Saturday, December 22, 2012

Merry Christmas

Wishing you all happy holidays!  We're planning on a quiet Christmas up at the reserve, and most likely the same for New Year's.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Welcome to the Jungle

For those of you that can't keep up with what we're up to (don't worry, I can't either - it takes me a minute to remember where I am when I wake up every morning), we are now in Ecuador for three months to be managers of a nature reserve.  That means that we take care of the cabin, trails, water system, etc for the reserve, as well as doing publicity around town and keeping up the blog (; taking care of visitors, hiking in materials, fuel, and food (serious job, here - it's 3 km up the road from town, and then 2 km down a muddy trail - so even if we get a ride to the trailhead, we still have to haul stuff in the last 2 km); doing some data collection for bird research; feeding hummingbirds; etc etc etc.  For this work, we get free lodging, a food stipend, and the chance to live and work in a cloud forest in a quiet, beautiful cabin.  Not a terribly bad deal, really.

We made it on December 5th, with no big hitches, to Las Tangaras Nature Reserve in Mindo, Ecuador, as planned.  We met the last managers of the Reserve, Micah and Jaime and their three-year-old son, Never (who called Jeff "grandpa" - hah!), as planned.  They took off on the 7th, as planned.  Then, not as planned, the bridge broke.

Hey - I don't think it's supposed to hang like that...
 Jeff, being the engineer of the two of us, got on it and hitched it up for a temporary fix.
In the US, this would be a duct tape and chewing gum fix.  Here, those aren't available, so it's rope and wire.
 It's looking a bit better, but we're working as fast as we can on getting cable and qualified folks to do real repairs.
Welcome!  And caution!
But hey, our cabin and the reserve are worth the trip.  Why I don't have a picture of the outside yet, I don't know, but here's the inside:
The downstairs, with the kitchen in the background.
The upstairs, looking into the area where guests sleep.

 The reserve itself is gorgeous, too, in its cloud forest:

We feed the hummingbirds daily, and record the species we see come by:
Yah know, honey, you could sit down while eating...
My, what a long tail you have...
 Once in a while, though, they hit the window, and act a bit stunned for a while:
Sorry, dude, for putting that window in your way.

But so far, no casualties.

We have already had a couple friends visit!  Jeff's friend from junior high, Nathan, and his girlfriend, Sarah, came to Ecuador and made time to come all the way to Mindo for a couple nights.  Whoo hoooo!  Nathan kind of giggled when we asked if he wanted to take a machete along to help us do some trail maintenance while we hiked a bit:
Boys and their big knives.  Sheesh.
 The trails around here aren't your nice little walks in the woods - they can be steep, and muddy this time of year, and the jungle likes to take them over.  One must come prepared.
Jeff shows off his jungle skillz.
And, due to the 2 km hike out, one must leave prepared, too.  Nathan and Sarah made sure to suit up with serious hiking boots, gaiters, rain pants, and headlamps for their night hike out.
Bring it on!
 And off they went.  It was fun to have them visit, and we hope they're having a great time on the rest of their adventure!

And now I must get off the internet so we can get back to the reserve before dark.  Slip sliding away!

Monday, December 3, 2012

El Jocote, part deux

May I admit something? When getting on a plane for one of these grand adventures to foreign lands, I often have a feeling of ... disquiet. I don't want to go. I'm feeling lazy, and it's so much easier to communicate and get around in the US. I don't have to explain myself and why I'm there - I'm from there. I can use my native language, with all of its slurring, slangy, mumbled messiness, and I will be understood. I get the jokes, I know what to expect, I understand the cultural norms. So why am I going somewhere where I know I'll have to watch what gestures I make, think hard about the words and grammar I use, not understand half of what people say, be stared at most of the time, have to put so much effort into everyday activities, and still not belong? Each time, I know this feeling will pass, but each time, it's there.

But when we arrived in Nicaragua, settled in on Ometepe, met some of the folks we'd be working with, I could settle in. It was right - it was why I came. The relaxed culture, the friendliness, the shared joy in everyday life and in meeting new people - all are things I have learned to appreciate.

We finished our work on Ometepe and were off again, and the feeling came back. We were heading back to El Jocote, and it had the potential to be very awkward. We're not going to be working, we're only going for a day and a half, and we're just going to be visiting from house to house - to say what? Hello? We remember you, but we're too busy to stay long?

When we took off from Managua, I was still feeling like I'd rather go back to bed. We got to Teustepe, the bus change place, and had a little lunch at the grill in the park. It was delicious, and served with a smile, but nothing out of the ordinary. We bought some bottled water for ourselves, and a pineapple and two liters of cooking oil for our hosts. We boarded the truck that's replaced the bus for the low travel season, and an old lady smiled happily at us. We bumped along, with people laughing and joking with each other, many many stops, and an average speed of less than 10 mph, and my spirits were rising.

We arrived in El Espino, the final destination for the bus, and got our bags on for the half hour walk ahead. We saw a horse and rider that we recognize at the turnoff to El Jocote – it was Franklin, the son of one of the farmers who works most with AsoFenix. Seeing him lifted my mood from happy to excited, and grateful when he said he was there just to meet us and to carry our bags. He kept his horse walking slowly to match our pace, and we asked him about how things had been going in El Jocote in the last six months. Unsurprisingly, not much had changed.

The big news, that we already knew, was that Franklin's grandfather (and, really, father/grandfather of probably more than half of El Jocote's citizens), Juan Valerio, died three months ago. He had been not only an important part of the community, but a wonderful person for us to know as well. Every time we saw him, he had a huge smile and encouraging words about how much we were appreciated in the community. His death from cancer in his early 70s was a painful blow to everyone, and it was evident that it's still felt strongly. By chance, we were there on the three month anniversary of his death, and attended a service of the rosary with his family and friends. I think they appreciated our presence; I certainly appreciated feeling a part of the community again.

We spent most of our day and a half there visiting from house to house, showing pictures of our time away, eating silly amounts of corn-based foods (my stomach took a full two days to recover), and enjoying the company of very happy folks.
Pictures of my new nephew and our tortilla making endevors in the US were the biggest hits. 
The kids immediately glommed onto us, which made me feel right at home.
Mi hijo, Jose Ines. 
In six months, most of the kids were pretty well the same as before, but one was nearly unrecognizable because she had grown so much:
Baby Escarlin is twice the size she was when we last saw her!
We even got to meet the very newest addition to the community:
Not two weeks old, and without a name as yet, but already the center of attention!
Jeff carried his juggling balls with him the whole time so he could perform on demand, and he got pretty good crowds:
Angelito in awe.
Sometimes performances became games of catch:
Julissa and Jeff juggling together.
I didn't perform any tricks, but I showed the kids pictures that I had been taking while there:
The magic of digital cameras.
It wasn't all about the kids, of course. We were very happy to see the adults, too. We were especially happy to visit Cleto and Santos, whom we had missed when saying our goodbyes six months ago.
The best cook in the village! With 14 kids, plus grands and great-grands, she's had lots of practice.
We visited some of the old projects, too. The patio gardens look pretty well established now, and are growing bananas, peppers, and tomatoes. We gave out some seeds that we brought from the US, of different types of tomatoes, peppers, squash, and okra. All were seed-save-able heirloom varieties.
Doña Inés and some of her troop of kids invite us into their garden, which they have expanded since we left in April.
Angela is working hard to restore her soil, and is having fun with a variety of vegetables and even flowers.
We got an addition to the list for the ugly chicken contest, but it moved too fast for a good photo:
Santos has a good contender here!
We stayed with our old friends Tonio and Marta, and enjoyed their view once again. With the recent end of the rainy season, the land was back to its beautiful green, rather than the brown, dry place we left a few months ago.

We even saw some chickens that we remembered from before!
Topheavy's a mama again!
All in all, it was a wonderful trip, and we're both very glad that we visited. We're amazed all over again how happy the people of El Jocote are, and how willing they are to share their happiness.
To my girls, Estel and Julissa: Thanks, ladies. You've made my year.
Of course, returning from El Jocote meant we had to go back to Managua, which is not one of my favorite places. But really, even Managua has it's charm – how many other huge capital cities have scenes like this at downtown intersections?
Horse poop is a big part of the Pan-American Highway and all other parts of this metropolis.
And now, on to Ecuador. I'm happy about the prospect of settling in to our little place in a cloud forest, but I sure am sad to let go of Nicaragua. But I'm comforted knowing that we can always go home, whether that home be in Washington or in El Jocote, and belong.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A month on Ometepe

We are back in Nicaragua, back on the island of volcanoes and great lake sunsets, back on Ometepe for the third time. Prepare for a long post, as a lot has happened since we last posted. We came back to Ometepe to stay for a longer time because it is so beautiful. From the farm on Volcano Maderas, we watched the sun set every evening next to the neighboring volcano, Conception.

We came to Finca BonaFide, a permaculture farm that offers internships where you work to help earn your education, food, and lodging. We had visited last year and were impressed with how the farm does a good job employing locals and working together with the local community.  They prefer you stay a month, and a month we had before our ecuador job starts.  Our bedroom was an open-air shelter with a thatched roof.

The bed has a mosquito net to keep out the bugs and bats at nighttime.  We ended up putting up a tarp over the bed because a fruit bat started perching above the bed and urinating on us at nighttime, which made it hard to sleep.

There were a number of dogs that kept us company on the farm. Noor, one of our favorites, enjoyed stretching out in the kitchen during the heat of the day.

Tarantulas were pretty common and pretty harmless.  Kate had to wash one out of the toilet one night, and in one of our ditch digging projects, a pretty big one appeared out of the dirt.

We worked hard from 7am until noon doing all sorts of things. Since the farm is up a large hill with a drivable road only part way up, there was lots of carrying up and down the hill.  Kate demonstrates how to carry a 40 pound bag of sorghum grain up the hill.

Working in the nursery was a little easier, since it involved filling little bags with dirt and then watering them.

Jeff worked on the ditch digging crew where we dug contour ditches to capture runoff and topsoil to reduce erosion.

After about 3 hours of heavy digging, Jeff was very sore.  More sore than he is used to feeling after a heavy workout, despite his maturing age, such that he could hardly use the shovel by lunchtime.  The soreness didn't go away; it felt like every single muscle in his body had been overexerted. The soreness continued a second day.  Then came the fever.  Everyone started to suspect that he was coming down with the flu.  But Jeff, with his penchant for odd diseases and keen self-diagnosis skills, became suspicious as his "flu" entered the third day of muscle-crunching soreness and fever with no signs of the flu's typical respiratory distress.  Jeff's suspicion was confirmed when he went to the doctor on day five.  After a blood test showing very low platelet counts, the doctor said it was dengue, a tropical disease carried by mosquitoes.  The doctors were a little surprised that he didn't have the typical dengue "rash," but all the other symptoms were right on.  That night, the fever stopped and the "rash" started.  It's not a typical allergic rash, it's that dengue compromises the body's ability to clot blood, so all the little capillaries in the arms and legs start to bleed a little.  Here are Jeff's legs on day 7:

On the second trip to the doctor on day 7, the platelet count was even lower and they said that he had to keep coming back every day for tests until his platelets returned to normal, because dengue can occasionally become very dangerous if your platelets get too low. So Jeff did a little research on platelets that day and found out that papaya leaf juice is one of the most promising medicines for raising platelets in dengue patients. Thus began Jeff's culinary adventures in extracting juice from papaya leaves.

The green concoction made from grinding up umbrella-sized leaves in a masa grinder and squeezing into a cup is terribly bitter and almost undrinkable. But guess what?  The next day, the platelet count was back in the normal range.  Jeff was back to work the following day, and drinking two bitter cups of green juice daily.  Luckily, the first job back in the saddle was relatively easy: picking coffee berries.

We picked a few buckets each of berries

And laid them out in the sun to dry.

Kate helped with the rice harvest the next day while Jeff stayed back and did easy work.  Rice Harvesting involves cutting rice stalks and whipping them against rocks set on a big tarp

Then the tarp is rolled up and you get a few hundred pounds of rice with ten people working all morning.

One of the ideas of working on the farm was to experience the full process of growing and preparing food, medicine, and materials needed to live sustainably.  So since we are occasional meat eaters, we got some lessons on chickens and pigs. As thanksgiving approached, we planned on having a couple chickens and a small pig for dinner where we'd invite all the workers and visitors, maybe 30-40 people total.  Kate and I got the chicken lesson with Clemencia, the cook, and her family. Slightly graphic descriptions and pictures follow, so be aware if you are disturbed by where meat comes from.  The kids posed with me and my live chicken.

In more developed countries, they often use a little funnel contraption to drop the chicken into and cut off their heads.  But in Nicaragua, they just snap their necks, which is just as fast as decapitating them, but doesn't require any materials.  You just hold on to their head and then whip them around quickly in circles, maybe 10 times really quickly.  We didn't do it quite right the first time, since we more swung the chicken around rather than twirling it around--it still worked, but it takes a little bit of practice to get it right. But we both twirled our chickens.

Then Clemencia showed us how to pour boiling water over the chickens to loosen the feathers.

We plucked them with the kids, which is a very messy job, best done outside on a banana leaf-covered table.

I'll spare all of the pictures I took of the butchering and cleaning process, which we will keep for our own reference if we ever need to prepare a chicken.  Perhaps this skill will come in handy when we get to Ecuador, who knows?

Next: the pigs.  Coincidentally, a few days before thanksgiving, the 3 pigs of the farm escaped from their pen and two of them were attacked by dogs.  The wounds were so bad that we had to put down the two injured pigs, one of which we were planning on butchering in a couple days anyway.  So I ended up helping out with the first pig, which was a very last-minute event that I didn't have my camera for. We used a gun to kill the pig as quickly as possible, though the Nicaraguans usually slit their throats, which they admitted is more painful for the pig.  I worked with a local family who taught me how to butcher the pig afterwards.  We didn't find the second pig until the next day.  The head farmer, Avelio, killed it for us and demonstrated to our whole group the butchering process.  I had my camera this time and documented the whole thing.  This is what the pig looks like after being skinned--Avelio is pulling out the tenderloin along the side of the backbone:

We made chicharrones with the pig skins:

And grilled the meat:

We prepared a giant feast with many meat dishes, stuffing, fruit, veggies, mashed potatoes, gravy, chutney, and lots of wonderful deserts. We made chocolate by toasting and hand grinding cacao beans:

Kate baked lemon bars in wood-fired cob oven:

We laid the feast out on the table, talked a little about the US tradition of Thanksgiving (only 6 or so of us were actually from the US):

That night we also tried some guaro, a cheap homemade moonshine that is sold by the gallon in something akin to a kerosene bottle:

Workin at BonaFide was an incredible experience.  We could go on and on about all the crazy experiences we had here, but we need to end some time.  I'll just share three more random good memories from the month on the farm.

One of our goals was to meet with and work with some of the local guides on ometepe as kind of an exchange, since we are "guides" in the US.  They wanted us to do a couple training sessions on givin tours, common foreigner questions, basic first aid, and some language help on explaining geology and ecology in english.  It was fun to meet them and learn about their jobs and experiences.  Here we are at one of our meetings together:

It might be our last time being on a farm where we can grab and eat coconuts whenever we want, so we ate countless coconuts. Here's jeff drinking the water from a young coconut.  It's one of the most delicious foods ever.

Finally, there's the beach.  Ometepe is on a great lake that has some beautiful freshwater waves powered by the constant trade winds coming from the northeast.  We spent an afternoon on a beautiful sandy beack near Santa Cruz, a 45 minute walk from our town of Balgue.

We just left Ometepe for the mainland, and we're with our host family from last year in San Juan del Sur on the Pacific Coast.  Here for a couple days, then to El Jocote for a couple days to say hi to our village friends, and then off to Ecuador in a week.  So until next time, Adios!