Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Nicaragua - Day 4 - Domitila

Howler Monkey with newborn

The next morning, after waking up to the calls of howler monkeys and birds, we started out with an incredible breakfast (all the meals were great, and I would spend pages talking about each one if I described them) -then went on a longer hike into the preserve towards the lake.

The first thing that I noticed about the tropical dry forest, at the beginning of the dry season, is that the birds and butterflies are much more visible than in the rain forests. They are still there to feed on the abundance of fruits, seeds, and nectar - but they are not hidden in the foliage.

There were beautiful blooms on trees devoid of leaves.

There were more visible varieties and abundance of butterflies than anywhere I've seen in my life, they were everywhere. There is even a butterfly that makes a chirping sound when pairs circle each other.

There were many species of insects.

The howler monkey troops were scattered throughout the preserve, and we could hear them calling back and forth between each other. They would look at us curiously as we went by. We found two turtle shells, which had been eaten by some other wildlife - possible raccoons.

Between Maria and the local guide, Jesus, they knew all of the trees that we passed, which ones were rare, and what their commercial uses were (why they had been harvested).

On this hike we saw species such as owls (still trying to figure out the species, at least one barn owl), squirrel cuckoos, endangered yellow-napped parrots, lizards, and aracari. We heard, but never saw, a laughing falcon - I understand the name now. It sounds like someone laughing a big belly laugh. The rest of the species are included in the species list at the end of this series of posts.

Barn Owl

We returned for lunch, then headed out to the section of the preserve to the south, that included a spring (this would be a fantastic spot for camera trapping) and wound up the back of the hill. We saw a barn owl here, above a forest composed of native bamboo (it is small, and droops over to create a great environment to shelter wildlife), and saw a porcupine that had been eaten - we could identify it by the quills. There were many Morpho blue butterflies along all of the waterways that we saw.

Spring near the lodging
Talking to Maria was always educational and inspirational. She stated repeatedly (when talking about what her sons were up to) that she had already lived her life. Here she was leading a more exciting, rewarding, life than most of us can ever hope - and she looks at it as the mellow way to wind down her years. When she has guests, she is up at 4 in the morning, and is the hostess, the guide, the cook, and the proprietor. During the rest of the time, she is the preserve manager - fighting wildfires that escape from adjacent farmlands, doing all of the marketing, paperwork, and financial management. Soon after the preserve received it's designation, her husband came down with lung cancer - so he had to be gone in the States for treatments. So in addition to being the supporting spouse to someone with cancer, all of the biological management of the preserve, and the business management of the lodge, is in Maria's hands. As of the time of this post, he has passed away.

The names in her guest-book are an impressive list of world known scientists, such as the Sr. Dr. Sibley (who stated that this was a "great place to study nature" - he came and did a dragonfly survey), Australian entomological groups, professors from UC Davis who study large cats, professional butterfly photographers - all these guests were raving about the unexplored opportunities at the preserve - and everyone mentions the food.

That evening Linda, the slightly neurotic, but very sweet dog - came and slept with me, on top of the bug netting. She quietly sat by my feet the next morning (which is a feat, she is a hyper little being) - it made me miss home.

Nicaragua - Day 3 -Domitila

My first view of Maria was of her driving this ancient jeep, and helping an older American couple out of it at the gas station. She was a complete whirlwind of energy and personality. Driving that jeep takes an amazing amount of talent, and that is just to get the thing started. I accompanied her on a few of her errands in town, getting food etc.

I stopped and looked at an old church. I was told the columns inside were made from single trunks of ancient tropical hardwoods. Maria explained that this city used to be a slave community and many of the churches date back to that time.

Then we started the long drive along dirt roads to Domitila, past the rural farming communities. Maria explained to me the history of the preserve, which was just designated in 2001. Domitila is the name of her husbands family members who originally purchased the land a few generations back. When the land was divided among the descendants, she and her husband chose the section that had never been cultivated, with the intent on turning it into a preserve. There had been some logging, but the forest had remained intact.

Maria is Nicaraguan, but she had been received her high school and college education in Switzerland. She studied languages, and is fluent in Spanish, English, French, and Italian. She lived in Europe for a few years, then she moved to the United States for years after that, and raised her two sons in Texas. She returned to Nicaragua, after her children were grown, to care for her father when his health was failing. She was a widower when she returned, and she met up with a man whom she had known in her childhood, he was still friends with her father. He came and played the guitar for the family - they fell in love and married.

I believe it was during her time in the United States that she had started taking some additional courses, and it was in one of these courses that she attended a lecture on "Sustainable Tourism", and it caught her interest. When she first approached the Nicaraguan government about establishing a private preserve, she was told that it was impossible because there was no legal framework in Nicaragua to do so. So she wrote other governments such as Costa Rica and I believe Africa to inquire about their legal frameworks, and she got responses from many different countries with details about how they set it up. Later, when there was some political pressure arising from a different situation, she was able to get the legal framework established, and get her property designated as the first private preserve in Nicaragua in 2001. If I remember correctly, there are approximately more 50 private preserves designated now (in early 2005). In order to be designated a private preserve, the resources must be documented, and certain biological parameters must be met - such as the presence of endangered species. Maria and Silvio (her husband) conducted all these surveys by horseback for months, as self taught naturalists with guidebooks. She then had these surveys confirmed with a biologist from the University. On the drive, we saw this colony of Oropendola - a type of bird that builds it's hanging nests together in a colony. I'm not sure which species it was, but the adult birds are black, with bright yellow tails, and a digital sounding call.

When we first pulled up to Domitila, I noticed the simple buildings and the hammocks. The lodge is made from handmade planks, with thatch roof sewn on through visqueen-like material. The central meeting area, and the dining area, are both outdoors under thatched roof covers. The beds are covered with a draped white net to keep the critters off. The toilets were composting toilets. And the water for drinking and showers was pumped from a well up to a raised tank using solar power. The materials and accommodations were simple, but immaculately built and up-kept.

We were greeted by Linda and Napoleon, two very loving and loved dogs. There were also two cats, a female and a young male. I didn't notice many cats in either Costa Rica or Nicaragua - but I assume it is just a matter of time. None of the ones that I saw were spayed or neutered. Also at the preserve were Fabio, a rescued spider monkey who Maria raised by hand. He is the first part for a Spider monkey re-establishment program for the preserve, in conjunction with some females to be provided by a local zoo. She also had a young deer that was malnourished, which is now healthy and recovering.

We went on a short hike up behind the lodge, to a look out where you could see over to Mombachu volcano and Lake Nicaragua. This little hill was the only rise in a flat landscape for kilometers in all directions. You can see the tropical dry forest canopy of the preserve extend out all the way to the lake. I was the only visitor at that time (note for those tired of crowds, I was the only person [besides the knowledgeable Maria and mandatory knowledgeable local guide] in this vast wilderness area), and it gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn from Maria about her life and her experiences with the preserve.

We returned to ginger lemon-aid, and kerosene lamps set out in the rooms. The food that night was mind-blowing, along with every other meal. The meals were vegetarian for my benefit, many restaurants in California could stand some lessons for her on vegetarian options. She even uses organic produce when available. Maria is a fabulous chef, and takes pride in the training she passes on to her employees (all from the local community).

Her whole idea about the preserve is making it a sustainable business, she does not care if it is profitable - as long as it is sustainable indefinitely. She told me a story of visiting students from a respected business school (If I remember correctly, it was Harvard). The students kept asking her questions such as "where will you build the additional cabins when the business grows", and they just didn't understand that she would not be building additional cabins - she would limit the number of visitors to avoid impacting the resource. She told them that she knew exactly how many visitors she would have to have in order to be sustainable ecologically and economically - and then she would not grow past that point. Apparently, the students still didn't understand why she wouldn't grow as much as possible.

Nicaragua - Day 3 - Travel

I took another cargo boat back to the same dock in San Jorge, as the boat pulled up there - a young boy, probably about 8 came up to talk to me - he was having a grand conversation with me, of which I only understood an occasional word. I finally figured out he was trying to get me to follow him to his friends Taxi who worked on the docks. I had already agreed to share a car taxi with the brother to Rivas bus stop. It was here that I noticed how unaware of littering the public was, and started noticing it as a pervasive problem. A girl was changing the batteries of her discman, and she just flicked the old ones out onto the ground - like that is where they were supposed to go. I noticed this on the buses also, where mothers would hold their children up to the windows to throw out their garbage onto the roadways. Many times, the ditches on the opposite side of the roads from homes would be over flowing with garbage that the residents had dumped there. As Nicaragua starts having more inflow of packaged products, this is going to be more of a problem.

From Rivas, I caught a bus to Nandime. I sat next to a girl named Justine. She is in her late 20's. She spoke a little English, and my Spanish was much better by then. She told me her story. She is married to a Nicaraguan man who joined the US Army. He kept promising her that he was trying to get her a green card, so she waited for him. Then one day she got a letter from a woman in another country, that he had traveled to in the military, that he had married. He had other wives also… Due to the law - she can not divorce him unless he signs the papers, which he won't do - so she is stuck married to him, and cannot remarry - so she is still waiting for the promised green card.

I noticed some things on the bus. It is much warmer socially in Nicaragua than I am used to. Personal space boundaries there are about 2 feet closer. People touch each other more easily, like a ticket man with gently place his hand on the shoulder of a sleeping person instead of coldly tapping her shoulder. People slip by each-other in the isles with their hands on each-others shoulders. People make eye contact, and take the time to talk - even when working. It is a tangible difference from my experiences locally.

Domitila Preserve

I got off at the bus stop in Nandime. Town was mostly just a gas station and a bank along the road. I walked to the bank with the intent of withdrawing money, or changing some dollars for Cordovas. I had only had that 340 cordovas since the Cambio at the border crossing, and I was starting to run out. There was no ATM at the bank, so I tried to exchange my cash or travelers check - but she would not accept them because a single one of the corners was bent!!! Note: Iron your money in a book or something before trying to exchange it. So I went and waited for Maria of the Domitila preserve at the gas station.

There was a man vending food to gas station patrons, all the food in one of those round tubs. He had his son with him, who was about 4 years old. The son tried to talk with me a little bit, but I just didn't know Spanish well enough to figure out a 4 year olds version. I figured out that his son was telling me he had no mother - but that was about it. When his son decided to try and talk with me - I tried to explain that I didn't speak his language and couldn't understand him, but per his dad he'd never met anyone who didn't speak Spanish - so he didn't understand the concept. He tried using different words to talk to me, then speaking louder, then turning upside down and talking to me. Even his dad tried to explain to him that I spoke a different language, and I tried talking to him in English to show him - but he just couldn't comprehend it. So he talked at me for the next 1/2 an hour or so, occasionally asking me questions to test the communication. It was a fun game. Eventually he got bored though, and wandered off. Then a group of travelers from southern Nicaragua showed up. One of the guys chatted with me until Maria showed up. He was from Nicaragua, along the coast, but now he lived in Canada. He had a girlfriend who lived in California, Marin County, and was going to move to the U.S. to be with her, but because of the restrictions in immigration after 9/11 he hasn't been able to get there - and Canada was the closest he could get. Interesting fellow.

And then - there was Maria and Domitila - easily the highlight of this trip.

Nicaragua - Day 3 - Ometepe

The next morning I found a see-through frog in the bathroom - I think it was a rough glass frog, but I'm not totally sure.

I had decided to head to the private preserve that the woman at Hotel SiSiSi had told me about. I had made contact with the owner via email, and had a pick-up arranged for Nandime - a town on the Interamericana. I was able to get a ride back to the ferry terminal with the brother of the proprietor of the research station. These are images of the island landscape from the back of the truck on that trip.

Women washing clothing in a creek

The brother is a cattle rancher, same as their father. He explained that the family is from Nicaragua - but they went to high school in Florida, then moved Costa Rica. This was the second time that I got to hear how proud many Nicaraguans are of their country, as he listed off the reasons why it is better than Costa Rica (less tourists, more unspoiled culture, safer safer safer). This was a theme with every Nicaraguan that I got to talk to in depth. They seemed to be on a mission to convince me why Nicaragua was better than Costa Rica.

We passed lots of road work. They were building the roads using pre-poured concrete blocks, cobbled together over a sand base. This type of road is easy to fix - just replace the blocks. It is very labor intensive though - the brother explained that this is good for an economy that is trying to employ people. We passed lots of construction of this type - the official safety shoes of the construction workers were flip flops.

Traffic control around the construction was a bit of a free for all

He described that the side of the island that the research station is on used to be owned by the dictator, and it was given back to the people (he used the word peasants) after the dictator was no longer in power. That is why the land is not as built up in that section. They are supposed to have a paved road around the whole island soon though - and then the prices for land shoot up. I can't remember what they are per acre there during my visit (2003), but incredibly inexpensive from my perspective - I think about 1000$/acre. He also told me that the waters of Lake Nicaragua are not polluted because there is no industry developed, and it still supports many ancient fish species. Apparently there was a study that showed the women of Ometepe are more "fertile" (his term) than women from Costa Rica or the States, purportedly because the fish and water from the lake that they live off of is not polluted. I tried to find out some more information on the study (who, when, etc), but couldn't get any more details than the result he reported, and couldn't find it otherwise.

Fish from Lake Ometepe

Nicaragua - Day 2

The next day I woke up very early, and headed into the main building to use the internet to let my husband know I had gotten there safely. On the way that morning I met Naftali, he was one of the guides at the station. He used to be a commando in the Nicaraguan army, he taught martial arts to other soldiers - he was up very early also because he was practicing them outside. Now however, he was going to college to learn economics and international relations, because that was where the work was now. He had a number of odd tattoos, and he said that they were all done to him against his will, presumably when he was in the army, for when he showed fear for something.

Naftali told me they were going on a walk with the pre-med students from Wisconsin to a waterfall, and to see Petroglyphs that day, and invited me along. The walk was lead by an older member of the community who studied indigenous culture and language from the island.

The walk turned out to be a 8 mile hike in the sun. The waterfall wasn't that impressive, but the cool water was welcome to everyone after the walk out there. The petroglphys were really incredible. Some of them were on stones that a member of the community had used to build his fence, he had been careful to place the carvings on the outside though - so people could still see them. He was talking with the guide - telling him that someone had been offering to buy the stones from him. But the guide was telling him that he should not sell them. 1) they would be gone from the people and the community forever and 2) the tourists would stop coming if they sold away the things they came to see. Apparently the carvings were 2000 -800 years old. Many of the carvings, such as a spiral, were identical to those that I saw carved into rocks on the east side of the Sierra Nevada in California.

As we walked along the road to the waterfall, we walked past the local community. The road in this area is very bad, and there is not public transportation, and very few tourists - so we were as much of a novelty to the community as they were to us. The families who lived in homes next to the road would all come out and watch us go by, and we would wave back and forth with the young children. Everyone returned friendly smiles. One of the younger children even ran to get his siblings, shouting in Spanish "the gringos are coming, the gringos are coming!!!"

Pigs, cattle, and horses grazed along the side of the road. At one point, there was a cow facing the group as they walked up the road. All of the people were walking in a line, and the cow felt threatened by the advancing group - and suddenly lowered her head and charged!! The entire group ran towards the lake as though it were composed of one body like a flock of birds. One of the local children came and shooed the cow off - but there were many Wisconsin students who will never look at a cow the same way again.

Some cattle were being driven down the road by young boys on bicycles with a short sticks to herd the cow.

Many of the homes were still built with sticks and palm thatch roofs.

We saw a mother (dressed in a skirt with heels) and her two young sons, hauling palm thatch down the road by hand - on their backs with their hands above their heads holding the base of the stems.

That night I found out that the water provided was actually unfiltered spring water from the property. I never did get sick from it, so it must be as clean as claimed. I got to speak to the proprietor for an hour about how he started the station (it is his second, the first was in Costa Rica) and the location.

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