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Fresh from two months spent decompressing in Nicaragua, I’ve had plenty of time to think about how those days whiled away in a hammock, cooking leisurely meals and exploring a new community changed my outlook on relaxation.

In North America, we tend to think of relaxing as gluttonous–it’s either a four-letter word or a luxury, depending on when and how you relax. Often, we save up all our relaxation for vacation, as if it’s something you can save up and only need to enjoy once a year.

(And let’s be honest… if you have kids, you’re not relaxing on that annual vacation, anyway!)

Here are five things that surprised me about the kind of relaxing we did in Central America this summer:

1. I Haven’t Truly Relaxed in So Long I Forget What It Felt Like

Miranda and I were both pretty terrible at it, at first. She tried to plan relaxing activities for us, which completely defeated the purpose. I went through television and YouTube withdrawals at first, as we just didn’t have fast enough Internet or enough data to stream movies and TV shows. We used Movistar for our Internet access, and it was a real treat to get a deal on 10 MBs each weekend so we could watch a movie.

The rest of the time, I was left to my own devices. I put a lot of kilometres on my running shoes the first couple of weeks, just wanting to stay busy and take in as much as I could.

Surprising Things I Learned About Relaxation - Trevor Schwandt in Nicaragua

But as the days turned into weeks, and weeks into that first month, I realized I didn’t have to cram everything into the short time we usually get for vacation. We were sticking around a while. It was really okay to just sit and read a book (and know that you didn’t have to finish that book before heading back to the craziness of life at home again).

Living in that place instead of passing through on a week or two’s vacation allowed me to truly relax in a way I can’t remember doing at any other point in my last 25 years as a chef.

2. Relaxing Actually Made Me Feel Guilty

Often, I felt guilty of “wasting the day” even though, when I looked at the day as a whole, I still got a lot done. I had time to pick fruit off our trees and those that didn’t seem to be owned by anyone. We had an endless supply of fresh coconut water, from coconuts I knocked off the trees out front. I had time to cook slowly, learning the new flavours available to us. I had time to try out the traditional Nica grill and cook over an open fire.

But I also had time to read several books, and swing in the hammock just listening to my iPod. To walk a few stray dogs for hours, as long as the weather held out. To go to “sunset parties” at Rancho Tranquillo just down the road, to watch the sun set over the deserted Jiquilillo beach with whatever other travelers were passing through.

Sunset parties at Rancho Tranquillo - Seeking Sanity

At first, I felt guilty about all of this. Like at my age, I should be pounding the pavement in search of a full-time job. I’m still not used to Miranda’s way of doing business, where we get up early, get our work done, and actually enjoy the rest of the day instead of putting in hours at someone else’s business because they need bodies.

So many years as an employee conditioned me to the 9 to 5 way of life, and I felt like I was guilty of slacking off or being lazy by deciding to get out of the rat race and make my outside-of-work life a priority.

3. The World Doesn’t Fall Apart If I Disconnect for a Bit

I don’t need to read the news every day. I don’t need to know what the other several hundreds of people on my Facebook are doing every day. Someone will still get ahold of me if there’s something I really and truly need to know.

It took a few weeks to drill this into my head, but I finally got it. Time away from media became a refreshing break, instead of making me feel like I was shirking my responsibilities. For the last year and a bit as we ran our catering business, I had to be “on” all the time. I had to work the front of the house too, which was totally new for me, because we couldn’t afford staff all the time. I was the delivery guy sometimes, too (again, small business = wearing many hats). In that environment, things really could fall apart if I went offline.

Not anymore! I kept expecting to come back to angry emails or a huge to-do list if I ignored the phone for a few hours, but that never happened. Eventually, I might realize I hadn’t checked my emails in days, and that was just fine. Nothing burned down or blew up. It was all good.

4. I Might Actually Be a Morning Person!

For close to 40 years, I’ve considered myself a nighthawk. Mornings were always rough. Now I’m realizing that’s very likely because I was pushing myself every day, not only physically at work but also mentally by staying up too late watching TV shows I could really care less about.

It wasn’t unusual to find myself still staring at the TV at 2am, or crawling into bed completely exhausted at midnight and dreading the next day.

In Nicaragua, we learned very quickly to get up with the sun around 6am. That’s when the temperature outside is actually tolerable for things like going for walks, picking coconuts, running errands, etc. Every morning, the chicken bus roared by our house at 6:30am, blaring the horn to let the locals know it was time to go to town; even if we’d wanted to sleep in, it just wouldn’t happen.

And once it got dark at 6pm, the entire town wound down. The kids all scurried home to be in before dark. Even the cattle and horses were herded into their fenced-in yards by dinner time. By early evening, there was nothing left to do but sit and watch the epic thunderstorms, and read a book until you fell asleep.

It was awesome.

5. Relaxation and Better Dietary Choices Go Hand in Hand

Us North Americans have the worst fast food habits. We keep ourselves so busy we don’t have time to eat good food and usually end up grabbing at whatever’s quick and easy. Too often, that means processed, prepared junk that’s full of fats and salt.

Making time to eat foods that are actually good for you.

For over two months, we didn’t hit a single fast food joint. I never ate a meal in the car. I never felt like I had to scarf down my food to clear the table for the next person, or try to fit a decent meal into a half-hour lunch break. Within ten minutes of our house, we had 4 pulperias (small, family-run corner stores) selling different fresh fruits and vegetables–whatever they’d picked that morning. Each day, a different local vendor came by with their wares. Wilson made the best coconut bread. Lionel made yuca fritters in a sweet sauce that went great with our dinners. Grethel’s husband was a fisherman and sent over fresh fish and shrimp when they had it. We had time to think about what we wanted to do with these fresh ingredients, and actually do it.

What was most surprising to me was how quickly those two months flew by. Sometimes I didn’t even know what day it was, let alone the time.

Is that a shameful thing to admit? I don’t think so–not anymore.




Trevor Schwandt spent 25 years as a chef in Ontario, Canada, and is on a mission to see the world. An avid traveler, he’s backpacked Europe and explored his way around Central America and the Caribbean. Trevor’s the more adventurous of the Seeking Sanity blog duo, constantly on the lookout for a new set of ruins to hike, local cuisine and brews to try, and increasingly exciting ways to scare Miranda silly.

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