Live Inspired: 4 days in charming, complicated Guatemala City

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If the universe had done its work properly, I would have been utterly terrified by the time I stepped foot in Guatemala City.

Long before I arrived a week ago, I had gotten snippets of what to expect. The highlights were these:

Danger. Robberies. Crime. Stabbings. Death.

Don’t walk anywhere, I was repeatedly told, by Guatemalans and other travelers — even during the day. And then when I entered my intended address into the U.S. State Department’s citizen travel database, the information the government sent me reinforced those warnings.

“Violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder, is common,” part of the State Department’s dispatch read. “Do not use public ATMs. Request security escorts. Do not display signs of wealth. Do not hail taxis.  Avoid walking at night. Avoid driving at night.”

OK, try not to be alive at night, got it. If you’re alive you’re already dead.

What should I really expect? I wasn’t totally sure. I’d never been in a city where I was told not to walk anywhere during the day. Could it really be that bad?

Live Inspired: Straddling two lives

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The truth is, I feel a pang in my chest when I think about leaving again.

It’s coming, of course. 

I take off tomorrow (Thursday, Oct. 18), bound for Guatemala City, and then Cobán, then who knows where, as I continue my indefinite journey through Central America, through new challenges, through new frustrations and thrills. 

This new life, full of surprise and wonder? I love it. 

But my old life? I love it, too.

Live Inspired: a new lens on my old life

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On my first day back in the U.S., my best friend, with whom I was staying in Pittsburgh, was already apologizing.

“The water pressure is not great,” he said of the shower in his new place. “Hope you could stand it.”

I blinked. For the last three weeks, I had been using a spout with an opening the size of a nickel to bathe myself. This “shower,” as it was generously dubbed, was outside, next to the chicken coop. It offered only bone-cold water, eliciting wide-eyed, breathy gasps every time I walked beneath it. And instead of loofah hooks and soap trays, the walls were lined with finger-sized grasshoppers.

“Yeah…” I replied. “My standards have changed.”

That much was true. After three months in Mexico and Guatemala, I landed in this country and saw every tiny thing I once took for granted through a new, sparkling lens.

Hot water.

Hell, running water.

Soft towels.

Hell, towels that didn’t smell of mildew and mold.


Real napkins.

Garbage disposals.

Hand soap.

Shampoo and conditioner.



Duvets and silky sheets.

Sharp knives.

Stocked fridges.

Stocked cabinets.

Stocked grocery stores.

Clean. Clean. CLEAN.

It all seemed so luxurious, now.

But it was more than simply feeling like my standards had dropped. In fact, it was my impression of my old existence that had been raised — and reexamined.

After being back in my homeland for more than a week, I had started to realize: I’m so much luckier than I ever knew I was.

I’ve always considered myself firmly middle-class, growing up in a family that never bought name brands and drove cars until they died. We always washed and re-used plastic bags. Our retro, wooden TV took 15 minutes — 15 minutes! — to “warm up” before we could watch the network channels.

While what seemed like everyone else was wearing Nikes, drinking Coke and eating Lunchables, I was wearing and drinking the K-Mart brand and eating the version of Lunchables my mom lovingly tried to interpret.

What oppression, right?

But on this trip, as I looked around my parents’ North Carolina home, I saw instead the beautiful kitchen that they remade a while back. I saw the pristine bathrooms they remodeled with new, gleaming fixtures, last year. I saw a sprawling split-level floor plan. A pantry and fridge overflowing with food. A back patio. An abundance of handsome potted plants.

I wondered: have we always been so rich?

Since I’ve been stateside, I’ve been soaking it up, at my friends’ houses and my parents’.

I’ve walked barefoot across squeaky clean hardwood floors. I’ve ridden in cars that boasted not only shocks and power windows, but bluetooth capability and rearview cameras. I’ve watched sports in high definition, on TVs the size of a a small golf cart. I’ve whipped up Vitamix smoothies in seconds. I’ve slept on a bed that felt more like a cloud. I’ve covered myself in hot water — not just in glorious, long showers, but when washing my hands, washing my face.

Anytime I wanted it, I could have it. And it didn’t just make things more pleasant; it transformed the whole experience; from battleground to bliss.

The truth is, I sort of wished that all of this would be a little jarring, that the old comforts of life would bounce off me like rain off rubber. But in fact it’s been easy to slide back in, to lean into the conveniences — albeit with a new appreciation and enjoyment for them — to normalize the things I took for granted before, and embrace life as it always was.

Because, you see, I was wrong.

I have always been so rich.

While what now seems like everyone else in the world was passing clothes down through generations, counting the coins necessary for dinner and watching their sewage pumped straight into their water source, I grew up with a big wardrobe, dessert every night and a plumbing/sewage system so good it never crossed my mind.

Middle class? I’ve lived like a queen.

And now, finally, I see it.


Live Inspired: What I can’t wait for, what I’ll miss while in the U.S.

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By the time you read this, I’ll be back in the United States for a welcomed two-week break from everything being, well, so hard.

No more search parties for every item I need. No more lapses in communication. No more cold showers, constellations of mosquito bites, difficult kitchens, lifeless WiFi, lack of water, or feeling dirty. For at least 18 days. 

As excited as I am (honestly, I’m so pumped), I still don’t know how it will feel to abruptly shift back to my old, comfortable way of life. Will it be jarring? Will as feel as disconnecting as it felt when I took the plunge in leaving it?

Have I become accustomed, more than I even realize, to this harder degree of living?

I’ll have some idea soon.

But in the meantime, I thought I would share my list of all the things I’m excited for and all the things in this wild, new life that I believe I’ll miss until my return.

Here we go: 

Live Inspired: Cooking, everywhere

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The journey, so far, through five kitchens and a couple dozen markets and to the simple realization that everything is different, yet the same, began in Hualtuco, a beachfront village on the Oaxacan coast of Mexico.

It was the first place in my travels that I had access to the basics: two tiny gas burners, a toaster oven and a small collection of cutlery and bowls, pots and pans.

My host uncle, there, was a fisherman, and would bring home beautiful, pink huachinangos, or red snappers. Once he saw that I had a love for both fresh seafood and using my hands, he began showing me how to prepare them — cleaning and scaling the plump, shimmering bodies and then frying them in chunks, or grilling them whole on the two-foot-high asada, butterflying the ribs open and slathering them with chipotle sauce.

Live Inspired: What I hear when you tell me to “be careful.”

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An unintended conversation began on my Facebook page earlier this week when in response to a post I put up, an older male follower of mine told me to be careful.

He stated it, first, in the context of my complaints that men were using my social media presence to sexually harass me, but soon, the conversation turned to my travels.

I wasn’t surprised, as this is something strangers say to me quite often. But as usual, it frustrated me. And this time, I decided not to let it go.

Live Inspired: that healing fresh air

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I live outside now.

Maybe that seems obvious, but I didn’t really think about it until a couple weeks ago, when I was working on my casa’s terrace in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico.

I started calculating how much time I was spending completely indoors, and I realized it was almost never. I’ve become accustomed to this without realizing it, but already I can’t imagine it any other way. I believe all this fresh air has somehow healed me.

Live Inspired: old beauty, new discovery

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I rounded the corner and gasped a little. 

That sounds a little dramatic, but you’ll have to trust me that it was warranted.

Between the crumbling stone pillars, I had caught my first glimpse of the garden and the kind of beauty that makes you lose your breath for just a second.

Surrounded on all sides by stately arches bordering a broad, open-air cloister, the space was carpeted by soft, green grass except for a x-shaped walkway, converging at the masterpiece at center stage: a faded but stately fountain that sent delicate streams cascading down the sides. Behind, the Sierra Madre mountains, blue and green water color paintings from this distance, were framed through every aperture.

It was immaculate. I tried to remember the last time I had seen something so beautiful that it sort of hurt my heart (then I remembered it was less than a week ago at Lake Atitlán).

The sound of the water falling was magnified because except for a couple of maintenance workers floating around the edges of the complex and the cooing pigeons fluttering through the nave, I was completely alone.

Suddenly, I felt so fortunate to be right here, right now, gifted the opportunity to see the Convento de Santa Clara — a church and convent built at the start of the 18th century and preserved beautifully in the city’s core — as it was originally destined to be; peaceful, quiet.

I wondered if the pigeons knew how lucky they were to abide in such an incredible home.

Live Inspired: the language barrier

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It wasn’t until I’d finished my first beer and had ordered the second that we first spoke.

I had arrived in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico half an hour earlier, wandered onto the main street and sat down at a table with another diner, not an unusual move in Mexico when the tables are full.

The conversation, in Spanish, started simply. I felt good.

Aldo was there with his pet Collie who boasted a name I attempted to pronounce for two hours, but never quite mastered. Occasionally someone walked by and called the Collie “Lassie,” to the great annoyance of Aldo and I’m sure the Collie as he was *clearly* a manly, manly dog.

“Que embarazoso,” Aldo said, rolling his eyes and petting his wounded manly dog whose name was difficult to pronounce but definitely not Lassie.

Live Inspired: how to be a rubber band

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It seems far away now, but I haven’t forgotten the frustration that once bubbled up, regularly.

Sitting in a cubicle, under fluorescent lights, abiding to stiff work hours, I felt like I was going a little insane. I was trying to be creative in the most uncreative space I could imagine.

How much better could I be, I thought, if I could remove this bulky structure, if I could write when and where I was inspired? If I could wander and discover, until creativity struck. And certainly it would strike all the time.

Those urges were among the reasons I decided to take this leap, and I expect a lot of people who make major change in their lives have similar motivations.

Yet, as I’ve discarded that resented framework, I’ve found, the pieces within it sometimes threaten to unravel, too.