Saturday, January 31, 2009

from the "you gonna eat that?" dept.

I've never understood the mindset of those who steal other people's lunch at work. What a terrible thing to do to a fellow co-worker. And sadly, it's not uncommon.

But there is an solution to the problem (if you don't include ExLax laced brownies): fake mold. More specifically, ZipLock bags that are printed with green splotches to simulate mold. MORE HERE.

The only problem? The overzealous fridge Nazi who, fearful of an ebola outbreak, tosses out your PB&J sandwiches.


Friday, January 30, 2009

from the "reality check" dept.

This little video puts it all in perspective. YOU'VE already won the lottery. You just don't know it.

If the world had 100 people in it. from John Chow on Vimeo.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

from the "Obama gets Mad" dept.

Look who's gracing the cover of Mad:

More from the Chicago Tribune:

We all know that President Barack Obama has assumed the presidency at a time when that pressure cooker of a job is even more so right now because of the worst recession since the Great Depression and two foreign wars.

So Mad Magazine's new Obama cover spoofs the notion of the president's first 100 days but accelerates it to his first "100 minutes."

Monday, January 26, 2009

from the "back intact" dept.

I've just returned to San Pedro after several days in Guatemala City. The purpose? To pick up a few bits and pieces for the house... and to accompany "The Cigarette Man" on a business trip.

A full story is coming. Please stand by.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

from the "it's over" dept.

After eight years of rule by the village idiot and his cabal of bloodthirsty morons, let's hope a new page has finally been turned.

Fingers crossed.


Friday, January 16, 2009

from the "russian around" dept.

Here's another dose of Russia... this time old Russian adverts. For more tasty treats, click aqui!

How can you not love this stuff... ?


from the "you had me at abandoned" dept.

Do you have a thing for abandoned Russian polar nuclear lighthouses? Click here or on the picture. Yum!


from the "sweet touch" dept.

This is one of the most creative/bizarre candy adverts I've ever seen. How'd this one get past the suits?


Thursday, January 15, 2009

from the "that's what I thought" dept.

Here's an interesting piece on living as a writer in Guatemala. Originally published March, 2008 in the New York Times. [LINK]

Guatemala as Muse and Base for a Writer

TO reach her favorite place in the world, Joyce Maynard flies for five hours from San Francisco, near her main home in Mill Valley, Calif. Then she is jostled for two and a half hours in a hired minivan over dusty two-lane roads beset by construction delays and clogged by buses spewing fumes. Finally, she boards a launch for a 45-minute ride to the tiny dock near her casa.

Ms. Maynard’s two-story wood and adobe second home perches on a green hillside just outside the village of San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala, on the edge of Lake Atitlán, one of the deepest lakes in the Americas. Three dormant volcanoes, their peaks often clouded by mist, rim the southern shore of the lake, standing guard over the teal blue water. One of them, San Pedro, is perfectly framed in the view from Ms. Maynard’s bedroom balcony, but every window has a spectacular vista.

Stone steps curve gracefully down from the house, through tall wrought-iron gates, to Ms. Maynard’s own dock on the lake, from which she takes her daily swim. On the water, pale blue launches, called lanchas, ferry passengers from village to village. Fishermen drop lines from their cayucas, small wooden dugout boats with upturned prows.

It is here, somewhat to her own surprise, that Ms. Maynard spends up to four months a year, writing and running workshops for writers.

She had no intention of owning a home in Guatemala when she set out to travel there seven years ago with her daughter, Audrey, who was studying Spanish in a Guatemalan school. On her stone patio one recent morning, a tan Ms. Maynard, wearing a magenta camisole and khaki capris, recalled the conversation that changed the course of her life. “I said, ‘I so envy you, Aud, for getting to be here and study your Spanish,’ and she said, ‘What’s stopping you, Mama?’ ” Dramatic pause. “And I realized, ‘Nothing!’ ”

She had been divorced for over a decade. The youngest of her three children, Will, had just finished high school. Her older son, Charlie, was in college. Her work as a writer required only a laptop. She was supposed to be traveling on to Hawaii, but cashed in her ticket and rented a house for eight months. The longer she stayed, the more certain she became that she had stumbled on the next chapter of her life story.

“For the first half of my life, the big adventure was raising children,” said Ms. Maynard, 54, author of 11 books, including “To Die For,” which was made into the film starring Nicole Kidman, and “At Home in the World: A Memoir,” setting the record straight about, among other things, her complicated romantic relationship in the early ’70s with J. D. Salinger.

“I was writing books, I was having a career, but the biggest adventure was watching them grow and launching them into the world, and they’re launched,” she said, stretching her arms wide with an incredulous laugh. “I had a bit of a crisis figuring out what could possibly be an adventure after that.”

The adventure turned out to be San Marcos, west of Guatemala City in the central highlands. The village is poor. Its indigenous Maya population of 2,500 lives in one-room pueblos and cooks over open fires. Tiny adobe markets called tiendas stock a few staples. Women in traditional dress sit with baskets along the dirt and cobblestone paths, accepting quetzales, the local currency, for their avocados, potatoes, onions and eggs.

About 65 expatriates, half of them Americans, live full time in the town; another 150 come and go. Many have an artistic bent. Ms. Maynard’s neighbors include a Czech glass artist; a cabinetmaker originally from North Carolina who started a blues club in town; and the former owner of a record store in Hamburg, Germany, who runs a restaurant and inn with his wife, once a Manhattan social worker. A science professor from Tufts and a writer for The Washington Post live nearby part-time.

SOME North Americans and Europeans who visit San Marcos come to study at its Spanish-language school, founded in 2006 as a branch of an established school in another lakeside village. Others are drawn by its reputation as a center for healing and spirituality. The San Marcos Holistic Center, built in 1998, offers classes in yoga, massage and holistic therapies. Las Pirámides meditation center, founded in 1991, holds sessions in pyramid-shaped temples, including a moon course, running from full moon to full moon, and a three-month sun course. Its students can stay in pyramid-shaped cabins, but there are also cozy eco-hotels and inns in town, and several good restaurants.

As she finished writing a book, “The Usual Rules,” and learned some Spanish that first year, Ms. Maynard was enchanted by the landscape and the Maya, whom she describes as gentle and generous. She was hooked, in a plot twist she recognized. “At the very moment I thought I was going to have the saddest, loneliest year of my life,” she said, “I had the happiest, richest one.”

She found her house when she passed it on one of her regular swims. She bought it, with the acre of land it sits on, for $85,000 in 2002, a few years after the United Nations oversaw a peace accord to end years of internal conflict in Guatemala. (The State Department still advises travelers there to be cautious.)

The main house consists of a kitchen and large bath on the first floor and two rooms upstairs. Although the kitchen is basic, Ms. Maynard cooks there frequently. “I live pretty much vegetarian when I’m here,” she said. “I make stir fries, carrot ginger soup, Key lime pie, fruit tarts with local mango and pineapple,” for example. She has local electricity and telephone service, and Internet access. The property has its own septic system, and a pump draws water for most uses from the lake. Drinking water comes in large containers from the tiendas.

The house has no dining room. “I try to eat every meal outside,” Ms. Maynard said, sitting at the wooden table on the patio. “Even at night, you can eat dinner very happily under the stars.” An outdoor wood-burning pizza oven received its inaugural firing last month.

Up a staircase with gnarled carved-wood handrails, the large master bedroom and a living room that can double as a guest room share a double-sided fireplace. The bedroom has hardwood floors, a cathedral ceiling, wide ceiling beams and doors opening to a balcony that overlooks the lake. Ms. Maynard watches the sun rise over the volcanoes and the stars appear at night. The living room, decked out in eye-popping shades of red, orange and fuchsia, has a nine-foot-long daybed and the same jaw-dropping views.

Throughout the house are dozens of brightly colored cotton napkins, tablecloths, cushions, spreads and pillows. “Most of the textiles in my house used to be worn on a woman’s body,” Ms. Maynard said. “They were huipils, and every village in Guatemala has a classic design of this garment. I turned a lot of them into pillows. This is a country that really celebrates color and hand work.”

THE hand work extends outside the house, where a tiered garden extends 70 yards up a hill from the patio. It has been seven years in the making and has taken thousands of hours of work by local stonemasons. Ms. Maynard calls herself the “sponsor” of the garden; its real visionary, she says, is Bob Miller, 55, a landscape designer originally from Ottawa who lives in nearby Santa Cruz. Ms. Maynard, who calls him “Canadian Bob,” met him on a lancha ride when she overheard him speaking knowledgeably about gardens. A two-hour consultation the next day blossomed into a working relationship with no end in sight.

The garden’s terracing and walls interweave, forming a wave pattern, interspersed with rocks bearing carved Maya faces. Mango, papaya, lemon and lime trees flourish, as do begonias, calla lilies, azalea, hibiscus and orchids. Monarch butterflies flutter and hummingbirds hover. Water flows from small ponds, ending with a splash in a waterfall.

Elsewhere on the property, Ms. Maynard has added a treehouse with its own bedroom, bath and kitchen, an aerie inspired by the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse at Disneyland. It serves as a guest house and also as her secret spot for serious writing. “I’ve written three books here,” she said, pointing to a small desk in the treehouse, overlooking the water. “And not one of them has been about Guatemala.” That’s about to change as she embarks on a book about an expatriate woman making her way in a certain Central American country.

Ms. Maynard depends on the help of her Maya neighbors for much of what she needs done, especially construction. She offers year-round work and pays fair wages, she said, and also works with groups that aid women and children in the village — all efforts that help her coexist with the economic disparity between herself and the villagers.

She has spent about $60,000 in improvements over the years. Her property is worth about $500,000 now, estimates Annika Boerner, owner of Atitlán Visions real estate company. Values have tripled in the last 15 years, Ms. Boerner said.

But Ms. Maynard’s investment can’t be counted in quetzales. Besides having a tropical paradise to enjoy, she can walk down a main street where everyone knows her name and she knows theirs, even if that main street is only a dirt path.

“The kind of adventure that feels richest to me now is sinking my roots — and the roots of my plants — and getting to know the people here and the culture here,” she said. “That’s been my adventure, knowing this one little place.”

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

from the "a picture is worth a couple of words" dept.

San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala
January 14, 2009

Rather than rail about the noise at mi casa (music at 4:30am AGAIN, barking dogs, meowing cats, curious children, et al), I thought I'd post a picture from a long time ago: 2003.

Where's Waldo?



Tuesday, January 13, 2009

from the "like a rock" dept.

San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala
Posted Tues. Jan 13, 2009

In keeping with yesterday's chronological post of events here in San Pedro, I thought I'd continue with the same idea. Partly because it's easier and partly because it will give you a taste of an average day here.

Monday, Jan 12, 2009 -- 11:00am: I head over to my original home, the Peneleu hotel. There I grab the remaining bits of stuff I had left in my room and turn in my key. Brent, my pal from Belize, is staying there. We catch up on the latest Peneleu gossip before heading off in separate directions.

11:05am – I had planned to spend the day poolside at La Piscina, a pool/bar operated by Daniel, a French-Canadian from Montreal. It's an idyllic little spot: a beautiful pool and landscaped yard that sits beneath Volcan San Pedro. Pool access is about $3 and that includes a drink. Or, you can sit at the outdoor bar sipping on mineral water (76 cents) or San Pedro's coldest beer ($1.85 for 12oz, $3.80 for a litre).

My wireless internet provider's signal is available, making La Piscina a great place to work. Seriously.

Unfortunately it's Monday and that means La Piscina is ferme. Drat. Time for Plan B.

11:10am – I pass a little local restaurant that has the best burgers in town (1/2 pound burger and fries for about $3.70) and notice that inside, Brent is about to place an order. I decide to join him for a feed.

12:30pm – Brent and I walk down to the "far" end of town, near the main dock. I pop into the largest grocery store (which is a stretch) and pick up some hot sauce, red wine (awful) and shaving cream (for sensitive skin).

12:45pm – Brent is on a mission for coffee while I need to find a place to write. I decide to go to a restaurant called D'Noz (Dino's). They have an amazing view, great food, decent prices and thick (free) wireless internet. For the price of a beer, I am able to spend the afternoon in a peaceful environment working on pitches and updating software for my laptop.

4:45pm – My battery is almost dead, a good signal that it's time to go. I've made progress in sending out some story pitches, including one to CBC Radio's Definitely Not The Opera. Of course CBC's email server treats my email as spam, so there's no telling if they'll even get it. I cross my fingers.

5:00pm – On the way back to the house I pass the regulars at Bistro Nueva Sol, my favourite hangout. The regulars are a collection of ex-pats who have chosen to make San Pedro home. Some struggle with (or feed) dependency problems, while some are quite grounded. All are characters.

5:01pm – I order a drink and sit out on the front porch, watching San Pedro life pass before me. All three groups are represented: the ex-pats, the locals, and the tourists.

6:00pm – One American ex-pat and I decide to order some grub. Nueva Sol does fantastic pizza and we decide to split one. Total cost for a big pizza is $10, and half of that is more than enough food for the rest of the day.

7:25pm – A waitress (from Gabriola Island) and I decide that opening a vegetarian sushi bar would be a swell idea.

7:30pm – Every night at 7:30, Nueva Sol plays a movie. They have a projector and a large screen on the wall. Tonight's feature "The Astronaut Farmer" draws a good crowd. I sit through it, and, by the end, wished I hadn't. It blew. However, there are some good films later in the week including two I brought down: Sorcerer and Wall-E.

9:30pm – After paying my tab, I walk back to the house. Most of the short walk home is well lit and there is no reason to worry about safety.

At the halfway point I pass a fundamentalist Christian preacher screaming at and likely scaring the locals. Scaring them into donating money they don't have to the preacher's BMW fund. Just like West Africa. Sigh.

A few more steps and I'm at the head of the rough trail that leads to my house. I have to climb numerous rocks, one fence, and pass through two yards. Welcome to Guatemala!

9:45pm – I arrive alive and brew up some coffee. After the hell of this morning, I decide that I need to either sleep downstairs or wear earplugs. As I hate earplugs, the decision is easy.

The master bedroom is upstairs, but wooden benches on three sides frame the downstairs living area. Two of these have foam pads and bedding. I grab the pillows and sheets from upstairs and create a comfortable sleeping area downstairs.

11:00pm – After some tidying up, and making sure I have water and a flashlight handy, I crash.

Tuesday Jan 13, 2009 1:15am – Awoken by barking dogs.

3:30am – Awoken by barking dogs.

4:30am – Awoken by paranoia. No music. I think I can hear the slap-slap-slap of someone making tortillas.

7:45am – Until I check the clock, I'm not sure what time it is. I've had a great sleep (dogs notwithstanding) and I'm shocked at how late it is. But it's no wonder: there are no glass windows in the house. While there are three big windows downstairs, I have to close the shutters at night to keep out animals, bugs and thieves (no tramps, unfortunately). By doing this, I essentially make my casa a darkroom. This is very good for sleeping.

8:00am – Water is on the boil and breakfast is not far off. The neighbours are strangely quiet. In fact, save the honking of the odd chicken bus, it's eerily quiet. Hallelujah!

9:30am – Morning chores out of the way, it's time to hit the road. I have to pick up food, water, laundry and more. Plus the pool and work are waiting. Good timing too, as the nearby Pentecostal Church is beginning to crank it up… Run away! Run away!


Monday, January 12, 2009

from the "good morning, guatemala" dept

San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala
January 12, 2008 (Morning)

I have finally moved into my little San Pedro home. This big milestone follows nearly two weeks of running back and forth between the Hotel Peneleu ($4 a night) and the house, slowly setting things up. And after the long delay, I finally stayed at the house overnight.

How did it go? Well, not great. Here's a chronological breakdown:

Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009, 6:00pm – The sun starts to go down, and, unlike the hotel, it is amazingly quiet. A good sign.

Feral Cat #1

6:01pm – Feral Cat #1 (the calico one) begins howling at the front door for some kibble. Luckily, the previous tenant left me with a small supply of KittySnax.

6:30pm – I am delighted to find that I am able to receive my wireless internet signal in the living room. It's "fat" enough to be able to listen to streaming radio from Vancouver.

7:00pm – I plug a little TV receiver card into my computer. It's a device that lets me receive a couple of local off-air signals on my laptop. Boring.

7:01pm – I remember that it's Water Day! San Pedro has poor water service and most people (me included) get water for about an hour, three times a week. When the water comes on, everyone fills their cisterns and assorted tanks. I have a big one beside the house (my shower and taps are gravity fed). One of my three hours occurs at 7pm on Sunday. I dash outside and turn on the tap.

7:45pm – I realize I have a bottle of Ron Zacapa Centenario – the world's best rum. I pour a shot to celebrate the new home. The cistern begins to spill over the top, so I run outside to turn the water off. I likely won't need to fill it again for some time.

8:00pm – I migrate upstairs with the laptop. The internet works in the bedroom too, but the signal comes and goes. I'm addicted to the Showtime series Dexter and decide to watch an episode from season two.

9:00pm – I'm knackered. Earlier in the day I had attended a big BBQ at a local watering hole and the feed of pork, beef, potato salad, and cole slaw is taking its toll. I decide to shut 'er down. I have a fitful sleep due to the thin foam pad that, along with a wooden platform that constitutes my bed. I make a mental note that I need to buy an additional pad to save my hips.

Monday, Jan. 12, 2009, 1:30am – I wake up to the sounds of street dogs howling at the moon. This is repeated several times throughout the night.

4:30am – The previous tenant warned me that a neighbour likes to play his radio early in the morning. And, indeed, he does. Bear in mind that volume levels in Guatemala usually start at the higher end of the scale. Like 11. And thus, at this pre-dawn hour I am treated to the latest news headlines (in Spanish) and all my favourite Rancheros hits.

4:45am – The volume of the radio increases as the neighbour begins to chop wood. Sigh.

(Un)fortunately, I don't have a window that faces Mr. Entertainment and his radio. This is probably good, as the sound is theoretically deadened – although with walls made out of thin planks, the deadening is rather non-existent. But this also prevents me from attempting to ask him to turn it down. Even if I could, my lack of Spanish will likely make the request difficult to explain.

However, I do know a guy who can have a word with the neighbour. He's a tough sort and rumour has it that he carries a gun. Nothing like a little leverage!

5:15am – Feral Cat #1 is hungry again and begins howling outside my window. I decide that the universe wants me to get up.

5:16am – I give the cat some kibble, realizing that I will have to do this daily from now on. I haven't seen the other feral cats, but expect them to show up hungry soon.

5:25am – I put a pot of "local" water on the gas stove in order to make some coffee. I generally drink bottled water but at the hotel I got into the habit of boiling tap water for everything else. Boiling tap water for a couple of minutes should prevent a case of amoebas – but I'm not sure if that provides 100% protection. Time will tell.

5:30am – Check email, news headlines. Even though I've been here a short time, I already find I have little interest in local news from Vancouver. It's all about closed roads and Olympic overruns. Not very relevant when you live in the Guatemalan highlands.

My Feet, The Floor

Suicide Shower

Knife Switch in Shower

6:30am – It's almost time to take a shower, but unfortunately I have left my rubber sandals at the hotel. That means walking around on rough stone (the shower is outside). Most homes in San Pedro don't have hot water. However most showers have big electric showerheads that heat up the water as it flows out. We call this a Suicide Shower: lots of exposed 110 volt wires – and no ground. My shower at the house also features a knife switch.

6:31am – Another neighbor flips on Radio Rancheros, but doesn't tune it in correctly. Double sigh.

7:00am – I survived my first shower and if anything, it was too hot. Perfect!


7:04am – Breakfast time: I put another pot of water on the stove – this time to cook up some refried beans (in handy single serving packets) and eggs. Mmm, mmm! There is only one pot here, so my cooking will be limited until I pick up some additional cookware.

7:05am – I make a list of things to do: write a blog post, pick up laundry, buy a foam mattress pad, get the guy with the gun to chat with the neighbours, and get some more supplies for the house.

The day has begun…


Thursday, January 08, 2009

from the "end of the beginning" dept.

San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala.
January 8, 2009

The first week of my Guatemala experiment is coming to a close. It hasn't been the most productive week, but I have an excuse: I live in San Pedro.

It is quite hard to sit in front of the computer when the sun is shining in San Pedro. But I think this is just period of adjustment: Getting used to waking up with the sun at 6am. Watching it set at 6pm. And often falling asleep before 10pm.

Plus, I'm still in the process of setting up my house. I'm looking for some more kitchen wares and perhaps a couple of plastic chairs and a table for the living room. You don't get a ton of furniture for US$107 a month. You do get a cat. At least a feral one that demands kibble everyday.

I might even get cable TV... for about $7 a month, though I wonder if there is a benefit to receiving 45 channels en espanol. Wireless internet works at the house, and it is also cheap: about $50 for the month. Darn handy too...

And in reality, I've actually accomplished a few work-related things... and will really hit the ground running on Monday... at least, that's the plan!

More to come...


Sunday, January 04, 2009

from the "day one, four days late" dept.

January 1, 2009
San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala

And so it begins.

"It" being a three-month project to see if it possible to eek out a living as a freelance writer living in a tropical semi-paradise. The chances seem as strong as the local coffee. And, with both feet now firmly planted in the depressingly named "middle age" stage of my life, I reckon I have little to lose.

At the same time I have an urge to find a page-bound home for the cast of characters that I met here late last year and continue to meet on a regular basis.

My friend Brent, who lives next door in Belize, came up with a pretty dandy opening line last night as we prepared to welcome the new year.

"I'm sitting in a bar looking at Albert Einstein as he chats with Germaine Greer."

I admit that I had to Google Germaine Greer to be reminded of who she is.

That opening line just scratches the surface of San Pedro's resident ex-pat population. Not to mention the local Guatemalans and the collection of short-term tourists who pass through San Pedro's orbit.

So, in addition to making a living, I feel challenged to find a home for these characters. An arc. A beginning, middle and end.

And, unfortunately, I really can't open that story, whatever it might be, with someone else's line. Unless Brent becomes a character too.

"Look over there," Brent says, while finishing off a ridiculously cheap double Cuba Libre, "Albert Einstein is talking to Germaine Greer. That would make a good opening line."

I agree, disappointed that I didn't come up with it myself.