Nicaragua

The Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ) has periodic trips, both domestic and international, that enable participants to receive education on certain topics and to engage with local communities.  For two years, I have been scheduled and rescheduled for a trip to Haiti.  Finally, when the trip was canceled this April, I had an offer to transfer to a trip to Nicaragua.  With the help of a financial award, I was able to attend the May 2016 Climate Change Justice trip with UUCSJ.

An Untold History
Perhaps the most baffling part of the trip was the historical background we were given.  We were asked to read Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle which describes, as the title would suggest, not only the history of Nicaragua but the intense trifling the United States has had.  Between this text and then several class sessions in Managua at CEPAD with instructors such as Aynn Setright, we were able to grasp the complex social, economic, political, and cultural chaos that makes modern-day Nicaragua.

The histories general start with the recorded ones the Spanish brought.  The enslavement of tribal peoples from the various geographical regions of Nicaragua is no new story to the Americas, sadly, and its largely Mestizo population today is testimony of that.  Then, in later centuries, interests in creating a canal across Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua adds to America, Britain, and Spain’s desire in controlling the land.  The Liberals of Leon and the Conservatives of Granada, we are told, disputed back and forth over where the Capital would be and who would be in charge until it was settled that Managua, directly between the two, would take over.  (Ironically, no indigenous groups built at Managua because it is on the fault line.  As a result of moving the capital here, earthquakes have destroyed the city, the largest stopping the clock on the cathedral tower in the cultural plaza.)  Periods of unrest are the trend in the 20th century, with the United State’s William Walker declaring himself as Nicaragua’s president, the control of a corrupted National Guard, and then three generations of dictators under the Samoza family.  In 1979, the Sandinista Revolution resulted in a period of reform until 1990.

To this day, however, the elections do not go without the United State’s meddling in them, and corruption continues in the modern “democracy” – especially in program spending and addressing the class gaps.  As the book we read told us, the GDP for Nicaragua has been at about $800 with most of the population earning about $200 annually.  Cheap labor, rather than coffee, is considered the major export of Nicaragua.  This “export” contributes to the gap.  We witnessed these gaps and also the lush spending of the modern government.  Google “Trees of Life” to see the way thousands of dollars have been spent in Managua: artificial tress with lighting have been constructed all over the city, some with paid guards posted at them 24/7.

Coffee Problems
Meanwhile Nicaragua continues to struggle with its issues of a very monocrop-based economy.  Presently, the coffee industry is its major crop.  The rich soils from volcanic ash contributes to its success.  However, changes in the climate have altered the environment of the various altitudes and regions in Nicaragua that were once naturally ideal for these crops.  Additionally, arroyo, or “coffee rust”, is killing crops at a rate that is threatening the future of campesinas.  When these farmers sell to companies that don’t actively seek for Fair Trade agreements, the gap between the farmers and the middlemen increases.  Now, Nicaraguans fear what will happen if they cannot overcome the coffee rust.

After spending several days in Managua, our group traveled to Prodecoop in Esteli to learn about their Fair Trade program.  We also visited various programs such as FEM and Las Diosas, which work to employ and support women, educate women on health, and prevent domestic violence.  On the way out of Esteli, we headed north towards Honduras and stayed two nights with homestays in the little village of Quibuto.  Quibtuo is in the Fair Trade coffee business and has a complex organization of small farmers working together to support themselves.  My host dad walked me around his farm and showed me his coffee trees, including the leaves that were tainted with coffee rust.  His finco included many contraptions for sorting the coffee cherries before they go to a beneficio.  He also picked some beans from his sieves and showed me what he calls “cafe oro“, also verde.

We got to ride to the top of the mountain, which was sadly dry for the rainy season, and visit a large farm on the hillside.  There, we worked at a demonstration area to prepare soil with ash, plant coffee beans in rows, cover them with weeds and water them, then select “matches” (sprouted beans) to plant in small bags that we prepared.  We took a couple of bags that were already trees over to a farm.  There, we were shown how banana trees had been planted as fast-growing shade sources.  Under these trees, we dug a couple of holes, cut the bottom and sides of the bags for good root starting, and planted the trees.  That night, we finally had thunderstorm.  The rain on the tin roof was so loud, I was convinced our shack was going to wash down into the dry riverbed at the bottom of the mountain.

A couple of things I learned from this experience: 1) I can actually have conversations in Spanish; 2) I want to study climate change in Nicaragua to support these indigenous communities; 3) buying Fair Trade (100%, not just partial, certified) is really important; and 4) Equal Exchange, who had representatives on the trip with us, is exactly what it advertises itself as being: 100% Fair Trade and actively working with these communities.

Mining Problems
I also got to visit the Guardians of Yaosca River (and to swim in the river).  The long and winding road from Rancho Grande took us to the riverside where an outdoor feast was arranged.  On the way, we stopped to observe a mountain.  363 natural springs, they said, exist in the mountain.  B2Gold, from Canada, is threatening to do open-pit mining in that hillside.  None of the community members are in support, yet B2Gold keeps manipulating the situation.  We also passed the entrance to an existing mine.  Next to it was a billboard showing B2Gold’s ‘support of community health’, ironically.  “That man in the hat,” said one of the Guardians, pointing to the billboard.  “Did not give consent for his face to be on the B2Gold billboard.  He is not in support of the mine.  But they keep manipulating things to make it look to the public like we are in support.”  He told us they no longer sign documents, unless it is their own petition, because B2Gold will just transfer their signatures to something saying they support the mining of the mountain.

On the riverside, two young women sang a song.  It ends “I cannot live without water, I cannot live without air, I cannot live without forests, but I can live without gold.”  I was surprised by how little has been covered on the problems of mining and exploitation of communities in Nicaragua.  I also became interested in learning more about MARENA, the organization that I have since discovered should be responsible for environmental impacts and protection in Nicaragua.  (We later had met with a priest in Rancho Grande who didn’t believe there was any accountability; to me, there appears to be an organization, but I’m guessing different presidents oppose MARENA’s “meddling” in their profits when trying to exploit labor, resources, etc. – and speaking out against the government has been resulting recently in missing people or corpses.)

While people were quick to boycott jewelry, someone reminded us that electronics use gold in the circuitry.  Our phones, our computers, everything.  I also reminded them that solar panels, wind turbines, cars,…those all depend on mining as well.  Maybe not of gold apart from circuitry, but various minerals and metals nonetheless.

To read more on this topic, here is one article I have managed to find: B2Gold at Rancho Grande

Although this is not an extensive coverage of my trip, or of these topics, I wanted to put something out there so people can understand the injustices that continue to happen in Nicaragua.  The resilience of the people, despite recent huge population losses from the revolution, is really impressive and somehow contagious.  The street art in Managua and across the countryside, often with “FSLN” emblazoned in paint, was also inspirational for how social movements happen, continue, and are remembered.

To end, I scanned a water color I worked on this week.  It features the National Bird, a Turquoise-Browed Motmot (Guardabarranco Comun).  These guys apparently bury their eggs.  He’s on a branch above new leaves, some with Nicaraguan flag patterns on them, protecting the sleeping babies.  Behind the bird, outlines of revolutionaries and also the famous image of Sandinista himself.  The red and black colors represent the FSLN.

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Smiles From Strangers.

ImageI got up early this morning to walk to the indoor Farmer’s Market at Shaker Square, stopping at the bank along the way.  I was proud that I got up early while it was so cold and I would normally have second thoughts.  I got up early, I drank some tea, I read, I played with my cats, and then I got dressed in a dress and even wore lipstick and a hat.  I walked to the market with my satchel from Willi’s Ski House, withdrew cash, and passed inside the market with my list scribbled on the back of a Starbucks ad.

My motivation this fine morning?  Picking up ingredients from local, organic, animal-friendly vendors to cook another fantastic meal on Monday with Jeff.  He’s been working hard, long hours in the cold.  I feel for him, and I’m also thankful that he chooses to spend so much of his limited free time with me.  He’s always texting me and calling me with positive words, even when he is working or busy, and I want to do him favors while I can (not to mention shamelessly show off my ability to cook anything from scratch).  I rounded up ingredients, bought fair-trade coffee at Dewey’s, and walked home to reorganize my produce into tin foil and the proper crisper drawers. And, yes, this vegetarian even bought grass-fed meat to cook for the meal.

While I was emptying my half-peck of apples into the crisper, I started thinking about all the people I saw today.

First, at the bank, an older, white gentleman came in as I finished at the ATM.  As I walked out, a younger, black man came into the room.  The older man was still fumbling with his wallet and insisted for the younger man to go first.  Not only was it strikingly kind, but I realized that would never have happened between most strangers where I’m from.  I’ve been realizing how much more colorblind people in Cleveland are than in my rural hometown in Pennsylvania.

Second, I thought about the first meat vendor I spoke with who didn’t have pork or ham.  We chatted like old friends and he pointed me directly to another vendor and listed all of the others who sell meat.  I told him I’d keep him in mind if I ever need beef or chicken.

Third, I revisited the Woolf Farm vendors for their apples.  The old gentlemen who sell the pecks are sometimes so brittle that I want to help them load their crates.  Yet, they’re always the first to bend over to pick up anything that is dropped, they always help lift paper bags into sacks, and they always have a friendly, crinkly smile like you buying their apples was the kindest thing you could have possibly done for them.

Fourth, as I walked to the other room of vendors, I took a moment to step back and see how many people had walked (and some driven) from all around town to stuff their eco-friendly bags with organic, fresh, higher-than-the-grocer’s-priced goods.  They were all out here despite the 14F-degree morning.  Many of them had children in tow, all sporting home-knit hats or classy bowlers.  I had this sudden good feeling, like these are the kind of people who are going to keep the world good.  These are the kind who care and who keep caring and who get up, bring their family, help out friends they don’t know…

Fifth, I finally found the vendors I needed for my meat.  I chatted with the father and son about how a vegetarian has no idea which meats she needs, but she (I) will surely make it taste alright anyway.  They pointed me in the right direction based on the recipe I said I was making.  The girl beside me gasped and said that not only did it sound good but – And pardon me for getting in the middle and overhearing, but my what a thing you’re doing to be cooking meat for someone!  That’s really cool! – and I thought, maybe it is?  Not for a second did I dread doing it; it only seems proper to cook an ordinary meal and not subject my guests to my eating habits.  Well, I subject them a bit.  I am after all buying local, organ, grassfed – because that’s the kind I support.

Sixth, I walked into Dewey’s to get my fair-trade coffee.  I was impressed by the numbers of people crowded along the tables, many from the market, all barring against the cold in home-knits and pea coats and smiles, appreciating the local, more expensive things.  It was a well-mixed crowd too.  I even recognized a student who used to come into the library while I was on Welcome Desk shift.  I’ve seen him in there before.  He is such an outlier and cannot blend in at all with society; I’m not sure if he actually has a problem, or if he doesn’t realize that people don’t really care about his magic cards and his ability to rule fairies, the way-too-loud conversation he was holding in the middle of the room one morning at 7am.  But they all know his name.  They all ask him questions to relieve the last person and pass him around, making him feel like he has a home.  I’m not sure what the poor kid does with his life; he has got to be older than I am.  But there he was today, on his laptop in the corner, surrounded by throngs of people who I know would defend him.

Seventh – this is the moment that stuck with me the most and made me recall the others.  It was something so simple.  I was walking out of the coffee shop and pulling out my earbuds when I noticed a small dog tied to the bench, shivering.  No, I’m not a bleeding heart over animals left outside.  We keep our dogs outside all of the time and they much prefer it.  I just felt bad because he looked distraught and lonely.  So, I walked over to him, introduced myself, and kneeled down to pet him.  At first, he cowered, but I reached and scratched and he came closer.  Soon, his little tail was wagging rapidly and his breath was panting out steam.  When he looked warmer, I started to pull away and walk back.  I looked up just in time to notice a man, having held doors for many people, walk briskly past us, look back, observe the moment, and bear an enormous smile that he then proceeded to carry into the Farmer’s Market.

All of those smiles – whether from the face or the heart – were affecting people right, left, and sideways today.  It was good to see some hope left in what has been feeling like such a drab, dreary, dark world.

So thank you, man with the smile, and you’re welcome to the person who caught it next.

Coffee & Whiskey

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“Give coffee to change the things I change… and whiskey to accept the things I cannot.”
I saw this quote while surfing briefly on Pinterest and thought it was funny – and quite true.  Although I don’t condone turning to liquor as a way to handle your problems, I choose to interpret this silly meme with light humor.  I do like my whiskey, but I am a huge craft beer fan.  As a cook and an artist, I think craft beer is just another form of culinary art – and perhaps one of the most finicky.  Whiskey, too, is that way.  So there is no wonder than my two favorite places to be are in a fair trade coffee shop or a quirky microbrewery, one generally for work and the other for entertainment.
So, yes, I’ll take that coffee or tea as my moment of indulgence without interrupting a stream of constant work.  It keeps me alert and relaxes me at the same time.  It can be my motivation to get up and get going, and it can be as subtly a form of art at the hands of a barista as brewing alcohol is to the brewer.  Of course, when I’m not working hard at something or meeting up with people to plan, develop, and execute new ideas, I’m likely going with a group of friends or even venturing into a new city on my own and meeting all kinds of people at some kind of microbrew joint.  In a way, it is me accepting things I don’t want to accept, like unwinding after a long week that maybe didn’t go as well as I had hoped.  But instead of moping around, I make a treat out of my time spent experiencing new places and talking with new people.  It’s my way of realizing that there’s more to life than whatever’s been on my mind while simultaneously indulging with like-troubled people over a great glass of whatever the house recommends.
This week, take a moment to enjoy your coffee while you work, and don’t be afraid to brave a new bar seat, different conversation, and perhaps a drink you hadn’t been willing to try quite yet.

The Sacred Coffee Pot

Every office has one (except, maybe, Twinings): the sacred coffee pot.  This communal appliance hosts the gathering of co-workers like herds to a waterhole.  Whether it’s an 8am wake up, a 3pm pick-up, or any point inbetween, it is the universal donor of lifeblood to nearly everyone in the office.  So why is it always empty when I fill up?

I have come to the conclusion that, as soon as I make a pot, some coffee predator lurking in the bushes pounces on it as soon as it’s done.  This animal takes an enormous share, then sets the distributor on its shelf where it is quickly devoured by less aggressive creatures who witnessed the predator make its first move.  Like a million annoying sparrows dipping into a birdbath, these animals draw coffee until they’ve sucked it dry.  It is this wasteland that I find myself upon when I return for my hard-earned cup.  I angrily begin a new pot and find myself thrown into this routine, vicious cycle.

What is so hard about making a pot of coffee?  As we would say at the dining hall in school, “You kill it, you fill it.”  The person who scooped the last of the mashed potatoes was required to take it back to the kitchen for more.  Often, this meant no one would take the last hit.  But, no, not in an office… in an office, it’s every man for himself.  To me, it just seems morally wrong to tap out a pot and not make more.  I replay the thought in my head and can’t understand who could bear doing it: You go for a cup, pump the top, get what you can before an embarrassingly loud sucking-drops-through-a-straw sound emanates through the breakroom.  Then, despite this sound (which clearly indicates empty unless you’re a dimwit), you boldly walk away, declaring to the world that either A) I don’t care that it’s empty and you can fill it yourself or B) I am a dimwit.

Tell me this, office people: What is the rush?  Do you not have thirty seconds to refill the grounds and click “brew”?  Do you need so desperately to hurry back into your cool little offices where you can check your e-mail for the hundredth time today and dillydally on some project?  I might not be on salary as a student intern, but I certainly have my work cut out for me.  In fact, the research I do keeps the work on your desk.  That might sound unimpressive, but without that work on your desk, you wouldn’t have a job.  So thanks for taking minutes out of my day to refill every pot of coffee you drain.  Thanks for lounging in your airconditioned offices while I sit under the blistering heat of the skylight in public space next to the noisy breakroom, listening to the sound of you tapping every last pot I make.

Okay, the skylight is actually quite nice and they’ve installed doors now so the breakroom isn’t so noisy.  But that’s not my point.  My point is, rather, that something so sacred should be treated better!  Use some consideration!  And, if you’re a dimwit,… get a less demanding job!