June 2009

Dad, Brian and I are having a wonderful time.  We received the royal treatment from CEPRODEL – a personal ride from Managua down to Granada, stopping at lake Tiscapa, Masaya, and an incredible look out point in the small village of Katharina.  We’ve been wining and dining splendidly, last night was a Marimba concert and folk dance performance in the Hotel Dario in Granada, a breathtakingly beautiful restored building, while sipping rum and coctails.

It’s nice to get away from León and realize how much I have started to feel like home there, and how nice it is to have friends and ‘family’.  Have you watched this little video? I’m very excited about heading to the island of Ometepe today, but also very excited about indroducing family to this Nica family very soon.

I´m headed down to Managua in the morning to meet up with my Dad and brother, who are visiting for two weeks.  We have big plans to travel to the as-of-yet-unknown-to-me southern lands of Granada and Isla Omotepe.

Their visit coincides with my halfway mark in my grant.  Last week I filled out an extensive mid-grant report, and I thought I would share some excerpts.  Some things thing I like about how Fulbright evaluates their program is that they are very hands off, I evaluate according to the goals and project I designed for myself.  They also ask for lots of feedback that is passed on to future grantees.  I found the mid-grant reports from former grantees in Nicaragua very helpful when preparing to come here, so I tried to be very detailed in filling out my form.

Here´s my advice for future travellers in Nicaragua (are you reading, family?)

Changes to Adjust to Local Culture

Everyone talks about Nica time, and so when I arrived I thought I was prepared mentally for no one to arrive on time, classes to start an hour late or not at all, and transportation to run on a lack of schedule.  When all these things proved true it didn’t bother me at first, but after getting more involved and invested in my project it has started to bother me more.  It’s important to me to arrive on time, so that if anyone is waiting it is me and not the person I am asking to meet me, but it means I have to be understanding when I feel sometimes like I do more waiting than working.  Something to take inspiration from is how patient the people here are; they wait hours for busses or services without exasperation.  So I always carry around something to read, and practice embracing sponteneity as well as patience.

Social Cultural Adjustment

If you want to form good or solid friendships with Nicaraguans you need to have patience, because only time will tell you who is a friend and who is just waiting to ask you for money, or to ask you out, or wants some other form of a favor.  “Simple” friendships don’t easily exist with such a large cultural and economical gap.  Even in a city that feels modern, it’s a dog-eat-dog world here, and everyone is thinking of how they can get ahead.  Foreigners mean money and that means ahead.  That being said, I feel confident that I have a solid group of Nicaraguan friends who I hope I will keep in touch with for a long time, and am happy to help out when I can.  I did have to learn to stand my ground and tell people no, I can’t help them, and be ok with the fact that they weren’t interested in spending time with me after that.  In working relationships, communication has been a  struggle for me.  The bureaucracy and catty politics within institutions is complicated.  It’s a stretch in patience and self control not to express my frustration in the wrong situations, especially when it seems clear that the people involved are hurting themselves or their projects in the process.  I have been frustrated recently with social games and manipulation, but while it is frustrating it’s important not to let it prevent you from making the contacts and friends you need.

Strategies for getting acquainted to the culture

Be open, and play the role of a naïve traveler without being one.  Even if you have heard seven times over the list of traditional drinks for example, allow the person you are talking to the honor of an attentive listener.  People here are proud of their culture and history, and even if they are telling you things you already have heard, it is as important for them to entertain you as for you to listen.   I talk to everyone, eat everything (without a single problem), and have learned to accept gifts graciously.  The people here are very generous, and at first I was hesitant to accept gifts from people who sometimes obviously have so little.  But it is far worse to refuse a gift – you risk offending a person greatly – so accept and start scheming about how to get them back by returning another favor or gift.  Also, talk to foreigners who have traveled to Nicaragua as much as you can before you arrive, but keep an open mind.  Your experience will be unique.

Buen Viaje!

Also, I have recently been uploading more photos and videos on flickr, mostly of the reforestation project.  Expect to see some of Dad and Brian soon…

From the front page of today’s La Prensa, a national newspaper, under the headline Arguello’s “gem” is against Tiscapa :

“The mayor of Managua, Alexis Arguello, announced that the construction of the Museum of the Sandanista Victory 1979 – 2009 was ‘more important’ than continuing the decontamination process in the lake Tiscapa, because ‘investing money in the lake is a waste of money’.”

The article continues to explain that because the city continues to dump sewage from the city into the lake, the mayor has decided that continuing the biotreatments that were started over two years ago is worthless. The mayors decision to spend C$3,470,000 on the museum is backed by the Sandinista party and the current Sandinista president, Daniel Ortega.

Arguellos is quoted, “We all have dreams, and our dreams began with a revolution, and we cannot forget that.  To criticize a museum that will represent the fathers of our country and the history of a country such as ours would be a sin.”

Crater Lake Tiscapa, Managua

Crater Lake Tiscapa, Managua

The article continues with a long quote from Victor Campos, vice-director of the Centro Alexander Von Humbolt, a leading environmental agency in Nicaragua.  Campos explains how contamination from the crater lake, located in the center of the city and a tourist destination, is leaching into the Managua aquifer.

I understand the importance of commemorating history, but this is a typical example of what I see as very sad tendancy in the development of Nicaragua.  As I wrote about when I was visiting Managua, the construction and reconstruction of monument after monument and the desire to create a personal legacy with pomp and circumstance rather than invest in sustainable development is destructive and tragic.  The cynic in me can see the museum in the future, abandoned when the leading party changes, another monument not honoring the courageous leaders of the revolution, who are already commemorated in countless ways, but to the sad, destructive value system found in the power structure of a poor country.

Encouragingly, La Prensa chose to feature this as a front cover story as well as back the environmentalists.  Even more encouraging are the comments of online readers, who overwhelmingly express their frustrations with the lack of environmental commitment in govermental policy.  Why is appreciating a unique and incredible natural wonder considered less patriotic that honoring the political history of the same country?  It is just as uniquely and iconically Nicaraguan, not to mention the importance of the evironmental impact of the contamination!  At least it’s clear that there are people here who subscribe to a different value system, now how can we get them in decision making positions?

Familia Escoto and the workshop in Las Limas

Familia Escoto and the workshop in Las Limas

Almost two weeks in the countryside with SosteNica/CEPRODEL clients has passed quickly and smoothly.

The trainings concentrated on four topics: Soil conservation, organic fertilizers, organic pest control, and proper establishment and care of the trees. Most importantly, we emphasized the importance of sustainability, in respect specifically to chemical applications as well as to the larger picture of simply thinking long term. I made a personal discovery that trees are an excellent module for addressing the lack of long-term planning in Nicaraguan culture that I’ve written about here before. It’s difficult to stretch what very little resources you have and think about ten years from now when you don’t know where your meal tomorrow is coming from. But everyone understands that a tree grows slowly, and so the leap from understanding that the investment in trees ensures firewood and income in the future to also thinking about the relationship between chemical runoff and the quality of water in the future is more approachable.

Constructing an "Aparato A", a level to construct terrases and barriers to prevent soil erosion.

Constructing an "Aparato A", a level to construct terrases and barriers to prevent soil erosion.

I was particularly impressed with the participation in organic fertilizers. Everyone participated in making a compost pile, and one farmer commented to me afterward, “I’ve heard about this before, but I never would have done it without seeing first how to do it in real life.”

That’s the value in what the organizations who spend countless dollars and hours trekking out into the countryside do. The roads are often in terrible condition, and notorious mud-traps in the rainy season. On our way out to the community the first day of the trainings we slid sideways and found ourselves nicely jammed into a soft bank of mud, perpendicular to the road, with our back wheels elevated and completely blocking the road. After trying futilely to free the truck for nearly an hour using tree branches, 4 wheel drive, and pushing, a neighbor accomplished the task in minutes with his two oxen.  But seeing how studious, involved, and appreciative the farmers were made the tedious journey entirely worthwhile.

That wasn’t the only expected, or unexpected, challenge I encountered. I was prepared for no electricity, no running water, simple meals, and lots of mosquitos, and long conversations about my life in the states and the differences between our cultures. Given that life in the woods and outhouses aren’t entirely unfamiliar to me, and that I seek out that type of vacation in the states, I felt confident about adapting to life in the Nicaraguan countryside. All of the above proved true, and for me, completely enjoyable. What I wasn’t prepared for was a family so generous that they hunted iguanas and killed a sheep so that we would eat meat instead of just beans, in discovering that my mosquito net was more usefull in keeping the bat shit off my bed than protecting me from mosquitos, and that ants are a much more formidable insect than mosquitos (at least at a farm that has such an abundant bat population).

Presenting the participants in the community of Puerto Sandino with certificates of participation.

Presenting the participants in the community of Puerto Sandino with certificates of participation.

To sum up what I could talk about for hours – I have good reason to believe that the success of this project will be able to be measured not just in the survival of the trees we are bringing to these families, but also in the fact that they now have not just the knowledge but the desire as well to re-invest the nutrients available to them back into their pastures and gardens, to plan for years ahead, and will be talking about these concepts with their friends and families. And yes, I did eat iguana and help skin the sheep.

My friend Isabel dancing under a magnificent flowering Malinche tree

My friend Isabel dancing under a magnificent flowering Malinche tree

I’m leaving tomorrow in the morning to spend three days leading a workshop with eight families participating in our reforestation project.  Why is a micro-credit company planting trees?

Trees hold soil in place during the forceful rains.

Firewood is by far the number one source of fuel in the countryside, where some families easily use six tons of firewood a year.

There are numerous species of trees in the legume family that flourish in this tropical climate, like the Malinche in the picture above.  Leguminous trees fix nitrogen, improving the quality of the soil for other plants, and their pods are often an excellent protein source for cattle.

Shade.  Imagine the hottest tropical sun you possible can, a yard of baked earth hard as the ceramic tiles on the house, now where do you want to sit?

The Ceiba tree is not the tree to hug!

The Ceiba tree is not the tree to hug!

When the grass and pasturelands are completely shriveled by april, what are you going to feed your cattle?  The leaves from the branches you cut down for firewood…..

Besides selling firewood for income, the markets here abound with native fruit like mango, avacado, tamarindo, sapote, papaya, mamon, nisporo, mareñon, and coconut.

Farmers that plant trees along the edges of their fields increase the biodiversity and create habitats for beneficial birds and insects that prey on crop pests.

Trees are beautiful.  The words to “The green cathedral”, a song I sang in grade school, came floating back into my head as I stood along a river on a scorching 90 degree day in one of the communities that we are working in, under an enormous marango tree.  The comfort and relief in the cool shade could only be compared to the arms of a loved one.


Our ´Reforestation Teams´ had their first day of “training” today, a full day of information and demonstrations about Organic Fertilizers.  We started off the day talking about worms, and then covered Bokashi (an ancient Japanese recipe for a very fast-acting compost), compost, and bio-fermentation.  It was a long day, but I was impressed with how our young interns stayed engaged. The demonstrations were held at the Norwalk Nagarote nursery and garden, which is lush and beautifully designed; one of the most inspiring organic projects I´ve seen here.  The professor, Jorge Luis Rostran, graduated from UNAN Agroecology program and is now the professor of organic fertilizers and insecticides made on campus.  He is an excellent speaker, the only thing I wish was that the information was more tailored to the resources available to the clients we have.  The recipe for bio-fermentation that he demonstrated uses mineral salts that he goes to Managua to buy once a year, something that our clients do not have the resources to do.  So that´s our job next week  -to take the scientific based technical data that the professors from UNAN are giving us this week, and transform it into technologically appropriate workshops for our clients.

I was reminded of a lot of really interesting facts about worms, like:

– Worms have 5 hearts and 6 livers

– California Red worms consume the equivalent of their weight in a day.  Can you imagine what I would look like if I ate 120 lbs of food a day?

– Because worms are hermaphroditic, after mating they each lay 1-2 eggs.  From each egg hatches 2-21 worms.  21 worms from one egg!

– California Red Worms take 90 days to reach maturity, and after that they reproduce about once a week.

– Worms are the cheapest and most efficient form of protein to raise.  Are we ready for a campaign to solve world hunger with red worms?