it’s a little bit tricky to find the right words for our experience in miraflor. it is one that I think changed me in a profound way that I haven’t yet been able to fully process. but, let me start with trying to paint a bit of a picture of the place. UCA Miraflor is the parent organization of 16 small cooperatives. the entire area is officially a protected nature reserve and all the crops, coffee, etc. grown there must be organic. there are separate communities scattered all over the reserve and the deeper into it you go the higher the elevation climbs. eight of the communities participate in the culture exchange, three of which we visited. things that you are not likely to see in miraflor: running water, electricity (unless it’s solar powered), cars, two story houses, paved roads. things that are common in miraflor: horses, horse poop, cows, cow poop, dogs, gardens, farms, solar power, steep, rocky gravel roads, wells for community members to collect their water, sandinistas (more on that later), coffee, hardworking, generous people who have seen a lot for one lifetime.
miraflor is shadowed by a pretty devastating past, as it was one of the battle grounds in the war between the sandinistas and the contras (which started in the early 70s and continued for over a decade). many of the families we visited are sandinista. they have socialist ideals and seemed to lose a lot in the war that our government interfered so heavily in. pretty much every person we talked to in miraflor had lost a family member (or multiples), seen friends die, and the men over 40 had horrific battle stories for us from their memory of that time. it seems like it was a pretty bleak time for nicaragua. but, i don’t want to come across as being a history expert. i read a little of the history of the conflict and have many personal accounts from folks who lived those years of conflict, but that is all I have. so, that’s the story I’ll tell here.
from the first few hours into our first day, we were on an adventure. we left our hotel at 5am, still pitch black outside, and found a taxi driver who seemed to still be asleep as well. he took us to the bus stop that we were told to wait at. there were a hand full of people waiting there, so we asked to make sure we were in the right place and then we waited. our old US-hand-me-down yellow school bus arrived soon after. and, we hopped aboard. it was already full of people headed up to miraflor for the work day or headed home from a weekend night of partying in the city. we luckily found a seat, which barely fit the two of us, and watched as the local folks interacted, passed bottles of liquor around (mostly the older men) to ward off a monday hangover, or chatted with the conductor as he took everyone’s money. when he got to us, we gave him our fare and told him where we were supposed to get off. all we had was the name of our first community, but he seemed pretty confident that he would know when we should exit. so, we were content enough to get jostled around on the rocky, curving roads and watch the scene on the bus. at one very unassuming stop to let a passenger off, he motioned for us and we exited the bus. a young teenage girl was waiting there for us and her house was our first family of the three day visit. we were practically in her driveway, so we walked the few few feet to her house and met her mother and younger sister. they had what was called a ‘luxurious’ house by miraflor standards, which was concrete, electrified and had plumbing for an indoor toilet. it was still a very open house, with just a few rooms and a little gazebo where they told us to sit and wait for breakfast.
bob relaxing in the family gazebo
we awkwardly waited not really sure what to do and still feeling pretty sleepy. but, soon enough we were ushered into the little dining area next to the gazebo for a huge, filling breakfast complete with a thermos of strong coffee. we wondered what we were supposed to do next and wanted to help with the morning chores, but the older daughter told us we could help later that day. so, we sat for a minute not sure what would happen next and our first guide showed up. he chatted with the family and had some coffee and then shortly afterward we were off. we walked all over the community of coyolito with him that morning. we headed through some cattle farms to a beautiful overlook of the valley, walked down to his own farm to meet his family and hear him play guitar. he played mostly songs written during the war, which he fought in and watched most of his friends die in. but, he wasn’t overly jaded. he had a deep love of music and of nicaragua. it was obvious. after he and bob swapped a few songs we headed out again for a cascade. it was a long walk to the cascade. we passed through many other farms and when we were finally there we all enjoyed the freezing cold pool of water.
the view from the miradora in coyolito
our first swimming hole in mirflor
when we got back to the house we were exhausted from so little sleep and a long morning of intense hiking. so, we excused ourselves for an afternoon siesta and when we emerged, were hoping to help with some things around the house. there ended up not being too many things to do at this family’s house, so i helped reyna, the mom, feed their two rabbits on greens from the garden and we got to know each other a little better. we realized that reyna was just a bit shy, and she seemed to really want to talk but just needed a little coaxing. she wouldn’t let us help in the kitchen, but when she sat our dinner out we asked her to join us and ended up having a great evening talking about her family, her daughters, and a little bit of local history. we all went to bed pretty early, though, because we would be getting up to catch the same bus further on up into the reserve the next morning. and she (along with the rest of miraflor) got up at the crack of dawn every day.
one of the bunnies
the sunset at reyna’s house
so, we were up early again ready to head out for the bus. we knew we wouldn’t eat breakfast until we got to our next family’s house a few hours away. but, reyna wouldn’t let us leave until we had some of her strong coffee. she actually almost made us miss the bus. but, we were concerned about it enough that we downed half a cup and ran out to the road just before it came along. so, we were back on the bus with the name of another destination. this time we got to witness just how fast a bus tire can be changed in the middle of the mountains and full of people. the old one had apparently gone flat (we actually heard the air seeping out of it after a hard patch of rocks, and the guy who took the money, plus a few locals, jumped off and in less than 15 minutes had pulled the other (slightly less used one) off the roof of the bus, changed it and were back and had us moving again. it was an impressive job.
so we were motioned off the bus again, this time in an even more random spot and our guide for the morning was waiting for us there. this guy was much younger than the last, 23 to be exact. and, he was a little quieter in the beginning than our first guide who talked extremely fast and without much of a pause. so, we slowly made our way up some very rocky, very steep roads/paths between farms and slowly got to know darvin. he had quite a lot to say about the state of his family’s health, his siblings and where they all were living, his love of baseball, and his attempts to leave miraflor (once for the US, which was brutally unsuccessful and another time for an extended volunteer experience in costa rica). but, he seemed to really love his family and felt a duty to help take care of his father who was in very poor health.
after about two hours of hiking (mostly uphill) with darvin, we arrived at our next family’s home. it was much more rustic, but beautifully nestled onto the side of a hill with plants growing all around it to add to the privacy and two old hammocks under the front porch, which were perfect for catching little breaks throughout the day. this family was very different from the first. the mother, mefalia, was a teacher at the local school for the 6 and 7 year old class, the father, marvin, was the president of one of the local cooperatives, and was a super busy man. their youngest son, wilder, and his two cousins were left at home during the day to do chores and look after the house. so, when we arrived we felt that we might have caught them off guard. they didn’t seem to be expecting us just yet. and, it was easy to see that things can get confusing when they didn’t have a phone to confirm specific details of our stay. so, we contented ourselves with lounging in the hammocks while the boys ran around and got things ready for us. wilder, the 18 year old, cooked us a lovely breakfast of gallo pinto (beans and rice) fried plantains, and scrambled eggs. i was impressed. soon after we ate, mefalia came home, as her young kids only went to school until 11am. so, we chatted with her and got to know the boys a little better.
wilder would be our guide for the remainder of that day and the next. so, he took us to the local coffee cooperative and gave us a tour. it wasn’t harvesting season, so it looked pretty abandoned, but was neat to see where they processed their organic coffee. i’ve been buying organic coffee for years, but it was a profound experience to get to see the exact process and how much extra work it takes to make the product completely organic. and from the difference in the way it affects the folks who work directly with the coffee, i’m pretty positive I will be buying only organic for the rest of my life.
later that afternoon we went to the local well with mefalia and her tiny nephew, freider. he was nine, but looked more like a six year old from the US. anyway, we had a fun time filling big plastic jugs with freider. he made a sport out of turning the wheel that pumped the well. we all carried two jugs apiece and they were super heavy after being filled. after that i helped mefalia in the kitchen while bob joined a game of soccer that the boys in the house had started up. i learned how to wash dishes the way they do it with just a tiny bowl of water so that not much is wasted. and, I helped cut vegetables for dinner. but, before we ate we were in for a major treat. wilder and his cousin, Jason, took us to a lookout to see the sunset. we didn’t have much of an expectation, but once we arrived we were blown away first by how high up we were from esteli, which was visible way down below in the valley and second by how incredibly beautiful the view was. it may be the most impressive sunset i’ve ever witnessed, and that’s largely in part because of the scene that was before us, not the sun itself. it was enchanting, to say the least.
so, we headed back to the house to eat dinner with marvin, who was finally done with his day. he was a stern, but congenial man, who liked to talk. so, we had a great time at dinner and he discussed his work with the cooperative, the importance of what his community is trying to do and preserve, and the most important part… he stressed how important it was that we tell our family and friends back home about our experiences there. it was clear to him that what we had seen and experienced with his family was making an impression on us, but he (and I think many folks who’ve lived lives similar to his) knows what he’s up against when he invites two americans into his home. the US was not a friend to the sandinistas in their years of war. they (we) actually went out of our way politically to thwart any socialist efforts that were emerging in nicaragua and we did it in a way that cost many of the people whose homes we were sharing their brothers, friends, and parents. marvin didn’t tell us, but the next day his son wilder let us know that his father lost both of his brothers in the war. and, they were fighting for different sides. marvin and mefalia are a proud sandinista family. they work for what they believe is right and it was a beautiful thing to witness a snapshot of their daily life.
whew, ok. that’s a lot for one post. more on our last two days in miraflor to come…