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.


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.

“Fostering leadership, learning and empathy between cultures was and remains the purpose of the international scholarship program.” – Senator J. William Fulbright

During my months here I´ve fielded many questions about what, exactly, am I doing here?  Sometimes I use the word boss to describe the coordinator of the reforestation project I´ve been working with, sometimes I use the same word for the director of SosteNica, my contact back in the states who helped me tremendously to put together my grant application. I use the words work and salary, but the truth is that those words reflect how I have chosen to structure my time here, and don´t come from any higher authority.

The correct answer when people ask me outright is that I have a grant to do an independant study.   The complete answer is that I have a special grant from the U.S. government to do an independant study in a specific topic that is relevant to my career aspirations.   If I give the full answer, I often end up explaining….

NO, I do not work for the U.S. government, nor do I hold ANY responsibility in promoting the political agenda of my country here in Nicaragua.  My job is to be a responsible and respectful participant in Nicaraguan culture.  I represent my culture (which, the U.S. being the giant melting pot that it is, may not be at all  similar to the culture that another American represents), not my goverment specifically nor the interests of any special party within or outside of the government.

No, I am not currently a student, although this grant is available to current grad students.  I am hoping that this independant project helps get me into a good grad program sometime in the future, but I haven´t gotten that far yet.  I´ll keep posting.

Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations.” – Senator J. William Fulbright, 1983.

I do have the responsibility of bringing my experiences here back to the U.S., sharing them with my community, and integrating them into my future work.   They should event influence my interactions or work with people of other countries who I meet in the future.  That will be a snap.  No prob.

And the truth is, I am my own boss here.  I set the rules.  As long as I communicate responsibly with all my host institutions, if I decide to leave during the week to visit a farm that is not within the reforestation project, or attend a cultural event in another city, I can do that.  Fulbright offers a blissfull freedom by stressing cultural understanding above everything else.  Because, honestly (and as I wrote about in the last enty), there aren´t very many things I do here that don´t help me understand this culture!

As the deadline nears, good luck to all of this years Fulbright applicants!

The Nicaraguan cultural ritual of push-starting trucks with dead batteries using the help of all the kids in the tiny rural village where you are stranded.

The Nicaraguan cultural ritual of push-starting trucks with dead batteries using the help of all the kids in the tiny rural village where you are stranded.

This is how to travel on the rough dirt back roads.  Can you see the mango plants I'm holding onto as well?!

This is how to travel on the rough dirt back roads. Can you see the mango plants I'm holding onto as well?!

Santiago Sabino Sanchez Zapata picking up his 300 plantain corms with an oxcart.  This particular area of Nagarote is arid and visibly deforested.

Santiago Sabino Sanchez Zapata picking up his 300 plantain corms with an oxcart. This particular area of Nagarote is arid and visibly deforested.

At the plantain farm where we bought the corms, a manager shows us how an incision in one of the tree stumps works to trap a damaging beetle pest, reducing the need for them to spray.  They make about twenty traps per manzana, and check them every morning.

At the plantain farm where we bought the corms, a manager shows us how an incision in one of the tree stumps works to trap a damaging beetle pest, reducing the need for them to spray. They make about twenty traps per manzana, and check them every morning.

Where Vernonn and I waited for three hours at the house of Julio Cesar Torres Trujillo.

Where Vernonn and I waited for three hours at the house of Julio Cesar Torres Trujillo.

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.

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…

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.

Here is an interesting post from a fellow vegetable lover who is living in Honduras.  She and her corresponder bring up some interesting points that I have also thought a lot about here.

The experience I had before coming to Nicaragua is sometimes only mildly relevant to the work that I do and is being done here in Agriculture.  Why?  Because I spent four years growing vegetables.  People here eat very few vegetables.  They are expensive, but that’s partly because they are rare.  Why?  It’s not in the culture.

Two nights ago I was invited to a Nicaraguan friend’s house for dinner.  We cooked together, and sat and watched a movie.  Dinner:  fried chicken fingers (made from scratch), rice, fried plantains, and tortillas or white rolls.  Pure starch and fat.  Lunch today in my house was rice mixed with a can of tunafish, fried plantains, fried cheese, and tortillas.  When I mentioned that I have all the ingrediants for a salad in the fridge and anyone could help themselves, I was met with puzzled looks.  A salad?  That doesn’t go with this meal, they said. You eat salad, for example, when you have a peice of meat like beef with tomato sauce.

So it makes sense to me that even though I believe a lot in diversifying gardens and growing organic produce there is more cattle farming here than anything.  It makes sense that I am lamenting how small the market here is when the diet is mostly restricted to few ingredients as well.  La Gringa’s question “will poor people grow vegetables” is the same question as “will poor people eat vegetables?”.  From my experience, both in CT and here in Nicaragua, the poorest family with an awful diet can sit and watch fresh vegetables in their own garden spoil, because it isnt their culture to eat it.

So where do we start?  Projects with school kids, restaurants, exporting vegetables to countries that eat them?  I have to continue step back and think, what are my goals?  Do I care more that the farming is diversified, the soil improved, that farmers improve their economic situation, or that the people here chance their diet to a healthier one?  Where is the most effective place to break into the cycle?

If that’s possible in 100 degree high humidity weather.  I knew I would be coming back from temperate climates and high altitudes in Mexico and Guatemala to the hottest month of the year in León, but how do you prepare yourself for that?

The Fulbright Enhancement Seminar was more than I ever imagined it would be, and I had high expectations.   Imagine 25 engaging presentations given by motivated, intelligent and attractive young people crammed into three days, interrupted only to tour a beautiful colonial city or eat amazing food at five star restaurants.  That’s what I’m exhausted from.  On the plane coming back to Nicaragua yesterday I wrote notes the whole time – things that inspired me about other peoples projects, ways that I could change the focus of my time here to benefit the institutions I am working with.   But now that I’m in this sauna of a city I find that mostly I am tired, and yearning for the company of the motivated people who I connected so quickly and easily with.

I am so grateful to Fulbright for hosting us in Antigua, Guatemala.  What a beautiful city.  Antigua is an unusual place.  At one time it held a convent for every sect of nuns in the country, and it is filled with the ruins of churches and convents destroyed by earthquakes and time.  It is also an international hub, with fancy restaurants and hotels, art galleries, and international themed bars.  We ate Thai, Mexican, Spanish, and Italian food, danced to live Salsa music, lounged in a hookah bar savoring excellent Guatemalan rum, and ended up at the end of our last night in an Irish bar filled with Guiness posters.   It’s not so much my style to travel in that way, but although I don’t feel like I can talk much about Guatemala after having spent three days in Antigua, it certainly gave me a glimpse into a beautiful and dynamic culture and country that I look forward to returning to some day.

Fulbright Grantees Adriana, Dana, Michelle and I at a convent in Antigua

Fulbright Grantees Adriana, Dana, Michelle and I at a convent in Antigua

Breakfast at Finca Filadelfia, a coffee farm and resort

Breakfast at Finca Filadelfia, a coffee farm and resort

The Yaxallitas

The Yaxallitas

In honor of St. Patricks day, I performed a slip jig for a class of 8-12 year old girls.  They have been learning a River Dance inspired dance to an Alistair Frasier cut that their teacher and choreographer, Sterling Vasquez, created after watching a video of Michael Flatley.  It is a heartfelt but somewhat hilarious interpretation of Irish Dancing, and the first performance was appropriately last week, a few days before St. Patrick´s Day.  Sterling invited me to help refine the dance after we met salsa dancing several weeks ago, and although I´ve been going twice a week to volunteer in the class, I haven´t had the opportunity to demonstrate.  So Tuesday I took a few minutes to talk about Santo Patricio and why my whole family is out listening to Irish Music (or playing and earning money) on that day.  They were thrilled, and it was really fun to dance.  The photo above is from their performance last Thursday, in the municipal Theater.  Honestly, I certainly never expected to find a little Irish dance troupe here!

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