Food


OK, I realize that the third word in the title doesn’t exist, and that the second one is a stretch.

The connection between high levels of biodiversity within an ecosystem and increased stability and resilience is fairly well understood. The more genetic diversity there is within the plant and animal communities, the more likely the overall population will withstand disturbances like famine, shifts in climate, or diseases. Does that theory of diversity hold true, for example, when looking at an organization’s approaches to raising the quality of life for rural communities? Or strengthening the economic stability of a region?

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At Efrain and Luz Maria Solis’s house, some serious retaining walls were built to capture soil eroding from yards up-slope. The 20ft x 3oft garden contains a mix of plantains, yucca, mint, squash, hibiscus, grasses for animal forage, and tomato and pepper seedlings. The biodiversity in these kitchen gardens helps to ensure that families will always have something to harvest, and no one kind of disease or pest will wipe their whole garden out.

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Two years ago farmer Jose Natividad Padilla planted ten acres of citrus trees. The EcoCentro worked with him to fill in the space between the young trees with plantains, canavalia beans, and squash and watermelon crops. Increasing the biodiversity of these larger fields not only increases their productivity and economic value, but will help to conserve water and protect the soil from erosion by establishing dense root structures.

The team at the EcoCentro believes it does. They are taking a super diverse approach to working with rural communities in Nagarote, Nicaragua. Workshops in companion planting and forest gardening encourage biodiversity, a handful of ecotechnologies like fuel-efficient stoves, rainwater catchment systems, and composting toilets help to conserve natural resources, and working with people who may only have 1/4 acre as well as with farmers who manage 25 acres of land makes it possible to have a significant impact within a community.

Theoretically, there are many arguments for community development organizations to have a diverse approach toward solving environmental and economic problems. No one solution will fit the many types of people in a community, and not all them experience the same problems. But what are the costs associated with tackling so many approaches at once? We spent some time over the last two weeks digging into the programs that the EcoCentro offers and trying to flesh out how they are connected, which activities support others, and what kinds of the benefits are reaped from different approaches.

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Veterinary student Juan Pablo disinfects a small wound in the leg of a calf at a one family’s house. Animals are an integral part of the rural family’s income and food security. In the past, the EcoCentro has heavily promoted the use of animal fertilizers in compost, and are now offering resources to help maintain the health of those animals as well. 

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EcoCentro team member Eduardo talks with Magali Solis about maintenance for her fuel-efficient stove. The Solis family harvest all their own wood from land they own outside the village. The new stove has saved Magali hours of time cutting and hauling firewood. 

We started with a simple graph of a multitude of programs – school and family gardens, a farmer’s market, co-investments in cash crops, agroecological extension services, ecotechnologies, and hosting voluntourism groups. As we began to discuss the interconnections between programs, different classifications of relationships began to emerge. We talked about liquid capital – the cash needed for agricultural investments or supplies to build a stove – and “corazon” capital – the “feel-good” social capital gained by supporting educational and community-strengthening activities like intercultural exchanges and school gardens. We talked about the strengths and weaknesses of relying on certain programs to generate income, and the risks associated with them. The market leapt out as an “indicator” program – if it is going well and farmers are coming and selling things, then it means that the gardens and farms are doing well.

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Can you see all the hearts? Hint – they aren’t all red.

Hopefully this was the first of many ongoing visioning exercises the team will have on the programming structure. We didn’t come to any concrete decisions, but a few things jumped out. Many activities that support food security also have the potential to generate huge amounts of “corazon” capital (heart capital!), monitoring and tracking each program – both the costs and the measurable impact – will be super important going forward, and every program positively benefited at least one other one: a hopeful indicator that the biodiversity, technodiversity, and scaleversity of the EcoCentro’s work will increase the resilience of the both the EcoCentro and the communities who work with it.

 

ImageThe Tuesday before Ash Wednesday was celebrated as Fastnacht Dienstag by my grandmother. She explained to us that you had to use up all the sugar in the house because there were no sweets during lent.  The traditional way to do this in Pennsylvania Dutch households are Fastnachtkuchen – fresh fried donuts.  We made them a few times growing up, at least once using a recipe that called for mashed potatoes.  I remember them being delicious. A few weeks ago we stopped by the women’s initiative in Achuapa where the Social Business Network and Juan Francisco Paz Silva Coop are currently offering courses to women organized in groups – Baking, Piñata making and Crafts, and Natural Medicine. The baking class was in the kitchen – frying up donuts. And it happened to be Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. I shared the story about my grandmother’s Fastnachtkuchen and found out that while it really was just a coincidence that the class was making donuts that day, there is a Nicaraguan tradition of making and eating buñuelos the day before Ash Wednesday. Sweet!

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Mari, a student in the course, proudly holds up the tray of donuts they had learned to make. They were delicious!

Continuing the Thanksgiving Theme, here is my favorite table grace in Spanish:

Gracias Señor por el pan.  Da pan al que tiene hambre 
y hambre de justicia al los que tienen pan.
 Gracias Señor por el pan.

A rough translation reads:

Lord, bless this food we are about to receive.  To those who hunger give bread; and to those who have bread give the hunger for  justice.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone where ever you are, may you all be surrounded by family and sitting down to a table of good food, grown by loving hands that worked in justice and dignity to provide us with our nourishment.

My grandmother on the porch of her house in Pennsylvania, Spring 2013.

My grandmother on the porch of her house in Pennsylvania, Spring 2013.

I try to keep this blog to topic: farming and sustainable living anecdotes from Nicaragua and Latin America.  But this time I’m stretching that to include something much more personal.  My maternal grandmother passed away at the beginning of November, prompting a last-minute ticket purchase back to the states to be with my family.  This being the month that starts with the Day of the Dead in Latin America, and also being Thanksgiving time, I’ve done a lot of reflecting about her, my late grandfather, several other family members who have passed away, and how they have all contributed to who I am.  Much of the time I spent growing up with my grandparents centered around family agriculture:  working in the garden, preparing food from the garden or nearby farms, preserving fruits and vegetables, and even special trips to the local tourism attraction, a dairy farm with a kids “petting farm.”  Even though my grandmother never came to Nicaragua, she lived many of the values that I and so many others work to promote here.  Talking about it helps to instill pride and value in what has historically been viewed as a humble means of subsistence, and so I want to share the eulogy that I wrote for my Grandmother, Virginia Elizabeth Kavash Metz, who passed away at age 90 on November 5th:

“Our grandmother was an ideal grandma, in the sense that she knew exactly what grandkids liked: fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, lots of stuffed animals, singing and games, and trips to the petting zoo and the ice cream store.  When we visited her and Poppop in Pennsylvania she was the heart of the house and most often, I remember her in the kitchen.  There was always something wonderful happening there.  Pickled beets, canned tomatoes, freezing 100 ears of corn at a time, and making peach custard or ground cherry pie.  She kept the top left hand corner cabinet of the kitchen stocked with candy and marshmallows that could easily be accessed once you brought a chair over and climbed up on the counter.  Once banished from the kitchen for being underfoot, there was a world to explore.  A patch of woods with a dirt bike track in the back yard, a lawn to play baseball, and a vast garden with strawberries, string beans, peas or tomatoes to pick.  The piano in the living room is lined with pictures, and after family dinners Grandma and her brother, Uncle Herbie, would play.  The piano bench was filled with sheet music – hymns and popular songs from the 1920’s onward.  She taught us how to play chopsticks and would play the left hand part with us.  Years later, struggling with hands knotted with arthritis, she still loved sitting at the piano, Ginny in the middle of her family, picking out the melody to her favorite hymns.

Our lives have been greatly influenced by time we spent with our grandparents in Pennsylvania.  My brothers and I chose to study German at school because of Grandma’s family.  Her father emigrated from Austria-Hungary, and Grandma grew up speaking German with her grandmother, and shared her bed-time prayers and table graces with us.   When I lived in Germany for a year, Grandma was able to fulfill a lifelong dream of going to Germany.  I’ll never forget proudly listening to her labored but successful attempts to relay the stories of her childhood to my host family in German she hadn’t used fluently for years.

Our grandmother was born and raised in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.  She had 4 much older half siblings and a mischievous younger brother Herbert.  Herbie remembers her as a very caring sibling, and recounts how when they were young she found an injured robin, tended to the injuries and after the bird was healed, trained the robin to eat from her hand, come upon her call and sit on her shoulder.  She loved animals and enjoyed the companionship of pets for her whole life.  More recently, her morning routine in our house included slipping bits of her breakfast to our dog at her feet, calling the cat to sit next to her, and happily watching the birds at the feeder.

During World War II Grandma joined the Volunteer Medical Service Corps where she enjoyed being part of the Color Guard and especially having the honor to carry the American Flag in parades.  We continued to hear stories of the military balls she attended years later.  She met her husband, Stanley, while in the Medical Corps and they were married in 1949.  For ten years they lived with her family until Stanley finished building a house in Hatfield, where they raised their daughters and established the garden that we knew.

Grandma was a hard worker and supported her family.   After high school she worked at a local Hosiery Mill, and for over 30 years she worked at the North Penn Water Authority in the billing department where she hand-wrote entries in the company ledger in her elegant script.  Although she retired when I was small, I remember going with her to the office to visit her colleagues, as well as to sewing circle and Sunday services at Lutheran and Mennonite Churches.  Her friends called her “Ginny”, and she loved to dress up and go to social events and parties, greeting everyone with a brilliant smile and sparkling blue eyes.  She had a great sense of humor that grew more wry as she aged.  In the morning, when you asked her how she slept she often would answer nonplussed, “With my eyes shut”.  Even as she later struggled with Parkinsons and the mood swings that come with it she always enjoyed making a good joke.

The German table grace Grandma always said roughly translates as, Come lord Jesus, and bless what you with grace have shared with us.  Our grandmother shared with us her love of music and animals; the joy and satisfaction of transforming a garden’s harvest into exquisite dinners, pies and jams; her sense of humor; and our heritage.  We are so blessed to have all these things that Grandma has given us to continue sharing amongst ourselves.

Komm Herr Jesu, sei unser Gast, und segnet was du uns aus Gnaden besheret hast.  Amen.”

October 2013 is Fair Trade Month, when consumer advocacy groups, companies, and certifications raise awareness of the reasons why fair trade is important, and promote buying and using socially and commercially sustainable, fair trade products in place of commodities which may harm the environment, the economy, communities and disadvantaged individuals.  Despite it’s good intentions, the campaign hasn’t been visible at all on the ground in this Fair Trade producer country.  I can’t help noticing the one-way flow of information and energy within this movement that has legitimately transformed the way that trade impacts hundreds of thousands of small producers’ lives.  Since beginning my work with agricultural cooperatives almost a year ago, I have had the privilege of seeing and experiencing the incredible results of implementing a trading structure that supports small producers.  And I also am able to see its shortcomings in the field, where the newest innovations in ethical trade need to be focused.  Like a missed opportunity this “Fair Trade” month for companies and advocacy groups to support producer cooperatives in recruiting new members and launching local awareness campaigns in their own countries, not only in consumer countries.  When Fair Trade USA decided to break away from the Fair Trade Licensing Organization’s international standards to certify plantations and reduce the amount of certified ingredients necessary for labelling, they sent a clear message to agricultural cooperatives that have toiled for years to create successful democratic businesses – we care more about profit margins and consumer demand than your participation in the market.  Ouch.  So while consumer advocacy groups shuffle around to take sides and pour resources in re-educating the public on new standards and symbols, agricultural cooperatives have to huddle, suck it in to prepare for an even more competitive market on top of coffee rust and whatever climatic disaster is waiting around the corner.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, tomorrow Oct. 16th is World Food Day.  This year’s theme is Healthy People Depend on Healthy Food Systems.  Access for consumers to quality food is just one piece of a food system, and it’s an important one – besides the social and other health costs associated with lack of access to good food, the costs of malnutrition alone could account for as much as an estimated 5% of the global gross domestic product (GDP).  Both upstream and downstream from agricultural food production are important links in the food system that impact the lives and diets of many people.  Availability of soil amendments, financing, regional land policy, and road quality all have an impact on both local and global food systems.  Ethical trading structures like Fair Trade can have a direct impact on a subsequent food system – like the example of this Coop in Achuapa, Nicaragua.  Innovations to ethical trading structures should improve information and resource feedback, continue to empower small producers and provide ways for them to increase ownership over links in the supply chain, and support them in building parallel local markets so the overall effect of good fair trade is healthier food systems – and healthier people – around the world.

A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

Once upon a time I believed that creating and supporting healthy local food systems meant eliminating imported products – for example, sticking to a 100 mile-diet.  I believed that preaching a local food only diet could solve societal issues such as a disconnect from agricultural businesses and the source of our food, struggling local economies, and poor health and nutrition.  But I began to question that belief as my work in Nicaragua evolved from development centered NGO work to trade oriented development work.  As I have gotten to know several fair trade cooperatives, their histories and their work today, I have had to reassess to a certain extent my intense focus on the benefits of consuming only local food.  Maybe there is a space for positive global trade, one that can, despite the enormous capital and fuel resources, create net positive social impact and work pretty hard on the environmental ones too.  After all, while many local farms in the US have sprung up, grown and profited off of the local food movement, local independent coffee roasters have too!  In general I am a supporter of positive campaigning (put your energy behind what you DO want – if not instead than at least as well as what you DON”T want).  I would not recommend to any local food advocate to go an a campaign to convince the masses to stop drinking their coffee.  Not worth your energy.

It is worth your energy to drink the right coffee though!  Over the years I have found that the agricultural cooperatives I work with here that export coffee and sesame share many of the same values as movements I connect with in the states, such as the local food movement.  The funds they generate – through exporting a commodity to people in countries whose climates or economies that do not support the production of that crop – are often invested in funding environmental youth movements, organic fertilizer production, educational scholarships, and strengthening local food networks.  Every coffee coop we work with has or is currently developing a national brand of export quality coffee to market nationally.  This focus on raising the quality of the Nicaraguan coffee culture through national distribution is a strategy that I find both empowering and an example of good business.  Investing in a product for local markets will help the coops grow, reach new markets, and give them a way to leverage the difference between national and international prices to make the best business decisions each year – as well as strengthening the local food system by providing Nicaraguans the opportunity to drink high quality Nicaraguan coffee.

Another coop we work with, the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa, exports sesame oil to Europe, mostly for use in cosmetics.  The exports work like the engine that fuels the Cooperative.  It means the Cooperative provides jobs for locals (many of them youth) to run the oil press, the business administration, and the services the coop offers, it generates fair trade premiums – funds that are ear marked for social or environmental projects.  The profits are invested into the business and distributed amongst its members, similar to dividends in a public company.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Because the cooperative has been successful both in producing a quality product that has demand on the market and in investing their profits in the community, other organizations are attracted to working with them, and they have been able to collaborate with local and international development organizations on projects improving farm diversity, establishing technical schools, improving access to potable water, and strengthening local food networks.  Over the last three years, the coop has invested in developing a local line of products using what is available and abundant – including sesame, a very nutritious grain which is not a staple of Nicaraguan cuisine.  Through the creativity of some coop members and employees, and now through a new initiative to Recognize the Unpaid Work of Women in the cost of the sesame and use those funds to help women fully participate in local communities and economies, the coop is lending their facilities and marketing support to the development of new products.  The first Nicaraguan-produced Tahini, which has at least made a splash amongst some local expats, was revolutionized when Doña Ernestina, who works at the coop, mixed it with honey produced by the coop and created a sweet sticky spread that appeals more to a Nicaraguan palate.  Individuals and groups of women in Achuapa have the full support of the cooperative in developing and marketing foods made from local ingredients to local communities – funded through the export of sesame oil and sesame seeds to communities as far away as Europe, the US, and Japan.

Suddenly, export vs. local isn’t so black and white anymore.  When a democratic organization with a strong social and environmental vision successfully enters an international market, the impact can be felt very locally.

The end of the dry season is here, finally the heavy hot humid nights have a chance of breaking into real rain.  Two nights ago we fell asleep to such a pleasant soft rain – a gentle beginning to what we know will be months of torrential downpours and dramatic lightning storms.

espiritu del patio

The dry season here is s o  d r y  that we had just about given up our back yard garden. We could keep a few pots of herbs in the courtyard, but watering behind the house became so time consuming and difficult to coordinate with all of our business trips up to the coffee region. The courtyard thrived, the ornamentals enjoying the pure sun, and we’ve enjoyed a few more heads of those heavenly little banano rosas.  Everything changed when we installed a drip irrigation system with a battery run timer in the back garden.  Amazing.  Irrigation is a life and farm changing technology here. I knew that theoretically, but now I have lived to see and feel the difference a good system can make in a gardeners life.  Finally we can have a green garden out back, with basil and eggplant and tomatoes and garlic and ginger. Drip irrigation systems do not, however, resolve the leaf-cutter ant and iguana pest problems, and they continue to devour anything that isn’t smelly or spiky.

espanta pajaroAlong with our little chicken coop and garden, we have managed to cultivate such a sweet relationship with our next door neighbors.  Luisito, who is five, is in charge of our chickens when we leave on a trip, and has done such a good job that he has been promoted to garden-waterer and protector-of-the-garden-against-iguanas. Which he usually does with his little rubber slingshot.  Although I haven’t witnessed a successful hunt, I often get long rambling accounts of which trees and holes the iguanas came out of while I was gone, and how many piedras Luis slung to scare them all away. When we left for the states for a short trip last month, Luis promised to be extra attentive.  The morning after we returned I glanced out the back and stopped, thinking someone was in our yard.  No, Luisito and his grandfather had built us a “scare-iguana” in the back bed!  Now we just need to figure out what a “scare-leaf-cutter-ants” looks like!

ginger sprout

Ginger is one of my favorite things. Period. To watch sprout, to grow, to grate, to eat, to drink.

 

On it's way to unfurling into an impressive 5 feet tall orange cactus flower.

On its way to unfurling into an impressive 5 feet tall orange cactus flower.

 

Sacuanjoche, the national flower

A Sacuanjoche tree, the national flower, unfurling new leaves

 

Gallon water bottles make excellent seed trays along the sunny wall in the courtyard.

Gallon water bottles cut in half make excellent seed trays along the sunny wall in the courtyard.

 

Last week we celebrated my birthday with lots of tropical flowers, fruits, and friends.

Last week we celebrated my birthday with lots of tropical flowers, fruits, and friends.

 

The boiled nuts are high in protein and low in fat.

The boiled nuts are high in protein and low in fat.

Every now and then I have come across some nuts in the market, tied into plastic bags.  In León it’s rare to find them.  They have a brittle brown shell and are wet, clearly boiled, and the inside is creamy and dry and tastes vaguely like a chestnut.  People sell them as castañas, which actually is the spanish word for chestnut.  They are a rare treat to find here – one of a handful of traditional fruits that don’t really have a market and many people are unfamiliar with.

I recently discovered the tree that the nuts come from at a place that I’ve been to frequently.  One of the sesame coops that I work with through the Social Business Network founded a local vocational highschool.  All the agricultural coop offices – and the school – have gardens with carefully selected ornamental and edible plants: hibiscus flowers, roses, plantains, mangos, avocados, achiote, mint, and almond.  I have always admired this one tree in the front of the yard.  It has huge, beautiful glossy green leaves with scalloped edges, and a straight tall trunk.  I assumed it was an ornamental, until I once saw a spiky green round fruit the size of a small melon.

Artocarpus camansi fruit and leaves.

Artocarpus camansi fruit and leaves.

At first I mistook it for a breadfruit tree, which I have seen on the Caribbean coast.  Actually it’s an Artocarpus camansi tree, cousin of the breadfruit known as the breadnut, and produces those hard-to-find nuts.  I found that out when the secretary of the cooperative took some of the brown, fallen fruit and dried it to get the seeds out and bring to some friends who liked the tree and wanted to plant some.  As we tore open the spiky fruit, I recognized the seeds, and collected some to cook.  The woman who lives at the school and cooks had heard of castañas but had never seen them before, and was a bit sceptical but game to try them.  We boiled them for a half hour and then cooled them down and they were exactly like the ones in the market – creamy nutty flavor.  Not exactly like chestnuts – but I bet they would be good roasted.

On the less dried fruit, the seeds were encased in a thick gooey fruit.

In the less dried fruit, the seeds were encased in a thick gooey flesh.

     To celebrate Nick’s birthday this past week he decided to do another Carne en Baho, a traditional Nicaraguan dish that we first tried making two years ago.  The party was planned in a casual, informal style – word of mouth, calling friends, making sure that we invited everyone we ran into out town – but there was no facebook invite or big email sent out.  As the date got closer, friends of friends began asking us what they could bring, and we realized that the word really had gotten out!  So the baho plans became more ambitious and in the end we made the most enormous single pot of food I’ve ever seen.  Possibly too big – although passing out all the leftovers to neighbors and friends was fun and earned us quite a bit of social capital points in the neighborhood (and maybe helped to mend any bad feelings left after having played loud music until the wee hours of the morning).

Putting together the baho is an creative endeaver.

     My favorite part of making baho is actually layering all the ingredients into the giant pot.  It’s a very artistic endeavor, and the aesthetic of packing all the ingredients in to the pirol as tightly as possible is visually very pleasing!  The colors of all the raw ingredients are vibrant and beautiful, but when you open the pot after steaming them for 4 hours they have all faded to a dull brown in the meat juices.  But if you’ve done it right, the smell that then fills your whole house makes up for the not-as-pretty-anymore dish.

     We have learned some things since taking on this endeavor  – this time we sat down before hand with our Nica friends and worked out the ingredient list in weight and volume measurements rather than in prices, so we didn’t have to worry about getting ripped off at the market and coming back with less than what we needed.  In the end, we ordered 50 lbs of salted beef from our neighbor across the street, and got a half a sack of yuca, 50 ripe plantains and 20 green plantains, 5 lbs of onions (enough for salad and chili sauce too), a bucket of tomatoes, a bucket of big green peppers, two dozen each of sweet and bitter oranges, three big bunches of mint, a head of celery, and four heads of garlic at the market.  Don’t forget the plantain leaves to line the pirol too – they need to be shiny green and fresh.  The first batch we bought in a hurry as a thunderstorm began at the market, and when we opened the roll of leaves they were moldy so we had to go find more.  We didn’t add up what we spent, but it probably came to around $150 with the meat included, which is a really good deal considering we served at least 150 plates of food in the end!

Our little friends Naomi and Yulisa, relaxing together after actually helping us with a lot of food prep and sweeping!

     Everyone loves a good party, and thank goodness some people love putting together a good party too!  Two of our good friends Melania and Maria Jose spend the whole day helping us chop and prepare and clean, giving us the space to run some last minute errands.  Hooray for our village.  They have been very supportive!  Somehow we managed to create a space that all sorts of people could enjoy – early in the evening our friends with small kids came and had popcorn and played with balloons and helped with last minute setting up.  Some of them left when the house really started filling up and we opened the Baho.  We asked the DJ from our favorite salsa bar in town to come play, and he has such good taste in music that everyone danced – the real Nica indicator that it was a good party!  At the very end of the evening (er, that is, pushing 4am!) the DJ stopped and some of the guests who are musicians played piano and sang, which was a super sweet ending to a rather exhausting but fun evening.

Oof, just barely too much food even for such a giant pot….

 One of my main objectives was to throw a big party without creating a load of awful plastic and styrofoam trash afterward.  I think we were quite successful at that – we shopped at the market using canvas bags instead of buying packaged produce from the supermarket, and also got a few dozen re-usable plastic cups and plates that are light and pack tightly together so we can store them away easily for most of the years.  We served the Baho on the re-usable plastic plates on top of a banana leaf, so after a person finished the leaf could be put in our compost bucket (oh man, our chickens are having a three-day post-fiesta feast now!!!), and the plate could just be rinsed quickly before another leaf was put on and Baho served to someone else.  We were definitely short overall cups, but when someone asked for a cup we just asked them to find an abandoned one and we (or they) would wash it, and no one ever failed to find a used cup sitting under a chair to grab.  With the largest party that has ever been thrown at this house (probably 120 people in total!), at the end of the night we generated – one giant tub of compost for the chickens to enjoy, one large sack of empty plastic soda and rum bottles (which will be recycled), and one medium kitchen garbage bag of paper and plastic trash.  Not bad!

     As before, we were reminded that it’s important to make extra, because it’s customary here to ask for a plate of food to bring home to the person left watching the house while everyone else is at the party.  Some of our neighbors even came the next day asking for leftovers – a true compliment!  My favorite response was from our next door neighbor, when her daughter remarked to her that the baho was really tasty: “well, my goodness, he (Nick) has lived here in Nicaragua for long enough to have learned something useful by now!!”

Can you smell it?!

It’s summer, the dry drought filled half of the year in the western plains of Nicaragua.  Dust invades your life and your respiratory system as the green fields along the highways turn into brown desertscapes.  First the peanuts are harvested, then the sugar cane begins to dry up until it is finally burned and harvested, adding clouds of black smoke to the dust filled air.  Cattle trample into the bare peanut fields after the gleaners are gone to chew mouthfulls of dusty peanut cud.  The middle of the day is suffocatingly hot.

Making leaf compost has made all the difference to our garden! It's not common here, usually all organic trash is burnt.

Although I have seen marked improvement in the infrastructure here over the last three years (read: from power cuts twice a week to maybe once a month), during the dry months there is still no running water in our section of the city from 7am until 5 or 6pm on a daily basis.  If we failed to remember to fill our trash cans and barrels at night, the next day we were scrounging for water to flush or drink, forget throwing any on the dusty backyard!   Now, thanks to a 750 gallon water tank and electric pump that Nick installed last year at our house, we’ve been able to create a fresh green micro-climate at our house.  The inner courtyard is lined with herbs and flowers in pots, and the backyard has another herb garden at the back of it.  Over the last two years I’ve fought hand, tooth and nail against our urban pests – garrobos (iguanas) and leaf cutter ants, eventually finding the best tactic to be avoiding those plants which they find the tastiest (unfortunately, among those we find the tastiest as well, such as squash and beans!).  We’ve also been most diligent composters, and I was delighted to find that with the constant heat of León I can churn out a whole batch of rich dark compost in just a few months, especially in the rainy season when the moisture level is up.  The compost has made an enormous difference in the soil over two years, and now there are plants thriving where there was compacted construction rubble-filled earth before.  The result is a compromised garden of smelly, spiky, and odd plants that garrobos and leaf cutter ants don’t like, but that we DO like and eat happily.  Oh, and our ever-changing fauna, which have included over the last two years 11 chickens, 2 blue-winged teals, a chompipe (turkey), two turtles, and various cats.  Along with the constant march of visitors that pass through (both foreign and Nicaraguan!), our house is generally interesting and chaotic, and we like it that way!

This is what our back yard looked like when I moved in two years ago and double dug the first raised beds:

And this is how it looks now, with a chicken coop, water tank, lemon grass, pineapple, oregano, chili and ginger plants.  This is during the dry season – if I had taken this picture four months ago it would have been alot greener!

A banana plant I brought when I moved in finally sprouted a head of bananas – over the roof!  They are mini bananas, called banano manzana or banano rosa here.

Trimming the banana flower off (should be done once the flower produces several “false” hands of bananas) provided us with an excellent excuse to climb up on the roof and enjoy a different view of Sutiaba, and our patio!  Most of the plants inside are ornamental, except for the mint, oregano, italian and thai basil, and this miniature basil that we found near Masaya and has an incredible flavor.

In our chicken coop, our first chicks hatched two weeks ago!  The first hatched during a day I was working from home, so I kept checking on it and got to see it when it was first hatched.  The neighbors all tsked tsked when the mother left the nest and a different hen jumped in.  We feared the worst but then the hen just ate the egg shell and skin, and snuggled the chick until the mother finished eating and they swapped places.  Some excellent chicken co-parenting!

The second chick was born during the night.  Two out of the three eggs hatched – not bad!

I am very excited to discover how well ginger grows here!  I started with a bit from the supermarket, and have just heaped compost on it and done virtually nothing else.  9 months later my friend Alejandra helped me harvest this one.  You can see the original piece hanging down on the right – to our surprise it was still fat and not shriveled!  I cut it off and re-planted it, we’ll see if it sprouts again.  Garlic has failed, I think I haven’t been able to find the right seed (most of available garlic even in the local markets is from China).  Plans to try sesame, turmeric and many more flowers next!

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