A dollar’s worth
The sun was strong and hot Friday morning, as the five of us from the hostel walked 20 minutes north to the Texaco station to catch the chicken bus to Miraflor.
I was uncomfortable and pissed that I brought the leather shoes. They’re like sweat boxes, and they give me blisters. I have no reason to complain, but I was.
We made it to the string of run down shops where the bus would pick us up. I took off my shoes and watched the line of shade shrink as it made its way closer to our sweaty faces. Around us were eight or nine men, women and adolescent boys selling everything from garlic to sunglasses; frozen juices to chips and chili sauce. They would approach us one by one, and we’d wave them off. “No gracias,” we’d mumble in unison, waving index fingers. But they kept trying anyways.
The bus arrived, and it was a 1970s yellow American Bluebird school bus. The overhead compartments and the roof were filled with supplies that the locals purchased in Estelí, before heading back to their farms. There were just enough seats for the five of us, and the seat Hannah and I got was right above the back tire. Hannah’s knees were at her chest, and I held myself up with the adjacent seat. The driver stepped out for a moment, and he was replaced by a flock of peddlers. They walked up and down the aisle, and only a few made a handful of cordobas. The frozen juices were the most popular, followed by the chips and surprisingly the garlic.
When the driver sat back down in his seat, the merchants left — leaving a couple locals without seats standing in the aisle, holding tight to the bars attached to the ceiling. Holding tight would be key. The bus moved at a jogging pace, weaving around countless potholes. We jolted around curves — up and down the hills, as the bus’ engine roared and breaks screeched.
A man my age collected 15 cordobas (roughly 75 cents) from everyone, dodging obstacles and people. I think we paid a total of $25 for the two days at La Labranza, the Ruiz-Alaniz homestay in Miraflor, where we got a warm bed, three of beautiful meals and tours of their farm and surrounding areas.
The whole trip began with a discussion about Occupy Wall Street with “a boy named Su” (Sumedh Patkar) from Mumbai, India. We talked politics and differences between political systems and culture of America and India. This motif continued throughout our stay in Miraflor from personal accounts (but no opinions) of the Revolution and Contra War, and how the Nicas fought for their land that has been taken and redistributed over the past decades.
Su accompanied Hannah and I, along with Kayla and Scott, two Americans we met at the hostel. The bus ride was a little over an hour, and we were met on the road by Maria Celeste, one of the daughters of Orlando and Deyenira Ruiz-Alaniz. It was another long walk up their drive, and we passed a couple other farms in the communidad. We were greeted with curious looks and Celeste was even mockingly called a gringa because she was with us.
There are a handful of farms in Miraflor that have tourism relationships with Hostel Luna, and in the guidebook, it told us to not give monetary gifts to the family we are staying with, because they are already envied by their neighbors for their economic stature. You could tell that the Ruiz-Alaniz home was well kept. Celeste and her twin Maria José never stopped chores, except when Celeste would help Orlando lead tours and sing.
Climate and political change
We found ourselves laying in hammocks and lawn chairs, when Orlando came by and told us in Spanish (translated by Hannah and Kayla) about the farm and the recent history of the communidad. His voice was slow, soft and sincere. His eyes looked older than his face has weathered. He’s worked this farm his whole life and fought battles in his backyard. It used to be a small cooperative that split funds between the families, but throughout the political turmoil, they have since broken up into families, remaining friends and neighbors, but independent economically.
He said that in the past few years the government, with the help of neighboring Latin American countries, have tied production to the dollar to help avoid price change and inflation. It was an initiative to help the small farmer. He also talked about coffee, and he repeated what Mario Torres Torres said that last year was one of the strongest winters, raining early with up to 12 days straight of heavy precipitation.
Coffee produces every other year. On off years, when the coffee crop is low, it’s kept for personal use. A coffee plant lasts only seven years if it’s not cared for, such as when mega-farms sun grow their coffee every year (it’s traditionally shade grown every other year). The longer you have the plant the better, because it’s tough to start from scratch.
Deyenira came by to steal Orlando and gave us all cups of coffee and asked us if we wanted sugar. We all said no to sugar, but it still tasted sweet and a bit fruity — the best cup I’ve ever had. It was home dried and roasted, and later we found out that they dry their personal beans within the coffee berry, taking a month and a half to dry, which gave it the natural sweetness. It’s the coffee of their ancestors they said. The only reason we have the bitter drink at home is due to market demands. It only takes two days to dry outside the fruit.
We transitioned in conversation from coffee and Orlando to revolution and Deyenira’s father. He’s witnessed every change to Miraflor from Somoza, the Contras to the climate changes. Near the end of his tale, I had one final question. “Why do you feel it’s important to stay at the farm?” (The guerilla war was literally fought on the hillside.) His answer was su tierra, his land, was all he had.
I even spoke a phrase of Spanish to him. “Gracias para su palabras.” He gave me a smile.
As night fell, dinner was served. A beautiful meal of tortillas, home-made cheese, salsa, painted rooster and a tofu taco — lit by two candles. Only Orlando accompanied us. Deyenira and the daughters ate in the kitchen. After our plates were empty, Orlando picked up his guitar and sang with his daughter Celeste about Miraflor, Estelí and Nicaraguan love songs.
Their home is made to host three tourists, therefore our five made Celeste and her sister move to her grandparents for the evening.
Tours and a couple dollars
After breakfast, Celeste and Orlando took us to the hillside that was a major battlefield for the Contra War. Orlando joined the military when he was 16 in 1979. The law requires you to be 17, but his farm was on the line. It was 15 cordobas to walk on his neighbor’s property just to get a view, and when we concluded the tour of their farm and coffee crop, we packed up our backpacks said our goodbyes and followed Orlando an hour down the hill to see a waterfall.
Again we had to pay a neighbor. This time it was 23 cordobas. The hike down was steep. I had to spot for another tourist who arrived that morning from Manhattan, as she struggled down the climb. I guess there’s not a lot of hiking and cow dung in NYC.
It was only day five, but I continuously wondered why I was able to ignore the wide-range of wealth distribution in Nicaragua. The buildings, whether on a farm or in Estelí, are shacks. Places one would rarely see in the States. The people go to such lengths to make ends meet, working multiple jobs and tasks for only a few American cents. We need vacation to escape from work — to be sane. They use our vacation for their livelihood. They must work. There’s no time for vacation.
We stopped at the base of the second waterfall, and I sat on a rock, while Kayla and Celeste
swam in the pond. I stared at the water for awhile — nothing going through my mind, until I looked back at Orlando. He lied down on a flat rock and rubbed his hands against his face. He looked beat and exhausted.
He not only worries for his daughters and sons, but his 11 brothers and sisters, his coffee, tomatoes and fruit, and now us too. 10 jobs in one, and we can’t even stand one.
They don’t have time to think about politics, economics and social equality. They just withstand it, as the Somozas took their land, and the Sardanistas gave it back, and the Contras tried to reclaim it.
15 cords for a bus ticket.
15 cords for a view.
23 cords for two waterfalls
20 dollars for three meals, a bed and the opportunity to meet amazing, resilient people.
They know the value of the dollar. We just spend them.