Posted June 12, 2013 in Oxx Tales by Jim Markel
Mangrove habitat near Monterrico, Guatemala
The first part to fixing any problem begins with admitting that you actually have one. My visits to Guatemala over the years have seen me use a variety of Red Oxx bags, from Rucksacks to Safari Duffels. Finding the correct combination of personal storage means leaving enough room to haul back some black gold from Crossroads Café. At times I have been known to buy more coffee than my bag can hold. Once you find that perfect blend, it’s hard not to get just one more pound for those long winter days in Montana.
Back in 1993 Perry and I had come up with a great bag that we called the Tres Hombres. It had a three parallel pocket design — but we shelved the idea in lieu of the Safari Beano series. During twenty years of traveling with our bags, I would often think of this perfunctory design. While the art of traveling carry-on style is all about being a minimalist, there comes a time when a "mass cargo" approach is called for. The perfect example is a true pound of coffee beans. You notice right away that the bulk of a real pound of coffee is considerably larger than the bags of coffee we get at the grocery store these days. I recall a classic episode from 60 Minutes where Andy Rooney did a segment on how the amount of the product is shrinking while air in the bag is increasing along with the price.
A large central compartment was going to be crucial for the foundation of this new bag’s design. Determining the main compartment size would dictate how the rest of the bag would fall into place. The central compartment on the Red Oxx Tres Hombres is 10" Wide x 11" High x 20" Long, with our standard #10 YKK zipper down the center. The new design also allows for a "break over" zipper configuration which means there is plenty of room for loading odd shaped items. We applied the same zipper configuration to the outboard pockets, that are 2" Wide x 11" High and 20" Long.
Both of the outboard pockets feature a large flat seam pocket on the outer panel. Foam padded bottom and stow away backpack straps make the bag transform (perfect for the inevitable cobblestone stroll). With such an open cargo configuration it became apparent that a set of compression straps was a must-have. Having the right strap or loop in a certain place can make or break a bag design. Figuring that this bag was really about moving some weight if need be–it was prudent to add in a set of grab loops on each end. During my testing, I found that these were quite handy in the airport shuttle vans. With the bag designed and built it was time to get down to some packing.
My annual visit to Guatemala has become quite routine with much of the variation having to do with what kind of bags I am going to travel with. I typically take a three bag combination of one carry-on and a personal item like a Gator. With toiletries going into my Tri-fold shave kit and I usually bring a Travel Tray as well. Having interchanged between the C-Ruck Rucksack and Safari Beano Duffel Bag, then going with the Sky Train and Flying Boxcar has been an interesting test over the years. I would still opt for bringing my Gator and Tri-fold just switching out my main carry-on depending on what I was going to be up to in country. Most of my packing problems have arisen as I try to leave a destination with more items than I arrived with. Keeping that inner pack rat satiated is always a challenge and one I struggle with especially when it comes to ethnic crafts or coffee.
With the bag designed and built, it was time to get down to some packing.
Packing for the trip had not changed, so I opted to keep things to a minimal (plus a few luxury items I couldn’t live without). I tend to adhere to the Rule of Three on clothing –in some cases I make it a Rule of One. The Rule of Three means that I only pack three items of each type of clothing (excepting socks and maybe an extra t-shirt). When traveling closer to the equator, I also only bring one pair of pants and a light jacket, both of which I will wear in transit. Packing the Tres Hombres was simple–the large central compartment easily accommodated all of my clothing, leaving both of the outboard pockets empty for the return trip. I then used the handy exterior compression straps to cinch everything tight. In the end, I had fairly small "backpack" styled bag to wear.
Packing my venerable Gator with my luxury items, a Nikon D300 and a small Jambox (I discovered these great little speaker units on a camping trip with some Land Rover enthusiasts and was hooked immediately) and my iPod. With all my gear stowed and secure, I shouldered everything and was impressed with how well it all was situated, with my total load weight being well under thirty pounds for both bags. Considering the weight of the electronic gear, I figured I had done quite well without sacrificing the creature comforts.
I have had some tight connections in the past, and this year was no different. I deplaned in Houston and walked over three gates. By sheer luck I was the last person to board. If I had been checking luggage this would have been the point where we would have went our separate ways. Checking bags is always a gamble, and weighing the risks on whether or not you will be reunited with your luggage is a tough call. I tend to check only when I have to or on the way home. At least the gear is headed in the right direction while you head home (and not to the luggage impound of outer Bagmanistan). I’ve had several occasions in which I have had to make lengthy return trips after being separated from my checked baggage. In some cases when traveling with large camera tripods or firearms you have little choice but to check your kit.
Arriving late night in Guatemala City, I opted for a night at the Holiday Inn and scored a really nice room in the executive floor space. Breakfast at the hotel was a bit of a letdown compared to the lodgings. It tasted like a sterile napkin and appeared to be almost painted to the plate in a Mondrian style. I’m really not a huge fan of rectangular eggs and triangular cheese product.
Heading out of the city towards Panajachel, I noticed all the infrastructure improvements. Road and bridge construction has been ongoing for the last few years. The improvements have done much to improve the trip and we made good time to my lodgings at Los Encuentros. The place has become somewhat popular due to a great review in the Lonely Planet guide. This had forced me to actually make reservations to assure a place to operate from. After stowing my gear in the room, I slipped on my Chacos and set out for Crossroads Café to visit with Mike and see how this year’s coffee harvest was progressing. The news was not encouraging, as blight had affected the harvest significantly in the region where he buys his coffee. He was already danger mouse low on the Hue Hue.
Up early the next morning, I slipped into the "secret" roasting room and spent the morning working with Mike. There is something about working around a large coffee roaster in a confined space that I really love. The heat and smoke combined with the low drone of the electric motors humming a steady tune…
Then as the crackling of the beans signified the time was near to drop and cool. Mike suddenly leaping to pull the release lever and “save” the batch from over roasting before pivoting around to bag another order. The synchronized chaos was quite entertaining while I did my little part in sticking labels and checking off orders in the queue.
We spent the morning catching up on the news of our previous years travels. Mike had taken a sabbatical to Japan to visit coffee houses and friends. He was determined to go as lightly as possible and pretty much lived out of a Red Oxx C-Ruck for the duration. From camping at Mount Fuji to rail stations I was amazed by his pictures (and fully expect an Adventure Journal from him at some point).
Each time I visit Guatemala to check up on our Zip Knot tying operating I experience a little bit of what this interesting country has to offer. Our ongoing Molino project has taken several years of work and has been progressing in stops and starts. On my return this year I was bit crestfallen at the lack of progress but that is the reality of life here. Projecting my expectations onto another culture is not going to make things happen any faster. With the arrival of a new baby in the family, the priorities have shifted for the short term.
I had nothing new left to see except the baby, so I decided it was high time we took everyone out to lunch. Piling the whole crew in a couple of rigs we headed up to the Central American highway. As luck would have it, some enterprising Guatemalan had opened a new roadside restaurant grill recently. Our options were a little on the short side we rolled up and rousted them to action.
Before long they had a fire blazing and meals were on the way as I noticed the some excited chattering in Kaqchiquel around the far end of the table. There is something almost infectious when the Mayans get really excited and happy. I had heard them doing this before, and each time it brings a smile to my face. Curious about what was going on, I asked Lisa what the big deal was. She proceeded to find out from Juan that this was the first time the whole lot had been to a nice sit down restaurant. It is at times like these that I am suddenly reminded of how fortune and opportunity have favored my life as an American.
While I have racked up a few visits to Guatemala, it seems there is always something new to check out. Beach access from Montana can be a little difficult, so when I get the chance to get some sand between my toes I’m always stoked. Having talked my expat friend Jack into a little road trip to Monterrico, we stuffed our bags into the car and made tracks for the Pacific coast.
This time I did arrive without reservations and was fully underwhelmed by what was offered at the first few places we looked. I recalled seeing an ad online for Dos Mundos and we decided to check it out. While a bit of a walk to town, the accommodations were excellent. Tossing my Tres Hombres onto the bed I made like a newborn turtle and headed for the ocean. The beach and estuary here are known for their black sands which by midday can get extremely hot. Kicking up a rooster tail I sprinted to the tide line as my soles practically caught fire. Out of the frying pan and into the undertow but at least the pain had stopped. The beach here is quite steep and the current is very strong, so be careful if you’re not a strong swimmer.
Up early the next morning for a little tour of the mangroves, I listened closely as the guide told of all the wildlife and the changes in his lifetime here. For the most part the larger mammals and reptiles have retreated further inland due to the pressure from the expanding town. In some ways it’s like the Florida Everglades. I hope someday explore further upriver and see some of what remains before it disappears.
After a couple of days cooking in the sun, it was time to head for the mountains to cool down. While having no problem making our way to the ocean, we missed a turn or two and ended up getting the sugarcane plantation tour of coastal Guatemala. After sorting out our location we pointed the car uphill and finally made it back to Panajachel.
Too much coffee and not enough bag has been a problem on several of my previous trips. I told Mike to leave me some room for my clothes but he just made a crack about adding to his Red Oxx shirt collection and proceeded to cram 22 pounds of black gold into the main compartment. This left me very little room for me to pack up and head out. His daughter Lungi had already laid claim to my Jambox and I kept my iPod out of sight just in case she took a shine to it.
I have found that a good beating and some choice words will allow you to get even more into a bag then thought possible. After extending the compression straps and using a wrestling leg lock, I was finally able to get the Tres Hombres fully closed. Hefting my bag up onto my shoulders I was pleased with the weight distribution and a total weight of 41 pounds was still manageable. I had to resort to putting on all of my travel clothes, and had to move a few items into my Gator, but it all fit. I only wondered if security would take exception to me wearing two pairs of socks.
While still technically "carry-on legal luggage", I opted to check this pig ASAP as it would be heading to my home eventually. The perspective gained from going out and testing our products has always been crucial to the Red Oxx design process. I would have a few minor tweaks to make on some of the finishing details but all in all, this new version of the Tres Hombres exceeded my expectations right out of the gate.
Did you enjoy Jim’s latest installment of his on-going Guatemala Trip Reports? Be sure to read the first adventure, Discovering Fair Trade in Guatemala, Part 1 – On the Trail of the Monkey Fist.
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