Ometepe Island, located in Lake Nicaragua, is a small hourglass-shaped island consisting of two volcanoes- one active, one dormant, and a small isthmus of lowlands connecting them. Full of spirit, natural beauty, and diy goodness. We had heard good things about visiting this interesting geographical wonder, so one day, we decided to put the truck on a ferry and see for ourselves.
The view of Volcan de Maderas across the lake from San Jorge.
The day before we embarked, we ran into this beautiful family of three. We first met Ram, Chandra, and little Ashwin (and Big Birtha, their Westy) while we were in Baja. We had hoped to reconnect at many points in our travels, but it never happened. Randomly, while camping at Lago Appoyo, we spotted their van and decided to hunt them down. It had been six months and five countries later, but we picked up right where we left off! They were game to ferry over to the island with us, so we followed one another to the ferry port, as we radioed back and forth on our walkie talkies.
I am not going to lie- boarding the ferry was the most stressful thing we had done in months. We bought our tickets without any problem, but for some reason, they kept insisting that due to size, our Crystal Starship would need to be the last vehicle to drive onto the boat. We watched countless cars board in front of us as we sat on the side, waiting for the signal. It seemed doubtful that we were going to fit, but the ferry-workers insisted there would be enough space. On our first attempt, we spent a few minutes of reversing and driving forward and wiggling back and forth while people shouted directions in Spanish, and what was apparent to us eventually was conceded by everyone else- there was not enough room on this boat.
So we waited for the next one- actually, the last boat of the day, to see if we had a better shot. The sun was beginning to set already and the mosquitoes were out in force. The same thing happened and we were asked to pull to the side while a myriad of other cars and trucks pulled on in front of us. When it appeared there was no room left, they told us it was our turn. Mark pulled on and angled the truck diagonally. I was watching worriedly from the side with Joey, certain that it was hopeless and we would have to wait until the morning. I could hear the muted sounds of conversation being carried off into the wind and the waves. Suddenly the engine turned off and Mark hopped out.
"What happened," I asked?
"We're on. They said its ok- they don't need to close the gate all the way. They just told me to put the emergency brake on," was something like what Mark told me. Sounds legit, right?
"Ummm... are you kidding?" I asked.
"Not kidding..." Mark said. "It should be ok. I think..."
It was an uncomfortable ride- watching the end of the boat bob up and down with the tide the entire way to the Island, wondering if our tiny little home would slide off unexpectedly into the shark-swimming waters of the massive lake. (Did I mention yet that there are bull sharks in Lake Nicaragua, that enter the freshwater through the San Juan River? Just a sidenote.)
What a test of faith! By nightfall, we had made it and without any life-altering disasters. When we awoke the next day, we were in paradise.
Incredible views of Volcan de Maderas.
We enjoyed a little breakfast-time string jam with the boys.
Swimming and bird-watching.
We spotted monkeys in the trees above, caught frogs, and admired the property-owners orphaned pet deer.
One day, we decided to explore the island (and by that I mean we ate a lot, sampling all the delicious local offerings.) We followed signs leading us to a chocolate beach were we were given the lowdown on making raw-cacao chocolate from the locally-grown beans at El Pital. This was a delightful little eco-friendly camp-resort that was still in the final stages of completion. The chocolate was delicious, the vibes were good, and we were impressed to watch their vision come to fruition.
Keeping things au natural here.
Garden flowers and ice cream shop.
Rainy season was beginning and we started to have the feeling like we were never drying out. Life in the tropics is far from comfortable during this time of year. The heat and rich humidity combine to pretty much suck the life out of any northerner real quick. Also, we started to have moisture issues in our camper around this time too. More of that when we get to Costa Rica next.
But finally, I just want to mention quickly Hacienda Mérida. It is a great location on the southwest side of the lower part of the island. They are accustomed to hosting international backpackers and all proceeds from the guest houses from meals, lodging and canoe rentals go towards a children's school next door. The school is built with recycled and local materials and staffed by caring locals and volunteering teachers from all over the world. This place is really special, one of many heart filled gems we found throughout our travels. Places like this are full of love and make a direct difference in improving their communities. Be sure to stop in there and stay awhile.
We were only a couple weeks into our stay in Nicaragua something very special happened : We were invited to stay in the home of a Nicaraguan family. Opportunities like this don't come around often but when they do, you have to take them- It is a unique chance to be fully immersed in a new culture and language, to see life thru new eyes, and to receive personal guidance directing you to the very best things the country has to offer.
Initially we had met this adorable family of four while we were staying at a sustainable finca near Matagalpa. Their son Santiago and our son Joseph were immediate friends, sharing toys and running thru the coffee plantation making buzzing race car noises and laughing mischievously. They were quite a pair! We shared a delicious lunch and nice conversation with his parents and grandmother, noting how lovely they all were, yet what we were not expecting at all was to have an invitation extended to us to stay with them in their Managua home. Not knowing what to expect, we accepted and looked forward to this chance to spend more time with our new friends.
A few days later, there we were, pulling up to a secured entry gate on the outskirts of Managua, leaving the rest of the city behind. Our hosts welcomed us into their beautiful home and made certain we were comfortable with accommodations far better than we had seen in months: our own room, an air conditioner (?!), a private bathroom (with hot water!), basically our own wing of the house! At first I felt a bit out of place with my dirty hiking boots and messy hair, but a hot shower later, I was beginning to feel like myself again! Joey and Santiago were busily pulling out every toy in the playroom, Mark and Luz were chatting over a cold Toña, and I was admiring the colorfully modern artwork that adorned the walls when suddenly I realized we had been transported to another world- there we were in the heart of Central America yet it could have been easily confused for New York or San Francisco. It was a pleasant surprise from the dirt floors and tin roofs we had become so familiar with. And yet- this is Nicaragua too- a view not often seen from the outside world. It's always refreshing to be able to see beyond the stereotypes of a country (and most likely, we shattered a few of theirs too, when they realized some Americans actually live in the bed of their pick-up truck!)
Over the next seven days, we shared meals and stories, laughter and connection, watching our children play. We were accompanied on one adventure after another as they guided us to some of the best attractions of the region. We were given private tours and treated to upscale meals. They took us under their wing and offered us the best of everything- so excited to share with us the wonders of their country: the homemade gallopinto (a rice and beans dish famous in Nicaragua), the locally grown coffee, the high-quality exported beef, the world-renowned cigars. They were so well-connected that anything we inquired about, they seemingly knew someone in the industry who could give us a behind the scenes look! We had a chance to visit the German academy where Santiago attended pre-school, they gave us a tour of the capital city, Granada, and accompanied us to the markets of Masaya, making sure we got exactly what we were looking for at a fair price. Here are some pictures of a few of our adventures together:
One day, Luz decided to take us on a little afternoon outing while Jaime was at work. First we drove to the Lago Appoyo mirador to take some pictures of the scenic crater lake. There we browsed the rainbow-colored artesianal goods at the market and bought the boys a pair of hand-made wooden guitars, so they could practice together in their flamenco music band. Afterward, Luz took us to one of her favorite restaurants offering traditional Nicaragüense fare for lunch. We enjoyed the simple yet savory cuisine of this region: fried plantains, yucca, gallopinto, fresh homemade cheeses.
Next we headed to Granada, the colonial capital, where Luz gave us a little driving tour through the city. Located beside the largest lake in all of Central America - Lake Nigaragua – the city of Grenada is just a stone's throw away from over 360 small island, known as the Isletas, that were created thousands of years ago when the Volcan de Mombacho errupted, shooting its cone of debris into the lake. Pictured above, you will see a glimpse into our private boat tour of the Isletas, which can only be accessed via water. This was undoubtedly the highlight of the day for the boys, who were jummping in anticipation of our river-boat ride. We enjoyed the rich bird life and, of course, the isolated island of hungry monkeys.
One evening, we decided to do a night-viewing of the active volcano Masaya. For a small fee, it is allowed to enter the national park to view the volcano at night in 15-minute increments. The dark skies allowed us to see the bright bubbling lava as it swirled inside the caldera. I can't quite explain what it was like to stare down into that blazen cavern. Looking within, the Nietche quote from Beyond Good and Evil kept coming to mind, “for when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Indeed, the chemical gasses eminating from this natural, flaming underworld were beginning to make me dizzy, and I realized WHY there was a 15-minute limit to this viewing!
When the weekend came, Jaime announced that he had a special excursion planned for us. He was planning to introduce us to his cousin, Alfonzo, who owned a large rice farm. We drove to the north side of Lake Nicaragua to meet him. After an amazing lunch at the local steakhouse (one of Nicaragua's top exports is their high-quality beef) we all drove together to see the family business. Alfonzo's father was a rice farmer, and before him, his grandfather. The tradition of rice cultivation had been handed down from generation to generation, and from it, the family had earned their good fortune.
This was our first time ever seeing a rice plantation, and given how much rice we eat, it was very interesting to us! We love learning about where our food comes from, how it is produced, by whom, and the industry behind it. We had a chance to see every stage of production, from when the seeds are planted, to how the grains are harvested, and afterward burned to maintain the mineral content of the soil, and lastly, leveled with a laser before the seeds are re-planted. It was a very informative process and we were happy to learn more about another aspect of Nicaragua's industry. Alfonzo was jovial and welcoming, so sincerely happy to be sharing with us his family legacy.
After a week with our amazing hosts, we reluctantly knew it was time for us to move on if we were to meet our deadline in Costa Rica. Jaime and Luz seemed genuinely sad to see us go, offering “One more week, please, we have so much more we want to show you!” We promised we would see them again- maybe in Nicaragua, or maybe somewhere else in the world, when we would have an opportunity to return their kindness and host them in our own home.
Before we left, they had one last very quirky surprise for us, one that we will never forget- as we were about to head out the door, they started to play Bon Jovi on the highest volume- “Never say Goodbye.” The whole family started dancing and singing along. Jaime had a lighter ignited over his head and everyone was laughing as they sang. We were tickled. What a way to say goodbye. Our new friends will forever be in our hearts. Their humor, their generosity, and their sincerity will not be forgotten.
If there is one lesson we learned along this whole journey, it was shown to us by these beautiful new friends- that no matter how different we may have been or how totally foreign, there is always room for friendship, hospitality, sponatneity. It isn't every day a total stranger puts their life on hold to invite a new person (people) into their life, into their private home, without any assumptions or judgement or suspicion, to be treated like a member of their own family. Jaime, Luz, Valeria, and Santiago- we look forward to the day we see all four of you again!
Nicaragua was one of the most-highly anticipated countries we were to visit. It was recommended by many friends and fellow travelers, but of our own research, we knew little, besides that it was both one of the poorest countries in the Americas- yet also the one of the safest. Just looking at the map gave us a bit of information as to where we would begin. The Caribbean Coast seemed exceptionally intriguing, with its unique Costeño culture and isolated beach towns, yet there were hardly any roads that led to this sparsely populated region. The beaches on the Pacific side were very much the opposite, attracting an abundant flow of Nicaragua nationals for the Semana Santa holiday as well as foreign tourists and surfers. The central highlands are at such an elevation that over a quarter of the countries agriculture takes place here- a region dense with fincas producing coffee, cacao, tobacco and sugarcane. Since the rainy season had not yet begun, it was intolerably hot and dry on the coast. We welcomed an opportunity to escape the heat and learn about some of Nicaragua's world-famous exports. So, to the highlands it was!
Our first stop was a sustainable rural community called La Granacha, located south of Esteli, a small mountain town that seemed to be in an eternal state of autumn. The air was fresh and cool, and at night we put on socks, pants and long-sleeved shirts. When we first arrived, the entire main road was blocked off by a heated game of palm-ball, with two friendly competitors, and most of the children of this puebla gathered around as spectators. People were very welcoming and seemed to understand that we were there to camp, giving us directions on where to park, yet no one really appeared to be "in charge." The atmosphere felt very peaceful, or as they say in Español, "muy tranquilo."
The next day, we wandered around the town, admiring the simple architecture of the homes and visiting a little store filled with zopilote sculptures (made from a volcanic stone found only in northern Nicaragua), and had a nice chat with the artist. In addition to growing a lot of their own food and raising animals, the community was known for its cheese- both fresh goats milk and an aged alpine-style variety. They also had a vast medicinal herb garden and a respected female elder of the town who acted as the natural healer. We followed some hiking trails into the hills and had a nice walk to a mirador with views of Cerro Apaguajil. Then we had a lovely lunch prepared for us with local ingredients, and we watched a trio of toddler-aged girls chase each other around the comedor giggling and Joey smiled at them, enamored. Life here seemed so sweet and simple. We were not asked to pay anything for our two nights of camping, and in exchange, we bought raw local honey and few different types of their delicious cheese. It was a beautiful beginning to our time in Nicaragua.
We traversed the mountain summits on bumpy dirt roads and enjoyed the fantastic views. The leaves began to get greener, and we watched as the regions morphed into a more tropical setting of a high-elevation cloud forest. Jinotega is Nicaragua's finest coffee-growing region, and down the steep mountain slopes we began to see more and more coffee plants being cultivated in perfect, symmetrical rows. As the beans were being harvested and roasted, we could even smell the delicious earthy aroma of coffee. What bliss!
Next we were headed to a place called Reserva el Jaguar, located at about 4500 ft atop the Cordillera Isabelia. This incredible family-run reserve is a sustainable coffee finca, among other things, also having a richly biodiverse terrain of plants and animals, and a host to many ongoing research sites for birdlife. The humid subtropical climate gave us our very first taste of what it is like to camp in a torrential downpour-and the storms in this part of the world are truly a spectacular thing to experience! The echoing growls of the clouds, the disappearance of the sky in a dark tumbling vapor, and a curtain of rain too thick to even see through. It had been months since we had seen even a single raindrop, and within minutes it was like we were swimming underwater.
The birdlife was really our favorite part, and we would spend hours everyday on the mirador with our binoculars taking in all of the amazing sights and sounds produced by the hundreds of species of different birds. We saw hummingbirds of all colors and sizes, toucans, swallow-tailed kites, scarlet tanagers, different bluebirds, and the very large and noisey Montezuma Oropendola, pictured above with its yellow tail and red-tipped beak! Other birds we couldn't even name. It was a bird-lovers paradise!
We enjoyed our morning hikes though the jungle before the daily rains began. There were trails of varying lengths all over this massive property, most of which was still wildly unkept. Only a portion of the center was clear-cut, and this was where the thousands of coffee plants grew to be cultivated. We admired the flowers, the ferns, the unusual lily pads and leaves shaped like little umbrellas.
We explored the twisted tree trunks and swinging vines, the stepping stones and the rope bridges. Hiking thru the jungle is such a magical experience- everything is just so alive! We could get lost for hours without seeing a soul, only hearing the sound of the birds above and our own clumsy footsteps. We never did see a jaguar though- perhaps its better that we didn't :)
Matagalpa was next on our list of places to check out, a scenic city nestled within panoramic mountain peaks, this town is known as the eternal spring of Nicaragua. Surrounded by farmland and fincas, it is one of the most commercially-active places in the country, renowned for its coffee, fruits, vegetables, cheese, flowers, and my personal favorite, cacao. We made a special stop at the Castillo del Cacao, the largest national chocolate factory, to sample the goods.
It didn't take long for us to fall head over heels with this diverse new country. We loved how different and unique the landscapes were, even within the same region. We appreciated the low-key vibe, the ubiquitous opportunities for legitimate ecotourism, education and conservation, and the special value placed on the land. It was so refreshing to spend time in these places in such an informal way- completely without the feeling of commercial mass tourism. Instead of an immaculate staff getting paid by the hour to provide an "experience", what we experienced was real life- the planting and the harvest, the connection to the earth, the value of community- and we found ourselves being welcomed into small, wholesome family-run establishments to be a part of it all. It was so unassuming and authentic.
And yes, the coffee does taste better here, where it is picked, dried, roasted, ground and brewed all in the same place!
"In the world we are recognized by our achievements, but in the kingdom of God we are known by our hearts"
Central America in six weeks. We realized we were running out of time since my Astrology gathering was just around the corner and we were still in the Yucatan. There was still so much we wanted to see and do. Eventually we came to terms with the fact that we would have to prioritize: which places stirred the strongest wanderlust? There would not be enough time to explore every country at our leisurely snails pace. Of course the consolation was that we could spend more time returning to the places we skipped on our way back. So we set off for this chapter of our journey with ambition: Six countries. Six borders to cross. Six new cultures to experience. Six weeks of overland travel.
Not knowing what to expect, we decided it would be best to cover more ground in the beginning in case we needed to deal with unexpected circumstances (road conditions, mechanical issues, the not-so-unheard-of problem of just falling in love with a place, etc). Since we had already been to both Belize and Roatan (a small island off the Honduras coast) we decided to cut back our time along the Caribbean and instead opted to make our way to the Pacific coast.
Belize was a fun change after Mexico. Suddenly there was English again (with a very unique dialect). Belizian Dollars. Architecture that was distinctly different in a more-British, less-Spanish kind of way. Caribbean culture alongside Mayan. Different fruits and vegetables. Different spices. Different cars and trucks. All in a landscape that looked pretty similar to the one we had just left. We found a quiet overlanding spot on a nature reserve overlooking a tranquil lagoon, and just relaxed. This was the quiet before the storm. We ate watermelon and chatted with Earl, our host, and some other new overlanding friends. We sat with our binoculars and noted the interesting rare birds that came to nest there. There were Wood Storks and Jabirus. We watched the boys go fishing and stomp around in mud puddles. It was nice to be off the beaten path for a few days. We took time to breathe and center ourselves. And after nearly a week, we knew it was time. Another border. A new country.
We crossed the border into Guatemala in the northern area near Tikal and fell in love with the wild, lush jungle that thrived, absolutely untouched. There were small villages and heavily potholed dirt roads. Livestock roaming free. Enormous lakes and gushing rivers. Sunsets the color of fire. We made our way south toward Antigua to enjoy a few days of city life in this colonial labyrinth of cobblestone and soon it was time to bid adieu to Guatemala also. After dipping in a balneario (its like a Latin American outdoor spa- usually with natural mineral waters) near the border, we found ourselves in El Salvador.
It was a Sunday morning when we found ourselves on the bridge that led out of Guatemala and into El Salvador and below, we could see a cluster of people wading into the water to be baptized in the green river. The mountian views were incredible as we winded thru meadows of wildflowers and tall, overlooking trees on this lovely spring day. As we passed thru towns, we saw families and neighborhoods walking home from church in their Sunday best. The vibe was really sweet and wholesome. Just another day in Latin America, as quaint as you could imagine. When we reached the coast (finally! the ocean again!) we celebrated with fresh oysters and ceviche.
The coastline was rugged and beautiful and we realized how much we missed the Pacific. However, to our surprise, the Semana Santa traffic had already begun (it was still two weeks before Easter!) and we found the beaches to be congested with little opportunity for camping. We spent a couple days fighting the crowds around El Tunco before we decided to head further down the coast. We ate our bodyweight in papusas and frozen fruit liquados (sandia is our favorite) and somehow survived the heat as we moved even faster than we anticipated thru this wonderful country.
Despite hearing really nice things about Honduras (really, we did!), this ended up being the country we spent the least amount of time in. Being that most of the travel accommodations were located further north, and we were sticking to our route along the Pacific coast, we transited thru the country in a matter of hours. Ironically, we spent more time in Honduras when we had a cruise port in Roatan a few years earlier. That was a day for the books, with two border crossings, several hours of construction stops, an accidental fumigation (I got a big surprise when the fumigation hose broke open and bathed me in chemical perfume) and a false reading on an atm that showed we had no money in our accounts. That's what we get for trying to skip out on a potentially awesome travel experience. A heart attack later, we realized that we were in Nicaragua with a round of cold drinks in front of us. Cheers ~ to next time!
We found Nicaragua to be absolutely incredible. Gratefully, we made such good timing in our transits that we were left with nearly four weeks to explore this gem of a country. And explore we did, from the upper highlands where it was cool and dry to the beaches offering world-class surfing, we stayed on coffee fincas, learned about cacao cultivation, rice production, and their famous cigars. We gazed into active volcanoes with red molten lava swimming inside. We were even invited to stay in the homes of multiple lovely Nicaraguan families. We were blown away. Our hearts were so full. Stay tuned for our upcoming blogs that will tell the whole story of our delicious time in this wondrous new country.
With perfectly divine timing, we arrived in Costa Rica. My upcoming conference Astrology Rising was only three days away. We were so happy to have made it there, as it was our destination all along. But as the saying goes, it is not about the destination, but the journey. It couldn't be more true. After all, it was nearly a year from our starting point that we had finally arrived. So much had happened in those months in between. New countries. New friends. New insights and new growth. We felt we were somehow different after such a wild adventure. The last six weeks proved to be pretty climactic.
We had made it! And we learned a lot in those six weeks. Lessons that were genuinely sweet, completely unexpected, and most of all, very humbling. That the world could feel so small and familiar and safe, while at the exact same time, so new, so foreign, and so radically extraneous- that I would liken it to being a child seeing the world for the first time, or an alien landing on an unexplored planet. And trust me, when we arrived in some of these remote and less-traveled places in our Crystal Starship, people looked at us like we were indeed from a different universe. Yet these were some of my favorite memories, of being very comfortably out of place.
My favorite learning experiences happened time and time again in the mercados. Every little puebla has at least one, and this is where we did most of our shopping for fruit and vegetables. Each country presented a slight variation of some mostly-familiar foods, and then there were random things that just completely blew my mind. Exotic staples that I had never seen or heard of. Yet, being the foodie that I am, I was always so excited to bite right in!
With my broken Spanish, I would ask a million questions of these lovely people who looked curiously at me like I was from a different planet all together. Here is a sample conversation:
Me: "Que es esto?" ("What is this?")
I would notice a funny smile as they grinned awkwardly at one another, wondering where the hell I was from.
Them: "Es..." (Fill in the blank: lorroco, chayote, zapote, carambola, casseva etc)
"Hmmm," I would say. "Es picante o dulce?" (It's spicy? or sweet?")
More giggles and funny looks. "Es una verdura. Como una papa. Tu conoces que es una papa? Necesites cocinar" (It's a vegetable. Like a potato. Do you know what a potato is? You have to cook it.")
I would look at the thing again, poking it suspiciously. "Umm... bien. Puedo tener uno?" ("Umm... fine. May I have one?")
More giggling. "Solo uno?" ("Only one?)
Me: "Si, quiero probar." ("Yes, I want to try.")
Them: "Claro, claro. Disfruta tu papa! haha!" ("Sure, sure. Enjoy your potato! Haha!")
Lots of laughs and strange looks, but eventually I just got over the awkwardness! I learned to laugh at myself a lot. And I also really appreciated all the kind people who offered me samples of their delicious harvest! Luckily the learning curve is high :)
Also, the money situation was humorously puzzling. Just as I was adjusting to a new system of currency, it was time to move on to the next: Mexican Pesos. Belizian Dollars. Quetzales in Guatemala. Back to US Dollars in El Salvador. Then Lempira of Honduras. Nicaraguan Cordoba. Costa Rican Colones. My brain was so confused with currency conversion. Sometimes there would be a left-over bill from the previous country crumpled in my wallet and I wouldn't realize it, confusing my calculations even more. I am certain every idiots guide to travel book cautions against it, but there was more than one occasion when attempting to make a purchase that I pretty much just gave up- fumbling all of my money onto the counter in complete surrender to my trusted cashier- “Por favor” I giggled nervously, “Dale”. Take my money and please give me back some change. If I lost a dollar or two in these transactions I just considered it a simple service fee and was grateful for the assistance. (We were also left with an ambiguous collection of money from each country that couldn't be exchanged. So, naturally, we got Joey a little piggy bank and he couldn't be happier- his very own coin collection with jingley coins from all over Central America!)
This is the Central America that I want to remember. Not that some of the places we ventured were dirty or destitute. Instead, the incredible warmth of the people. The generosity offered so freely. The smiles and eye contact I shared with someone I will most likely never even see again. The times we entered a new country and got nothing but waves and cheers by locals admiring our awesome rig. The times complete strangers would notice we were stopped and offer us directions.That we literally could not back out of any tight alleyway anywhere without like numerous guys popping out of nowhere offering hand gestures and whistles. “Derecho, derecho, derecho- Alto!!.” Or that any time our son looked longingly at a cookie or a piece of fruit in the market, he was met with warm smiles and offering hands. Or that without any warning, we were invited into so many people's homes to stay with them and have our every need satisfied: the families that cooked for us, showed us around, helped us fix things, take showers, do our laundry, and made us feel so comfortably at home. What we felt the most as we traversed these countries was the amazing abundance of spirit.
To anyone interested in traveling to these far-away places, I urge you, do it. You will find that there is so much reward in these sights, tastes, and feelings. Its a rare thing in our world to experience such warmth and sincerity. Your heart will be touched in beautiful ways. I know that ours were.
What a year!
May 3rd 2017 marks our one-year-anniversary of the day we moved into our camper full-time to embark on a journey of discovery, travel and togetherness! Last May, after selling the house and quitting the corporate job, we decided to set off on an open-ended adventure to drive thru Mexico and Central America. We have covered thousands of miles, countless smiles, completely renovating our lifestyle. We made unforgettable memories and new friends from all over the world. We also admittedly made a few silly mistakes and wrong turns along the way. But who's counting? We have grown a lot. There have been ups and downs, trial by fire, a lot of adjustments, and after one year, this is what we learned:
We don't need much! The Crystal Startship (our rig) is an all-in-one house, transportation vehicle, closet, kitchen, bed(s), library, tool-chest, and fun zone. It is our sanctuary and our livelihood. All together, it weighs roughly 6,000 pounds. We often contemplate our carbon footprint upon this earth, and we think our move into camper life has reduced our environmental impact quite significantly. Life in our 20x10 ft shoe box is really quite simple.
Here are some of the calculations we have come up with: We have cut back our gray water consumption to a minuscule 18 gallons a week- this is all the water that we use for dish-washing, food prep, and hygiene. Bathing in natural bodies of water is a nice treat, and we seek out opportunities to jump into waterfalls, hot springs, and the magnificent ocean whenever we can (and often a better option than public showers.) Our rooftop solar system provides ample power for running our high-efficiency fridge, lights, plus enough for us to power our blender, operate our air compressor and small power tools, and charge up our laptop, phone, and cameras. We avoid processed foods and buy a lot of local produce with our reusable shopping bags. Shopping at small farmers markets puts money directly into the hands of the people who grow the food. We also opt to buy things in bulk, recycling when possible, and seeking out compost piles for our organic waste to help reduce our footprint.
Of course, we are still relying heavily on fossil fuels to travel long distances but here is the ironic part- we actually used less gasoline this past year driving to Costa Rica then we would have living our suburban life in Michigan- considering that Mark used to have a 50-mile-a-day commute and we were a two-car family living in an isolated and semi-rural area. In fact, our mileage this past year has been about on par with what it would be if all we were doing was commuting to and from work. Even after adding 2,000 pounds to the Tacoma with the addition of the camper and utility boxes, we still get an average of 14 miles-to-the-gallon- a big advantage of driving a small quarter-ton truck instead of one of the big rigs.
We always have what we need
Always. The first months of camper life, probably about 25% of what we initially packed with us was either lost or broken. And of course, at first, we mourned these little material losses. But in the end, I think it was the universe's way of telling us that we had too much “stuff.” We also learned to value the things that we have by taking better care of them. Our home is a moving vessle where things shift around, bump up and down, blow in the wind, and occasionally, get rained on. We have learned to make sure that everything is cleaned and put away properly, secured, tied-down, or stored where it belongs. Failure to take care of our posessions promptly resulted in seeing these things get lost or destroyed. Among the lost-but-not forgotten things- we have said goodbye plenty of beautiful glass and ceramic dishes, jars of hard-to-find spices, perfectly good organic eggs, shoes that were forgotten on the bumper, a huge collection of sand toys, an economy sized bottle of Dr Bronners we nearly cried over, and tools that we never put back where they belong. No finger-pointing :) Once you drive away, it's history- you will never find it again no matter how many times you drive up and down the same dirt road.
That being said, it is also extremely useful to install extra latches, locks, bungee cords, and carribeaners to ensure that the things you value stay where you put them! Organization is so important when living and growing together in small quarters.
Another piece of advice: pay attention! It's so easy to get wrapped up in the scenery or the map or the toddler drama, but our absent-minded mistakes sort of seemed to come up as personal reminders or alarms to simply wake up and look around! The universe has incredible mercy in this way. A lot of what we lost was wrapped in a message to just be more present and practice mindfulness. Awakening to a higher state of awareness has prevented the occurance of more serious mishaps for us in the long run.
(PS: we also hope that the little things we lost ended up in the hands of someone who has used and enjoyed them more than we did)
Nothing will ever be “finished”
We are constantly making changes to our truck, our camper, and our lifestyle. At first, we thought we would eventually arrive at this moment in time where all of our projects were complete. However, regular maintenance is needed nearly everyday to keep things running smoothly- this means that Mark is giving the rig some extra love every chance he gets. Daily, he is giving the tires a good look-over to make sure there are no punctures and also that they are wearing evenly and doing an alignment if necessary, adjusting the air pressure in the air bags and tires, making sure that there is enough oil and coolant, no leaks anywhere, the frame and welding looks strong, the charge controller and batteries are in good shape, and that the camper is properly secured with the cables. On a weekly basis, Mark checks the roof to make sure there are no tears that need to be repaired to avoid water damage, and that the solar panels are clean and functioning properly. All this might seem like a lot of work but it prevents small problems from turning into larger issues in the long-term. Along the way, we have added solar power, designed custom cabinetry, repaired our steel frame, and reconfigured our refrigeration system. Everything is a work in progress. And although it seemed like a hindrance at the time, moving into our camper while we were still doing preliminary design work proved to be a blessing in disguise- the longer we lived in it, the more we knew exactly what we wanted and how we wanted it.
There is no such thing as procrastination
We live in the present. Tomorrow we may be in a different country, a different month, a different culture, a different universe basically. Time definitely feels like it moves faster when the terrain is changing everyday. We have learned that the time is NOW- embrace it!
That photo we want to have, a memory for another time in life when we will see it and smile- take it now and have the camera ready- we might not see another sunset like this tomorrow. That unusual food we have never seen before that looks mysteriously delicious and stopped us dead in our tracks with its unbearable smell- try it! We have nothing to lose and we might not have a chance to taste it again. So many of these best snacks are regional or seasonal or just completely distinct to one culture. That compliment we wanted to give to an interesting person who we don't yet know- don't be shy. We may never see this person again. New friends are around every corner if we are willing to open up and start a conversation. That question we have- Ask! There are opportunities all around to learn something new but we may never know the answer if we are too afraid to ask! At first, I think it was our lack of understanding of a new language, but eventually, we just got over it. Who cares if we think we sound weird? It's even more weird to be the only person in the room who is too scared to speak. Yes we made a lot of mistakes but that is how we learned. And without any formal schooling or classes, we are now confident that we can have a basic conversation with pretty much any Spanish-speaker. Maybe not yet the most eloquent, but everything in due time. The important thing is to make the most of every opportunity. Life is extremely fleeting, especially when the road is your home. We have learned that nearly every unfulfilled desire turns into a regret later on. Why not be attentive of these new opportunities to dive right in without abandon?
We can't do everything
Or go everywhere. Maybe this seems a bit contrary to what I just said in number 4- but it's true. We have learned that we have to be discerning with both our time and our money. Every place we have traveled, we are constantly being confronted with so many different new experiences in equally amazing places. And we want to try everything- hiking volcanoes, exploring ruins, renting motorcycles, snorkeling, museums, taking tours, going to festivals, hearing live music. Everything sounds so incredible. And it probably is. But honestly, we just can't do it all. We spent six months traveling through Mexico and we still have a list of things that we want to do there next time. Its one of those predicaments of travel- there is always the unexplored, the unexperienced, the unknown. And eventually, we just learned to accept this. Leave something for the wanderlust, the bucket-list, the next time. Learn to live with that appetite. Stay hungry. Keep traveling. Keep that fire alive and one day, likely in divine timing, you will get to return and do that thing you have been dreaming of.
Savor some alone time
It's important- it really is! One of the biggest draws to Mark quitting his full-time job and us moving into a camper to travel and see the world was that we would have more time together. Full-time family time to raise our son and remember what is really important in life. And it has been such a blessing. But that doesn't negate the fact that our family of three is growing up in an extremely small living space. We are together nearly constantly and we don't really have much privacy. Taking a few minutes out of each day to be alone with our thoughts is one of the healthiest things we can do for our selves and for each other. It doesn't matter what it is we choose to do, having even 30 minutes everyday to do something on our own has proven to have many benefits for our family unit, and our sanity! A short solo hike, time to read a book, practice a few yoga poses, snap a few photos, or to just stare into the horizon and breathe~ whatever it is, it is medicine to the soul and a really effective way for us all to stay centered and happy.
Create a routine
Since we are traveling with a toddler-aged child (Joey turned two only a week after we set off on this adventure) we knew it would be best to establish a routine. I have always seen that young children thrive best with consistency, and even though our lifestyle involves traveling to new foreign places quite often, there is nothing more consistent than having access to two supportive parents 24/7. We intended to create a basic routine so that Joey could feel secure even amidst a lot of changes in his environment. Every morning we wake up and encourage our son to play independently until we are ready to make our morning smoothies, which he loves participating in by prepping the fruit, getting the bowls ready, and "being in charge" of operating the blender. After we have our breakfast, we always have a few hours of outdoor activity together which is usually a hike, or a beach day, or some type of sight-seeing. After lunch, we encourage Joey to take a nap, either in his bed if we are stationed somewhere or in his car seat if we have travel planned for the day. We like to know where we are camping before the sun sets and we avoid driving after dark. We always have dinner together then engage Joey in some quiet activity before sleep, usually reading books or doing arts and crafts. Bedtime is filled with snuggles and kisses. Our routine is simple but it really helps him to know what to expect each day even when we are in a totally new place.
We are pretty spontaneous travelers but we usually have some kind of outline of what we are doing next. We do our research about the places we go and we often have some kind of itinerary. But, if things aren't flowing with ease, we have learned its easier to just be flexible. There are days the kiddo doesn't want a nap and we don't fight him anymore. We arrive at a location without realizing its a national holiday, and decide to stay somewhere more low-key. Or we want to go to some attraction but we end up getting a late start and then the lines are insanely long, and we have to stop and ask ourselves What state of mind are we going to be in after standing in line for two hours? Is it worth it? When in doubt, we like to take in internal inventory: What do our bodies tell us- Are we hungry? Are we tired? Maybe we should just be flexible and see what else comes our way today. Open to the magic of what is and let go of the attachment of what we had planned on doing. Interestingly, sometimes the best places and stories come from abandoning our expectations and being open to something even better.
Keep our vibrations high
This is important all the time- whether we are traveling or not, and no matter where we live- understanding that our attitude shapes our reality 100% of the time and regardless of where we are in the world- has really transformed our experience in life. For us, it has been a potent formula for our success and is an ongoing practice of a skill we are working to master. In the last year, we have relied heavily on this technique for our basic survival on our journey into unknown territory. Without a doubt, we have encountered times of anxiety, stress, and frustration in our transits, but dwelling in that energy has only created a downward spiral of what can go wrong, will go wrong. Keeping a positive attitude in challenging situations can turn even the hardest situations around. In our experience, even just a sincere smile has transended the differences of race, language, and social class. The universe will match the vibration we put out, and even in times of struggle, we try to stay optimistic. Our blog reflects this too- of course nothing ever goes exactly as perfect as we planned, but that's just how life goes sometimes. When we choose to be sharing ~the beauty, the humor, the universal love~ it just allows more abundance to flow. Decide what it is we want to remember about this trip, and then setting the intention of what we choose to give our energy to. And if things decide to go horrendously wrong, we try to just remind ourselves that it will probably be a funny story one day.
We have met so many wonderful people in our travels, hailing from different countries, speaking different tongues, and in totally different phases of life. Some of our favorite memories of this trip are not just from the places we have been, but the people we met, that leave the most lasting impression. From fellow travelers to people kind enough to host us, taking us on tours of their cities, letting us into their worlds, giving us private lessons of a new passtime, or simply opening their doors and sharing their family with ours. No matter where we are in the world, we have really loved the experience of staying connected with some of these people. There are countless places we would love to return to and when we do, we would love to catch up with some of our lovely hosts from the past. And one other thing we have learned- the world is small. We have unexpectedly run into friends from our travels literally months later and thousands of miles from where we first met. You never know where you will see someone randomly, or when. I genuinely hope that one day, when we have roots in a new place, that we will be able to host some of these people in our own backyard and return the hospitality and warmth that was shown to us.
Thank you all for following our adventure this past year! We hope you enjoyed the journey as much as we did.
Want some travel inspiration? Meet some of our traveling friends who keep us inspired every single day by making adventure a way of life!