February 2009

I woke up Wednesday morning at 5:30 am to an explosion that jerked me awake.  The explosions continued, and it was obvious that I was not going to get any more sleep.  As I drank coffee and read (I’m reading a novel of seducion and history written by Gioconda Belli, one of Nicaragua’s prominant authors, in Spanish), I was startled by loud explosions for over an hour.  I don’t know if I will ever get used to the Nicaraguan love of fireworks.  For every occasion – birthdays, anniversaries, patron saint festivals – they bring out the works.  In this case it was Ash Wednesday, apparently a catholic holiday of extreme importance, given the potency of the explosions.

Catholicism here is like food.  As far as I can tell, going to mass is like having dinner.  It’s essential, you don’t question it, and it’s not a big deal.  Everyone understands that you eat when you can.  Sundays people trickle in and out of the Cathedral all day.  The services may start at 10, but you go when you can.  When services officially end, there is no stream of people exiting the church like in the Episcopal church where I grew up.  Half the people have already wandered out during the service, the other half maybe just arrived and will sit and contemplate or pray for a while afterward.

The celebrations draw crowds and are showy demonstrations of youth and affluence.  Each church has it’s patron saint which is celebrated once a year with a procession through the streets.  During Lent there will be 14 processions, representing the 14 stations of the cross, organized throughout the city.  Seven of them will take place the week of Easter, when apparently the more religious folks are processing and going to Mass and the other half the city are at the beach celebrating to Reggaeton.  Either way, it promises to be colorful and interesting, and I’m looking forward to it.  Maybe except for the fireworks.  5:30 am!!!

An angel in the Fiesta Patronal in Los Leches, a village outside of Leon

An angel in the Fiesta Patronal in Los Leches, a village outside of Leon. She is riding in a float pulled by a tractor, along with seven other angels.

Procession to La Merced, in the center of Leon.  This procession also had two sets of virgins with babies and Joseph, three kings mounted on horseback, and a group of singers led by a man playing guitar.

Procession to La Merced, in the center of Leon. This procession also had two sets of virgins with babies and Joseph, three kings mounted on horseback, and a group of singers led by a man playing guitar.

The front of the house.  The window on the right is my room.

The front of the house. The window on the right is my room.

Almost a week ago I started renting a room in the house of a professor from the Agroecology Department.  Jose Ernesto sells ornamental plants when he isn’t teaching, and the house is surrounded by a gorgeous garden.  There are two huge mango trees which have just started dropping ripe fruit, flowers, neem trees, and a jicaro tree, which has funny ball like fruit growing off the trunk.  The shells of the fruit harden and are used for bowls and ladels, and the seeds are extracted from the pungent black fruit, dried, and ground into a powder used for a drink.

I have put a mess of pictures onto flickr of the house; I think it’s clear why I am excited to live there.  It’s close to the center of the city, the family is wonderful and welcoming, and it’s a horticultural paradise.  Jose Ernesto lives there with his son Oswan who is 21, and his other son Ernesto and his wife Judy live in a small house in the back, and share the kitchen.  Ernesto and Judy are really good cooks, and often invite me to join them for meals.  The trees and the garden make an enormous difference in the temperature.  At the residencia, which is only four blocks away, I slept with a fan all night.  Here I wake up every night around four to put on a sweatshirt and pants because it is so cold.  What a clear example of how trees and vegetation effect our climates.  Refreshing, for sure, and worth putting up with a few more ants and spiders in the house who wander in from the garden….

There are many tactics to approach the importance of farming and comsuming organic produce.  Of great importance to many people in Europe and the United States is the health of the consumer.  Pesticide residues are a concern, especially on fruit such as strawberries which are eaten intact, with the skin, and eaten in large quantities by young children.  For many, the motivation for buying organic produce is to prevent unnessary and irreversible damage to the environment.  Chemical runoff in rivers and water tables, increasing numbers of pesticide and herbicide resistant plagues and weeds, and the disapearance of beneficial insects and animals are just a few of the effects of overuse of agricultural chemicals.

Another reason to buy organic is very obvious in this part of the world, where nothing in the supermarkets except for maybe coffee is labelled organic, and it is a struggle to propote environmental consciousness.  In Managua, literally across the street from the CEPRODEL office, is a whole community of people living in trash bag huts.  They are farmworkers from banana fields, living together in one park outside the office of the banana firm.  A friend told me they have been living there for five years, requesting compensation for their medicals bills due to overexposure to pesticides.

This article summarizes just one struggle here in León, Nicaragua.  Tomorrow afternoon I am going to visit the foundation here in town, Fundacion La Isla, that is helping a group of sugar cane workers get medical help and care for their families.  One of the things they are offering are trainings in organic agriculture, so that farm workers that have their own small peices of land can can farm organically and avoid the debilitating health effects of chemical exposure.

Locally, there is no market here for organic produce.  The infrastructure, consciousness, and ability to pay higher prices are virtually non existant.  The most plausible oportunity I can see here to encourage and expand organic agriculture quickly is to strengthen the international market.  It´s not a solution, because transportation costs are rising.  It goes against so much of what I preach and believe in –  such as local food systems, and it also bypasses the education and local marketing of organic food and practices.  But the reality is I don´t believe that people in the U.S. are ever going to stop buying bananas.    The question is, if organic bananas cost a dollar more at Whole Foods, is that extra dollar helping to ensure someone´s health who lives and supports his family on two dollars a day?

….when I am delighted to find a tiny bottle of soy sauce in a supermarket and run home to make stir fry with peppers, garlic, onion, yucca, and green plantains.

A post about the farm at UNAN León is long overdue.

First, the current header photograph on this blog is an impressive 80″ x 60″ greenhouse that was constructed seven years ago and isn´t currently being used. Instead of plastic it is covered with a very fine netting, that allows the air to pass through and ventilate it but prevents insects from entering. The unusual shape of the roof is to capture the wind and suck it down to create a cyclical air current, further cooling the temperature. Overheating in greenhouses is a serious danger. Here, greenhouses are used primarily to protect young plants from insects and direct sun. Electricity and ventilation systems like the one in our greenhouses at Food Bank Farm are very expensive and hard to come by here, and so this passive ventilation system was developed.  The result is that these greenhouses are oriented to the direction of the wind in order to catch it lengthwise, instead of in relation to sun like in New England.

There are two organizations within the University that govern the farming here. One is the Agroecology Department, and the other is an independant foundation that the University funded called Fundacion Alma Mater. The Fundacion is financially self sufficient and doesn´t receive any additional funding from the University, although all of its expenses are funnelled through the University. For example, the workers are employees of the University and receive benefits, but the cost of the salary and benefits needs to be covered by sales from the farm. Any crops that are going to be used for research and classes by professors within the Agroecology Department are funded by the department. The students can design a thesis project, such as Margarita´s with papaya and plantain, and the department covers the costs and hires labor by selling the product.

Both the Fundacion and the Agroecology Department sell primarily to the University cafeteria and employees of the University. They also sell certain crops to the public, such as the plantains. The people who come for the most part are purchasing in order to take the produce to local markets and resell it. According to Don Noel, who is in charge of all the land cultivated by the Fundacion, the University receives a better price when they sell to the University cafeteria and employees, because they cut out the intermediary wholesalers, and can straddle the difference in price to that they charge more than they do to the general public but less than if the University were buying from a distributor or the markets. Additionally, because it is within the University, they deliver to the cafeteria an no extra cost, whereas all wholesalers need to come to the University to purchase the produce.

This is the closest form of selling to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm that I have found here. So far, all the farmers I have talked to sell all their produce to large international companies that send representatives to farms to purchas crops like yucca and sesame, or to other locals who purchase it to resell in the markets. The already existing structure of the University gives them access to a defined market, which they have been able to use to their advantage.

As far as I know so far, this is an unusual marketing system for produce in Nicaragua. Most people here respond very skeptically to the word ´cooperative´. I understand why a CSA is a economic agricultural model that doesn´t fit easily into the market structure here. Produce sellers are bountiful, on every corner of the city, street markets are overflowing, and people are accostumed to having the freedom of buying what and when they want. But there must be other structures within society that could be utilized to create this double advantage to consumers and farmers.

I have updated photos and added lots of description about the plantain project in Flickr (link in the sidebar on the right). I am still learning my way around that site and am a little frustrated with the presentation and organization. If any of you work with flickr and have suggestions, they would be much appreciated.

What food has a head but no face,

Hands without arms,

Fingers that cannot grip,

And delights the vegetarians when served?


Plantains and bananas.  The tall palm-like trees produce one flower, which opens gradually as the fruit forms in clusters under the petals.  The entire stalk of fruit is called a cabeza, or head.  Each cluster along the stalk is un mano, or a hand.  The individual fruits are dedos de mano, or fingers. I am somewhat slightly obssessed with platanos.  The plants are regal and strong, they grow rapidly and shoot up clones around the base.  The palm like leaves are used to wrap tamales and serve food in the markets.  Heads of fruit drip erotically out the center of the plant, with a bud shaped purple lower still attached to the tip, until it is cut off to send more energy into the fruit.  I might be happy living in a platanos grove, eating tostones, tajadas, and maduros….

Margarita, a student finishing her degree in Agroecology, invited me to accompany her one morning to collect data for a research project that she has been working on for a year and a half.  She is studying a section of plantains that have been intercropped with papaya plants, to see whether the two plants have a beneficial relationship and produce higher yeilds when planted together.  We spent the morning at the University´s 20 manzana (34 acres) of platanos.    She knew I would be interested to see them, and additionally she has a broken arm, so an extra person to help measure and weigh the fruit was definitely appreciated.

A pile of plantain heads after harvest

A pile of plantain heads after harvest



Loading the plantains onto a trailer

Loading the plantains onto a trailer

Now that I have a bicycle, it’s time to start learning the pattern of one-way streets here, as well as another new language.  So far I have learned that if you are driving through León, you can say any of the following simply by honking your horn as often as you like,

“Hi, I am a taxi and I am available!”

“I am not stopping at this intersection so you better yield to me.”

“Hey, you pedestrian in the street (or bicycle, pedicab, stray dog, horse and cart, vendor, etc), get out of my way!”

“Hola Amigo, how are you!”

“I’m passing you on the left (on a two lane road), make sure you notice me!”

“Hey there, hot stuff!”

Keep in mind that with minimal traffic lights and signage, this is a very important language to learn. I will keep you all updated as I learn new vocabulary in this delicate Nicaraguan language of honking.

Bikes and cars share a busy street by the San Juan market

Bikes and cars share a busy street by the San Juan market

Two new excellent additions to life in Leon – a bicycle and a P.O. Box!

My new bike in the room at the Residencia.  A little cluttered, but worth it!

My new bike in the room at the Residencia. A little cluttered, but worth it!

Yesterday I went down to the San Juan market to look for a bicycle. Shopping around for prices and quality here is tricky and exhausting. Getting around is exhausting, especially in the middle of the day. So I had pretty much decided that I would talk to everyone at the market selling bicycles and then buy one that afternoon, not worrying that somewhere else in the city there would be a better deal. The San Juan market is where the old train station used to be. The building is still standing, but the train stopped running 19 years ago. The market is divided into sections – clothes, shoes, fruit, meat, hardware shops, and bicycles. First I wandered into the shoes and clothes section, looking for the original train station. I found it next to Ronaldo’s shoe booth and his wife’s clothes booth. I started talking to him, and after a while we figured out we could help eachother out. I promised to get him the names of the best varieties of tomatoes to plant in his patio, and he gave me advice on buying bicycles. He told me what a decent price for a used bike was, and to make sure that the bike had papers, otherwise it could be stolen, and I wouldn’t be able to prove I bought it.

Ulysses assembling my bicycle

Ulysses assembling my bicycle

When I found the section where everyone was selling bicycles the first four sellers quoted me prices for used bicycles that were double what Ronaldo advised. The selection wasn’t great, and most of them were in pretty poor shape, and even though the prices included a thorough tune-up, I was a little skeptical. The last person’s booth I went was Ulysses’. All his used bicycles were too big for me, but he showed me the new ones he had and quoted me a price that was less than what everyone else had offered for used ones. Ulysses has a great sense of humor and he joked around a lot while describing the bikes, and ultimately convinced me to buy the beautiful new dark red bike that fit me perfectly. It wasn’t assembled yet, so I had forty five minutes to wander around the market while he finished assembling it. And so I ended up with not only a new bike, but lots of new food for dinner too – maduros hornados, cuajada, tamale pisca, and an old rum bottle filled with local honey.

This morning I sat for half an hour in the post office waiting while they processed my application (a hand written note on a scrap of notebook paper) for a P.O. box. (My address is now in the sidebar of this blog, under the brief description of my project here). The post office here, like many of the old buildings, has huge wooden doors that are nine feet tall and open out onto the street. Inside it was cool and dark, and the two ladies working in the front typed loudly on their typewriters, filling out all the necessary forms and making receipts for people paying for packages. Most houses here open up into patios in the center of the block, and the back room of the post office has tall crooked shelves of wooden P.O. boxes, sagging under the weight of many years, and behind them a courtyard of palms and banana plants. There was no ceiling; I sat and looked up at the hand hewn beams and slats with the underside of corrugated tin peeking through. The sound of the typewriters was as unfamiliar to me as the architecture and these inside gardens, and all became elements in a peacefully nostalgic and dreamy scene.

The Nicaraguan flag flying at the Malecon on the edge of Lake Managua

The Nicaraguan flag flying at the Malecon on the edge of Lake Managua

Tuesday I caught a ride with two officers from CEPRODEL back to Managua, the capital.  My papers for my temporary residence Visa were ready at the Embassy, and I needed to sign them and give up my passport for a week (when I have to return again…).  Don Carlos and Don Fran, who work in the Managua office, live in Chinandega and Leon respectively, and commute regularly over an hour one way.  This time, I figured, I would take the day to see the sites in Managua.  My first few days in Managua were filled with meetings, and also I had been nervous about taking cabs and sightseeing alone.  This time, I was more confident, and had spent the night before reading about the different historical sights, plazas, and monuments.   When I explained my plan to Don Carlos, he immediately offered my the services of Michael, who had picked me up at the airport two weeks ago.  So I ended up with a private chauffeur and guide for the day.

Concha Acustica, and Plaza de la Fe

Concha Acustica, and Plaza de la Fe

First we went to the malecon and Concha Acustica, a huge gleaming white stage for concerts, and plaza de Fe, a huge circular expanse of concrete around a monument commemorating the second visit  of Pope John Paul II to Nicaragua.  First observation – it was empty.  We were the only people, except for the construction crew building a government sponsored low income housing project next to the plaza.  Second observation – Sandinista propaganda covers the city like confetti after a party, more obtrusively in some parts than others. Note the gigantic pink billboards.

The ruins of the Cathedral next to the Presidents House

The ruins of the old Cathedral

The presidents house (which is really where he works, not lives) is a modern brightly colored house, and makes the ruins of the incredibly ornate cathedral that stands next to it seem even more run down and gray than it is.  The cathedral was destroyed in the 1972 earthquake that leveled the center of the city, killing over 5,000 people and displacing two thirds of the population.  It has never been renovated, but it is clear from the incredible detail on what is still standing that it was once a gleaming architectural wonder.

The plaza in front of the cathedral once held a fountain lit with an elaborate light show, built by Jose Aleman, an anti-Sandinista presidident who until three weeks ago faced charges of millions of dollars of corruption and a 20 year prison sentence.  The fountain, which Aleman was criticized for spending so much money on in a faltering economy, has since been paved over by the current Sandinista government.

We also visited the lake Tiscapa, which is a crater lake with a high bank that gives you a view over the whole city.  My impression from the top – what alot of trees!  Its the greenest capital city I can image, maybe because it is sprawling but most buildings are one or two stories, allowing the trees to grow unobstructed.

Weapons prodruding from the concrete at Parque de Paz

Weapons prodruding from the concrete at Parque de Paz

The last place we went was a place Michael hadn’t thought to include in the tour, but I had read about it and wanted to see it.  It is called Parque de Paz – Park of Peace.  Doña Violeta de Chamorro, who was the first woman president of Central America and Nicaragua and marked the end of the Sandinista era after the revolution, designed this park.  In the center there is a huge lighthouse, meant to invoke a feeling of being guided safely to peace after decades of war against the Somozas and then the Contras.  Off to the side is a monument constructed of cement and destroyed weapons that were collected after the election.  The message is ‘never again’ will Nicaragua experience such violence.  Peices of tanks and hundreds of guns stick out of the concrete in the oddly grave-like pit of concrete.

I felt an hint of sadness in all the places we went to.  Partially it was the lack of people.  Granted it was a Tuesday morning, but the plazas and the parks were literally deserted.  But maybe more powerful was that somehow I got the feeling that the government, the people, needed to prove something to themselves and to the world with these plazas and parks, and then weren’t really sure afterward if that was what they wanted to prove.  Or maybe it was that these places, commemorating important events, felt very unappreciated.  Besides being absolutely completely deserted, Michael noted ironically that Parque de Paz is surrounded by a dangerous neighborhood and red light zone.

Coming back to Leon in the evening was like returning to a place where I could breathe.  This city is living, colorfull, I haven’t felt such sadness or weight of a violent history here, even though this city too is filled with monuments and murals commemorating so many lives lost.  I walked the full 15 blocks from the bus station to the residencia, wandering a bit through the market to buy some fruit and marveling at how a place where I know so few people, where I don’t understand what everyone is shouting around me and don’t recognize the fruit they are selling can feel like home so quickly.

Street in Leon looking at the Iglesia del Calvario

Street in Leon looking at the Iglesia del Calvario

I am so thrilled that Fulbright and the Embassy gave me permission to attend an Agroecology course in an ecovillage in a Mexican cloudforest, along with seven members from CEPRODEL.  The web page for the ecovillage, called Las Cañadas,  is http://www.bosquedeniebla.com.mx/

Doesn´t it look beautiful?!  The idea is that the credit managers from CEPRODEL will be able to incorporate more of the ideals of agroecology into their technical assistance they offer farmers who are applying for credit after they have a basis of understanding themselves.

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