The Gift of Words

Our bus skidded to a stop and with a sigh of relief I peeled my eyes from the side of the road and the drop off to the valley floor below. As the dust settled on the single, gravel lane I took in our surroundings. To the left a short, barbed wire fence stood guard before the two huts making up another of the homes in the Sontule community. On my right, a second road branched off of our lane and disappeared into the trees. We had just come from a meeting with the women’s coffee cooperative of the UCA Miraflor region after which our group of students had been divided into pairs and sent to stay with different families around the community. Glancing at Modesta, our host mother, for confirmation that this was our stop, my travel partner Emma and I grabbed our bags and exited the bus. Two other pairs of students also followed their hosts off the bus. One group was led through the fence on our left and the rest of us set off along the path to the right.

Modesta was a full foot and a half shorter than me and the wrinkles on her face told me she had seen many years. She seemed small and fragile and I was reluctant to hand her one of my bags when reached out to help. Her thin arms, however, were not as frail as they appeared and she hoisted the duffle with ease. I knew it wasn’t the first time she’d carried heavy objects long distances. As we wound our way along the ridge, the trees often parted, revealing stunning views of the northern Nicaraguan mountains on either sides of us. Though not nearly as extreme as the Montana Rockies, they were beautiful just the same. Skin slick with sweat from the high, twelve o’clock sun and stomach rumbling with hunger, I was grateful to finally arrive at what would be my home for the weekend. Modesta showed us to our room, set my bag on the table, then left to prepare lunch. Emma and I lay down our bags as well then went to explore.

The building our room was in had two other bedrooms and a dining/living room. It was here that we ate lunch with Modesta and two of her grandsons. The other building on her property was the kitchen. Inside, pots, pans, cups, and silverware filled the shelves. A clay stove in the corner sent smoke spiraling up and out through the space between the tin roof and the wooden panels that made up the walls. A stone-lined path led the way down the hill to an outhouse and a view of the far off town of Esteli. Throughout the day, dogs ran in and out of the buildings and a kitten was always darting between feet and around the flower pots. People came and went. Sometimes there was a horse tied up to the fence and sometimes there wasn’t. It was hard for me to tell who actually lived there and who was only visiting. Thinking back on it now I don’t think anybody in the community lived in one house alone, rather the community itself was home and they all shared the buildings with everybody else.

Late that afternoon, Modesta’s grandson Hanir led us back to the first house our group had met at. Along the way we picked up our classmates as we passed their houses. Once all together, we were taught about the process of growing coffee. Afterwards, we hiked to the top of a nearby hill to watch the sunset and hear the story of a local man and his family’s experiences during the Contra war of the 80’s. By the time six o’clock came it was already dark. Hanir brought us back home for dinner and we went to bed early.

The next day, May 30th, was Mother’s Day in Nicaragua. Rumor had it Mother’s Day was a big deal in this part of the world but with that in mind, nothing could have prepared Emma and I for the day we had in store. At breakfast, Emma and I wished Modesta a happy Mother’s Day. Her deep eyes and wrinkled checks exploded into a smile as she gave us hugs and a chorus of “Gracias mis niños!!!” She told us she’d be hosting a mother’s day party that evening and with that we finished breakfast and took off down the road again for the school. There, we learned about how primary and secondary school worked in the community. Three teachers taught all 12 grades. Each teacher had their own, one room building and set of supplies. However, they were extremely lacking in many of the basics. It was amazing to me how they could organize their day in such a way that all the age groups received the attention and lessons they needed and that the children could understand their teachings with such a limited supply of pictures, diagrams, and maps. Nevertheless, Sontule’s children made do with what they had and were happy. They had never known anything different so how could they not be?

With a basic understanding of how the school system operated, our group of students from the University of Montana spent the remainder of the morning preparing a set of geometrical garden beds for the kids to grow vegetables. From there, we left to another community to learn more about the coffee industry and some of the flora in the Miraflor reserve. Back in Sontule, Emma and I hurried up the road to Modesta’s. We were late and worried we’d missed the forewarned party. Upon our arrival, however, we saw the party was just beginning.

The night began with Emma and I being introduced to several of Modesta’s children and grandchildren. Twenty-some people from the community and from Esteli mulled around the yard chatting with each other. Everyone was related to Modesta one way or another. I was delighted to discover one of her grandson’s, Uriel, had gone to university and learned English. At long last I was able to converse with someone other than those in my class! Although Emma was able to translate a bit for me, there was still a lot she couldn’t say and it was frustrating not being able to converse directly with most people. After dinner with Modesta and a few of her relatives, we socialized with the family, and then were herded into the living room with everyone else. I don’t know what I expected was going to happen but the following events surpassed anything I could have imagined.

Once the last of the family had trickled in and claimed a chair in the circle that filled the room, Uriel gave an introductory speech. When he was done he told Emma and I he had thanked everyone for being there to celebrate Mother’s Day and to honor Modesta and that to start things off one of the grandsons wanted to dance for Modesta. A couple guys fiddled with a radio until a local station began to play. The young boy began to dance in the center of the circle. People laughed and cheered and clapped as he moved to the music in the flickering candlelight. After a minute or so he stepped to the side, grabbed my hands, and pulled me into the circle with him. I smiled and laughed with the rest as I tried to mimic his footsteps. We danced for a while and then he grabbed Emma and danced with her too. He finished up with another solo and then the family transitioned to the next event of the night.

One of Modesta’s sons grabbed a guitar while several grandsons clustered around him. He began to play and the boys began to sing. Eventually, those sitting in the circle joined in, their voices ringing together as they sang the praises of Nicaragua. I’m sure if someone had stepped outside in Esteli that night they too would have felt the pride and love poured into those songs flowing out over the mountains. As I listened a grin begin to spread across my face until my cheeks were frozen in a permanent smile. What an experience! To be here, in this little hut with this beautiful family and to be able to listen to them singing the songs of their nation and their culture. When their voices faded Emma and I joined the others in shouts of “Otra! Otra! Otra!” and they came together to sing one last song. I didn’t want the music to end but it was time for the main event, the reason we were gathered here tonight, to begin.

Uriel stood up again and thanked those who performed. He then either gave some instructions or everyone just knew what to do from there, for one by one, each member of the family stood up and gave a short speech to Modesta. I can only guess what they were saying but with putting together their tones of voice, Modesta’s tears of joy at their words, and the fact that it was Mother’s Day I’m pretty sure they were thanking her for everything she did in the family and sharing reasons why they loved her. After each son, daughter, and grandchild spoke they gave Modesta a hug and presented her with a gift to a polite round of applause.

If it was possible for my smile to grow any wider it did. Tears filled the corners of my eyes as I watched and listened. I was in awe of what I was seeing. Here were these people, who lived in the deepest kind of poverty, who slept in huts and baked in clay ovens, who pumped their water from wells and hadn’t a spare penny to spend on themselves. Yet they had all gone out of their way to save up and buy their mother/grandmother a gift for this special day. I suddenly felt very aware that Emma and I hadn’t brought anything to give. I did a quick, mental scan of everything I’d brought with for our weekend in the mountains but none of my belongings seemed fitting as a gift. Yet I wanted to give Modesta something. Suddenly I realized a gift didn’t have to be physical. I could give the gift of words. Leaning over I whispered to Uriel, “If I wanted to say something, could you translate?” He nodded yes and when the last of the relatives had spoken and presented their gifts he stood up and announced that Emma and I would like to speak.

Emma went first and, after saying a few sentences in Spanish, I stood up and faced Modesta. “Hello,” I started. “I’m sorry I cannot say this to you in your own language and I’m sorry Emma and I have brought nothing to give. But we give to you our gratitude for allowing us to stay in your home.” I continued on, thanking her for her hospitality, for sharing the food on her table and the beds under her roof. I thanked her for her kindness and for welcoming us into her family and letting us join in their celebration of Mother’s Day. Uriel, standing a few feet behind me, translated my words after each sentence. When I was done everyone clapped one last time as Modesta gave me a hug and we resumed our seats.

The remainder of the night consisted solely of conversation and the passing of the guitar between one another. Little by little family members wandered out the door and headed down the road. We bade farewell to Uriel and various other relatives we had spoken with over the course of the evening and when all but a few were left, we made our way to bed. As I lay awake beneath my mosquito net that night listening to a baby cry and the fading whispers of the remaining guests, I replayed the last couple hours in my head. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have been there for such a special occasion, such a unique, cultural experience. What an amazing experience it had been! Listening to the traditional songs, seeing the kindness and selflessness of the Nicaraguan people and of those who had so little yet gave so much. And perhaps most memorable of all, despite the language barrier, still being able to give a gift myself: the gift of words.

Some Final Thoughts

Here I stand at the end of my time abroad, a day and a wake up from home. I use the term ‘wake up’ loosely; putting a nocturnal person on an early morning flight is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. However, the crack of dawn struggles of a person for whom the world tends not to exist before nine AM are beside the point. The point here is that I have completed an experience, and that experience needs summing up. So, to sum up some of what I have learned in my time abroad, I present the following list:

1. Anyone who tells you they understand James Joyce is probably lying. It came up in discussion that there are probably only 7 people in the world that truly understand Finnegan’s Wake, and 7,000 that truly understand Ulysses. So, unless they’ve devoted their life to the study of Joyce or are waving a guidebook to Joyce’s work in your face, they’re probably full of it.

2. Going abroad, pay attention to the local speech mannerisms and idioms.There’s nothing quite so effective to getting to know the flavor of a place as listening to people talk, and if you want to be a writer as I do, there is no better way to improve dialogue in stories than learning how people speak. They speak English over here in Ireland, of course, but it is different. For example, ‘thank you’ is ‘cheers’ and ‘no problem’ is ‘no bother.’ I imagine the things one could learn about a language speaking one other than English abroad are even more different. One of the most fascinating aspects of my trip was just listening to conversations and learning how the idioms and slang were different. Unfortunately, I have to spare putting some of the more colorful slang here because a lot of it is words that are considered offensive by some Americans.

3. Ask people about themselves if you get the chance to. As cliche as it sounds, everyone’s got a story, and there’s a diverse range of interesting tales to hear. I got to know some of the most incredible and generous people here simply because I expressed an interest in their stories. Chances are, they’re interested in you, too. I got to compare my background to some Irish backgrounds, and it gave me an appreciation for cultural differences. Sharing stories is the best way to go to develop an appreciation for cultural diversity.

4. See as much as you possibly can, even if you’re tired and all you want to do is crash on the nearest park bench (which I considered while I was in the grips of jet lag). You can sleep when you’re dead. You probably won’t be back for awhile, if at all, so take it in while you have the chance. Get out and experience the area you’re in. You can’t tell anyone about your experiences or use them later in life if you don’t have any experiences. And be sure to take some people along. You’ll probably make some really great friends.

I could extend this list for days, but in the interest of brevity I will end it there. All I can say is that getting to experience Ireland and its literary culture was an amazing experience, and has given me lots of ideas on how to improve my own work. It’s a trip I’m glad I took, and I’d like to say a big, hearty ‘cheers’ to everyone over here that made my experience so memorable.


Talking to some people at home the other night, I mentioned that everyone I met here in Ireland has been incredibly friendly. It is to the point that I can ask any person on the street for directions and they are more than happy to point out the right way to go. I’ve been lost with some of my classmates in the city more than our fair share of times, owing to my horrible sense of direction, and people walking by overhearing our debates on which way we should go will just stop and help us out. Those back home seemed surprised to hear this; they’ve never been to Ireland and they had the assumption that the Irish were a bit standoffish to strangers. I don’t know where this assumption came from, because the Irish are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. Part of this hospitality comes in the form of sharing stories.

There’s nothing quite like hearing an Irish person tell a story.The Irish have an appreciation for storytelling quite unlike any other culture I’ve experienced; nothing is so well liked as a good storyteller (except maybe for a pint of Guinness, of course). The magic of an Irish story, however, lies not so much in the story itself as in the person telling it. My classmates and I saw a play by the name of “The Gigli Concert” yesterday evening. The play details the story of a severely depressed man seeking the help of a quack psychiatrist who is a proponent of a made-up movement called ‘dynamatology.’ Throughout the course of the play, the two men switch places. The depressed man slowly gets better as the quack doctor loses his mind. The play is touted as a look into the Irish male conscious. As I mentioned, however, the story itself is not so important as the person or people telling it.

I do not think I have seen a more beautifully and masterfully acted play in my entire life. The actors told the story in such a way that it became real for me. I believed the emotions in the play and felt them myself. I watched the two characters struggle against their personal demons to try and just make it through one more day. It was captivating, and it was at the end of it that I realized that the reason it was so captivating was not because of the writing itself, which was brilliant, but because of the humans that brought the writing alive. One can write the most beautiful prose in the world, but if there are no human elements to it, it is going to mean nothing. If there is one thing I learned from watching “The Gigli Concert,” it is that a truly memorable story is that which moves us to emotion, that which evokes a reaction. Watching the Irish actors, I realized why the Irish literary tradition is so strong; they are experts at making a story produce emotion in its readers. They are expert storytellers. As a writer myself, I hope one day I can spin a tale half as well as the hospitable Irishman.

All the pieces of the puzzle

I remember feeling a little impatient with puzzles as a kid. I loved the outcome, but I found it so frustrating that there was always that one tricky piece that looked like it fit perfectly just where I needed it, but it turned out not to be a good fit. Unlike other kids, I wouldn’t force it into the wrong place for the sake of making it fit. Unfortunately, a lot of our world operates like their piece of the puzzle is the most important, and absolutely, positively must fit into this one place this one way.

Let me explain something I learned in my two weeks in Nicaragua. It seems like the first thing to get neglected or tossed aside while making big development decisions tends to be the environment. Many of the groups we met with expressed concerns with the proposed canal that would cut across the southern area of Nicaragua. Not only would the proposed project displace thousands of indigenous people, but the proposed canal would also rip apart the biodiverse land, including a few protected areas. In some versions of the developer’s map, the cartographers conveniently erase part of the protected area the canal would effect, making it look like the canal would have no effect on forest reserves. They are literally forcing their canal puzzle piece to fit in a space it’s not meant to be. 

 Accurate map of preserved land that will be effected by the possible canal. 
When asked about how the developers plan to accommodate for animal migration when the canal divides the natural habitat, these researchers said something along the lines of, “well if the animals can’t fly across the canal, they’ll learn to swim.” I’m sorry, what? It’s almost laughable how badly these foreign developers are trying so hard to make this impossible canal work. It’s not entirely laughable because this project was sold to a business in Hong Kong without the vote of the Nicaraguan people, and if the canal takes longer than 100 years to complete or if there are any setbacks during construction (natural disasters, protests, etc.) that cost the developers money, the Nicaraguan people must pay that debt. If the developers start the canal, realize it is not feasible, and have to quit, the Nicaraguan people will have to pay back the expenses.

 Lake Nicaragua. Plans for the canal require continual dredging of the lake. To give an idea of how shallow the lake is, our small motor boat got stuck twice, and six people stepped into the knee-high water to push the boat to a deeper area.

Back to the puzzle: I’m going to be cliché for a second. Whether we realize it or not, we are all pieces of the same puzzle. When we try so hard to force what we think is best for the world, we ruin the pieces next to us, the pieces we depend on most. The canal is just one example we encountered. We also had the chance to meet with one of a former sugar cane worker who is leading the charge to fight against pesticide use after seeing thousands of her coworkers and neighbors die from kidney disease related to pesticide contamination. Some big businesses try and try to make their plans of more production and efficiency work that they neglect the health of the two most important resources: the people and the earth.

The biggest lesson I learned on this trip is how we are all connected. It’s easy as a student to get so bogged down in our specific degree programs that we forget the puzzle pieces we touch. I can try with all my might to solve all the health problems of the world with one simple method, but it won’t work without taking a holistic approach and considering all the factors affecting a person. I’ll force my piece to fit and I’ll ruin the big picture. Developers can try to create canals to reduce shipping time by a few days, but will devastate the ecosystem that is necessary for the canal to have enough water. Agricultural chemical companies can spray fields with pesticides and GMOs hoping the higher yield will help feed the world, but will kill the land and the people required to harvest the field. 

Going into my fourth and final year of college, it’s important for me and my peers to keep in mind that we are just pieces of the puzzle, not the entire picture. Like all puzzles, there is a certain way all the pieces fit together to make it work. Our challenge is to be creative, to find how our pieces fit into this world to make the most beautiful, spectacular, fair and equal-to-all picture imaginable.

  One last picture to remind us of the beauty of being apart of this big, crazy puzzle.

Poverty and the Environment

Being an Environmental Studies student I’ve taken whole classes based on the relationship between people and the natural world around them. One common correlation made in such classes is that between the poor and polluted environments. I’ve been taught that, more often than not, the poor live in and around polluted areas while the wealthy experience the luxury of healthy, environmental conditions. The poor carry the burdens of pollution and climate change and feel the effects of environmental exploitation more strongly than other social classes. Similarly, damage to the environment inflicted by society cannot be addressed until the issues of poverty and other social inequalities are met. Having been taught all this in recent years, I never truly understood the correlations until seeing them firsthand in Nicaragua.

After arriving in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, one of the first things I noticed besides the stunning beaches, quaint shops and houses, and constant motion of the people was the litter. It was everywhere. And by everywhere, I mean everywhere. Bottles, bags, cans, wrappers and more blanketed the forest floors along every highway, dirt roads, and driveways. As my trip led me to other regions of the country this observation did not change. (With the exception of the northern, rural mountains and the southern river border with Costa Rica where populations were so small and poverty so extreme that they didn’t have anything to throw out as litter.) Litter blustered across highways and gathered in ditches. It congregated in back yards and was raked into piles to be burned. Smoke spiraled up from communities at all hours of the day and night accompanied by the distinct and unpleasant smell of burning trash. It was disgusting. I looked around and was disappointed in the Nicaraguan people. My first thoughts were ‘How could they let it get this bad? How can they throw their things out into the roads, the lakes, the forests, and not care about how it looks or the damage it does to the environment? How can they drive these roads every day and not feel the desire to do something about the trash? Not organize to clean it up?’

It took a few days for me to realize why they didn’t, why they couldn’t do anything about the pollution and why it got to be a problem in the first place. Poverty. When you’re worried about feeding your children and buying clean water and paying the electric bill (if you can afford electricity) it’s hard to justify paying for proper waste removal. When you work all day and have to take care of your children and other assorted relatives at night and prepare the plantains for the week and do the laundry or work a night shift at the family store or restaurant you don’t exactly have time to volunteer picking up trash along the road or lake shore. It’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at its finest. Until the people have their basic needs (food, shelter, and safety) met they won’t worry about anything else. Likewise, when your government is still focused on implementing new and better education programs, health care, and transportation systems and campaigning so the current president will get reelected for a third consecutive term, they can’t afford the resources to fund any sort of trash clean-up program.

My first week in Nicaragua was spent solely in San Juan del Sur attending a language school during the day and participating in various cultural activities in the evening. For the second week, my companion Emma and I traveled back to Managua (the capital of Nicaragua) to meet up with professors Dan Spencer and Patrick Burke and the other members of our two week study abroad. We met with several organizations and people in the city and countryside who provided me with further examples of the interconnectedness of poverty and the environment. One of our first meetings was with a women’s health center that was developed to serve a region of the capital where women were dying of unknown causes. The psychologist from the center who met with us explained the source of the problem which they uncovered with a little investigating. The shores of Lake Managua (the immense body of water along which the capital is nestled) had once been used as a dumping grounds for the city’s waste. When a new location for the dump site was chosen, the old site was filled in and upon it the poorest of the poor built their communities. Over time, the buried waste festered and seeped its way into the people’s soil and water sources. This, in combination with living in close quarters to the extremely polluted lake, meant it was only a matter of time before cancers and other diseases broke out within the community.

Similar stories were told by and about workers on tobacco and sugar cane plantations. Just like the poor in the cities who, being desperate for a home, were left to live in the least desirable locations, desperation for an income leads the poor in the country to take up the least desirable jobs. When it comes to agriculture, Nicaragua does not have the same regulations on chemicals as the United States and some very toxic pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides are used on cash crops. As these chemicals are absorbed into the soil and as rains wash them into waterways, their concentrations have grown to dangerous levels in certain drinking water reserves. Resulting from this, in the sugar cane town of Chichigalpa, 3-4 people are dying a day of renal and other cancers. Meanwhile, the wealthy who can afford purified water and work and live away from chemicals and waste, are unaffected.

Also in regards to the issue of clean water is the proposed trans-oceanic canal. The canal will bring in salt water and added pollution to water sources of the communities it passes. For towns like San Juan del Sur where only those in deepest poverty drink the tap water which others use solely for laundry and personal hygiene, health problems are predicted to explode. Many of the poor who drink the tap water already suffer from kidney problems and any added contamination (or chlorine added to counter contamination) will only exemplify the occurrence of kidney stones and cancers.

However, it’s not only the actions and events in Nicaragua taking a toll on the nation’s poor. As is the case around the world, the effects of climate change are becoming more and more evident and are no exception to the poverty-environment relationship. While staying with rural families working on coffee farms in the northern mountains of Nicaragua, we saw why Nicaragua is the 11th country most affect by climate change in the world. Coffee must be grown within a very specific temperature gradient and in the tropical country of Nicaragua these temperatures are only found at higher elevations. However, with warming, global temperatures, the elevations at which coffee must be grown is becoming higher and higher, reducing the land available for coffee production.   The families we stayed with were entirely dependent on the coffee industry when signs of climate change first appeared and they are now struggling to find  additional sources of income to compliment their dwindling coffee crops. Likewise, climate change is altering the patterns of the dry and rainy seasons that Nicaraguan farmers rely on. The rainy season is becoming rainier and the dry season drier. Weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable, meaning many farmers are putting their crops in too early or too late. The result of this is little or no harvest and a diminished income for the year.  Altogether, climate change is wrecking havoc across Nicaragua and not only is it being felt by just the poor, but it continues to sink the poor further into poverty.

For me, it took a trip halfway across the world to truly understand the relationship between poverty and the environment. While everyone contributes to waste, to climate change, and demands the food products being laden with pesticides, it’s a very narrow margin of society that feels the negative outcomes. Unfortunately, it is the poor of the world who suffer the most negative effects and until social and economic equality are achieved environmental issues cannot be addressed and environmental justice will not be served.

A Sense of History

Recently, I listened to a former professor of an Irish university speak on James Joyce’s famous (or infamous, depending on how one feels about literature) novel Ulysses. After his lecture, two things stuck out to me. One was the absolute reverence that the Irish people have for literature and its authors; the lecturer was so passionate about Ulysses. His readings of and explanations of the novel made the literature come alive in a way I have never experienced before. The other thing that remained in my head was the deep sense of history that the Irish possess.

The lecturer told us a story about the first time he tried to purchase a copy of the novel Ulysses. Ulysses was banned upon its publication in several countries, including America, for being ‘indecent.’ It was never formally banned in Ireland, but was taboo to purchase. Our lecturer tried to purchase it one day as a college student in the early 1960’s. The bookstore he went to happened to be the only one in Ireland that carried the book, and their policy was to keep one copy on the shelf way in the back of the store. Very rarely was this book bought in Ireland. This bookstore kept their stock up from one box of copies of Ulysses for years. When he tried to purchase the book, our lecturer was 18. In Ireland at the time, that was still a minor. He was told that he would need a letter of permission from his parents, his parish priest, or both in order to purchase the book. He came up with an Irish solution to an Irish problem, as he put it: he went to one of his much older friends, gave him the money, and had his friend buy the book in his place. While it ended well for him and he got the book, his story made me realize just how longstanding some ideals are in this country.

Nowhere was the presence of longstanding ideals more evident than in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Some of the class took a trip there to get a handle on the history, and it was quite the experience. Conflict is still very much alive between the Catholics and the Protestants. While bombed out buildings have been largely repaired, one can feel the tension in the area. The Protestants have their streets, and the Catholics have theirs. They are still separated by a giant wall known as “The Peace Wall.” There are gates on this wall that are only open at certain times of day. The two sides absolutely do not mix with one another, and each holds on to and fights for their set of ideals. One of the most eerie things I witnessed to this effect was two children on the Protestant side (which supports Britain) standing in front of their house waving British flags and chanting “UDA! UDA!” In the Troubles and other Northern Irish conflicts, the UDA is the Protestant militant branch, equivalent to the IRA. Seeing these children, who could not have been more than six years old, chant in support of a militant group they surely did not understand really drove home how deep these beliefs are. What side one is on is something children learn from birth. Like the past belief that Ulysses was indecent, the ideals of the Protestants and Catholics endure through generations. Unfortunately, unlike the belief about Ulysses, these ideals remain and perpetuate a long conflict. Seeing the state of Belfast after so many years of conflict made me wonder where the ideals stopped and the humans began.

How do you take your coffee?

I have a weird relationship with coffee. Some days I can’t live without it; other days I feel annoyed with the smell reeking from my hands (I work at a coffee shop when I’m not busy doing cool things like traveling). After spending three days in a homestay in the coffee growing cooperative community of El Sontule, I have a much deeper appreciation for the little bean that wakes the world up and keeps it running.

El Sontule has one of the most interesting community dynamics. First, the entire coffee system is run by a cooperative of women. In the city of Managua, the poor areas have the biggest issues with machismo culture and the devaluation of women. El Sontule definitely isn’t made of money, and is a very rural community, yet this community has the most progressive culture we have seen in Nicaragua. Men and women are equal, with men spreading awareness of breaking down gender stereotypes. Both genders share in doing housework, tending to the community garden and farm, and raising the children. Women run the entire fair trade organic coffee cooperative. The community shares in the work and the benefits. For example, not all families have the means to host a homestay, but those can still receive help like extra food from the other families in the cooperative.

  On top of a mountain in El Sontule. We listened to a heart-wrenching story of community members hiding here in the bushes while the Contra searched and invaded neighboring communities during the war.
On top of being a very fair community run by inspiring women, the community school is miles ahead of some United States education programs. In primary school, students learn about sexual and reproductive health, sustainability, environmental concerns, and many other issues that most schools either teach much later in education or ignore completely. The teachers are parents and farmers within the community. They have this radical idea of listening to their community’s needs and responding in a way that will create positive outcomes for generations. Instead of gettting caught up in rote memorization or the tragedy of “this is how we’ve always done it,” this small community has big ideas on how to create a brighter future for their children.

  With MaryAnn, our host mother’s 17 month old granddaughter. Also known as the cutest little person ever!
An unfortunate theme we saw through the community was how much they are affected by climate change. This is hardly fair considering the extremely small carbon footprint of the people of El Sontule. These people have no running water or refrigeration, and just received electricity through solar panels purchased by members of the cooperative. Even with the solar panels, electricity is only used for radios, single lightbulbs at night, and the one family phone. And how are these people repaid? They are experiencing the worst drought and coffee rust known to their community, and it will take several years until they have another successful coffee harvest. This gave a lot of us some perspective on the moral issues of climate change. Those who depend on the environment the most and harm it the least are the most dramatically affected by those who use far more than their fair share.

  Our host mother teaching us how to separate the coffee bean from the shell.
Not only did we get to build a relationship with theses coffee growers through homestays, but we also got to see the process of coffee cupping. Coffee cupping is how coffee gets its quality grades and is assessed for aroma, fragrance, body, and taste. This is not an easy or quick process. It requires a professional nose and palette, and only happens after years of labor in the field and weeks of milling, drying, and shelling. After learning the entire process, a single cup of coffee seems like so much more.

When people would ask, “how do you take your coffee?”, I would reply, “with milk and sugar.” Now, if someone asks me the same question, I’ll remember the generations of work put in by the beautiful women in the cooperative, the hardships they face with climate change, the efforts they make to improve life for their children, and the long and involved process of turning a seed into a steaming cup o’ joe.