Where in the world?

I (Nicole Farn) am travelling in the Guatemala highlands and northwest Nicaragua (May 2014).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Agents of Change

In the mountains of Totogalpa, the sun beats down mercilessly. We visit the three-acre renewable energy centre operated, maintained, and proudly owned by Las Mujeres Solares de Totogalpa (The Solar Women of Totogalpa).

With knowledge gained through a University of Managua initiative to reintegrate land mine survivors into society by building photo-voltaic modules as a way to get energy in an off-the-grid region, the women here have created a sustainable enterprise. 

From my open-air seat at La Casita Solar (The little solar house) restaurant, I take in the solar panels mounted above the well shack, the system of pipes protruding out the roof of the outhouse collecting methane gas, the 'charcoal' briquettes made from agricultural waste and stacked at-the-ready outside the kitchen door. I breathe in the smell of roasting coffee permeating from a solar cooker.

Pedro's face lights up at the sight of the solar ovens, and he heads back to the truck. He returns with his cold, half-eaten breakfast burrito and tucks it inside one of the ovens soaking up sunshine in the yard. Across his face, a proud smile, like a kid who has cracked a secret code. "Set it and forget it," I joke. Although in hindsight I suspect he is not familiar with Ron Popeil or the infamous Ronco rotisserie... He laughs anyway. 

We enjoy a meal prepared solely using renewable energy before taking a tour of the grounds. The small photo-voltaic workshop where solar panels, battery chargers, cookers, and dehydrators are fabricated is occupied today by University students from North America learning about solar technology! The women's cooperative is proud to share their knowledge. They have made energy accessible in their own community and teach others how to do the same, not only in Nicaragua, but in North America too.

I notice a the bicycle-powered blender in the corner, and I request a test drive. They indulge my curiosity and I imagine myself making my breakfast shake this way every morning. I suspect I would often go hungry...

We head out feeling well-fed, well-versed in alternative energy, and, well, inspired. Pedro plucks his warmed and toasty breakfast burrito from the solar oven and we say goodbye to The Solar Women of Totogalpa - truly Agents of Change.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


We take a quick drive through the 35-house community of Virgen Vieja before pulling up next to the blue concrete block and above-ground network of pipes (marking the spot of the shiny new well), the giant banner announcing the well inauguration to take place today and the sturdy tree from which hangs the ceremonial celebratory pinata. No proper celebration is complete without a pinata.

An electric pump fills a holding tank and pvc piping gravity feeds water to each of the modest homes in the community. The pump has only been turned on for the first time today.

Claudia literally does not stop beaming as she proudly turns on the tap that, for the first time, delivers water right to her front door (or just outside her front door anyway, which is more of a tarp really, but it shelters her family just the same).

Although dark clouds threaten to bring rain and dampen the festivities, latin tunes blaring from the sound system rented for the occasion summon the community. Always-prepared mothers arrive with umbrellas, and kids of all ages turn up, eager to take a crack at the pinata.

As we ceremoniously turn on the water at the wellhead declaring the beginning of the next chapter for Virgen Vieja, the clouds open up and unceremoniously announce the beginning of Nicaragua's rainy season.

The party scatters. The sound system is covered with a tarp, the pinata is rescued from a soggy fate, and Uberlinda, mother of five and treasurer of the newly established water committee, invites us under some shelter to escape the downpour. 

"I am very proud that the community chose me to serve on the committee," she says. "I'd give up electricity for water instead!" she declares without hesitation as she looks through the sheets of rain spilling down from the gutterless roof and considers all the ways in which water will impact her, her family, and her community. 

The arrival of the rainy season, at long last. The availability of clean drinking water, finally. In a place where resources are often scarce and pinata-worthy revelries are infrequent, today we celebrate abundance. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Seated in the backseat of Pedro's pickup truck, I grasp the front-seat headrests to combat the bumpy roads and Pedro's driving-style which often includes his hands leaving the wheel to include animated gestures in the stories he tells or to answer the incessant ringing of his cell-phone. His finger points out the direction of the passenger window, and he suddenly hits the brakes to bring the truck to a stop. My knuckles whiten as I brace myself and hope that my body will also come to a complete stop, preferably at the same time as the truck. It does. I make a mental note to remember to fasten my seat-belt. 

  Although the stop is unscheduled and is unlikely to make any list of must-see sites, the roadside attraction we happen upon in the rural Chinandega region of Nicaragua is indeed a beautiful sight. A four-post, corrugated roof structure shelters a hand-pump community water well — a community water well built by Change for Children back in 2006. We visit with Herminio and his family as they collect water in buckets to carry the short distance home.

Although most new wells drilled as part of the project now include a pump of some kind, a holding tank, and piping to gravity-feed water to homes, this installation represents a community well designed simply to bring clean water within reach. Community members continue to collect water in buckets, but the water source is located centrally and conveniently for all and represents a vast improvement over what it replaced in 2006 — too-shallow wells dug by hand and contaminated with sulfur and arsenic.

And although installations have become slightly more sophisticated in the short 12 years since this well was drilled, it continues to produce clean water just the same. It continues to endure. I give the pump handle a try for myself and as water surges out the spout, I don't even try to hide the smile that spreads across my face. The kids laugh along with me, but I am certain they must question this activity as a source of amusement for me. Or, at the very least, think it a little nutty. For them, this is routine.

What represents a routine for these kids, and probably, at times, a dreaded chore (not to mention a source of life and health), to me is also a reminder that lasting change is possible. Endurance.   

So, perhaps my smile is not so much amusement as it is happiness. Confidence. Commitment. I bring it with me back into the truck. I think how great it is that, because of one well, this is the only water these kids have ever known. Clean water.

I think of the potential. I smile. And then, I buckle up.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Parque Memorial

In Nicaragua, it is hot. It is the end of the dry season. Rains are expected to start in June. Although, we learn that there is now no predicting the once-reliable weather patterns. In fact, it doesn’t rain much anymore at all.

Pedro, Engineer and Nicaragua Water Project lead with partner organization, Centro Humbolt, navigates the backroads of the Chinandega region, and I wonder how he can possibly find his way without a map. Landmarks include sugar cane fields, coconut palms, and Volcan Casita – what’s left of it anyway. The side of Volcan Casita came down in a land slide during Hurricane Mitch in 1998 that devastated the small communities in the area.

Today, we visit the people who have chosen to return to the area, to their land. A memorial has been erected to recognize the 2,000 lives that were lost, and while the land no longer shows obvious evidence of the slide, rolled up shirtsleeves and lifted skirthems reveal the scars of the survivors.

The site of our meeting is remote. Our truck is the only vehicle in site, and I suspect, the only vehicle the road has seen in some time. The small crowd, representing members from 45 subsistence farming families in the area, has arrived by horseback, wagon, bicycle, and on foot.

We gather around what appears simply as a block of concrete with a hole in the middle. A well. A well shaft anyways. From which any means to extract any water that may (or may not be) at the bottom, is evidently lacking, and has been for years.

Rafaela tells us about a functioning well 5km away. But there is great demand, and people come from all around to wait in line to fill what they have. Although collecting water is traditionally women’s work, here it is primarily the men who take on the task. The route to the nearest well, 4 km away, is dangerous and must be navigated before sunrise in order to return in time with the water required to start the day. And this is just the first trip of many.

The route is travelled by horseback or by horsedrawn cart, and water — for animals, for use in households, and for families to drink — is collected in barrels. For people whose survival is primarily based on an economy of subsistence and the trade of goods made, produced, or reaped with their own hands, water comes at a high cost. Money. Time. Productivity.

Blue barrels are at the ready, hanging from saddles and stacked in the back of horse-drawn carts. I reluctantly decline the giggly invitation from the kids to get up on a horse, but later wish that I hadn't. It seems I can't shake the impulse in the moment to do the 'sensible' thing as I contemplate what appears to be the 'sensible' solution for this community. A solar pump.

What if all it takes is a solar pump to give this community freedom?! As we leave, questions remain. Is there a workable solution? Will a solar pump have the capacity required? Is the water level adequate? Is the water, in fact, potable? There can be no answers without first identifying the questions. 

So, for this community, this is how it will begin. Baby steps.   

There are struggles here to which I cannot possibly relate. But, I do understand hope. I think. And, this is what it looks like. It is in the smiles, the laughter, and the genuine joy that seems to be, remarkably, ever-present no matter where my travels take me.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

On the Road Again

In the evenings, we debrief. We debate. Occasionally, we have a drink. 

Although it is during these conversations that I learn the most about history and development, rest assured that conversations do slide into less than brilliant territory with discussions, for example digressing into such territory as debating burger king hamburgers and McDonald’s ketchup. 

A debate about dark rum vs light rum and its comparison to whole wheat and white bread devolves into hand gestures and the use of cups and saucers on the table to demonstrate how to make a rudimentary alcohol still. A skill learned by Sylvio through his participation in the literacy program for which he volunteered at 21 whereby educated young people, generally from the City, spent a year with a remote rural family teaching them to read. It seems the knowledge transfer went both ways, and with his newly acquired alcohol still skills, he became the most popular volunteer in his pod!

We laugh. I learn that the literacy program died as those intent on stopping the revolution began to simply ‘eliminate’ the teachers. Sylvio was lucky. Suddenly, we aren't laughing anymore.

Although I understand more Spanish than I can speak, occasionally I throw my hands up and ask Lorraine to do some translating, expecially when excessive slang is thrown into the mix. I could tell I was certainly missing something during one particular story in which a sign on a farmer's fence that read, "Se corte huevos," was met with uproarious laughter. Translation: "I cut balls." I wonder, out load, to even more uproarious laughter, if this is meant as a threat. Turns out it is just truth in advertising. Where else would you take animals to be castrated?! Of course.

After a few evenings of stories in the Guatemala highlands and a few days of having the backseat to myself, the five of us pile in a single truck once more, and we are On the Road Again. Though this Willie Nelson classic undoubtedly escapes my lips, it is met with a spin of the volume dial and too-loud latin music once again serenades us as we make our way down the switchbacks from where we came. Sylvio’s six foot frame once again folded beside me, holding my backpack – he insists – as I stretch out my legs through the gap into the front seat. Ever the gentleman. 

We spend a day in touristy Panajachel before making our way to Guatemala City to fly to Managua, Nicaragua. 

Women Co-operate

There is no road to take us to the Taltimiche weaving co-op, but in the company of beneficiary women, we wind our way down the path to the new weaving centre built this year to replace the building that was destroyed by earthquake in 2012.

The Taltimiche women's weaving co-op has operated for over 20 years. The new building allows the women to continue to produce artesenias sold both locally and abroad. 
Many women who have been members since the beginning credit the co-op for changing the course of their lives and that of their children. The income that is generated buys food during the six months of the year that insufficient food is produced on their tiny plots to feed their families.

As a token of gratitude, we are treated to a dinner and a show! We eat chicken soup as children  prepare to take centre stage. Though shy at first, the kids soon start practicing their Spanish with me...My name is.... How old are you? That kind of thing. They guess I am 20 years old and instantly win my heart. 

They perform a traditional dance to music playing, albeit intermittently, from a silver boom box. 

Repurposed bicycle rims, hand cranked to spool thread, are pulled out for demonstration, and we learn the lengthy process of transferring the spooled thread into multicoloured loops to be used on the looms. I feel like a pioneer. Ironically, the feeling is interrupted abruptly by a woman pulling a ringing cell phone out of her beautifully hand woven belt.  

After visiting the weaving centre, Olindia invites us to visit her home where she houses her very own weaving loom that she saved up to buy. She laughs when my eyes go wide as she explains the three-hour process to thread the loom before the actual weaving can even begin. Her hands skillfully trail the myriad of threads and her eyes expertly monitor the moving parts as she demonstrates her craft with ease. The space is dimly lit and dusty, but her wares are beautiful and her handiwork is striking. She is proud, and she should be. 

 "This is my work," she says, holding a woven frisbee, an item recently added to her repertoire, close to her heart. "It has kept my family alive."

Small Farmers Take Pride

I hear rumblings the night before about visiting a traditional mayan sweat lodge. In my head I pictured a teepee (I am not sure why, I am under no disillusion that the mayans lived in teepees), some hot stones, and lots of steam. This morning I am conscious of donning appropriate underwear should it be required to be beared in the sweat lodge process (look, this is my first sweat lodge, I don't know what to expect!). But I think I should be prepared. Like a boy scout. 

With nary a mention of a sweat lodge, we get in the trucks and travel to the farming community of Chamaque. In Chamaque, a group has gathered. Reuben translates the stories they share in their native Maya Mam language, but sometimes body language is all that is needed to convey the messages they share.

Smiles cross the faces of the women who have learned how to diversify crops and better manage their land and whose health, and that of their children has improved. They share stories of their capacity-building successes and also of their struggles.  

The dissemination of information local farmers and gardeners relies on committed, local project promoters that travel from their communities to a central demonstration farm to learn new techniques in response to climate change, to learn land terracing techniques, to learn the benefits of organic farming and to learn better land management. Promoters return and share their knowledge to better equip groups of people to organize, help each other and work together.

Proud farmers welcome us onto their plots and are eager to share the knowledge, the skills, and even the bounty that they have gained through workshops. 

Fruit trees lining crop terraces bear fruit, tiny irrigation pipes gravity feed rain water to gardens, and barnyards include rabbits as well as small animal livestock — none of which would have been seen in the area before local project promoters provided much-needed training and support. 

The Chamaque women's corn silo co-operative conserves food for times of greatest need. Corn is purchased in the local markets when the prices are low, is stored, and sold back to local households for fair prices.

We are invited back to Maria's house where we enjoyed only the best corn tamales I have ever had. Eating all three that I was served, however, proved to be an impossible task.

Treated with such hospitality and kindness, I almost don't want to leave Chamaque.

As we get set to say our goodbyes, I glean that there will not be time to visit the sweat lodge afterall. After having heard stories earlier on in the day about hallucinations, losing consciousness, and other-worldly experiences in said sweat lodge, I'll admit I was a little relieved. I felt slightly unprepared for such an experience.
Appropriate underwear choice notwithstanding of course.