on the Automattic yacht.
That’s my job title. Because at Automattic we pick our own job titles. I think that’s a really cool policy. Previously I have been a ninja and an alligator wrestler; and for the next few weeks and the previous couple, I am also a community guardian.
I haven’t really blogged about work much. I really don’t want to put that much personal information out there. Also, it has taken a long time for me to adjust to being full-time employed. If you’ve been following along on my adventures from the beginning of my journey, you know full well that I am very comfortable with being cyclically unemployed. I relished the freedom and the psychology of my employment having an “end date” did wonders for my morale. The problem was, that employment did require a physical presence for long stretches of time, sometimes in the worst ducking conditions known to man on earth. Yeah, the adventure aspect of that was nifty and so far as the Antarctic portion of that employment cycle, I’d be keen to do it again at some point. Maybe when I get old I can go be a shuttle driver or something, provided the whole damn thing hasn’t been flooded by sea level rise by then.
Anyhow, in addition to the requirement of a physical presence, I also found myself more and more at odds with my own beliefs and values. I know that me stepping away from the machine isn’t going to bring the machine to a grinding halt. There are willing people to do that type of work. Doesn’t mean I have to be a part of it.
In 2014, at the tender age of 45, I did a career 180. My first intention was to be a freelance software developer with a focus on WordPress plugins. Turns out I’m a horrible entrepreneur. I tried a few different approaches and failed miserably in all of them.
I was working on a client project one day. That project involved WooCommerce so there I was browsing the documentation when at the bottom there was some sort of “hey, want to work with us” type advertisement. I applied. Mark and Magnus must have taken pity on an old man or been very desperate or a combination of both and here we are today.
Something pretty significant happened along the way though. WooCommerce was acquired by Automattic. When I first got that news, I was floored. I looked up at that company and aspired to one day work there. In no way did I consider myself worthy at that particular point in time. But, fake ’til you make it I guess ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
This hasn’t been an easy year for me at work and otherwise. There were a lot of changes and I lost a lot of the flexibility that had drawn me to that type of work environment to begin with. I struggled. I really loathed the idea of trying to find another job this good and I have never lost site of how horrible I am at trying to be my own boss. I had to find other ways to cope. And I have. I have also found myself truly respected and adequately supported in my endeavors.
Which brings me back to my job title. There is no yacht but if there ever is, I have staked my claim to the engine room and adventures on the high seas. And the champagne.
I just wanted a written record of my current state of being. I have this notion that years from now, I’ll be looking back on these days and wondering if I’m dreaming or remembering.
Myself, I’m really just killing time waiting until summer before I head south. It’s cold enough here. Nighttime lows get to around 6 or 7 Celsius.
I know, those of you who live in even modestly insulated houses don’t think that sounds cold at all. It is.
I did get up to some adventures in Brazil. The cops there are for real. So are the beaches. So are the protests. They know how to throw a strike and shut a country down. I lived at a gas station for a week. Also, my laptop was out of service so I couldn’t even work. Strikes are powerful.
Donald Trump, when first confronted with questions of a meeting in Trump Tower with some powerful Russians, claimed there were no contacts. He started shouting “no collusion!” at every opportunity. Then the story shifted to the meeting being about adoptions. Then the story shifted to getting opposition research, now the story has reached what is surely the apex of absurdity with an outright admission that he conspired with an enemy to win the election.
Yep, future me, you’re not dreaming it.
Aguardiente is a Spanish word that translates roughly to 'liquor'. A more literal translation would be along the lines of 'fire water' and could also mean 'rotgut' in certain contexts. Every time drinking would come up in conversation with Colombians, they would refer to aguardiente as the tequila of Colombia, though admittedly that may be because of the way that I steered the conversation.
Clearly aguardiente is not tequila. I'm a bit curious why many Colombians insisted that this was their version of tequila. What does that say about tequila? Is it viewed as fire water or rotgut or rather, is this their liquor of national pride?
In the case of one of the most well known and ubiquitous brands of aguardiente in Colombia, Aguardiente Antioqueño, it is made from sugar cane and flavored with anise. It contains 29% alcohol by volume and comes in a traditional variety as well as a 'sin azucar' or without sugar version (that's not how alcohol works though is it?). It is not unpleasant or harsh and I was quite fond of its ouzo like taste but aguardiente seems to me to be more like an digestive or aperitif than a proper shot that I would drink a lot of and I never really warmed up to the drink in a way that would prompt me to buy a bottle or several. Agave distillates remain the go-to even at a higher cost.
With all of that said, I was extremely surprised to find a country that is absolutely full of agave and nobody (that I was able to find) distilling agave. Claiming that aguardiente is the Colombia's version of tequila and yet not distilling any agave is a mystery to me, but that's another story.
We’re currently in Cartagena, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Moby and I thought it appropriate to take some time to reflect on the past nine+ months of overland travel. This is a summary of our journey through North America.
For reasons I’m not going to get into here, we didn’t spend much time at all in the U.S. and much of the time we did spend there was spent gathering last minute supplies and doing last minute maintenance and vehicle preparation type tasks. We did have some stand-out moments though. As you may recall, the trip began in earnest in Salt Lake City, Utah as that is where Moby was stored while we finished our lease on our house in Mexico. From there, we headed east to Wyoming as there was some bureaucratic business to get taken care of as well as a quick visit with some family. It was county fair season and our first campground was right next to the fairgrounds in Evanston, Wyoming. We went to a tractor pull while there which was really awesome as it’s been a long time since either of us have lived in the U.S. and an event like this is uniquely American. It was surprisingly fun and enjoyable.
Once the government business was completed, we pointed Moby straight west. We passed back through Utah and then Nevada, Finally reaching the coast in Eureka, California where we stayed with some friends for several days. During our stay there, we were able to put some finishing touches on our home on wheels and we relaxed after what was a very hectic several days.
We left Eureka with Las Vegas in our sights. Cate had never been to Las Vegas before and I was a bit excited to be going there to revisit some of my favorite places. It was this leg of the journey where we first encountered what every overland traveler will eventually encounter and need to learn how to manage. Things will break, plans will go sideways and you must remain extraordinarily flexible. We had two breakdowns in one day and ended up sleeping in the Auto Zone parking lot in Barstow, CA. That particular overnight is the sketchiest place we have stayed thus far. We did eventually make it to Vegas and damn Vegas, you hot in August. Given our previous lessons in flexibility, we decided to move on to cooler climates after only one night in Vegas, so essentially we went hundreds of miles out of our way to have dinner. Dinner was very nice, though so it was worth it.
From Vegas, we pointed south towards Mexico. As luck would have it, a friend of ours was visiting San Diego from New Zealand so we planned a few days in the are to pick up a few more last-minute items and spend some with our friend. With all of that done, it was time to face what we then viewed as our first (of many) major obstacle on this trip, the dreaded border crossing.
It turns out that border crossings aren’t nearly as much of a hassle as we had anticipated. I’m not saying that I enjoy them. They are not really much more involved than entering a country without a vehicle, it’s really only a bit more paperwork. Anyhow, with that done, we were in Mexico and finally felt like we could slow the pace a bit and take it easy. The northern part of the Baja peninsula proved to be an absolute delight. The weather was divine and since so many people go there in their RVs, the infrastructure for campers is quite robust. We probably should have spent more time in the north and had we understood just how hot the south would be, I’m sure we would have.
Heat aside, the southern part of the Baja proved quite interesting. It was here that we experienced our first bit of foul weather, and foul it was. We were camped in Loreto, which coincidentally was right in the path of hurricane Newton. We experienced a direct hit from a category one hurricane in our camper and ended up doing some stupid shit.
Eventually we reached the southern end of the Baja and from there put Moby on a ferry to mainland Mexico. Highlights of the mainland included being invited to a cookout in Etzatlán, visiting the Monarch butterfly reserve in Michoacán, Christmas and New Year’s on a nude beach and my personal highlight of the entire trip so far, a two-day mezcal tour in Oaxaca.
With about a month remaining on our time, things in Mexico got a bit unstable. There were nation-wide gas shortages and protests about the sudden increase in gas prices. These kinds of events aren’t necessarily outside the norm for Mexico and they have a tendency to blow over. We were close enough to our beloved San Cristobal that we could have just gone there and hunkered down for a couple of weeks, but in the end we decided to move on to Guatemala a bit ahead of schedule.
Guatemala was a new country for both of us and we didn’t really know what to expect. Our introduction to the country was underwhelming to say the least. We followed the well worn overlanding path to Lake Atitlan and ended up at the famed Pasajcap campground. This particular campground lived up to its reputation and we were able to easily understand why so many people seem to end up spending far longer at Lake Atitlan than they may have originally planned. This is that place that sucks people in. Trips stop here for indefinite periods of time. While we were still living in Mexico, we had hosted an overlanding couple in our house for a few days. When we arrived at Atitlan, they were still there and so far as I know haven’t left yet. That’s the kind of power that this special spot has. It sinks its teeth into you for sure. Also, the drive in was awful. If you just stay, you never have to drive back out. I liked the steak.
From Atitlan, we went to Antigua. We both really enjoyed Antigua. It’s a very charming town. Unfortunately, we ended up in a bit of a holding pattern there as we were waiting on truck parts (which ended up never reaching us anyhow). We did attempt to get out of town and explore a bit more of Guatemala, but that ended up in a breakdown on the side of the road. We ended up spending the night in a gravel pit and the next night in a mechanic’s driveway. We eventually were able to move on to Honduras.
The original plan was to drive across El Salvador and Honduras as fast as we possibly could. Both countries have a bit of a reputation for violent crime and we really didn’t want to experience any of that. After having talked to others, however, we decided to give Honduras a little bit of a chance. That’s really all it ended up being was a very small chance. We were only in Honduras for ten days (and completely skipped El Salvador). A story worth mentioning, however, is that despite everything that we had heard about corrupt police we only experienced kindness. We were at a grocery store one afternoon and had done a poor job of parking (when in Rome…). We were waiting in line at the checkout when the police chief and his entourage entered and headed straight for us. I just knew that we were about to get a shakedown for our parking job. I was wrong. The policeman approached, introduced himself, commented about what a fan he was of our camper and gave us his phone number and told us that we were more than welcome to come stay at his house. Also, there was a nice craft brewery in Honduras.
We had both been to Nicaragua before. We weren’t necessarily excited about returning but we weren’t dreading it either. It seemed like more an obstacle than anything. Traveling the way we are gave us a different perspective on Nicaragua though. We ended up having a great time at a little hostel right on the beach in the north of Nicaragua. We spent a night in Granada only to revisit a restaurant that we had eaten at before (and loved). We passed through Leon and of course spent some time in and around San Juan del Sur. Cate got in some saddle time and I enjoyed what I think is the best craft beer in all of central America at the San Juan del Sur Cervecería.
We had fallen for the siren song of Costa Rica’s reasonably convenient airport before. In fact, that’s really the only reason we had visited Costa Rica previously. We decided that we didn’t like the country based on those prior trips but I vowed to keep an open mind about Costa Rica. I had a work trip and Cate didn’t want to spend the week alone in the camper again so she decided that she was going to fly back to Utah. San José’s airport seemed a reasonable choice. If it hadn’t been for this, we may very well have driven right through this Disneyland of a country. Honestly though, we did give it a chance and I came away hating the place more than I did before. If we ever find ourselves faced with passing through Costa Rica again, I intend to go around. That may very well mean that if we do end up driving back north after we reach Ushuaia, we would ship from Cartagena (or somewhere else in South America) to Veracruz. Central America has been a bit underwhelming, but Costa Rica really takes it over the top. I would avoid the entire region if for no other reason than to avoid Costa Rica.
It’s a bit tragic that Panama only grants temporary import permits for 30 days. This means that a good portion of one’s time in Panama ends up being used getting the logistics sorted out for getting out of the country. We would have liked to take things a bit slower than we did but them’s the breaks, I suppose. Anyhow, it was nice to return to someplace that we were quite familiar with. We visited with old friends and spent a bit of time at some favorite places.
Panama City is a bit of a chokepoint for people doing this type of trip and so we did end up meeting quite a few other overlanders while we were in the vicinity. Some were headed north so we got tips from them concerning current conditions in Colombia. Some were ending their trips and heading back to Europe and some were, like us, getting ready to ship south. The shipment process is something that has sort of hung over us since the beginning. It’s one of those things that you know has been done countless times before, but we hadn’t done it so didn’t really know what to expect. In reality, it’s really much like a border crossing just on a much larger scale. Make a bunch of copies, go to random buildings, listen to government workers grunt and go to wherever they point, hand over stacks of paper and wait. Anyhow, we got through that and Gretzky willing, we’ll get our truck back in the next couple of days and continue on.
One of the things that I was not looking forward to after leaving Mexico was my perceived lack of good food. Previous experience in Central America had shown me that regional cuisine tends to leave a lot to be desired. Then again, one of the best meals I have had in my life was in Granada, Nicaragua. At any rate, as we crossed the border into Guatemala I had already accepted that rice, beans and chicken were going to be the bulk of our dining experience probably for a good long while. Lake Atitlan proved me wrong.
I really didn’t know much about Lake Atitlan prior to arriving there. The little I did know came from other overlander’s blogs and a few entries that had I read on the iOverlander app. The common theme seemed to be something along the lines of “I planned on staying for two nights, ended up here for 12 weeks”. I’m willing to bet that anyone who hasn’t got a firm timeline and arrives at Lake Atitlan ends up staying longer than they had initially planned. That is mostly because the place can easily be described as paradise. Beautiful scenery, great weather and an interesting cross-section of humanity are all fixtures at Lake Atitlan.
I don’t know why I had never heard about Guatemalan beef before. Perhaps it’s because steak in general doesn’t really get talked about. Perhaps it’s because barbecue is usually considered low-brow. I can tell you that amongst the many yoga studios, vegan restaurants and patchouli wafting in the air, there are some great places to get a perfectly cooked hunk of meat around Lake Atitlan.
On Sundays, in the village of San Pedro you can enjoy fantastic barbecue at Smokin’ Joes. They offer a veritable smorgasbord of delicious, delicious meat. My first time through I opted for a bacon-wrapped filet mignon and it was a fantastic steak if not a bit underdone. The BBQ plate also comes with (nearly) unlimited sides from the buffet. They do only offer one very generous portion of mac n’ cheese. It’s very good, apparently so good that the “unlimited” bit had to be removed due to abuse. The barbecue was so good that we returned the following Sunday, this time opting for the pulled pork which was heavenly. The same folks also do a Saturday BBQ in Panajachel. If you’re in the area, and you like to eat meat, this is an event that you won’t want to miss out on.
Fine Dining in a Hostel. What?
OK, not really fine dining but the steak at the restaurant in Hostel Fe in San Marcos La Laguna was seriously one of the best I’ve had and certainly the best outside of a steakhouse. I rarely order steak. I’ve had too many bad experiences so it always seems a bit risky. Cate, on the other hand, will take that risk more often than not. Our first trip to restaurant Fe, she took that chance and I braced myself for a huge dissapointment. The disappointment didn’t happen. Her filet was seasoned and cooked perfectly. She graciously offered me a bite and I instantly regretted not taking the same risk that she had. My meal was good, but having missed out on a steak like this was a bit of a bummer. No worries though, we made a return trip and I had a steak of my own.
I’m no foodie by any means but after having spent just over three weeks on the shores of Lake Atitlan, I found myself again not wanting to leave a place for fear of bad food in the next place we would go. This fear hasn’t come to fruition yet as we have also found many great pieces of meat in Antigua.
Guatemalan beef (and pork), it’s what’s for dinner.
This was supposed to be my “farewell to Mexico” post. We were sitting on a beach in Mexico contemplating our eventual departure and then things got weird. We were within about a month of expiration of Moby’s tourist visa, aka temporary import permit. The new year brought an increase of 20% in fuel prices in Mexico. There were also fuel shortages with many gas stations shuttered and the ones that were open experiencing long queues. Rural areas were hit or miss as far as gas goes. We agonized over whether or not we should just make a mad dash for the border or return to San Cristobal to wait it out. Had we gone to our beloved San Cris, we probably would not have wanted to go anywhere or do anything owing to the uncertainty of fuel. A visit to the ruins of Palenque had been on the itinerary, but with a return of civil unrest in Chiapas, making a long drive to somewhere hot and with mosquitos and needing to navigate roadblocks to get there made that about as appealing as a root canal. Couple all of that with the uncertainty in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential inaguration, we made the decison to bail early on Mexico.
This was also going to be my “the road ahead” post, but now the road ahead is the road we’re on. I’m going to miss Mexico. Save a couple of nights in transit, Oaxaca represented the end of our time in Mexico. For now.
Oaxaca in particular felt like a crossroads. Most of The best of Mexico can be found in Oaxaca. Good Mexican food, Oaxaca has it. Beautiful beaches, check. Craft (nano) breweries, yep. And of course, mezcal. Oaxaca is also just about as far north as coffee is produced. We’ll be traveling through coffee country for the next several months.
We’ve already experienced the coffee in Chiapas as we had lived there prior to starting this trip. I loved that so many cafes roast their beans in-house. From here to Perú, we’ll get to experience some great coffee along the way. We have friends in Panama (Geisha coffee anyone?) as well as having a favorite cafe or three along the way.
So here we are in in the scenic area of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. There are coffee trees (bushes?, shrubs?) growing right to where we’re camped. There are as many cafes in the small village here as there are hostels. The tiniest of corner stores has some sort of artesenaly roasted coffee beans for sale. My limited research indicates that there aren’t really any craft beers brewed in Guatemala. Mezcal and tequila can only (legally speaking) be produced in Mexico. I don’t much care for rum, so coffee is what I’m going to be turning my attention to.
Mezcal, tequila and a thriving craft beer scene, I’m gonna miss you all terribly. Coffee, I’m looking forward to getting to know you better. If you happen to know any fantastic cafes on the road south of Guatemala, please do let us know. Is there a locally produced spirit other than rum that I should try? I’d love to hear about it.
Earlier in our journey, we passed through the town of Tequila. I can’t put words to what I hoped to find there, but I can tell you that I didn’t find whatever it was I was looking for. Perhaps my expectations are to blame. I think I expected to find something rustic. Something authentic. Something that was in line with my romantic notions of Mexican culture. What I found instead was an industrial village made up largely of the Sauza and Jose Cuervo tequila production facilities. The village is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos (Magical Towns) meaning that it has retained much of its character despite the industrialization and I can certainly appreciate it for that. I didn’t learn much about tequila that I didn’t already know and I wasn’t able to find anything in the various tasting rooms that really stood out from the crowd.
I’m a member of a Facebook group called “The League of Extraordinary Beer Drinkers”. Every time a beloved craft brewery gets purchased by one of the mega-global beverage companies, the members of that group go apeshit about it. I believe that their outrage is at least partially justified. Anheuser-Busch InBev certainly knows how to make money. They do that by producing a few flagship alcoholic beverages that are marketed as beer. I’m not going to say that their flagship products are bad per-se. Borrowing a term I learned from an Australian at the Funky Monkey hostel in Mazatlan earlier on this trip, Budweiser is a fine “lawnmower beer”. It goes down great when one is out in the hot sun doing something like mowing the lawn but if I want to actually enjoy a beer and savor it, well, I’m not going for a Budweiser. The concern here is that eventually the bean counters will get involved and in an attempt to lower production costs, quality and character will be compromised.
I used to be rather dismissive of those who would denounce their favorite craft beer brand the instant that it gets purchased by a large company. I figured that as long as it tastes good, I haven’t got much concern with the company behind it. That all changed when I saw the differences between the production of tequila and the craftsmanship of mezcal. Save a handful of large, international brands, mezcal is produced on small, oftentimes family-operated establishments called palenques. I am fairly certain that artesenal (craft) tequilas exist, but I can’t say with any certainty that I have ever tried one and I definitely can’t think of one and I’ve drank a lot of tequila.
Given that the aforementioned visit to Tequila was such a letdown craftsmanship wise, I immediately started looking into finding the experience that I wanted while in Oaxaca. What I found was Mezcal Educational Tours founded by Alvin Starkman who is an expert in all things mezcal. This would turn out to be the most informative and interesting tour that I have ever been on and was exactly what I was looking for.
In a nutshell and generally speaking, mezcal production is a five step process beginning with the harvesting of the agave. The other steps are:
- Baking the agave
- Grinding the baked agave
The first palenque that we visited produces what is referred to as ancestral mezcal. There are several things that make up the ancestral designation (there are regulations covering such things), but suffice to say that this is the most labor intensive production method. In the case of this palenque, after the agave is baked, it is hand chopped with machetes and ground in a stone trough using crude tools which are powered by nothing more than the palenquero’s (mezcal craftsman) muscle. This particular palenque also featured clay pot distillation. I had no idea what that meant and it wasn’t until much later in the tour that I gained an appreciation for it. If you understand distillation, you can probably work out how distillation can be done in a clay pot. If you don’t, I will likely only confuse you by trying to explain it with my own limited knowledge. My takeaway message is that this is an ancient method and requires true craftsmanship to achieve. This technique isn’t taught in school, but rather passed down from generation to generation. This technique is also slower so the only way for a palenquero to make it worthwhile is to charge higher prices for the lower production yields.
If Whole Foods has taught me anything it is that people will pay much higher prices for authenticity and that people in Austin, TX have an appreciation for such things (Sidenote: if anyone in Austin is looking to hire a mezcal purchaser see the “contact” link up there in the menu). That gives me hope that these craftsmen will be able to continue passing along these techniques to future generations.
The remainder of the first day, we toured several more palenques and saw various production stages of mezcal, and of course sampled several. Here are some photos:
Day two of the tour took us to San Juan Del Rio. It is said that this is where the best mezcal comes from and after tasting, I would have to agree. The reason behind this was explained to me and I found it fascinating. You see, most of the mezcal produced in this area is made from agave that is grown an steep slopes. It turns out that agave that grows on steep slopes has to work harder because the rainfall runs down the slope rather than just pooling in the topsoil. Think of this as the equivalent of “lean”, I suppose. This factoid is but one of the nuances that make mezcal so damned interesting to me. Things like the slope that the mezcal grows on has a profound affect on the final product.
While I did allude to only three ingredients needed to make mezcal in the title of this post, I didn’t mention water. There is a requirement for water. Nearly all of the palenques in San Juan Del Rio are near the bottom of the valley. That is where the water is so it makes perfect sense. There is at least one outlier, however. One palenque is perched high above the river and they draw their water from a mountain spring. This too has an effect on the final product and let me tell you, the mezcals we sampled at this palenque were exquisite, my favorites of the entire tour. This palenque had also incorporated some rather ingenious labor saving techniques. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that despite the superior mezcal and the ingenious labor-saving design implementations that this was the only palenque that did not have any current production aside from a couple of fermentation vats doing their thing. This observation alone brought me back to thoughts of craft brewers being swallowed up by international mega corporations. Is this palenque doomed? Have they learned how to make money and will that result in a loss of knowledge of how to make good mezcal? Time will tell, but fortunately for all involved, when it comes to mezcal there’s plenty of time.
Friends of mine who have been there during my transition from tequila fanatic to mezcal aficionado have asked me to explain the difference between mezcal and tequila. Previously, I would rattle off the relevant facts. Having taken an artesenal mezcal tour, the differences seem much easier to me to explain. Tequila is an industry. Mezcal is an art form. If you ever have the opportunity to enjoy mezcal, you should do exactly that. Take it slow. Enjoy it. Give it the respect that it deserves. Appreciate that it is made from agave, sun and time. Lots of time.