Freitag, 31. Oktober 2008

Ometepe, Nicaragua

Getting to Central America:

There are roughly 1500 km between Mexico City and Lake Nicaragua, where I was going next, to farm for a month on its famous island of Ometepe. As excited as I was, the distance was way too long to do it all at once. And as it turned out, with the local chicken busses it took me even longer than expected to get there anyway. So, to fit in a few days of relaxation, education and a fantastic adventure experience, I decided to take a diving course on one of the Bay Islands in Honduras.

Taking a bus to Oaxaca, then to Tapachula, and eventually across the border to Guatemala was more routine than anything else. It had not changed a bit since the last time I was there. Even the rip-off amigos on the border managed to make me pay about four times of what I would consider reasonable as a border-crossing fee. Those bastards just have too many tricks up their sleeve. If it weren't for the officials, I would ignore everything around me and keep walking till the next bus.

The next day took me down to Choluteca, and following that I crossed into Honduras at Copan. Incomparably tranquilo border, not even a dog barked at me. And the two money changers gave each other just the right amount of competition. That night I made it into La Ceiba, the port-town from where the boats leave for the diving paradises Utila and Roatan.

Diving on Utila:

I don't know about Roatan (I've heard it's more expensive) but Utila looks like your typical Caribbean beach-town. Sort of shabby, eaten by salt, wind, and waves, but very very laid back! The only street is full of mud puddles and lined with dive-shops, restaurants and bodegas in different stages of disrepair. I wouldn't call it pretty by any means. Under the surface, however, under the water surface that is, it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen! Corrals, tropical fish in many colors, all sorts of other sea creatures swimming and floating, and climbing over the reef. Admittedly, this has been my first diving experience, and from what I've gathered from others, there are many other sites way more amazing than this, but still I was speechless. (And not only because of the regulator in my mouth.)
Having completed my PADI Open Water license, I was offered to do my Advanced Open Water right after it for a discount price. I was excited, and I would have done it, if not for the fact that I happened to come down with a head-cold just on my last diving day. What can I say: the sniffles, usually not more than a mild annoyance on land, turn into a painful torture session once you try forcefully to equalize your ears and sinuses to the pressure. Eventually I managed to complete the course, but for the next week my left ear couldn't pop. So as much fun diving is, don't do it when you have a cold! (That's what they teach you, by the way.) I've learned my lesson, that's for sure.

After coming back to the mainland I set out on the long bus tour to Nicaragua. It took me a bit, especially as I chose to take the back roads leading through the Cordillera de Agalta. It was worth it, being the only foreigner on a bus winding its way through hundreds of kms of muddy roads, only to stop in the village of La Unión, where I was forced to spend the night. The next day I came within reach of the border, and the following evening I arrived in the lovely town of Granada, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.
Featuring many old buildings, Granada seems to be the showcase colonial town of Nicaragua. Consequently it is overrun by gringos and other foreigners who follow the book, or like me, who have not been told of Masaya, supposedly THE place to visit. But all in all, Granada's not a bad place. Good for a haircut, a museum, a laundromat and internet, and a few beers at the Irish pub, talking with Australians and Scots about the places they've visited or are planing on going. Enough is enough, however, so the next day I took the first bus down to Rivas, and crossed over to Ometepe.

The famous island with the two volcanoes Maderas and Concepcion, has been compared to the bosom of a young godess by native Mexica people, who ventured all the way down here and named the island quite appropriately Ometepec, meaning two hills. Today Ometepe is famous for its natural beauty, the cloud forest up on the slope of the volcanoes, teeming with birds and animals. There are howler monkeys, white faced "Capuccino" monkeys, spider monkeys, parrots, and the beautiful but highly annoying huaracas. Many people come from far-away places to climb the volcano, swim in the lake, and take pictures of the natural wonders. Others end up staying weeks or months volunteering on one of the many farms and projects. Incidentally, both wwoofing farms in the listing for Nicaragua, and all but one of the organic farms I found on the net, are on the island. The place I decided to work at is not one of the wwoof options. It is rather a permaculture farm and training center, with a strong community involvement in the nearby town of Balgüe. It is called Project Bona Fide. Take a look at their website to get a better idea:

Working at Bona Fide:

What used to be 43 acres cattle pasture has been gradually converted to optimize its potential as food forest (with several types of avocados, bananas, mangoes, various kinds of nuts, citruses, guavas, coconuts, star fruit, passion fruit, guanabana, ginger, kurkuma, sweet potatoes, squashes, and a whole array of kitchen herbs, just to mention a few), timber forest for construction (with bamboo, thatch palms, and hardwoods such as neem and madronia), and many, many other plants, all arranged in an optimal way to fulfill several functions depending on what their neighbors need. This could be shade from the western sun, trellis against the wind, fix nitrogen in the ground, and to keep erosion in check. Chris Shanks, one of the two directors of the project, explained me the ideas behind how the plants are set up. It was exciting to listen to him. He is the perfect teacher: excelent humor, full of information and referrence in case you're interested in finding out more in depth detail, and an enthusiasm that makes you want to jump right into planting trees. Needles to say, he also teaches the Permaculture Design course, which takes place at Bona Fide in February.
I didn't meet Chris, however, until my last week at the farm. When I arrived on October first, he had just left for the States, so I was greeted by a lovely bunch of volunteers. There were Tom and Eira, a couple from the UK, who were volunteer coordinators and in charge of running the place. Then there was Heather from the US, who was involved in fund-raising projects she conducted from her laptop over the hardly reliable internet connection. And Cat from Canada who had arrived shortly before me, and was in charge of the kitchen fund. In no time I felt very welcome and comfortable with everyone, and enjoyed working and hanging out. Heather left about a week before me, but during my last week another British couple, Dan and Rachel came to volunteer.
The schedule was pretty much the same most working days: hard, dirty, physical labor in the morning, followed by clean, relaxed, mind work in the afternoon. The morning labor could be anything from chopping weed with a machete (something I became quite good at by the end), carrying rocks and soil to build raised beds, planting willi-willi (the ideal plant for a live-fence: just chop of a branch, stick it in the ground and it keeps growing), pruning bamboo, or cutting it for propagation, stone-mulching basil plants, and of course the usual farm work: weeding, planting, harvesting fruit, etc. No watering this time, as we received more than just a generous amount of rain this season. But more about that later.
One big project, that I spent a great deal of time on, was constructing the "love-shack" which is the Bona Fide euphemism for the staff accommodation. When I arrived there was a ring of stones surrounding a concrete base of about 3m diameter, with eight concrete pillars, about a meter tall, spread out evenly on the ring, and a metal pipe sticking out of each pillar. Somewhere else on the property there were eight logs of neem wood, which Tom and I turned into slick poles for each one of the pillars. First we had to cut the bottom end of each log, so it would stand upright, supported by its own weight. Then we chiseled out a groove where the pipe could fit in, so that the log stood right on top of the pillar. Then we drilled two holes into the pipe and into the wood, bolted them together, and fixed each one with three side poles to keep it from getting knocked over by a gust of wind (just to be safe, even though the logs were so massive that I thought that possibility was rather unlikely). This sounds quite simple writing it down like this, but believe me, each step was a challenge. Our tools were a handsaw and a pair of chisels with mallets, and of course a drill for which we had to drag out a generator. By the time all eight logs were fixed, we felt like heroes! One thing that should also not be ignored here, is our never ending battle against termites: I destroyed five big nests in the area, captured a queen (who eventually comitted suicide), but they still kept comming...
The clean work in the afternoon had more to do with organization, fund raising, and community work. Bona Fide has an active community outreach program covering such things as infant nutrition, seed exchange, education of local adults and children. The community center in Balgüe is being organized by Bona Fide. Though classes are already being taught, the center should be inaugurated sometime this year. I had a chance to accompany Cat, Eira and Heather to a couple of classes. They were teaching English to the local kids, though the future plan is to include such things as geography, local ecology, and concepts of sustainability. Besides being a teaching center, it also includes a library, with books donated from Spain, complete bookshelves, built by Heather's dad, and a playground which should be set up this week. The plans for the near future include a restaurant where the abundant harvests from the farm will find their way to visitors in form of delicious mango chutney, guava or pineapple jam, home-made Nutella, and of course various locally grown juices, including a noni-concoction, which has the potential of a health fad.The center is strategically placed, on the way up to Maggie's, which is THE hostel to stay at if you come to Ometepe, at least according to the Lonely Planet, inevitably causing many foreign visitors to pass that way. Smarter travelers will of course look into other options, and probably end up at Zopilote, which is at least a better alternative. At this point I could start going on about the various reason why Maggie's sucks and how delicious the Italian pizza of Zopilote is, but that criticism would ultimately be as biased as the kind of opinions Hungarians tend to have about their Romanian neighbors. I'm not even gonna go there. Suffice to stay, Finca Magdalena was a good point of reference for orientation, and they sold decent frozen water (ice) to cool our beer.

All in all, the work at the farm was very enjoyable. In spite of everything that made it seem like it was driving us nuts. Here I want to expand on the regular rainy season, as well as the tropical storms which blocked out the sun for days, causing over a meter of precipitation in just a week. As the rains came, the electricity went. Not for us though, as with wind and solar power we were pretty much off-grid. The only thing that became bothersome was the constantly vanishing Internet. Of course Jan, the island's computer brujo from Germany did whatever he could to keep it together, still, more often than not we were locked off from the world's intellectual connection.
Another annoying fact were the blood sucking beasts, who were also quite active, especially just before and right after the rain. Mosquitos and sand-flies, the infamous "no see 'em" cause you don't see 'em. Or just barely. Instead, you can feel them when they bite, and leave a red itchy mark. Now those you can see... So what could we do? We bundled up in long sleeves, pants tucked into socks, and bug spray over face and hands. In the end they provided something to bitch about. Finally, the last thing that depressed me about the rain is the constant mud, the never ending dampness, how nothing would really dry, causing rot and fungus growth... so nasty! Fortunately, the place where I could set up my tent was on a raised hardwood platform, covered by a tarp. So I was safe from the rivers that just would wash across the land when it rained.
But to end on a good note, I must really say that no matter the weather, my time at Bona Fide was immensely enjoyable. The work, the people, playing music in the kitchen, singing German pirate songs with Cat, teaching Eira a Hungarian tune on the violin, trading German lessons for French and Arabic, watching the sunset on the tree-platform on the few sunny days. Because we had those too, and boy did we appreciate them! Towards the end of my stay, when the rain started to get less frequent, we even dared to climb Maderas. Conception, the larger one of the volcanoes was said to be too dangerous, with all the trails washed away. But Maderas with its cloud forest, narrow trails covered on both sides with heavy vegetation, vines and roots, moss covered branches, the voices of monkeys from the trees, and the misty air all around, gave the climb a mystical feel, like straight out of a fairy tale. Once on the crest, we descended into the crater, still covered with dense growth, and took a swim in the crater lake. It was not big, probably 100 meters in diameter, as we got to see later when it started to rain, but it was covered in such a dense fog, that from the middle of it, I could hardly see anything. Judging from my momentary vision, I could have been out on the ocean somewhere, but in reality I was in the middle of a lake, on the top of a volcano, on an island, in the middle of another lake, in Central America, relatively close to the Pacific and the Caribbean. Amazing feeling!
Now, writing these lines from a hostel in San José, Costa Rica, it feels so far away again. Also, today being October 31st, it is the last day of the harvest according to old tradition (in temperate zones). Whatever harvest is not in by today, is for the spirits. For me, however, things are a little different: tomorrow I will arrive at the next farm, this time a real Tico family. I'm excited.