This banana palm is part of the self-sustaining permaculture system at Vicente Padilla's organic coffee farm.

This banana palm is part of the self-sustaining permaculture system at Vicente Padilla’s organic coffee farm.

Kasia summed up today best during our reflection time during dinner.

“I loved today. It was wonderful,” she said. “The owner of the farm — that small farm — was able to educate all of his children. It’s hard to believe.”

That farmer is Vicente Padilla, who has operated an organic, permaculture coffee farm for the last 20 years. Padilla has one son who is preparing to graduate medical school, another who works as an attorney, another working with a non-governmental organization, another studying to be an agronomist and a 14-year-old daughter who performed a traditional dance for the group.

Padilla took about 30 minutes to explain his family’s history on their land, too. During the Somoza regime, the land of indigenous Nicaraguans was taken and given to more powerful people. After the triumph in 1979, the process was begun to return land to its original inhabitants. At that time, the land owners who were being displaced were compensated. But, that didn’t stop the man who had owned land where Vicente and his family had purchased their land (about three acres total) from trying to intimidate them into leaving.

It got so far that armed military surrounded his house because they were told (by that wealthy man) that the Padillas were armed. He and his family, including his then young children, walked out hand-in-hand and he explained to the armed men that the family had no weapons.

“We had the truth,” he told us, as interpreted by Lucy. “We had no reason to fear.”

After we understood what the family endured to be able to have their farm at all, we got to walk through it. We saw several sloths climbing in trees, dozens of different types of fruit trees and hundreds of coffee bushes. We walked through the mud — and some of us fell — to see the permaculture farm up close.

And for some of us, it brought out our inner Kansan.

“It was a nice shift to be out in the countryside,” Wyatt said. “It smelled like good dirt. I didn’t realize how much I missed the smell of being on a farm I guess.”

We left the farm and visited a community organization in the rural community of San Ramon. Known locally as Casa del Nino, the religious-based community center provides health programs and educational opportunities for all ages. Art classes and other activities for young children and adolescents are active most of the year. Children here are on summer vacation from school so they center was fairly quiet, but we were able to talk with the director and meet the art teacher. Several in the group purchased paintings, as well.

We also had the chance to meet two women who run a recycled paper business out of the center. The women explained, demonstrated and let us try to make pieces of the paper. Their gift items are sold at the center and in two hostels in Matagalpa, including the one where we are staying.

When we returned to Matagalpa, most of us rushed to a pottery shop before dinner. Aldo said he thought it was important to bring us to the shop because of the significance of black pottery to Nicaraguans.

“It’s part of our identity,” Aldo explained. The art form, the same technique used by indigenous people in New Mexico, is passed down within families through the generations and is making a resurgence here. (This website explains some about the pottery, but is not affiliated with the shop we visited.)

Rachel, posing with a small piece of black pottery she bought today

Rachel, posing with a small piece of black pottery she bought today.

The consensus within the group is that each day has been better than the one before. Rick took some time during today’s reflection to remind everyone to think broadly about our experiences.

“Things are building and coming together,” he said. “The experiences endured by those at Ceyotepe enabled Vicente to be able to have his coffee farm. Think about those things in sequence. There’s a reason the trip is done this way.”

Tomorrow morning we leave for Esteli. We’ll spend one night in a hostel — which may or may not have Internet access — and then we head to El Limon for our family stays.

We’ll be in touch when possible.

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This image -- a Latina take on Rosie the Riveter -- is on the women's bathroom door at Casa Abya Yala collective cafe.

This image — a Latina take on Rosie the Riveter — is on the women’s bathroom door at Casa Abya Yala collective cafe.

Last night we had dinner at Casa Abya Yala, a women’s collective that opened last year. The name of the cafe means “The Americas.”

In addition to a relatively large menu, the cafe sold items made by local women including jewelry and bags. The art on the walls included a focus on literacy — the words “Leer para volar” or “read to fly” were painted above a bookshelf and books were growing like flowers in one mural. Other murals featured women as freedom fighters.

Ashonte took the time to read as much of the poetry as she could and didn’t realize that she hadn’t ordered for nearly an hour. Katy liked the lights made of recycled plastic jugs and a decorative tree with flowers made of repurposed soda bottles. A group of men sang songs in another room of the cafe and it music added to the fun and feel of the place, which distracted us from the time it took to get our food. (We are a huge group and they had a very small staff, we expected it.)

We helped make the place feel vibrant with our laughter, too. More of that is sure to flow today.

The atmosphere at Casa Abya Yala cultural cafe included murals focused on the women's role in revolution and the importance of literacy. Recycled bottles provided decoration as well.

The atmosphere at Casa Abya Yala cultural cafe included murals focused on the women’s role in revolution and the importance of literacy. Recycled bottles provided decoration as well.

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I don’t know why I am so taken with the sounds of this place. But waking up to the sounds of life being lived strikes me as so much better than an alarm clock.

This morning, a rooster near the hostel began to crow just after 5 a.m., as the sun began to sneak into the sky. Soon after I could hear people chattering, dishes clanking and what I assume to be the sounds of shops opening and people beginning their days. Just before 6:30 a.m., music and the sound of a voice in Spanish saying something about Matagalpa blared into our room. It sounded almost like a radio station promotion truck was driving down the road, but I don’t understand enough Spanish to know for sure. I was glad to be already awake. One of my roommates was startled awake but found a way to get back to sleep.

Katy and I will return to Casa Materna this morning to visit and exercise with the women staying there. I am the mother of an almost two-year-old and I am stunned at the idea of women who are 38-40 weeks pregnant walking up that hill. They know it could be time to meet their babies any minute. That walk was tough for us yesterday and most of us had no more than purses to carry. It is a testiment to the work they are used to, the physical demands of living in an economically impoverished country where everyone does what they have to.

When we get back, we will all travel to an organic coffee farm. We will meet the farmer, learn about the growing and roasting processes and, of course, try some. There’s more planned for the afternoon as well. It’s sure to be another incredible day.


Part of a mural on a wall at Casa Materna. We were all taken with the doctor holding the baby in front of the sun.

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Matagalpa is a community with a population about 20,000 fewer than Topeka. Local residents seem much more surprised to see us and the street-side shops sell daily necessities rather than tourist souvenirs.

Two guests of Casa Materna resting in the craft room with a mural of the center's founders.

Two guests of Casa Materna resting in the craft room with a mural of the center’s founders.

At Casa Materna, the 14 women currently staying there are from communities outside Matagalpa city. (Matagalpa also is the name of a district in Nicaragua.) The organization, funded primarily by donations from the United Staters, works to prevent maternal and infant mortality by providing education in many communities and the casa itself, which houses and provides health care to woman in the final weeks of pregnancy.

One woman, preparing to have her second child, lives an eight-hour bus ride away. She told us she already has been at Casa Materna for 15 days and is expecting her child in late January. Her local clinic encouraged her to come early the first time and she’s returned this time because she said she appreciated the care she received, and the rest from the toil of housework and other responsibilities.

Many of the women appreciated the rest of the Casa, and “the attention” they receive, including nutrition, regular care by a doctor, midwives and nurses. Nearly all of them had nicely painted toenails, a sign of the papering they do receive.

When a woman staying at Casa Materna goes into labor she is transferred to the local hospital to deliver the baby. Nearly all of the woman had received an ultrasound exam and 11 of the 14 knew the sex of their babies. The other three wanted to be surprised. In 2012, for example, 638 women were served at the Casa. Each of them, and their babies made it home.

Literature from Casa Materna suggests the women are experiencing high risk pregnancy. But when we spoke to them, each said they were referred because they were between 38 and 40 weeks pregnant. So, we looked into it. The CIA Factbook estimates that in 2013 the infant mortality rate in the country was 21.09 per 1,000 live births. We took that to mean every woman here has a high risk pregnancy.

We were able to ask all of our questions. Babies born as late as 29 weeks may not survive here, even if the mother is in the hospital at delivery. Most of the woman being served at Casa Materna now have some type of formal medical care in their communities. Each of them said their communities are well aware of the services provided.

Rachel said afterward she was glad to know the women were pampered and well cared for. She enjoyed the chance to hear from so many of them during our visit, too.

For Travis, the reality that problems easily addressed at home are major crisis for women here was difficult.

“These women are like my hero,” he said in a discussion afterward. “It’s crazy to think it’s 2014 and this stuff still happens.”

The Casa Materna logo, a baby held up in front of the sun with two doves flying above.

The Casa Materna logo, at the entrance to the center.

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Katy and Suzie in bunk beds.

Katy on the top bunk and Suzie on the bottom bunk in a room at our hostel in Matagalpa.

We have arrived in Matagalpa, had lunch and are getting settled into our hostel, Buena Onda (translation: “You’re cool,” or literally “the good way”).

During our quick break before visiting Casa Materna, a ProNica partner here in Matagalpa, students are napping, resting or logging on. We’ve got WiFi here so look for posts over the next two days for sure.

Wyatt’s taking a nap in a hammock in the lobby. He’s pretty passed out, but there are a bunch of us nearby.

Wyatt sleeping in hammock, face down.

Wyatt, completely passed out in a hammock at the hostel.

Our bellies are full from the six pizzas we devoured — two veggies, two margarita and two Hawaiian. The consensus was it was very similar to genuine Italian pizza, from a quality pizza shop at home.

The picky eaters (more about them in a get to know you post later) were thrilled. Some were a bit bummed that we missed out on an authentic Nicaraguan meal. But we’re all pleased with our accommodations. This is the first hostel experience for most in the group. It is comfortable sharing rooms here because we know each other now. Here, the guys are in one room and the girls are split between two rooms.

There is another group of American students at the hostel, too. They arrived yesterday from Rice University and will work in a nearby community on a water distribution system. Each of them are engineering students.

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After the intense activity of the morning we enjoyed a buffet lunch and a visit to the artisan market in Masaya. After the market we got a nice surprise.

Inside Masaya Market

Inside Masaya Market

The Masaya Market has more than 120 different booths and is known throughout Central America for its artisan wares. Shoppers were predominately tourists — very few residents of Masaya shop there — and in some cases, similar or identical items were available at multiple stands.

Some of us bargained for deals, some didn’t buy anything, but everyone seemed to enjoy the place. There were children and old women who held out their hands for money, and about a dozen children who followed us offering “gifts” of palm, in the form of a flower, a cricket or a heart, for example. They hoped for money in exchange for their “gifts.”

It was hard to say no.

Next stop: Catarina. This community had more souvenirs and an AMAZING VIEW. But when we arrived it was raining and we couldn’t see a thing.

Several of us opted to sit and have a coffee at a restaurant, while others browsed in shops and tried again to catch a glimpse of the view.

It worked. We waited long enough to see Laguna de Apoyo, where we swam Jan. 2, the colonial city of Granada, where we will visit next week, and the huge Lake Nicaragua. It was truly stunning.

Our surprise view of Laguna de Apoyo and Lake Nicaragua.

The view of Laguna de Apoyo and beyond it, Lake Nicaragua.

The bus ride back to Quaker House — a little more than 40 minutes total — turned into an impromptu nap time for about half of the group.

The backs of heads of napping travelers.

Nap time after a full day.

After dinner today it was time to pack and prepare to leave Quaker House for the community of Matagalpa, then Esteli, El Limon and Granada.

I’m uncertain about when we will again have a reliable Internet connection but rest assured, posts will appear as often as possible.

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The Nindiri Volcano and protective rock wall.

The Nindiri Volcano and protective rock wall, with the Bobadilla Cross on the right.

We arrived at the Masaya Volcano National Park filled with anticipation. What will it be like to look into a crater? (And, in Jenna’s case: What happens if it erupts?)

The visitors’ center explained how volcanos are formed, the spiritual significance of the place through the years and to different faiths and taught us about the animal and plant life in the area.

In 1529 the Catholic Friar Francisco de Bobidilla ordered that a cross be placed on the crater. It was considered then, “the mouth of hell.” Today, the cross that overlooks all three craters, is a replica. We were unable to climb stairs up to it because of rock slides and other activity in the last year. Eventually, it is expected that the hill will collapse.

It is said that centuries ago, local indigenous communities made sacrifices into the crater. And there is a theory that Somoza’s regime dumped the bodies of “the disappeared” into the crater as well.

Lately, the Nindiri crater has been letting go of a lot of sulfur gas. We were advised to stand at that crater for no more than five minutes. Although we couldn’t smell sulfur and no one experienced skin or eye irritation, we heeded the warning.

Our guide Aldo, who is from the community of Esteli, has seen from the road at night lava emitting light from the volcano, but we saw no lava today. Most of our time was spent enjoying the view — and contemplating the destruction that occurred before the San Fernando crater valley was a valley at all.

The group, looking toward the valley in a former crater.

The group overlooking the old crater at Masaya Volcano.

The crater valley

The San Fernando Crater valley is one of the three craters of Masaya volcano.

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Coyotepe prison, dark with a narrow strip of window with bars

Inside the first level of Coyotepe prison.

This afternoon we visited a former political prison — El Coyotepe. Some of us fought back tears. Some of us felt shame at the new-found knowledge that the United States government supported the dictatorship that tortured an unknown number of Nicaraguans right where we stood. All of us were moved.

Today, Coyotepe is preserved and operated by Nicaraguan Boy Scouts. Our guide, who works as a volunteer for tips, (again, with Lucy as our interpreter) took us through the two levels of dark cells, explaining what is known about what happened in the place unknown to even most Nicaraguans for many years.

Coyotepe, which means “coyote caves” in a local indigenous language, was originally built originally as a fortress to protect the community of Masaya.

In 1944, the Somoza government began using it as a political prison. That continued until the Revolution in 1979, when the Sandonista prisoners were liberated and the guards and other Somoza supporters were jailed there.

The Sandonista government improved conditions in the prison, adding bathroom facilities and electricity. But they continued to use it as a prison until 1983.

During the Somoza dictatorship, three levels of prison cells were used at Coyotepe. The bottom level collapsed in the 1970s. Our guide said there are theories that Somoza had it destroyed to hide an unknown number of dead prisoners. Another theory suggests dead prisoners were dumped into the nearby Masaya Volcano. Many believe the place in haunted.

It is believed that more than 600 people were held at Coyotepe at a time, 90 percent of them men.

In one of the cells on the second level, used for more “serious suspects” — likely suspected to assassination plots or other efforts to overthrow the government — we could see markings on the wall likely made by the prisoners.

“Mi quiera morir!!!” or “I want to die” is scrawled into the wall in one place. In another, the Spanish for “only Christ saves” is scratched with the date 1978.

“Aldo was my best friend because he held my hand the whole time,” Tara said. “I hung on to my St. Christopher (medal) the whole time.”

It was hard to be there, to know what happened so recently, and to confront the reality that it may be happening somewhere else in the world right now.

Reflecting as a group later on, Deanna said: “People talk about what Hitler did. This is kinda the same. I’d never even heard about all of this until now. This affected their entire country.”

Kata reminded us of the prison we learned of yesterday, in the lower levels of the Somoza palace.

Wyatt spoke of how “Medieval” it all was, but occurring as recently as 34 years ago.

“I’m glad we know that history,” Meghan said. “I can’t believe it was this recent.”

And the questions poured from us. What did the tour guide think of us? What else does our government not want us to know? How can we get the information we deserve as concerned global citizens?

Coyotepe fortress

Coyotepe was originally a fort built to protect Masaya. It was later used as a political prison by both the Somoza regime and the Sandonistas.

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Jenna Frick, posing with the evacuation route sign at the Masaya volcano

Jenna Frick, our unofficial safety officer, posing with the evacuation route sign at the Masaya volcano.

Jenna Frick is our unofficial safety officer.

In our meetings, she was the one asking questions about travelers’ stomach trouble, risk of parasites from local water and risk of botflies. (Answers: Possible, but easily treatable as long as medicine is taken early. None. All water we are drinking is filtered. Extremely unlikely. No participant in any previous trip has contracted any sort of illness from any sort of bite.)

Before takeoff on each airplane, the 21-year-old Zeta Tau Alpha member from Kansas City, Kan. carefully read the safety information in the seat pocket. And she listened with rapt attention to the flight attendants explaining safety procedures.

Today, entering the Parque National Volcan Masaya, each of us was given a sheet explaining the security regulations for the crater areas. Jenna read them to herself, but aloud, pointing out the following:

  • This volcano may erupt without notice since its activity is frequent.
  • Don’t worry guys, we’ll get helmets. (We didn’t actually get helmets, but a portion of the park was closed because of the level of recent activity related to volcanic gasses.

Helmets were mentioned third on the list and she may have been the only one to read about it.

Frick attributes her safety-consciousness to being the second-oldest of six children. She’s used other skills gained in that role while on the trip, too. For example, this morning, she French braided our guide Lucy’s hair in record time.

Frick is a senior majoring in biochemistry and education. She plans to work as a chemistry teacher. She serves on the Washburn Student Government Association and recently tied for first place in the bi-annual Nall Speak Off public speaking competition at Washburn.

Profiles of the Ichabods and their unique roles on the trip will continue.

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How many cities in the world can you visit where there are more than 2.4 million people but you will wake up to the sound of a rooster’s crow?

I’m sure Managua isn’t the only such place, but it is just one example of the beautiful contrast of this place.

Laura, Sam and Jenna ready for breakfast

Laura, Sam and Jenna ready for breakfast

We are heading for the volcano and market in Masaya soon, but first — breakfast. Coffee, juice, eggs, rice and beans, tortillas, watermelon, white pineapple, avocado and cheese. The tortillas here are made of corn but are much thicker than you would find in an American grocery store, similar to pita bread.

We are learning and experiencing so much about this place. It may be weeks after we return home before we can process it all.

Conversations are becoming more common among the group about what will happen during our family stays, the work we’ll do and what it will be like to live in their homes. We’re getting to know each other better, too.

More after today’s adventure.

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