You can now book your sustainable rural adventure with La Mariposa

Can’t thank Paulette and the entire La Mariposa crew enough for inviting me along on such an extraordinary adventure. I will never forget the Aguirre Family’s Nicaraguan brand of hospitality: Handpicked straight from the cactus, juicy Pitahaya fruit stains your face and clothes neon purple if you aren’t careful. Live music and local folklore from the elders… They even gave me a plant from their garden to help cure the rash I got from a biting bush my horse dragged me through.

Mariposa Spanish School's Weblog

By horse or by foot – views of the live crater of the Masaya Volcano and, in the distance, the crater lake , Laguna de Masaya. L to R - Ariel, who leads the horses; Linda, group member; Franklin, local guide; Marlin, program coordinator; Nick, group member and photographer; Ismael, program coordinator and Bismark, local guide. By horse or by foot – views of the live crater of the Masaya Volcano and, in the distance, the crater lake , Laguna de Masaya. L to R – Ariel, who leads the horses; Linda, group member; Franklin, local guide; Marlin, program coordinator; Nick, group member and photographer; Ismael, program coordinator and Bismark, local guide.

SUSTAINABLE ADVENTURE WITH THE COMMUNITIES OF THE MASAYA VOLCANO

La Mariposa has worked for several years with our neighboring indigenous communities – primarily the barrios of Panamá, Aguirre and Venecia – now we can offer a two week sustainable tourism program of exceptional diversity, based in these communities and the surrounding landscapes. Our program has such variety and depth thanks to our longstanding relationships with the communities, our focus on assisting their self-development and our commitment to protecting the environment.

Trekking the rim of the Masaya volcano and visting indigenous communities along the way Trekking the rim of the Masaya volcano and visting indigenous communities along the way

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The Departed

CemetaryJust when I thought I’d finally mastered the art of hanging laundry during the rainy season, I woke up last Sunday to my damp clothes folded neatly in front of my bedroom door. It was half past 4am and the house was already alive with strange Spanish voices. On the front porch, chairs had been arranged in rows underneath the clothesline; laundry removed to clear headspace for the nearly 1,000 visitors that would trickle through to pay their respects to my host family over the following 36 hours.

Chilo, my host mother, had spent the two previous nights in the hospital at her mother’s bedside, before returning with blood red eyes and a collapsible stool in her arms. Nearly out of breath, she explained that because the hospital lacked benches and chairs, she hadn’t slept for more than a minute or two– in order to here her, I had to jog through the house behind her as she scrambled to find buckets and shovels so her brothers could start digging their mother’s grave at sunrise.  I felt terrible for her and asked if I could join them, but she said I’d be more useful if I stayed home and helped the women tend to the guests.

ChefsThe other women I live with stood around a fire fueled by tree branches and plastic bags, stirring massive quantities of ketchup into a giant wok filled with enough rice, carrots and chicken to feed the entire village. As I rested between bucket trips to the shallow concrete well next door, the women explained to me that in small communities of pueblos like ours, it is customary for the family of the departed to host friends and neighbors for a full day of food & mourning, followed by an entire night of coffee & laughter. Apparently, close to 100 people stuck it out until the sunrise prayer, though I can’t really be sure because Diego and his cousins were using my lifeless body as a pillow on the kitchen sofa.

After I lost my spot on the sofa...

After I lost my spot…

On the long walk to the cemetary...

On the long walk to the cemetery…

When I initially signed up to live with a local family for the duration of my stay in San Juan de la Concepcion, I never would have imagined that they’d eventually ask me to help carry the casket of their departed abuela two miles down the road to the cemetery. But then again, it’s experiences like these that surpass all expectations and reveal just how different life in the Nicaraguan pueblos is from that which we regard as normal in the United States. Just last week, I ate breakfast next to Diego and his great grandmother, each representing one extreme in four generations of family living under the same roof out of necessity. I typically had a tough time understanding Abuela because she spoke very quickly and quietly, but I’ll never forget the mornings we spent laughing at Diego for spiking his breakfast on the kitchen floor or showering in the rain with Pepe the pet parrot on his shoulder. I’ll also never forget the little car that drove through the neighborhoods all day and night broadcasting the funeral schedule over the loudspeaker with the ‘Titanic’ theme song blaring in the background. More than anything else though, I’ll never forget the sheer solidarity of the people in the pueblos, forfeiting a night of sleep and a day of work to turn one family’s tough times into a party for the ages.

Chilo, thanking her students for stopping by to offer their condolences.

Chilo, thanking her students for stopping by to offer their condolences.

Who wouldn't want ice cream after a funeral?

Who wouldn’t want ice cream after a funeral?

I'm pretty sure Diego thought the whole event was an early birthday party in his honor.

I’m pretty sure Diego thought the whole event was an early birthday party in his honor.

Funeral Flowers

Forest Jaunts

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.

Responsible for mapping potential horseback routes through rural villages and along volcano craters,  Marlon is just one of the many dedicated members of La Mariposa's rural tourism project. He also happens to be the head of the Spanish School.

Responsible for drawing maps of potential horseback routes through rural villages and along volcano craters, Marlon is just one of the many dedicated members of La Mariposa’s rural tourism project. He also happens to be the head of the Spanish School.

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.

Paulette and the rest of the cavalry on our way up the hill.

Paulette and the rest of the cavalry on their way up the hill.

My ride, taking a well deserved snack break.

My ride, taking a well deserved snack break.

The matriarch of the village sharing a tale of goblins with her guests.

The matriarch of the village, sharing a tale of goblins with her guests.

No need for electricity when you've got music and laughter to fill the space between the walls.

No need for electricity when you’ve got music and laughter to fill the space between the walls.

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.

FamThat was just the first of many adventures since, but I’m about to lose internet access, so I’ll have to save more for later. Thanks for reading.

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore…

For nearly two weeks now, I’ve slept under a mosquito net hanging from the tin roof that sounds like a mellow snare drum when it rains. My host mother makes fun of me for washing my hair in the backyard during late afternoon storms, but I don’t want to be the one who uses the last of the family’s water supply for the day. She runs the house (and the neighborhood, for that matter) and her name is Auxiliadora, but everyone calls her “Chilo.” She has a son named Francisco who visits daily but lives in the next town over, and a daughter named Chilito, who sleeps in the room across the hall from me with her five year old son, Diego. Diego is my best friend.

Diego and Isaac working on their ball skills.

Diego and Isaac working on their ball skills.

Most evenings, I walk home from Spanish class, and as soon as I turn onto the street where I’m staying, Diego drops his toy tyrannosaurus and runs down the street yelling, “Nickelodeon!” before giving me a monster hug. Even after four hours of struggling through Spanish verbs & vocabulary, it’s hard to feel down when Diego and his amigos insist on playing “Frisbique” until dinner. Chilo is a wonderful cook who refuses to let me go to bed or leave the house without a generous serving of gallo-pinto (beans mixed in rice), fried plantains and whatever fresh juice she’s fixed for the day.

Most mornings, I pile into a large van (called a microbus) packed literally nose to nose with Nicaraguans, and hold my breath until I arrive at the bottom of the barrio, Tempisque. From my drop-off point, I walk half an hour up the smokey valley toward Volcan Masaya, whose toxic gases turn children’s hair blond and limit local crops to pineapple and pitahaya (dragonfruit). I may very well be wrong, but from the look of things, many families in Tempisque have to choose between feeding their dogs and feeding their children.

DoggieWhile my heart breaks for each dog I see with its skin stretched tight across its ribcage and collapsed stomach, my mornings are instantly brightened by infectious laughter of the children. Despite their permanently soiled clothing and near complete lack of dental hygiene, the group of over 100 kids between the ages of four & ten love to play games on their donated Samsung tablets, and will read for hours if they have someone listening to them. Though I often leave the Panama School exhausted from my active duties as class jungle gym (praise Allah for lice repellent shampoo), I don’t think I could ever tire of the affection Nicaraguan children show.

Panama School

Jorge has a tough job looking after all of the young students. Especially since there are only 8 donated tablets to be “shared” among all hundred of them.

I intend to update this blog with volcano adventures, Gato burgers, and bathroom humor more frequently than every two weeks, but staying connected over WiFi or 4G simply isn’t as big of a thing here… And I must admit, it feels pretty good.

No Sleep ’til Managua

As of now, I know Nicaragua only as a swirling collection of texts, photos and stories carefully groomed by those who have been there before me. Some say it is a dangerous place, while others tell me the country is changing. I believe both sides, but continue to tell myself to worry less and focus on the realm of things within my control. Sure, any mosquito that bites me could be carrying the incurable dengue fever, but all I can do is lather the DEET on thick and embrace my new surroundings. I have nearly 80 days to soak up everything this place and its people are willing to share, and I hope to share the experience right back with my family and friends. Thank you all so much for your support!

As I write this, I’m flying through the night somewhere between Denver and Miami, losing one hour to every half hour we’re in the air because of the time change. Time travel can be tough on the body, but at least I’ll get to see the Nicaraguan countryside in the daylight on the drive to La Mariposa, in San Juan De La Concepcion. Since I have little notion of what to expect over these first few days (or when I’ll next have WiFi), I’ll share a couple of my favorite trinkets that will be making the journey with me.

 

1) 1947 Indian Half-Rupee

photo 3

An unexpected good luck charm given to me by a family friend who, in his own words, has worked all his life only to save up for the next big adventure. This etched Indian Half-Rupee** has been around the world with Will, including atop many a Nicaraguan volcano, so he made me promise to bring it home safely in a few months.

**The coin is dated 1947, which is the year India gained her independence from the Redcoats.

 

2) Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal

photo 1

My sister and I grew up competing to see who could read the existing Harry Potter series fastest before each new book was released. I swear if I didn’t win every time, she surely cheated by puppy-guarding the 3rd book well after she’d finished it. It’s only right then that she got me the Spanish translation of Book 1, for me to read to the kids at the school where I will be helping out on weekdays. I’ll rely on the little ones to be ruthless on me for missed accents and mispronunciations.

 

3) Fujifilm Instax 210

photo-1

I was raised in a family full of cameras and, to this day, cannot get enough of all the old Polaroids at Grandma’s house. So imagine my surprise when I read on the La Mariposa website that visitors to the region are asked to be considerate and use cameras sparingly because so few local families can afford such luxuries. At first, I was bummed because I enjoy taking pictures while traveling, but as I continued to sift through our old family photos, I decided that if there was an affordable way to do it, I would love to thank the local families for hosting me by offering them Polaroid-esque portraits of their loved ones. Fortunately, Fujifilm now offers a high quality Polaroid alternative at a significantly lower price. I brought exactly 100 instant-film exposures with me and will be quite anxious to see how the idea is received.

Much love to you all! Thanks for reading.