Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving in Malacatoya

On our first week of work with AsoFenix, we went to one of the villages to see some finished projects. Our only work was to observe and get to know the projects and the life in "el campo," out in the country. Malacotoya is a village of about 40 households that received a small hydroelectric plant about 4 years ago from Asofenix. They are also working on some aquaculture of tilapia fish and they have some wells and water treatment systems in the town. The town is mainly agricultural, growing coffee, cacao, passionfruit, along with the standard rice and beans and some cattle. Many of the households have one of these buildings where they process organic, shade-grown coffee:

We stayed with Aniberto and his extended family in their home, where he showed us around his farm. Here he is describing the extraction of the coffee bean from the pulpy fruit. The machine next to him removes the pulp, where it composts in a pile smelling of warm, fermenting fruit.

The coffee harvest was done, but we saw a few ripe fruits on some of the plants:

Here are some baby coffee plants ready to be planted:

We also saw some younger plants in flower and got to smell the delicate coffee flowers, which of course do not smell like coffee but rather like faint jasmine.

Aniberto brought us under the arbors hanging with passionfruit. We got to taste the fresh juice the next morning.

The next day, he showed us the process of washing the pulped coffee beans and sorting into different quality. He has the larger beans in his hand and the smaller, folgers quality beans in my hand. The irregular beans make it into a separate pile where they are used locally for coffee. The good stuff gets exported.

The family was also purchasing and processing corn because the price is currently low. The drying racks outside were filled with corn that they were drying and sorting.

The nephew was "helping out," too.

Here is Aniberto using the wind to blow off some of the chaff from the corn:

Our full day there was Thanksgiving day. We told the family about our tradition of Thanksgiving, and we spent some time in the kitchen with them learning about turning corn into masa flour and watched them make tortillas. The stove here supposedly has some sort of a chimney, but it doesn't really work. Most of the kitchens have more or less an open fire where the special tortilla pan fits, and the kitchen just has loosely fitting boards around it so that the smoke escapes outside. This is Tatiana helping with the tortillas. She is a co-worker and the niece of the family we stayed with.

This is there house where you can see the kitchen on the left-hand side with the wood boards on the wall, and the sacks of corn that they are processing and storing. One large bag of corn is about enough for one person for 1 year in terms of tortillas, and not including beans and other parts of the meal.

Another view of the corn at the front door, waiting to be processed:

They took us on a walk to show us the hydroelectric power plant, which is down the river from the village. The tall green grass and rolling hills were beautiful there.

We met up with our guide, don Orlando, for the tour of the power plant. As we waited, a boy pulled up on a mule to deliver milk. Here is the mule with milk jugs:

The walk to the plant required crossing a stream in a steep valley, where a downed tree was the bridge across:

And the path was extremely muddy since it is not quite yet at the end of the wet season. We wore boots because the mud was so deep:

Here we are, Tatiana, don Orlando, and Kate, looking into the window of the pelton wheel of the generator. This generator serves about 30 houses with electricity. The most amazing thing to me was imagining them carrying all of the equipment, machinery, and materials such as cement and sand for concrete by person and mule down the valley and across the river to build this project. No Caterpillar backhoes and dumptrucks here.

As was common everywhere in the village, dogs wandered in and out as we checked out the project. You can see a couple of them hiding behind the generator.

Aniberto's wife, Claudia, fed us such huge portions of tortillas with cuajada and gallo pinto, that we had to walk it off that afternoon to make room for thanksgiving dinner. We walked around and soaked in some of the beautiful scenery and unbelievable green countryside along the road (which, by the way, is the same road that the bus travels on for about 3 hours at about 10 miles per hour to get us back to the main bus terminal in Boaco--a really bumpy ride)

All of the meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner were basically the same staples. The tortillas are massively thick corn tortillas that are delicious and slightly smokey flavored. Gallo pinto is a mixture of rice and beans, sometimes greased up a little to make it slide down well. Cuajada is a type of homemade cheese that is a simple curdled milk that is either fresh or smoked and always very salty. It was usually accompanied by fresh orange or passionfruit juice.

So that was our first experience in the villages, getting us prepared for the other villages where our projects will be. It will definitely take time adjusting for us. Some people, like Aniberto and Tatiana, who are used to working with foreigners, are good at speaking slowly and clearly so that we understand. There were other people, however, whom we could hardly understand at all. Sometimes it sounded like a different language, and it can feel frustrating and embarrassing to try to explain that we've been learning spanish for a couple years now but we still can't understand a word they're saying. We are picking up more now, getting used to the habit of dropping the "s" and slowly picking up on some of the vocabulary of the country, which involves different activities than in the city. After experiencing the incredible beauty of this place but also the difficulty of fitting in and understanding makes our remaining 5 months here seem like not enough time. But we will work hard and do our best.

Happy thanksgiving to all, and hope all is well!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Last week in Leon

We are done with spanish classes and just got back to Managua today to start work in the office. No news here yet, but I'll finish with what we did the last week in Leon. While I'm doing this, Kate is doing the real work by getting our room in the dorm here set up and organized. I probably said this in the last post, but we really loved Leon. There's just so much going on and so much interesting history in a very walkable downtown. Our school did a tour of the cathedral. It has your standard, I suppose baroque, cathedral insides with gilded altars and carved tombs and such.

The tour took us on the roof, where there is s a nice view of the city plaza from the bell tower.

A look down shows what one of the inner colonial courtyards look like, and you can see down the main street of town, past the market, and towards the church where our school is located.

We took another school trip to Sutiava, which was originally a native indian village, and the reason why Leon was located where it is. It's basically a suburb of leon now. The Spaniards located their cities next to existing villages so that they could take advantage of the existing resources. The original church, built in the early 1600s, was destroyed by volcanoes or earthquakes or both (I can't remember at the moment) and is only ruins today.

The rebuilt church is still nearby and is the oldest existing church in Leon today. They are working on restoring it and its surroundings.

The inside of the Sutiava church is interesting because the pillars are made of wood, and there is a carving of the sun on the ceiling. The church, in their attempt to convert the natives, eased the transition with objects of native worship, in this case the sun. Supposedly, they also had all of the churches of Leon built to face west to face the sunset as well.

The last highlight of Leon was the parade of the myths and legends of Leon. Nicaragua loves legends and Leon seems to be the capital of that genre. We had a tour of their museum dedicated to it the previous week, and this week we got to see them act them out. The Gigantona is one of the biggest symbols of Leon. She is a very tall and aloof white woman who twirls as little, funny-looking, big-headed men bob around her. Basically it is the symbol of the tall Spanish women who emigrated to leon who viewed the natives as short, funny looking toys. The boys in these costumes would stick their heads out as they were waiting for the parade to start, as it was very hot in their consumes.

The favorite of the students was "Toma tu tete" who was a lady who lost or gave away her baby and would force adulterous men to feed on her, um, large boob until they were drowned.

There was some sort of a devil monster thing with a bunch of devil people running around with smoking and flaming staffs

And there was an ox-drawn carriage with dead bodies that was accompanied by walking skeletons. This also has its roots in the spanish conquest of central America, where the spanish would sometimes come through at night time with carriages, animals, and weapons that were unfamiliar to the natives, and they would often kill off tribes or villages.

Our pictures didn't turn out that well due to some camera problems, but Kate took some videos of the parade, which really makes a better representation of movement of the parade. We put it on youtube here:
Afterwards, we celebrated our last night overlooking the street with Karin, one of our fellow students and friends whom we spent a lot of the last week with (Hi Karin!).

After saying goodbye to Carolina, our host mother, We all went to the beach for the last day and night. Did the usual: swim, eat delicious fish, drink girly drinks, and watch the sunset. No more sunset pictures, since I overdid those on the previous posts. That night, we went on a turtle tour. It wasn't the greatest tour, but it was for a good cause and it was fun. We decided later that part of the fun was walking on a deserted part of the beach that was a nature preserve and watching the milky way overhead. Because of the local demand for turtle eggs, which are illegal to harvest but are threatened nonetheless, this small protected part of the beach has an organization that collects the eggs and rears them in a guarded place. They then take the daily hatchlings into a bucket of water and release them at nighttime, when they have a better chance of surviving (since they can better escape predation). So we got to see the hatchlings and touch them with gloves.

And then we brought them to the ocean to release them and let the waves carry them away.

Another 4 hours of buses and we are back in Managua, ready to see what's up with work here. Wish you all well and happy thanksgiving back at home!

-Jeff & Kate

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Living in Leon

What an interesting contrast Leon is to San Juan del Sur! No more lazy beaches and narrow, shotgun-style architecture of the small fishing village. Leon is a relatively large city with over 300K inhabitants. It is large, loud, dirty, exciting, and full of life and history. We took the bus almost across the country (from south to north), leaving at 5am from San Juan towards Leon through Managua. One quick taxi ride in Managua to change bus stations cost as much as the entire two bus rides across the country--the public buses are cheap and apparently subsidized: a two+ hour bus ride from Managua to Leon costs maybe $3. We arrived in Leon, taking a pedal taxi to the school where they brought us to our home stay in time for lunch. Carolina is our host mom, living single with two gigantic dogs and lots of friends who come to visit her beautiful colonial house. The colonial-style houses so common in Leon basically consist of a high square wall around the perimeter of the house with a roof sloping inwards towards an inner patio. Most of the rooms, including the living room and kitchen, are open to the patio. From the outside, they are always unassumming, but from the inside quite majestic:

Our bedroom has 15' high ceilings with arched windows and antique furniture. One small window opening (without glass) opens to the street with honking taxis and a bread seller who blurts out an explosive series of "Pan!" as he walks by every morning at 5 and 7am. It's quite striking when the sunbeam shines on us in the morning to wake us up (if the pan man hasn't already).

Our school, also in a beautiful colonial structure, is where we spend the morning in 1:1 lessons until we can't think anymore.

My teacher took me out on a historical and cultural lesson of the city. We may post more information on the fascinating history and mythology of this city later, but for now just a few pictures of some places downtown. The cathedral is supposedly the largest in Latin America. Here it is behind the central plaza:

Leon has a whole culture based around ancient legends specific to the city and to Nicaragua. We visited the museum of legends and mythology of Leon, which was located in the infamous "Carcel 21," a prison where the Somoza dictatorship tortured and killed countless victims until it was overthrown by the Sandanistas in 1979. Interestingly, the American TV show "ghost hunters" apparently did an episode about this location, which is supposedly haunted by the poor souls who perished here. Our guide, one of the language school teachers, had himself been arrested and tortured for taking part in a university demonstration. He later fled to the mountains as a guerrilla sniper for the Sandanista revolution. Anyway, crazy history happened here that the people here still poignantly remember and are very open to share it with you if you are willing to listen. Here is a memorial to the revolution in front of the jail-turned-museum:

Some other common sites around Leon (and all of nicaragua so far) are things like horse-drawn carriages mixed in with the screaming and honking traffic speeding through the streets:

Markets along the cathedral:

OK, so I lied: there are lazy beaches here. It's just that they are a half-hour drive from Leon, so we can't just stroll on them whenever we wish, but it's not exactly that hard to get there. We went to the beach, this time as a school-led activity, and watched the sun set once again into the crashing waves. Unfortunately, we couldn't go into the water because the waves were gigantic and crashed with huge force right into the sandy beach. We waded knee deep, but even like that, you had to be careful because the current was so strong. So here's another sunset picture, in case you missed the ones from our previous posts :-)

This weekend, instead of a guided tour, we opted to go with one of our classmates on a trip to some ruins and to see if we could find a lake we had heard of. Here is a typical bus station in Nicaragua--there are no obvious signs of where to go, so you just have to ask around to figure out when and where your bus will arrive:

The busses are often decorated inside:

We found our way to Leon viejo, the original location of the city of Leon, founded in the 1520s, and later buried in a volcanic eruption, forcing the city to move to its present location further north. In the 1960s they started excavating the city and rebuilding the foundations of the old buildings. It was quite an interesting tour.

So we had heard about this beautiful crater lake, Laguna Asososco, near Leon viejo and we decided to try to get there. Our guide at the ruins told us it's too difficult to get to without a 4wd or knowledge of the complicated streets that don't have directions or signs. We tried anyway. Having asked at a store near the bus stop, I was directed to a guy waiting for the bus who drew us some maps with his finger on the sidewalk and told us he'd have the bus driver drop us off a the intersection where the trail started. He then told us how he was looking for work as a mechanical construction worker at an upcoming geothermal plant, which is one of the big businesses starting up here in Nicaragua. It was fun to be able to talk to some locals and have them so happy to help us find our way. Much different than Tanzania, where they are always trying to get a monetary kickback, whether they get you to the right place or not. So we got dropped off at the trail and walked a couple miles to this other guy's house who charges a little fee to enter his property, which is some kind of a natural preserve as well, and which contains the lake. There was a lookout over the lake on the trail on the way in:

And then after descending a few hundred feet down the jungle-filled crater wall, we jumped into this steamy lake and swam around for a while under the view of an extinct volcano:

And to end on a lighter note, Kate wanted me to take a picture of her under the bimbo sign. Bimbo is a popular bread here, kind of like wonder bread in the US. We had tried to explain to our family in SJDS why we thought that was funny, but it just doesn't translate all that well.

We stopped at a pulperia for a coke while waiting for the bus back to Leon. On the sales counter was chained this extremely cute but nasty-tempered little coati who attacks you if you approach to order or pay for something. I guess you don't need customer service or safety precautions if you are the only place around for miles that sells a lukewarm beverage.

After jumping off one bus and on to another one that was already in motion on its way to Leon, the bus driver insisted that we were on the very last bus to Leon that day. It's funny how stuff has a way of just barely working out over here. There is still so much to do and see here in Leon, but we are satisfied enough with our little adventure this weekend that we may just enjoy strolling through town and taking it easy for a while before we try anything else crazy. In the mean time, we'll be back to classes and homework soon with more school-led afternoon activities around town. Hopefully we'll be back soon with lots more stories about Leon before we start real work