Thursday, July 21, 2016

Back Home

For those who haven't heard from us in a while, we've been doing well, but nothing new. For three years, we have moved back and forth from Florida in the winter to North Dakota in the summer, working at Everglades National Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was what we were looking for - continuous work in the National Park System. We made our professional goal. It was awesome. But we missed travel, and we missed Nicaragua.

So we took this summer off, to live in Nicaragua again - this time on Isla de Ometepe, the island in Lake Nicaragua in Nicaragua's southwest. We are working with tour guides on this island to provide access to resources and training so their growing ecotourism trade can stay locally based. We have a blog about our work at, which we're updating fairly regularly - but returning to Nicaragua is not just a work project. It's a personal adventure, too, so I'd like to post a few pictures of things very off-topic from our work blog.

First, we may be working on Ometepe, but we had to visit our home from four years ago, the tiny community of El Jocote. Visiting this time of year is a little more difficult than when we went before. It is the rainy season, and though there is drought, there is enough rain to make travel interesting. We had a short amount of time to visit - one day to travel there, one to visit, and one to travel back - so when we found out the single bus to a nearby community was not going to run the day we had to travel to El Jocote, we decided to find alternate transport. This included other buses to as close a point as we could get, walking about 20 minutes to a nearby town, and hiring motorcycle owners to drive us there.
Twas a muddy ride.

Fortunately, we made it. And El Jocote was nearly exactly how we left it - ugly chickens and all.

But really, it has changed a lot. Remember these girls?

They're a little bigger now.

The baby we met when we visited six months after our work there was done is now almost four.

Kids growing up is expected, of course. There were less expected changes, though. The road to El Jocote has been improved, so there are a few motorcycles in town now, much to the fascination of the kids:

Cell service is available, as well, so cell phones are more of a thing now.
This turns out to be pretty cool, since we got to watch a couple videos of things we'd missed.

The wet season also brings more fruit than we remember in El Jocote.

And it is kitten and puppy season.

Some of the kittens we remember from before are still here, and still begging for food.

Some of the kids from before are now adults - and some are in university. One is even studying agriculture, and working with the organization we worked with, AsoFenix. He has his own garden at home where he's testing seeds for adding to community nutrition.

Jeff wanted to make a new video, and the family of Dona Ines helped:
(Check out his video at

The kids were still fascinated by cameras and binoculars.
And by Jeff's antics.

They had to try for themselves, of course...

...and sometimes got some assistance.

We made a nearly full circuit of town, and visited so many people.

The best part is that despite the changes, El Jocote is still El Jocote. The kids are growing...
...but the soul is still there.

We have been having fun at home as well, although I'm not as good at photographing the everyday. We had a party for the fourth of July with some local and international friends, and Jeff had to have his fireworks to celebrate. Only trick is, fireworks here don't have wicks.

So the trick is to light a long stick in a fire,
light the rocket, and run.
On a side note, Jeff is cheating here. He buried a bottle in the sand and has the rocket firing out of that. A true Nica would hold the rocket in his hand to fire from. Yikes!

Just like in the US, elections are looming in November. Unlike in the US, there is only one major candidate, the current president Daniel Ortega. This makes campaign advertisements interesting.
"WE CELEBRATE the continuation of Good Governing by COMMANDANTE DANIEL."
Remember, the election is still four months away.
But hey, I can still find humor in the little things - including interesting names of products like fragrances.
So I've got that going for me.

As much as I miss home in the US, I do enjoy being back home in Nicaragua. This place really does feel like home in a lot of ways, thanks to the incredible people here. Viva Nicaragua!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Christmas in the Caribbean

When we first got our jobs as environmental educators in the Everglades, they told us that we would have to take mandatory leave without pay during the two weeks of Christmas and New Year's vacations.  School is out of session, and the Park does not pay for us to work this time.  We could request employment from other sections of the park, but it's not guaranteed.  So the past two years, we have just decided to make these two weeks our vacation time.  Kate's mom, Sigrid flew down from Washington to join us, and thus began our adventures.  Warning: lots of pictures are to follow!

One of the first things we did was buy another boat.  We go out kayaking a lot in the little red vessel we bought last year.  But it's hard to take friends and visitors, and it does not travel with us well across the country because of its size. So we looked into inflatables and got us a Saturn canoe/kayak, a fitting brand name for us astronomers.  We immediately took her on her maiden voyage when Kate's mom arrived.  Kate orbited us on the Saturn.
 And Sig and I toook the "old" red kayak.  It was fun to be able to go on the Noble Hammock mangrove trail with a guest, and we hope to be able to do it again some day.
  We also are looking forward to being able to have a boat this summer, although we have to figure out what will be left behind to make room for it in our car.

Next, we took off for a couple days of loafing around Key West before Christmas.  Tropical christmas decorations hung from our hotel's balcony.
We relaxed in little coffee shops,
 and visited Earnest Hemmingway's house, where they still take care of the offspring of his famous polydactyl cats (count the toes on this one).
 Cats are everywhere:  near the pool that cost Hemmingway his last penny,
 and looking out of the only basement in the Conch Republic.
 Of course, we had to visit the southernmost bouy, decked out with christmas trees and thousands of tourists.
 we got up in the dark of the morning of Christmas Eve to take a ferry to our favorite island where we would spend the next two nights camping.
 We left our footprints on the sandy beaches of Garden Key, the remote island of Dry Tortugas National Park where the ruins of Fort Jefferson reside.
 The weather turned cool and stormy, but we were determined to go snorkeling anyway, and we had a good time in the turbulent waters around the brick fortress.  I think this is the third picture we have taken of this scene, but it never gets old.
 Reefs and fish were active, despite being cloudy.
 But the weather was really better for exploring the fort.
 I am always very fascinated by the Fort's windows, each looking out onto a different view of the island
 and of the ocean.
 Exploring around on top yields vistas of the Gulf of Mexico
 And the fort preserves some of the boats that cuban refugees used to cross those turquoise waters.  This particular little boat brought over 30 refugees to new dreams of freedom in the USA.  Imagine fitting 30 people in that boat!
 Kate and Sig enjoyed the shade of the old buttonwood trees in the center of the fort.
 Normally solitary, magnificent frigatebirds here glide in flocks in the updrafts and thermals off of the fort
 while skimmers, terns, and gulls perched on the old dock pilings.
 Thunderstorms and rain squalls yielded to tranquil sunsets
 and starry skies appeared under the darkest and most unpolluted skies of the Eastern Seabord.
 There are rats that patrol around the campground at nighttime, but we didn't see any of them.  The only creatures we had to contend with where the piles of hermit crabs that collected around the trees near our tent.
 We returned to Key West for one last evening of celebration.  We enjoyed walking under the soft glow of christmas lights.
 To delay entering evening traffic out of the keys, we stopped by our favorite jazz nightclub, La te Da
 and we watched Deborah and Patrick, one of the most talented jazz duets around, play in their home club.  If you ever go to Key West when they're in town, go and see them!
 I even made a video of them.  I didn't have the equipment or preparation to make a good video, but I wanted to show what they're capable of.
After arriving back in the Everglades and cleaning up, we grabbed a canoe at Flamingo and went out for an afternoon paddle at Snake Bight, a bay of tidal flats that is famous for its concentration of shorebirds and wading birds.
 Among the thousands of birds feeding on the tide flats from horion to horion, we had a close visit by a golden-crowned night heron
 and a roseate spoonbill, which proudly preened itself while I snapped pictures.  It was the closest of almost 60 pink spots that I counted along the horizon.
 We made some trips around Miami to visit Little Havana and Viscaya, a crazy mansion and villa built by one of the local founding billionaires.
 Kate and Sig humored me in my thirst for sunny beaches, and we made a day trip to Key Biscayne. Despite its proximity to Miami, there is an almost deserted beach that is only accessible by about a mile of walking, biking, or paddling.  I put Sig on the Kayak with me and had her paddle me out there while Kate parked the car and met us by foot. You can see the high rises of Miami Beach behind us, but this almost deserted beach feels light years away from that crazy metropolis.
 We spent a fantastic afternoon in the sun and warm, calm waters.  Kate took her mom snorkeling in the shallow tide flats.
 Then, Kate and I went out for a more strenuous adventure while Sig stayed back at the beach, protecting our stuff from maurauding racoons.  Kate and I paddled a mile out to the shipwreck of the Half Moon, a german racing boat that was converted into a bar during the prohibition before it found its resting place in the shallows off of our beach du jour.  It was our first time kayaking in the open ocean to a shipwreck, and we were proud of making it safely.
 We enjoyed a short jaunt under water around the creepy ruins of the ship.
 When we arrived back on the beach, we celebrated with a sunset beer, and I enjoyed the warm water and the bouyancy of my wetsuit, I was the jefe of my hefe, to mix languages.
 The next day we made tortillas.  We make our tortillas from scratch, as you may know, and we have been perfecting the art of tortillas made of two different colors of corn.  With two colors, you can make tortillas with fun patterns.
 We then made another trip into Miami to visit South Beach, the historic art deco area of the city of  Miami Beach. We went for an architecture tour and to gawk at the hordes of people sitting at overpriced restaurants and zipping past in cars that cost more than your average house.  We also took a peek at the island's namesake, but found the beach a little too crowded for our liking, especially after having had our own sandy beach to ourselves just a couple days before.
 The barrier island of Miami Beach was an important place for jewish settlers and World War II refugees, so we also visited the Holocaust memorial there, which was a hauntingly vivid and powerful experience, which neither words nor pictures can do justice, but we recommend you see it if you are able.

On our last free day together before work began again, our snorkel trip was cancelled due to high winds, so we went on a local jaunt through the Everglades instead.  I'll spare you the thousands of pictures of alligators that one takes on the world-famous Anhinga trail, and just share a couple highlights.  No one can resist either touching or at least mocking the cormorants that enjoy taunting the tourists on the railings along the trail.
 Though they may be common clowns of the Everglades, their aquamarine eyes are enchanting.
 The purple gallinule is often the highlight of the trail, if you are lucky enough to spot one as we were.
 Next, we headed out to a final slough slog, or wet walk.  Kate calls these two weeks her attempt to completely wear her mother out, and you can't say we didn't at least try.  But Sig trooped along with us through hell or high water--well, at least through high water.  After slogging through muddy tangles of sawgrass and dwarf cypress trees,
 we entered the ankle-deep water of an elusive cypress forest that we locally call "Movie Dome."
 Slogging through cypress domes is probably the most intimate experience one can have in the Everglades, and the spiritual feeling of walking through nature's cathederal is one we hope to share with any of our visitors who are brave enough to go with us.  Although we cannot always donate two solid weeks of adventures to our guests, if these experiences do convince you to come visit us, we can at least offer a warm guest bedroom from which you can explore some of South Florida's treasures.

Happy New Year!