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?

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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.

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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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what’s so cool about being a ski instructor at Vail?

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There’s gotta be something good about it because as my final days on the mountain wound down, I got this melancholic feeling in my head, and I’m sure it wasn’t just the hangover from another night of drinking craft beers from Edwards’ Crazy Mountain Brewery, or Eagle’s Bonfire Brewing Co, or (my favorite) Fort Collin’s New Belgium Brewery.

What’s the biggest difference between being in Vail and my “old life”?

I’m tempted to say it’s the bubble of security and happiness (everyone just seems to be in a good mood in Vail, and most of those who weren’t, left halfway through the season), but it’s not; the biggest difference is in the POED (Percentage Of Epic Days). As a businessman in Guatemala I’d get 2-3 epic days a month, but Vail offered at least 2-3 epic days per WEEK. There were too many to name here, so go to my FB page to get a feel for what I mean (skiing, working, powder days, partying, ski racing, concerts, après drinks, cookouts at my place, cookouts with the Argies!, golf, snowboarding, working with great kids and families).

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OK, just one! on a powder day, ski hard with my friend Bruno and his brother, grill hot dogs at Blue Sky Basin for lunch, then keep skiing until 3:30pm, head to Chair 3 and hike for 10 minutes over Game Creek, then ski out of bounds on untouched powder down to a town called Minturn. Walk a few steps with skis on your shoulder to the Minturn Saloon for margaritas and southwestern food. What a day!

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Dec 31st 2014: Another Epic Day I posted on FB

But what made it so special? was it the nightlife?

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No. The ratio in Vail is so bad, it even freaks out the girls… one girl friend of ours accurately compared going to bars in Vail to being “a wounded gazelle surrounded by lions”. So, maybe I went out a lot, maybe too much, and we definitely have great stories and had great bonding with friends in these underground spots (literally underground, locals rarely party in “above ground bars” those are reserved for tourists that pay $12 for a drink). But definitely, very definitely, the nightlife is not what made this special.

Working with kids?

I thought I’d come here and have all this time left over for reading, writing, researching, working out, partying… but I found out quickly that being a ski instructor is a real job that takes physical and mental energy, responsibility, and even carries some stress.  Just imagine being in charge of 11 9 year-olds, in a snowstorm, in the biggest ski resort in the US; half the time you’re worried you’re gonna lose a kid, the other half you’re worried about them getting hurt.

NOTE: there’s so much on teaching kids and the lessons I learned, that I decided to do a separate post on that, coming soon.

Working outside? Manual labor?

I think this is the biggest reason some people become instructors for life, my friend Mark quit his successful engineering job in construction projects two years ago and told me “I will never go back to working indoors, unless a physical or financial situation comes up that forces me to” (most on-mountain jobs, including ski instructing, pay poorly, and getting injured on the job, training, or free skiing are very real risks). By being out on the mountain, I definitely felt a strong, beautiful feeling of freedom, something I think is pretty universal and should be sought by all humans.  I’ve felt it in my expeditions in Guatemala and abroad, and is something I believe so much in that I invested in Green Rush.

The manual labor aspect was interesting, it gave me an immediate feeling of productivity and service. When my job required me to be a server for my kids at lunch and cocoa breaks, I couldn’t help but compare myself to Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged, earning her living by cooking and housekeeping for XYZ XYZ (read the book!)… what can I say, I might be a romantic.

How about working among all those ski bums?

I had this preconception that ski instructors would be great athletes who loved to ski, but who’d have relatively low level of education… couldn’t have been more wrong! Most ski instructors at Vail have a college degree and lots have masters; for example, this was my group for my second day of training: Mik, a retired surgeon and now an investor who moved to Vail, instructs part time and donates 100% of that income to the Wounded Warrior project. Michael, an architect who designs local homes and businesses (also a part timer). Steve, an economist from the University of Chicago who decided a desk job wasn’t for him and now is happy working as a server at a high end restaurant and teaches part time. And my now great friend Rebecca, a Nuclear Engineer who worked on aircraft carriers for a few years, and is now off to get her MBA.

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And then, there’s the friendships…  at the start of the season I had zero friends living in Argentina, now I have at least 20 from Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Mendoza, Ushuaya, Rosario, Neuquén, and whatever the name of Maru’s town is.

I’ve made some friendships that I think will continue forever like Rebecca and (in no particular order): Ian, my first roommate and friend, who’s so into living life, and who made me reflect on conserving resources and that we don’t need a lot of material stuff to be happy. He used to eat red meat only once a week, citing that the land used by cattle would not be sufficient if all humans would want to eat meat every day. Chris, a Chemistry major who seems quite contempt to be a ski instructor and camp counselor for kids in the next few years; Jeff, taking some time between his masters in Accounting and his job at a firm in Denver. Valerie, a Jersey girl and Political Science major who just spent two years teaching in Spain (and I wouldn’t be surprised if she goes back for two more). Mark, architect from Oxford (or was it Cambridge? he’s gonna kill me!) who just graduated and maybe was just killing some time until he looks old enough to be an architect. Omar, who’s supposed to be 18 but acts like he’s 36, he’s on his way to University of Chicago.

It’s kinda stupid to write about just a few because I’ve made so many friends, and even more stupid to write a sentence on each when I could write a book, but this is a blog post and we wanna keep it short and fun.

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So, in conclusion, I can’t say what specific thing made this experience so great. Would I do it again? Probably not next year, maybe when I retire, like Mik. For now, I feel like I’ll find something where I’ll make a bigger impact, somewhere outside of the bubble, or maybe I can try to bring the bubble to many others. Could we all live in one big bubble?

(Having fun with old friends… thanks to all that visited during the season, it made it even more special!)

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Am I on the train? Am I driving?

Let’s see how this blogging thing works out…

One year ago I asked my business partner of 12 years for a short meeting; trembling and with watery eyes I stepped into his smallish office, well within view of our staff through the glass “wall”, a symbol of the transparency preached in our company way before we took over management. I can’t think of another instance where I was afraid to share something with Luis, the #1 person I’d pick in a trust contest, the #1 guy I would pick as my brother in arms to go to war with.

“I’ve been reflecting on my life for the past months, I think I might want to make a big change in my life’s path. I’d like to leave my post as GM of Promotores Unity, maybe temporarily, maybe permanently”.  Tears, hugs, a little rage, a lot of compassion and understanding, then some of the stages of grief. Next, telling my other partners, more understanding and a feeling of “it’ll al be OK”, and friendship, thank you Emmett and Tito!

The transition lasted 7 months, with countless memorable interactions with clients, insurers, friends, family and even my competition, wishing me well and praising my work.  But certainly the most special moments were those with my staff, my teammates!, expressing sentiments of love and respect, and a little fear things might not work out.  No disrespect to them, I think I know that team better than they know themselves, I was confident this decision wouldn’t slow us down, and so far, they’ve proven me right.

Throughout those seven months, the recurring question was “why are you doing this?” with the underlying question being “what do I want to do with my life?”