Cooperative

Estelí and Reserva Miraflor, Nicaragua

I met Tian, a South African working in Algeria, twice already on Ometepe, so it was a surprise to find him on the same minivan from León to Estelí. We had to wait for the van to fill up before we could depart. In the end, a woman and her daughter came on, but she refused to pay for two fares, insisting that her daughter (at least 10 years old, mind you!) could sit on her lap for the 2.5 hour ride. The driver wasn’t having it. Tian offered to pay one of her fares so we could get going, and I translated his offer for him. Everybody was satisfied with that.

I only had the one afternoon in Estelí, so after a rigorous cleanup from my León/Telica activities, I walked around town, taking in the many political murals, the market upon which all the farmers in the surrounding highlands converge on, and even a protest of some sort marching right past my hostel. Estelí is also very famous for cigars, but that didn’t interest me so much and I had no time.

In a cafe, I ran into Tian yet again, and we decided to hang out for the evening. He looked different — haircut. And of course, the locals gave him a typical Nicaraguan haircut, topped off with copious amounts of hairgel, just as they do. (Seriously. Every guy who has enough hair is drenched in hairgel.) Tian’s on indefinite vacation while waiting for word on when it’ll be safe to go back to work — you know, hostage crisis at another company and terrorist activities in Algeria and all. We went for dinner, had some fresh juice (I’ll never get over the fact that a fresh cucumber-watermelon-lemon-mint juice is $1.50) and mojitos made with Flor de Caña, Nicaragua’s famous rum, and toasted to coincidences before saying goodbye.

I woke up at 4:45 am the next day, my earliest of the entire trip, to head to the Miraflor Nature Reserve, my only reason to head to Estelí in the first place. The day before, I inquired and reserved a homestay and a guide, and was given a set of instructions on how to get there. So…after waiting at the bus stop forever and waiting for the sun to rise, I crammed into a bus with all the locals heading to Miraflor — buses only run twice a day from Estelí and nowhere else.

I got off at Terrero in the low-altitude zone, where my guide, Nelson, was waiting for me. I was to stay in Sontule, in the mid-altitude zone, but Saturday is the one day of the week when buses to Sontule don’t run. So instead, we hiked west from Terrero for an hour, through some private fields and a very uphill trail, but with consistently majestic views and incredible scenery. Things became greener as we ascended, a welcome change from the mostly dry and parched scenery of the last few weeks, with rolling hills, “old man’s beard”-covered trees swaying in the wind. There was no one around, and the only thing we could hear was the many types of birdsong.

Nelson and I chatted a bit during our walk – well, as best as we could in Spanish, since his English was largely limited to names of trees and animals. Like virtually all other residents of Miraflor, farming is his trade, and he works on his father’s finca, living with his parents and his three sons. (He never told me what happened to his wife.) But in his spare time, he works as a guide and also in ornithology (study of birds). Miraflor gets some tourists, but not many — roughly 30 per month, or just one per day. (In fact, I didn’t see a single other Westerner on the bus or anywhere near Sontule while I was there.) But sometimes, wildlife enthusiasts and researchers come down, and he ended up working with a Canadian researcher to the point where last year, he had the chance to travel outside of Nicaragua for the first time and go to Ontario!

Still, the money is tight. The organization that works with Miraflor residents, setting up guides and homestays for tourists like me, does try to spread the wealth, but of course, things could be better, especially with more visitors. Nelson’s preparing his eldest son, 16, to study medicine, but with tuition at $150/month, he can’t afford it for him yet.

We arrived at the home of Rafaela, my homestay host, in Sontule around 9 am and immediately had a wonderful breakfast of eggs, tomatoes, onions, gallo pinto, freshly-made tortillas, and of course, fresh coffee. Everything she cooked was something she grew in her backyard or something grown in the community, and the coffee was from the village’s women’s coffee cooperative, Nuevo Amanecer. (“New Dawn” — in her words, the founding of the cooperative was exactly that for the villagers.) It’ll be hard to go back to regular coffee after this — it was amazing, and I kept going for refills, despite caffeine’s sedating effect on me.

Her home isn’t like anywhere else I’ve stayed. Humble, but…homey. No floor, just dirt. Corrugated steel for a ceiling — she tells me that it sometimes rains inside during wet season. As Rafaela and her daughter continued cooking some food for the rest of the day, I watched the smoke from the wood-burning stove rise to the hole in the ceiling, where rays of light illuminated the smoke and the kitchen. Atmosphere.

Rafaela gave me a quick tour of the home — hammocks out front, guest room inside, living room with a small fuzzy black and white TV, shrine to the Virgin Mary sitting next to FSLN participation certificates, the tank with clay-filtered water, garden in the back, latrine (really an outhouse that I had to hold my breath in and was a haven for like 30 flies), shower area outside (I never took one since I never figured out where to get some buckets of water), the family’s chickens and piglets and dogs… While obviously to a different standard than what I’m used to, and a place that I only had time to stay for one night, it really felt like a home already.

After a little nap, Nelson took me around the Sontule area. He seemed to know every single person we passed by. In this region of Nicaragua more than anywhere else, “adiós!” is used as both a form of greeting and farewell. Despite knowing this, hearing it initially felt strange, but I joined in soon enough. It really makes sense though — everyone in the community seemed deeply religious.

We stopped at Sontule’s school (elementary; the closest secondary school to Miraflor is in Estelí), the old well where not long ago, people used to walk to from afar to grab water (a recent NGO project has now introduced taps much closer to peoples’ homes), and the churches (one Catholic, one Anglican) before we made a detour onto a little dirt path just over a barbed wire fence. (Yeah, I’d never have been able to see or do all of this without a guide.)

In the meantime, I got another history lesson, picking up right where I left off in León. After the Sandinistas took over in the 70s, the Reagan government in the US, not happy with this turn of events and the arrival of a communist-leaning group, helped foment a “contra-revolución” (counter-revolution), which consisted of former Somozistas. (This is as much as Nelson told me, but there were also people who simply didn’t like the sometimes brutal practices of the Sandinistas, and anti-Somozistas who weren’t happy with their former partners.)

The Sandinistas were great to the farmers of Miraflor and other farming communities in the northern highlands. Whereas under Somoza, everyone toiled on the land owned by one rich person, the Sandinistas came in and divided the land into plots that each farmer owned. They all decided that they worked better together than apart, and formed cooperatives. In addition, roads were improved, poverty was reduced, and access to education (and therefore the rate of literacy) greatly increased. This explains why most people in the north of Nicaragua are FSLN supporters. (In contrast, the newspaper La Prensa, based in Managua and conservative, is outspokenly against the FSLN and holds nothing but disdain for the country’s president, Daniel Ortega, a Sandinista. I had to laugh at the contrast when I picked up a newspaper.)

The Contras (illegally funded by the Reagan government through the infamous Iran-Contra affair, which I know nothing about) eventually attacked from Honduras, meaning that the north of Nicaragua was the first to be hit by the conflict in the late 1970s-1980s. Nelson recalls the conflict vividly, recounting the tales of how his father and others were “farmer-warriors”, tending to the fields while carrying arms and fighting. Women and children were kept far away from the fields to keep them safe. Nonetheless, much brutality and human-rights violations happened, and many people died in the violence, devastating the region.

In 1990, after 11 years of conflict, despite popular support for their policies, the Sandinistas (led by former and now again current president Ortega) lost the election. The other party, led by former anti-Somozista, center-right Violeta Chamorro, was backed by the US and promised an end to the war. Nelson tells me that the people in the north were so war-fatigued that they decided to vote in Chamorro, despite her less-favourable policies towards them. Only after 16 conflict-free years did they have the courage to vote for the FSLN again (2006 election, where Ortega won), and after seeing that the conflict didn’t come back, they re-elected them in 2011. So the people of Miraflor are happy now, but they wish that the government could make things less expensive — gasoline especially — and decrease the country’s dismal 50% unemployment rate.

We continued our walk. After a sometimes-steep walk downhill, the scare of seeing a poisonous snake but then realising it was dead, and some incredible views of the mountainous landscape, we arrived at one family’s coffee farm, where Nelson explained the coffee growing process to me. (It was a Sunday and no one was around.) The family had suffered a decreased harvest this year (and in fact, in the past few years, due to climate change), and the harvest season had already passed, but there were still quite a few coffee beans (they’re berries, not beans) still on the plants. We picked a few in various stages of ripeness, red being ripe.

miraflor

Along our way to the fermentation area, Nelson suddenly stopped and dug out his binoculars. We must’ve stood there for something like 15 minutes, watching closely at some rare birds in the distance. Miraflor is famous for quetzals, but this wasn’t the season for them; I think he spotted some orioles. My eyes are just not used to spotting tiny wildlife from far away in the midst of a sea of grass, branches, and leaves, but Nelson was patient and pointed out what he could, while we kept as silent as we could. Some very bright butterflies, including an elusive blue species, were quite abundant as well.

We arrived at the processing area and Nelson took out the berries we had picked, then extracted a sticky, hard inner “nut” simply by squeezing the red skin. The white “nuts” are covered in some slightly sweet, pungent smelling substance – I had a taste, but the substance isn’t used for anything. After washing, the nuts are put out to ferment and dry, then opened up once again to reveal a brown “bean” inside. These are what gets exported to roasters.

Growing the coffee plants is a very arduous process taking months. It takes 30 to 40 beans of coffee to make one cup of coffee. Sure, each tree grows tons of berries, but after picking, they need to be pruned constantly. One large 5 kg sack of berries sells for only $1. It’s still not much better once the beans are extracted and exported. Whereas a smaller sack of that might sell for $1, as soon as the beans are roasted, that same amount becomes $6. The farmers would like to roast the beans themselves and sell it, but they haven’t found any takers – foreign buyers such as Starbucks prefer the beans unroasted, so they earn far more money for far less effort just by roasting it themselves. Around 90% of the coffee they grow is exported, which kind of explains why the rest of the country seems to use mediocre coffee powder…

Despite promising Rafaela that we’d be back for lunch around 12:30, we didn’t make it until 2 — Nelson and I found many bird-viewing opportunities, and we spotted orioles, euphonias, Montezuma Oropendolas, and even a species of hummingbird that Nelson had never seen before! He was giddy with joy, but we couldn’t get close — we settled for an awkward and difficult setup, combining his binoculars with my camera. I took a few blurry shots that I still need to send to him… We flipped through his book of birds and think it’s a pinstriped starthroat.

Over lunch while Nelson took a nap, Rafaela and I had a nice long chat about our families. I never did meet her husband or two of her three sons, but they all work in the cooperative. Her 20-year-old daughter, Maria Mercedes, lives at home 6 days of the week and also works with the cooperative, but goes to Estelí for secondary school every Saturday for 8 hours. (That’s how it works up here.) Her son Yarón is younger, but is also in school. Rafaela also has one grandson, Jonathan, who was just the cutest thing.

In the late afternoon, Nelson took me over to the caves, where he told me the legend of the duende (dwarf) that took care of the wildlife, but also flirted with local women by pretending to be men that they knew… yeah… Also, the caves were used as hideouts during the Contra War. The locals knew the terrain well enough to never be discovered. We returned back to Rafaela’s shortly thereafter and said goodbye.

That evening, Maria Mercedes asked me for a favour – to help her with her English homework. Oh dear. My first time teaching English! In two hours, I gave her an extensive impromptu grammar lesson on verb tenses, adverbs, and direct and indirect objects, which she appreciated and learned from far more than from her class, but I was so tired by that time of the night and by speaking only Spanish all day that I started teaching things wrong and not realising until after leaving Miraflor… oh Ivan, tener is to have, not to take. Cringe. I certainly hope Maria Mercedes doesn’t go around teaching all her friends that. Well, in a few years, if you hear a bunch of Nicaraguans saying how many things they take instead of how many things they have, you’ll know it’s my fault. I also gave a quick math lesson on ranges and infinity – at least I didn’t screw that one up.

It turns out that a big Catholic church event was happening — Rafaela had other guests from Matagalpa who were also staying at her home. That night, they all went over to the church after dark. Maria Mercedes offered me her flashlight and I stumbled my way over to take a look. Generic uplifting music played while the reverend worked up the audience with a message of hope despite hardships and difficulty, and arms were raised to the sky. I didn’t understand too much of the sermon, but I left quickly after I realised people stopped paying attention to the sermon to look at me, the only foreigner around…

The next morning, I woke up at 5:30, in preparation for my bus back to Estelí at 7:45, and found Rafaela already up, making tortillas. I asked if I could help — I manned the corn grinder. Tough work! Mmm, fresh and hot and toasty tortillas. We were shortly joined by her 8 other guests, who launched into one of those prayers where everyone starts speaking whatever praises they can think of all at once. It was a bit overwhelming in that small kitchen. Some of them came up to me, discussing matters of faith. Despite the many differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, they gave me their blessings as a brother in Christ. And then one of them mistook me for a Nicaraguan for some reason. Aww. I just laughed.

It was time to say goodbye — not only to Rafaela and her family, but to Nicaragua. I wandered around the area one more time, watching the animals stir awake, listening to their old giant radio, took in the smell of coffee and gallo pinto in the kitchen, and the fresh air outside. I really wish I could have stayed longer, to get to know Rafaela’s family more, and maybe see the other zones of Miraflor. The high zone is known to have monkeys and even sloths, as well as all sorts of other rare birds.

It was a two day journey back to Boston, with bus ride after bus ride (and two more, after I realised I left my passport in one city on my way to another…), and a night in Managua for the all-day flight the next day. The Miraflor detour was definitely worth it though, and a highlight of the trip.

I’ve never had another trip where I’ve just sat down and talked with so many locals. I leave with many fond memories, a new interest and some understanding of the country’s psyche (I’m no expert, but it’s a lot more knowledge than I can say for many other countries that I’ve visited), and of course, with many places unvisited and many more things left to see and do. Count on me returning in the future for sure!

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