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Never have I had such an appreciation for suburban living. The city of Plano — outside of Dallas — is ringed with 1970s planned neighborhoods, where the one-story houses look out at each other across sidewalks and huge, empty streets.
Their backyards are enclosed in a series of tall, wooden fences that create a maze of alleys to connect driveways and garages. It’s like everyone has their very own miniature palace. Each yard could very easily hold all your livestock — chickens, rabbits, turkeys, a pig or two — and maybe even grow some corn to feed them all.
Inside the house is another marvel. The living room is the size of an entire house in San Lucas, Guatemala, and there are more light bulbs than probably the entire pueblo of Patchitulul. But the best part is the kitchen. There’s an oven that isn’t wood-fired or solar powered, a microwave and a refrigerator! I’ve completely adopted the domestic, Texan-housewife role and have made baked goods every day since our arrival.
While these were all things I was looking forward to, one unexpected perk of the ‘burbs is its absolute silence. There are no wild, barking dogs at night, no roosters who chime every quarter-hour, and when you go for walks, at most you’ll encounter three other pedestrians. In fact, walking is so rare that the one time I meandered through the neighborhood without Dave — for no more than 10 minutes — I was asked if I needed a ride by a southern gentleman in a red pick-up truck. Sean later explained to me that no one walks, anywhere, and if you happen upon a lady on-foot, it’s assumed that her car has broken down.
All these sudden changes have been slightly overwhelming, but because we chose Texas to be our entry-point back into the states, becoming an American again is actually quite easy. We’ve already hit up two Mexican supermarkets and talked to a butcher, a waitress and a cashier in Spanish. Plus, we’re back on our Mexico City diet of delicious, cheap tacos!
With everything at your disposal, it’s easy to miss the rigors of homesteading. But thankfully, Fiesta the Latino supermarket, is bringing do-it-yourself back to suburbanites. Just like in Ecuador, you can even make your own rope out of sisal. Only this time, there’s no need to grow the actual plant, just pick up a large chunk of it at the store. Same deal for tortillas. Why make your own? There are nearly 20 brands of corn or flour ones piled high at Fiesta.
After deciding to cut our stay at IMAP short, or, rather, in half, Dave and I left San Lucas this week and headed off to the touristy side of Lake Atitlan in search of food we didn’t have to cook ourselves. One can only eat so many hard-boiled eggs. Remembering the cheap happy hour at La Iguana Perdida, we set our sights on Santa Cruz and those rum and cokes for 10 Quetzal — about $1.30 USD.
Like the chicken bus that we took from Guatemala City, the kitschy mode of transportation on the lake – really the only way to get around between towns along the water – is by small motor boats. Aside from the occasional lake spray that escapes the confines of the boats’ flappy, plastic windows, the experience is pretty much like any other 9-to-5, public transit commute. Often times you’re sitting next to locals who caught the rush-hour boat after work, and the rumbling motor lulls them to sleep after a tough day at the office.
As a tourist, however, you may ride the rush-hour boat, but you’ll have to pay the gringo premium for the service. Supposedly there are two types of boat taxis — public and private. According to the guidebook, the public operation is “semi-regulated,” which, I suppose, explains the men in matching white polo shirts, and the sign at the dock that lists the prices for various destinations. However, these numbers are pretty much meaningless, as the public boat drivers will make up endless excuses as to why today’s price is doubled. At first we believed them — it was Semana Santa, after all. But after a few days of this routine runaround, their excuses began sounding more and more like paltry attempts just to make more money. They ranged from “Oh, those are our morning prices,” while trying to explain the sign, to “the water is choppy right now.”
Still, you don’t have many options when it comes to transportation around Lake Atitlan, and the rides are pretty fun. Toward the end we learned to hold out for a better price and they usually took pity on us.
Here’s the thing with permaculture: the goal is to emulate nature to foster a more symbiotic relationship between plants and plants, plants and animals and plants and humans. You’re aiming to create a forest, in a sense, that contains all your food. After a few decades work for the average gardener – or in this case volunteers – is eventually phased out. If done right, you don’t even have to water the plants.
IMAP (Instituto Mesoamericano de Permacultura), where we are now, is a prime example of efficient, working permaculture, which is great to see firsthand, but can get kind of boring when your workweek is only about five hours long. Here’s a photo of one task we undertook — making a compost tea from coffee shells.
But it’s hard to complain when you wake up to this every morning.
I suppose they call it that because you can carry your chickens on board — though this wouldn’t really distinguish these multi-colored Blue Bird school buses from any other buses that traverse Latin America. Instead, I think the way passengers are crammed onto the vehicle — sitting three to a seat and squeezing themselves into any available space left in the aisle — is more likely to have inspired the nickname. Riding a chicken bus must be what it feels like for laying hens in a factory hen house.
This will give you a sense.
After four months of traveling through south and central america I suppose it was naive of me to think there would be some sort of maximum capacity threshold on public transit. After we had filled three people to each seat, I thought the driver or pasaje man might say “no mas” and instead speed by hopeful individuals holding out for a ride. But this was not the case.
Three to a seat? No problema. Just stand in the aisle. Can’t push your way through? Try flinging open the emergency exit door in the back and hopping on. This move somewhat complicates the pasaje man’s job, but each new passenger means more money, so he makes sure to catch all the riders. At one point this meant having to walk over the tops of seats in order to get back to the front, as the aisles were too congested for him to pass.
On our ride from Guatemala City to San Lucas, Dave and I put the maximum capacity around 75 people. Next time I’m presented with the option, I think I’ll go free range.
I guess Lake Atitlán is known for more than just permaculture. Turns out it’s a huge destination for tourists, as it has several pueblos dotted around the lake that range from party cities to tranquil escapes. And – who knew – it’s especially popular with DC-ers. Yesterday Dave and I took the boat shuttle across the lake to meet up with two of my friends from DC. Incidentally, their meet up was unplanned as well, but ran into each other in Antigua and even booked the same hostel on Lake Atitlán.
And just like DC we all met up for happy hour. The other side of the lake is worlds different than San Lucas Toliman and Patchitulul. For the night we traded our five-home community and homemade tortillas for eggplant parmesan and couches. That might not sound like much, but after cold outdoor showers, a communal kitchen and bunkbeds, the hostel in Santa Cruz was pretty luxurious.
Made it to Guatemala City! After just over an hour-long flight, we arrived in the capital, which turned out to be even smoggier than Mexico City. Like most of the capital cities in Latin America, Guatemala City is nestled in a valley and surrounded by mountains, I think. It’s a bit too hazy to make them out. Though in our hotel’s brochure the penthouse view is extraordinary.
Aside from our photoshopped vista provided in our hotel’s brochure, our short venture through the touristy/financial district also colored my first impression of Guatemala City. Something was slightly amiss in what resembled a swanky Mexico City neighborhood and perhaps it had to do with the dozen or so “security” guards standing outside the restaurants, parking garages and strip malls holding AK-47s. Their stagnant expressions weren’t exactly putting me at ease.
Later on, a conversation with a cab driver – coupled with Wikipedia research – only made things worse. Turns out, according to our cabbie, pretty much everyone in Guatemala City is armed, certainly the ones driving nice cars. This is for security, he told us. Though to protect yourself from what or whom, I’m not sure.
Wikipedia mentioned that Guatemala’s civil war between the government and rebels — that began in 1960 — only ended in 1996, and new information about war atrocities along with genocide accusations are still coming to light. Maybe I learned too much last night, or maybe it’s just first-day jitters, but I was pretty happy to board the ancient Blue Bird school bus and put 100 km between me and the city.
Serendipitously, we headed to Guanajuato City the same day the entire state holds its own festival and celebrates the Virgen de la Dolorosa – aka Dolores. Not sure that I ever really grasped the full meaning of the holiday, but the entire city came out this morning to stand in line for free popsicles.
The men are supposed to buy flowers for their ladies and the kids are supposed to throw eggshells filled with confetti at one another.
The first egg I got a hold of I chucked on the ground, wanting to hear that popping noise. But after getting more than a few looks from locals, Elyse asked a vendor what you’re supposed to do with the eggs — for good measure — and turns out kids smash them over their friends’ heads.
Didn’t make the most sense, but still made for a good mini vacation.
As an Eagle Scout backpacking his way through Latin America, the one thing that scares Dave more than getting robbed and kidnapped by narcotics traffickers, is getting food poisoning. My three bouts of salmonella in Peru have made him extremely amoeba conscious. On Wednesday Elyse, Dave and I decided to take the luxury bus to Guanajuato City – the birthplace of Diego Rivera, the hometown of political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada and the city made famous by its seemingly endless supply of mummies.
Something about the combination of above-ground crypts and extremely dry desert air makes for impeccably preserved human bodies. After seeing our fair share of deflated – yet intact – Mexicans from the 1800s and early 1900s, we headed back to the Zona Centro of Guanajuato City for a bite to eat.
We had passed this charming café a few times and decided the 75-peso menu del dia was worth it. I got the vegetable lasagna, and Dave, the chicken flautas. Neither were really that exciting – or maybe we’ve been spoiled by outstanding and prolific Mexican food – but something was definitely funky with my greenish lasagna. Dave and El confirmed my suspicions, saying it tasted rotten. When the waiter came back over, I told him it was no good, and Elyse quickly stepped in to expand on my elementary Spanish. Understanding the waiter had said we weren’t able to exchange it or send it back, and sensing that we were being too soft, Dave stepped in to say things as forcefully as possible. However, this is much more difficult to do in Spanish. Frustrated, he blurted, “es mucho malo” pointing to the mushy pile of vegetables, and shaking his head. Elyse, the waiter and I knew what he meant – the lasagna was bad – but what he had said was “it’s a lot bad.” El and the waiter chuckled, but Dave persisted. “Es putrido” he repeated, wearing his best disgusted face.
Despite his efforts, the lasagna sat there untouched, and Dave mostly stewed about the unaccommodating wait staff, and thought of new lines he could have said. When he asked us how to say “worst” in Spanish, we knew we should probably get the check before he had a chance to tell off our teenage waiter. We finally settled on not leaving a tip. At least we dodged salmonella this time.
“The place where men become gods.” This was the slogan for Teotihuacan – the ancient city about one hour from Mexico City. And while that may have been true for its estimated 200,000 – 250,000 inhabitants who lived there during its peak, because Dave is already known as Jesus del barrio, perhaps it didn’t work on us.
Like Templo Mayor these ruins also show levels of inhabitancy, beginning in 100 BC until it was abandoned around the 8th centtury. Some of the really ancient stuff was covered up by subsequent rulers who wanted to go bigger and better.
However, in the early 1900s the archeologist who discovered Teotihuacan, Leopoldo Batres, began restoring the site and did so incorrectly. For instance he created five tiered sections to summit the enormous Piramide del Sol instead the original four. Either way, still pretty cool to see.
Here’s the adjacent Priamide de la Luna