A Travellerspoint blog

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)

How to Deal with The Devil's Snot

New Musings from an Old Backpacker


Recently turned 35, Emma and I have become aware of the impending likelihood that some sort of permanent, semi-permanent, or experimental settling will happen in the next decade of our lives. The lure of hostel dorms has long left us, some of our recent overland journeys have been hard to endure, and there are bits of life we’d like to experience that just can’t happen on the move.

It sounds romantic, but at some point, I want to build my own house. I want to grow my own food, make preserves and pickles, and watch trees I plant mature into fruit pies. I want to try brewing my own beer and making my own wine, design different types of gardens and see ivy take over a trellis from start to finish, and know the feeling of staring utterly impressed at a world I’ve fostered. Emma, too. As travel becomes less in our lives, we want to share these triumphs, ideas, workloads, and new adventures.

The trip we are on now is no doubt largely rooted in these thoughts. Frankly, in order to pull off such a romantic feat, we still have a lot to learn: our way around a garden, the best building techniques, how-tos of every variety, the pitfalls we’ll be up against, the cost of such things, the timeline, the route, the order, the true extent of our necessities and desires and frivolities…

Totoco Organic Farm on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua has been our first stop and, in turn, a stark reminder of just how little we knew before and don't know now. But, we’ve also been exposed to a great deal, such as what a pineapple plant looks like, when to pick a passion fruit, and how to get a wood-burning pizza oven prepped. Already, in one month, I’ve learned more than can be conveyed responsibly in a single blog entry. So, for the time being, I’ll stick to some fun food facts I’ve pocketed here of late.

Spending a little QT with my jackfruit

Spending a little QT with my jackfruit

1. The Jackfruit:

It was a combination of the jackfruit and my creative wife that gave me the name of this blog. For those not in the know, jackfruit is the biggest fruit in the world, yielding single specimens up to 80 lbs., and Totoco’s farm has a jackfruit tree towering over the compost bins. The devil’s snot, which Emma suggestively insisted I call it, is a white latex that flows surprisingly freely from the fruit’s stem when it’s clipped. I was unaware of this, akin to a volcanic eruption of superglue, until I was tree bound with a good one in my hands.

Jackfruit is big in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam. Many people are deterred from eating it because the devil’s snot is such a mess to deal with. It sticks—it stuck—to everything and makes old oil seem like it washes off easily. Unfortunately, our jackfruit was not ripe, which meant a lot of tacky work had been put in for some pretty starchy bites of flavorless fruit. Emma, being resourceful, got online and discovered we could treat it like a vegetable when unripe. One fruit fed three people three enormous meals of jackfruit chips—cook in oil, serve with a little salt, pepper, and ketchup.

Oh, yeah! Emma also found out that the appropriate way to deal with the devil’s snot is to coat yourself in vegetable oil (this really worked and felt slightly kinky) and to hang the fruit, letting it drain before trying to cut it open.

2. Pineapple Plants

Pineapple plants do not look like I expected. At some point in my life, I remember believing pineapple grew on trees—hey, don’t act like you were born knowing everything!—but coming into Totoco, I at least knew they were ground dwellers. Completely inaccurately, however, I thought they were the base of the plant, either sitting directly on the soil or down in it. This, too, is completely inaccurate. Pineapple is one of my favorite fruits; how in the hell could I not know what it looked like growing?

So, as a small service to those not traveling to tropical farms anytime soon, I will inform you that pineapples grow precariously balanced on a small stem in the center of spiky plant the resembles a gigantic version of the top of the pineapple you buy at the store (when it’s not canned or pre-sliced). Amazingly, you can take the top of your store-bought pineapples, plant them with the greenery poking out of the ground, and grow a new one. The bad news is that, besides needing the appropriate climate, it takes about two years.

3. Hibiscus Leaves

Hibiscus flowers are quite common to use for teas, and in Guatemala, it is known as jamaica and was used often at Earth Lodge to make afternoon refrescos. There, we’d buy the flower buds dehydrated at the market and boil them down with sugar and water to create something loosely resembling a really sweet cranberry juice. I knew this about hibiscus.

I did not know that the leaves of the trees, bright red and sprawling things, are edible, and they are indeed splendidly delicious, with a hint of sweetness to them. Hibiscus is strewn about Totoco, and pretty much daily, we throw leaves into our salad mix to add a little funk. So, tea and drinks from the flowers, salad from the leaves—I’m digging the hibiscus for more than just having a pretty petal.

Monkeys prefer papayas to bananas, and this one likes to steal leaves from the tree outside our kitchen

Monkeys prefer papayas to bananas, and this one likes to steal leaves from the tree outside our kitchen

4. Cyanide in My Chaya

Chaya ranks high in the new onslaught of superfoods. Recently, I’ve been heavily exposed to moringa, which is of Indian origin but making a contemporary splash in Guatemala. I’d only heard passingly about chaya and chia, which chaya is often confused with. These two are also popular up-and-comers in the plants with an excessive protein/vitamin punch category.

Chaya, though, has the unfortunate quality of being equipped with a mild dose of cyanide, also known as poison. Didn’t sound too appetizing to me when I first heard it. Before chaya is safely edible for people, it needs to be boiled for twenty minutes or fried (note: not just stir-fried but actually fried). The other warning is that it can’t be cooked in aluminum because that will cause some catastrophic chemical reaction. Here at Totoco, chaya trees are rampant and used to add protein to the pig’s largely produce diet.

Eventually, I wasn’t able to resist. I had to try it. Online, it is also known as the spinach tree, which made me all the more curious. So, I started experimenting. I made a chaya and spinach casserole dish—delicious and I’m still alive, though I did wuss out and cook it in a glass dish when I wasn’t sure about the metals in the cast iron pot. And, I fried up some chaya leaves last night after I’d made homemade yucca chips—delicious, airy, and I’m still alive. More info on chaya.

5. Katuk—Bless you.

Katuk is yet another “superfood” to add to the repertoire. Before Totoco, I’d never heard of it, but it’s a native plant to Nicaragua. It’s more appealing name is star gooseberry, and indeed, it does have some rather delicious looking berries hiding beneath the leaves. Here, we pretty much eat it off the tree. When we need some greens, we break off a few branches and add it to a salad or a chaya-spinach(-katuk) casserole.

It’s even more super of a superfood than moringa and chaya because katuk works very well raw. As well, I’ve really taken to throwing it into stews and soups. The leaves stand up a little better than spinach and are more tasty in my opinion. Amongst its super attributes are high protein content, vitamin A and B and C and K, and for any new mother’s out there, in some Asian cultures, it is believed to improve the flow of breast milk. More info on katuk.

6. Build with Bamboo

Upon our arrival here, I became a complete sucker for the various textbooks in our book collection. I’ve read about organic farming, sustainable living, building mud houses (aka cob houses), and a lovingly researched ode to bamboo. While I found the bamboo book to be utterly useless in terms of practical application, it certainly helped to better my newfound appreciation for bamboo.

Why bamboo? Well, it grows really fast, one species clocked at almost four feet in a single day. It can be cut and harvested for some pretty spectacular and spectacularly attractive building material, especially useful for us tree huggers (Bamboo is grass, so it only grows better from being cut) who are if-y about cutting down stuff. Hell, the book listed, literally, over 1000 different items bamboo can be used to create, from full-on ships to chopsticks to sustainable firewood. It grows in just about any reasonable climate. You can even eat it.

I’m not yet the bamboo expert I will be someday, but I know for sure that, when all the house-building and trellis-making comes to be, I’ll be planting myself some patches of bamboo to provide supplies. And, Emma says to mention that she made some really cool bamboo Venetian-esque doors for the Totoco henhouse, as well as some stout doorframes for the compost heap. Ming—of the current Totoco crew— digs bamboo, too.

Wood-oven pizza night for the Totoco volunteers: Notice Rob's intensity in his fire duties

Wood-oven pizza night for the Totoco volunteers: Notice Rob's intensity in his fire duties

7. Turmeric is Terrific?

I’ve cooked for a long time now, even done so professionally, and I’ve used turmeric from time to time, but I never knew it was something to sit in awe of. Indeed, it tastes fantastic. On the aforementioned yucca chips with fried chaya accompaniment, I sprinkled a little salt, pepper, and turmeric mixture for flavoring. My wife and Ming declared it was no less than gourmet.

Totoco grows a lot of freaking turmeric. And, one of our duties upon arriving was to bottle the stuff up for sale. Emma pretty well dyed orange any exposed skin that day as well as her clothing. We still have pounds left to deal with. Oddly enough, I’ve recently stumbled across an article (thrice posted on my Facebook feed) about the “600 Reasons Turmeric May Be the World’s Most Important Herb”.

How lucky am I to be working on a farm that produces hordes of it?

Anyway, I’ll stop here for now. Obviously, I’m having some exciting new encounters. This is truly learning from your travels, and it’s a thrill, a new drive to get out and do more before I stay in and put it to practice. Fear not, I’ve got plenty of interesting tidbits to share in the coming posts, like the wonders of poop and how to compost properly. (One of the cabin’s at Totoco Ecolodge actually gets its hot water from a compost heap. I’ll fill you in later.) Until then.

Posted by jonathonengels 06:57 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged food travel farm backpacking expat Comments (0)

Spaces in Time

New Musings from an Old Backpacker


I’m getting older. Not old, but older. Generally, when I’m in a hostel, unless some old creepy guy is hanging around (which possibly could be me—I don’t know) or there is a family, I’m likely the oldest person there, sometimes somehow by about a decade. The age disparity is usually enough to either make me keep my distance and say a small prayer for a little quiet when it’s bedtime, which for me is often early enough to hope no one notices me slip off. Or, it puts me in the position of being discovered and immodestly distributing facts in sage-like fashion, siting how things were “back then” or “when I was there”, like an out-of-date Lonely Planet.

Just before Emma and I left Guatemala this autumn, we spent two weeks helping out around Earth Lodge, which the owners Drew and Bri have generously let us consider home. The crop of reception volunteers there at the time were amongst the youngest we’d seen, with two of them fresh out of their teens. One of these two twenty-year-olds regularly developed crushes on local bad boys (tatooists and musicians), and the other kept making reference to Emma and I being like the parents of the bunch, so far as to say that she wished we were her parents. It was horrifying to calculate that it would have been a shotgun situation but entirely possible.

This place I’m in, reaching mid-life and having not yet settled on much beyond not settling anytime soon, is precarious. It’s a spot that often makes me paranoid. Maybe my peers—old friends back home or expat business owners—look at me and think this lifestyle, the constant resistance to adulthood, has gone on far too long. Maybe my fellow backpackers are looking at me and are thinking the same kind of thing: What the hell is a middle-aged (Emma says 35 is not middle aged anymore, but for our generation, it was. Life expectancy was 72.) man doing working for room and board on an organic farm in Nicaragua? Either way, I have no excuse for myself: I love traveling, love coming and going, and love not having a career, not having a house, and not having bills.

In other ways, it’s a spot that often makes me proud. Rarely do any of our peers not express some degree of envy over the fact that another trip is on the horizon. No matter how happy they are in their current lives, they know the days of doing what I do are over for them, and in some sense, it makes me feel like a wild animal coming in for a visit then jumping the fences again. As for fellow backpackers, I usually feel fortunate to be done with the wide-eyed insanity of what they are doing, happy to not be in that small space of time that requires me to get it all in before giving it all up. I’ve managed to hold too long to need to worry about getting caught on the career path, so what’s the rush? I love being a traveler whose not exactly traveling, not worrying about the attractions necessarily, and being the guy that’s been around for a while, knows some how-to about the place.

How to Lead a Pig Back to Its Pen

How to Lead a Pig Back to Its Pen

Setting out on this backpacking trip, what will be the longest outright length of time I’ve gone without a final destination, has been both scary and exciting, just like the trips of old. Where it’s been different is in my confidence to let things ride a little softer, the willingness to plan to stop and simply soak, as if bathing in the atmosphere of a places rather than slathering myself in as many activities as possible. I’m happy “working” in a garden on a tropical island for a couple of months as opposed to spending a few days in different spots all over Nicaragua. I’m happy knowing that I’ll quickly stop, out of necessity, in one or two spots in Costa Rica on my way to my next farm, this time on the Caribbean coast.

When Emma and I traveled Southeast Asia in the 2000-naughts, we never stayed anywhere more than a week. We had a great time: three days wondering markets and temples in Bangkok, three days in the Malaysia jungle, four days clambering around Angkor Wat and its accompaniments, a two-day rain-soaked trip to Singapore. Other times, we hopped Easy Jet-style around major cities in Europe, spent two weeks in scooting across Panama, car-camped up and down the Pacific Coast of the US, skipped around northern Vietnam, eastern China, southern Mexico… Amazing things to do, places to see, ticks to tick, but everything happened so quickly that my memories now (let’s pretend not due to my middle-aged mind) are fewer and farther between for these places.

On the other hand, we settled for a while in other places across the world: Korea for two years, Guatemala off and on for five years, Istanbul for 10 months, Palestine for three months, Moscow, long visits to the States and to England. These were times when we developed routines, when we had regular haunts, habits particular to availability and location, where traveling and life became a joint experience and cultures merged and bowels moved regularly (for some time sometimes). This is more like the traveling I want to do now, where I just am somewhere and I’m there long enough for making friends I might keep in touch with and finding spots I might return to for a while and adjusting my insides to the local fare. I’d rather give myself the time for that than to see another colonial town or traverse another jungle.

And, so far, despite my expired place around the backpacking beer funnel or my unreserved spot on an expat barstool, that’s the biggest difference I see this time, being older, more settled to the fact that I’ll either be around again or that I’d rather experience one thing well than twelve things half-assed, I’m happy seeing a specific part of country and traveling as if I’m going to settle everywhere I go, and I’m happy not to be truly settling anywhere for a while.

This is the view from the couch where this blog entry was composed. Might I remind you that I pay no rent. Why hurry to leave?

This is the view from the couch where this blog entry was composed. Might I remind you that I pay no rent. Why hurry to leave?

Posted by jonathonengels 07:09 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged people travel farm backpacking expat Comments (0)

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