Category Archives: volunteering

A Bird in the Hand

Some days I have fantasies about being a scientist, imagining long days in exotic field locations, listening for birdcalls in lush rainforest or tracking mammals through the desert.  When I met Katie Goodall, PhD student (and my housemate in Matagalpa), and found out she’s researching birds and coffee farms, I immediately hoped she’d let me tag along.

With little persuasion on my part, one day Katie and I got on the Jinotega-bound bus and wound up the road into coffee country.

After jumping off at the highway, we hiked down the road to Selva Negra, a coffee plantation, hotel, and pioneer of ecotourism in Nicaragua in the 80’s.  On either side of us rows of coffee bushes spilled over the rolling hills, interspersed with mature trees that cast shade below.

Putting up a mist net

Selva Negra, like most farms in Nicaragua, grows Arabica beans that need some shade to thrive.  As a result of this planting strategy, some mature trees and forest are left intact.  A byproduct is greater habitat for birds and other animals compared with non-shade-grown coffee.

Selva Negra’s coffee is also grown organically, with natural fertilizers and without pesticides, which also protects birds and other animals.

Katie takes a bird out of the mist net

Katie uses fine-threaded mist nets to catch and release birds to find out which species are present on the farms.

In the late afternoon she chose three sites for the nets within the plantings, each at a different angle and in slightly different environments.  We put up the poles, and strung out and untangled the nets, then wound them up so they wouldn’t catch any night creatures.

The coffee bushes had burst into bloom with fragrant white flowers, their lemony scent akin to gardenia.  The sun had dipped lower in the sky by the time we finished prepping all the nets.  In the late afternoon, the plantation came alive with the songs of wrens and oropendulas, one of my favorite birds, with a looping, musical call and feet-long woven nests that dangle from the outer branches of mature trees.  We packed up for the night, planning to come back early the next morning when the birds would be most active.

Over a dinner with giant homemade tortillas at the hotel’s restaurant I asked Katie more about her research.

Her agroecology degree, and in turn the question guiding her studies, are complex: she wants to know how coffee farmers’ decision-making is affecting the environment. She’s measuring that effect through the abundance and diversity of birds and trees, and focusing on farms in cooperatives, as opposed to large-scale plantations owned by a single person.

So her research involves not just the birds and the forest but the human players.  This element fascinates me, having spent time in coffee-growing communities and seeing all the pressures small farmers face: the politics and power dynamics of cooperatives; fluctuating prices in international markets; land distribution; attitudes about gender and work; and the list goes on.

So the unique thing about Katie’s research is she’s as passionate about understanding the challenges farmers face as protecting birds.  She’s hoping her research will benefit the farmers she’s surveying.  Before she left Nicaragua she invited participating farmers to a meeting to hear her preliminary results and get their feedback.

Freeing a wren

The morning after we set up the nets we woke up at 5 am but it was so windy we waited another hour to make our first foray.  We opened up the nets, then came back on a half-hour schedule for each net to check for birds.

One site was easy to locate next to a snag with a neat hole ten feet up, telltale for a toucanet nest.  (Toucanets are small toucans, with a longer, narrower beak).  We soon caught sight of a parent in nearby tree, waiting to swoop down and perch on the edge of the hole to feed its young.

Young toucanets

Between the second and third sites we spotted a tiny hummingbird nest a little above eye level in a bush at the edge of the trail, but a mirror held above it showed no eggs or other sign of life.

Soon the quick jogs between the nets became familiar.  As we moved from the sun-dappled plantation to the cool forest trail and back, we caught new scents beyond the coffee blossoms: musky peccary, the mossy forest smell.

Blowing on the chest feathers to identify the hummingbird’s sex

In one net we caught a delicate hummingbird, which Katie freed and released with minimal study, since their hyper-fast metabolism makes them sensitive to capture.

While I didn’t handle any birds, I did free a giant cicada, unwinding the thin threads while holding its body to keep the propeller wings from vibrating.  Katie said it was good practice for other winged creatures!

I had to leave that afternoon, but Katie stayed at the farm a couple more days, and returned each week over the course of another month.  When she was in town, she spent hours a day inputting data, a part of the scientist’s life that didn’t make it into my fantasy.  But I can report the birdcalls were beautiful, and that my taste for coffee grew in complexity.


Filed under Nicaragua, travel, volunteering


Letys, consultant, after interviewing Maria for the sexuality project

I’ve been working with a radio project called “Ya no vamos a callar” or “We won’t be silent” that is broadcast in eight communities in northern Nicaragua.

The goal of the program is to reduce violence against women through education and empowerment.  Each month there’s a different theme–in March  the theme was the new law against violence against women, and in April it’s on political and civic participation.  The fourth show of the month is news, which is where I have been contributing most.

The show isn’t online yet so I’m uploading one of the most recent programs, all about adolescent sexuality.  In it, I report on a fascinating project to find out from children and adolescents what they know about sexuality.

Since the show is all in Spanish, I’m including a link to an article that I wrote about the project in English!

Click on the link below to listen:

“Ya no vamos a callar”: sexualidad adolescente

And here’s the link to the article in English:

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Sisterhood is Blockade-Defying!

Our caravan left Matagalpa for Managua at 6:30 a.m., four sunny orange school buses filled with women from northern Nicaragua.  The marcha nacional for International Women’s Day was set to begin at 9 a.m.

But after an hour traffic came to standstill and riot police in shiny black armor lined the roadside—veterans of the revolution had blockaded the entire Panamerican Highway in protest, and were letting vehicles through only every six hours.

But we had a plan: talk to the dissident leaders and convince them we were united in struggle—they were demanding medical attention and remuneration, and we were demanding justice for women.  Our buses continued past the police barricades, purple banners flying.

But the veterans were unpersuaded, basically saying “f—off,” then firing a loud firework into the sky in warning.  (While they do have legitimate demands, the war veterans are unpredictable, and armed.  When I started to approach the barricade to take photos, my bus driver told me it was dangerous, so I kept my distance).

So, Plan B: a police escort led us down dusty back roads, through a river, and finally past the roadblock.

We arrived in Managua at 10 a.m. and joined the march mid-route.  Hundreds of women were already marching. The feminist drum corps, a.k.a. Batucada Feminista, rolled out in carnaval-themed garb.

I interviewed some women (and a couple men) for the radio program I’m working on here.  I asked them what they thought was the most important challenge facing Nicaraguan women today.  Several women said access to abortion—Nicaragua is one of three Latin American countries with a total abortion ban.

There is no legal abortion in Nicaragua, even in cases of rape, incest, or if a woman’s health is endangered.  This despite several high-profile stories in the last couple years: last November a 12 year-old indigenous girl who was raped was forced to carry the pregnancy to term, and in 2010 a 27 year-old woman was denied cancer treatment because she was pregnant.

Other women I interviewed said domestic violence was the most critical issue facing women—while Nicaragua has a low overall crime rate, domestic violence is extremely prevalent.  And that includes the murder of women by their partners and ex-partners: in 2011 76 women were killed, a crime that has recently been codified as “femicide” in Nicaragua to distinguish it from so-called “crimes of passion” and to impose longer prison sentences.  This year 18 women have been murdered, seven of them just last week.

Commemorating murdered women

The organization I’m working with, Grupo Venancia, is just one of many addressing violence against women.  They have an amazing array of projects and services, from therapeutic groups for abused girls to campaigns for self-empowerment for young women to accompaniment for women to press charges against abusers.

Yet despite the alarming statistics, the spirit of the march was positive.  There were many young women with creative slogans and style.

Her sign reads: This body--you can't touch it, you can't rape it, you can't murder it.

And at the end of the march, the feminist drummers and marchers and neighborhood kids all threw around giant painted beach balls that read “freedom” and “equality.” And everyone smiled.


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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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