Beale Street, Memphis, TN – Beale Street is a less popular version of Bourbon Street in that there are no open container laws, there are a lot of flashing lights, and plenty of intoxicated out-of-towners drinking too much. The crowd on a Wednesday night is primarily middle aged, unattractive, and under the influence of various controlled substances. Like most such streets in America visiting is highly recommended.
In Northern Atlanta there is a little BBQ joint attached to liquor store that serves up some of the best food on the face of the planet. Its owned by two chefs that didn’t get the memo about choosing a location, but since you have to get there at 11am to find a parking spot and the line is out of the door 7 days a week I guess you could say they know a thing or two about slow cooking meat.
Ah yes, Charleston. A town full of Southern charm, old money, beaches, and colonial architecture. It’s the picturesque view of antebellum south and everything that comes with it. Beautiful well dressed women in sun dresses. Courteous gentlemen who open doors for their wives. The clichés go on like a Margaret Mitchell novel.
But the hell with all that – I want to talk about the bars. The hidden side of Charleston. The dirty side. Where liquor is poured like a waterfall until 2am, where college students begin their dependence on alcohol, where fights break out on a Monday, local bands live the dream, and friends gather to sing their heart out after a few too many shots of whiskey. This is nightlife in Charleston, SC.
My adventure in downtown Charleston began innocently – I wanted dinner. On my way to fill up my belly with delicious Southern fried cuisine I heard someone call my name. Maybe not someone, but something. It was a little bar that couldn’t hold more than forty people if it tried. The shelves were well stocked with beverages and a lone patron sat by himself enjoying a conversation with the bartender.
I walked in had a few beers and my night began. The bartender and I talked about life, love, and Charleston history. That’s how I found Big John’s.
Big John’s Tavern
walk stumble up East Bay street from Squeeze Bar leads you directly to the best Dive in Charleston. As I approached I over-heard a customer complain that “Big John” wouldn’t hire him because he had a drinking problem. I heard the distinct hum of poorly executed karaoke. I noticed beers were in the tall cans and not the average sized one. My heart ached, I found my Charleston dive bar.
Inside there are bra’s hanging from the ceilings like trophies from hard fought battles on glorious nights. There are war veterans swapping stories about “enemy combatants”. The bathroom is a trough and college kids drink $2 bud lights all night long. Big John’s isn’t for the faint of heart, but for those looking for the best night of their life with below average looking people – Big John’s might be the best place on earth.
Mad River Bar
Utterly defeated after John’s I decided to crawl back to my hotel off church street. That’s when I heard the glorious singing of an angel and combination of piano strokes that could only be created by a genius. It came from a former church turned bar. I entered obediently as God commanded.
Life felt right. I was drinking in an old church turned bar, a guy was destroying the keyboard in the former pulpit, creepy guys were hitting on college girls, and that’s when the fight broke out. A sweaty, disgusting, brawl between two slightly overweight couples. I sat back, enjoyed my beer and the entertainment. My night was complete.
In July of 2012 my wife and I visited Guatemala. We traveled around the country and visited ancient ruins, religious sites, and learned much about the history and culture of the people living there.
One phenomena I found especially interesting was a unique form of Christianity practiced throughout the region – especially prevalent in the rural regions of the country. This form of Christianity incorporated Christian and Mayan traditions and symbols – a unique and beautiful presentation of religious history right there in front of us.
History: Christianity brought to Guatemala by the Spaniards
Much of the Spanish inquisition of Central America centered around greed, not religion. Spanish explorers used religion as an excuse to pillage and destroy villages for resources, land, and glory – rather than in the name of Christianity.
None-the-less religious leaders permitted this behavior in the name of God and Christianity was spread by forced conversion – a convenient mechanism for the Spaniards to promote their imperialistic goals in and around Guatemala.
“Maya communities under immediate pressure to conform to imperial designs…Under the policy of congregacion…thousands of native families were coerced from their homes in the mountains into new settlements built around churches…For the Spaniards, congregacion promoted more effective civil administration, facilitated the conversion of Indians to Christianity, and created centralized pools of labor to meet imperial objectives.” [Source]
In all, hundreds of thousands of Mayans were killed, millions displaced from their homes, and incalculable history destroyed. “Mayan-Christianity” persist to this day.
And though most Guatemalans in these rural villages consider themselves Christian -traditions left over from native Mayan culture remain potent. One example is the Mayan headdress and shirt (shown above) worn by only the elder women in Santioago Atitlan. The fashion is fading away, but remains one of the clearest examples of local culture entrenching itself into modern Christianity.
Spanish Priests also incorporated Mayan symbolism into the churches (shown below). My local tour guide pointed out the altarpiece inside the church:
“Maya traditionalists familiar with this structure merge the Christian symbols in this large carved wood sculpture with their traditional worldviews. The altarpiece is seen concurrently as “a sacred mountain from which divine beings emerge,” the three volcanoes surrounding Santiago Atitlan, and, in the broadest sense, a referent to ancient Maya temples and architecture” [Source]
Modern Guatemala is a mashup of native and imported traditions. In the small town of Antigua, Guatemala, for example, there are nearly 40 churches representing different Christian denominations. Each a beautiful, yet painful reminder of the costs of imperialism and religious zealotry.
Note: All photos belong to me.
I visited Nashville, Tennessee over labor day with my wife. I’ve always known it was a town famous for country music and cowboy boots – but somehow I didn’t get the memo about the non-stop party. The nightlife was better than expected, the food was classically southern, and the music is country.
There was a lot of good food. Especially the fried chicken at Hattie B’s toward West End.
The Downtown area includes horse and buggy rides, cowboy-style bars, neon signs, and plenty of alcohol.
When you get away from the bars – Nashville is also quiet and beautiful.
There is no shortage of folk music and street performers.
I love dive bars. I seek them out. Something about a place most tourist avoid, a place that doesn’t serve mojitos just because it’s too much damn trouble to make, and tequila on the rocks is the house special just feels right. El Batey in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico is that place.
El Batey is pretty rustic. By rustic I mean the place basically consist of four walls and a bar. It’s perfect. The day I chose to visit I was lucky enough to be one of two patrons. The other guy at the bar was a white guy in his mid-70s. He was former Navy and also just happened to own the place. After a few beers I worked up the courage to swap a few stories and find out how the hell a 70 year old white guy came to own the coolest bar in San Juan.
It turns out he was stationed in Puerto Rico while serving in the Navy. He was a weather man – which according to him was the easiest job in the world.
“Its the same everyday. It’ll rain a little in the morning, clear up, and be sunny and 80s the rest of the day. Some days I didn’t even do anything – I just foretasted the usual. I even won a damn medal for being the most accurate weather guy in the Navy.”
After the Navy he opened the bar and never left.
If you find yourself in San Juan, Puerto Rico count yourself lucky and head over to El Batey for a long afternoon and night. Just sit back, enjoy the good conversation, and relax. The drink specials are Corona, a Margarita, or anything the bartender can concoct without a blender. El Batey is definitely the best dive bar in Puerto Rico.
Calle de Cristo 101
San Juan, PR 00901
If you are headed to Antigua, Guatemala you have to fly into Guatemala City. Guatemala City isn’t exactly a tourist oasis and most people find it a little dirty and mildly dangerous. My personal advice, if you aren’t familiar with Central America, is to avoid the city and head directly to Antigua upon arrive in Guatemala. Since there is no airport in Antigua you will have to catch a ride to Antigua. Not to worry though Antigua is less than an hour drive from Guatemala City.
Getting to Antigua
The best way to get to Antigua from Guatemala City is by pre-arranging transportation before you arrive. There are a variety of reputable tour companies that can set you up with transportation and will be waiting for you when you arrive in Guatemala City. At only $10 per person most people find this option the easiest, safest, and most hassle free. This is the option I use when I visit Antigua and see little reason (unless you are up for adventure) to use any other method.
I usually pre-arrange my ride to Antigua via the folks at Around Antigua. You have to communicate via email, but they are always very helpful in setting something up for me (including tours, transportation, advice about locations, etc.).
The cheapest and probably most dangerous (and perhaps most fun) way to get from Guatemala City to Antigua is via the Chicken Buses. The Chicken Buses are typical American style school buses that have been painted and decorated in true Central American style. The bus drivers are reckless, robberies have been known to occur, and you will be stuffed in with the locals – but if you want true Guatemalan culture – a chicken bus is it.
I do not recommend taking a chicken bus if you are afraid of getting lost in Guatemala or if you will be carrying a lot of luggage or valuables. Tourists with a lot of luggage and who aren’t fluent in Spanish are prime targets for jerks looking for someone to take advantage of. The chicken buses can be fun and they are pretty reliable, but use them at your own discretion.
Outside the Airport – What I wish I had Known
One thing you have to realize when you arrive in Guatemala City is that you are in the third world. People think you are rich and by their standards you probably are. They want to perform services for your for cash. Some people want to take advantage of you too, but most people just want to perform a service.
When you exit the airport – even if you are just waiting for your ride – you will encounter a variety of people. When my wife and I exited the airport there were kids begging to shine my shoes, there were men who looked like they worked for the airport (but didn’t) offering me their cell phone to call my ride (for a tip), and there were about 100 other folks standing around doing this and that.
I had been in Central America before so it didn’t bother me, but it was a first for my wife. I had warned her about what she might expect, but it still made her a little nervous so just be aware of what you might see. My advice is to just stick to yourself, politely decline offers, and catch your ride. I actually enjoy the experience as a reminder that I’m not in the States anymore.
Guatemala is AWESOME
If Guatemala City seems a little rough don’t worry because overall Guatemala is an amazing place. It is the only place my wife and I have ever traveled to where she literally begged me to move to. Honestly we both fell in love with Antigua. You will too. Some people have visited and literally never returned – it’s just that kind of place.