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Entries about backpacking

The Change of Experience

New Musings from an Old Backpacker



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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Adventure Begins, Again

New Musings from an Old Backpacker



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

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

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


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

Miraculously, I fell asleep.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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