Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in …….. #Guatemala #Antigua #Travel

So I’m living in Guatemala! The nutshell version so far – it’s been great!  
So many feelings came up during my last few days before I left. Of course, it was sad saying adios to my partner, family and good friends. Not surprisingly, I had a few butterflies like the one’s you get before starting a new school. And in some ways I was going off to a new school, not to mention to live in a foreign country. I bought some new clothes, a few tee shirts, socks, some waterproof hiking boots and a lightweight rain jacket. And I had buzzed my hair just I did when I was a kid – then it was called a “butch,” remember? (Little did I know that a butch haircut would have such a different meaning all these years later as do the words “gay” and “queer.” I still miss the sweet candy-like smell of butch wax and the piece of Bazooka bubble gum that Daisy, my barber, would slip into my breast pocket.)


My departing days seemed to take on a bit of a ominous feeling as well. While I was excited about leaving,  people seemed worried about me. They were asking me where I wanted to go for my last meal before I left civilization. Were there any favorite foods I wanted to eat, fun things I wanted to do or places I wanted to visit before I left?  Why Guatemala? Isn’t it dangerous there? Isn’t the government corrupt? Why do you want to learn Spanish? If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.  I began to ask myself just what had I  gotten myself into? Was I missing something? But then I caught myself. No, I was fine. I was determined. I couldn’t wait. Why not Guatemala? If you’ve been here, you’d know why. And why do I want to learn Spanish. My best answer: Just because.  And off I went.

I had a flawless arrival in Antigua  (not Antigua in the Caribbean). I somehow breezed through customs. A really nice guy drove me from the airport directly to the house where I had arranged to stay with a Guatemalan family.  We had a nice conversation despite my very broken Spanish.  Arriving at the house, with my luggage and guitar in hand, I felt a little like Maria Von Trapp being greeted by the housekeeper who clearly runs the place and I was shown to my room. The modest house is quite nice, Spanish style with white walls and dark brown woods. The property  is entered through a dead bolted front wooden gate which opens into a long driveway and courtyard with a short walk to the front door of the house. Several  cars were parked in the driveway.

The two-story house has a smallish living room, formal dining room, family room and 3 bedrooms downstairs and 3 upstairs. There is a small charming atrium inside the house and a separate beautiful garden with a fountain. There is also a roof top deck patio with nice views of the hills and nearby volcanos. Fortunately there is wifi which works most of the time except during thunderstorms when it tends to go off and on. Many of the ceilings are beams of dark wood holding back terra cotta tiles.

I’m in my bedroom temporarily since the mom is out of town and there currently are other guests occupying the other bedrooms. This room is decent size, and I have my own bathroom. The bedroom has a small skylight which is nice during the day but the flashes of lightning that come through at night into the otherwise pitch-black room can be a bit unsettling. Since it’s the rainy season, we’ve had thunderstorms every day late in the afternoon and often at night. The rain is torrential at times which I’m actually enjoying. The house has a corrugated steel and tile roof so the percussion from the rain gets pretty loud. However, I’ve been enjoying watching the storms from the roof deck which is partially covered and has a great view of the nearby volcano.

View of Volcano from Roof in Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

The house is in a great location. It is near the area where the Chicken Buses depart and arrive (more on that later) and it is down the street from the huge outdoor and partially covered mercado. There is a decent gym around the corner (that I’m thinking about joining) and a supermercado about a block away that seems to have everything and it’s all very inexpensive. Towels for $2.99?

Chicken Bus, Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

The house  is heavy adorned with Catholic religious artifacts and artwork including a large stitchery rendering of the Last Supper hanging in the dining room, crosses, statues of Jesus and other saints, biblical phrases on the walls, bibles and other items. My room alone has 3 crosses, one large, one small and one that lights up, several rosary beads including one on the wall, a bust of Jesus above my bed, several angelic pictures of the Virgin Mary on the wall and taped to the lamp on my nightstand, several bibles and other religious books. I find all of these items strangely comforting. There’s no need for a mezzuzah – I’m definitely covered! However, there is no place to put my clothes except for a small portable clothes rack – the drawers and cabinets are filled with the clothes and belongings of the family members. Of course, I’m in their home! So I’m partially living out of my suitcase- which I really don’t mind considering how happy I am to be here.

The members of the family are hard-working and middle-class. It is headed by a widow in her early sixties who has 4 children, 3 of whom are twenty and thirty somethings and still live here. One is married with 2 young kids, a girl age 5 and boy, age 11, so they live in an adjacent smaller house on the same property. The mother, the son-in-law and the 2 kids left for vacation the same day I arrived. I briefly met the mother who seems lovely. I also met the 11 year old boy who was playing video games in the small family room right outside my bedroom. He seemed nice and very mature for his age. His gelled-hair was combed perfectly as many of the younger Guatemalan guys seem to wear.  They will be back later today at which time I will apparently move upstairs. And yes, there is the housekeeper/cook who has been with the family for around 12 years. She is very pleasant, competent, full of tenacity and has a very strong voice for being so petite. And they (we?) have a beagle. We became fast friends the first day I was here. He might be the mellowest dog I’ve ever met- yet his tail doesn’t stop wagging every time he sees me. He even barks in Spanish! (Don’t ask me how I know this.)

My small bathroom is more than adequate although we’re not supposed to drink the water so I use bottled water to brush my teeth. And I found a strange thing in the shower. At first, I thought they had gone to a lot of trouble to install an electric massaging shower head. But it also worried me because of the electric wires connecting to it and the way it looked. I quickly figured out that this was a water heating shower head. Yikes! Of course, I googled it. I mean you’re not supposed to mix electricity and water, right?

Electric Instant Hot Water Shower Head in Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

Apparently these shower heads are very popular in Guatemala and probably other places in the world. I have to run the water  fairly slowly to get a warm shower- any faster and the water gets cool quickly. I guess because of the safety issues, this type of shower head was actually discussed during my school’s orientation on my first day there (more on this later). We were cautioned not to touch it with the water running. No kidding! And the shower drain has to be opened and closed after each use to prevent little brown bugs, (and maybe other things) from crawling into the shower. I already have a couple of them in my shower- I guess the smaller ones can get through the drain. We don’t bother each other. And I haven’t asked if they bite- it’s probably better that I don’t know. 

My room has a small television and the shows are all in Spanish (of course!). I was thrilled the first night to find the movie, Toy Story en español (in Spanish) especially since I thought it would be easier to understand because it was for kids, right? Wrong. The dialogue was very fast and the cartoon voices made it harder to understand. It was still fun watching it – who doesn’t love Toy Story? There are a number of familiar shows that are all dubbed in with Spanish. It’s funny to see familiar actors or personalities speaking in Spanish and hearing voices that are not their own. Although I’m actually impressed at how well the voice-overs are done along with the attention to detail. Of course, the lips don’t quite match. 

So at this point, I’m all settled in at my new home. Actually, it didn’t take me very long – just a few days.  I’ve started my Spanish lessons and I’ve been exploring the town. And I was lucky enough to be here for the Guatemalan Dia de Independencia, their independence day, September 15th. More on my adventures next time.


8 Day Countdown to Guatemala #travel #Guatemala #Antigua

It’s getting closer.  My nerves are steady but emotions running a little on the high side. My WTF beard continues to grow. My psych practice is closed – temporarily.

The travel nurse at Kaiser assured me that my vaccination for Typhoid fever is still effective from the shot I had before going to Guatemala about 2 years ago. And of course, I’m equipped with  Malarone to prevent malaria in case I’m going to “mosquito infested areas.” The nurse was emphatic —  I need to start taking the medication a day before entering  areas where ravenous mosquitos congregate and to continue taking the medication, even after I’ve left the area, until the all the Malarone is gone!

The nurse supplied me with 16 pages (yes, count them) of medical information, instructions and precautions for Guatemala. I’m to use insect repellant containing DEET (highly toxic!). There are guidelines on when I should call for help. I’m to wear protective clothing and to even consider bed nets to avoid mosquito bites which carry Dengue, Zika, and other lovely things, and what  symptoms to look out for. I have details on the Guatemala-specific medications I’ll be taking and their potential side effects.

Not surprisingly, there’s a whole section on “travelers diarrhea.” As such, I’ve been given an almost mandatory prescription for Azithromycin, a heavy duty antibiotic, in case things get especially bad with cramps, and worse (TMI?), otherwise I’m to be well-equipped with Imodium.  I was even given a detailed map outlining the areas where malaria is present. On this handy map, Antigua, my home base, appears to be just 1/32 of an inch from where mosquito precautions are required. Of course, I hope that none of these insatiable mosquitos living in the adjacent areas are planning any trips to Antigua for free Vegas-style buffets!

I can imagine these smug mosquitos’ having a chat:

“Hey Mack, how’s it going?

“Hi Miles, pretty good but man am I stuffed!  I just ate”

“Really, where did you go?”

“I ate at the Huxley Griffith”

“Wow, how was it?”

“Delicious! Man, that place really must like dark chocolate. Boy was it tasty”

“Cool, I’ve been meaning to try it.”

“What part did you try?”

“I think I was near the neck but I hear the ankle is also tasty.”

“Hmm, I’ll have to try it. I’ll go there now.”  Buzz you later.

“Later, man.”

Enough of that.

I’ll be arriving during Guatemala’s rainy season which runs May through October. In fact, since it’s close to the equator, Guatemala really only has two seasons: wet and dry. A majority of the rain is supposed to fall in September (average 9 inches) and October (average 5 inches). November also tends to be  wet but by December, it’s supposed to dry up. I’ve heard it can be torrential at times. Plus October is peak hurricane  season. That could be interesting.

So the other day, I ventured out to REI to find some (hopefully inexpensive) water-proof shoes and a lightweight rain jacket. Both were on sale so I bought them. Maybe I’m overdoing it. Maybe all I need are those one-dollar ponchos that come so neatly wrapped in tiny rectangular packages. So I ordered a supply of those too from Amazon. It’s cheap insurance. Did you know that you can return anything at REI for up to one year, even if you’ve worn them!? Like shoes?? Who knew?

I’ve been checking the iPhone weather app a few times a week.

Antigua Guatemala weather from iPhone weather app

It seems to be stuck on only one setting – rain and thunderstorms every day until further notice with daytime temps in the mid-70s and nighttime temps in the high 50s. Not too bad.

I’ve also checked the U.S. State Department website to find the latest travel advisories for Guatemala. It’s not the safest place on the planet. (As if L.A. is??)  I probably shouldn’t have checked. It felt like the time I was googling my incessant cough, cold and achy symptoms and concluded that I had some horrendous disease with just months or days to live. Yes, the Guatemalan government is corrupt. (I feel like the pot calling the kettle black.) And yes there are certain areas to avoid. For example, from my previous trips, I knew that once you fly into Guatemala City, for the most part, you don’t hang around and probably don’t come back until it’s time to go back to the airport.

Guatemala is currently at Travel Advisory Level 2 (“Exercise increased caution” due to crime) as of July 27, 2018. There are four levels. It was actually worse when I was there last January when it was at Level 3, “Reconsider travel.” Of course, I had no idea then although we knew to be very careful. The machine gun armed guards at some of the restaurants and places we visited gave it away. Some areas of Guatemala are still at a Level 3. Guatemala is divided into 22 geographic entities called Departments. Antigua is in the Sacatepéquez department which is currently at a Level 2. I’ll check out the situation more once I get there.

I’m told that the devastating and deadly eruption of the Fuego Volcano has settled down.

We had  actually seen Fuego having much smaller eruptions both times we were in Guatemala. I’ve got some great photos!

Eruption of Fuego Volcano,  January 2018; Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

During the eruption last January, Antigua was inundated with volcanic ash since it’s only 9 miles away. So, I’ve ordered a supply of breathing masks (N95 rated for volcanic ash) just in case. Yes, I brought them last January as well since I knew that Fuego had been huffing and puffing for a while and threatening to go off.

At the U.S. Embassy’s suggestion, I’ve enrolled in “STEP” (Smart Traveler Enrollment  Program). That way, the U.S. Embassy is aware of my travel in Guatemala in case of an emergency, natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency. The embassy can also help family and friends get in touch with me in an emergency. I’ve also been receiving periodic updates on the safety concerns in Guatemala as they have come up. So far I’ve received two, both concerning some civil unrest in Guatemala City.

We happen to live near the Guatemala Consulate so I went there the other day.  I had a nice chat with one the officers there.  He assured me that tourist areas are safe but there are clearly areas to avoid.  So I will.

Since stealing ATM card information seems to be a national pastime  in Guatemala, I’ve opened a separate bank account specific to my trip to Guatemala with its own ATM card. That way, I can keep a small amount of money in the account and if my card gets hacked, my other accounts won’t be compromised.

Am I worried. Not really. Am I still going? Yes. Remember, I was at the Silver Lake Trader Joe’s an hour before the tragic shooting. L.A. has its issues as do most places.

I never would have imagined that this sabbatical would have taken so much planning and preparation to pull this off. There are so many moving parts. Oh yes, I even bought a travel guitar at my favorite guitar store, McCabe’s. Now, it’s time to pack.


30 Day Countdown to Guatemala #travel #Guatemala #Antigua

It has got to be around a year ago that I decided that I was going to live in Guatemala, study Spanish, maybe do some volunteer work, and do a few other things like writing, playing my guitar, and hiking volcanos. I have never lived anywhere other than California, let alone another country. There were numerous reasons fueling this decision in me. That’s a story that currently has unfinished chapters.  I plan to be gone 3 1/2 months.

So my sabbatical (isn’t that a great, important sounding name for it?) starts September 1, 2018 — and I’m leaving for Guatemala on September 6th.  I admit that I do have a round trip ticket and plan to be back in late December.  I am in the process of closing my psych practice – effective August 31st-subject to reopening at a later date. This has not been an easy process on so many levels. And it’s been very emotional.

So much to do.  I’m only slightly overwhelmed as long as I don’t think about it.  I’m excited, nervous, anticipatory, anxious, calm, scared, brave, worried, courageous, sad, happy.  A pupu platter of feelings and emotions which I’ve eaten myself so it’s all laying heavily in the pit of my stomach like a gluttonous mass of fried Asian appetizers.  Feels great going down, but then it lays there like a block of concrete!

The immersion language school in Antigua that I’ve enrolled in just sent me an updated confirmation. It’s getting more real. I’ll be living with a  Guatemalan family but I won’t find out anything about them until a few days before I arrive. What will they be like?  Will they like me?  Will I need to hide that I’m Jewish (my mishasgas, not theirs) – or that I’m in a same-sex relationship (another closet to crawl back into?). I’ve got to turn off my projector that’s running overtime.

I have no idea what I’m getting myself into. I am told I will eat the same meals that the family eats, presumably with them. Actually I hope we do. They’ll provide three meals a day, except on Sundays. I’ll do my own laundry. I’ll have my own room, and my own bathroom (an extra charge).  They’re supposed to have Wifi (an extra charge). I have no specific dietary restrictions. But since they’ve asked, I’ve requested non-fried healthyish food. Lots of fresh veggies and fruits (and hoping they know to wash them in filtered water!)  I prefer mostly chicken and fish. Will they think I’m high maintenance?  (Do people in Guatemala even use the term “high maintenance?”)  I imagine they must be thinking, Oh, he must be from California. He probably only eats kale and quinoa, and everything has to be organic, locally sourced, sustainable, free range, gluten free and non-GMO. Does everything need to be served on small plates?

I just took an assessment test to help the school determine what type of learner I am. I have no idea how that went or what that even means. I hope I still know how to learn. The next task is a Spanish placement test to see what level I’m at. I initially tried the intermediate test (I guess I was overly optimistic) but I found I was mostly guessing.  So they sent me the beginner’s test. I hope I’m at least an “advanced beginner” (my term, not theirs).  We’ll see what happens.  Más tarde.