A Travellerspoint blog

To Truly Call Myself a Hobo

New Musings from an Old Backpacker



It’s no secret that, as the years I spend abroad increase, so does my capacity to do things I once would not have even entertained. I’ve slowly shed things like air conditioning, TV (though I do have a pretty substantial hard drive of crap to watch), ovens, dryers, and various comforts that were more or less a given in my daily life for the first 27 years.

I’ve learned to live from a backpack, two actually—a computer/important stuff bag I wear on my abdomen and a rucksack on my back. And, beyond the things that fit in these bags, I have little in material possessions: some books in my father’s attic, some stuff—I can’t remember what—in my mother’s closet, and three or so guitars strewn across the world.

Sometimes, admittedly, I can be a bit too prideful about this fact. A bit too “all I need in life is…”, as if such minimal existence should be something for which we all strive. Sometimes, perhaps, I can take the penny-pinching, the lack of luxury, a bit too far:

Cue the dreamy flashback music

Emma and I entered Panama on January 2,, fresh off a few days on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. We’d been living on about $20 a day, a high mark on our budget, so we’d reached the points of both needing to cut cost for a little while and needing to get back to volunteering somewhere. We’d found a work-stay situation in a place called Arenosa, off one of the lakes formed by the Panama Canal.

We’d caught the first bus to Sixaola (in the far southeastern corner of Costa Rica) at 8:30 that morning, and our goal was to get to a town—Coronado—just north of Panama City. It was a journey that probably shouldn’t be attempted as a one-day affair. The borders on both sides had long, slow lines. The transportation we were using was local, a huge cost-cutting strategy that meant each journey would take significantly longer. Even if all things would have gone right, which they didn’t for us*, we would have ended up in Coronado, a town with nary a hostel, well past dark.


(*Some Back Story to Consider: At immigration, we were both pulled into a side office and told we could not enter the country without a plane ticket out. We didn’t have a plane ticket because we are hoping to boat our way out of here. After explaining this to the agent, she presented us with the option of returning to Costa Rica—once, twice…until finally we asked where we might find an Internet source. We bought two refundable tickets from Panama City to Cartagena so that we could pass through immigration then cancel our flights. Does something not seem seriously flawed in this policy? Note: We will have to do the same thing for Colombia.)

We were meeting our work hosts the next morning anyway, but when in budgeting mode, Emma and I both get a little out of sorts. Extreme. Despite our time setback at the Guabito border crossing (we left at about 2:30 as opposed to 11:30), we were still going to try to do it in a straight shot, willing to nap in a bus station somewhere if necessary. We arrived in the city of David, Panama’s second largest at a little more than 100,000 people, at about 7:00 at night, still with six hours to travel.

The math wasn’t working out, and once again, we were facing some rather unfavorable options: Fork over the cash for a hotel for the night (about $30) or arrive in Coronado between midnight and four a.m. We decided to take the last bus out and…I’m not sure what we thought would happen when we got to Coronado.

Fade to black and hear the sound of air brakes squeaking.

The bus had slowed down and turned on the lights long enough for the steward to find us. He examined our seat numbers before asking, “Coronado?” He took our luggage ticket then he disappeared. Moments later, the bus stopped completely, and I looked at Emma, who looked at me.

“I think we get off here.”

Outside, the man had already found our bags and put them on the curb. He climbed back aboard, and the door closed behind him. The bus left us. There. At a small bus stop—one metal bench under a little roof, no lights—somewhere along the Pan-American Highway. 2:00 AM. Nothing was open.

I often joke about being homeless, probably a tad distasteful considering some people’s very real and exceedingly difficult situations, but I rarely have felt that way. While I’ve gone long stretches, months even, with no residence to speak of, I’ve not actually been without a roof or, at the very least, a tent. I may have wondered when the next rest stop would be or if I’d be able to find vegetarian fare besides a bag of peanuts, but I’ve never wanted for food. Still, as any backpacker and/or long-term traveler, I am often hobo-like in my existence, willing to do what others will not in the name of traveling more and longer.


I’ve slept in bus stations, train stations, and airports instead of using a hotel. I’ve traveled thirty-six hours to avoid the cost of a layover. Not a month prior, I’d stretched out on a bench on an overnight ferry across Lake Nicaragua and fell asleep to a Dolph Lundgren movie. Even so, I’ve never actually had no choice but to sleep on the streets. But, when Emma and I had left David a few hours back, the option of a place to stay stayed behind.

The road stretched straight and disappeared into darkness in both directions. Around us were the unplugged ghosts of neon signs and storefronts, long since closed, for there was no traffic or shopping to be done in the 2:00 AM version of Coronado. There was only us and the passing of long-haul trucks and overnight buses. And, there were quite a few hours to go.

After being shooed by a security guard at the only place with any lights (for some reason, it seemed safer there), a hundred or more yards down the road, we settled under the eave of a corner liquor store in a strip mall. We piled all our bags in the corner, in case a very sneaky burglar tried to swipe them, and did our best to get some sleep. On the concrete. Outside. A first for us both.

We spent a night out on the streets, all of our belongings stacked next to us for safe keeping, simultaneously utilized as pillows and props, and we were hoping the security guard didn’t come from around the corner and shoo us off again—vagrants!

Vagrant (noun): homeless wanderer

The fact of the matter is that, at the moment, we actually were without known direction, without access to shelter, and without even a means to call the only people (our work hosts) we sort of knew in the area, and that is where this life of budget adventure has taken me: definitive vagrancy.

End scene

In November, the night before we left our home of Guatemala, a friend asked me to write about what it was like to go backpacking as a person past his backpacking prime. Honestly, I imagined it would continue much as it start: Me, waxing philosophically about the kids in hostels or talking about how much better it is to move slowly and appreciate what I’m doing and seeing.

I hadn’t imagined the older me would actually outdo the younger me in his willingness to be thrifty, to travel hard, and to actually become more the hobo than I was then. That night in Coronado has left me with a strange mix of empowerment, pride, and shame. It has been an odd moment to digest in the weeks following it, but one I definitely wouldn't be opposed to doing again. A new possibility anywhere I go*.


I’m not exactly sure what that says about me.

(*In no way am asserting that one night sleeping in an upscale expat city in Panama is the equivalent to a life of homelessness, something I know to be a serious and complex problem much more dire than bussing myself into oblivion. I’m just surprised by my new capacity to spend a night on the streets when completely unnecessary.)

Posted by jonathonengels 13:21 Archived in Panama Tagged travel backpacking humor expat Comments (0)

Can a Backpacker Keep His Dignity in Costa Rica?

New Musings from an Old Backpacker



From time to time, a country’s success in tourism ruffles the feathers of intrepid backpackers the world over. Nation’s names are spit out with mild detest, and certain locations are deemed unworthy of true travelers, as if stingy budgets and the stench of vaguely hand-washed laundry is a travel necessity. I’m usually somewhere in this crowd of naysayers, to varying degrees of resentment, but I’m apt to change my ways every now and again.

Costa Rica is a destination I’ve often heard slandered. As a long-term, off-again, on-again resident of Central America, I’ve come to know it as the country most despised, the US’s whipping child, and Cancun reincarnate. It’s expensive (or more so than other C.A. spots), eco-trendy, and enveloped in tourists.

As a reader, the place has gotten a mixed rap. It’s been voted the happiest on earth. It’s full of admirable environmental efforts to maintain rainforests, live sustainably, and protect the seas. Doing so has also been largely financed by a bulging tourism industry, which can be slick and easy for those not well versed in the 20-hour bus ride and eating local fare. For some of us, the overly functional tourism is a flaw because it spikes prices upwards and can drive authenticity downward:

1. A huge portion of the population speaks English.
2. No one is carrying a basket on her head.
3. There are no chicken buses but rather actual coaches.
4. Hotels and restaurants cater to wealthy foreign clients.
5. Supermarkets are well stocked and include international choices.
6. Blah blah blah…


Second Impressions

Last month, I returned to Costa Rica for the first time in ten years, for the first time as a seasoned traveler, and for the last time doubting its prowess as place to be.

First of all, I arrived from Nicaragua via a little boat—lancha, for those in the know—at a border town with a convenient store for a bus station. I’d taken an overnight ferry across Lake Nicaragua, watched the sunrise, and hopped the first boat (10 am) down the Rio Frio to Los Chiles, Costa Rica. Entering the country this way could not have felt more “authentic”, as we marched in a weird parade through an outdoor customs check, by a guy at a table collecting seventy-five cents for an as of yet undetermined fee, and heading to the one window office for our entry stamps.

The only noticeable difference was that the policeman manning the line into the passport office was under-armed (with only a normal, holstered handgun) and exceedingly nice: When he noticed we’d run out of water, he took our bottle and filled it for us for free; when a drizzle started, he helped orchestrate the line so that folks waiting outside could find a little sheltered; and while we were waiting, he spoke to us jovially. It didn’t exactly make miss the old Guatemala-Mexico crossing.


A Fortune at La Fortuna

As I mentioned before, Costa Rica no longer deals in chicken buses. Rather, we hopped an air-conditioned public service jobbie with a place for our bags and everything. Sure, the two-hour bus ride cost five dollars as opposed to $1.50 as it might have elsewhere, but it wasn’t without a noticeably different standard of comfort and was still affordable. That day, we traveled a total of three-and-a-half hours on public transportation, which felt completely safe, admittedly unlike the rest of Central America, for less than the shuttle trip from Antigua to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

Before leaving Nicaragua, we memorized the name of a cheap hostel—Gringo Pete’s—where we wanted to stay. Our private, en-suite, fan-cooled room cost us $7.00 each a night (cheaper than anywhere else we’d stayed in C.A.) and had free coffee in the morning and a well equipped shared kitchen. The water from the tap was potable, so that wasn’t a concern. In addition to offering several high-priced tours, the staff also voluntarily provided us with insider info on a free swimming spot and a free hot spring.

The first time I’d visited Costa Rica, I went to La Fortuna, and there was one major activity to do there: Visit Tabacon, a ritzy and unbelievable landscaped “natural” volcanic hot spring hotel. It involved resort-type features like a swim-up bar and bountiful buffet. It cost $40 for a day of just visiting, not staying in the hotel or eating Even though La Fortuna now has a dozen or more similar places, the price had risen to $65 in the last ten years. Backpackers to the core, we said, “Nay!” and went the cheap way all the way.


It turned out to be totally worth it. The free swimming hole was stunning…like, I’d pay a couple bucks to get in here stunning…with rope to swing out on and cool waterfall/diving platform. There were trails to explore the nearby stretch of jungle, and several local boys were performing amazing feats involving somersaults, upside-down rope riding, and precision swan dives. It was obviously there normal swimming hole. How culturally authentic, beautiful, and cheap most a place be.

That evening, we went to a free volcanic hot spring just beside Tabacon. There were no lights, no sculpted gardens, but plenty of warm water rushing through natural pools. Costa Ricans had come with ice chests of beer, and we all sat soaking as the darkness fell over us. Then, we were in a hot spring, in the pitch-black jungle, looking up at the stars. We even managed to get a free ride to and from our hostel.

The Old Port Revisited

Emma and I had set up of work-stay deal just outside of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, on the Caribbean coast. I had been telling her about a hostel there, Rockin’ J’s, since the first month we met. I remembered it as a sort adult paradise, with free-flowing pot, gigantic hammocks for rent (instead of dorm beds), and funky mosaics and art. I didn’t actually stay there on my first trip to Costa Rica but had always regretted that. This time I was meant to right that situation. Unfortunately, we found out that all the local hostels and hotels had jacked up prices for the Christmas/New Year holiday. It was $23 to sleep in a tent.


I was nervous about going back to Puerto Viejo. It had been a lazy beach town with few restaurants, only a handful of places to stay, and lots of tucked away stretches of secluded sand. The guidebooks I’d been reading this time took a more negative spin, citing the onslaught of tourism and resort kitsch that had noodled in over the last decade. I was expecting high-rises, Applebee’s, and a gigantic indoor mall for rainy days. The thought of it had me worried, disappointed even before arriving, ready to scrutinize and scoff and recount the beauty that was.

Truth be told, I think Puerto Viejo is still pretty rockin’. I might have skipped out on those gigantic hammocks yet again, but I thoroughly enjoyed the town, every bit as much if not more than the first time around. It had been built up a little—the business had expanded south, fancy restaurants and boutiques interspersed with more local sling-‘em eateries and reggae-blasting stereo systems. There were three supermarkets as opposed to the half-stocked convenient store I’d known. Lots of local coffee shops, book exchanges, and a little beachside market. All in all, it was still humble enough to not even echo what the Yucatan has become.

Puerto Viejo was just right. I expect my beach towns to have some tat. I like to have some cheap eats around (we went to the bakery every morning for two coffees and giant baguette--$3.00). I like WiFi when I need it. I like coconut trees and Rastafarians milling around my beaches. At Puerto Viejo, I enjoyed having the option of a white sand or black sand beach, having the trees provide a little shade in the sand (or not, if you prefer), and having the ability walk everywhere, including other nearby costal villages with hardly a baking backpacker to behold.


After ten day or so days of sun and surf, we took a morning bus down to the Panamanian border, where we had to stand outside in an impressively long, slow-moving line that was completely free of shade. To leave Costa Rica, we had to walk across a rickety wooden bridge with slightly harrowing views of the river rapids below. It was a far cry from being unworthy of backpacking glory. I’d have to say it was one of the more interesting crossing I’ve done, right up there with the Nicaragua-Costa Rica entrance I’d started with.

Learning from the Road

It occurs to me that at our two stops in Costa Rica—La Fortuna and Puerto Viejo—there were a myriad of travel-friendly choices for people. It was possible to stay in chocolate-on-the-pillow type places with breakfast buffets and cosmetic rather than natural beauty. It was possible to eat sushi, drink single malt, and buy forty-dollar souvenirs pants (found for $5 elsewhere). It was possible, then, to be charged far too much, to never interact with locals or attempt a word of Spanglish, and to complete miss out “authenticity”.

That said, it was not a requirement to be so hemmed in. There was still plenty of adventuring to be undertaken, there was a comforting lack of US fast food chains and Walmart Supercenters, and the place is just jaw-droppingly stunning. It’s fully stocked with wildlife—we saw monkeys and sloths when just out for a walk—and incredibly varied in terrain, from volcanoes to swamps to beaches to jungle to cloud forest to fertile farming hills. It’s no wonder people want to visit.


Can a backpacker keep his dignity in Costa Rica? We had no problem traveling through without staying in one resort, without eating in one chain restaurant, and without breaking our budget. I’d say my traveler’s virtue is still intact. In fact, I’m pretty certain I’ll be going back before long.

Posted by jonathonengels 11:06 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged travel backpacking expat Comments (2)

Who's Vago?

New Musings from an Old Backpacker



Arriving at a new destination, even if you’ve arrived at hundreds of new destinations, is still a humbling experience. As I’ve gotten my chops as a traveler, I’ve learned to research a little before getting somewhere. I’ll know what animals are around, places I might like to see, if a nice restaurant for vegan food exists (less and less a rarity)…but, even so, ultimately, at some point, I’ll be left feeling as if I don’t know squat.

Our latest stop was Puerto Viejo, the popular spot on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. We’d set up a work-exchange at a nearby organic farm—Vago’s Place—where we’d pay a reduced flat rate for room and board and provide a little labor. Amanda, the farm’s Dutch matron, was nice enough to time her weekly shopping trip with our arrival in town to give us a ride to the farm. Amanda’s baby in tow, the back bumper swinging precariously below the tailgate of her truck, and a co-volunteer (Sangeet) in the passenger seat—we’d set off south and quickly cleared the restaurants and cabana bars.

The farm was a healthy ride away from anything resembling a town, just as we’d hoped it would be. That night, Memo, the farm’s Costa Rican paterfamilias, whipped up some noodles and vegetables for dinner, and as we digested, we sat around chatting. An obvious question, especially considering we’d met everyone and yet still not the farm’s namesake, finally surfaced: Who’s Vago? Everywhere has a story that guidebooks and the Internet reviews just don’t tell, something that makes places personal.


Vago’s Place

Vago’s Place technically is about five kilometers (three miles) away from Puerto Viejo, near a village called Cocles, where the beaches are a little less infringed upon but still not devoid of sunbathers and body surfers. Anyway, at some point, you turn off the costal highway, drive two kilometers away from the sea, along a gravel road that cuts into the jungle. Development dissipates the deeper you get, and eventually, you get to Vago’s Place, not quite at the end but with not much beyond it.

Amanda and Memo have been working on Vago’s Place for two years now, as of December 2013, and they are trying to create the ever-illusive sustainable farm. They have a small herd of goats that provide milk and cheese. They grow a scrappy collection of crops, including (amongst others) Brazilian spinach, assorted herbs, papaya, and okra, a favorite I’ve not often found outside of Louisiana. Amanda, a wealth of local flora knowledge, also scavenges a lot from the property’s naturally occurring plants, with which she makes medicinal teas and other products.

The two have built themselves a comfortable dwelling, two floors high with two enclosed sleeping areas currently used for volunteers, one-and-a-half baths with a collected rainwater/onsite well water source, as well as roomy open-air spaces for a kitchen, living room and work station. Next-door are a small stable for the goats and an unfinished kitchen for handling the milk. The garden beds are minimally manicured (aka left weedy), the greenhouse is hodge-podge but productive, and the property is steeped in fruit trees. Bamboo grows in nooks and crannies everywhere, and bamboo construction is a big part of what is happening there.

While the farm is productive—we ate lots of spinach and okra, had delicious ginger-lime tea, and gathered wild gooseberries from a little patch of grass—like most others we know of, it’s still a few hectares off sustainable. On Saturday’s, Amanda participates in an artisanal/organic market in Puerto Viejo, where she sells her products: a huge variety of medicinal teas, kombucha, pesto sauce (made from her own basil), soaps, toothpaste, cheese, and various other handmade items she conjures up from what’s available. This provides the income necessary to supplement the farm’s food needs.


Our Experience

For us, Vago’s Place was a quick and high-impact (at least on our backs and hands) experience. The days start at 6:15, with volunteers meeting at Amanda and Memo’s kitchen for breakfast. All meals are prepared together, the tasks haphazardly portioned out: Someone cuts vegetables while someone prepares a drink while someone watches Kian, the very adventurous and mobile baby, while someone cooks things up. Usually, by 8:00, we were setting off for work.

Daily chores more or less revolve around the goats. The working part (as opposed to breakfast preparation) of the workday starts with milking them, something I attempted with mediocre success—Amanda came in after I’d finished and acquired twice as much as I’d gotten. Then, there is the precarious task of moving them from one field to another for daytime grazing, and usually that involves chasing down rogue goats who’ve stopped for leafy snacks along the way, often in the most difficult areas to reach. At the end of the day, we’d have to do the same thing in reverse.

Other tasks we took on while on the farm: Day one and two were laborious to say the least. Memo and Amanda had dug a massive hole, imagine a small swimming pool, to start curing their bamboo in larger loads (soaking bamboo in salt water helps with bugs) and we had to expand it quite a bit. It was hour upon hour of digging and lifting large buckets of earth to get everything out of the hole. In the end, the hole was bigger. The plan is to seal it with concrete, fill it with salt water, and start producing large batches of construction grade bamboo.

After the hole, we attempted to battle the mud on a shortcut/path between Vago’s Place and Amanda’s parents’ home, where she and Memo are currently living. The mission consisted of collecting trimmed branches from around the property, raking up a dry season worth of fallen leaves, and mixing them with the mud so that it would harden into something roughly walk-able. Somewhat successful, we went on with our Christmas Eve, using the evening to make the traditional Costa Rican feast of tamales (of course, in a very untraditional, vegan way).

Next, we took on making an outdoor cooking area, a space centered around a small stove that is used to create charcoal, a key ingredient in Amanda’s toothpaste and a good component to fertilizing the clay/soil for crops. Using the clay/soil, we’d dug out of the bamboo pool, we created a stand for the little oven, as well as multi-leveled floor, one level for the cook and another for a table. For us, the project also included building a found-wood frame for the ceiling, creating a stone drainage system, and creating paths leading to it. It would be our last project at the farm.


Who’s Vago, then?

So, vago, then, was a completely new term to Emma and me, and it means something along the lines of a lazy vagabond, unwilling to get a real job—basically Emma and me. When Amanda and Memo announced to Memo’s family they’d decided to be organic farmers, not career-oriented highflyers, the family had shown disdain by calling them vagos, as farming was no way to go through life. Unexpectedly, they took a shine to the term and named the farm as such. However, after spending a week there, I can assure you that it is no place for vagos. The days start early, the work is hot and hard, and there is always something more to do.

Sunday morning, one week after we’d arrived, we limped onto the gravel road to head back towards Puerto Viejo, and amazingly, as if he were driving a fairy tale chariot, a man in a truck came rumbling down the road and gave us a lift.

Cool Things We Learned or Learned More About:

How to cure bamboo and that you’d better do so
Green bananas make wicked vegan burgers
Charcoal makes teeth white, which turned into inspiration for starting to make our own toothpaste, as well as shampoo, conditioner, and deodorant
How to milk a goat
How to make tamales
Ways to earn an income while living the “sustainable” lifestyle
How good it is to be interconnected with other farmers—Amanda got loads of free mangoes that she dried and let us snack on, as well as avocadoes
The importance of knowing the local and wild plants around because they can be put to good use—not everything has to be in a garden!
The truth about what some vagos do

Posted by jonathonengels 12:38 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged animals travel farm backpacking environment expat Comments (0)

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)

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