A Little Light at the Tunnel’s End


Every decently-made object, from a house to a lamp post to a bridge, spoon or egg cup, is not just a piece of ‘stuff’ but a physical embodiment of human energy, testimony to the magical ability of our species to take raw materials and turn them into things of use, value and beauty.
Kevin McCloud


The Mayans believed that the Jicaro tree grew out of the liberation of the people. They worshiped it as sacred. No wonder, because with a variety of products of the Jicaro, it is possible to feed people and cattle and fuel industry and cars. The tree is striking and unusual. Year-round, it is adorned with lime green oval or round balls, that appear in the least expected places. It is not considered a fruit, but a swelling of the tree’s woody parts.

IMG_3638This hardy tree has been forced to adapt to the harshest environments, thus it thrives in our extended dry season because of its strong, deep roots. Jicaro trees have been described as the vegetable version of goats. They are both strong and resistant, need very little to grow robust, and thrive in places that would be nearly impossible for most species to survive. They are a “tree” and an “animal” for the poor. For with the number of industrial and commercial uses of the Jicaro tree, the impoverished farmers are beginning to see a little light at the end of the tunnel.

IMG_3639

I  chased our neighbor’s egg-eating dog out of our property, when I noticed huge Jicaro balls in our neighbor’s field. “I think I see potential for a lamp shade,” I thought to myself. I found several dried Jicaro balls, carried them across the barbed wire fence, and got to work. First, I sanded the Jicaro, then cut it in half. Packed tightly inside was an ant colony… a tasty treat for our chickens.

IMG_1180Then, I used my Dremel to punch holes in star patterns.
IMG_1181I stained the lamp shade, then used gold, silver, and copper-colored paints to embellish the stars. I added a few whirling comets, too.
IMG_1197I strung some beads in the holes at the bottom of the shade. Finally, I sprayed a protective layer of transparent varnish over the shade. Voila!
IMG_1199Next, I’m making a hanging lamp with Pre-Columbian patterns. A perfect testimony to the magical ability of our species to take raw materials and turn them into things of beauty. There’s always more room for a little light at the tunnel’s end.

Christmas Traditions…Bah Humbug?


“Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course.”
― Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book

I’m not one for holding too many traditions. We had a Christmas tree until Cory graduated from high school, then we ditched the live tree mainly because we ran out of room on our property to replant our Christmas trees.  My Christmas tree ornaments, which I so carefully bought over many years, are still stored in our garage in the states. Bah Humbug, some may say, but, honestly it simplified my life and I could concentrate on the really important aspects of the Christmas holidays like visiting family and friends and baking cookies.

Below is my Bah Humbug list of Christmas traditions we’ve discarded for a simpler life, or we have been forced to discard because we live on a tropical island far from the mainstream:

1. Presents: I used to make all my Christmas gifts. Each year I had a new theme: batik, gift baskets, homemade dog and cat biscuits, those little mason jars filled with layers of brownie mix or hot chocolate, homemade jams, Scherenschnitte pictures and frames,        which means paper cutting in German, watercolor paintings, and gift bags from our travels around the world. Now, I bake cookies and give them to all our friends and neighbors on Ometepe Island. It is a real treat because most of my friends don’t have ovens and ( if you can believe this) they have never eaten a chocolate chip cookie.

2. Shopping: I was never one for going to the malls in December, and I only attended one Black Friday event. The invention of internet shopping became my sole way to shop for Christmas presents. I love Amazon, but even that is something I can only dream about in Nicaragua. 

3. Decorating the house for Christmas: Oh, the collection of snowmen, those little ceramic Christmas trees, nativity scenes, wreaths, and hopelessly tangled Christmas lights and icicles I have given away in yard sales. This year, my 10-year-old friend, Lauren, made me a wreath to hang on my door out of Styrofoam cups. Since I wanted something a little twinkly to add beside the wreath, I took four used rum bottles, steamed the labels off, added some water, green and red food coloring, and set them on my porch railing beside the hanging wreath. It adds a festive touch to my entrance when the tropical sun shines through them. However, it confuses my hummingbirds. They’ve been buzzing around the red bottles with a puzzled and very determined look.

4. Christmas cards: I gave up that tradition long ago when the cost of a stamp was more than a small homemade gift. We don’t have mail delivery on the island, so that settles any thought of buying Christmas cards… which I’ve never seen here anyway.

5. Trips to see the Christmas lights: At the Bristol Motor Speedway, they have a fantastic collection of Christmas lights and scenes. What made it so cool was that we could drive our car around the speedway to see all the light displays. Now, very few homes have Christmas lights, and the ones that do are only lit up for a short period because 1. Electricity is expensive here 2. We don’t want to take our motorcycle out after dark because there are too many obstacles on the dirt paths and the few paved roads. 3. When electric demand is high, those who have the power ( literally) ration our usage. For example, there was a huge techno concert the other night. The surrounding towns were cut-off from electricity so the techno concert could go on without missing an eardrum shattering beat.
speedway in lights

Ometepe Island still maintains its simplified Christmas traditions. Here are a few.

Church is still very important. The Virgin Mary statue is paraded around town for La Purisma for the first eight days of December accompanied by loud firecrackers and pipe bombs.
IMG_0685Nativity scenes abound…but where is baby Jesus? Traditionally, the manger is empty until Christmas Eve, then baby Jesus is tenderly placed in the manger.
IMG_0684Traditional handmade gifts are given…twig brooms, arts and crafts, fans, hats to shade one from the tropical sun, cloth dolls, handmade baskets and toys, and always lots of fruits.
IMG_0681Nacatamales..the traditional midnight Christmas Eve dinner.
IMG_0786Beautiful Christmas cakes adorn special parties.
IMG_0712Gift giving is traditional, and the gifts are usually given at midnight on Christmas Eve, but they open their gifts in private because they don’t want to embarrass the humble gift giver. Below are some of the gifts we received this year…bread fruit, lots of watermelons, underwear, socks, jewelry, a Christmas wreath, and precious Pre-Columbian pottery that my friend, Mitchel, dug out of a construction site where he was working.

In return, I keep up one tradition…my annual Christmas cookies. It seems fitting to me to continue this tradition because homemade cookies are scarce in Nicaragua, and I love sharing a tradition I have held for many years with my island friends and neighbors.
IMG_0725I hope your holiday is overflowing with family, friends, and lots of sweet things this year.

Holiday Gifts from Nicaragua


shop localLiving in Nicaragua, Christmas shopping gives me a new outlook on the importance of shopping local. Buying local stimulates the economy, creates new jobs provided by local businesses, reduces the environmental impact, and nonprofits receive greater support. Although Nicaragua is still in its infancy in high-tech shopping online, there are  a few websites devoted to selling their products from Nicaragua.

Enjoy the list I have compiled and Happy Local Shopping.

1. Masaya Market-Handmade Gifts  One of the few websites where you can buy online.
2. Sexy and Sexy 
One of Nicaragua’s first online-only stores. Warning: This is an adult erotic supply website. Leave it to Nicaragua to develop a virtual sex shop as a way to help innovate the way the internet is used in Nicaragua.
3. Vidalife Granada  This website focuses on shopping in Granada, Nicaragua. Check out the directory of services.
4. Una Buena Chica Nica  A Facebook page displaying her fine local crafts in San Juan del Sur.
5. Empowerment International  Give a gift of education for impoverished Nicaraguan children through this wonderful organization.
6. Nicaraguan Cultural Alliance   a U.S.-based organization that works to support the arts and community development projects in Nicaragua.
7. Fabretto   Fabretto’s mission is to empower children and their families in Nicaragua to reach their full potential and improve their livelihoods through education and nutrition.
8. Nica Nelly  Purchasing pottery, hammocks, Nicaraguan coffee, and other crafts from NicaNelly directly benefits the artisans from Nicaragua who take pride in their craftsmanship.
9. La Esperanza Granada  Give a gift of educational supplies that will last a lifetime.
10. Opportunity International  Shop in the Ojala Store The Ojala brand represents the creativity and potential of Nicaraguan microentrepreneurs

In addition to these online stores and NGOs that support local craftsmen, below are a few resources from Melissa, an expat friend who has lived in Nicaragua for 10 years. Thanks Melissa for the pictures and contacts.

eggnog

An awesome locally made eggnog, with or without rum. 8-404-1816 for info on where to get in Managua.

nativity scene

From Pesebres, hand-carved jicaro shells, and baby Jesus is in a cradle made from pine needles from Cusmapa, terranica.artesanos@gmail.com

chopping block

An early Christmas gift made using gorgeous woods by Crearte. Maria and Gerardo Gutierrez run the place and have a shop in Masaya. gerardojoselopez16@hotmail.com

Again, happy local shopping this holiday season. If you have any additional links for Nicaraguan products, please add the link in a comment below.

 

Arts and Crafts the Nica Way


“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
~Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

Creativity is a must for most people living on a small tropical island with few resources. I am no exception. When the creative spirit stirs, I turn to arts and crafts. The art of creativity animates my desire to fulfill my dreams, while taking me to a place where I get lost and found at the same time…a real Zen moment. No matter how fleeting, I look forward to the comfort and solace these Zen moments bring.

After remodeling our beach shack, we were left with a 15 foot long space above our kitchen. I hired my artist friend, Sue, to help me make a frame, cover and stretch it with canvas, and we painted deliriously lost in our private Zen moments. The Nica Artist Way

I am an avid collector of the Pre-Columbian pottery shards that wash up on our beach daily. The piles of pottery shards on my porch were collecting scorpions and other creepy crawlies. So, I made wrapped wire necklaces for gifts, Christmas ornaments, and a pottery shard turtle above our new guest house addition.

The Jicaro tree fascinated me. Known as the tropical prosperity fruit tree, it has a variety of economic uses in Nicaragua. The Jicaro Tree  Yet, all I could picture were beautifully painted bowls, masks, and lamp shades. Two years ago, I planted bottle gourds with seeds I brought from the states. They dried in our bodega for two years, until I decided to do something with them. The shells were too thin to carve, so I created painted bird houses. I’m anxious to try my carving and wood burning skills on the think-skinned Jicaro gourds..after I perfect my painting skills. The Jicaro Artist

I collect vines and palm leaves for weaving and basket making. My first attempts were a disaster, so no pictures. But, when I needed a hanging lamp for my porch, I collected heavy vines and wove them into a ball, added some twinkle lights..and voila..new lighting for my porch.

My only regret is that there is not more time in my day for arts and crafts. The mangoes are starting to drop AGAIN! My only consolation is that when I’m raking up the tiny mangoes scattered throughout our yard, my creative juices are flowing and I’m lost in thoughts of palm leaves, gourds, and pottery shards dancing through my head.

The Ometepe Tourist Fair


Last weekend, Moyogalpa held a tourist fair showcasing activities, traditional dances, bands, products, hostels, and hotels for tourists visiting Ometepe Island. When I think of the county fairs I have attended in the states, I recall wisps of roasted peanuts and pulled pork filtered through barnyard smells of heifers and freshly sheared sheep. I recall the faint chill of sweater weather and goose bumps as I’m stalled on the ferris wheel high above the fair grounds almost touching the twinkling stars. I taste sawdust, hear the shrill calls of the game masters daring one and all to test their strength and tossing skills, and watch the faces of children as they bounce and fly through the air with eyes as big as pumpkins.

The Ometepe tourist fair was unlike any fair I had attended in the states. The smells of sweat and gallo pinto mingled among the fair goers and participants. Hair gel plastered sweat drenched hair, taming it like a wild horse. Tourist booths, decked in tropical fruits and garnished with baskets of vegetables, homemade wine, and miniature garden displays, enticed fair goers. Children waited eagerly for the plastic dog house to inflate…the only ride in the fair. Music boomed from gigantic speakers. Recycled plastic water bottles morphed into flowers, turtles, and garbage cans. Displays of solar panels, water purifiers, and crafts abounded. Professional brochures of hostels and hotels fanned heated guests.

Enjoy my slideshow of the Ometepe Tourist Fair! It is definitely a keeper!

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Happy Masks


“I wish everyday could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks.” ~ R.J. Palacio

Masks fascinate me and make me happy.  They are reflections of unique cultures, worn like bridges from the outer phenomenal world to the inner person. Embossed with bold colors and expressions, masks evoke many reactions to the beholder, but for me, they always make me smile in wonder.  Masks are the poetry of a culture, the exquisite spirits of the past, and entertaining portrayals of our inner emotions.

Enjoy the masks of Nicaragua. I hope they make you smile. :-)

And this just in! Nicaragua is the 8th happiest country in the world! Click here.

A Molotov New Year


The Molotov Scarecrow

You’ve probably heard of the Molotov cocktail, but I doubt that you’ve heard of a Molotov scarecrow. The Molotov cocktail originated in the 1930′s during the Spanish Civil War. General Francisco Franco’s Spanish Nationalist army threw the incendiary weapons at Soviet tanks. Upstaging the Spanish Nationalists, the Nicaraguans devised an ingenious method to usher in the new year.

Munecos

A boisterous tradition is to ‘burn the old’ year. Old men, called muñecos, are crafted and stuffed with gunpowder. The dolls are adorned with vices, such as cigars, cigarettes, and guaron ( homemade moonshine). The old men are hung in the streets, and when the new year arrives, they burn them. All of their vices explode in a flame of glory. It’s a spectacular good riddance to the old year!

Next year, I’m going to slightly alter the tradition. I’m going to design a muñeca ( an old woman doll). I have a year to think about stuffing her with my vices. As Cory says, “No more resolutions, just live the dream.”  It sure sounds easier to blow up my vices immediately, instead of making New Year’s resolutions that I’ll probably never fulfill.

Happy New Year everyone! My hopes and wishes for all are to follow your chosen path, but don’t stop too long to debate on whether you’ve chosen the right direction. Someday, our paths will come to an end. In the meantime, gently tend to the needs of your path, live with passion, explore with love, and let your vices explode into a million tiny pieces.

 

The Christmas Tree: Life’s triumph over death


Our Island Christmas Tree

The winter solstice was a day of reckoning for ancient people. When the Egyptians noticed the nights getting colder, and the days getting shorter, they were afraid that the sun was disappearing and the Earth would freeze. They looked around and noticed that some of the plants and trees remained green. Believing that these evergreens had magical powers and would appease the gods, they brought them into their homes.

Not having evergreen trees, the Egyptians cut green date palm leaves and scattered them throughout their homes to symbolize life’s triumph over death. And…the Christmas tree was born! Now, living on a tropical island presents some problems trying to find a suitable Christmas tree. Like the ancient Egyptians, we have no evergreen trees either.

I was lamenting that there were no Christmas trees on the island, when I saw our young friend, Izzy, carting a strange, yet beautiful pole to our house. “You said you wanted a Christmas tree, so I made you one,” Izzy said as she handed me her amazing creation.

Delicate newspaper cranes, dried mango leaves, and an assortment of tropical bird feathers adorned the tree. “Izzy, it’s perfect!” I said, kind of teary eyed at the thoughtfulness of her gift. “Let’s make some more ornaments.”

I’ve collected Pre-Columbian pottery shards that wash up on my beach for years. With some copper wire and ribbon, we wrapped the ancient shards and hung them on the tree. I returned from the states with one wire of twinkling lights and a star from the Dollar Store. We hung the shining star above the tree, as a symbol of bringing forth the light.

Life’s triumph over death hit close to home on Sunday. A very close friend of ours was involved in a horrific motorcycle crash on the island. Robinson escaped with his life, but one of his friends wasn’t as fortunate. Robinson was transferred to a hospital in Managua, across the lake in a small ponga boat. For two days, he could only speak in English, not understanding his native language. The mind works in mysterious ways.

He’s recovering comfortably at home today. I think I’m going to keep my Christmas tree up year-round to remind me of the precious gifts life has to offer. Life is so short…it can change in an instant. Like the ancient Egyptians, my little handmade Christmas tree will be an everlasting symbol of life’s triumphs over death.

 

 

He’s Baaack!


Marvin finishes another baker's rack for my kitchen.

Marvin, my iron man, returned yesterday with two new pieces for my kitchen. A week ago, he was peddling his bicycle in front of our house and stopped to visit. “I have a new job at the airport,” he commented. “It is much responsibility because I am a contractor for the airport terminal.”  Alarmed, I asked, “Marvin, when do you start your new job?”  He responded, “At the end of December..gracias a dios. (Thanks to God)

Selfishly, I wanted Marvin to make two new pieces for my kitchen before he started his new job. “No problemo,” he replied. That same day, Ron and I  made crude drawings, while Marvin measured the dimensions in my kitchen. “I will complete them in a week,” he said to my utter delight.

My new iron pieces

Ron and I spent the day rearranging our kitchen. Marvin starts his new job next week. When I hear of the unemployment crisis in the states, I remind myself to be grateful for Marvin, the many jobs available to our local craftsmen and craftswomen, and the opportunity to share the goodness, as well as spread the wealth in our local community on Ometepe Island.

What Is This?


Guess correctly and win a prize

Ron showed me a handful of these the other day…and I don’t mean the quarter. If you are the first person to guess correctly, you will win a prize shown below.

Seed dolphins

A ten-year old friend carves little dolphins out of these seeds. He’s very talented. So, guess away!

I will be in the states for three weeks. If you are the winner of the correct guess, I will email you for your address, so I can send you a seed dolphin.

Hang in there with me while I am in travel mode. I won’t be able to post regularly for three weeks. Thanks for your patience.