Granada, Nicaragua

by Gérard

Itinerary 3

Diane and I arrived in Granada, Nicaragua in mid-February, joined by Nathan and Brett two weeks later. The city of Granada is located on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, at the foot of the Mombacho volcano, surrounded by lagoons, an archipelago, and natural reserves. Its population is around 120,000. It is increasingly known as a tourist destination for its colorful architecture, colonial character and friendly people.  Granada is developing; ten years ago only a few cars could be seen, now there are many more but you can still cross horse–drawn carriages and delivery donkey carts in the streets.

Volcano Mombacho in the background

Volcano Mombacho in the background

Lake Nicaragua in the background

Lake Nicaragua in the background

Nearby Laguna de Apoyo

Nearby Laguna de Apoyo

Horse-drawn carriages in the Central Park

Horse-drawn carriages in the Central Park

Colorful facades

Colorful facades

Unlike the volunteer life we experienced during the previous three months, this time we decided to rent a place and explore the region full-time, with on our minds the question: could Granada be where we’ll want to set up our Sustainable Living Learning Center project? Nicaragua and Granada in general were recommended to us by Carol Gelfer, a long-time Portland friend of Diane’s who had spent time volunteering here many years ago with Joe, her physician husband and their two young children.

The day after we arrived in Granada, we met with a good friend of Carol’s, also named Carol, who was very helpful in providing precious tips and a list of key people to start networking with. Since our arrival we have been exploring the area and meeting lots of people, gathering information about Granada as a place to live and potentially be the site of our project. The four of us started operating as a project team in a way that is reminiscent of our previous professional experiences: mission, goals, budget, brainstorm, data gathering, trade-offs, team meetings etc.… it’s all there!

We are renting a beautiful three-bedroom house located a few blocks from the city center where we are enjoying a taste of luxury we had not experienced in months—or years for some of us.  There is room for visitors.  Our preferred spot in the house has to be the mirador from which we have a 360° view over the city’s roof tops, which includes a half dozen churches, the nearby volcano, lake and the three pet monkeys living in the neighbor’s tree.  All that makes for some fantastic sunrises, sunsets and a sitting area kept cool all day by the lake’s breeze.

Front row seat for Brett

Front row seat for Brett

Managua, capital of Nicaragua, is located 45 minutes from Granada and is about ten times the size.  We went there last week to check on bigger stores and look for bicycles.  We found a store which feels like and is for sure owned by Costco, only the name (PriceSmart) is different.  Same everything including membership system, American Express-only card, chicken bakes and berry sundaes.  We found a Home Depot-like hardware store, just more expensive and with less selection. Nathan, Brett and I bought basic bicycles, which will improve our mobility around town and surroundings. You have to have Resident status to own and operate a motor vehicle.  Good thing taxis are 40 cents per person.

Diane is currently in Portland where she went to get her Mom.  Yes, Edna is coming to live with us!  She is and we are very excited about this new chapter in her life.  The logistics involved in making this happen are not trivial but I can’t imagine a better person than Diane to make this happen successfully.  They’re scheduled to arrive April 2nd.

Nathan and Brett are currently on a ten day exploratory trip up north checking out other towns and communities (Matagalpa, Jinotepe, Esteli…) in a region known for its coffee-growing. No doubt these two outdoor aficionados will have a great time!

Meanwhile I am home alone, truly enjoying a few days of “me-time”, taking great pleasure writing this blog and getting some project planning work done.

Finca Paraiso: a Month in Paradise

By Brett Liza Rousseau

Hello Friends and Family!

Please excuse the prolonged time lapse since our last blog entry. Computer and internet access didn’t come easily to Finca Paraiso’s little piece of far-off jungle paradise – what a concept! The rest of the family might not agree, but it was a refreshing break from our culture’s overwhelming connectivity. It’s amazing how a little bit of time without the worldwide web at our fingertips increased our relationship with the world right in front of us! We were forced to listen to the howler monkey screams echoing within the hills, sip coffee while the sunrise lit up slopes of citrus trees, scrutinize chicken hierarchies, spy on sheep escape artists, pick star fruit fresh off the tree, laugh at the fat iguanas skidding around on our tin roof, coo over newborn puppies and cook delicious and inventive meals everyday. A HUGE inconvenience.

In our free time, to name only a few things, Nathan became a literary expert on rabbit rearing; I began baking loaves of bread rolled up with cinnamon and banana; Mom bred her new kombucha SCOBY into a small army; Dad exercised routinely as usual; and we spent many afternoons discussing and strategizing our next move up into Nicaragua. It was decided that Mom and Dad would leave Costa Rica two weeks early for a head start to Nicaragua. While we’ve all gotten along rather magnificently, the small break was much appreciated.

Nathan and I were left in Steve’s keeping along with Luna, a black and white sheep dog always by his side, Blackie and her two puppies, 14 sheep nibbling on everything they shouldn’t have, 13 hens and 3 roosters (2 too many), 3 oversized pigs, and an aquaponics pond full of tilapia. Steve is a laid back Wisconsin expat who surprised himself by buying land in Costa Rica eight years ago and has been experimentally farming ever since. He has a plethora of inventive projects competing for his attention; he’s attempting to generate money by selling farm products and attracting tourists and locals for farm tours and B&B stays, all while keeping up with farm chores. It’s a peaceful piece of property on the Nicoya Peninsula – not far from Tambor’s scenic bay – growing citrus and avocado trees, bananas and plantains, starfruit, pineapple, ginger, turmeric, hot peppers, moringa, spinach, and more! We helped Steve with various projects such as redesigning and building a new chicken coop, fortifying the sheep fence, painting lime on the citrus trees (to prevent against ant damage), dehydrating starfruit, transplanting in the aquaponics greenhouse, propagating bougainvillea, passionfruit, and planting cacao, bush beans, cucumber, garlic, and peppers – whatever seeds I could find! I also helped Steve with some artistic endeavors, painting a sign for the main road and redesigning his roasted coffee label, Mono va Feliz (Monkey-go-Happy).

The month was a beautiful and relaxing blur – it was the first time being together that Nathan and I got to spend more than a few days just the two of us and we relished it. We celebrated our 2-year anniversary with a quirky homemade adaptation of tiramisu, and dug in with spoons as the sunset put on a show. Unlike the other farms, we weren’t surrounded by a host of people and instead entertained ourselves with the animals and plants around us. Here’s a photo-tour of a tropical farm’s flora and fauna, intended for you to romanticize.

Front porch with a view

Front porch with a view

Even for the dry season, the jungle never fails to be beautiful

We soon got used to the sheep right outside our house, as we had gotten used to deer eating our roses back home

We soon got used to the sheep right outside our house, as we had gotten used to deer eating our roses back home

a kingdom of ever green and growing banana trees

A kingdom of ever green and growing banana trees

Passion fruit: the most seductive of flowers

Passion fruit: the most seductive of flowers

Sprouting cacao, destined to be delicious chocolate

Sprouting cacao, destined to be delicious chocolate

Know how your pineapples grow.

Know how your pineapples grow

Mango trees grow like weeds, soon to flood the market place! What a feast it will be!

Mango trees grow like weeds, soon to flood the market place! What a feast it will be!

Starfruit was crowned the fruit of the month

Starfruit was crowned the fruit of the month

Sliced and sugar-coated, I loaded it up into the solar dehydrator

Sliced and sugar-coated, I loaded it up into the solar dehydrator

Lush bush beans that sprouted within weeks, and a cucumber trellis in the background

Lush bush beans that sprouted within weeks, and a cucumber trellis in the background

A cheap and easy drip system: by sticking a water bottle in the ground with a small hole in the bottom, this not only saves water, but encourages the roots to grow deep

A cheap and easy drip system: by sticking a water bottle in the ground with a small hole in the bottom, this not only saves water, but encourages the roots to grow deep

The aquaponics fish tank: the water (high in nitrogen because of the fish poop)  is pumped into the greenhouse...

The aquaponics fish tank: the water (high in nitrogen because of the fish poop) is pumped into the greenhouse…

…where it fertilizes a variety of leafy greens: katuk, spinach, culantro (native cilantro), chia. Note the pineapple top: they can grow by being stuck back in the ground!

…where it fertilizes a variety of leafy greens: katuk, spinach, culantro (native cilantro), chia. Note the pineapple top: they can grow a new plant by being stuck back in the ground!

One of the three pigs that Steve doesn't have the heart to cart off

One of the three pigs that Steve doesn’t have the heart to cart off

The morning parade: chickens exiting their new coop ready to seize the day

The morning parade: chickens exiting their new coop ready to seize the day

A pea-sized egg that Nathan and I tried to hatch, we hypothesized it to be some sort of reptile

A pea-sized egg that Nathan and I tried to hatch, we hypothesized it to be some sort of reptile

Blackie and one of her pups

Blackie and one of her pups

Both pups! Steve wanted us to take one, an extremely tempting offer

Both pups! Steve wanted us to take one, an extremely tempting offer

Steve's new street sign

Steve’s new street sign

Many a magnificent sunset on the farm

Many a magnificent sunset on the farm

Wondering what we’re now doing in Nicaragua? Stay tuned for our next post!

A Farewell to Finca Fruicion

By Nathan Page

We have been volunteering at a new farm called Finca Paraiso for the past two weeks but this update will be regarding our projects at the last farm, Finca Fruicion, and our “vacation” to Montezuma.

As far as projects go, we all left feeling satisfied with some kind of closure. Gerard and I finished up reinforcing the bunkhouse structure we were building, and poured an “earthen floor.”  The floor took much longer than we thought, but was a fun learning experience for us both. It consisted of simply clay and gravel- materials that were readily available on site.   We combined them with a small cement mixer and poured the mixture onto the leveled, compacted floor.  It was an interesting project that took about a week to complete!

Nathan leveling the earthen floor in the bunkhouse.

Nathan leveling the earthen floor in the bunkhouse.

While Gerard and I were playing in the mud, Brett was busy finishing her reorganization of the annual vegetable garden and painting a beautiful mural.  The mural was a labor of love, and the labor was well worth it! The mural is a tribute to the colors and natural beauty of the area, to be enjoyed even in the rainy season!

Brett working on her mystical mural.

Brett working on her mystical mural.

The completed mural and la artista!

The completed mural and “la artista”, coupled with Diane’s newly planted atrium!

Diane finished her landscaping of the atrium full of ferns and succulents! It complements Brett’s mural and brings a soothing green aura to the room. She also worked with farm intern Markus from Canada to made a trellis for one of her favorite things: Winged beans. If you haven’t heard about them, ask her and I’m sure you will get several articles and a multi-paragraphed reply.

Diane's composting toilet currents and Brett's handy vacancy sign.

The composting toilet  with Diane’s weighted curtains and Brett’s handy vacancy sign.

Diane and Marcus in front of their completed Winged Bean Trellis!

Diane & Marcus in front of completed winged bean trellis!

On our last weekend, the Finca hosted an absolutely beautiful wedding for two of our good friends, Julio and Vyola. Diane and I were honored to handcraft the cake using nothing but quality, real ingredients. Brett’s help with the wedding sculptures and decorative frosting culminated to create what many said was the best cake they had ever had.

The "family" sitting around one of the many communal meals.

The “family” sitting around one of many communal meals.

Vyola and Julio's wedding cake! Made with love.

Vyola and Julio’s wedding cake! Made with love.

We decided to treat ourselves to a brief beachside vacation to the quirky town of Montezuma, on the southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula.

Follow our travels from Finca Fruicion over to Moctazuma and the Tambor in the Nicoya Peninsula.

From Finca Fruicion over to Montezuma and Tambor in the Nicoya Peninsula.

 Here we indulged in fresh-made onion rolls, fish fillets, and beautiful sunrises, which put on a show every morning.  The pace was relaxed, the days were warm, and it provided us with much-needed time to relax.

Brett and Nathan at the Beach!

Brett and Nathan at the Beach!

A colorful Moctazuma sunrise.

A colorful Montezuma sunrise.

Stay tuned for more photos and an update from Brett regarding our current location near Tambor (which my mother informed me is one of the top ten most beautiful beaches in the world…)

Hasta Luego!

Finca Fruicion: Getting hands & feet dirty

By Diane

We have been at the permaculture farm, Finca Fruicion, for three weeks now. Gerard and Nathan are busy converting a covered camping area into a bunkhouse; Brett is working on vegetable starts and helping design a better system to grow more food for the needs of the farm. I find myself working mostly on garden projects: making new beds, transplanting plants, pruning and weeding. We are sleeping in tents, using dry compost toilets, and taking luxuriously hot outside showers with water heated by the sun.

We are sharing space and meals with an ever fluctuating number of people (12 – 20) including the main couple, their three young boys, a volunteer manager, volunteers, farm stay guests, friends, and neighbors. We all take turns cooking and cleaning up. The meals are mostly vegetarian; we are producing and eating the most creative meals I have ever seen - especially  the day before the owner goes to town to get groceries. We are all learning how to make original sauces and the many ways we can prepare rice and beans. Again, we are eating very well.

Ever since we learned about cob building last year, we have wanted to get our hands into it.  We finally got our lesson and chance to build something last week. Cob material consists of clay, sand, and fiber such as straw or rice husks. We finished constructing a wall that was not completed at an earlier workshop. Cobbing is very fun! See the photos of the process below.

Mixing cob with our feet

Nathan and Brett mixing cob with their feet

Brett and Markus smoothing the cob onto the wall structure

Smoothing the cob onto the wall structure

Building a window into the wall

Building a window into the wall

A small gift robbed onto the Center's front entrance

The toucan is our small gift cobbed onto the Center’s front entrance

The kitchen is always busy

The always busy kitchen

Our tent against a beautiful backdrop

Our tent and toilet against a beautiful backdrop

Moving On

By Gérard

The past week saw us transition from Rancho Margot to our second destination, Finca Fruicion.

First, I want to highlight a couple of projects we completed at Rancho Margot.  The first was a compost station made entirely of materials collected in their nearby recycling area.  Turned out well.  We spent the last day layering in leaves, grass clippings, manure, and IMO ( remember indigenous microorganisms we learned about in Thailand). This new structure will be dedicated to producing high quality compost for use in La Huerta (the vegetable garden).

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We also tackled some major work in the vegetable garden including moving three green houses (leveling each site before doing so), making many new raised beds, starting and transplanting vegetable seedlings, and landscaping the area around the new site of the main greenhouse/volunteer office and adding an extra covered area along the back side.  All of these projects were amazing team efforts as half a dozen volunteers or more worked together with a remarkable level of positive energy.

Prepping

Prepping the site before relocating the main greenhouse

Levelling

Leveling

Posing

Posing in front of new site

It was with mixed feelings that we left Rancho Margot.  It was a great experience all around; We learned a lot about the many moving parts involved in running a premium eco-resort.  Fellow volunteers and staff were fantastic, so was the food and the surrounding Rain Forest.

On December 29, we spent all day riding three buses and two taxis to reach Finca Fruicion.

Itinerary

The Finca (farm) differs in many regards from Rancho Margot.  Here, no guests or tourists, only volunteers and interns live next to the owner family (they have three small children), learning about permaculture and holistic living.  A very family oriented atmosphere with the children, volunteers and staff taking turns cooking and cleaning.  Also, there are way fewer farm animals (one cow, two goats and three ducks hanging out in the pond nearby).  The main building includes the kitchen, community dining room and a few bedrooms, and is an impressive demonstration of cob building techniques. More details will be coming in our next posts to describe this close-to-the-earth stage of our travel. During our stay are helping with the vegetable and herb garden as well as building a bunk bed facility capable of housing up to sixteen visitors! Oh, and the view we get to wake up to every morning is spectacular…

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Cool Stuff to share …

  • Living Roofs provide thermal insulation from the sun along with a more natural look.  They also make the buildings invisible in Google satellite pictures :)  The vast majority of the Rancho Margot roofs are “alive”.

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  • Living Fences are made out of a tree named “Madero Negro.”  This species has the special ability to grow after a simple branch is planted into the ground.  Each stick will grow its own roots, branches and leaves.  It is a great choice for posts in direct contact with the earth as it will not rot and is termite-resistant. Naturally beats pressure-treated lumber!

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  • Camouflage - Can you see that bug?

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… and a Very Happy New Year to all!

In the Tropics for Christmas

By Brett Liza Rousseau

Christmas was fast and awkwardly upon us. So absorbed in the rainforest world, warm, wet and full of adventure, I couldn’t believe it was the end of December. It wasn’t until I took over crafting a Christmas tree out of jungle leaves that I realized what time of year it was. We’d been distracted by the newness of our travels: harvesting lemons and malanga root for the kitchen, hiking to waterfalls, horseback riding on mountain tops, 5 am climbs to watch the sunset over Volcano Arenal, new friends, tropical fruit juices, and eating delicious food – I didn’t have time to miss hot toddies and fudge. But celebrating Christmas in the Pacific Northwest most of my life, and loving waking up to an evergreen tree and stockings over the fireplace, I craved some sort of familiarity for the holiday. Part of me did miss the children’s living nativity, sweet treats and cold weather.

Christmas morning, we woke up to a brilliantly sunny day, harvested a few salad greens for the kitchen, and spent the rest of the morning down by the river, swimming in the cold current, crafting our White Elephant gifts on the warm rocks. Before going to lunch, Sonja (a volunteer yoga instructor) pulled out her deck of Tarot cards and asked us to formulate a question, something on our minds. (For those of you rolling your eyes at the mention of Tarot cards, I don’t view them as astrological answers; simply a means to thoughtful reflection.) I thought about Christmas traditions and all that Christmas in the western world had become. I asked myself how can I, or we, celebrate what’s turned into a materialistic holiday in a non-materialistic way? Being so far away from home, what traditions can I let go of and still feel fulfilled? I pulled the card “3 of Water: Fullness… celebration, delight, having it all, withholding nothing… everything bears fruit, enjoy what it offered this instant, while staying open for new surprises. Let go of the old, oppressive stuff. Without hesitation and guilt, let yourself fall into this delightful pool of inner – and perhaps already outwardly manifested – fullness.”

I thought, “Wow! How applicable.” We may not be roasting chestnuts on an open fire, or singing hymns on Christmas Eve, but I am so lucky to be in Costa Rica! In the rainforest, everything grows big, bountiful and beautiful. Orchids drip down from the rooftops, Reina de la Noche’s bloom and burst into the pathways, ferns tower over you, roots scale tree trunks and countless bromeliads nestle in their branches. Many of the flowers are vibrant red, with hints of yellow, blue, and orange – some push up to the sky, some cascade down to the ground, but all attempt to lure the hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies to pollinate. Some nights on the walk back to our bunkhouse, the pathway is incredibly fragrant, and when it rains, the jungle sings; you always hear it long before you feel it.

I spend most of my days in a garden, surrounded by jungle mountains. It is a rich, spectacular part of the world, and I get to share the experience with three people I love. Having the ability to live abroad, experience the rainforest, see different lifestyles, and grow new and exotic things, is more amazing than anything that could fit into a box under the tree.

AND the lack of tradition allows the freedom to play! Christmas Eve, face paint found it’s way to the dinner table, and in no time at all, everyone’s face was covered in colorful swirls and designs. Instead of piles of presents and unnecessary things, the volunteers all scrounged for supplies and wrapped up eclectic and incredibly inventive gifts to play White Elephant. There were dream catcher earrings, hooks, painting and poem, a sand zen garden that could fit in the palm of your hand (made by Nathan), bracelets, coupons for sewing repairs, a cup of much-coveted desert, and a beer can camp stove. We were all impressed with the lot. It was a wonderful Christmas abroad!

Stay tuned, Gerard will be posting soon! ¡Feliz Navidad y feliz Año Nuevo!

Horseback riding in Tilarán

Horseback riding in nearby Tilarán

Tilarán mountains

Tilarán mountains

DSC08416

What a day to remember!

 

They call it 'Jurassic Park'

They call it ‘Jurassic Park’, we call it ‘jungle trekking’

 

Happy couple

Happy couple

 

 

The land of waterfalls!

The land of waterfalls! Brett, Nathan, and a golden retriever.

 

Watching the sunrise over Volcano Arenal

Watching the sunrise over Volcan Arenal

 

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So worth the early rise

Mary, Mary quite contrary, how does your jungle grow?

Mary, Mary quite contrary, how does your jungle grow?

With big green leaves...

With big green leaves…

…and wrapping roots...

…and wrapping roots…

…and orchids all in a row!

…and orchids all in a row!

Cow lickin' love

Cow lickin’ love

Jungle Christmas tree!

Jungle Christmas tree!

Festively-facepainted volunteers

Festively-facepainted volunteers

 

 

“Poco a Poco” (Little by Little)

By Nathan Page

“Poco a poco, mi amigo.”  This is a phrase that my coworker, Carlos tells me with a smile several times a day.  This simple motto works very well when faced with daunting tasks— like moving a small mountain of trimmings, or turning several tons of compost.   “Poco a poco” also works very well to describe a lot of what we are doing here at Rancho Margot and this trip as a whole.  First I’ll talk about the more specific work we have been doing down here.

Brett, Gerard, and Diane are working full-time in the vegetable garden with a group of several volunteers and a couple “Ticos” (native Costa Rican employees).  When we arrived the garden was a bit overwhelming, with so much growing in several different places.  The former volunteers were experimenting with planting in a non-linear fashion to try to cope with pests and disease.  As a result, it was a bit tricky to understand what was planted where, so a lot of the work has been organizational.  This work includes: moving several green houses to help with the garden layout, Gerard building everything from bridges to doors, and Diane and Brett working wonders organizing more efficient systems for growing seedlings and making new beds.   The garden is in a stage of rapid improvement and is on its way to a higher yield in the next few months.  I have been helping to improve this garden, but I spend the other half of the week working in the extensive grounds doing general landscaping.  The work is repetitive, but definitely helps me appreciate all the work that goes into keeping this ranch well maintained and looking spectacular all year long.   This is where I work with Carlos, and is the time of day where I receive most of my informal Spanish lessons.  Leaning Spanish is another thing that is definitely best tackled “poco a poco.”

All of us come from different Spanish backgrounds, and definitely have more than enough room for improvement.  Gerard has the highest fluency, I have some formal training from school, and Brett and Diane are working hard, as it is their first time learning.  We have been trying to do auditory and paper lessons frequently, but for me, the whole task can get a tad overwhelming… Some days it feels like I am just playing one big game of charades with my Spanish-speaking coworkers.   But, “poco a poco” we are learning key words, trying to comprehend the rapid pace of speaking, and building sentences.  Little by little, we are picking it up, and absorbing the language that surrounds us daily.  Lastly, “poco a poco” describes the work Rancho Margot is doing for Costa Rica and the Earth.

Rancho Margot is combining a lot of innovative technologies, which just make plain and simple sense.  They are using the resources that are naturally plentiful around them to literally power the lights and heat the showers.  Visitors can come into the rainforest with all the creature comforts of home and truly see a clean, beautiful way of life that is modeled by the Ranch.  Of course, there is always room for improvement, and Rancho Margot will be the first to say that they are always evolving and looking for better ways to grow and sustain their selves.  But they have only been around for 10 years, and little by little have been making big waves around Costa Rica and beyond.  It is a great first stop on our journey and we will keep learning and taking our trip one step at a time.

Rain clouds approaching over Rancho Margot.

Rain clouds approaching over Rancho Margot.

Gerard walking through one of the many rainy days!

Gerard walking through one of the many rainy days!

Diane working one of the new beds in the vegetable garden.

Diane working on one of the new beds in the vegetable garden.

Some of Brett and Diane's simple landscaping throughout the garden!

Some of Brett and Diane’s simple landscaping throughout the garden!

What a pair!

What a pair!

The door that Gerard made from scratch using local lumber.

The door that Gerard made from scratch using local lumber.

Nathan cutting down a papaya tree with a machete that unfortunetly had to be removed...

Using a machete, Nathan cutting down a papaya tree that unfortunetly had to be removed…

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