Sunday, May 31, 2009

Kicking the caffeine habit

I love coffee. Love it. I enjoy drinking it for the flavor, the sensation of a warm liquid, the social aspect, and the caffeine. But what I don't love is being addicted to coffee. When I'm used to a cup or two every day, going without can lead to headaches in the afternoon and evening, early sleepiness, and general malaise. In addition, being addicted means that in the morning I'm often groggy until I've had my cup of joe.

I've thought several times about quitting, especially after reading that going caffeine-free can reduce the overall amount of sleep you need by improving sleep quality. But I've never quite been willing to give it up; the process always seemed like a pain, and I like coffee too much.

The setting

Guatemala produces some of the best coffee in the world, accessible anywhere in the US or Europe. Despite this fact, it is almost impossible to get good coffee within the country. The top four quality grades are all exported! There are a few cafe's in the cities that still serve high quality stuff, but if you're looking to stock a kitchen, forget it! Poor quality beans or instant coffee are your only choices.

This means that during our stay with a family, and at the school, we drank pretty much only NesCafe and mediocre brewed coffee. One afternoon in a cafe I had a tasty espresso drink, but other than that we only drank the bad stuff. Don't get me wrong... it wasn't terrible. I could drink it, it was a warm drink, and it provided some caffeine, but it wasn't exactly the kind of thing that made me want to brew a second cup at breakfast.

Combine this with my recent thinking about sleep and dreams, and I was debating kicking the habit, but the memory of caffeine headaches on the first few days was holding me back.

The crisis that got me started

I spent almost the entire day Tuesday in bed with a fever and stomach problems. In fact, from Monday night until Wednesday morning, out of 36 hours I probably spent 34.5 in bed, and the other 1.5 in the restroom. Even when I started feeling much better Wednesday, my stomach still felt extremely delicate and I did not want to put any coffee into it.

Thus I woke up Thursday morning realizing that I had not had any coffee to drink since Monday at breakfast. This was my golden opportunity if I wanted to try it! I could continue going forward with breaking my coffee addiction without having to suffer through the worst of the headaches and drowsiness; those days had passed when I was feeling so lousy for other reasons that I hadn't even noticed.

So far so good

I've now been coffee free for almost a week, which I think means that its almost entirely out of my system. A couple more days and I'll be able to declare myself caffeine free. What have I noticed so far?

Well, its hard to draw too many conclusions, because my body has also been messed up with antibiotics and recovering from illness, but a few things are already evident. First is that I wake up more immediately and without grogginess in the mornings. This is nice, and has led to me getting a fair amount of writing done. Secondly, the urges to drink coffee have also pretty much died down. I'm enjoying drinking both hibiscus and chamomile teas, and the other day when T had espresso with pancakes I had no trouble resisting drinking some. I think I may also be having less of an afternoon lull than I used to, but I'm not sure. I'll need to gather more data.

Sadly, I've so far seen no evidence of any reduction in sleep needs. I'm keeping close track, and still hope to see some, but don't have much confidence in it. Regardless, I'm so far enjoying the feeling of freedom of not needing caffeine for my regular routine, and while I miss the flavor of coffee, I feel I can replace the social and warm beverage aspects with teas. We'll see how it goes!

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Experiments with Lucid Dreaming

The other day, a blogger that I read posted an interview with the creator of a site called World of Lucid Dreaming. While the primary focus of the interview was on turning a hobby into an online business, yesterday I got curious and clicked through to read a little bit about what she had to say on lucid dreams.

What is a lucid dream?

A lucid dream is any dream in which you are conscious that you are dreaming, and able to control to some extent the dream world. Sometimes this control is minimal; simply being able to behave as you normally would in the waking world, while your subconscious throws things at you in the dream. Other times, this control can be much greater, allowing you to do things you never would be able to in life such as fly, or explore underwater without apparatus, or whatever interests you.

Lucid dreaming sometimes happens by accident; I certainly have had a time or two in the past where I was dreaming and realized it was a dream. But according to World of Lucid Dreaming, you can also learn to deliberately begin dreaming lucidly, and train yourself to be more and more proficient in both bringing on the lucid dreaming state and controlling the state when you've arrived.

Why would you want to dream lucidly?

There are a number of claimed benefits for dreaming lucidly. The ability to do anything opens a wide range of possibilities, including facing your fears in a completely safe environment, pre-planning and experimenting with conversations before they happen, and practicing new abilities under a wide range of circumstances. Advocates claim benefits to creativity, problem solving, confidence, skills, and sense of self.

I'm not sure I buy any of that, but the number one reason given to try lucid dreaming, and one that is hard to argue with, is that it's FUN! Being able to even partially control your dreams means playing in an environment unlike any one you're likely to experience in real life. You can literally 'experience your dreams' right from your own bedroom.

How to start lucid dreaming

The website has tons of different information, tools, and techniques you can try to begin lucid dreaming. There are a few key ideas. The first is that since this is all mental, thinking about dreams and lucid dreaming, trying to remember your dreams, and talking about lucid dreaming will all help to cue your mind in to the fact that you want to do this. By thinking about it, you can help get it through to your subconscious that you want to experience your dreams, and make it more likely.

Secondly, the entry point to a lucid dream is the realization that you are dreaming. Once your conscious mind realizes that it is within a dream, it wakes up and allows you to begin taking control of that dream. Don't worry, the subconscious is still there too, providing all of the scenery, but you can begin to act under the direction of your conscious mind. Since one way of doing this is to do something that is impossible, and use that impossibility to realize you are dreaming, World of Lucid Dreaming recommends beginning to sprinkle 'reality checks' throughout your day. If you do these reality checks regularly enough, you will begin to do them in your dreams as well, and they can become the basis points for triggering a lucid dream.

You can find a full list of suggested reality checks here, but the pair I chose are attempting to push the index finger of my right hand through my left hand, and attempting to see without my glasses. If either of these succeeds, I'll know I'm dreaming, and hopefully that will trigger the lucid dream.

First Attempts

I decided to try this out yesterday, and see if I could trigger some lucid dreaming. I was hopeful because apparently regular meditation is helpful; the practice it gives you in shifting between different mental states while awake can be quite useful in making such shifts while sleeping as well. So I began reading about the different techniques, selected my reality checks, and began performing them every few hours during the day. The website claims that most people can learn to lucid dream in sometime between 3 days and 3 weeks, and I was hoping that with my meditation practice I would fall on the shorter end of this.

Surprise! I actually had two, short, lucid dreaming experiences last night, on my first night of trying! This is certainly not all of the way to success, and who knows if I'll be able to continue having lucid dreams, but it is certainly encouraging! I also remember both of the dreams, at least the lucid parts, and normally I barely remember any of my dreams.

In the first, I was roughhousing in the pool as I used to do when I was working with kids in a daycare. Upon loosing a particular battle, I was underwater and realized that I could still breath. That realization was what cued me in that it was a dream, and just as World of Lucid Dreaming promised I was suddenly able to begin taking control of the dream. I tried to fly, but failed, so settled for walking a bit. I was able to explore a very interesting complex of pools, and had just left to go outside when I woke up suddenly. I doubt the whole dream (or at least the lucid part) lasted more than 5 minutes, but it was still exhilarating to have controlled part of it!

The second lucid dream was more interesting. I was looking out over a river delta feeding into the ocean, when for whatever reason I decided to try my reality checks. The first one, sticking my finger through my hand, behaved as I would expect but when I lowered my glasses I was still able to see! This woke me up to the dream state, and I was able to take control. This time, I had much better control over the state; I was able to fly out over the delta, and see in great detail the red-rock crags of the gorge the water was coming out of, and the swirling water. The other cool thing was that I was able to slow down the passage of time, and look at the swirls of the water in slow motion. I've always been fascinated with fluid movements, so this was REALLY cool! I also explored a bit more, looking at some docks near by, and people on the docks. At that point I woke, after what subjectively felt like maybe 10 minutes.

In conclusion

I don't have a huge number of conclusions yet, as I'm still very early in this experiment, but I do have one big one: Lucid dreaming is real! And you can trigger it deliberately. I'll write more posts on this as I learn more or have more successes, but my first experience with deliberate lucid dreaming was a lot of fun, and I'm extremely excited to keep learning and experimenting with it.

Have any of you had experiences with lucid dreaming? Or thought about it before? Let me know in the comments!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Guatemalan Families and Community

One thing that is very obvious is you stay with a Guatemalan family is that their idea of a family unit is very different from ours. In the upper middle class family we stayed with, the grandmother, her daughter, and her daughter's three kids all lived in the same household. The grandmother's son lives elsewhere with his wife, but eats at the house for almost all meals, and his 5 year old lives about half the time with him and half with the grandmother. In poorer and more rural households, it is apparently not uncommon to have up to 4 generations under one roof, sometimes with only a single room.

Some of this is definitely due to different levels of wealth. When you are very poor, combining living expenses with as many people as possible is a good idea. However, another contributing factor is a very different view on family and community than exists in the United States. In the United States, it is encouraged to strike out as independently as possible. Living with your parents past the age of 18 is generally looked down upon, and certainly once you have a steady income you are expected to be living on your own, likely in a different city.

Similarly, it is entirely common to travel from city to city as school and different jobs require, without strong regard for living near family or friends. This independence certainly has some value; there is a sense of freedom in being able to pack up your things and leap into the unknown, following a great opportunity. However, I think there is something we have lost as well. Here, there is a sense of roots, of belonging, and of continuity that I have never sensed anywhere I have lived.

The Value of Community

We are social beings, even those who like me are introverts at heart, and seek to connect with others who are like us. Witness the rapid growth of online social networks like Facebook; These tools offer nothing new; social networks have always existed. Instead, they bring the power of the internet to bear in allowing people to connect with less regard to distance, and have grown like wildfire. There is a strong desire to forge a sense of community, despite our tendency to spread ourselves so far apart.

It was our community that made our wedding such a memorable one; with friends and family providing the food, the cake, the wine, the Huppah (wedding canopy), the artwork on our Ketubah (wedding vows), and of course the ambiance, turning our special day into one we will remember forever.

And it was our community that made living where we did, in a single bedroom apartment in an expensive and not very interesting city near Stanford an amazing and wonderful experience. Our memories are filled with meals together and trips for milkshakes, crazy parties and mellow games of cards while sipping warm drinks, mornings spent sitting on the grass playing guitar, and making pancakes. All with members of our wonderful community.

Yet we too, leave it behind

Fully aware of how amazing our community is, we still left to travel to Guatemala, and we still are leaving it behind when we get back to move for T's graduate school. Not as far as we might have gone, and to the place where I went to school, so we have some remnants of community, but still leaving our bedrock behind.

It makes sense to do it. Graduate school is a necessary step upon the path T wants to walk, and we are by no means alone. This is the time in life when many people in the States scatter to pursue dreams, and we had already felt the fragmenting of our community as many friends left to pursue theirs. But it makes me wonder...

Will there ever be a time when we're all ready to settle together?

Will we ever be willing to say no to the opportunities that require traveling from each other, no to the things that 'make sense', and agree with each other to settle in one place, where we can live and grow and build a community together? It seems almost antithetical to the American way, to deliberately give up some possibilities, and be less independent, in order to continue living with the same people in the same place.

But it is a way that also calls to me. Another dream, this time one of interdependence instead of independence. Of deepening and lengthening relationships over years of time. Of teaching each other, and learning together. Of knowing that I can count on my friends to be there, and that they can count on me to be there, not just day after day but year after year. Of setting down roots, the kind of which seem natural in places like Guatemala, that you read about in stories where families have lived in the same homes for years, generation after generation of children playing with each other and growing up together.

We have gained some measure of independence in the United States, and I value that. But it seems in many ways we have given up community as it used to be known. And I wonder... was it worth it? And if not, can we get it back?

Leave me your thoughts in the comments!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lots of time to think

The benefit of living for a while without a job or full time occupation is that you have lots of time to think. The downside is that you have lots of time to think.

When you aren't constantly strapped for time, its hard to hide from yourself, and all of the difficult life questions start coming up again. What do I want to do? Who do I want to be? What are my values?

I'm in the right profession

When I left for Guatemala, I was feeling pretty burned out. I was pretty sure I wanted to keep working at the same job when I got back, but some parts of me also wanted out. After a year and change, while I still loved the people and the goals of the company, sometimes the day to day was wearing. I think though, that this was just a result of working too hard for too long; while for the first few weeks away I was happy to not think at all about work, a few nights ago while playing the solitary card game free cell I was struck with a powerful urge to program.

Something about the constructing of possibilities within the game triggered some of the same mental processes that programming does, but it was a pale shadow of the real thing. I was surprised by how visceral it felt, this desire to once again create structures in my head and write them down in code. As much as I enjoy learning about history, investigating a new culture, and trying to write, there is some mental itch that programming scratches that these do not.

Unfortunately, as part of our attempt to take nothing we would mind breaking or losing along on our trip, I didn't bring a laptop, so I don't have a programming environment here. Internet cafe's, while fine for writing blog posts, don't work so well for programming. However, in our new living situation, I do have access to a shared laptop (a mac, so I can code a little on it), and if the urge gets strong enough I'll play.

I need to make a conscious effort for balance

Whenever I have time away from work, I realize once again how many amazing and wonderful things there are in the world that I neglect when I work. I have a tendency to dive into work, to spend nearly 100% of my energy and time upon it, and to resist interrupting it with other activities. And yet, every time I step back a little, I regret this super-focus, and I think that it is not only preventing me from experiencing other good things, but also harms the quality of my work as well. The burnout that I was experiencing towards the end of my time before Guatemala is a good example of this.

My wife T has been a tremendously good influence for me on this. Since we have been living together (for the last couple of years; longer than we've been married), I've had a second focal point to my life. Instead of just living for work, I have been living for work and for her, and thus to some extent my work-life balance instincts may have been stronger than many of my friends at the startup where I work. Certainly my schedule was more regular, both because I had the discipline of the train schedules forced upon me and because she was waiting for me at home.

However, as I started to take up meditation and paid more and more attention to my life and day to day experience, I began noticing more and more the unbalance in my work and living arrangements. For example, if I had a chore that needed to be done during work hours, I was far more likely to put it off, as I felt guilty taking time from work to do it. This resulted in such chores getting procrastinated far more than others, and caused all sorts of problems. Additionally, the sheer amount of time eaten up by commuting 3 hours a day and being in the office 9 1/2 hours a day meant that I rarely took time to exercise, or go dancing as I used to.

When we return, things will be in flux no matter what, as we will be moving for T's graduate school, and I will be attempting to work remotely. This will throw all sorts of things out of whack, and I will need to figure out how to be optimally productive working from a distance. Regardless, I need to make a conscious effort to balance this work with other parts of my life. I would like to take up Yoga, get back to dancing regularly, and perhaps get involved with a local political group or NGO.

Politics are important

As I got more and more involved in the Obama campaign during late 2007 and early 2008, I realized more and more how much of an impact politics has on every aspect of life within the United States. How important good governance is as a counterbalance to increasingly powerful global corporations, and how much of an impact an election can have on concerns as wide ranging and important as access to education, reproductive rights, marriage rights, health care, care of the environment, and many others. What I hadn't realized as viscerally, though I'd thought about it due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the life or death impact a U.S. election can have on other countries worldwide.

Coming to Guatemala, I have learned a great deal about a sad history that might have been avoided with a difference in U.S. politics. In 1944, the 'October Revolution' overthrew the ruling military dictatorship and in 1945, the first democratic election of modern Guatemala began what are known historically as the 'Ten Years of Spring'. This was a period of free speech, political activity, and a variety of reforms inspired by the great society of FDR.

Unfortunately, one of the reforms put forward, agrarian land reform, challenged the properties of the largest company in Guatemala, U.S. based United Fruit Company (UFC). The law allowed unused land to be bought by the government at its listed value, and then redistributed to the many landless poor. However, UFC had long listed its many idle lands far undervalued to avoid taxes, and objected to letting them go for the value they had claimed. After failing to convince the Guatemalan government, they took their case via lobbyists to the now right wing dominated U.S. government.

Using a series of increasing propaganda, and playing off of the communist scares (this was the McCarthy era), UFC and its supporters convinced the CIA, backed by the Republican Eisenhower administration, to administer a coup and overthrow the Guatemalan government. As described based on later declassified files in the book Bitter Fruit, the CIA recruited a ragtag band of dissidents, an exiled military Colonel named Castillo Armas, and with a mixture of propaganda, bombing from borrowed U.S. planes, convinced the government and the populace that an armed uprising was underway. With heavy intervention by the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, 'Operation Success' was completed, President Arbenz was removed from power, and Colonel Castillo Armas was installed as dictator.

This operation kicked off a series of 13 consecutive military governments, often succeeding one another by coup, and a 30 year civil war in which over 200,000 people died, many of them community leaders or social activists who simply 'disappeared', to be found later (if ever) tortured and killed.

I don't want to detail Guatemalan history in this post; I'll have time to do that in other places, but this is a firm reminder that what happens at home in the United States has enormous and frequently grim impacts on the rest of the world. If we allow our government to be controlled by scaremongers and foreign interventionalists, we are responsible for the results upon the rest of the world. We must maintain vigilance over our government, and constantly strive to improve it, for as disgusting as politics can be, it's far worse to allow the only people involved in it to be those who are in it for power.

Living my values at work

A final point, and one that I think is not just important for me, but for anyone. I believe that it is an incredible source of problems when people leave their values behind when they go to work. The idea that there is one set of things that is okay for individuals and a different (usually broader) set that is okay for corporations is not only bizarre, its extremely dangerous. Why should it be bad for a person to rip someone off, but okay for a company? Or bad for a person to throw garbage in their neighbor's yard, but okay for a company to export toxic waste? Most people consider themselves to be good people, but somehow the bureaucracy of working for a company allows/causes them to do things or approve of things that they never would do at home.

When I first got out of college, I worked at a high performance computing startup. We helped make clusters of computers talk to each other faster, allowing people to create supercomputers out of groups of regular computers. This was used by a number of researchers to do good things, but the largest customer by far was the defense industry. I somehow did not let this penetrate my mind for quite a while, that what we were doing was helping design nuclear weapons, or to spy upon people, or model the next great airforce bomber. However, as I began to become more aware, this bothered me more and more. Certainly it is not cut and dried, there are important things that come from the defense industry, and we helped other researchers doing things like trying to cure cancer as well, but being pretty firmly anti-war it still bothered me.

I quit that job, though I cannot claim it was for those reasons. But since then, the jobs I have chosen have involved far less conflict with my value system. I have worked as a volunteer in the Obama campaign and at a startup attempting to engage people in political and social activism. Neither of these is completely pure of heart either; there are certainly problems with the Obama administration, and our company's product is used by people organizing for things I definitely disagree with. However, I believe that along with the problems, much good has come of both the Obama campaign and the actual administration. And I believe far more strongly in the importance of individuals becoming engaged in the things they believe in than that what they believe in should align with me, thus I have few problems with our product being used for both sides of issues I am opinionated about.

Being able to say, unequivocally, that I am working on things that I believe are making the world better has dramatically improved my happiness both at work and outside of it. I do not believe that I would be able to go back to working in a job where I could not say that. Now, I don't need to be on the extreme end here, trying to start companies that save the world. A company that does its best to do no harm, make its customers happy, and help its employees to grow, learn and live well is improving its corner of the world in perhaps a more profound way than one trying to make changes at a massive scale.

I also think, that no matter where you work, there is the opportunity to help create positive change within that workplace. No matter how bad, or how good, your working environment is you can improve it by bringing your values to work and trying to live them. Help implement a recycling program, or reduce power usage, or start a day-care for working parents. It's easy to get complacent, either because your workplace is so bad, or so good, and not work to create positive change. I think I have perhaps gotten complacent at work, because relative to previous jobs it is so wonderful, but I need to remember when I return to constantly work to make it a better place for me and everyone else.

Being a change agent can be as simple as starting a coffee break when everyone is overworked and overstressed. Or being willing to voice disagreement when a prejudiced opinion is voiced. When I remember that everything is interrelated, it helps me believe that these little changes not only help me to live in harmony with my values, but can also, bit by bit, add up to real change in the world.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Illegal immigration and the economy of Guatemala

The immigration debate in the United States always seems to dwell around prevention, walls, and how to keep people out. It is rare to hear any discussion about why all of these people might be willing to risk life and limb to make their way through deserts and passed armed guards to work illegally in the U.S. Why is it that there with a population of around 13 million people in Guatemala, there are an estimated 2 million more or 13% working illegally in the U.S?

The official minimum wage in Guatemala varies a bit by type of work, but sits around roughly 55 Quetzales ($6.87) per day. Of course, with an unemployment rate of over 30% many people are desparate enough for a job that they'll accept less than the official minimum. Spanish teachers at the various language schools, many of them holding graduate degrees, can make a bit more. They end up getting paid around 350-400Q per week when teaching one student, or closer to 700-800Q per week with two. Students receive 5 hours a day of individual instruction. Doing the calculation, this means a fully employed professional teacher, with graduate degrees, is earning around 160Q a day, or $20 for 10 hours of work.

By contrast, working illegally in the States in manual labor such as construction or in a restaurant might pay between $5 and $10 an hour, or $40 to $80 for an 8 hour day. Working the 10 or 12 hours that is more common, this can mean up to $100 to $120 a day. Thus by going to the States and working in manual labor, a professional from Guatemala can double to sextuple their daily income. Someone with less of a leg up at home sees an even larger improvement. Is it any wonder that they come?

Visiting various towns, while some are filled with poverty and crumbling buildings, a few have many larger houses and new construction. Upon asking about them, the answer is always the same: There are many people from this village working in the U.S. Illegal immigration represents the dream of a better life. Despite all of the hardships and the risks, the benefits are real and visible everywhere.

The demands of importing

Adding to the poor incomes is the problem that Guatemala has to import almost everything. Foods that are grown here (corn, beans, tropical fruits) and labor are very inexpensive, but everything else has the cost of travel, fuel and the poor exchange rate added upon it. Even things that are made locally like much clothing and housing require imported materials, and thus while cheaper in absolute terms than in the U.S, chew up a far greater portion of monthly income than they do for most U.S. families. Some things such as gasoline and cars are even more expensive here than in the States.

All of this importing also demands a constant stream of foreign currency. The largest source of this is money sent back from the U.S. to the families of those working illegally there. The second largest is tourism, and then followed by the exportation of various forms of fruits, vegetables, and of course coffee. When we visited a coffee plantation this weekend, we were shown how they filter out the different grades of coffee, and how the first 4 grades out of 7 are all for exportation only. Despite growing some of the best coffee in the world, the coffee most Guatemalan's drink is of the lowest quality.

Implications for U.S. Policy

To me, seeing this reality has humongous implications for U.S. immigration policy. The entire reason why the United States exists is because people in our history were willing to risk everything for the dream of a better life. So long as such poverty exists in our neighbors, it does not matter how many fences we build, how many struggling people die in the desert, or how many people we throw into prison for the crime of being poor. They will continue to come, so long as there is vaguest chance that they will get through and that they and their families will be able to live a better life.

If we really want to reduce the problem of illegal immigration, we need to help create opportunities for Guatemalans and other Latin Americans to improve their lives at home. We need to provide sane and understandable channels for those who still wish to immigrate to do so. And we need to cease our self-interested manipulations and intimidations of the governments of other countries when they implement policies that help their citizens at the expense of foreign companies.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

A sense of Guatemala

What does it feel like to live in Xela, Guatemala? What is the sense of the city, the region, and the country? When trying to communicate about our life and experiences abroad, these are extremely important questions, but the answers are difficult to describe in words, even to myself.

And yet I want to try. To try to give a little bit of insight into the experience, and what it is like to live here in this place, so different from where we came and yet still so human and recognizable. And so I will try; please let me know if it manages to communicate.

The People

We are giants.
During a lecture explaining the ancient Mayan view of the world, describing opposites, my teacher said 'If there is good, there is also evil. If there are tall people, there are also Guatemalans'. My wife T, a diminutive 5'2", is taller than almost all of the women and half of the men. I, a foot taller, am a lumbering giant. In the school, I have to duck my head when walking through a door by the stairs. In the markets, I am constantly brushing my head against the roofs of the tents. Through some combination of genetics and widespread malnutrition, Guatemalans are among the smallest people in the world.

Welcoming, patient, and honest.
Some places in the world, travelers who are struggling with the language are dealt with impatiently, quickly precipitating a search for an interpreter. Here, I have yet to meet someone who is impatient. Everyone we have interacted with has been happy to talk to us, patient with our struggles with the language, and willing to speak slowly with us, help us, and try their best to answer whatever questions we have. In addition, while we have heard warnings about some parts of Latin America, everyone we have met here has been scrupulously honest. I've carefully counted all change I've received, but not a single person has attempted to short change me. When we awkwardly tried to tip at the same time as paying in a restaurant the first night, the cashier was confused at our attempt to overpay and returned the extra money (it turns out, as far as we can tell, tipping is done only at the table). And as far as we can tell, in Guatemala the 'Gringo Tax' only exists in our poorer ability to bargain; starting prices for us are roughly the same as for the natives.

Curious, friendly, and polite.
When traveling on the bus, it is extremely common for a native to strike up a conversation with one or more of us or the other students, especially asking 'where are you from?', and 'where are you headed?'. While walking in the country, where we stand out even more than in the city, we receive stares, followed quickly by smiles, friendly waves, and a cheerful 'buenos dias' or 'buenos tardes'. In restaurants, it is the custom when leaving to walk around wishing everyone still eating 'buen provecho', or good appetite. In the house where we are staying, the inverse occurs: upon completing eating one rises with a polite 'gracias', answered by chorus of 'buen provecho'.

The City

Breathing is difficult.
The first thing you notice when arriving in the city is the air. It is dirty, thick with exhaust and smoke. There are few pollution laws here, and those that exist are generally not enforced. Many of the cars, and especially the buses and vans, belch great clouds of filthy exhaust as they struggle upon their way. It is extremely profitable for a young man willing to brave the journey to travel to the United States (generally illegally), purchase a car that cannot pass smog testing or safety validation for peanuts, and drive it down through Mexico to Guatemala to resell.

The streets.
Narrow, winding streets and even narrower sidewalks. With the exception of the main thoroughfares, the streets are one way, barely wide enough for that, and paved with cobblestones. The sidewalks, where they exist, are barely wide enough for two people to pass one another. They are often in poor repair, and also of random heights varying from barely off of the street to more than two feet in the air. However, street names and addresses are extremely well organized. Every city is arranged on a two dimensional grid of streets and avenues, each numbered. An address tells you not only which street it is on, but what the cross street is and which side of the street it is on. Once we've started to get to know the system, we barely need a map even for unfamiliar areas.

The buildings.
The city is dominated by low, brightly painted buildings made of concrete blocks. Many are topped with tin roofs, and those that are not often appear unfinished, with rods of metal sticking out from them, as if they were intended to be two stories but were never finished for lack of money. As you walk the streets, signs painted directly upon the walls of buildings scream out at you in often jarring color combinations, "Exclusive!", "Lowest Prices!", "Spanish Language School", "Internet Cafe", "House of God". Often the stores are smaller than a closet, filled with so many random types of things my wife T has dubbed them "random-ish-eterias". Contrasting with these low, generally dirty, and simple buildings are enormous, beautiful churches and cathedrals, several examples of old greek-style architecture (such as the Municipal Theatre, and the Temple Minerva), and a pair of modern malls.

The people.
In the city, there is an amazing mix of people, wearing everything from jeans and t-shirts, to well dressed gentlement with sombreros, to women wearing beautifully embroidered and colorful traditional Mayan garb. There are 21 different indigenous groups in Guatemala, each with their own versions of traditional garments, and while most of the 'better' (more official) jobs require modern clothing, it is extremely common to see women who are working as street vendors or just walking along wearing the traditional clothing.

The markets.
Complementing the malls and the store sprinkled everywhere are tremendous outdoor markets. The largest one in Xela, la Democracia, spans some 6ish blocks. One we visited in San Francisco el Alto, a nearby town, on Fridays takes over the entire city. Vendors sell food, clothing, electronics, shoes (for some reason, shoe shops and outdoor shoe vendors are EVERYWHERE in Xela), accessories, backpacks, rugs, and even (at least in S.F. el Alto) a variety of animals. You have to be a little careful what you buy; a lot of the stuff is really poor quality, but there are definitely some gems, and while the prepared street food is a little sketchy, the markets are a good place to buy ingredients for home prepared meals.


Omnipresent Public Transit.
We read before coming that Guatemala has little public transit. If you only include government run transportation in public transit, this might be correct, but if you expand it to include individual entrepeneurs driving others, it is everywhere in Guatemala. By far the most common way to get from place to place is to pay someone else to take you there, usually along with dozens of other people. In a country where a car can cost many years worth of wages, driving others for a living is extremely common, with tens of thousands providing transit within and between the cities. Those who can afford it buy an old schoolbus from the US, rework it with a new and more powerful engine, bigger tires, racks inside and on top of the bus for carrying stuff, and of course colorful decorations. These buses then run routes all around the country, picking up passengers in every town. Those who cannot afford such an investment but want to do the same buy vans or pickups, and do the same. Within the city, transport is between .5 and 1.5 Quetzales, or between 6 and 18 cents. Getting to nearby towns usually costs between 3 and 8 Quetzales, or $0.35 to $1.00.

We have not yet ridden in a pickup, but the buses and vans tend to operate in relatively the same manner. Each has a driver and an assistant. The assistant jumps out at every stop, shouting the destination of the bus and trying to recruit passengers. Once the vehicle is on its way, the assistant works his or her (though I've only seen one woman in this role so far) way through all of the passengers, collecting money. These buses can get packed! In the US, I've occasionally heard the description 'Mexican Style' for cars that are overfilled, but whoever coined that phrase must have never been further south than Mexico, because it seems to dominate this country as well. The other day I saw 26 people in a bus designed for 16, with people crammed in the seats, sitting and standing on the floor, and the assistant leaning out the side door holding it closed. Luckily, it's impossible to drive very rapidly here, given the quality of the roads.

The Countryside

All around.
One doesn't have to look far to get out of the city and into the countryside. Last weekend we hiked from the central park to a local attraction called 'Los Vahos' (The Steam). The attraction consists of natural steam vents, which someone has constructed a series of bathhouses on top of and now charges for the use of the resulting saunas. While a number of our friends went for the saunas, my wife and I just went to the walk. Within 20 minutes we were above the city looking down on it, and for the remainder of the hour and a half walk were transiting through fields, past sheep and cows, and through some beautiful mountain landscape.

Guatemala is in one of the most seismologically active areas in the world. We can see several dormant volcanos (one particularly striking) from the city itself, and there are vantage points not far from Xela that allow you to see the smoke and activity of more active volcanoes. This weekend we hiked up one nearby dormant volcano whose crater is filled with a lagoon considered sacred by the Mayan people, Laguna Chicabal. In case the existence of the crater wasn't enough to remind us of the volcanic nature of the mountain, the ground was covered with small pieces of pumice.

Green and varied.
We have seen fields of a myriad of different types of crops, though the largest have been corn and potatoes. We've also seen a variety of different types of forest, ranging from more temperate-seeming forests similar to the deciduous trees you might find in Northern California, to the mossy, cool rainforest we encountered on the slopes of Chicabal. We have yet to descend to the hotlands and jungle along the coast or to the northeast, but I anticipate them being different again and fascinating.


Planning around water.
The tap water in Guatemala is not as well sanitized as in the US, and unless you want to meet with the scourge of travelers (traveler's diarrhea), it is advised to drink only boiled or purified water as much as possible. Purified water (agua pura) is available in stores everywhere, and you can get it delivered in bulk as well, but the cost is not inconsequential for most families. Hence, living as guests, we try to drink water from the family only at mealtimes and the rest of the time buy bottles or fill our bottles at the school (which has explicitly approved of this practice). While the time and money are not great for us, needing to plan for having pure water around means that especially early on it was always in our consciousness, where and when we were next going to get water.

The toilets.
Public restrooms almost don't exist in Guatemala, and where you can find a restroom while out and about (restaurants, etc) they are unlikely to have toilet paper available. Carrying your own paper is a quickly learned survival skill. At large affairs like the market in San Francisco el Alto, there were toilets, but they cost 1 quetzal to use and they would hand you a strip of toilet paper going in. In addition, the sewer system in Guatemala cannot handle paper products or other such things going down the toilet. What this means is that every restroom has a trash can, where you throw the toilet paper after using it. I'll leave you to conclude what this does for the smell of the restrooms... luckily it's not quite as bad as you'd expect. Not quite, but almost.

My first shower in Guatemala was in the hotel we stayed at our first night in Xela. The hostess had proudly pointed out that the shower had 'agua caliente', hot water. However, when I tried to shower the next morning, it was freezing cold. I barely managed to stay in it long enough to rinse off and do a bad job of shaving, before toweling off as quickly as possible. It was only later that I learned the magic of hot water in Guatemala. Guatemalan showers, when heated, use electric heaters that flash-heat the water as it passes through them. If you can look up in the shower, you can see them, usually haphazardly installed with wires coming into them from above. This has two consequences: One, if you try fiddling around with the showerhead while taking shower you can get shocked. And two, if you want hot water you need to limit the amount of water flowing through the heater to an amount it can heat. Being trained in the US, I had assumed that if the water wasn't hot I needed to run more water (it's how hot water works in the US!), but by doing so I was sacrificing any chance that the water would be even luke warm. Now I have learned, and by limiting the flow to a moderate dribble, can achieve even steaming hot showers.


I've only just brushed the surface of what it has been like living in Guatemala for the past two weeks. I'm sure I've left out many details, some of which are important, but I hope that this post helps communicate a little bit about what life has been like for us here. Please let me know in the comments if you enjoyed this post, or if you have any questions.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Safe Arrival in Guatemala

Our grand adventure began simply. On Saturday we took an afternoon flight to the Houston airport. We traveled light, with only our backpacks, and skipped the long line for checking luggage to pass through security in no more than 15 minutes. The flight was fairly short (around 3 hours), and more or less uneventful.

We arrived in the Houston airport, bought dinner, and changed a little bit of money from dollars into Guatemalan Quetzales at exhorbitant rates (the official exchange rate is roughly 8 to 1, but in the airport they not only charged a large fee, but also only gave an exchange of around 6.5 to 1). Regardless, we thought it was important to have some native currency upon arrival, and changed $100.

We slept that night in a hotel just south of the Houston airport, and at 6:15 arose to catch our morning flight. I slept well for the first part of the night, but from roughly 4:00am onwards was tossing and turning from the excitement and anxiety of the prospects for the morning. We planned our trip so as to arrive in Guatemala in the morning, so that we could take a bus during the day to our final destination of Xela (Quetzaltenango), and not have to stay overnight in Guatemala City. While the city of Xela is reasonably safe, Guatemala City has seen rising violence in recent years, and it is recommended not to drive through the country at night.

Guatemala City

Our flight to Guatemala City was extremely empty; perhaps a quarter full, and only 2.5 hours long. Every announcement was made both in English and in Spanish. Upon arrival in Guatemala City, we transited quickly through customs and out to the open street. Unlike airports in the US or elsewhere I have visited, there were no shops to be seen, and while there was a small information desk it was not manned. On the street there were people awaiting the arrivals, and some men in uniforms were happy to escort us to where taxis were waiting.

I was happy that my Spanish, though very rusty, was good enough to both communicate that we wanted to get to the Galgos bus station (Galgos is a company similar to Greyhound), verify that the taxi driver knew where it was, and agree on a price ahead of time. We drove through the city, through twisting one way streets, past both broken down buildings and fancy architecture, new cars and old clunkers, and of course the many multicolored ´chicken buses´: repainted, reworked US school buses that are omnipresent in Guatemala.

While the Galgos buses are considered somewhat safer, and reserve a seat per person, the chicken buses (not what Guatemaltecos call them, but how foreigners seem to always describe them) are less expensive, take all comers no matter how packed they already are, and go pretty much anywhere. Within the cities, there are also ´microbuses´ (both smaller buses and minivans) which will provide a lift for a small fee, as well as pickups which will do the same.

Guatemala City is a microcosm of the contradiction and contrasts that are everywhere in this third world country. Intermingled with grand architecture and the occasional modern mall, there is extreme poverty and glimpses back into history. It is not uncommon to see large open markets filled with street vendors, and yet there are also shops and skyscrapers like you could find in any US city.

However, Guatemala City is also the most dangerous part of the country, and I was relieved when our bus arrived and we embarked.

The Bus Ride

Our bus was an extremely old, repainted Greyhound bus, with broken down seats. Just as we were getting on, we met another gringo, a woman from Oakland who was also traveling to Xela to study Spanish (though at a different school). Still being very uncomfortable with Spanish, it was nice to have someone else aboard who spoke English and with whom we could converse.

Before leaving town, the bus took a roundabout route throughout Guatemala City, stopping at what seemed like every bus stop in the city. At each stop, the driver´s assistant would jump off the bus, shouting out our destination and trying to herd as many people as possible who might be going even vaguely in that direction. After some time that seemed like forever but was probably closer to an hour or an hour and a half, we actually left the city.

Travel in Guatemala takes a while. While Xela is no more than 50 or 60 miles from Guatemala City, the route is winding, mountainous, and in many places under construction. There were portions of highway where both directions of traffic were routed throught the same side, and others that weren´t even paved. In addition, in each town along the way we stopped to drop off passengers and pick up new ones. It was extremely entertaining to watch the driver´s assistant courting new passengers, often trying to convince them to take our bus instead of a competing chicken bus, and helping them with their stuff.

At some stops, vendors came aboard to sell various types of food and drink. Their method of selling was simple: walk down the bus, calling out what they had to sell as loudly and rapidly as possible. Sometimes, they would ride along with us for a stop or two, sometimes even between towns, especially if there were many takers. At that point, they would disembark, presumably to get on another bus going the other way and sell more.

Arriving in Xela

All in all, it took roughly 5 hours on the bus to arrive at Xela. Our school, Asociación Pop Wuj is right around the corner from the Galgos bus station, though far from most of the other busses. We walked the short distance, only to discover the door closed and locked (They close at 7:00).

Kindly, they had left a note that not only apologized for no longer being there, but recommended a hotel two blocks down. We made our way there and despite our broken Spanish succeeded in renting a room for 95 Quetzales each (roughly $12 a person). We put our stuff down, and went out to find something to eat and drink. After 5 hours on the bus, we were not only hungry, we were extremely thirsty, and almost out of water! (Tap water in Guatemala is not safe for consumption, at least by us gringos whose bodies don´t yet know how to deal with the microbes).

We had noticed a ´Chinese´ food place across the street from where the school was, and after some deliberation, we decided to not try exploring a strange city at night, and instead to eat there. The place was so empty we were worried they weren´t open, but they happily accepted us, and served us purified bottled water (agua pura) and some fairly bland but edible Chinese food.

Having eaten, we returned to our hotel room and crashed before 9:00pm. Traveling is exhausting, and Xela has the thin air one would expect from a city located a stunning 7655 feet above sea level.

New Beginnings

The next morning, we gathered our stuff and walked to the school. We arrived in the middle of the beginning-of-week schedule explanation (given in Spanish, and translated by a student into English), which was then followed by a new student orientation for us and the other 6 new students. The teacher giving the orientation offered to give it in ´buen español, o mal inglés´ (good Spanish, or bad English). We opted for good Spanish, and he explained extremely slowly and clearly a number of things about the school, the country, and the families we would be staying with.

We are living with a middle-class family roughly two blocks from the school. Under the same roof are our hostess (Celeste), her daughter Rosa, and her daughter´s three children (aged 15, 13, and 10). Her son Alex lives nearby, and is at the house for almost all meals. Alex´s 5-year-old daughter seems to sleep roughly half the time at our house and half the time with her parents.

For our Spanish schooling, we spend 5 hours a day in one-on-one lessons with a teacher, as well as doing some homework, and of course speaking in Spanish both with our host family and anyone we interact with outside the school. Unlike the more touristy city of Antigua, almost no one in Xela speaks English, so we end up practicing a lot!

Future Writing

I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of things to talk about, and yet this post is already probably longer than any other I´ve written. It's proven harder than I expected to find the time to write every day, especially since getting computer or internet access requires either competing for one of the two at the school or going to one of the many internet cafes.

Adding to this difficulty have been adjusting to the altitude (The first week, we were asleep by 8:30 or 9:00 every day), the place (while Xela is a pretty chill city, things are extremely different than anywhere I´ve lived before), and the climate (it rains for several hours every day; HARD!).

I hope to write about life in Xela, but also the things I´m learning about the culture and history, not only of modern Guatemalans, but also of the Mayans from whom 65% of Xela residents are decended. Adding to this, there is the recent political scandal that everyone is talking about.

It's becoming easier to find time, but we´ll see how it goes. Hope to write again soon.

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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Leaving Today

So this is it. Today we leave for our Guatemalan adventure. We fly this afternoon to Houston, sleep there overnight, and in the morning on to Guatemala City. From there we will take a bus for the 5 or 6 hours it takes to get to Xela (shel-lah), the 2nd largest city in Guatemala and our final destination.

Xela is the more common name for the city of Quetzaltenango. The name Xela comes from Xelaju', the old Mayan name for the city, which according to wikipedia was derived from "Xe laju' noj" meaning "under ten mountains". The city is in the western highlands of Guatemala, surrounded by volcanos and near to the deepest lake in Central America, described by Lonely Planet Guatemala as one of the most beautiful in the world, Lake Atitlan.

We are looking forward to studying Spanish, living with a local family, learning about the culture, meeting people, hiking, and otherwise learning what it is like to live in a place so different from where we have lived. We will be there for three months, returning at the end of July.


One thing I've noticed as we've gotten closer and closer to the trip is how my focus and ability to write, meditate, etc has varied inversely to my stress and antsiness about the impending change. As I get antsier and antsier, my attention span shrinks and I find myself clinging to distractions more and more. In the last day or two, I have regressed on my political blogs bad habit, reading a number of articles about Specter's switch and Justice Souter's retirement. I also have had difficulty meditating, and gotten barely any writing done.

I think this is a good reminder that the idea that stress is a good thing for productivity is misleading. It's common to hear this said as an argument for having deadlines even for things that don't have any external pressure. The idea is that by adding urgency, you make yourself or the people working for you more productive. While this may be true for non-creative things (we got a heck of a lot of errands done yesterday), for creative things stress is inhibitory.

This also implies that procrastinating creative projects is a double whammy. You feel guilty for delaying, and if there is a deadline as you get closer and closer you not only get more stressed, but that actively inhibits your ability to work on the project and makes you more likely to procrastinate. Yikes! I don't think this will help me remember to timebox or use some of the other tricks I've found, but it should provide some additional motivation!

Going Forward

I'm going to try to use this blog to write updates about our time in Guatemala, as well as writing other things that are on my mind. We don't know much about what our situation will be like in Xela, but we do know there are plenty of internet cafe's, so I should be able to post reasonably regularly. The next post you see should be coming from Guatemala! Hasta luego!

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Friday, May 1, 2009

My doing-mind

My doing-mind looks at the world through a lens of action. What am I doing today? How can I use my hours to do the most work? The best work? Even when I'm trying to avoid work, it is a reaction to too much doing, still seen through the lens of a doing-focused vision.

The problem with this doing-mind is that it doesn't leave much time for just being, and even less for becoming. When I'm working hard to optimize what I'm doing, it's very difficult to stay aware of just being where I am right now. My doing-mind misses the beauty and wonder of the world at this moment, always focused on what I'm doing the next, while the time floats by like the mist.

Sometimes, I awake suddenly, relaxing my constant grasping of the world my doing-mind is creating, and notice the more glorious world around me sneaking through the curtains and shining into my awareness. It seems at those times that I can be in that moment forever, that the world of my imaginings is so much paler in comparison that it will never again compete, and that I am becoming something new and good and more real than my doing-mind could ever create.

The next day, when I find the curtains closed and my doing-mind returned in full force, I wonder...

Was it a dream?

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