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Chicken Run Dos-Punto-Huevo: Trapped in Panama

New Musings from an Old Backpacker

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The stench was awful. Piles of feces coated the floor of their tiny enclosure. It was better than what they’d get in a factory farm but still appalling--concrete and steel, a diet of corn, and no nests. Their feathers were falling out. Great eruptions of squawking and flapping ensued followed by fierce banging into the sides of the cage. We knew it from day one: Something needed to change and fast.

Alan and Angelika, proprietors of Glenaven, our current farm of the month (January), are essentially snow-birders. Residents of Vancouver for most of the year, they own a 2-acre winter spread in Panama beside Lake Gatun, formed by the Canal. They returned this year to discover the groundskeeper had acquired six chickens and a rooster and stuffed them all into this cage. His plans beyond that were unclear.

So, why didn’t that just demand they were set free? The other problem: Also the owners of three sisters, puppies barely scratching at a year, team Double-A faced the challenge of Bella. Bella, the largest and most needy of the canine clan, had somehow located her instincts since last Alan and Angelika had been in Panama. She was a chicken’s worst nightmare, even worse than a tiny enclosure.

The situation was problematic but not completely out of the realm of things Emma and I have tackled before. In fact, just a couple of months back, we’d teamed to construct of chicken hotel/roosting house on Totoco Farm. That one, however, was for chickens free to roam during the day and put away for—literally—safe-keeping at night. The Glenaven flock wasn’t afforded the luxury of safe passage, so we immediately started vying for a larger space for them.

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Lord and Lady A weren’t hard to get on board. Within our first week here, construction began. We were fencing in a roughly the size of a basketball court. It was a lovely plot scattered with plantain trees, yucca crop, papaya trees, and rosa de Jamaica—plenty of things to attract bugs for the chickens, plants that would reap the benefits of the highly fertilizing crap that came next. We’d include a shelter for them so that human residents might get a little egg trade-off from the situation, too.

Of course, the chickens didn’t belong to any of us, except maybe in that animals belong to the world, hippie sense we sometimes use. Regardless, Oscar said he could care less, as long as his chickens didn’t become something’s lunch as opposed to his. His stance, which couldn’t be discredited, was that Bella would make short ribs out of these birds. She was already after the neighbor’s on a daily basis. His advice was to get rid of Bella, which was not going to happen. Option #2, a fence had to be erected to keep her away.

All things in order, I began working, the unfortunate aspect being that building a fence around a basketball court takes a lot of post holes, roughly 30, and the soil here is dense, packed clay. Those days of digging wrecked my hands. Seriously. I was having trouble sleeping because they would go numb, feel like two balloons (as Pink Floyd would say), and just plain hurt. Unlike shovels, posthole diggers are all upper-body and rely greatly on a strong grip. While I recognize the benefits, I have grown to hate posthole diggers (the tool not workers).

What’s more, the reason those lovely shade-producing plantain trees were in the area is because it’s a full-sun spot. Less than an hour in and I’d be dripping, my shirt sodden and stinking, the parts of my face not covered by beard glowing vibrant red. I’d have to change clothes just to eat lunch. Meanwhile, every morning, I’d have to walk by the cage on my way to work and by it again on my way for an afternoon swim. It just wasn’t fair.

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As I put in the posts, a new volunteer arrived and began work on the roosting box. Mirco, a knotty-haired German, pursued his assignment with passion, and what started as a simple roosting box turned into an eccentric work of art. Hand-cut boards twisted into a great twizzle stick of nesting boxes as he swung away with the hammer, sometimes free-style rapping along with his iPod and sometimes shouting at the stubborn nails in German.

Within a week of work, it all started coming together. The posts were set, the roosting house was poised to be roosted in, and laundry days seem to get a little more frequent. The only problem was that our chicken wire did not show up with the material delivery, and with no chicken wire there could be no fence, and with no fence there could be no free-wheeling chickens.

It wasn’t until the following Wednesday that we could begin. Ironically, the rooster got out of the cage that evening. I told Alan I didn’t think it would have any problem fending off Bella. Later that night, an explosion of noise broke through our evening dinner music, and a few minutes later, Alan was offering up their best bottle of wine to the person who could detain the cockerel. The mission was a success—the wine shared by all—but the incident only served to reinvigorate everyone’s resolve.

The next day, Mirco worked on getting the roosting box up and equipped with entry ramps while Emma and I struggled to pull the chicken wire tight between the fence posts. I would pull, ripping at my damaged fingers while she hammered. Or, she would pull, damaging her own fingers, while I fiddled with pliers and tie-wire. Two days down in the gully (that’s what the area is referred to by insiders), and by Thursday evening, we were ready to deliver some poultry.

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Now, a funny thing about us chicken-lovers was that none of us had actually captured and held a chicken before. Mirco tried first with laughable results: he moved around stiff as the birds erupted into fits of flapping every time he neared. Then, Emma took over. I’d seen Emma grab birds before, not to mention crabs and nearly snakes, and knew she was quite fearless with animals. She looked like Rocky after six weeks of training. Old Mother Hen had nothing on her.

After Emma’s success—the chickens calmed right down after being caught—the sailing went smooth. I went next and got one quickly enough to maintain my manly demure, and from there, we all went in a line, Angelika taking pictures of us as we released them into the gully. The chickens immediately began scratching the ground in search of bugs. They were safe and happy and as chickens should be.

None of us could stop watching them after that. We’d count them every time we passed. We’d sit at the top of the hill, peering down, hoping they’d go into their roosting box (Mirco, the creator, especially). We put into action a fruit and veg composting (and natural insect hunting) plan to replace their crappy corn diet. Even though the project left us Emma and I a little worse for wear, it’s an incredible feeling to see a problem, literally create a solution, and watch some happy chickens.

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Other mentionables of the tale:

• Emma and I constructed our first palm thatch roof, complete with a lesson from local builders, for the chicken’s sheltered area.

• The chickens eventually did start using their roosting box, though there are no eggs to show for it yet.

• There were a couple chicken dashes before we put and the roof (then reinforced a couple of areas). Even so, once the chickens had flown the coop, they seemed oddly easy to catch to put back in. Almost like it had been a lesson learned.

• During construction, Oscar actually relinquished his post as groundskeeper of Glenaven, essentially leaving the birds to live out there lives in the gully—almost as if they were in a cartoon.

• My hands. Our hands. They remained troublesome, and Emma finally looked up the symptoms, only to find out we were showing signs of carpal tunnel and another ailment called “trigger finger”. We now do special exercises every night to combat further deterioration and suffering. All for the chickens, my friends, all for the chickens. Live well.

Posted by jonathonengels 10:51 Archived in Panama Tagged animals travel farm backpacking humor environment expat Comments (0)

A Multitude of Death-Defying Acts in Lake Gatun

New Musings from an Old Backpacker

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My backside still wiggling into settled, legs not yet positioned, I was freshly sat in a kayak when, from below on the right-hand side, a trail of green and spindly slithers out of sight.

“I just saw something. It’s either a snake or a lizard.”

We’d planned on racing out to a nearby tree. Emma was already paddling around—somewhat erratically, watching me from afloat, waiting. Options scatter quickly from my mind. A panicky reality spiked. She didn’t even have time to respond…

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The morning before, walking from the lakeside casita to the main house for breakfast, I scanned the water one last time for caiman.

Emma and I had spent the few nights prior shining flashlights on the water to look for eyes. On the first night, we saw several sets glowing, and we watched some babies hunting minnows in the shallows. A couple of nights later we verified there were bigger ones lurking in the milfoil below.

We had not seen one in the daylight yet, but that morning was different: About five feet long, it’s head above water with it’s body suspended vertically and fully visible beneath the surface, there one was, and it was not in its usual spot.

I yelled for Emma. By the time she arrived with a camera looped around her neck, the head had begun easing away, right through our afternoon swimming spot, passed the water-bound tree house, and ultimately settled in the grass about 20 or so feet from where my kayak resides at this moment in the tale…

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When you see something, a snake or possibly a lizard tail sliding into the foot hole of your kayak, the spot you cannot see into to check, the spot where your bare legs are splayed, your knees knocking the sides, the risk of looking foolish if it’s a lizard no longer matters.

The Fer-de-Lance, aka barba amarilla (yellow beard), is the Latin American equivalent to India’s cobra, Africa’s black mamba, the US’s rattlesnake. It’s said that, after a bite, you have eight hours to get treatment, without which you’ll die. That’s pretty bad. Of the few snake sightings on this property over the last eight years, old yellow beard has featured in over half of them.

With that in mind, instinct took over, my instinct being to get the hell out of that kayak. I dove into the water, leaving Emma a bit dumbfounded as my boat broadsided hers and the double-headed paddle began drifting away—just as the fabled reptile’s head had—into the milfoil.

Emma grabbed my wayward vessel (sounds dirty, doesn’t it?)…Emma grabbed my wayward vessel, leaving me to retrieve the paddle. Ironically, when swimming for your dear life, having a paddle actually makes gaining speed much more difficult. As I do what I would describe as limp-swimming to the pier, Emma took a look.

“It’s a snake!” she squealed gleefully.

I knew it.

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The truth about caimans: Most of them are not that big. The spectacled caiman, the most common and likely what we’d been seeing, can grown up to a couple of meters and weighs less than a full-grown man, at least this one. Hence, they are not exactly a true threat to a human lake swimmer.

We’d known this and continued our afternoon dips. We stayed in the swimming area and left the grass to the gators, your classic Dirty Dancing understanding: “This is your dance space. This is mine.” It was working just dandy. There had been ample water fun for us, plenty of dusky stalking time for them, and no attacks.

The biggest threat to me at that moment was probably the milfoil. Milfoil isn’t just your run-of-the-mill water plant, but rather three of the sixty-some-odd species have so aggressively taken over fresh bodies of water that active control plans have been launched to combat them. Even the Tennessee Valley Authority has weighed in.

Suffice it to say, milfoil has arrived in Panama. Sadly, it’s proven to be dangerous on more than just botanical levels. Some swimmers, even just a few piers down from us, have actually drowned after becoming so entangled in the grass. Search teams eventually gave up and waited for the body to float to the surface. That story had just been one more reason to stay out of where my paddled had gone.

As you may have guessed, I did eventually make it out…

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The snake was coiled up on a rail that holds one of the foot-driven rudder controls. Now, I’d never been in a kayak so fancy as to have a foot-driven rudder control—or even a rudder for that matter—but I was beginning to feel things hadn’t been that well thought out.

It had actually taken us nearly two weeks to succumb to the kayak temptation. And, we’d only cleaned them up and put them in the lake the day before, a few hours after seeing the caiman was willing to swim in open water. At that time, I’d given each kayak a thorough check—all the compartments, all the nooks and crannies. There wasn’t a snake when it went in the water. How the hell had it gotten there?

Emma haphazardly—this time the haphazardness was a little more excusable as she was paddling one-handed, with the other hand on a snake-infested kayak—towed my kayak over to the loading dock, where I got my first glimpse of what might have been. No idea what type of snake it was, but it wasn’t a Fer-de-Lance.

We pulled the kayak onto the dock, and everyone being officially safe and all, she ran to get the camera.

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And, that is the story of how I had to choose between a snake-infested kayak or caiman-infested waters, a choice I’d never previously pondered, proving once again the road is full of new and exciting experiences.

Posted by jonathonengels 14:53 Archived in Panama Tagged lakes animals boats travel backpacking humor environment expat Comments (0)

Who's Vago?

New Musings from an Old Backpacker

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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)

From Afghanistan to Quasi-Vegan in Just Three Books

The Places in Between (Rory Stuart), The Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India (Rory MacLean), & Eating Animals (Jonathan Safran Foer)

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I’ve been waiting for my new crop of Better World Books books to arrive, and in the meantime, I’ve nursed from the last dregs of those I have. This week’s installment of thoughts on travel literature includes The Places in Between, an amazing journey on foot across Afghanistan; The Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India, a road trip along the old intrepid traveler trail between Istanbul and, umm…India; and Eating Animals, a very sobering look at factory farming and alternative reasons (beyond not wanting to kill animals) for being—at the very least—a responsible meat-eater. It’s been a rather serious path, but one that ultimately left me feeling rewarded, a little more enlightened, and a lot more inclined to live more adventurously. Let us begin.

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The Places in Between, Rory Stewart

This book intimidated the hell out of me, which is why it was the last of my last order for me to pick up. It seemed to promise such serious, hard-to-read stuff, a la The Kite Runner. I tend to find myself more often swerving towards the more light-hearted reads of the travel world and endeavoring into the serious stuff with a sense of responsibility. Whatever the case, I finished somewhat interested in visiting Afghanistan and, in the same breath, happy I’m too far away and fund-depleted for such ill-advised adventuring.

Rory Stewart, having had to cut Afghanistan out of his walk across Asia, excitedly backtracks when the country is again opened to tourism. Despite everyone doubting his ability to make across the country, especially to do so on foot without being killed or kidnapped, he does so, and his adventure puts him into close contact with soldiers, former Taliban leaders, and possible wolf attacks. Stewart’s writing made me sympathize, envy, and respect him. His descriptions of the people he meets feel incredibly honest, unflinching in the face of fear, honestly but carefully reactive in the face of appall.
Despite a heavy subject, the book never felt exhausting to read but rather an answer to curiosities I didn’t know I had.

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The Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India, Rory MacLean

In the sixties, backpacking came into its own. Hundreds of thousands of travelers set out of trips seeking instant karma and reenactments of dharma. Rory (how on earth did I manage to read two authors named Rory this time!) MacLean presents an amazing premise: Travel this trail again and meet people who have remained along the route, aged hippies who’ve never pushed on, inspired Iranians who left the countries for free love and returned for roots of culture, the drivers and handlers and hostel-owners. What we get is an appropriate far-out mix of Allen Ginsberg, ex-military stragglers, and ever the in between.

What I really like about this book is its unlikely but completely accurate collection of characters you meet along the “trail”, be it the hippie trail from Istanbul to India or the north-to-south route from Patagonia to Alaska. I tend to too often lump travelers into being more similar than we are, but MacLean provides a real look at the eclectic array of intrepids out there, completely different souls on a similar wavelength. It’s an interesting thing to see your own versions of these characters in the people around you, in the homes of your pasts.

Anywhere you go, the book suggests to me, has people with incredibly heart-breaking, interesting lives to share with you, and they are all worth knowing.

*My one complaint was this one was that sometimes the “trip” was a bit too much, as if the writer became too distracted by being mystical and mythical. The stories that are more grounded in reality work much better for me, which meant enduring a bit of odd storytelling in Istanbul.

Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

That afternoon, I’d had some heart-warming moments touring a turtle hatchery and animal conservation facility, CECON, where I got to bury turtle eggs and release a baby olive ridley sea turtle into the Pacific. They were moments that linger. After dinner at our hostel, scanning the book exchange, I spotted Eating Animals, which I’d been wanting to read for over a year.

Within twenty minutes of picking it up, I regretted it. I put the book down, if only for a minute, to mutter a “son of a bitch” before reading on. I’m no stranger to the horrors of animals in the food industry. I’ve seen a collection of online videos, watched the appropriate documentaries, and read tough stuff like The Omnivore’s Dilemma. For whatever reason, maybe the image of that little turtle climbing around in my hand, I knew this time was different.

I’ve been vegetarian for nearly a decade now, unwavering in meaty communities—Russia, Turkey, Guatemala, Louisiana—around the world. I began the book almost as another pat on the back for sacrificing on behalf of the good cause. I stood confident in my oft-repeated doctrine of “If I can’t kill it myself, I don’t eat it”. Seriously, what was there to be afraid of? I’d already taken the plunge and was living an easy meat-free existence.

This past November, my wife Emma upped the ante on her vegetarianism by giving up milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt, and all those great dairy treats—ice cream—we veggies hold dear. Hey! We still have pizza, fried egg sandwiches, and the occasional gelato, so life can’t be so bad. I resisted the change, clinched a little firmer onto my smoked Gouda. I understood why she was doing it but wanted no part.

In fact, we’d had lunch at a nearby restaurant that day, and I’d already selected my breakfast for the next morning: chilaquiles—a delicious Mexican speciality with crispy tortillas simmered in a red pepper sauce, covered in fresh cheese, side of beans, two fried eggs oozing from atop the mountain. Dinner that night had just been a precursor, biding my time for morning. Then, I found Eat Animals and read my way right out of it.

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For the next twenty-four hours, the book rarely saw a tabletop. As I waited for my breakfast, minus eggs and cheese and sour cream, I plowed on.
Beside the pool with my mayo-free vegetable sandwich and beer, I waded through page after page. On the shuttle ride home, cramped between bags and passengers, I only grew stronger in my resolve: Being vegetarian—not eating animals—simply wasn’t enough.

What makes Eating Animals so powerful for me was that, unlike those other aforementioned objections to the food stuff, Jonathon Safran Foer was not out to slander. The premise of the book is vegetarian father—Foer—exploring the idea of feeding his child meat. In fact, he seems to chase every lead to make it okay, from discussing the nostalgia of traditions—Thanksgiving, his grandmother chicken and carrots—to visiting the most ethically minded animal farmers out there.

I’ve explained my vegetarianism hundreds of times over the last few years, but this book changed all of my logic. Foer’s most compelling arguments, the ones that ultimately stuck me with a choice, have nothing to do with animal rights. Rather, his data on the other implications, environmental damage and world hunger, brought about by factory farming are so disturbing I just can’t…not even if I really, really want a cheese and mushroom omelet.

He points out that the ethical choice of vegetarianism (or quasi-veganism—I will eat cheese or eggs under very specific circumstances where I absolutely know it didn’t come from factory farming)…the ethical choice of vegetarianism has become less and less about whether or not you agree with eating animals. The choice to do so these days means so much more, means supporting something with irrefutably evil ties. So, I’m left with pretty much no cheese now, no yogurt, and so on, just praying he never decides to investigate beer.

Posted by jonathonengels 14:38 Archived in Guatemala Tagged animals books farm expat Comments (0)

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