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

On the Cacao Trail

This is how chocolate starts out: cacao seeds enclosed in milky-white, gelatinous pulp, sweet and slightly tart, like a firm mango.  A thick husk protects the fruit, the whole mazorca weighing a good pound.

This is also the first cacao fruit I’ve ever tasted.  I’m thrilled to try the precursor of chocolate, which some friends have called an obsession (how else was I supposed to make it through the school day??)

I scoop a small handful of the baba (seeds and pulp, like in a pumpkin) into my hand, then pop a couple seeds into my mouth.  The smooth pulp is firmly stuck on the seeds, so I suck it off with my teeth and tongue.

Xiomara’s the one holding the mazorca.  She’s the daughter of a coffee farmer who also grows cacao, and she toured me around her family’s small plantation.  Though not the height of the harvest, since cacao trees produce year-round we find ripe mazorcas.

Her dad, Juan, is an innovator in his community—he’s the only member of his cooperative growing cacao, inspired by a workshop.  He tells me he likes cultivating cacao because there’s less of an investment of time and energy than with coffee.  Cacao is native to Central America, and produces its own compost in the form of decomposed husks, so there’s little input after the trees are established.  Juan says he gets a similar price per pound selling his raw cacao beans locally as selling coffee to the cooperative.

Black, decomposing husks and a fresh one on the forest floor

The process after he harvests is simple: he leaves the beans in a sack for three days to ferment.  Then he dries them in the sun, and brings them to the market in the city of Matagalpa (keeping some at home for pinol, the national drink of ground corn and cacao).

Xiomara points out the range of food in cultivation on their land: glossy green mango and lemon trees shade the cacao, pitahaya fruit cactus wraps around the trunks of avocado trees, yucca shoots burst from the soil in a shady corner.  When I ask her if she knew the term polyculture, she says no, but when I explain it’s the opposite of a monoculture, she quickly agrees her family’s farm was a good example.

Wasps enjoying the cacao

We meander a bit more through the plantation, arriving at the banks of a stream, broad-canopied ceiba trees towering overhead.  Here in the deeper shade, Juan is experimenting with coffee interplanted with cacao.  Black oropendulas with yellow-tipped tails fly above and smaller birds weave through the trees.  By now, I’m hooked, not just on the cacao, but on the incredible diversity of Juan’s land.  He’s hoping other cooperative members will try cacao, pooling their resources to improve harvests and quality, and earn a greater profit.

After visiting Juan’s farm, I stumble on a booth selling organic chocolates at a fair in Matagalpa.  The woman staffing it invites me to visit the cacao cooperative a couple hours away, and a few weeks later my friend (and agroforestry expert) Katie and I hop on a bus to check it out.

We get off just past the small town of Matiguás for the cooperative “La Campesina.”  Silverio, a tecnico who advises farmers on growing practices, shows us around the processing plant before going taking us out to visit a farm.

Since the cooperative exports to Ritter Sport, the German chocolate company, it has a lab for quality control.  We walk inside an open, hangar-like space with a cement floor to check out the drying process.  Cacao beans are spread out on a mesh rack as an assistant measures humidity and fermentation.

He puts the beans in a little metal box, each seed fitting into its own divot, then closes the box and drives a metal blade through, guillotining the cacao.  (That’s actually what it’s called, a guillotine!) When he opens it again, we can see each bean has tiny holes and rivulets in them, which means they were properly fermented.

They also have to control for humidity—over seven percent and it’s not acceptable for export.

Silverio raises a handful of raw beans to his nose and inhales deeply.  “It should just smell like cacao, with no other odors.”  We copy him, breathing in an earthy, sweet aroma.  The batch is good.

After the tour of the lab, we bus another 45 minutes to Armando’s farm, jumping off the bus and crossing the narrow highway to his small home.  A greenhouse and cacao nursery share the front yard with a corral full of cows.

Armando and one of his trees

Armando’s been growing cacao for over 10 years and working with the cooperative for six.  He said he’s seen a great increase in yields and the health of his crop since he joined the cooperative, learning more about managing the trees.

After checking out the nursery and meeting Armando’s dog, we set out for the cacao trees.  We walk down a rutted path through more cows and cross a narrow stream before climbing into prickly pastures, then through a fence into the plantation.  The difference is striking—from grasses to banana trees and then into the plantation, where temperature and light dip degrees in the deep shade of secondary forest.  Armando has mostly planted in spaces between mature trees, areas that were more densely forested before a hurricane swept through with high winds.

Katie, Silverio, and Armando entering the forest

Most of the cacao trees are around 15 feet high, with branches clustered at the top.  Armando points out the cacao pods growing along the trunks, saying, “At the height of the harvest, you can’t even see the trunk for the pods.”  Some bear purple-red husks, others yellow ones, as well as smaller green pods still developing.

Armando has become more savvy about the value of his crop since joining the cooperative and has plans to triple his acreage in planting.  He’s in his late-forties and divorced—when Silverio asks him if he’s dating anyone, he confesses he likes a younger woman.  “What would she want with me?” he asks.  Silverio is quick to respond, “Don’t sell yourself short—you’re sitting on a gold mine!”  Armando laughs and agrees, “The cacao is an investment I’ll have my whole life.”

In April, he makes regular rounds through the plantation to prune and monitor for disease.  But during the main harvest months of September-January things get busy.  After harvesting the baba in big sacks, Armando loads his “black gold” on the bus to Matiguás.  Farmers who live farther away bring theirs to one of a dozen centers, and from there it’s collected to bring to the main plant.

Silverio says they ferment the cacao for 48 hours in an enclosed container, then an additional 4 days, before spreading it out to dry it in the sun.  In all, it takes about two weeks to prepare the raw cacao for export.

Back on Armando’s farm, after the hot hike we sit in the shade on the cool forest floor, breaking open a mazorca to revive ourselves with fresh cacao fruit.  The forest vibrates with the sound of cicadas, and we gaze up into the canopy of an immense, gray-barked guanacaste tree.

I ask Armando about what animals he sees in his forest and he mentions wild pigs, some kind of wild cat, and birds.  “You should see it here in the morning.  With all the birds, it’s a joyful awakening.”

Given all the different tasks to manage—cows, pasture, the milpa where he grows corn and beans, and his home, I wonder what he likes best.  “I like it best working here,” he says, sweeping his arm out and meeting my eyes in a smile.

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Girls + Graffiti = Ladies Destroying Crew

Kyd outlining

A group of graffiti artists known as the Ladies Destroying Crew bombs the streets of Managua, cans of bright spray paint as their arsenal.  I met the graffiteras Kyd and Sak when they came to Matagalpa to teach other women the art and activism of graffiti.

There were about 20 of us in the workshop, ranging in age from 10 to 40.  Kyd and Sak (their street names) started with a polished PowerPoint of the history of graffiti and a comprehensive glossary (also on a handout).  Some of the English terms—tag, crew, highlight—were pronounced with a Spanish accent (and a bit of swagger), and in other cases, Latinized—“bomb” became bomba.

Both Kyd and Sak are young and passionately dedicated to graffiti.  Kyd is slender and soft-spoken, yet has a certain bad-ass presence—she knows her history and the Ladies Destroying Facebook page is full of stunning photos of her work.

Sak speaks a mile a minute and has a quick and enthusiastic smile framed by braces.  She gushes about the graffiteras she admires and her desire to open the art form to more women.

Their comadres in the Ladies Destroying Crew are four other women, who all meet up once a month to paint together.  Two members from Costa Rica meet less frequently, but Kyd said they hoped to travel there to do some painting.

Sak at work

Kyd and Sak tag-teamed their presentation, showing works from famous international street artists  and their own creations from abandoned and not-so-abandoned spaces in Managua—colorful piezas with three or more colors, or quick bombs meant to be done on the run.

After the intro we were given our assignments: to develop our own tags, or signatures, using one color and a quick style, then to create a more detailed bomba,  and finally a complex pieza.  None of this was on the wall—yet.  We used thick magic markers and paper to experiment with bubble letters, block letters, and (my favorite) Arabic-inspired calligraphy.

While we worked Kyd and Sak circulated to give us feedback.  Sak said my tag needed to be simpler, and I first confused the bomba with a colorful pieza, and had to scale it back.  “You need to be able to do it quickly,” she said, “if you’re doing it as vandalism.” (Which, in this group of feminist activists, was a definite goal.)

Finally we got to use the espray and play with paint on the wall— Kyd and Sak outlined the letters for the fierce message, “mujeres libres, lindas, locas” or “liberated, beautiful, crazy women” and we started to fill them in.

“Libres” takes shape

The painting was satisfying, and addictive—with just a light press on the cap the color flowed on the wall, quick strokes filling the surface.

It felt like power, holding this tool, with the potential to radically alter a space.  It felt like rebellion, wielding what, the world over, is considered synonymous with destruction or anarchy.

The women at the workshop agreed: one told me, “I like to be rebellious, and the graffiti feeds my desire to do something rebellious in the streets.”  My friend Itzel explained, “Graffiti for us, as feminists, will be a political action, but it will also be clandestine.”

Once we filled in the background, the graffiteras took over.  It was amazing to watch Kyd and Sak paint, their fluid movements transforming flat letter-like shapes into bright, 3-D words, quickly blending colors and highlighting with flashes of white.

I wondered how it ever occurred to them to begin painting, with just a tiny handful of women graffiti artists in the whole country.  Kyd, who’s 20, has been painting for about two years.  She founded the crew in 2010 with two of her friends to start a movement of graffiteras

Sak’s been painting for less than a year, and joined Ladies Destroying just a few months ago.  For both, the initial inspiration to paint came from seeing graffiti around Managua and wanting to try it.

As they’ve gotten better, they’ve looked to male graffiti artists in Nicaragua and women abroad for inspiration.

Sak told me, “The graffitera who’s considered the best in the world is Mad C.  I’m super, super inspired by her because she makes awesome piezas.”

Intrigued, I did some research: Mad C is a young German graffiti artist who creates incredibly detailed murals, often with fantastical or sci-fi features like a giant squid sinking ships.  She’s done projects in three dozen countries, including a recent mural in León, Mexico.

Yet Sak and Kyd are no slouches themselves, and with this, their second workshop, they continue to spark the creativity of more women.

The cover photo on their Facebook page is of a freestanding concrete wall, with bright red and yellow 3-D letters rising from a blue background.  It reads, “Soy mujer y soy artista”: I’m a woman and I’m an artist.

As Kyd said, “My message to other women is, if you’re passionate about graffiti, express yourself, and leave your legacy on the streets.”

The finished wall! Libres, lindas, locas….


Filed under Nicaragua, travel

Easter in León

The Bishop of Leon and other priests during jueves santo mass.

The celebrations of Semana Santa in León are bright and powerful, with fireworks crackling, processions of hundreds, and long masses presided over by the bishop and fleets of priests and altar boys in full regalia.

The energy of the Catholics in attendance defied both the incredible heat of the dry season and the temptation to join half the country on the beach!

On Thursday afternoon I went to the “solemn mass” at the cathedral with my Catholic friend Claudia.  Since I was raised agnostic, everything that takes place in church is, well, Latin to me! Claudia was an excellent guide, explaining rituals and prepping me for photo opportunities.

Women in the choir

The solemn mass was, mercifully, short (unlike the three hour-long Saturday evening mass which culminates in Christ’s resurrection.)  Yet it was full of ceremonial detail: musky incense wafted through the massive marble expanse, the words of the priest echoing with each swing of the censer; a small choir of young women and a handful of young men harmonized over the songs of the flock; women knelt, heads bent in prayer, on the steps around the edges of the altar.

(I’ve included some recordings: click on the links to listen.)

Sounds of the Solemn Mass

Near the end of the mass a dozen men of the community sat waiting in two pews at the front of the cathedral, their bare feet visible beneath brown pant legs.  When the bishop stepped down from the high altar, the crowd drew in to watch as he washed their feet with water from a glass pitcher.

Claudia explained, “It’s an act of humility, and it reminds us of what Jesus did before the Last Supper, washing the feet of his disciples.”

The procession of the seven altars

After the mass the bishop led the congregation to seven other altars, starting with the rarely-open chapel adjacent to the cathedral.

Claudia and I and a couple friends joined the procession as it wound through the narrow streets in the dusk.  Though another friend later scolded me, “You’re supposed to go to all seven,” after hours of standing during mass we just visited two churches, the somber La Merced and yellow-trimmed St. Francisco.

Songs of the procession of seven altars

Friday's procession

The bells were silent on holy Friday, the streets mostly empty.  In late morning another procession flowed through the city, with larger-than-life icons held aloft on the shoulders of the congregation.  The bearers dripped with sweat in the midday sun, though they continued singing and praying with the loudspeaker mounted on a pick-up in the middle of the procession.

Maria was borne by several dozen men and women, a bouquet of lilies at her feet.

Bearing Maria

A massive statue of Christ robed in red needed an entourage to proceed it through the streets—men with long wooden poles lifted the electric lines for it to pass under.

The bells found their voices again Saturday night after the mass to mark Christ’s resurrection, the whole city booming with fireworks and ringing with sound.

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Art and Faith during Holy Week

On Good Friday I was immersed in color and tradition in Subtiava, a barrio of León.  I came for Semana Santa, Holy Week, and accompanied my Catholic friends to several masses and processions.  (I’ll write more about those in my next post).  But I was particularly excited to see the colored sawdust paintings that cover the streets in Subtiava, part of a 75 year-long tradition.

Moses parting the waters.

Most of the paintings depicted Biblical stories, while some were images of Jesus or designs with religious symbols.  My Catholic friends helped me understand the meaning—for each painting they identified the story, looking for clues in the characters or props, occasionally asking other people for help.

The narrow “street of the carpets” was closed off all day and flooded with Nicaraguan and international tourists and Leoneses all afternoon.

The paintings range from five by seven feet to six by 10 feet, every inch saturated in color.

Different families design and create the paintings, called “carpets of sawdust” in Spanish for their thickness.  They start in mid-morning and work all day in the hot summer sun to complete them.   But the process starts weeks before, with the design and preparation of materials.

A painting in progress

Sawdust dregs

One artist told me they use powdered clothing dye to get the rich colors of sawdust.  Some artists used paper, twigs, salt, leaves, flowers, seeds, and even glitter in their paintings.

Traditionally, each generation teaches the next the art of alfombras: one man was working with his young daughter to finish his design.

And there were many other kids spreading sawdust.  I joked with this boy, “Jesus needs his beard!”

A teenager I spoke with gestured to the small homes behind him and said those four households of his family work on the mural, including “all the cousins.”  The parents and grandparents sat in rocking chairs on the shady stoop, watching the tradition unfold in the care of new hands.

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