Turning The Car Around: One Road To Expatriatism
Stories can be told from limitless angles of perspective. So let’s begin this tale from the viewpoint of a Salvadorian family living in a small, rural village. It is a sunshiny day in a one-goat town a few hours drive and world away from the busy capital — a place far removed from the beaches and bars where gringos tend to roam. The day begins no different as previous days, weeks and months. A young couple with a four-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter tend their one-room store across the street from their home. One of their more valuable possessions, a female goat, is tied in front of their store.
Then comes a moment that will lead to a story that their children will retell to their friends at school, mother will recount at family fiestas and the father will tell his soccer buddies, that — sí, no les miento — this really happened. An ’88 Volkswagen Jetta pulls up to the front of their store. Inside are three road-rugged gringos, a puppy and a baby goat.
The gringos get out and begin to chat in shaky Spanish with the family. Pleasantries, smiles and nods are exchanged. Then the gringos huddle and converse amongst themselves in English and come to an agreement. They go to the car, fetch the goat and present it to the now elated family as a gift. This day has taken a unforeseen turn that no previous day, and let’s be real, no subsequent day, is likely to take.
They way stories in the village are swapped and embellished with each telling, we can only guess 10 years from now how the “gringo goat story” will be told: They were gringos — seven feet tall — having just returned from rescuing the goat from a burning barn where every man, woman, child — but not the goat — was killed, so they came to our village and gave us the sole surviving goat.
Actually, the goat was a gift for Derek Girard on his 26th birthday. Since he was a kid, Derek had an obsession with goats. To this day, goats are his favorite animal and he loves them with the passion that Miley likes controversially shaking it. He and his younger brother Dustin have had the tradition of one-upping each other on their birthday. Derek will have troubling one-upping the goat (Dustin’s favorite animal is an elephant).
Getting the goat was no easy task. Dustin and friend Dan Pangman spent five hours in the Salvadorian countryside searching for one that was for sale. The process might have been shorter, but prior to El Salvador, the trio had spent time learning Spanish in Mexico, where word for goat, chiva, in Salvador means, cow.
USD$20 and a language lesson later, they had a baby goat, which “shit all over the hostel and ate the garden.” The goat joined the rag-tag trio and took long walks on the beach with them and their 4-month-old puppy in the surf town of El Tunco, El Salvador, before reluctantly, and with heavy hearts, they realized that the goat needed a family; one with a mother and father whose M.O. didn’t consist of smuggling the goat — who couldn’t stand to be away from the trio — into hostels.
Let’s Back Up a Bit Further In the Story
Dan and Derek met when they were both hired by marketing firm JTI, a company which throws massive parties. Part of their “research” consisted of being flown to Toronto to party in exclusive VIP areas of bars and club. Their research paid off. The party they threw in Vancouver was voted the best party in Canada, which netted them a free trip to Miami (is anyone jealous yet?), where they were ushered into a Miami Dolphins games, and onto exclusive yachts for more, yes, partying.
It turned out the pair had more in common than knowing how to throw a killer party: both had spent three months volunteering in Tanzania, an experience that had stayed with them. Though they were having the kind of fun we must imagine two guys in their twenties must have been having working to throw parties, there was a tug towards something they considered bigger.
Our lives tend to plateau into daily routines, and one chance meeting, one conversation, or one decision is all it takes to shake things up and change everything. A conversation that decided their fate and set out a new course went something like this:
“I want to get out of here, quiet my job and travel,” Dan told Derek.
“Bullshit, you are,” Derek told Dan.
“Yes, I am.”
“If you are, then I’m going to do it too.”
“No, you’re not?”
The challenge was on the table and they both egged each other on enough to meet it. They put in their one month’s notice and soon they were jobless and sitting next to each other in a 1988 Jetta, with a vague plan to make it through South America. “It’s a beauty car,” Derek says with a look reserved for talking about beautiful women. “We’ve done so much off-roading in that bitch.”
Along their way they met Derek’s brother Dustin in Antigua, Guatemala, where they planned to only stay a few weeks. Derek says that it was not difficult to convince his brother to leave his North American routine life behind and join in on the adventure. After staying longer than they planned, they finally left Antigua and headed to Guatemala’s Caribbean coast where they spent three months volunteering in Rio Dulce. Derek describes it as a place where, “a cut becomes an infection in a second and you fall apart pretty quick.”
So again, they came back to Antigua to recharge their batteries, planned to stay a couple weeks but stayed a couple months before they were back on the road. They made it as far as Panama. There they were supposed to ferry their car across the canal and continue their travels on a fresh continent, but they felt a tug of having left something behind.
“Antigua had our heart,” Dan says, “We needed to go back.”
As expats in Antigua know, that’s the story of how many a two-week tripper turned into an Antigua Expatriate. Of the countless places they stopped off across the thousands of miles of their journey, it was Antigua, that magical “fairy-tale city” in the highlands, that felt like home.
In their previous stays, they had helped friends, Carlos and Carolina, throw a successful party at their corner bar Porque No, and after juggling around dozens of ideas about what they would do, they decided to “stick with what [they] knew” and open a hip-hop bar. Their goal had been from the beginning to use their talents to give back, to volunteer their time and support efforts, and they saw their vision for their bar as supporting that.
“You have to support your life at some point,” Dan says, “We’re passionate about travel and volunteering and giving back, and this is a way to do that on an ongoing basis.” Dustin and Derek are on the same page. “Our trips were about the pay-it-forward model, giving people good vibes. The law of attraction says that when you give out positive vibes, positive vibes come back to you.”
But this is easier decided than done. In Antigua this is an uphill battle for three gringos needing to get through a pile of paperwork and licensing. Most people “in the know” around Antigua would have told three gringos barely speaking the language a sarcastic “Good luck.” But perseverance and good vibes are a powerful combination, one that can beat most odds, and after eight months of tireless work, and struggle against what some thought a pipe dream, they found themselves serving up opening night drinks.
La Vibras Opens For Business
It’s opening night at La Vibras (Spanish for Vibes) and the house is full. The crowd is a dense concentration of Antigua’s heavy-hitting expatriates who have come to show their support for Derek, Dan and Dustin’s endeavor. That presence means a lot. It means they’ve carved deep inroads into the community. Upon my return to Antigua the month before, it was nearly impossible not to meet Derek, Dan and Dustin, as it seemed most everyone in town not only knew them, but also had nothing but good things to say about them.
I am walking around with a digital recorder interviewing people who are all ecstatic to be here. In the very least, everyone is excited about the free drinks from 6-8 p.m. This means by 8 p.m. I am drunk, and in good, bacchanalian company. Listening to my interviews as I write this, they crescendo with my level of imbibing. Unnecessarily aggressive interviewing fueled by joyous inebriation and rude interruptions and rambling questioning, I decide is the appropriate term for my voice I am listening to.
Everything I record after 9 p.m. is painful for me to hear, but I type out the important stuff and then delete the recordings for fear that these could fall into the wrong blackmailing hands — my interview with Derek sounds more like harassment than reporting. Upon his saying, “I believe everything happens for a reason,” I hear my voice respond, “What do you mean? Does everything happen for a reason, because some people die sad and alone?”
WTF, Luke? But the vibe of Las Vibras is one where everyone is enjoying themselves to the max. Antigua, and other such dots on the expatriate map, is a place where a vision like this can materialize when a person commits to their casual daydreaming. The consensus seems universal: Derek, Dan and Dustin are refreshing to have here, opening a kind of bar that the community was lacking: “Where sleek meets the street,” as Derek puts it.
The night began with Dan playing music, both covers and original, on his acoustic guitar, and then led to upbeat hip-hop and pop music. People are drinking, dancing and admiring the graffiti art covering every wall. Alex, a British expat in Antigua, spent three months perfecting and finishing the wall art. He painted the exit signs the day before opening night.
When you follow the line of cause and effect long enough, you see that all of this — the swaying revelers, the art, the music, everyone in this room — is the result of a conversation that led to a dare, which led to not backing away from a risk. Dan put it perfectly: “A risk like quitting your job, going traveling, following your dreams — it’s riskier not to take it. You can always revert back to your mainstream lifestyle, but you can’t go and live out that dream when you let it pass by.”
Derek, basking in the glow of a successful opening night thinks back to the eight months it took them to get to this point. “It’s all about positivity. Every time you get a no, it’s just a challenge. They can say no to us all we want, but we are going to continue going. They say, no no no no, and we say yes yes yes yes.”
“My life in Canada was not based on happiness,” Derek continues, “it was based on all the wrong reasons. The pressure that they put upon you in society to be successful, graduate from high school, then get a degree and a job and start working. I am going to live life for happiness. If I’m happy, I can make other people happy, and if I’m miserable, I can’t.”
No one here tonight seems miserable. There’s a special vibe in the air, and the buzz of “the new place” has yielded to a night when La Vibras opened its doors and invited the world at large to come on in and throw back a round.
On my recorder, I skip through several hours of irrelevant interviewing I conducted near the bar. It seems by 11 p.m. that I am using my microphone exclusively to try to talk to girls; only occasionally remembering to ask them about the bar. “I’m stoked,” a Peace Corps volunteer says over the sounds of music and people enjoying themselves, “tons of people, great vibes, music is good, this is great.”
And just as a goat in El Salvador found an improbable home in the countryside, it seems that Derek, Dustin and Dan have found theirs in Antigua.
About the Author
After setting out to hitchhike from Chile to Alaska, Luke Maguire Armstrong stopped in Guatemala where he spent four years directing the social service programs of the charity Nuestros Ahijados. He is the author of iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About, which is especially enjoyed by people “who don’t read poetry.” His new book, How We Are Human, was recently released. (Follow Luke on Twitter: @lukespartacus)