Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A very special visit to Canada

We had decided to make a surprise visit for the expected birth of E and J's first baby, likewise the first of its generation in both our families. This decision saw us bolt over a small forever across the Central American continent. In just two days we had made the trip from Santiago Atitlan to Cancun and later Calgary.

The surprise was fantastic, neither of them suspected a thing and for all they knew we were still in Guatemala. Maybe even for most of what any of you knew, we were and are still in Guatemala. What is even more confusing is the fact that as I write this, we are indeed on our way back to Central America and may well be in Guatemala again very soon.

So what happened over the last three weeks?

Well, our little vacation from our travels to Canada lasted a whole of three weeks and was designed for two things: to see baby Wingert and surprise its parents, and to go on a snowboarding trip. Luckily, both were a smashing success!

Aunty Colette, completely in love with JTW just hours after delivery

Little baby bear James only hours old

Uncle Vinko and James spending quality time

Mum, dad and baby - the new happy family

James not to impressed with posing again with yours truly, Colette and Vinko

"Now that I am licking carpet, how do I get out of this predicament?"

The baby turned out to be little boy JTW and he is just absolutely adorable. His parents couldn't be prouder of their little human byproduct, and indeed his arrival did not come easy as James turned out to be quite a well sized baby boy. This was a very special time for the whole van Heerden/Wingert/Grgic Canadian clan and there were plenty of ecstatic feelings flying about upon his miraculous arrival and radiant presence.

Our CouchSurfing family for the Snowfest 2011, Fairmont in BC

Fellow CS'er John at the top of the Kicking Horse Gondola

Just look at all that snow and the beautiful conditions at Kicking Horse

Taking a well deserved beer break at the main lodge at Kicking Horse

We loved the tree runs at Kicking Horse, just amazing and fresh snow up to your knees!

The snowboarding trip was organized through CouchSurfing (if you haven't heard of this yet, now is the time to check it out) and turned out to be a blast of a week hanging out with a full house of 12 all snowboarders (yeah!) and shreddin' up the mountain resorts at both Panorama in Invermere and Kicking Horse at Golden, both in BC. Colette and I really pushed the boundaries of our capabilities, and particularly so at Kicking Horse where the runs are not for the faint hearted. Most were steep, some nicely treed, but all were packed with fresh powdered snow! All of this was made easier by the fact that they have a fantastic gondola that takes you all the way to the top from the base lodge that lands at the top of these idyllic snowboarding runs and conditions, which also meant we didn't have to brave the wind chill factor of a Canadian winter hanging our one bound foot and board off a chair lift...in other words, awesome snowboarder heaven! Kicking Horse has risen to the top of my list for snowboarding destinations.

The whole new Canada clan in Calgary, we had to say farewell again...

We said our farewell to the Canada family once again, and even more sadly this time with the presence of little  James in circulation. Nevertheless, we fly back to Cancun to answer our calling of more Central American exploration and travel...where to from there? Hard to say, only time and the road round the bend will tell.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Good Ship is a Bad Ship

Colette's old hobby, while we lived in Brisbane, was sometimes spending quality Friday nights with this pack of loud, slobbering and twisted scoundrels. I am indeed speaking of the Good Ship, and they have recently begun to make waves and stink up a storm back home.

Their latest video release is nothing short of brilliant, enjoy!

If you like this song, pick your poison and feel free to check out others on their; facebook, myspace, and feel free to purchase any songs from their album "Avast! Wretched Sea" at the iTunes online store.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Ethical Responsibility and the Zeitgeist

It has become apparent in these modern times that the impact of human lifestyles globally has reached a level where it can no longer be assumed that nature will take care of it, let alone ignored altogether. Many of the things we take for granted in our modern and industrialized, nay consumerist lives, becomes available and accessible simply because it presently does not take into account what "cost" it imparts on to our mother earth.

Apple image courtesy of UpgradeOSX.com

To illustrate my point, take for example one apple. An apple in Canada or Australia may cost you around $1.50 (at a rate of roughly $4.00/kg). This price usually includes the cost associated with growing the apple, imparted to the farmer, transporting the apple, imparted to the transport company, storing and selling the apple, imparted to the supermarket company, plus profit (hopefully down the whole chain, but usually not especially in the case of farmers...but that's another story).

What this price currently does not include is the cost associated with removing prime vegetation for the growth of mono-culture agricultural practices. It does not include the cost of the reduction of top soil health and quality thus reducing the capacity of future growth. It does not typically include the cost associated with the loss of biodiversity both in flora and fauna, and therefore the wider impact on the surrounding environment, other farm practices and indeed the whole natural world. It also does not include the cost of reduced air quality, carbon dioxide intake and regulation, and reduced water quality due to loss of native vegetation. This is where carbon credits come in.

Biodiversity image courtesy of Greenlifeonearth.mylovetechnology.com

It must be said, especially for the sake of carbon market skeptics, that the carbon bonds available on the global carbon market, not withstanding really poor quality credits in the form of concessions for massive corporations and all other tainted types, are our current best guess scenario. In the same wane that 600 years ago we thought the world was flat, and 100 years ago did not think it was possible to fly, and so on, we are a people of the belief that "this is what we know now to be the best and therefore is the truth". In other words it is an intermediate solution which will aid the transition to a new, green global economy.

Round The Bend Project, and indeed Colette and Vinko Grgic move around a lot...around the world that is, and we usually fly. This is available to us and is of course the most efficient way to get around, especially over such great distances. So we indulge, and we consume, and currently our actions do not contain the consequences of such comfort and ability to travel. In order to correct this fault and to join the ranks of the current best predicted practice on business that includes environmental impact, we are obliged to offset our flights.

Our LittleGreenSpot green certificate, offsetting the carbon emissions of our annual flight travel

We purchased our annual flights carbon offsets from LittleGreenSpot, a very new Canadian company dedicated to providing high quality carbon credits for business's as well as the general public. This seemed a much better method of assuring that our money went to the right place. Usually you will be able to purchase offsets from your airline once you make the booking, however it is difficult to tell where exactly these funds are going and what quality of carbon credit they are providing. There are also other companies where you may purchase your offsets directly but most assume that you are purchasing them only for a single or return flight. LittleGreenSpot is different, they take into account the fact that you may fly more than once in a year and provide an easy to use calculator to offset you annual flights. Our current offsets with them are supporting a wind farm project in India, a massive growing and quickly industrializing economy in dire need of green alternatives. Another one of their projects is the San Jose community conservation effort in Peten, located in Northern Guatemala. We got a chance to visit their BioItza Biosphere Reserve and see firsthand the inspiring enthusiasm they put toward protecting their environment for future generations. You can read all about the projects that LittleGreenSpot is supporting here.

It makes sense to jump start this change, pay your share and even out a little the damage your lifestyle causes to the global biosphere...our life support system.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Merino Wool Clothing is the Best Travel Clothing

Hey all, this is a special blog just to talk about a fairly recent product that is available on the market. If you haven't heard of merino wool yet, then just quickly it is sheep wool from the New Zealand alps in the south island. The sheep there are named Merino and their coat is exceptionally well adapted to massive swing in temperature across the year and their vast terrain. Their wool is famous for being ultra fine and ultra dense, and provides an excellent material for making anything from ultra light to thick clothing of all shapes and sizes.

Merino wool performance clothing by Icebreaker (Image courtesy of Treehugger.com)

You might already be aware of a very successful company and excellent business model by the name of Icebreaker (also an excellent place to read all about the amazing powers of merino wool). The brand is now synonymous with endurance high performance wear and thermal comfort clothing based on the fact that every single one of their products is made from sustainable farming practices of only merino wool.

This evolution in endurance clothing has brought about a shift in the travel and camping markets as well. Colette and I got to each really put to the test a thin long sleeved merino wool shirt we got for a bargain price in Canada prior to setting off on our trip. I have to admit that this is by far the most superior product of its kind. We wore these shirts pretty much every single day, they never felt too hot or too cold. They do not stink or build up stench from repeated wear and after sweating. Even better, they dry super, super fast.

While we were in Belize we ran into a lovely lady from Seattle who told us about her friend Georgia Stephenson (she goes by her more delicious nickname Tink) who had started a line of merino wool design clothing for outerwear and the like. Tink being a super awesome person and Nicole being a lovely individual herself, have teamed up and sent us two more long sleeved shirts and a pair of thermal stretch pants as well.

The products are designed and made by Tink using only high quality New Zealand merino wool. They are perfect, and we have decided to take back nothing but merino wool shirts due to their excellent performance once we head back to Central America again. You can check out Tink's website here, her range of Merino Wool clothing is named ElementAll and she is currently building a portfolio for her website.

So there you have it folks, from the horses mouth. There is nothing better than merino wool clothing when it comes to backpacking and saving space. Easy to dry, great in all conditions, never smells and it is super comfortable.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Curva Peligrosa y el Ombligo

Antigua - Lago Atitlan - Flores, Guatemala

The amazing Lake Atitlan, Colette took this photo from a lancha heading to the markets in Santiago Atitlan one morning

This week´s title was inspired by none other than the proximity of a common Guatemalan road sign´s texting to the Croatian language (Hrvatski) and, well the amazing place that is Lago Atitlan (Lake Atitlan) in the Guatemalan highlands.

"Curva Peligrosa y el Ombligo" [Dangerous Bend and the Umbilicus]

The lake was named the "Umbilicus of the World" by Martin Prechtel in his amazing book describing his life as an initiated shaman living in Santiago Atitlan some 30 years back (today this is a large town on the sourthern bank of Lake Atitlan, home to 40,000 Tzutujiles).The book is named Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, published in 1998, and if you haven´t read it yet, I strongly recommend it for anyone who feels that some ounce of their natural, wild self still exists somewhere quietly, hidden deep inside their hearts and souls.

Coffee is the rule in Antigua, Guatemala (this sign is from Fernando`s, one of the nicest cafe`s in town)

An antique coffee ball roasting machine desinged by none other than a German

Workers in the coffee drying fields

So much coffee...

These photos are courtesy of a tour we took through the La Azotea coffee farm

This was a little church inside the farm compund, maybe for the workers? 

The bus ride from Antigua to Panajachel, the most common tourist entry point to Lake Atitlan, is nothing short of amazing...amazing for having survived that demon ride through hell´s scorned and twisted gates! Picture this folks; our driver is a well worn Guatemalan cowboy doning a white cowboy hat, he drives as if each day is his last and perhaps he is a little hungover from last nights celebration for having survived the previous day on this very same bus.

This is a Subaru Impreza, some 40 years older than Colette`s BAM-056 Canadian version, that we found in Antigua

I bet every morning this man wakes up, makes love to his wife for what might be his last time again, kisses her after breakfast and says "Don´t wait up for me!" and steps out his door facing another day of probable death. once he hits that driver seat he rides that pony like its a bat from the devil´s very own cage for what seems to be his next attempt to score a PB (personal best time) on the leg between Antigua and Panajachel on Lake Atitlan. This journey they say is supposed to take around 4 hours; we get there in 3 hours and 15 minutes!...after many stops along the way picking up the local Mayan highlanders heading for the weekend markets around Lake Atitlan. This bus hurls along the two lane and sometimes one lane highway, around and up and down such tight bends that your liver screams for mercy, and at such a speed that I swear TO GOD, the bus could not, I repeat COULD NOT have gone any faster - for the laws of physics themselves would not permit it!!!

Happy having survived this improbability of life´s existences, we reach the tranquil shores of Lago Atitlan. Despite arriving in Panajachel, the place itself being very beautiful with scores of handicraft shops to browse and quite a welcoming tourist trap, our destination is San Marcos La Laguna. A short lancha (taxi boat) ride across the lake, San Marcos La Laguna sits comfortably on the far North-Western edge of Lago Atitlan, a modern spiritual meccha for many a crusty hippie, artesan and "spiritual healer".

Making another bracelet at Hotel Aaculax in San Marcos La Laguna

San Marcos La Laguna is an amazing place. Even the most hardened sceptic could not deny that after a week spent here they felt nothing, not even a slight change in their attitude. This place evokes tranquility, not only because there are more spiritual or yoga or healing ceremony retreats here than in West End, Brisbane (or Kensignton in Calgary) - but also because its home to the Kakchikeles (traditional Mayan people living along the northern bank of Lake Atitlan), and its just so damn beautiful.

The ornate and beautiful Hotel Aaculax, we spent three nights here

Your happy hosts in San Marcos La Laguna

We fall for its charms, and those of the many little villages around the edge of the lake. There are in fact two major traditional language groups of Mayan people here, Kakchikel (northern bank) and Tzutujil (southern bank). The days are spent quietly, paitently and calmy. San Marcos La Laguna has no roads in Barrio 3, the part of town where the tourists prevail, only little dirt paths with hand painted signs telling you where you can eat, sleep and get "healed". Swimming in the lake just off the rocks to the West of town is a calming and refreshing experience, and if you dare you can take the 10 meter plunge off the timber deck built for this purpose. Colette jumped twice on our last day there!

We take another week of Spanish through the Orbita Spanish School from San Pedro La Laguna, run by Rene, a really clever and very polite man and single parent of two amazing kids. Here in San Pedro La Laguna the local language is Tzutujil, same as in Santiago Atitlan. While their program is really well structured  for a period of up to 8 weeks or more, we insist on only practising conversation which turns out to be the right course of action. After many weeks of grammar, we just needed to know how to use it.

Colette studying at the Orbita Spanish School in San Pedro La Laguna (Rene the director was her teacher)

Not a bad view from my study desk hey? (this is my teacher Myra, she was lovely)

In San Marcos La Laguna we stayed at El Arbol, the only Mayan, and in fact Guatemalan owned hotel in San Marcos La Laguna. The owner Rigoberto and his whole family are amazing and outwardly honest and hardworking people. They are also very industrious, owning the hotel, a handicraft shop selling colourful Kakchikel clothes and wowen gifts, a tienda (regular little corner shop) selling water by the volume for your bottles and home made cakes and breads made by doña de la casa (Rigo´s wife) and also a very affordable restaurant serving up some local breakfast choices.

The gorgeous and affordable Hotel El Arbol, San Marcos La Laguna

Our breakfast table at Moonfish in San Marcos La Laguna, the amazing food at this restaurant is all local, organic and healthy - and super tasty!

This drinking spot in Santiago Atitlan does not want guns inside...or your dogs!

I really took to the village, making friends with many artesans (local and foreign) and local children and other townsfolk. The kids here like in many poorer parts of the world are used to being given gifts or money by ignorant toursits. While the intention is sweet and good, the reality and its consequences affect the local people badly since the kids learn that they can just beg or ask for things to get by in life. I refuse to give anyone anything for free and find myself teaching kids how to make bracelets, taking classes in Kakchikel in return for bracelet gifts (which I also had to make while I was there) and just generally trying to teach good examples. Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man how to fish...and well you get the picture.

My young and beautiful Kakchikel teacher Juana Evelia, she is the only girl in San Marcos La Laguna selling pure cacao chocolates made just across the lake in San Pedro La Laguna (she is 11 years old and is wearing the bracelet I made for her as payment for the language lessons)

The outcome is that I really get to know some of the people here quite well, I learn a little of the local language which comes in handy and earns many warm smiles, and finally my experience of our time here is so much richer. The Kakchikel language is beautiful, rich and warm...just like the locally grown coffee and chocolate!

Seq`ar [pronounced sick-arsh] - means Buenas Dias or Good Morning

Xq`aq`ij [pronounced sh-kak-ich] - means Buenas Tardes or Good Afternoon

Utzauach [pronounced utz-ah-watch] - means Como Estas or How Are You

Tiosh`xawa [pronounced tee-osh-shower] - means Gracias A Ti / Muchas Gracias or Thank You Very Much

...and my personal favourite...

Chuac`chic [pronounced chew-a-cheek] - means Hasta Mañana or See You Tomorrow

...I will miss this place, and ache to return soon.

We became good friends after seeing each other lots over the week and had a great time making jokes, she was truly sad when we said goodbye to her the night before we left (it broke Colette`s heart to hear Evelia say "Yo voy a ser muy triste que ustedes salen...")

We leave the lake and its amazing wonders after kitting ourselves in some of the amazing colourful locally handmade clothing, and take a 12 hour bus ride to Flores, in Peten in Northern Guatemala. The journey amazingly takes us past the three largest lakes in Guatemala, first we start from Lago Atitlan, we zoom past Lago Izabal near Rio Dulce, and end up on the shores of Lago Peten Itzà in Flores. All in one day, and what is the meaning behind all this water? Are we not made of 70% water? Interesting...

Where we are off to next we don´t know, maybe its time for a rest in Flores...either way the "Umbilicus" part of the title is very suiting, without disregard to our proximate new family member way up in that cold part of the world. Is it time yet?