As with this new farming life seems to bring, so much seems to happen in a month, yet the daily schedule seems so singular. In the past month we became accustomed to the winter, traveled to Central America, then had to reacclimate to the winter, built most of the workshop, made many plans and orders for our garden and orchard, and attended our first full-fledged farm conference.
Molly and I have wanted to travel abroad with our children since we enjoyed our own travels long before kids. Airplane prices for a family of five, work schedules, and the idea of traveling too far with a toddler has kept that dream at bay until this winter. Our kids are campers that are used to a few weeks of driving around National Parks in summer, but this trip would be a little different. We wanted them to be responsible for their gear and gain a sense of adventure for the world beyond our borders.
Guatemala and Belize
A few days before Christmas we flew to Guatemala City and that night took a microbus to Antigua. Antigua is a lovely walking town with a nice hike up the Cerros de la Cruz overlook and views of the volcanoes surrounding it. We loved the architecture (which reminded Molly of New Orleans) and the meals in garden courtyards and picturesque rooftops. The center square is nice busy hubbub and introduction to Guatemalan entrepreneurism. After a few quetzales spent, our first family tuk-tuk ride, and our rocky reimmersion into the Spanish language we moved on to Lake Atitlan which was about a five hour microbus ride away. As we drove through the rural areas we saw hundreds of people on the side of the road, especially children, waving, yet for seemingly no specific reason. Most of them were not selling anything, just spending the day by the roadside. The glimpse of these lives and their nearby shacks blurring by us were striking reminders of the hardships of poverty and the imbalances of the world.
Lake Atitlan has towering volcanoes and a perimeter of a variety of pier-based towns that each have a distinct vibe. We used Panajachel as our homebase and stayed at the end of an alley and quiet hotel Posada Kamol Bey. Molly and the boys loved shopping on the main thoroughfare and Beckett had a line on some street fair elote which kept him quite pleased. We took a boat to San Marcos, which was the yoga/hippy commune of the lake, to swim at the Nature Reserve and visit another permaculture farm. Another day trip brought us to San Pedro for horseback riding. The town was known to be a great party stop for backpackers, though during the day it seemed just a bit seedier for these old parents traveling with kids.
The next major stop was Semuc Champey near Lanquin, which was a ten hour travel day away, and the last couple hours were quite harrowing. The mountain passes, combined with fog, rain, and darkness, were enough to question our choices as parents. The last hour in the back of a pickup truck from Lanquin to our hotel in the middle of the jungle definitely awakened the adventurous spirits in the kids and muscle pain in middle-aged parents. It was all worth it because Utopia Eco Hotel was an amazing stop on our journey, in spite of the scorpion and spiders that greeted us in our riverside cabin. The next day at Semuc Champey, a series of limestone pools that exist above an underground river, we understood why so many, though mostly Guatemalans, venture to these parts of the jungle. Imagine swimming in a crystal clear natural pool in the jungle with a soft sandy bottom, deciding to move on, then jumping down a few feet to the next pool, sliding down a ten foot slippery rock face to the next, and again and again. We all voted at the end of the trip and this was most of ours favorite day.
The next leg of our trip was the only stop that Molly and I had visited on our honeymoon back in 2003. Flores, Guatemala is a town on an island in the middle of lake near Tikal. We chose not to visit the ruins with boys because at this point we were trying to limit our travel days. We had a beautiful boat tour of the wildlife around the lake and walked the whole island. Molly and I bemoaned the loss of our little sleepy town we remembered, but there was great vitality and progress being made.
Our last stop was Caye Caulker in Belize, which is an island with white sand beaches and streets with only golf carts and bikes to look out for. It was a great touristy town with plenty of good restaurants and bars to sit and enjoy the laid back feel. Our other favorite day (depending on who you ask) came when we snorkeled the Hol Chan Reserve and Shark Alley. The boys loved the catamaran we took and couldn’t believe all the fish, sharks, rays, and one turtle we saw. Molly and I debate how much of this trip will last in their memories, but we know this day left some deep impressions. And then we were ready to go home, about two days too early, (note to self – fifteen days may be too long of an international trip for a family of five), but then we fell in love. There is an alleyway of an animal shelter on Caye Caulker that we stopped by to pet some dogs, and we met a little puppy, whom Russell named Captain Coconut by the end of the night. So, the following day we adopted her, obtained the paperwork, called the airlines, and hoped that our flights home would go well with our new Belizean street dog. Thankfully it did, and she is in good health and has melded right into our family (but I wouldn’t say she loves the winter).
Back to the Farm
Going on a trip makes you love your home that much more, and we settled right in and it no longer feels like we just moved here. A little nesting in the big barn has brought about my workshop. And though it will always probably be a work in progress, I feel just about ready to move tools in and start organizing. There’s no heat yet and I’ve been working with a single extension cord pulled from another barn, so not ideal, but I’ve had a good time planning and building it. We now have 60 solar panels up on the roof of the barn, ready to be powered up, though we are still working on getting them tied to the grid. It’s killing me having that much power above my head, but barely enough for a single bulb and one power tool in the shop. That should be worked out in the coming weeks.
Molly just finished working with Ry, our 19 year old farmer-prodigy-helper-guy, to place the seed orders for our vegetables, berries, fruit trees, and herbs. That was a task in itself, especially after receiving so much advice and there being such a wide array of possibilities. There are so many intricacies with each plant and variety, whether to start from seed or not, where to get it from, where to place it, and then the timeline for growing it. I’m thankful she’s in full command of this area, though I have been recently inspired by orchards.
The family and Ry attended the Northern Michigan Small Farm conference and were inundated with all things farming. I spent most of the time learning about orchards from Michael Phillips, but also had some good sessions on dirt and vermicomposting. Molly learned about grazing, medicinal plants (one step closer to becoming a witch), and farm management tools. The kids were able to attend a human nature workshop where they learned to make fires and enjoyed the pool. Although I definitely felt my newbie status (I really have so much to learn), it was really inspiring to be apart of something that so many people cared and quietly worked toward on their own properties.
After all of these experiences this winter I’ve realized how simple farming can be from the hills of Guatemala and how complex it can be by trying to foster mycorrhizal in the soil of your polyculture orchard. More importantly, it is the simple passage of time that seems to dictate how one day could be spent ordering a season’s worth of seed. Yet over the course of a quick month, the many seeds that will be planted in your head about the endless possibilities of what your land can bring you and your loved ones.