Friday, December 21, 2012

Delicious Discoveries in Rural Nicaragua

danielle ciminero surfing

Every morning Donald graciously wakes me up with a long deep moooo.  If your thinking "what happened to gary?"  fear not, donald is the name of our new neighbor.  He weighs close to 700lbs and is actually a she.  In fact, there are about 30 donalds living a stones throw from our bed  and every day an hour before dawn they let loose long low Mooos  while the local farmers milk them by hand.   Guess the local rooster is out of a job huh? Not to worry, he gets the midday shift to announce lunch,  the sunset shift to call in all work hands for dinner, and for some awful reason he lights up again at 2 in the morning - maybe last call at the local bar?  
    Anyhow, after being awoken at 4am, we boil a bit of water and suck down a few cups of coffee, force feed ourselves a bowl of  goopy oats, and pack up for a day at the beach.   By the time we leave, the farmers have 3 huge buckets full of milk and with a grin of success they tip their hats to us as we pass by.
    It has been a harsh transition since our arrival a few days ago.  After luxurious visits with our families in the states,  our senses were weakened and unable to cope with a lower quality of life.   By lower quality I mean simpler, I just haven't come to terms with that yet. 

    Upon arrival at the airport,  we loaded our massive cargo - board bag, two duffel's, and two heavy backpacks-  into an economy size taxi.  The beach we were heading to would have required 3 different buses and since it was already 2 pm, it would've ended up a two day trek.  The taxi, while more expensive, would allow us to sail through the hectic city of Managua and  make it to the rural beach community before dark.     The price difference would mean eating only rice and beans for a while yet to come.
    As we waded through the bustling city life I remembered all of the nuances that make Central America so special.  Vendors holding up buckets of iced sodas and bags of sliced mango walk the between the traffic lanes as cars, trucks, and horse drawn carts buzz (or clop) by- only stopping when the rusted swaying stoplights gleam red.  
     At one intersection, a ragged and dirty mother  hoisted her equally ragged and dirty four year old son to her shoulders, where he stood proudly juggling three balls for all four lanes of vehicles  to see.  When she set him down he skipped from car to car sheepishly looking around.  I held some local money, cordobas, out the window which he took  gently,  grinning ear to ear with a sincerity that made my stomach drop.      
    As we careened onward I noticed an enormous amount of graffiti  decorating the long high cement walls -  but instead of the scrawled ugly sort it was artfully done with brilliant colors and bubbly design.  After having passed a series of dilapidated houses, all crushed together in communities that rival a house of cards in structural soundness, the graffiti truly helped lift your spirits.  Then as if emerging from the underworld, the entire scenery changed drastically- the tipping tin shacks replaced by elegantly enormous shopping centers as nice as any you'd see in upscale areas in the states. I half wondered if I'd slipped into a daydream, the contrast was so profound.
    It wasn't long before the city released us into the rolling farmlands that dominate Nicaraguan landscape.  I suppose the taxi driver couldn't have predicted getting stuck behind five different herds of cows being driven home by young farm boys, lengthening a two hour trip from the airport to nearly three and a half.   Apparently dusk is a busy time of day, all the livestock have to be brought in from pasture.   We bumbled along behind and amidst these great smelly creatures for quite a while- leaving us dusty, stinky, and slightly nauseated by the time  we trundled up the driveway to the cabin we'd rented for the next few weeks. 
    Soon after unloading we discovered that the outside view of this cabin was its best feature and the rest of the details a little less endearing.  Just thinking about it makes me want to dump a bucket of hand sanitizer over my head.  It did have a couple of small fans and a light, so at least there was that.  But the single beds were so tiny that  Gary's feet hung off the edge even when he laid diagonally and the 'mattresses' were basically just rumpled up clothes covered by a sheet;  so lumpy it would have been more comfortable to sleep on the floor- but for the red scorpion and starfish-sized spiders lurking about.  Then there was the lack of running water - only a barrel outside to splash over yourself.   The bathroom was a longdrop a hundred yards away from the house, constructed of sticks and black plastic.  It  had no door and the 'toilet' was made of a rough cement that hurt to sit on. The longdrop also had a resident bat that would dive bomb you if you tried to enter during the dark hours.   Trillions of bugs had already infested the premises of the cabin thanks to the light, so with one hand at the ready to swat and splat, we begun unpacking. 
    The worst part was discovering how far from the waves we were.  We'd been led to believe it was close to twenty minute stroll, which is no big deal.  But it turned out to be a forty minute hike up and down rocky hilly terrain, many parts of which riddled with cow poo mines.  This may sound easy until you consider the average temperature is between 90 and 95, with a humidity factor pushing it closer to 105. And we are each wearing a fifteen to twenty pound pack - filled with filming gear and water.   It was a hot, sticky, smelly, and heavy trek.
    That is how we came to appreciate Donald.  Although irritating to be woken pre-dawn everyday, it made one-way of the roundtrip beach mission bearable due to lower temperatures.  After we passed the milkmen and their proud smiles, a cool brisk breeze swirls around and is so refreshing we can almost ignore the slightly sour smell of thirty cows being milked as we head to the beach. 

    Our first few weeks were less about the waves and more about slipping into a simpler way of life.   Less about the waves only because the entire sand bar that makes this beach so well known  happened to be, well, on the beach.   Hills of dry sand rolled on and on,  leaving the ocean to dump its swells without any regard to the desires of a surfer.   ie - mostly closing out or mushing out, with a rare surfable gem.  As beachbreaks do,  the sand did eventually return back to the ocean and as the video got pretty gosh darn amazing for the surf contest a few weeks later (of course with 50 latin pro surfers in the line up this doesn't necessarily mean much)   
    The magic of this place is not just the waves when they're on, but the people.  The community and daily life here has been such an eye opening experience.  It is one of the most eco-friendly, self sustaining, and loving communities that I've ever seen, but for a few oddities.  It seems the less you have the less you waste and the more you appreciate....
    Many of the families live in thatch roof huts that make our cabin look like a palace.   The huts are constructed similar to our outhouse - using sticks and black plastic,  then layers of palm fronds are added along the top and outside.  Some of the locals have tin siding - it's hard to say if they are wealthier or poorer since the tin often looks as if it were rummaged from a dumpster.  They all have dirt floors, and dirt yards  which they sweep lovingly with a broom made of sticks bunched together and tied with twine.  Every meal is cooked over a wood fire - they collect fallen branches from nearby trees.  Water is conserved religiously,  using a bare minimum to wash their dishes, clothes, and selves -often leaving all three a little soapy.   There are a few old-school wells throughout town where the women gather with buckets and crank the rope from the deep cool earth to bring forth their water supply.   All clothes are hand washed and line dried- the clothesline often being their barbed wire fence.  If they have electricity, it is one light bulb and maybe a fan - many of the families use a flashlight to play cards once it gets dark.   There are only a few TVs in throughout the village, and occasionally you'll see twenty people spilling out of a hut, all eyes on the tv.
     In the early morning and late evening there is always someone coming back from the beach with a fish or two- often kids so young they should be in nursery school and men so old they would be in nursing homes in the states.  Yet here, they are out catching the family a meal.   Often you'll see entire families at the beach with their hands in the sand digging for sandcrabs to make a seafood feast.
     If you want tortillas  a few of the women labor over a sizzling fire to hand make them out of corn flour - its about 1 cordoba per tortilla - so for about 80 cents you get 20 of these delicious things.  'Buy local' takes on a whole new meaning here too- most of the families grow their own papaya, platano, hot peppers, have their own chickens, and milk their own cows.   
    Hardly anyone has a vehicle - their means of transport being either foot, bicycle or horse- which is sometimes pulling a rickety wooden cart.    If they have to go to the nearby city, everyone piles in the local bus - which is packed so tight it makes a sardine can look spacious. (After weeks of only rice and beans we jumped on one of these buses to get into the city where the supermarket is.   For an hour and a half we stewed in the pungent smell of too-much-cologne, the sickly sweet stink of cow poo,  and plumes of dust being wind driven though the cracked windows. Aside from the bodies being crammed into the already packed bus, forcing a larger woman to rest her belly on gary's broad shoulders, we were just peachy.  I kept thinking - now this is how to carpool!)
    Even the plants are ridiculously green minded - no pun intended.  The locals cut limbs of a tree to use as fence posts, and within a few months of building the fences, the posts have rooted themselves and start growing into new trees.  Like that Hydra monster from Hercules with the serpent heads that grow into two if you cut one.  The banana trees and platano trees do this too!  I was devastated when a local kid asked if we wanted a bunch of bananas and proceeded to chop down the entire tree.  When I gasped and tried to reprimand him he gave me a quizzical look and pointed to another stump that had a new shoot growing from it.  He goes "they regrow and bring more bananas, no big deal"  this kid was about six by the way,  and wielded a machete like a trained assassin - ripping through coconuts with one clean slice of his blade. 
    This village is eco-friendly in so many  ways, until you walk by one evening as they all set their trash on fire.    Billowing toxic plastic smoke rises to meet your nostrils and make you gag.   Then  once a month guys with huge masks and a motorized spray gun march through town dousing every property with some sort of pesticide.  If they aren't burning the trash, its being tossed out the bus window like a banana peel that will never go away -though  it's hard to say whether trash dotting the landscape is better or worse than its particles being in the air we breathe.
    Another funny nuance is that most of the people here are poor poor poor unless we are talking fireworks or cell phones and then suddenly they  have an endless supply of money.  Or so you would think seeing that day after day fireworks are shot off before it's even dark enough to see or appreciate them - all you get is a phew phew phew and a crackle.    They've been doing this for so long that there is a bird here who mimics the phew phew phew sound - literally sounding just like a firework and he starts to go off every afternoon as well. 
     You know how people drive around in souped up vehicles with outstanding sound systems to play whatever music they deem representative of their life's soundtrack?  Here is no different, except the souped up vehicle is a rusty old bike, a trotting horse, or just their very own feet- and the sound system is reduced to the one inch speakers on a cell phone.  You hear them whizzing by like a mosquito, rocking out to whatever tunes they have on their playlist-  an anthem for their life on the farm, often a reggae tone beat with indecipherable words.    This mismatch of frequencies, slow farm life  to fast flashy music,  plus seeing cell phones in the hands everyone, including toddlers  and the geriatric,  leave you feeling like your just about to wake up from a bizarre dream. 
    Still, as we walk through town in the evenings my heart melts.  It is such a living thriving organism, this community.  The local women meet and sing songs in a big circle at the church- bellowing the words and clapping their hands.  The local kids run around the yard, playing soccer or baseball or just giving chase.  The men sometimes join the songs or meet at a table to play cards.  The work day is hard -  it starts at four am for most - but when it stops the effect is similar to the scene in the Grinch when the Who's  sing their song with love and joy despite being robbed of their Christmas presents and decorations.  
    Seeing their simple lives changed my feelings towards our new living situation.  For the first time in my life, I realized how amazing it has been to always have running water.  To have been able to go to the bathroom in a clean spacious well lit room with a tile floor.  To go to bed without having to walk over dirt or watch out for creepy crawlies.  To have coffee at the push of a button.  
    One afternoon I got chatting with one of the locals  and  came to the understanding that most 1st world problems come from not realizing what we have and not being truly grateful for it.    This local works as a guard and makes $5 a day.  This is normal pay for most of the locals here, if they have a job at all - the majority of this town subsists on farming and fishing alone.  He tells me he is saving to build his house  - to buy concrete bricks and replace the tattered plastic walls.  He talks with gringos often thanks to his job, and is under the impression that life in the states in stressful and complicated.  The wealthy Americans come down to this hotel and complain about their lives back home, apparently not realizing that this poor guy is living on a dirt floor and eating less rice this week so he can buy a concrete brick, to better house his wife and two young daughters. 
    He tells me he is really grateful to have a job and to be able to buy that brick.  He tells me most people in town don't have jobs like his that pay every day.  He tells me he is happy with his life, grateful and content. 
    It really put our world in perspective.  We have so much stuff.  Houses to own or rent, cars to drive, health insurance to cover our illness, restaurants to eat at and the money to indulge in trinkets, gadgets, clothing, and goods.  Our world is one of desires and companies do a good job producing lots of items every month that are to be coveted.  We rarely take the time to appreciate simple miracles like clean running water, electricity, tile and wood floors in our homes,  money to buy food at the supermarket or go out to eat..  These are things we'd all be loathe to live without, and often we take for granted - finding ways to be dissatisfied with so many other aspects in life.  When you start feeling angry or sad with something in your life,  ask yourself if you have food, shelter, and water.   Then remind yourself that there are a lot of people in this world who would gladly trade places with you to have just those three simple things.    I think our lives would be a lot less complicated, a  lot less hateful, a lot less depressing -  if we all started to give thanks to what we already have. 

The key to happiness is awareness. 
    You don't need to abolish desire and live like a monk on a mountain.  But being aware of  your desires and appreciating the ability to work hard or manifest them into being will bring you great joy.   
    What happens is that most of us get our wishes and desires fulfilled everyday - little and big ones- but we focus so intently on the wishes not yet come true instead of seeing the blessings already surrounding us.      When you arrive at your destination without an accident-  be grateful.  When you eat your lunch - be grateful.  When you complete a task - be grateful for the mental and physical health to do so.  Be grateful for your job, your food, your family your friends and all the things in your life.  If you are not standing naked in the middle of a barren desert - you have something to be grateful for.  (even then, you could be grateful that you are alive)

We are so consumed by desires and the feeling of have-not,  we need to shift to embrace both desire and gratitude simultaneously.  I think this would cure much of our worlds insanity....

Moving on -  
    We took a brief trip away from whooville to the wonderful land of right pointbreaks, El Salvador.  For a week we enjoyed an open faced mush burger wave with the crowd of latin american pro surfers all in town for the ALAS Latin pro event.   After weeks at a freight train beachie, it was nice to have a minute to do a turn.   It was fun to see old friends again, and  while getting to the semi -final was nice for me,  it was even nicer to surf a point wave with only 2 others out for those 20 minute heats. 

    We headed back to Nicaragua straight away because the next  surf contest was heading there and arrived to find a delectable swell with better sandbars.   Filming the freesurfs was a nightmare, all the pro kids just getting sick ones left, right and center - and us trying to capture everything that was going down with only one camera.  For the contest,   I made it through a couple of the hardest heats- against the best girls on the Latin pro tour -and won 3rd in the final.  While we were sad to watch our friends pack up and leave the following day, it was nice to actually be able to catch some waves without the contest chaos. 
    Now we're returning to the routine life here.  We upgraded our living situation - moving out of the bat cave and into a beautiful clean spacious place with a kitchen, fridge, toilet, shower and running water. It is only a 20 minute stroll to the beach now, passing through a local community of tipping shacks, a bit of open field, a small papaya farm, and a dash of old world forest with huge gnarled mangrove trees and quite sizable land crabs.  
      Waves have started to degrade again so we are spending more time working on other projects for the time being.  Hopefully the forecasted holiday swell brings something lovely..... happy hollowdays as our good friend suggested....
until next time..

Nicaragua Surf Sessions