I had climbed up a slippery rock face in the mist of sorrow out of the void of disparity and found myself standing on the edge of a different void. In front of me was an event horizon of the unknown. I knew nothing of the path that would mysteriously unroll in front of me. I was standing in a current of emotion that was pushing from behind. I could feel the pebbles of courage washing out from under my feet threatening to pull me back down. I had two options and releasing myself to the undertow was not the way I wanted to go down. I jumped; on to the ferry to Caye Caulker, one of Belize’s many bearer reef islands.
The vessel was a high speed 100 person passenger ferry that raced through a placid sea of miraculous clarity. I felt as if I could reach in and brush my fingers through the sea grass but the waters must have been more than 10 meters deep. With a bump and squeak of the large craft docking against old truck tires I had arrived at my first unfamiliar destination. This small little island, 5 miles long and 1 mile wide at its widest, rested 1 mile west of the great bearer reef that created this tranquil sea of chill. From the port I walked nimbly up the small hill with my 60 lb backpack. As I crested the top of this mound of crushed coral, I found myself in the center of town where I could see the sea on both sides of me. This was certainly a small world. I scurried briskly down the main road to the north where I checked into the first hostel I had every slept in. On the hostels threshold I hesitated a moment flushed with uncertainty whether a 32 year old man already full of a life time of experiences would fit in at a hostel full of youths on their maiden voyage into adulthood. I stepped in the door and was casually greeted by my host. I requested a private room and was promptly filed into a closet down the hall. I closed the door behind to observe my quarters. The space was large enough for the bed, my backpack, and myself. The weak metal bed frame appeared to be ancient but was probably less then a year old having been aged rapidly by the harsh sea air and abuse by its occupants. The mattress was a thin foam prison mat. I obviously couldn’t spend any time in this room. I carefully tucked my backpack away so it wouldn’t get dirty and locked my door behind me. The ambient glow of light in the street suggested night fall would come shortly. I wandered aimlessly through the streets, unaware of the lost tourist expression on my face and posture.
“Ey Man. It’s your first time here,” cried a local man from the far corner.
“Yep,” I answered truthfully.
After a few polite pleasantries he said, “That coffee shop over there has the best coffee on the island.”
My foolish reply was to offer to buy him one. We sat down at a small round table on the sidewalk and talked about what could be found in the town. “Ey Man. I’m in a band. We just made our first CD,” he said.
“That’s cool. What kind of music?” I asked. He gave me a look that one gives another when they believe they are talking to a complete idiot. “Reggae, Man. It be only ten dollars, Man,” was his reply.
I explained, “I don’t have a CD player. Thanks for the offer.”
He retorted, “Buy it for a friend, Man.”
With a chuckle, I expressed I wasn’t interested. Much to my surprise, without hesitation he shrugged, stood up, and walked away. The clever swindler who had befriended me was only after a free coffee and a chance to sell me something. Echoes of this interaction occurred a few other times and the scene begin to feel a bit seedy, as if everyone had hidden agenda. By the time I had finished dinner I was ready to move on. At another point in my life I may have loved this town squished onto a pile of shells but I romanticized about becoming a peasant farmer concerned only by my crops. The next morning, I fled to a boat headed for a remote town in the northern coast called Sarteneja. I could have never known what a lasting impression this sleepy fishing village would have on me. I had been drawn to my fist calling. Sarteneja had an intention to captivate and fill my soul with inspiration.
I stepped onto the edge of the Panga boat and it listed as it took the weight of the backpack and myself. In haste not to capsize the boat, I stepped in quickly, slipped in the standing water on the bottom of the boat and fell with a heavy thud and small splash. The only thing hurt was my pride as the boat captain rushed over to assist another clumsy tourist. I unbuckled my firmly attached pack and rolled away from it in the bottom of the boat. The polite captain moved my pack to the pile of other luggage and I bashfully moved to the front of the Panga to hide my face.
The outboard motor fired up with a couple of miss fires and a cloud of smoke that clung to the water’s surface. The captain rev’ed the motor up to full throttle and the boat pulled away slowly from the dock. The Panga was far less graceful across the open sea than the last vessel, which made the sea feel far more dangerous. It was a long, loud, and jolting ride. As we approached the bay where Sarteneja was hidden, the water color changed from a crystal clear swimming pool blue to an opaque milky turquoise that glowed. The captain cut the throttle, lifted the outboard motor and we drifted effortlessly up onto the beach. I gathered my things and stepped more carefully this time out of the boat. The quietness resonates with me to this day every time I think back. There wasn’t a soul in sight and a stillness lay heavily on the humid tropical air. I pulled a damp napkin out of my pocket that I had drawn a map to the hostel on. It was in usable condition so I strapped my bag on and began the 2 mile trek in the mid day sun.
It was a casual stroll to the end of town and a turn to the north. It took much longer than I had expected to reach the first intersection out of town. An elderly women rocked quietly on her front porch amused by my ridiculously large backpack, sweat gushing from every pore, and that lost tourist expression on my person. I asked her where the Backpacker’s Paradise was and she spoke to me quickly in Spanish and pointed further down the road. She hadn’t understood a word but I could have only going one place. There was only one other hotel in town and it was closed for the owners were on holiday. I continued on my way until I reached the next intersection at the corners of four fields with no house in sight. I followed my disproportional map’s advice and turned right. Some distance down the road, a rickety hand painted sign rewarded my efforts. I had arrived.
I walked in the gate and met a French lady my age, named Natalie, in a full brim hat, long sleeve button up shirt and shabby work jeans. She had been raking the newly fallen leaves fallen from the recent transition to dry season. She was startled by my unanticipated arrival.
“Where did you come from?” she asked.
“The boat from Caye Caulker,” was my response.
“But that is more the 3km from here. Did you walk all this way in the blazing heat?” she asked.
I stated proudly that I had and she quickly gave me a lecture on heat exhaustion in the tropic. She had me remove my cumbersome backpack and sit in the shade while she went inside to retrieve a glass of water. With the subtle clap of the screen door I became calm almost immediately. I was surrounded by the beautifully romantic song of nature and my free thoughts. This was a simple place sprawling over a few acres. She called it a subtropical permaculture farm. The guest accommodation consisted of a screen walled patio for a common space with hammocks. I strung up my Hennessy hammock tent outside and spent the next several weeks pleasantly immersed in Slow Living, Permaculture and culture shock.
During my stay there, I volunteered for an old man clearing some land and tending a mean old billy goat. That rough old ram was the kind of pet that resembled its owner in every possible way. It spent its days on a long tether grounded firmly to the earth, clipping his section of the property to the nib. The farmer and the goat always saw eye to eye. I quickly found out why. I casually walked into the ring and approached the center stage. The ram stared coldly chewing a mouthful of brush. Never, I mean never, turn your back on a Billy goat. I reached down for the stake and that nasty old goat tiptoed around me unnoticed and slam! He rammed my ass so hard it lifted me off me feet and put me face first into the dirt. The farmer had the rope in his hand before the goat could have another go but I heard him start to laugh just before I ate dirt.
While volunteering there, I helped build a small corral without an entrance roughly the size of a small car. I thought we would build the goat a ramp or something to get in but the old farmer had a more clever idea. He tossed the rope over one wall. Then, he went around to the other side and grabbed the rope from the outside of the corral. He pulled the goat up to the fence and told me to climb up onto the corner of the fence.
“Take goat head,” he told me. His broken English can’t mean what I think he means, I thought. I looked into the fierce eyes of a ram ready to teach me a lesson if I dared touch his magnificent rack. My heart raced and my palms went cold and wet. The goat snorted in a defiant display for a challenge and in that moment I accepted. Man v.s. Beast. I reached down and grabbed the ram and life by the horns. In the instant I made contact with his horn, I felt a rush of energy move through its body and flash through me as if I had touched an enchanted object. This was Beast v.s. Beast not Man v.s. Beast. The ram shook its head wildly trying to knock me from my perch. I fought back with years of pent up aggression from trying to please others both professionally and personally. Two legs are over the fence and the ram has gone into super pissed mode. Thrashing like a 100 lb. fish out of water he was determined to drag me into the pen to finish me. My foot slipped a little but I refused to be brought down. In a rage of self awareness, I lifted that infuriated ram like a mother lifting a car off their child. I won that billy goat’s challenge!
Sartaneja was the remarkable first step that fundamentally changed my universe. Thank you, Natalie. The next ten months of travel would fill an epic travelogue. I traveled all over Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, and Nicaragua. I met my wife Rachael, visited countless Mayan ruins, and made numerous friendships with other travelers from around the world. If I were to write all the tales from nearly a decade now it would make me a prolific author. Eight years later, after making that leap of faith , I still live in Central America but on a remote island in Nicaragua called Ometepe. Mark Twain described Ometepe perfectly in 1866 passing from San Francisco to New York through lake Nicaragua before the Panama Canal had been built.
“Out of the midst of the beautiful Lake Nicaragua spring two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits pierce the billowy clouds. They look so isolated from the world and its turmoil – so tranquil, so dreamy, so steeped in slumber and eternal repose. What a home one might make among their shady forests, their sunny slopes, their breezy dells, after he had grown weary of the toil, anxiety and unrest of the bustling, driving world.”
Isla de Ometepe is an island made of two massive volcanoes side by side connecting at their base. Maderas, the volcano I live on, is dormant and covered with dense tropical rain forest. Concepcion is a fire breathing, perfect conical pile of rubble almost 5000 ft tall. The geographic features are not its only amazing attribute. Time seems to stand still here. People still use oxen drawn carts and ride mules and horses to pack heavy loads from their fields high on the volcano. Life here on Ometepe is truly about living in the now with what you have. It’s humbling to see our neighbors happily raising their families under a few sheets of hot metal roofing held down by rocks, and four walls made of black plastic. It makes my extraordinary home, made of mud and straw, look like a castle. I have lost my desire to buy or have things. Food, family and friends are the only things that create true happiness.