Welcoming the dry season

PictureLately I’ve been spending a lot of time researching bamboo and working on the learning center design. It’s given me a lot of opportunity to work on my Spanish and takes me to Ocotal a lot to use the internet. This statue of a woman breastfeeding her child is in the central park there. It’s quite beautiful and is right next to the cathedral.

“Mother, he will never find himself who does not discover your loving grandeur. Nothing is more beautiful than death. Nothing is more noble than being who gave us life.”


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Reuben at his Nicaraguan home
The Building ProjectsI am working on two building projects here in Sabana Grande along with Nancy Bernstein, a carpenter and timber framer from New York. She is here for four months with her eight year old son, Reuben. He is a really easy going kid. He doesn’t speak or understand very much Spanish yet but he goes to school with all the other kids and plays a fair bit of Uno and soccer.Our first project is a double chamber composting toilet. It is the only one in the village. Everyone here has basic pit toilets (la letrina) in the yard, though the solar restaurant received grant money to install a biodigester to their toilet and it makes gas they use for cooking at the restaurant. My Sabana Grande family also has a biodigester that they regularly feed cow manure for their cooking gas but it isn’t hooked up to the human waste stream. Most people don’t have the means for such a system.
We are using the toilet building project to try out a few techniques with the local materials from the mountain. We have excellent soil and red, yellow and white clay in abundance. There is also bamboo that is fine to split for wattle and daub and lots of grasses and pine needles, as well as a parasite plant that grows in the trees and on the wires, that are a good fibers in adobe and cob. Meanwhile, we are designing the classroom/gathering space for Solar Mountain. This includes learning as much as we can about bamboo for the structural aspect of the building, due to the lack of wood here. I’ll be traveling some in the next week to check out some other bamboo houses down around Granada and the island of Ometepe.

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Local Traditional Building StylesThis area is steeped in traditional building techniques. This won’t change much.  This area is so impoverished; the people are poor and the land has suffered. It will take a long time to bring back timber and correct the erosion issues. Meanwhile people still burn wood for cooking everyday.  Dirt is still dirt cheap,  adobe works well and the people here know it.Last month we went to Ocotal to see a 150 year old building built in the traditional style called Taquezal.  It is also known in other parts of the world as a French wall. It is basically a double lath system infilled with cob. Part of the inner wall was intentionally exposed in the restaurant we went to and so we sat at the table next to the exposed wall, over a plate of frijoles and tostones and queso, translating the description to English. It turns out that the wood is traditionally harvested 3 days after the full moon, if we translated correctly! Since that turned out to be the next day  we took this as a very positive sign and we harvested the puntales while thinning some crowded saplings on Solar Mountain.

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AdobeMost houses here are adobe. The exterior is usually exposed adobe or it might have a lime coat. A few people have put on a coat of cement stucco but most people don’t think it’s a good idea. (I’m glad to hear this). The interiors are ether lime coated or have a simple paint (clay and water) of tierra blanco, some of the white clay from the mountains. Most floors are earthen, tile or cement. This morning I stopped by the house of one of the Solar Women and she was sprucing up her kitchen floor with a bucket of red earth, rubbing it in with her bare hands. Today was her daughter’s Quinceñera, lots of guests were coming to her home and she was beautifying her kitchen. I would love to offer to put in an oil hardened earthen floor but I don’t imagine she would leave her kitchen for even a day or have the money for the oil.While walking to the river to cut some bamboo we met  Maximo, who makes adobe bricks and here he is showing us the roof tiles he makes with 1/8’’ screened clay, sand and sawdust. He puts them in a fire and they come out very durable ceramic tile for the roofs. We plan to use some for the entrance roof of our classroom.

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Students at Las Mujeres Constructoras
Las Mujeres ConstructorasWe recently visited a young women’s carpentry school in Condega and they will be having an adobe course the next few months and then building their new carpentry, welding, and electrical shops this coming year. We are planning to participate with them in making bricks at their school and sponsoring some of them to come here to learn other natural building techniques during our course as well.

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Post rain stripping of school uniforms
Daily life in the villageMy days here are focused around walking to and from Spanish classes, the building projects and wherever our lunch is being served. Somedays i walk several miles. I get to see everything going on in the vicinity which I live. I know most of the kids, dogs, cows, pigs and chickens; some better than others, but they are all becoming quite familiar. I did acquire an old road bike for my time here. I took it to the bike repair guy, Eddie and for $12 he patched a tube, replaced a tube and tire, lubed the chain and replaced some cable and bearings. Now I get to use it while I’m here and will return it to the owner in March in now rideable condition. It is a good deal for both of us. I haven’t managed to get the brakes to work very well and after plowing down one child on a downhill (it was awful but he’s fine now) I am more conservative in my riding. I stick to the flatter routes where I don’t need brakes. But I actually enjoy walking because it provides more opportunity for interacting with more people, but every time I walk by Eddie’s repair shop he is concerned that I am not riding the bike..

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For the residents here, a lot of time is spent taking care of the daily basic needs. Hauling water, hand washing clothes, gathering wood, tending cows, planting, tending and harvesting corn and beans and squash, and the many steps of preparing the corn for tortillas. The solar cookers are coming out some now that the dry season is here but the women still don’t use them very much for the traditional daily food. They roast coffee, make cakes and cook bananas, but it seems they would rather cook most food over the fire. I think it just isn’t as satisfying for them to cook in the solar cookers or maybe someone needs to open that possibility for them.

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El Poso
There is plenty of opportunity for social interaction as some of these chores are accomplished. Women often hang around the wells while filling buckets and washing clothes at the wash station provided. These clothes washing stations allow them to haul less water all the way back to their homes and everyone takes turns cleaning the well area.

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Asbel hanging out on the harvest
The Corn HarvestMaiz is a big part of the Nicaraguan diet and so it is a big part of their lives in the rural areasIn Sabana Grande there is a Molina Comunal for grinding corn. The women shuck, lime soak and prepare the corn and then carry it to the mill in the mornings so there is always fresh corn for tortillas. It is lively there between 5-7 in the morning. The family I am staying with just harvested their year’s supply from the fields as you can see in the photo. They will spend several days shucking it and storing it away for the year.
This series of pictures is a day in the life of maiz at my household.

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Transportation consists of walking and riding bicycles, horses and buses. Bicycles are abundant. Not everyone has one but it’s the equivalent of a car here and sometimes a truck!  There is usually a sister, brother, child or mother sitting on the top tube or handlebars, sometimes two. Or I’ll see a young man riding, while balancing a a pile of wood on his shoulders and a 5 gallon bucket of water on each handebar, or 50 pound bag of corn resting on the top tube. And I thought I had decent biking skills. Really, it’s impressive.Sabana Grande is right on the main road, PanAm1, so I can catch a bus to Honduras (20 km) or Costa Rica(350 km) in a 20 min walk to the road. The buses run frequently so it’s really easy and inexpensive to get around. I actually don’t mind the buses most of the time. It can be a bit surreal and certainly a good dose of Nicaraguan culture. They are always packed to standing room only. Food vendors get on at one stop and elbow their way down the aisle while pushing their offerings at you and then get off at the next stop. The music is usually blasting some Sandinista rendition of a Beatles tune or Stand by Me while some Evangelical pastor is preaching the gospel, while the woman hawking her nacatamales yells her way down the aisle. Meanwhile the bus is passing trucks on blind curves and everyone standing is swaying about and since I tower over most everyone, I just try to not elbow someone right in the eye.

Volunteering at El Centro SolarIt’s been quite a few years of volunteers coming from all over the world  to work on renewable energy and agricultural initiatives. Right now there are 7 of us gringos from the US , Canada and Switzerland. Nancy and I are working on the natural building projects. Everyone else is focused over at El Centro Solar. Christopher is revamping the website and waiting for his repaired video camera to return from the states, to continue his documentation of different projects. Amanda is designing a solar headlamp for health workers that can be made inexpensively and repaired easily. Mike is building Ecofogons all over Sabana Grande. It is a highly efficient wood cooker and also creates less smoke, since it has a stovepipe. It is designed to cut down on wood use and smoke and was designed by the folks at Aprovecho Institute. Fred is working on a ‘light in a bottle’ design to use plastic bottles fllled with water to work as a prism, to bring in light into a building through the ceiling during the day. Julian is improving the autoclave solar cooker for sterilizing hospital equipment.  Meanwhile we are all excited for the long awaited grand opening of the Las Mujeres Solares restaurant  in Dec.

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