August 2009


Saturday I spent the whole day with Vernonn Edilberto Beríos Bárcenos, the tecnico who is going to work with the reforestation project for two years.  We left León at 5:30 am, and made a large loop delivering fruit trees and plantain corms, returning to León again at 7 pm.  We accomplished everything we needed to, meeting with nearly every participant in the project and distributing 3,050 corms and 200 plants.  There were a couple mishaps along the way, which added hours on to our day.

The first delay happened when the check to pay for the plantain corms had not been signed the day before and couldn’t be delivered.  But the large truck to deliver them was contracted, and they corms had all be dug the day before, so we loaded them up and then negotiated with the manager at the plantain farm.  Could we leave the motorcycle as a guarantee and continue on in the truck?  No.  Could they let us take them on the basis of trust?  Well, that seemed less likely to me, but in the end they agreed, and we started slowly down the Old Highway to Managua, one of the worst condition paved roads I’ve ever encountered.

Vernonn had organized the day so that clients met us at crossroads along the main roads and loaded their sacks of corms onto oxcarts.  Everything went smoothly but slowly. Some farmers had traveled 15 km with their oxen to meet us, and nearly everyone was waiting in the shade along the sides of the road for us.  Only as we neared the last comarca, or village, did we get a phone call saying that the clients, who had arrived at our designated meeting spot two hours earlier, gave up and left.

We couldn’t leave the sacks at the meeting spot without any responsible client present, so we convinced the truck to continue an extra 5 km to the first farm.  When we unloaded, we found that the client whose house we had come to was upset.  Because the rainy season is already half over, we had selected only those clients who had available irrigation systems to give plantains to this year, and asked the others to wait until the following year when they can plant them at the beginning of the rainy season and ensure a better chance of survival.  But this particular client had missed every one of Vernonn’s visits, and the decision to wait for next year had been made with his family.  He wasn’t happy.  He felt that the organization was retracting their commitment and felt cheated.

Inexplicably we had an extra sack of corms, and after talking to him for a while we agreed to leave them with him.  There was still a high level of tension between him and Vernonn.  Vernonn left to track down some of the neighboring clients, and I asked the farmer, Don Julio, if he would like to show me his trees.  We talked about some of the possible reasons that the health of his trees was so varied, and how he could interplant the musaceas in terraces or Curvas a Nivel, to make use of the hillside to catch fertile water coming down from the cattle corral, and prevent that same nitrogen rich runoff from reaching the river.  He was defensive about every small problem, and the fact that we ended up having to stay there for three hours for the last client to come could have been a very stressfull unpleasant experience.  But when Vernonn returned, Don Julio´s wife offered us tortillas, cuajada, and beans.  We had been on the road for nearly ten hours without eating, and it was the most delicious meal.   Finally Don Julio sat with us, and we ended up talking about how he acquired his land and lamenting some failed tomato projects from years ago while we waited.  When we finally left after hours both he and Vernonn were on good terms.

On the way back I thought about how what I had been told would be a half a day turned into 14 hours.  A check order that didn’t go through on time, an annoyed participant, clients who left before we arrived and returned slowly over terrible muddy and pit filled roads.  What struck me was, while we were arriving home six hours later than planned, Vernonn – and therefore I as well – was completely calm.

There’s a reason people talk about Nica time.  Things happen slowly here.  Resources are scarce, infrastructure is often not great, and communication is difficult.  This is everyday life.  So you learn to wait.  Waiting here is not wasting time, like I usually think of it.  Some of the farmers waited for an hour at a crossroads with no buildings for us to arrive, but none were stressed or annoyed.  Waiting is part of life.  In this particular situation, waiting meant that we had enough time to smooth out a disagreement.  And at the end of the day I was so grateful for the calm acceptance of waiting in our work, returning to my house exhausted but very satisfied, without a grain of annoyance.

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I wrote recently about how I felt rejuvenated after my first visit to Lagartillo. Here’s some more of the same.

This last weekend we went up to a country fair in Lagartillo.  People from five or six other communities in the hills came with their best horses and families, and participated in competitions and presentations.  We watched a Corrida de Cinta, where guys gallop past a tape strung between trees and try to snag little rings tied onto the tape with a small wooden stick. Afterward every horseman chooses his queen to mount the horse with him, and they parade around the village led by the winner.

Oswaldo was one of the more graceful gallopers

Oswaldo was one of the more graceful gallopers

Afterward there was an original theater performance, which showed the importance of taking care of the rivers and water.  The women were the spirits of the water, and struggled against the decisions of the men, dressed in fiery costumes with hats made from gasoline cans.  It was interesting how within the theme of environmentalism emerged a gender struggle, when a woman argues with her husband about where they are going to build a house.  She wants it near the river, so she doesn’t have to walk so far to do the washing.  He wants it up on a hill, where the hunting is good and there is more land.  He answers cheekily, how much he’ll enjoy watching her from behind as she leaves the house with the washing on her head, and how he’ll offer to take the heavy wash from her as she comes through the gate.  The exchange brilliantly highlighted a double standard in the machismo that is such a part of this culture.  And of course the husband wins the argument and immediately begins clearing the trees from the land.

The final song of the theater performance, with the chorus, "La tierra, hay que cuidarla!"

The final song of the theater performance, with the chorus, "La tierra, hay que cuidarla!"

Besides the clear and creatively told message in the theater performance, there were other parts of the weekend I appreciated enormously for their more subtle message.  I think there are some things here that rural Nicaraguan life can teach us northern ueberconsumers.

The grilled meat and tortilla was served not on a plate but on a large leaf from the same tree the food stand was underneath.

The cold fruit drinks were sold in sturdy plastic cups that everyone brought back to the stand where they were washed.

There was a man next to the pot of steaming coffee collecting the styrofoam cups to wash as well.

The composting toilets, which are the same as the ones in Las Cañadas, and are the cleanest sweetest smelling and most useful form of a bathroom I’ve found.  It separates solids from liquids and allows the solids to compost into usable fertilizer.

Tina uses a dried leaf that has a scratchy texture to clean off the beautiful solid ceder slanted table in her kitchen that serves as a counter, chopping block, and sink.

A solar panel runs a small light that lasts for a few hours every night, after which the kitchen is only lit with the soft light of a kerosene lamp.

All the organic scraps are thrown into a bucket for the neighbors pigs.

This landfill is six months of garbage for the whole village!

This landfill is six months of garbage for the whole village!

During the several weeks that members of my family were visiting I took a vacation from the Reforestation project with CEPRODEL to travel with them.  Cerro Negro, a small but impressive volcano very close to León, is one of my favorite places to go.  I’ve been there three times, and climbed it twice.  This last time, my mother and I walked around the base where shrubbery is claiming old lava fields.  A group of farmers were taking advantage of the greenery, and had arrived with a large herd of cattle and horses.  So even while taking time off, I got to do one of my favorite parts of working with SosteNica/CEPRODEL – talk to farmers. 

Mom riding one of the horses at the base of Cerro Negro

Mom riding one of the horses at the base of Cerro Negro

The group of farmers were neighbors, who had come from their village 27 kilometers away with 30 cattle and about 15 horses.  They had plans to stay for three months in a small shelter they had built, letting the cattle graze in the surrounding volcanic hills.  When I asked them what they did during the summer, thinking that if they didn’t have enough pasture land near their village in the rainy season, what could they possible do in the six month drought that is the summer?  The answer was, sell cattle just before the drought and then try to add to their income with other agricultural projects.  The problem, they told me, is that the markets are very difficult.  The price of cattle has fallen sharply this year, and when one of them invested in honey he ended up giving honey away because he couldn’t find a good place to sell it.  They asked me if I had connections to an exporter for honey and sesame.  Could I buy their honey and take it to the states to sell for them?  They heard that farmers could get $5 for a hundred pound sack of sesame.  I asked him if that was a good price, and they said yes.

In the supermarket, how much does a quarter pound of sesame cost?  And if it’s organic?  Even aside from the vast markups between producer and retailer found in every agribusiness transaction, five cents a pound sounded like very little for a labor intensive crop.  I checked with a friend who exports sesame from cooperatives in the north, who assured me that $5 a quintal, or hundred pound sack, is a very low price. 

These farmers travelled two days to get to the park where there cattle will graze for three months.

These farmers travelled two days to get to the park where there cattle will graze for three months.

The group of farmers were very nice, offered us rides on their horses and later walked out to the base of Cerro Negro where were went to watch Colin and Becky slide down the sandy slope on boards. Thinking about our conversation afterward, I was struck with their fixation on exports.  I’m reading a book right now called The Roots of Rebellion: Land and Hunger in Central America.  Tom Barry’s argument is that the consistently low prices of export crops – controlled by transnational organizations – combined with oligarchic land ownership is the recipe for years of violence in every Central American country.  He doesn’t argue against export, but does highlight the difficulties of arranging fair trade agreements between countries with vast differences in their international economic standing. 

What would a project to improve the national market look like?  Could we replicate a Local Hero movement, or some of the projects that have helped the local food market boom in New England?  With a country that has such a huge informal market sector, and thriving urban market centers, it’s difficult to envision the changes needed.  I hope those cows get nice and fat on the side of the volcanic hill, and that if they do decide to invest in planting sesame, they find a buyer who gives them a decent price.

These are the lyrics to the Nina Simone song we sang on stage at the Achuapa festival.

These are the lyrics to the Nina Simone song we sang on stage at the Achuapa festival.

I wish I knew how it feels to be free

I wish I could break all the chains holding me

I wish I could say all the things I should say

Say them loud, say them clear, for the whole world to hear.

I wish I could share all the love in my heart

Remove all the bars that still keep us apart

I wish you could know what it means to be my

Than you´d see, and agree, every man should be free.

I wish I could give all I´m longing to give

I wish I could live how I´m longing to live

I  wish I could do all the things I can do

Though I´m way overdue, I´d be starting anew.

I wish I could be like a bird in the sky

How sweet it would be if I found I could fly!

I´d soar to the sun, and look down on the sea

Than I´d sing, cause I´d know how it feels to be FREE!

Dancers from UNAN León - look, hobby horses!

Dancers from UNAN León - look, hobby horses! Or are they hobby bulls?

Friday, while still recovering from the ends of a nasty stomach bug, I managed to survive the two hour drive up to Achuapa, the northern-most municipality of León, for the 9th Annual International Solidarity Music Festival.

Friday night was the ´Festival of Gold´, where the music and dance of the eldest generation are featured.  I watched as a 92 year old man played fiddle for hours on stage.  We found out later that three years ago he counted over 333 grandkids and great grand kids!  It was one of the only violins I´ve seen in Nicaragua, and he played it like an old timer from down south, with the bow drawn so tight it curved the wrong way, holding the fiddle against his chest instead of under his chin, while a comical mismatched elderly couple danced away on a stage built of rickety boards.  The crowds were thrilled.

The festival was beautiful, the little village where we stayed, called La Gartillo, was even more beautiful.  I embarrassed myself sufficiently by getting up and singing a Nina Simone songs with some English friends, and then by attempting a treble reel at 12:30 at night.  It was marvelous fun.

In El Gartillo monday morning I spoke for a while with Roger, the bank leader of a group called Los Rusticos.  He has written countless songs, inspired by his community, the incredible mountains surrounding them, and Nicaraguan traditions.  His group features two really talented young kids who play mandolin and sing, and several other members of the village.

The view over the valley.  You can see the smoke from one farmer burning his field to clear the brush.

The view over the valley. You can see the smoke from one farmer burning his field to clear the brush.

I talked to him about the inspiration for writing several songs about sustainable agriculture, and he shared the lyrics with me.  He said he´s been to countless trainings over the years offered by NGOs in the region, in permaculture, apiculture, and silvopastoreo.  He pointed out that its difficult to apply all the trainings because the information is rarely offered along with financing, or credit.  But he also talked about the changes he´s seen in the last decade, with many fewer people burning to clear brush, and hillsides turning greener with reforestation projects.  His beautiful poetry and observations left me feeling positive about projects like the cooperative he is part of and the reforestation project, and it was validating to hear from him that he felt the need to better integrate credit and technical assistance.

The countryside, while it is where foreigners are constantly warned of menacing diseases, turned out to be the perfect place to recuperate.  After passing a whole week in León with absolutely no appetite, the beans and tortillas offered to me were the most delicious ever.  The water, filtered through large ceramic jugs, was fresh.  By the time I arrived back yesterday I felt 100% myself again, and looking forward to returning this weekend for their agriculture fair.  IMG_0251

The festival of Santo Domingo in Managua starts the evening before August 1st and goes on for 10 days.  The image of the saint, which is a only about eight inches tall, is carried from a church south of the city through the streets to the church of Santo Domingo.  The festival is renowned for its wild crowds.  Throughout the year, people make pacts to the saint, promising to show their thanks by dancing with the procession for the rest of their lives if the saint cures their family members of an illness.  Some simply dance, others paint their bodies with burnt black oil or put Indian headdresses on, and many people get drunk. 

The little saint bounces along in the crowd

The little saint bounces along in the crowd

If I wasn’t already attuned to the very-alive pagan elements of Catholocism in Nicaragua, I would have to be blindfolded not to see them in this festival.  The television coverage featured a man talking about inheriting the duty of processing in black oil from his late father, a mother who has spent 43 years walking in the procession because her handicapped daughter learned to speak, and the palo lucio, a greased wooden pole that people attempt to climb up the night the festival starts. 

A man dressed in black oil.

A man dressed in black oil.

The procession certainly topped the Easter processions in revelry.  Besides lots of drunk and blackened people, we saw people in traditional Nicaraguan folk costumes, a man carrying a toy of two monkeys fornicating, a man costumed as an Indian with a full feather headdress, and a group of drag queens out dancing in front of the procession, even in a downpour.  The police were out in full form, protecting the group of staggering saint-bearers and immediately quelling any drunken violence before it started.  It’s hard for me to imagine this as condoned church behavior, but also clear that condoning these rituals is a win-win situation.  The people can continue celebrating in the way they have for centuries, and the church can count them as catholic and not need to justify persecuting them.  A note in the tome that is the history of the spread of Christianity.

A small group of police, including the cheif of police, led the parade.

A small group of police, including the cheif of police, led the parade.

The procession in the morning was a stark contrast to the one in the afternoon, which is a hípico, or kind of rodeo parade where people dress up and show off their thoroughbred horses.  The parade passes in front of the CEPRODEL office, so we made our way there and then walked down to meet some friends closer to the lake.  We happened to stop to watch the parade start right in front of one of the tent cities where banana and sugar cane fieldworkers with serious health damages from overexposure to agro-industrial chemicals have been squatting for years, demanding recompense.  The contrast both between the carousing morning parade and the formality of the afternoon was stark, and then watching the thoroughbred manicured horses walking past shacks made of plastic bags dampered the elegance of the parade a bit. 

We left the parade to visit the Small Businesses Fair that is also running for the duration of the Santo Domingo festival.  It was the right way to end the day.  We sampled Nicaraguan-made fruit wine, tried on handmade clothing, and generally felt good about so many small independent businesses having a place to strut their stuff.