Nos Vemos, Nicaragua

Engulfed by the 500+ year old ceiba tree in Sabana Grande, witness to more history than could ever be written or told.

Well, we are back in Managua after a 4 hour bus journey from Ocotal, enough time to begin contemplating the effects of the past last four months on our lives.  Only a beginning.  Our host family accompanied us to the bus stop, helping us haul the embarrassing amount of luggage we have.  At least one big bag is gifts (those we received and those we are bringing home), but despite our efforts to give away what seemed like a lot of stuff, we still have too much.  Too much.  Not enough.  Enough.  How to know when you have reached the last of these is the great challenge of our time.  The extent of our material culture is always much in evidence at Christmastime.  Yet “not enough” has driven humans to be the accumulative creatures we (mostly) are in the early 21st century.  Accumulation in the age of carbon has exacted a price that looms as more catastrophic by the day, as news of the Arctic warming faster than scientists can come to terms with and the planet as a whole is heading for its 2nd or 3rd warmest ever.

In the weeks to come I will try to weave together some final thoughts about the past, present, and future of Sabana Grande and post them.  But for now we thought we’d share a few final impressions of this country that has become like a second home to us.

It is strange to be writing about playing baseball in December, but Samuel and Isaiah played until the last day of our sojourn in Sabana Grande.  Baseball offered a connection to the boys in the community in a way almost no other activity could have.  It certainly enriched our boys’ lives, and they have developed some authentic friendships through baseball.  Last blog 8On Tuesday Kristen organized a final distribution of the equipment from the lending library she initiated at the outset of our stay.  The kids got to choose based on their commitment to the spirit of the library (returning things on time), but everyone who came left with a glove and at least one other item (some baseball-related, some not).  The photo above was after everything had been distributed–the two adults other than Kristen are Reynaldo and Eddy, the coaches of the boys’ team.  We hope the kids will continue gathering at the field every day and playing. The boys will miss these informal chances to play baseball, so common in the U.S. as well until a generation ago.  One thing Kristen and I noted was how male the sports culture in the village remains, baseball especially.  Had we come to Sabana Grande as the parents of two girls our entire family’s experience would have been very different.

Baseball and Christmas do not generally go together, at least not in New York.  Reindeer and Christmas trees seem equally dissonant here in Nicaragua, but both abound as Christmas decorations–the weather has not seemed Christmas-like at all, but familiar icons of the season are everywhere.

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The MetroCentro Mall Christmas tree.

We first saw them in Managua when we were here in early November, a massive fake tree rising 2 stories in one of the malls here (where signs proclaiming “Black Friday” sales–the black Friday in English–abounded). But soon we saw them (or silhouettes of them) in every town and city park.  In a place where the lovely yellow blooms of the chilca tree are everywhere, the need for color in the deep midwinter does not exist.  But the force of Christmas traditions in the U.S. and Europe is powerful, especially in the ways those traditions have become fused with consumer culture.


A Christmas tree in the main park and a straw reindeer in Ocotal–trucks ply the streets selling them.

Christmas music can be heard in many stores and public places, some of it Spanish language lyrics set to familiar tunes like “Jingle Bells,” some of it just English language standards.  It’s a bit jarring to hear “White Christmas” when it’s 80 degrees outside.  Less we be too judgement about the Christmas tree tradition in the tropics, we have to note that one of the traditions that we have brought north and sell by the thousands is the use of poinsettia flowers (native to Mexico). We had a poinsettia tree right outside our house that has been blooming for the past three weeks. It is a scraggly looking thing that has almost no leaves except around the beautiful big red flowers. The ones northerners use are cultivated in greenhouses. (The milk of which also has the medicinal properties of drawing out botfly larvae, a common problem in rural Nicaragua that we’ve discovered the hard way. )

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Yet for all of the imported Christmas traditions, life in Nicaragua moves to its own rhythm, especially in the north.  In Sabana Grande you hear a lot more about eating nacatamales and spending time with family than exchanging gifts.  Consumer culture  has not yet invaded the holiday season. It helps that in the north, the coffee harvest in full swing, so the holiday falls at a time when it is just not possible to stop for a week. Most employees only have the 24th and 31st off as official holidays. Staying up and setting off firecrackers on Christmas eve, or, it you are more religious, attending midnight mass, is the most common way to celebrate.  Totogalpa has an interesting variation on the firecracker tradition in its village. People make dummies and set them in chairs on the street corners. Inside, the dummies are filled with firecrackers, and the neighbors take turns igniting their creation as soon as dark falls.

Aside from the firecrackers, most people just enjoy a day with family, a cornerstone of Nicaraguan culture.  Being foreigners we are often asked what we like about the country, and in turn ask what other people appreciate. Almost universally people will respond, that life in Nicaragua is  “tranquilo.”  It is also a response you commonly hear here when you ask how someone is doing.  “Tranquil” would be the literal translation. A value that is especially appreciated and treasured when you live in a country where civil war is a recent memory, and you are surrounded by countries plagues by narco-trafficking and random violence.

The Brennan-Smith clan would like to wish all of our readers a navidad tranquila. Thanks for reading–we’ll try to post one or two more in the new year.

Two-Wheeled Sustainability, Nicaragua Style

El tiempo vuela (time flies), as they say in Nicaragua. How can it be that we are only a few days from departing this place that has become second home to us? One of the many reasons we feel at home here is that bikes are the principal mode of short to medium distance transportation after walking. The readers of this blog who know our family know how committed we are to bicycles as a form of transportation. For our sojourn here this time we rented bikes for the boys from one of the tourism initiatives a youth group has organized and purchased a bike for Kristen and I to use. As both transportation and as an means for exploring a bit the bikes have been well-used. As long as you avoid the Pan-American Highway (which we have), bicycling is very safe here, since you are mostly sharing the roads with pedestrians, cows, horses, and other cyclists–everywhere we go there are dozens of other bikes on the road. The ratio of bikes to motorized vehicles is probably 25-1. 1000-1 would be better, but compared to almost any place you go in the U.S., it is paradise (to be fair, the paradisiacal weather most of the year makes cycling more attractive too–only in the worst of the rainy season is it unpleasant, and never cold). Continue reading “Two-Wheeled Sustainability, Nicaragua Style”

Climbing Cerro Mogotón

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The peak Cerro Mogotón shrouded in clouds as we descended.

The subtitle of this post could be, “Or, the post that makes our mothers revoke our parenting license.”  That’s a joke, of course, though during our hike Kristen and I both turned to each other more than once to comment about experiences in high places with our parents when we were kids. Suffice it to say, as with so much of life in Nicaragua, standards for things like trails are different than in the U.S.  Though maintained by the national government the trail to the peak of Mogotón was among the most challenging we’ve ever hiked.  This was in part due to the fact that our guide did not alert us in advance that having muck boots would be preferable to the hiking shoes and sneakers we came in.  But it was a unique adventure in a cloud forest environment that was unlike anything we’d ever experienced here.  And there is actually a connection to the broader issues of sustainability in Nicaragua, which I’ll get to in a minute. Continue reading “Climbing Cerro Mogotón”

Sabana Grande and 24 Hours of Reality

Rather than read, we’re hoping you’ll take a few minutes to watch the segment on Sabana Grande recently featured in Al Gore’s 24 Hours of Reality television series on climate change.  The film crew was here earlier this fall.  The first woman interviewed Rumalda López, was our host mother the first time we stayed here, and we still get most of our lunches from her.

Continue reading “Sabana Grande and 24 Hours of Reality”

The Pan-American Highway: The Artery Sustaining Sabana Grande

One of the words for traffic in Spanish (and its cognate is the principal word for traffic in French) translates literally as “circulation” (circulación). As a non-native speaker of the language I’ve always liked the implication of the word–that things are flowing, even though I know Spanish speakers, like the rest of us, mostly talk about traffic when things are NOT flowing. There’s also at least a figurative relationship between traffic circulating and blood circulating through a body. There are freeways, primary roads, secondary roads, and roads that are barely more than a one-lane path (some of which, in upstate New York, are only seasonally maintained, and even in season are challenging to drive in a regular car). There are major veins and arteries, secondary blood vessels, down to the tiny capillaries that nourish the cells in remote reaches of our bodies (some of which, like the seasonally maintained roads, sometimes don’t function very well in cold and snow, as Kristen can attest!–we’re all in for a shock when we return to the States in 2 1/2 weeks). Continue reading “The Pan-American Highway: The Artery Sustaining Sabana Grande”

Wall Art

blog size mural 1--susan meiselas photoBeginning with our first sojourn here in Nicaragua almost 5 years ago, we have been fascinated by the public art, especially the murals. On walls and billboards, rock faces and the sides of houses, almost everywhere you go in Nicaragua (or at least the parts we’ve visited) you encounter colorful and usually skillfully executed public art. Murals, especially have served as expressions of historical consciousness, moral outrage, and political solidarity since the revolution. We have marveled at the dexterous way the FSLN has used public space to keep the memory of the 1979 revolution (and its spiritual antecedents, especially Augusto Sandino) alive. Before the literacy campaign of 1980 murals were often used to communicate messages to a public that wasn’t always literate. The public art also can be less politically charged, often whimsical and even including the colorful ways bus companies create a distinctive livery. It is a fascinating form of storytelling. Here are a few of our favorite examples, many of them from Somoto. Continue reading “Wall Art”

The Land of Reuse

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We wrote about this during our last sojourn here but it merits revisiting: Nicaragua (and most of the global South) is WAY ahead of the U.S. when it comes to reusing. In Nicaragua reuse is a function of necessity for most people. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention here when it comes to reuse. And if anything epitomizes gritty sustainability it will be our capacity to imagine new uses for old things. Continue reading “The Land of Reuse”