The other night, returning from Ocotal, a small city near the Honduran border, seven of us piled into a taxi about the size of a Toyota Yaris (small) as the driver protested loudly, “No, no, cuatro o cinco personas, no mas!” But as Mauro climbed into the front seat and onto my lap, joking about being mi hijo, the driver laughed softly and off we went, overflowing with heads sticking out windows to make more room inside, wending our way down the curvy PanAm One to Sabana Grande. The English speakers who knew the lyrics were singing along as the radio blasted Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Donna Summers “Love to Love You Baby” while the Spanish speakers helped out the best they could on the chorus. Then it got suddenly got quiet as the the driver turned off the main road and gingerly made his way up the dirt path to the village while skillfully working his way around numerous potholes and ditches. We could have walked faster than he was able to drive at that point, with all our weight bearing down on the shocks and bringing the car precariously close to the ground, but we were enjoying the ride and it was a pitch black night. No one had brought along a flashlight and the truth is it’s just too risky to walk the long, dark road for fear of encountering at least one fresh cow patty.
The children here are generally joyful and trusting and friendly. Most greet with a robust “Adios” coming and going and a smiling sense of curiosity, or if rather shy and unaccustomed to gringos, wait for me to say “Adios” first, and return it with giggle or a flash of a smile all the while making direct eye contact. I will sometimes ask if I can take their photo and then I immediately show it them. They are always deeply amused and enchanted to see their image reflected back to them in such an immediate way. They laugh and get very animated and often ask me to take another.
Sure, there are families here that seem to carry a bit more heaviness for their losses and challenges and will look more cautiously at the gringa, but most embrace me warmly. I always allow them a good laugh at my expense as I dance a few salsa steps (word has gotten around that I’m a good dancer from a fiesta night involving Flor de Cana rum and hot salsa beats) or as I blunder some word or phrase. The women at Solar Mountain love to tease and play jokes and have a good laugh. They are often leaning on their hoes and shovels in the field as one women shares a story from the night before that brings on peals of laughter from the others. When I see them in the morning and ask how they are, they tell me they are well because they are working with their good friends.
Pig and Taquezal in the Miraflor
Last weekend I made my way up into the cloudforest about 3 hours from here. I finally got to break out my long sleeve shirt and raincoat. It was actually cold and it was wet. Compared to Sabana Grande it is also quite lush, but even there in the seeming abundance of the reserve, human occupancy is encroaching on the forest and changing the biodiversity. There are lots of little family farms because it is rich in water, good soil and cool air. These small organic farms and cooperatives grow coffee and there is plenty of subsistence farming as well. It seems to be a good, simple life up there and I really hope they recognize their valuable resource and tread somewhat lightly. While I was there I was able to wood fire roast my own morning coffee beans that were organically grown and sun cured right where we stayed. It truly was one of the best cups of coffee I have ever had in my life. Nope, I probably won’t be kicking the coffee habit too soon.The bus ride up into the Miraflor is an adventure of it’s own. It was overflowing in that ‘step up, take a deep breath and lunge forward through the crowd’ sort of way. And when you can’t imagine another person squeezing in, the bus stops and picks up ten more while the fare collector pushes people on while suggesting in a shout that there is still plenty of room ‘towards the middle’. It was so packed I couldn’t even get up to offer my seat to a young mother and newborn, so she tossed the adorable sleeping baby into my arms while the bus rocked and lurched dramatically side to side as we inched forward at a snail’s pace. It seemed that it never crossed her mind that I would do anything other than fiercely protect her baby from the harms of the world, or at least from the possibility of anyone landing in my lap as the bus lurched about, and that I did for the next hour. It takes one and a half hours to get back to Esteli by bus, passing all those miles of gorgeous stonewalls, a trip we were told we could actually walk in two and half hours. And one’s neck would still be intact after the walking. A piece of advice: If you take this trip by bus, be sure to empty your bladder prior, and don’t be alarmed by the sound of grinding metal as the bus rides the brakes , or rather what is left of them, down the steep and winding paths.Another part of that trip I enjoyed (yes, I actually enjoyed the bus ride even with the toll it took on my neck) was observing the use of their resources in their building techniques. I always enjoy being in a place that is still in touch with using the natural resources inherent to the building site area and has traditional building techniques still being employed. Most people are quite happy with the sensibilities of using the resources available to them, particularly with the scarcity of money for purchasing materials. There is the use of concrete as a smooth and easier to clean surface compared to the commonly seen dirt floors and more crumbly adobe walls. I continue to observe and inquire as to what prevents them from taking the surfaces a step further towards what I would define as finished. I have also noticed that many people don’t fully understand the needs of lime as a plaster and so it often fails here. In areas where there are purer clays and people have sufficient overhangs there are lovely, simple clay finishes on the exterior and interior. Of course these clay paints and plasters bond beautifully with the adobe. But there isn’t always sufficient keying with the adobe when they use lime and my observations suggest that there isn’t very good bond, so I suspect the adobe isn’t sufficiently hydrated before application and there is also little done to keep the lime protected from the sun and wind and sufficiently hydrated those first days after application. I am in the middle of doing some tests and creating a more durable lime plaster and I am testing it on the composting toilet in Sabana Grande.
The landscape in the Miraflor is covered in rock so there are gorgeous stonewalls that are miles long. They have more rock than New England, a soil that is extremely heavy in clay, and they have wood. So they build very basic frames with thin wood members or split bamboo, in which they fill with all this abundance of stone and extremely clay rich soil. It makes for a very strong building style called Taquezal, which I have referred to in earlier posts.
Next week I will update with stories and photos of the Natural Building Course, which is midway through right now and is going sooo well! Fifteen women and five men are participating as we build the learning center. But you can check out the slideshow from the workshop here.