We May Never See Penguins
When I quit smoking the night before we left, it felt like a joke. My first attempt, in Korea, had been cutting down to five a day, ‘easing’ out of it. Nearly a decade had passed since. But, this time there was to be no easing. Quitting smoking, I’d decided, would help with the budget.
Emma and I had first arrived in Guatemala five years earlier, planning to teach for a few months before traveling to Patagonia. That’s was when I was on a cigar a day instead of cigarettes. Then, we got cold feet because of money and moved to Turkey to save more. Smoking cigarettes, as well as hookah, seemed a rite of passage there. After that, we moved back to Guatemala. Bartending at a hostel, with plenty of lubricated and conversational tourists, I was through a half-pack or more a night. After a year, we moved to Russia to save up again. Moscow stayed at a stress level that demanded cigarettes.
Though we weren’t nearly as well off as we’d been arriving, this time we’d decided to head south from Guatemala anyway. Our other big fiscal ploy was farm-hopping our way down, trading a few hours’ labour a day to minimise our accommodation and food costs. We knew little to nothing about farming, but it didn’t seem to be a prerequisite. And, we wanted to learn. We knew somehow gardening would be part of our future.
That night, after our last restaurant meal for some time (again, for budgetary purposes), I stood on a corner, digesting a burrito with a cigarette from a crumpled soft pack. Then, Emma nestled into my armpit, as she does, and we made our way back to the hostel. A shuttle bus picked us up well before dawn.
I left the remainder of the pack, a couple cigarettes still in it, on the bedside table.
We arrived at our first farm on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua to find one other volunteer, a rather grubby Canadian, Rob, sitting in an outdoor kitchen, sipping coffee while his shirt dried on a clothesline at the edge of the garden. He presented us with sleeping options: a ripped tent with two catawampus cots, one on the ground and the other on a frame, or an open-air loft over the dirt-floor kitchen. Neither had clean sheets.
Emma, already into the adventure, couldn’t get over how cool it all was. I had doubts. We chose the loft, but only to avoid the tent.
Before sunrise the next day, howler monkeys began growling in trees near our loft, giving off deafening sequences of grunts. They moved closer and closer until finally the grumbles started coming up through the floor boards. Not caring whether or not she was sleeping through this, I nudged Emma. “Have you seen their teeth? I’m not going down there,” I said. But the depravity below us increased. Items rattled and fell, and someone would have to put a stop to it.
Unlike me, Emma is fearless when it comes to wildlife, so she led the recon mission. We spun around in our bed to face the inner edge of the loft, and inching ever closer, we peered over, me with one eye closed and the other squinting, praying the fanged beast won’t have climbed up to greet me. When finally the mayhem revealed itself, the farm’s pig was snout-deep into a compost bin, pushing it around the kitchen in order to gobble every morsel.
After that, local fauna — a gigantic bullet ant biting me in bed, an uncovered scorpion with claws outstretched running towards me full steam, the helicopter-like entrance of a Hercules Beetle the size of my palm, the discovery of a six-foot python, rats and bats in the rafters, tarantulas in gardens, howling monkeys — progressively became routine.
How cool, I started to think, that for me, this was all commonplace.
The farm on Ometepe was New Age rustic. Where I might have envisioned natural materials, a la Swiss Family Robinson, there was a Japanese —a fancy way for saying outdoor — shower, which was a spigot attached to a tree trunk. Only, the area was surrounded by privacy screens built out of repurposed plastic bottles, bucket lids, and chicken wire.
Martijn, the lanky, long-haired Dutchman who owned the place, worked under the creed that no trash created by the property would leave unless it could be recycled. Consequently, there were huge bins, made with the same unaesthetic technique as the Japanese shower screens, full of seven years’ worth of sorted garbage: glass jars, plastic bottles, wrappers.
Toilets were dry-composting. Giant piles of human feces and wood shavings gathered and aged for a year or more until becoming both sterile and fertile, ultimately applied to the base of fruit trees. I returned to the farm one afternoon to Emma hysterically recounting digging the humanure compost out of one side of the two-chambered “thunderbox”.
Martijn’s method was effective. With the trash piling around us, we became very conscious of buying things that produced more. We thought about the amount of clean water wasted to flush a toilet and the fact that, however gross it might have initially seemed, shit could be used to grow food.
Shopping became a game of buying the least amount of packaging possible; pooping became an opportunity for growth.
I’d heard constantly of how Puerto Viejo, a sleepy little surf town I’d visited about a decade earlier, had become a tourist trap through the years. But we arrived to an actual supermarket as opposed to the ancient gas station I’d used back then, small restaurants rather than a local’s front porch. Still, wooden boats were moored right off the shore, lazily bobbing to the tide, no owner in sight.
The previous summer, after reading Eating Animals, I’d converted from a vegetarian to a vegan diet with the stipulation that, in the right situation, with animals well cared for, maybe then I’d feel okay about some things. Our work-stay in Costa Rica had me excited for one reason: a small herd of milking goats meant cheese would be in my immediate future.
Then, I found myself knee-deep in goat shit, a shoulder buried into the side of nanny, penning her against the stable. A kid bleated from afar as I fumbled with its mother’s teats. It had not gone as planned. The goats were undoubtedly loved, but I couldn’t bear what I’d done. I would taste this cheese (after all, I couldn’t do that and not eat some), but I knew it would be the last.
Without even counting that disappointment, the farm had lost much of its appeal. Mornings began at six, with a toddler regularly bursting into tears as Amanda, the farm’s matron, prepared breakfast. Dawn would break, not with coffee, but with a bout of babysitting. Emma and I, as teachers, did not want children in our home life. We worked from seven until three, the bulk of our time devoted to digging a large pool in wet clay with either steady rain or piercing sun over us. We lasted a week.
On Sunday morning, for the sake of sanity, we bid farewell and hitchhiked our way back to Puerto Viejo. We sat on a bench with fresh baguettes, jam, and to-go coffees, watching calm Caribbean waves lap against the hulls of boats. Looking back now, I can’t believe I failed to recognize the daily parallel between the crying kid (goat) and the crying kid (human) looking for milk.
Today, it makes perfect sense, at least to this particular contented vegan, that anyone who says “I just love cheese too much” should, at some point, participate in making it.
I was never one to believe in flyers making much of difference. But I’m not Emma. I’m someone who reveres the pure logic of how she is: completely active in her beliefs.
At our hostel in Puerto Viejo, next to the sink, we stood brushing our teeth, reading a poster about fluoride for the second or third morning in a row. Unwavering boycotters of many companies, we’d long struggled to find animal-friendly toothpaste without conglomerate ties in Central America, where Colgate (on our shit list) was about all that was available.
Amanda, at the goat farm, had made black toothpaste out of activated charcoal, baking soda, coconut oil, and mint. Emma, having gotten the lowdown on this, announced that I didn’t have to follow along, but she was going to make her own toothpaste. After eight years with her, I’d more or less learned to follow her lead on these things. She was usually right.
At first, we used straight-up baking soda, which definitely called into question the viability of her decision, but she didn’t waver and promised something better to come. So, while I didn’t get to leave Costa Rica with a renewed interest in cheese, I developed a new one in toothpaste.
Our first night in Panama was split three ways: We sat at a bus station from eight until midnight, we slept intermittently on a bus from twelve to three, and then the driver dropped us off at a bus stop—not station—on the side of a highway.
It was pitch black, with only the shadows of buildings to greet us, and we had no choice but to carry our bags, a drizzle wetting the air, to the eave of a storefront. Eyes heavy, we stretched out on the concrete to bargain for what sleep we could get.
Having been nomadic for many years, we’d often joked about being homeless, but that was the closest I’d ever felt to it. I’d never want Emma’s father to find out I had any part in his little girl doing that.
Shortly after daybreak, we carried our things to a newly visible supermarket and ate breakfast in the parking lot. We waited until just after seven to call the hosts of our next work-stay to let them know we were in town. Twenty minutes later, a thin blond, fiftyish, in casual beachwear, pulled up in a Hilux to collect us. She took us to a café where her husband was having a meeting. The café was just above store we’d slept outside of the night before.
Alan and Angelika were new to farm-stay arrangements, and in fact, they didn’t own a farm but rather a summerhouse, at which they’d decided to grow an organic garden. In the first week, Emma and I explained how compost works, built a raised bed, and rooted new plants from clippings, so we came off looking like experts. We also taught them how the farm-stay usually worked: hours, food, expectations. They ignored all of it and spoiled us with rounds of drinks, a vegan grocery list with almonds for snacking, and surprise trips on workdays.
The nurturing led to Emma and I reaching deeper into our new bag of tricks. Making our own toothpaste turned into making all of our own toiletries. Our vegan diet, combined with Angelika’s superfoods, turned into serious nutrition. Alan’s endless conjuring of new schemes led us to constructing a thatched roof and digging a banana circle. Around people who knew little to nothing about gardening, we realised how much we’d learned after just two farms.
Increasingly comfortable, we moved into their lake cabin and extended our two-week stay into six weeks. We discovered the waters beneath our new house were inhabited by a family of caiman. Every night, before bed, we’d spotlight the lake with our headlamps, counting seven sets of eyes. But, we’d already grown so secure in our kinship with nature that we continued to swim there. Two months prior, howler monkeys nearly had me bedridden, and now I was high-diving into waters I knew had s.
Towards the end of our six weeks, Alan and Angelika asked us to stay and take care of the place, along with their three rescue dogs and three neglected neighbor-dogs, until they returned the next fall. It meant delaying Patagonia again, so we took a few days to accept the offer but not without stipulation. We had to at least reach South America before settling, so we would go to Colombia and Ecuador for two months, returning a few days prior to them leaving.
Just like that, we’d gone from sleeping on the sidewalk to presiding over two acres of lakeside vacation property in the tropics. Life seemed full of untapped possibilities.
An hour from Bogota, La Junita Finca Verde had gardens just outside the kitchen door with a spiral of culinary herbs and mint so sprawling it had taken over like grass. Whimsical, straw-hewn beds held cabbage, kale, chard, lettuces, calendula, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, beans, potatoes, onions, garlic, and on and on and on. A geodesic dome encased medicinal plants, an old stone structure acted as a greenhouse. A tipi. A huge barn. Overgrown fields with grazing sheep. The house was past its prime but held together with powerful timber framework, the kitchen a higgledy-piggledy mess of hanging herbs, dried flowers, baskets of produce, jars of ferments, randomly placed and seldom-used appliances, and a door that perpetually remained open in the daytime, allowing two dogs—Camaneche and Rebecca—to pass through freely.
Felipe, the owner with whom I’d been corresponding, was not there but had left instructions for his farmhand to show us around and a pot of lentils on the stove. He would be back in a couple of days. Again, we were in a loft above the kitchen, only this time cosily inside and accessed by a rough-cut ladder that was precariously steadied by a tiny carpet on the living room’s hardwood floor. The climate had shifted drastically from sweltering coastal jungles to blustery winds. After our first day of work, weeding the straw-mulched garden beds, the sun warming over the hills like fresh loaves of bread, we didn’t really care if Felipe never came back. We were home.
Felipe, however, did return, and he was a wild-haired, charismatic guy who could whip up herbal teas to cure anything and had an easy way of moving through what seemed like an impossible list of self-imposed tasks. He taught us how to make weird fertilisers, a fermented bokashi and a horribly smelly concoction that replicated the inner workings of a cow’s stomach. He gave us far too little to do during our work time—and then involved us in newly dreamt-up plots in the afternoon. A roving assembly of friends would come through just in time for dinner, always welcomed by stretching a pot of what had been prepared for three, and we ate—at least some greens—from the garden every meal. He had a huge collection of interesting books, including a slew of permaculture manuals, which Emma and I devoured.
We learnt the importance of mulch. We learnt how to build garden beds correctly. We learnt how a cover crop works. We learnt about medicinal plants, fermentation, Colombian-grown quinoa, and Rhodesian ridgebacks. We learnt how to take down and put up a tipi, as well as how to sleep in one. We learnt how to condition holes before planting trees. We learnt about different parts of Colombia, about Indian ceremonies for soil fertility in which we would burn cow dung and chant. We learnt about worm composting. We learnt that the snapping sound in the field was the tall grass blowing against the electric fence and how we could use a grass blade to see if it was on. Eventually, we even learnt how to avoid walking into that electric fence. Mostly, though, we learnt what permaculture was, and that changed everything.
The next week, Felipe left us there again for a couple of days, and the next week more, and finally by the end of the month, we were running his weekend guesthouse, preparing dinner and breakfast for guests. We had hardly vacated the property since we’d arrived. If it were not for our recently acquired schedule, we could have stayed for months, and Felipe, we’d later learn, would have happily let us run the operation. But, it didn’t work that way. After a month, we left, again with Felipe not in attendance, only somehow he’d taught us more than we had learnt anywhere else.
With our new know-how, we’d spent nights planning what we’d do back in Panama, and for that, we could hardly wait.
There was one bus to Las Tolas, a village in the cloud forests north of Quito, and we weren’t entirely certain this was it. Dusk had come and gone, the bus hadn’t been on a paved road for over an hour, and we were fairly certain that there would be no storefronts around which to huddle, not that either of us ever wanted that experience again. Then, as we rounded yet another cliff-side curve, a lady sat in the vacant seat behind us, and she knew us by name. We didn’t exactly blend in, and Cecilia had put two and two together. We, she informed us, were staying at her house.
Emma had been an exchange student in France when she was in school, but at age thirty-four, this was my first time to live with a host family: a dad (Edgar), a mother, two teenaged siblings (Pamela and Alex), and an overweight Chihuahua (Kuky). At five-foot-nine, I was a full head taller than everyone in the house, and being a lazy language student, I was a full sentence behind in every conversation. Emma did most of the talking anyway, at least publicly, but this was bordering on necessity. Nevertheless, the family embraced their dim-witted giant.
Half of Las Tolas had become affiliated with a voluntourism NGO that sent folks like us to the village to help with community projects: bird-watching trails, a garden, reforestation, a website store for artisanal crafts, and income from accommodation. Volunteers were spread across several families, paying them directly for room and board. It felt as though the projects may not advance were it not for entertaining volunteers, but the village had caught onto something. Whatever the motivation, they were doing admirable work while earning their way.
Our family was kind. They curiously tolerated our veganism, which we’d confessed ahead of time, trying not to be a problem, and the whole group temporarily changed their diet to share meals. The mother and father left early in the morning, rising before the sun to get the lone bus out of town, and they returned, as we’d witnessed, after nightfall, on the lone bus back. The kids would start dinner, always soup of some sort, with the first parent home cooking it. After they warmed to our presence, Emma and I prepared the meals. Helping this way seemed culturally unorthodox at first but, by day three, it was something worthy of appreciation.
Life was simple and true, and the family—us included—enjoyed our nightly concoctions. On the night we made broccoli soup but didn’t include popcorn, Pamela, in a mix of disbelief and distress, informed us of this obvious omission, which Cecilia remedied. Later, we sat drinking beer with Cecilia, joking about it. My Spanish had improved (I had finally started attempting past tense), but much of it was just the sheer pleasure of communing.
On our last morning, playing outside the house, after expressing how much he enjoyed the soup while we were around, Edgar mocked about having chicken that night. I’m pretty sure, for this very reason, Kuky the Chihuahua was happy to see us go, and I hope our family, at least, had mixed feelings about it. For us, Las Tolas had been a rare way to share the fruits (and vegetables) of life.
Our flight from Quito was very early, and as Emma and I are prone to do in such situations, we took a late-night bus across the city, opting to sleep in the airport rather than pay for an incomplete night in a budget hostel. In the morning, we tried to check in only to find that our flight had been discontinued. Not cancelled. Rather, the route just no longer existed for our airline. In the two months since buying our ticket, that apparently had happened, but no one had informed us prior to check inwhisked us to a flight on another airline, only minutes to spare. Somehow, it seems things—we—just always seemed to get where they needed to go.
We arrived a little early in Panama and sat outside the airport waiting for Alan and Angelika, who had driven over an hour to pick us up. On the way home, we stopped at PriceSmart to bulk up on wine and almonds for their last week. Emma and I couldn’t contain our excitement about all of our plans for their property, and like real parents, Alan and Angelika seemed to both encourage us and slightly fear what they’d agreed to. After all, they’d known us for less time than we’d been gone.
For the next six months, as agreed, we maintained one side of their property as a lawn. We kept the dogs, including the neighbor’s three, alive and healthy, which had been their main concern. We also kept the house clean and scrubbed it thoroughly for their return. The car was in one piece. The boat was docked and whole. On the other side of the property, we’d cultivated over 70 edible plants, many of which we were eating from every day. Upon returning, Alan and Angelika followed us around sampling from the garden we’d grown them.
In places, it looked like full-on jungle—only everything was edible. We’d built an herb spiral outside the kitchen and had mulch-strewn beds like we’d seen at Felipe’s. We’d adopted much of the waste-free lifestyle that we’d discovered in Nicaragua, not sending a garbage bag off the property in six months because everything was composted, recycled, or reused. Inspired by the non-toxic homemade toiletries Emma had mastered, we’d found recipes for natural homemade cleaners, dish soap, and laundry detergent. At our cabin, we’d built them a cob pizza oven, similar to the ones we’d used in Nicaragua and Colombia. At their house, we fashioned an outdoor kitchen. We’d come. We’d seen. We’d not conquered but, as permaculture had taught us, cooperated with nature to instigate the beginnings of a new Eden. They loved it.
Nevertheless, we had business elsewhere. Patagonia awaited. Landing back in Bogota, Emma learnt her father wasn’t doing well. She got the dreaded “you need to get home” message, and we didn’t hesitate. Family, as we’d seen in Ecuador, meant more than funding. It meant more than traveling. With the bulk of what we’d saved up for the trip, we bought tickets to England. We flew out of Bogota the next day and never made it back to South America. The three months spent visiting him, that he persevered, made the end of the trip even sweeter.
After England, we went farm-hopping for another three months in Spain, during which time we decided we were ready for a farm of our own. We could think of nowhere better than Guatemala. During that year of travel, we used to tell people that we were heading south until we saw penguins. At this rate, it may never happen, and after several years of trying, we’ve learnt to accept that. Somehow, it seems we get where we need to go.
To this day, I’ve not had another cigarette. It just hasn’t been in the budget.
Jonathon Engels is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.
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