Monday, December 5, 2011

El Jocote: starting work, kind of

We began with finishing an installation of a solar-powered irrigation system in the town of El Balsamo, kind of a "suburb" of El Jocote. El Jocote is where we will probably be working the majority of our time--more on that later. The road there really explains some of the development issues in these small villages. We drove on worse roads, but this is one where I had a chance to jump out and show our rig with equipment:

One of the prerequisites for our organization, AsoFenix, is for the town to make the road passable to a 4wd vehicle. Vehicle is the only way to realistically get major supplies to these towns, and vehicle access is expensive (gas plus the damage it does to your car), and only possible during the dry season, after a lot of human labor to fill ruts and potholes. The bad roads are a major reason for stick-and-mud houses without plumbing or electricity and the lack of proper latrines, a major health issue here. When we arrived in El Balsamo to start the irrigation project, we were greeted by this little kid and his pets:

The puppies in a shovel, a machete, a pair of flip-flops, and a shy but curious kids makes a pretty typical scene in el campo (the countryside), except that puppies are not necessarily always in shovels. Our boss, Jaime, sat in a chair outside and conducted a meeting with local landowners interested in irrigation projects:

There are two seasons here: constant rain during the geographical summer (which they confusingly call winter here), and the dry season, where there is 6-9 months of drought and brown during the geographical winter (which they refer to as summer). During their dry season "Summer," which is now, crops do not grow, and many men migrate to Costa Rica where they can continue earning money. The idea of being able to irrigate at home and continue to farm or grow something other than beans and maize is lucrative to many here.
So solar panels had been installed on a previous trip (they are usually donated and we currently have a glut of solar panels), and our job this week was to wire them to the pump and holding tank.

Another prerequisite is that the farmer has a well ready to go. We set up near his well surrounded by plantains and bananas that were thriving on the high groundwater in the corner of his otherwise dry farm.

Here we hung the submerged well pump into the open well

And on the tank end, we got the float switch and all the pipes and conduit laid out.

A day and a half later we had running water and tank ready to fill. The farmer only had to hook up his irrigation pipe to the well. The installation would have gone faster, but small things, like a missing bolt, a lost grounding rod clamp, required breaks and creative solutions to continue. These are things that in the US would be solved with a bigger toolbox and a quick run to the hardware store, but in the middle of nowhere Nicaragua, they can mean finishing or not finishing a project. As a thank you, the folks there cut us some plantains and papaya to take home with us.

Kate and I, however, did not go back with the group to Managua. Instead, we stayed in El Jocote, about a half-hour walk from the irrigation project in neighboring El Balsamo. El Jocote is a town of about 40-some households with a couple hundred people in it, and it is what I imagine of the ideal town lost in time. There is one dirt road through town, no vehicles, unless you count burros and caballeros on their horses. The houses are mud or stone with tile and corrugated metal roofs:

The house we are staying in with hosts Toño and Marta experiences a free flow of extended family, random kids, and a whirlwind of your typical farm animals and pets, including lots of chickens, dogs, a cat, pigs, and two enamored lovebirds passing through during the day. Marta cleans up the chicken poop daily with a shovel, which is an easy job on the dirt floor inside. It was hard to get a good shot of the inside of the house, but this is the basic idea--pretty nice actually given the remoteness of where we are:

Here's Caitlyn, or co-worker/Green Empowerment supervisor, with the ever-begging cat that is smaller than a kitten.

All of the pets are bony and underfed, which made us sad, but we decided that it's probably the closest they have to population control here, which would otherwise be nonexistent. One of their three dogs, Tarzan, looks out over the balcony with the beautiful view of the town below:

Constantly snorting and squealing in the backgrounds, the pigs do not normally come inside, but they are a constant presence on the back porch:

Although there was a beautiful diversity of chickens, we could not keep track of all of them as the hopped in and out of the house during the day:

We would try to figure out which one was missing when chicken was for dinner, but there were too many of them. Plus, chicken dinner was rare. Except for two chicken meals, the rest were beans, tortillas, rice, and cuajada cheese or eggs, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That's what the pets ate, too. We witnessed the cat fighting with the parrots and a dog for a piece of tortilla. I did not get a picture of that incident, but here are the snuggly lovebirds, always together:

On our way through town once we even saw a house full of cows--we never got the story on that one, but I'm assuming it was a house still under construction?

Though I will not include a picture of the outhouse latrine, which was sufficient for the job but not pleasant to one used to modern luxury, I thought it might be interesting to show the bathing and laundry area, which had the only concrete floors in the house. The two buckets on the floor are our shower, one for me, and one for Kate:

This 5-day visit to El Jocote was mostly for our introduction to the people and the lifestyle, though we did spend some time reading up on the watershed protection project that we will be doing, and we spent a lot of time meeting people and having some fun. There was a constant crowd of curious kids around us when we'd walk through town. Not that we were the first gringos they'd ever seen, but I think we were still a novelty and also something new and exciting for them in their very small town. The kids were patient with us and showed us around a little. They showed us the solar-powered well, the first major project completed by AsoFenix in El Jocote.

The town now has running water, but still a slew of related environmental issues such as improper latrines leaching and even eroding into the river, a lack of resources for washing hands properly, and general environmental problems from deforestation, the resulting erosion, and farmland runoff that contains herbicides and insecticides (one modern convenience they do seem to have an abundance of). We're working with AsoFenix to start education and get some money to fix some of these problems. We're just a small part of it, as the whole watershed protection plan will take longer than the six months we have here, but we hope to be of help, or at least to be good role models for the people who are so curious about us and so friendly to us in so many ways. We'll probably talk more about the amazing hospitality we've experienced here in further posts, so lets end with a funny story about our ride back to Managua.

The "easier" bus that runs daily from El Espino, about a 2 mile walk from El Jocote, broke down. We went instead to Bramadero, about the same distance, but with an even earlier bus and a steeper climb to get there, so we left at 4am and climbed a rocky path over hills and through muddy streambeds with headlamps on and Orion and the Southern Cross overhead. Due to the breakdown, the Bramadero bus was at double capacity, with people hanging off the back of the bus and packed standing-room-only inside (which we are very used to by now). When we hit a steep hill, the bus started burning its clutch, not used to the extra capacity. All the able adults got off the bus and walked up the hill to lighten the load. At the top of the hill, we all jumped back on the bus and made our merry way to the next big town, Teostepe. Again, I didn't get a good picture of this incident, but I'm including a blurry one as a good memory of a successful trip home.

Did I mention that all the buses here in Nicaragua are retired Bluebird buses from the USA? You know, the classic yellow school bus, decked out with some flaming colors on the outside and lots of Jesus trinkets and stickers inside to keep you safe, all mixed with the occasional busty-lady trucker bobbles. We don't have a good picture yet, but we're working on it. It's fun to see the buses in their reincarnation, all of them beyond their OSHA-approved lifetime, all of them chugging through dirt trails in conditions never imagined by the Bluebird engineers, all of them blatantly ignoring the "capacity: 40 students" sign over the broken door. It's a lesson on recycling, and it's an efficient way to get us around on a tight budget.


Jeff and Kate


  1. What a delicious story. I love this medium allowing your stories and photos. It is perfect for this kind of situation, and luckily you are both good photographers and good writers. Keep posting!

  2. Hi Kate and Jeff -

    I love your blog and read it every entry. It's so great to read about your adventures, and to learn about the customs and conditions in Nicaragua! Keep them coming please!