A Travellerspoint blog


Talking Trash in the New Year

New Musings from an Old Backpacker


In many ways, I can see conscientiousness about trash has grown in the last three decades: Recycling is rampant, biodegradable is a byword, and most of us wouldn’t dream of littering. I think there is even a consensus state of shame over the garbage mass floating the Pacific, the waning ozone layer, and the many varied forms of pollution seeping into everything. We are working to lessen our negative impact, right some of the wrongs of our forefathers, and keep our surroundings generally tidy.

That said, my latest travel ventures have opened my eyes to new thoughts, namely the amount of waste we create: Individually wrapped everything, somehow still prevalent plastic shopping bags, and even travel-sized throwaways. I grew up learning not to litter, believing in the power of recycling, but never thinking about how to reduce the actual amount of garbage I produced—period. I rarely thought about where it all goes and what happens there.

Then, I met Martijn at Totoco Farm, and his theory made me feel really aware, respectful (of him and the earth), and inspired. Though inconvenient, Martijn works to keep Totoco (the farm and eco-lodge) a 100% waste-free environment. Organic stuff is composted, and recyclables recycled or reused. Electricity is from solar panels and the excess is stored in batteries, of course. The gray water from showers and kitchens goes through bio-filters and is used to water the garden, while toilets are all of the composting variety and go to feeding the plants. The other stuff—amazingly—is hoarded away until he can figure out what to do with it.

Herb Garden Made of Rum and Wine Bottles (as designed by Emma and Ming)

Herb Garden Made of Rum and Wine Bottles (as designed by Emma and Ming)

It is within this other stuff, that which is otherwise destined for the landfill, where much packaging resides. All those wrappers around candy, pasta, rice, cereal, beans, legumes, potato chips, corn chips, microwaveable meals, store-bought bread, snack cakes, 12-packs of soda pop, and just about any purchase-able item that might benefit from see-through packaging: sports equipment, toys, toiletries, cigarettes, drinking straws, magazines, newspapers…Usually, all of this is shoved into plastic bags—often one or two items at a time, taken home, taken out of the plastic bags, and unwrapped. All but the item we wanted is then deposited in another plastic bag (the garbage bag), which eventually goes to live eternally in some other place.

It builds up quickly, even at Totoco (though much less than a normal house), because it’s damn near impossible to avoid in the modern world. Incredibly, Martijn keeps it. He keeps it in a large enclosure made out of old plastic bottles and chicken wire, and he waits for a solution. He waits in hopes that these items can one day be recycled. Occasionally, he comes up with some other temporary fix, like throwing it all in a building’s foundation, in place of some of the concrete that might be used. It’s inorganic, so it’s not going anywhere. But, basically, his idea is that his business has created the mess, so he has to live with it.

It makes no littering seem juvenile. Martijn does more at Totoco—to the extent of storing his own inorganic, unrecyclable waste—than any place I’ve experienced. Again, there is no human waste (composting toilets), no organic waste (animal and plant food) and though it continues to pile up in his massive reused-plastic bottle storage bin, no inorganic waste. And, when you have to live with it all—possibly forever—you don’t think twice about turning down those meaningless shopping bags, take-out utensils, and snack foods in shiny, ever-lasting wrappers. You do think about how what you’re buying is packaged.

Piles of Garbage, Right Where It Should Be But No Less Disturbing

Piles of Garbage, Right Where It Should Be But No Less Disturbing

By now, we’ve all read lists on reducing our waste: composting organic material, reusable shopping bags, refillable bottles, and simply being mindful about buying unnecessarily pre-packaged items (especially things like carrots, lettuce, etc.) and overly packaged items (like snack packs or portioned cookies). By now, we should all be recycling when possible (or feeling shameful if we don’t). But, for me, it’s time to start anew. The list of things we can do—I’ve been learning to do—grows and grows, and my many years of inactive apathy cause me true sorrow.

This year, I pledge to create less waste. I would love to measure the reduction, but being on the road makes that difficult. So, I was hoping some friends and family with firm addresses and their own trash woes might join me. The goal would be to last longer and longer before filling and emptying the landfill-bound items in your garbage can. I’d love to get a few volunteers and regularly feature your progress on a new blog (or forum, in which we could all participate, adding helpful tips and other stuff we learn, even of only be providing links to useful articles, etc.). Please contact me at jonathonengels@gmail.com if you’re interested. And, don’t hesitate because the more who join me, the better for the world.

Posted by jonathonengels 13:53 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged travel farm living backpacking environment expat Comments (0)

Why Howler Monkeys Howl & Other Animal Tales from Totoco

New Musings from an Old Backpacker


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It was our first night in Totoco. We’d climbed onto a little platform, enough for a double bed and a bag, above the farm’s open-air communal dining room. There was a dirty, old mattress with ill-fitting sheets, thatched A-frame walls of palm leaves to the left and right, and our headboard was the night sky. Emma had lit a mosquito coil on a shelf that dangled on chains fixed to the ceiling beams. At about four am, the growling began.

Why Howler Monkeys Howl


Life on Ometepe Island was a first regular exposure to monkeys. I’ve seen several species from a fair distance, usually tree-bound and far from anywhere I’d be sleeping. So, when the howlers began that morning—it starts with a throaty rev and builds into an all-out croaking roar—I was sure they were within striking distance. This was not pointing to a couple of dangling primates spotted by a guide on a jungle hike. These creatures were near, and they sound pissed.

Once it woke me up, I was really awake, my fingers clutching to the mattress, eyes flung ajar. My whole body had tensed into a ready position. Ready for what, I do not know, but soon enough something was rooting around in the kitchen below us and growls turned into terse snorts, sure signs of seething aggression. The morning had created a luminous glow, and after some discussion—“I’m not going down there. Have you seen a howler monkey’s teeth?”—Emma and I decided to peek over the edge of our loft.

There, in the middle of the dining room floor, the Totoco organic pig was snout-ing out a massive hole. To be honest, at the point, I wasn’t super excited about going down to meet the pig.


A couple of days later, I found out why howler monkeys howl: It’s a territorial thing, the equivalent to shouting again and again, “I’m here!” This apparently keeps other monkeys at a distance. Why it has to be done at four am, I still don’t know, and the irony of the Totoco troop is that our section of the forest was too removed from other trees for neighboring monkeys to invade. In the weeks to come, we had several up-close encounters (as little as a few yards/meters) with our guys, who loved to nibble on the leaves of the papaya tree outside the kitchen.

Two Toads Diverged in a Wood

I’m not sure exactly what animals I expected to see in abundance there—monkeys were on the list—but toads had not really occurred to me. However, come nightfall, you’d think a plague of Revelations had kicked off: Walking required watched were you stepped, not just for balance but for animal preservation. Giant cane toads were everywhere.

By day, they’d disappear, and that’s where I’d begin to jump. I’m a pretty squeamish guy for sporting such a manly beard, so when digging through a pile of rocks or rotten sticks, a common occurrence at Totoco Farm, I’d always be prepared to drop my shovel and run for dear life at the sight of a coral snake. I never saw one. But, I nearly wet myself a dozen times or more when I unearthed sleeping cane toads. Holy jumping Jesus!

Never did learn if it caused warts if a toad made you pee yourself.


Averagely Exotic Bird Mixes

What’s that in the sky? Is it a magpie? Is it a jay? No, it’s a magpie jay! The white-throated magpie-jay to be more persnickety.

I’m no ornithological expert. In fact, my version of bird-watching consists of pointing at birds and whispering—God forbid I scared it off with me vocal volume—“That blue one’s purty.” And, the white-throated magpie-jay certainly qualifies for a whisper. It’s bright blue with a slender tail feathering down about a foot below it’s body, and atop its head is a little Mohawk of black squibbly things.

The problem with the magpie-jay is that, despite its wildly exotic outfit, they are freaking everywhere on Ometepe. They fill the morning air with cackles (to go with the howls). They fill the roadside trees with flashes of blue and white. For about the first hour on the island, they completely mystify. After that, they’re reduced to being “another one”.

It’s amazing how quickly the exotic becomes commonplace.

Honorable Animal Mentions

  • Despite my certainty of snakes in the area, I never stumbled upon one in any rock pile. They were few and far between, but we did spot a couple of tiny black snakes, one lethargic but adequately large boa constrictor, and a dead green vine snake turned into children’s toy.


  • Most folks who know me have heard the infamous scorpion story. While living in Guatemala, I was awoken by an angry scorpion laying into my chest. I was never stung in Nicaragua, but I did put my hands right next to a couple considerable larger (apparently less dangerous) ones. Our last week there, scorpions literally started coming out of the woodwork: We saw at least half a dozen—under a seat cushion, running around the pizza oven, the garden—all the size of a meaty middle finger.
  • The bigass flying beetle (not the scientific name) came from nowhere. One minute we were sitting there in after-dinner glow, the next we are all diving for cover. I’ve heard helicopters quieter than that thing. It crashed into the table and began walking around, circling nothing and moving with the stunning ineptness associated with beetles. According to Internet sources, we’d officially encountered the Hercules beetle.
  • Exhibitionist geckos that, more than once, were caught in the throes of passion on the rafter above our dining room table. Otherwise, the lizards were heard: There call sounds like a person giggling, mocking almost, perhaps because of the plethora of mosquitos and bullet ants (the most painful insect bites known to Totoco) attacking us down below. Every once and a while, though, a gecko would lose grip and drop--Splat!--on the table or floor below. It was always a gloriously funny moment.


  • And, to round out the experience of creepy crawlers, tarantulas were a dozen a cordoba (1 cordoba=roughly 4 cents USD) around Ometepe. As they are ground dwellers, I came across them daily in the gardens. Big, fuzzy, eight legs—you know the drill. They are not likely to fly onto the kitchen table, but they warrant stopping for a second to admire. For some of us, with big beards and gentle dispositions, we do so from a distance.

Posted by jonathonengels 07:41 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged animals travel farm backpacking humor expat Comments (0)

Composting Complexities

New Musings from an Old Backpacker


Imagine, if you will, a world in which shit is a hot commodity, both literally and figuratively. Over there, under the jackfruit tree, there’s a big pile of imported horse turds. A few yards away, in an upturned truck-bed camper, a whole mess of pig crap—still moist—is just stewing in itself. And, what’s that behind the outhouse, just soaking up the breeze? Could it be? A massive mound of decomposed human feces, completely fling-able but not recommended.

Let’s up the ante a bit. Let’s talk garbage. If poop is profitable, why not garbage? (Incidentally, check out this article on how profitable garbage can actually be. But, first…) Let’s pile it up into heaps. Spotted melon rinds, onion skin, moldy bread, egg shells, crusty leftover—Sounds like a dandy combination, the Grinch's fantasy com true. Hell, sprinkle that with a little grass clippings, some tree trimmings, and let it rot for a year or so. Rich doesn’t even begin to describe the results.

Until about a month ago, composting was still a pretty big mystery to me. It had always seemed a never-ending pile of organic junk. I would donate my vegetable scraps to one. I would responsibly separate my garbage into neat little categories of waste, but I only half-heartedly believed my old banana peels would ever get anyone anywhere. Composting just seemed like one of those good ideas no one ever saw to the end. And, as for manure, I’d sunk my hands (and shoes) into the animal variety a time or two, but my own…that seemed a bit over the top.

But, as has been the status quo for the end of this year, the times and my opinions are a-changing. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve devoted some serious time and labor to the aid of harnessing the value of both shit and garbage. I’ve learned quite a lot about them, and I’ll be damned if these infamously smelly things don’t have me seeing roses.

Your Are Entering the Thunderbox!

Your Are Entering the Thunderbox!

Composting Toilets: Saving My Doo-Doo & My Friends Doo-Doo, Too

I know, I know. This is beyond strange. We spend a lifetime sanitizing ourselves, and now, in some circles in the weedy parts of town, it’s become fashionable to collect our own excrement. Even the excrement of others. But, there are reasons why, methods for doing so somewhat sanely, and benefits to be had from it.

Why? Flush toilets, the modern norm, are a bit a wasteful and pollutant, also the modern norm. When the contents get whisked away by—let’s be generous—your econo/enviro-tank, it often ends up really fouling up a pool of water somewhere, possibly on an eventual trip back into your water glass. In the same flush, a whole buttload (keeping the puns coming!) of nutrient rich soil steroids gets washed away. Simply put, however you feel about this shit, a dry toilet is better for the environment, as good as any energy efficient light bulb on the market.

How exactly does one save it? Several methods exist, including fairly normal-looking composting toilets for fairly normal houses. The classic poop catcher, as found on Totoco Farm and many farms like it, is called—awesomely—the Thunderbox. It’s an elevated room with two chambers below it and two matching holes in the floor. One is sealed with something similar to a manhole cover, and the other has a drop-toilet over it.

A Old Pile of Poop from Our Totocoan Predecessors

A Old Pile of Poop from Our Totocoan Predecessors

In the Thunderbox, your morning confessionals should be covered with sawdust or hay and intermingled with unprocessed kitchen and garden waste. When the hole fills, switch sides, and when it’s time to switch again, shovel the rich compost out of the first one*. Any likeness to the initial dump is long since decomposed and unrecognizable. It doesn’t even stink. What’s more, you can spread it around at the base of trees to give them a little growth spurt.

  • I love to picture Emma doing this. One morning when I was working at Totoco Ecolodge, she and another volunteer, Ming, pulled the short straw and had to empty the resting chamber for new use. However funny the activity was—it involved one of them actually tunneling around under the toilet while the other jammed a shovel in from the top—she says it wasn’t smelly and only gross from a psychological angle. Whatever the case, there is now a fertile pile of compost behind the old Thunderbox. I’m still working up the courage to dive in and use it.

Other Human Waste to Celebrate:

Hunks of Hot Organic Matter

Amongst our other duties here at Totoco, we took on refurbishing the composting system, which resembled the pile of ever-expanding organic junk I’d grown accustomed to. The concept was right, with a set up like a Thunderbox, one chamber in action while the other “rests”. I know this because I’ve been reading gardening and sustainability manuals, especially John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency: The Classic Guide for Realists and Dreamers, which tell me so.

The problem was that the compost bins here were too big to allow the compost to rest. We were years away from filling one up. The ideal compost bin is a square yard (or meter), so we decided to divide the two existing bins into four, which worked out just about right. The next problem we ran into is that, when divided into four, we only had enough existing compost to fill one. The solution: Hot compost. Hot compost is not just a willy-nilly pile of organic mishmash slowly decomposing matter. No sir, the heaps are furnaces of fury.

Layers of Sweet, Hot Garbage

Layers of Sweet, Hot Garbage

Carefully stacked so that the contents get plenty of oxygen exposure and exponentially speed up the process, hot heap decomposition actually gets so active that one cabin—the one with the most consistent hot water—at the ecolodge gets hot water from coils of hose buried in a hot heap. Every two or three months, the heap is turned, and every five or six, it’s cleared and made again. Two of our four bins we made became hot heaps: sticks (2”), green matter like weeds and fresh leaves (4” to 6”), an inch of manure, an inch of top soil, and brown matter like dried leaves or straw (4” to 6”). Just repeat the layering until it’s full. To make a water heater, you need only coil a ½” or ¾” hose between the stacks.

And a Pile of Cold Kitchen Scraps

So, we were left with two cold bins. Cold heaps are any assemblence of organic matter: kitchen scraps, weeds, sticks, and so on (no meat or dairy). One of them, I was able to fill from what had been collected already, and the other sat empty and inviting for the new pile to begin, just like Emma’s empty Thunderbox chamber. A cold heap takes twice the time to decompose, roughly one year of resting to be ready, but can be thrown together any old way. The idea again is to rotate the bins in such a way that one’s used for fertile soil while the other is used for waste.

I found this all fascinating and exceedingly applicable for anyone with a little space, a garden, and an interest in doing good things for the earth. Composting food scraps—vegetable ends, fruit rinds, peels, and so on—cut our weekly trash more than in half (we are vegetarians) when we lived in Antigua, not to mention more than halved our use of plastic trash bags. Now, we produce even less waste, and that is a tremendous feeling, one made possible by composting both before and after digestion.

A Manageable Cube of Compost

A Manageable Cube of Compost

Sure, we traveled to Nicaragua to have this be part of our life, but it could be, in some capacity, anywhere we are. Urban composting is in no way out of the question (there are special bins available and rooftop gardening is a thing now), or in the suburbs with a quarter-acre yard—come on! Or in a fishing camp, dacha, or country hideaway. After setting it up, it’s no more work than emptying a garbage can, which we have to do anyway. Hell, even if we don’t have a garden, I’m sure someone will gladly use it in theirs.

So, actually, maybe it’s not all that complex, is it? Hell, maybe even friends, family, and other readers who made it this far could do it, too—ha! Got you. Seriously though, not a bad New Year’s resolution project.

Posted by jonathonengels 06:43 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged food travel farm living backpacking expat Comments (1)

Chaya & The Super Food Conundrums

New Musings from an Old Backpacker


It wasn’t until returning to Earth Lodge in 2012 that the term super food meant more to me than a larger portion of something, such as “I’d like a #2 meal deal” to which the response is often “Would you like to super size that?” In this way, super foods had garnered a bit of reputation as something over-indulgent and worthy of scathing documentaries, so I steered clear. But, the Lodge had found a powder, a super powder of sorts, made from a plant called moringa, and it was moringa that changed my perception of super foods.

It—the powder, I’d still not seen the plant—was green, gave off a mild spinach-like flavor, and went into smoothies and soups to give them some added nutritional super power. Why, as it was told to me, a little teaspoon of moringa packed more iron than the Golden Gate Bridge, more vitamin C than a Flintstone daily, and…could it be?...is it even possible?...provided a healthy dose of muscle-building protein. From a plant! Hell, they—those mysterious powers of persuasion out there—were promoting this stuff as a possible fix to malnutrition. Not super-sizing.

Anyway, I was skeptical to say the least. In general, I’m not a fan of food that comes in powdered form. This mild hatred might be rooted in the days of old when, as a competitive weightlifter and football player, I would choke down awful “chocolate” flavored shakes with visions of Popeye-esque forearms. You see, after all those drinks, my forearms remained pretty average, so these days I simply don’t trust powders. Also, and this is more the person I am now, but if something is so awesome, why can’t I just eat it like normal food?

Eventually, though, with the bottle, hang around in the kitchen winking at me every time I was doing a little strawberry-banana combo licuado or heating up a bowl of soup, I started adding it to stuff. You know what, my forearms stayed exactly the same.

Note: The Signature Forearms

Note: The Signature Forearms

Flash forward a year or more and I’m sitting in a hotel-restaurant in Monterrico, Guatemala, reading a book I’ve just found on the book exchange: Eating Animals. About 20 pages in, I realize some pretty major changes are about to happen to my daily intake. I’m waving a big bye-bye to my fruit, yogurt, and granola breakfasts, and there will be no more egg sandwiches or grilled cheeses, no more café au laits or anything resembling ice cream (my favorite food). Factory farming, including dairy cows and hen houses, is destroying the environment far more than the oil industry, transportation, or light bulbs that aren't energy efficient, and I just can’t conscientiously be part of that.

The sacrificing of regular dairy and egg consumption, I know, will cause a stir amongst those loosely concerned with what I eat. After nearly a decade of being a vegetarian, I’ve addressed confounded family members and complete strangers time and again about where I get my protein. I mean, God knows, at 5’9” and teetering between 180 and 200 pounds (depending more on beer intake than diet), I’m suffering. Nonetheless, by going somewhat vegan (I’ll eat dairy or eggs not from factory farms, something normally not at all available to me), I’ve just thrown away the one bit of protein I had that modern first-world eaters understand.

Truth be confessed, it’s gotten to me, too. Every day, I’m studying my meals, planning where the protein is coming from, worrying about vitamin B12, which I’ve never worried about before and am largely uncertain as to what it does. I’m reading articles by vegan athletes to reassure myself that I will lose none of the muscular chisel I've grown accustomed to (especially throughout the forearm area), that I can indeed continue along with my well-developed physical prowess. All of this is to say, I’ve ended up right back where this article started: super foods.


When we arrived at Totoco Organic Farm a few weeks back, I was excited to find out one of the major crops here was chaya. Yes, chaya. What? You’ve not heard of chaya! Oh, well, chaya has super powers, nutrient boosters, that easily rival that of moringa, that other household byword. Chaya, aka “the spinach tree”, is yet another super food. I first learned about it from a guy I was talking to about his moringa farm, and this guy told me chaya and another vitamin hero, chia, were going to end up blowing the freaking dust off moringa.

Beans, nuts, the occasional soy something or other...I know soy is evil, but give me a break, you corn-eaters. I’m scratching out my servings of protein here...beans, nuts, SOY—they’ve been getting it done for me, keeping the protein police at bay, but no one is going to argue with a super food. Super foods are known to simple laugh in face of doubters, to demean pound-for-pound servings of fish, steak, and even mussels. My friend, you do not want to forget your culinary manners when you are in the kitchen with some chaya.

Which brings me to my next point: There is one little problem. In addition to high levels of good stuff, chaya does contain a smidgen of cyanide. Yes, that’s just outright poison, not even the figurative cholesterol-type “poison” of shellfish or egg yolks. I looked up how to cook chaya (this website is awesome), and I won’t lie, it wasn’t the most comforting info. Edible, yes. Crazy nutritious, yes. Slightly lethal, oops. In order to eat chaya safely, it must boiled for twenty minutes or fried (Note: stir-frying is not sufficient). And, never ever—treat this like feeding a mogwai (the cute little pre-gremlin) after midnight—cook chaya in an aluminum container. I’m not sure what happens, but it’s bad.

Follow those rules and you’re fine. The cyanide becomes something all together different and 100% safe. Still, how in the hell am I supposed to explain that to my chicken-fried pork chop-eating friends? If they didn’t get the vegetarian/factory farming boycott thing, I doubt chaya will soon feature on their dinner tables.

Chaya! In the Flesh. (Warning: Mild Poisoning May Occur)

Chaya! In the Flesh. (Warning: Mild Poisoning May Occur)

But, it did on mine. It took me a couple of weeks of staring the plant down before I gave it a go. Hmm…tastes like spinach (that’s the vegan version of “tastes like chicken”). I’ve eaten it a few times now, and I’m still kicking, though there have been some close calls, getting halfway through preparing a meal before realizing I don’t know what the pot is made of. Dodging flying oil when the succulent leaves are lowered into my little cast iron fryer.

Fried Chaya. It Did Not Taste Healthy.

Fried Chaya. It Did Not Taste Healthy.

Hey, we all choose our poisons. Some more literally than others. I used to super-size stuff to go along with my double-stacked burgers, extra pickles for some veggies. I once was known to play a little red meat roulette and tempt cardiovascular collapse, my swollen body throwing me to the floor and reaching for my heart. It never happened despite being some 50-60 pounds heavier than I am now. So, I’ve gone vegan-like in my existence, and now I scraped the plate with a little cyanide kicker. Life is better lived on the edge, my amigos, and hey, vegans can be badass, too.

Just as a little aside, a last thought for those less risky than I. On our orientation tour of Totoco, Emma and I were shown katuk, a local plant with leaves that work well in salads. Katuk has a rich nutty taste that is charming right off the branch. A couple of days after we began risking our lives with chaya (Note: the others completely followed me into chaya-eating. That’s it, my pretties, drink the Kool Aid)…after we tried chaya, Emma looked up katuk online. You’d never have guessed it: super food.

Katuk, not uncommon in the USA, is like 50% protein, brings a katuk-load of vitamin K (whatever the hell that is), and is renowned amongst the super foods (and Asian people) for just being simple and delicious to eat. Having survived this long, I’ve grown a need for a little more excitement in my life, so between katuk and my continued ingestion of chaya, I’m getting a double dose of protein-packed greenery now. Admittedly, the forearms have done little in the way of bulging.

Katuk, aka (and equally exotic) The Star Gooseberry

Katuk, aka (and equally exotic) The Star Gooseberry

Posted by jonathonengels 13:50 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged food travel farm backpacking humor expat Comments (0)

The Secret of My Success

New Musings from an Old Backpacker


First, as is the protocol with my new blog theme, let me establish my age, hence inherent wisdom, by making note that I remember when the Michael J. Fox film, The Secret of My Success, was in theaters, after which it was released on both BETA and VHS video systems, after which it was a regular feature on USA cable network as a Saturday afternoon cinema feature. To have survived this long, to have survived what would seem to be several viewings of The Secret of My Success, I must have some insight into this world, into the very fabric of life, and, indeed, into success itself.

Of late, there has been a lot of talk around our dinner table about Ming’s next step in life. Ming is the 21 year-old volunteer with whom we’ve spent the last few weeks. She is set to graduate in the coming year, possibly with a minor in communications if her scheduling qualms can be smoothed out. Either way, she is caught in a huge internal (and, it would seem, external) debate as to whether she should take a job at a company she really likes in her hometown or pack off to live in Nashville for a while (she has a friend there and is an immense country pop fan).

I have weighed in heavily on the side of Nashville, encouraging her to spread her wings before nestling into a career type position somewhere, the idea being that once you start a career in California it’s difficult to take off for Nashville for a few months to a year and a half. I’m in a privileged enough position that Ming actually respects my thoughts on her future, though I’ve known her for only a few weeks and, until I began housesitting a couple weeks ago, I was living in a pretty filthy open-air loft above a communal kitchen, where she stays now.

We All Have Our Burdens to Carry. Sometimes It's Just a Bigass Jackfruit.

We All Have Our Burdens to Carry. Sometimes It's Just a Bigass Jackfruit.

So, that got me to thinking about success, as I would assume that’s what Ming is chasing and what I meant to be steering her towards. Just what is it…success? It’s a question most of us have been pondering since we were first accosted by guidance counselors in high school. It’s a question that eludes crisp answers, an answer that defies uniformity, and a ponderance that only reinvents itself throughout a lifetime. Still, it’s something we all must consider because...well, why else would those guidance counselors have jobs?

Oddly enough, I consider myself successful, and somehow Ming must, too. I say odd because I’ve currently got no income, no job, and no prospects of acquiring either any time soon. I’m wearing a pair of shorts so old I’ve had to give up sewing them back together, yet I’m still wearing them and in public at that. I’ve never made more money than the year I spent serving tables full-time in Memphis when I was 22. I’m typing on computer that was hand-me-down from my mom, which she paid to ship to me. I have a beard that hasn’t been trimmed in months. Yesterday, one of my household duties was emptying a bucket full of my own (and Emma’s) feces. I have about 10 tattoos of lizards because, at 16, I wanted to be Jim Morison (“The Lizard King”) and, at some point when I was over that, I couldn’t decide on a different tattoo theme. Point being, on paper (or via blog), I can come off looking pretty low on the totem pole of success.

So, then, what’s with all the cockiness? Here’s my secret: My one great success is that I’ve avoided all the trappings of “success”. I’ve managed to live out the idealistic fantasies of college sophomores in which life is never reduced to a cubicle, choices are not based on money or mortgages, and I don’t have to wear a “monkey suit” (Just ask Bryant, my last boss, who has hired me multiple times despite my belief that new Crocs classify as dress shoes.) Most of my possessions are in a couple of backpacks that can be flung anywhere to set up home, and they can be repacked just as quickly. I have a wife who, not only tolerates such an existence, but also she actually encourages it and wears clothes in much worse condition than mine (and in horrendous combinations). In effect, we never grew up, not in the traditional sense of successful adults.

Despite a lifetime of adolescent hijinks, and even though I do on occasion stop to work so that I can afford not to work for a while longer, and although I haven’t had an air conditioner or reliable hot shower or my own mode of transportation for years (I did have a bike back in 2008), and in spite of a fashion sense on par with a bum with a bag full of used clothes or the fact that maintaining a blog is one of my most serious undertakings, and though I’ve given up meat and factory-farmed dairy products (basically all of it!) because I still maintain the political scrappiness of a university student, I thoroughly enjoy my life, feel intensely fulfilled and when it bottoms out, don’t even have to stretch the truth to mean it when I say that, for me, it’s better than any alternative I’ve ever seen. And, believe me, I’ve seen a lot.

21st Birthday Dinner in the Nicaraguan Jungle--Not Bad.

21st Birthday Dinner in the Nicaraguan Jungle--Not Bad.

Unfortunately, at times, I’ve caught myself being too heavy-handed in our lunch and dinner discussions of Ming’s next step, and no doubt, it is deeply rooted in my sense of success. Hell, at different points in my life, I was a couple of years away from being an engineer at Exxon in Baton Rouge, a freshman comp teacher at a junior college in Mississippi, and even—impressed with prolific income back in 2002—a professional server in Memphis. I suppose when I look at her considering a job based in her hometown, I can’t help but imagine myself along one of those other routes in life, routes that aren’t so obliging to strapping on the backpacking and walking into something new.

However, as we say, success is different for everyone. In The Secret of My Success, our hero learns that climbing the corporate ladder, even when skipping a few rungs, isn’t all its cracked up to be, and I suppose, when looking at my current state of affairs, I took that lesson to heart. I guess, with Ming being a little too young for the great life guidance of 80s cinema, I’ve found myself in the precarious place of having to relay those messages, only without funky soundtracks and feathered bangs. This poor generation, where are they going to learn to be homeless, jobless nomadic penny-pinchers with poor grooming habits and the ability to cook from scratch? This world has gone to shit (quite literally here at Totoco Farm), and poor Ming, she’s the one holding the shovel.

On that note, stayed tuned for next week's installment: Composting Complexities.

Posted by jonathonengels 08:33 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged people travel expat Comments (1)

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