Monday, March 19, 2012

Plans Change

Of course you'll remember that a little while back I left Xela to attend a sailing meetup in Rio Dulce. You might also remember that after the meetup I was a bit uncertain about what I was going to do next. Too many options and no strong inclinations. At the time I thought I might help out with a project to install some solar panels for a computer lab at a local orphanage. I was able to help them a bit by reviewing some proposals and solar quotes, but in the end the work really wasn't well suited for me.
Sailing on the lake near Rio Ducle

Life on the river in a dug-out canoe
That sent me back to the drawing board so to speak. I was half-heartedly looking for a sailboat heading south on which I could crew, in hopes that I could take some more Spanish lessons once I arrived "somewhere south," when the aforementioned bacteria made itself at home in my intestines.  This allowed me a couple long days of sitting around the hostel with nothing more to do than think and read. In addition to finishing Oryx and Crake (pretty decent book, by the way), I also conceived and sketched out a plan for my next few months which I've outline below. But first I'll bring you all up to present day. 

Magic in a bottle.
After I had mostly dealt with the bacteria, I decided to head back to Xela for more Spanish lessons. I could have made the trip from Rio Dulce to Xela in one day, but that would have been about 11 hours in a bus. Instead, I stopped over for two nights in Antigua. Antigua is a very pretty city; clean and quite by Guatemalan standards. It was nice to spend the day there, and I met some other travelers who were really nice, but that's the problem - it's not real Guatemala. At any given time there are probably more Gringos in the city than there are Guatemalans. And it's far to easy to get by without speaking a lick of Spanish. I'm glad I spent a short time there, but I was very pleased to be heading back to Xela the next day. 

New friends in Antigua.

Impressively well manicured lawn and colonial style architecture (or so I was told) in Antigua. 
Now I'm in Xela. I reconnected with the friends I made during my first five weeks, and I've signed up for three more weeks of Spanish classes at a different school, PLQ. Not that I had any problems with my last school, ICA. I really learned a lot and had a great time there. I just figured why not try something new? And I've gotten great reviews about this school from other students. 

Also, I'm no longer staying with a host family. Same story - I really enjoyed my host family, but I wanted to try cooking and shopping for myself while I'm here. I have a nice room in a guest house with 5 other people; shared bathrooms and kitchens and very close to my new school.

I have also found some appropriate volunteer work to do while I'm here. The original volunteer group I had identified before leaving Alaska finally emailed me back with a project they could use my help on. I'm going to be reviewing equipment and requirements for connecting micro-hydro systems to the utility power grid. I don't want to count my chickens before they hatch, but this seems like something where I can be of real benefit and learn a bit at the same time. More info on their website: Alterna.

I updated the map to show my trip to Rio Dulce and back and my current location in Xela. I encourage you to zoom in and virtually browse around in Guatemala. The topography is incredible. Here's the link:

Going Forward
Now for the interesting part: what is Thomas going to do after language school? Good question. My original plan was to stay here or in another Spanish speaking country and volunteer, putting my new language skills into practice. I still want to do that, and I might if this volunteer work turns out to be as good as it sounds, but I would also like to visit my brother in Jakarta. He is stationed there with the Marines, but only for a couple more months.  I haven't seen him in a while, so it would be really nice to visit him. Also, sometime in the last couple years I casually promised him that I would come visit if he got the post in Indonesia. Now I feel casually obligated.
Facebook kindly generated a map showing the location of all of my friends.
So hypothetically, if I were to visit my brother, I wouldn't want to just jet across the Pacific and jet right back. It would be a waste of a very energy-intense airplane ride. I should do something more while I'm there; especially since I have a bit of free time. Then I started thinking about all of the places where I have friends whom I haven't seen in a long time. One thing led to another, and after a bit of feasibility research this is the very rough, pie in the sky, idea I came up with:
  1. Ride buses from Guatemala through Mexico to California, taking the ferry from Mazatlan to La Paz across the Gulf of California. (1 week)
  2. Briefly visit some folks in CA, then take a plane to Japan.
  3. Visit my friend in Japan and get a small dose of the culture. (1 week)
  4. Fly to Indonesia and visit my brother. (1 week-ish)
  5. Take a boat or short flight to Thailand. Hopefully cross paths with a couple friends in Thailand, then bus and train my north toward Beijing. (a couple weeks) 
  6. Hop aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad and head toward Moscow with a couple stops along the way to visit friends in Russia. (2 weeks with stops) 
  7. From Moscow, head for Central Europe via train to see friends in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, the UK, and Ireland. (3 or 4 weeks; I hope I have time for all of the Europe stops I want to make)
  8. Take a ferry from Norway to Iceland and then fly toward New York or Montreal.
  9. Take the train across Canada from Montreal to Vancouver. (1 week)
  10. And finally, take the ferry from Washington back to Alaska. (1 week)
Pros: I get to visit a lot of people I haven't seen in a long time, minimal air plane travel / maximum public transit, I get to learn a lot about many different cultures, and at the end I will have crossed every line of longitude. 

Cons: I will feel guilty about not spending more time volunteering and long distance travel is inherently wasteful.

Alright, there's my idea. The alternative option is to stay in Latin America and really dive into some volunteering, which would be rewarding, fun, and educational (and closer to my original intent). What do you think? What would you do? Suggestions, comments, advice? If I go the long way, will any of you be crossing paths with me somewhere? Would anyone want to join me for a leg or two of the journey? Would I be passing close to anyone or anything that I should really make a point of visiting? 


  1. it really doesnt matter. all paths lead back to alaska.


    1. That's good because Alaska is a good place to be (most of the time).

  2. Wow! Tough decision. I would really like for you to see Ryan. We used to chat on Facebook all the time, but haven't talked to him at all since he is in Indonesia . I think there are lots of volunteer opportunities everywhere. I'm sure you could find some in Alaska, or everywhere you are! You are single, not afraid to travel alone, have the connections, I say go for it! That's you aunts opinion! Love your blog. You could never update too much in my opinion! Love ya! Becky

  3. I don't know enough about your dedication/motivation for volunteer work to provide input on that front, but if you're interested in going up to Norway via Hamburg, Stefan and I might come along for the trip! We've wanted to go fjording (er, sightseeing) for a while. :P As long as it's not in late July--I'll be in the US for a bit.

    Good luck in deciding the road ahead. The brilliant part is, you can't go wrong! I'm sure you'll have a blast and make fantastic memories no matter what you choose.


    1. Glad you're finally digging through the blog back-log :) Fjording with you guys would be amazing, I will keep you in the loop.

      My motivation to volunteer is strong, but I often find myself doubting the real significance of my contribution. This sometimes leads to hesitation and apathy.

  4. Wow, that trip sounds awesome! Even though it wasn't part of the original plan I'd go with that.

  5. I'm sure you opened yourself up to lots of suggestions and advices but that's nice that you care what we think.
    So, practically you have two options: work/education and leisure/education. Both sound exciting.
    You've already made a huge effort in learning Spanish and the local culture. Do you feel that the hardest part is behind you and now you're ready to immerse yourself into something more constructive (volunteering)? Or perhaps you got what you wanted (or not) from it and feel like moving on?
    Trip around the world could teach you many things but probably not in depth as your Guatemalan adventure. However, visiting friends and making new ones is hugely appealing. ANy who knows, maybe you'll like Siberia and stay there longer (ha,ha). Also, referring to your previous blog, it may get tiring being in a different culture every week or so. Perhaps you could do that on your R&Rs if you get back on field schedule in AK :)
    Anyway, if you decide to spend time in Polska let me know; my brother lives in Warsaw.
    Whatever you'll decide will make the most of it and great lifetime memories.

    1. Yes Tom, maybe I'll just set up residence in Siberia. Or maybe I'll decide to walk from Siberia to India. here's an idea, right?

      You're right though, it could get tiring moving from culture to culture every week. I hope that getting to see friends in almost every stop would alleviate that.

      As far as Spanish goes, yes, I think the hardest part is behind me. I still have a lot of grammar to learn, but the majority of what I need to do now is practice and learn new vocabulary.

      I'll let you know if I stop in Polska!

  6. The round the world trip is appealing, but really I am a fan of postage stamp travel: get someplace and enjoy being there in all the non-travel ways. I like this for the very same reason that you ran back to Xela from Antingua. Traveling round the world will keep you in the realm of globe trotters and make it hard to find that authentic engagement that drew you to travel.

  7. I always prefer to get to know the people, their habits and mentality.
    So, in my opinion, to stay just one week in every country is much too short!
    You won't be someone else than a tourist in these places and you won't notice the small differences between the people (eastern Chinese, western Chinese, southeastern Chinese).
    If I were you, I'd stay some days in Spanish speaking countries to improve your Spanish skills. After a while you could head somewhere else for volunteering! I recommend WWOOF, you will sleep in traditional houses, you will get traditional and typical food and you get to learn your hosts very well!
    I prefer quality instead of quantity :p
    Hug's and kisses!
    P.S.: Don't forget Germany on your trip. You can volunteer in my home :D

    1. Quality over quantity resonates with me, and WWOOF is something I've always wanted to do, but this is a hard opportunity to pass up. There are so many people in interesting places right now, and I have the time and ability to visit them. The schedule is a bit rushed, but I like to believe that even if it's only a couple days here and there it will be meaningful when it's shared with good friends. ... And this way I can figure out which places I might want to go back to in the future for more cultural appreciation.

  8. Put me on your Japan list, Thomas! It would make me seriously happy to see you again after that long time!!

  9. It sounds to me like you have the world at your fingertips, and every opportunity available to you, lacking only a worthy cause to guide you. If I were you, I would go down to Peru, find some shamans, eat the magic cactus, and go on a vision quest. What does your heart desire? Don't go back until you find out. Journey within yourself as well as without. :)

    I think there are a lot of us feeling the "what now" kind of thing. And maybe not all of us have visions, maybe our hearts don't desire anything over the other. I'm reading this book about Pinochet, and the author is talking about how his "cause" was his country because he was a young man when the shit hit the fan with the coup and everything. He said his generation had no choice about what they would work towards, and that if a dictator hadn't hijacked the country, maybe they could have done other things. And I says to myself, but maybe you wouldn't have done anything at all. How many of us will blaze a new trail? How many of us wil be in the right place, at the right time, and know the right thing to do? You sir, have done an exceptional job stacking the odds on your side. You did everything right. Why. I believe in you, Thomas. Do something great to make the world better for as many people as possible. Use good judgement to decde what is actually helpful.


  10. Do you want to learn Spanish? If that matters to you, stay in latin america... if not travel the world.

    1. Yo ya aprendi espanol. Todos! Estoy un experto, por supuesto, :P ... o, por lo menos, un parte de la idioma suficiente para muchas cosas y un poco de trabajo. (Mire, escribi este sin ayuda de nadie ni nada ... excepto "mire" porque yo olvide la conjucation de imperativo).

  11. I think the adventure you are looking for will be fullfilled traveling the globe and connecting with your friends. I find it interesting reading your blog. You want to be with people (volunteering, taking classes, returning to larger cities) but you still enjoy your reflective time alone (sailing on the river). You're an introvert Thomas but you need human connections. We all do. Follow your heart and do what makes you happy. Don't over think it. This is a remarkable chance that not everyone takes. Enjoy it. You know that when you come back to Alaska, you have a place to stay and plenty of friends to welcome you back. ~ Karey

  12. Hey, I like your idea of traveling the world. I don't have advice-advice to give to you, only one: there is no reason to feel guilty about not volunteering. If you run into a volunteer opportunity that really inspired you and made you feel like you really, really made a difference, you wouldn't hesitate to stay, I am sure. Go with your gut feeling. If you are looking for an adventure and for meeting friends, go for it - without feeling bad for either not volunteering or the long distance travel. If the only cons you have are those two (and if they would make up the main reasons for a decision to stay in Latin America) - just dismiss them :)

    So if you end up traveling the world, when would you be in Austria? Aaaaand if you end up taking the bus to California, when would that be? I've been playing with the thought of meeting up with a friend there just for a couple of days, but I don't want to fly. And, thirdly, in case you decided to stay in Guatemala - I'll probably be slowly heading back there. Maybe spend a few days in Xela, too. Let me know how long you'll be there for!

    Liebe Grüße!

  13. Hi Thomas
    Tough decision! I'd go with the world travel as you will never get such a golden opportunity to see the world and meet old friends. You will have the rest of your life to volunteer in so many ways. Looking forward to seeing you back in Alaska.

    enjoy the journey