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.

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.

Challenging Perspectives

There’s nothing like travel to make people feel naive. I’m not saying this is a bad thing; travel gives us the opportunity to see, hear, and live other perspectives. As someone who has grown up in the United States middle class, I thought my perspectives were spot on. However, as I sit here listening to the breeze through the palm trees on my third night in Nicaragua, I realize that there is way more to consider about the world around us that must be experienced, that cannot be taught.

 Lake Managua at sunset

As I said, this is my third night in Nicaragua. This two week study abroad experience takes us through urban areas, the rural countryside, and the forest. The past two days in Managua have been spent meeting with various groups ranging from human rights activists and impoverished women’s clinics, to the manager of a maquila, commonly known as a free trade zone (think sweat shop). 

I came to Nicaragua with the intent to study health disparities and how both the government and NGOs are addressing these issues. When most people think of health, they think of nutrition and hygiene. However, the health issue we have focused on for most of our trip so far has been human rights. “But Tori, human rights have nothing to do with health!” What some people (and unfortunately, professionals) don’t understand is that human rights and safety are huge factors in whether or not someone can improve their wellness. For example, El Centro de Mujeres Acahual provides healthcare services at a low cost to women in the poorest neighborhood of Managua. However, they aren’t just Pap smears and condoms; this center helps women and children out of abusive relationships and provides resources to stop the cycle of violence. Not only did we learn about how cervical cancer rates have drastically decline since the clinic opened, but we also heard heart-wrenching stories of abuse. Health is more than physical, but also emotional and social.

 Poster in El Centro de Mujeres Acahual describing the “route of access to justice.”
Another instance where this new perspective on health issues came about was when we visited the maquila. This factory has been deemed a model for how other factories should run. Although the wages are far from fair and the hours and labor are unimaginably difficult, the general manager argues that this system raises people from misery to poverty. It’s a system set up for basic survival, not to bring people into the middle class. This factory has an open door policy, provides bonuses for Christmas and employee anniversaries, provides some payment and leave for pregnant women, has an on-site clinic, and has a management system devoted to helping laborers through loan and medical bill assistance programs. Wow. When I think of sweat shops, I think of a small child missing fingers, starving at the sewing machine. Although this factory contradicted my previous beliefs, I still know that this is the exception from the norm based off responses from the labor union and human rights center. However, it does give me hope that there are more responsible people like the manager see met with, and that more factories will follow this lead to help employees improve their quality of life at what ever level possible.

Tomorrow, we head to the rural countryside of Estelí to live with families who grow both conventional and organic fair trade coffee. Let’s hope my blood to caffeine ratio will stabilize by my next post!

Paz y salud. ¡Hasta luego!