January 2009

This is how the vast majority of my conversations end, roughly translated:

“good, Raquel, be well, and if there is anything that you need, whatever it is, you can always ask me.  You have my number now.  Call me, come to my house – if you need anything or you just want company, I am always here.  I am always available for you.  Whatever you need.  Really.  Be well, Raquel, God be with you, good night!”

At first I thought this was specific to the old friends of Alan who I meet here, but no, that´s not true.   It´s just Nicaragua I guess.  Que corazones!

Quickly, because this cafè is closing – I had an absolutely Fantastic and Very Interesting day today.  I went out into the countryside with three members of the Agroecology Department Extension to attend some meetings with tomato farmers.  The meetings were in tiny villages, pueblitos, outside of the small town of Somotillo.  The roads were so rough and we had to drive through creeks, and man were we all sore.  We showed the farmers (mostly women!) pictures of several diseases, and gave them information about how to combat the pests and diseases without using chemicals (or to cut down the amounts and types of chemicals, realistically).  Maybe my favorite  part was the method of rounding up farmers from the community, which was very spread out.  Another pick-up, with a generater and loudspeaker, drove around while we were setting up.  A man shouted in the excited voice of a radio announcer, “come help your tomato plants!  We have come from very far away to share our knowledge about diseases and pests!  You will benefit greatly!  No one should stay at home!”  All the while blasting salsa and merengue music.  It was hilarously like the fiesta arrived along with the scientists.

Yesterday I spent the day at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua Agricultural Sciences campus. The campus is outside of town, and the bus that goes there takes absolutely forever because it winds around every part of town in a crazy way. At first I was annoyed, because it is hot and crowded on the bus, but then I realized that it is actually a great way to see residential parts of the city that I otherwise wouldn’t necessarily explore. We passed some absolutely beautiful houses and churches (lots and lots of churches actually) that I am going to try and find again after I buy a bicycle.

At the University I got a wonderful tour of the labs for Biological Pest Control (they are reproducing and selling a parasitoid, a predator, a virus, and a fungus), and the fields that surround the campus. Right now is the summer, which is the hot dry season. All the crops growing now – corn, tomatoes, sesame, peppers, cotton, dry beans, and Jamaica flowers – were seeded at the very end of the wet season, in November and December, in order to be established, and now only some of them, like the tomatoes and peppers, are irrigated with drip tape. More on that coming soon.

This city is magical, mysterious, and elusive. I haven’t been here long enough for the map and the rhythms to sink into my head yet, so things keep happening like I find a street vendor who is super sweet and we have a nice conversation but next time I go back she is gone. I found a sweet little bakery with absolutely scrumptious croissants (tons of butter…), but I swear I walked that block again today and the blocks around in a circle where I thought I remembered it being and I couldn’t find it. I feel like every time I leave an area, somebody comes and slides the city blocks around like one of those little slide puzzles, so I am thoroughly confused and disoriented when I come back. I can see the video game advertisement, the colorful blocks of stucco houses with clay tile roofs distorted into an Escher-inspired impossibility…

Le Iglesia de San Felipe

Le Iglesia de San Felipe

I´ve arrived in the city where I will be for the next ten months. I´m staying at the University Guesthouse, where I have a private room and there is a common kitchen.  It´s perfectly decent and clean, the only thing is everyone here is foreign (therefore speak german or english more than spanish), there are very strict policies about guests and they lock the kitchen at night.  So for now, it´s fine – tranquilo – and a very good place to stay while I work things out at the University and CEPRODEL.

The first thing you notice when you get here is that León has a church every four blocks.  Most of the addresses are in relation to churches – el Merced, San José, San Juan, Guadelupe, Sutiaba, San Francisco, el Calvario, Laborio.  The church above is San Felipe, it´s right next to the guesthouse, so all I say when I take a taxi home at night is “el hospedaje al lado de San Felipe por favor” and they know exactly which one.

This city is cute and colorful and absolutely the opposite of Managua.  Easy to navigate and walk around.  The people are super friendly.  Last night a graduate from the Agro Ecology program at the University took me out on the town with his brother to show me the nightlife.  It was a hilarious adventure, and I think he may have learned as much as I did.  First he took me to the supermarket.  I said thanks but we have too many of those in the states.  Then he proceeded to show me Payless Shoes, the mall, the movie theater, and Tip Top, the fast food joint where he said we could get dinner – the best fried chicken and fries in town.  Finally I said I really wasn´t interested in going to a movie, and wasn´t there somewhere to get Nicaraguan food?

That´s how we ended up at a billiards hall slash cafeteria, ordering tostones, platanos, and gallo pinto.  The girl serving us tried to ask Freddy if I was his girlfriend without me hearing, and before he could answer I told her no, he was my guide.  She gave me a huge smile and laughed, obviously not expecting me to understand her quick side comment.

We ended up at a club, with Theda, a german girl also staying at the guesthouse with me, and some of her Nicaraguan friends.  The music was too loud, strobe lights annoy me, and it wasn´t really my scene.  But we had paid a cover to get in, and I ended up having fun joking with Freddy, Maurice, and their friends (all guys of course….), and dancing every fifteen minutes or so when they played a merengue in between the electronic crap.  I´m sure I´ll find better places to go dancing, but it was a good start.

Lya and Antonia on the beach at Poneloya

Lya and Antonia on the beach at Poneloya

Yesterday I accompanied five CEPRODEL employees from the main office in Managua to a meeting of all the offices in the León municipality (León is like New York, both a city and the name of the surrounding region). The meeting was at a beautiful hotel, in the town of Poneloya, which is on the pacific coast. The town is small and beautiful, with grandiose and brightly painted buildings all the way up to the beach. After the meeting, we walked along the hot dark sand, collecting brightly colored shells and trying to take pictures in the bright sun. The waves that lapped at our feet were, for me, uncommonly warm for ocean water.

There were more than thirty employees at the meeting, dressed in light green business jackets or polo shirts with the CEPRODEL logo on the breast. Several of the Managua officers gave presentations summing up the past year and announcing goals for 2009. The meeting was well timed for me; I was introduced to many people from the León office where I am going to be working. In fact, I think I was introduced to Luis, the resident agronomist who works with all the farmers, at least four times by four different people. By the last time we just smiled at each other and shook hands again, pretending that we hadn’t yet met for the benefit of the person introducing us. Later I found out he has a fantastic sense of humor, and thoroughly enjoyed picking my Spanish to bits. Luis is the one of the people who I will probably be spending the most time with. I think we will get along fine.

Last night, just for kicks and to celebrate my last night in Managua (for now, anyway, until I have to return and sign the visa papers that still aren’t ready. The woman at the Embassy blamed it on the change of government in the U.S…..), I walked down the street to “the Shannon Pub” and had a pint of Guiness with a giant plate of very good nachos. So far the food hasn’t been thrilling. While trying to avoid too much chicken and meat, I’ve eaten mostly over-cooked and over-salted fish with French fries. Two nights ago I had the best meal yet – gallo pinto (rice and beans), with platanos fritos and an enchilada, which is more like a Mexican tostone, a flat fried tortilla with beans, cheese, and salad on top.

The rocks were covered with tiny mussels, barnacles, and crabs

The rocks were covered with tiny mussels, barnacles, and crabs

My first noteworthy advice for anyone planning lengthy adventures abroad is even though you think you are a free and trustworthy citizen of good standing and the whole rest of the world will be happy to have you as a tourist, do not buy a one way international ticket.   In my opinion, if everyone gets the reaction that I got when I got to the Delta desk at Newark, it should be illegal to sell one way tickets.  Especially on line.  That being said, everything actually got better after the first Delta rep said, “ok, maám, you need to step over to the side; you are not going to be getting on a plane today”.  Luckily, she was wrong.  Although it took over an hour with two other reps and their bosses to determine that buying a fully refundable return ticket within 90 days would allow me to leave the country without a visa (and then purchase that ticket….), I did make the plane and arrived in Managua last night, on time.

If my first day here is a sign of what is to come than this whole project is going to come together magnificently.  First, the meeting I thought I was having in the morning was postponed until the afternoon, which allowed me to stay in the hotel and watch the whole inauguration on television.  Then, Michael, the CEPRODEL employee who met me at the airport, came and picked me up again and took me to the main office.  I met with Marvin, the CFO, who explained to me the whole national system of the micro finance bank and drew wonderful diagrams with arrows and the names of all the cities where they have offices.  Even though he emphatically told me many times that he knows nothing of agriculture, we still got into a good conversation about diversification and the financial viability of different farms.  Then I met with Miguel, the Executive Director, who invited me to visit a housing cooperative tomorrow with him and also to go to a meeting with the whole León office at the beach on Thursday.  And Carlos, the Credit Manager, seemed to immediately understand exactly what I want to get out of my time here, and assured me that working with the field officers in León, visiting rural farms, and talking with the farmers there are all possible.  I feel warmly received and very optimistic about going to León on Friday. The agenda tomorrow : meet with the American Embassy, buy a cell phone, and go visit a housing cooperative.  A very full day.

A few practical notes –  I am still figuring out this website, but I think that if you click on “comments” at the top of this post, you can comment on my journal writing, and it won´t show up here but it will in the archives (and I will get it!).  I think wordpress does that so if there are lots of comments you don´t have to scroll through them to read the entry underneath.  Someone try that to confirm!

The SosteNica Staff

Meet Jay Pressman, Alan Wright, and Chris Bell,  the staff of SosteNica, the micro-loans non-profit that I am currently interning with in West Chester, PA. They are cheerily preparing me for ten months in Nicaragua, where I will be working with their partner bank, CEPRODEL, and at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in Leon.

In this cozy office I have been working to recruit new institutional investors for SosteNica.  SosteNica works by sending money down to their partner bank, where it is loaned out to individual families in the Leon region of Nicaragua.  All the loans, rural or urban, have a strict environmental component, and the farmers who apply for loans receive advice from trained sustainable agricultural specialists (that’s part of what I get to be a part of starting next week!).  The Nicaraguans pay interest on their loans, and that interest is shuffled back up to our American investors, who reap the double benefit of having a safe investment and helping families in the second poorest country in Latin America while educating them about sustainable environmental business practices.  No wonder micro-loans have become so popular….

It’s strange how connections overlap and that a random suburb of Philadelphia can have so many things to offer me. I have been staying alternately with my mother’s cousin Connie, and my friend Morgan, who worked with me last year at the Food Bank Farm.  His parents live a little less than a mile from the SosteNica office, through some paths and wooden bridges in the woods.  Alan, the president of SosteNica, has been treating me to many yoga classes, good meals, and wonderful walks and talks with his dogs in the fields.  In general, I’m spoiled here.

I actually met Alan, the President and founder of Sostenica, fifteen years ago at a family summer camp run by the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS). Our families spent several summers contra dancing together, and I got to know his children, who are a few years younger than me. He has kept in touch via this micro loans project, and now my interests line up with one of his life projects.  Alot of the credit for the Fulbright project I am about to embark on goes to Alan – he has been extremely generous in giving me contacts in Nicaragua, making calls and writing letters in my behalf, and in general being my number one supporter.