Sunday, December 27, 2009

Bananas and Coffee!

We’ve always loved bananas. Joe loves coffee. We knew bananas and coffee frequently came from Central America, but we didn’t know how much exposure we would get to the banana and coffee industry on our journey. And, yes, we never knew how deep of a history the US has with these industries.

First coffee: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, have all claimed to grow some of the best coffee! Costa Rica has gone as far as to say they have the best coffee! We heard claims such as ‘we have great altitude for growing coffee’, ‘our growing season is long allowing the coffee to become more mature’, and ‘our plants [growing next to the coffee plants] provide good shade for the coffee.’ In addition to hearing these claims, we’ve gotten some personal exposure to the cherished ‘red cherries’ or coffee beans.

In El Salvador we got up-close-and-personal with coffee plants for the first time, walking a local woman’s coffee finca (farm). In Nicaragua, a gringo showed us how he and his brothers grow, cultivate, and roast their own coffee (with the help of their local Nicaraguan labor force, of course). While there, Joe enjoyed a cup or two or three of the home-grown product. Finally, in Costa Rica, thanks both to our generous host and the country’s coffee tourism infrastructure, we visited an industrial-sized coffee finca. This large-scale operation, Espiritu Santo it was called, purportedly sends its roasted beans to the likes of Starbucks, among others. Coffee, in short, is omnipresent. And we’re not even to coffee powerhouse Colombia!

Coffee picking season is approximately 2 ½ months long and is occurring right now! Hence, on our visit to Espiritu Santo a few days ago the migrant worker coffee pickers (we were told 95% are Nicaraguans), many accompanied by their families, were not in short supply. Talk about getting (somewhat uncomfortably) up-close-and-personal! We’ll save further discussion on the labor behind the beloved fruits for a different time (or blog).

As for bananas, did you know that there are several varieties of bananas? The banana world is much larger than “Vietnamese Cavendish banana” you find at your local store. Varieties are sweet, bitter, large, small, fat, and skinny. It is always an event to pick a new variety at the market and compare them to previously eaten varieties. We both swear by one variety eaten we at on “our” Nicaraguan island farm. The problem… we have no idea what kind it was! We both recall this perfect banana being medium in length, really fat, and incredibly sweet and perfect for milk-banana-cinnamon licuados!!

While the banana fincas don’t seem to have the same tourist allure as coffee fincas, we both read a book about the United Fruit company now Chiquita Bananas. The pervasive and destructive octopus company, as it was known to local Latin Americans, seemed to control Central America. Railroads, schools, and health clinics were all constructed under the octopus’s control. The banana republics took several years of organizing and fighting to regain their “independence” .

As our journey continues, we are going to keep exploring banana varieties, searching for the ultimate banana. Joe is going to keep refining his coffee pallet. And, we are going to keep looking to how these delectable goodies are made! Today we saw our first industrial pineapple finca, owned by none other than everyone’s favorite Del Monte.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Map Update I

Now that we’re established in a new country—Costa Rica—it’s everybody’s favorite blog time: map update time! We’re including just the legend for places we visited in Nicaragua. If you want to see the legend for locations 1 through 14, you’ll have to scroll down and look at our last map update. Click on blog entries for November.

As you’ll see below, Nicaragua was a worthwhile destination for us. To preview, we met awesome people that are due to become lifelong friends, some through impressively random encounters. And, notably, we had a couple diverse and extremely informative volunteer opportunities.

15 – 10/31 to 11/25 – Leon, Nicaragua. A young town bustling with a small ex-pat scene. We lived at the headquarters of QuetzalTrekkers, a volunteer-run organization that leads hikes up volcanoes and donates all proceeds to local charities. During the three weeks we were there, we busied ourselves with various projects ranging from hanging shelves, to finding a local peanut butter source, to working with street kids at Las Tias.

16 – 11/25 to 11/27 – Jinotega, Nicaragua. A respite from Leon both as regards climate (it’s cool) and tourism (there’s very little). We stopped in this mountain for two nights and busied ourselves with computer stuff. Here Joe became a journalist.

17 – 11/27 to 11/28 – Masaya, Nicaragua. To celebrate Thanksgiving night we had pizza in Masaya, famous for its artisanal crafts and markets. Joe’s “fake wallet” stolen .

18 – 11/28 to 11/30 – Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua. Small world: Our CouchSurfing host was the son of a patient Juleen served in Chicago. We stayed in his mini-mansion, toured his finca, ate amazing food, and delighted in conversation about our Midwestern roots.

19 – 11/30 to 12/01 – Playa del Coco, Nicaragua. A random ride made us friends with Laurie, an amazing person and New York City lawyer. Half-Nicaraguan, her family holds onto a glorious beach house on a beautiful, sparsely populated piece of Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. We gladly kept her company for the night.

20 – 12/01 to 12/09 – Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua. Two volcanoes dot the center of the figure eight shape this island makes. We roughed it for the week at Project Bona Fide. Most rustic week of each of our lives. Very educational. The people made the experience.

21 – arrived 12/09 – Liberia, Costa Rica. Only a few kilometers into Costa Rican territory, the difference between this place and everywhere else we have been is stark. Lights shine brighter. Skin is fairer. Streets are cleaner. Prices more painful. Our wallets will not allow us to leisurely take in Costa Rica.

Despite its harsh reputation, its reputation particularly with Americans that is, Nicaragua both entertaining and interesting. For anyone looking to go south to travel, live, or whatever, we recommend it.

Monday, December 14, 2009


We spent one week on the Isla de Ometepe, an island in Nicaragua. While there we lived and worked on a farm owned and operated by two Americans. We could feel good about the $20 a day we paid to volunteer because we were learning, and, perhaps even more importantly, because the farm was purportedly organic and sustainable (admittedly, the money covered our food too). In other words, the farm was practicing “permaculture”.

Permaculture is short for permanent agriculture where the intent of preserving and conserving nature’s resources, while providing for oneself. For example, many American farms just plant one crop. They only have corn or soybeans or wheat or even canola! They have a monoculture. Because monocultures can quickly exhaust soil’s resources and allow for soil to erode, most farms apply annual doses of synthetic, unnatural fertilizers to the soil. The fertilizers ensure that the crop can obtain its required nutrients, and thus grow. Synthetic fertilizers are made using oil, so using them is considered inorganic and (in the long run) unsustainable farming.

Project Bona Fide does things differently. Instead of using synthetic fertilizers, the farm makes its own fertilizers: both from plants it grows specifically for the purpose and from food and animal waste combined with dead plants. Another advantage of Bona Fide’s non-monoculture system is that they use more than one potential growing “level”. Imagine a beautiful Indiana landscape, i.e. a big field of corn. Is there anything growing above the corn? Is there anything growing below the corn? Typically the answer is no. Bona Fide takes advantages of the different growing “levels” by growing plants with different shade tolerances together: a shorter herb and a mid-level legume plant to fix nitrogen and a taller papaya tree. In this way, Bona Fide grows a more diverse set of crops and avoids overtaxing the soil.

Another cool aspect of permaculture is its insistence on time and energy efficiency (a term from our Kiwi friend and permaculturer, Richard). Basically you put things in a place that will save you time and energy down the road. Put foods you use a lot close to your house. Put foods you don’t use a lot farther away. Definitely sounds good, huh?

That’s kind of the problem, though: it sounds good, but what does it look like in practice. And, of course, different strokes for different folks: your idea of permaculture probably doesn’t equate with mine. Along those lines, we spent most of our week at Bone Fide critiquing the place. Why don’t they grow “food”? What’s its true goal? Etc...

On our last night we got an awesome tour (thanks, Chris!) of the farm. While we wouldn’t have done everything the same way, at least their system made a lot more sense. With a better understanding of Bona Fide we could feel better about the money and time we were donating to the project.

If we can extrapolate what we found from our experience at Bona Fide, it seems to inform the experiences we’ve had at Bona Fide and, potentially, elsewhere (as discussed in our previous blog). A little communication goes a long way between volunteer and non-profit goes a long way! Who knew?

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Non-profit organization. What do you think of? I tend to think of an idealistic organization, a place doing good work. Ultimately, a place I’d probably like to work.

A volunteer-run non-profit. Sounds even better. And if the money supports a separate organization providing essential services to the community that’s better still. Of course I’d want to work there! Right?

In reflecting on our past work and the work we’re doing now, one common theme shines brighter than any others—all six organizations have been non-profit organizations. We certainly hadn’t planned it out this way. Well, to be truthful, we didn’t plan the trip itself, including the volunteer opportunities. But it’s cool that it has worked out this way. Both of our career paths, whatever they decide to be, could foreseeably include work with non-profit organizations. Beyond any personal benefit, familiarizing ourselves with the various organizations and subsequently critiquing them has been extremely interesting.

At the moment we’re volunteering at Project Bona Fide, a non-profit working to develop a fully organic, fully sustainable farm (i.e. a permaculture farm) on a strip of land here on the Isla de Ometepe in southern Nicaragua. Bona Fide seems perfect for us: there’s work to do; there’s farming to learn about; there are a few other, like-minded people around the place (so we’re not constantly staring at one another); and you’re done with work at noon! But we can’t unconditionally support the place. What’s the problem? Good question. Maybe it’s just the fact that we’re paying $20 a day ($10 per person) to volunteer. Maybe it’s that the food system is disorganized. Food is included in what we pay, but we don’t feel that the kitchen is amply stocked for us (Juleen asked for tea… the answer was no). Maybe it’s that the goal of the farm is unclear. After nine years under the current owner, it still depends on volunteer’s fees to stay afloat. For seeking sustainability, the farm grows an alarmingly few number of the foods it consumes. We’ve heard the owners might want it to function as an education center; however, the accommodations are rather barren.

In Leon, Nicaragua we experienced similar frustrations with various non-profit organizations. A woman representing a pro-woman’s group didn’t respect the meeting she setup with us. Consequently we weren’t able to work with the organization. A community group providing a safe place for street kids scoffed when we offered to start an afternoon class. Our attempts to assist Quetzaltrekkers were hindered by unclear expectations for management and volunteers alike.

So are we just whiney and overly critical? Well, yes. You know that. But more appears to be at play here. We’ve had great experiences and are thankful to have learned a lot through our volunteer experiences. And we’re not going to give up on them yet; we’ll keep seeking out work with non-profit groups along the way. We are surprised, though, that we cannot unconditionally recommend any of the non-profits we’ve worked with. Aren’t non-profits organizations better than this?

Next stop: corporate Costa Rica!