We travel to Nicaragua and Costa Rica at least three times per year to work with the artisans who partner with us. In this blog we share some of the stories of our adventures.
We are winding downhill past San Ramon in search of a few cooperatives of artisans that Jairo and I had researched about via the internet. I happen to glance up and catch the sight of a homemade sign, “Artesanias: Mujeres del Plomo”. “I think that was the turn”, I say to Jairo. He pulls the car over into a dirt patch and scans in both directions before making a three point turn in the middle of the road. We drive back towards the sign, slower this time and indeed it is the turn off. Jairo navigates the small car easily up the brick paved road. This little barrio consists of 30 wooden homes all about the same size and construction. At the fifth house on the right hand-side, we spy another sign that matches the one back at the head of the road. Three young boys come running down the narrow road to stare at us as we exit the car. I scan the area for dogs and cautiously open my car door. The door to the workshop is open and I push Jairo in front of me in case there is a dog lurking about inside. I can hear the sound of a small Dremel drill and see the operator tightly holding a rainforest seed and drilling a hole. Two women look up and smile, welcoming us to the workshop. The 8 foot table in front of them is decorated with small piles of rainforest seeds. I feel like I am back in Monteverde, Costa Rica at the workshop of our artisan partners who also create seed jewelry. Jairo shares with the women that we had learned about their group from the internet and traveled all the way from Masaya to hear about their project and see their wares. They seemed very pleased and began to give us a tour of their products.
This is the story of how the barrio of Mujeres del Plomo began: After Hurricane Mitch destroyed their homes, Maricella who was a resident of an affected barrio, petitioned the local government for assistance with relocating the families. She explains how she diligently gathered information about how many families were in need of new housing, how many members there were in each household, their ages and gender. She compiled all of that data and presented it to the organization that was in charge of the relocation efforts. She explained how the government granted each of the families a 15×15 parcel of land and the materials to build a wooden house for $200. Each family could have 10 years to pay off their parcel and house at no interest. For us in the States, this might not seem like much money for a monthly payment, but as I have witnessed on Isla Solentiname, there are communities where there is no employment available. To scrape together even $2/month can be a challenge. The majority of the families did it though. Ten years have passed and all but three families, whose parcels are now empty since they didn’t pay their loan and the government came and repossessed their houses, are home-owners. Spain entered in the picture after the parcels were divided and donated cement for each house to have a cement pad. Maricella proudly tells how the majority of the families are single moms and they, along with their children, built these houses with their own hands. I ask Maricella how old she is. “40”, she tells me. You can tell by quickly looking at her that she is what is called “Chispa”. She has that spark of a leader.
After the homes were constructed, Maricella spearheaded the formation of a small cooperative with seven other women who are all interested in seed jewelry making. She explains how in the larger town of San Ramon, there were lots of artisans who made seed jewelry, but no one would teach them for fear that they would compete for sales. “No matter,” she told me “We could learn by ourselves.” And that is what they did. In the beginning, sales were slow and four of the original women dropped out of the cooperative. The remaining four though have pushed forward and continued to try and connect and sell in the local market. They formed partnerships with local schools and educate the students on environmental protection. They help to support the students by offering school supplies in exchange for sustainably collected seeds. It’s a win/win for everyone. A few years back, a Peace Corps volunteer helped them to set up a Facebook page and that has allowed them to connect with some tourist groups. Here, Maricella paused and looked around the room. “Thank you for coming to visit us and seeing our work”, she said. “All of the jewelry is from our own designs. Please feel free to look around.”
While browsing, I began to tell here about our project in Costa Rica and how my husband and I back in 2000 helped a group of women to form a similar project. Jairo went on to explain about our organization’s work in Nicaragua over the past six years and how we partner with small artisan groups to help them build capacity and find markets for their products. They listened with great interest as Jairo went on to explain about our a small grant program as well as our no-interest micro loan program for our artisan partners. “No-interest?”, Maricella asked. “Yes”, Jairo explained. “This is a way we can help our artisans to be able to purchase new equipment or upgrade their current equipment.” “Wow.” Maricella exclaimed. “We needed two new Dremel drills last year and had to take out them out on credit.” “How much is the interest?” I asked. “22%”, she said. I thought that maybe I heard incorrectly so I asked Jairo in English. “22%?” That sounded like credit card rates to me but Jairo confirmed that it was true.
While looking through the jewelry, I find many pieces that I think about be a great fit for our new store, “Flatboat Fair Traders.” I slowly form piles while asking about pricing. I explain that I have a store where I sell our products but also offer some of the lines at wholesale for stores around the US. Jairo starts to talk to them about how we help artisans conduct cost analysis sessions around their products to see if any of them have the margins for wholesaling in the States. I ask them if they would like to work with Jairo to help understand their costs and the margins that we work with for exporting wholesale. They quickly answered, “Yes”. We were tight on time since we still needed to visit another artisan group so I proposed that in the next few weeks, Jairo could coordinate with them and come out for a few hours. I asked Maricella to start tallying up my piles of jewelry. I could see her delight while she counted out the earrings and bracelets. “This was an unexpected wonderful sale and connection!” she exclaimed. Jairo and her exchanged contact information. Maricella counted the money and then handed it over to her colleague since she is the 4 person cooperative’s treasurer. Like any truly good leader, Maricella understands the power of sharing responsibility for a business to be successful. I couldn’t help but thinking that I would want Maricella in my barrio if another natural disaster strikes.
As we approached the port of San Carlos, Jairo turns to me. “I think we should buy some plastic just in case it’s raining while we are on the boat”. We were traveling with lots of cargo: Two large cardboard boxes filled with school supplies, one feed-sack holding 35 backpacks, five flattened cardboard boxes for Don Antonio to pack future orders of balsa ornaments as well as a large LLBean rolling duffel with my personal affects and gifts. I’m glad that Jairo is able to anticipate future needs especially since it would be sad to arrive at the island with soggy notebooks for the school children. He pulls the car to one side of the road and dashes into a small dark shop. Within two minutes, he returns with the plastic neatly folded into it’s own plastic bag.
The boat ride is uneventful. The sun shyly peeks out from the clouded sky. 45 minutes, I think to myself. That is all that we need for the rain to hold off. There are only six passengers on the boat this trip which fortunately leaves room for our excessive cargo. Don Silvio, the boat captain, easily makes the journey while the fresh tourists whip out their cameras to capture the beauty of the islands. We pull into the port, dry notebooks and all.
It’s one week later, we are preparing to depart and it’s pouring rain. It’s been raining since 5:30am. The boat is due to leave at 9:00am. We pack 1400 pieces of balsa ornaments into two large plastic bags. I use two other white garbage bags to store the entire contents of my LLBean duffel and then zip it closed. Arlen and Irena assist us in hauling everything to the boat. Jairo looks at the folded black plastic and decides to bring it even though everything we are carrying is already wrapped in plastic. We are the last to board the small boat which puts us in the front row. Six passengers are behind us. As Don Silvio starts the engine, I quickly realize what is about to happen when one is riding in an open air boat at high speed in the rain. The passengers in the front row become the windshield! We are being pelleted with stinging raindrops while Jairo struggles to pull the two yards of black plastic from his backpack. We drape ourselves and hunch over behind the shield of water repellant material. I look at Jairo and joke about the fact that since we awoke to no water at the hotel, neither of us were able to shower. I guess we could count this as a fine replacement for bathing.
One of the biggest benefits of working on this underdeveloped island, is the food. Not only is everything so fresh, Arlen and her sister Irena were taught to cook by the owner of the small, rustic hotel who is a chef from Spain. I have never met Dona Carmen, the hotel owner, but I would love to know the name of her restaurant if I ever travel to Spain. Every evening, we are treated to another amazing gourmet meal for $8.00 (in comparison to the $15/night we pay for our room it is a little pricey but worth every penny). This morning Harold, one of our artisan partners, arrives at the hotel with two huge Guapote for sale, freshly caught. I start salivating thinking about tonight’s dinner. I ask Harold if I could take a picture of him with his catch. He laughs at the idea of posing with the fish but I obliges me when I tell him that my friends will be impressed by his fishing skills.
That night, Jairo comments to me that the smells coming out of the kitchen reminds him of a restaurant he once passed while walking in New York City. I concur even though I don’t think I ever smelled something so delicious anywhere before. After a bit of time, Arlen emerges with a beautiful presentation of cooked Guapote. Hilary, Arlen’s seven year old daughter, joins Jairo and me at the dinner table. We both stare hungrily while Jairo skillfully removes the spine from the fish. As Jairo goes about serving us, Hilary said, “I want the eyeballs, please”. Jairo scoops them out and Hilary pops them into her mouth with pleasure. I try to picture any chid I know in the States asking for fish eyes for dinner. It would seem to be more of a dare or punishment, but Hilary is pleased that she has just eaten the best part of the Guapote. I will remember this next time I stare at a children’s menu in the States with only chicken nuggets or pizza and think, “Hilary would prefer a bowl of fresh fish eyes”.
Lesson learned over dinner: How to remove an insect that has crawled into your ear while sleeping.
Step 1: Remain calm. Don’t panic.
Step 2: Look for a good strong flashlight.
Step 3: Hold flashlight close to ear canal and turn on.
Step 4: Have patience and wait for insect to follow the light and walk out of your ear canal.
According to Jairo (who has tried this technique several times) all insects will instinctively follow the light.
6:32am and it is raining. I hear the steady drops as they fall onto the tin roof. Today is Friday and I am thinking about the artisans from Mancaronsito who are supposed to be coming to turn in their samples and receive their next month’s order. I am thinking how much time 15km in a row boat really takes. The calculation is more like something I’d see in my daughter’s math homework: Alba Luz lives on Mancarronsito. She needs to travel to the big island of Mancarron. How long would it take Alba Luz to row 15km in a small wooden rowboat? Would there be variables depending on how many passengers are in the boat? How calm the water is? If there is someone to switch off so she wouldn’t have to take a break to rest? And how about the rain? Rowing 15km in any intensity of rain might not slow someone down but it can’t be too enjoyable. I am hoping that the rain ceases soon and the waters are calm so that Alba Luz, Dona Natayla and the other artisans have a safe and peaceful journey today.
Remedies for diarrhea on Isla Solentiname, given to me and consumed in this order over the course of one day:
One Anti-Diarrhea tablet guaranteed to stop the problem immediately
One hot chamomile tea to soothe the stomach
One tall glass of fresh coconut water to kill the bacteria poured by Don Antonio after he cut open the coconut with his machete
Another cup of hot chamomile tea to reinforce the stomach soothing
One medium glass of coca cola with a pinch of salt to destroy any remaining remaining bacteria
Two tall glasses of rice water (literally water that rice was boiled in minus the rice)
The next morning, the problem persists.
There is the smell as I disembark from the plane in the Managua airport that immediately welcomes me back to Nicaragua. It’s the combination of a certain clean agent, humid air and thick wood fire. My nose seems to find it everywhere. The supermarket, Duilio’s house and even the hotel room. As strange as it sounds, somehow those three distinct odors mix in a way that makes me feel like I am back amongst friends.
Fourteen days will pass quickly with meetings, coffees and visiting our artisan partners so we got to work immediately. Yesterday Jairo (my in-country coordinator) and I spent the majority of the day talking over product ideas and pricing with a new recycled aluminum workshop that is able to cast smaller pieces. It’s another small family workshop and the husband was kind enough to give us a quick tour. After working on this product line for over 5 years with our other artisan partners, Pewter 21, I am quite familiar with the process. I have to admit though, this explanation was more like a Mr. Roger’s “How things are made” live video. We were given a full demonstration of the work that goes into making one of these pieces: Tamping molds, shoveling humid black sand and finally closing the mold. This is all before the pouring and polishing. What I enjoyed most was the pride that I saw as the owner described to us how he has been working in this casting process for over 20 years. I told him that my brother was a caster as well but in bronze. His eyes lit up and he left the room to return with a bronze duck statue to show me. He commented admiringly about the fact that my brother worked with a more delicate metal.
In the majority of the families that we work with, the wives are the ones who manage the accounting, completion of orders and pricing. This workshop was no different. After the demo, we were passed from the casting room to the front of the house where we sat with the wife for over a hour discussing pricing and designs were were interested in.
In the end, I decided to ask them if they would be able to cast a new request from my brother: 3 different shoe horns with bird heads for a new art exposition. Again, I loved the husband’s enthusiasm as he looked over the shoe horns. He agreed to try them out and felt confident that he could reproduce them. We told him that we will return in a week after our journey to the island.
It was already 1:00pm by the time we regrouped and drove to another contact that Jairo had met in the last few months. This time it was a Nicaraguan woman who used to be a nun with the Sisters of Charity. She moved to Managua from the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua about five years ago. She tells the story how one day we was walking about 30 minutes away from her home and encountered a barrio that was made up of mostly single mothers who were caring for children with disabilities. Since that day, she has made it her mission to partner with these women to try and find ways to bring food and income into the households. We were standing on the front porch of her house looking through different items that she has taught the women to produce. As I carefully sorted through all of the little plastic bags, Illana began talking about the women. She then suddenly she looked at us and said, “Do you want to go? Come on let’s go. I’ll take you there so that you can meet these women.” How could we say no. We all climbed into the car and Illana started talking about how there was no water in the barrio, only once a week the government sends 2 “pipas” of water to the barrio. Then she explained that really you could only collect that water if you have a jug or something to collect it with. She kept scrolling through photos on her phone showing me the children and pointed out how dirty they were because there was no water for them to clean themselves. She went on to tell us how she started by building a little “Comidor” with a kitchen out of wooden pallets so that 40 children in the barrio could have food three times a week. After the first few sessions, more and more children were showing up at the door, then elderly folks, then pregnant women who were malnourished. The kitchen now is servicing 130 people and she is looking for anyone else who wants to help provide food so they are able to eat everyday. She said that when there is not any food in the homes, the mothers give the children a spoonful of sugar water. As we pulled off the main road and started up the rough dirt path, I thought about how much food waste we have in the States. I thought about the reality of having to tell your child there was no food to eat. On my first few trips to Nicaragua, I would break down in tears, wondering how such extremes exist in the world. After working here for almost six years though, I find myself looking for solutions instead of having just a gut emotional reaction to the reality of life.
We arrived at the barrio which looked like a desert. Very dry packed dirt roads with no plant growth. Two children were playing with a flattened cardboard box, pulling each other around, laughing. Illana introduced us to Marta, a resident, who coordinates the cooking and distribution of the food.
They searched around for the key to the pallet structure so that we could see inside. The small one room had a few crudely constructed wooden tables placed around and the light streamed in through the wooden pallet slats. We talked a little more to Marta who shared how they hope for the future to be able to cover the walls so that in the rainy season the room can stay dry.
Illana talked more about how she was working on training the women in jewelry-making and simple sewing with two treadle sewing machines that she donated. On the car ride back to her house, I started giving her a quick lesson on markets and the idea of looking first looking for a market and then creating product to fit that demand. I admire the idea that Illana is looking for a way to help these women become self-sustainable and not create a cycle of dependency for them. It’s a process though. This is one of those instances of where you have to meet the basic needs and stabilize these women and their families and then take the next step forward. We dropped Illana back her house with a promise to brainstorm product ideas and look for folks who were interested in contributing to the food kitchen.
It was now 3:00pm and we hadn’t eaten since 8am, my head was pounding but there was a part of me that kept thinking about this position of privilege. The idea that we could leave that barrio and decide we would go and buy something to eat to satisfy our hunger so easily. I wrestle with this idea most days. Not about eating but more about privilege and how if one could choose, no one would choose to be born into a barrio with no water, no food and no opportunity.