My childhood dream was to explore the world, treading in the footsteps of past explorers while discovering the wonders of its landscapes and people for myself. I was still just dreaming when I grew up—and I was stuck working long hours behind an office desk.
My first taste of travel consisted of short vacations, but it was enough to get me hooked. I wanted to do something that would let me live overseas long-term. Thanks to the AWAI, doors to the world of travel writing were opened to me.
Today, I’m based in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua in Guatemala. I’m living the dream as a travel writer and photographer.
One of the best things about living in this part of the world is that it allows me to go on easy trips to interesting places. Last year, I went with a friend to the remote village of Todos Santos—just over 8,000 feet above sea level in the northern Guatemalan highlands.
We went to witness a famous annual festival that involves inebriated, traditionally clad locals racing horses on All Saints’ Day (November 1).
The festival begins with the all-male jockeys, hardy residents of Todos Santos, spending a sleepless night beforehand ritualistically drinking themselves into an alcohol-induced stupor.
The following morning, families dress riders in the unique traditional uniform—tough, red and white striped pants with thick, blue and white striped shirts trimmed with embroidered collars and cuffs.
Before the race starts, each rider dons a ceremonial red sash and a straw hat brimmed with streaming feathers and multi-colored ribbons.
Helped onto the back of a horse, rented especially for the day, these inebriated jockeys set off unsteadily in a muddle of flying legs and flailing arms. They whoop and sing as their horses pound through the mist and drizzle along a short dirt track.
With no official start or finish, riders stop briefly at each end of the track to snatch another mouthful of booze before wildly dashing back in a tattered group, hooves throwing clods of dirt in the faces of onlookers.
Some tumble in the mud—but the fallen are quickly dragged out of the path of oncoming steeds by helpers along the track. This chaos continues for seven hours, stopping only for lunch.
Like no other horse race I’ve seen, Skach Koyl as it’s called in the local Mayan language, is more a rite of passage than a competition as there’s no winner. Its roots are vague but most agree it began around the time of the Spanish conquest when horses were first introduced to the region.
Mayan tradition expects village men to participate four times in a lifetime. On his last mad dash of his final year, the jockey brandishes a live chicken triumphantly as he rides. Later that night he eats the entire bird alone to signify the end of his obligation. The festival winds down with families paying their respects to departed loved ones, praying and decorating tombs with colorful garlands.
The intrigue of new people, places, customs, foods and festivals not only quenches my lust for travel and adventure, but provides an income too. Trips like these can finance themselves. Travel publications love this type of quirky story—and they’re willing to pay you for them.
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