Archive for the ‘travel’Category


Here are two semi-related articles: one by William Easterly about how aid to Ethiopia is propping up an oppressive regime, and another by Rory Carroll on the pernicious but well-intentioned effects of aid tourism in Haiti.

Basically, it’s really hard to do things right, because international aid and development are not simple. Good intentions are not enough. You can mess up by funneling all your money through a central regime, or by having an uncoordinated, paternalistic mess.

A couple confessions. First, I’m a former “aid tourist.” In high school and college I went on short-term trips to Mexico, Guyana, and Zambia (and slightly different experiences elsewhere). My church youth group went to Torreon, Mexico and helped build a church (problematize that). In Guyana and Zambia I was part of medical groups that ostensibly aimed to improve the health of the local people; in hindsight neither project could have possibly had any lasting effects on health, and likely fostered dependency.

Second, I’m an aspiring public health / development professional, and I’m afraid. I don’t want to be the short-term, uncoordinated, reinventing-the-wheel, well-intention aid vacationer — and I think given my education (and the experience I hope to continually gain) I’m more likely to avoid at least some of those shortcomings. But I’m scared that my work might prop up nasty regimes, or satiate a bloated aid industry that justifies its projects to sustain itself, or give me the false impression of doing good while actually doing harm.

I think the first step to doing better is being afraid of these things, but I’m still learning where to go from here.

The market at Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango, a highland town in Guatemala, is renowned for its market, which takes place every Thursday and Friday. It’s a mix of touristy fare (lots of fabric, plus some carvings and jade) and things marketed to Guatemalans (lots more fabric, and food):


09 2010

Volcanoes & Panoramas

This summer I climbed Volcan San Maria, above Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala, on my second day in town. I took a series of photos from the summit looking back towards Xela, and my dad stitched three of those together using Panorama Maker 4 by Arcsoft. The result (click for the full-size image):

And here are a couple shots from later in my trip, from on top of Volcan San Pedro looking down on the beautiful Lago de Antitlan:


09 2010


As should be obvious now, I got a bit behind on blogging while in Guatemala. I was hopeful that this blog would serve as a reminder to myself to write more regularly, as well as a convenient conduit for sharing travel stories and photos with friends and families. But as I fell more and more behind, I started emailing those stories and photos directly to the friends I felt the greatest need to share them with, and the blog fell behind.

I hope to post some photos and additional travel stories from Guatemala in the coming weeks, but mostly I’ll try not to make promises I can’t keep. So sometimes I’ll write about public health and epidemiology, sometimes about politics, about rockets, etc.

I moved to Baltimore about 3 1/2 weeks ago, and a little over a week ago I started classes for a Master in Health Science (MHS) in Global Disease Epidemiology and Control (GDEC) through the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. That’s the longest name for a program ever, so we mostly just call it an “MHS in GDEC.” Basically, it’s an intensive program in international health, especially the epidemiology of infectious diseases and vaccine development and testing. I’ll take classes in Baltimore for 4 terms (one academic year), take comprehensive exams in June of 2011, and then head somewhere overseas for 4-12 months for my practicum. I can come back and take additional classes if I want to, but that’s optional. GDEC–the program, the people, the pace–is already awesome, and I expect that it will only get more awesome and intense as it goes.


09 2010

Arrival, part 2

I changed a bit of money* and then headed to the taxis. Guatemala City is divided into 27 zonas, with the airport in Zona 3 and my destination – and most of the stuff worth seeing – in Zona 10. At the taxi queue I asked a Guatemalan passenger what he thought a fair taxi price was to Zona 10 – the taxi drivers within earshot were unhappy with him for quoting a price when he wasn’t giving rides – and then I was putting my bags in a car, climbing in, buckling up, and locking the doors.

Travel – and the stories that come from it – only makes sense in context. New York City would be tame to someone from Beijing, but to a city boy it’s a brilliant cacophony. I tried to imagine what it would have felt like to experience Guatemala City if I’d never traveled. And it’s impossible – everything is comparison:

Good major roads. Well, not good, but better than a lot of places. Fast drivers. A bit crazy. Well, not that crazy. Dull buildings – kind of like Athens, but not that dull. Hilly too, and surrounded my mountains – also kind of like Athens. But green, green everywhere, like Accra. Maybe a bit like Los Angeles, if a map of LA were wadded up so that all the empty spaces in between were filled in with city, and then drenched with ten times as much rain for half the year.

My first stay was a hostel called Quetzalroo, a hostel started by a Guatemalan, Manuel, and an Australian, Jodi, just three months ago. I found them through (more on that later). Quetzalroo is named for the quetzal – the national bird of Guatemala, and the kangaroo, the national whatever of Australia. The hostel was comfy, with dorm rooms – mostly empty the night I was there – a kitchen, a small, sunny eating room, and a computer on which I could email a sure-to-be-worried madre (love you, Mom!).

When I arrived Jodi was about to leave to meet Manuel for his lunch break – he works at the Canadian embassy, doing something regarding Guatemalans who want to move to Canada – so I tagged along. We got Spanish food at a small restaurant (where, like with 90% of the other businesses I’ve patronized in Guatemala, had a TV playing the World Cup) and Manuel introduced me to Guatemala by drawing a map on a napkin, outlining the regions of the country and the must-see attractions. The flip side of the napkin produced a mini-map of Zona 10, also known as a Zona Viva – the “lively zone” and soon – within three hours of landing – I was on my own, walking up a street in the city. A bus belched black smoke on me. Horns blared. Rain clouds threatened. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel great sense of freedom.

I stopped into the massive, immaculate Oakland Mall, which I’m told is one of the largest malls in Central America. Four levels, hundreds of stores, dozens of restaurants, fountains – including one with a constant laser light show – and brands from around the world, but mostly from the US, and to a lesser extent, Europe. Then it was up the road past the hostel towards a few museums inside the grounds of the libertarian university Manuel attended [in our first hour he asked if I’d read Atlas Shrugged]. On the way the threatening clouds starting delivering on their promises and I ducked into a fast food joint to sit out the rain and pour over my Lonely Planet Guatemala section on Zona Viva. Lesson: you brought an umbrella, keep it with you; they don’t call it the rainy season for nothing.

After the rain I hiked down a steep hill to the Museum Ixchel, which presents traditional textiles from throughout Guatemala. I’m not much of a fabric guy, but this was pretty cool. Guatemalan indigenous (ie, Mayan) culture is known for its brightly colored fabrics, which vary from region to region, sometimes with such specificity that Maya can recognize what town someone is from by their clothing. To the outside eye there’s less information to it, and more dazzle.

I didn’t have enough quetzales on me (oops!) to get into Museo Popol Vuh – with archaeological finds from throughout Guatemala, so that one will have to wait until I’m back in the City.

Back at Quetzalroo, I discovered that they had an acoustic guitar, which is (along with alcohol) an important social catalyst at hostels the world over. Turns out Jodi can sing, so we went down the list of 90s classics. The night ended with Manuel and I watching City of God, an incredibly violent and compelling Brazilian film (with subtitles) about the cocaine trade in an impoverished slum of Rio de Janeiro.

What a long day. En manana, necesito tomar un camioneta (“chicken bus”) a Lago de Antitlan.

*A note on money: The current exchange rate is about 8 queztales to the US dollar, which means a 20q bill is about $2.50, and the wad of 100q bills I had were worth $12.50 each. Like the rest of the world, Guatemala is now plastered with ATMs, so getting money isn’t a problem, as long as you have it.


06 2010

Arrival, part 1

I took the Super Shuttle to Reagan National Airport at about 3:30 in the morning. Since I’d been up late packing, that meant I only slept for an hour or two. That’s OK – I hate flying, so I like to sleep on the plane. [I like to think that my fear of flying comes in part from a vivid, sometimes morbid imagination. While the rational side of me knows the flight is the single safest part of any trip abroad, the imaginative side of me knows that NTSB investigators can determine whether a plane was downed by a bomb in part by analyzing the remains of passengers from different parts of the planes and making a map of their varying degrees of “intactness.”]

One of the other Super Shuttle passengers was a brawny guy in his mid to late 30’s. We talked about where we were going; him to Miami, me to Guatemala. He said he worked in retail and it was basically a dead-end job, so he admired my balls (his words) at being able to quit my job, travel and go to grad school for what I’m passionate about. A little bit of travel talk and affirmation makes a 4 AM bus ride go much smoother.

The lines moved fine at Reagan, though in the luggage one I was stuck behind a big church group. You can often tell these groups because they wear obnoxiously colored matching t-shirts, seemed unused to travel in general, and are led by a guy named Pastor Bob (es la verdad!). They were headed to Kingston, Jamaica, for what I’m sure will be an extremely arduous one to three weeks spreading the gospel. I can’t be too negative though – I cut my teeth traveling with mission groups, and it’s a great way to get to environs that most non-church people of similar means rarely reach.

My flight to Atlanta and the transfer were uneventful, and soon I was boarding my plane for Guatemala City. There’s a certain psychological shift when you board an international flight; especially to a new country. Suddenly you’re on a plane that is half Guatemalans and half Americans. Or rather, 50% Guatemalans with lots of things they bought in the US, 30% mission groups in matching shirts, and 20% nondescript persons or soon-to-be mangy backpackers. And then you’re wheels up and there’s no turning back – just a few hours of napping and an optional $8 crummy airplane sandwich (no thanks) away from something completely new.

As we descended into Guatemala City the view from the windows was grand. The clouds only covered half of the sky, and the rest was mountains. Green, rolling mountains, not snow-capped peaks.

Touchdown, and the passengers break into scattered applause. That part never gets old.

(to be continued…)


06 2010


Packing for this trip wasn’t too difficult. It’s always easier to pack for a trip where you’ll be in one place for a while. Had I been planning to backpack through Guatemala or elsewhere in Central America for six weeks, the weight and volume of my things would have been a larger concern. Still, I wanted to be able to carry everything fairly easily. So, I packed in my medium-sized North Face backpack – the one I’ve been traveling with for years now – and a duffel bag. I also brought along a smaller backpack (I picked it up at a thrift store) that’s perfect for day trips.

My clothes are good for layering, from a swimsuit and running clothes to a few long sleeve shirts and a heavier sweater. Xela is at 7,800 feet and it’s the rainy season, so the weather is cold (but not freezing) and a lot of water falls from the sky. Then there are toiletries and snacks – for the trips and for when I’m just tired of tortillas. I also brought a few notebooks and a Spanish dictionary and a phrasebook. Books I brought included Rigoberta Menchu’s autobiography (about Guatemala), the Bourne Supremacy, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (about the former Yugoslavia), In the Wake of the Plague (about Europe), and of course, Lonely Planet’s Guatemala guide book. At the bottom of my duffel bag is my epidemiology textbook, in case I get tired of studying Spanish and want some stats for a change.

The largest single item I packed is a used Dell laptop I picked up for $100 on Craigslist. I figure if it gets stolen, it’s no great loss, but it will allow me to write about my travels as I go. And if I get through the trip with it in one piece, I can sell it in Xela or Guatemala City or back in the states on Craiglist, likely for as much as I bought it for. It’s much nicer to write at a relaxed pace when I get the chance, save the documents to a tiny thumb drive I carry in my money pouch, and transfer it to a computer at an Internet café.

I’ve got two digital cameras – one a point-and-shoot that fits in a front pocket, the other a slightly nicer point-and-shoot with a more rounded profile and a decent zoom. I decided to leave the larger one at home for two reasons: the larger camera is more likely to get stolen since it’s harder to conceal by slipping into a pocket, and it eats up AA batteries at a steady clip.

As I travel, I keep a small notebook with me – it’s about 8 inches tall and 4 inches wide. It’s the perfect size to keep handy and jot down observations: the way the mist came over that mountain, the way the cobrador swings in the back of the chicken bus…

I finished packing, sewing up a few holes in my backpacks, and sending final emails at about 1:00 in the morning the night before my flight…


06 2010

Numbers – Week One

I think I will finally have time to write more this evening, and I plan to post about my travels mostly in chronological order. But here´s a summary of my first week:

Methods of transportation taken and iterations thereof: planes (2), taxis (2), boat (6), decent bus (1, in DC), chicken buses (7)

People a chicken bus is designed to transport: 40 (10 double rows of seats for 2 people each)

Most people seen on one chicken bus: 67

US dollars paid for a Guatemalan cell phone: 19

Children in my host family: 3

Family members at the house the evening I arrived: 9

Nationalities met so far: 9 (Guatemalan, American, Canadian, Danish, Swedish, Australian, Italian, British, Irish… and I´m sure I´m missing some!)


06 2010


I arrived in Guatemala City on Tuesday afternoon, spent Tuesday night there, and then took the chicken bus up to Lago de Antitlan. I spent the last two nights in San Marcos la Laguna on the lake. I don´t have a lot of time to write at the moment, but I thought I should share a few photos from the trip so far:

The view from my window in San Marcos

The dock at San Marcos on Lago de Antitlan

I´m on a boat! (on Lago de Antitlan)

A street in Santiago Antitlan.

Lago de Antitlan

More soon…


06 2010


I’ll be traveling in Guatemala from June 15 until July 29 this summer — primarily studying Spanish in Xela, but also hiking volcanoes, enjoying a little beach time, and exploring Mayan ruins. I also hope to write a bit. Not too much, not too little — just enough to enhance the experience of being there. After all, a big part of the appeal of traveling and experience other cultures is the act of sharing that knowledge and experience with others.

Forty-four days in Guatemala. It one sense, it’s really not that long. At most, I’ll get in five weeks of classes at Celas Maya. Even with five hours of one-on-one instruction five days a week and a homestay with a Guatemalan family, that’s hardly enough time to reach any reasonable level of competency in Spanish — though it can’t hurt either.

In another sense, 44 days is a long time. It will be the longest trip I’ve done by myself. When I finished studying abroad near Athens, Greece in 2005, the ticket home I bought was from Moscow to Arkansas (via New York), and the flight out was 40 days after the end of my school term. It was a pretty exhausting 40 days; a whirlwind tour from Greece through Southern Europe to Portugal, back across to Croatia, up through eastern Europe to Poland, and through Scandinavia to Finland, Estonia, and Russia, all without seeing anyone I knew. Looking back, it was an amazing experience, but the pace was a bit crazy.

This trip to Guatemala will also be the longest period of time I’ve spent in a developing country. I was in Ghana for five weeks (as a “missionary intern”), South Africa for three, Zambia for two, and Mexico, Guyana, and Egypt each for about 7-10 days. Needless to say, my experience is relatively broad but not very deep. 6 weeks in Guatemala won’t exactly fix that, but being based in one place for that long will be a step in the right direction. And being rooted in Xela will allow me to make friends with other students and Guatemalans in a way I wouldn’t be able to if I were just backpacking through.

In August I’ll start graduate studies in international health, and this time next year I’ll be preparing for either a 4+ month practicum experience in the developing world, or Peace Corps service. So in that sense, Guatemala is really just a warm-up. Compared to the internationally-oriented career I’m planning, the time I’ve spent overseas feels fairly insignificant — but you have to start somewhere!


06 2010