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Voluntourist A_Broad: Guatemala



After a week drinking carefully cultivated coffee in Antigua and becoming the world's foremost surfing expert in El Paredon, I parted ways with new friends with old souls and hopped on a shuttle to Lake Atitlan. It was one of those existential bus rides where you find yourself listening to sappy music, staring out the window and wondering what in the hell you're supposed to be doing with your life. It's hardly an infliction to go from a beautiful beach to a beautiful lake, but a part of me felt sad to be moving on. A group I'd been traveling with was heading onward to El Salvador and I found myself alone again. With only one Guatemalan week to spare.

The bus ride was confusing at best. When we arrived by the lake in Panajachel, there was lots of scurrying and fast talking about who would be dropped off where. Unlike in the States, you're not guaranteed any semblance of order when traveling around Guatemala. It can be difficult to get used to initially, but you learn to trust the fact that you'll get dropped off somewhere which will lead to somewhere else which will hopefully lead to where you're supposed to go. Because nobody cares that you have to meet Pedro at the dock.

I spent five or so minutes haggling with the bus driver about why the hell he was ushering me off and whether or not my host dad Pedro would be meeting me, but it was a fruitless endeavor. We'd made it to the last stop on the route and, with no options left, I hauled myself and my giant suitcase off the bus and took stock of my surroundings. Panajachel is beautiful and hectic, with hoards of Guatemalan salesmen willing you to purchase everything from brightly colored blankets (in 75 degrees Fahrenheit) to flutes, private boats across the lake and parking spots for the car you don't have. One man actually bent down in an attempt to shine my beige, canvassed shoes with black polish.

When in Guatemala and in doubt, hop in a tuk-tuk. Their drivers are generally knowledgeable about the attractions and for 5-10 Quetzal ($0.65-$1.30) you can get about a mile. They also know how to put the pedal to the metal. I figured there was only one port and about forty Pedros, and I had to get across the lake to Santiago de Atitlan somehow, so onward we tuked to El Puerto. The lovely thing about tuk-tuks is how they make your entire body vibrate in the least comfortable way possible. They have just enough space to fit you and two pieces of luggage which will jostle around behind your head as you cling onto iron bars to steady yourself. Then you spend most of the ride praying to avoid head on collision with a truck, human being, feral dog or equally reckless tuk-tuk.

Five minutes and twenty Quetzal later, we were at the port. The lake is as blue as it is in its pictures, with a glistening surface whose current changes with the wind. At times, Atitlan appears so flat you can see your own reflection in it, but when the chilly evening winds pick up speed, water laps at the edges noisily and boats can be caught gaining air as they stagger toward the shore, their captains shouting out to each other in passing. The lake is flanked by rickety wooden docks and white and blue passenger boats that bob around like rubber duckies, "anchored" by one or two ropes for good measure. In the distance, faint glimpses of indigenous Mayans glide across the lake in hand-carved wooden canoes. A cobblestone boardwalk lines part of the lengthy stretch of port and three massive volcanoes: San Pedro, Toliman, and Atitlan, sit centered along the horizon line, clouds ebbing in and out of the views of their respective craters.

When one extremely blonde woman drags a massive wheeling suitcase over to the docks, she begins to notice another thing: hecklers. It's laughable how easy a target I am in Central America. Despite my Spanish-speaking skills and best efforts, I’m like a sitting duck sometimes. Six different men came sprinting up to me, offering promises of extremely expensive boat rides to San Pedro, San Marcos, Santiago de Atitlan and everything in between. I'm pretty sure I could've paid 100 Quetzal to get thrown into the lake. More women with blankets and beaded bracelets stuck their hands in my face to show me their goods.

“No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias………”

Before I could get a word out I was being quoted forty Quetzal for a one way boat ride, which I knew to be a farce. I rarely take guff in any language, so I marched my thousand parcels onto the wharf and asserted I would not be spending more than twenty five Quetzal to get to Santiago de Atitlan. And if that wasn’t an acceptable price, I'd wait for the next boat. Until the day I died. Luckily, a gentleman accepted my offer and helped me offload my luggage into his "lancha."

The ride itself was rocky but surreal. Even though I was sitting in a boat, waggling across the lake I’d googled a dozen times from the safety of my smartphone, a part of me felt like I wasn’t really there. The photos do no justice to the expansiveness of Atitlan. A volcano that seems so close you could swim out to it (in a few days), sits like a static block of earth for minutes before you actually reach its mighty base. And when you look up high from the your seemingly tiny vessel, its magnificence evicts all the thoughts from your head. You can’t think of anything but how effortlessly beautiful Atitlan is when traveling across it, no matter how tumultuous the ride. It might have the odd bits of debris congregating at its shoreline or a few plumes of smoke billowing from the burning of wood on its hills, but the colors and textures as you forge across it are so vivid they seem fake. It isn’t until you step off the boat and into the mayhem that you feel content it’s all real.

I noticed the locals making their way to the back of the boat and immediately understood why. Sitting in the front means a steady pelting of lake water in the face as the boat bobs around like an inflatable bounce house. Still, in between attempts to readjust my pashmina around my head and shield my face from lake water, I was filled with wonder.

When I ungracefully exited the boat and walked down the far more dilapidated dock to Santiago de Atitlan, I was greeted by an overeager salesman with a kazoo mimicking the sound of a(n extremely annoying) bird. He kept blowing into it and nodding his head vigorously, as though the harder he nodded, the more likely I was to buy it. Even as I took my first steps off the dock into the crowded receiving area ahead, a steady influx of hands tried to wave me onto boats departing for other towns. I just got here!

The most (in)famous reason to visit Santiago de Atitlan by many standards is Maximón, a perceived Mayan god and folk saint whose statue is looked after by a group of men who take turns housing its shrine in their homes. Often seen as a controversial figure and not recognized by the Catholic church, the deity can be found wearing a colorful suit, sombrero and moustache, with a cigarette or cigar hanging out of his mouth. Locals and tourists alike line his altars with burning candles, bottles of rum, grain alcohol, and other offerings, perhaps even sharing an adult beverage or two themselves. The shamans who guard him throughout his stay keep watch, accepting donations of cigarettes and money and drinking from a variety of passed bottles of rum.

All in all: it’s a shit show most tourists don’t want to pass up.

Thus, when making my way through the crowded port, tuk-tuk drivers lined up along the street yelling “Maximóóóóótnóóón!” to fresh faces, knowing most would be content to go directly to his altar. As for me, I had other plans. I still hadn’t found Pedro, and the thought of lugging my belongings into a smoky den overflowing with Guatemalan liquor didn’t appeal to me. At least not before noon.

I rolled my way along a dirt path to a courtyard filled with benches. In either direction and off in the distance, groups of indigenous Mayan women and children could be seen washing their clothes on boulders at the base of the lake. They wore the traditional garb of huipils and cortes: colorfully woven blouses and wraparound skirts, tied together with a faja.

Many of the women carried baskets of woven clothing and other materials on their heads and had no qualms about wading right into the water to get the job done right.

I took a seat and waited for Pedro, smearing on SPF 50 and chugging the remnants of my water bottle. The midday sun is just as strong as the nighttime wind is cold in Atitlan, making for a wide array of climate conditions. Not that it bothered even the slightest bit. Anything is better than February in Boston. 

He finally appeared in the distance, eager and enthusiastic, with coffee-colored skin and a sturdy frame. He was sprightly and in his mid-thirties, if I had to guess. I would definitely not be calling him "Dad."

“Lee-Maaaaah-ree?” he asked. In every language, my name is a thing to be questioned.

“Si!,” I replied. “Mucho gusto.”

He reached for my suitcase and pointed upward, referencing the climb we were about to make. He motioned toward a tuk-tuk and asked if I thought we should take it. Not wanting to seem like a giant, lazy wimp, I declined. Instead I followed him up the sharp incline, past the shouting locals and pop up shops of woven materials and to the main road, pretending to give a few helpful boosts to my bag as he dragged it along behind him.

“Gracias! Muchisimas gracias!, I proclaimed. "Se que es muy pesado."

After a ten minute and mostly-vertical clamber through the bustling lakeside town, we arrived at a wide, black gate. Pedro inserted a key into the padlock and opened the door which led straight into a garage. When you walked in, a car and a moped sat directly in front of you, and just on the other side was a veranda with two windows (which I would soon learn were attached to my new bedroom). To the left, a set of cement stairs crept down to another bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, and above them, clay tiled columns paved the way toward an atrium opening up to the sky. My bedroom door was the first on the right in the hallway adjacent to the garage, followed by another bedroom, a bathroom, and a back wall that wasn’t actually a wall, rather a completely open exterior facing Volcán San Pedro.

The house extended upward for another two levels, apexing at a balcony with a sink and colorful clothesline. It would appear nobody in my house washed their clothes in the lake. We were also fortunate enough to have hot water, a refrigerator and a water filter--luxuries not afforded to many in Santiago de Atitlan. The view from the top was multifaceted; A shanty town by many respects, sitting at the base of a glistening lake with a huge, green volcano hovering over it. Sounds and smells wafted all around us as winds howled and crawling clouds made dreamy shapes across the sky. The roofs and walls were thin enough to hear everybody’s business, and I soon learned the only people I’ve visited who are louder than the Greeks or the Italians are the Guatemalans.

An undeniable and unstoppable wailing emanated from the house next door. And their living room was basically connected to my bedroom. That’s how most of the architecture works in the crowded lake town of varying elevations. Everything is stacked in tiers but horizontally connected. As I plopped my suitcase in its final destination, I turned to Pedro with a look of “what the hell is going on over there?”

*In Spanish*

“Someone died,” he said.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry! Your friend?!,” I asked. 

“The 90-year-old woman next door,” he said. “But here, when someone dies, the village visits their house and sings and cries with them for the first few days.” He had a sheepish grin on his face when he said it. As though he was waiting to see my cold, confused western reaction.

Just as I was about to reply, one woman let out a long, guttural howl reminiscent of a farm animal, and Pedro and I locked eyes, sussing out each other’s reactions. I put my head down and tried my hardest to look like I was praying, for fear I’d be thrown out of his house for disrespect and ignorance. When I looked up, he had a wide grin across his face. Pedro may have been a local, but he’d been housing volunteers from all over the world for twenty years. I’m sure he frequently took delight in witnessing our collective culture shock.

In that initial moment, I was both touched and extremely fascinated by the unwavering commitment to grief and honoring of the dead. They didn't sit shiva, they screamed it. But after 16 straight hours of nextdoor wailing and ear canals rubbed raw from readjusting my plugs, the novelty wore off. 

“They’re not even crying anymore!,” I asserted to Pedro over breakfast the next morning. “They’re just yelling!”

He dropped his tortilla on his plate and put a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing too hard. His wife Miritza turned only her head from her perch in front of the stove-top, a wry smile forming on her face. His five-year-old daughter Azule let out a loud laugh through a mouth full of half-chewed rice, kicking her legs in excitement underneath the table.

And I sat there, sipping my coffee and rubbing my ear canals, wondering if I’d ever learn my lesson about being dumped off in the unknown without doing any research.


"When People Tell You You're Crazy, You're Onto Something


There's too much ground to cover in one somewhat-rushed blog post from a cafe in Antigua, but I'll try my best. Thus, my apologies for the choppy writing to follow.  It's been one incredible week. I've relearned my favorite lesson: you're never actually alone when you travel solo. 

After arriving late on Saturday evening, I took stock of my surroundings in a very dark and never quiet Antigua and settled into bed, with tuk tuks and chicken busses whizzing past my window until dawn. Sunday was a pretty standard day of acclimation, snapping photos and tasting the local fare of pupusas, fresh juices, mixed plates of beans, rice, meat and plantains.... and crepes. For some reason, the people of Antigua love themselves some Nutella crepes. And who can blame them? 

The city itself is a mix of so many things. It sits in the valley of two gorgeous (and active) volcanoes whose summits are intermittently blocked by clouds, creating sunsets that pop with pastel color and cool breezes that drift down from high above. The buildings are brightly colored and the streets are made of cobblestone, with a steady mix of transportation options to avoid being run over by. It reminds me of a smaller, hotter, more colorful version of Madrid, minus some of the more ornate features.  I've been continuously told how cold it is here, to which my usual reply is "you haven't been to Boston in February." While most wear mittens, coats and scarves at night, this native New Englander skips about in flip flops, tank tops and jeans. With a pashmina for good measure. 

I'd blindly booked (as I tend to do) an all-inclusive surfing trip to El Salvador, but the day before I was to depart, the plans changed. Apparently the situation in El Salvador is not ideal for travel right now (although I urge you not to listen to what ignorant people tell you about places they've never been) so I was scooped up by a van on its way to El Paredon, Guatemala instead. I've never been more thankful for a change in plans. Sometimes having no control of a situation leads us to the very thing we need to receive. In my case, it was five days of sunshine, surf (sort of), black sands, tequila, and a diverse group of new friends. When there are "friendship shots" on the menu, you hardly have a choice. 

El Paredon is worthy of its own feature, which will be written as soon as I get back to Boston, but let's just say it's a place that steals a little piece of your heart when you're not looking. Just two hours from Antigua, this 12km strip of Pacific coastline is practically desolate. Three surf camps sit on its shoreline, with exquisite views of the ocean and the hottest sand your feet have ever touched. You can watch the sun rise and set on the same plane. That's how expansive the strip of beach is. Yet hardly anyone occupies it. 

Those who have been know that won't be the case for long. The land is being bought up at lightning speed as the community braces itself for an onslaught of surfing tourism. When you venture outside the camps into town, you'll find the warmest, kindest, most hard-working people you can hope to meet, offering meals, tours and smiles from their modest homes. They seem shocked but pleased to have visitors wandering their sandy streets, which is a nice change of pace from stray dogs. At one locale, you can walk to a woman's house in the morning and pre-order ceviche from the afternoon's catch. At another, a man built a clay oven in his back yard to cook some of the best pizza I've ever had.

Over at The Driftwood Surfer, things were far less quiet. At any given time, about 30-35 of us were lounging there. Folks drifted in and out of the water and the one shuttle that runs from Antigua to El Paredon each day. You never knew who you were going to meet or where they were going to be from, though odds were you'd be finding out over a "friendship shot" later that evening. There will be much more on El Paredon in the future, so I'll save the details and photos for then, but I came away from the experience with a solid group of friends from Australia, Norway, Britain, France, Nicaragua and America, and we departed on Friday with sunburns and liver damage to head back to Antigua. 

Last night, most of the group started on the next leg of their Central American journey to El Tunco, a black sand surfing beach in El Salvador. I was uncomfortably close to hopping onto the same bus, canceling my flight home and carrying on blindly. But I thought better of it for now.  In chatting with so many folks who are traveling extensively, I've realized it pains me to not be doing it. It's going to take some saving, some sacrificing and some perseverance, but I know I'll make it happen. Next time without a return ticket. 

Which brings me to today. Today was a depressing day. Those who are traveling onward moved on, and I find myself sitting in Antigua wondering what's next for me. Try as I may, I can't stop pondering how to make my experiences last longer. How do I hold them in a box and keep them forever? Where's the nearest time machine? I guess that's the thing about travel, isn't it? It's not real life. It's fleeting. Which is what makes it so precious. Everyone eventually has to move on. 

I was fortunate enough to meet a kindred spirit just when I needed her this morning. Terry is the owner of Revue Magazine, an English-speaking Guatemalan magazine with stellar circulation and 25 years worth of publication. On top of that, she and her husband own and operate an animal sanctuary in the mountains that overlook Antigua. They moved to Guatemala after extensive travel through Central America in the nineties and built a beautiful green house in its center. Surrounded by avocado trees, flowers and massive aloe vera plants, it's the perfect place for abandoned dogs and cats to rehabilitate and receive the unconditional love she and her staff dole out on a daily basis. 

When I came to her with a heavy heart about my next steps (and coming to terms with the reality of my looming unemployment), she gave me one of the best pieces of advice I've ever received: "When people tell you you're crazy, you're onto something." 

Terry is a walking example of what it means to live your passion. She refused to play by a specific set of rules in life, instead writing a list of all the things she wanted and watching as they slowly came to be. A few tears welled up when she told me about the horse she dreamed of since childhood. At the age of ten, she put soap and water in a jar in her bedroom closet and told her parents when she awoke it would be a horse. She had no doubts about it.  It was her certain belief. Much to her dismay, however, the dish detergent didn't morph into a stallion over night. And it would be years before her dream yielded results. But last year she acquired her beloved horse Rosie, completing one of the final piece in the puzzle that created her ideal life.  The one she trusted the timing of and the list that made it into a reality. 

After some good Guatemalan coffee, a tour of the sanctuary and the chance to play with a thousand dogs and cats, Terry sent me on my way back down to town, not before handing me a special rock to keep in my pocket. It's heart-shaped (coincidence? I think not) and sienna with light beige spots and a smooth surface. She told me to hold it when I feel myself spiraling, as a silent reminder that what I'm doing is right, even if I can't quite see it yet. I just have to feel it. 

Tomorrow I'm off to Lake Atitlan, where I'll meet even more people who were put on my path to help illuminate the way. 

But first I have a very important list to write. And I hope you'll do the same. 

Buena Onda, 

Thoughts From 37,000 Feet Above Earth


I'm off to one heck of a start on this little journey to Central America. I thought I'd already learned my lesson about luggage weight during recent trips abroad. I made a concerted effort to cut back this time. I didn't even bring any vitamins. And in my defense, a fifty pound weight limit hardly seems fair. I've carried more than that on my back and up a mountain. I can't be the only person who needs more than fifty pounds worth of sunscreen in Guatemala. Nonetheless, a mere half hour before takeoff time, there I squatted, toiletries splayed out all over the floor of American Airline's check-in area, trying to pad my conditioner tubes with bathing suit tops. I was asked to transfer my liquids into the backpack I planned to carry on board. They offered to check it (for an extra $40) so their staff could fling it onto a conveyor belt where it will likely be pulverized to smithereens by its smarter, more durable new friends. 

While it may have bothered most (and it's still kind of bothering me, since I'm writing about it from an airplane between silent prayers for my skin serums), I'm not going to let it drag me down. Not today! At least I made it onto the plane in the first place. I've been known to get held up. And I'm feeling about as hopeful as ever as I soar 37,000 feet above the Atlantic Coast. 

It's a wonder how I even got here. The last few weeks have been a bit of a blur. I made the somewhat-unexpected-yet-extremely-liberating decision to quit a steady, stable, well-paying job. To be a freelance travel writer.  Does that not seem completely doable and lucid?  Even if it doesn't, don't tell me. I can't take it back now. I handed in my letter. I experienced the exquisite high that comes from taking a leap of faith. The deed is done. I have no choice left but to make things happen.

I've spent the last decade a respected and sought-after Executive Assistant. I can practically get Obama on the telephone. I'm a master at organizing, ordering, streamlining and planning. I set important people up for success. And I do so without them ever realizing how much they need me. I'm like that quacky professor in The Wizard of Oz, manically pushing buttons and pulling levers to ensure whoever matters shines bright like a diamond. It's a noble profession, indeed. But it's hardly gratifying. That's probably why it pays well. 

As for my own success? I guess I always had a different definition for myself.  Success meant having fun. Success meant sleeping. Success meant eating and traveling and living and loving and breathing. I didn't choose to define myself by my day job. Which made it all-the-more easy to quit it in pursuit of my passion.  Which pays abysmally. But now and finally, success means going where my heart is. And my heart has always been here. Here on this plane, flying high on its way to a distant country.  Here in a worn out airplane seat with a lightweight laptop flashing its pondering cursor back at me. Here in transit. Here alone. Above all else: here. My success is right here. I just had to free up the space for it. 

If you told twenty-year-old me that quitting your job was a thing to be applauded, I'd call you a liar. Life has a pretty calculable set of steps when you grow up in a small town in the smallest state of Rhode Island. It goes like this: do well in school, participate in after school activities that look good on your college applications, apply to college, go to college, do well in college, participate in extracurricular activities that look good on your resume, graduate, write your resume, send out your resume,  get a job at the first office that will have you, be thankful you have a job because of the giant recession that just blindsided the economy, gain job experience in the field you were lucky enough to get employed in, contribute to your 401K, save money, buy a car, buy property, get engaged, get married, buy more property, have kids, contribute way more to your 401K...... the end?

Maybe I'm exaggerating just a little bit, but that pretty much sums up my preconceived knowledge of life at twenty. And so I stuck my feet in the carefully laid placeholders lining my path to greatness. 

Too bad I've never been one for grace.  

As it turns out, your feet get pretty good at doing their own thing when you're not looking. Mine have been unknowingly following my gut (which is rarely logical and always searching for snacks). Missed opportunities, I now see, were chances gained. Breakups, evictions (okay my landlord wouldn't re-sign my lease but it was extremely traumatizing), meltdowns, mishaps and all-out-wipeouts were not for naught. They got me here. They got me onto this plane. On my way back to Central America where the warmth of the culture, coffee and sunshine will restore my faith in myself and the precarious decisions I've made. 

When 32-year-old me quit my career, I expected a little bit more of a backlash; Some sort of "what are you crazy?" echo emanating from my family and friends. I figured they'd stick the final nail in the coffin of my weirdness and file me away in the morgue. The general response, however, gives me more hope for humanity than I ever thought possible. 

"Good for you!," they exclaimed. "It takes courage!" People were actually applauding me for quitting my job. Americans, at that. 

Does it take courage? Maybe a little bit. I don't know the exact amount of courage it takes to cut yourself off at the knees for a seemingly intangible goal. But it definitely takes wine.  And a healthy amount of crazy. Which I have covered. 

Another common response I get is "I'm so jealous!" "I wish I could do that!" 

Oh but you can. The thing that nobody tells you is this: you can do anything you want to do. It's called free will. The question is what you're willing to give up for it. It might be a house, a paycheck, a partner or a liver... but you can do whatever the hell you please.  Just don't throw away your kids. That would be bad. Success doesn't have to look a certain way. It's more of a feeling, actually. Your choices should be made to validate you. Only you. Every decision you've ever made led you to today. Thank yourself for that. This is the only version of you that matters. Until your feet carry you out of your comfy little cocoon and into the great unknown. And that's where the real fun happens. 

But maybe wait a few months to see how things fare for me first. Because I could be completely wrong. 

For now... I fly. Toward my own definition of success. Toward Central America. Toward surfing and volunteering and living and writing.  With my passion, my backpack full of exploded toiletries, and this crappy little laptop.