A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about living

Moving Contradictions

New Musings from an Old Backpacker

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Ming is 21 years old as of today, a university student obsessed with her lacrosse team, an admitted addict of Facebook (the self-proclaimed average of five hours a day), and a practitioner one of the longest and/or most frequent grooming-mosquito lotion regiments I’ve ever been witness to. She loves—and I’ve not met anyone other than my oldest brother who shares this trait—modern country music. She has a propensity for bending nails, recently learned to use a saw, and somehow was put in charge of continuing the instigation of an aquaponics system, a complex method of farming that involves fish poop and growing plants in gravel, a method with which she has no familiarity and has been known to comprise entire dissertations of specialist PhD candidates.

Ming is from a Bay Area suburb, smiles often and willingly, and recently had trouble scheduling the classes she needs next semester in order to graduate from UC Davis with a minor in communication. In order to fail in obtaining the schedule she wanted, she had to borrow our iPad, walk half a mile uphill to Totoco Ecolodge, and unsuccessfully connect to the internet before negotiating the use of Martijn’s (the owner’s) cell phone hotspot, only to find out the classes were full. Ming has come to Central America to work on organic farms for a couple of months. She has completely unplugged, such that her present electronics can be summed up as a digital wristwatch, which has made her the official timekeeper here.

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She has no iPod to entertain her on bus rides. No cell phone to Skype or IM with friends back home. No laptop to stay up-to-date with Facebook statuses or to email mom and dad about general well-being. No iPad for the odd movie or favorite TV show. No e-reader for a portable library of entertainment magazines or engaging literature or romance novels. The closest thing she has to any of this is a notebook she passes around: People are to write the most important life lesson they’ve learned in the last year. In my own way, this will be my contribution, the life lesson I would offer her to take from my last year, more so my last week:

There are several reasons (For the sake of brevity, I’ll list only three) Ming is not the type of person I’d normally chat to in a hostel and I’ll list several reasons (let’s say…around three) those reasons are idiotic. It takes but a very superficial bout of self-exploration to find my folly in making new friendships. However, for the sake of something, some form of guidance, to proffer this young sponge of a lady, I’ve put myself through the tedious task of self-examination in search of reasons why I might not talk to Ming were we not stuck together on a nightly basis in a dirt floor kitchen with howler monkeys screaming from the trees and ducks waddling passed our feet. Maybe these are explanations I needed as well, a catalyst to move me on to bigger and better life expectations, to more friendly interactions with others:

1. Though Ming is young, like college young, and for some reason people that age now scare the bejesus out of me, not sure if it’s that I want to seem cool or don’t want to seem old or if I’m worried about them being too loud or not speaking loud enough, but I’d rather just steer clear, not risk it.

Idiotic because she should more likely be scared of someone like me: I’d be the weird guy with a small enough age gap and good enough looks (yes, I said that) to think I might be cool enough to pull something off. Luckily, my beautiful wife Emma serves well to dispel that concern right away or maybe she wouldn’t have bothered talking to me.

2. Though I made a triumphantly impressive return to the basketball court this year (the three shot is still working folks), my days of athletic abundance are over, and it’s readily apparent hers are not. I’m somewhat afraid that she could beat me in a foot race, and I’m still athletic enough to not like that.

Idiotic because you don’t have to run fast to shoot three-pointers effectively. As long as I kept her off the track and out of the low post and, I would still dominate her on the basketball court, where I’ve got the savvy cunning of veteran on my side and she doesn’t have a lacrosse stick to hit me with.

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3. Though impressed with her shameless admission to rampant Facebook use (let’s say I overheard her tell someone this), I still like to claim I only do it for the purposes of being a travel writer. Due to peer judgment, I can never openly suggest it’s a pleasant experience for me or share in that joy with another.

Idiotic because 99% of the peers I know who might be ready to judge me over my affiliation with Facebook only have contact with through Facebook. As a writer, I’m a friend collector, and how foolish would I have to be to overlook one who’d be sharing my posts five hours a day.

Though I know better, have met many great people over the last decade that don’t exactly fit the mold of my typical friends—heavy drinkers, people in flannel shirts, and the slightly unkempt, in case you were wondering—in a push, another circumstance, I wouldn’t have met Ming, found out about her very impressively unplugged adventure or how she went about changing her feelings regarding an ex-boyfriend (a pretty fun story I won’t share so publicly). I wouldn’t have seen how keen she is to actually act on the beliefs she’s cultivating here at the farm and beyond. I would’ve continued growing sour in my opinions of “today’s youth”. That would’ve been a true loss for me.

So, my big lesson this year, or at least the one my remaining brain cells can grab most readily without straining too hard, is this: Give people a chance to surprise you and they often will. Truth be told, I met some great 20-year-olds just before I left Guatemala, but I can be pretty crabby, set in my ways, and settled in many of my beliefs, especially about traveling and age gaps. I’ve lost that thirst for the ideas of the people around me, not when I can read a book by an expert or have researched something to my own—I’d probably feel—better conclusions. At times, with regards to bonding with fellow travelers, particularly young ones, this robs me of one of the great experiences of the vagabonding culture I so dearly love: camaraderie. That’s a tragedy, one I’m hoping my new relationship with Ming will help me avoid in the future.

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I never thought I’d be the one corrupting a 21-year-old’s detachment from WiFi and modern comforts, but I’ve downloaded country pop classics from 2012 for my new friend to listen to via my iPod on her birthday and I’m hoping we can watch a movie on my laptop a little later this week and I’ve blogged about her in hopes of getting away with not buying a present so that she can look at that online anytime she likes and share it with her Facebook friends. Seriously though, I hope this gift of camaraderie is a lesson that not only continues to linger with Ming but that sticks with me over the next few months as I make my way down to Patagonia. It’s a simple but important lesson that I seem to always need reminding of. People, by and large, are alright.

So, happy birthday, Ming. I’ll give you this one day to challenge me to a race. After that, I’m sticking to basketball, which I am well aware we do not have access to on this farm.

Posted by jonathonengels 13:30 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged travel farm living backpacking expat Comments (0)

The Change of Experience

New Musings from an Old Backpacker

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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.

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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.

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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)

Traveling with Purpose & Panache

Lessons from the Greasy Rider & via Getting Stoned with Savages

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Visit The NGO List, my new labor of love, built to connect international volunteers and grassroots NGOs from around the world:
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Make no mistake, I like to tell myself in fits of reflection, one learns lots from books but just as much from experience, from going out into the world and doing, grabbing the good of what there is to be grabbed. This month’s contributions to the blogs de book reviews are two fine providers of both of these lessons, and not just that, these are two divinely entertaining specimens.

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Inspired (as I can relate) by a very conscientious wife and perhaps a sense of mischief (also, relatable), Greg Melville sets off on an innovative and groundbreaking adventure across the continental US: He and his sidekick, an old college buddy called Iggy, are going to be the first men ever to traverse the country by car without buying gasoline. It’s not exactly On the Road. It’s not exactly Travels with Charley. But, it’s a hell of an interesting adventure.

Unlike other road trip memoirs, Melville’s is unique in that, more than a search for the nostalgic American identity, he and Iggy are getting there as fast as possible, hoping to avoid dive diners with that much-beloved small-town charm, and driving towards the future. The two characters play off each other so well, just like buddies will do, rather tirelessly annoying and challenging one another but stepping up when the time is right.

The result: Iggy challenges Greg to go beyond just the symbolic French fry car trip and investigate several green-themed items, which provide some fantastic detours from the main narrative, including trips to Al Gore’s house (in search for the greenest house in the US) and a visit to Arkansas and Texas to find out about Wal-Mart’s green initiative.

As for me, I moved through this one quickly. I love the idea, the mix of travel and social conscientiousness with Greg and Iggy’s somewhat opposed personalities but shared background. I was reminded how important the trip is, and I was reminded why the trip isn’t enough. Like the Greasy Rider, we as people, as travelers, and as writers must accept the challenge to investigate beyond point a to point b, to move ourselves mentally as well as physically. And, keeping a sense of humor about the whole thing isn’t a bad idea, either.

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J. Maarten Troost becomes the first author to appear in this blog twice. A follow up to his very funny (and different) bestseller, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, this book starts with Troost bored of the D.C. corporate life, missing the simplicity, even the diet of rotten fish and threat of lurking sharks, of living on an isolated atoll in the South Pacific. His wife, Sylvia (the girlfriend he’d followed to Kiribati in his first book), who works with development organizations, finds the solution: Another new job in the South Pacific.

This time Troost knows exactly what he’s getting into: a land where cannibalism has been practiced for centuries, where volcanoes are gurgling molten lava and burping ash, where cyclones decimate cities, where young boys chew the root of pepper shrub to produce a saliva-based intoxicating drink called kava, where life is different and maybe easier than on Kiribati but is still filled with all the things that go along with a life abroad.

For me, from a writing perspective, this book is much better than the first. Troost feels in control of his rants and language, his observations still ring hilariously true but more like an investigation on which we are invited along. And, it’s fun. Knowing that this trip was supposed to produce adventures for a new book, he goes out of his way to pursue whatever seems interesting, things we all (or, at least me) want to do but sometimes just don’t manage to.

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I dig these books, and I’m excited about the idea of traveling with purpose and panache, especially knowing that my own trip is coming up soon. In support of The NGO List and our own seemingly unquenchable sense of adventure, Emma and I will be setting off this November, from Guatemala to Patagonia by May, with plans to volunteer and check out cool projects doing good things in the world and linger in places that suit us. I can only hope for the wherewithal and drive (literally and figuratively) these two authors had. Some great writing coming from it would just be gravy.

For more writing and ramblings, visit Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad--more blogs, articles, and more:
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Posted by jonathonengels 08:06 Archived in Guatemala Tagged me travel books living ngo writing expat Comments (0)

Inspirational Amenities

Thoughts on Our First Week in Antigua

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  • Before we begin, let me say that you can subscribe to this blog by clicking the "subscribe" link over the right of your screen, and also let me say that I would feel loved and wanted if you do so. In all seriousness, the added support would be great. Cheers, Jonathon

A little over a week ago, we left Earth Lodge. After seven months of living what many would call the rustic life—no AC, no cable TV, and outhouses for bathrooms—we moved to what can only be called the big city in comparison. We now live amongst pizzerias, coffee shops, and luxury hotels; stay within walking distance of a large supermarket, a tourist market, and electronic stores; and pay more in rent than we earned living in Aldea El Hato, where Earth Lodge is.

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However, leaving the hotel means we’ve willingly abandoned, not a cupboard, but an entire room of dry goods and fresh produce to be used as we liked, a full-sized refrigerator constantly re-organized to hold more stuff, a freezer equally as stuffed, two six-burner stovetops (one less than a week old), two ovens, and all-you-can-drink coffee/tea/water/beer/booze/soda. Not only that but everything was restocked twice a week such that no one ever had to go long without green tea and vanilla tea bags or a pound and a half of jalapeños.

Don’t get me wrong: Our new apartment is nice for our standards. There is an atmospheric separation (the back of a couch acting as a half-wall) between the bedroom and makeshift living room/kitchen (with a fireplace). The windows are big and fill the studio with light. Outside the south-facing window is some sort citrus tree bearing fruit, and to the north, we face a landscaped garden with assorted tropical flowers and bushes. We live in the safety of a gated community and have a somewhat functional hot water tap. There is a maid service to sweep, mop, and change the sheets once a week.

One would expect moving into the thick of it would bring about such luxuries, but as I washed dishes yesterday morning, it occurred to me how many amenities we’d left behind. It occurred to me because, first of all, I was washing dishes, not just dropping my plate off at the back of the kitchen for someone else to deal with. The real kicker, though, was that I was standing in the bathroom, squeezing our one five-quart pot into the hand sink to rinse out the remnants of oatmeal. Beside me, in the shower, a drainer half-full of utensils, bowls, and cups was drying.

If I’m completely honest, which I try to do when I can get away with it, I have—in my wilder days of youth—used a kitchen sink to piss in. Not necessarily something to take pride in but factual and not as uncommon as one might think (I think). However, without a doubt, I have never washed dishes in the bathroom. That said, in our new place, which doesn’t have an actual kitchen but rather a small wooden table with a portable electric two burner stove-top on it, a college dorm version of a refrigerator at its side, there is no kitchen sink to speak of: Our options are the bathroom or walking to a nearby outdoor washing area.

So, in the same vein as pissing in the sink, I suppose (in some warped notion of analogies), when there is only a pot, a couple of spoons, two coffee mugs, and some bowls, why bother walking all the way outside? Isn’t easier just to rinse those puppies in the toilet and let them drip-dry in the shower where they won’t cause a mess? Frankly, in a world going so green, I’m now becoming a little curious as to why we aren’t all bringing our dishes to the bathtub with us: save water, soap, electricity/gas (depending on heating), and time to boot.

Let me take this opportunity to invite you all to the revolution. We aren’t just changing our location, my friends; we are changing the world. Ecotourism’s got nothing on us.

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Posted by jonathonengels 10:55 Archived in Guatemala Tagged living expat Comments (0)

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