Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Scratch the farm--Estelí, Sonati

So to make a long story short, I am not at the farm in Matagalpa. Yes, I feel quite bad about it. I had all these grand plans to stay there for the large part of my trip (in fact, working at the farm was the ONLY plan that I had made before flying in to Central America) and I had informed the farm owner, Miguel, that I would be coming. Actually, that part is the worst for me, because I cant really know how much he was relying on having me as a volunteer--though for reasons I am about to explain I cant imagine that I was really so important in his plans.

(I feel kind of bad about putting this online, in case someone Google searches the finca, so I'm not going to include the farm name)

So here´s what happened: Literally on my way out the door of Big Foot Hostel in Léon, I stopped at the bar to refill my water bottle, and to confirm directions to the bus station where I was to grab my bus to Mataglapa. The girl working at the bar asked me what I was up to in Matagalpa, and I told here that I would be WWOOFing at a farm located an hour so out of town in a very rural area. She stopped chewing her toast and swallowed dry. "Whats the name of the farm?" she asked gravely. "El Y#####, with Miguel". "Don't go there, it´s terrible. My boy friend and I went there and we had a horrible experience..." She told me all about it: Apparently, there is only one bus from Matagalpa each day (at 5pm) that arrives at the foot of a mud road in the dark. You then need to walk an hour and a half in the dark, with all your belongings, to get to the farm. Ok, so this a knew in advance; I wasnt yet convinced. She told me that Miguel said he would meet them at the road to guide them up and help them with their bags, possibly with a horse. No such luck. They had to grope through the dark alone and guess where the entrance was. When they arrived, Miguel was there, but only to have them sign a waver; the next morning, he left before telling them where he was going. No tour, no explanations, no welcome. They were aroused before sunrise and told that they had to go out into the coffee fields. No breakfast, no time to make breakfast, no explanations. They worked until the afternoon and  found the kitchen to make something for lunch. Most farms provide meals to volunteers, but there was just rice and raw beans. Raw beans take a day to cook. No where to buy food, and no veggies, so they made just rice-- no oil, no spices, no salt.

The next morning was a repeat, no Miguel, no time to eat. And they had a leña in the kitchen which requires time to light a fire and heat up the stove, so if they wanted to eat they would have to get up way before dawn to prepare a fire. Oh yea, and nothing but rice.

Still, all this would have been within my expectations, except that Miguel had promised the opportunity to work on self-generated projects. Hence why I have the schematics for a solar hot water heater and reservoir in my backpack, and why I spent a month studying DIY videos before I left. But even more than any of this, the reason I finally decided to change my plans was because of what this girl told me about the social make up of the place, and the people there. The volunteers were treated more like free labor than volunteers, interacted with only to be directed, with no one to approve of or provide materials for projects.

More, she told me that there were hardly any volunteers there, and that they didn't interact. All of the few volunteers that she had met were unhappy, and they were mostly leaving right away, or leaving soon, or just plain weird...and this coming from a hardcore traveler sandal wearing Rasta-chick.

This part was the most important to me. I'm traveling alone, so it´s important to me to be in places where I can make new friends and start new relationships; even for just a short period of time.

So I threw that dream out the window. I really wanted to learn permaculture, to provide support to a community in need, to work with my hands with the sun on my back, to get in shape working off the land. Alas, that's what you get for making plans. 

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” 
― Lao Tzu

So my plans changed...

Here´s what happened: Crestfallen, I threw my bag into the public storage at Bigfoot. I had already packed my bag and said all my goodbyes to the fast friends I had made at the hostel in just a few short days. Once I say goodbye, I don't like to walk back in all, "I changed my mind, I'm gonna stay another night!" Its tough, this transient lifestyle, working to open yourself up to new people (so thoroughly different from yourself) at incredible speeds knowing you only have at most a few days to bond--and then after such intense sharing of feelings, memories, and experiences, saying goodbye knowing the chances of ever meeting again is slim. The most you can do is swap contacts and hope they tag you in photos. So in short, saying goodbye is hard, but necessary, and never the last.

...So, I needed to make a new plan and quick. I remembered taking a trek up in Xela, Guatemala to Volcan Tajamulco with an organization called Quetzaltrekkers and that they had a branch in Leon. It was a great trek and I thought I could totally be a guide on a hike like that...maybe I could volunteer as a guide with them? 

I showed up at their office and was immediately informed that I would need to make a three month commitment to begin the process of training to be a guide. I guess its harder than it looks. Anyway, they referred me to another non-for profit tour company and hostel down the street called Sonati. At their office I was told the same thing about getting trained to be a guide; I would need to make a long term commitment and I didn't want to promise more than two or three weeks, possibly a month. However, their branch up in Estelí needed volunteers to help run the hostel and facilitate the organization.

Ok, quick tangent to explain Sonati. Check out their website. Its a no-for-profit environmental education center that provides classes about conservation and recycling for children here in Nicaragua. They are based out of León and Estelí, respectively the 2nd and 3rd largest cities in Nicaragua. Unlike many NGOs, Sonati is not donation reliant as the two hostels (run by volunteers like me) garner profits, 100% of which is used to provide the educational service. This from Sonati.org:

SONATI model: sustainability & monetary responsibility

The common problem: Non-profits rely on the good will of donors for their existence, asking constantly for money to maintain their activities, important as they may be.
SONATI model: In SONATI we implement a successful business model into the non-profit model: we create a competitive business with non-profit ethics: our business doesn't have an owner, profits do not finance private wealth - instead we invest profits to finance our environmental projects.
In SONATI we rely on donations only to establish new SONATI sites where we implement a sustainable model, so such a donation is a one-time donation that lasts forever!
Monetary responsibility:
The NGOs "fame": Too many times money finances too many administrative costs and too few actual activities.
SONATI model: Activities are the first priority. All salaries in SONATI are fair local salaries, but by all means not high (also at local standards). At present, highest salary at SONATI (director post) is $300/ month.

So, that all sounds pretty good. And it's a pretty fun place to work too. Sonati Estelí isn't the biggest or most popular hostel, nor is it even represented in the book (that's Lonely Planet, bible to the backpacker). I think that most guests hear about it through Sonati Leon, and through word of mouth. Its very chill, there's only one other volunteer here besides me right now, a girl from Bristol, and groups tend to come and go. There´s no bar or restaurant in the hostel  but folks do tend to hang out in the massive backyard and several common areas. Loud parties some nights, and quiet discussions others, its a great place to get to know people as they pass through.
Estelí is located a midst several national nature reserves, jungles, and cloud forests, all of which I still need to explore with the exception of one that I have already been to several times. It's got a beautiful waterfall and river down which you can rock-scramble several kilometers, encountering all sorts of plant and animal life along the way. The waterfall cascades down from a cliff about 50 meters above, collecting in a beautiful deep pool that's cool, but amazing for a vigorous swim. Yesterday, I leveled up my experience, climbing along the sheer rock wall and jumping in at various heights. Also in the area are endless pastures, farmlands, orchards, and woods. The other day, a group of us went bird watching all over the farmlands and communities of rural Estelí. We saw raptors, hummingbirds, swallows, woodpeckers, exotic birds, and more; beautiful in their natural habitats.

Anyway, more to updates to come as I explore the area more thoroughly!

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