Finding the Silver Lining

Published: May 17th 2010
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Ha pasado mucho tiempo! Well, I am back in Nicaragua, no surprise there.

After a long year of living in Minnesota, my time came to go back to the country I fell in love with. My Rotary district is involved in a 10 year long initiative with the Masaya Rotarians and I received a scholarship to attend the next delegation. With Chile out the window, another opportunity came by!

I spent close to 12 hours in 3 different airports and airplanes combined, just to get the cheap ticket. It was a long, lazy day, but well worth it for the price.My plane mate happened to be a Scottish who spent half his life in Nicaragua. He gave me a complete history of Nicaragua's torn past. I spotted Pharaoh Casino from the plane and saw all the city lights. I started to get excited... Walking off the plane, I welcomed the humidity and even the crazy luggage area. Almost every night, the place is packed with people welcoming their friends and family members and it is chaotic. However, being well prepared, I took it all in. We met Elena, director and founder of AKF Kairos, a center that educates volunteer groups, among many other things. We threw the luggage in the truck and off I went in the back of the truck, Nican style! I let the wind, dirt, smells and honking surround me for the 15 minute ride across the city.

AKF Kairos School is tucked away on the Western end of Managua, on the exact opposite side of the airport on the Eastern end. Atop a dirt hill, it is tucked away and full of trees and wildlife. I couldn't believe we were still in Managua! We were wlecomed in with cold, fresh lemonade.

The next days were spent doing things new to me in Managua. As there were translators, I learned more at the Sandino Museum and the Tiscapa de Managua. It was quite remarkable to be in the spot where Somozo had his home and fortress, fighting Sandino. Nicaragua has a history that inspires me and it was great to witness a piece of it.

As I lived on a secluded island before, I feel like I missed out on Managuan living. However, something tells me I was better off living in Ometepe on my previous trip as a solo traveler. Managua is not the prettiest, not very touristy, and is full of taxistas who cheat people. It can be fun if you have your own car and a good network of people, as they have great night life. However, I have seen some of the good sides of Managua too. This trip, I enjoyed the city a little more with the support of AKF Kairos and their reliable transportation. And, that meant tons of rides in the back of the truck.

While witnessing all the interesting sights in Managua, I really found the silver lining. Although not in its infastructure, I found it in its people. I have never forgotten strong children selling 1 Cordoba waters or windshield washes, wearing shirts that say “I Put the Fresh in Freshman,” or “Look, Your Eyes Are Beautiful.” I even started to laugh at all the honking and impatient drivers. The rotundas, decorated with bronze statues and lit up Christmas trees for 2010 (a little early...) is a mismatched site that will stay imprinted in my memory. Buses all decked out in electric tape, come blazing by with titles like “El Scorpion.”

Although life can be stressful in Nicaragua, I have learned to laugh it off, as the Nicans typically do. For instance, on one particular afternoon, we were coming back from the Masaya Market, which happened to be a fortress in the contra war. Anyways, I opted for the ride in the back. About halfway back to the center, I could smell the rain...The 4 of us braced ourselves with rain jackets while it started to downpour. Hunched down, I stayed curled in a little ball for the remaining 15 minutes while the rain penetrated my whole body. Although uncomfortable, it was also hilarious! I couldn't help laughing, thanks to Lindy, a co -Rotarian with me.

As our purpose was to learn about sustainable community development, we visited a few NGO's within Managua -Jubilee House, Cantera, and Esperanza en Accion. These visits were inspiring. At Jubilee House, we met with a group of 6 women and 1 young man who have what I call vision. Not having a passive attitude, they borrowed a small micro loan and built a huge warehouse which will one day house machines to weave cotton. These women even made their own about dedication. They work 8 hour days and then go home to be single moms. We met the volunteers of Jubilee who were working on sustainable projects, like an abode bathroom that fertilizes the soil and has almost no waste. We also saw a fish farm, sustainable for plants and fish alike!

Cantera sits just outside the city of Managua in Cuidad Sandino. It is a youth run youth center full of inspiring young men and women! All the leaders in the community can apply for scholarships to further their education in areas they are passionate about. Many mentioned interest in environmental science and are not waiting until college to start doing something to better their world. The youth have been very dedicated in raising the awareness of garbage within Cuidad Sandino. They have led demonstrations and projects to educate other youth.

Emily was a North American from Maine who came to Nicaragua as a short term volunteer with Jubilee House. She ended up volunteering for 2 years and then took the position as exec. director of
Esperanza en Accion, a non -profit dedicated to helping artisans get a fair price for their work. Her whole life is now dedicated to a country and people she fell in love with. Stories like hers inspire me, as she sacrificed a life of ease to live in Nicaragua instead.

We also met the Masaya Rotarians and one brave Masayan Rotaractor. They acompanied us on a full day excursion to Granada, its volcano above, and its isletas below. Although there was a language barrier, one thing was evident...they knew how to laugh, smile, and have a great time.

We got away from Managua for a good week to the department of Matagalpa. Although the drive is 2 hours, it is a scenic drive up rolling and winding roads. The city of Matagalpa reminds me of San Francisco. Our group visted Cefocafen, a co-op of farming families in the region. All coffee is certified fair trade. We had the unique opportunity to stay with some of the humble coffee plantation families. The road to the community of El Roblar takes you through winding dirt roads, breathtaking views and clear, fresh mountain air.

Lindy and I stayed with a very humble family. Maria de Jesus, Elvin and daughters Audrey and Maria Elvin became our family for 2.5 days. Their house sits at the botton of a hill. They have 3 rooms, a kitchen, and a combined living and dining room. Although their floors are all concrete and their walls bare, I witnessed something unbelievable during those days. What seemed to me like an environment void of life and activity turned out to be full of love and joy. Elvin enjoyed his role as father to two beautiful girls, ages 1 and 11. Although they don't have much distractions, they concentrate on the fundamentals like raising a family, building a sustainable farm, and doing beautiful work, like carving wood by use of machettes, making filthy clothes super clean and cooking organic foods, grown right outside their home.

The story of the El Roblar is quite remarkable. The women and men used to form one co-op. However, one day, a lawyer visited. As he read the names on the roster, the women realized their names weren't present...In fact, they felt like the men never fully appreciated them or recognized their input. Being strong women, they formed their own co-op and happen to produce more coffee than the men! This is just one story of what can happen in a machismic culture.

One day, we hiked to the farm of Don Wilfredo and his wife, where 2 other members of our group were staying. As Lindy and I had the furthest to walk, we left the earliest. Josselin, a young lady about to turn 15, acconpanied us. Along the winding dirt path, we walked up and up the mountain. About halfway through, we passed the home where 3 other Rotarians were staying. We all walked up more and then finally down a grass path to the farm of Don Wilfredo, located at the base of a different hill than ours.
The day was spent washing clothes with the washer woman Dena, laughing at the sheep who made funny noises, running with the rooster, chasing bunnies and dogs, and learning about the process of coffee. Coffee grown in this region is among the best the country has to offer.

That afternoon, the ladies made tortillas by hand (myself included) while the men waited for their food to come. We had gallo pinto, soya de carne, and espaghetti as they say it. As this was an exchange, we also cooked Minnesota wild rice, which needs to be cooked for double the time it says on the package. Even then, it was too hard, literally, for the Nicans, who didn't know how to eat or enjoy it. Funny how a country with a diet rich in rice can dislike MN wild rice, or arroz selvaje as we called it in Spanish. 😊

As the sun was setting, we hiked up to the top of a hill where we saw the mountains of Jinotepe and Matagalpa. It is clear that this region was the best place for a Sandanista or Contra to hide out in during the war. The hills are thick with dark green trees, some which are as tall as the redwoods of California. Don Alfredo pointed to the hill Lindy and I hiked from, on the far western end. I traced the path and distance with my eyes and was amazed at how far we traveled by foot! Although hard work, that hike is a daily endeavor for the school children who come from different mountain tops. That is why the community rallied together to build a new school for the farm families that live farther away. As this area was thick with war, the people know how to cooperate and form themselves very easily.

Our last night in El Roblar, Audrey presented us with bracelets made of leftover plastic chip bags. If only she knew she could make a profit from her work at the fair trade store in Managua! She also taught us some traditional Nicaraguan folkloric dances. I played the part as the man with the sombrero. Little Maria Elvin tootled around in her daiper and oversized shirt while Audrey's dress was long and flowy. The skirt told the story of Nicaragua's history. The pride she had for her country touched my heart.

I slept better the second night. However, I still spept in a little ball, completely covered by my sheet. There was no way I was going to let my feet spread out to the end where the bugs crawl up. That morning, we showered in rain. As the showers consist of a space within a tin shack with no roof and a bucket for water, I just let the rain do its job. My clothes never fully dried, as they never do in the rainy season, and I packed them along with my other things. Saying goodbye was hard, as these families were very generous and humble. I left Audrey and the family with a Nican pulsera, or hand weaved bracelet and many hugs. I have now seen the full circle of Nicaraguan families. Money or no money, one thing is certain. There will be laughs and intentional space set aside for talking and drinking coffee.

That morning, we drove to a community called San Ramon, also known to be the region of the howler monkeys. La Carnavalia is a farm school led by Cesar Tercero, an inspiring environmentalist. Purchasing barren land 11 years ago, he has transformed it into an oasis like none other through his sustainable techniques and extensive knowledge.
Our cabin, called Buena Vista, holds visitors like ourselves, and also students who participate in Carnavalia's youth programs. Buena Vista's porch overlooks the mountains and fog. In the distance, you can hear the howler monekeys. At every meal, we ate in the dining area. The staff serve 100% organic and local food, grown right on property. It was some of the best food I have had in all of Nicaragua. Nicaragua's dark, fertile soil holds the capacity to nourish all of its inhabitants if only the people had more knowledge on how to use it in a sustainable manner.
The next day,
Scary and spookyScary and spookyScary and spooky

Mombacho Volcano
we took a three hour farm tour. During those three hours, the rain showeres were intermixed with hot sun. Cesar also took us off the path through thick vegetation and banana plants. I felt like a contra hiding under the trees as we ducked down to dodge the towering trees. For those of us who wanted to go the extra half hour, we were told of a waterfall on a neighbor's private property that we could hike to. Me and 2 other young ones took up the challenge. Still wearing my heavy rain poncho, I kept it on through the sun. Although I was extremely hot, I am glad I kept it on. As it had just rained, all of the hills were slippery. While the others managed to get down, I fell three times, falling on my rear end, rolling through the mud. The rain poncho proved useful in keeping me somewhat clean. However, my walking stick left a nice mark on my forehead. Getting down to the waterfall, it started to get cooler and the noise a lot stronger. Although breaktaking, I didn't go in the murky water.

The last day of our 5 day excursion, we
The sun came out!The sun came out!The sun came out!

Mombacho Volcano garden at the visitor center
spent the night in a resort called Selva Negra, or black forest. It is named and designed after the Black Forest region of Germany, from where many immigrants came to Nicaragua in search for fertile land in the 1800's. The cabanas are designed to reflect the German Bavarian design from that region, which is white walls and dark wood accents. The resort serves food grown on property and it is tucked in a mountain full of walking paths. Our group took the path leading to the howler monkeys, admidst tall green pine trees. Although we couldn't see them, we could hear them. It was just another reminder of the rich flora and fauna Nicaragua has to offer. I thought about what Nicaragua may have b een like 100 years ago, before major civilization and deforestation. This region used to be home to panthers. Salvaje!

Coming back into Managua, we spent our last night attending a reggae concert at Ruta Maya. We were mesmorized by the extremely forward socca dance moves and the bikini costumes of the dancers from the Caribbean Coast. It was just another reminder of Nicaragua's diversity.

Reflecting on the week with the Rotary, I can
Tropical: volcano and waterTropical: volcano and waterTropical: volcano and water

Las Isletas, Granada
say I am extremely grateful to be part of a wonderful organization. I got to learn and experience a different side of Nicaragua. When the group left, I felt alone without my group. I am on my own now for 2 weeks. Today, I had to walk 15 minutes in extreme heat to buy food for myself. I was followed by an ice cream man for a bit but was also greeted by all who passed me. Nicaraguans are very nice and friendly, men and women alike. Although by myself for today, I enjoyed experiencing solitude, something I used to be uncomfortable with. I am trying to enjoy the moment and seize the day, Nican style. Tonight, I will enjoy a common past time for all Nicaraguans: a rocking chair, an orange and purple sunset, and a good book.

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


Matagalpa from aboveMatagalpa from above
Matagalpa from above

Waiting for the construction site, we had a good 15 minutes stalling on the road to take in this view.
El RoblarEl Roblar
El Roblar

The view from the latrines!
Don  Wilfredo's farmDon  Wilfredo's farm
Don Wilfredo's farm

I walked up and down a towering hill through mud and dirt to get here. Well worth the sweat.
Oreo Nests on Don Wilfredo's propertyOreo Nests on Don Wilfredo's property
Oreo Nests on Don Wilfredo's property

This tree is home to a HUGE bird that is black and red. Its' nests look like curtains that droop down.
I am a tortilla making machineI am a tortilla making machine
I am a tortilla making machine

Don Wildredo's wife was gracious in letting me use her Maseca to make tortillas. El Roblar.
Pulling the  goat up the mountainPulling the  goat up the mountain
Pulling the goat up the mountain

Don Wilfredo's goat in El Roblar

17th May 2010

I Hear you
Hi I saw the link to your blog on Ivis's facebook and Just wanted to to let you know I enjoyed and related to it. I also find the people here amazing and so, so friendly and generally happy (which is pretty incredible given the levels of poverty and difficulties they face on a daily basis. ) Last night was my first evening in the rocking chair and book, muttering a quiet 'adios' to all who passed. Most Tranquil and natural. I think the western world could obviously help and teach Nicaragua a few things but Also the people could a learn alot about making do and enjoying what we have rather than complaining about what is still missing (which generally is pretty little). I hope to get around to writing a blog one of these days... I have visited a lot of Nicaragua now but seen very little of Managua due, mostly, to having been scared off with various horror storoes. Nice to know you had a mostly positive experience there. Regards Karen
17th May 2010

Michelle, such an interesting article and you are such a teacher, with words of wisdom at such an early age. Keep having fun doing what you're doing and enjoying life. It is a trip. Can't wait to exchange words with you. BTY we were in Minneapolis yesterday and I was thinking about you as I was enjoying the skyline.We were checking out Target Field as we'll be going to a game in June for my Birthday. Love to you sweet one, remember me in your prayers and I will do the same. Aunt Sharon, no Bob on this one.
18th May 2010

Hi Michelle, What fun to read where you have been and what you have seen, you have such a passion for this country and the people you have fallen in love with. You go girl!!! Love, Kathy

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