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Panamanic Perma Progression: 10 Things from the Last Month

Adventures in Permaculture

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Another month down, and I’ve come to own up to the progress we’ve made on our permaculture project in Panama. It seems each week Glenavon on the Lake takes more shape, becomes more inspired and inspiring at once, and provides us with great senses of accomplishment, surprise, wonderment, sweaty fatigue and camaraderie.

In late May/early June, some major things happened around the place, both agriculturally and communally. We began taking in both crops and volunteers regularly, including Emma’s father, a man with a paintbrush always in hand. We’ve widened our scope of what we can already use from the property. We’ve survived mango season. I’ve begun a new writing gig for the site of permaculture legend Geoff Lawton. Things are officially in full motion.

Thusly, to limit my ramblings, I will do something all online writers must become accustomed to doing: I’ll report this progress via list, a la David Letterman’s Top Ten.

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1. Started eating leaves.

Salad greens do not readily grow in the heat of the tropics, so we’d been largely lacking in the salad category, which is perhaps odd for vegans. As a result, Emma has become a leaf wizard, scoping out everything from bean leaves (used like spinach) to papaya leaves (medicinal tea) to several salad leaf substitutes, like hibiscus, cranberry hibiscus, moringa and okra—yes, okra—leaves. And, we’ve also gone crazy with the fresh herbs from last month’s herb spiral. We eat fresh herbs every day now.

2. Volunteer much

The volunteer program is in full swing now, with spots booked up through mid-August. We are currently on our third couple in a row, which will make for six weeks’ worth of volunteers. So far, we’ve had Matt and Charlene from France (experts in kitchen and titans of the cashew nut); Luke and Julie from England and France, respectively (swimming gurus and premier sidewalk cleaners); and currently George and Grace from Cornwall (masters of hard work and now worm bed specialists). It’s been really fun hanging out, sharing a little chitchat and veganism.

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3. The Food Forest(s)

We are building two small food forests, one in the front and another in the back of the property, and they are both really showing progress. In the back, what we call the garden gully, we know have five magic circles, two for plantains, one for papayas, one for bananas, and one unclaimed as of yet. They are stuffed with other crops as well, including yucca, sweet potato, ñamé (a cross between yucca and sweet potato), pepper, taro, and hibiscus. In the front, the beds we’ve constructed between existing trees—lime, macadamia nut, moringa and water apple—are bustling with activity and bearing fruits and beautifully full plants.

4. Writing On

I did not expect that Panama would revolutionize my writing career, but it has. Veering off my travel-writing tableau, I’ve landed two great gigs in new invigorating genres. Last time we were here, in February, I managed to land my gig with One Green Planet (over 50 articles now), still one of my favorite websites, all about veganism, activism, conservation, and animal rights. It really feels like writing with purpose. And, now, upon our return, I’ve become part of one of the great permaculture websites out there, and it looks like I’ll be able to contribute regularly to Permaculture News as well. Suddenly, the money I’m making writing is becoming an actual wage.

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5. The Communal Area

We’ve worked very hard to create a cool communal space for us and the volunteers to hang out in. It has become more and more what we want. There are drying leaves hanging around, a ping-pong table, different funky colors for each wall, plantlife encroaching from all sides, a WiFi hotspot, couches and easy chairs, a beer fridge, a book exchange, a psychedelic mural in progress, great views in both directions, a semi-outdoor kitchen area, jars of snacks everywhere (dried mango and coconut bacon), and more and more every week. It’s working.

6. Lawn Mowing Success

We have a unique agreement with Alan and Angelika: The property is divided in half by a sidewalk, with one side being free reign for our experimentation and the other being maintain like a normal lawn. After they left, I discovered the lawn mower (which I didn’t want to use for fossil fuel reasons anyway) was in bad condition. Consequently, we splurged with our first budget and bought an old-fashion roto-mower. It cuts the grass in an appropriately wild way that I like, and we’ve been able to make composting/mulching use of the clippings from it. The lawn looks good, but even better, it’s serving the gardens.

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7. “Ice Cream”

With our crazy abundance of mangoes over the last couple of months, we’ve had to get inventive with them. Jams, chutneys, smoothies, salads, and juices just weren’t getting it done. Emma came up with an awesome ice cream that has stolen the show over the last couple of weeks. Lots of mango blended with one banana then frozen. Take it out to thaw before dinner and blend it one more time before eating it. With or without coconut milk, I’d say it stacks up, only its 100% raw fruit.

8. Parental Visitation #1

Emma’s father Tony came to visit for three weeks and really got into his inner hippie, which is a lot for an ex-military man who still irons his Bermuda shorts. He stayed on a true vegan diet the whole time, even when meat was available on our outings to Panama City. He chipped in to the communal effort, volunteering for his keep and consorting with the riffraff (us). At the end, he even went full on wild child and painted our outdoor fridge and freezer in a multi-colored swirl straight from the 1960s, even though he said, in the 1960s, he hated the 60s.

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9. The Greenhouse

The greenhouse in the front of the property has been in a perpetual state between somewhat finished and chaos since the first week we arrived. It is finally shaping up into something fantastic. There is a roof. Compost bins are rolling. We have beds everywhere, and they are full of food—black-eyed peas, mung beans, brown beans, cucumber, hibiscus, tomatoes, kale, passion fruit, Malabar spinach, and whatever else Emma has conjured up (one strong-willed chia plant). The tables are stocked with seedlings, including several fruit trees for our food forest. There is fencing around it to keep the dogs out. And, the latest addition is a worm bed, something we’d put off but that has been in the plan for months now.

10. Harvesting!

We are actually starting to really get food from our garden. We eat fruit from it everyday, and sometimes our entire bowl of morning fruit comes from Glenavon! We are collecting okra, jalapenos, beans, mangoes (still), water apples, avocadoes, cucumbers, cantaloupe, papayas, peppers, the occasional tomato, watermelons, the aforementioned leaves and the occasional sweet potato. We are actually growing a noticeable portion of our own food well before we expected to be. Granted, some trees were already in place, but we’re only two months in. It feels like it’s off the ground and real.

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Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed the rundown. I’ve certainly enjoyed living it. Don’t be afraid to drop us a line or even to invite yourself on down if it so suits you. We accept volunteers, but I do recommend contacting us first. Until then, maybe just join us on Facebook at Glenavon on the Lake and keep yourself in the know.

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Posted by jonathonengels 17:33 Archived in Panama Tagged people food travel farm backpacking humor environment expat permaculture Comments (1)

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)

To Truly Call Myself a Hobo

New Musings from an Old Backpacker

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

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

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

Cue the dreamy flashback music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think we get off here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vagrant (noun): homeless wanderer

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

End scene

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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