I am cycling to raise money for the fantastic UK based chaity Macmillan Cancer Support. Big thanks to everyone who has sponsored me so far! Justgiving is a quick, easy and secure way to donate online. See my other fundraising page, specific to the Macmillan organized part of the trip

Monday, 22 March 2010

Spanish and sustainability...lessons in El Lagartillo

From Estelí headed on to El Lagartillo, to the Spanish school Hijos del Maìz ( that Yukon Dave recommended. Am really grateful to have had that tip, because it has been a fascinating insight into rural Nicaraguan life, and my Spanish must have benifited hugely... though right at the minute feel even more tongue-tied than before as the new stuff hasn´t quite got filed into my head-space yet, and having a few new tenses introduced has made me more aware of just how pigeon tongued I am!

My camera had broken before getting there, so here are some drawings from the week... feels good to take the time to really look at things as you draw, and because of the time investment, to make a specific choice of the things to remember in imagery, feels slower and more deliberate than the kind of holiday-snap-photography that I indulge in! Also I just love the calm that comes from drawing, one of the things I said I was most looking forward to having the time for before the trip, and by now I am definitely getting back the feel of the pencil after my hands having rustified over the last few years...

Also contemplating this week how it´s funny that in a place that is so peaceful and calm and slow paced you can still be very busy with lots of mini projects, apart from the drawing and Spanish lessons filled my time collecting seeds to make jewellry, there´s an interesting seed pod called guanacaste that Oscar told me local women use to make jewellry, and it has very beautiful black and brown seeds. Have also been sewing a lot - started by cutting the arms off a high necked t-shirt and separately sewing a panel for another top - both efforts to protect my badly burnt chest - then ended up taking the scraps from the hanky-for-the-panel to make patterns on the top... a scene of plants and birds in the style of my good friend Fish (hope you don´t mind the plagarism Fishy, think of it more as an ode?!) ...a project that lasted all week.. the last hanky scraps went into making an Eskimo lollipop stick fan for Fran, my host-house-mum, whose high blood pressure meant she really feels the heat, and in the last week it´s been in the 40´s, apparently the hottest Lagartillo has seen it for many a year.

With the extreme heat the community was experiencing a serious shortage of water when Jesse, Catherine & I arrived off the bus on the Monday (Peggy´s first bus ride, after Luiz the school co-ordinator warned me against cycling it, was glad of the tip, it looked as bad as the multi-puncture Tisey road and was much longer at 35km). The community relies on two water systems, one that collects rain water and run-off from the surrounding hills and is then piped to taps which are dotted throughout the streets. The families take it in turns to use this to fill their drums and buckets every second morning, some being passed through ceramic filters for drinking water. This source had run out the day we arrived. The second source, used for watering plants and when the taps run out, is the subterranean water which is pumped up, like a well. There are four pumps to be shared between the 25 families of the community, but when we arrived only two were working, as one had a leaking pipe and the other a missing part (the missing part was replaced during the week and the leak was still being looked for when I left). Aware of the water shortage, we didn´t want to waste any in washing, so it was a great relief to head down to the cascada on the second afternoon and spend hours in the sun-heated natural pool, even though after the long walk back up to the village we were probably as sweaty and dusty as before, we´d been mentally cooled. Luckily a couple of days later there was a huge thunderstorm, which chased me, the kids I´d been giving a lift to on Peggy &Marcelito the house parrot, in off the street... the air cooled dramatically for the night, and the rest of the week, though very sparing with water, were able to wash a bit more regularly. Went back to the cascada the day after the storm, but had to satisfty myself with drawing it, as the storm had stirred up so much mud it was too cloudy to swim.

The community is almost completely self-sufficient, producing its own maiz, grain, beans, vegetables and coffee, although the tomatoe and onion crops were suffering in the severe heat. There are many hens and ducks running about for a regular supply of eggs, and the cockerels provide a daily wake up call starting anytime from about 3am. There are cattle used for dairy farming, and the males, once castrated (bueyes) are used to work machinery. The milk is used to make cuajada, the ubiquitous salty cheese that I´ve been carrying in my panniers as it is resistant to heat. There are no fridges in Lagartillo, which has only had electricity introduced in the last 6 months, with the installation of TechnoSol solar panels in every home. There had been a few homes with the panels before, but the rest of the community had relied on oil lamps to light the evenings, until one of the Spanish students initiated the solar panel project. Now some houses have television, apparently depending on the quality of the set, whether it is black or white, or if there is a DVD player, you can get about 4 hours viewing a day. My Spanish teacher, Norma, said she prefered not to have a TV, and I totally agree with her, it´s one of the things I like not to have in my home, cause otherwise I get distracted into couch-potatoeness.

Food tends to be made fresh every day, so I was able to watch Daisy, Jesse´s hostmum, making the cuajada from cows milk. The amout she had in her bowl she told me came from 5 cows, a volume that in winter you would get from a single cow, another effect of the drought - lack of water leading to dry pasture for the cattle, hence a shortage of milk. The milk is separated by adding a mysterious tablet, and the soft cheese kneeded out into a ball, with the liquid cast off going to feed the animals. There is always a hugry cat or dog around, as well as the sheep, goats, pigs and the horses that are the main mode of transport alongside mountain bikes in a community which has one vehicle to share between all. I had a particular little black cat for a friend to share my meals with, and occasionally a dog or two. There is very little meat eaten in the community, although we did have beef on the Saturday that I was there, after the butcher had been round all the houses, Norma explained to me that occasionally one bull would be slaughtered and the meat sold between the community, but that the more common meat for her mother, my hostmum Fran, to use was the occasional chicken, or fish.

Every day our kitchen came alive around 5am, when Erica, a daughter-in-law, and Maria Terèsa, a friend, would start grinding maiz and making tortillas, a couple of days they made enchilladas, I attempted to get involved by patting these out one day, but think I was more of an amusement than a help! The kitchen seemed to be a snack stop for the secondary and primary school kids, whose buildings were opposite, as they´d come in each day at around 9am to buy the snack of the day and a refresco (natural juice).

A group of us students and our teachers hiked the hour or so up to the sugar cane mill, or molinera, to see how Oscar and his colleagues produce hooney that is sold in the community and used to make ´dulces`or sweets... a group of kids was sat watching the process alongside us, and one girl offered us the dulce, it was delicious, a lot like treacle. The molinera itself is a wooden construction with three cogs, driven by a pair of bueyes strapped by their horns to a wooden arm. A man stands either side, each feeding sugar cane through the cogs to be crushed, twisting the bundle to pass through the second time before it is discarded - once dried it is used to feed livestock. As it is crushed the juice from the cane pours into a vat below, it is then ladelled out into vats off to the side where it is heated over wood fires to produce honey of different thicknessed depending on the length of the process. When we asked about how they stopped ants getting into the sugary machine Mariserlla explained that they clean it every day - that looked to be a mammoth job. One thing that felt uncomfortable was watching the bueyes being driven round to power the machine. These are bulls that have been castrated to make them less aggressive and more suitable for work, but one of the pair we were watching clearly didn´t want to work this day, and no wonder considering that the repeated action of walking round and round in a circle in the heat all day can make inexperienced bueyes like this one vomit and stagger like drunks...

Lagartillo is socially a fascinating community, with a tragic history. Like many communities in rural Nicaragua, the families worked as a co-operative in 1982, until the Contras attacked in 1984. The Contras were armies of Honduran campesinos, funded and armed by the US who were opposed to the co-operatives. During the attack on Lagartillo on 31st December 1984 six of the community were killed, including one father and daughter, the husband and daughter of Tina who still lives in the community and has written a book, Tina´s life, about her experiences, and my hostmum, Fran´s 14 year old son, Norma´s older brother. There is a memorial to those who died, and it is obvioulsy still fresh in the minds of the families. A Swiss writter, Peter R. Schneider, or Pedro, was staying in the community during the week that I was there and he offered a unique insight into the community. He had been building new houses in Lagartillo as part of a Swiss brigade in 1984, two months before the attack. He then returned with another brigade in 1986 to help with reconstruction. The reason for his return now in 2010 is that in his retirement he is working on a book following up the lives of the families of Lagartillo, explaining that it is very rare that the families that were here in 1984 remained after the attack, most of the other communites that experienced similar aggression disbaded and moved away, their land returning to the original landowners. The families of Lagartillo, however, remained, rebuilt, own the titles to their land and have flourished as a community based on sustainable agriculture. It was fascinating to see Pedro´s photographs, we recognised one of the Spanish teachers, Alcedes, as a youbg boy pushing his brother in a wheelbarrow. Pedro is using the photos as a starting point for interviews with the three generations; those that were adults then and are now elders, those that were children then and are now adults, and the new generation of children, to explore their experiences of in the years since the attack.

Pedro also made the point about how the development of the community is changing in the years since the Hijos del Maiz Spanish school was established 6 years ago, in that it has created a new opportunity for youngsters, as well as the traditional campesino working life there is now the opportunity of university education and teaching as a career, and also in the resulting marriages between foreign students and local teachers. Norma, for example, is married to a Canadian ex-student and Oscar who ran the molinera is married toMaria, an ex-student. They have a gorgeous little 9-month old girl together and are building a fascinating permaculture house made from natural local materials, and sculpted in a very beautiful, organic shape. Pedro forsees difficulties for the community in the division of shared land with this influx, and potential differences in income with foreign money coming into those familes. Traditionally everything here is shared between all, like the water, the vehicle, the land, and decisions for the community are made at regular meetings.

Baseball is the most popular sport in Nicaragua, and so on the Sunday of my stay Catharine, Ty and I joined the families at the baseball field, (where Jesse had been slinging his hammock during his stay.. made for an interesting image to add to his daily photos-of-where-he´s-slept-the-night-before cllection.) Ty explained what was going on, so adding that to my playing Jesse´s dice version of the game I reckon I´m slightly less clueless about the sport. Helps that the Nicaraguan words for the players and what´s going on are the same as in English, just with an accent. Have got to admit, not being a big spots watcher anyway, my attention soon wandered and I was more interested in trying the differnt flavours of the ice drink bags being sold next to me. I had some very sad news during my stay here. On the Saturday Catharine, Ty and I had walked the 7km to the next town Achuapa to use the internet (as, refreshingly, there is no internet in Lagartillo, unless apparently you take a laptop up to the top of a big hill). One of my emails was a message from home that my beloved Auntie Jem had passed away at the beginning of the week and that it was her funeral on the Saturday, so the same day as I was reading the email. It is very sad news to have whilst so far away from family and loved ones, and I felt very bad, guilty even, not to be able to be with my family at the funeral to say that last goodbye. It seemed poignant to me then that I spent so much of the week and then that day and the next sewing, as it was my Auntie Jem who originally taught me to sew, as she was incredibly talented at embroidery. Jem was a wonderful woman, very funny and always so cheerful, I will miss her hugely.


  1. KIM! Hi love! I hope you are well - it sounds like you are having an amazing time. I am so jealous - that post above about making a list of things you want to achieve in life was really inspiring. And your drawings are incredible - show us more :-) (I honestly had no real idea you drew so beautifully!). Lots of love. Kx

  2. Cheers Kaz! Now that I´ve got the rust oiled out of my fingers am trying to make a drawing every couple of days at least, will keep adding them but now that I´ve got another camera the drawings might be harder to hunt out amongst the photos!
    Peace & big love x

  3. :-) It is all wonderful - your journey sounds so interesting. I am constantly amazed at the things you are doing. Take care. Love, kx

  4. I have been looking to learn spanish since long time and I am glad that i found online website that offers Free Spanish Classes. They offers LIVE one-way video chat that is very helpful for those who are looking to learn spanish online.