It’s hard to believe that I’m enjoying my last full day in Nicaragua. Tomorrow, I will pack up the bug spray and the sunscreen (I might actually put some on for the drive to the airport) and say adios to Nicaragua. With that in mind I put together this list of highlights. It includes some of the amazing people I’ve met, places I’ve seen, and a few other random things…

The ladies and men of Cooperative Nica Hope: The chance to work with this inspirational group of men and women working to “salir adelante” by creating handmade artisan jewelry was definitely a highlight. Thank you to Mallory Erickson and Eliza Brennan for the opportunity to be part of this project.

Luis Muñoz, his daughter Fabiola, and the staff at Casa de Los Abuelos: Luis, Fabby and the staff at Casa de los Abuelos, a hostel in the center of Managua, made my experience in this sprawling and at times overwhelming capital city, warm and inviting. Thank you to Luis for teaching me the ins-and-outs of the market and for taking me to eat the best quesillos in Managua.

Arne and Claire: my Dutch friends who took time out of researching and writing their Master’s theses on women’s rights and community housing projects in Nicaragua, to join me at the beach. Thanks especially to Arne for transporting me around Leon on the back of his bike (don’t worry mom, it was a bicycle and not a motorcycle).

Doña Rafaela and her sons: thank you for keeping well fed with gallo pinto, barbequed chicken and fried plantains. Thanks to Doña for always microwaving my instant cup of coffee until it was practically boiling!

Adventures on the school bus: riding the local bus here in Nica means reliving your elementary school days. The local buses are converted school buses adorned with bright colors and the name of where they are headed. I’ll miss pretending I’m on a field trip while exploring Nicaragua.

The markets: Nicaragua has some of the most lively markets I have ever seen. I will miss exploring the markets for exotic fruit, eating lunch at the plastic tables and chairs and trying to explain to the woman who owns the cosmetics kiosk that I’m looking for face wash.

Marina, Felipe and Kelly: my gracious hosts on one of the most beautiful places I have ever been — the Island of Ometepe. Thanks to Marina for keeping me well fed with her delicious cooking and to Felipe for traipsing me to the top of Volcan Maderas.

The Effingers: Thank you to Julie and Doug for allowing me to be a part of their work in the community of Jinotepe. For introducing me to the students that they are helping to attend the university, touring me through the library they are building, taking me to one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever been to, and allowing me to join them in delivering school supplies to some of the cutest school kids I have ever seen.

Luis and Andrea: mis amigos from Costa Rica. Thank you for coming to Nicaragua and for a fabulous last few days exploring Granada, San Juan del Sur and Laguna de Apoyo. Can’t wait to see you again, and I can’t wait to have you over to my place at the Laguna.

Maritza, Omar and Inti: Gracias por la oportunidad a conocer la comunidad de Las Lagunas y los proyectos suyos. Hasta la proxima vez.

Nestor: thank you for introducing me to Eduard and for the opportunity to stay at Finca Neblina del Bosque. It was one of the most amazing adventures I had in Nicaragua.

Susan Dix Lyons, Rafael Morales, Alba Castillo: I have followed the progress of Clinica Verde, a sustainable community health clinic in the Boaco region of Nicaragua, and the opportunity to see it live was one I’ll never forget. Thank you for the opportunity.

The Sunflower Cooperative: Thank you to Noelle, Kim and Maria for introducing me to this group of women working together to create sustainable employment opportunities through sewing. I can’t wait to see the prototype of the laptop bag you created for me. I think it will be a hit in SF!

The Canadians: a amazing group solo women travelers who I met in Matagalpa. I loved our conversations about life and travel and thanks to them I now have a third grade level of Canadian geography.

Anabel: one of the most adorable, strong and funny little girls I have ever met. Also the best tour guide I could have asked for.

El Castillo Chocolate: thank you for showing me what chocolate is actually supposed to taste like. If only I had more room in my suitcase for more of you.

Bug spray: I knew it was going to come in handy, but I had no idea the extent. It seemed that every time I forgot to put it on, I would be swarmed and eaten alive by packs of mosquitoes.

Instant coffee: thank you to instant coffee for making me realize how much I miss good coffee. I will not miss drinking you in the morning.

The Nica Breakfast: I have come to love the traditional breakfast of eggs, gallo pinto, cheese, fried plantains and chili. I’m going to miss this combo when I’m gone. I guess it wouldn’t be that hard to make.

Technology: I was nervous at the prospect of trying to work online from Nicaragua. Would I have internet…would it work? While it’s at times been an adventure — like the time I was trying to access the internet in the cloud forest, under the light of my headlamp, I’ve found that WiFi is just about everywhere. Who knew?

Ok, I’m off to enjoy my last evening here in Nicaragua….

I’m typically not a huge fan of the organized tour. I’m too independent and too much of a control freak, to enjoy being told where I’m going and how long I’ll be allowed to stay there.

But every once in awhile, I have no idea where I’m going, and appreciate the help of a guide. That was how I met Anabel. If you ever end up trying to explore La Poza la Pila, a series of crystal clear natural pools, fed by a small waterfall in the nature reserve Miraflor, I strongly suggest you meet her too.

When I finally made it to the entrance of Poza la Pila, I could hear the sounds of the waterfall, but couldn’t figure out how to get down to the pools. I saw a small house near the entrance and figured whoever lived there could tell me the way. As I approached the house, I was met by one of the cutest little girls I had ever seen. Having obviously dressed herself, she wore a tie dye shirt underneath a brightly colored dress — her outfit was made complete by a pair of Dora the Explorer tennis shoes.

Her name was Anabel and I was told that she would lead me to the waterfall. I asked if she knew the way, not sure if this was a joke, and she nodded and smiled. On our walk to the waterfall, I would learn that Anabel was two, possibly three years old. As promised, she knew exactly how to get us to the waterfall, including crossing a stream and leading me up and down the small dirt trails that led to the pools.

With Anabel, I would learn that the “gringos” — white people like me, had built a bridge to get across the river in the rainy season. Anabel would introduce me to Maria who I would pay my 10 cordoba ($0.50) entrance fee, and then lead me down the rocky steps to the pool. At one point I would actually have to hold to Anabel’s hand to help her down the steep steps.

When we finally made it to the pool, Anabel and I would sit together and she would tell me that while she liked the water, she didn’t like to go in very deep. Some time later, Anabel would tell me that I needed to pay her for leading me to the waterfall. We would agree on a price, and soon after paying her, she would leave me to swim — crossing back across the creek, through the barbed wire fence and back to her home.

As I sat enjoying the tranquility of Poza la Pila, I was struck by the stark difference between the life of a two year old in the United States and the life of someone like Anabel here in Nicaragua. I’ve met many kids like Anabel here. Sometimes they’re selling handmade goods in a park in Granada, or the bus station in Managua, and sometimes they’re leading gringos like me to waterfalls. The financial situation of their family means that every member must contribute in small way.

My wish for Anabel is that she has the opportunity to go to school one day. That her family situation improves and she doesn’t have to work. I’m grateful to know that people like Eduard and Isabel are helping kids like Anabel study even when their families cannot afford it.

La Poza la Pila

La Poza la Pila

 

An alfombra decorativa in Leon

An alfombra decorativa in Leon

Before I even bought a ticket to Nicaragua, I was told that I absolutely could not miss Semana Santa. Known as Holy Week in English, Semana Santa is a week filled with religious rituals, traditional processions and some serious partying.

Here’s a bit of what I’ve seen so far:

Street art: here in Leon, where I’ve spent the first few days of celebration, you’ll find the streets decorated with “alfombras decorativas” — depictions of Bible passages made from colored sawdust. If you knew how hot it was here (90 some degrees, with 37% humidity), you’d have respect for anyone that withstood a day in the heat, sun reflecting off of the pavement to create one of these.

Street food: you can’t go far without running into someone selling quesillos, fried plantain chips, sliced mangoes, jocotes, or any other variety of local fare. A quesillo and a bag of mangoes will cost you about 15 cordobas (about $0.60). On the topic of street food, I have to mention these adorable ladies that I found here in Leon. As soon as the sun sets this group of 4-5 women start slinging some of the best street food I’ve found in Nicaragua — enchiladas, barbecued steak, chicken, pork, and even goat, all served with gallo pinto and cabbage salad. They refer to everyone that comes there as “amor”, or love, which I find endearing.

Processions: yesterday was the celebration of San Benito, a saint that Marisol, the women who runs the hostel where I’m staying, says is responsible for making miracles happen. In her case, she told me how she had prayed to San Benito asking for recovery from an injury that left her bedridden. When her miracle was granted, and she was again able to get around, she paid thanks to San Benito by dressing in all white. Last night’s procession was filled with people, who like Marisol, had been granted miracles from San Benito.

Fiestas: for some, Semana Santa is more about drinking rum and spending their days off at the beach. I like to compare it to how 4th of July is celebrated in the U.S. For many, 4th of July is less about celebrating the independence of our country, and more about working on our suntans and drinking and barbecuing with friends and families. Here in Nicaragua, Semana Santa means a few days off of work, giving them plenty of time to get to the beach!

I’m looking forward to joining them during my last week here in Nicaragua! Sniff, sniff…..

 

Edward_IsabelThanks to my new friend Nestor, I had the good fortune of meeting Eduard and Isabel. Edward and Isabel are the owners of Finca Neblina del Bosque (Cloud Forest Farm in English) — an eco-hotel located within a farm, located inside the cloud forest of Miraflor. If you think it sounds amazing, it is.

Miraflor, the setting of Finca Neblina, is a nature reserve located in the north of Nicaragua. Within in the reserve you’ll find three different climate zones, hundreds of species of orchids and a vibrant agricultural community where locals make their living growing crops like coffee, potatoes and corn and raising cattle.

When dreaming up Finca Neblina, Eduard and Isabel were committed to creating an eco-friendly space. A space where people could escape and relax in nature. Their space is constructed using bamboo instead of scarcely available wood and solar energy instead of running electrical poles into the cloud forest.

Everything that comes out of the kitchen at Finca Neblina del Bosque – from your steaming cup of coffee to the beans in your gallo pinto, is sourced from their farm or the local community. I’m becoming quite the connoisseur of the typical Nicaraguan breakfast of scrambled eggs, gallo pinto, soft cheese, fried plantains, a freshly made tortilla and a cup of coffee, and Finca Neblina makes a delicious version.

One of things that impressed me just as much as the hotel’s eco-friendliness and the delicious breakfast, was Eduard’s and Isabel’s commitment to giving back to their community. Not only does their hotel provide stable employment for a number of people from the local community, but Eduard and Isabel annually give two scholarships to the best students in the community allowing them to keep studying. You’d be amazed to find out how many students don’t go to school because they can’t afford the supplies, the uniform or the transportation to and from.

Eduard and Isabel live on the property meaning, in my case, that they were happy to draw me a map to hike in the cloud forest and visit the waterfall, to check on me to make sure I was having a good time or let me use the computer to try and check my work email. When I wasn’t hiking or trying to get online, I sat and read my book in their garden overlooking the forest and their crops as butterflies fluttered around me.

If you’re thinking that this all sounds crazy expensive, I’m here to tell you that it isn’t. Your own private cabana with all your meals included, and the opportunity to meet Eduard and Isabel will cost you $25 a night. Yes, you read that right — $25 a night.

Thank you to Nestor for introducing me to Eduard and Isabel, and to Eduard and Isabel for being grateful and accommodating hosts. I look forward to my next visit to Finca Neblina.

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If the television show Amazing Race pitted Americans against Nicaraguans, I’m positive Nicaraguans would win. It was Maritza who convinced me of this.

During my time spent with Maritza, I would be amazed by her strength and energy. Maritza is an activist. Part of the Matagalpa Indian tribe inhabiting the northern section of Nicaragua, she is committed to organizing and advocating on behalf of her people.

From Maritza, I would learn of the work she is doing to create income generating opportunities for women in her small community of La Laguna, of the ancient spiritual practices that she keeps alive by sharing them at community events throughout Nicaragua and her work to lobby the government to include legislative protections for indigenous people.

Maritza would lead my new friend Claire and me through the steep hills of her small community. We would visit the campground and spiritual center that her and her partner are building, check on the coffee crop that her and the women of her community are cultivating, and hike up to the simple and beautiful cabana which she will one day call home.

I was absolutely amazed that while I slipped and slid around and envisioned falling down the hillside, Maritza gracefully navigated the steep hills in flip flops with her one year-old son strapped to her back. Gosh she is strong, I thought.

Maritza has big dreams for indigenous women in the community of La Laguna. Her work organizing a group of 35 local women to plant and cultivate 120,000 coffee plants is intended to provide generate income for women who have traditionally lacked stable employment.

I am extremely grateful to Brenda Salgado and Pauli Ojea for connecting me with Maritza. I aspire to have the strength and energy of Maritza and cannot wait to come back to Nicaragua and visit her spiritual center and drink their coffee.

Nestor is on the left (in case you were wondering)

Nestor is on the left (in case you were wondering)

I met Nestor during a blackout in San Juan del Sur — a surfer’s paradise in the southern Pacific Coast of Nicaragua. Both Nestor and I ended up waiting out the darkness in rocking chairs in front of Doña Eleonora’s guest house.

Nestor is a tour guide here in Nicaragua. He makes a living sharing highlights of his beautiful country with tourists like me. Originally from the Island of Ometepe, Nestor now lives in the bustling city of Managua, which puts him closer to tour companies and opportunities.

Nestor is passionate about his job and eager to share the beauty and culture of his country with visitors. He is especially passionate and enthusiastic about a concept called “rural tourism”, which, I found, was right up my alley.

There is no doubt that the best way to see a place is with a local. Yes, you can read a guide book, or search Tripadvisor, but that will never give you the kind of experience that a local person can. That is exactly the way that I prefer to travel, and the principle that “rural tourism” is founded upon.

Rural tourism still allows you to see a country’s hot spots. Instead of staying at a resort, you stay in the home of a local family. With rural tourism, you have the opportunity to live the way they live and experience a day as they experience it. This is the tourism that Nestor is passionate about.

As Nestor put it, rural tourism is a win-win — tourists get an authentic, often eye-opening experience into life as a local, and locals have the opportunity to see into a foreign culture, while earning a little income for providing food and accommodations.

I told Nestor I loved the idea, but I would like to see it go a step further. What about “charitable tourism”? How about if in addition to living with a local family, if your experience included an opportunity to give back to the community by supporting a local initiative. What if you could provide school supplies to a local school, vaccinations at a local clinic, or even make a purchase at a cooperative like Nica Hope or Girasol?

Nestor and I have decided to explore the idea a bit further. During my time in the north, I’ll be checking out some different opportunities for rural and perhaps charitable tourism. I know it’s something that I’d be interested in, and I think there are lots of others like me.

Let me know what you think of the idea of rural or charitable tourism. Also let me know if you have plans to come to Nicaragua and I’ll introduce you to Nestor.

It’s 3 a.m.

I’m not awake because I felt a sudden inspiration to write. I would prefer to be sleeping.

I am awake because the couple staying next door to me decided that 1 o’clock in the morning was a good time to get into a raging fight. When that was over and I was just about to sleep, I was awoken by bugs crawling on me. I’m not sure what kind of bugs, but they were bugs and they were on me.

Now, is a as good of a time as any to write a post inspired by my time here in Nicaragua. It’s my list of things my mom wouldn’t approve of.

Here they are:

1. Calling people names: It’s true that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. It’s advice I would have liked to share with the wonderful gentleman staying next door to me as he was yelling at his partner and calling her horrible names. My mom would not have approved.

2. Bugs: I think my mom would agree that bugs belong outside and not in people’s beds. Despite bringing excessive amounts of bug spray. I was not protected from finding them in my bed. I was not excited about it.

3. Buckle up for safety: My mom wouldn’t start driving until we had buckled our seat belts. Boy. would she be in for a surprise here in Nicaragua. Not only will you not have a seat belt, you might also not have a seat. If all the seats are full, you might find yourself riding on a step stool.

4. Honesty is the best policy: Taxi cab drivers here in Nicaragua have been known to tell a lie or two to convince you to hire them. They might tell you that your bus isn’t coming. that it drops you off far from where you want to go, or that it’s full. It’s always good to check for yourself. You’ll usually find that it’s on it way, that it takes you exactly (or pretty close) to where you want to go, and that there are plenty of step stools or real seats available.

5. Safety first: Actually I think it’s safety second, or third here in Nica. It’s more about getting people where they need to go, even if that means they are riding on a step stool. If you think the SF Muni gets full, you should ride a bus during rush hour here in Nica. On an express bus, which comfortably seats 12, you’ll often find upwards of 25 people! It’s when the step stool comes in handy.

6. You are not going to wear that: Mom’s are notorious for providing fashion advice. Nica’s love their t-shirts with a slogan as much as the rest of us. The only problem is that sometimes, since they may not speak English, I’m not sure they know what the slogan on their shirt means. For example, I saw a security guard who was in charge of guarding a rather large oceanfront hotel. He carried a semiautomatic rifle and was wearing a shirt that said “Cock and Balls”. It just didn’t quite align with his intimidating persona. I don’t think my mom would approve.

7. Turn that music down: Parents, mine included, are known to tell us to turn our music down. Nicas like their music loud. Sometimes this hip-hop, electronic, latin fusion starts booming as early as 5 a.m. On one of my many bus rides, the said loud music was a compilation of ABBA’s greatest hits, interspersed with sentimental love songs. My mom would not approve, especially of the hip-hop.

8. Sometimes it’s about the destination: I do believe it’s often about the journey and not the destination. But I think my mom would agree that spending 6 hours trying to get to the ATM is a bit of an excessive journey. While we have an ATM on the every corner in the States, the Island of Ometepe has two — okay maybe three. To get to them, especially if you don’t know which takes Mastercard and which takes Visa, you will spend hours transferring from bus to bus for a process that takes you five minutes. It was quite the journey!

A handmade bag made by the ladies of Girasol

A handmade bag made by the ladies of Girasol

I want to introduce you to the sunflowers. Not the flower, but a wonderful group of women who call themselves Girasol. The women of Girasol, sunflower in English, live in the town of Balgüe on the Island of Ometepe.

You’d be surprised to find out that these ladies are not florists. They are actually a group of seamstresses named after the flowers that at one time grew outside of the building where they work. While the flowers are gone, these ladies and their sewing skills are just beginning to blossom.

In a community where 90% of women lack stable employment and a consistent source of income, these five ladies are poised to “salir adelante”, or move forward and succeed. After just eight months spent learning design, production, repair and business development, these ladies are already sewing everything from school uniforms to purses like the one I bought. They even have their products in a cafe on the other side of the island.

During the afternoon I spent with the Girasoles, they proudly showed me their new building and their product line. They have big goals for themselves they told me.

The first, is moving into their new building, a beautiful space which will provide them room to design and produce. While their building is finished, and they have the keys, it lacks electricity and adequate security for their sewing machines.

The second, is hiring a sewing instructor. While the women are pretty darn talented, they want to continue to improve their skills allowing them to take on larger and more complex projects. They have someone in mind to take the helm, but do not have adequate resources to make a hiring decision.

If you’d like to make a donation to the ladies of Girasol, and help them to “salir adelante”, you can do so by emailing them at proyectodecostura@gmail.com.

On a sort of side note, I’m pretty excited because it looks like the women are going to make me a prototype of a laptop bag to bring back to tech-obsessed San Francisco. Knowing that people in SF go crazy for handmade products, especially those with a story, I think the ladies of Girasol are going to be busy making bags!

If you would like to see the bag when it’s ready or know of a place where you think we should sell them, let me know. Muchas Gracias!

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You may not know it, but in the middle of Lake Nicaragua – a lake that makes Lake Tahoe seem like a swimming pool, lies the magical island of Ometepe.
It’s home to not one, but two, volcanoes, a seemingly endless shoreline and Marina, Felipe and their daughter Kelly, with whom I am staying.

Marina and Felipe and their daughter are native Ometepians (I think I made this word up). Born and raised on the island they have watched its maturation into an agricultural hub and tourist destination.

Marina and Felipe are immersed in both the agricultural and tourism aspects of the island — working their own land to provide nearly all the food they eat, and providing a place to call home for tourists like me.

Being here, I’ve had the opportunity to taste just about all of their crops, all of which I are grown organically. From my morning coffee, which they grow, dry, roast and grind, to the rice and beans that make up my plate of gallo pinto, all of it comes from their land. Coming from someone who has a hard time keeping a house plant alive, it’s hard for me to imagine growing all of my food.

What doesn’t get eaten by the family, or visitors like me, gets sold or traded with other families in the community. The coffee, which is of the highest quality according to US and Canada standards, is exported and sold abroad.

When Marina and Felipe aren’t working their own land, and providing for their guests, you can find Marina working mornings at another organic farm. At the farm, Marina prepares lunch for the the farm volunteers, who come from all over the world to work the land and learn about sustainable farming.

When she isn’t working at home or working in the farm’s kitchen, she is teaching computer classes to women and men in the community. In her classes, students learn the basics of Word, Excel and Powerpoint. And when she isn’t doing any of these other things, Marina is in charge of a feeding program for youth whose families cannot provide them a morning meal before school.

I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be part of Marina’s, Felipe’s and Kelly’s lives. While life isn’t easy, it’s simple and they are eager to share it with me — whether it be in the form of a home cooked meal (Marina), or guidance hiking the Maderas Volcano (Felipe).

If you make it to Nicaragua, and want a truly authentic experience on the island, you should get in touch with Marina and come stay with them. Her email is menocalmarina@yahoo.com. Se habla español.

I must add that I´m still sore from our six hour hike to the summit of the Maderas Volcano. Felipe, on the other hand, was fine and went straight back to working after we finished!

Close up dried  berries coffee beans on handWho am I kidding? I don’t need to introduce you to coffee. You likely drink it everyday, know exactly how you like it, and might even believe you would die without it. I’m one of you.

While I don’t need to introduce you to coffee, I did want to introduce to an issue that I learned about via Twitter just before boarding my plane to Nicaragua.

The tweet was sent by Mercy Corps, a global nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon dedicated to alleviating suffering, poverty and oppression by helping people build secure, productive and just communities. Sounds good, right?

What the heck does that have to do with coffee though?

The tweet announced that they would be partnering with the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition to address seasonal hunger in the coffee producing regions of Nicaragua.

What I came to find out, is that many coffee growers are paid once per year for their work cultivating and harvesting the fruit that will become the yummy, rich beverage that we love. I don’t know about you, but making an annual salary last an entire year sounds like tough stuff.

The result has been a phenomena in the coffee growing regions called “Los Meses Flacos”, or the thin months. As families run out of money and food becomes scarce, they are forced to eat little or none to get by.

Now I promised not to be Debby Downer on this blog, and to always give you something to do to empower yourself to address the issue.

That is why I encourage you to watch “After the Harvest”, a short movie dedicated to bringing attention to the issue. It not only talks about the issue of food scarcity, but shares some of the solutions because I know we love solutions.

I also encourage you to check out the three-year Empowering Food Secure Communities program, which will work with 150 women and their families in the coffee producing regions of Nicaragua to help them improve farming and business techniques, develop additional sources of income through home gardens and diversified crop production as well as engage more effectively with local government to provide assistance to the hungriest families.

Now drink up!

Photo courtesy of © bonga1965 – Fotolia.com

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