My eyes open slowly, back complaining as I roll over once more, sleep no longer covering its aches. A soft light melts through the wooden planks of the home, the predawn glow still obscured by mountain and cloud outside. A clutter of noise, the sounds distinct and harsh against each other, fills the air, insistent and continuous. I’d never be able to sleep late here, and I don’t want to anyway; I might not get the chance to see this again. Turning, I slip my feet into sandals, grab my leather journal and pen, and hold my breath, trying to leave without disturbing the others. The man in the hammock rolls over when I try to move the stick propping the door closed.
I walk a few steps from the hut, mud padding my footfalls, the sight of the landscape hushing my breath, slowing my pace. Tall trees draped with clinging vines are silhouetted against a half-clouded sky: a gray field punctuated with hints of the rising sun. Soft mountains rise steadily, their base shrouded by heavy fog. There must be thousands of birds in those trees, their soft whistles rising and ending quickly, bouncing off one another – a bed of sound for everything else. One of their songs is like dripping water, the whistle dipping momentarily and then pulling up, the perfect sound for such a wet place. A strange insect makes a harsh clacking noise, sharp and short, like two stones hitting. There is a pause and then it starts again, clacking slowly at first, but finally building speed, like an old door opening on dry hinges, and then finally levels out into a steady, high pitched yell for five long seconds, ending suddenly. Other sounds bubble to the surface in its wake. A distant growl, low and breathy, followed by another with a slightly different tone – howler monkeys I’d never be able to see.
A rooster crows. A pig snuffles behind me, sauntering up a grassy incline with two friends, wandering in search of food. A calf hits it’s mother’s bladder to get more milk. A boy passes through a stream on horseback carrying milk to trade. Homes with roofs of large leaves, blackened by cook-fires inside. A jungle all around, a landscape of soft peaks unknown and dangerous.
. . . A foundation for a new school. Pure water from a well built by volunteers.
A gringo with his notebook and camera, taking notes and snapping pictures. Curious like a child.
Welcome to Naranjo!
Eight days into my trip this is where I found myself, in an area quite different from the tourist heavy zones I had seen along the way. I had ridden from Rio Blanco the day before on the top of an old school bus, paying 60 cordobas for the ride, with my friend Maria Inez crammed in with most of the other 70 passengers inside. But I wanted to see the landscape unimpeded by other people, to breath the new air and talk with the men on top.
They were curious about me, as curious as I was about them and their country, their lifestyle, to see what they valued, what their ambitions were, their hopes for the future. The old bus, loaded with people, trade goods, and baggage, had a difficult task: to trek over a rough dirt road full of potholes, small boulders, and streams. The driver, to save on gas and time, would gain as much speed as possible while going downhill and ride that momentum as far up the next incline as he could . I held on to the iron guard-rail firmly, visualizing us skidding sideways off each edge, tipping from the top-heavy load and careening off into a rolling descent. But I always visualize the worst, its just part of who I am, and was calm despite the images. I knew they did this every day and the chances of them making a mistake were pretty low. After an hour the wind chilled and darkening clouds accumulated above. Most moved to the inside of the bus, but a few of us stayed on top. It rains ten months out of the year, but usually the rain is a soft drizzle; nothing to worry about. A smile spread slowly across my face as the rain fell, my eyes closed, enjoying the warmth of it, thinking on the unlikelihood of me being here alone, surrounded in every direction by the new and unknown. I looked behind me and a kid laughed as he and his friend pulled the luggage tarp over their heads. He looked at me and I laughed too and called them “mujeres.”
A couple of hours later we arrived at the community of Naranjo. I was almost dry after finally giving in and going inside for the rest of the ride, and Maria signaled the driver and he stopped to let us out. It was close to dusk and all too soon I was only able to see the ten feet in front of my head lamp. We ate slow-cooked beans with handmade tortillas and drank coffee as Maria chatted with the locals, catching up on how the community was doing.
When I woke in the morning the sound was chaotic, almost overbearing, the air full and alive: a good match for the plants I had seen on my way in. The plants had occupied every nook and cranny where sun and water could be found. The trees had vines, the vines had moss, and the moss supported all kinds of insects. Looking into the wilderness from the road was looking at a wall, green and barbed, with every level of growth taken by some different plant.
I was so shocked by the image of life and wilderness as the backdrop for livestock farming. I never got over that paradox the whole time I was there. To see eight cattle bunched up on the side of a steep, vibrantly green hill, the dirt below them rich and dark, the untamed landscape just behind them, was startling. Beautiful, though that word’s overuse makes it a poor description of what I saw. I took ten pictures of a single cow, pure white, with a strong neck and noble visage resting freely, juxtaposed against the mountain landscape, yet I failed to capture what made it beautiful to me. To humans we think of the developing world as an area of low comforts, digestion problems, poverty, and crime. These animals, if they were to be shipped to the States, would realize Nicaragua was a paradise. Here the animals are as independent and free as it gets for something destined for the butcher’s block and the kitchen table.
And here I was–a gringo and outsider–taking picture after picture of something the locals see every day. The farmers who lived here would laugh at how such a simple thing as a cow laying down inspired so many photographs from me; I had heard them laugh about another American taking pictures of their roof. To them this was normal. Beautiful, yes, and they know their land is rich. They are proud of it. To wake up each day to the sound of raw, wild, dangerous life, to be reminded perpetually of your own wild nature, that is something too few experience in the United States. These people, who make less than almost any American, get to live on this plot of land.
Its more difficult, to be sure. There are constantly tasks to be done, the mothers spend almost all day preparing food and taking care of the home, the men building, or selling, milking, or tilling, and their life expectancy is shorter by 20 years. But how do we measure the value of life? Can it be measured in years and free time? If I lived 250 years in a stale room, unable to move but able to see and think, would that be more life than someone who lived to 40 who had passions, had loved and lost, had fought and played, danced, smiled, and laughed uncontrollably until their cheeks were numb and their abs in pain? All of this can be found in Naranjo. Does “quality” of life mean how many things I can buy? Or is there something more important? Which, could it be said, had a greater life?
Yet these philosophical questions are the luxury of an outsider who has never struggled to have enough. Its easy for me to praise their lifestyle; I’ll only be with them for a few short days. They have real struggles, difficult to bear. Health issues from smoke inhalation; kidney problems from limited diet, hard work, and dehydration; unclean water causing loss of time, infection, and illness; long roads and high fees for the schooling they want for their children; lack of literacy and education keeping advancement away.
The parents are optimistic of the future, and groups like Project Schoolhouse have helped keep that optimism bright. Soon the students in Naranjo will stop going to their dirt floored, 20×14 hut where leaky roofs, muddy floors, and three age-groups crammed in one classroom impede learning, and they will go to their new school, constructed in large part by themselves under direction and funding of Project Schoolhouse. Because they’re helping build it themselves they have the pride of accomplishing the task together, as a community, of helping construct the nicest building in the area as a center for education, an area where a child could dream a little higher than before and believe they could accomplish that dream. They’d have plenty of supplies, three classrooms, and some will receive scholarships to attend secondary school and even the university.
So, take a moment to look through the pictures, step into Nicaragua through my camera’s lens, and try to experience the beauty and contradiction of their mountain pastures. Enjoy.