Nicaragua: The People

Little Ginger

The people of Nicaragua were hardworking, humble, strong, caring and at times very shy. It was a joy to get to know them and I was thrilled to be able to communicate with them. Language barriers can be frustrating and uncomfortable and I was lucky to have enough of a Spanish foundation to interact. I suppose my bachelor’s degree isn’t so worthless after all.

Despite a tumultuous and violent period of civil war that carried on as recently as the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nicaragua is a peaceful, safe place today. The secluded rural communities we visited exist as a result of that war where people from cities fled for safety. Though we studied the Contra War as history prior to leaving, that event is still very much a part of present-day life for most Nicaraguans. Many of the people we interacted with while there fled during the war, fought during the war and lost loved ones during the war.

I learned on our last day that one of our coordinators–a kind, smartly dressed middle-aged woman–was a guerilla fighter in the mountains we stayed in. And one of the farmers lost both of his sons during the war. One was literally dragged out of the house and shot in front of him the other died after being impaled on a fall down a mountainside in an attempt to escape attack.

No one talked to us about these things and I honestly don’t know if they talk about them at all. Would I? Probably not.

Lillian, age 10, in her Justin Bieber shirt

Marlon, age 13

Neighbors in Tierra Blanca

Tierra Blanca

Neighbor, 27 years old, and her two children

The people, especially children, loved having their pictures taken. The woman above actually stopped me as I was walking by her house and asked me to come in and take pictures of her family. We ended up spending about an hour in her front yard teaching her some English words and learning about her life. She and her friends sang us a song–Cuando levanto mis manos… When I lift my hands. They said the only songs they knew were from church.

Singing

The kids were amazing. Everywhere we went they trailed us in a pack asking when we could play ball with them.

Pack of kids

You said you'd play with us.

That was in Tierra Blanca, though, where our school (and professor in particular) has forged strong bonds with the community. They know us, expect us and trust us. A 40-minute hike up the mountain to the more secluded town of Rocha presented us with far more timid children who weren’t quite sure what to make of us.

 

Little girl watches us paint her school in Rocha
A boy shows off his snack at school

Boy watches us paint in Rocha

On the morning we left Tierra Blanca we were lucky to catch Juan and Reina’s 80-year-old landlord stopping by to check on the place.

Don Orlando

Orlando is an adorable man with a kind heart. He lets Juan and Reina live on his property rent-free and comes by often just to chat. He lit up when he saw us and spoke just a few words that I think summed up the attitude of the Nicaraguan people: “I hope you feel at home here. That is the most important thing.”

Nicaragua: The Food II

Tortillas in Pueblo Viejo

It was sad to leave Tierra Blanca on our third day. I was comfortable in my hammock, with the family and at their kitchen table but I was very much looking forward to seeing a new area. We met up with the other half of our group in the nearby “city” of Matiguas. I say “city” because none of the “cities” in Nicaragua are anything like cities as I know them. They don’t have big buildings or street lights or Starbucks on every corner. They do, however, have electricity, which means they have refrigerators, which means I drank this:

And it was awesome.

Vegetarian plate at a restaurant in Matiguas

First lunch in Pueblo Viejo: beans, rice, tortilla, cheese

Learning to make tortillas. Highlight of the trip.

Breakfast in Pueblo Viejo: rice, beans, eggs, AVOCADO

Lunch: rice, beans, tortilla, cabbage, green beans

Pineapple!

Last Supper: rice, beans, potatoes, cabbage, tortilla, cheese

Breakfast: beans, tortilla, watermelon (!)

Lunch before leaving: beans, tortilla, rice, cabbage, cheese

Juice box after a 2-mile hike (with luggage) to the bus

Dinner at a buffet in Matagalpa called Oasis

We left Pueblo Viejo on Friday to travel to Matagalpa, which would put us just two hours from Managua (where we’d be flying out Saturday) rather than five, making it far more likely we’d actually catch our flight. This was an exciting night for all because it meant dinner in a restaurant and a night in a hotel… with a real shower… and a real toilet… and a bed that doesn’t hang from the ceiling.

I actually concluded that my hammock was far more comfortable than the bed at the hotel but that’s beside the point. This post is about food.

I only changed $25 of US money to Nicaraguan cordobas. That got me through an entire week and I honestly spent probably $18 of it in the last 24 hours, much of that at the airport.

Subway at the airport. Tastes like America.

Bon bon for dessert at the airport

Traditional cookies on the plane

Veggie burger and fries at Chili's in Miami Airport

And this x 2.

I truly thought I might die after eating my first American meal at Chili’s. After a week of simple, clean foods, this was just overload.

Coffee, hot sauce, chocolate, cutting board

$25 goes a long way in Nicaragua. I lived, ate and used public transportation for a week and still had enough money to bring home organic coffee, hot sauce, chocolate and a cutting board. Success.

Nicaragua: The Food I

Reina's kitchen in Tierra Blanca

Leading up to the trip, we were warned by our professor to expect little of the food. Rice, beans and tortillas would be about it for the week and we would likely lose weight. “Consider it your Nicaraguan diet,” she said. Since rice and beans make up a majority of my diet anyway, I wasn’t at all concerned about the food situation. What I didn’t expect, though, was to love it so much.

Dina's kitchen

I wasn’t sure how to share my account of the food because I have a picture of every single thing that passed my lips over the course of the week. I’ve decided to break it into a two-part photo journal to get it all in. Looking back on it now, the meals look far simpler and more repetitive than they felt at the time. I guess doing the physical work we were doing and living the way we were living made every bit of food look like a feast.

Dina in her kitchen

All of our meals were prepared by the women who hosted us in the kitchens featured above. In Tierra Blanca Reina cooked for us and in Pueblo Viejo Kandi did. Once on an expedition out of town to Rocha, Reina’s oldest daughter who is 18 came with us to cook lunch. One night the woman who lived behind the house we stayed at in Tierra Blanca invited us to dinner at her house to thank us for playing with her son Junior.

Junior excited to have us over for dinner

We drank filtered water to keep us from getting sick. I didn’t learn until the last day that the water being filtered came straight from the river–leaves, twigs and all. I don’t know where I expected it to come from but I never got sick so it hardly matters anyway.

Our beloved/dreaded filter

We ate a lot of food–in both quantity and variety–and it’s important to point out that the way we ate is not the way these families eat on a daily basis. Part of the money we paid for the trip went to buy the food that would be prepared for us throughout the week. With this money special things like fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, textured vegetable protein (TVP), processed cereals, powdered milk, cookies, pancake mix and even syrup were purchased.

Fresh produce is not common

These are not things the families can usually afford and out of pride or cultural practice or a combination of the two, they never ate with us or even so much as touched the food until we walked away from the table leaving it as “trash.”

We dine family style with food served in big dishes that were passed around the table. All of us commented at some point or another about how pleasant it was to sit down to share a meal without the interruption of cell phones, TVs and life in general.

A mouse crawled across my lap at this meal. Truth.

It was uncomfortable to eat the way we did knowing that the families who so generously prepared and served the food for us struggle to get food on the table for themselves. At the medical clinic, we performed 24-hour food recalls to get an idea of what they were eating on a normal day. Junior’s mom Dina, who had so graciously prepared a real feast for us the night she invited us over, had only consumed beer in the 24 hours prior to the clinic. (She is also suffering from depression and extreme anxiety since her husband left her for a woman in a nearby city.) Her youngest son (about a year and a half old I think) had only milk. His big brother Junior skipped his snack at school so that he could bring it home to the baby. When I asked people about food the general consensus was that it was not sufficient. This year’s bean harvest failed in Tierra Blanca, which will have a profoundly negative impact on the community’s food reserve and their finances to buy more.

Knowing these things makes me feel sad and guilty. It makes sharing the pictures I’m about to share uncomfortable. It also, however, provides an excellent illustration of food insecurity in the third world and as such I hope it sheds light on and draws attention to the problem. I don’t mean to imply that those of us with sufficient food should apologize for what we have. Food is, after all, something to celebrate. But I do encourage people to acknowledge how lucky we are to have it and to reach out to those who don’t.

9-freaking-dollar fruit salad at Miami Airport

Truly disgusting egg white sandwich, Miami Airport

Creamsicle on a 4.5-hour bus ride to Tierra Blanca

First meal: Tortillas and lentil soup

First breakfast: Rice and beans with papaya

First lunch: Rice, vinegar slaw w/tomatoes, boiled egg

Dinner at Junior's: Eggs, rice, salad, plantains

Cereal, granola, powdered soy milk and my own PB pack

Snack break while painting in Rocha...

Crackers and guava jelly (so good)

Jocotoes - tart fruits with a large pit

Lunch in Rocha prepared by Reina's daughter Patrona

Patrona's vegetable pasta (I ate 2 bowls)

Veggie stew w/TVP, rice, cabbage slaw, tortillas

Best coffee. Consumed breakfast/dinner daily. Super sweet.

Special pancake breakfast w/granola, syrup & my own PB

Juan and Reina’s yard was full of trees bearing expensive foods we pay top dollar for here in the states, including mangoes and cashews. Who knew cashews grew like this?

Nope. No one.

When the fruit turns red...

... it's ready.

We tried to get them to crack and roast them but they really thought we were crazy. They just don’t consider them food. They do eat the mangoes when they’re in season and when they’re not, they salt them to bring out the sweetness and eat them anyway.

That’s it for food in Tierra Blanca. On the third day we packed up our hammocks and headed into the nearest “city” of Matiguas where we would meet up with the rest of the group, eat in a real restaurant and switch locations…

Nicaragua: Coming Home

Tierra Blanca, Nicaragua

I made it home safe and sound just one day late and not a minute too soon. It’s been a long, exhausting, exhilarating and inspiring week and while I feel I owe you a long and detailed account of what went on, my life (namely homework) beckons. So I’d like to start my Nicaragua recap series with a collection of 20 of my favorite photos (out of 350+) from the trip.

Cordobas. 20 = $1 USD

Built in 2007. Rocha, Matagalpa, Nicaragua

I diligently maintained a journal throughout the week and the following is what I wrote in the final 15 minutes of my flight home from Miami to Charlotte.

Juan and Reina's home. Tierra Blanca

Tierra Blanca

3/20/11

I never expected I’d be the type to willingly miss a perfectly good, on-time flight. Then again, I never expected to have learned so much from having so little.

Tree on Abdel's farm. Tierra Blanca

Family in Tierra Blanca

For a while toward the end I desperately wanted to be home but no part of me ever felt an urgent drive to leave Nicaragua. It’s complicated to want to be in one place without wanting to leave another.

Soylita, Reina's downed parrot

Animals on Juan & Reina's farm

I felt comfortable and safe in Nicaragua. I also felt dirty and sticky and incredibly out of place. I guess spending a week with people who live their entire lives with little more than a change of clothes, only as much food as they can grow themselves and an unheard of (in my world) way of accepting this to be enough made one night alone in a strange city without my luggage look like an acceptable option. After a week in a hammock without plumbing or electricity, what’s one more day?

My idea of English lessons

Student in Rocha's Winthrop School

At surface level, I offered up my seat on our overbooked flight home (in exchange for a $400 airline voucher, free accommodations in Miami, transportation to and from the airport and $15 for food) because I wanted to have the freedom to travel again this year.

A student receives a snack at school

Student in Rocha, more interested in painting

A vacation is a nice incentive, yes, but if I’m honest with myself I’ll also admit that giving up my seat last night was my last-ditch attempt to stop time, to keep myself from hurtling onward back into a life that I just don’t want to live right now.

Baby Ginger. Tierra Blanca

Ginger takes a break

I enjoyed the disconnectedness of living beyond the means of modern communication. It kept me here, not there. Present, not panicked. On Sunday, it was Sunday. I ate tortillas and rice, and a kitten sat at my feet. I went to sleep because I was tired, not because I knew the time. It was raining and dark. My hammock swayed in the wind. The dogs ran something off–maybe an animal, maybe a person, more likely a sound from nothing in particular. The rooster started crowing at 2am with much persistence each hour thereafter. I woke up with the sun. That’s how things went for seven days. Some days we taught English. Some days we painted schools. One day we led a medical clinic and another we built a road. At no point did I make a list of things to do, people to contact or events to expect. I was just there.

Traditional tortillas

That day we got avocado.

So I guess last night I just wanted to stay there. Not in Miami necessarily but there in my calmer, emptier self. My bag was checked and, therefore, inaccessible. I’d been wearing the same clothes since Friday (and likely a lingering odor, too–something like dirt, sweat, smoke and sugary sweet coffee). Somehow none of that seemed unbearable for one more night. In fact, it was exactly what I needed. I clung to my last chance to not be anywhere–or anyone–for 12 more hours.

Dog in Pueblo Viejo

Kitten eating beans (that I gave to it).

In a nice-but-not-nice-enough-to-tell-my-parents-where-I-was hotel, I picked up my cell phone and turned on the news. I’m back in my world but this time I feel like I can do anything.

Plantains in Pueblo Viejo

Bake Sale Preview

Get ready...

Hold on to your butts, food lovers, have I got a treat for you… I am so humbled, proud and hungry to present a drool-worthy collection of goods donated by some of your favorite bloggers. Not hungy? (WHY??) Don’t worry, we have some crafty goods, jewelry and dog treats, too (though some people would eat this–not saying who).

All these items will be on auction tomorrow–Thursday, March 3 from 10am EST to 10pm EST–to benefit my service trip to Nicaragua. (Read about the trip here.)

To make this project–the time, the cost of ingredients and the cost of shipping–worth these wonderful, generous bloggers’ time, I am starting each item at $20. Get your game face on. It’ll be a battle…

Oh, and to make things interesting, I’ve asked a few Sweet Tater celebrities to pony up some goods. Ralph, Weaz and Stew will all have items to sell tomorrow. We’ll keep those a surprise.

Nicaragua Bake Sale Preview

Heather's Customized Snack Time Cookies

Heather is offering up her customized snack time cookies–your choice of three sweet and three salty mix-ins. Vegan optional (based on mix-ins selected). Shipping to US only.

Maggie's Cocoa Brownies

Maggie's Famous Chocolate Buzz Buzz Cookies

Maggie's Best Ever Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Maggie is donating a killer sampler pack: 1 dozen Cocoa Brownies with Browned Butter (with or without walnuts or nuts of choice), 1 dozen Double Chocolate Buzz Buzz Cookies (which, by the way, were featured on Emeril) and 1 dozen Best Ever Chocolate Chunk Cookies (with or without nuts of choice). All are shamelessly laden with eggs, butter and gluten. Overnight FedEx anywhere in the contiguous US.

Kelly's Chocolate Date Truffles

Kelly has offered here lovely Chocolate Date Truffles. (Look for them to be featured on Savor NC today!). Vegan, gluten-free, raw. Shipping to US only.

Julie's Coconut Chai Savvy Scones

Julie is donating her Coconut Chai Savvy Scones. Vegan optional. Shipping to US and Canada only.

Marie presents L's Snickerdoodles

Marie is offering up L’s Snickerdoodles. Contains eggs. Shipping to US only.

Gracie's Chocolate Hazelnut Oatmeal Cookies

Gracie is giving us her Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies. Shipping to US only.

Caitlin's Sunflower Butter Bars in a Ball Jar

Caitlin will send along all the fixins for her Sunflower Butter Bars, lovingly arranged in a Ball jar for you to prepare yourself. Vegan. Shipping to US only.

 

Joy’s Pearl and Swarovski Crystal Bracelet

Joy will create one custom necklace or bracelet made from pearl and Swarovski crystal. Shipping anywhere.

 

Kristina's Chocolate Truffle Torte

Kristina is maker her Chocolate Truffle Torte. Gluten-free. Shipping to US only.

 

Moe's Soft Caramels

Moe will send you your choice of two soft caramel flavors: Twist & Stout (beer & pretzel), Lavender Thyme, Classic Sea Salted or Cardamom Rose. Made with local Happy Cow cream and butter. Shipping to US only.

 

Julie's Flourless Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

Julie is making her Flourless Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies. Gluten-free. Shipping to US only.

 

Courtney's Butterscotch Blondies

Courtney is contributing her Butterscotch Blondies. Shipping to US only.

 

Brittney's Pinwheel Cookies

Brittney is making her Pinwheel Cookies in your choice of: Orange/Chocolate, Raspberry/Chocolate or Almond/Chocolate.

 

Kelly's Knit Cup Cozy

Kelly is crafting the cutest Knit Cup Cozy. Shipping anywhere.

 

Liz's Party Hat Tea Towels in pink

Liz's Party Hat Tea Towels in green

Liz's Cherry Pickin' Tea Towels

My generous and wonderful friend, mentor and crafter extraordinaire Liz is providing three sets of tea towels, which will be auctioned off as separate items so more people can get their hands on them. Shipping US only.

 

Jessie's Heath Bar Chocolate Chip Blondies

Jessie is making her Heath Bar Chocolate Chip Blondies. Shipping to US only.

 

Angie's Crunchy Peanut Butter Dog Treats

Angie is making her Crunchy Peanut Butter Dog Treats. Lilly-approved. I would eat these. Just saying. Shipping priority mail, US only.

 

Lori and Michelle's Raw Vegan Cocoa Kremes

Lori and Michelle, owners of Twin Cakes Bakery, are offering up their Cocoa Kremes. They’re raw, vegan, gluten-free, soy-free and low sugar. Shipping US only.

 

Kaitlin's Healthy Berry Muffins

 

Kaitlin is donating her Healthy Berry Scones. Shipping US only.

 

Angela's Chocolate Crunch Dessert Granola

Angela's "Favourite" Breakfast Granola

Angela will send you your choice of her Chocolate Crunch Dessert Granola or her “Favourite” Breakfast Granola. (You’re my “favourite” Canadian, Ange! I’m getting US spell-checked all over the place for that U.) Vegan. Shipping to US and Canada.

 

Carob Chip Pumpkin Cookies

Andrea is making her Carob Chip Pumpkin Cookies with raw sugar, organic cage-free eggs and sea salt. Shipping to US only.

 

Meg's Chocolate Chip Banana Bread?

Meg is donating Chocolate Chip Banana Bread and the picture above is her punishment (reward?) for not sending along a picture of the actual baked goods. Vegan, cat-free, cat food-free. Shipping to US only. (It’ll probably look more like this. If you’d actually rather have this sleepy kitten in a bowl of food, bid like you mean it. We could make it happen.)

 

Jen's Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Bars

Jen is making her Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Bars. Shipping anywhere in the US.

Katy's Custom Ad Widget or Blog Buttons

Katy is offering Custom Design of 1 Ad Widget or up to 5 Blog Buttons (like the one above for her blog). Shipping is… irrelevant. Digital, baby.

Katelyn's Apple Cinnamon Raisin Muffies

Katelyn's Gluten-Free Raspberry Amaretto Cookies

The lovely Katelyn is offering two items: Apple Cinnamon Raisin Muffies (vegan, soy-free, sugar-free) and Raspberry Amaretto Cookies (vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, sugar-free). Shipping to US only on both.

Upon completing this preview, I am blown away by the outpouring of support from so many people I truly admire so much (and stalk so often). Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who has contributed baked goods. I can’t say it enough. And a special thank you to my friend Adam who made sense of the technical side of the auction and, you know, did it all for me.

Now… let’s eat.