River people

The Amazon Basin has always been both a source of great inspiration and, more often, great despair for the conquistadores, from the moment they invaded the rain forest and the thousands of tributaries that make up one of the most diverse ecosystems known to mankind. The history is also one of great irony. From the beginning it is wrought with stories of of explorers getting lost and going mad, schemes of grand proportions failing in horrible ways, and whole expeditions starving amidst the plenitude and abundance of the rain forest. The amplitude of misery that was experienced by them led them to dub the forest of the Amazon Basin the “green hell”. But what for them was a type of hell, was home to thousands of indigenous peoples who, according to the same histories and the original journals of the conquestadores, populated the rivers and the inter-fluvial forestland in abundance. These indigenous peoples successfully fished, hunted and managed the forests for thousands of years, creating unique languages and cultures along the thousands of streams and rivers that give life to the Amazon.

In this landscape of continuous and almost oppressive green the forest is a considerable force – not only in its role in sustaining the lives of the thousands of communities that live among its abundance, as well as the millions more that benefit from its services, but also in its role in sustaining the cultural life, the spiritual life, of those that inhabit it. It is there, here, everywhere. Birds calling from the branches, monkeys chattering, insects swarming all around. Singular trees bursting from the canopy, clusters of aguaje palms , lianas drooping off the chaos of branches. It is a backdrop, a main stage, a path, a house, a market, a backyard, an audience and an inspiration all at once. It is inescapable, omnipresent, immensely abundant, and breathtakingly beautiful.

How different these first river people must have seen the forest. How incomprehensible the desire to cut it down in order to make it “productive”.

——-

I think of this as I sit wrapped up in my hammock and towel, fending off the heavy,damp morning dew that seeps into my bones. Woefully unprepared for this weather, I am the only one awake at 4.30am, save the motor-man in the back, and the boat-man in the front. I watch their practiced and (for me), mysterious communication for a while. The boatman sits in the prow of the boat, wedged into a tire with a flashlight in one hand that cuts through the early morning mist. He is watching for the deep currents of the small river in which to guide the boat, and snags, sandbanks and submerged logs, which to avoid. With hand gestures and barley audible “Ho`s!”, the motorman and boatman slowly advance in the breaking dawn. They will guide us, 8 hours long, down the river Pisce, – a small tributary which starts high up in the cordillera azul and snakes down to the Ucayali river –  and then  6 hours more down the immense, rushing mass of the Ucayali river to Yarinacocha, the largest Shipibo community, my temporary home,  and sector of the main city, Pucallpa. They will unload passengers coming from the communidades – the largely indigenous riverine communities – with their sacks of yucca,dried bushmeat, and medicinal plants.  Then they will load new passengers, crates of live chickens, bread, and rice, and head back out for the 16 hour passage upriver to the communities.

In some parts the river is no more than 20m across. At this time of the year, the dry season, the sand banks form where the river curves, brushing up against the bottom of the boat – a soft nudge, a gentle reminder of the dependency people in this region have on rivers as their sole method of transport. The heavy robe of mist that encompasses the forest,still emerging from the shadow of the night, lies low over the river creating an eerie feeling of other-worldliness. Speaking seems blasphemous. The mist drowns out all sound except the lapping of the water against the boat and the putter of the motor. The breaking dusk creates shadows among the immense stands of trees that we float by on both sides – walls of impassable green that seem to close in on us at times. I stare for hours at the passing forests on the river bank, broken only by the occasional cluster of thatched houses that form the river communities or the ubiquitous chacra –  swidden farms of about 1 ha, usually of yucca and banana trees. At one point, rounding a river bend we startle a group of ronsoco – an large, endangered gerbil-like animal – that scramble up the banks and disappear into the forest in an instant.

——-

Five hundred years later and the conquistadores have still not learned how to live in the Amazon. They live grouped in their large concrete jungle towns, on top of the ruins of the forest, connected to larger cities through highways, which, like cracks, generate dozens of tiny cracks of deforestation that splinter outwards, slowly eating up the forest. They have made the cities productive, in the literal sense of the word. The dead forest on which they build their cities produces immense amounts of pollution, sewage, crime, and materials to consume, continuing a never-ending need to produce, produce, produce. Instead of oxygen, a fine layer of pollution hovers permanently, creating magnificent bright red sunsets, while the vultures and the dogs shift through the piles of garbage that litter the roads.

How different these original river people must see the forest now, how incomprehensible still, this need to cut down the forest to make it “productive”.

——–

Captured for a moment on the river Pisce, in that mystical moment where the sun burns through the mist and brings to life with one wild crescendo the roar of the millions of animals, birds, and insects that inhabit the forest – my breath is taken away. The sheer beauty and power of the largest forest in the world waking up and stretching its millions of arms skywards in a colorful, ethereal dance of sound and light and motion seems to reverberate off my soul and shatter my very being. I am elated

The putter of the motor grounds me quickly in a different reality. I am not oblivious to the irony of my own situation. That this “black gold” – oil –  that is extracted from the very Amazon Basin is what propels me forward in space and time to research the very destruction it causes, while I leaf through dead trees upon which history is written and places are marked, by people not from here. I am not unaware of the irony that my school, nestled for most of the year in the snow and ice of the East Coast, rich from investments in mining, oil, gas, timber, somehow produces people whose knowledge about the tropical Amazon and ideas about how to manage it are valued more than the people that inhabit it.

______

I want to tell stories of beauty, I really do. I want to tell stories of serenity. Of community. Of harmony. Of magic. Of life. Because this is what the Amazon inspires.In abundance.  But it is not my place to tell them, they belong to the river people, the people of the Amazon, who still largely tell them and have never really stopped, rather we have never learned to listen.

The stories I find myself telling are those of despair, destruction, loss. Because here in the Amazon, that is what my culture inspires. The same blindness that was rooted in the colonizers, is an affliction that runs through my cultures veins, polluting them like the dark petroleum that leeches into these clear waters, covering everything in its silent expansion, leaving fragments of the forest in its wake.

Perhaps, just perhaps,  it is time we learn to see the forest, before there is nothing left to see at all.

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An Amazonian chapter

Pucallpa is a pretty charmless city, as far as Peruvian cities go. Unlike Cusco with its cobbled streets and Andean charm, or Iquitos with its crumbling architecture and lush green surroundings, Pucallpa seems dusty and plain. It is city in the midst of being created, with wooden houses on stilts next to shiny new shopping malls and more mud roads then cement ones. Built along the banks of the mighty Ucayali River, which connects the southern Amazon Basin to Amazon River further north, Pucallpa was created essentially as a way to easily exploit the resources of the Amazon. Its has a notorious history of being the center for all kinds of illicit trade; forced indigenous laborers for the rubber boom in the early 20th century, illegal timber thereafter, and most recently: cocaine. It is also set, if Peruvian government projections are anything to go by, to become one of the leading producers of Palm Oil.

 

Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) cultivation in relatively new in Peru. Over 80% of palm oil is still produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, however as the returns from palm oil diminish after ever cycle (around 25 years) and forest land becomes increasingly unavailable, new investments are being made especially in the Amazon Basin. It is here, like its native palm cousin, Elaeis oleifera,that the oil palm grows exceptionally well. So well in fact that the Peruvian government recently declared Palm Oil a national economic interest and vowed to increase production 10 fold from 110,000 ha to 1.4million ha. It is also here, in an environment of insecure land rights, a lengthy process of decentralization, and the implementation of a new Forestry law, that Palm oil expansion is able to continue despite facing multiple legal complaints for human and environmental rights abuses.  On the ground conflicting demands and interests confront me. The local indigenous federation has filed a legal complaint against the Palm Oil Plantation and the regional government. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has temporarily suspended the activities of the plantation in order to further investigate the accusations. Most recently, the company has put up the plantation for auction on the Indonesian market. For Peru, this legal case will set a precedent for the future of corporate compliance with national forestry laws. 

 

Throughout all this, and despite all of this, palm oil production continues. It is this contrast that interests me most and which has brought me here for the next few months to do research for my Masters thesis. Who bears the social and environmental impacts of palm oil expansion and what are they exactly? What measures are in place, if any, to offset those impacts? What historical, global, and social processes contribute to the unfolding example of environmental injustice?  In this dusty town at the convergence of the Amazon Basin and the Sierras, the convergence of high modernist dreams and alternative indigenous realities, there seems like no better place to be. 

For an idea of what is happening check out this video:
In the territory of the Shipibo people of the Peruvian Amazon, the indigenous community of Santa Clara de Uchunya are facing the devastation of their ancestral …

 

The silence of the coffee forest

“They’re all gone,” the women says when I ask her where the men are, clutching her small child to her side and putting a hang gingerly on her swollen belly, “they’re all gone to the hills”. I glance over at the young women who I have trained to administer the surveys and be my cultural interpreter. With a slight wrinkle of her nose she explains: “it’s coffee harvesting season so all the men have left to go pick coffee in the hills. They’ll be back in a couple of weeks though, so it’ll be a bit better.” I am doing the second rounds of my food security survey, trying to figure out if how and to what extent the rains and the seasons affect local food insecurity in the slums I work in.

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One of the families I surveyed. Most of her male family members left to harvest coffee.

“A bit better”. All the women say this. It will be better; the men will have money- for a short while. Enough to buy some new clothes for the kids, maybe a TV, or maybe just buy a couple more bottles of cheap liquor, depending on how the harvest has gone. Export-oriented, cash crop agricultural systems like Nicaragua leave an impact on the families of seasonal workers. Families who normally scrape by suddenly have an abundance of cash at their disposal. However lack of education, accounting skills, gender equality, and perhaps hope, mean that this money is quickly spent. This leaves little in terms of savings for when disasters, such as last winter’s drought, set in. I think about this on the short but windy bus ride from Matagalpa to Jinotega. Since leaving the Pan-American Highway at Sebaco, virtually every single farm and business is coffee: coffee producers, coffee roasters, coffee weighing shops and coffee cooperatives. I have lost count of the numbers of coffee farms we have passed that “proudly grow for Starbucks”.DSC_0847 Staring out the sides of the bus It seems unlikely that these green forests could be anything but lush and prosperous.The mountain tops rise gently out of a cloud forest, displaying sweeping views of valleys on both sides. Like giants reaching up towards heaven they seem so peaceful, so tranquil. Our bus leaves us at the turnoff to the Ecolodge just as night is falling. La Bastilla Ecolodge lies 5km from the highway down a long and dusty road. It is a coffee plantation/lodge that recognized that people would pay good money to come stay amongst the hundreds of acres of coffee groves and cloud forests and now run a successful Ecolodge operation. The owners have thankfully arranged to pick us up and the driver tells us that it’s a good thing because Saturdays are paydays on most plantations and drunks roam the path between the highway and the lodge.“And this year there are more of them then usual,” the driver tells us, navigating the 4×4 pick-up over a gushing stream, “It’s because of roya.”

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La Bastilla Ecolodge from above
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View from the deck camping balcony

Roya. The name carries with it a certain type of dread for most of the coffee farmers in Nicaragua. The most important coffee disease to ever hit the markets and plantations, coffee rust, or roya, has devastated many of Latin America’s coffee crops, decreasing production of up to 30%. For a country where coffee production accounts for 1/4 of the GDP and seasonally employs 1/3 of the population, 30% is a lot.Roya is an ugly disease, almost like cancer. It affects mainly the leaves, causing them to form red spots and slowly drop off. Farmers watch the small berries form on the plant, slowly forming from green to yellow but falling off before they ripen and turn red, littering the ground with unusable, yellow, rotting pods.

A healthy coffee plant, almost ready for the harvest.
A healthy coffee plant, almost ready for the harvest.

The exact reason for the spread is still unknown but most coffee farmers link it to a changing climate – similar to the pine beetle and other plagues, Roya needs a certain temperature to survive and reproduce, which the last few years with their record-breaking temperatures have provided. Most coffee farmers have accepted the reality and are planting new strains of coffee plants which are resistant to Roya but unfortunately pay less on the international market. On top of that, it takes a minimum of three years for a coffee plant to establish itself and set fruits. In a country where agricultural credit is hard to come by and natural disasters regularly take their toll, three years is a long time to wait. And for seasonal farm workers who depend on coffee harvesting to feed their families year round, three years is a long time to be unemployed.  “I went back this year to the same plantation I have harvested at for the last 10 years,” one of the seasonal coffee workers tells us that we chat with on the walk back to the highway the next day, “The farmer was on his hands and knees when I arrived, scavenging whatever usable beans he could from below the trees, spotted a tell-tale, rusty red. ‘Sorry man’, he said, ‘not going to be much work this year’”.

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Coffee groves

From above on the balcony I am standing on right now the forest of coffee looks like a dark green sea of glossy plastic leaves. Coffee plantations have their own magical quality and most people that have spent time in them agree that they are slightly eerie, with ghost-like, white trees every 50 meters and the echo’s of howler monkeys and birds whispering through them. With the sun setting, reflecting the last of the light off lake Apanas in the distance, the view before me is serene and calm. Despite its otherworldly tranquillity, I can’t help but think that it seems more like the calm before a storm than anything else.

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The sun sets on yet another day over La Bastilla coffee plantation in the high northern hills of Jinotega

Vivir sano, vivir bonito, vivir bien

“Just write it down, ” Don Luis the community leader says, pointing at the survey sheet, “just write down that they sweep every day, change clothes and do dishes”.

A barefoot child runs past him into the dwelling. His shirt is crusted with food and his bare feet are caked with dirt. His mother sways impatiently back and forth from one leg to the other on her thin frame, her eyes dart from the dust and unwashed dishes and clothes visible through the half-shut door to her other child playing in the gutter and finally to the three pages of surveys laid out on the teenagers knees.

“Fine, ” the teenager says, a pen perched between his slender hands “I’ll write that it’s clean”.

The Nicaraguan sun beats down on my neck. Here, high up in the mountains of the North, in the capital of one of Nicaragua’s poorest departments the nights are a blessing – cool and dry, unlike the hot, moist heat in the south of the country. The days however are hell; the midday sun burns my white neck in a matter of seconds. In the outlying slums, where we are doing annual home visits and surveys, the hard, cracked mud streets and red dust covering the streets make the heat seem even more oppressive.

The teenager, Don Luis’s grandson, fills in one of the three blank lines. Don Luis looks over his glasses at the sheet of the paper.

“Espérate, espérate! Wait, wait!” he says in exasperation, the veins in his forehead throbbing, “What did you write here? What does this say” Why didn’t you fill in all of the lines? They said I had to fill out all of the lines! I told you to write: ‘sweeps every day. Full stop. Changes clothes every day. Full stop.’”

He punctuates each full stop by tapping his excessively long fingernail on the page. He just has one long fingernail, the one on his pinkie finger, but it protrudes about and inch past his finger and is filed to a point. I asked him once, why he had it. “For self defense” he had answered, brandishing it like a knife, “you never know who will jump you in these parts”.

The teenager shoves the survey into his grandfather’s hands. “Why don’t you just do it then!” he says with a surely look. Don Luis fumbles with the pen and the papers.

“Fine, I never get any help around here anyway!” Don Luis says. For a moment it looks as though he is going to smack the kid, but his hand stops short of the boys face and grabs the pen instead.

Don Luis turns back to the woman, who at this point is smiling maliciously at the interaction, an odd look on her face. “Next question, where were we…”

He glances back down at the survey. The women jabs her finger at a point on the paper.

“Why the fuck do I …”

“Don’t touch the paper!” Don Luis pulls the survey out of the way of her jabbing fingers.

“Here”, he scans the survey for the next question with his long fingernail, the black cracks in the surface of the nail accentuated by the off-yellow colour. The fingernail fascinates and disgusts me at the same time. I look at it, maybe a bit too intensely, my fingers itching with the urge to cut it off. It has fame throughout the slums, this fingernail, exceeding Don Luis’s already shady reputation for trying to grope young girls when he has the chance. In a country that used physical appearances as nicknames and descriptors, Don Luis is known throughout the slums as ‘that old dude with the long fingernail’.

“What…bas…basic…hyg…hig…hygen….oh read this!” Don Luis says.

He thrusts the survey under his grandson’s nose, and he accepts it grudgingly.

“What-basic-hygiene-in-this-house-do-you-practice, ” he asks in monotone voice, the whole sentence jammed into one emotionless word. He looks off to the side, bored.

“Oh that shit again,” the woman says, ‘‘vivir sano, vivir bonito,’” her voice has taken on a sarcastic tone, “‘vivir cómo Daniel Ortega”. She lets out a cackle, throwing her head back into her neck. The whole street turns its head in her direction and for a minute all one can hear is the echo of her laugh bouncing of the homogenous row of grey concrete building. She is the only one that is laughing at her joke.

“It’s a hard sickness to cure, ” says Don Luis, gesturing with his lips and a scrunch of his nose at the woman, now having a wild hand-gesturing conversation with the neighbour across the street.

“Which sickness?” she asks, her eyes locking onto his.

He taps his yellow fingernail at the back of his head and rolls his eyes at me. The woman throws her hands up and grabs one of her kids roughly by the arm.

“I’m not crazy!” she yells, her body suddenly stiff and angry “I’m not crazy and I am not filling out anymore of this shit! I’m gonna go wash my kid, you just tell them everything is fine, we’re all just great!”

Thesis-Antithesis

The coffee comes, interrupting our conversation for a second. The woman serving the coffee gently sets down the fresh coffee cups, picks up the old ones and looks respectfully at the older woman seated in the rocker in front of me, patiently waiting to continue her story.

“Algo más?” She asks the old woman.

The old woman smiles a frail smile and waves away the younger woman. I watch her figure fade into the labyrinth of jungle and vines and wood and my eyes are drawn to the islets in the lake beyond her, majestic and overgrown islands of green surrounding by screeching parrots coming home for the night. Dusk has arrived in the Solentiname Islands and has found me on a sprawling veranda on the edge of one of the larger islands, listening to stories of lost lovers, of war and of dreams long past. I tuck my feet under me, rearrange the blanket around them and take a sip of coffee.

“As you know, most people here say that the revolution actually started with the Solentiname Islands. My brother was killed in the first attack on San Carlos in 1977 and our house destroyed when the National Guard burned down the islands as retribution. It was hard for the community, we are a community of pacifists and artists really, but we were proud for all those men that faced down death in that inevitable defeat. We all have to die eventually anyway, may as well be for something good.”

She folds her hands together and looks down at them. Her hands are wrinkled, like those of my grandmother. I know if I touched them they would be soft and warm. I wonder how many people she has helped with those hands, how many babies she has held, how many lovers faces she has caressed, how many lives she has shaped. A melancholic smile comes over her face and she continues.

“After that, the revolutionaries and internationalistas started coming. From Mexico, Costa Rica, Cuba as well as Spain and Germany they would come, eager to help us fight, unified in their dreams of justice and equality. And we Nicaraguans, we were ready. After almost half a century of brutal dictatorship we were more than ready, it was like a new beginning. Every day we would host people here, they would come to talk to Ernesto Cardenal, come to talk about politics, every other day we would have a party to say goodbye to the old volunteers and welcome the new. We didn’t have much, but somehow people always found enough. I was around your age, in my mid twenties, and responsible for hosting all these people, right here”. She gestured with her hand at roughly to where the women had disappeared.

“We were all so inspired, drunk off the revolution. Knowing that you were so close to death gave people life, inspired us to write poetry, compose songs, make love, and make memories. Truly, those were the best years of my life.”

She smiles that same sad smile and a memory flickers in my own mind.

—-

“Nicaragua, Nicaraguita,
la flor de mi querer…
Abonada con la bendita, Nicaraguita,
Sangre de Diriangen.
Ay Nicaragua sos mas dulcita
Que la mielita de Tamagas…”

My 9th grade Spanish class sang the song on a horribly off-tune note, not aware of what we were singing, just happy to have a language teacher that didn’t make us conjugate verbs the entire class. Frau Rink (for at this time I was in Germany), our Spanish teacher, sat looking at us with that same sad smile, a slightly glazed look in her eye. I would remember later looking at a picture of her, one pulled out of a dusty pile of memories from a box in a slum somewhere in Managua. It was taken somewhere near the Honduran border, close to where I now live, and in the picture she is holding a rifle in her hand, her hair wild, her face dirty, a man’s arm around her waist. In the picture she is laughing with a look of such happiness, of such ease despite the circumstances that it took my breath away when I first saw it. Frau Rink had been one of those internationalistas, one of the first groups of Germans to fly over during the height of the revolution to fight with the Sandinistas.

“As you know,” she said, “every 5 years there is an exchange between our partner school in Leon, Nicaragua and our school here in Heidelberg, Germany. This year I will be going so if you have any toys, books or clothes you would like to donate, please bring them next week.”

The bell rang and the class filed out. I stayed, rehearsing the lines I had been practicing in my head since she first informed us of her trip last week and caught her arm as she left the classroom.

“Frau Rink,” I asked in my heavily accented German, “ if I fundraise enough to pay for my flight, can I come to Nicaragua with you?”

She laughed good-heartedly and then perhaps saw how serious I was. Her smile changed to a look I hadn’t seen on her before.

“Let me ask,” she said over her shoulder.

That is how, 5 weeks later, in October of 2004, I landed for the first time in my life in Central America; in a country that up until a month before I had no idea existed. Since Frau Rink had started talking about it at the beginning of our school year it had fascinated me, or maybe it was her that fascinated me. How could a county evoke so much passion in a person? How could a cause make a young prospective female student drop her studies, fly halfway across the world and literally take up arms against a government that she didn’t know? What did this country have, that 25 years later could still bring tears to my teacher’s eyes?
Frau Rink’s smile when she mentioned Nicaragua was one of such melancholy, such joy, such sadness, such mystery that I felt impelled to know for myself what it contained. So I stepped into a web of entanglement with this country that would see me return, almost 10 years to the exact date I had first arrived in Nicaragua.

—-

The old woman has fallen silent, staring off into the darkness that has slowly begun to engulf us. The sounds of the night are calming. Here and there a rustle of snakes or monkeys in the trees, every so often a fish jumping from the lake to catch one of the slower mosquitos, probably heavy and drunk off the fresh blood it has extracted from every piece of uncovered skin of my body.

“And then?” I urge her on, “What happened then?

I want to hear that people internalized this spirit of revolution; I want to hear that they shook off the dictator and climber to higher levels. Deep down I know the how the story goes, the same story that is written on the face of most of Latin America – after the revolution comes the reality of running a country; rationing, reforms, retribution. The government becomes stricter, itself replicating power in the only way it has ever been taught that power can be manifested. The brief years of alternative thought, Marxism, cooperativism and liberalist theology not enough to chip away at the ingrained paradigm of totalitarianism and populism that is entrenched in peoples minds here. The same people that helped bring the government to power become disillusioned with the process, themselves retreating into their communal and familial safety nets, distancing themselves from the very thing that they sought to achieve: political liberation. The candle dies down to a flicker and then splutters and dies. And then the story continues. Thesis-Antithesis –Synthesis.

“And then? Then the civil war happened. War isn’t the same if you are not fighting for something you believe is just. Then the Americans came, the contras came, the country was split apart, whole families were split apart. We were still fighting, yes, but we were fighting to survive, we weren’t fighting for a cause anymore. Plus we were tired of fighting. Life here wasn’t the same during the 80’s. The internationalistas left, people stopped playing the guitars and reciting poetry. It became about preservation, not transformation.” Here she pauses, a bitter look on her face.

“And now? Well, we have what we want, I suppose. The FSLN is in power, aren’t they? We won the war, eventually, even though it dragged us though hell and back. I don’t really know to be honest, I’m just glad to have peace of sorts. I stick to my paintings now, I was never into the political side of it anyway.”

Her eyelids are drooping. The younger woman returns to collect our coffee cups, cold dregs in the bottoms of the cups a reminder that I have been here too long. As I leave, I look at the old woman’s paintings on the wall. Most of them are done in the traditional primitivist style of the islands – intricate, miniscule, and mysterious. One painting stands out, so different from all the rest: a man and a woman dancing on the porch, surrounded by islands of greenery and parrots overhead. His army boots are unlaced, a traditional beret of the Sandinistas on his head. The woman is being twirled around; her head hanging back, her mouth open in laughter.
I look back at the old woman; she looks so serene in her rocking chair, her clasped hands in front of her, wrinkled and soft and old. As I walk back through the lush jungle, guided only by the moonlight and faint glows of the candles and kerosene lamps in peoples homes that dot the path I hear the unmistakable ending to a song, a song that people so often sing here at the end of the night when the candles are almost burnt out and all the other songs worth playing have already been sung. It is a song that carries with it that same sense of melancholy, of hope and of sadness that I see reflected on the faces of those who lived through the revolution, civil war and reformation of this country that I too have inevitably come to love:

“… pero ahora que ya sos libre, Nicaraguita,
Yo te quiero mucho mas.
Pero ahora que ya sos libre, Nicaraguita,
Yo te quiero mucho mas.”

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Sunset paths on the Solentiname Islands

The women puts the final brush stroke on her painting, takes off her glasses and peers at us: two white girls, sunburned from a long day of exploring the Island of San Fernando, standing at the edge of her porch, looking sheepish.

“I take it you don’t want to rent the canoe anymore?” she asks, looking at the sun sinking slowly towards the edge of the water. An all-knowing smile plays over her lips as if she knows, already, what happened, had been watching all along.

“You see the thing is, we kind of got lost,” I say.

That was only partially true. Initially Annelore and I had wanted to rent a canoe from her for half the day and paddle around the island a bit. To be honest, there was not much else one could do, stranded on one of one of the 36 Islets that make up the Solentiname archipelago. The archipelago is only accessible via a a 2 hour boat ride from the town of San Carlos, itself located 7 hours by bus from Managua, on the isolated south-east corner of Lake Nicaragua. Unless you want to dish out the 10$ for the daily speedboat, you have to take the collective boat that leaves San Carlos Tuesday and Friday and returns later on the same day. Being so far out here, these Islands don’t see a whole lot of tourism. A women on the boat told us that now in the low season, we might be the only tourists to come this month, and invited us to stay in her house, where she had built a few rooms for accommodating tourists. No cars, no shops, no restaurants, no lights,no nothing – the Solentiname Islands feel like a different world. The three main activities here seem to be fishing, making art, and staring at the beautiful surroundings of jungle and water and birds and plants. It’s solitude and tranquility gives the islands and almost eerie quality; it seems as though people here are part of a conspiracy, as though at night when the islands are bathed by the moonlight and fall into a profound silence that the archipelago transforms into some magical, otherworldly, primitive place full of spirits and legends and gods long-forgotten. It was in part this isolation that inspired the famous Nicaraguan liberation priest Ernesto Cardenal to create a sort of communal artistic utopia on these Islands in the 70s. To this day, most families are still engaged either in woodcarving or painting and have a distinct artistic style –primitivism –  intricate, tiny details of plants and animals peering out of a wild and magical natural background that holds both the tranquility and mysticism of these islands.

So earlier that morning, after telling the lady we would be back at 1pm to rent her canoe, we had set out to the mirador- the viewpoint at the highest point of San Fernando to engage in some epic staring at beautiful surroundings. Once there, absolutely covered in sweat because of the overwhelming humidity, we noticed, scratched into the side of a stone, an arrow pointing us away from where we had come with a single word: sendero – path.

Immediately our curiosity got the better of us. A path? On this Island that has one single paved path as its main street? Our guidebook showed us that there was but one village on this Island. Where did this path go? Why was it there? Where would it lead? Who made that sign? An hour and a half later we were still walking, not having seen a person or sign of civilization since the viewpoint, but following very distinctly a path that cut through swaths of meadow, low lying jungle, and secondary forests.

“Should we turn back?” I questioned Annelore for about the 100th time, “or continue on? Maybe it will loop around?”

“We are on an island,” she answered also for about the 101st time, “ the path has to stop sometime.”

Finally we saw a sign, “ Kanoes,” with an arrow that pointed us towards the outlines of a house. Sounds of children splashing in the lake reached our ears and we arrived on the doorstep of a house, painted a dizzying array of colours, with pictures and paintings and photographs decorating its walls and the words: “Welcome! Hostal-puesta del sol,” written in large letters on a block nailed to a nearby tree.

“Buenas,” Annelore ventured, as we slowly circled the house.

“Hola!” came the cheerful reply, a short, chubby man of about 40 bouncing up out of the hammock to vigorously shake our hands, “Hola! Welcome! Welcome! Do come have a seat!”

He led us to his open-air, kitchen/living room, gesturing us to sit down on the jumble of broken chairs and hammocks just as the pressure broke and the sky opened up, letting loose a torrent of monsoon rain, effectively stranding us in this surreal oasis in the middle of the jungle.

“So, how are you? Where are you from?” He seemed genuinely unsurprised that on an island that receives an average of 3-4 visitors a month, two white girls had suddenly appeared out of nowhere on his porch, following a rough path with no directions other than a single, hand-painted sign carved into a rock, in a village that wasn’t even mentioned in the guidebooks or shown on the maps.

I pointed this out to him.

“Well yes,” he said matter-of-factually, “that is because the tourist agency that runs the island doesn’t want you to know that we exist.”

He then went on to explain how the tourism agency that operates on these islands has a monopoly over information, only benefiting certain families and leaving everyone else out. He is the founder of the rural tourism association of the Solentiname Islands and doesn’t hesitate to share with us his views about everything, weaving together local politics, the history of the Islands, the holocaust, native American struggles in the United States, Fukushima, spirituality, poetry, beauty into one fluid, all-encompassing monologue. An hour later the rain lessened up, the sun came out again, and he clapped his hands, waking me out of my trance-like state.

“Shall we go for a walk then?” With his son leading, he took us up a different route over the island, talking almost the entire time and pointing out various points of interest. We stopped by the giant Guanecaste tree, beckoning us with it’s giant roots to sit, be still, and enjoy the view – “here is the only place you can get cellphone signal in the whole of the Islands,” he proudly pointed out. Down into yet another village –  “They turned the bakery into a greenhouse!” he said, pointing at a concrete building with glass windows, seemingly being overrun by the jungle. I was sorely tempted to ask if they purposely grow anything inside of there but before I could we were off again, suddenly passing a strong and straight and sturdy looking fence (a serious rarity in Nicaragua). Unsurprisingly it belonged to a German that arrived a month earlier; surprisingly there is a German that lives by himself in possibly the remotest place in Nicaragua. Unsurprisingly when our new friend insisted on introducing us, he was unbelievably rude, even for a German.

By the time we reached the fork in the road that would lead us back to the main village and him back to the path he had carved out of the land, seemingly with his willpower alone, I felt I knew everything about this man. Despite living such a humble and isolated life, there was a magical quality about him, a certain worldliness and optimism and certitude about life that seemed to transcend his simple being.

We shook hands, parted ways, and turned to go back to the main village. “That just happened, right?” Annelore asked, voicing my own question as we watched them disappear among the tall grass. “I think so,” I said, and we turned towards the swath of jungle in front of us. The parrots were screeching from the treetops all around us and in the distance we heard the howler monkeys scream from their one lonely island. It was golden hour. For a split second I had the surreal feeling that we were becoming part of a drawing; that we belonged there, eternally part of some primitivist painting. I swear I could almost feel the old ladies brush as she painted us, stroke by stoke, an all-knowing smile on her face as she squinted at her canvas : two white girls, tinged red by the Nicaraguan sun, standing overlooking the ethereal beauty of islets and jungle shimmering an otherworldly green, illuminated against the eternal sunset of the Solentamine Islands.

Arte Primitivista
Petroglyphs carved into rocks enhance the feeling that you are always being watched
Petroglyphs carved into rocks enhance the feeling that you are always being watched
DSC_0225
The main street on San Fernando
Moonlight boat rides make the islands seem even more mystical
Moonlight boat rides make the islands seem even more mystical
Owner of Hostal Puesta del Sol, son and Annelore
Young Painter on the Solentiname Islands
Panorama from the view point above San Fernando
Original church of Ernesto Cardenal, decorated in primitivism style

View from the Guanacaste Tree

How to kill a chicken Part 2: kill it

 

It all happened so fast.

In my mind I had it planned out precisely: I would choose the chicken, pay homage to the gods and ask to take it’s life,maybe make an offering, build a fire and dance around it, celebrating the circle of life and all that good stuff.Farmers here aren’t sentimental, well, not in the same ways I am, so basically what ended up happening is that the father grabbed a chicken by its feet, hung it upside down, and put it in a sort of chicken-coma.

“This one?” he told me/asked me.

I nodded, stealing myself for the upcoming slaughter. I was nervous, a bit, what would it be like to slit a chickens throat, see the life drip out of it? Death in my mind was sacred, magical somehow. Not so for the farmer.

Before I realized it he was stomping outside, stringing the chicken to a tree and grabbing his machete- I was torn, do I stay to kill it? Get my camera? Say a prayer? Give an offering? WHAT DO I DO?

I ended up stumbling inside for my camera, muttering under my breath,  accompanied by the delighted shrieks of the two girls who were very unused to a random white girl running around like a chicken with her head cut off (pun fully intended).

I dashed outside in time to see the farmer unceremoniously grab the chickens neck, slit it, and stomp back inside.

Killing the chicken
Killing the chicken

And then- oh god- has anyone SEEN a chicken die before? It is scary as hell! Like it has all this blood dripping down and half of it’s head hanging there and then the veins start oozing through the neck and it stops moving. AND THEN IT STARTS AGAIN. And this, not even kidding you, goes on for like 10 minutes. Stop start,stop,start,stop,start. After 5 minutes I thought it was dead and went to untie it from the tree only to have it start flapping it’s wings again. I did NOT make that mistake again even though the girls, who by this time looked like they were having the time of their lives laughing at my reaction, surely would have enjoyed it if I did.

Me and my chicken. Dead (the chicken, not me)
Me and my chicken. Dead (the chicken, not me)

The father’s part finished, he goes to retire in his hammock with his machete. His wife takes over, graciously letting me try my hand at plucking the feathers off the bird and scrubbing it and shoving my hands into it’s still-warm intestines.

1. The first step is to pour boiling water over it to make it easier to remove the feathers.

 

The smell that comes off the chicken when you pour the boiling water over it is a bit like that "wet dog" smell...
The smell that comes off the chicken when you pour the boiling water over it is a bit like that “wet dog” smell…

2. Then the actual plucking starts. Oddly satisfying, like popping zits, just different.

Plucking the chicken
Plucking the chicken

 

Ughhh...this shot is a bit more gruesome...
Ughhh…this shot is a bit more gruesome…

3. After it is plucked, you hold it briefly above the flames to sear off any fluff or forgotten feathers

Burning off the last of the feathers
Burning off the last of the feathers

4. Then you wash it with soap and water….

Washing the chicken. The skin is really rubbery, it kinda feels like washing a rubber ducky..
Washing the chicken. The skin is really rubbery, it kinda feels like washing a rubber ducky.

5…..and start cutting it up!

Separating the wings and thighs.
Separating the wings and thighs.
Macabre shot of a legless,wingless chicken for my vegetarian friends to give them nightmares.
Macabre shot of a legless,wingless chicken for my vegetarian friends to give them nightmares.
That ball in her left hand is the egg that this chicken was about to lay. Saved her a bit of time there, didn't we!
That ball in her left hand is the egg that this chicken was about to lay. Saved her a bit of time there, didn’t we!
YUM!
YUM!

My chicken was apparently about to lay an egg so along with a chicken, I also had THE freshest egg.Ever. Literally straight from the chicken. What was fascinating for me was seeing the egg-cluster with all the little undeveloped eggs. Here, the undeveloped eggs are called tomatillos “little tomatoes” and thrown into soups or fried and eaten as is.

There are some things that are very important, I was told, when butchering a chicken. One is to NOT CUT THE COLON. For very obvious reasons, it makes everything else taste like shit (pun also very much intended). There is also this little (bile?) duct near the (kidney?) liver that gives off this bitter liquid if it is cut, essentially turning anything it touches bitter.

These are the "tomatillos"- the undeveloped eggs in various stages of development
Do my ovaries look like this??
The end product! All nicely sorted into feet,legs,wing,breast, back, innards and the egg found inside the chicken.
The end product! All nicely sorted into feet,legs,wing,breast, back, innards and the egg found inside the chicken.

And that was that! She washed all the different parts of my chicken and put them in a bucket for me to carry home of the back of my motorcycle. As though to complement my learning for the day, when I went to go give them money for the chicken, they gently pushed away my hand.

” Un regalo, niña, “(A gift, my child).  The mother said gently but firmly. I felt humbled, surrounded by what some many people might consider poverty only to realize that, in fact, they don’t actually need anything that money can buy; the worth of the $100C bill is nothing more than the worth of the strip of coloured paper. They have so little but yet are so willing to give what little they have to a complete stranger, just because I asked and they could. They could have been expecting something in return, and indeed when I retur the bucket to Enrique I fill it with beans and rice and seeds and soap and playing cards from Canada, but I really don’t think they were. It is a refreshing way to think about economic exchange based on peoples capacity and desire, rather than on abstract values.

And then, just like that, it was over.

How to Kill a chicken Part 1: Find a chicken

 A while ago my friend had offered to take me to the countryside to get a “gallina india”, one of those chickens that ranges about in the countryside, scratching for food and coming home sometimes to lay eggs. It is about as free-range and organic as you can get and I was determined to kill and prepare it myself, after all I firmly believe that everyone should know where and how their food is made.

So last sunday morning I rang my friend. “Hey Enrique,” I said, “about that chicken….”

“The road out to Ikalupe is red and dusty, covered on both sides with thin shrubbery that is waiting for the rain to start so that it can unfold the greenness it holds inside of it, transforming the barren landscape in front of us to a horizon of lush vegetation. Farmers sway lazily in their hammocks, boots unlaced, their machetes propped up against the post beside them. They too are waiting for the rain and have been since the beginning of May. Without rain there is little to do but to sit and wait, staring pensively into the distance.  They remind me of a bear in hibernation- except that their bodies are lean and they are hibernating from the oppressive heat rather than the cold. As we drive by, kicking up dust and stones, I wonder if they even see us with those blank eyes?

We are not actually going to Ikalupe. Enrique can’t quite tell me where it is exactly that we are going, the place doesn’t have a name per say. It’s just a group of houses, somewhere on the road between Ikalupe and Cairo. My friend laughs when he tells me the name “No pyramids here,” he jokes. For all the heat and dust and lack of rain we may as well be in the desert, I think.

We stop at his Aunts house. She clearly dotes on her nephew, living out here so far from anybody I wonder how often she interacts with other people. We stop for no other reason than to say hi and so that my friend can ask if she needs anything and leave only after he promises we will return one day and stay for lunch. He is the link in many ways, the reason she doesn’t go hungry if the crops fail or the rains don’t come. He brings rice and beans and soap, she give him the abundance of what she harvests from her land – once the rains come. He doesn’t expect anything in return, he doesn’t have to; there is no question that when she can, she will give back. There is much to this family-ties-informing-gifting-network thing l that I have yet to understand, even though I too participate in it now, but I do understand enough to know it works, really well, and it works to provide people not only with necessities, but also to strengthen ties, family bonds, relationships. And it works especially well among Nicaraguans- some of the most generous people I have ever met.

I can tell we are in my friends territory now. Almost everybody that passes us on the road yells out a greeting and we stop often to inquire about somebodies health, somebodies death, and to comment on the lack of rain. My friend grew up here for most of his life, some 20km away from Somoto. Although it is such a short distance, the state of the roads means it takes us over an hour to actually get to our destination and as always, the campo– the countryside, is a world of difference from the city of Somoto. Time here slows down, retraces its steps a little bit, goes forward in lazy loops. People become friendlier and men don’t leer or catcall. It is not without it’s fair share of difficulties- both social and economic- but for the most part I always savour these excursions to the countryside, savour the stillness, the tranquility, the beauty.

We finally veer off the main dirt road, riding up a dried-up creek bed a few hundred meters until we reach his grandmother’s house. Here the road stops for motorized vehicles so we park the motorcycle and after a few greetings,start our hike towards his uncle’s house. There is a well-worn path that follows the creek bed. It is quiet here and hot, surrounded by dry vegetation. My friend, already not inclined to talk much, falls into a silence and so we walk the 15 minutes with only the crackling of twigs and the crickets to interrupt our thoughts.

Finally we arrive, a small house perched on the edge of the farmers fields. Two young girls peer at me shyly as we walk through the kitchen to the open veranda that functions as a sort of living room. Chickens wander through the veranda, scratching at the soil surrounding it. The father, relaxing in a hammock with his boots unlaced looks at me with an amused smile

“So, you’re the gringa that has come to kill the chicken?” I can tell this has been a topic of amusement since my friend informed them of my intentions a few weeks ago.

I nod and the family whole family laughs good-heartedly.

“Well,” the father says rising from his hammock and grabbing his machete in one swift movement, “we had better get started then,this could take a while”.

…..continued in Part 2.

 

Me with my chicken.
Me with my chicken.

 

Comfort Food

Food is a touchy subject anywhere, far from being merely a source of energy and nutrients, it is intricately linked to identity, emotions, feelings of well-being. Every country has its staple food; in India it is rice and dahl, in Germany it is bread and cheese, and here it is Gallo Pinto: essentially rice and beans made separately and then friend again together, often with onion and bell pepper. Nicaraguans are very proud of their Gallo Pinto, claiming it to be much superior to the rice and beans from Honduras and the beans and rice from Costa Rica. Just how important it really is became apparent on a recent trip I took with my friends….

“Uhhhh shit….Sarah?”

“What?”

“The gas just went out.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Nope, the gas tank is empty, the oven has been off for a while and now the elements aren’t working.”

“Oh F!@#.”

This was quite possible one of the worst things that could happen at this very moment. I was standing in my kitchen, which I had turned into a disaster zone. Flour was everywhere, half cooked empanada fillings on the stove, rolled out lines of pastery on the counter. Two days ago, when we were planning our friends birthday, Annelore and I had offered to make breakfast. The idea was to go to our friends coffee farm about 90 minutes away, party all night and then hike to a waterfall the next morning. For months Annelore and I had been dreaming about having a real European breakfast buffet: homemade yogurt and granola, fresh fruit, sourdough bread, cold cuts, jam, coffee and because we figured we should throw in something slightly more catered to our Nicaraguan friends tastes we decided to make empanadas- a south American type of meat-filled pastry. To make sure they were fresh we decided to make them day of. Retrospectively in a country in which nothing really every works completely on time, it was a bad idea. However we were saved, this time, by sporadic phone-calls, lots of shouting, my host-sisters boyfriend and the fact that we didn’t depart on time anyway.

getting packed up to head to the farm...
getting packed up to head to the farm…
My sleeping pad for the night
My sleeping pad for the night

So fast-forward to the next morning. I roll out of my hammock after a very cold night on my friend’s absolutely gorgeous coffee farm. The father, that lives in an adjacent building has been up since 5am and has made a huge cauldron of coffee, which sits beside the huge pan of Gallo Pinto – the two things that form the base of breakfast in Nicaragua. I fill up our thermoses for coffee and when I return, Annelore has laid out the table with this huge spread and everyone seems to be happily eating away. However sometime throughout breakfast I become aware of some subtle nudges and looks and one by one, all of my Nicaraguan friends slip out.

“Juan, where is everybody going?” I stop my friend as he is about to go down the stairs

“Oh just..nowehere.” He gives me a vague answer and tries to change the subject.

I have a vague inkling and grab one of the coffee thermoses. “I am going to go fill this up,” I say, heading towards the fathers kitchen.

“Oh but don’t…you see it’s just….” I enter into the kitchen to a row of faces, staring back at me over a heaping plate of Gallo Pinto.

I am annoyed for about a grand total of 3 seconds, which slowly changes to amusement. Of course, in a country where people sometimes eat Gallo Pinto up to three times a day, one needs to eat Gallo Pinto, or else one will have not technically eaten. This is more than true after waking up hungry and hung-over. So really at this point there is only one thing you can do.

“How is it?” I ask, taking a spoonful of it into my mouth.

And you know what? As long as I am not eating it 3 meals a day, every day, it’s actually pretty good.

Our empanadas!!
Our empanadas!!
We also made a chocolate sourdough cake. A-mazing! Check out the recipe here
We also made a chocolate sourdough cake. A-mazing! Check out the recipe here

 

The birthday boy with his cake (birthday candles are hard to come by)
The birthday boy with his cake (birthday candles are hard to come by)

 

Entrance to my friend's farm. We slept in the building on the left, the kitchen is the building on the right
Entrance to my friend’s farm. We slept in the building on the left, the kitchen is the building on the right
Finally made it to the waterfall!
Finally made it to the waterfall!
Relaxing after a long day of hung-over hiking in the heat
Relaxing after a long day of hung-over hiking in the heat

Sopa de Res

I came through the door yesterday, saw my domestica, Carmen,  cooking beans on the fogata outside and immediately know that today had to be the day. I had had cow bones in the fridge for a while now and was itching to use them but with the high price of gas for cooking, I knew I had to make the broth over the fogata, the wood fueled outdoor oven that belongs solidly in every Nicaraguan house. With only a short time to spare, I cut up the onions and garlic and ginger and threw it all with the frozen beef bones on the fire. Carmen came out just as I had finished charring them over the flames and was putting them in the big pot with water.

“What are you doing now?” She asked. By now she was used to my “experiments”: my fermenting jars of kimchi on the windowsill, my bi-weekly pots of bubbling milk for making yogurt, my jar of sourdough starter that occasionally became too excited and overflowed onto the surrounding counter, and my flax-seed milk that floats like some brown sludgy deluge in unnamed jars in the fridge.

“Phó,” I say, “it is a type of soup from Vietnam”. She doesn’t know where Vietnam is and I wonder if she knows it is a country or if she thinks it is my country.

“Oh, Sopa de res,” she says, spotting the beef bones in the pot “but it doesn’t have anything in it,” she says.

“It isn’t sopa de res, “ I say, “it is more of a consomme, a broth to make soup with”.

She nods but I can see she doesn’t really understand the concept. People don’t make stocks here for use later on. They make sopa de res, once a week, usually on Sundays where they thrown a ton of beef, bones and all with malanga and potato and yucca and plantains and boil the hell out of it for three hours (it is delicious, by the way, worthy of its own post one day).

Sopa de res Nicaraguan style- big chunks of meet with carrots,potato, corn,malanga, yucca and cilantro
Sopa de res Nicaraguan style- big chunks of meet with carrots,potato, corn,malanga, yucca and cilantro. Image from here

My host sister comes home and sees me fanning the fire outside. “What are you up to now?” she asks curiously.

“She is making Sopa de res,” Carmen answers, “but without meat or anything else”

“Why wouldn’t you add meat or at least some vegetables?” My host sister asks.

“It isn’t sopa de res,” I answer with a sigh “it is more of a consomme, like a stock for making soup later. It isn’t sopa de res, it is a soup from…it is a different kind of soup. From Asia”

My host brother’s wife comes in.

“Oh there you all are, what are you doing?” she asks, coming to join us all standing around the fire and staring into the pot.

“She is making sopa de res,” says Carmen.

“But why is there so little meat?” Cristina asks,

“It is a different kind of sopa de res,” answers Mari.

“It is sopa de res but without the vegetables, or meat,” says Carmen.

I give in.

“It is sopa de res from Asia”. They seem contented by this answer and by the end of the night the whole extended family knows I am making Asian sopa de res without vegetables and meat and half of them have come to stare into the murky brown depths of the cauldron.

When I actually make the Phó they all seem impressed. It is to the benefit of my family that they have never tried real phó because my version kind of sucks, lacking some essentials like fish sauce, black bean sauce and of course siracha and using pasta instead of rice noodles and adding some vegetables like broccoli and carrots. Lucky for me I have been growing Thai basil and Thai peppers in my garden and have a lime tree for the garnishes which, as always, seem to be the hardest things to find.

My Asian Sopa de Res
My Asian Sopa de Res

“This soup you could sell here” my host mum Aura says, slurping up the last of her phó. That is her biggest compliment, her stamp of approval for my various projects (unsurprisingly my Kimchi,Sauerkraut, and flax seed milk have all failed by those standards).  Little do they know what is coming at them: I have decided to make Tonkatsu Ramen, quite possibly the richest and most amazing Asian soup you will every try. It is made from chicken bones and pig trotters, simmered for hours to reach a perfect consistency of fat and gelatine and flavour.  My friend killed a pig yesterday so he has the feet I need to make the creamy, rich, gelatenous base. To make it more fun I have decided I am going to choose,kill,butcher and prepare the chicken myself that I will use in the stock and document it because, why not?

So, unless you are a vegetarian or easily grossed out (in which case maybe skip the next few posts), stay tuned for the start of my serious culinary experiments into the heart of northern Nicaragua.