November 2009

1. Compost Piles

Nicaraguans burn their trash – plastic, organic, or otherwise.  Some of it gets picked up and taken to the dump, where it’s burned or buried.  But most of it is burned.  The heavy hot air in Leon is at any given point tinged with the smell of burn, something that I rejoicingly noticed the lack of the minute I stepped out of the car in New York.  Compost is an unknown concept – there is no real spanish word for it, the university calls it composta.  I don’t know anyone – not even the agro-ecology professor with a nursery where I lived for three months – who has a backyard compost.  Except for the hostel where I lived and Nick’s house, where I started them.   They are both working really well, and the heat in Leon helps them decompose so much more quickly than I am used to!

The scraps from the kitchen get mixed with dirt and dry leaves from the patio. It composts rapidly in the Leon heat!

Two days after planting the young banana tree with pounds of my compost, the core started emerging rapidly. It's now about five feet tall with four large green glossy leaves.

2. A group of inspiring hard-working Micro Credit professionals.

I am so grateful to CEPRODEL for making the internship with them work.  They went above and beyond what I expected all the time, up to the last minute when they made me a little booklet with a report of my project with them and took me out to a festive dinner at one of my favorite restaurants.  Many of these guys travel three hours one way to work, and spend over 12 hours a day away from their families in order to do their work.

The group of CEPRODEL officers that took me out to dinner. The dinner helped me realize that many parts of my project were a challenge for different reasons, for example, not only speaking a new language and coming from a different background but also being the only female in a very male work environment.

3. Puestos para Plantas

An excellent project run by a British NGO mimicking Paul Farmer’s Village Health Network model and using it to create a Plant Health Network.  The project uses already existing avenues of resources to small farmers, such as cooperatives and university extensions, to create a national system of data collection and standardized advice for farmers.  The system uses an approach called MIC, or Integrated Cultivation Management.  MIC emphasizes  improved cultural practices like good weed management and soil fertility that play a large role in preventing the onslaught of diseases and the need to use chemical applications.  In Nicaragua, the project is part of a national campaign to reduce pesticide dependency.

Tecnicos from the Cooperative Juan Francisco Paz Silva with representatives from the British NGO CABI and UNAN Leon Agroecology.

4. The worlds most handsome and intelligent kitten, Theo

He can climb in and out of the house windows, he gets out of the house using the storm drain, and happily plays with and eats the cockroaches out of the bathroom.  No cat doors, minimal effort on our part, and a huge return for having a happy purring sometimes snuggly mouse eater in the house.

Theo also provides endless entertainment for all our guests, as my little friends Ale and Fabricio demonstrate.

There are alot of differences between our meal Monday night in Sutiava, Leon and Thanksgiving.  Supposedly the first Thanksgiving was a welcome to the arrival of the pilgrims from Europe to the new land, my dinner was a farewell after ten months of living in Nicaragua.  The original Thanksgiving might have had pigs feet and chicken tacos served as well, but if it did that part of the story was lost in history.  Our cranberry sauce didn’t have any cranberries in it, but we ate turkey.

My friend Melaña came three hours from a little village outside of Achuapa for the dinner. She seems like quiet shy person, but always seems to show up at the best parties!

Ceremoniously taking the turkey out of the oven - along with the supermarket chicken we bought after we saw how skinny the turkey was.

The turkey was clothed in bacon, a good decision since it didn't actually release much juice while it cooked.

There ended up being a nice variety of traditional Nicaraguan, American Thanksgiving, and English Sunday Dinner dishes.  The chompipe was a big hit and appropriately there was lots of recipe swapping happening during dinner.  There was a nice selection of people who I know from CEPRODEL, UNAN Leon, the Olla Quemada, and of course Melana from Achuapa.  Any excuse to eat good food brings folks together.



Sadly I have no valient and gory photographs of the great Chompipe slaughter, because Mama Lily, the nice little lady who agreed to babysit our chompipe got up early and slaughtered it literally while I was at my house on the phone with my mom confirming some turkey details from the joy of cooking.  When we arrived, knives and details for boiling water all worked out, the bird was in in a pot and in the fridge.  And all without letting us know.  At least she didn’t cook it for us too!  IMG_8255So we just got on with our day, went to market, and celebrated a birthday party.  Making pumpking pie tonight to get everything ready for a nica thanksgiving tomorrow.


The man who sharpened our knives had a shop full of interesting trinkets made from old tin cans and aluminum.


black beans at the market














Carola (in the center with the sideways face) is the owner of the Olla Quemada, my favorite Leon bar, where I go salsa dancing every week.

Among the lofty goals of mine to accomplish before I leave in 4 days (!!!) is to host a Thanksgiving-ish dinner with friends.  So, because we like leading a simple life without too many complications, Nick and I took an extra two hours out of yesterday to head on muddy paths 8 km beyond the city of Nagarote in search of a turkey.  We miraculously reached the farm of William Gutierrez, participant in the CEPRODEL Reforestation project, without taking any wrong turns and without getting stuck in the mud.

Williams kids ran around and grabbed various turkeys so we could compare weightsWilliams kids ran around the yard and grabbed the turkeys (chompipes) that were big enough to kill.

IMG_8241I compared the weight of a two different turkeys and selected the bigger one.  Jennifer, the youngest child of the farmer william, was very intrigued by the birds.  She was a bit upset once she saw the turkey in the back of our truck and realised that it was coming with us.IMG_8239












IMG_8227This the view of the volcano Momotombo from the main road that passes Nagarote.  I’ve been wanting to take this picture for several weeks now, as the sorghum has been slowly ripening and deepening in color.

Next post:  This afternoons task of killing the Chompipe.


The fertility of the soil is apparently excellent; the house where we had lunch was surrounded by hydrangas bigger than my head.

Saturday we went for a tour of the coffee production and social development projects with the UCA Miraflor, a cooperative of 45 producers.  The UCA is also an eco-tourism project, which helps members build cabins or improve the conditions of their house to have a room to rent to tourists.  Some of my friends from the states who stayed with a family for a few nights said it was one of the best things they did here.


Marlon shows off a variety of lemon that is also nearly the size of my head. The producer received a mess of trees from a project and mostly gives them away - social capital.

The purpose of our trip was mostly to look at their coffee production and see how it could be improved.  Miraflor is a national reserve, filled with an amazing diversity of wildlife and plants.  Chico, the Manager of the coffee production, is at heart an avid bird watcher and even though it rained all day and he didn’t have any raingear, he chose to stay on the back of the pickup with his binoculars, banging frantically on the roof so we could stop and get out whenever he saw an exciting specimen.  Marlon, one of the tecnics, also came with us, and Carlos, the president of the cooperative, joined us at the cupping lab and for lunch.

Miraflor was rainy, damp, and by the end of the day the coldest I have been in Nicaragua.  At lunch I could see my breath for the first time in nearly ten months.  Spanish moss dripping from trees and buildings gave the gray day and even gloomier mystical feeling.   Every tree carried more than its load of epiphytes and orchids in addition to the spanish moss.  The farms we visited were impressively diverse as well, with coffee, bananas, plantains, citrus trees, chayote squash, cattle, and extensive patio vegetable gardens that are promoted by one of the UCA projects for food sovereignty and nutrition.

fuente la vida

Fince Fuente la Vida where we had a delicious lunch and I got to hover over the fire in the kitchen with the women serving food.

The big achievement of the day was discussing and agreeing to produce a trial batch of ten sacks of ‘naturally dried’ coffee.


Chico in the cupping lab where we sampled Miraflor organic coffee.

Most of the coffee in Nicaragua is fermented and washed at a ‘wet beneficio’ to remove the fruit from around the coffee bean, and then the bean is dried at a ‘dry beneficio’ before being exported as green coffee.  Naturally dried coffee, which is actually an older method of producing coffee, dries the whole coffee cherry like a raisin, and after about 12 days when it is good and dry the fruit is then removed from the bean by pounding it.  There is a difference in the finished product, because the bean absorbs a different flavor from the fruit when they are dried together.  Recently Mickey from Salt Spring coffee in Canada expressed interest in purchasing naturally dried coffee for using in expressos, opening up a new export market for a product generally considered lower quality.

Fogon Dolores

Dolores, one of the women who have a new 'fogon' with a chimney and flu. She is stripping wild grapes that her family had just harvested. Small as wild blueberries and delicious. Even the cat likes the new stove setup.

The UCA has also has a myriad of social and environmental projects in addition to the vegetable gardens.  They have installed solar panels, build improved stoves that burn less wood and have chimney and flu systems to keep houses free of smoke, funded coffee plantation renovations, build schools, and are in the process of building small improved ‘wet beneficios’ with an improved water filtration system to reduce contamination at individual farms.  At the end of the day it was so cold and we were so wet it was hard to absorb so much interesting and positive information.  Their list of activities kept going on and on, and when we thought we had gotten them all notated they would casually mention something else that sparked our interest.  Luckily the city of Estili is a close half hour drive, and the muddy rough roads not so bad at all.   This is an excellent part about dealing with sometimes rough travelling conditions here: if I’d never left Leon this year I never would have thought a hot shower in Nicaragua would be so delicious.

producer 2

Adolfo Mareno Guttierez, a coffee producer who just received a new beneficio which will conserve water and reduce the contamination normally produced by wet processing coffee. Every farmer had several varieties of coffee. Adolfo had one that is yellow instead of red when ripe; which I had never seen before.


Santiago Familia

Three of Santiago Sabino's eight children pose with him in the well-tended plantain, fruit, and watermelon plot.


Last week while I was visiting some of the participants in the reforestation project I found another clever companion-planting combination. Don Santiago Sabino lives about 8 kilometers off the main road, down a dirt road that turned into a mud pit after only one rainfall the night before. We nearly didn’t make it there with the motorcycle. Santiago has planted his citrus and plantain trees en asocio, putting two plantain trees in between each citrus. While the citrus trees are small he can use the same irrigation system for both plants, and the plantain trees will help ‘hide’ the citrus trees from white moths, the citrus’ main pest.



Trying to get the motorcycle through a muddy river. I walked more than half of the 6 kilometers back because the extra weight on the back of the motorcycle made the back wheel spin in the mud.

Not all the participants in the project have irrigation, but Santiago has a pump set up in the river nearby, and has a gravitational irrigation system, where he has dug trenches that run alongside of the rows of plants. The water is pumped up from the river and then runs down the hill in the trenches, watering the trees. Underneath each plantain tree is a sprouting pipian or watermelon plant. Santiago figured that he planting the seeds at the base of the plantain tree will take advantage of the same water and fertilizer, and the sale of the watermelon and pipian will pay for the gas he needs to run the pump and operate the irrigation. Santiago has a farm of 60 manzanas that he has bought bit by bit over the years. He has about 20 cattle right now, but also has years of vegetable experience, which helped him to figure out this clever way of paying for his irrigation. He has one of the most diverse farms I’ve seen here, with fruit trees surrounding his house and a large garden with peppers, tomatoes, papaya, and more watermelon. CEPRODEL selected his farm to trial cocoa plants and see whether they produce well in that zone. He is still figuring out a good spot and system for planting the cocoa in partial shade.



sandia platanos

Santiago's youngest son shows the small watermelon seedlings just sprouting underneath the plantain tree.


A more well established Pipian squash plant growing at the base of a mango sapling. The gravitational irrigation system Santiago dug (trenches going downhill with a pump to fill them) ensures that the plants receive plenty of water.




The rainy season, which took a long break in the middle and frustrated many farmers, is making the most of October. We´ve had steady rains a couple times a week in the late afternoons, which means gorgeous afternoon light in the city.

There´s alot going on right now.  I´m trying to tie up a bunch of loose ends before I leave to go back to the states in two weeks  (marking the end of my ten month Fulbright).  Some of those are work related, some are just small things like making an effort to go to those museums and restaurants I´ve walked past for ten months and always thought, I´ll go there soon, but haven´t ever made it.  Even though I´m coming back in December, it´s nice to have this mental deadline to give myself a push and be extra productive and thoughtful about how I spend my time.

treblereelLast Thursday my friend Sterling Vasquez, the director of a contemporary and folk dance company, invited me to dance some Irish reels at his 15th anniversary show at the municipal theater here in León.  I somehow managed to get a nice costume together at the last minute.  It certainly wasn´t what I used to dance, but it felt good to spend a week remembering some old material, making up some new things, and generally stretching and getting into shape.  I enjoy representing that part of my culture and past here.  Nicaraguans understand the importance of traditional music and arts, and are incredibly receptive when you offer to share yours.  There was a Fulbright snapshot moment backstage with me in my Riverdance-esque black and all the little girls in their long satin traditional Nicaraguan dresses, each exclaiming over the elegance of each others dresses and dances.


Yamilette, one of the participants from Las Limas, tries her hand at grafting a lemon sapling.

Friday was a workshop at the reforestation project.  Eighteen of the participants came.  There were two main themes: establishing tree nurseries and grafting; and fitopathology, or diagnosing and treating plant diseases.  We had a practical excercise where anyone interested was invited to try grafting a tree.  Afterward we held a general questions and answers session, which successfully turned into a very useful discussion about what the next stages of the project will be and how we can help limit the damage of the impending six month drought.  After the discussion ended, Luis and Vernonn completely surprised me by presenting me with a certificate of appreciation for spending my grant working with their project.   awardIt was a really sweet gesture, a beautifully designed certificate, and

gave me an excellent opportunity to  in turn thank all the farmers for being so welcoming to me at their farms.  I ended by asking them all for two things: that they always be open and trusting in expressing their opinions of the project with us, and that they take enjoyment in the process of designing and diversifying their land.


It took us a full forty-five minutes to pick up a truckload of friends and family. I took this picture at about 1:30 am as we were getting ready to repeat the forty-five minute return loop. Javi and Anna are in front.

Last week was Javier´s birthday.  Javier is a friend and young biology professor who is working in the mangrove forests along the coast at my favorite León beach, Las Piñitas.  The traditional birthday song here starts ´En las Mañanitas´ (In the early morning).  A birthday celebrants family should wake them up very early in the morning with gifts.  Realistically I´m not sure how often that actually happens, as nearly all the birthday celebrations I´ve been to have been pretty late night raucous affairs.  But Javi had plans to go to Granada with his girlfriend Anna and so wouldn´t be around to party in the evening.  So at midnight the night before we rounded up a crew and, with some scheming with Anna, managed to sneak into his house and wake him up at 12:30 am on his birthday.  According to the song, a very properly celebrated Nica birthday.