Category Archives: Rants and More

The Road to Uaxactun (Guatemala)

The muddy, bumpy, 14-mile trek to the town (and the archaeological sites) of Uaxuctun takes just over an hour.  So that’s how much time I got to spend with a blind, 100-year-old Guatemalan man named Julio and his great-grandson, Manuel.  For this stint in Guatemala, I chose a 4-wheel drive Nissan pickup with tinted windows.  I thought it might make it less obvious that I was a tourist and let me blend in with the locals a bit better.  Perhaps it worked better than I thought.


Julio, Manuel, and my rented Nissan


The only way to get to see the Mayan ruins at the isolated Guatemalan town of Uaxactun (“Wash-ack-TOON”) is to start at Tikal and head north into the wilderness over a dirt road so muddy and bumpy it’ll take you over an hour to travel 14 miles.

As I pulled up to the gate at Tikal to start the trip, four men (a park ranger, a couple of security guards and another man) approached my car – all smiling ear to ear.   One of them started to speak to me in Spanish, with another volunteering a sporadic translation.  “He says, would it be okay . . . if . . . you . . . could give a ride to an old man?  He can’t see.  He’s  . . . blind.  He needs to get to Uaxactun.”  Uh…Okay.  I should point out (solely to convey the image – not because it’s particularly relevant) that, as was often true at a Guatemalan checkpoint of this sort, some of the people involved (not me) were toting shotguns and wearing a belt-full of shotgun shells (handguns were a rarity, even for policemen).  I look over and see an ANCIENT blind man now tottering toward the car.  I hear someone saying the phrase “tienes cien ANOS” (“he’s 100 years old”).  I hop out, shake his hand, and try to introduce myself to the sweet old blind guy, only to realize that he’s also mostly deaf.  Someone else tells me his name is Julio.

I gulp just a little at the responsibility I’m undertaking with a 100-year-old blind man in my car for a long drive through an unfamiliar muddy, rocky and isolated jungle road.  Worse, as I get instructions for where to drop him off, the pivotal landmark seems to be the first “chicle” tree as I come into town.  At this point, I see a ten-year-old kid starting to climb in the back of my truck.  It’s apparently Julio’s grandson (“Manuel”).  Somehow I’m relieved that Julio would have a caretaker (even a tiny one), though now I have two hitchhikers, neither of whom would be any help whatsoever if I got stuck along the road to Uaxactun.  I assume, at least, that Manuel will recognize where to stop to drop him and Julio off.  I insist that Manuel come around and ride INSIDE the truck with Julio and me.

They load up (sitting together in the back seat), and I pull forward about fifty feet to the gate, where I am met by another guard, who asks if I have the permit to take the car (truck) through the National Park.  Crap.  I’ve got a carload of Guatemalan dependents, and now I have to drive back to the “Administration” office and get a permit.  As an aside:  One would think that said office might be near the ROAD, right?  It is not.  I drive a ways, park (leaving the boys in the truck with the windows down), and walk the hundred yards or so up the hill to get my permit.  Of course the man who writes out my permit (slowly) has a shotgun across his lap, but he’s otherwise friendly enough.  Soon I’m headed back to the car, permit in hand.  Julio and Manuel are as patient as can be.


It probably goes without saying that little Manuel does not speak a word of English.  As we travel, I slowly formulate questions (carefully selecting from the short list of Spanish words I actually know).  Manuel usually understands me okay, then rips out a rapid-fire (elaborate) response, of which I can usually understand maybe 20%.  I learn names (Manuel and Julio), ages (10 and 100, according to Manuel).  I triple-check the report on Julio’s ago (“?Cien anos?!!”).  I learn that they both live together with their family in Uaxactun, and that Julio is some sort of abuelo (grandfather) to Manuel.  I think maybe he was saying it’s his great- or great-great-  grandfather (which might make sense, if it’s really 90-year age gap).  I can’t figure out Manuel’s response about the reason they were in Tikal to start with.  Manuel teaches me the word(s) for “bumpy” roads – (“lleno de baches” – full of holes), which was a very relevant and useful phrase at the time.

There is absolutely nothing along the road to Uaxactun: no intersections; no forks; no houses; no businesses.  Nothing – except two signs reassuring me I’m still on the road to Uaxactun.  And the jungle.  We meet one other truck.  I later learn that Uaxactun is notable – even among Guatemalans of the area – as a poor community.  No electricity or running water (I see various systems for collecting rainwater though.)  No phones.  Apparently the residents are rather famous for their knowledge of the trees and bushes and berries and fruits of the jungle, for both nutritional and medicinal uses.

After about an hour, we see the first house at the edge of town.  Manuel gets animated, and when I hear “aqui” (“Here!) a couple of times, I stop the car.  We rush around to help his grandpa, and of course I also grab my camera.  Julio pauses for a moment, but I don’t think he understood I wanted to take pictures (photography probably isn’t a very important concept to a blind man?).  So they don’t stand still for long.  I shook each of their hands and stammered out a Spanish “Goodbye – nice to meet you.”  I wanted to follow them, but giving a hitchhiker a ride doesn’t automatically earn you an entry into their home, and neither of them was really even capable of inviting me.  I yelled out one more Adios as they headed down the path.


The archaeologic sites at Uaxactun don’t really compare to Tikal – or even to Yaxha.  But it was interesting enough and, much as at Yaxha, I pretty much had the place to myself, with two exceptions.  The first was a dreadlocked white guy who spoke perfect English and said he was from Hungary.  He was sitting on the ground in front of one of the more remote temples.  I’m pretty sure he’d been smoking something.  When I spoke to him, somehow he started giving me tips about bargain basement airfares to and from Cancun.


The other person I ran across was a twelve-year-old boy who popped up from behind one of the first monuments I saw.  He introduced himself as a tour guide, available for hire.  He spoke no English, but was still eager to show me around.  We negotiated a generous guide fee for him (Why not, right?), and then spent the next couple of hours with him leading me from site to site.  That’s Manolo in the dark blue shirt.  The kid was sharp.  He showed me some of the plants and trees that are used for medicinal and other purposes, and coaxed a tarantula out of its hole for my, uh, amusement.  More than anything, he knew how to climb around every nook and cranny on the site.  His entertainment was more than worth the 100 Quetzal ($12US) I paid him.

It turned out that Manolo’s mom was working back in Tikal – selling souvenirs right at the entrance.  (I’d seen her that morning!).  He asked for a ride.  I declined, telling him that I wasn’t able to take a small boy to a faraway town without his mom or dad’s permission (or at least that’s what I tried to communicate).  Manolo had an answer – I took him back to his home, where there was an English-speaking uncle who readily agreed that Manolo did need to get to Tikal.  In fact, the uncle wanted a ride, too.  I was practically running a bus service!


All went smoothly on the drive back to Tikal.  The English-speaking uncle actually worked part-time as a real tour guide in Tikal, so I had an hour to quiz a knowledgeable local about all sorts of history and customs.  Admittedly, the ruins at Uaxactun were a little anti-climactic after I’d spent the prior days at Tikal and Yaxha, but my hitchhikers surely made it worth the trip.  As the old cliche says, sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.



Superheroes Saving Kids in Houston

At any given time in Houston, there are over 5,000 kids in the custody of Child Protective Services (CPS), having been taken from their homes based on suspected severe abuse or neglect.  Just try to picture what a group of 5,000 kids would look like.  Child Advocates is a charity dedicated to helping those kids.

{Note: The kids in these pictures are NOT kids in CPS custody — these are just cute Houston kids whose parents brought them to participate in a fundraiser that benefits abused kidsFor obvious reasons, pictures of the kids being served by Child Advocates are not made public.}

Saturday morning, hundreds of runners — many dressed like their favorite comic book superhero — came out to CityCentre to raise money for Child Advocates of Houston.  I was proud and honored to be the chairman of the first (hopefully annual) Child Advocates Superheroes Run, presented by MRE Consulting.

Child Advocates recruits, trains and supports a small army of about 750 volunteer Advocates, each one generally assigned to one or two kids in CPS custody.  The Advocates’ primary role is to roll up their sleeves, talk to and work with the kids, parents, relatives, neighbors, and counselors, and to help CPS and the Courts to figure out how to resolve each child’s unique situation and get them — somehow — safely out of CPS custody.  The mission is to break the “cycle” of child abuse — whereby abused kids too often grow up to be abusive parents.  Child Advocates is almost thirty years old, so there are now many thousands of heartwarming stories of how Advocates have changed (and even saved) lives.

My being “chairman” of an event means that other dedicated, smart, and generous people do tons of work and give lots of money to make the event successful, and then at the end, I’m the guy who gets a plaque.  For my friends, it meant they got their arms twisted to sponsor, donate, volunteer and/or run in the event — so THANKS to all those who did (including especially my buddies at MRE — the title sponsor).  I spent most of the morning glamorously hauling food and fence panels, setting up tents, taking people’s money, handing out T-shirts and bossing around other (wonderful!) volunteers.  But of course I brought my camera along — and shooting cute pictures at such an event is like shooting fish in a barrel.  Lots of cute kids in cute, colorful costumes.  Thanks to everyone who was a part of it.


I was lucky enough to have the absolute best and perfect parents, and have enjoyed the benefits of that my entire life.  It’s hard for me to even comprehend the lives of some of those abused or neglected kids, and maybe that’s why Child Advocates is the charity I most support.  Disease charities (like cancer and MS) are true lifesavers, but they get tons of support from wealthy folks whose families have personal risks and experiences with the disease.  Cultural charities (like the symphony) almost by definition have an affluent base of donor/patrons who like to attend.  And churches or colleges always have a built-in base of members and alumni to sustain them.  Abused kids don’t have much of a constituency, which is why Child Advocates exists, and why Child Advocates needs financial support.  A relatively-small expenditure at such critical points in those kids’ lives can truly change everything for them.  It’s a great cause.

Saturday’s Superheroes Run was a huge success — especially for a first-year event.  We netted about $70,000, which should allow Child Advocates to help an extra 40 or so kids this year.  If you were there (as sponsor, runner or volunteer):  Thanks!!  If not, we’ll see you next year.    Or go here to see how you can help Child Advocates now.

Even more pictures are here.

 The last photo in the grid above is the group of Katy School Runners, who together were a huge part of the event’s success.  The man in blue crossing the finish line just above is Dru Neikirk — one of the three partners in MRE Consulting, the title sponsor of the event (the “Child Advocates Superheroes Run – Powered by MRE Consulting”).  Regular visitors to already know the other two founder/partners of MRE:  Shane Merz and Mike Short


Clovis: Seeking my Inner Cave Man?

How big a nerd do you have to be to spend your birthday poking around a couple of obscure museums and an archaeological site in rural New Mexico?

 Apparently, finding  the bones or fossils of a (“wooly”) Mammoth in North America is a pretty ho-hum affair for archaeologists – even back in the 1930s.  But finding such a beast with a spear-point  stuck in its gut changed  American archaeology forever.  Only humans could make the precise, elaborate spear points like those unearthed at Blackwater Draw near Clovis, New Mexico.  So finding those spears alongside (or inside) 13,000-year-old mammoth bones and fossils showed for the first time that humans were roaming the American Southwest 130 centuries ago.

Near the end of Ice Age, Blackwater Draw was a genuine oasis – a natural spring had formed a freshwater lake that attracted the very-large mammals that roamed what is now eastern New Mexico.  The small lake apparently attracted big game (and early big game hunters) for thousands of years, so amazingly there are 8,000 –year old fossils and artifacts of prehistoric bison hunters practically right on top (in a higher soil layer) of the 13,000 year old Clovis-era bones and spear points.

Since the 1930s, several other, similar sites have been discovered with Clovis-era (about 13,000 years ago) artifacts.  For most of the 20th Century, it was generally believed that these “Clovis” people were the first human inhabitants of the New World.  Very recently, however, that theory has been challenged by new discoveries, including a 15,000 year old site in central Texas.

It’s not clear what happened to the Clovis people – whether they somehow just died off, or whether they’re the direct ancestors of modern Native Americans.  There are no human skulls or skeletons from the era, so it’s also unclear exactly what they looked like.  But we humans have looked pretty much like humans for at least 100,000 years, so Clovis men probably looked just about like “us.”


The picture on the left is an active excavation at the Blackwater Draw site.  They’ve built a shelter above it, and they’ve left semi-excavated bones in place — in stairstep fashion — to show the extent to which 4,000 year old artifacts are practically right on top of 8,000 year old artifacts, which in turn are right above the 13,000 year old Clovis-era bones.  Each rock sediment layer is another chapter of pre-history history.  The Draw was apparently a happening place for thousands of years.   The picture on the right — from the museum a few miles away — shows some of the actual Clovis-man-made spearpoints removed from the site.

Scheisse! Stahlen sie meine Kamera!*

You live and learn.  For example, just a  week or so ago, I didn’t even know there WAS a German-speaking region of Italy (just south of the Austrian border).  But now I’ve had the pleasure of explaining (in English) to a mostly-German-speaking Italian police officer how my American passport and my (Japanese) cameras had been stolen from my Swiss rental car.


First, I’d like to say that the Dolomites of northeastern Italy are a lovely place, full of rich history and beautiful scenery, and that the people of that region were all extremely friendly and helpful.  Except for the couple of  #%$@* assholes who broke the window out of my rental car while I was hiking and stole a camera bag holding one of my two primary cameras and four of my best lenses.  Two small consolations:  I had one camera and lens with me when the break-in happened, and the Volvo station wagon I’d rented did just fine crossing the Alps with a cardboard-and-duct-tape rear window and a back seat full of glass.

The ensuing days, of course, have included a few hours at the U.S. embassy in Bern for a new passport, an expensive trip to a Swiss camera store to bring my photography back to up to speed, and a couple of hours at the Zurich airport awkwardly swapping my rental car for a ‘fresh’ one with no broken windows.  Fortunately, I had double-backed-up all but the last round of pictures (and stored the backup elsewhere), so I didn’t lose many pictures.  Of course I had all the pictures from the hike itself, too.  Adding insult to injury, however, my pictures (an upcoming post) from the hike weren’t really all that good.

The shots on this page are not from the Dolomites.  They were taken somewhere along the road (in Austria, I believe) between the Ludwig castles (a prior post) and the Alpe di Suisi region (the next post).  The shots from this lovely spot (these taken on the camera that was not stolen) were the only ones that that survived from that drive.  I’d like to suggest that there were other, true masterpieces that I lost, but for better worse I don’t think that’s true.

 * I do not speak German, but I believe the title phrase above (“Stahlen sie meine kamera”) means “They stole my camera.”  The introductory exclamation (“Scheisse”) is an expletive, which I deem entirely appropriate under the circumstances.




Cuba 2013, Part 3: A Return to Havana

This is the last of my posts from a May 2013 trip to Cuba.  The first was here.  The ten posts (with tons more pictures) from my 2012 trip started here, and ended here.  Most of what you see below are just typical sights on the streets of Havana.  They are not odd, atypical spots.  The rooftop shots are Parc Central,  but regular street scenes you see are what virtually all the streets look like.


After my 2012 trip to Cuba, I had separate posts highlighting the classic cars that roam the streets, the glamorous Tropicana, Cuban “patriotism” and education, a rooftop ritual, Cuban athletics and just everyday life in Havana.   Returning to Havana just a year later, I necessarily saw many of the same sights, as the pictures above reflect.

The most important “new” feature of the trip this time was the opportunity to see some of it through the eyes of a Cuban-American woman– “Didi” — whose family was very involved in the turmoil of the Revolutionary period, and who was visiting Cuba for the first time.

Didi’s parents left Cuba in the early 1970s – escaping first to Spain and then to the United States.  She had an uncle who was a political prisoner of Castro for more than a decade – apparently because he worked for a telephone company.  Her father faced a regime firing squad but was somehow spared at the last minute and sent back to work.  A close family member escaped to Florida on a raft.  An aunt was evacuated by the American CIA and the Catholic Church in the “Peter Pan” project – where parents gave up their children and sent them to the U.S. because they believed (rightly or wrongly) the kids would otherwise be forcibly interned by the Cuban Revolutionary government.  The family friend who was to have been the organist at her parents’ wedding was shot – apparently by government forces — on the church steps a day before the ceremony.

Americans who think all Revolutions are hip and who flippantly don “Che” Guevara T-shirts ought to spend a few minutes with a family like that.

Didi had never been to Cuba, and was on a personal mission to visit her family’s old apartment, her parents’ church, and her father’s school.  Mostly she wanted to see the country that her parents lived in and left – the world that she’d have grown up in had her family not been brave and determined enough to find a way out.  We saw in Havana the three-room concrete-floor apartment where she would likely have grown up.  We saw the kids in the street and the people on the balconies — living the life she most likely would have had to live.  She cried a lot; I tried not to cry along.  I know it was a profound experience for her, because it was deeply moving even for an Oklahoma boy who had no stake or connection to Cuba (except for his new friend Didi).

Didi is now a 30-something pediatric ICU physician, married to a pediatric oncologist.  Her brother is a successful lawyer in a Washington DC firm.  If she’d lived in Cuba, she would have grown up going to a school where she had to stand up every day and pledge allegiance to the Communist regime.  And she’d probably be making about $25 a month, working in whichever government job the regime instructed her to work.


The first shot just above is Didi’s family’s apartment; my ultra-wide-angle lens makes it look bigger than it really was.  The second shot is during the May Day parade (about which I did a prior post).  I was not yet aware of her family’s history when I yelled “come with me” and led her into the midst of a few thousand Cuban military — I can only imagine how crazy that must have felt.  The dark shot at the Tropicana has Didi on the right, with our mutual friend Patricia, who — like me — was privileged to share some of Didi’s quest, on the left.  The other shots are just a couple of strangers she met and embraced (literally) along the way.


A year ago, I wrote a post about the American embargo against Cuba.  The embargo (“El Bloqueo”) continues to be an enormous focus of attention.  My thoughts a year later are, hopefully, clearer and deeper, but ultimately the same:  You can legitimately debate the embargo’s ongoing rationale and effectiveness, but its roots and goals are noble.  More critically, it is not to blame for Cuba’s pitiful situation.  It is not America’s fault that a chaotically organized socialist economy that is based on governmental control and oppression operates very poorly and impoverishes its people.  Policy change is definitely needed – but it will have to start in Havana.