Pan-American Transmissions Part One: Northern Nicaragua
Pan-American Transmissions Part One
“Pan-American Transmissions” is a travel series from Special Contributor Diego Cupolo as he travels south from Nicaragua to Argentina. He has few plans, a $10-a-day budget and one flute-playing gypsy companion. Check back as new dispatches are posted from the road.
The Land Belongs to Those Who Work it
It begins. Ania and I took a one-way flight to Nicaragua. The voyage would have no time limits and three concrete goals:
1) To reach Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of Patagonia;
2) To be as economic as humanly possible (humanly because we like to shower sometimes);
3) To understand the major issues facing every country along the way.
I had been preparing the journey for more than a year and Ania, a red-headed Croatian gypsy with a flute, jumped on board with me at the last minute.
We landed in Managua at noon. After watching a riot unfold through the thick black smoke of burning tires we headed north, to the mountains, where we hoped to learn about life in the struggling, post-revolutionary, pseudo-democracy that is Nicaragua.
To the Coffee Fields
The first stop was Matagalpa, a small city in the heart of Nicaragua’s coffee region. Ania and I were the only foreigners in town and we were looking for work on local coffee farms.
The search led us through beautiful Jinotega and war-scarred Estelí. Eventually, a friendly environmentalist pointed us towards Posada La Soñada, a family-run organic farm in the pristine Miraflor Nature Reserve.
“You can work all you want there,” he said. “Some people stay for months. Usually, you can make some kind of deal with Corina, the woman who runs things. She’s very nice.”
We grabbed our bags and caught a ride to Miraflor. It was a steep two-hour climb to La Soñada and we found ourselves in the clouds by the time we got out of the bus. Surrounded by white mist, we made our way to the farm and were caught off guard by a gigantic, vine-covered treehouse that appeared through the fog.
“We’re sleeping in that tonight!” Ania yelled.
Just then, a short, round woman with a big smile lumbered out of her afternoon nap and out of her cottage. She greeted us. Her name was Corina. We quickly began peppering her with questions: How much? Can we work for room and board? When can we start? But she just laughed and answered, “Relax, put your bags down first. That stuff isn’t important and we’ll figure it out later. Are you hungry? Do you want something to eat?”
I said yes and would learn to say yes every time she asked that question: Corina was one of the best cooks in Nicaragua.
Ania and I simply melted at the table. We had been eating nothing but rice and beans for a week and now Corina was stuffing us with home-cooked delicacies. Salty cheeses, thick vegetable soups, creamy banana bread, a rainbow of omelets and, my personal favorite, fresh-ground sweetcorn tortillas called “güirilas.”
It didn’t take much convincing after the first dinner. Ania and I moved into a cabaña and stayed for a while.
Life on the Farm, Life on the Battlefield
There were cows, horses, goats, chickens, ducks, rabbits and two massive oxen. Ania and I learned to work with them all. The oxen were especially complicated and massive.
Bolivar, the head farmer, guided us through the days and taught us his campesino ways on the cool mountain slopes. We fertilized coffee plants, cut down banana trees, fed the goats, planted vegetable gardens and milked whatever was able to be milked.
The days were long, hard and gratifying. We worked in the fields looking forward to mealtimes, not just because they were damn delicious, but because they allowed us the time to listen to Corina’s war stories.
Throughout the ’70s, Corina had been at the center of the Nicaraguan revolution to overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. She worked as a field nurse for the guerrilla army (the FSLN) and proudly supported their mission to free Nicaragua and turn it into a socialist state.
“I spent four days in a tunnel once,” she said. “During the war, the Sandinistas used underground tunnels to get from one house to another. It was a good way to trick Somoza’s men and escape ambushes. At one point they were bombing Estelí. The military was all over the city. They would radio each other before bombing raids and we would here them call it ‘dropping candy.’ Twenty of us had to stay in a small tunnel for four days during a period of heavy bombing. Since I was a woman, I was the only one that would go out in the street to see what was happening during the night.”
“How did you eat?” I asked.
“We didn’t eat. It’s that simple. We had one bucket for piss and that was it. The war was terrible, but it felt good to fight for something we believed in. I was really alive then.”
Of course, Corina was still “really alive,” but things were different.
The Sadinista revolutionary vision was bogged down by a subsequent decade of U.S.-financed contra wars that crippled Nicaragua’s economy through the ’80s and ’90s. In 2006, the FSLN regained political office, but since then, many have questioned the legitimacy of their election strategies.
Though Nicaraguans have enjoyed relative peace over the last 20 years, the wars can still be be felt throughout the country. Many of Corina’s friends and relatives died fighting for their beliefs. She, on the other hand, survived and went on to run an understaffed co-operative farm in the mountains.
Her son Jamie told us life in rural Nicaragua was getting more difficult with each passing year.
“It’s hard living here with the farm,” he said. “We lose a lot of money and we don’t even have enough people to work the land anymore. Everyone’s moving to the cities thinking they’ll have better lives, but they just find more misery. You have to buy everything in the city and most of it’s pure garbage.”
That said, Ania and I felt we were really making a contribution by working the fields at La Soñada. Each day we went out with Bolivar we could see a visible difference in the land. He taught us everything we needed to know about coffee production and it was surprisingly delicate work.
Our presence gave Corina extra time to take care of the everything else at La Soñada. The bills, the animals, the kitchen, the chickens, and “El Viejito” — a blind, 103-year-old man that lives in a shack on the farm.
Though La Soñada was made to host visitors, it was obvious few foreigners came through the area.
All Good Things Must End
After a week at La Soñada, Ania and I realized we could easily stay on the farm for a few months. The people, the environment and the meals were just too good — too sweet.
We decided to leave before we got attached. It was the beginning of our grand expedition and we had to keep moving.
Corina was sad, but she understood.
She said we could pay her whatever we felt was fair. We ended up giving our maximum budget of $10 a day to help out, but also because I think I ate more than $10 worth of food each day.
I was a little wider, a little stronger and a little healthier when I walked out those farm gates.
Looking back on it, La Soñada was the best place to start a trip in Nicaragua. We worked side by side with war veterans and campesinos and learned a great deal about the country through their personal experiences.
It was eye-opening, to say the least.
If I ever return to Nicaragua, La Soñada would be my first stop. One week just wasn’t enough. Until then, I’ll be dreaming about güirilas with fresh quajada cheese and the smell of that misty mountain air.
By Diego Cupolo
[All photos courtesy of the author]
About the Author
Diego Cupolo is a freelance photojournalist currently on the road to Tierra del Fuego. Most recently he served as Associate Editor for BushwickBK.com, an online newspaper in Brooklyn, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Star-Ledger, The Australian Times, Discover Magazine and many other publications. View more of his work at DiegoCupolo.com.