Food is a tough thing. I recently finished reading “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer, in which he discusses the linkages between food and culture and family. It wasn’t so much reading the book that got me to thinking about diet in my new life but more living it. From day one (outside the Laguna de Apoyo) I immediately noticed a theme: this culture loves their food either fried or super sweet. Everything is over-sugared or fried and its no wonder most people have diabetes and/or weight issues. Its hard to understand how this can happen in a country with so much fresh and readily available fruits and vegetables, more than enough to meet the demands of the country. Here the major form of hydration is gaseosa’s (pop/soda). In moderation (like with most everything) a gaseosa is not all bad but when it accompanies every meal and it is universally opted for instead of water, this is no way to live. Last week I went to get a refresco (juice) from the mercadito near my work but my coworkers informed that it was not safe to drink the market drinks for fear of e-coli or hepatitis so they suggested I get boxed orange juice from the store. I went, I bought, I drank and yikes, was that thing was sweet. Now, you know me and you know I like my sugar (preferably in cookie form), and you know I am definitely don’t typically read the nutritional facts on anything (because that’s not a box I want to open, I prefer to be blissfully kinda ignorant) but when I read the nutritional facts on this tiny box and saw what I perceived as a ridiculous amount of sugar per serving I was shocked (mostly by being shocked by sugar). So the next time I was feeling thirsty for something other than water I chose Gatorade thinking that “this will be good, I like me some Gatorade every once and again” so without looking at the facts I bought it. Again, I was shocked by the amount of sugar it contained and I didn’t bother to look at the nutritional facts because I could taste it.
I recently had a discussion with Maria, my “mom”, about soda consumption and diet in general. She never serves me gaseosas with my meals and she never even keeps it around which I am pretty happy about. She was upset with Anisa (her daughter who also lives here) because she is always drinking soda as well as giving it to her children. Maria understandably doesn’t agree with this and is frustrated with what she, Maria, perceives as Anisa’s uncaring and thoughtless decisions about the health of her children. However my “mom” will often make refrescos and rather than drink the refresco as is with its delicious fruity sweetness she and the rest of the family cringe at the taste sin (without) sugar. After I pour my glass and hers she will add three to four heaping spoonfuls of sugar. While I think that Maria’s diet is very healthy by comparison to many other individuals how is this better and/or different?
In this country where indisputably the most important result of the Sandinista revolution was the implementation of universal healthcare (that means free) does the government not enforce corporations to practice more social responsibility? These are not the same products found in the US. They may appear the same and have the same brand name but they don’t contain the same ingredients. I understand the principles of marketing and I understand holding focus groups to analyze taste but seriously, its out of control. Why are there not health campaigns to promote exercise, nutrition and better diet especially when health is one of the major tenets of this (and all) political parties? I guess with a imminent threat of a dictatorship this isn’t really on too many peoples agendas. But I have to wonder about the consumption practices here and how much of it is uncaring, how much is cultural norm and how much is strictly taste?
Ill start with a bit of background on Fundacion Fenix. Maria (the executive director) began the foundation after having developed her own “D.A.R.E.” type program here in Nicaragua. She would (and continues to) go to schools and teach teachers how to give the program to their students. While she and the director Karla continue to go do this, their primary focus is direct intervention. With the aid of the police they target gangs and working directly with the parents hold an intervention and invite the youths to come to foundation to learn a trade (currently they offer mechanics and woodworking) at no cost. On Friday we held an intervention in Zona 6 of Ciudad Sandino where we were able to talk to 20 plus youths and got them interested in the foundation. We hope that they will pass the word to their friends bringing more youths to the foundation but its hard to say how many will even show up. Another program offered through the foundation is microenterprise, they (specifically Karla) teach willing students how to farm, organically of course, and allow them their own plot of land on the property. Currently the students are growing pipian, a vegetable that outwardly resembles a white eggplant but on the inside is a similar to a squash.
The foundation is able to sustain itself financially through 40% donations and 60% they earn directly through the sales of produce, some grown directly on the foundations site. The way it works is we go to the Mercado Orientel (the largest market in Central America and easily the most dangerous place in Nicaragua) and buy bulk produce for very cheap. We then clean and package the produce at the foundation and then sell it to the grocery stores. What produce we can grow and sell we do but currently it’s the dry season so not much is growing. We are in the process of building a second better greenhouse, provided by a grant, where we plan to grow pipian. This past week we planted the seeds in rich soil flats so that they should be ready to be transferred into the greenhouse when it is finished.
Part of my work while I am here is to increase the percentage of income generated through produce sales by expanding their market. Currently they have produce stands with signage in 2 supermarkets, one in Managua and one in Leon. We hope to expand into the supermarkets of the neighboring cities of Masaya and Tipitapa. All of the supermarkets are owned by the National Police. This is a weird concept for me but apparently it exists in the US, Miami for example, but I am not familiar with practice. There are not many supermarkets here. There is Pali , which is a Walmart auxiliary and there is La Colonia which is owned by one of the 4 super-rich families, who in essence own Nicaragua. Fenix has opted not to involve themself with Pali, which I completely agree with and as for La Colonia their standards for produce are unrealistic for organically farmed products. We are happy to expand our relationship with the supermarkets of the police because it furthers this healthy system of reciprocity between our organizations and in turn it secures a loyal market.
I am absolutely loving it. I really enjoy packing the products or making the deliveries though this is only a very small part of my work and is not why they wanted a skilled intern. In the very near future I am going to be teaching 2 classes a day of basic English. Prior to my arrival I was really adamant about not wanting to teach English but after discussing it with Karla she made me realize that just being able to say “Hello” will offer these youths more opportunity and pay in the job market. I am a bit nervous but I know it will be good. Other work I will be doing with Fenix includes increased outreach with the police about the Fenix’s work with the intention that it will increase our sales and soliciting donations to expand the types of vocational training we currently offer. The next three months are going to full of a lot of work but Im confident, and most importantly happy.
a.k.a. vacation. Karen, Rachel and I made our plans to venture to the Carribean side of Nicaragua for Semana Santa because we figured we wouldn’t have the time to make the trek at any other point during our internship. Our ultimate destination was the Corn Islands and while there are multiple daily flights between there and Managua we decided to take the super cheap but significantly longer way which also allowed us to see more than just the islands. Our trip began at 9pm from the bus depot where we took a 6 hour ride to El Rama. At 3am we arrived only to have to wait until 6am for the daylight and for the panga (boat) ride down the river to Bluefields. We all fell asleep sitting up watching some dubbed Penelope Cruz roco. Around 5:30ish we ventured over to the docks to make our ride. It was unreal the amount of people waiting. We were some of the last to board, which didn’t seem to be a problem at first. After 2 hours of riding we then arrived in Bluefields only to be told that the panga headed for Pearl Lagoon, our first destination, had left 15 minutes prior. The dock manager said that he could get us on a panga to Kukra Hill and then we could take the bus from there. So we did that ride for another hour. Once we arrived in Kukra Hill we allowed other pushy passengers to take the first 3 waiting taxis. Mistake. The bus to take us to Pearl Lagoon left 15 minutes early (which is totally absurd for this country) and we soon discovered that it was the only bus that day. We sucked it up and got had on an over-priced cab ride, which we tried to barter down but he wasn’t having it (one guy literally drove off).
We reached our hospedaje around 1pm utterly exhausted (15 hours not including the bus ride from home to the bus station) but ready for some sun and food. First we had beers at the hostel were the waitress gave me chicklets for change (throughout the trip this continued to happen, it’s a Caribe thing). We ate lunch at the Queen Lobster under a palapa which had literally been constructed finished that morning (while eating two gentlemen were working on a second). We started chatting with them and they offered us a cheap panga ride to a beach up the way. There we met a very interesting man who spoke English, Spanish, Miskito, Garifuna and Sumo and fought in the revolution for Somoza’s army when he was only 14. Even though Spanish is supposed to be the primary language, everyone on the Caribe speaks creole or Jamican sounding English. Its near impossible to understand at times. Everyone listens/plays to reggae and by the end of the trip we were singing to all of the hits.
In the morning we set out for Orinoco, home to the highest concentration of Garifuna’s in Nicaragua. It is a rich culture and we were excited to go there. However we waited eating Coco Bread and drinking presto coffee then watched as the panga from Bluefields enroute to Orinoco did not stop to pick us up. A guy approached to offer us a ride with him since he was also expecting the panga to stop. So we spent the next two hours on the Puerto de Laguna de Pearla drinking rum and California, a juice drink of pineapple and coconut. Finally arriving around 1pm we spent the day walking around the small town which had no cars but allows their cattle and horses to roam freely. We met some locals who showed us around a bit and played some music for us. The took us to a house of a woman who makes the traditional Garifuna bread made of cassava then later took us to another person who makes moonshine and sold it to us in a used pepsi bottle. We sat outside our hotel with the boys laughing and drinking and listening to the music from the bar until the electricity shut off at midnight (they don’t have power from midnight to noon every day).
The next morning we woke around 6am for our panga at 7am to take us back to Bluefields to catch the ferry to Corn Islands. We arrived around 8:15 to find out that the ferry doesn’t run on Tuesdays and that we must spend the day and night in Bluefields. We too quickly found a hostel called the Lobster Hut (recommended by Lonely Planet but not by us) and set our stuff down. It wasn’t until after we paid that we realized how gross the place was. No running water, backed up toilets, a sink that drained onto your feet and a very creepy owner. It felt like we were in hotel of “the shining” at times. We made sure to spend the day out in Bluefields so we hung at the park, ate some very fresh Pico bread, bought liquor and snacks for the island, played on the internet and finally went to the casino to use what we found to be the only place in the city to have tolerable bathrooms and running water. Since we were in there we figured we might as well play some slots. Finally its time for bed and my room smells like an ashtray and we are next door to a club that plays music until 3am.
8am Wednesday morning. Out of creep hotel, packed, tickets in hand, ready for a leisurely four hour ferry ride to paradise. The boat was packed and somehow we managed to get seats in the air-conditioned room. The first 2 hours we watched “wrong turn” dubbed in Spanish then stopped just inside of the lagoon to get gas or papers signed, we are sure what. Then we hit the high seas. Karen and Rachel left to sit outside because the AC kept going in out. They were drenched within minutes but it was still kind of fun. Then an hour later the sickness started kicking in. I put my head down and took a nap only to awake an hour later thinking we were almost there. Then I talked to the woman next to me who explained that its 4 hours on the high sea making the whole trip 6 hours. Within the next hour I notice a worker (who I named the bolsa-hombre) whose job it was to pass out little black plastic bags for people to yak in and take the full ones to the trash. The boat was being tossed around and when I looked outside I kept expecting to watch someone go overboard. It was hell. Getting to hear Karen and Rachel’s account of outside was marginally worse because people were just yaking on the floor and they had their feet in vomit just about the whole time. Four pm we arrive in Big Corn and must wait for another panga to take us to Little Corn where our hotel is. We immediately started making plans for our return trip to be on a plane because there was no way any one of us was getting back on the vomit boat. I still find it hard to believe.
Little Corn was amazing. The water was beautiful, the sun was bright and we had a great time. It made it worth the torment we went through to get there. It a small island and you can walk the perimeter in about 2 hours. We stayed on the east side but the town and dock is on the west. Our eco-hotel is owned by two former Fort Collins, CO residents who fell in love with the place. We drank Caesar’s, which is a Canadian Bloody Mary that made Karen (a Canadian) very happy and spent lots of time in the sun. On a walk to the north of the island we were able to see a baseball field funded by a “cocaine philanthropist”, this is an individual who finds a bag of cocaine washed ashore, sells it and uses the money for community improvements. We later found out that the paved sidewalks and the dock were also funded by cocaine philanthropists. We stayed until Sunday morning when we took our final panga ride back to Big Corn to catch a 70 minute flight back to Managua.