A Travellerspoint blog

And So The Garden Lives On…Without Us

The Last Stand in Panama



We knew back in April that, at some point, we’d be leaving the hard work ahead of us behind us, and so it has come to pass that that time has grown ever so nigh, the months long gone, the weeks disappeared, a matter of mere days—less than a handful—to go. It’s been a surreal couple of months, wondering around the garden and finishing up this or that, finally making time for projects we’d put aside as long as we could.


I must apologize for missing a couple of months on the old blogosphere. Truthfully, I see the statistics, number of views, number of visits, but I’m never really sure how in demand the details of my life are. A recent email exchange with an old friend reassured me that people did indeed keep up with the goings-on. So, thank you to those who do. In my defense, I have been busy, both writing and gardening. I’ll stop spinning my wheels and get to it.

July in Summary

When I last graced you with my words—ha!—we were at the halfway point in our six-month permaculture project here in Panama. We were harvesting food, forest floors were being made in reverse, magic circles were multiplying, murals painted, and communal living was in full swing. We were into July with our heads held high, ahead of schedule, and fresh off our largest group of volunteers: six. Consequently, in July, we’d had one volunteer, the able-bodied Rob, whom did some serious digging and dirt moving with me. Then, our moms came, as did my stepfather Will.


The heat turned all the way up, the parents were knocked back a bit, and the work got creative. The back porch become a colorful new garden with painted bricks and pots, lots of hanging trinket-ry was made (more dream-catchers, a tin can bell, and so on). Things blew up with the first outcropping of yarnbombs, both moms content to crochet away the days. As is often the case with the moms, my little one got knocked aback with a stomach bug, and then, eventually, Emma’s little one managed to injure herself majorly: She fell through the dock, got her leg trapped, and spent the next two weeks (extending her trip one as she tried to recover) swollen and largely immobile.


As July merged into August, the dates began to blur. We’d given up on the roto-mower we were once so excited about and began cutting the grass via machete. That’s right. The entire lawn. Why? Lawn mowers are polluting machines that make ’67 Chevy pick-ups look environmentally friendly. We were trying to stay true to our mission, and it was a price that was…well, hell to pay. I’d become entranced by swales and had begun installing a system, and Emma was feeling frustrated by the neighbor’s chickens, which seemed intent on destroying every last garden bed to find every last worm in them. The gods of permaculture were challenging us.

Permaculture News Articles from July
Herb Spirals & Herb Circles
The Tropical Salad: Leaves of a Different Cut
How the Whole Volunteers Thing Works

August in Summary

In late August, Emma’s mum still reeling on the sofa, spending her time with either a paintbrush or crochet hook, we started getting back into the full swing of things. Emma cranked out signage to spruce up the place, a hulking Hungarian handyman named Balazs (pronounced Bo-laj) arrived and started up with some long overdue carpentry, and I…I know I did some work somewhere in there.


Seriously, exciting things happened in August. The communal garden began taking more shape as I added an herb spiral and a mighty crop of lemon cucumbers took over the hugelkultur. Balazs and I created a magic circle, what I like to refer to as the breakfast bowl, in the front garden: It has papaya, banana, plantain, coconut, and moringa trees, and hopefully, it will eventually have some melons, watermelons, and pineapples growing around the foot of it. Emma started getting the better of the chickens as a few crops took root. And, most excitingly, the pizza oven got back underway. Balazs bolted together the bottom of the oven floor, and we did our first test of applying the clay, covering the cinder block base we put together back in June.


Sadly, we did finally say goodbye Emma’s mum, who got back to England in serious pain, finding out her leg swelling had turned into a hematoma. Yikes. Her operation to drain it went horribly, and she ended up with an infection, from which she still has not recovered. Luckily for us, on this side of the Atlantic, it didn’t take long for her porch garden to give us some greens, so we’ve been eating to her health. Somehow we manage to send her home in need of repair every year, but we do love her dearly. And, she does get some good vacation stories out of it.

Permaculture News Articles from August
New Trees in Guatemala That Are Not Just for Reforestation
How to Steal from Your Neighbors and Have Them Love You For It
Attracting Wild Animals for the Good of the Garden: Which, Why, and How

September in Summary

September, more or less, represented our last stand, the final push to do all we set out to do back in April. Our replacements, Antti and Jenni, arrived early in the month and began picking up what we do: the extensive machete work, vegan cooking, waste-free living, and mulching everything, any chance we get. Balazs carpenter-ed on into the month, putting a much needed ladder up to the second floor of the tree house before he left. And, John, our youngest volunteer at nineteen, and most knowledgeable about permaculture, being a member of a permaculture club at his university, came for a brief week. To our delight, he repeatedly told us he wished he’d discovered the farm at the beginning of his six-week trip.


The big project, without a doubt, was getting the pizza oven together. It’s a monster that required three separate layers to compile a 10-inch thick clay dome. Each layer required about a week, one day to put together then the rest to dry. It’s now done and looking stout. Meanwhile, lots of other projects got completed, including a water catchment system on the hillside, the communal garden, the last banana circle, and a tree nursery. Emma painted some cool silhouette murals in the bedrooms, Antti made a wicked photo journal of all the edible plants we have growing now (over sixty), and Jenni has slowly slid into kitchen and gardening master.


In the last couple of weeks, Emma and I have devoted ourselves to enjoying the place’s special things, things that over the past six months we’ve grown accustomed to, even taken for granted at times. We’ve gone swimming in the lake nearly every day. We’ve doted immensely over the puppies. We’ve surveyed the gardens time and again. We’ve eaten mango-banana “ice cream” nearly every evening, and sometimes just a big bowl of it for dinner. We’ve slept down at the lake house, admiring the pizza oven often, enjoying the sunrises, the occasional caiman sighting, and the sense of isolation. It’s been everything we could have hoped for.

Permaculture News Articles from September
Oh, The Beds I’ve Made: No-till Gardening in Tropical Panama
Accidental Propagation, for the Best in Gardening

And, for fulfilling those hopes, we have a lot of people to thank. First and foremost, I’d love a big round of applause for Alan and Angelika who entrusted two scraggly travelers with their property and consent to “make it funky”. How amazing it is to come across people so inviting, so daring and bold, as to give you the keys and six months to get something done. In the end, as much as this project was in our hearts, it was for them, for this property—the food, the décor, and the volunteer program—to become something they will enjoy in the years to come. They’ll see it for the first time in two days from now, and it’s really nice to know that they’ll be enthused by the progress.


Then, there were all the volunteers, from all walks of life and all over. Matt and Charlene—things you did are still growing, thriving even. Tony (Emma’s father)—forever may you paint. Luke and Julie—Still eating mango chutney from time to time. Grace and George—what a time we had! Wish things could have continued for much, much longer. The big group: There were three ladies from the States—Ciera, April, and Emily—and two Euro-chic gals—Spanish Gema and Italian Ana—who’d come to Panama solely to volunteer here (what pressure!) and Patrick, the German owner of a raw food Costa Rican guesthouse/farm. It was a full house. Rob—We still talk about your mopping. Jamal—You never volunteered here, but you were definitely in the family. The Moms, Maggie and Sheelagh, and Will—you guys gave us great reason to slow down and store up some energy for the downhill. Balazs—Hope you’re ready to hit the road again. John—Find us next time you are out and farming. And, thanks to the neighbors, Anna, who kept us in coconuts and company, and Jimmy, without whom the dogs would have not gotten premium dog food from Panama City. Lastly, Antti and Jenni—keep it running clean and green and growing.

Emma and I will be flying to Bogota on October 7th, the day after my birthday, which will be the inaugural use of the pizza oven. We’ve got a couple of volunteer spots lined up in Colombia, and then, we’ll finally be continuing our journey to Patagonia, with who knows what delays to encounter on the way. Life as we love it.


Posted by jonathonengels 05:29 Archived in Panama Tagged food travel farm backpacking environment expat permaculture Comments (1)

Three Months of Adventures in Permaculture, Panama Edition:

Ten or More Things from the Last Month on the Farm


Well, just yesterday, we hit three months of working on our project here in Arenosa, Panama. The property, just over two acres, is basically bisected by a sidewalk. The owners have given us free reign over one side and asked us to maintain the other as you would a normal yard. The difference is really beginning to show, and the project takes more and more shape each month.


The idea with our side of the property is to basically fill every space that isn’t a path with something nourishing, either for us or for the earth. By no means are we there yet, but some of our labors are really starting to show in the soil, in the expanded garden space, and in our meals. We eat from the garden every day, and we add new plants, more mulch, and different systems every day as well.


On the other side of the property, we toil at least a couple of days a week to keep the grass cut and weeds down. It looks like a nice yard, with trees here and there (some of them fruit-producing) and ornamental plants dotted around. It’s an incredible thing to see the difference and interesting experiment to see which is preferable (for the owners, who obviously like gardens but don’t necessarily garden themselves).

Without further ado, here are ten or more things we’ve gotten up to since last you read:


1. Expanding the Front Gardens: In the front yard, we’d built two beds that produced very well. We ate about a dozen cantaloupes from one, half a dozen watermelons from the other, and have grown the biggest hibiscus plant on the property, far bigger than its brothers and sisters. Along with these beds are some great productive, pre-existing trees: two water apple trees, a lime, and a guava that were there before, as well as a macadamia nut, several moringa trees, and another lime we planted back in February. Now, we’ve joined up everything with massive garden beds between them, in which we’ve started bean plants and sweet potatoes (both great for “fixing” soil), as well as ginger, marigolds (good for bugs), pumpkin, chard, mustard greens, collard greens, and sunflowers. Now, the “yard” part is merely paths providing access to all the garden beds.

2. The Lakeside Pizzeria: From early on, we’ve planned to build a cob pizza oven somewhere on the property. We've discovered it will have to be clay instead of cob, but we finally settled on a place and have actually started moving the project along. We’ve already built a nice herb garden to go next to the oven, as well as a potted plant garden (with an emphasis on tomatoes) on the porch next to the oven. And, using some cinderblocks already on the property, we’ve made the first moves on building the foundation on which the oven will sit. We’ve got the plans for the rest of it and will be trying to complete the project over the next month.


3. The Medicinal Herb Garden: We’ve converted a anemic garden bed along the rear of the house into a collection of stone-ringed medicinal herb beds, including the healthful culinary herbs we already grow in the herb spiral, as well as some very useful native plants that one of our volunteers—Thanks, Patrick!—spotted for us. The conversion is complete, but the project has much more to be done. Nevertheless, the idea seems to be working well, useful plants are growing, and the area is much more attractive to look at. (Additionally, we spruced up the companion bed on the normal yard side of the house so that it all matches. Still like things to be pretty.)


4. Getting Raw in the Kitchen: Our new friend and former volunteer, Patrick, took raw to an extreme we’ve not yet reached. He more or less ate only foraged mangoes and cucumbers, which we’ve produced in abundance, the whole time he was here. Though we are not quite this raw, we have begun to accomplish some major raw culinary feats: carrot cake, almost all of our pasta sauces (why eat them hot when they could be so much healthier?), lots of salad variations from our native leaves, and loads of dehydrated mango (still). We are officially trying to make 50% of our meals raw food (Check out the documentary Food Matters), and we can really taste the difference. Fresh stuff tastes better than cooked.

5. The Communal Hugel Monster: We’ve become quite the fans of hugelkultur, burying logs and woody debris under soil so that it feeds plants while decomposing, and we already have two in the garden gully. This month we added another up in our communal garden project. Even better, it was created using a massive compost heap that we put together on our very first day as volunteers at Glenavon back in January. The compost heap was half broken down, with great clumps of rich soil as will as already rotting longs. It created a massive hugelkultur heap in the corner of the communal garden, which should make for some great growing this fall.


6. Possibly Panama’s First Cornhole Boards: Cornhole is a favorite pastime from our days in Guatemala. Using some of my carpentry skills learned under the tutelage of Drew, one of Earth Lodge’s owner/operators, I was able to throw together a set of cornhole boards with scrap wood one Saturday morning. Then, Emma and Grace, one of our volunteers, painted them up nicely, in the likeness of the Panamanian flag, as well as hand-sewed regulation-sized matching cornhole bags made out of jeans. I’m proud to say that I stay remain undefeated on our boards. And, I recommend making your own.


7. Dream-Catcher Tree: When we volunteered in Colombia this past spring, we noticed that Felipe, the owner of La Juanita Finca Verde, had hung a bunch of homemade dream catchers in a tree off his front porch. We decided to steal the idea. Now, we have an avocado tree donning dream-catchers made by us and some of our volunteers. Gives off a nice vibe and has inspired much more dangling art. We’ve got a few vertical gardens going now and a mobile that Emma just whipped up one afternoon. Amazing how something like that provides personality to a spot.


8. The Terraced Garden Beds: We are dealing with quite a lot of steep hillside here at Glenavon on the Lake. The garden gully is actually a gully. In other words, in our eyes, there’s a lot of land that’s a little harder to grow stuff on. Inspired by the idea of swales (a water catching system for gardens), our most recent volunteer, Rob, and I built a six-tiered terrace with three garden beds interspersed with three water-catching systems. It looks big time and, with a good sunny face on the hill, should be great for creating some produce very soon.


9. Trees in the Food Forest: It was a momentous occasion when we finally put some trees in our food forest. We’ve been operating on magic banana and plantain circles, expanding our jungle that way, and it looks great. (Two volunteers, Gemma and Anna, likened it to Jurassic Park, complete with humming the theme tune every day.) Anyhow, we’ve worked since April to condition the forest floor. Layer it with organic matter so that it becomes soft and nutrient-rich rather than baked clay. It seems to be working. We now have a few inches of nice compost top to plant it. So, we’ve taken some trees—grapefruit, avocado, star fruit, coconut, and lime (soon lemon and mango)— Emma started and planted them in the forest. More papaya are on the well as well. Should be a tremendous food source.


10. Discovered Discovery: One obstacle we’ve been dealing with for three months is that we had nowhere to buy any seeds. So, we were growing only what we could get from clippings or our kitchen scraps (you can grow a lot of food from the seeds in your kitchen scraps or bags of food you buy) or scavenged (such as birdseed—sunflowers—to grow actual sunflowers). However, we recently helped out a neighbor, taking her somewhere to get some soil, and she introduced us to a store called Discovery, in Panama City. There we were able to get some new stuff to try: dill, chamomile, mustard greens, collard greens, chard, arugula, catnip, spring onion, cilantro, garden beans, chives, and marjoram. We’ve got new seedlings growing all over the place.

At three months, perhaps the most inspiring thing is that ideas don’t seem to be dwindling but rather expanding, morphing into new additions and fine-tuning, sort of coloring in the lines we’ve already created. I find it hard not to walk the property daily to brainstorm what more can happen, and Emma is ever coming up with cool ideas, like the bean tipis that she and Rob put in the front food forest. To be completely honest, I sometimes ventured over to the “yard” section of the property with some permaculture thoughts as well. After a while, it just becomes impossible to look at an empty space without planning out what could happen there.

Posted by jonathonengels 16:38 Archived in Panama Tagged trees food travel farm living backpacking environment expat permaculture Comments (0)

Panamanic Perma Progression: 10 Things from the Last Month

Adventures in Permaculture



Another month down, and I’ve come to own up to the progress we’ve made on our permaculture project in Panama. It seems each week Glenavon on the Lake takes more shape, becomes more inspired and inspiring at once, and provides us with great senses of accomplishment, surprise, wonderment, sweaty fatigue and camaraderie.

In late May/early June, some major things happened around the place, both agriculturally and communally. We began taking in both crops and volunteers regularly, including Emma’s father, a man with a paintbrush always in hand. We’ve widened our scope of what we can already use from the property. We’ve survived mango season. I’ve begun a new writing gig for the site of permaculture legend Geoff Lawton. Things are officially in full motion.

Thusly, to limit my ramblings, I will do something all online writers must become accustomed to doing: I’ll report this progress via list, a la David Letterman’s Top Ten.


1. Started eating leaves.

Salad greens do not readily grow in the heat of the tropics, so we’d been largely lacking in the salad category, which is perhaps odd for vegans. As a result, Emma has become a leaf wizard, scoping out everything from bean leaves (used like spinach) to papaya leaves (medicinal tea) to several salad leaf substitutes, like hibiscus, cranberry hibiscus, moringa and okra—yes, okra—leaves. And, we’ve also gone crazy with the fresh herbs from last month’s herb spiral. We eat fresh herbs every day now.

2. Volunteer much

The volunteer program is in full swing now, with spots booked up through mid-August. We are currently on our third couple in a row, which will make for six weeks’ worth of volunteers. So far, we’ve had Matt and Charlene from France (experts in kitchen and titans of the cashew nut); Luke and Julie from England and France, respectively (swimming gurus and premier sidewalk cleaners); and currently George and Grace from Cornwall (masters of hard work and now worm bed specialists). It’s been really fun hanging out, sharing a little chitchat and veganism.


3. The Food Forest(s)

We are building two small food forests, one in the front and another in the back of the property, and they are both really showing progress. In the back, what we call the garden gully, we know have five magic circles, two for plantains, one for papayas, one for bananas, and one unclaimed as of yet. They are stuffed with other crops as well, including yucca, sweet potato, ñamé (a cross between yucca and sweet potato), pepper, taro, and hibiscus. In the front, the beds we’ve constructed between existing trees—lime, macadamia nut, moringa and water apple—are bustling with activity and bearing fruits and beautifully full plants.

4. Writing On

I did not expect that Panama would revolutionize my writing career, but it has. Veering off my travel-writing tableau, I’ve landed two great gigs in new invigorating genres. Last time we were here, in February, I managed to land my gig with One Green Planet (over 50 articles now), still one of my favorite websites, all about veganism, activism, conservation, and animal rights. It really feels like writing with purpose. And, now, upon our return, I’ve become part of one of the great permaculture websites out there, and it looks like I’ll be able to contribute regularly to Permaculture News as well. Suddenly, the money I’m making writing is becoming an actual wage.


5. The Communal Area

We’ve worked very hard to create a cool communal space for us and the volunteers to hang out in. It has become more and more what we want. There are drying leaves hanging around, a ping-pong table, different funky colors for each wall, plantlife encroaching from all sides, a WiFi hotspot, couches and easy chairs, a beer fridge, a book exchange, a psychedelic mural in progress, great views in both directions, a semi-outdoor kitchen area, jars of snacks everywhere (dried mango and coconut bacon), and more and more every week. It’s working.

6. Lawn Mowing Success

We have a unique agreement with Alan and Angelika: The property is divided in half by a sidewalk, with one side being free reign for our experimentation and the other being maintain like a normal lawn. After they left, I discovered the lawn mower (which I didn’t want to use for fossil fuel reasons anyway) was in bad condition. Consequently, we splurged with our first budget and bought an old-fashion roto-mower. It cuts the grass in an appropriately wild way that I like, and we’ve been able to make composting/mulching use of the clippings from it. The lawn looks good, but even better, it’s serving the gardens.


7. “Ice Cream”

With our crazy abundance of mangoes over the last couple of months, we’ve had to get inventive with them. Jams, chutneys, smoothies, salads, and juices just weren’t getting it done. Emma came up with an awesome ice cream that has stolen the show over the last couple of weeks. Lots of mango blended with one banana then frozen. Take it out to thaw before dinner and blend it one more time before eating it. With or without coconut milk, I’d say it stacks up, only its 100% raw fruit.

8. Parental Visitation #1

Emma’s father Tony came to visit for three weeks and really got into his inner hippie, which is a lot for an ex-military man who still irons his Bermuda shorts. He stayed on a true vegan diet the whole time, even when meat was available on our outings to Panama City. He chipped in to the communal effort, volunteering for his keep and consorting with the riffraff (us). At the end, he even went full on wild child and painted our outdoor fridge and freezer in a multi-colored swirl straight from the 1960s, even though he said, in the 1960s, he hated the 60s.


9. The Greenhouse

The greenhouse in the front of the property has been in a perpetual state between somewhat finished and chaos since the first week we arrived. It is finally shaping up into something fantastic. There is a roof. Compost bins are rolling. We have beds everywhere, and they are full of food—black-eyed peas, mung beans, brown beans, cucumber, hibiscus, tomatoes, kale, passion fruit, Malabar spinach, and whatever else Emma has conjured up (one strong-willed chia plant). The tables are stocked with seedlings, including several fruit trees for our food forest. There is fencing around it to keep the dogs out. And, the latest addition is a worm bed, something we’d put off but that has been in the plan for months now.

10. Harvesting!

We are actually starting to really get food from our garden. We eat fruit from it everyday, and sometimes our entire bowl of morning fruit comes from Glenavon! We are collecting okra, jalapenos, beans, mangoes (still), water apples, avocadoes, cucumbers, cantaloupe, papayas, peppers, the occasional tomato, watermelons, the aforementioned leaves and the occasional sweet potato. We are actually growing a noticeable portion of our own food well before we expected to be. Granted, some trees were already in place, but we’re only two months in. It feels like it’s off the ground and real.


Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed the rundown. I’ve certainly enjoyed living it. Don’t be afraid to drop us a line or even to invite yourself on down if it so suits you. We accept volunteers, but I do recommend contacting us first. Until then, maybe just join us on Facebook at Glenavon on the Lake and keep yourself in the know.


Posted by jonathonengels 17:33 Archived in Panama Tagged people food travel farm backpacking humor environment expat permaculture Comments (1)

Permaculture? Panama? Can Two Vagabond Gardeners Have It All

Adventures in Permaculture



Setting out in early November, our goal was to travel from Guatemala to Patagonia in roughly six months, arriving about yesterday and flying to lounge/work in the French countryside for the summer. We were to do this on the cheap by extreme budget traveling (dorm rooms and minimal bar tabs) and volunteering our way through Central and South America. Our trip went off course at our first stop in Nicaragua.

Since then, we’ve worked with a schedule-be-damned sort of attitude, often reminding ourselves that the whole point—though it was never the whole point—was to take what opportunities came our way. Somehow, we’ve managed to have a lot come our way. We managed the volunteer program in Nicaragua that first month, which turned into two months. We came to Glenavon on the Lake in Panama for two weeks or more, stayed six and have returned for six more months.

And, it is from here, just north of the Panama Canal, on property kissing Lake Gatun, that I write the latest in our permaculture adventure.

Why We Stopped

While the initial thought of lingering in Panama caused us some concern: We were yet again putting off our travels in South America (we’ve at least been to Colombia and Ecuador now) to hang around in Central America more. I mean we’ve been to every country here, some of them multiple times now, and the whole point of coming way back in 2008 was to make to South America. Nevertheless, good opportunity is good opportunity.


We volunteered at Glenavon on the Lake in January and February then, at the end of our stay, were offered positions that would keep us here for six more months. We were to use our imaginations to funk up the place (painting, art, and so on), introduce a jungle-y garden project, and kickstart a volunteering program. In essence, we were given the chance to do what we want to do: grow our own fun in some distant land and invite people to come partake with us.

So, in order for the deal to pass mustard, we insisted on actually making it to South America first, traveling for two months before we returned. We got back on the 15th of April. And, while this would seem like the time to settle in, to become the next retirees (unfortunately, it’s still a little early), the last month have been nothing of the sort. In the end, the real draw of staying in Panama was that we’re able to experiment with all this stuff we’d “like to do some day”.

Today is the day, so we haven’t paused at all. We’ve been running around Glenavon like Jesus Lizards on the lake (yes, we have them here). The projects just keep multiplying, mutating into grander endeavors, and exciting us all over again.

Or Have We Stopped?

The point I’m getting at is that stopping doesn’t necessarily mean an adventure is over or even stalled. In fact, we’ve been dying to do what we are doing, which ironically is some of the hardest, hottest work I’ve ever been privy to. The crux of this here blog entry is to introduce you to some of the happenings thus far in our permaculture adventure in Panama.

The Spiral Herb Garden

The idea came from a farm we worked at in Colombia. There was a cool little permaculture set-up just outside the kitchen door, a bed that spiraled around and was loaded with an assortment of tasty goodies. While at La Juanita Finca Verde, we also read loads of permaculture material and got some other ideas for how to build ours in Panama.

The gardens need to be near the kitchen so that you can quickly grab whatever you need while you are cooking. The herb spiral specializes in offering and needs to offer different types of sun exposure, thus little micro-climates, for a variety of herbs to grow. And, we wanted ours to look kickass.


Early in the week, I’d made a raised garden bed near the kitchen, filling a space that had once been cluttered with garbage cans and the debris that somehow didn’t make it in them. For the border, I made a wall with some flat stones the property owner, Alan, had bought for a rainy day. It turned out pretty nice. So, next thing I know, I was building a towering spiral (about a three or four feet high) for our herbs.

It was my first really inspiring project since we got back. It’s a perfect location, right between the house kitchen and the volunteer kitchen, where everyone can use it easily. It makes for a beautiful piece to look at while sitting in the communal space outside. It put a massive stack of otherwise unspoken for stones to good use. And, we are now growing three or four types of basil, lemongrass, mint, oregano, culantro (a cousin of cilantro) and anise in it. The plants are doing great.

More Crop Circles

Just before we left Panama in February, we built a magic banana circle. Basically, the formula is to dig a big hole, a circle with about a six-foot diameter and about three feet deep), and pile the soil all around the edges. The hole gets filled with organic material to produce compost, and plants—not just bananas but also plants that pair well with them—are put around the edges to enjoy the loose soil and feed of the compost.

Our banana circle, which also has sweet potatoes and yucca growing in it, did splendidly while we were gone. Since we’ve been back, I’ve added two new circles—a plantain circle and a papaya circle—to what has been deemed our food forest. And, this past weekend, a volunteer named Matt and I created another mini plantain circle outside the front of our fence, a little go at guerilla gardening (this circle is for the neighbors to take from).


We have at least two more circles coming soon, and perhaps a couple more in the distance future. We are considering coconut trees, moringa trees, and a mixed fruit circle as different possibilities.


It sounds a bit guttural, maybe a little fancy, but I’d been dying to make a big hugelkultur bed since February as well. Hugelkultur is a wicked idea that involves covering big pieces of wood, like tree stumps or tree trunks, with a few inches of soil and letting the decomposition of the wood feed the bed for years to come. When we’d left, there were already loads of half-rotten post and chunks of old wood around, so Emma and I had made grand plans.

Much to our chagrin, when we returned, several more trees had been chopped down “for the view” and “for the garden”. Doing my best to make plants out of trees, I set about utilizing as much of the wood as possible. First, I made a massive v-shaped hugel-wall, about three or four feet high and now covered with melon, pumpkin and squash plants that will soon have it sporting fruit.


Next, Matt and I got to work on another hugelkultur project, an inspiration for much ballyhoo and tomfoolery with my posh English accent. We built a Victorian stumpery, a massive garden mound that with soil piled onto tree trunks, stumps, and leaves. Ours rises from about ankle-height to waist-height and has stump stepping stones across it, as well as a high stump back wall. Looks very cool and should be wildly fertile.

The adventures are set to continue. Each new project feels like a new destination, a new experience for what has turned into a much longer trip than we anticipated. We’ve got loads more space to fill and lots of ideas, most of them quite funky, of how to do it. Not only that, but within a couple of weeks of advertising for volunteers, we’ve managed to book ourselves full for the next three months. We are actually having to turn volunteers away now. And…and…and I would be remiss not to mention all the…

Awesome Work Emma Has Done.

• We’ve returned just in time for mango season and harvest about two bags a day, roughly 50 mangoes for the tree next to our greenhouse. Emma has become a mango master, dehydrating them, cooking up jams, spinning out chutneys, and creating delicious frozen treats.
• AKA, Little Miss Green Thumb has managed to start up seedlings for about a half-dozen kinds of beans, melons, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, and peppers. And, she has done cuttings with all of those herbs and various other stuff around the property.
• Together, we transformed what was a filthy construction site into a cool communal area, complete with a semi-outdoor kitchen, ping-pong table, potions and powder workstation, and seating area. Emma also came up with some awesome chalk job lists to plan out or next steps for all to see.


• Inspired by the cashew trees growing next door, Emma discovered that not only can we get cashew nuts from them (a rather hair-raising, semi-dangerous procedure), but we can also get some pretty sweet juice from the apple and use the “flesh” for an actual meat substitute. BBQ cashew fruit is really delish.
• Plants, plants, plants. What were once barren gardens and landscapes are now clutter with all kinds of plants, all about two to three weeks old. We’ve got some new pineapples on the go, jalapeños showing, and some seriously rejuvenated tomato plants. Stuff is growing everywhere.
• She’s started her first mural. A cool 1960s landscape in the communal area. Photos coming soon.

Posted by jonathonengels 14:28 Archived in Panama Tagged food travel farm living backpacking environment expat permaculture Comments (3)

The Las Tolas Express

One Week of Volunteering in an Ecuadorian Cloud Forest



We’d gauged the time a little loosely and arrived at the bus station, Ofelia, in the north end of Quito, with less than ten minutes to find our bus to Las Tolas. The stakes were high because, unlike other places, buses for Las Tolas leave once a day at 5:30 pm (they depart Las Tolas once a day as well, at 6:30 am) We asked the turnstile attendant, who pointed us towards a waiting line of coaches, with probably five-plus minutes to spare.

However, our problems were not over. Standing on the sidewalk, I stared back and forth from the placards in the buses’ front windows to the scribbled directions—on the back of a supermarket receipt—in my hand. We were supposed to take the Las Minas bus until its last stop: Las Tolas. To my left was a bus with a “Minas” placard. To my right was a bus with a “Las Tolas” placard. Neither Emma nor I knew what to make of it all.

With time short and a-wasting, we opted for Las Tolas. Sitting in the bus, we discussed in strained whispers whether we’d made the right choice. Then, at the last minute, we leapt off, deciding the “Minas” bus was better. Then, thirty seconds later, after grilling the bus attendant and driver, we boarded the Las Tolas bus again, watching the “Minas” bus disappear. There was no turning back.

When you … when one … when we hop a bus to a distant (two and a half hours) rural village in the cloud forests of Ecuador, not knowing where exactly our “last stop” is going to leave us, or with whom, it’s hard to not spend the next two and a half hours worrying, especially when paved road gives way to bumpy gravel—let’s call them—bus/wagon trails that the massive coach is cornering about plunging cliffs in the dark.


At the penultimate stop, a lady came up and asked us if we were going to Las Tolas. She was Cecilia, the matron of the family we were traveling to meet. Emma and I looked at each other, exhaled into smiles, and finally unclenched our tightened gluts. Later, we admitted we both been playing out what-if scenarios in our heads, mine involving pitching our tent alongside the road, hers being taken by some kind local.

Whatever the case, it was official: We were headed in the right direction. Thank Dios.

Cultural Connect[: We were later informed that the name of the bus company we used was “Las Minas” and that the instruction meant to take the Las Minas company bus to Las Tolas. No one seemed to know there was, in fact, a town called Minas. Another end of the line country town, likely as remote and small Las Tolas, it’s no wonder they had no idea that the neighboring bus would have caused so much confusion.

Forget How to Get There. Why Were We on that Bus?

For those who have not happened upon the website of a tiny NGO affiliated with the village of Las Tolas, there is little to no reason to have heard of the place. Truthfully, as we’ve established, it is at the end of a bus ride to the middle of nowhere in the mountains of northern Ecuador. There is no sea nearby, no hot springs or markets. There are no hotels, only one tiny restaurant, and neither WiFi. nor ATMs to be found. However, I’d been really looking forward to seeing the place.

For most who follow this blog, or the Jonathon Engels travel train in general, you are aware that about six months ago I launched a website called The NGO List. On this website, an NGO is featured each month. In the beginning, I wrote these features but have since been encouraging NGO affiliates to write their own accounts of organizations. In early March, just about a month before my first trip to Ecuador, a representative submitted a profile of her experience of Las Tolas.


Within a week of reading it, I’d signed us—Emma did agree—up for a week—in fact, our last week of vacation*—of volunteering.

*Though the expat, long-term traveling life does seem a bit like a permanent vacation, we do get jobs quite regularly and often juggling fairly demanding positions. We just typically do it in really nice place, like our upcoming (15 April-15 Oct) lakeside caretaking gig in Arenosa, Panama. We’ll be transforming a beautiful property into a food jungle. And, we are accepting work-trade volunteers interested in helping.

Back to Las Tolas: When the bus finally stopped for good, Cecilia led us a little further into the darkness, along a road turned muddy from invierno (literally translated as winter, equatorially meaning rainy season). Her house—our house for the next week—was a small wooden abode, with a kitchen of the front and a bathroom out of the back, with living room devoid a furniture save a plastic patio chair facing a small TV, and with a husband (Edgar), two teenagers (Alexis and Pamela), and a Chihuahua (Cookie). Upon our arrival, Edgar was laboring over a pot of soup. We were shown to a private bedroom where we could unload our bags. It was good to be temporarily home.

Cultural Connect: As vegetarians before and now as vegans, Emma and I generally avoid homestays; however, we were assured it was no worry. Though slightly bewildered by the no dairy aspect (a lot of local income is from milking cows), Edgar and Cecilia understood well and quickly. Our diet and concern of what to feed us, nevertheless, became the talk of the town. By Friday, we witnessed the neighbors across the street escorting a pig to its death. The squeals were frantic but quick. As we walked down the street a little later, the corpse was in the yard, a man with a blowtorch burning the hair off it, strengthening our resolve all the better.

A Little Slice of Life Laboring in Las Tolas


In Las Tolas, the mornings are a not unwelcomed cacophony of cockerels, fighting it out for territory. Each house seems to have a multitude of roosting boxes for the free-running fowl that chase each other in and out of the downward slopping backyards. Seeking morning bladder relief, it’s hard not to stop and look out over the clouds misting through the treetops as the sun burns off the veil of night…really dark night.

Breakfast was an interesting variation everyday. It usually consisted of Edgar and Cecilia running a little late for the bus (they work out of town), but they’d taken the time to prepare us something. The something was usually atypical breakfast food: mashed potatoes and salad or sautéed cabbage with peas and carrots. It was a sincerely endearing and much appreciated effort to feed us well, and honestly, Emma and I are seriously considering making breakfast with a wider range of ingredients in the future.

Cultural Connect: The funniest breakfast dish actually was a bit more traditional, for both cultures. In Ecuador, it’s common to prepare oatmeal as a thick breakfast drink, boiling it then filtering the oats out. It’s custom to ad a little citrus, cinnamon, and panela (a local sugar thing). When we asked what it was called, Cecilia told us Qua-care, pointing to a package on the shelf, a little man in a black and white suit on the front. We knew him as the Quaker man. There was no other name for the drink.

Daily task vary, from projects that seem solely for the travelers experience to laborious adventures in volunteering. They take place in the mornings, organized somewhat loosely the night before and rearranged by the time they get underway.

• Day one found us filling about 400 bags with soil—beautiful, rich soil with a fine mix of organic matter—to aid a reforestation project. The community’s main source of income used to be wood. Now, through the community is working to plant trees to connect to sections of jungle that were separated. While working, we had rousing games of memory and taboo, in Spanish, with our local little sister, Pamela, and the other volunteers.
• On day two, Emma and I hopped in the back of a milk truck with massive metal storage tanks rattling and tilting all around us. We arrive some thirty minutes outside of town to Luis, our boss for the day, milking Frisian cows along the roadside. Later, he leads us into the jungle to work on some trails his making in hopes of guiding tours for bird-watchers. Las Tolas is in a cloud forest well-stocked with notable birds, including quetzals.
• Day three, we spent the morning at an event at a nearby village, a joint effort of all the surrounding pueblos to come together. To our delight, the culminating activity was a contest to see who made the best outfit from trash. In the afternoon, we got work with a local artisan who collects, processes (milling, coloring, polishing, etc) her own seeds for beads. We made our moms souvenirs.
• On Saturday morning, we followed Edgar, the paterfamilias, down to the community vegetable patch where we—Edgar, the children, Emma, and I—tilled up a steep hillside of earth, sorting through seeds and ultimately planting a row of potatoes and a bed of mixed salad vegetables. When we asked about who would get to eat it all, we learned the garden was to feed future volunteers.


Cultural Connect: For some reason, I always imagine the life of a Latin American campesino to be one of endless toil and struggle, a no rest for the weary existence, but on Saturday afternoon, Edgar set of to play an extremely odd game called National Ball with a regular group of friends. That night, our last, we shared a couple of beers with Cecilia. Edgar came home a little loopy from after-game festivities and delighted in the fact that we could all sleep in the next day—until 8:00. We woke up to plantain empanadas for breakfast.

Friends Forever

Facebook gets a bad rap, and I have to say it is probably sometimes deserved. Friendships have become a little more passé, reduced to status updates and Likes of encouragement. However, as a traveler, the site has been an amazing bridge for maintaining passé friendships that would otherwise likely dwindle away. I’d heard Facebook mentioned around town a few times in our week at Las Tolas.

As we waited for the bus—keep in mind, there is only one a day to keep the town connected to the world—Cecilia gave us a card thanking us for visiting. She included her Facebook contact. And, on the bus, on his way to some other tiny town nearby, Luis sat across the aisle, finally inquiring: “Tiene Facebook?” And, I guess that’s how life is rural Ecuador these days: Physically cut off but newly plugged in.


Posted by jonathonengels 14:43 Archived in Ecuador Tagged people children travel farm backpacking environment ngo expat Comments (1)

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