Friday, May 3, 2013


I forgot to post these pictures from my phone. During our trip north a few weeks ago we visited a cigar factory in EstelĂ­. I knew absolutely nothing about growing tobacco or making cigars beforehand so it was a cool experience. EstelĂ­ is known for having some of the world's best cigars too! Here's a little photo tour of the production...

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A big problem

These last few weeks, especially this one, have been much more difficult than most of the trip. This is for a lot of reasons, firstly because I'm going home soon and that has made me realize how much I miss it. But there's a lot more to it.

We have been learning about the neoliberal economic model and CAFTA and "fair" trade and the Contra War.

 I grew up on one side of each of these huge ideas and events. From my home in Texas, I've bought at HEB coffee grown in Nicaragua, I've worn clothes from Target made in Nicaragua, and all my life my family has paid taxes to the government that funded human rights violations in Nicaragua. A government that is still funding these violations today in several parts of the world.

And now I'm living the other side.

I live in a house with cinder block walls, a concrete floor, and a tin roof with holes. I live in a house where the walls don't go all the way up to the ceiling and the temperature is above 100 all day and much of the night. I live in a house that is also a business, selling shampoo, soap, food, drinks, and nacatamales from the front window. More parts of the informal economy meet me at the doorstep, where the aguacate lady walks by with her basket each morning yelling to customers. Then comes the lady and her bread cart: "PAN! PAN!" There are shirtless, shoeless men selling little baggies of purified water at the bus stop. These people make up the 49% of Nicaraguans that are insecurely employed or underemployed.  Many of those with formal sector jobs wait for the bus, which will drop them off in a free trade zone. Maybe they will put together purses in a maquila (also know as a sweatshop) and get paid 10 Cordobas for each 100 of these bags. And they will thank God for this work that allows them to make $1 for each 250 purses. Meanwhile thousands of others, mostly women, will be turned away. I would tell you about what I saw when I visited the free trade zone, but so far we haven't been able to be let in to see it.

 One of my host brothers is bilingual and is marrying a girl from North Dakota. My other host brother blares english rap music from his room each night after playing futbol with the other teenagers. My host mom tells us each day that she hopes we like her food and teases us for not understanding her while we watch MTV, Big Bang Theory, or Storage Wars and drink Coca-Cola. 

After four months living in the region, I can't help but feel that my life is inextricably connected to this land and these people. 

But the thing is, my life has always been inextricably linked to this land and these people. 

And the thing is, your life is too. 

Globalization has become such a buzzword and I'm not exactly sure what it means to you. But to me, I can plainly see the connections it has made in my world. I have been kissed on the cheek by the woman who made the tapestry I bought my mom. I have eaten at the table of the man who picked my coffee and shaken hands with the young man that roasted it. 

I have lived in the homes of those who have the short end of the globalization stick. They sure aren't poor because they don't work hard. They sure aren't poor because they don't take advantage of democracy; Nicaragua historically has around 86% voter turnout. They sure aren't poor because their country doesn't have natural resources; Nicaragua has arable land, water, forest, beauty, and biodiversity. 

So what is it then?

Corruption within the government is a huge and ongoing issue for the country. Our speaker today, Alfredo, the secretary of KPMG said flat out that "I oppose the fact that Nicaragua is considered a 'poor country'. Nicaragua is not a poor country, Nicaragua is a poorly managed country". 

But the thing is, its not just internal issues that are holding Nicaragua back. The United States military occupied Nicaragua from 1909-1935, then the US government supported a dynastic dictatorship for 40 years, then after the Nicaraguan people overthrew that regime the US trained and sent in Nicaraguans to overthrow the new government, costing $17 billion in direct and indirect war damages. Oh, and 30,000 lives. Which, for a country the size of Wisconsin, is the equivalent of the US losing three times the number of lives lost in the Vietnam War. Except many of these people were civilians: men, women, and children. 

And the thing is, we have all these laws to protect "free trade". Free trade so that Monsanto can freely bring in their terminator genes and monopolize agriculture here as it has done in the United States. Free trade so that Riceland can sell rice subsidized in the US at blow production cost to all of Central America. Thanks, CAFTA-DR, for free trade so that "everyone wins". 

But its pretty clear to me that everyone isn't winning. Free trade may help GDPs and stimulate investment. But there's a big problem when Nicaragua is advertising itself to foreign investors as the place with the "cheapest and most available labor source". I see a big problem when a community that sustains itself on organic and fair trade coffee production doesn't have a middle school because they can't afford to pay the teacher. 

I see a lot of big problems. And there's really not a lot I can do about it. But I don't want to enjoy the benefits of cheaper coffee at the expense of a generation's education in rural Nicaragua. Just like I don't want my tax money to pay for drones to blow up children who have the unfortunate luck to stand by someone who might or might not be a member of the Taliban. I'm not here to disparage or demonize my country. I'm here as a United States citizen saying that these promoted by my government are absolutely not okay. Unless you would have preferred the alleged Boston Marathon bomber to have just been blown up as he walked through Cambridge, Massachusetts one day at the risk of taking out a few others along with him, I think you are on my team here. People are all people, no matter their citizenship. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Coffee Land

We spent last Tuesday through Friday back out in the campo in mountainous northern Nicaragua. We went to a coffee finca in the community of Sontule. It is part of the reserve area of Miraflor, which is managed by UCA, or the Union de cooperativas agriculturas. The finca we went to is a cooperative of women called Nueva almanacer, or New Dawn. Organizations of cooperatives like this gives small and medium scale farmers the access to credit, loans, and finance needed to participate in the market. The cooperative has a very rich history and represents the fight for women to have  both official and actual ownership of land within the context of their struggle to overcome machismo and the strong tradition of patriarch. The lands were attacked several times during the Contra war in the early 80s and their entire lands were burned by the (United States sponsored) regime. For this reason, the women and their families were risking their lives to join the new co-op at that time. Once again, communally held land seems to have been a real threat to the world.

 I will take you through our week in pictures.

Our host mom has the biggest, most beautiful garden. They call these strange plants Christmas trees.

This little guy hung around out hammock spot all week.

Plants that collect water while making their home on a tree branch.

Giant ants that come out at night.

These are coffee trees showing the tragic effects of La Roya. They will not have a full harvest again for 3-5 years. The tall trees provide shade for the coffee trees, hence the term "shade grown" coffee. This finca also grows organically and is a fair trade cooperative.

Ripe, freshly picked coffee beans. When a coffee tree is first planted it takes 3-5 years to produce coffee beans that can be made into coffee.
A tour through the journey a coffee bean takes.

This is where the milling takes place. This finca uses what is called wet milling.

The beans must be allowed to dry and ferment.

Here the channel is filled with water and the beans are put in. The good quality beans will sink and be separated. The entire process of readying a bean for roasting takes 3 months. We got to help roast the coffee we purchased from the community on the last night as well.

Our host mom´s garden has infant coffee trees.

When the trees grow they are placed in bags for a season and then moved to the hillsides

We visited the local school and played some sharks and minnows.

The sign outside our house.

We also had the opportunity to participate in a coffee cupping, where we sampled a few different types and qualities of coffee. Something very interesting we learned here is that about 85% of the coffee produced in Nicaragua is fair trade. Yet there is still widespread impoverishment among coffee producers, which in my mind is an easily observable critique of fair trade. I will be researching this for one of my classes and I am very curious to look into the effectiveness of fair trade labeling in Nicaragua. We also learned that while some of the world´s best coffee is grown in the country, most of it is exported and the typical Nicaraguan can´t afford this coffee and drinks instant coffee of the likes of NesCafe.

We also went on a gorgeous sunset hike to a lookout point over the mountains, to which these pictures do absolutely no justice!

Thursday, April 11, 2013


We've been living in Managua for about two and a half weeks now. We live in a neighborhood called Batahola. There is an awesome community center there where they offer tons of classes for community members.

I live with Julie, another member of our group, and Cecilia, our mom, and her 3 sons ranging in age from 30 to 17. The oldest son lives in the back house with his wife. We have the cutest dog, Luna, who attacks with violent love every time you walk by...Our host mom always looks like she wants to save me but its my favorite part of the day! There is a tienda at the front of our house, so neighbors are always coming by to buy snacks and supplies from the window. It's basically the Central American convenience store. We eat breakfast and dinner at our house and eat lunch at the center where we have classes during the day. Let me tell you, there is plenty of incredible food here. We get picked up by our own little bus every morning, so I feel like a kid running down the street to be on time. There is also a nice place to run laps in the morning, minus some dogs that chase us.

Life is simple here and poverty is pervasive. Many, many men are unemployed and domestic violence is a big issue. I've really been learning a lot about neoliberal economics and how free trade, the IMF, and the World Bank have directly affected these countries. Top that off with how much the US has intervened here and it's been a lot to handle.

I'll post more about that later, but I wanted to tell a little about my life here and put up some pictures since we are spending this week in the campo on a coffee finca and I won't have Internet.