I will never be accustomed to the natural beauty in Nicaragua. From the lakes in the south to the mountain vistas in the north, Nicaragua is as breathtaking as anyplace on Earth. I mean, the mountain panoramas absolutely rival their Alpine cousins. The lakesides are mirrors of our own Great Lakes wonders. And the seashores are the very reminiscence of the Virgin Islands. I continue to be amazed at how little I hear about these natural wonders, within country or outside of it. Perhaps it’s because alongside of the beauty resides the “beast,” a poverty that is so oppressive in some quarters that it completely overshadows what is so stunningly beautiful. I suppose we all tend to notice warts before beauty marks.
I had the great good fortune to journey to a couple of distant sites within the department (province) of Nueva Segovia in Nicaragua last week. Nueva Segovia sits at the far north central tip of the country and borders Honduras, so it’s a long way off the beaten path. Or rather, that’s what you must travel in order to get there. But as is often the case, off the beaten path is where some of the most inspring and beautiful stuff is to be found.
Driving up from Esteli, Condega and Ocotal to the south, I first noticed that the dominant browns of the dry season were giving way to early shades of green. Like a sudden emergence from winter to spring, emerald shades begin to appear all around. It happens quite without warning, for the trail is undeveloped here and commands all of one’s attention until a sudden turn in the road discloses greenery that finally cannot be ignored.
The beaten path forges straight uphill once past the municipality of Macuelizo, our return route destination for later in the day. But once again my attention is focused elsewhere: ramrod straight red pines tower from both sides of the pathway, blotting out the afternoon sun, crowding out the undergowth so that a forest floor has emerged, crimson soil stained by the pigments of pine. I am amazed at the similarity between this forest scene and a hundred like it I have absorbed in northern Minnesota. But for the grade of the earth and the absence of lakesprings, I might be in Boundary Waters canoe country.
What the land may lack in water, it compensates in its altitude. Behind an occasional turn or break in the forest wall, valleyed overlooks permit wide glimpses of far-off Honduras. The mountain peaks compete for notice across the range divides, and covering it all is the omnipresent pine. I close my eyes at the privilege to breathe in the sweet scent of the north. And I am grateful for the absence of clear-cutting. For even if I long to witness the softness of clouds haloing the tips of peaks, I am content to sneak looks between the wide bodies of timber and revel at the inconvenience.
I am told that hours have passed on our way to the municipality of Santa Maria, and that I am now at the far northwestern corner of the country where few visitors land. Like many of the towns and villages of the countryside, Santa Maria lies quiet and old. There are few residents in sight this afternoon, and I wonder whether they might all have parked themselves on the side of a slope somewhere to observe the grandeur of the lowering sun.
I know better, of course. There is little time for the residents of Santa Maria to just sit back and marvel at the nature around them. The bulk of their days is spent in mustering whatever livelihood the ground or the town can allow; time is money, as the adage goes, and here everything simply takes more time. The mountains have taken millenia to form, the robust forests centuries, and an 18-kilometer walk to the town of Santa Maria requires the better part of three hours over unfriendly terrain.
I learn that last bit of elegance during our meeting with several members of the Multiple Services Cooperative of Santa Maria. Their reception is warming; they are grateful for the journey undertaken to visit their outpost. There is a shyness in each of our three hosts, born of an infrequency of guests.
The cooperative was formed a number of years ago when, in the face of a corrupt mayoral administration, the municipality looked to grassroots for leadership. Carlos is a farmer, not a politician. But when TROPISEC, an international funder, sought integrity and credibility for salvaging the economic base of Santa Maria, Carlos emerged as a natural. Maura has had training in recordkeeping and administration, although she is not a degreed accountant. Jari, too, is the beneficiary of training from the funder, and now plays the role of chief agricultural technician for members of the coop.
Carlos is deliberate and measured in his responses to our questions. He exudes calm determination in describing the plight of this community and cooperative. His chiseled face is the visage of nobility found on Indianhead nickels. He has taken on a second term as president of the coop, and asks frequent questions about how Winds of Peace and other foundations operate. He is straightforward and proud of the efforts of his cooperative; his eyes are on his guests and he sits forward on his chair while describing its operations. He might be talking about his child, or a piece of personal artwork that has received his loving care.
Jari is a man in motion during the entire visit. At every question asked, every inquiry about members, at even a hint at something we might wish to know, Jari is out of his chair, into the adjacent office, producing records or copies or files of past transactions. Like a clairvoyant on the run, he tries to anticipate every possible item of interest. And he is constantly smiling. Every task he grabs with energy and I feel as though I’d like to work alongside him in whatever he would do. Some people are infectious in their demeanor.
Maura is quiet for much of our visit, responding as needed for clarification of the bookkeeping to which she has carefully attended. The purity of accounting, at least by U.S. business standards, is imperfect. Her intentionality and commitment are not. Her face reflects the personal ownership she has assumed for these documents.
A third man enters our meeting well after we have begun; we know nothing of his extensive efforts to be in attendance until much later. He remains silent for much of our meeting. He makes notes throughout the session, listening intently, occasionally offering a clarification of something Carlos or Jari has said, but otherwise begging the question of who he is and why he is in attendance.
And then, after we have covered the basics and received clarification to our questions and shuffled as if in conclusion, the third man speaks. He explains his tardy arrival in the face of the 18 kilometers. He offers his gratitude for our visit. He describes his small farm and its needs for sustainment. He speaks of the ground with admiration, of the mountain terrain with awe, of the forests with reverence. And he describes his obligation to fight for the people in those activities which have to do with improvement and preservation of their environment. He is adamant, and gentle. And then he prepares for his return walk through the mountains. We state our thanks and admiration and take our leave.
Our drive down the mountainside is touched by the orange of the setting sun. We are on our way to Macuelizo and another cooperative. And once again I marvel at the natural beauty of Nicaragua.