Monthly Archives: January 2012


A baker in Leon.

When I’m on the bus, in the street, in a café, I find myself observing the movements of the people around me, thinking about how much everyday gestures reveal.  Here they’re filled with grace, a simplicity and ease of movement.

Bicycles, taxis, and pedestrians navigate the streets of the cities in fluid motion, sometimes beeping but rarely moving to anger or aggression, seeking ways around each other.

Even the cows by the side of the road move with a certain grace, unhurried by cars, trucks or bicycles, pacing across the pavement in slow motion, pausing to low only if surprised, their faces relaxed, and then returning to their cud.

On the bus the ayudante, the person who collects the money and loads cargo, fluidly moves in and out of the open door, sometimes running to reach the door as the driver is pulling away, sometimes climbing to the roof to attach a bike or tarp, pulling himself up the ladder, then climbing down and dropping lightly to his feet.

On a crowded bus in León, I sat next to my friend Claudia as more and more people boarded and stood in the aisle.  A woman and her 2 year-old son held on to the pole in front of us, and Claudia reached down to the child and gently pulled him to her lap, his mother smiling in acknowledgement even though they didn’t know each other.  The boy rode contentedly for 15 minutes. Another day, on an even more packed bus, a mother and son squeezed onto the steps of the bus, and a man in the front seat offered his lap to the boy.

Enjoying the afternoon on the front porch in Miraflor.

There’s grace in the greetings people offer each other—a handshake between men or new acquaintances and a kiss on the cheek for women.  In the campo, the countryside, people make eye contact when they pass and offer an, “¡Adios!”

Within families the greetings are more intimate.  Maykal, the 15 year-old in my host family, clasps his hands as if in prayer when he sees his grandfather and says, “Abuelito.”  15 month-old Esteffany, the newest member of the family, clasps her hands together when she greets someone, and even “salutes” me.  The parents in the family are now elders themselves, yet they still greet their parents with clasped hands.

Children are taught to give the saludo to elders—I’ve seen parents move the hands of young babies when their grandparents enter the room, imprinting the pattern.  It’s a gesture that strikes me for its simplicity and sincerity.


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Sunday morning game in Miraflor

Nicaragua rivals the US in its passion for the pastime of baseball—I’ve watched games everywhere from dusty villages to lonely beaches to city alleys.  The country is in the last week of the national league season, and the Chinandega Tigers and “El Boer” from Managua are facing off in a seven-game series for the championship.  Nicaragua’s favorite righthander, Vicente Padilla, fresh from being signed to the Boston red Sox, is expected to pitch for Chinandega in tonight’s game, to break the tie of two games to two.

Meanwhile, local leagues provide grassroots games—Miraflor’s villages host partidos every Sunday during the season.  The baseball field in La Pita features a dirt patch for home base and a cow-cropped outfield.  Players hitch their horses to the barbed-wire fence when they arrive and local women sell enchiladas and soda to the spectators.  Sometimes there’s an inspired (and often drunk) heckler to liven things up.  The La Pita team meets once a week to practice, straight from the fields in rubber boots and jeans.

One day on the beach near León I stumbled onto a family game above the high-tide line, the big-bellied aunt pitching to her nephews, outfielders diving in the soft sand.  She later invited me to join them the next day—unfortunately I was leaving and couldn’t take her up on it (not to mention my pitching arm is out of shape…)

Meanwhile kids improvise their equipment with sticks and balls made from rubber bands.  The girls often play as fiercely as the boys—one year the best pitcher in the primary school in La Pita, Miraflor was a fifth grader who everyone clamored for.

In a community of coffee pickers in the mountains near Matagalpa the kids played in a narrow, pitted lane next to their school, hitting a hollow plastic ball with their hand.  The bases were a broken-down toy car, the edge of a wooden building, and a cleft in the mud.  Ten year-old Marlyne called the game, terms in English chanted in a Spanish accent, per tradition: “Tres out!… Foul!” then “¡A home! ¡A home!”

Six year-old Hector "batting" in La Hermandad, Matagalpa

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How to Make Tortillas: A Photo Diary

The corn is sowed by hand into oxen-ploughed furrows and watered by winter rains.  Mature after several months, the corn is wrapped in its husk and left to dry on the stalk.

Each mazorca is collected and hauled back to the house on horseback to be husked.  Abuelito Prospero pops the kernels off into a large gourd bowl.

The kernels are cooked with ashes and water for an hour.  This process, called nixtamalization, softens the kernels, improves their flavor, and increases their nutritional value.

After they’ve cooled, Ana washes the kernels in several changes of water and leaves them in fresh water to soak overnight.

The next morning, the kernels are milled twice—once to “break” them, then to make the masa smoother.  Julio works the hand mill in the kitchen.

Dora shapes the masa into thick tortillas and fires them on the comal.

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“Cutting Coffee”

Yosselin, Naomi, and my basket of berries

December and January are cool and lush after the winter rains, and the months of the coffee harvest in northern Nicaragua.  In Matagalpa, the commercial center of coffee production, gray-beaned café en pergamino is spread out on black tarps by the side of the road to dry in the sun.

Nicaragua has many small family producers organized into cooperatives, conducive to growing high-quality Arabica beans for the Fair Trade, organic, and shade-grown markets.  The farmers in Miraflor are organized into several cooperatives, one with a cupping lab.

Yancy "cortando cafe"

In Miraflor during the season nearly everyone of working age spends some time cortando café, literally “cutting coffee,” making about 40 córdobas a ten-pound bucket, or $2.  My friend Alex has a few acres of coffee plants growing in the shade of oak and jocote trees and I hiked up the hill from the house one morning to pick coffee with him.  I wove through rows of glossy, dark-leaved bushes dotted with lime-green, yellow, and reddish-pink berries to find him.

Portrait of a newbie harvester (taken by 12 year-old Yosselin)

Alex gave me a big woven basket that I wore in front with two thin leather straps looped around my shoulders.  Almairie and her daughters Yosselin, 12 and Yancy, 9 (aunt and cousins of “my” family) showed me how to pull down the meter-tall bushes to get to the ripe red or yellow berries on top once I’d stripped the lower branches.  The technique for picking the berries, Alex explained, was to pull without yanking, leaving the stem on the plant.  If the stem is removed, no new growth is possible.

Soon I got the hang of it, a twisting pull, then dropping the firm berries in my basket, fingers sticky and stained brown.  Yosselin complimented me on my technique, “¡Cortás bien bonito Sara!”  “You cut well!” as she deftly harvested berries into a halved plastic jug tied around her waist.

Unable to resist the bright red berry, I popped one into my mouth, sucking the thin layer of pulp off the beans.  It tasted, well, vegetable-like, but sweet.

Time passed quickly as Almairie’s 2 ½ year-old daughter Naomi kept us cracking up with comments about her “snot-nosed” sisters and Yosselin peppered me with questions about travel (How high do the planes fly?  What do the clouds look like from the plane?)

At intervals we stopped to dump the berries into bags at the end of the rows.  Almairie worked from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. that day, when Alex loaded the bags onto his horse and carried them up to the mill.  Then they were de-pulped and laid out to dry, eventually to be de-husked, roasted, and ground into the lifeblood of the north, café.

The de-pulping machine



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Christmas in Nicaragua

Traditional Christmas toys from Masaya

During the Christmas season in León I clapped for giant dancing puppets, went to an evening Mass, sang hymns to the Virgin María by candlelight, and was bombarded by booming advertisements from truck-mounted stereos for Huge sales! and Special holiday offers!

The shopping streets around the main market in León were literally overflowing—bright plastic toys, flimsy kitchen tools, tin decorations, and multicolored knickknacks spilled out of storefronts and across the sidewalk into the street.  There was barely room for one car to pass through, so pedestrians, bicyclists and buses jockeyed for space to squeeze, or dash, through.

Fake Christmas trees were ubiquitous in shops and homes in the center of León, some natural-looking in dark green, most bright blue or silver or white, and surprisingly expensive: from $10-$50.  Christmas music blared from stores: in the air-conditioned, fluorescently-modern supermarket in the city center I heard “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” multiple times, in both Spanish and English!

Custom cars

Yet, in some kind of answer to the mountains of cheap plastic goods, the broad plaza next to the cathedral featured rows of traditional toys, made by hand out of straw and wood in Masaya.  (A yellow wooden “Nissan” or “Toyota” could be yours for a mere 20 córdobas, one dollar!)  Families strolled through the parque central at night to enjoy the lights of the crèche and to watch the dancing puppets of la Gigantona.

La Gigantona y el Pepe Cabezon


La Gigantona y el Pepe Cabezón  is a uniquely Nicaraguan Christmastime tradition.  In León multiple Gigantonas could be located on any given evening by listening for the drums that accompany the puppets’ wild dancing.  Troupes of kids crisscross the city, stopping at houses and acting out the story of la Gigantona y el Pepe for 10 córdobas, about 50 cents.  The larger-than-life-size papier-mâché puppets represent a giant Spanish woman (hence la Gigantona) and the short but smart indigenous man, el Pepe (hence his moniker cabezón, big-headed.)  The story symbolizes the mixing of Spanish and Catholic traditions and indigenous belief.  The Gigantona shakes wildly back and forth as the Pepe bobs his huge head up and down.  Meanwhile, another child recites coplas, poetic sayings, in a loud voice to the crowd.

I was fascinated by the kids in the troupes, lugging the heavy puppets and drums up and down the streets, with improvised costumes made of a sweatshirt hung on a coat hanger or an old suit jacket for Pepe, his head made out of a woven market basket turned upside-down and painted.            

One night at the beginning of December I heard singing coming from the family whose house I share, the voices of the women occasionally joined by the two young sons.  Some songs were sweet and melodic, others more animated, where they clapped hands to accompany their voices.  For nine nights they gathered to sing and pray to the candlelit altar of María in the dining room.  One of the holiest days of the year for Catholics in Nicaragua, the 8th of December is when they celebrate the Immaculate Conception of María.

I went to record their music, touched by the clarity of their a capella voices.  I recorded a few songs, then Carola passed me the songbook and I joined them, the boys laughing at me as I stumbled over the words.

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