chapter 2 – through the rabbit hole

Midway through 2007, my first encounter with the God Delusion had moved to the back of my mind, but my faith in the Church as a guiding light for my life was pretty much gone.

Even so, my belief in a higher being held steadfast. I didn’t know exactly how, but I had no doubt that some god created everything and gave souls to humans and kept in touch with us through some kind of energy. And for those of us who sincerely tried to be nice and unselfish, to seek truth and learn and work hard, we would be connected to this higher being, and this connection would continue after we died, forever.

My reasoning was that the Catholics and other ancient religions may have gotten the details wrong, but their general perception was right. They all probably experienced a similar feeling of connectedness to nature, to each other, and to something higher, then tried to make sense of it and resorted to a story that kind of made sense and started telling it to their kids, who told it to their kids, until someone eventually put it in writing.

Many uncommunicated religions came up with relatively similar stories of how things started and then bridged that to how people should behave, this seems to further support the idea of connectedness. Even in modern times it seems people are still going through this process with new religions… Scientology came to be in the 1950’s and has some pretty far out stories about extraterrestrials and pure souls creating the world we know, and of course a path to enlightenment and eternal happiness. The fact that they got a relatively large number of people (25,000+ in the US according to Pew Research Center, 8-15 million according some Scientologists) to believe in this and back it up with investing money and time in it says a lot.

But how would I separate what these religions were getting right and what was bullshit? I definitely was done with blindly following Catholicism, but how could I find out how our creator really connected with me and how he wanted me to live life so my soul could live happily ever after?

Lucky for me, I received a double whammy of explaining god through science: the book The Tao of Physics, and the documentary “What the bleep do we know!?”, along with other sources full of experiments that seemed to prove that the supernatural not only existed, but could be proved with science.

Tao of Physics goes into quantum physics phenomena that point to a connected universe. One chapter explains that when two electrons of the same atom are in the same energy level, one will have a positive “spin” and one will have a negative “spin”. When one of them changes its spin, the other will change it instantaneously, even if they are separated over a long distance… proving there is an energy we cannot see but keeps things connected. Other similar experiments in the book convinced me that there was a scientific way to explain phenomena that pointed to an energy that connected objects, and that our own energy could affect other people or objects.

The documentary seemed even bolder. One experiment explained that the wave-particle properties of quantum particles could be manipulated by the observer. So depending on what the observer was looking for, the particle would change its behavior.

Another experiment showed a Japanese physicist (Dr. Emoto) that took water samples, froze them, and observed the ice crystals that were formed. He found that crystals made from water that was taken from peaceful places formed more beautiful crystals than those from water that was taken from stressful places. Water from test tubes that were labeled with words such as ‘beauty’, ‘peace’, and ‘love’, yielded beautiful crystals, while water that was labeled with ‘hatred’, ‘suffering’, and ‘fear’, didn’t produce crystals.

Another experiment had a computer randomly sending clicks to a right or left earphone. A subject would be asked to bring consciousness to either side, and then the number of clicks of each side were measured. When measured, the scientists found that humans could statistically influence or predict which side the next click would go to.

Finally, there was the Ganzfeld experiment, where two people were put in separate rooms and then one would send images to the other via telepathy… when given the chance of choosing one out of 4 images, the recipients were able to identify the correct one 32% of the time.

This was great! Scientific proof that god existed! Maybe not exactly as described by our religions, but if a force that can be altered by human thought exists, that would go a long way in explaining why religions exist. Maybe people with special sensitivity would feel these forces and use metaphors and allegories to explain it to their friends and their children.

I went online and shelled out $25 (plus $15 in shipping, handling, and duties to Guatemala) for the What the Bleep extended version: more than 5 hours of footage and in depth looks at the experiments that proved that the supernatural exists, and that us humans are special in this energy and can change it and influence it. Like the Jedi.

This made so much sense to me: we are all made of protons and electrons, the energy is passed from us to the environment and back, we are one. Kind of like the bible could be interpreted: this energy spurred evolution and out came us humans with our great brains and, more importantly, with the power to harness this energy and communicate with it, and through it to others!

I was extremely excited by my new discovery! Why was this not known by everyone? It’s science! And not that difficult to understand. The water crystals are proof that the environment feels us and reacts to us, the tape experiment evidence that our brains can manipulate the environment, the Ganzfeld experiment showed that we can communicate telepathically.

So, for the next couple of months I kept reading on these topics, very happy and convinced that I had finally found enough evidence to stop doubting the existence of god. “Dad! I’ve been learning about these experiments that seem to prove that humans can communicate telepathically, and there’s this one where people influence random clicking sounds that a computer makes.” “Great, son” a bit of an eye roll… he was not amused. I would’ve thought he’d be happy because in a way this would validate his catholic beliefs, but on the contrary, he seemed upset that I was looking outside the church for truth. He completely downplayed it, the way parents do to teenagers when they get overly excited with some rebellious cause (except I was 28 at the time). I was a little offended that here I was dedicating time to finding how god worked and he thought I was wasting my time.

I was on my way to finding happiness through new-age science religion, determined to merge it with the good parts of the catholic religion. I say I was on my way, and if this was 1997 I probably would’ve gotten there, but this was 2007. And where in 1997 weak arguments could pass as strong for a long time, in 2007 weak arguments were destroyed in seconds by the greatest weapon smartasses could ever ask for: Wikipedia.

I don’t know why it took me so long to look for outside opinions on my new beliefs. Looking  back, I’m a little ashamed that I was supposed to be the great seeker of truth, but here I was reading this stuff and taking everything at face value. When I finally did go online to validate my sources, it took only minutes to completely destroy every bit of confidence I had on the Tao of Physics, the Ganzfeld Experiment, and my $40 investment in What the Bleep Do We Know… Down the Rabbit Hole, Extended Version.

The Tao of Physics is trashed by respected physicists for oversimplifying the similarities between physics and Buddhism, and for sticking to some theories included in his book that have since been disproven. My favorite quote criticizing the book comes from Jeremy Bernstein, professor of physics at Stevens Institute of Technology: “At the heart of the matter is Mr. Capra’s methodology – his use of what seem to me to be accidental similarities of language as if these were somehow evidence of deeply rooted connections. Thus I agree with Capra when he writes, ‘Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science but man needs both.’ What no one needs, in my opinion, is this superficial and profoundly misleading book.” (Wikipedia, 2016)

The Ganzfeld experiment has been widely criticized for its faulty experimental practices and has not been replicated with clear success. (Wikipedia, 2016)

What about What the Bleep Do We Know? Where should we start… it was co-directed by three members of Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, a spiritual sect established by JZ Knight, who claims to channel a 35,000 year-old being. The “experts” quoted in the movie include JZ Knight, “scientists” from weirdly-named institutions such as Institute of Noetic Sciences, Maharishi University of Management, an anesthesiologist, a couple of theologists, and one pissed off actual scientist that was “outraged at the final product” because he felt the film was edited in such a way that it misrepresented his views.

Oh. Shit.

So here I was, a little disappointed that I had put all these hours into going deeper into Catholicism, into the basic pillars of Christianity, then into new-age religious pseudoscience, and the more I delved in, the clearer it seemed that none was based on true foundations. I was scared shitless… how was I going to continue living and being happy if there was no god and (especially!) no afterlife? But also, how the fuck did I not see any of this before? Why do religious people not see that their beliefs are based on things that don’t make sense?

I don’t know about rest of them, but I can tell my story.

chapter 1 – the god delusion, part 1

“The truth shall set you free”

Jesus Christ

chapter 1 – the god delusion, part 1

Around New Year’s Day 2007 I took a trip by myself to Australia for a month, probably the best of my life at that point. The trip was full of adventures and meeting new and interesting people, but it also came with ample time to be alone… alone with a book, and alone with myself. Long flights, hikes in the jungle, walks on the beach, and hungover mornings in cheap hostel rooms with bad air conditioning, became sanctuaries for thought. I would think of where I wanted my life to head, how I was living my life, and how I should judge myself, by what standards should I be judging myself? Although I had been relatively independent for almost ten years, it was only a few years back that I let myself start to question if being a devout catholic was the best and only way to a happy and truthful life.

The last two days of the trip coincided with a friendofafriend’s bucks party in Sydney. After two days of (very heavy) partying and only a couple hours of sleep, I was taken to the Sydney airport, where I embarked on a 38-hour trip back home a la 1950’s air travel, stopping in Melbourne, Auckland, and LA.

At the LA airport on the way back to Guatemala, I saw a book with a shiny silver cover and its title in very big, bold letters:

THE

GOD

DELUSION

Hangover symptoms immediately disappeared and I felt an immediate feeling of panic, as if I felt the devil’s soul radiating negativity around it. I started getting seriously nervous, how could someone write that? How bold does this guy think he is by writing a book specifically about god not existing? And how could the authorities permit such a thing? Of course I wasn’t going buy this book! But I was so curious as to what was in it.

Years earlier I had a conversation with my dad, or maybe it was my Mom… it doesn’t really matter if it was one or the other, or even someone else, what matters is that I clearly remember the gist of that conversation which went something like “can atheists go to heaven?” “No, if someone knew God once in his life and elected become an atheist, that person is going to hell, that is one thing we do know.” “What about if that person never had a chance to know about god, like he was born in rural China or the deep Amazon jungle or something” “well, then God probably has a place for those people, but I would guess that a perfect God gives everyone a chance in one way or another in getting to know him and believe in him. So definitely for people like us that had the privilege of knowing how great He is and how special it feels to be in his love, if someone like us decided to turn his back on God, for sure 100% this hypothetical person would go to hell. God would still keep loving him, but this person decided not to accept that love, so it would be impossible to feel god’s love and therefore would go to hell, and there’s no coming back from that.” “why do some people become atheists?” “well, people become atheists because of some traumatic incident that was very rough on them, and instead of going to God to receive his peace, they fail to see the transcendence in this life, and instead blame god for their mishaps, and decide to turn their back on him and…” “Yep, ok, that makes sense.”

Note to self: do not, under any circumstance, become an atheist.

Was this all an exaggeration? How important is believing in god for Catholics? Let’s see, where should we start… how about at the first of the Commandments? The commandments are a huge deal in the Catholic Church, as Matthew 19: 16-17 says, “What good deed must I do to keep eternal life?” Jesus replies: “There is only one who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” In other words: if you want to go to heaven, you must obey the Ten Commandments. And what is the first commandment? Yep, you guessed it, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

Back at the airport, I inconspicuously made my way to the book, feeling red in my face and starting to sweat.

Of course I wasn’t going to buy it! No one would buy this except crazy atheists. Being open to the truth is one thing, but dedicating time and money to something that is obviously out there just to antagonize and make a quick buck is silly. That is why I didn’t read or watch the Da Vinci Code when it came out a few years earlier… I remember it was all the rage but my dad told me the church had recommended not reading it. That one I didn’t question for a second. “It’s only fiction” said a friend of mine “Yeah but why would you give your money to someone who is openly criticizing the church? There are so many books and movies out there, just pick any other”.  So I didn’t read the Davinci Code and of course I wasn’t going to read this peace of crap, but at least I was going to find out a bit more about it.

I had definitely changed in how much I respected Catholicism’s rules in the past couple of years (for one, by this time, I had a more relaxed view of Catholics that read the Da Vinci Code). But one thing was writing a fiction book depicting the church as corrupt and insincere, another was writing a non-fiction book doubting the existence of the most loving and most powerful being that there could be, one that created us out of love and is constantly looking out for us and just a small prayer away from comforting and enlightening us. Catholicism might not always be right, but the existence and love of that one true God could and should not be questioned.

As my arm extended and my hand retracted the book from the shelf, I wondered if touching it was already a sin. I could feel the judging stares of everyone at that airport bookstore, making me blush. I turned it to read the back: “Dawkins eviscerates the argument for religion and demonstrates the supreme improbability of the existence of a supreme being. He makes a compelling case that religion is not just irrational but potentially deadly…”. WHO IS THIS CRAZY PERSON? How can you be such a hater of religion? Religion might not be perfect, but god would never do anything bad to anyone, why pick on god?

I discreetly put the book back on the shelf and walked away, scared that I had probably sinned by reading the back cover. Of course I’ll never read it! my belief in the details of the Catholic Church might have been in question, but my alliance to our creator and friendly God was holding strong, I just needed to keep looking for the true way God connected to me and I’d surely find it.

And soon I did.

————–

Some side notes on the Ten Commandments:

Oh those Ten Commandments. One might think studying them should be easy, since there’s only ten of them, but that’s not the case. For one, it’s actually very difficult to make out what the Ten Commandments really are. For example, the Commandments that I learned as a kid were a bit different than the ones my mom learned, and those were a bit different than the previous generation, and so on.

They also differ in substance when translated to other languages. The current official version of the first commandment (highly relevant when one considers a book with the words “god” and “delusion” in the title)is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”, but in Spanish, it is “You will love God over all things”. They are pretty similar, but when it is the number one commandment that rules the actions and priorities of billions of humans, shouldn’t a high level of cohesiveness be expected?

The Catholic bible says “I, the Lord, am your God. You shall not have other gods besides me”. So this one is pretty different from the one in the Catechism, as it doesn’t mention loving at all, it is explicitly about prohibiting the “having” of other gods. And with this one, I have a few bones to pick with the church. First is the cohesiveness argument: why have one set of commandments in the bible and one set of commandments in the Catechism? If the answer is “the Catechism clarifies to people what God really meant”, I would counter with “If God meant to say ‘you shall love your god over all things’, why didn’t he write that into the stones?” It’s actually shorter this way, so the argument that there was limited space on the stones is inadmissible. What other explanations can there be for having two different first commandments in official church books?

Second, if God says “you shall not have other gods besides me”, how does the catholic church explain being OK with people kneeling down and praying to portraits of Saint Anthony to get them a partner? Or wearing a scapular that they think will get them out of purgatory? One answer might be “you are not praying to the Virgin, you are praying to God ‘though the Virgin’” what is that? If she doesn’t have special powers, why would people pray to her instead of God? Why would it be more effective to pray to the virgin than straight to god? Why would the Virgin help us out with something that God wouldn’t? To me, it doesn’t make sense.

The Catholic’s Bible first commandment also differs from the Judaism first commandment, which reads “I am the Lord Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”. Again, why should there be a difference between these two bibles if they are supposed to be the same one? Did Catholics remove the “Egypt” reference to separate the text from Jewish history? Did the Jewish add in the Egypt reference later? There was, at most, one Moses with one final set of stones, and that one either said or didn’t say “Egypt” so either the Jewish Torah changed, or the Catholic were changed.

It gets really confusing, but thankfully the Catholic Church has someone that has the direct line to God and can help us clear things up. Or maybe not.

In 2013, Pope Francis said in a sermon: “… ’But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there”. Some people interpreted this as “there” being heaven, and thus that the Pope was saying that atheists could go to heaven by doing good, this, of course, would be contradictory to what the catechism has to say:

  1. The first commandment refers to believing/loving this one god portrayed in the bible and catechism.
  2. The ten commandments are the bar which the church uses to define if a sin is “grave”; these are sins that “if not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell…”[1]

Others argued that the Pope omitted “and if they repent from being atheists”, which should have been implied. Sadly, there was no further word from the Vatican to clarify what was actually meant.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church – Article 8

focus or diversity? focused on diversity. 10 days of my NYC life…

I’ve been skeptical on publishing this one but it does convey what I’ve been doing in NYC… it feels more like a diary entry than a blog, but here it goes…

Sat May 7: early noon start, cabbing it to Brooklyn Crab where I was forced, against my will and without other recourse, to down several oyster-vodka shots and maybe one or more Jamesons as companions to a few bloody marys, companions themselves to fresh crab and shrimp overload. For dessert, another Jamo and a game of corn hole or two, and some beverage to quench the thirst. Bar 2: Kentuky derby. vodka. vodka. vodka. Bar 3:

wake up Sun at noon, bike over to catch the America’s Cup regatta with friends… aperol spritz? no thanks, not today.

Monday workday, 7pm flag football game with the Drunken Monkeys, then team drinks. True story: our left cornerback goes by the name of Mootown. Mootown after 3 sauvignon blancs: “guys, wifey is leaving with the kids to visit her parents, so I’m having a party this Saturday, you’re all invited. $12 per head will get us: a midget stripper (haven’t decided if male or female), an adult clown (but not the same bastard as last time, that asshole got hammered and had to be carried out to the street), and a gluten-free cock cake from Whole Foods. A cock cake is a cake shaped like a cock. What color? black, cause who doesn’t like chocolate”

I’ll pass, Mootown, thanks for the invite.

Tuesday work day. Dodgeball (yes, dodgeball) game with the Dodgy Style at 8pm… bed early for…

early flight Wed to LA, meeting with City of Pasadena at 3pm, work till 6, work out, dinner with work mates.

More meetings Thursday, Dodgers game at night, Kershaw throws a 3-hit, 11-K shutout, few people but me seem to give shit.

Innovate Pasadena breakfast on Fri morning, where we listened to an entrepreneur tell his story of developing PickMySolar.com, waking up my recently-dormant passion for the internet as a bridge over market inefficiencies.

More meetings Friday. Leave at 4pm to the full experience of LA traffic, arrive at Big Bear Hostel 8pm. Meet these guys who were on the Pacific Crest Trail: 3-4 months of hiking from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. A tough challenge, no doubt, but also what looked like a really chill environment, and no strangers to checking out the local bars at every stop. I was invited by some girls to join this night’s visit to the local pub and, although tempted, I held tough on my pledge not to drink this weekend.

Looks like a good choice on that one, because by staying I met Makena. The PCT challenge was nothing compared to what she was here for: a 52-mile (84-Km) run around and up the Big Bear mountains. We had some good chats on Friday, after her race on Saturday, and then on Sunday.

Recently I’ve been fighting this internal battle of not being great at anything. All throughout my life, I’ve had this idea that I’d find a passion, focus on that, and become great at something. But it hasn’t turned out like that, I’m more like “pretty good” at a few things, with passion bobbing and wavering between these things, and sometimes, others. I’m pretty good at my job, pretty good as a manager and relating to people and helping them be better at what they do, I’d like to think I’m a pretty good friend, brother and son; I’m passionate about helping the world be a better place, but I haven’t devoted my life to that. I keep my body in relatively good shape, watch what I eat, but by no measure am I on track to excel as an athlete; I like travelling, but I’m usually not the best-traveled guy at the table.

Contrast that with Makena… paying for her Nutritionist degree by working part time and living with her parents, training for ultra marathons, taking her body to the limit in her early twenties while eating vegan, a true testament of trusting her studies, and even more to her focus and passion. I was fascinated about how simple her decisions were: “I don’t eat meat because it’s linked to certain diseases, never tried a cigarette because I don’t see what positive can come out of it” she also said she feels happy 100% of the time, and I believe her… me? it’s more like 80%, and I thought that was a pretty good number.

While hiking for a few hours on Saturday, I pondered the question: is my life as a waste of talent? maybe if I picked something and went all out I could leave a bigger mark in the world. On the other hand, it feels like it’s turned out like this because this is who I am, I’m a guy that enjoys diversity, and I’m pretty happy with where I am now, enjoying meeting interesting people and making new friends, and learning and having interesting conversations.

Hiking on Saturday, a few hours of paddle boarding on Sunday, and my mind was back to good, at peace with the idea of being pretty good at a bunch of things, without taking away the respect for the ultra-focused successful people.

Boarded the red-eye on Sunday night, showered at home and got to the office at 9am, where important meetings were being held with potential investors and partners… stressful day! until 6pm when I left to watch portugal.the man and Cage the Elephant rock the stage at central park, drink of choice: rosé.

What a week! what a testament to unique days and adventure!

I’m still looking to find that project that leaves the big footprint, but also contempt for now with this life of exploration and diversity. Thanks for reading!

the end is the beginning

The best decision of my life. And I don’t know what the second best was, but it’s not close. A year ago I didn’t have a motorcycle license, had never taught a kid a thing, and didn’t speak a word of French. Now I’ve been a ski instructor at Vail, rode 10,000Km through South and Central Europe, and can almost fluently say “mon francaise, c’est pas tres bien”. I spent a night on the ground by my bike in Mljet (a nature reserve/paradise island in Croatia), I learned to do backflips (into water), read more than I did in college, swam in the Mediterranean a hundred times. I saw an F1 race for free (from afar), biked through Croatian islands, sailed across the Aegean, and contemplated more sunsets and sunrises than in my last ten years combined.

I met so many great people it’s hard for my brain to process how many people one can meet and care about.

Why did I stop? All this travelling has made me more human, more eager to contribute to the world. Travelling seemed like it was about to become a routine, I’m ready to contribute with more than my good humor.

So here I am, in New York City, figuring out what the best way to do that is.

Thanks to everyone that was a part of this, the good times spent together will not be quickly forgotten. Thank you for your smiles, for your help when I needed it, for being a voice that yells out how great the world is and how many great people are out there, ready to teach you something, and to be your friends.

If I had one recurring thought, it has been on how to make the world a better place. To me, it is key to realize we are humans before being anything else. We are ALL human, we ALL come from the same tribe millions of years ago. Thinking of ourselves as human instead of (American/Catholic/Hispanic/Arab/etc) will not solve every problem, but I believe it’s a good start.

Hope you enjoy the pictures… please keep in touch!

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EURUPDATE #1

HIGHLIGHTS ON FIRENZE, CINQUE TERRE, SWISSE, BRNO, BRATISLAVA, WIEN, AND BUDAPEST

So, here’s what I’ve been doing in the last month, I’ll try to keep it to one highlight per day (if you have only one minute, I suggest watching the videos from Siena).

One random thought before I start. Tiana, who I met in Cinque Terre, had an idea that I think is brilliant: “why don’t we call places by their real names in their original language?” in other words, Florence should be Firenze, Spain should be España, and Italy should be Italia. I’ll try to keep true to that one here. There is one that’s kind of problematic: Switzerland is called four different names (Schweiz, Suisse, Svizzera, Svizra) BY ITS OWN CITIZENS! I’ve read the history of the country, but I still cant believe how one of the richest, most educated, peacefulest (screw you autocorrect! I’m leaving in peacefulest), countries in the world is composed of states that speak four different languages, is land-locked, and divided by the Alps that must have made it impossible to cross in the not too distant past. OK, so here is my little travel blog from the past month…

Forte dei Marmi: the best two plates of pasta I’ve ever tasted: penne scampi and fish-filled ravioli with a shrimp curry sauce, thank you Luigi!

Meeting and instantly organizing a crazy night out in Florence with Rishav (India), Sara (Australia), Stans (Holland), and Karl (Canada), now known as The Pussy Posse… the greatest nights are better left pictureless.

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I met a pretty girl from Brooklyn, we had good drinks and great conversations, we kissed in one of those automatic photo booths, she left me two of the four pictures but forgot to write down her contact… some nights are better left as memories?

I spent like 10 minutes without blinking, looking at this sculpture at Piazza di la Signora, trying to figure out how the fuck did this guy turn a huge block of marble into three humans interacting like this?

2015-06-28 12.11.40

I swam at night in the Mediterranean at Riomaggiore, kudos to Tiana for coming up with the idea, sorry about the lacerated foot, hope it’s healing well.

2015-06-30 02.03.49 Sea Kayaking in Monterosso. 2015-07-01 19.12.36 Ridiculous sunsets in Cinque Terre 2015-07-01 21.13.18 2015-06-30 20.46.56

The 12 seafood antipasti at Tratoria dal Billy in Manerola, and the two plates of pasta that followed (smoked swordfish and truffle spaghetti anyone?)

Got caught up in the middle of the celebration of July’s Palio in Sienna… I can’t understate how absolutely insane these people are about winning that horse race. 

And that’s only the first week!

Drove 7 hours Siena-Marseille and the next day rode my bike 9 hours (7 hours road time) to Schweiz with temperatures reaching 38C. I met our family friend Rene and after a cold Swiss brewsky, we walked 20 minutes up the river that borders his farm, then swam back with the current, exiting to say hi to his local pals who were grilling by the river, and offered us a beer while watching the sunset behind at least 50 balloons in the distance. IMG-20150704-WA0005

Chilling next to the lake in Luzerne with Christin and her friends.

Riding across the Swiss Alps, alternating between 38C and 13C at the top of the passes, definitely the coolest bike ride yet. 2015-07-07 15.13.42 2015-07-07 15.14.12 2015-07-07 15.39.25

Canyoning at Chli Schliere near Interlaken with 15 California kids who just got out of highschool. Watch the video to understand the level of adrenaline this entails (I don’t have pics from that day, sadly)… I’m proud to say I pulled off my first backflip, another reminder 36 is not late to try new things.

Making friends with four Korean girls at my hostel in Salzburg, making due backpacking Europe with really bad English… respect.

Memorable nights in Brno with some Italian Biology PhD’s and Alexis the Cell Biologist from Singapore, traveling solo around the world.

Wien, where I met for beers with Lauri from Finland through Couchsurfing.com. We found ourselves having a pretty intense chat with an Austrian economist at an outdoor film festival. The economist had very strong views on every topic from the Greek Crisis to the potential bankruptcy of Germany to how the US Fed is controlled; and he would not be swayed by anything we said (or researched). After the guy went on his way, Lauri turned to me and said some of the wisest words I’ve heard:

“An argument is worth having only if each party involved is willing to change its opinion”

Watching a Queen concert on a giant screen mounted on a palace’s facade in Wien, talking about Guate with Mariana, una maestra del Austriaco. 2015-07-16 23.05.21 2015-07-16 22.58.58

I spent the weekend in Budapest, never ceases to impress with its architecture and sheer size. This time I got to experience a bunch of ruin bars: ancient or soviet buildings that were about to be run down, and instead were decorated and turned into some really cool pubs. One of the greatest weekends of my life.

Guatemala’s Real Hidden Gems – Pedro’s Top 5

I recently read one of those “list” articles with this same title and was like “whoa! What a great idea!” Guate has so much to offer beyond the standard Atitlán – Tikal – Antigua tour. But when I read the article I was disappointed because none of the places were actually hidden… so I’m stealing the title and giving you my own version of Guatemala’s Real Hidden Gems. How hidden are these places? I’d bet less than 95% of Guatemalan’s have heard of all 5, and less than 1% of Guatemalan’s have visited even one of them.

I would love to hear feedback and get some controversy going on what other gems should have made the list. So! here we go…

Not “hidden” enough – the aforementioned Tikal (and Yaxhá), Antigua, Panajachel (not a gem, either) / Atitlán and its towns, Semuc Champey, Pacaya Volcano “Lava River Hike”, Chichicastenango Market, Sportfishing in the Pacific, La Reunion Resort and Spa.

Honorable  Mentions – Las Conchas, Alta Verapaz; Acatenango and Santa María hikes; Grutas de Candelaria, Alta Verapaz; Finca Ixobel, Petén (www.fincaixobel.com); rafting Río Cahabón; Laguna Lachuá, Quiché; El Cimarrón, Huehuetenango.

#5 – Laguna Petexbatún and Ruinas de Aguateca, Petén

Take a one-hour water taxi from Sayaxché up Río La Pasión to arrive at the pristine jungles of Petexbatún. Stay at Chimino’s Island Lodge, where each of the 4 bungalows seems to be in complete solitude, with thatched roof and mosquito net instead of windows, it’s an intimate way to take in the sights (360 degrees of dense jungle or lake), smells (“de tierra mojada” like we say in Guate), feelings (the humidity of the jungle) and, specially, the sounds (howler monkeys live atop the trees in the island). To round out the 5 senses, the ultra-friendly staff cooks up some of the best home cooking I’ve ever had for breakfast and dinner.

You can walk around the island to find remains of an ancient Mayan site with a “Juego de Pelota” court and sacrifice temple, still standing; or borrow a kayak from the hotel and go for a cool tour around the island.

The Aguateca ruins are a 10 minute boat ride away, a local guide will tell you about the history of the old city and its relationship with the others nearby (Ceibal, Dos Pilas). Although smaller than Tikal and Yaxhá, the city has a special charm from being right on the lake, as well as the large “hikeable” fault that parts it down the middle.

#4 – Volcán Tajumulco, San Marcos

At 4,220 meters, the highest peak in Central America is a little harder to get to than Acatenango and Santa María, but it’s worth it. The 4-6 hour hike is lined with very well kept forests, and the views from the top are simply stunning. The campsite is relatively flat, about 200 vertical meters from the summit, and although sleeping at over 4,000 meters (and subzero temperatures in Jan-Feb) is never easy, the price you pay in comfort is more than made up when you take your first peek of the sunrise from the top.

#3 – Laguna Brava, Huehuetenango

The most hidden of these gems! Stay at Finca Chaculá Lodge, a really really old farmhouse converted into B&B, very clean and comfortable, nice food, and super friendly staff. Take a 2 hour horseback ride down a steep mountainside that reaches a beautiful small river that leads to Laguna Brava: one kilometer of green-blue freshness, with no houses or people, except for the (extremely) rustic bedrooms and kitchen that you can rent for dirt cheap and spend a night there (I didn’t spend the night there because I didn’t know about it before, but next time I’ll bring my sleeping bag and stay there for sure. I’m sure you can get locals to cook for you for very cheap also).

#2 – Cueva de Caxlampón and Finca Paraíso, Izabal

A 30 minute drive from Finca Paraíso and a 45 minute hike will take you to the entrance to the cave, say goodbye to sunshine! Afer a 30 minute hike inside the cave, you find your first real obstacle, a 25 meter drop you must rappel down (in complete darkness), after you catch your breath and regroup with your mates, you restart your trek, going over and under boulders for another hour until you hear something familiar… yup, a river just entered the cave, and you will spend the next 2-3 hours (in total darkness) alternating between hiking, splashing, and swimming, with the eventual 7-9 meter (pitch black) plunge into the river pools below.

After 5-6 hours in the cave, you come out to the beautiful Guatemalan jungle, where you hike downriver for another 30 minutes and then walk a bit to your tent in Finca Paraíso on a beach at Lake Izabal. The next day, walk a few minutes up the same river to a beautiful pool where the cold river meets with a hot-springs waterfall, and you’ll understand where this farm gets its name.

#1 – El Mirador Trek

Arrive in Carmelita before dawn, make sure your guides and mules are ready and your bags are packed with the right things, lie on your sleeping bag in the “tourism office” and get some sleep, this is the most comfortable you’ll be for the next few days. For the next two days, you’ll be trekking through dense jungle, so dense the only moment you see the sun is by summing the main pyramid in the Mayan city of Tintal, your home for the first night. A 7-hour trek later, you’ll see the first remains of El Mirador, the largest Mayan city, whose barriers to access have helped kept it a relative secret.

The only inhabitants of El Mirador (and a 40 Km. radius) are the archeologists who are uncovering the city and studying the ancient Maya. Walk around El Mirador and hike up to its numerous pyramids, including “La Danta” the most massive Mayan pyramid, and larger than either of it’s more famous Egyptian cousins. After a couple of nights, head back on the 2-day hike to Carmelita through the “chiclero” camp La Florida.

Being in the jungle for five days or more will give you a new perspective on what the Maya had to endure, and perhaps, like me, you’ll discover a part of yourself you didn’t notice before.

FOOTNOTES: How to get there and other important information.

  1. El Mirador:
    • Bus or car from Flores to Carmelita is about 1-2 hours (you can also shell out about $5,000 for a group of 5 to get to El Mirador by helicopter… but that would be cheating)
    • Contact the Carmelita tourism office 2-3 months in advance if possible, to arrange guides, mules, food and water. That said, I know people that have just shown up without reservations and were able to secure a guide.
    • Best time to go is dry season (late March and April), and I highly recommend it, since during rainy season some parts of the rainforest turn into waist-high or chest-high wetlands.
    • Make sure you have the right attire and equipment.
  1. Caxlampón:
    • Contact La Rocalla well in advance to reserve guides and gear, they can arrange your stay at Finca Paraíso (or a nearby hotel) and transportation as well.
    • I recommend practicing rappelling a little before your adventure, you can do that at any rock-climbing center.
    • Make sure you have the right attire and equipment.
  1. Laguna Brava:
    • Contact Finca Chacula Lodge well in advance and arrange the expedition through them, it should be cheap, like Q80 per horse per day.
    • To get there, I recommend you rent a car and drive, it’s a 7 hour drive from Guatemala City, but it’s well worth it with enough attractions in the area to fill out 3 days. Maybe you can combine it with Tajumulco.
  1. Tajumulco:
    • Arrange a guide in Quetzaltenango or through Inguat, I don’t recommend you hike it without a guide.
    • Best month is November, then December through March.
    • You can take a bus from Quetzaltenango or Guatemala San Marcos, then another to the starting point. Drive from Guatemala is about 5 hours.
  1. Petexbatún:
    • Get to Sayaxché on a bus, taxi or car from Flores, about 1.5 hours south.
    • Book in advance and Chiminos Island Lodge will arrange everything for you (taxi/bus, water taxi, day trips).

In general: Guatemala is less dangerous than its reputation, but I still recommend you arrange for local guides prior to your trip, buy a local cell phone, don’t carry unnecessary valuables, and be discreet at all times.

Children’s Ski Instructor: the best form of birth control?

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They say teaching skiing to kids is the best form of birth control… not for me, it didn’t scare me out of having kids of my own someday (although maybe one or two sound better than three now).  I had a great time teaching skiing to kids! It’s kinda hard to pinpoint why, but I think one big thing were the quick but sincere bonds I made every day. I’m not the funniest or most clever instructor, but I gave the kids freedom to act as long as their actions didn’t harm others fun (like I treat other adults, but with more fun, imagination, and nonsense), and I think in return I got their respect, their commitment to follow my advice, and it made it more fun, which produced very satisfied customers.

Of course “kids say (and do) the darnest things”, and that makes for great comedy.  My favorite story is when a 7yo silently took my friend Jeff’s pole and threw it out the gondola window into The Narrows (a double black diamond trail).  I had a 9yo that was so good with accents, her favorite thing was to ride on chairlifts with strangers and try to convince them she was from Georgia or Australia.

Playing “guess the movie”…

7 yr old kid: leo dicaprio is in it

11 yr old: the aviator

7 yr old: thats not it. it’s very long.

11 yr old kid: that’s what she said

The answer we were looking for was Titanic

Playing “would you rather” (ex. Would you rather ski whenever you want or travel wherever you want for the rest of your life?)… my best one from a 7yo: Would you rather… eat 2 gallons of pink paper or twinkle around like a unicorn?

Some others…

I had a 10 year old who wouldn’t stop asking questions and was driving me crazy, so I gave him a 10 question max during the day, I thougt I was so damn clever, until 5 minutes later I realized the kid was crying because I didn’t limit everyone else… “please stop crying! I’ll give you unlimited questions” problem solved, kid stopped crying… and I spent the rest of the day answering the stupidest fucking questions you could imagine, including “Am I annoying you?” “Can we go down a black diamond” and “what time is it?” for a hundred times.

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I learned a ton from those kids and from Vail, stuff I want to master and apply in many real-life situations:

  1. Make sure your customer’s basic necessities are met before you provide your product or service. If your customer feels uncomfortable (hungry, cold, needs to use the bathroom, feels unsafe, etc.) then his experience will be shitty, no matter how great your product. I knew about Maslow’s Pyramid before, but it’s the first time I applied it consciously to my customers.
  2. You can cover a lot of risks and mistakes by hiring well. Ski school has big challenges:
    1. High employee turnover – I estimate only about 15%-20% of first year ski instructors return for a second year
    2. High expectations – the job is not overly complex, but the guests are accustomed to great service wherever they go, and they pay a lot of money for the service. And mistakes can be costly (an injured or lost child, an unsatisfied guest that decides to take $50,000 family vacations to another resort)
    3. Condensed training – Being a ski instructor requires applying hard rules and soft best practices in safety, teaching, skiing, and client service. Because the season is so short, it’s not efficient to train new hires for months (I had 10 days of paid training, and 6 more days of training on my own to get my certification, Vail training programs and trainers are great)

So how does Vail get around these special challenges? They make sure they hire people that are overqualified in learning quickly and understanding high end customer service. Vail does get a break, though, in that most ski instructors and supervisors are OK with earning a lot less at this job (than their next best alternative) because it’s so fucking cool.

Change it up. When teaching or training, if your traditional method isn’t working, CHANGE IT UP, change SOMETHING, change ANYTHING, but don’t just keep doing the same forever until it works. Some kids would be terrible at flat ground exercises and stopping, but would skip those and excel at the more complex turning and skidding drills, and I wouldn’t know until I tried it.

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