Well I survived a week here in Guatemala, so I must not be doing things terribly wrong here.

The peak of Volcán de Agua was briefly visible for my birthday.
View of Volcán de Agua from Bella Vista

Thank you everyone for all the birthday wishes and those who donated to my birthday charity campaign. We surpassed my $200 goal with currently a total of $250 towards providing sustainably clean drinking water. The approximate impact is that was enough to expand access to an additional 8 people through the organization “Charity: Water.” While we have to extrapolate the impact since generally Charity: Water operates on projects that are thousands of dollars that impact a whole community, the additional $250 helped push water access to essentially two more additional families. That is something worth celebrating. Thank you to Belinda, Cubby, Denise, Ron, Ralph, Camille, Sandy, Julian, Lynette, Torey & Claudia for your wonderful gifts. ?

I believe this is the first year I have had my birthday away from home, let alone out of the country. It sure was a different experience, but how I treat my birthday is quite different than what most people do. For me, I treat my day as a sacred day of reflection, and over the years I’ve developed a system to help me to preserve that attitude by writing off most of the day to be in solitude and with an open Word document. 

Photo of my open laptop with a blank word document open. A Chemex full of coffee is beside the laptop with a scenic Guatemalan landscape in the distance.

I may end up writing a more in depth post about this if people are interested in this concept, but what I do is I write out an annual reflection, where I write a narrative of what the previous year was about. It really helps to get a feel of what exactly did I do over the past year, and helps prevent the years from just blurring together over time. After I write about the past year, I shift gears and start projecting towards the upcoming year. Now that I’ve seen what I’ve done, I use that to help shape more realistic objectives for the upcoming year. To help cement this mindset, what I do at the end is I actually write out a hypothetical interaction with my future self. To pull all these objectives together, I write about what I think the 1 year older version of myself would be like, and what I would think he would say to the present me if we were to sit down and talk. What becomes even more useful is since this ends up in the reflection, I get to read what my last year version of myself thinks I presently would be like, and I get to observe how that projection meets reality, and thus helps me gauge my progress in life.

So in the morning, I set out for that beautiful cafe called “Bella Vista” and spent about 8 hours in solitude and reflecting. I was so much in my head, that I didn’t realize my left half of my body was exposed to the sun and half my face was a shade darker than the other half. 
I was surprised that the rest of the WiFi Tribe (the community I’m living with), knew it was my birthday, and when I came back to the house, they bought me a birthday cake! Afterwards, a handful of us set out for dinner, which ended up being an amazing discussion about the tough journey to discovering self-confidence. I felt like there things changed and I moved from being an outsider and into actually being part of the Tribe. We then set out for a small dive bar where there was live music with these two guys playing songs like “You are my Sunshine” while with a raspy Tom Waits kind of voice and a guy on a harmonica. 

Group photo on the trail up Acatenango.
Everyone is smiling because this was taken on the way down the trail.

The main event of the week was our weekend hike up Volcán de Acatenango, the third highest mountain peak in Central America, at over 13,000 ft, which makes it only 1,400 less than Mt. Rainier. Acatenango is part of a cluster of nearby volcanoes: Agua, Fuego, and Pacaya. Fuego shares much of the same mountain range, and so it is possible to summit both peaks in a single excursion. While Acatenango is the highest of these mountains, Fuego has been in a constant state of eruption since 2002, with 15-20 small eruptions per hour on average. 

Selfie with a not too distant hiker in the background, that appears 30 ft. Lower.
Observe the steep incline the path is. ☠️

All of us who went on the trip agreed that if we were going to put the effort to summiting a mountain, we might as well do the 2-for-1 deal and scale up Fuego as well if we can. So off we went—a ragtag group of programmers, project managers, and professional students who spend all day on a computer, about to attempt to hike up more than 5,000 ft. of mountain prominence in less than 24 hours. What’s the worse that can happen?

Reality hit hard immediately as the trail doesn’t much wind around the mountain, but just scales straight up the mountain at an incredibly difficult incline gradient. In the first 20 minutes I felt like I was going to die, as my lungs were bursting. It’s a good thing nobody told me that we had over 6 more hours left on this hike, and pace rarely lessened. Half way up the trail, it became so difficult that I was typically take 5 second breathers every three steps. I honestly don’t recall a more difficult venture. 

Fuego in the background, when not erupting

Once we made it to base camp, we had a direct view of Fuego and enjoyed it’s repetitive eruptions. While I was told that you’d be able to see lava on Fuego, I figured it was only during the hike, and that there was some lava stream or something to observe. I didn’t realize that when the sun goes down, you literally can see lava spewing out of Fuego and run down the mountain side. It honestly looks just like what you see in the movies, and it really was quite incredible to just see this red lava flow from a distance that lit up night mountainous landscape. I unfortunately didn’t get to see it, but there was one huge eruption around 3:30am that shook the whole camp site. We had to be up by 3:45am, and so a few were already out of the tent when it happened and said it was a spectacular view. I only got to hear and feel it.

Almost to the summit.

We set out around 4am that morning for the summit of Acatenango. The weather was pretty bad, and the guides had already told us we couldn’t do the Fuego hike, but we were going to push forward with Acatenango. It was again a grueling climb, but it was about an 1.25 hr hike to the summit from base camp. We made it to the summit by the 5am sunrise, but sadly the cloud cover never relented and we generally only had about 100m of visibility. I would have loved to have seen the view from the summit, but it nonetheless was an incredible experience. I brought along some cold pizza for the trek and when I got to the summit, I just lounged at the peak and enjoyed a nice slice of Papa Johns pizza with envy in the eyes of all my fellow hikers. A couple farm dogs actually had joined us on our hike, and they even followed us to the summit, and when I brought the pizza out, they instantly became my best friends. 
For how painful the journey up the mountain was, the journey down was a joyous rush. The loose volcanic soil at the summit meant that I basically was skiing down the side of the mountain back to base camp, and probably made it back in less than 10 minutes. That trend continued for the hike back down the rest of the mountain after we packed up from base camp, as a few of us decided to try to keep up with our guides and literally ran down the mountain trail with a reckless speed that it felt like we were mountain biking, but forgot the bikes. 

Made it to the summit!
Can you say no to face like that?? ?

It took about 8 hours of combined hiking to ascend from the trail head to the summit, and it took less than 2 hours to get all the way back down. Our guides were impressed with the entire group as one of them exclaimed that he hadn’t ever gotten a group back to the bus in less than 2 hours.
Next week we’ll be heading to the coast and enjoying the beautiful beaches. We’ll see if I get peer-pressured into attempting to surf. ?‍♂️

Low visibility? No problem! Just keep running downhill. ?