Wednesday, October 17, 2012


I laughed, I learned, I lived. Thanks to everyone who made my trip so amazing.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

From Atlantic to Pacific: Bocas del Toro to Playa Santa Catalina

After the short time spent with my host family, I was headed for Panama. My first stop was Bocas del Toro, an Archipelago right off of Panama's Atlantic coast known for its wildlife, and Caribbean vibe.  The beaches were stunning, the tiny poison dart frogs were pretty darn cute, and trying to figure out if the boat drivers were talking  about you in creole behind your back was a fun linguistic challenge.
Mangroves on Isla Bastimento
Playa Red Frog on Isla Bastimento

Playa Las Estrellas, Isla Colón
After soaking up the Caribbean, why not head over to the Pacific? A hop, skip, and jump across the isthmus that is Panama puts you in Playa Santa Catalina, a.k.a. Surfing Capitol Central America.

The Pacific side was notably different. The sand was darker, the water was less clear, and the region itself seemed to be a bit less economically developed than the Caribbean side. It is interesting to see this striking geographical, cultural, and economic difference less than a hundred miles away from where I was a few days ago.

Tidepools at Playa Santa Catalina

Monday, April 16, 2012

Costa Rica -- San José and Altos de Germania

After a lot of time in Nicaragua, I finally made it across the border into Costa Rica, which is a bit more... um, tourist-friendly. The people are very approachable, they give accurate directions, and the bus driver didn't try to charge me more than he would charge your average tico (slang for Costa Rican person).  In San Jose a mix of students, families, and street vendors peacefully meander through very clean parks where tables, booths and tents are set up for everything from chess playing to tie-dying to yoga. 

After spending a couple of days in San José, I paid a visit to my old host family from two years ago in Altos de Germania. I showed up unannounced, but they welcomed me into their home again as if I had been there two days ago instead of two years. When I asked if I could stay one night Remundo (my old host dad) said "One night? Stay a whole month if you want!" 

Very little had changed. They were reconstructing their house (a tree had fallen on it), but aside from that everything and everyone was the same, and we spent that Sunday the same way we spent every other Sunday when I was there. We chatted a bit, I went to the river with some of my old friends, we played soccer, and then the day ended. The next morning I packed up my things, said goodbye, and moved on.

The house two years ago.

The house now.
It's nice to know that people who live so modestly can be so welcoming and apparently happy. I think the rest of the world could learn a few things from Altos de Germania.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Isla Ometepe and the Rio San Juan

The volcanic island Isla Ometepe was the first of my last two stops in Nicaragua. The island, rising impressively out of Lake Nicaragua, takes its name from the Nuhatl words ome, meaning "two," and tepetl, meaning "mountain," and is the largest volcanic island on freshwater in the world.

View of the sunset from the back of the ferry
A ferry carries the entertaining mix of tourists, boat workers, island residents, and every type of cargo from bananas to empty (i think...) coffins on the scenic four-hour ride to Altagracia, the island's main port town.

The crater lake atop Maderas Volcano
Of the many available options for jungle exploring on the Island, climbing one of the two volcanoes is by far the most popular. I decided to hike Maderas, having been told by other travelers that it is the more rugged and least developed of the two. Starting at 7 AM, I followed the trail through a number of coffee and cacao plantations and then slugged the remaining three miles through mud and rocks to reach the crater. By the time I hiked back down it was already almost 5 PM.

View from the base of Volcan Concepción

Horse cooling off in Lake Nicaragua
 After spending a number of days on Ometepe, I took the 12-hour ferry from the Island down south to the Río San Juan. The ferry left Altagracia at 6 PM and arrived at the mouth of the river a bit after 6 AM after a long, cold, and rather sleepless night. Despite my lack of sleep, I decided to bite the bullet and head another hour down the river to make it to Bocas de Sabalo, a sleepy river town where frogs and howler monkeys sing you to sleep and then 8 hours later join in with the countless birds and crickets to compete against the reggatone music starting to play in a strangely calming jungle cacophony.
View across the Río Sábalos, one of the tributaries of the Río San Juan.
Chillin' outside my room.
A day in a canoe is sure to keep the blues away.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

León and Granada

Well, the internship is over and I'm on the road. My most recent stops were Leon and Granada -- both colonial towns with very rich histories.
Leon's cathedral
Believe it or not, this was not my first time to León. As a matter of fact, it was my third. My first visit was early on in my internship when I brought a water sample to the University located in town. That trip ended up with my debit card not working and my having to more or less pawn off my computer at the hostel My second visit was to come back, pay the hostel, and get my computer back. During that trip, however, I discovered that someone had robbed literally all of my money via internet fraud thanks to an insecure connection in one of these internet cafés. The bank recuperated the money, but as you can imagine I left town with pretty bitter (albeit misdirected) feelings toward León. I decided to return early last week and give it one more shot. And I'm glad I did. I spent four days eating, drinking, sleeping and, after months of not being able to enjoy modern amenities like flushing toilets, watching some TV. That doesn't mean spent the entire time in my hostel room, though. I got a pretty good feel for life in León by going to the market, hanging out in the park, and chatting with the kids that frequent the food stands. It's a university town, which gives the place a palpable youth-y vibe. The students are very, very Sandinista (Danielista, that is) -- to the point where they are almost completely blind to the problems that surround them -- and even though their political leanings frustrate me, I can appreciate their energy.

León's history has been long and hard (as has that of all Nicaragua). The castillian colonial buildings themselves practically say everything -- destroyed cathedrals and bullet holes in the walls tell a story of violence and war and a continuing inability to move on and rebuild a united country. If you walk through the central park at night you can see sleeping on benches both a legless war vet and a parentless 10-year-old -- one scarred by a past, the other afraid of the future.

León's liberals and Granada's conservatives fought for a number of years for power -- both wanted to be the capital of Nicaragua. During the revolution in 1979, the Sandinistas (del alma) took over León, but Somoza heartlessly bombed his own people in order to clear the Sandinistas out of the city. The Sandinistas eventually re-took the city and held it until Somoza fell.

Part of Granada's central plaza, the cathedral, and a few colonial buildings
Granada is the first European city in mainland America (founded in 1524) and Nicaragua's best-maintained colonial town -- my friend Eva, who is from Spain and has been traveling with me, says that there are a number of parts of the city that are almost exactly like the Granada in Andalusia, Spain. It was in this city where American (Tennessean, in fact) William Walker took up residence and began his campaign to make himself the ruling monarch of Nicaragua and to make Nicaragua itself a slave state of the United States. Yeah, he was kind of crazy. Upon leaving with his private army, Walker set the city ablaze, leaving much of it destroyed, and left the words "here was Granada" printed in ash. Walker ended up placing himself as the President of Nicaraguan in 1856, but was soon defeated by a coalition of Central American armies and was executed in 1860 in Honduras. Granada rebuilt quickly and managed to avoid damage during the violence in the 1980s.

As with any well-kept colonial city, Granada is pretty touristy, so I only stayed one night and managed to enjoy myself despite the throngs of camera-wielding elderly Germans and hippie backpackers.

Right now I'm on Ometepe Island, a volcanic island on Lake Nicaragua. Post to come.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Coffee Process

One of my favorite experiences as a part of my internship has been carrying out the entire process of picking, de-pulping, threshing, drying, roasting, and drinking delicious coffee. The whole process takes places onsite at La Biosfera.
This is the Caturra variety of coffee. The other variety planted is Catuai, whose fruit is yellow when ripe. Both varieties from the species C. arabica, the species generally regarded to have to most robust flavor.

The coffee fruit turns a bright red when ripe, and at that point it is picked and soaked in a bucked before being depulped.

Obviously this is usually done on a much larger scale, but since we only have about 30 coffee plants, we use what very well may be the smallest coffee de-pulper on the planet.

After being de-pulped, the beans are allowed to dry out in the sun for a few days.

Once dry, the beans need to be threshed to get rid of the hard shell. This is done very easily by machine, but we wanted to do the whole process artisanally, so I filled a pillow case with the dried beans and whacked it against the floor a few times and ended up with pretty thoroughly threshed beans. 

This is what the beans look like once they have been threshed. Now, its ready to be roasted.

This type of clay dish is what was used to roast coffee before machinery ever existed. The smell of fresh coffee grew stronger and stronger as we roasted them over a bed of coals. 

The final product. Earthy and not too acidic. Yum.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

La Biosfera in a Nutshell

Well, my internship here is wrapping up -- I'm done on Saturday. We've gotten a lot done to improve on the existing permaculture models, add some new ones, completely renovate the water system, and ramp up La Biosfera's publicity. I'm realizing that I still haven't published any pictures of the place itself, so here are some photos of the recycling/permaculture initiatives (specifically for families with very few resources) we have going on:

Bunk beds made out of recycled truck tires. Very, Very comfortable. The wood came from a zapatillo tree that had already fallen on the property.
The posada where guests sleep (and where all the tire trunk bunks are)  was made using earthbag construction -- bags filled with dirt and then stacked like bricks.
This is one of the three gardens on site, this one recently expanded. We've just started planting and some plants are already poking out of the soil.
We still haven't perfected the system, but we're working on  heating our water with compost. It has worked a few times, but not totally consistent.
Compost toilets. Today an unsustainable level water is wasted in human waste management. The recycling of humanure is going to be essential for sustainability. It's not as gross as it sounds -- it doesn't smell and it's placed well out of sight, and it's really easy to do. Most importantly, it's a very effective fertilizer.
Another great building option for people with few resources. We haven't built a full-scale version yet, but this is the doghouse that we use to show how it works. You put all your non-organic trash inside of plastic bottles and they make a very useful building tool. 
Mobile chicken coop. The chickens tear up the dirt, eat the bugs, and fertilize the soil in areas where you are planning to plant a garden. 
Water swale. In one of my previous posts I put up a video explaining how a swale works. Well, here's ours.  I spent most of last week tearing up old cement and resealing it. 

This is the latest addition and in my opinion the best example of a self-incentivizing recycling initiative. A plastic bottle filled with water retracts light at 360 degrees. Very simple to install and provides 50 watts of light. 

So there you have it. La Biosfera in a nutshell. In my next post I'll talk about the coffee we grow, pick, depulp, thresh, toast, and (of course) drink all on site.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Top Gap Year Blog

Little update on the blog -- Go!Overseas, a travel site that provides users with information for meaningful abroad experiences, has listed my blog on their "Top Gap Year Blogs" list. Wohoo! Pretty exciting. Click on their logo to the right of this post and check out their website -- they`ve got some pretty neat stuff.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Gallo Pinto... It's what's for dinner (and breakfast and lunch)

Eating lunch today, I realized that it was my 12th straight meal of Gallo Pinto. Yup, that means breakfast, lunch, and dinner for four days straight. I felt that deserved a blog post. The strange thing is, I'm really not that tired of it. I mean come on, many Nicaraguans have been eating Gallo Pinto for every meal for their entire life, so I feel like I'm in no position to complain.

The name, Gallo Pinto, literally means "spotted rooster." How it got that name is unclear, but it has made it's way into being the national dish of both Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Some say that it got its name because the rice, after being cooked with the beans, kind of looks like a white rooster with red spots. That explanation is a bit boring, so I'm going with the one that I learned the other day: a guy named Juan had a huge spotted rooster (gallo pinto) that he was very proud of. He went around the entire neighborhood bragging about how big his gallo pinto was and invited everyone in the barrio to come to a party that weekend because he planned to kill and eat it and wanted to share with everyone. On the night of the party, the whole neighborhood came to Juan's house to eat the gallo pinto. Now, this was a really, really big spotted rooster, but it certainly was not big enough to feed an entire barrio. So Juan, in a panic and not wanting anyone to leave hungry, threw together all the rice and all the beans he had into a huge frying pan and cooked it with oil until the rice started turning red. Needless to say, the neighborhood people were not very happy to be eating rice and beans when they had been promised a big gallo pinto. Everyone left in a bad mood, and Juan soon became the laughing stock of the neighborhood. For weeks after that night, people passing his house in the street would sarcastically shout out, "Hey, Juan, that gallo pinto you gave us last night was delicious!" The name, apparently, stuck and people have been calling rice and beans cooked in that manner "Gallo Pinto" ever since.

The stuff is really not that bad. Once described as "the perfect combination of carbs and protein," it is almost revered in Nicaraguan culture, where people never seem to get tired of eating it. A Nicaraguan friend of mine once explained, "Sometimes we eat rice and beans; sometimes we eat beans and rice; but on special occasions -- we eat Gallo Pinto."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Checking In

My posts are becoming pretty sparse, I know. My internet situation has been... well, unreliable. We had internet installed for a while but it hasn't been working lately.

My internship is going well -- we are currently working on a petition to distribute water from the property to the surrounding community, which has no access to clean water. I'll update again in a few days with some pictures of the place where I've been staying for the past little more than a month.

Stay Classy.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jinotega (finally posting something)

Okay folks its been a while since my last post, but better late than never I guess. I've been in Jinotega, Nicaragua for about two weeks now. I'm staying on a permaculture farm outside of town called "La Biosfera." I started out doing random little projects here and there in exchange for lodging, but I've now been moved into an official internship position and will be working on a few long-term projects over the next few months, so I'm really excited about that. This permaculture farm is an upshoot of a failed water bottling business that Suzanne, the owner of the Biosfera, started in order to have revenue for an alternative ecomomic development plan that she was planning to implement. Unfortunately the spring water had some bacteria in it and she closed doors on the business and decided to focus on permaculture. A couple of years ago she built an earthbag guest dorm hoping to get some cash flow from the increasing number of eco-tourists that are traveling around Central America. What exactly is permaculature? Here's a quick vid that explains much better than I can.

So basically permaculture is the attempt to ensure that the human race will stay on this planet for a long, long time without outstripping resources. Cool stuff. One thing that's important to note - contrary to what you might have gathered from the video, not all permaculturists are hippies. Suzanne is a retired Marine, so I think that pretty much makes her not a hippie.

Some of the concepts we have going are humanure recycling, earthbag construction, and swale water harvesting. I haven't really taken any pictures of this stuff yet, but here's a short little video about water swales:

My posts might be kind of few and far between while I'm here, because unless we get Internet at the Biosfera I have to come into town to use it. I'll still try to post once a week.

I'm glad I've finally found a non-gringo-infested place where I can see myself spending an extended period of time. It's nice to be so far off the beaten track that not many tourists make it out here, and those that do are people looking for a more authentic Nicaraguan experience -- the kind of people that I actually like to spend time with.

I did manage to get a few pictures of the sun setting the other day. As you can see, this place is absolutely gorgeous.

So that's that. I'll post again no later than next Sunday.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Another change in plans

I know I said I was flying into Managua on the 4th, but, well, I'm still in Nashville. I have a bunch of stuff to sort out before going back and my plans still need a bit more... solidifying. Details to come.