April 2009


Roger, Santo (smiling) and Nelson

Roger, Santo (smiling) and Nelson

Meet my new friend Roger Rios. After working for several years with a Dutch water project here in Nicaragua he started his own business digging wells using fairly simple technology. His mission is to offer affordable wells to rural households, using technology that is effective and doesn´t damage the surrounding environment. Instead of using large machinery and digging a well with a three foot diameter like most of the older wells still in use, he can put all his machinery in a pick up truck, and the final product is a four inch diameter pvc well with a sand filter at the bottom. He invited me to join him the first day digging a new well at a hacienda about two hours south of here.

Roger employs three workers, who have been working for him for two years now.  They are a tight team, and assembled the tripod and got to work quickly.  The whole process costs the family $40 a meter, plus housing for the workers for the week.  Depending on the zone, they could dig 60 meters before reaching water.  And since their equipment is basic and cannot break through solid rock, it is never guaranteed that they will be able to reach water, so they require a 25% guarantee up front.  That´s a hefty investment for many families, but given that the competition charges on average $120 per meter, he has done fairly well his  first two years.  Luckily many parts of this zone are pure volcanic sand and clay with very little rock, and they have been mostly successful.

The hand made drill that Roger has designed and made.  The drill tip is connected to the heavy tubes.  Gravity provides the downward force, and Santo the torque.

The hand made drill that Roger has designed and made. The drill tip is connected to the heavy tubes. Gravity provides the downward force, and Santo the torque.

Digging one 40 meter well a month would keep Roger´s business afloat.  His workers have agricultural work to fall back on when they aren´t working for him.  Additionally, Roger also offers to install one of several kinds of pumps (one is a bicycle pump!) which he hand constructs in a makeshift welding shop at his house, and small scale drip irrigation.  Still, the first two years have been a struggle.  Roger is still refining his systems, and hoping to be able to purchase equipment that is readily available in the states, but prohibitively expensive here.

Even more than the appropriate technology and affordability, what excites me about this project is Roger´s attitude.  While chatting on the way back to León, Roger told me that after getting his degree in agronomy he was drawn to the well business by the impending water crisis.  “Between companies comercializing water, contamination, and a changing climate we are going to have problems,” he told me.  “People in the city are going to pay alot for water in the future.  But in the country if they have good wells they will be better off.  That´s why I am trying hard to do this and keep the cost down to make it affordable to as many people as I can.”

Viva environmental justice  and long term vision!

Water is the medium to extract soil from the well.  The motor assists Nelson in raising the tube with the drill bit, and when he let the rope slack the hollow tube drops, spraying out mud.  Santo then uses the attached handle to turn the pipe 90 degrees, and the process is repeated.

Water is the medium to extract soil from the well. The motor assists Nelson in raising the tube with the drill bit, and when he let the rope slack the hollow tube drops, spraying out mud. Santo then uses the attached handle to turn the pipe 90 degrees, and the process is repeated.

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Happy Earth Day, a little late but I was busy doing earthy things like biking around town and studying agroecology.

I thought I´d share a side project I´ve gotten into here.  I recently met a retired American man who has been living in Granada for several years and just decided to move to León.  We met on a bus to Managua and after talking for the entire ride it was clear that we see the world through similar lense.  He has a bunch of projects up his sleeve that I find very interesting, one of which is finding someone in Nicaragua to start a plastic lumber business to get some of the plastic off the streets and into profitable construction business.  So now I walk around León with a peice of plastic wood, spreading the news to anyone who cares to listen that we are looking for someone interested in a start up business, which David, my American friend, is willing to help finance.

Trash logged Rio Chiquito

Trash logged Rio Chiquito

As you can see from this photo of the Rio Chiquito, or may remember from a previous post, recycling is something that is desperately needed here.  Housing is also in high  as the population here is growing quickly, and there are a myriad of housing projects in León.  I´m hoping that these two needs might both be met with a recycled construction material.

Here is an interesting post from a fellow vegetable lover who is living in Honduras.  She and her corresponder bring up some interesting points that I have also thought a lot about here.

The experience I had before coming to Nicaragua is sometimes only mildly relevant to the work that I do and is being done here in Agriculture.  Why?  Because I spent four years growing vegetables.  People here eat very few vegetables.  They are expensive, but that’s partly because they are rare.  Why?  It’s not in the culture.

Two nights ago I was invited to a Nicaraguan friend’s house for dinner.  We cooked together, and sat and watched a movie.  Dinner:  fried chicken fingers (made from scratch), rice, fried plantains, and tortillas or white rolls.  Pure starch and fat.  Lunch today in my house was rice mixed with a can of tunafish, fried plantains, fried cheese, and tortillas.  When I mentioned that I have all the ingrediants for a salad in the fridge and anyone could help themselves, I was met with puzzled looks.  A salad?  That doesn’t go with this meal, they said. You eat salad, for example, when you have a peice of meat like beef with tomato sauce.

So it makes sense to me that even though I believe a lot in diversifying gardens and growing organic produce there is more cattle farming here than anything.  It makes sense that I am lamenting how small the market here is when the diet is mostly restricted to few ingredients as well.  La Gringa’s question “will poor people grow vegetables” is the same question as “will poor people eat vegetables?”.  From my experience, both in CT and here in Nicaragua, the poorest family with an awful diet can sit and watch fresh vegetables in their own garden spoil, because it isnt their culture to eat it.

So where do we start?  Projects with school kids, restaurants, exporting vegetables to countries that eat them?  I have to continue step back and think, what are my goals?  Do I care more that the farming is diversified, the soil improved, that farmers improve their economic situation, or that the people here chance their diet to a healthier one?  Where is the most effective place to break into the cycle?

Don Luis, Don Miguel, Sarah, and I at the Norwalk Nagarote sister city office.

Don Luis, Don Miguel, Sarah, and I at the Norwalk Nagarote sister city office.

The first meeting of the recipients of SosteNica and CEPRODEL´s reforestation project was this morning in Nagarote. The project hopes to reforest between two and three manzanas of land on each farm, with trees that have dual purposes of soil conservation, forage for cattle, and sources of food and firewood. The project also intends to provide the farmers with organic fertilizers and the training to apply them correctly. 20 of the 30 farmers came, which is a good turnout considering that many farmers live far from the center of town, and bus service is very limited.

After a powerpoint presentation outlining the goals and stages of our project, the floor was opened up to questions and concerns. One of the eldest farmers stood up and began talking.

“This is a good project but we can´t grow things organically here. There is no market. When you cultivate organically and let things grow like they do in nature, it´s good for the water and soil but the fruit is smaller and worse quality, and no one will buy it. And it doesn´t matter that we save the chemicals from going into the river, because upstream from me there is sewage that goes into the river. And so few platanos trees aren´t any good because people steal the fruit, and I have to pay a guard, so it´s not worth it to me if it is less than 3 manzanas….”

As he continued ripping our project apart I felt my throat tighten. I have a very hard time listening to people here tell me with great authority that all organic produce is smaller and poorer quality. I know that´s not true. The notion that organic means not using any fertilizers or pesticides and inevitably results in low yields and small fruit runs as deep as the love of gallo pinto here. I had been pleased with the presentation that Don Carlos gave, I felt he explained our goals well and convincingly. I was under the impression that the farmers selected already understood the terms of the project and we in agreement. But it isn´t that simple. The presence of men in suits and powerpoint presentations don´t – and shouldn´t – instantly convert the minds of farmers who have been working their whole lives in the field into believing whatever they say.

The next farmers stood to say that not everyone has the same problems, that he has never had fruit stolen and he would greatly appreciate one manzana of bananas. I started breathing a little deeper.

Sarah, who is from the states and works for the Nagarote / Norwalk CT sister city project, stood to speak next. One of the many impressive projects she is doing here is working in a nursery with city youth, growing organic seedlings to sell in the community. Her nursery project will be supplying more than a third of the tree saplings. She told me earlier she was nervous about giving the trees to farmers who maybe wouldn´t take care of them properly.

“Rachel and I come from a country where  a lot of people are fighting to take care of our world´s resources,” she said. “We care about the future of your water and your families, and I care that the kids I work with here in the city learn to appreciate your work in countryside. It´s a struggle but we are here to support you. This is the most important work we can do.”

This project is a pilot project. We will see how it goes, what we should change, find new alianzas and participants. Hopefully it will grow along with the trees. The good thing is that I have confidence in CEPRODEL´s ability to follow through with personal contact with all of the clients, in addition to the workshops we will be offering them these next two months. The struggle is – these people are used to thinking about HERE and NOW. We are asking them to think about TOMORROW and beyond. That is a change of culture, and mindset, that no one powerpoint is going to be able to change.

Easter Sunday.  I woke up early to put the white eggs I had bought last night in a pot and boil them, so that they would be cool enough to paint before I went to Doña Gloria’s house for lunch.  She is my adopted Nicaraguan grandmother here, and since my family has traditionally had lunch with my grandmothers on Easter in the states, I wanted to spend Easter here with Doña Gloria.  And since we usually arrive at my grandmother’s house with pots of hyacinths, I had transplanted a flowering plant into a nice ceramic pot to bring to her too.  So I spent the morning painting easter eggs, put on a nice dress, and set off to deliver flowers and easter eggs.

Last night I walked across town to the last procession of Easter Week, a Procesion la Virgin de los Dolores.  Throngs of people gathered, there were almost as many street venders as participants, and houses along the way had pageants set up with maniquins or children dressed as the dead Christ and grieving Mary.  Everyone gathers in a plaza for the dramatic finale – burning dolls of the disciple Judas that contain fireworks.

I was walking with a neighbor and her children.  She was remembering how the parades used to be even bigger than they are now.  “More people realize now that this is very close to idolotry,” she told me, “The more religious people don’t come to these parades any more.”

What makes me go out of my way to paint eggs on Easter when that is an unheard of practice here?  How does a Christian church, that preaches forgiveness of sins, condone a parade that feeds off of the revengeful delight of burning a hanging image of the betrayer?  Both of these actions are somewhat detached from their origin.  I am not a religious Christian; I didn’t go to Church today, and the only steady practice in my life recently has been yoga and meditation.  So I wasn’t driven to paint eggs for their religious significance.  I don’t know what motivates people to participate in these parades, but I could easily imagine some conflict within the Churches about whether to support them.  But they do, because the people obviously love them.  Parades are fun; eggs are beautiful.

I happened to be at procession with a friend who was raised in a very Catholic community in southern Ireland.  He was fascinated with the differences between Nicaraguan Catholic and Irish Catholic Easters.  Which makes me think, I’m not as much celebrating the Christian holiday of Easter when I paint eggs and take my Abuela a plant as I am celebrating my identity as part of my Lindsay/Metz family.  And as for excitedly screaming as images of Judas are heretically burned and fireworks graze the crowd – it may be in front of a Catholic church, but the message I hear is Viva Nicaragua!

My contribution to a Nicaraguan Easter

My contribution to a Nicaraguan Easter

Procesión Lunes Santo

Procesión Lunes Santo

In León this week there are no less than 63 parades.  I’m sure there are more, but the bureau of tourism publishes a brochure that lists 63.  They leave from the various churches, usually making a loop around town and returning to the church again.  The city is full of brass bands and closed off streets. In fact, as I write this a Procesión de la Maria Dolorosa passed the cyber café, and everyone left to watch it.  I have yet to attend an entire parade, which starts with a mass and then returns to the church about two hours later. 

Each parade is in the honor of a different saint.  I am in the process of putting pictures on my flickr page now from several processions, Procesión del Señor del Triunfo, Procesión de la Reseña, and Procesión San Benito.   Viernes Santo, in the neighborhood Subtiava,  is famous for having alfombras, or ‘rugs’ made of colored sawdust in the streets where the parades pass. 

The Procesión San Benito was unusual in that many people were wearing white robes and kerchiefs, with black sashes.  According to various sources on the street, those people had made a sacrifice to San Benito when they or a loved one were sick, and in return they have to show their respect and thanks by marching in the procession, and giving out free chicha that afternoon on the street to anyone who asks, In the name of San Benito I beg for chicha.  Although virtually no one I could find could tell me anything about the life of the saint, one person told me he is black because as young boy he apprenticed to a baker, and burnt a batch of bread.  Fearing risk of being fired, he prayed to god to save the batch and he would serve god for the rest of his life.  The batch of bread became golden brown again, but San Benitos body took on the blackened char color.  A quick search leads me to think that originally this San Benito was Saint Benedict the Moor, an Italian monk born to African parents who had a gift of healing.  Catholocism is fascinating.

Otherwise, Easter week is simply vacation.  People have their processions that they attend, either because it is a Saint they have prayed to or made a sacrifice for, or because the procession leaves from their church.  When they aren’t in processions or cooling in front of their houses in the evening, they are at the beach.  Everyone goes to the beach this week.  Yesterday I was invited to go with Connie Narvaez, a professor at the University, and her family to La Boquita, a beach about two hours south of here.  It was HOT, sunny, and very relaxing – once we got past the onslaught of restaurant employees who literally descended upon our minivan in a swarm in the parkinglot, all yelling offers, menu selections, and perks of their restaurant.  Ulimately, we chose to go with the guy who was the calmest and least obnoxious.  Since Connie had packed a picnic large enough for three days, we really didn’t need the restaurant services, but they did have extra tables under a tent where we could camp out.  Pacific waves, delicious potato salad, and a Frisbee.  Easter week Nica style. 

Procesión de San Benito

Procesión de San Benito

If that’s possible in 100 degree high humidity weather.  I knew I would be coming back from temperate climates and high altitudes in Mexico and Guatemala to the hottest month of the year in León, but how do you prepare yourself for that?

The Fulbright Enhancement Seminar was more than I ever imagined it would be, and I had high expectations.   Imagine 25 engaging presentations given by motivated, intelligent and attractive young people crammed into three days, interrupted only to tour a beautiful colonial city or eat amazing food at five star restaurants.  That’s what I’m exhausted from.  On the plane coming back to Nicaragua yesterday I wrote notes the whole time – things that inspired me about other peoples projects, ways that I could change the focus of my time here to benefit the institutions I am working with.   But now that I’m in this sauna of a city I find that mostly I am tired, and yearning for the company of the motivated people who I connected so quickly and easily with.

I am so grateful to Fulbright for hosting us in Antigua, Guatemala.  What a beautiful city.  Antigua is an unusual place.  At one time it held a convent for every sect of nuns in the country, and it is filled with the ruins of churches and convents destroyed by earthquakes and time.  It is also an international hub, with fancy restaurants and hotels, art galleries, and international themed bars.  We ate Thai, Mexican, Spanish, and Italian food, danced to live Salsa music, lounged in a hookah bar savoring excellent Guatemalan rum, and ended up at the end of our last night in an Irish bar filled with Guiness posters.   It’s not so much my style to travel in that way, but although I don’t feel like I can talk much about Guatemala after having spent three days in Antigua, it certainly gave me a glimpse into a beautiful and dynamic culture and country that I look forward to returning to some day.

Fulbright Grantees Adriana, Dana, Michelle and I at a convent in Antigua

Fulbright Grantees Adriana, Dana, Michelle and I at a convent in Antigua

Breakfast at Finca Filadelfia, a coffee farm and resort

Breakfast at Finca Filadelfia, a coffee farm and resort