Sunday, May 20, 2012

Encountering and Forging Networks, The Enjoyable Challenges of Being Vegan and other Precious Things in Life!

It has been a while since my last blog post, much has been going on! My role at work is now more defined; I am researching and designing a five year integrated watershed management program! Lots of work for an intern but it is an invaluable lesson that will serve me for the rest of my career.  One of the most challenging aspects of my job has been trying to envision and grasp the notion of a watershed. About two weeks ago I headed out to the watershed territory we will be working, El Zapote. The day was spent drawing maps in the sand and stopping in the middle of dirt country roads to observe and analyze the watershed’s ridgelines, basins and sub basins. Once developing a grasp on the definition of a watershed and its function, the next step is to understand the activities implemented in the territory. Depending on its inhabitant’s knowledge, beliefs and actions, a watershed can be managed very well or very poorly. A watershed program can focus on such activities as reforestation, environmental conservation and preservation, sustainable and organic agriculture, hygiene and sanitation workshops, and the construction of ecological latrines. At the end of the day, water is the main resource and the main focus. Water as I knew before and value ever more now, is precious. 

 In my daily life, I am sinking into certain comfortable routines and learning to be creative in many aspects of my living situation. As some of you know, I am a vegan as of the beginning of this year. Coming from Toronto, the city in North America with the most vegan options, both restaurants and stores, I was quite concerned as to how I would manage this lifestyle here in Nicaragua. In the first month or so, I faced challenges. I didn’t appear to have the numerous options of soy products and nut milk, or even the wide variety of protein substitutes.  I was also faced with criticisms from some Nicaraguan friends and family, I had not seen in nine months. These criticisms were on one side, hurtful and shocking, but also predictable and understandable. I had changed, and change, as they say is never easy to accept. Criticisms sometimes came in the form of questions: “Are you well, Clare? You look awfully thin,” (a curvier body is definitely of higher value here) or in the form of direct statements “It is not good for you to eat this way, no dairy, no eggs, no meat!” I have received this kind of criticism before, even in Canada.   Not only am I used to them, but I understand where comments such as these come from; fear. The vegan lifestyle is a new concept for many who do not understand it or its benefits.  Many people, for reasons of culture and upbringing, do not know a life without consuming animal products.  I however, find I am happier and am more creative in cooking and preparing my food and I enjoy my meals more than ever before!

Although Whole Foods is not a mere subway ride away, I do have Matagalpa’s largest market around the corner from my apartment. Here I can find three different varieties of beans, rice, delicious root vegetables to make soups and steamed sides, 2-3 different varieties of plantains, and a wide variety of tropical fruits, among many things. With some of this produce I have been able to cook up some delicious but simple recipes. The other day, I whipped up a deliciously warm red kidney bean soup with onions, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. As a side, I steamed a handful of local root vegetables, namely chaya and pipian (could compare their tastes to artichoke and their texture to squash.) I topped it with some rice that I sautéed in the leftover herbs and garlic and as dessert I prepared a watermelon and cucumber smoothie. The smoothie didn’t require any sugar or yogurt; it was sweet and refreshing without. Next time, however, I will add a dash of mint to perfect it. It would also make a mean cocktail…just toss in a shot of vodka and voilà!
A lovely Thursday afternoon lunch with the first expats I have met in Matagalpa, Lynn and Richard proved to be very fruitful! They told me about a smaller organic market where prices are fairer (some may say higher, I say fairer) and has a few more produce items I might not be able to find in the main market such as organic honey. They also directed me to an NGO that helps children with disabilities but which is also a general store that recycles plastic bottles (there is not yet much of a recycling collection system instituted in Nicaragua, so this was very exciting news to me!) They also told me about a little panaderia (bakery) where a lovely lady with the help of her young daughter bake a mean loaf of whole wheat bread that Lynn claims she  cannot get enough of! Beyond giving me shopping and food advice, the couple are going to introduce me to their network of locals and expats they have met along the way.

I love discoveries like these. We tend to take the purest and seemingly smallest things in our lives for granted…recycling, whole wheat bread, easily accessible organic produce and it is these things that I come to appreciate so fully when abroad.  
Beyond the challenges I have faced with my diet, the isolation has been difficult as well; mainly the inability to go outside at night in a neighbourhood that has a reputation for being slightly on the rougher side. I have gotten to know a few co-workers, but there has not been the opportunity to go out and see the town from a local’s perspective.  I decided to be proactive and seek out whatever network I could find, which is how I met Lynn and Richard.

 I had joined an expat bilingual listserve called Casa Ben Linder just before coming to Nicaragua. This network of around 600 expats living, volunteering, interning and working in Nicaragua is fantastic! Practically for whatever piece of information you are seeking you will receive a handful of helpful replies. For instance, I have been on the hunt for mushrooms in Nicaragua…I have only encountered the canned ones which I don’t find most appetizing! I had about six replies all sending me to different  niche organic stores, restaurants and supermarkets that might have what I was looking for. One of the expats who messaged me directed me to an eco-lodge, cloud forest and coffee farm on the edge of town that I had fallen in love with a few weeks back. It turns out they grow their own oyster mushrooms out of plastic bags that hang off of the wall!! All the more reason to go back!

Casa Ben Linder is also the name of a community center in Managua named after Benjamin Linder, a mechanical engineer only in his twenties, who was inspired by the Sandinista Revolution of 1979, and moved to Nicaragua during the height of the Contra War. In 1986, Linder moved to La Cuá, a village in a Nicaragua war zone. There he helped build a team to construct a hydroelectric plant to bring electricity to the town. He was also quite well known as an animated character that had many talents including unicycling and juggling. Sadly, in April of 1987, Linder and two other Nicaraguans were assassinated in a Contra ambush while working on a new dam site in a nearby village. Linder was the only US citizen to be killed in the Contra War.  Among many memorials all over the country, Linder’s legacy lives on in the Nicaraguan and expat community through the community center and its list serve.

Although I had a general understanding of gender roles in Nicaragua from living here last year, I had the opportunity to discuss with my co-workers and the community I am working in, some of the traditional roles here in Matagalpa. In the countryside, girls normally stay home and help their mothers to maintain the household (cooking, cleaning, carrying water and firewood) and boys will go out and work on in the field with their fathers. If the family owns a small piece of land, women also have to make time to manage a small plot of vegetables or beans while their husbands migrate as far as Costa Rica and Guatemala to work on a farm.

When Anides started working in Pueblo Viejo, almost as many men as women would come to the workshops aimed at improving women’s ability to manage their own resources, i.e. financial and agricultural. Men wouldn’t participate, but sit on the edge of the group, listening and observing. Now half the men come and women are the main participants. As Anides works to slowly improve women’s self-esteem and ability to manage their own financial situation, the organization has noticed an increased level of confidence and assurance in women and their abilities. Slowly, women are discovering that they want to expand their role from working in the home.  Some men, however, are threatened by this confidence and domestic violence ensues. The male leaders in the community continue to show up at trainings and speak up more than women. Women tend to be intimated by the men’s outspoken behaviour and in turn, are not as verbal. I asked my co-workers why not provide the same isolated training to men as to women, and was left with the answer: because it is simply not in the culture to do so.  Laws are now being created that favour women and leave men with nothing. For example, in the case of divorce, women are given more benefits and men are left without any assets. Although many women might say that advances have been made, it appears as though they are moving in one sole direction. We must ask ourselves then, what is feminism’s ultimate goal? 

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