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.
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.
Tijuana, Mexico is quite literally the place of legends. When I told friends and collegues I was planning a trip across the border during my stay in San Diego responses ranged from “You’re going to get your head chopped off” to “They have the best hookers on the planet!”.
The same information was presented on the internet. There were two extremes – brave travelers singing the praises of wild Tijuana or conservative vacationers giving dire warnings of entering the third world. So – if you are considering a trip to Tijuana here are a few pieces of advice I learned during my stay.
1. Getting From San Diego to Tijuana
The good news is getting from San Diego to Tijuana is simple and inexpensive. For around $5 you can easily get from the airport to the border. Simply take the 992 (bus) to America Plaza Station. At America Plaza take the Blue line (Trolley) to the border. The last stop is San Ysidro transit station. You can walk across the border from there – just follow the Mexicans across the border. (Airport to Border = 1 hour commute)
Getting across the border is as easy as walking across. There is no one there checking paperwork or so much as guarding the entrance. However; to get back across you will need your US passport. (We’ll talk more about that later.)
2. You’re in Tijuana. Now What?
Once you’re in Tijuana you can find almost anything in this world that your heart desires. That’s both good and bad. You can purchase a women for the night, gorge yourself on cheap tacos and $2 beers, or simply enjoy the Mexican culture and buy a few trinkets from the local shops. Depending on the kind of entertainment you’re looking for – the night is yours.
Negotiating: Please buy my Shit!
No matter what you want to do plan on people soliciting you at every turn. Remember – you are a gringo. You are they kind of person that comes across the border and buys stuff. You buy trinkets, you buy food, you buy alcohol, and you have US dollars in your pocket. These shop owners and local business people will hound you relentlessly in effort to part you from your all-mighty dollar. This isn’t a bad thing just know how to deal with it.
One trick of the trade is be sure to negotiate prices. It doesn’t matter if you are buying a trinket in a shop or haggling entrance prices at a club. I found that if you are at a shop aim for 60% their asking price. Be prepared to walk away and negotiations will almost always be in your favor.
Water and Air Quality
Do not drink the water unless you want to shit yourself for the next few days. Any water that goes in your mouth should be from a bottle – this includes brushing your teeth, washing your food, and ice. When in doubt don’t eat or drink anything suspect.
Also, the air quality is horrible. For some reason the people of Central and South America refuse to keep a car with a cadalytic converter. Mexicans seem to remove this part like it’s cancer. For this reason people with asthma or allergies might want to pack an inhaler.
Women, Drugs, and Nightlife
Everything you’ve heard about Tijuana is true. Hookers are cheap, strippers are cheaper, and the beer is almost free. My advice – stick to the beer.
However, since you aren’t going to use my advice here’s some information. The strippers in Tijuana are much more forward than those in America. $5 is likely to get you more than you expected and touching seems to be encouraged. If you go to a strip club expect to be continuously solicited, groped, and harassed by naked Latin women.
Beer should cost you about $2 a piece and Tequilla around $3. If you are paying more than that find another place. Settle on prices for EVERYTHING in advance – this will help you avoid the Gringo tax. If you can, try to pay for each drink as you go or do a really good job of keeping up with your tab. A common scheme is to over charge drunken Gringos at the end of the night.
Avoid hookers and drugs. Nothing good can come from that. Most stories of murder and robberies involve some combination of these two things.
Pretty much everything you want to do in Tijuana is within walking distance. If you must take a cab do not use the guys immediately across the border. Use a random cab in the city (which are everywhere) – they are substantially cheaper. As with everything settle on a price beforehand. Almost everyone speaks English, but this isn’t guaranteed. Learn a few words of Spanish before you go.
3. Getting Back to the U.S.
Now that you are sufficiently hung over and undoubtedly filthy from a night of legend-making you probably want to come home. What you probably don’t realize is that the U.S./Tijuana border is the busiest border on the planet. Hundreds of thousands of people cross DAILY! Wait times can range from 1 – 3 hours so plan accordingly. (Mornings are usually busiest)
To get back in the country you will need a U.S. passport. Border control will ask you a few questions, check your identification and you’re home free.
Hint: If the line is really long there are guys offering to expedite your trip to the front of the line for $5. They will lead you to a van and take you to the front. Mexican border authorities, who are apparently in on the scheme, will move you to the express lane. I used this option one morning when the line was unmanageable and it took about 30 minutes to cross the border (instead of 3 hours). Please use this option with caution and always be mindful who you are getting in a van with.
Once you get back across the border you can take the Trolley right back to San Diego. The trip takes about 45 minutes and cost $2.50.
How is it that the guys can love a dirty disgusting city so much? As you drive into the God-forsaken town you immediately notice how dirty it is. The streets are lined with houses that should have been condemned and bulldozed years ago after hurricane Katrina.
There is a contrast – a distinct smell of tourist piss and vomit on many corners of the French Quarter, but a block over a tear may come to your eye from amazement of all the local culture and art.
Many parts of the town reek of tourist hell. Areas like Bourbon Street are so dirty and disgusting that the city has to literally wash the streets with soap and water every mornting – what else can they do when every tourist takes a giant metaphorical (sometimes literal) dump on the city in an alcohol induced rage until 4am before finally packing their bags and heading home?
I think that’s all part of the glorious dichotomy that is NOLA. It’s dirty, grimy, trashy, largely broken, touristy, but amazing. We still love New Orleans like almost no other place – and you should too!
It really is a unique experience to walk down a street and witness a full-grown man singing his heart out like no one but God himself is listening. Then there are the local bakeries and eateries – the local bakers and cooks gossiping in a southern/Cajun twang making it uniquely New Orleans. Everyone loves their craft and the tourist just pass through on their way to Bourbon street sometimes giving little recognition.
It’s the bartender who has lived in the city his entire life and can handle anything a drunken tourist can throw his way. It’s the artist that should have their art in a museum, but sells it on the street because that’s just what they do. It’s the conglomerate of artists, tourists, and a city of poverty and opportunity all living and working together – one barely acknowledging the other’s existence.
Tips to Avoid being just another tourist
I won’t lie or pretend that drinking, enjoying the sites, and gawking at street performers isn’t all part of the experience, but there are a few things you can do to make your trip to NOLA all the more satisfying – and maybe even absorbing a little extra culture along the way.
1. Absorb the local art
The local art may be my single favorite part of New Orleans. I may even go as far as to say that the French quarter and surrounding area might be the most artistic place in the United States per square foot. If you are a smart tourist you will kindly purchase an authentic piece of street art (for pennies compared to department store prices)!
The best place to buy an authentic piece of street art is off Jackson square. There are literally dozens of people sitting around selling their works. The best part is that most of the art is extremely affordable and high quality.
Helpful tip: generally, avoid the art shops off Royal Street. The art is essentially the same as what is in Jackson square, but with “you didn’t buy it on the street” prices. Most of the shops commission the local artists to put their work in the shops anyways. So it really is the same thing, just in a setting for rich people with too much cash.
2. Street Performers
Maybe this tip is a little cliché and not a best kept secret, but the street performers during the day on Royal Street are amazing. If you are lucky, you might also catch a glimpse of a wedding procession coming through too.
Royal Street is expensive, so keep your cash in hand and spend it a little further out like on Frenchmen St. where the atmosphere is a bit more authentic and affordable.
3. Find some Authentic NOLA style cuisine
For a place with such good food I don’t think I have ever had such a hard time finding a decent restaurant. Most of the places around the French quarter come right out of tourist trap hell with tourist trap prices to boot. In general, avoid most of them.
A good rule of thumb is the further you get from Bourbon Street the more authentic and less expensive the food becomes. Shane and I found a couple of great restaurants on Frenchman street called Maison, and The Praline Connection, and another across the river in Algiers called the Dry Dock Cafe (take the free fairy across the river).
4. Get Wasted, Responsibly
If you came to New Orleans to party – you came to the right place. Sheer supply and demand has driven prices down on drinks. You can generally get a “Huge Ass Beer”, Hurricane, or hand grenade almost anywhere. Don’t forget to try a Bloody Mary and the local beer too. If you are looking to party, of course the best place to do that is on Bourbon Street.
Be prepared, however, for belligerence, nudity, vomit, and crowds. This is not a street that you would like to take your family to – not at any time or any day. There are a plethora of strip clubs, intoxicated tourists, and women willing to expose their breast for the mere cost of a string of beads. If you aren’t looking to binge drink or if you are looking for the “real” New Orleans – then you probably want to stay clear of Bourbon Street. You have been forewarned!