One of the mapaches, Maria Esther, presenting her tree
This month I climbed two volcanoes and marched in a parade with cardboard sea turtles and students on stilts as León celebrated the bosque seco tropical, the tropical dry forest. SONATI, an environmental education organization I’m volunteering with, hosted a weeklong series of free events, open to everyone. (The name stands for Sociedad y Naturaleza Internacional or “International Society and Nature”). Each day the general public and school groups could learn more about the ecosystem surrounding León through guided walks and hikes in and around town. One day I accompanied the students from my English class to the botanical gardens, where each presented a tree native to the tropical dry forest. “Los mapaches,” the raccoons, as their group of fifth graders is known at Sonati, described their trees, traditional uses, and threats.
The mapaches with two of the guides (also their teachers) from Sonati
In another part of the festival, several colegios, high schools, participated in a mural contest, creating colorful images with environmental messages. The catch: they had to use all recycled materials (except for cement). I visited one school in the final days of finishing their mural, as students spread cement and fixed bottle tops and pieces of ceramic, glass, and mirror to create designs. Each school was responsible for an original design, conceived and carried out by students. A student there proudly showed me his pencil sketch of a section of the mural, with a frog catching an insect and the national bird, the plume-tailed guardabarranca (the “turquoise-browed motmot” in English). One of the boys working with him had collected shells from the beach to represent the trunk of a tree, while another carefully glued long pieces of mirror for butterfly wings. Their message read, “Be the change you want to see in the (world),” with the earth represented by blue and green plastic bottle tops.
Affixing butterfly wings
Detail from the mural
Further down the wall, a group of girls cleaned cement off of the bottle tops while their teacher stood on a ladder gluing tops for the message, “The forest gives us life.”
The weekend featured the culminating events of the festival: a volcano hike and the carnaval. Both activities have greatly increased in size since 2010, the festival’s inaugural year. At 6 a.m. over 400 people boarded six school buses that trundled up the dirt roads to the base of the Volcan las pilas. Teenagers and families struggled to climb the steep trail, which cleaved through loose volcanic sand then leveled out in the shade of secondary forest. Many people wore flimsy sandals and carried heavy bags of food for lunch, with no hiking gear to speak of. Yet, amazingly, the vast majority made it up the four-hour trek to the summit. On the way up I met some girls who’d taken off their shoes and were walking back down the trail, and I gave them a pep talk and some water to convince them to keep going.
When we finally summited (after a much-needed break for lunch), they all agreed the vista was worth it: immense Lake Xolotlán, the distant church spires of León, the bright blue crater lake Asoscosa, and green growth spilling down the volcano’s flanks. A fumarole smoked above us and soon mist rolled in, reducing visibility to less than 100 feet.
We were surrounded by secondary forest and ranchland—the primary forest was cut down as recently as a decade ago. The previous weekend on an exploratory hike with Sonati we bushwhacked down from the summit to primary forest, completely shaded by hundred-foot gray-barked ceiba and feathery-leaved acacia trees, the faint trail littered with yellow jocote fruit and matted with ferns. We walked vertiginously close to the sheer edge of the crater, where green foliage poured down beyond our view, a tangle of canopy and vines, calls of white-face monkeys echoing below.
The next day the mapaches put the finishing touches on their skit, song and dance performance for the carnaval. But a few hours before the parade was set to start it started raining—hard. Just 30 minutes before the skies cleared. I quickly painted raccoon eyes on each mapache and we jumped on a crowded bus to cross town. There we joined hundreds of students from other schools, dressed as turtles, flowers, and trash monsters. One girl wore an incredible dress designed by her mother made entirely out of woven, diamond-shaped pieces of plastic soda bottles. A giant caterpillar was brought to life by a handful of teenagers, like a dragon from Chinese New Year. A group of teenagers waved banners with messages like, “the tropical forest is life” from atop stilts. Since this is Nicaragua, where there is always music, and also a carnaval, one of the trucks in the parade blared salsa, merengue, and even reggaeton as we danced through the streets. People came out of their homes and stores to cheer and wave and vendors set up stands to sell food and drinks.
The mapaches were at the head of the parade carrying Sonati’s banner and taking turns leading dances. When we arrived at the city center each school group performed and were judged for the quality of their environmental message. As representatives of Sonati the mapaches were not part of the competition, so they performed first. With perky tails made of shredded, re-used plastic bags threaded on wire, they pretended they were on the banks of a river, washing their food, when a hunter appeared, capturing some for pets and scaring off the rest. Then the hunter returned to cut down trees and throw trash in the river. At the end of their skit, the hunter was enlightened by one of the raccoons, freeing the ones he captured, and bringing the trees back to life (my starring role—a resurrected tree!)
First place in the competition went to a high school whose performance included beautiful costumes made out of recycled materials, a graceful dance, and dramatic scenes of destruction of a forest followed by its restoration. A light rain returned during the last performances, bringing the energy of the day to a quiet end.