IMGP7766

A year on: a new challenge for Nuevas Esperanzas

Exactly this time last year I was on a plane to Nicaragua to spend six months volunteering with Nuevas Esperanzas. Over that time, I got to witness how their work improves the lives and livelihoods of marginalised rural communities who live on the Telica Volcano. Inspired by their projects and their values, this year I have decided to sign up for a 17.5 mile run to raise funds to support their work.

Over the next six months, mirroring the time that I was in Nicaragua, I will release six blog posts. Each blog will theme on a different aspect of Nuevas Esperanzas’ activities. By doing this, I not only hope to raise funds, but also awareness of this truly exceptional charity.

1: Water

Increasing access to water for people who live on Telica has been a prominent aim for Nuevas Esperanzas since they came to the area over 9 years ago. With World Water Day coming up on the 22 March, having water as the theme for this month’s post seems particularly fitting.

Drinking water on a volcano

Access to adequate drinking water is a major issue for those on Telica. For some people, springs can be up to 5 km away, involving a 4 hour journey on foot or horseback. In the dry season, months of little to no rain causes springs to become low flowing and unreliable. Groundwater near the volcano is often highly contaminated with arsenic, so digging a borehole for water is not a viable option.

Harvesting the rain

Although virtually non-existent in the dry season, rainfall is heavy and frequent during the wet season. Nuevas Esperanzas saw this rainfall as an opportunity, and identified that rainwater harvesting systems could provide a source of drinking water that was safe, reliable and close to people’s homes. Since 2006, their team has built over 70 rainwater harvesting tanks in the area, benefitting over 200 people.

Spring protection and pipelines

Nuevas Esperanzas’ spring protection projects prevent springs from getting contaminated by the surrounding environment. By building a storage tank to collect the flow from a spring, water reserves can be built up overnight and then used throughout the day, making more water available even during the dry season.

Last year, Nuevas Esperanzas built a pipeline that takes water from a protected spring over 5 km down the volcano to a community whose previous water source is highly contaminated with arsenic.

A project “in the pipeline”

This year, Nuevas Esperanzas hope to extend the pipeline project. Two communities relatively close to where the pipeline currently ends still rely on water sources that contain levels of arsenic over 25 times WHO standards. The health impacts of arsenic can be devastating, and it is associated with skin cancer, cancers of the bladder, kidney and lung, and diseases of the blood vessels of the legs and feet. By extending the pipeline, over 40 households will have access to arsenic-free water, reducing the risk of further cases of arsenic poisoning.

Please see my JustGiving Page  to donate to Nuevas Esperanzas.

IMGP9106

Adiós Nicaragua, te quiero mucho

It has been almost six months since I started my time in Nicaragua. It is very hard for me not to write all the usual clichés about how time has flown, but I really cannot believe that it is my time to leave. I have felt so fortunate to have had this opportunity, and really lucky. Lucky to have found Nuevas Esperanzas, whose values I support 100%, and whose team is made up of an incredible group of people. Lucky to have had a family who fully welcomed me into their home, sharing their life and mine whilst I lived in León. Lucky to have found some amazing people with which to share my experiences.

Trying not to think of this as the final week, I have kept it as routine as possible. I didn’t want to spend my “lasts” being sad, and have enjoyed my last day out on Volcán Telica, last salsa night, last Spanish class and last time to see friends.

I don’t like saying goodbyes, and prefer to think of this as an hasta luego. Thank you so much to everyone who has made this trip so special. I will not forget you and everything that you have done.

¡Besos y abrazos!

IMGP7938 IMGP7942 IMGP7950Feature photo: View from the roof of the Cathedral in León

End photos: All 3 are on Volcán Telica, where Nuevas Esperanzas carry out their work.

IMGP8407

Ojalá que llueva

This area of Nicaragua has not experienced much rain this year. The slow start to the rainy season has continued to be slow. And the crops have suffered. Many people living on Volcán Telica are subsistence farmers, relying on rain to feed their crops in order to feed their families. Rainwater also provides an important source of drinking water. Over the past 10 years, Nuevas Esperanzas has established over 70 rainwater harvesting tanks in the communities that live on the planes of the volcano. Each tank can provide the necessary supply of water to sustain a family throughout the dry season. Provided they are filled by the end of the rainy season. In areas where many people rely on the climate for their basic necessities, periods of extreme weather can be devastating.

IMGP7766Rainwater harvesting tank

Without access to irrigation, planting crops has to be timed with the rains, and is normally carried out twice a year. Within Nuevas Esperanzas’ model farm project, they are trying to encourage planting to be staggered throughout the rainy season, so that the harvest can also be staggered and food can be available more often throughout the year. By visiting the farms, you can really see the effects of the harsh climates that can be found on Volcan Telica. Not only do the crops have to deal with the lack of rain, but the fields are also exposed to strong winds, which damage the leaves and cause the plants to lose water even quicker. To decrease their vulnerability to losing all their harvest, they have selected varieties that are more resistant to drought and have planted a diverse range of crops, hoping that some will cope better under these conditions. The weather also means that the agricultural team are having to be flexible with their plans for the model farms and various activities may have to be postponed until next year. When it does rain, the team are aware that the people will need to take advantage of this time to plant their own crops and may not be as available to work on the model farms.

The harvest just gone has been poor, but there is still hope for the next one. If there is sufficient rain then at least there will be enough to eat, and hopefully some to sell. If not, people will have to make tough decisions. Sell assets, eat less per day, leave home to find work, anything they can do provide for their family.

IMGP9317Canavalia beans (in front) and pineapples (behind)

IMGP8180Rows of beans that have been planted within the rows of dragon fruit (supported by posts). These beans fix nitrogen in the soil acting as a form of natural fertilizer

IMGP8971

A bit of exploring…

For for a few weeks, I halted my life as a volunteer and became one of the many travellers that come to explore this beautiful country. A friend decided to (semi-spontaneously) come out and visit, and it was the perfect opportunity to redo the things I have loved and do the things that I have been meaning to but had not gotten round to actually doing them. Having people to visit is also a great way to re-see things with a fresh pair of eyes, and I loved being able to share some of the experiences I have had here with a friend from home.

The weeks went by like a whirlwind as we did some sort of activity every day. On the last night I asked Katharine to give me her highlights, and we ended up having to categorise them as it is slightly impossible to compare the awe you feel standing on the crater of an active volcano with the one you feel when on the top of the magnificent cathedral in León. So, I think for this post, pictures may speak louder than words…

León: La catedral. We went up onto the roof and it was like entering another world, everything was white and you got a great view of the surrounding area and volcanoes in the distance. We spent a good amount of time playing with our shadows.

IMGP8279 IMGP8554IMGP8544IMGP8547

Volcan Telíca: Both of the days we spent on Telíca involved a fair amount of hiking (“fair” is possibly an understatement and I think Katharine would agree!), allowing us  to see many of the things that the volcano has to offer.

IMGP8698One of the incredible suspension bridges (below) that are part of Nuevas Esperanzas’ pipeline project, taking water over 5km down the volcano to a community whose water source is highly contaminated with arsenic.

IMGP8726

A wild swarm of bees, which we encountered right next to one of the community’s bee hives. It was a great place for the bees to settle, because if the community beekeepers can capture the swarm and encourage them to stay, they can take advantage of the honey that the bees will produce. IMGP8454The photos below show how the swarm was captured by sweeping it into a box containing panels of eggs, pollen and honey. The box was then placed next to where the swarm was found. Fingers crossed the queen likes her new home!

IMGP8457IMGP8459IMGP8463

IMGP8465Isla Juan Venado: Just a bus ride away from León, on the Pacific coast, we were able to explore the mangrove forest in the natural reserve of Juan Venado. Mangroves are not only extremely important ecologically, providing habitats for many organisms, but also because they form protection against extreme weather events such as hurricanes. We had an amazing lunch of fresh fish at a locally-run place where they work to promote the conservation of the forest and also protect turtle eggs.

DSCN1267Masaya: We went to watch how artisan pottery is traditionally made. We went to a family run business, where they use local clay and tools that you can easily find, such as bicycle spokes, to make intricate details on pots before they are put in the kiln.

IMGP8340

Estelí: In the nearby community called La Garnancha, we got a tour from a member of the cooperative that manages  farms in that area. As our guide took us around, we were able to see how each element of their set up supports the next one. The manure from their goats and pelibueys (a mountain animal) is fed to their earthworms. Their earthworms create a rich fertilizer for their vegetablea, which are then sold at the market in Estelí. The climate there is cooler than in other areas of Nicaragua, enabling them to grow more types of vegetables and they use their goats’ milk to make a delicious Swiss cheese.

 IMGP8867IMGP8865

IMGP8887

Close to La Garnancha, we visited Alberto, a gentleman who has spent his life doing incredible carvings into the stone. He took us around his garden, explaining to us the significance of some of the carvings and pointing out all the orchids and fruits that can be found there.
IMGP8857La Isla de Ometepe: This island is made up of two volcanoes that emerge from Lake Nicaragua. We walked along the most westerly point and got spectacular view of both volcanoes.

IMGP8985IMGP8975

I know we have barely scratched the surface of the number of places you can go and things you can do in nicaragua, and these are just a few of my highlights from the weeks travelling. I have almost run out of time here, I only have 2 weeks left spend these next to weeks in León and with Nuevas Espernazas. I am just going to have to plan another trip to get to know this country a bit better…

IMGP7948

Un día bonito

There have been many days when I have had to stop and do a reality check. Am I actually here and doing this? Unable to believe the scenery around me, I have had another one of those days. Volcan Telica is possibly one of the most beautiful places I have been to, and being able to follow the team as they carry out their work there has been incredible. IMGP7931 Many tourists visit Telica’s crater on a daily basis. However the communities that live there gain little from this trade and tourists miss out on much of the ecological beauty that Telica has to offer. By developing tourism on Telica, Nuevas Esperanzas hopes to raise income in the area, which is currently estimated at under $1 per day. Linking economic benefits with the environment will also promote conservation of the area. Once the trails have been laid, guides have been trained, and cabins have been built, the project will be run by a tourism cooperative that has been established by the communities. Construction of los sanderos (footpaths) started a few months ago. Just before I left for Little Corn, I spent the day with the civil engineer and the project manager walking the routes to see their progress. A day hiking a volcano, seeing amazing views and exploring a dry tropical forest? Yes please! IMGP7918 The trails are a work of art. When I have hiked in the past, I have never paid too much attention to what I am walking on (too much concentration is spent on where I am treading!). This trip made me appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into making footpaths. The materials, such as wood and rocks, are from the surrounding environment, so all the paths blend into and are complemented by the scenery around them. As we made our way from one viewpoint to the next, we got to see the department of León all the way to the coast, with the city being easily recognisable byIMGP7899 its grand cathedral. We also passed fincas (farms) with acres of maiz and corn (see photos above and below). They are stunning to look at, the neat lines of beans creating patterns that are contrasted by the large-leafed, bright green maiz. These two crops are heavily depended upon, making people’s food security vulnerable to changes in climate (like the current drought) and natural disasters (such as the ash cloud that heavily damaged crops when Telica erupted in 2011). The model farms that are being developed alongside the tourism project hope to reduce this vulnerability by trialling and teaching low-input techniques, reducing the need for people to get into debt, and encouraging crop diversification. The progress of the tourism project is really exciting, and I cannot wait to see how it continues to develop for the rest of my time here. IMGP7953

IMGP7999

Little Corn Island

The past four days have been spent on the beautiful Little Corn Island, just off the Atlantic Coast. It was great to experience a whole different side of Nicaragua, really strengthening my feeling that this country has so much to offer. Its culture, climate and nature are so rich and diverse, whoever you are and whatever your interests it would be hard not to find a place that you love.

This was my first time in the Caribbean, and it did not disappoint. We were staying in huts right on the beach, looking out onto the typical tropical island scene: fine sand, palm trees, and a turquoise and deep blue patterned sea. Between each delicious marisco or coco-based meal, we spent our time exploring the many beaches. We also went on a snorkelling trip, seeing coral reefs, colourful fish, a shark and a stingray.

We found our favourite restaurant on our second day. Whilst looking for a place for lunch it started raining hard, so we ducked into the closest one and it quickly won us over. Rosa’s is family run, serving traditional dishes from the area. And the food is amazing. We tried the seafood soup, Rondón, made with local shrimp and lobster, breadfruit from the tree next door and herbs from the garden. Everything was freshly made/caught, they even made the coconut milk themselves. It was the tastiest meal I have had in Nicaragua.

IMGP8137Although the island is small, the climate seems to change dramatically depending on which side you are on. The beaches and atmosphere also change depending on where you are. If you want some peace you can find secluded coves. If you feel like being sociable, you can head to a few of the cafes/bars near the port, which provide happy hours and bonfire parties.

IMGP7974I like travelling and seeing new places, but it reinforces in my mind how much I prefer living and working somewhere for a bit. Travelling, you get a snapshot of a place and people. Living, you get to know them. Although other extranjeros are often extremely friendly, wanting to hear your story and tell theirs, I am getting less and less patient with a certain type of party traveller. Those who whiz through a place, only to remember their first hour at the bar and their hungover bus journey out. They often end up doing something silly (they might say hilarious), embarrassing (awkward) or offensive. I ended up sitting next to one such traveller, who told me how they had run round a smart hotel in dresses and no pants. Unsurprisingly he and his friends got kicked out. I am the wrong audience for these kind of stories. I tried my stoniest face (directing it at my drink, I don’t have the courage to glare at people directly) and changed the subject. He then proceeded to say how much he felt he had “connected with the locals” in León. How long was he there? 4 days. Hmm… Maybe I’m being too judgemental, and maybe he did have a special connection. My 18 year-old fresh-out-of-school self would have found the stories funny or even impressive. But more and more I look back at certain times in my gap year con vergüenza. I am not saying I did anything particularly shameful and I was by no means a crazy partier. But I was part of the herd that came, partied and left. Little consideration for the fact that we were at someone’s home. Little consideration for the impact we made. The positive thing is that these times have made me more conscious of how I travel now, and with each trip I am learning and understanding a little bit more.

IMGP8017

 

Sometimes choosing where to stay and eat can be tricky. Here are some recommendations if you ever happen to visit Little Corn:

Accommodation: Elsa’s Place. If you want simple, cheap but comfortable accommodation this ticks all the boxes. It does not have a website, but there is a video of the huts on Vimeo (search: Elsa’s place).

Food: Rosa’s. Support a Nicaraguan business and have some of the tastiest food on the island. Win – win! You have to order Rondón in advance as it takes a long time to prepare. Try their coconut bread French toast for breakfast.

A fresh field day on the farm

After another day in the field, I can’t help but post another comparisons photo. The change in the countryside is just incredible, and what a welcome change it is. When we got out of the truck after the ~2 hour journey, it was the first time that it was cooler outside than in the air-conditioned vehicle. The air was so fresh, with the experience made even richer by the sight of the soil being a moist brown as opposed to a dry orange.

ImageImage

 

On this trip the pitahaya had the weeds cleared around them, and their support posts pruned of branches as they like the sun. They seem to be fairly demanding! Although, you can find huge ones growing very happily draped over trees in the wild. Maybe the compilations come when you have over 50 planted in one area. Their care has been made more arduous by the hormigas (ants), who have been damaging them. The team seem to have a plan though; tempting the ants to a new home and destroying the one nearby. Going round the farm it was great to see the plantains are growing well, and the compost heap on its way. The slightly ironic thing is, the compost heap is too cold. I didn’t think that anything could get too cold in the department of León! They are in the process of deciding where they want to plant the trees that were brought up in the back of the Hilux last week. It is up to the community members to decide, but the size of the tree and therefore shade it will bring will have to be carefully considered. Coffee and cacao need the shade, whereas others (pitahaya!) are sunbathers.

Crops are not just doing well on the model farms. Surrounding the farm you can see the maiz (maize) and frijoles (beans) starting to grow (see picture below: maize in the foreground and beans behind). These are the principle crops grown here, and they are really important for both subsistence and for income. If something happens to your primary crop the results are devastating, with people having to sell their assets or go hungry. One of the objectives of the model farms is to encourage diversification and, alongside some demanding pitahaya plants, they hope to grow a whole range of fruits and vegetables here.

Image
How many trees can you fit in a hilux?

A lot apparently. This week hundreds of young trees are being taken up to the model farms for planting next week. They’re going to be planting avocado, cashew, orange and mango. Not only will these trees provide delicious fruit for eating and selling, but they will also create shade so that coffee and cacao can be grown as well. Que rico!

Similar positions, very different views

 

ImageImageThese two photos above were taken from similar spots on Volcan Telica, but the views are very different. The first one was taken in March, on my first day out in the field, and the second was taken last week. It is so good to see some green, I didn’t realise that the country could get more precioso. It is constantly changing and constantly producing flowers and fruits that are completely new to me. The transformation of the landscape since the first rains has been fairly rapid, but the rainy season itself has had a slow start. Although we had some rain at the beginning of May, it has not been consistent, worrying for those planting crops and waiting for their rainwater harvesting tanks to fill. Let’s hope for some more consistent rain, no matter what it does to the streets of León!

Image