Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Oh, my, I love coffee! At night, when I go to bed, I'm excited because I know that when I wake up, I'll have con au lait. Nicaragua is coffee growing country. Que bueno!

Have you ever tasted a bright red, ready-to-harvest coffee bean? I never had until Paulette handed me one and said, "Taste this." It was a burst of sweetness! Nothing like the taste of what we recognize as coffee. Lots will happen to that bean on its way to my cup. Mostly, before being roasted, it will spend a lot of time drying in the sun.

There are over 1000 coffee trees on the property that contains La Mariposa Spanish School and EcoHotel. When she bought the place, Paulette didn't know that. She didn't know it until months later when Ismael, in charge of the grounds, asked her, "What do you want to do about the coffee?" It was ready for the first harvest.

There are always two harvests of coffee beans because they don't all ripen at the same time. You can see in the photo that some of the beans are bright red and some are still green. The first harvest is more labor intensive than the second harvest because the ripe berries must be picked gently in order not to knock off those still ripening.

Well before my experience in Nicaragua, I knew that there is a strong connection between what happens in coffee production and what happens to wildlife and tropical forest diversity. I'm a bird lover. And so I make an effort to buy shade-grown coffee. In many coffee producing areas, great swaths of rain forest and other complex habitats have been destroyed in order to plant rows of coffee trees. Alone, in monoculture, coffee trees do not a forest make. When forests are cut, native birds lose their habitat, and migratory birds find that their sustenance for the journey has disappeared.

But coffee grows perfectly well in the shade, and in Nicaragua, I have seen many beautiful, lush forests with coffee growing under layers of tree canopy. In the photo at left, the leaves in the foreground are coffee trees. A little further back, you see bananas. Both are thriving in a complex ecosystem consisting of canopy, mid-story, and under-story. This is a place where wildlife can thrive as the coffee ripens and bananas take form. Harvesting the coffee is a little more labor intensive in these conditions, and so I pay a few cents more per pound for the coffee I buy in the U.S. I'm happy to do it.

I'm back in the States now. I did bring home coffee from a farm on the slopes of Volcan Mombacho, site of a marvelous cloud forest -- a significant nature preserve that is continually bathed in cloud, damp and dripping and green. On the way up the volcano in a park service truck designed for the steep haul, we stopped at the farm's coffee shop (Cafe Las Flores).

Now, dark, rich coffee from a land I am learning to love--shade grown, sun dried, deeply roasted, finely ground--waits on my countertop where I meet it joyfully every morning.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Thanksgiving Nica Style

On Thanksgiving 2009 at La Mariposa, guests, jefes, and staff--teachers, grounds keepers, cooks--gathered to share a special meal honoring the U.S. holiday. Guests insisted that the cooks, who always tend to us so well, be first in line at the hors d'oeuvres table and then at dinner. They lined up in their aprons, laughing and enjoying; the rest of us followed. After dinner, we shooed them out of the kitchen for a little dancing on the patio, and finally sent them home early, as we did our best to clean up and put things away where they might be found the next day.

It was a memorable Thanksgiving, filled with spirit, as we offered thanks for families and for friends new and old, for connections across boundaries, for the opportunity to know each other and to share the good food prepared for our table. As a guest, I felt particularly grateful for the place in which we were all gathered, for the amazing teachers who came every day to teach in animated & highly individualized ways; for the staff of La Mariposa who were also our teachers, the cocineras who taught me the names of kitchen implements and foods, the gardeners who taught me names of plants and explained patiently why they were digging a hole or trimming a bush. I was grateful for the daily privilege of encountering the Nicaraguan people, who impressed me over and over with their spirit, their skillful work, their courage in the wake of historical and economic challenges.

The event would have been wonderful and inspiring even if we had been sharing peanut butter sandwiches, but the Thanksgiving spread was a feast of vegetables, roasted chickens, a fabulous cranberry sauce. Here, Paulette stirs the pumpkin soup, which was one of my favorite parts of the meal.

And this is the ill-tempered turkey (el chompipe) that lived through Thanksgiving and continues to terrorize women who go near the kitchen's back steps. (This turkey is sexist; men go un-harassed.) Jokes about putting that turkey on the dining table ran rampant for days before the holiday, but Paulette is devoted to all her creatures, and she consistently pointed out this turkey's finer points, most notably that he will eat things that the generally omnivorous chickens will not--potato and beet peels, for example. At La Mariposa, absolutely nothing must go to waste. And so the turkey serves his purpose, living to see another Thanksgiving Day and, no doubt, another round of turkey-on-the-table jokes.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Monkeys & Parrots & Horses, Oh my!

Anything that can be rescued will be rescued at La Mariposa! White-faced Monkeys, parrots and parakeets, dogs, horses.

These residents arrive in a variety of ways. The monkeys and "exotic" birds have been rescued from illegal trade. Paulette Goudge of La Mariposa has a very good working relationship with the police, and they know that when animals intended for smuggling come into their hands, they can pass them on. These animals have sometimes arrived in very poor condition, but they certainly aren't in poor condition now.

The dogs have found their way here in a variety of ways, and they are comfortable residents, mingling with students and guests as we come and go from classes, meals, and activities. Here you see Molly on the stairs.
Rescued horses don't actually live on the grounds of La Mariposa. They pasture in semi-retirement on a mountainside not far away. Sundays usually offer an opportunity for horseback riding. Students whose brains have been taxed with study are invited to take a leisurely (or energetic) ride. The horses are delivered to the front gate, and riders are guided along paths that take them to spectacular views of lake and volcano.

La Mariposa is so much more than a "Spanish School and Eco-Hotel." It is a network of projects, all designed to support human, animal, and plant life in Nicaragua. Projects are supported by the school and hotel. This is quite an amazing place.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

That bird!

For days I had been wanting to see the guardabarranco, national bird of Nicaragua. I had been told that they are frequently in the garden here at La Mariposa, but I spend a lot of time in class, on field trips, and studying, and I just hadn't happened to be looking when a guardabarranco was about. Finally, however, I've seen one, with its pendulum tail (which doesn't show up dramatically in this photo). This gorgeous bird actually cooperated while I took its picture--until I tried to get just a bit too close.

For those who care about such things, this is the Turquoise browed Motmot (Eumomota superciliosa). El Salvador also claims this as the national bird, calling it pajaro reloj, clock bird, because of the way it swings the tail back and forth.

Friday, November 13, 2009

School Days at La Mariposa

School days at La Mariposa are an intense, wonderful weave of learning experiences, some highly structured and some more informal, with infinite possibilities for inventing one's own path.

Breakfast is on the terrace at 7:15. Classes begin at 8:00. Before lunch, I've had a 2-hour conversation class and a 1 1/2 hour grammar class with a 30 minute juice break. Jenny (at right) has been my conversation teacher this week. Today, something special for me, she read to me from the Autobiografia of Ruben Dario, one of the nation's most honored (no longer living) poets. This text became the topic of our conversation, text alternating with talk. (Jenny speaks no English. This is good for me!)

Lunch on the terrace is followed by afternoon activities, which have often been prepared for in the morning's conversation class. For example, the unifying theme of my conversation class the first day I was here was Tortillas y sopa de queso (Tortillas and cheese soup). That afternoon, in the kitchen, there were lessons in making tortillas y sopa de queso. And guess what we had for dinner!

Often our afternoon activities are field trips from which we return at dinner time. After tarea (homework!). We are very busy at La Mariposa Spanish School! And there's lots more to tell. Later.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"The Mouth of Hell"

El pais des volcanes y lagunas Nicaragua is sometimes called -- the country of Volcanoes and Lakes. These volcanoes are live, and Volcan Masaya is one of the few in the world where you can walk right up to the edge of the crater and look down into an open lava pool. In the daytime, you can't actually see lava through the plume of sulphurous gases, smoke, and (sometimes) ash, but at night (we went first in daylight, then after dark), you can peer down to see the glowing boca de enfer as the Spaniards called it centuries ago ("the mouth of hell").
Here, as at the Chocoyero waterfall, chocoyos nest in holes in the stone walls of the crater. These birds have adapted, remarkably, to the inhospitable gases. People who live in the path of the volcano's fumes do not do so well. A number of health problems result, and very few crops will grow.
Multiple craters mark this volcano, which has erupted at various times from various openings, and there are caves that run underground between craters. One cave is sufficiently accessible that visitors may go there--at night, to visit the habitation of bats. We walked to one opening of the cave where the air was full of bats; they flew in and out of the cave, around our heads. We did not enter there but went to a larger opening not far away. There, we were able to walk deep into the large lava-tube (perhaps 1000 yards?), its walls dripping with moisture. The park service had equipped each of us with a hard hat (for which I would soon be grateful) and flashlight.
The floor of the cave was rough but somewhat regular in its roughness (if that makes sense), and I suppose I wasn't using my light as carefully as I should have been. I didn't see the edge of the large rock on which I was stepping or the 18-inch drop from it. I slipped, took a really bad fall into a pile of large rocks. So, I had a painful night, and the next day, had the adventure of visiting a doctor and having x-rays. My arm is in sling (3rd day), but it's not broken. I am very happy about my good strong bones (all that weight bearing exercise, paddling a canoe). I have some stunning bruises and a gorgeous temporary souvenir on my forehead. Grateful I am for that hard hat. Also grateful for the attentiveness of Paulette and Ismael of La Mariposa, who saw me through the medical visits, and for Karen's attentiveness as I very slowly regain use of my right arm. The hardest part of this adventure has been not being able to write. At least now I can, with the arm propped well, type.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

El Chocoyero Nature Reserve

Through pineapple, banana, and shade-grown coffee fields, our hero driver, Bergman (in photo), conducted us up and up on a deeply rutted and washed out road (think of the worst dirt road you've ever been on and multiply by ten) until we arrived at El Chocoyero Reserve. Bergman showed us the map of the trail that we would take to the waterfall called El Chocoyero, and we began our hike through the lush hardwood forest--so many trees, shrubs, and vines whose names I do not know. I'm learning--rubber tree (with scars from slashes to harvest the sap), ceiba....

About half an hour into the hike,, I saw ahead beside the trail a single gumbo limbo tree with its familiar peeling bark, felt an irrational joy at its recognition. Old friend in a new place.

Our objective on this hike was not simply the waterfall. It was also the high stone cliff adjacent to it, pocked with holes which serve as dwellings for approximately 1500 birds,
chocoyos (wild green parakeets), of which there are five different types in the preserve. The birds leave early every morning and then return in the evening to spend the night in their individual or family homes. Our hike was timed to get us there for the return, its grand racket of squawking.

For me, the finest moment of the day occurred when we were standing at the bottom of the waterfall, listening as the noise of the returning birds mingled with the howls of the howler monkeys in not-so-distant branches. It was a fine cacophony.

El Chocoyero is an important Watershed for the area. It is also a destination for ecotourists in a nation which is just developing its tourism infrastructure. It is one of the few parks in Nicaragua that permits overnight camping. I probably won't be camping there this trip, but if there's time, I may be going back with a private guide to learn more about the ecology of the preserve, the specifics of the preservation effort, educational outreach, and, yes, I want to know the names of those trees.