CITY GUIDE: Cobán, Guatemala

Coban, Guatemala — there’s a good chance most people you know who have trekked to the country haven’t spent much time, if any, there.

Unlike the areas surrounding Lake Atitlán and Antigua, Coban really has no tourism infrastructure and therefore lacks the coffee shops/sightseeing guides/English speakers that you can find in those other places.

In fact, when travelers do pass through, it’s almost always with the intention of getting to Semuc Champey, a breathtaking natural limestone feature creating stepped pools and waterfalls in the Cahabón River.

That’s why I showed up in late October, and it’s a worthy reason.

But as I found, over two weeks in town, there is much to love about Cobán itself — from its stellar coffee sourced from the surrounding hills to its massive commercial district full of vibrant markets to the beautiful national park within walking distance of the center. 

Live Inspired: why I journeyed, last minute, to the States to vote

• Brought to you by John Reamer and Associates

About eight days ago, I was sitting at a cafe in Cobán, Guatemala, when the reality set in.

My absentee ballot for the midterm elections had not come. Something in the system had gotten screwed up. I called the North Carolina voting office and they confirmed: my registration had gotten lost.

“You can show up in North Carolina on election day,” the woman on the line told me, “or you can not vote.”

Nearly 3,000 miles away, I buried my face in my hands, distraught. I cried for a few minutes. Then I whipped open my computer and began plotting to do just that — to change all my plans and reservations and show up in my home town just four days later.

Still, they walk: perspectives on the migrant caravan, from Guatemala

Over the months I’ve traveled throughout Guatemala, I’ve met many friends here, and occasionally, as we’ve discussed the U.S. in conversation, I’ve asked them a question:

Quieres ir allí, algún día?

Do you want to go there, someday?

Though no one I’ve met has voluntarily spoken a single bad word about the U.S., the answer, to this direct question, usually involves a shy shrug, perhaps a bowed head.

A friend I met recently here in Cobán replied with this:

“I don’t think I’m wanted there.”

Another friend, in Guatemala City responded, shaking his head:

“I can’t put myself through that.”

I could predict the answer, but each time, it breaks my heart over again.

It makes me think of the caravan of migrants currently making its way through Mexico and toward the U.S. border — the group of a few thousand young men, mothers and babies from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala that has so captured the nation and become something of a political prop heading into tomorrow’s midterm elections.

Live Inspired: the hard days

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Some mornings it’s hard to get up.

Sunday morning was one of them. Well, I’ll be honest, Monday and Tuesday, too. I stared at the ceiling for a while, and finally rolled off the bed onto the hard floor in the dark.

Oh, you might be thinking — if you’re new to this column — I thought this series was supposed to be about inspiration.

Well, yes. It is. But inspiration doesn’t come easy, doesn’t drop into your lap. Getting to the inspiration part is often messy, often frustrating, and real as hell. Those transitions are just as truly parts of inspiration as are the finales.

I realize from afar, travels like these can seem like they are nothing but rainforests and empanadas. But in reality, this journey has been a great melting pot of things. In the last four months, I have experienced some of the most memorable moments of my life. I have met so many people. I have seen such beauty that it affects my heart rate. I’ve cried, more than I thought possible, from awe, from beauty, from gratitude, from kindness received.

And yet I also go through low stretches.

CITY GUIDE: 8 places to go in Guatemala City

At the moment, Guatemala City isn’t oft spoken of as a tourist destination — almost entirely due to its reputation of widespread, violent crime.

But as it boasts the country’s largest airport and is positioned as the hub of travel from the U.S., you just might find yourself there anyway, if you’re looking to explore the other bounty Guatemala has to offer.

If that’s the case, don’t panic: there are areas within the city that can be accessed without great risk if you exercise basic precautions and don’t wander off the beaten path. And what you find there — cobblestone streets, vine-draped facades and hip bars in the super trendy Zona 4 and vibrant markets and parks in the culture-filled Zona 1 core — just might inspire you to stay a day or two longer. It did, me.

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?

How to pack for indefinitely: PART 2

After three months of traveling through Mexico and Guatemala, I planned a break in the U.S. to celebrate my birthday, wash off, see some people I love and also reassess this initial packing situation.

To recap: in July, I set off with a 40-liter bag, smaller than I could even imagine, filled with everything I thought I needed for an indefinite journey abroad.

I didn’t know what I was doing.

And let’s be clear — it’s very possible I still don’t. But after a quarter of a year, I certainly have some better idea of what I need, what I absolutely don’t, and what I can live without.

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.

Dishwashers.

Real napkins.

Garbage disposals.

Hand soap.

Shampoo and conditioner.

Dryers.

TVs.

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.