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Guatemala, Travel

Guatemala: Machete Paradise (part 1)

DISCLAIMER: This may be upsetting to some readers. To the moms reading this, don’t worry – we are safe.

A Brief History

No, this isn’t some sort of weird-Al parody. That would insinuate we are in gangster paradise, which we are not. But we are in machete paradise.

At its core, a machete is a farming tool. Useful for chopping trails through thick brush, variations of the machete are used by cultures and civilizations all over the world. While it seems in North America we simply use the machete for entertainment purposes, the machete is still a popular multi-tool here in Guatemala…and it’s a little unnerving.

Safety In Guatemala

After the rough start in Mexico City, we were wary of coming to Guatemala. It didn’t help that Guatemala is ranked “reconsider travel” on the US Travel Department’s website. Crime is, of course, a factor in the ranking system, but a large weight of it is the ability of the US government to intervein on your behalf should something happen. Only recently establishing any sort of political stability (following a 30-year civil war), Guatemala is struggling with widespread corruption, extortion, volcano disasters, and heavy drug trafficking.

Disembarking from our flight into Guatemala City, we leave the airport on foot for our hostel. We’re going to stay there one night to get our bearings before entering the logistical foray of making it to Lake Atitlan. The area surrounding the airport is zombie-apocalypse-grade deserted. Between our blue location dot on Google Maps and destination is a high concrete wall topped with razor wire and doorways shadowing guards with pump-action shotguns. We discover this wall encloses a small compound of hostels and hotels for both citizens and touristisas alike. Finally finding the front gate, the guard lets us through. At the hostel we are greeted by an incredibly friendly man from Belize. His impeccable English gives us the freedom to ask how quickly we can get Pizza Hut delivered….because we were not going back outside the compound.

Making Friends

In typical American fashion, we got (2) pizza(s) delivered. Eyes bigger than stomachs, we made friends with the various Latinos that were milling around by sharing our slices. They all accepted our offer graciously and were very thankful.

The following morning, we awoke to a text message from Hayden’s mom – “Call me.” A news channel ran a story that morning that a bus full of tourists was boarded, the driver shot, and the vehicle commandeered. Doing some research of our own, it turns out this has been happening since 2009 with over 900 bus drivers being killed at the crime peak in 2013.

Gangs are extorting the bus companies for money and if the company doesn’t pay, their drivers pay the price with their lives. We vowed to only take private transportation for the duration of our stay.

Author’s note: No ONE should have to worry about seeing their bus driver murdered on their daily commutes. Because the bus was full of white tourists, it’s suddenly newsworthy. This has been going on for OVER A DECADE. I know things are hot in the states right now surrounding immigration, but this is one example (of dozens I’m sure) of why people might want to seek better lives in the USA. Even during the latest Chicago night, I wouldn’t have ever worried about any sort of attack on public transit. Maybe we can make a little room in both our hearts and our country, hmmm?? Here are 12 great ways you can help refugees – not all of them involving money. 

Having made friends via pizza, we got a ride to the airport the next day and were escorted directly to the driver of a shuttle who would take us the next leg of our trip….into machete country.

To be continued ……

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Mexico, Travel

¡Adios Mexico City!

Despite the poor introduction we’ve had with Mexico City, I still love it and would seriously consider moving here someday (semester abroad?).

So, what were the highlights of the city? And, more importantly, how much did I spend?

#1 The Food (La Comida)

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Travel. Is. Affordable (if you just suck at saving, I feel you. Check out my mind-tricks here). As Americans, it can seem expensive because it is so hard for our brains to comprehend a $1 meal that didn’t come from a dollar menu. Coupled with the expensive flights to make it over the pond to the rest of the world, I know it seems like you’re off to an expensive start. But seriously, once you get there, SO affordable!

Thanks to said affordability, we got a little crazy and ate our faces off in CDMX. Most meals were about $1-$2. Even the sushi dinner wasn’t that bad, coming in at about $20. We ordered things we recognized to see the authentic take on them (tacos, quesadillas etc.) and they are nothing like back home. In short, Taco Bell is ruined for me and I can’t wait to come back here someday and have even more time to try all the food – we barely scratched the surface.

#2 The Locals (Los Locales)

Its obvious by our dress, attitude and accent that we are American. Haunted by the terrible policies of the Trump administration and the issues going on at the border right now, I wasn’t sure we would be overly welcomed in Mexico city. Aside from being teased once about being here to “visit or invade”, everyone has been very nice. While we interacted with a lot of locals, there are three interactions that I won’t be able to forget.

Interaction #1

In the US, Mexico City seems to be surrounded by a negative stigma that its this super dangerous place. Just like any major city (P.S Mexico City is the biggest city in the world), there is crime – theft, murder, rape – but Mexico City is doing a great job at taking steps to combat that. Upon one of our first train rides, a Metro employee approached us and offered his assistance. He led us to the train platform that we needed to be on, explaining that at the end of every train platform is a designated safe area for women and girls where they can board train cars specifically for ladies.

While I was in Japan I noticed a similar system. While it’s sad to acknowledge a need for this, Japan and Mexico are setting wonderful examples that America could follow.

Interaction #2

Standing in line at the McDonald’s ice cream window, a kid comes up and begins speaking to us in Spanish. Between the three of us, we decipher that he is asking for money. We chatted with him for a bit, learning that he was 7 years old and that his mom was at home. He was a nice and funny kid who looked well fed and was just hoping to get some spending money. We didn’t want to support the begging habit, but ended up buying him a twisted ice cream cone which totally made his night! What a random thing.

Interaction #3

While visiting the ancient Aztec city of Teotihuacan, the sound of jaguar noises echoed across the plain. It turns out they are made from a tiny toy being sold by the local merchants. I wasn’t confident I’d be able to make the same sound, but after a little lesson and a purchased toy, I’m a pro! Check out the video below.

Jaguar Noises

 

#3 The sights (Las Vistas)

Mexico is famous for its ancient Aztec history. So naturally, Mexico is chock full of interesting sites. It was hard to choose which attractions to see, so we opted to do a blend of touristy and non-touristy.

Pyramid of the Sun

Guys, I’ve always wanted to see a pyramid.

Pyramid of the Sun
My first pyramid, Pyramid of the Sun, outside Mexico City.

Before planning this trip, I didn’t even realize that there was any outside of the infamous Egyptian pyramids. Doh! Counting “ceremonial structures”, Mexico is home to hundreds. My tribe visited one of the most popular, The Pyramid of the Sun, located in the old Aztec city of Teotihuacan (pronounced “teo ti hu can”).

Group selfie in front of Pyramid of the Sun Mexico
Ashley, Hayden and me in front of the Pyramid of the Sun

The Pyramid of the Sun is one of the largest pyramids in Mesoamerica and the third largest in the world. During its life (200 BC – 750 BC), it was used for ‘religious, administrative and community tasks’. At a height of 65m (195 ft), it takes about 250 freaking-steep stairs to reach the top. If your kneecaps and lungs can take it, its an incredible view from the top.

Museo del Juguete Antiguo

This is one of those “non-touristy” things. I often reference Atlas Obscura to find unusual things to do.  Here in Mexico City, they did not disappoint. Hayden and I visited Museo del Juguete Antiguo – a “freak toy” museum….and freaky it was! First, it looks like its just in some random guys’ house that is nowhere near the touristy part of town (sorry mom). Second, its filled to the brim with thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of obscure, weirdly positioned, and [sometimes] freakishly common, toys.

In the tech industry, we have a motto. DRY: “Don’t repeat yourself”. Basically, don’t do work twice. In the spirit of DRY, if you’d like to read more about Museo del Juguete Antiguo and support Atlas Obscura for helping me find it, you can read their wonderful article with all the history here.

¡Adios (but not to my budget)!

Just like our time in Mexico City, its time to wrap. But before I go, I’d like to share with you just how affordable this trip could be for you:

Expenses (in $USD)

Now, these numbers are representative of my share of things. If dinner for 2 was $20, I’m logging it as $10 because that is what I paid. These numbers are totals for the entirety of my time in Mexico City.

Food$78 You can tell where my priorities are. This is for all my meals, snacks, drinks, treats and “oh I just have to try one bite”‘s. It also includes a sushi dinner which was $20 and boozy Olive Garden (hey, I was homesick). 

Lodging: $53.25 My share of 6 nights at our hostel in a private room, including a free breakfast that I ate every day.

Entertainment & Souvenirs$16.20  This includes the Pyramid of the Sun (includes round-trip bus fare), a festival, several museums and a few hands of blackjack at the casino.

Transportation$10 With an amazing infrastructure, trains were the transport of choice coming in at $1 per ride. Uber is also insanely cheap and a great alternative after I got pickpocketed on the train.

Misc (tips, donations etc): $5. Unlike Asia, tips are welcome in Mexico. Honestly, I like it better this way – its more like home. Tips are appropriate for cab drivers, waiters, or warrioresses who choose to pose with you or bless you. Total I spent $10 in tips (I know, I know, it sounds so cheap but I promise it was the appropriate amount).

Total Spent: $162.45 for one week.

Not too shabby, right?

I hope you’re enjoying the information so far – what do you think? Would you ever visit here, why or why not? Please leave any opinions, questions or comments in the comment section below. 🙂

Mexico, Travel

A rough start in Mexico City

Mexico City Wins

Guys, this is not how I envisioned my getaway starting!

Originally, my travel tribe planned to stay in Mexico City about 3 nights. It’s now been 6 nights, and we are missing several travel tools we originally came with:

  • Our group member, Ashley
  • My iPhone X
  • Hayden’s Debit Card

I’m grateful our month-ish timetable gives us the luxurious flexibility to move as we please – or in this case, as needed. But WTF happened?!

Let’s go down the list.

Missing Member

First, this type of travel is not for everyone. There is a reason it’s called “roughing it” – its rough! Ashley gave it a great go coming with us – I’m so proud of her for prepping, planning and trying. The unknown is scary and its a lot of work. Ultimately, it wasn’t for her. As proud of her as I am for trying, I’m equally as proud of her for doing what she needed to do for herself (we should all follow her example) – even if it meant she wouldn’t be continuing on with us. She’s now at home hugging kitties and, after the week we’ve had here, I could seriously go for some kitty hugs too.

Because……

Pickpocketed

Mexico City has a connotation of being dangerous. While it isn’t very outwardly violent, there is a lot of crime. Not sure how since never before in my life have I seen so many police in one city. Even though there are always at least 3 officers in eyesight, to fight crime here you must catch it in the act.

My iPhone X was taken from my pocket on a crowded train. I’m talking crowwwwwwwded. I didn’t feel it happen but I realized it as soon as I got out of the train car. Thanks to the quick catch, Hayden and I were able to track my phone location to a nearby market filled with people selling [what look to be stolen] phones. We have returned the past 3 days waiting for it to crop up in hopes of buying it back. Being our last day in Mexico City, today I broke down and bought a cheap throw away smartphone.

I’m angry. Not about the phone or the money it will cost to replace it, but rather, because I feel all the planning I put into this trip has been snatched away – along with my perception of personal space. To compound it, I’m now dependant on Hayden (who has been LOVELY about this whole disaster). Though Hayden could not be more gracious, my inner control freak and radical-self-reliant burner soul is very uncomfortable in this position.

Being pickpocketed isn’t as jarring as nearly being kidnapped, but I still felt shaken. I even considered coming home. But, after a pep talk from my mom (I can’t believe I’m typing that almost as much as my mom couldn’t believe she was saying it), Hayden and I are going to continue on….even though Hayden is down a debit card.

ATM Fiasco

ATMs work here just like they do back home. Insert card, enter pin, take cash, blow money. Notice a missing step? Take card from machine – very important and time sensitive! If you don’t do it, it eats it. Unfortunately for Hayden, his debit card became an ATM midnight snack. Luckily, he was smart and divided his dollars across several accounts with different debit cards. Hmmm…wonder who gave him that idea? 😉

The Adventure Continues

Tomorrow, we’re off to Guatemala City! From there, we’ll be heading to Lake Antitlan for some scuba diving and volcano climbing. We specifically chose a remote area where we won’t have much connection. Even though I’m just regaining my connectivity, I’m looking forward to voluntarily losing it again.

I’ve been great about keeping track of expenses this trip, so look forward to a post with a cost breakdown for the Mexico City leg of the trip (hopefully your budget won’t have to include a new phone).

Travel

Perplexing pre-trip perceptions

All vacations & trips are accompanied by a sense of excitement and anxiety, right? I find that the magnitude of the adventure always scales perfectly with the level of excitement.

When I was planning my trip to Asia, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never been abroad and all I knew of the Orient was based on half-remembered history lessons, American interpretations of cuisine, and a sampling of anime friends forced me to watch (and I’m so glad they did!).

Now that we have left Dayton and are in Chicago, it’s starting to sink in – I’M GOING TO CENTRAL AMERICA (henceforth known as ‘CA’)! What will it be like there? In Asia, I was surprised at the [lack of] traffic laws. So many scooters going all the time with no lanes or order what. so. ever. Are scooters a primary form of transport in CA? Will there be plentiful street food? How about stray animals abound? Or will it be very similar to America with blue jeans and cellular service?

Of course, the obvious answer is: It will be just like it is – Central America, its own unique culture. I enjoyed traveling through Asia successively, it allowed me to notice the differences across the various Asian cultures. With each nation having its own language, and CA being primarily Spanish speaking, will the countries be as notably different as they are in Asia?

Tonight, I’ll start finding out. We arrive in Mexico City this afternoon. I’m crossing my fingers for some overlap in the “street food” category – I’d love to get my hands on some street corn (elote) for dinner!

Wish me luck!

Travel

BIG SUMMER NEWS

HellloooooOOOOoOOooOOooo!!! Guys, I haven’t updated you in forever. That means something big must be cooking, right? Right!

Just like everyone else in the world, I’ve just been ‘so super busy’ that I haven’t been able to sit down and post. There’s some truth to that – this last year was crushing. I’ve been super busy with school & work, but deeper than that, I didn’t feel I was doing anything that was so awesome it was blog post worthy. I try to have little adventures and change it up, but do you need to know about that strange new road I took to work? I wouldn’t want that info clogging up my inbox! This post though, yeah, totally inbox worthy.

While it wasn’t announced on ZoomGoes, this time a year ago I fearfully took the first step into an adventure I wasn’t sure I was ready for – folding back into the ranks of ‘college student’. Up until this point in my life, I was a terrible student. Like, barely-graduated-high-school terrible.

Its been a wild 12 months. I’ve sprouted more gray hairs than a rotten potato, completed 1/4 of a bachelor’s degree program for computer science, worked 5 months at an internship I didn’t have to apply for, received my first EVER academic award, was on the Deans list the entire year, and suffered through a litany of digestive issues. My friends, this has been a different type of adventure. Asia was immersive while I traveled, but this adventure was a lifestyle.

Now that its summertime (omgyayayayayayayay!!!), I’ve been reflecting. The transformation is incredible – and I’m not just talking about the freshman -15 (yes, I lost weight)! Mental math is easier, I can code a solid web framework without any Googling, and I’m much better at problem-solving/creative thinking. In short, school is working!!! 

I’m so proud of my accomplishments this semester – it feels incredible to know I can actually do it. While we are still at the base of the mountain, I’m excited about the climb.

SPEAKING OF CLIMBS AND MOUNTAINS…… I’m going backpacking in Central America this summer!

A pillar of support for me this semester has been my job at our local pizza shop. The owner is wholeheartedly supportive of our personal goals, and I have some amazing coworkers who inspire me in my studies and support (indulge) me in crazy ideas like backpacking near the equator in the middle of summer. As such, myself and two of my coworkers (I’ve already introduced one of them to you) will be spending about a month-ish backpacking through Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama! Will you be with us every step of the way? We’ll be bringing you funny stories, wild ordeals, itemized spending for budget building and trend recognition purposes….oh, and PLENTY (maybe mostly) food pictures.

With the clock ticking (we fly to Chicago the 11th) my excitement is building for this new type of adventure. Not just a break from the grueling year-that-was, but for the experience of traveling with friends vs. solo. Of course, each will have its pros and cons, but I think with this group, I’m going to have the best pros I could have and the least con-y cons I could have.

In closing guys, this is the tip of the perverbial exitement-iceberg…so stay tuned for future annoucements!

Inspiring Stuff, Trip Planning, USA

Hayden Hits New York City

It’s been a while since I posted on here guys. Even though it’s not an excuse, admittedly I have been really busy! I’m back in school and most of my current homework is not overly riveting – but, if you’d like, I’d be happy to tell you about the USA’s average propensity to save or maybe you’d prefer the 7-layer OSI model?

(this is usually when my audience runs in terror)

That being said, I’ve been saved from the dullard of the day to day via the adventures of someone else. Something I hope I provided to you while I was traveling 🙂

The Big Apple, The City of Dreams, The City That Never Sleeps, The City So Nice They Named It Twice – no matter what you call it, NYC is one of the most renowned travel destinations in the world.

Annually, New York City attracts more than 58 million visitors, bringing in over 42 billion dollars worth of tourism revenue. Visitors from both domestic and abroad, but no matter where you come from, NYC is a sight to behold, making it a top destination on any traveler’s list.


When dipping your toes into the traveling adventures pool, it’s typical to start with something like the capital of your region, or perhaps a road trip with a group of friends or a family vacation.

If you know me either personally or through this blog, you probably know I like to go big or go home! I love this about myself and love to see in others. My first camping trip was to travel to Burning Man (solo) to spend 9 days in the desert with a bunch of people I met on the internet – sounds totally safe, right? It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.

Since returning home from Asia, I’ve set up shop working at a little pizza dive in my hometown while I’ve started my degree. We serve up delicious, unique, New York style pizzas made from dough we make daily and produce that we cut ourselves. It’s so good, it makes you cry (or maybe that’s from all the onions we’re cutting?).

I hear from a lot of people that travel seems like something they’ll never be able to do. Too expensive, too busy, too [insert reason]. While all of that is valid, I try to show people who are interested that it truly can be done by anyone.

It may have been our pizza, it may have been my constant reminiscing about previous travel adventures but no matter the persuasion my still-under-21 coworker Hayden recently went on his first big city solo travel adventure – hostels and all – to New York freakin’ City! 


Behind the scenes

Spending about $600 he enjoyed all the Big Apple had to offer over the course of 5 days.

  • $35 for a metro pass for the week
  • Kept meals under $10
  • Hostel accommodations: $300 (prime location is worth it!)
  • Gas and parking: ~$80

From dining atop the highest restaurant in the Western Hemisphere to fending off cash-hungry homeless people he was able to experience the full monty that often comes with big cities.

Straight from the source

Q: What’s some advice you would have for first-time, solo travelers going to NYC?

A: “Advice would be to write down the subway directions and a notepad and keep your phone off in the subway because it drained my battery. I also used my phone compass a lot in the subway to make sure I was going in the right direction. It’s super easy to get on the wrong train. And, it sounds bad, but if someone comes up to you on the street or subway be quick to make it clear you don’t have any cash or they will hassle you.” 

Solid advice, I would give the same!

Q: Did you ever feel unsafe or have to ask a local for assistance? 

A: “I never felt unsafe, [there were] police on almost every block. I never even reached for my pepper spray. I never asked for help from locals but I did help a ton of other people who didn’t know where to go.”

Hayden always does the nice thing.

Q: What did you see that you didn’t expect? 

A: “There was trash everywhere, but it wasn’t too bad.” 

Some of the highlights of the trip were meeting people from all over the world at the hostel he stayed at (NY Moore Hostel), just walking around observing the city, and (duh) the amazing food. Specifically, the New York style pizza made by ‘real Italians who argued the whole time they made it’ (lol). We all know that frustration crushed tomatoes and roughly punched dough tastes the best! Maybe we’ll have to implement these techniques at my shop.

We’re all thrilled to have Hayden back at work (though maybe he’d rather still be in NYC) and I’m so happy to have someone else to talk about how delicious big-city food is compared to my tiny town. Though, I find myself in a bit of an inspiration maelstrom. I’ve passed the travel torch to another and now I’m losing hours on the internet scheming my next travel adventure after being re-inspired by him…I guess that’s not so bad. 😉


I hope that you feel moved to take the torch from us and give a go to your own adventure. It doesn’t have to be big or drastic, but if that’s the way you like it…you can do it!

Until next adventure……

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