Killing a Chicken, for Lunch

Martina smile is tense. From the side of her mouth, she says, “They just killed this chicken…for our lunch…”

As the don and his son motion for us to sit, his wife hurries around the room, the gracious hostess, and waves her hand at the table, covered in a brilliantly white, fine linen. Matching plates for each of us are set out with hot corn tortillas, heaps of steaming rice, steamed potatoes and strips of chilies, and piles of tender meat. Apparently, fresh.

We pull up plastic chairs, and sit in the gray-brown shadows.  They insist we eat. And we savor every spicy, delicious bite. Martina continues, as no one else speaks English, “…they have nothing, absolutely nothing….they hardly have enough food for themselves — and they did this…they killed one of their chickens…for us…”

No lights. No electricity. Bright paper cut-outs of angels and flowers and a single picture, in a worn frame, decorate the otherwise gray-brown walls.

The Only Woman Coffee Farmer..

We criss-cross the fields, then follow a footpath that skirts a row of mossy fence posts, strung with rusted barbed wire, and a row of tiny, white and yellow baby socks, freshly washed, and drying, in the wind.

Corrugated roof extends over a rough patio. La Doña, a sturdy and beautiful woman with sparkling dark eyes, in a pale green shirt and matching skirt, stands to welcome us when she sees Martina rounding the corner. Her grandson, a boy of 7 or 8, in a faded Mickey Mouse short-sleeved shirt runs from the house as hugs and laughter and introductions are passed around, with kisses on the cheek and more mucho gusto.

Martina whispers her excitement in seeing the clothes she’d collected and hauled over to Nicaragua, from the UK, put to good use.

The women pull up plastic chairs on the patio. And after happy chit-chat, the interview begins. La Dona is the only non-male coffee farmer in the area. In the world of prized mustaches and machismo, her survival and ability to support her family including her grandson, it’s no small achievement. Without flourish, she describes arriving in Miraflor, a woman in her twenties. With a shrug, she writes off the struggles of figuring it out, the hard work over the years. Her eyes are serious and her voice soft and yet strong, and I find myself admiring her. A Nicaraguan pioneer, breaking new ground for other women to follow, in a world where women walk, (never canter) horses.

Her grandson watches the interview and photography, intently. Smiling and curious. And when I step back to capture the scene, matriarch, grandson, Martina, sitting on the white-washed patio under a corrugated tin umbrella, a blond-orange kitten peeks over the roof above them all. A quick gasp. And the grandson’s eyes upon me. Not wishing to disturb the interview, I point up. Gato I silently mouth, Gato.

The grandson nods and smiles wider. I smile. Language is such a wonderful thing. So are kids.

As we wrap up the special interview, I wonder what he might think of his grandmother, the doña, now.

Picking Coffee Berries

We walk across stubbled fields, hopping from patch of grass to the next, under cotton puff clouds.

Carefully scaling the wobbling barbed wire fence, sharp spur jingling. Past a dirt-covered outhouse to the clump of trees that shade a tiny, two roomed house and kitchen.

As if already posing for the portrait I’ll take, the family patriarch, the don stands against the aged wood wall, bright blue shirt, shining cowboy hat and white hair gleaming against weathered brown face and hands. His wife, in a simple skirt, gray-white hair pulled back in a bun, a thin line of a smile, as she shades the sun with one hand and watches us approach. Gracious and welcoming. I can’t help but instantly like them.

We exchange the traditional hug and kiss on each cheek with a murmured “mucho gusto”. Then Martina sings out, “Lucy! Lucy!”

A flash of sunshine, as a girl of three, dark brown eyes and darker hair peeks around the corner in a ruffled yellow dress. Martina scoops her up, in a barrage of kisses and shared laughter. Vladimir’s daughter.

She pops Martina’s gift of a sucker into her mouth and stares at Spencer and I, from between her father’s legs.

Martina explains the project, the massive microphone that will record their conversation for a radio program back in the UK.

They listen intently. Then, with a nod, we’re recording.

The Don talks, quietly and constant, his gnarled stumps of hands sit folded in his lap. As his family listens, Vladimir smiles and nods, Lucy sucks on her lollypop as the blue band around her mouth grows. In the heat of the afternoon, I sip the hot coffee the don’s wife serves each of us, eager for a jolt of caffeine to make up for the lack of sleep and my “riding-a-horse-all-day” aches. Despite trying to focus with all the energy I have left, I catch only a word here and there. Meanwhile, Martina takes it all in and continues the conversation, in Spanish, without pause.

When it’s over, the Don smiles, we all relax a bit. The men pick up plastic buckets and belt them around their waists, a long stick in one hand, and we’re off to the coffee “fields”–which means heading across what we would consider a “field” and into the jungle.

Massive trees all but hide the coffee crop growing beneath its leaves. It’s like no other field. Tiers of green, the jungle leaves rustling high overhead, a cool canopy of shade for the sensitive, dark green leaves that cling to spindly sticks.  At a glance, it seems like scraggly undergrowth, just over head high, stretching up the steep hillsides.

A closer look and I see them: red berries, like cranberries in size and hue, and a few green berries, ring around the branches of the coffee plants. Vladimir and his father position themselves up-slope of a plant. Using the pole to ratchet the plant down, in easier picking position. I watch, amazed, as the don’s seven-six year old fingers fly like magic. A whirl of activity. As he chats, bright berries plunk into the plastic bucket at his waist. A branch, then another, then another: in a minute or less, a plant is cleaned out.

He moves to another plant and another. Martina asks more questions. The jungle sun peeks through lush green foliage. I shuffle through the dead and dying leaves, shooting rapidly, trying to find every possible angle, trying to get the right shots, trying to capture this for Martina, worried I’ll get it horribly wrong, wishing I was more experienced, wishing I was a “real” photographer…feeling it again, that nervous tension in my chest that I don’t know how, that I’ll miss this, that I’ll fail.

I stare at the black plastic mechanism in my hand, and smile. We’ve been through so much, camera and I. Deep breath, it’ll all work out, it’ll be good (it doesn’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to be perfect), just trust yourself and try.

We start again, camera and I. Thinking of the coffee, the men and women who have spent their lives here harvesting it, the chance meetings, the chaos of life that plops you in the middle of a coffee field in Nicaragua, after racing ponies to get here. I’m smiling and shooting.

An idea. I’m not sure how to say it, so I ask Martina to help me ask the don to hold his super-fast hands perfectly still, in mid-picking motion.

Framed by dark-green leathery leaves and shadows, sunshine leaps from bold-red berries rest in the creased, brown hand of a Nicaraguan coffee farmer, in the Miraflor cloud-forest.

School Visits, Notebooks, and a Life’s Work

We walk back to the horses and gallop, wildly, over another set of green-gold hills to the new school Martina will begin working with.

The familiar two small blue and white buildings in a valley surrounded by mountains and a sea of silver, low clouds. The musical sonnet of children playing, which stops abruptly when they see the four horses and riders walking down the road. Then I try to give my best impression of a person hopping down from a horse, but know my soreness probably gives it away that I’m not.

Fortunately the children are so excited to see Martina, even my camera snaps hardly interrupt them.

She sweetly delivers the stacks of notebooks with an animated speech that leaves the kids laughing and smiling, as she teases and admonishes them to study hard.

She lights up in front of these kids like nothing I’ve ever seen. Theatrical and funny, yet sincere and kind. She gives each one a little hand shake or hug–in return each child shines with light and adoration. Only glimpse into the relationship she’s built over these past years, the little lives she’s impacted, this sweet little talk is enough to make my eyes water. I feel a swirl of pride and good fortune to be this woman’s friend, and humbled beyond belief with the beauty of the work she’s doing here…

Interview with a Nicaraguan Coffee Farmer

We stop our horses in front of a narrow path, leading up a steep hill, through stands of banana trees.

Horrific high-pitch squeals screech from massive, mud-covered pig, as farmers in dirt-covered shirts and rubber boots, drag it’s front legs, inches at a time, towards a waiting truck.

I feel my breakfast churn in my nauseous stomach as the clumsy, but determined, farm animal drags the farmers backwards and the scene starts again, from the beginning, with horrific high-pitched tortured squeals.

No one seems to notice. Spencer and I grimace. A shared joke about our relative inability, as city-dwellers, to survive were we ever left to our own devices. At least, we’d probably have to go without bacon.

In a dirt-floor room, Martina sits down to talk with the first farmer. Their faces are light by hazy sunshine, fingering through the inch wide slats between slabs of rough wood. The room empty, but for a bench, a chair, and the people within.

The farm, a community leader, with a careful mustache and soft voice, patiently answers Martina’s questions, as I slink around the room, self-consciously playing the part of the photographer while my camera clicks mercilessly through their interview, trying to interpret the soft light, the cool shadows, and the other farmer (with massive handlebar mustache that screams “machismo”)  and woman (who will later, shyly, let me photograph her kitchen — which I will learn is the Nicaraguan standard, wood fire “stove”, a wood plank of mis-matched dishes and the very non-standard luxury of a blue-canister water-filter which Martina secured for the family), listening in the shadows of opposite doors.

My ears listen, jealously, as Martina comfortably switches to fluent Spanish. She asks fluid, detailed question after question while never missing a word from her farmer.  I, on the other hand, with my four years of school, catch a word here or there and have to remind myself to not drown out the unfamiliar sounds, but do the work to grasp at the syllables. I want understand more Spanish, not leave it just to Martina to interpret for me.  But it’s a constant struggle (to learn and not grow lethargic in growing heat of the day, the sore back muscles from the ride, the lazy melody of Spanish spoken much too quickly for me). When I put down my camera, I force myself to listen for the sounds long after my head aches and my ears feel like they will bleed, searching for one more familiar word, one more new word I can look up when we get home to my little travel dictionary.

And, Martina, with a tired smile on her face, just as sleep deprived and sore as I…keeping up conversation long after my head has shut off. I listen to her carry the conversation further and I try again to understand, as I orbit around their interview snapping photos. A stream of clicks trying to find the right light, the right angle, intensely worried I will come nothing close to what being here, now, feels like.

Standing in the dusty, silver-gold light of a Nicaraguan kitchen, listening to coffee farmers.

Racing Horses, Like Jane Austin…& a Dream Come True

Melodic Spanish of friends and family, shuffling back and forth from kitchen and chores, wakes me up. Bright, white sunshine peaks through the cracks in the slabs of wood.  I finger through the filmy, blue, mosquito nets and grip my phone; 5AM. I don’t think we got to sleep until well after midnight.

I turn over and try to find more sleep. But the hard bed and my anxious thoughts prevent it. I look back over, Martina’s up. Laughter and Spanish float through the air like sunshine for my tired self. She’s back with a cup of hot coffee for me. For the hundredth time I feel spoiled. There’s nothing like traveling with someone else when you’ve been traveling alone for so long.

Before breakfast my hiking boot is fitted with a spur. A real spur. Leather wrapped around my ankle and held in place with a simple buckle. It clinks when I walk. So I don’t stop walking all morning. I’m a cowgirl.

We walk to the horses. In the early morning they wait patiently, rope halters and dusty saddles. I try to feign confidence, but I’m not sure how this will go. I rode horses a few times when I was nine or ten, walking old horses down a worn trail. There wasn’t much to it. But I think this could be very, very different, but I’m game…and I have no idea how we’ll get around today, if I’m not.

Our guide for the day, Nelson, holds the horse. I grip the mane (whisper an apology if it hurts), a foot in a stirrup, then swing the other over. And just like that, I’m sitting on a Nicaraguan pony, towering above the rocks and kids and dogs. Spencer is next. We sit as Martina gives me a quick tutorial.

It sounds easy enough. And, the way she rides, back straight with a smile, it looked easy enough.

We go from a walk to a trot. I bounce madly in the seat clutching to anything. And then it’s all out. We run together into a full, surreal, maddening gallop, as we barrel down the rocky dirt road.  I hear a beat of the clip clop of horses bearing down on us, makes my horse only run faster. Martina rushes up beside me and yells an instruction to stop the locomotive.

And we stop. The world stops spinning, butterflies flit and the swirling sea of green slows to individual blades again as we sit up feet above the quiet world, laughing.

Martina doles out more advise and tips. She’s genuinely impressed we’ve managed a gallop within our first seconds on a horse, with laughter, and without fear.

So thankful to not be the only newbie, we walk through the Nicaraguan sunshine.  When I ask his secret, he tells me, “I’m just trying to channel the manliest move, Gladiator horse racing.” He puffs up his chest and we roll over with laughter.

I search for the female role model, when do women ever ride roughshod across the countryside?! I’m slowed to sedate walking, thinking.

Then I remember. A bit of a memory reading some Jane Austin novel. A shard of some girl-hood day-dream.  Being that young woman breaking free from the shackles of society, conformity, her family’s strict interpretation of her life, a life not fully lived…until that single moment when she takes her life in her hands and…

Before I can complete the thought, my heart has already bounced back into the game. I laugh and call out my muse: I will now play the role of a Jane Austin heroine. (And as I look at lovely, British Martina, trotting beside me, I actually believe it) Horse and I trot. I bounce up and down with new ease. This time, I know what’s coming. And when he starts to break the trot to stretch his legs, I find new familiarity in the daredevil pace that breaks everything, anything I thought I’d ever be able to do.

And then horse and I fly. We’re literally leaping through the sunshine. Gripping rough rope in one hand, racing through trees, ducking low-hanging branches, dust kicked up behind us, whooping and laughing, like kids on holiday. I laugh harder realizing I’d never imagined this possible, even a year ago.

And then my hand flies from the saddle it’d gripped and I’m doing it, I’m galloping, fearlessly, madly ahead, with my hands wide-0pen, reaching for the sky.

And onward we go. Prancing around fences, picking down steep paths, walking, breaking into trots, then full-on gallops.

The repetition grows more and more comfortable. As is the feeling of absolute wonder (and little goosebumps of realization) that, purely by accident, my childhood dream, that one that I’d forgotten until I was actually doing it: actually racing a horse through the countryside, was strangely, and beautifully, fulfilled on this gorgeous day on a chance trip to Nicaragua.

Cell-Phone Reception, Dinner & the Light of a Single Bulb

I join the girls for a hike, up the side of a mountain, in search of cell phone reception. It’s no small task as we carefully pick our way, in sandals, through loose rock and dried leaves, following a seemingly impassable steep whisper of a trail. A golden-green jungle sunset peeks between massive trees and far away emerald hillsides.

In the cooling, golden evening, they stand very still. Trying and failing to place a call. Then trying again. It takes nearly an hour. When we’re about to give up, Myra’s last call reaches the DJ of the local station, which broadcasts music and commentary throughout the jungle into the wood smoked kitchens of thousands, each with a little, black transistor radio. The cloud-forest lifeline.

We head home for dinner, triumphant. Back in the tiny kitchen with it’s perfectly aged walls, weathered grey wood, collection of 10 cups, a few plates. We sink back into the bench at the table, sitting on the dirt floor three feet lower than the rest of the room.  Shoulder to shoulder, we sit. Careful to alternate how many people move at any one time, in the small space. A tiny dog, named Flea, runs under foot and a tinier, flea-bitten kitten, named Mouse, is passed from lap to lap.

Conversation and jokes spill from rapid Spanish to slow English to rapid English and slow Spanish and back again. Waves of laughter roll through it all. We’re like family in no time, despite most of being relative strangers less than 12 hours ago.

There are a few slow minutes when the conversation stops as we cough out the wood smoke that shifts from heating dinner to our teary eyes.   Wood-fire warmed dinner is passed around. A simple and tasty blend of frijoles, rice, scrambled eggs and dried fish that spent the day smoking over a fire.

We clean dishes from a small bowl of precious water (hauled the half mile from the well, earlier in the day) then sit down for more laughing and talking.

Jackson, a mildly handicapped young man in the village who lived a difficult life until

Myra and Marlon took him in, put him to work (doing house chores and work) in exchange for food and family, taps me on the shoulder  hands me Mouse (the cat) with a gummy grin and mumbled, happy Spanish.  I think of the various kitchens I’ve sat in over the years. The spaciousness, the appliances, the perfectly lit atmosphere, perfectly timed laughter. I roll my toes across the uneven, dirt floor, and smile as Mouse  stretches, warm and happy, in my lap.

The talk turns to tomorrow. The horses we’ll take, Marlon’s concerns that Martina and I (as women) can’t go alone. He insists we go with Spencer (who knows zero of the landscape or horses compared to Martina’s mastery of both). When she teases we find out it’s a man thing and talk turns to machismo. The ornate beards around the town, the horse training, the clearly defined duties of women who retreat to the kitchen.

Marlon looks very seriously at Spencer, “Spencer….what would you rate your machismo?!!”

We erupt in laughter, Mouse lifts a lazy little head up, only to settle back down with a purr. Flea (the tiny puppy) yawns at my feet.

Tired beyond-belief from a long day of travel and interviews, we sit up, way past midnight under the slight light of a single electric bulb that runs off a tiny car battery generator, it spreads a dim light around our little circle, otherwise, absolute darkness of the Nicaraguan jungle.

I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

Breaking a Horse

I squeeze onto the same, small, slightly lop-sided bench with Spencer and Martina. Our backs rest against the slabs of wood that make up the kitchen wall. The warm afternoon heat filters between the inch wide cracks  between boards. The wood stove belches smoke and more heat into the tiny room. More people filter in. More introductions. More Spanish I stumble through. We drink hot, dark coffee. It’s surprisingly delicious as I feel new energy swimming in my veins.

A shout and we’re encouraged outside.

A crowd gathers in the shimmering, afternoon sunshine to watch two of the Miraflor men tame a wild pony.  It was caught earlier in the day. It’s tied to a post, standing, blindfolded, with an American flag. Awkward and nervous. I want to hop the fence and free it.  The cowboys carefully circle the pony.

A polite smile on my face, my fingers grip my camera. Awkward and nervous.

Watching the process, it’s both gentle and brutal. It’s part of the life here, taming what is wild, training it to work. It’ll work and contribute. I bite my lip. I snap photos, hoping the camera will put some distance between me and what’s happening around me.

The blindfolded horse rears or flinches at the first bite of a rough halter. A hollow, bitter crack of wood on flesh. I wince, worried. When I think it’s too much, the cowboy whispers.  Wild eyes soften. Blankets and saddle. The lead for the wild horse is tied to the tail of the other horse. It hurts to see the strain between the animals. A sudden hop and “whoop”. The cowboy’s body flops like a rag doll. And then they’re off, in a dancing, drunken, wild stagger. Dust clouds explode as they bolt down the road. They’ll ride a massive loop, through the jungle. When it returns it will have been tamed, broken.

Once broken, how much work does it take to be wild again?

I’m still gripping my camera. So far, I’m realizing it’s longer than I thought. So far it’s two years, and counting.