A Travellerspoint blog

November 2013

Moving Contradictions

New Musings from an Old Backpacker


Ming is 21 years old as of today, a university student obsessed with her lacrosse team, an admitted addict of Facebook (the self-proclaimed average of five hours a day), and a practitioner one of the longest and/or most frequent grooming-mosquito lotion regiments I’ve ever been witness to. She loves—and I’ve not met anyone other than my oldest brother who shares this trait—modern country music. She has a propensity for bending nails, recently learned to use a saw, and somehow was put in charge of continuing the instigation of an aquaponics system, a complex method of farming that involves fish poop and growing plants in gravel, a method with which she has no familiarity and has been known to comprise entire dissertations of specialist PhD candidates.

Ming is from a Bay Area suburb, smiles often and willingly, and recently had trouble scheduling the classes she needs next semester in order to graduate from UC Davis with a minor in communication. In order to fail in obtaining the schedule she wanted, she had to borrow our iPad, walk half a mile uphill to Totoco Ecolodge, and unsuccessfully connect to the internet before negotiating the use of Martijn’s (the owner’s) cell phone hotspot, only to find out the classes were full. Ming has come to Central America to work on organic farms for a couple of months. She has completely unplugged, such that her present electronics can be summed up as a digital wristwatch, which has made her the official timekeeper here.


She has no iPod to entertain her on bus rides. No cell phone to Skype or IM with friends back home. No laptop to stay up-to-date with Facebook statuses or to email mom and dad about general well-being. No iPad for the odd movie or favorite TV show. No e-reader for a portable library of entertainment magazines or engaging literature or romance novels. The closest thing she has to any of this is a notebook she passes around: People are to write the most important life lesson they’ve learned in the last year. In my own way, this will be my contribution, the life lesson I would offer her to take from my last year, more so my last week:

There are several reasons (For the sake of brevity, I’ll list only three) Ming is not the type of person I’d normally chat to in a hostel and I’ll list several reasons (let’s say…around three) those reasons are idiotic. It takes but a very superficial bout of self-exploration to find my folly in making new friendships. However, for the sake of something, some form of guidance, to proffer this young sponge of a lady, I’ve put myself through the tedious task of self-examination in search of reasons why I might not talk to Ming were we not stuck together on a nightly basis in a dirt floor kitchen with howler monkeys screaming from the trees and ducks waddling passed our feet. Maybe these are explanations I needed as well, a catalyst to move me on to bigger and better life expectations, to more friendly interactions with others:

1. Though Ming is young, like college young, and for some reason people that age now scare the bejesus out of me, not sure if it’s that I want to seem cool or don’t want to seem old or if I’m worried about them being too loud or not speaking loud enough, but I’d rather just steer clear, not risk it.

Idiotic because she should more likely be scared of someone like me: I’d be the weird guy with a small enough age gap and good enough looks (yes, I said that) to think I might be cool enough to pull something off. Luckily, my beautiful wife Emma serves well to dispel that concern right away or maybe she wouldn’t have bothered talking to me.

2. Though I made a triumphantly impressive return to the basketball court this year (the three shot is still working folks), my days of athletic abundance are over, and it’s readily apparent hers are not. I’m somewhat afraid that she could beat me in a foot race, and I’m still athletic enough to not like that.

Idiotic because you don’t have to run fast to shoot three-pointers effectively. As long as I kept her off the track and out of the low post and, I would still dominate her on the basketball court, where I’ve got the savvy cunning of veteran on my side and she doesn’t have a lacrosse stick to hit me with.


3. Though impressed with her shameless admission to rampant Facebook use (let’s say I overheard her tell someone this), I still like to claim I only do it for the purposes of being a travel writer. Due to peer judgment, I can never openly suggest it’s a pleasant experience for me or share in that joy with another.

Idiotic because 99% of the peers I know who might be ready to judge me over my affiliation with Facebook only have contact with through Facebook. As a writer, I’m a friend collector, and how foolish would I have to be to overlook one who’d be sharing my posts five hours a day.

Though I know better, have met many great people over the last decade that don’t exactly fit the mold of my typical friends—heavy drinkers, people in flannel shirts, and the slightly unkempt, in case you were wondering—in a push, another circumstance, I wouldn’t have met Ming, found out about her very impressively unplugged adventure or how she went about changing her feelings regarding an ex-boyfriend (a pretty fun story I won’t share so publicly). I wouldn’t have seen how keen she is to actually act on the beliefs she’s cultivating here at the farm and beyond. I would’ve continued growing sour in my opinions of “today’s youth”. That would’ve been a true loss for me.

So, my big lesson this year, or at least the one my remaining brain cells can grab most readily without straining too hard, is this: Give people a chance to surprise you and they often will. Truth be told, I met some great 20-year-olds just before I left Guatemala, but I can be pretty crabby, set in my ways, and settled in many of my beliefs, especially about traveling and age gaps. I’ve lost that thirst for the ideas of the people around me, not when I can read a book by an expert or have researched something to my own—I’d probably feel—better conclusions. At times, with regards to bonding with fellow travelers, particularly young ones, this robs me of one of the great experiences of the vagabonding culture I so dearly love: camaraderie. That’s a tragedy, one I’m hoping my new relationship with Ming will help me avoid in the future.


I never thought I’d be the one corrupting a 21-year-old’s detachment from WiFi and modern comforts, but I’ve downloaded country pop classics from 2012 for my new friend to listen to via my iPod on her birthday and I’m hoping we can watch a movie on my laptop a little later this week and I’ve blogged about her in hopes of getting away with not buying a present so that she can look at that online anytime she likes and share it with her Facebook friends. Seriously though, I hope this gift of camaraderie is a lesson that not only continues to linger with Ming but that sticks with me over the next few months as I make my way down to Patagonia. It’s a simple but important lesson that I seem to always need reminding of. People, by and large, are alright.

So, happy birthday, Ming. I’ll give you this one day to challenge me to a race. After that, I’m sticking to basketball, which I am well aware we do not have access to on this farm.

Posted by jonathonengels 13:30 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged travel farm living backpacking expat Comments (0)

The Change of Experience

New Musings from an Old Backpacker



Travel is a peculiar thing in that it can have such vastly different implications for different people. In some instances, vastly different implications for the same person: I used to dream of road trips, “taking it easy” (like The Eagles but not listening The Eagles), getting away from work…I used to think of traveling as temporary, as a fix of sorts, a time when life stopped and all became fleeting, blissful, and indulgent…a time for spending hard-earned cash for anything my heart desired: vulgar t-shirts, lobster dinners, air-conditioned accommodation.

This November my wife Emma and I set off on our longest sojourn ever, months of salary-free living, on-the-go, moving and shaking. We’ve dedicated ourselves, and much of our savings, to traveling with no known end date on a route from Guatemala to Patagonia, over to French countryside for the summer, and who knows beyond that. We are largely budgeted, to say the least, hoping to stretch a few thousand dollars into about a dozen countries, three continents, two hemispheres, and one grand adventure.

Of course, this denomination of travel requires a different approach than lazing poolside with umbrella drinks, something much more depraved than jet-lag and puddle-hopping. In fact, we’ve vowed to keep our partying in check, to do without when possible (eating cold beans, using chicken buses, foregoing a fifteen year habit of a few beers and cigarettes in the evening), and to make the most of our money in a slow burn as opposed to a big bang. A major component of this financial underachieving is “working” and volunteering our way along.


An island—Ometepe—in the middle of Lake Nicaragua is our first big stop (We did visit Leon and Grenada en route), and we are working at a little eco-lodge, tending to an organic farm so that we can live on four dollars a day. The island is that tropical jungle paradise everyone searches for—two volcanoes, beaches, lush greenery, skin-baking sunshine…There is cheap beer…There are monkeys, exotic birds, and, in the lake, a very unique bull shark thought until recently to only live here…and there are places catering to tourists but not so many that it feels Americanized, inauthentic, or any of those other nasty words used by some to describe great locations other travelers have also discovered.

In a rather Swiss Family Robinson manner, Emma and I are sleeping in a little loft above a dirt-floor kitchen/communal area with wooden tables, hammocks, a suspended bench, an inventive wood-burning stove we double as a smoker, and an oddly thorough collection of reading material left by those before us. For luxuries, we’ve got a couple of lights for the nighttime, an iPod speaker set-up, a gas range, a pizza oven off to the left (just a couple of hours of hard labor to get the fire going), and access to swank facilities—WiFi, an Infinity pool, stunning views—at the hotel, Totoco Ecolodge, attached to the farm.

For the most part, it’s a rustic return (or introduction in many cases) to simplicity, where there is water, coffee, or tea to drink, an ice chest for a refrigerator (a man comes to switch out old Coke bottle filled with frozen water to keep things cool), a garden in which we pick at least a portion of the ingredients to every meal we prepare. Our loft lacks walls, our bed sheets don’t fit, and our clothes are washed by hand and never quite dry in the musty jungle air. Using the toilet, a composting jobbie, involves a funnel and sawdust. In return, we “work” (mill around doing daily chores) from 7:00-12:00. The afternoons are to us.

Here’s the weird thing: There is more inclination is to stay down at the farm. The ecolodge is beautiful, with a crisp view of Volcan Concepcion and panoramas of the lake (the farm is too low on the mountain for this)…the pool is empty of people most of the time…Beer is $1.50…the WiFi sometimes works well enough…the wind blows a more refreshing breeze…the massive restaurant/bar/lounge rarely has more than a few people and always has empty couches with cushions. Still, for us, rising up from the jungle, from those patches of greenery and greens on-the-ready, it’s as if stepping out of Eden and into reality.


The appeal to what we are doing, to this experience, is the sacrifice, that ability to give things up and make life work. We are gaining a wider adventure, a selective taste of the luxury ecolodge life but something much more in the gut, a testing of the self through moments of discovery—what a plot of homegrown pineapples looks like as you clear it of weeds, the way a howler monkey sounds outside your open-air bedroom at 4:30 in the morning, how ginger grows well in the shade and the way it tastes fresh out of the ground into your curried rice, the process of making your own chocolate when you want a bar—moments of discovery that resonate only by being actively involved.

Once, I believed travel was about turning off. Now, it’s become something more engaging and less about disengaging. As I type these final words, I can feel the slight ache in my hands from digging all morning, the scratches on my wrists from an accidental scrape with chicken wire, and the weariness of my shoulders having lifted heavy posts time and again. I’m living here. Living literally but also figuratively, that type of “living” where the world is full of experiences and the opportunities are being taken to get them.

Simply said, this particular traveler doesn’t want to relax, doesn’t want to shake off a hangover for the first half of the day, but rather wants know what it’s like to carve out a life in the Nicaraguan rain forest on an island formed by two volcanoes. I can do that other shit anywhere.

(I apologize for the dated photos, but we are dealing with limited uploading abilities here. Think of the odd selection of accompanying visuals as a game: Can you figure out why I chose these photos to go with this particular entry? Leave a comment if you think you know.)

Posted by jonathonengels 07:17 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged travel farm living backpacking expat Comments (1)

The Adventure Begins, Again

New Musings from an Old Backpacker



On our last night in Antigua, Emma and I ate dinner at Cactus Grill , one of our regular haunts—wicked good burritos. We were chatting with a dear friend, whose name shall be changed for incriminating purposes: Let’s call him…Bryan Foot. Anyway, we got onto the subject of my writing, or what my blog would be about post-Guatemala, and of what Bryan thought would be interesting.

Mr. Foot is a couple of years older than me, owns his own business, and is an all-around good guy—kind, funny, reasonably clever, an innovator of sorts. He’s also the guy who’d stood with me on Earth Lodge’s pavilion sharing one of far too may beers at three a.m. that morning, both of us now hurting from waning hangovers and downing a margarita between beers. Ironically, he wanted me to write about what it’s like to backpack in my mid-thirties, how my views of hostels and partying and roughing it have changed.

I liked the idea. The next morning, exactly 24 hours after that beer on the pavilion, I set off for Leon, Nicaragua. The bus trip would take roughly 16 hours, cross four borders (i.e. four countries in one day), and give me plenty of time to consider what I’d write. Unlike Emma, who is sleeping within five minutes of boarding any type of transportation, I get uncomfortable. Hot. My knees hurt. I struggle to entertain myself and typically saw through the better part of a book.


This trip was no different, except that at about six o’clock that evening, crossing over into Nicaragua…it was weird scene: thousand of birds were cackling from and swarm back forth between treetops, everyone was having there 10th or 15th round of procrastination cigarettes of the day, and Emma and I, despite having been traveling for 13 hours or more, just stayed put…crossing over into Nicaragua, the sun went down and made it too dark to read anymore. As the bus started moving again, Emma drifting back into la-la land, I was left with my thoughts.

Miraculously, I fell asleep.

When we arrived in Leon, I was deep into a sleeping cycle such that Emma had to shake me awake. We’d not made reservations, but there was a special at nearby hostel (Bigfoot), which specialized in “hip” signage and surfing down the side of volcanoes. There was a discount for people using Gekko Explorers (best shuttle we’ve used by the way). Basically, if you arrive on Gekko, you got a dorm bed for free. Emma usually handles these sorts of things for us, so she left me with our bags (I usually handle those sorts of things) and took off to see if anything was available.

One of the reasons Emma and I work so well as travel companions is that she, like me, would much rather pay two dollars more to share a private room, so she’d worked out that we could get the same discount from Bigfoot hostel and put it towards a private room. This, however, seems a bit antithesis of the backpacker code, i.e. that all things—including but not forfeiting drinking, drugs, and life-threatening activities—should be done as cheaply as possible.

Here’s the thing, and Mr. Foot knows this, I’ve never been much of “partier” but do pretty well holding my liquor. I met Emma on my first full-time gig overseas, have been with her since, and consequently have never traveled as a single-and-ready-to-mingle type. Lastly, I’ve always hated noisy stuff, live happily as dirty guy in a tent, like porch sessions with guitars, am not as much for talking as I am writing, enjoy smoking but have too healthy of a demeanor for such a thing, love LSU football and will got to extremes to make sure I catch a game—I don’t have a clean slot in which to reside.

What’s more is that I’ve set out on this trip seeking a genuine change in myself, believing wholeheartedly—as if I’d not been jumping countries for the last 8 years—that it can happen, that the old me won’t be trailing close behind the traveler. I’m trying to be more responsible: consciously drink less, give up smoking, move more extremely into my already ridiculous eating restrictions (“selective veganism”, it’s called), and exercise more regularly. In short, I’m starting to sound somewhat—minus the job-be-damned, everything-I-own-in-a-backpack, volunteering-to-heal-the-world shtick—like an adult. A real one. Or, half of one. What I label as one.

After Emma and I settle into our room, wiping a little of the grime off ourselves, we go in search of food. The bar/restaurant at Bigfoot is loud, full of baby-faced surfers come to ride the volcano, and pizza. Selective vegans can’t have factory-farmed cheese, so pizza is unfortunately—in so many ways—off my daily menu but looks really good. After studying the menu, we have two options: a roasted vegetable Panini or a veggie burger (sin queso ni mayonesa). Unsure if the pesto is vegan and not wanting to get into it with the bartender, we opt for the burger…and we split it*.


  • The splitting of the burger, I believe, is a curious move. It could be argued an adult-like soirée in into practicality, not wanting to overstuff ourselves before bedtime so that we could sleep soundly. Or, it is an supremely backpacker-ish move: We’d ask where the supermarket was, and only after being told it was close did we settle ourselves to spending the four-plus dollars on a restaurant meal. Unable to stomach the cost of two four-plus dollar meals, we thriftily went to bed hungry, regardless of whether it meant we slept soundly or not. I’m not sure which of these happened here.

We sat wide-eyed as we ate. The non-natives were getting restless, shooting cheap booze and growing louder in the communicative needs. Uninspired, we retired to our room for an early evening, cursing the thought of a late night party outside our door. We watched the first fifteen or so minutes of a downloaded episode of Breaking Bad while remarking about how amazingly quiet our little room was. And, thus, we were back to backpacking.

How might this have been different from 10-years-younger version of myself? To name but a few:

• For one, young people scare the hell out of me now, especially in a traveling capacity. If you are under 25, I only mildly trust you until you’ve proven yourself. I’m just not sure what it is that’s being proven.
• TV outweighed beer? These two great companions have teamed up throughout my life, but downloaded shows over partying at a hostel. The old, ready-to-take-on-the-world me would have been disgusted, but the I’ve-been-around guy knows there always a party when you need one.
• My life-changing decisions now have more to do with being healthy and “settling down” whereas I once got so drunk I sleep-peed off the top bunk of my dorm bed. Dude, that was not cool. I’m pretty sure my bladder has grown weaker since then, so why risk it?
• Confidence: Now, I’m fairly sure I can do what I need to do. Then, I was fairly sure going back to US an international failure was the worst fate possible. In that regard, there’s nothing left to prove, and I’ve outrun that need.

Next time on New Musings from an Old Backpacker: The New Experience for the More Experienced

Posted by jonathonengels 06:14 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged travel backpacking expat Comments (0)

Debating & Creating The NGO List

A Venture for Adventure


Most of you, readers of Jonathon Engels and patrons of Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad, are now very aware of the new project—The NGO List—my wife Emma and I have begun. Even so, I thought instead of writing another NGO profile this week (The NGO List has taken over this duty), I would direct your attention to our new website. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though, what kind of blogger/writer would I be if I didn’t ramble out a few lines first.

This year I wanted to do a little something new with my blogging. Up until January, I’d spent the better part of a year writing a lot about work and life in general as an expat, but I decided to strive for a little more: more variety, more of a challenge, and mostly something more meaningful. So, I came up with four monthly topics: an NGO profile, book reviews, Guatemala (my current expat home), and an expat anecdote. It seemed to go pretty well. This year’s blog has attracted over 20,000 unique visits so far and is gaining more and more readers each month.


In July, I discovered a few interesting articles about making money via blogging. Feeling a little annoyed with my inability to earn a living freelance writing, and armed with a new wealth of info, I decided to give it a go. In the past, Emma and I had tried to find places to volunteer a few times, but unless we opted for “volutourism” companies, it was much more difficult than expected. After some consideration, soul searching, noticing that my NGO write-ups did pretty well (my number one blog post is about Las Manos de Christine, an NGO I worked for a couple of years ago), I settled on making a website about NGOs.

In the next couple of weeks, I followed the instructions of a website about making moneymaking websites: Smart Passive Income. I researched good SEO names, purchased a domain, and promptly failed to understand Word Press, which apparently is the simplest blog creator ever. So, now a couple hundred dollars into the project (about 25% of what I’d made writing this year), I began to moan, whine, and fuss to my wife and visiting mother-in-law in the evening. Eventually, I had to ditch Word Press, despite Smart Passive’s instructions, and I used the same blog creator my personal website is on, which I highly recommend (Weebly.com).

Then, the List got rolling. Evenings started becoming exciting, with notebooks and ideas spread all over the table. I decided, rather than writing a bunch of articles and copy for friends and family to wade through, I’d compile a massive, OCD-organized list of NGOs for people interested in volunteering when they traveled. I started with Guatemala, and by the time the other Central American countries were getting their rightful pages, Emma had joined the project and took over researching, allowing me to handle design and website building.


By the end of September, with the Central American list complete (over 70 NGOs), we did our first promotion. The response was incredible. The NGO List outdid my personal website that weekend, and by mid-October, had come to draw over 100 visitors a day. In less than a month of being up and about, we were pulling nearly a 1000 people a week to the site, more than Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad has ever enticed. Energized, Emma and I increased our efforts to get the South America list together (over 80 NGOs). Now, we are on to Southeast Asia (over 20 already, in Cambodia alone).

The NGO List has come to occupy the bulk of my freelance work time these days. The site has me so excited, and incredibly, Emma and I have found ourselves referencing our own site to plan our upcoming trip to South America. That more or less did for me: The NGO List, I know, has amazing potential to help people, grow into something bigger, do some good in the world, and possibly yield a more promising income than freelancing online.

To date, the site has earned us exactly nada. I’ve monetized it using affiliate links—Better World Books, Lonely Planet, HostelWorld, and Vayama International Airfares if anyone's interested—that pay us a commission when visitors use the links on our site to access their services and buy something. It doesn’t seem to be working, but I have hope (and plans to explore other income avenues). Regardless, we’ve gotten so into the project that the money side of things would be gravy. This NGO List has me jumping around the world, daydreaming about trips to come, new projects to discover. It’s just exciting.

So, without further gushing, you are all officially invited to explore The NGO List. Join us on Twitter, on Facebook, on Pinterest (the albums for this site are awesome), and on Google+. Don’t be shy. We’d love the support. We’d love to know what you—friend, family, or stranger—think of it. We’d love to hear about your favorite NGOs. We’d love to know what else you might want on the site. We’d love to see our project continue to grow and branch out and morph. Ladies and gentleman, gnomes of all sizes…


Posted by jonathonengels 05:39 Archived in Guatemala Tagged travel profile ngo Comments (1)

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