Ducks, Drugs And Dance Meditation: My Failed Stay At A Nicaraguan Permaculture Farm

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Isla de Ometepe1

The man walked blindfolded between our outstretched fingers as we caressed him with leaves and feathers. Other hands reached out to caress or hold him.

“You are loved,” someone whispered.

“I love you,” echoed another.

He ended his walk in the arms of the oldest man and woman on the farm. They cradled him as would a mother and father, rocking him gently. This unusual birthday ritual captured in a nutshell my stay at a remote permaculture farm on Nicaragua’s Isla de Ometepe — a loving, community-centered experience that managed to both charm and profoundly weird me out.

I was fresh off a week-long spiritual retreat in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. I’d left refreshed, relaxed and ready to put aside my Toronto-forged cynicism. I’d traveled down by chicken bus and ferry to this farm caught in the dip between two volcanoes, one fire and one water.

My first impression of the property seemed to promise further connection to the earth, self, and community — all things which I’d begun to foster in Guatemala. The farm was run on solar power and had a big garden filled with local crops. Its bounty fed the farm’s full-time staff, volunteers and visitors. Additional supplies such as grains were almost all local. There was a rustic open kitchen, a meditation hut with views over the palm-filled valley, a library and hangout center, and a pool with sweeping views of the fire volcano and the lake far below.

An elfin blonde beauty with freckled blue eyes and nicotine=stained teeth showed me around. I waxed poetic about the farm to her. It seemed like the hippie colony I had wished for and yet had always misanthropically avoided.

It all started to unravel that night. I was sitting on a rock bench in the open kitchen and enjoying the rich scent of yucca cooking in coconut curry when a tall and lanky guy with Napoleon Dynamite glasses sat next to me. He skipped the small talk and instead began to stroke my back. I instantly freaked out. One of the interesting things about getting out of your comfort zone is realizing how small that zone really is. It only took one (supposedly) innocent touch to put me out of it. That was only the beginning.

At least I was faring better than the duck that was on its way to the lower field teepee. A retreat was on and the participants were to meet the duck before he was made into soup. After this an intense night of drumming, chanting and imbibing of some beverage that would induce lucidity was scheduled to begin. Even the smallest amount of marijuana pulled me into an abyss of fear, so this all sounded incredibly sinister. I’m sure the duck would have agreed.

The next day I decided that I had to make inroads with the other folks staying at the farm. Trying to be a joiner, I trekked 30 minutes downhill to the closest restaurant with a few other residents. I chatted up a bronzed Canadian who was head cook in the kitchen. He confessed that he grew pot in British Columbia half the year and traveled the rest. He was at the farm to try to clean up his act and face his demons. He was a former party boy with a golden face and a haughty manner and he seemed deeply uncomfortable with himself and most other people. I resigned myself to the fact that he wasn’t going to be my new best friend.

I turned to a didgeridoo-playing Dutch guy instead. I quickly found out that he had the unnerving habit of staring right through you while asking overly personal questions. He posed them as if he was riding on some sparkling wave of honesty when in fact he was in the no-beeswax zone. I had heard him playing his instrument down the hill, the low eerie sounds wafting out of the tall grasses.

At least the gooey oven-cooked pizzas and I got along. I sat on a park bench and watched lithe women glide by in brightly patterned harem pants, belly tops and dreads. We eventually walked back to the farm together along the snaking path, the stars blotting out the sky above with their dazzling scatter. The total darkness obscured my steps. I stumbled over rocks and roots and ducked underneath almost invisible strands of barbed wire.

Isla de Ometepe2

Monday morning rolled around and with it came the return of yoga and meditation classes. I was relieved for a bit of structure and decided to throw myself into getting in touch with the inner me or God or whatever happened to be there.

At 5 a.m. I groggily stumbled towards the tree-top Jungle House. I expected the rest of the crew, but to my surprise, only the owner, Jane (a serious woman with long dreadlocks and a sinewy yoga body) and her German boyfriend were there. I was the only student.

They instructed me to let me body move, vibrate or emit sounds as it liked while a feral-sounding electronic music played at top volume in the background. I never felt more rigid in my life, except for when my boyfriend had tried to teach me salsa dancing. I stood there with my eyes closed while tapping my foot and praying for the whole thing to be over.

Yoga wasn’t much better. Most classes were taught by volunteers who had recently completed their teacher training. The worst class by far was led by my back patting friend. He decided that leading us through traditional yoga poses was too square and turned the whole session into an impromptu laughter yoga class.

Back-patter started making up moves and laughing his crazy hyena laugh. The pot dealer/head cook proceeded to crack up which precipitated a chain of frantic laughter while we all sprawled in ridiculous poses. It was kind of great, except that I really wanted to stretch and I hate laughing. The latter point is mostly not true.

The whole experience was kind of harmless in and of itself. The lame classes, the angry hippies, the strange rituals and random cuddliness were somewhat balanced by the intense and savage beauty of Ometepe, the relaxed pace of life and the delicious vegetarian food that was heavily laced with succulent coconut, fresh cacao and curry.

What tipped it all into the red was José, the farm’s carpenter. Native to the island, he was short, deeply tanned and had a mouth full of silver fillings. I’d quickly taken to him. He thought the farm’s hippies were ridiculous and since my cynical defense mechanism had kicked back in he proved to be a much-needed friend. I gave him English lessons, ate dinner with him and answered his barrage of questions. I knew that his intentions were no purer than those in the hearts of the hippies around me but I figured I could keep him at bay.

Still one night he invited me to sleep with him in his loft space and everything came crashing in. I realized that I was stuck on the farm in the middle of nowhere with no ally, no sense of purpose and definitely no inner peace. I was deeply uncomfortable. I begged Jane to let me out of my 10-day commitment.

She let me go though not before looking deeply into my eyes and saying, “You think people don’t notice Bronwyn but I see your pain.”

I stumbled back down the rugged path towards the village, tears stinging in my eyes and my pack weighing heavily on my back. I’d said a quick goodbye to José before I left.

“You will forget me,” he’d said before I hurried off.

He was right, I would forget him. What I wouldn’t forget was how I’d had a terrible experience in a supposed spiritual paradise. Some of it was due to bad management and the rest came from my inner resistance and inflexible boundaries. My last encounter with Jane showed me that there was a vein of giving that I had refused to mine.

I realized that Guatemala had showed me my best self while Nicaragua had shown me my worst. I was as surprised by my own reactions as the people and places I’d encountered and I needed to process that experience. And avoid hippie birthday parties at all costs.

By Bronwyn Kienapple


[Isla de Ometepe by Eric Molina/Flickr; Volcán Concepción by m.a.r.c./Flickr]


Bronwyn KienappleBronwyn Kienapple is a freelance writer and Canadian who’s currently lost in Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in such publications as Torontoist, The Grid and Toronto Standard. She recently contributed to the literary cookbook Eat It: Sex, Food & Women’s Writing.

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