting to pass me on the left while I was turning left!  Anyway, dents resulted, but at least I wasn't at fault.

Spain trip coming up - Adina is probably sick of hearing about it, but since Febrary 2008, I've been planning a trip with about 10 middle-school students and assorted parents (since I am the Spanish teacher, it made sense to go, and it didn't hurt that I didn't have to pay).   We started this long before we thought about moving to Guatemala, so imagine how hectic it is.  Anyway, we're with EF Tours and are doing a 10-day trip to Madrid and Andalucia, with a side trip to Morocco.  I'm really looking forward to it.  When we decided to move to Guatemala, I briefly thought about handing the trip off to someone else, but I'd already done 90% of the paperwork, so I figured I may as well enjoy the fruits of my labor.   We leave next Monday.  I don't really have all that much left to do, but what is left to do is important  What good is planning a trip if you don't get everyone to the airport on time? A plus was that for new group leaders, which I am, we could choose with our "global points" to get a free trip to Paris, which I did last July.  It was basically a mini-tour so we'd know what to expect on a "real" tour.  Didn't have to pay for that either....I love travelling for free!  I think Adina is going to hit me over the head with a skillet, hard, if I don't take her to Europe next time I go.  Three times, and have managed to somehow earn the trip instead of pay each time.  Once was part of a government-funded international business course (two weeks in Europe), and twice with EF.  Maybe I should review airlines or something...hmmm.  I will say that Lufthansa is much better than some others.  I flew to Paris with them, and our group is going with them this time, as well.  Very nice.  If you're interested in travelling with EF, let me know so I can refer you (I get $1000 bucks after you travel if I refer you!)

Anyway, when I get back from Spain, I've got one last college class to finish up for my Master's in English (lots of paperwork, apostilles, etc, in the meantime), a quick visit with family in Jackson, Mississippi, then I leave to drive to Guatemala.  Still looking for a riding companion...any takers?  At least the ride will be more comfortable than the chicken buses this time.

We are very much excited about this adventure.  I think we're going into it with our eyes open as much as possible.  Enthusiasm and idealism are both great, but they have to be tempered with a dose of "nothing's perfect, so just enjoy it for what it is."  I can deal with things much better that way.  

Some plugs along the way to a couple of people whose blogs, advice, and general cantankerousness have proved useful:  Mark at for his informative posts and crankiness, Genesis at ExpatMom for a realistic look at family life in Guatemala, and Mexico Mike for his detailed, annotated driving maps of most of the Gulf Coast of Mexico.  Check them out (especially if you're coming to see us in Guate)!

Friday, May 22, 2009

More elaboration on chicken buses

Well, after I posted the chicken bus photo with my one-line description, my beautiful (among other positive adjectives) wife informed me that those who have not experienced such joy might need a little further explanation. Well, that is what a blog is for, right?

Chicken buses are basically old US school buses redesigned and definitely pimped out to make the ride more, um, exciting, to say the least. You can find more comfortable ways to travel, to be sure, but if you want to get to just about anywhere in Guatemala, or most of Central America, for that matter, you'll end up on a chicken bus. Fares are cheap, you get to know your seatmates VERY well, and you may just get a chicken or a kid in your lap (seriously!) It's really not as bad as it sounds, unless you're a real stickler for comfort.

Read here for a funny story about a chicken bus experience.

Posted via Pixelpipe.

Chicken buses in La Mesilla, Guatemala.

Posted via Pixelpipe.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Door to my classroom at Hubbard

I've really enjoyed my current job teaching Spanish. I'm excited about going to Guatemala, more than I can say, but I know that I'm going to miss what I'm doing now. This is the door that Adina and I painted when I was going to start working there. I provided the blue background, but my wife's art skillz provided the rest.

Posted via Pixelpipe.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

From a Peace Corps volunteer: Top 10 reasons Guatemala is awesome

Beveres is a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala who has compiled a list of Top 10 Reasons Guatemala is awesome!  Here is some of my favorites based on my Guatemala experiences:

Being called "bien gordita" (fat) is a compliment.

You never thought you'd look forward to having eggs, beans and fried plantains twice a day.

You thought the first time you stepped up on that shiny yellow school bus in kindergarten was going to be cool- little did you know you would be on that very same bus 18 years later, in a different country and totally pimped out- AND have to pay your fare to a guy who is probably better qualified for acrobatics than professionals. Not only that, but these buses rule the roads.

Catching a ride in the back of a truck when the bus hasn't come by for hours is just doing what you need to do- even if it's with livestock.

and the No. 1 reason why Guatemala is awesome...... 

1. "Fíjese que..." can be used as an excuse for pretty much ANYTHING."
(this happened a LOT while translating for medical teams in San Raymundo!)

Read the rest of the post here


According to Wikipedia, "Amigurumi (編み包み ?, lit. Knitted stuffed toy) is the Japanese art of knitting or crocheting small stuffed animals and anthropomorphic creatures. The word is derived from a combination of the Japanese words ami, meaning crocheted or knitted, and nuigurumi, meaning stuffed doll.[1] Amigurumi are typically cute animals (such as bears, rabbits, cats, dogs, etc.), but can include inanimate objects endowed with anthropomorphic features. Amigurumi can be either knitted or crocheted. In recent years crocheted amigurumi are more popular and more commonly seen."

I recently found the blog of someone who made these in Guatemala. I think they're really cute and they remind me of another crocheted animal that made an impact on me: the crocheted Care Bear Talia got when she had a multi-cystic kidney removed at Children's Hospital when she was only a few days away from being three months old. I remember all of the mental anguish I went through thinking of what could happen while she was in surgery and then seeing her tiny hand with the IV. When the nurse brought that to her, it was like someone gave me a much-needed hug and reminded me that in the middle of this hard time someone cared enough that they took the time to hand craft something to show their concern.
We are now blessed to have a happy, healthy daughter who is so active that we usually forget that she even had surgery. Yet, sometimes little things make me remember and I have to pause and consider and let that memory enhance my appreciation of the present.

Who would have thought that a cute little amigurumi could spark such memories?

I think my favorite on the blog was the one of the little purple elephant. She also has an Etsy account.