Throughout our journey, the 2012 Nicaragua travelers kept a live blog detailing our experiences as we were blessed to be welcomed guests in a way of life different than our own.  Please see below for the insights and day-to-day happenings that did indeed leave us transformed! 

—————-Live Travel Blog: February 16-26th, Nicaragua—————

We might not have internet access everyday, but we will take turns reporting on what we’re learning each day and post it here for you to see.🙂

Friday and Saturday, February 18th-19th, 2012, ARRIVAL and DAY ONE

Hola Todos!!!  We arrived safe and sound, despite a little of juggling around schedules with some flight changes.  It was a 12 hour journey overall, but 80% of us found ourselves safe and sound in a beautiful pastel colored, tropical plant garnished open air hostel called Los Pepitos.  We met our fabulous guide, Freddy and driver, Jonny.  They are Matagalpinos, from the area of the country called Matagalpa where we will be visiting later in the trip.  Both are quick to smile or tell a joke and have a deep love for the people, places and history of their beautiful country, Nicaragua.  The land of lakes and poets.

We slept soundly, had our first introduction to cold showers and gallo pinto in the morning (a delicious mix of red beans and rice eaten often for breakfast, but also lunch and dinner if given the chance).  We were greeted by a blue sky with fluffy white clouds lazily floating by as we enjoyed breakfast from our open air breezeway in the hostel.  Afterwards, we packed up our bags and headed out on our first day, a whirlwind tour of locally driven organizations that are making incredible social impacts both locally and abroad.

The first place we went to was called ´Los Quinchos´.  We met with Carlos, the country director who has dedicated his life for the last 20 years to saving children from the dangerous perils of living on the street, giving them a full life of culture, beauty, recreation, food, a place to sleep, tutoring, and psychological and physical therapy if needed.  It is a safe community for love and belonging until they are adults and able to support themselves.    As Carlos entered with about 15 kids ranging from 14 to 15, we were greeted with hugs and smiles.  Love is clearly at the center of this organization, with that being the first and foremost driving value.   Abandoned children are a sad reality in Nicaragua, the 2nd poorest country in the Western hemisphere (second only to Haiti).  Thousands of children are left to the streets because of parents being too poor or unable to take care of their children, common dangers they face are physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.  The worst scourge is the common abuse of ‘pega’ or shoe glue.  Many children numb their pain and consciousness by either sniffing or inhaling shoe glue.  The former method goes right to the brain, slowing development and often burning their retinas to the point of blindness.  The latter way goes to their stomach, causing the feeling of hunger to cease but with incredible maleffects including cancer, destroyed organs and the like.  It is incredibly tragic, but once children are rescued by Los Quinchos, the love of this organization really does create a new way, and hope for a new life allowing them to erase much damage of their painful pasts.

The website if you´re interested is: http://www.losquinchos.it/index.php?language=eng

Our next stop was the Las Churecas dump on the shores of Lake Managua, the largest dump in Central America.  As we drove in, the smoke of fires and slow circling of  ~40 vultures painted a menacing experience as we learned that hundreds of people make their permanent home in the dump, living as scavengers.  We drove past a toxic pond to a hillside scattered with shacks made of various pieces of plastic, discarded boards and corrugated aluminum siding.  We learned that up to 4 to 5 families often share these shacks.  As we walk up the path littered with garbage and emaciated goats we see women washing clothes in an outdoor ´sink´with water from the pond, and children running around.  When we got to the site Los Quinchos runs, in the midst of what was identified as one of the 10 ´worst terrors´ of the world, there was a open air shelter painted with bright colors and pictures of smiling children on the wooden wall at the back.  Los Quinchos sponsors a lunch and day activity problem for children of the dump.  They guarantee 40 children a safe day of activities and solid meals.  When we entered, they surrounded us asking questions, giving us hugs, and acting like normal happy kids.  So many of us were so amazed at the resilience of both these and the children from the other site.

On a normal day, one would think that those two experiences would leave us with a full plate, however not on a Transformational Travel trip!  We then drove to the Women´s Sewing cooperative of Fair Trade Garments.  It is owned and run by 12 women who began organizing after Hurricane Mitch in 1998.  They are an interesting mix of a both a worker´s owned free trade zone (so they can export easily) and also a free trade certified factory.  They make beautiful, high quality clothing from organic cotton and have built up the entire company from their own sweat and labor including the building itself.  We admired the factory setting which includes all steps of the process from basic fabric cutting to silkscreening.  They are pioneers: creative, resilient and have been able to support their families, pay each other a fair salary and fundamentally be proud of their work.  Their salary is ¨Our Sweat, Our Sale, Our Success¨.  The logo is of a woman holding a sewing machine over her head.  Their website is http://www.zonafrancamasili.com

The last stop we made in this powerful and whirlwind day was at Potters for Peace (pottersforpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/filtron-esp.pdf).  This is an incredible NGO that builds simple clay filters that have been instrumental in bringing clean water to villages without previous access.  They form a carbon saw dust and clay 2 litre pot with a press and then bake it in a clay oven at 800 degrees for 8 hours.  Then they paint it with silver collate (?) and a glaze.  At that point it is complete and is able to filter out the 4 main types of bacteria that commonly cause diseases creating crystal clear, potable water.  At only $23 dollars, this filter represents an incredible opportunity to give rural villages access to clean water.  They last a minimum of 3 years and have already been used extensively in Nicaragua, other parts of Central America and Africa.  Seeing an organization that promotes such social good with their work that is ran by 5 employees who have played a part inventing, building, and distributing this life saving device was a great honor.  The unassuming factory looked like an abandoned hostel with slightly dilapidated paint and shutters in the middle of a grove of trees and dry grass.  It was one floor structure with many rooms stripped out for the different implements and ovens used in this production.  The men we met were humble but rightly proud of their work, they´ve already partnered with the World Health Organization in their safe water programs.  It was so encouraging to see an example of an endogenous company, creating a locally produced product, at an honest price, which has huge potential to change communities and save lives.  It is an excellent example of one can use business to create social good.

After Potters for Peace we returned to the Batahola Cultural Center (which we will discuss tomorrow).  We joined up with our first host families who live in Managua in the blocks surrounding the center.  Most of the houses are built from cinder blocks or concrete with corrugated aluminum roofs.  Often 3 generations of families will share the house.  The warm sense of community, happy music, simple meals of rice and beans and a shared sense of life brings a warmth to my heart like I feel at Christmas time when all my family is in one place.  It is really special, and the neighborhood is a truly a very bright place despite what some may consider extremely materially poor conditions.

Well this is a lot — but we certainly covered a lot in our FIRST DAY!  We are all well though, happy and learning so much about this place and this culture.  We´re just starting to dig into the shared history and political experience of Nicaragua and we look forward to sharing more of our reflections.  We´ll post again soon!!!

Que Dios Te Bendiga, the Transformational Travel Group (today´s entry was written by Ruth)🙂

Saturday, February 18th, 2012 – Reflections on Las Churecas (Central America’s Biggest Dump)

I have avoided writing this because I have a lot of emotion and little clarity about this day. The first place we visited was a “filter house” for street children in Managua. These are children who have been rescued from the street or the dump. They have been abandoned. Most are addicted to sniffing glue which staves off hunger and gets them high. At the filter center they are given food, clothes and a roof over their heads. But the main ingredient in their rehabilitation is love. A requirement of the program is giving up sniffing glue. Some children stay and others do not. Counselors don’t give up on them. They keep talking to them out in the community, encouraging them to return but in the end it is the child’s decision. The children we met ranged in age from 4 to 15 years of age. These are big decisions for very young children but they have been taking care of themselves; they have not led ordinary lives.

Once the children are really committed to the program they are moved to a girl’s center or a boy’s center in different cities. the children go to school and when they graduate they are encouraged to work as counselors in the program. It is a way of giving back. And who better would understand their plight?

From there we went to a huge dump where a lot of people live including children, some with parents, some on their own. They scavenge for recyclable materials and food. There is a whole city’s worth of people living in the dump in makeshift houses. Los Quinchos runs a free lunch program at the dump. We served the children. It appeared to be a loaves and fishes operation. Each time it looked like we were running out of food the cook would eek out a few more plates until all were fed. Only a small portion of the children at the dump were provided for. They try to take the most needy children. How they decide this is beyond what my heart could bear.

Where in a just world is a place for such poverty? No one deserves this. Thank God for Don Carlos, the director. He is joyous and loving toward these children. His passion for the program is infectious. There is hope here, but it is an island in a sea of sadness.

Sunday February 19th, 2012 – Managua

This is a city where history, politics and culture are in forefront of the minds of the people. They are passionate about the Sandinista revolution and are not shy about discussing it.

Today we visited the Batahola Center, a place of learning for all ages. They teach sewing, painting, all types of musical instruments, dance, choir, orchestra, as well as business, computer skills and accounting. They provide counseling for women and children suffering from domestic abuse. They have a library of 7,000 books of which they are exceedingly proud. Apparently there are no libraries in the schools. There are murals literally covering all of the walls by professionals and students that project their values and keep them in the forefront of their minds. This is a place that celebrates women. Particularly in this culture that is important and empowering. It is truly a place of beauty and hope.

Our group took a Latin dance class from an excellent, patient and positive teacher. We provided a lot of entertainment for the local teens. We were all drenched in sweat just in time for the el campo mass. We found it interesting that people stand up if they like and individually respond to the sermon. It allowed for dialogue; I liked that.

Monday, February 20, 2012 – Matagalpa Homestays, Carlos Ruiz and Shopping Exercise

Today has been a day of great celebration for me because I have returned to the beautiful family and home of Marlene Castillo where I lived for two weeks during the summer while I studied Spanish in Matagalpa. Her laughter, confidence and basic smarts fill every room of this sprawling home which has been added onto bit by bit, first with the gift of land during the years of the Revolution and then “poco a poco” as money was saved and more space was needed. Tonight Marlene has welcomed me and Ollie as well
as Nicholas and Sophia, fellow Seattlelites and students at the Spanish school, into the warm folds of her home. For one special night we are here with the other members of the family: Marlene’s husband, Joaquin, who drives for a living, their two daughters:
1) Elsania and her husband, Walter, and their young son, Fernando, 5, and 2) Ana and her daughter, Madelin, 10. Marlene’s niece, 16-year-old, Maria José, lives next door (their homes share a wall) with her parents, Marlene’s sister and brother-in-law, and she too is freely in-and-out of Marlene’s nest. That’s seven family members who live here and four guests, plus Lobo and her five new puppies and, according to Ollie, the little mouse who passed through her room, plus a bunch of lizards that, I’m happy to say, eat the mosquitos. We are a living cacophony for this one special night. I know from my experiences here this summer that there will not be a quiet moment. Except in the very wee-est hours of the morning, I will be able to hear nearby voices. This time I am finding these constant human sounds comforting.

Today has also been a day of other emotions including grave sadness as we heard the history of Nicaragua with respect to US intervention over the past 200+ years. Our teacher and encourager has been Carlos Ruiz, a 52-year-old Matagalpan attorney, whose passion is the study of Nicaraguan history. He comes by his story directly as a Sandinista revolutionary guerrilla and later director in the FSLN (National Sandinista Liberation Front) government between 1979 and 1990. Carlos also educated us about CAFTA
and ALBA and the economic and social impact this international “non-consensual agreement” and this international “process”, respectively, have had and are having on Nicaragua and her people. My thirteen pages of notes were an attempt to let some of this sink in this time around and I feel exceedingly fortunate to have heard this straight-goods history from a Nicaraguan leader in a small circle complete with power-point slides and good translation. Amazingly, this man is not hardened or cynical or vindictive. Instead he is big-hearted and hopeful but mostly acting on his convictions by educating all of us.

I do not know the details of what I am to do next with all of this information but is continues to be very clear that I am desperate to learn Spanish. I want to continue to build my friendships here in Nicaragua and be ready for the next action steps as they unfold.

We ended our day together with a shopping exercise during which we were given 200 cordovas (about $10) to buy food for a typical Nica family for two weeks. In small groups we proceeded to the local market and learned just how little this amount of money can buy in our hemisphere’s second “poorest” country (after Haiti). Now I know that the $200 Marlene and her family will receive if/when they sell each of their cute little Husky puppies is a veritable fortune in this country of many colors, beautiful smiles and great
challenges.

The next morning…

A few hours later I awake to the sounds of church bells and, simultaneously, Fernando’s crying and complaining as his mother helps him prepare very early in the day for school.  I can see bromeliads growing outside my window as I open them to a fresh breeze.  Someone is in the kitchen cooking outside my door; I hear the pop and crackle of oil and breathe in deeply the sweet aroma of coffee. Esta gente linda – these beautiful people – have captured me. There is such pain and promise here and it has settled in my heart.
Today, Mardi Gras, I intend to inspire and expire fully as I live this profound sorrow and massive joy in my body and experience the reflections of The Mighty River all around me. That I may.

February 21 – Women’s Collective, CECOCAFEN, Café Organico

Today’s adventure took us to a great many places.  The morning began after our one-night homestays in Matagalpa and ended at the warm and friendly homes of our new host families at the Café Organico Cooperative.

We first visited the Colectivo de Mujeres de Matagalpa (Matagalpa Women’s Collective, http://cmmmatagalpaorg.net).  Our host, Argentina (?), showed us around the facilities and explained how the collective provides support and assistance for both women and children.  Some of the services they offer include: assistance for abused women, legal help, sex education, health services, and family planning.  Furthermore, they also provide additional resources such as a library and after school tutoring for children.

Argentina (?) shared with us two great ways that they spread their message.  The first is through a theater program that delivers an educational message in an entertaining format.  The second is through daily radio programs that reach nine municipalities within Nicaragua and are also available online at http://RadioVos.org

Up next was something near and dear to many of us: coffee

We met with Santiago Dolmus at CECOCAFEN (http://cecocafen.org) — an organization of coffee cooperatives with a history of successful social development programs.  Santiago was extremely patient with our many questions about coffee, the cooperatives and Fair Trade.  He began by explaining that Nicaragua has a history of consuming low quality coffee.  This, however, is not because they don’t produce good coffee (they do!), but rather because they export most of it.  One of CECOCAFEN’s many goals is to change the culture of coffee in Nicaragua to start consuming high quality coffee.  CECOCAFEN strives to help the small farmer and cooperatives market their coffee to any buyer.

Since our group consisted of many coffee-dependent Seattleites, much of the discussion revolved around trying to gain a better understanding of what Fair Trade really means.  Here’s how Santiago described it.  A minimum Fair Trade base price is set by an international organization called the FLO.  The price for Fair Trade coffee cannot go below this base price and is based on the estimated break-even point for coffee farmers.  Alternatively, the free market price is set by the NYSE and constantly fluctuates.  For example, from 1993-2003 the NYSE price fluctuated between $36 and $64 for 100 pounds (of “green” unroasted coffee).  During that same period the Fair Trade price was a constant $121.  Huge difference!  When the growers have to sell at the free market price, they are unable to recover their investment and many are forced to abandon the business.

For another example, the current 2012 Fair Trade base price is set at $136 dollars, but the free market price has surged to $218.  When the free market price is higher than the Fair Trade minimum, Fair Trade coffee is also sold at the same higher price (e.g., $218).  Santiago told us that if prices were to hold at this level for roughly the next five years it would give current growers an opportunity to use the profits to stabilize their businesses and take better care of their crops, which is difficult when coffee is sold at the Fair Trade minimum.  One caveat, however, is that a $10 premium is added for every 100 pounds of Fair Trade coffee sold and is designated for social and environmental projects through the FLO.

CECOCAFEN is also very committed to reinvesting in social development projects.

One such project that Santiago shared with us was a reproductive health program providing tests for the virus that causes cervical cancer.  Another was a literacy program to teach reading and writing that reaches 30,000 adults over the radio.

Finally, our day’s journey concluded in La Carona at our third and final homestays of the trip.  Don Alfredo and Doña Elsa gave us all a warm welcome to the Café Organico Cooperative where we would be staying.  Before dispersing to our separate homestays for dinner, the group held a reflection and prepared the ashes for Ash Wednesday.

Kathy, Ruth, Dave, and Amanda took some time to explore before the sun went down and were accompanied by a new amigo named Fernando who followed along on his bicycle.  Our walk didn’t take us too far (not even to the first of the other two homestays), but on our walk back Fernando led us down a side path and helped us spot a family of howler monkeys (mono congo) climbing through the trees.  Despite their ferocious sounds, the lush, green surroundings of this area were amazingly gorgeous and peaceful.

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 –  Ash Wednesday

Hola!   We are in La Corona, a mountainous rural community of over 500 people scattered along  a dirt road and its secondary roads serving this coffee growing region of Matagalpa State.  There is no real commercial center.  The heart of the community are the primary and secondary schools, basketball and baseball fields, and the 3 churches, all of which are a short walk from the Finca of Don Alfredo and Doña Elsa, leading members of the fair trade coffee cooperative.  We realized how populated the community is when we saw all the many children in their white shirts and blue pants or pleated skirts walking from their farms to school in the morning.

The schooling begins with 3 years of kindergarten in the morning, then primary school in two shifts.  The first from 7:30 to 12:30 and the second for another group of children, from 1:30 to 6.  In the household where Ollie, Jeannie and I lived for the 2 days in La Corona, everyone got up at 4 a.m. to take showers in the dark outside in their shower block, concrete with a big barrel of water and a small basin to dip it over yourself.  They ate their pinto gallo and left together, meeting other children on the road, to walk a half hour to school.  The youngest child, Jara, is a darling little girl, wide eyes and curious, full of hugs for the gringo grandma and waving good bye as she and her brother and sister, 12 and 14, walked off.

The oldest girl in our household is 19 and she goes to college in another town on Saturdays.  She will complete her degree in a few years and become a teacher.  This college level instruction is for anyone and some adults attend.  The community is very proud to have a secondary school as well as a primary school as most rural areas have only a primary.  I asked about some children who carried their nap sacks and walked at 7, but were not wearing the uniform of white and blue.  Doña Patrona said they were poor and couldn´t afford the uniform but were not excluded from primary schooling.  They would have to have a uniform to attend secondary classes.

Our family raised beef to butcher and sell, buying the steers young and pasturing them on their land, 40 acres of corn and coffee.  They had chickens with lots of immature pullets roaming freely in and out of the house.  Their 2 oxen pulled a wooden wagon loaded with bags of corn already off the cob to a high point up the road where two of their 8 hired hands poured the kernals from on high to a screen, letting the wind take the chaff.  They fed their many dogs corn that had stewed all night over their large concrete stove, fed with dry wood, mostly coffee trees that were 5 -6 years old and past production.

The three of us walked the mile and a half back to Don Alfredo´s, picking up Alicia, Penny and Bre at their farm along the way.  The road is winding and up and down.  We are at about 2500 ft above sea level.  Good exercise.  At the Finca, Don Alfredo spent the morning teaching us how coffee is grown and processed in the organic way.  He led us through his forest of bananas, orange and other trees which create the 40% shade coffee plants need.  He showed us the row of pineapples just planted, the beans just pulled up and drying in the sun, the deep loamy black soil where they plant the coffee, seed-fruit saved from the harvest to start new trees.  (Farmers here are discovering that their Monsanto corn seed, while producing a big crop, cannot be used to plant the next crop and are rebelling against using that sterile seed.)

In contrast to the large scale water washing step in the coffee processing we learned about the Cecocafen Fair Trade operation, on the small farm, the coffee beans are manually washed in a concrete trough and sorted by hand into first, second and third quality.  The coffee is picked 4 times a couple weeks apart, taking the ripe fruit each time until the last picking when the tree is cleaned completely.  Even the green fruit is used.  Nothing is wasted.

At the top of our walk through the coffee forest was a stand of sugar cane.  Don Alfredo cut and peeled a couple stalks.  How sweet and welcome chewing and sucking the juice was in that moment!

When we got back to Doña Elsa´s house, we were thrilled to discover two representative from Aldea Global had driven up from Jinotega to meet us and report on their work.  To fill you in a bit:  a couple years ago Saint Marks gave $10,500 to Aldea Global, a Fair Trade cooperative for coffee and other vegetable producers in their region.  Our contribution came from a gift specifically designated for the Saint Marks work of NEHAP, the previous educational and health program involved with the community of Somoto in the state of Madrid, Nica.  Our money was to be used to provide micro loans to women who were the primary farmers.  We were excited to receive a written report and a spread sheet showing specifically the way the money has helped women farmers grow in capacity.  The managing director, Warren and Eva, the woman responsible for their program to end family abuse and develop female independence, both spoke to us, full of enthusiasm for what this small but effective contribution make in their much larger program.  Bre presented them with a check for $500 to add to this fund.

Warren and Eva ate lunch with us and we made fast friends.

We then gathered in the kitchen and, under the gentle instruction of Doña Elsa, learned to make nacatomales, mixing the batter of corn, adding the other ingredients (no milk, cheese or butter), stirring over the wood fire and then taking the batter a cupful per banana leaf and folding the package with chicken, potatoes, rice and beans and a tomatoe paste, tying the whole with a string.  Doña Elsa placed our naca (banana leaf) tomales (instead of corn husks) into a large pot of boiling water to cook.

We went off on a hike to a water fall, but not without freshly hewn walking sticks for Kathy, me, Jeannie and Penny.  Freddy said it would be steep.  Kathy wisely did not go down the trail.  It was a root-grasping, hand over hand descent and getting back up was just as challenging.  The water fall and the large refreshing pool were worth the trip, especially for Ruth, Bre, David, Fernando, the 15 yr old son, leading the way.  I was holding my breath praying to God we wouldn´t be needing our medivac insurance.  They jumped in, swam around, inched their way on a slippery ledge under the water fall to belly flop in again.  Wet clothes and dripping hair didn´t seem to matter and probably was a relief in the heat.  At the altitude of La Corona, I personally was never too hot.  Jeannie slipped on the moss covered rocks which served as our river crossing, so her feet were wet the rest of the day.  To survive such an adventure made it worthwhile, even if in the moment I was holding my breath.

Just before enjoying the fruits of our cooking endeavor, we sat in a circle in the front yard under the shade trees to reflect our our day.  Those who could not understand Spanish had suffered during the Aldea Global presentation.  The head of Matagalpa Tours was translating in his third language (Noelia´s husband is Dutch) and it was painfully long.  Nonetheless, everyone acknowledged how important their visit and report was to our Church in the World work.

We read prayers for Ash Wednesday and passed a small bowl with the ashes from our reflection the previous night.  Each person was free to repeat the prayer ¨I am dust and unto dust I shall return¨ and, using the ashes, make the cross on his or her forehead. Lent has begun.

We were surprised again, this time by a cultural experience.  Two beautiful girls from the community danced traditional Nicaraguan dances, dressed in the full deep red skirts and blouses which they themselves had made.  Such poise and composure!  More dancing and a trust building exercise where 4 of us were invited to create a human chair.  They then challenged us to sign, dance or offer something.  We managed to offer the line dance ¨The slide¨and Woody Guthrie´s This Land is Your Land.  Bre rose to the occasion brilliantly and taught them a trust building circle exercise where they sat on each others laps.  And Alicia brought the two groups -US and Nica – together with a circle hand holding, unraveling exercise that had us all amazed and laughing.  We loved their presentations and were pleased with ourselves that we were able to come up with something to offer them.

The Nacatamales were delicious.  By now it was dark and we had a mile and a half to walk home in the dark.  The sky was brilliant with stars, Milky Way, Orian, planets as big as suns with no ambient light to diminish their glow.  Our host mother and her daughter were walking home from their 7th Day Adventist church service, so we were a happy band climbing and descending the hilly road.

At home, the men and boys were once again sitting on plastic arm chairs watching the evening sit com on the household TV, coming in from nearby houses every evening from 6 – 8.  At 8:15 the medieval-like bars and barricade were in place and the house was plunged into deep darkness for the night.  We had less anxiety about unbolting the doors and finding our way to the ¨servicio¨ latrine than the first night.  And we figured out that the small creatures that bumped into our sleeping bodies the night before were bats!

A great day.  Thanks for reading.  Betsy Bell

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012, Chocolate Factory and Hike, Matagalpa

Chocolate Factory

It was  early morning when we bid our hosts adios y muchas gracias this morning with memories of a wonderful ¨tamale worship¨still in our heads.  (Freddy had pronounced ¨tamale workshop¨as tamale worship several times yesterday, leaving us in stitches).  The roosters crowed to get us started and we headed out (Jonny returned from Matagalpa up the mountain road in our van at 6:30 a.m.!)  First stop in Matagalpa was the Castillo Cacao where six of us stayed with Noelia to learn all about the delicious and hand made process of makng top quality, fair trade chocolate bars from cooking 100% cocao to ¨candy bars¨with 50% cocao.  Two local women do the work of each step–there are 5, one step each day–to ready the chocolate for the market.  In one step they use the stone ¨metate¨or plate and a stone rolling pin to grind the cocao bean, exactly as the Aztecs did centuries ago.  The entire business, one of only three in Nicaragua which are rediscovering the traditional cocoa industry, employs only six people.   We walked away, each carrying our boxes of bars ¨for Christmas presents.¨ We´ll see how many make it that far into the year.

We returned to the heart of Matagalpa and some souvenir shopping, postcard writing and a trip to the postoffice for stamps.  As I think back on our very full day in the La Corona countryside, I sensed how much more relaxed he pace was.  The traffic and the noise of the city are a sharp contrast to the campo.

We met the others who had gone hiking all morning and went to lunch in at a vegetarian buffet.  I had some delicous fried white fish.  We had to say Adios to Noelia,  who had served as our guide since Monday.  She was so bubbley with energy and ideas.  She is the one who had us learn cinco nuevas palabras cada dia (5 new words each day).  Those of us with no Spanish began to understand and speak just a little.

After lunch we went to the Beneficio Sol Cafe where coffee beans are dried, graded and prepared for shipping.  This is final processing for shade grown, fair trade coffee as well as the conventionally grown coffee produced by the Cecocafen cooperative members in this region.  There were what seemed like acres of beans laid out on black plastic tarps, drying in the sun.  If it looks like rain, the corners of the tarps are gathered up to protect the beans and are spread out again when it stops.  This area has extremely low rain fall.  Large machines clean, sort by size, defects, etc, and bag the coffee which is graded once again.  Eight defects or less per test are allowed for the European market; twelve for the US market.  The job is noisy and dirty for the many workers who wear masks and ear protection, especially if an inspector is around, but…..

The final test is the ¨cupping¨process in the quality control lab.  Cecocofen not only keeps track of buyers´ likes and dislikes and the farmers who match their taste, but they also work with farmers to improve their soil quality and their product.  Cupping is very similar to a wine tasting.  Cupping is named for the 5 oz. cups which hold three samples of each type of coffee placed on a lazy susan table.  First we sniffed the dry grounds in the bottom of each cup.  Then they pour 200 ml of boiling hot water over the grounds and another sniffing all the way around, keeping the nose just above the steaming water.  Next the cup is stirred for another sniffing round.  Finally the foam is scooped off and the slurping begins.  Our expert teacher and guide through this process slurped and spit from each cup making an amazing high pitched whistle as the coffee hit all surfaces within his mouth.  We tried to immitate him and add our judgement about the color, body, aroma, taste and aftertaste.  Results?  70 – 79 points indicates conventonal coffee.  80 – 83  Fair Trade premium price; 83-85 Fair trade special; 86-90 microlux (prize coffee).  Prize coffee can sell for $3000 cordobas or $100 in contrast with the lower quality conventionally produced (non fair trade) which goes for $150 cordobas.

Yes, we all bought coffee to bring home.

Who is tired after all this?!  Off we drove into the sunset grateful for Jonny as our driver.  The excellent road to Leon out of the mountains went past the rice paddies with egrets standing in them, past small communities with children and adults strolling along the road, past herds of cows in the hilly fields.  The other drivers ?!!! bicycles, cars, motor bikes, buses, trunks all using taps on the horn to signal their intentions.  We made it to Leon at about 7 p.m. and literally ran to the showers in our comfortable hostel.  A cool shower, soap and shampoo: what a luxury in the heat and after no bathing in our home stay concrete shower houses.  The temperature in Leon is definitely warmer.  We are at sea level and only 12 km from the sea.

Looking beautiful and clean shaven in the case of David, we headed out for a continentally-timed dinner, 8 p.m. at a lovely vegetarian restaurant where we ¨did what David (Mesenbring) did¨, bought a bottle of rum to share.  When I finally crashed into bed at 10:30 with plans to hike starting a 7 a.m. or see the old city of Leon starting at 9 a.m.  I had only a few qualms, settling between cool clean sheets with a bathroom and shower steps away.  It was a different song that put me to sleep: cars and human voices, not the sounds of the jungle.

Hasta manana,  Kathy Sodegren

The Hike

It’s Thursday morning and after multiple days of sitting and listening, it’s time for some exercise! While most of the group chooses to learn/eat mouthfuls of chocolate, Penny, Ruth and I decide to hike Apante with Freddy as our guide.

Apante is a section of land the government decided to preserve.  Crop plants surround us as we begin our hike but then disappear as the natural environment takes over. Our trail is a loop that is maintained by rangers and is enjoyed by tourists and Nicaraguans alike. During our time we only come across one ranger who enters our name in the log and collects the small fee. The first part of the trail is lush and green with a gentle water cascade. Along the way we learn that Freddy loves being in the forest and is quite knowledgeable about birds, vegetation, insects and animals. He points out several birds and teaches us about ants and spiders as they come across our path. Penny and Ruth continue to improve their already fantastic Spanish by asking Freddy new words while I repeat my one Spanish phrase hoping to remember it, “la cascada es mui bonita,” translated, the waterfall is very beautiful. At the top point, we round a corner and take in an amazing view of Matagalpa. Freddy points out the “dry mill” of Solcafe where we will be visiting later. I ask Freddy where his house is in English and then realize that I know how to ask the questions in Spanish! This is the first time this has happened. I ask the question again in Spanish and Freddy, Penny and Ruth beam with pride. They are all so encouraging and helpful. The descent down is more dry with more cactus and brown leaves. We decide the first person who falls has to buy the Toñas (Nicaraguan beer) that night. (To protect everyone’s ego, I won’t mention who earned that right). On the way back to the van, Freddy spots a special treat for us—a sloth sleeping high in the tree. We head back into Matagalpa eager to share our adventure and eat lots of chocolate that the others, hopefully, bought/purchased for us.

Friday, February 24, 2012 – León Tour and Afternoon at Beach

It is late and I am fading fast.  But not before I make note of a harder day for me.  Mostly I am missing the mountains, I think, and my friends in Matagalpa.  The heat and sun of León are demanding in a new way.  Yes, the return of bright electricity and fan-stirred air is welcome, not to mention a shower, other creature comforts and fun dinners together in nice restaurants with Toñas and karaoke.  The velvet voice of our guide, Freddy, was a hidden and welcome treasure, revealed tonight at dinner.

I am remembering the morning when most of the group trooped off to Cerro Negro and I enjoyed first some blessed time to myself.  Yes, I am an extrovert but on a scale of 1 to 10, I am not an 8, 9, or 10 and time for reading, writing and simply sitting alone was bliss.

Then Kathy, Betsy and I met Enrique and set off for a tour of this fascinating colonial city.  Enrique was a sheer delight – funny, knowledgeable, proud of his home city and such a gentleman.  The stories he told were at once poetic and challenging.  He showed us the “oldest witness,” a giant Tamarind tree stump, old-as-the-day-is-long where Chief Adiact of the Sutiaba tribe was hung 400 years ago by the conquering Spaniards.  We saw exquisite murals that tell the history of Nicaragua from indigenous days on and that commemorate the spot were four university students were murdered by Somoza’s National Guard (US-trained) in 1959.  Gazing out at the string of volcanos, including Cerro Negro, from the top of the cathedral (after climbing 77 steps) and hearing that the very hill were our friends were climbing had erupted and coated León with ash recently in 1992, 1995 and 1999 was unsettling.  For me, the climax of the tour was a visit to the lively, gorgeous, bubbling market.  It was every bit as vibrant as the coffee cooperatives we’d left behind in the countryside and as the only one with a camera, I found myself snapping photos right and left – live iguanas being skinned and sold as fresh meat, bags of spices in every skin color lined up for purchase, a magnificent bleacher-like wall of shoes, oily cheese biscuits to snack on, delighting the sense of taste.

I am still processing the moment I separated from the group and a man asked me if I was Nicaraguan.  A bit puffed up with pride in my Spanish, I explained I was from the U.S. and watched him turn on me.  In my three recent visits to Nicaragua I have not yet had an experience of such vehement “gringo-go-home” sentiment. While I didn’t feel threatened necessarily in the moment I was cut short….and so are you! (¡Una broma! = Just kidding!)  Seriously, good night.  More in the morning….after sweet dreams, God willing, I’ll be able to make more sense of this….perhaps.

 Actually, a bit more with a shift:

We spent the afternoon at the beach in nearby Las Penitas, which was a little weird, and watched the sun set together, magnificently, I might add.  Finally, Jeanne and I just read our blog entries to each other and I roared hysterically over her account of volcano-boarding.  If this is Transformation, bring it on!

 While driving out of León…

The next day, before we left León, we climbed out of the van to absorb the history mural together as a group.  I found this profoundly healing in a way.  While there are deep sobs in my heart as I witness human suffering, there is also warm compassion that comes from a beginning understanding of this fascinating place and her people.  I expect no less variety of emotions from Nicas themselves, including, for some, anger as they sort through such pain.

Friday February 24, 2012 – Cerro Negro- Black Hill

With some trepidation I set off to climb the volcano. Having fallen in the river on the last hike, the guides were keeping a close eye on me. Luckily, Penny loaned me her hiking boots which gave me a stable base on the volcanic rock. Though it was an hour and a half up, sun blazing with no shade, there was a steady welcome breeze which made all the difference. (As I write at 10:59pm roosters are crowing like crazy. We’re in the middle of the city and it’s nowhere near dawn. This can be a crazy place.) OK- back to the volcano. The landscape was gray and other worldly with wild sharp rock formations that would make the moon look inviting. And yet it was truly beautiful. It was a steady trudge up the volcano. I had to concentrate on putting my feet in prior footprints. But there was never a time when I thought I wouldn’t make it. At the top the wind was blowing like we were about to take flight. I loved it! At the edge of the rim the soil was quite warm if not hot. Down in the crater we could see small fires. It looked like an enormous fire pit where the fire hadn’t quite been extinguished.

Once pictures were completed it was time to face the ride down. We had little mini toboggans which were not made for my size bum- oh well- You sit on the very back of the board, put your feet up front and hold onto a line that is pretty much there for show. You are supposed to be able to turn it by leaning, a feat none of us conquered. You slow down by leaning forward and go faster by laying back. If  that sitting forward thing fails you put your feet down tapping them along the ground trying to avoid a face plant. Needless to say it was anything but graceful. At the bottom you realize you have got little bits of volcanic rock stuck along your gum line as well as many other places that will go unmentioned. Shorts turned out to be a very poor decision. We all made it down but Bree was scraped rather badly.

This was a wild otherworldly adventure that I am so glad I didn’t miss.

Sunday February 26th 2012,   La Posada Ecologica de la Abuela, La Laguna de Apoyo

I can’t believe our trip is coming to an end. As I look back on the past 10 days, I am feeling both overwhelmed with love and gratitude, but also pained with the sting of reality. I can’t let this swollen heart feeling to go away. I am praying that this feeling will guide my hands and feet to continue the journey after we are grounded in Seattle once again. But I am nervous about returning; I am scared I can’t make a difference. What are we supposed to do with this transformation we experienced here? How can we reenter our lives in Seattle in a thoughtful non-obtrusive way? What do we, the transformed travelers, do next? Is being persistent on fair-trade coffee enough? How about cutting down the amount of water or electricity we use? Would it be enough to share our pictures and stories, exposing our swollen hearts? How about shopping and eating in a sustainable way? Or sending money to Aldea Global to support women gaining independence in the world of sustainable agriculture? Or perhaps it’s possible to live in a way that brings the tension we are feeling into the minds and hearts of those around us.

When one of us asked Carlos Ruiz (the historian by hobby) “What can we do as U.S. citizens to help the current situation in Nicaragua?”- he left us with the words of Aristotle, “ We are what we do on a daily basis. Day by day we fight against injustice.”

Throughout the whole trip, we had daily check-ins which served as a great way for us to reflect and express how the day had touched us. For me, it was incredible just to witness how vulnerable each person was willing to be with their state of emotions. I think it’s safe to say I witnessed attitudes changing, previous stereotypes disappearing, knowledge breaking through, and an overwhelming sense of hope. We were curing our own blindness and seeing how people in materialistically poor situations can be much richer than those of us living with much more. Now, after 9 days traveling, experiencing new people, places and stories, we have arrived at Laguna de Apoyo where we have gathered to reflect on the whole trip. As we went around, it was stunning to see the impact that was made on everyone’s life.

And now it is Sunday, our last in Nicaragua. We have already spent a good four hours around a table in the warm air with the shimmering lake as our backdrop. In that space, we individually and collectively answered these three questions:

 Who were the strangers we met? Silently, we each took about an hour to go through every single person we had met that had impacted us in one way or another. Then, we brought all those persons to life as we spoke their names (most of them anyways) aloud. Collectively we came up with over 200 people (including historical figures like Sandino, and memorable animals like Pelucho!) This activity then led us quite naturally to the next question:

What are the gifts we think we received? It took less time to name all the gifts, but the list was much longer! Some of the ones that were repeated and shared almost unanimously include: knowledge, honesty, good examples of resilient, resourceful people, laughter, acceptance, hopefulness, the value of cooperation, and the realization that “another world is possible.” At this point, we were feeling the presence of the Nicaraguans who touched our lives, and the presents we unknowingly received from our Nica companieros. And since this is not a trip that with the motto, “What happens in Nicaragua stays in Nicaragua,” we carried on to the final question:

How might we bring these gifts back home? This was an open table discussion where I asked the group to say aloud any ideas they have for continuing the transformation in Seattle, and reaching a wider public. We had some great ideas from all voices around the table. The three that seemed to generate the most enthusiasm around our mission were: 1) Giving Transformational Travel a more sustainable structure to ensure that future trips happen with the same formula for traveling. Building on that structure, we will need to make an effort to increase awareness not only at St. Marks, but locally. 2) Bringing one of those “good examples of resilient, resourceful people” to Seattle in order to raise awareness and knowledge, but also to maintain an exchange between Nicaragua and Seattle. 3)  Organizing a discussion series and/or events regarding some of the topics we covered. Topics most likely will cover the importance of fair trade coffee, Nicaraguan history, and micro-lending. The combination of these three actions will keep us united with each other and help us spread our experience in an educational way.

After we closed our meeting and enjoyed our lunch, we had the rest of the afternoon for some needed swimming time or alone time. My leg was all scraped up so I was nervous to get in the water, but my love for water overshadowed the pain. I jumped in and stayed until the sun hid behind some clouds. It was so worth it to be suspended in the water sharing jokes with Johnny, Dave, and Ruth!

Then the time came for our very last meal together- and it was a very special one. We wrote cards for both Johnny and Freddy, and we each went around the table and shared our gratitude with them. Personally I felt like I had grown so close to them, since we had spent nearly every moment in their presence, I couldn’t imagine guiding my own life without them! They were incredibly patient, knowledgeable, and kind with us. After dinner, I hung around with Johnny, Ruth, Ollie and Amanda on the dock. We spent our last few moments looking at the stars before we headed to bed before a 3am departure to the airport.

So now, I leave with the words of Carlos from Los Quinchos, “La primera parte es llenar el corazon del amor y afeccion. El resto sigue.” (The first step is to fill the heart with love and affection. The rest follows.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s