Time moves differently here, so I can’t recall exactly when I got the invite to the forest gathering, but I remember there were church pews and wooden benches arranged in the dirt around a whiteboard. Local farmers, botanists and community activists sat patiently listening to each others’ ideas on how best to introduce small groups of open-minded tourists to isolated rural communities and homesteads in the region. In short, tourism is a rapidly growing industry in Nicaragua, but many small homesteads in the hills and forests remain unseen and untouched by foreign visitors. While all in attendance agreed that the minimization of “Western” influence is essential in maintaining native customs and culture (including the peoples’ low to no-tech way of life), community leaders also recognized that just a little bit of revenue from tourists could go a long way to improve healthcare and education on the farms and in the barrios. The meeting ran almost two hours, and I understood maybe 30% of what was said, but when it ended, each member of the team got up and thanked me for agreeing to be their initial guinea pig & photographer for future promotions.
When I was still volunteering regularly at the Panama Primary School, I’ll never forget the day Paulette sat down next to me at lunch and asked, “Would you be willing to do some volunteer work on Saturday? We’re planning on riding horses through the forest, up the hillside and into a tiny village with no electricity or running water.” Considering that the proposed “work” consisted of taking photos and learning the names and uses of medicinal plants along the way, I could not have been more eager to accept her invitation.
I could have kicked myself for not bringing my Fujifilm Instax camera on that first extraordinary adventure, because many of the children in the family we visited had never seen a camera before and got a huge kick out of their likenesses projected on the tiny screen. The village itself was comprised of two houses made of scrap wood and sheet metal, along with a plantation of corn, pineapple, dragonfruit and a variety of trees donated by La Mariposa as part of their ongoing reforestation project. Upon entering the village, my horse ran me into a poisonous bush that felt like a hundred tiny needles stabbing me in the arm. Fortunately, one of the men in the family gave me a root to boil that cleared my rash in just over a day. Next time I visit, I’ll be sure to bring gifts to thank them for their hospitality.