The Sweet River

If you’re a regular reader here, you most likely sail, dream about sailing someday, or like to read about those of us who suffer from this incurable disease called, Wanderlust. Maybe you are one of the afflicted as well. I cannot shake the desire to move and travel. To see what’s around the next bend, whether it’s a bend in a river or a winding stretch of road. I have to know.

Recently, Melody and I were talking about where we are and where we’ve been. She mentioned to me that I’d never written anything substantial about our time in Rio Dulce, Guatemala. I couldn’t believe it, so I looked and she was right. Knowing how special a place the Rio holds in my heart, I can’t imagine how she slipped through the cracks.

Looking back now, I realize we had a lot going on. Little did we know the Rio would be the place where our lives would be shaken to bits and we’d be forced to take an unintended detour. If you’ll indulge me in a look back, I’d like to revisit my beloved sweet river and see it through the lens of time gone by.

We checked into Livingston at the Caribbean entrance to the Rio at the end of April, wanting to make our May 1 reservation at Monkey Bay Marina. After four months of cruising through Cuba, Mexico, and Belize, we were taken aback by the murky river water and black mud that came up on our anchor.

Livingston – Servamar is where you go for immigration paperwork
Livingston is a lovely town

We had been snorkeling in water so clear it was hard to tell the difference between five feet and twenty-five feet. This river water was so different, but I was happy that “V” had fresh water flushing her pipes after years in salt water.

What struck me was how the flat, palm tree-laden beach landscape disappeared and so quickly transformed into sheer, 300-foot limestone cliffs that dove straight into the water.

The gorge area, known as La Cueva de la Vaca (the cow cave), is home to monkeys, toucans, parrots, and countless varieties of orchids and other tropical species. Vines and lush vegetation dipped and swayed in the swift current. A current trying its best to push us back out to the Caribbean. For a moment, I remember thinking that maybe we should let it turn us around, back to a world we knew pretty well.

Our normal. Crystal blue water and white sand beach.

15 miles up from Livingston, the Rio opens wide as you enter the Golfete, where you’re likely to catch some manatee if you time it right. A few more miles up river is the one road town of Fronteras.

Just off the water’s edge of this intense village is the main anchorage and several marinas. A large and legendary bridge connects the two sides of the river. It’s a perilous structure, so old and questionable that there are men stationed at each end to keep two tractor trailers from passing over the middle at the same time. A structure that raises my blood pressure at the mere thought of crossing over or under it.

The dinghy ride to Fronteras and the infamous bridge

Our first trip to Fronteras hit me like a shot to the temple from Ali. When we summitted the crooked, concrete steps that lead from the gravel path to the main road, fumes from the tractor trailers choked my throat.

Noise. Heat. People. Totally different environment from the one we’d been living in for months.

Just a normal day in Fronteras

Fruit and vegetable stands were less than a meter away from the mud-caked cattle trucks. In between was us, the pedestrians. Guatemaltecos in straw cowboy hats and dusty boots carried large sacks on their backs. Motor bikes buzzed around and honked impatiently.

The sensory overload assaulted our laid-back beach personas. This place was hazardous to flip-flops and it was evident we’d need to harden up… fast.

Once loaded down with tomatoes, eggplant, broccoli, peppers, eggs, and beer, we made swift for the dinghy. We were in full retreat back to the dock at Monkey Bay. There was no road to get us there. No bar and no restaurant. Just a couple of hammocks and a cooler full of beer.

If you’re looking to be in the mix, but not right in the mix, this is the place.

Monkey Bay Marina at sunrise

Jim and Kitty on the sailing vessel Dream Away run a lovely spot with some of the best showers on the Rio. It’s a tropical setting where howler monkeys growl at you from overhead and orchids cling to species of trees I know nothing about.

Hummingbirds flit from blossom to blossom on the huge mimosa that covers the Ranchito. Every afternoon we’d gather in the large, open palapa to recount the day’s events, catch up on the chisme (gossip), and share a rum or cold Gallo.

Enjoying the afternoon Captain’s Hour in the Rancho

With the timing of a Swiss watch, the afternoon winds arrived to chase down the heat. Being the tropics, the rain, thunder, and lightning followed. On the Rio it’s unlike any I’ve ever seen, but never seemed to stop the activity on the river. A few times it was fatal.

The days went quickly while we were there. So did our cruising kitty. We were at the end of it and trying to replenish. We released Burning Man and Mel took on a few new clients. It was difficult at times working remotely when the wifi or the electricity (which powered the wifi) would go down without notice and be down for an unknown amount of time.

If you told me there was wifi at all in jungle, I wouldn’t believe you. If you said it was down because a howler monkey chewed through the cable, well… let’s just say it puts an entirely new twist on the term working remotely.

One of the many howler monkeys who started off our day each morning

The Rio was also the place where we realized Jet’s eyesight was worse than we imagined. After he took a couple of scary falls off the boat, we began the discussion about selling and finding a patch of land where he could grow old without the stress of moving around in a cramped cockpit.

We thought it would be a long and drawn out process. We thought we had time. But we never know how much time we have do we? I can’t think about this too much or it winds me up tight, like a garage door spring.

His eyes may not be as clear as they once were, but his heart is as big as a house.

This is the point where the story of the Rio meets the story of Vacilando being lovingly passed to her new owner. It’s been written.

As I write this recap of the Rio, I’m staring out at the Sierra Norte mountains here in Oaxaca, Mexico, far from any water, amazed that I’m okay with that for now. The sun is blazing, like it does in the mid-afternoon. The purple, red, and peach bougainvillea burst from patches of dark green and hummingbirds flit from blossom to blossom. An afternoon breeze has just kicked up.

It reminds me of a very special place. A place filled with incredible people telling equally incredible stories of how they got to a far away river in southern Guatemala.

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La celebración!

It’s a very big weekend here in beautiful Oaxaca, and all over Mexico for that matter. Today is the biggest election in Mexican history and people are buzzing in our little hamlet of San Felipe del Agua.

The music spilling from tiendas competes with the church bells, and kids storm the school playground while their parents wait in line to cast their votes. It’s very cool to see it all happen from a different perspective. We are excited for the people of Mexico and hoping for a peaceful outcome.

There is yet another reason for the palpable sense of crackling ozone around here. Mexico’s futbol team has made it to the round of 16, and tomorrow morning, they face number one Brazil in an elimination match.

Frankly, I’m not sure what they’re more nervous about. For us, it’s incredible to see from another perspective and I’m pulling for a big celebration tomorrow! And they sure know how to celebrate around here!

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a Tlayuda before but if you haven’t, you’re seriously missing out. The tlayuda is native to Oaxaca and basically, it’s a gently roasted tortilla filled with refried beans, quesillo (Oaxacan cheese), and other ingredients such as chicken or beef.

Oaxaca is also famous for their mole (which is sometimes found in the tlayuda), pazole rojo, and their chapulines (roasted grasshoppers). And let me tell you, the fame is well deserved. The chapulines are an acquired taste and I’m not sure I’m there yet. I’ve tried ’em, but I need another run at it.

Tlalyuda served with peppers, radish, and chapulines.

As if this wasn’t enough, the humble crew of Vacilando is celebrating yet another event. Today marks the official launch of our online course, Downsizing For A Life Afloat. For years we’ve been asked how we went about downsizing to move onto our boat.

So, with the tiny movement growing by leaps and bounds, and more people than ever investigating living a smaller, more adventurous life, I thought I’d try to fill a void that I saw. While there are many resources about downsizing in general, nobody was offering a course tailored towards people who wanted to move onto a boat.

If you or someone you know is dreaming of living on a boat, in an RV or tiny house, or simply wanting to getting rid of some serious clutter, this might be just the course to help get you started!

So, that’s what’s been happening and what is happening on our little hill.

We’re being fueled by locally grown coffee and taking full advantage of the beautiful weather. Tomorrow morning, you’ll find me at cafe’ Lola in front of the massive 10 foot wide television with mi amigos screaming my head off. And who knows… I might even drink a beer. Down here they add tomato juice and it becomes health food!

Michelada… the breakfast of champions you know!

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La celebración!

It’s a very big weekend here in beautiful Oaxaca, and all over Mexico for that matter. Today is the biggest election in Mexican history and people are buzzing in our little hamlet of San Felipe del Agua.

The music spilling from tiendas competes with the church bells, and kids storm the school playground while their parents wait in line to cast their votes. It’s very cool to see it all happen from a different perspective. We are excited for the people of Mexico and hoping for a peaceful outcome.

There is yet another reason for the palpable sense of crackling ozone around here. Mexico’s futbol team has made it to the round of 16, and tomorrow morning, they face number one Brazil in an elimination match.

Frankly, I’m not sure what they’re more nervous about. For us, it’s incredible to see from another perspective and I’m pulling for a big celebration tomorrow! And they sure know how to celebrate around here!

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a Tlayuda before but if you haven’t, you’re seriously missing out. The tlayuda is native to Oaxaca and basically, it’s a gently roasted tortilla filled with refried beans, quesillo (Oaxacan cheese), and other ingredients such as chicken or beef.

Oaxaca is also famous for their mole (which is sometimes found in the tlayuda), pazole rojo, and their chapulines (roasted grasshoppers). And let me tell you, the fame is well deserved. The chapulines are an acquired taste and I’m not sure I’m there yet. I’ve tried ’em, but I need another run at it.

Tlalyuda served with peppers, radish, and chapulines.

As if this wasn’t enough, the humble crew of Vacilando is celebrating yet another event. Today marks the official launch of our online course, Downsizing For A Life Afloat. For years we’ve been asked how we went about downsizing to move onto our boat.

So, with the tiny movement growing by leaps and bounds, and more people than ever investigating living a smaller, more adventurous life, I thought I’d try to fill a void that I saw. While there are many resources about downsizing in general, nobody was offering a course tailored towards people who wanted to move onto a boat.

If you or someone you know is dreaming of living on a boat, in an RV or tiny house, or simply wanting to getting rid of some serious clutter, this might be just the course to help get you started!

So, that’s what’s been happening and what is happening on our little hill.

We’re being fueled by locally grown coffee and taking full advantage of the beautiful weather. Tomorrow morning, you’ll find me at cafe’ Lola in front of the massive 10 foot wide television with mi amigos screaming my head off. And who knows… I might even drink a beer. Down here they add tomato juice and it becomes health food!

Michelada… the breakfast of champions you know!

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It’s Four O’clock Somewhere

By now we’ve all heard that we should be taking 10,000 steps a day for a happier, healthier life. Devices like the Fitbit make it easy to record your strides through out the day. At the end, if you’ve managed the requisite 10,000 steps, you’ll have logged about 5 miles. Not four miles or six but — five.

While researching this post, the number 5 kept popping up. I couldn’t get away from it. I dare say it might be the most important number ever.

Since I’m out on the “that’s a bold statement limb,” I might as well go a bit further and say, I don’t think you need to take 10,000 steps to live a happier life. I think you need to take five. Five steps.

What in the hell am I talking about? Right… let me explain.

My wife and I just returned from a long weekend away. We drove to a very small and undiscovered beach on Mexico’s Pacific coast. From the outside, it looks as if we live a carefree existence. But we too tend to get bogged down by the daily B.S. that seems to circumnavigate the globe, hustling to make ends meet, to be productive, and to stave off the worries of the future. While we are away in every sense of the word, every now and then, it pays to get farther away.

From a weather-worn Adirondack chair perched a couple meters above the toasty sand, I watched the sun sink behind the cliffs. When it disappeared, I watched the people around me and I noticed few, if any of them, were staring at the palm of their hand. At a device.

Except for the annoying, selfie obsessed couple from who-the-fuck-cares, most were strolling along, lost in thought. Some played with their dogs, while others just sat on the sand, watching the same sun I was watching; staring out at the surf break.

As the condensation from my perfectly-chilled Victoria dripped down my shin, I realized just how much life we miss every day in our distracted lives. I’ve known it for years. We all have. Technology served up the false promise that with it, things would be easier. And we swallowed it — hook, line, and sinker.

Phones with the computing power of spaceships hypnotize us. Our refrigerators will order groceries when it detects we’re running low. God help us if they ever perfect the self-driving car. How far removed from life do we need to be if we can’t stop long enough to drive ourselves.

I’m sorry… I’m out.

It’s become glaringly obvious to me that people love their distractions. They love distractions almost as much as they love their excuses. Having an excuse gives you an out. It gives you a reason to remain just as you are. You don’t have to lift a finger to change because — [insert excuse].

Hell, if you do it correctly, being distracted keeps you from ever having to make the excuse. It’s a perpetual cycle that prevents many of us from noticing the ticking of the clock. I know this, because I made excuses for years. Fed myself Bullshit Flakes for breakfast and created a forcefield fed by the power supply, “I’ll be happy when…”

When we left to go sailing in 2012, I made a promise to myself that I’d stop. I shut down the forcefield and it worked for a while but — like everyone else, I got distracted. I’m now redoubling my efforts to focus on what is and not on what is… ahead.

Just for fun, I googled “How to be happy.” 204,000,000 results. Damn! That’s a lot. I clicked the top result: wikiHow: 3 Ways to Be Happy. There weren’t 3. There were 22 different steps. See the irony?

My friends, there’s no riddle to life. If there was, there would most likely be 3 or… 22 different answers. We hear all the time about the secret to happiness. I’m here to tell you, it’s not a secret. And there aren’t 3, or 22 or 10,000 steps.

From that Adirondack chair I deciphered the Code of the Perpetual Wanderer. Wanna take a guess at how many steps to happiness there are in my code? Exactly — 5. Just five simple steps on the Path of the Perpetual Wanderer (It’s a very short path).

  • Simplify. Everything
  • Move more — eat less
  • Get more sleep
  • Get off your fucking phone
  • Walk barefoot

The universe has been trying to tell us about 5’s importance all along. We’ve simply been too distracted to notice. How many fingers do we have? 5. Toes? 5. Senses? 5. How many Jackson’s were there? 5. We don’t call it a four o’clock shadow, and everybody knows about the five goldennnn rinnnnggggs!

There are 5 days to a work-week, 5 Great Lakes, 5 vowels (a, e, i, o, u), 5 food groups, and 5 boroughs in Manhattan.

Chanel No. 6 would have been a bit over the top, and Jack Nicholson would never have wasted his time on a movie called Two Easy Pieces.

There are the 5 Epochs of Civilization, 5 Pillars of Islam, and 5 Precepts of Buddhism.

I’m not done yet.

Five elements in Western alchemy (earth, air, fire, water, spirit) and 5 in Chinese philosophy (wood, water, fire, earth, metal). There are five stages of grief, five guys named Moe, and when cut horizontally, an apple has five seeds in the shape of a five-pointed star. Go ahead, look it up.

I assure you, deciphering the Code of the Perpetual Wanderer was not an easy task. Countless cervezas gave their lives in the name of discovery. The above 5 tenets have been time-tested and painstakingly pondered over the last decade at least.

Please — be careful with the aforementioned information as it may lead to sudden job-quitting, debtlessness, and a heightened sense of I don’t give a fuck-itis.

Don’t believe me? Care to remain as you are? No problem. Keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll keep enjoying that secluded beach and chilly Victorias.

After all, it’s 4 o’clock somewhere.

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Still Living Tiny: From Sailboat to Suitcase

As you all know by now, we sold our boat. And, after a decade of working towards our goal of living tiny aboard a sailboat, we now find ourselves traveling via the Shoe Leather Express instead of aboard our trusty steed, Vacilando.

I’m not going to lie, it’s been hard. We’re having (I’ll speak for myself here), I’m having a bit of an identity crisis. At least once a day, I think to myself, this has been a really cool break but, I can’t wait to get back to the boat. Then, the reality hits. We don’t have a boat.

We’ve gone from house to sailboat to suitcase and it got me thinking. Is there life after living aboard?

The Church of Santo Domingo; Oaxaca, Mexico

The short answer; not really. Living and traveling aboard a sailboat is unlike any other experience I’ve ever had. When you travel with your entire house, much like in an RV, I’d imagine, you’re never without a place to stay. You have all of your stuff and you never have to worry if you left the iron plugged in back at the house.

Is it difficult? Yes, of course. Nothing worth having is easy. Scary? At times, sure. The weather these days has changed and sometimes storms at sea can be downright terrifying. But, along with the weather, technology has also changed. It’s much easier to keep track of the weather and plan accordingly. It’s been the most incredible and rewarding experience of my life. I’ll go all in and say the same for Melody, too.

Living aboard, as we did for six years, we became professionals at living small. Tiny, even. Our 35-foot sailboat had about 115 square feet of living space.

At times, like after a week straight of rain, it could feel like the inside of one of my nasty running shoes. And then, just like that it could change. A hot shower and glass of wine after a frigid day on the water and it was better than the Ritz Carlton. Hitting both ends of that spectrum might happen within the same hour sometimes. That’s what was so cool about living on a sailboat. That’s what we miss.

Happy crew!

For the last seven months, we’ve been landlubbers. After selling V and leaving the Rio Dulce, we rented an apartment in Antigua, Guatemala for 6 months, then Xela (Quetzaltenango) for a month, and now we are in another apartment in the hills above Oaxaca, Mexico.

We’ve experienced a lot of change. What hasn’t changed though, is our ability and desire to live small. Simple. Going from sailboat to suitcase hasn’t been too difficult because we’ve trained ourselves. If we buy something, we usually get rid of something. We try to keep a zero balance with what he have to drag around with us.

Our glamorous purchase. Be jealous. Very jealous. (It’s hard to make a spatula sexy)

While in Antigua, we bought a spatula. Yep… a spatula for .75 cents. Melody bought some beautiful hand-made boots and a poncho. In Xela, we found a gorgeous hand-made wool blanket and, I too got a poncho. I had been wanting one since we got to the interior towns of Guatemala where they’re famous for their wool products. It’s stuff we may never have the chance to get again.

This is how we’re viewing this section of our journey. A lot of what we took off the boat was the stuff we didn’t want to buy again when we got the next boat. Navigation tools, chart books, and not much else. That’s all been shipped back to the states.

Handmade boots and our coveted wool blanket.

Before we left Guatemala for Mexico, we went through all 14 pieces of luggage we made off with when we left Vacilando for the last time. Our room looked like a cyclone hit it. “Why are we keeping this?” Mel would ask. “I have no idea, let’s get rid of it.”

After two days of that, we donated several pairs of shoes, jackets, sweaters, GoPro accessories, cups, coffee mugs, and God knows what else. And, you know what? It felt great! Just like it did when we downsized to move onto our sailboat the first time.

We transited the border with 11 bags, one guitar, a dog, and yes — the spatula. Our traveling band of gypsies is slowly making its way north. To what end, we have no idea.

I know blue water, beach and sunset photos have been conspicuously absent from my recent posts. Some folks have unfriended us on our Facebook page, I guess no longer feeling the need to follow a “bunch of quitters.” But, I assure you all; our feet may no longer be sandy but, our souls are.

We are forever sailors. We will never be able to return to the life once lived. The life pre-boat. I’ll admit, at the moment, life is weird. That’s not a word I use, ever.

Our little apartment in San Felipe is absolutely beautiful. Jet has trouble with the stairs. I carry him up and down several times a day. Just like I used to do to get him up and down the companionway ladder. So, as far from the water as we may be physically, I am ankle deep in salt water in my mind.

I peruse sailboatlistings.com at least once a day. I fantasize about a day sailor, just until we’re ready to go again. Then, I think about our savings. I think about the plan we made and I come to grips, once again, with the reality that we are just having to change — for the moment. The way one has to change when the wind shifts.

Jet is definitely not suffering.

This is our wind shift. I hope some of you hang around to see what happens at the weather mark.

Be good. We miss you guys!

 

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Her name is Xela.

Her name? Quetzaltenango (ket-zal-ten-an-goh). Her Mayan name is Xelajú (Shay-la-ju) but, everyone just calls her Xela. She’s the second largest city in Guatemala and widely referred to as the cultural capital of the country. Sitting at eight-thousand feet above sea level, Xela is big city with over two-hundred and fifty thousand people. The architecture is strangely more inline with New York City or Boston than the Spanish colonial style seen in Antigua.

The vast city’s skyline is dominated by peaks and volcanoes. In fact, the name Xelajú translates to “under ten mountains.” In the 1930, Xela had the first electric railway. How amazing is that! Of course it was demolished by landslides three years later and that’s the hard part. Earthquakes and volcanoes limit mass transit options around these parts to smoke billowing buses and may be why the tallest building is only fifteen stories tall.

Xela isn’t on the “gringo trail.” You have to want to get here. We came because we wanted to see something other than Antigua. We’d been there for five months. If we stayed any longer, we might not have left at all. Traveling with Jet makes things interesting so a little extra planning is required whenever we want to move. We can’t just jump on the local chicken bus or collectivo with our big dog and all our bags. The three times we’ve moved, we arranged private transportation and while not super expensive, it does add significantly to the budget. It’s an easy trade off for us; stress vs. dollars.

If you’re serious about your Spanish study, this is where you need to be. Antigua is great too but, there are so many places in Antigua that speak and understand English, you aren’t hard pressed to use your Spanish. You can get lazy. Here in Xela, good luck finding anyone outside the hostel or hotel that understands a single word you’re saying.

This past weekend, Melody and I hopped on a chicken bus (sans Jet) and took a long ride to an even higher town about an hour and half away called, Momostenango, a small mountain pueblo famous for its wool. We were the only pale skins for miles. The looks were priceless. Normally, I’d go on for days, rambling about just how beautiful it is in Guatemala but, I’m not going to. I will however, share the photos and you can create your own stories.

You see, I stand by my assessment that travel bloggers are ruining everything but, we’ve worked really hard on this blog for over a decade so it’s difficult to let it go. I truly believe that travel is the death of bigotry and ignorance and I’m conflicted when I think about how I present things now. I believe that everyone of us should have to stand in the middle of a market as the minority. And, I won’t ever forget the times I’ve butchered my Spanish asking for directions or needed help ordering a meal and, expecting a look of frustration, received nothing but a smile and a laugh in return. Go somewhere you’ve never been. Do something you’ve never done. Be patient. Be kind. Take care.

The post Her name is Xela. appeared first on Vacilando.

Por Qué No? The Coolest Restaurant on the Planet.

I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the youngest of five children born to Italian parents. It’s 1975. The Vietnam war ends; the Dow closes at 858, gas costs an astronomical 44 cents a gallon, and some kid named Bill Gates creates a little company called Microsoft.

I’m a nine-year-old with crud under my nails, ripped Toughskins, and a foul mouth. Things move slower. Nobody has a smartphone, families eat meals together. Food connects us.

(I wish I had access to my old photos for this part)

I can remember how my cousins and I spent many a Sunday afternoon at my grandmother’s West Philly row house watching the Eagles play. Pots taller than me bubbled away on her pink porcelain stove. If you’ve never bathed in the aroma of home-grown tomatoes reducing in red wine, garlic, onion, and oregano, you haven’t lived.

Constance made everything from scratch and picked most of the veggies from her modest garden. She used both veal and pork in her meatballs, soaking day-old bread in whole milk before mashing it into the meat with her crooked hands.

My grandmother has long since passed. Things…life…moves at a rapid clip, which is starkly juxtaposed against my current existence. I live on a sailboat with my wife and our dog. To give you an idea, it takes us a full day of sailing to cover the distance most vehicles cover in one hour.

For the last six years, I’ve felt how a bubble might feel (if bubbles had feelings) floating through Manhattan. It can be difficult to keep up. If there’s no wifi, I’m off the grid. No email, no Facebook, no texts. It’s wonderful.

At the current moment, I am connected. We’re taking a break from sea life and have landed in Guatemala. Antigua, Guatemala to be exact. And this is where the story begins.

A few weeks ago, Mel and I strolled the cobblestone streets on a chilly, moonlit night. Neither of us knew where we were going, but neither one of us wanted to go home. We wandered by a place a few blocks from our apartment and decided…check that. We didn’t decide anything, the place pulled us in. We didn’t have a choice.

Once inside, I knew I had found the coolest restaurant on the planet.

It’s the tiniest restaurant on the quietest street, far away from the main square. If you blink, you could miss it.

There are no windows. There’s barely a kitchen. Some people see it and walk right on by. Some might stick their head in the door and say, “What the hell is this place?” Some might not dig the Robert Johnson or Chet Baker wafting from crackling speakers.

View from the loft

The graffitied walls might scare others. Names, countries of origin, poems, and plain gibberish cover the place from floor to ceiling. It’s not for everyone…and that’s just fine. Because what makes this place so special is that it’s just right for just the right people.

I like to think of it as the “Goldilocks” of restaurants.

The entire place is covered

Por Que No began six years ago quite accidentally, when a young couple, deciding they didn’t want to raise their daughter within the madness of Guatemala City, moved an hour west to the city of Antigua. In their new city, they struggled to make enough money to make ends meet.

One day while walking through the neighborhood discussing their dwindling savings, Carlos and his wife, Carolina stumbled upon a small vacant building.

“I was standing there with tears running down my face and Carlos says, “let’s open a restaurant. Right here.” Carolina laughs as she recounts the details. “I said, honey… You don’t cook. We have no idea how to open a restaurant. He knocked on the door and after speaking to the owner of the building for a few minutes, rented the place on the spot. We immediately started cleaning.”

They opened two weeks later using pots, pans, plates, and utensils from their apartment.

Por Que’ No is…compact. The main floor is about 1o’ x 10′. Upstairs in a small loft, you’ll find six tables, each one bearing the scars from the conversations of movers, shakers, lovers, and leavers. The “staircase” leading to the loft is so steep, a rope runs the length of it so you can pull yourself up. If you arrive early, you’ll be rewarded with one of four bar stools and oh, if you’re looking for a sign, forget it. When they opened they couldn’t afford the permit for one. There’s still no sign. Just an old weathered chessboard nailed to the wall above the door.

The “stairs” far left of frame. Might wanna rethink that second bottle of wine! (Carolina & Carlos)

The food is fantastic, but it’s only part of the appeal. And that’s what got me thinking about all of this in the first place. Yes, it starts with the food. It has to. But, everything about Por Que No seems to be about drawing people together rather than focusing on the individual dining experience.

Sometimes the line stretches around the building, but nobody gets upset. When Carolina apologizes, patrons say, “It’s cool. We’ll wait.”

And wait they do because it’s worth it.

Curried Shrimp (Camarones)

Carlos cooks five feet from the bar over open blue flames, and there are no plans to expand. I could go on and on about the love and attention to detail Carlos bestows upon the tenderloin or curry camarones, but it would fill volumes.

Honestly, the aromas shooting through the air on a heavenly cloud of combustion has to be experienced in the flesh. You have to feel the steam on your face when he hits the pan with a blast of water or cream for the reduction. You can’t focus on one aspect of Por Que No without including the others, just like you can’t focus on one single string on a guitar.

In an age where a single scallop, centered on a 14-inch plate, grazed by a molecule of wasabi mayo, and garnished with a feather cut from virgin kale masquerades as a meal, places like Por Que No are more valuable than ever.

As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your slick 3000-square-foot Manhattan restaurant that charges $24 dollars for a martini. Keep their 6000-bottle wine cellar and their ‘82 Lafite Rothschild.

For me, food isn’t fashion and fashion isn’t food.

Por Que No isn’t just a restaurant, it’s a tiny little window to your soul. It’s not for everyone. And thank God for that.

The news is getting out. Travel magazines, bloggers, and foodies from all over the world are now seeking out this magical little place. And, I have always said, when a restaurant or bar starts printing hats and shirts, it’s over. But… I may have to change my position on that.

Carlos has a collection of old basses. His version of the sword of Damocles.

If you go, make a reservation. Dispense with any notion that you’ll be popping in for a “quick bite.” If there’s a line, you’ll have to wait.

Carlos won’t rush to turn tables over. His food is his handshake. The ever charming Carolina will keep you entertained with her amazing personality and Nalo will pour you a lovely Carménère if you like.

But you’re still going to have to wait.

Lest we forget, our diners, pubs, and funky neighborhood joints are our identity. They tell the story of who we are. Where we came from. When a stranger wanders in, they do so with the hope of discovering something new about themselves and their surroundings.

Even at our most nationalistic, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll realize we are a community of wanderers from the farthest reaches of the planet who’ve decided to mash our crooked little hands into the meat.

The post Por Qué No? The Coolest Restaurant on the Planet. appeared first on Vacilando.

Por Qué No? The Coolest Restaurant on the Planet.

I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the youngest of five children born to Italian parents. It’s 1975. The Vietnam war ends; the Dow closes at 858, gas costs an astronomical 44 cents a gallon, and some kid named Bill Gates creates a little company called Microsoft.

I’m a nine-year-old with crud under my nails, ripped Toughskins, and a foul mouth. Things move slower. Nobody has a smartphone, families eat meals together. Food connects us.

(I wish I had access to my old photos for this part)

I can remember how my cousins and I spent many a Sunday afternoon at my grandmother’s West Philly row house watching the Eagles play. Pots taller than me bubbled away on her pink porcelain stove. If you’ve never bathed in the aroma of home-grown tomatoes reducing in red wine, garlic, onion, and oregano, you haven’t lived.

Constance made everything from scratch and picked most of the veggies from her modest garden. She used both veal and pork in her meatballs, soaking day-old bread in whole milk before mashing it into the meat with her crooked hands.

My grandmother has long since passed. Things…life…moves at a rapid clip, which is starkly juxtaposed against my current existence. I live on a sailboat with my wife and our dog. To give you an idea, it takes us a full day of sailing to cover the distance most vehicles cover in one hour.

For the last six years, I’ve felt how a bubble might feel (if bubbles had feelings) floating through Manhattan. It can be difficult to keep up. If there’s no wifi, I’m off the grid. No email, no Facebook, no texts. It’s wonderful.

At the current moment, I am connected. We’re taking a break from sea life and have landed in Guatemala. Antigua, Guatemala to be exact. And this is where the story begins.

A few weeks ago, Mel and I strolled the cobblestone streets on a chilly, moonlit night. Neither of us knew where we were going, but neither one of us wanted to go home. We wandered by a place a few blocks from our apartment and decided…check that. We didn’t decide anything, the place pulled us in. We didn’t have a choice.

Once inside, I knew I had found the coolest restaurant on the planet.

It’s the tiniest restaurant on the quietest street, far away from the main square. If you blink, you could miss it.

There are no windows. There’s barely a kitchen. Some people see it and walk right on by. Some might stick their head in the door and say, “What the hell is this place?” Some might not dig the Robert Johnson or Chet Baker wafting from crackling speakers.

View from the loft

The graffitied walls might scare others. Names, countries of origin, poems, and plain gibberish cover the place from floor to ceiling. It’s not for everyone…and that’s just fine. Because what makes this place so special is that it’s just right for just the right people.

I like to think of it as the “Goldilocks” of restaurants.

The entire place is covered

Por Que No began six years ago quite accidentally, when a young couple, deciding they didn’t want to raise their daughter within the madness of Guatemala City, moved an hour west to the city of Antigua. In their new city, they struggled to make enough money to make ends meet.

One day while walking through the neighborhood discussing their dwindling savings, Carlos and his wife, Carolina stumbled upon a small vacant building.

“I was standing there with tears running down my face and Carlos says, “let’s open a restaurant. Right here.” Carolina laughs as she recounts the details. “I said, honey… You don’t cook. We have no idea how to open a restaurant. He knocked on the door and after speaking to the owner of the building for a few minutes, rented the place on the spot. We immediately started cleaning.”

They opened two weeks later using pots, pans, plates, and utensils from their apartment.

Por Que’ No is…compact. The main floor is about 1o’ x 10′. Upstairs in a small loft, you’ll find six tables, each one bearing the scars from the conversations of movers, shakers, lovers, and leavers. The “staircase” leading to the loft is so steep, a rope runs the length of it so you can pull yourself up. If you arrive early, you’ll be rewarded with one of four bar stools and oh, if you’re looking for a sign, forget it. When they opened they couldn’t afford the permit for one. There’s still no sign. Just an old weathered chessboard nailed to the wall above the door.

The “stairs” far left of frame. Might wanna rethink that second bottle of wine! (Carolina & Carlos)

The food is fantastic, but it’s only part of the appeal. And that’s what got me thinking about all of this in the first place. Yes, it starts with the food. It has to. But, everything about Por Que No seems to be about drawing people together rather than focusing on the individual dining experience.

Sometimes the line stretches around the building, but nobody gets upset. When Carolina apologizes, patrons say, “It’s cool. We’ll wait.”

And wait they do because it’s worth it.

Curried Shrimp (Camarones)

Carlos cooks five feet from the bar over open blue flames, and there are no plans to expand. I could go on and on about the love and attention to detail Carlos bestows upon the tenderloin or curry camarones, but it would fill volumes.

Honestly, the aromas shooting through the air on a heavenly cloud of combustion has to be experienced in the flesh. You have to feel the steam on your face when he hits the pan with a blast of water or cream for the reduction. You can’t focus on one aspect of Por Que No without including the others, just like you can’t focus on one single string on a guitar.

In an age where a single scallop, centered on a 14-inch plate, grazed by a molecule of wasabi mayo, and garnished with a feather cut from virgin kale masquerades as a meal, places like Por Que No are more valuable than ever.

As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your slick 3000-square-foot Manhattan restaurant that charges $24 dollars for a martini. Keep their 6000-bottle wine cellar and their ‘82 Lafite Rothschild.

For me, food isn’t fashion and fashion isn’t food.

Por Que No isn’t just a restaurant, it’s a tiny little window to your soul. It’s not for everyone. And thank God for that.

The news is getting out. Travel magazines, bloggers, and foodies from all over the world are now seeking out this magical little place. And, I have always said, when a restaurant or bar starts printing hats and shirts, it’s over. But… I may have to change my position on that.

Carlos has a collection of old basses. His version of the sword of Damocles.

If you go, make a reservation. Dispense with any notion that you’ll be popping in for a “quick bite.” If there’s a line, you’ll have to wait.

Carlos won’t rush to turn tables over. His food is his handshake. The ever charming Carolina will keep you entertained with her amazing personality and Nalo will pour you a lovely Carménère if you like.

But you’re still going to have to wait.

Lest we forget, our diners, pubs, and funky neighborhood joints are our identity. They tell the story of who we are. Where we came from. When a stranger wanders in, they do so with the hope of discovering something new about themselves and their surroundings.

Even at our most nationalistic, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll realize we are a community of wanderers from the farthest reaches of the planet who’ve decided to mash our crooked little hands into the meat.

The post Por Qué No? The Coolest Restaurant on the Planet. appeared first on Vacilando.

Día de los Muertos. It’s Alive!

November 1 is a very big holiday in Guatemala and Latin America. Some call it Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Others call it Día de Todos los Santos or All Saints Day. Many believe on this day, two worlds mesh and become one. Where the spirits of the dead return from heaven to communicate with family. In return, families prepare a local dish called Fiambre and gather by the grave of their relatives to celebrate.

The celebration culminates with the festivals of kites in Sumpango and Santiago. After weeks of preparation, locals gather to assemble and display the enormous colorful kites. This festival began in these cities about 40 years ago, but the tradition of building and flying the massive structures is an age-old practice rooted in Ancient Mayan culture.

Known as “barilletes gigantes” in Spanish, the giant kites of Santiago and Sumpango are incredible works of art constructed with cloth, tissue paper, and bamboo. Most of them contain religious or folkloric themes. The smaller kites range from 3-4 meters (9-12 feet) across and are the only kites that attempt to lift off in the afternoon. It’s harrowing to watch as they lift off, dip and dive over spectators and then rise; slowly drifting over a dramatic landscape.

Many believe that on this day, their dead relatives return to “check up on them.” Some attach messages to their loved ones to the kites hoping that the messages reach the heavens. Once the messages are received, the wind will tear the kites to pieces, which is symbolic of life and death. The kites are then brought back down and burned. The smoke helps guide their loved ones back up to the heavens. These days, it’s become more of a competition to see who can build the largest, most beautiful kite with prizes being awarded to the winners.

The largest barilletes can be up to 24 meters. That’s over 70 feet! These big boys never leave the ground. They’re assembled face down on the dirt. Once done, the locals gather around to watch as many more make ready the lines and hoist the masterpiece to a vertical position. The reveal is exciting. The crowd goes nuts with much-deserved appreciation.

Hugs as the crew celebrates the raising of the kite they worked so hard on.
The earth does not belong to man, rather man belongs to the earth.
Their kite says, “This is what I know. The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth.”

We chose to visit Sumpango rather than Santiago. It’s a little closer to Antigua. There are tons of options for transportation. Most of the tour companies have vans going. All of the local hostels and hotels also arrange trips and for the bravest of the brave, you can cram yourself onto one of the local chicken buses if you’re looking for a death-defying afternoon.

The organized shuttle we took was Q120 (around $18.00 US). That included transport to and from Sampungo, lunch, and a beer. If you want just the shuttle, it’s around Q75 or $11.00. I will say, the “lunch” was a terrible chicken salad sandwich and bruised fruit but the beer was cold. I wouldn’t go that way again. Having no idea what to expect at the festival, I elected to go the “safe” route.

Once we got there, food was everywhere! Delicious local tacos, burritos, empanadas, roasted corn and pork. Lots of pork. It was cheaper and WAY better than the chicken salad. Mel fed her sandwich to a local stray pooch who… refused it. The beers at the festival were ice cold and cost Q10. That’s just over a buck!

The trip from Antigua to Sumpango is about 29 kilometers. That means nothing on this day because traffic, breakdowns, and weather turn that trip from a 30-minute drive into a one hour commute. Picture Nascar featuring customized school buses, motor scooters with three or four people on them, and small cars vying for the same ten feet of dusty tarmac. Throw in a few bicycles and stray dogs and, well- you get the picture.

Once you “get there,” which consists of the driver stopping the van in the middle of the road to let you out, you’ll be greeted with a 200-foot dirt hill to climb. At the summit, prepare to walk a gauntlet that is 5000 of your closest friends shuffling through a dirt floor alley about 6 feet wide. Vendors line the sides with smoking hot grills and cooktops. It takes a great deal of patience and effort to keep from becoming one with whatever is on the grill. This is where most of the pick-pockets make their daily fortunes.

For someone who absolutely hates large crowds, this was the anxiety moment of the day. Luckily- Melody kept me from losing my mind. In a soft, loving voice saying, “Honey… shut up. Relax… stop pushing me.” Ah… total zen, right?

When that joy ends, you walk out onto a large dirt soccer pitch where you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Cold beers, tasty rum drinks, and the beautiful kites await. There are plenty of places to sit in the shade if you need a break. Most folks carried colorful umbrellas to protect them from the sun. That was a great idea and one I wish we’d thought of.

Sumpango Kite Festival in Guatemala

If you’ve had your fill of the kites and wanna actually see a cemetery bustling with the kind of activity only spirits can muster, take the fifteen-minute walk through town to the cemetery. Once inside the colorful walls, you’ll see hundreds of people celebrating at the grave sites of their lost loved ones. The ground is covered in fresh pine needles and, if you’re hungry, there’s a guy selling popcorn. Quite different from the somber tone in American cemeteries.

Now, for the security issues. When you google the festival or get to the point of booking a shuttle, you’ll find many people talking about the criminal element. You’ll read how some had wallets, passports, and cell phones stolen. Some will make it sound as if you’re walking into a war zone. You’re not. You’re walking into a small and very poor village in Guatemalan hills. Crimes are crimes of necessity and opportunity. You should behave as you would if you were going to a Soccer game in London or to New York City for New Years Eve festivities. Behave as if you were going to any big event, anywhere in the world where thousands of people are crammed into confined spaces.

A vendor selling her beautiful wares

To put it simply… Don’t be an idiot. Don’t wear your beautiful wedding ring or Rolex. Don’t wear 4-inch open toe shoes and don’t keep your wallet and passport in your back pocket. Make a copy of your passport if you feel you need to have it on you. Melody has a great sports bra that has a pocket inside. She kept our money in there. Yes, it’s bit awkward when she digs in there to get money for tacos, but hey… whatever works. Who doesn’t like boob money? For the record, we only brought a few hundred Q for the entire day.

To give you an idea, seven Quetzals equal approximately one dollar. Q300 amounts to around $43. We only brought that much in case of emergency. For instance, if our shuttle didn’t show for the ride home and we had to take a chicken bus. I kept my cell phone in my front pocket. Mel also brought a heavy canvas purse that’s about the size of an iPad and incredibly difficult to cut through. In it, we had an extra phone battery and some toilet paper. At no point did we feel unsafe.

If you have any desire to see Guatemala, and you should, because it’s an amazingly beautiful country, travel during this time and make sure to see one of the kite festivals. It will stick with you forever. If not now, then for Easter, Christmas, or New Years. They know how to throw a party around here.

I can’t speak to the festival in Santiago, but if you go to Sumpango, wear comfortable shoes that are good for climbing hills. Don’t take valuables. Tap into the section of your brain responsible for patience, and then… have a freaking blast.

The post Día de los Muertos. It’s Alive! appeared first on Vacilando.

Día de los Muertos. It’s Alive!

November 1 is a very big holiday in Guatemala and Latin America. Some call it Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Others call it Día de Todos los Santos or All Saints Day. Many believe on this day, two worlds mesh and become one. Where the spirits of the dead return from heaven to communicate with family. In return, families prepare a local dish called Fiambre and gather by the grave of their relatives to celebrate.

The celebration culminates with the festivals of kites in Sumpango and Santiago. After weeks of preparation, locals gather to assemble and display the enormous colorful kites. This festival began in these cities about 40 years ago, but the tradition of building and flying the massive structures is an age-old practice rooted in Ancient Mayan culture.

Known as “barilletes gigantes” in Spanish, the giant kites of Santiago and Sumpango are incredible works of art constructed with cloth, tissue paper, and bamboo. Most of them contain religious or folkloric themes. The smaller kites range from 3-4 meters (9-12 feet) across and are the only kites that attempt to lift off in the afternoon. It’s harrowing to watch as they lift off, dip and dive over spectators and then rise; slowly drifting over a dramatic landscape.

Many believe that on this day, their dead relatives return to “check up on them.” Some attach messages to their loved ones to the kites hoping that the messages reach the heavens. Once the messages are received, the wind will tear the kites to pieces, which is symbolic of life and death. The kites are then brought back down and burned. The smoke helps guide their loved ones back up to the heavens. These days, it’s become more of a competition to see who can build the largest, most beautiful kite with prizes being awarded to the winners.

The largest barilletes can be up to 24 meters. That’s over 70 feet! These big boys never leave the ground. They’re assembled face down on the dirt. Once done, the locals gather around to watch as many more make ready the lines and hoist the masterpiece to a vertical position. The reveal is exciting. The crowd goes nuts with much-deserved appreciation.

Hugs as the crew celebrates the raising of the kite they worked so hard on.
The earth does not belong to man, rather man belongs to the earth.
Their kite says, “This is what I know. The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth.”

We chose to visit Sumpango rather than Santiago. It’s a little closer to Antigua. There are tons of options for transportation. Most of the tour companies have vans going. All of the local hostels and hotels also arrange trips and for the bravest of the brave, you can cram yourself onto one of the local chicken buses if you’re looking for a death-defying afternoon.

The organized shuttle we took was Q120 (around $18.00 US). That included transport to and from Sampungo, lunch, and a beer. If you want just the shuttle, it’s around Q75 or $11.00. I will say, the “lunch” was a terrible chicken salad sandwich and bruised fruit but the beer was cold. I wouldn’t go that way again. Having no idea what to expect at the festival, I elected to go the “safe” route.

Once we got there, food was everywhere! Delicious local tacos, burritos, empanadas, roasted corn and pork. Lots of pork. It was cheaper and WAY better than the chicken salad. Mel fed her sandwich to a local stray pooch who… refused it. The beers at the festival were ice cold and cost Q10. That’s just over a buck!

The trip from Antigua to Sumpango is about 29 kilometers. That means nothing on this day because traffic, breakdowns, and weather turn that trip from a 30-minute drive into a one hour commute. Picture Nascar featuring customized school buses, motor scooters with three or four people on them, and small cars vying for the same ten feet of dusty tarmac. Throw in a few bicycles and stray dogs and, well- you get the picture.

Once you “get there,” which consists of the driver stopping the van in the middle of the road to let you out, you’ll be greeted with a 200-foot dirt hill to climb. At the summit, prepare to walk a gauntlet that is 5000 of your closest friends shuffling through a dirt floor alley about 6 feet wide. Vendors line the sides with smoking hot grills and cooktops. It takes a great deal of patience and effort to keep from becoming one with whatever is on the grill. This is where most of the pick-pockets make their daily fortunes.

For someone who absolutely hates large crowds, this was the anxiety moment of the day. Luckily- Melody kept me from losing my mind. In a soft, loving voice saying, “Honey… shut up. Relax… stop pushing me.” Ah… total zen, right?

When that joy ends, you walk out onto a large dirt soccer pitch where you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Cold beers, tasty rum drinks, and the beautiful kites await. There are plenty of places to sit in the shade if you need a break. Most folks carried colorful umbrellas to protect them from the sun. That was a great idea and one I wish we’d thought of.

Sumpango Kite Festival in Guatemala

If you’ve had your fill of the kites and wanna actually see a cemetery bustling with the kind of activity only spirits can muster, take the fifteen-minute walk through town to the cemetery. Once inside the colorful walls, you’ll see hundreds of people celebrating at the grave sites of their lost loved ones. The ground is covered in fresh pine needles and, if you’re hungry, there’s a guy selling popcorn. Quite different from the somber tone in American cemeteries.

Now, for the security issues. When you google the festival or get to the point of booking a shuttle, you’ll find many people talking about the criminal element. You’ll read how some had wallets, passports, and cell phones stolen. Some will make it sound as if you’re walking into a war zone. You’re not. You’re walking into a small and very poor village in Guatemalan hills. Crimes are crimes of necessity and opportunity. You should behave as you would if you were going to a Soccer game in London or to New York City for New Years Eve festivities. Behave as if you were going to any big event, anywhere in the world where thousands of people are crammed into confined spaces.

A vendor selling her beautiful wares

To put it simply… Don’t be an idiot. Don’t wear your beautiful wedding ring or Rolex. Don’t wear 4-inch open toe shoes and don’t keep your wallet and passport in your back pocket. Make a copy of your passport if you feel you need to have it on you. Melody has a great sports bra that has a pocket inside. She kept our money in there. Yes, it’s bit awkward when she digs in there to get money for tacos, but hey… whatever works. Who doesn’t like boob money? For the record, we only brought a few hundred Q for the entire day.

To give you an idea, seven Quetzals equal approximately one dollar. Q300 amounts to around $43. We only brought that much in case of emergency. For instance, if our shuttle didn’t show for the ride home and we had to take a chicken bus. I kept my cell phone in my front pocket. Mel also brought a heavy canvas purse that’s about the size of an iPad and incredibly difficult to cut through. In it, we had an extra phone battery and some toilet paper. At no point did we feel unsafe.

If you have any desire to see Guatemala, and you should, because it’s an amazingly beautiful country, travel during this time and make sure to see one of the kite festivals. It will stick with you forever. If not now, then for Easter, Christmas, or New Years. They know how to throw a party around here.

I can’t speak to the festival in Santiago, but if you go to Sumpango, wear comfortable shoes that are good for climbing hills. Don’t take valuables. Tap into the section of your brain responsible for patience, and then… have a freaking blast.

The post Día de los Muertos. It’s Alive! appeared first on Vacilando.