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!


  1. Very descriptive and interesting - thanks!

  2. Experiences of a lifetime. So glad you are making the most of your youthful years. You are making wonderful memories!!