May 2009

The two cities of Nagarote and La Paz Centro have a disagreement that started decades ago.  The legend is that in the 1980’s, when the government of Nicaragua started promoting tourism, La Paz Centro put up a big sign that said “Birthplace of the Quesillo.”  Nagaroteñans disagree heartily, claiming that the Quesillo originated in Nagarote and was stolen by La Paz Centro.  Given that the two towns are only 9 miles apart, this is a disagreement that is not likely to be resolved any time soon.

A quesillo is a tortilla with a thin stretchy cheese (kind of like mozzarella), chopped onions, and heavy cream.  They roll them up in a plastic bag of course, and I just learned the Nicaraguan trick to eating them without spilling the cream everywhere.  Eat the tortilla and cheese 2/3 of the way down, then tie a knot in the plastic bag.  Flip it over, and bite the corner off the plastic bag, so you can suck out the cream along with the rest of the creamy, gooey, flavorful quesillo.


Luis quiere una más…

After two weeks of bugging me every time we drive past La Paz Centro for quesillos, I treated the interns and project Coordinator Luis to Quesillos and Tiste, a drink made from corn, ground cocoa, and cinnamon.  We are drinking the tiste out of traditional cups made from Jicaro shells.



I moved into a new house the other night, so that the daughter of the family who is visiting now from Canada with her 11 month old daughter can use the room I had been renting.  The worst  part about packing up and moving out was realizing how much stuff I have.  Add the books I got as birthday presents with the speakers I bought to throw a party and the clothes I’ve bought to work in an office and, well, I wasn’t going to be able to drag everything seven blocks.  So I asked a neighbor down the street for help, and I moved into my new house with a horse and cart!

I definitely am going to miss the family and beautiful house, but I like where I am living now as well.  Don Raul lives alone, and rents out two little rooms at the very back of his property.  It makes me reminesce about staying in Pinewoods cabins – theres a little path through a patio of banana and citrus trees, and once I’m at my room I can’t hear hardly any of the noise of the city.  I can use the kitchen whenever I want, I have a private bathroom, and my good friend Manu is living right next to me in the other room.  Luxurious.

The new header image is the volcanic range to the east of Leon.  It’s called the Cordillera los Maribios.  I took the photo looking out over the yucca field of a SosteNica client in the village of Tololar.

This is a video I took on the way to Puerto Sandino, a sparsely populated part of Nagarote where 13 of the 30 clients participating in our reforestation project live.  It’s a way of life that amazes me.  We are going to have one of the three trainings at the house of Jose Ramon Mendoza Herrera, who lives on 900 acres and earns about $150 a day.  The owners of the land live in the states and in a city about two hours north, and he has been taking care of the land and raising cattle for 30 years.  He was promised 50 acres five years ago in return for his years of service to the family, but as of now the paperwork still hasn’t been completed.

What amazes me is how some people live on so much land in such poverty!  One answer definitely is lack of credit.  Without capital it is nearly impossible to invest in the changes neccessary to create more capital.  As we have continued to interview the clients selected for this project, it’s clear that this is not an unusual situation.  Although the size of the land varies from 5 acres to 900, many were given land by a cooperative that dissolved, or a family member, but lack the paperwork that makes it legal.  Without proper ownership, they will never be able to take out a loan larger than $1500, which requires property as a guarantee.

What a whirlwind week!  Even though this project has been in planning for months, this was the kick-off week, which means I´m now working almost full time between Nagarote, Leon, and Chichigalpa.  And we´re right on time – the capital city Managua just annnounced a plan to plant 10,000 trees in the city during 2009, and published a picture of a schoolgirl planting a small leguminous tree on the front page of the Prensa, a national newspaper.  La Cuenta Reto del Milenio also began handing out trees in a national reforestation campaign.  The difference between those projects and ours: Three days of training in organic orchard management and soil conservation in the communities where we are planting trees, and two years of technical assistance.  Hopefully that extra effort will be the fertilizer that keeps these trees healthy and alive, as well as enriching the awareness of organic farming in the county.

Here´s a quick overview of what we did:

Met with the three student interns, Oscar, Orlando, and Bering  who are working with us full time for six weeks.

Visited the elected “heads” of three zones near Nagarote, where the trainings will take place.  We first created, then conducted interviews to collect information on the current condition and farming practices at the participating farms.  That will allow us to guage what effect our project, and the training in organic orchard management, has in two years.

Met the Environmental Council in the city of Nagarote who are helping us with the trainings.

Ate incredibly well thanks to Miguel Calderon, the charming and very competant young director of the Nagarote CEPRODEL office.

Impressions:  The interns are awesome.  Dedicated, focused, they get the project and are willing to work hard to make this effective and efficient. The farmers seem excited, willing to work and host our trainings and interns.

Coming up next week:  Hours and hours in a crowded jeep on terrible horrible potholey dusty roads, I need to buy a hammock tomorrow so I am ready to crash at a farmers house in the middle of nowhere with the rest of the crew, and lots of logistical coordinating.  In other words, I´m really excited.  Here come the adventures!

Now I know what the rainy season in Leon is about, as well as why the sidewalks here resemble childrens playgrounds.  We had our first real rain last night.  The heavens opened after an hour of incredible lightening, and the world stopped.  I was at a Salsa Rueda (Cuban style of salsa where you dance in a circle and swap partners) workshop that my friends Sterling organized, and the noise of the rain on the tin roof choked out the music.  We continued for the last fifteen minutes of class, cranked up the volume, and then sat around and waited for almost an hour for taxis to come and pick everyone up. I was of course filled with that absurd energy I get from electrical storms and had to let it out by doing handstands.   Luckily, a friend with a pickup truck offered to take some of us out to eat, and we drove through lakes in the city; some streets were so filled with rushing water that even parts of the foot-high sidewalk were covered.

When I got back to my house two hours later it was still raining.  Again, I was struck by the micro-climate created by the nursery and abundance of trees in our yard.  I didn’t have to wade through puddles, instead the water had run down the gentle slope or absorbed into the root systems, and it was COOL.  While taking the time to dash through the raindrops and right some potted plants that had been blown over, I nearly tripped over a huge 8 inch frog.  Unlike any peepers, these enormous frogs, which have recently been accompanying me in my early breakfasts in the patio, sing long melodious twangy chords. It was by far the loudest chorus of frogs I have ever heard had lull me off to sleep.

I have recently made several contacts with people working with agricultural cooperatives here, which is extremely exciting.  Several conversations later, I´m left wondering if my project here is trying to link technical and economical resources for agriculturalists, why I didn´t start with cooperatives in the first place.

The most well known cooperatives here are the fair trade coffee cooperatives in the north, but I recently met a technical assistant at a sesame cooperative in Condega that has 200 farms, and an American girl who is working for an NGO that just gave a loan to a honey cooperative here in León.  The cooperative is able to offer farmers loans, and they often hire their own technical assistants to serve their members.  In some cooperative models, you can take out individual loans, as well as earning ´dividends´paid from the joint ownership is made accessable only when you leave the cooperative, sort of like a 401-k for farmers.

My first impression is that the main difference in what cooperatives offer is that their first goal is to increase production, and they offer financial services because that is the means by which production can be improved.  MFIs, on the other hand, have a goal of improving the financial situation of a family, which in a rural area means encouraging production.  Which means that even though they have the contacts and access to the countryside, their motivations for offering technical support (and some criticize: hiking interest rates up) are secondary.

That being said, it doesn´t mean that they can´t have those motivations too.  Tomorrow is the first day that our three student interns are going to join us in our reforestation project with CEPRODEL.  Hasta pronto…!!


It´s slithery, slippery, highly debatable, and sprinkled around like fresh ground pepper at a good Italian restaurant.

I ran into a group of American men today at the Spanish school where I try to sneak in a few hours of language classes every week.  We started talking, and it turns out they all live here and own businesses in town.  One man, Bill, owns a farming project and knows quite alot about the local farming scene, and after listening to my two-sentence over rehearsed explanation of what my project is, asked me to define what I thought sustainable development meant here.  Well, the thing is, that´s a whole conversation.  It´s not black and white.

I asked him what he thinks Sustainable Develpment means.  And so our three hour conversation started, during which he gave me a tour of the very upscale hotel in a beautifully restored building that he is part owner of.  His definition, I think I´ve gathered, is development that upholds traditional values, improves local resources, trains locals during the development process, and does minimal damage to the environment.  This is how he sees his roll in the community – to run a business that employs hundreds of locals, while training them in better business and service skills.  Eventually, they will have full time jobs and he offers them benefits.  Maybe someday they will have the skills to open their own business.  ” Sustainable Development”.

I ran into a similar situation in Ecuador, where a retired American couple had bought a gorgeous peice of land with a spectacular view, and were employing locals to build a large house using improved building methods than were used in local houses.  They saw themselves as doing a service to the local community, providing jobs and training.

It´s hard for me not to cringe when I run into a project here that is owned and run on foreign money.  It´s hard to explain exactly where that reaction comes from, because I do think their perspective is valid.  The problem is, the foreign owned businesses are at such an advantage, and rely on such large budgets, that I can´t imagine them ever passing on to local owners and surviving.  And the local owned micro businesses can barely compete.  But does the job creation and training make them sustainable development?  What happens when the owner decides he´s sick of Nicaragua and moves on to Costa Rica or Taiwan?

I still agree that what Bill and many other American and foreigners are doing here enhances the community in many ways.  They have the resources to restore old buildings that many Nicaraguans are very proud of, and often contribute to cultural events and public maintenance projects that everyone enjoys.  And from a historical perspective, well, foreign money has controlled when not influenced the development of Latin America and so many other parts of the world for hundreds of years, and it´s not about to leave any time soon.

The first rain of the year was Thursday night.  It has been threatening for a while now, the sky clouding over in the evenings, and last weekend there were some lone cracks of thunder and flashes of lightening, but they were empty promises.  Thursday I was waiting for the bus at the university around six in the evening, and found myself mesmerized by a huge thunderhead in the east, glowing golden in the evening light.  An hour later it down-poured.  While all the Nicas ran happily under cover, I ran out into the rain.  They say hunger makes a good sauce.  Well, for me, four months of drought makes me run into the rain instead of out of it.  

So now I get the chance to know another Nicaragua, one where instead of dust and wind erosion being a major problem in the country, it’s mud, topsoil erosion, and crop damage due to torrential rainfall.  

I spent this last week in an intensive training for “plant doctors” and got to meet people from all over the country, who work with different cooperatives and organizations.  The plan is to mimic the health network systems that have been developed to access remote communities, and create systems for getting information about crop diseases and MIC, or Integrated Crop Management, out to farmers in remote communities.  MIC is the Nicaraguan version of IMP, Integrated Pest Management, in the states, but it’s more complete.  Proponents of MIC encourage crop rotation, organic fertilizers and pesticides, and soil conservation, but also recommend chemical treatments when they feel they are needed.  

I left the workshop feeling heartened that so many people embraced alternatives, whether for ideological reasons or because they know many people can’t afford chemicals.  It was good to see so many people working toward getting accurate information out to farmers.  Clearly there are hundreds of projects, organizations, plant clinics, and agricultural peace corps workers working in this country toward similar ends.  That is heartening.