Greeted by slushy winter rain and expensive SUVs, my return to American suburbia was not what I had hoped. The seemingly endless day of flight delays and layovers was finally over. Yet somehow, instead of the joy of homecoming, all I could feel was an overwhelming sense of defeat.
I knew I had worked hard.
I knew the goals of Ceprodel and SosteNica were worthy of my support.
But after a week of nonstop action in Nicaragua, coming home to the smoothly paved streets and three-story houses of Rye, New York just felt… wrong. My own asphalt driveway, housing multiple cars, seemed to be reminding me that in the grand scheme of things, our sustainability project hadn’t really changed anything. I even felt disillusioned with the concept of returning to school, where my studies would continue in their slow and sheltered way.
During our time in Nagarote, everything the team did had a function and purpose; every action was a step towards our goal. The foundation had to be rebuilt to ensure a lasting model. The mortar had to be mixed to securely hold the stones. Our site was organized for order, and our roles were clearly defined. Even eating and sleeping began to feel less like leisurely activities, and more like necessary refueling sessions to aid our work. As an engineering major, it is no surprise that I loved living and working in this way – to maximize practicality and minimize waste. Systems optimization, as we call it. I was impressed by the resourceful way of life already so natural to the local people. On the Perez family farm, for example, dead leaves from their banana trees were used to protect their sapling lime trees. Leftover food scraps were not wasted but rather used to feed the family dogs. A repurposed bicycle served as an efficient well-water pump. Ah, sweet practicality.
Fast forward to Rye: a land of luxurious impracticality. How could I learn to live harmoniously again in this place, after having experienced the frugality of Nicaragua? The answer came to me as I was remembering the final day of our trip, when we toured the nearby city of León. To me, León offered the same feeling of resourcefulness evident in Nagarote; entire families set up shop in the bustling street markets, selling handmade tamarind candies and bowls made from carved gourds. Yet their public heroes, to my great surprise, were not laborers or agriculture innovators, but poets. Of all things to praise, in a country where survival necessitates practicality, these people chose poetry: a most inherently impractical practice! This juxtaposition amazed me as I saw museums, murals, street names, and even a “Poets’ Park” all echoing their pride. Reflecting on this at home days later, my perspective began to change.
The push towards a more sustainable future for global development can seem desperately urgent and immensely daunting. And it is. But perhaps we don’t have to be completely utilitarian about it. We can work with our hands and create practical solutions while still appreciating some of the inevitable impracticality of human life. The Nicaraguans seem to have mastered this balance; they love and accept flawed realities, while working hard to improve. Rigoberto López Pérez, Rubén Darío, and Alfonso Cortés taught me that no matter how drastic my actions may be, change will not happen overnight. Going forward, I hope to be a bit more poetic in my own fight for sustainability. Rather than look at the world’s problems with disgust and despair, I can try to see them as a Nicaraguan might: as creative opportunities.
As a kind of ice-breaker activity, we asked each person on the delegation to think about their “life philosophy” and try to boil it down to one sentence. Everyone agreed this was a futile effort, but generously agreed to cooperate anyway. We admitted that our philosophies of life can’t really fit on a bumper sticker, and that they change over time. That said, here is what the individuals in the group came up with on the spur of the moment on a random day in January, 2013.
CUSD/SosteNica Nicaragua Construction Brigade
Philosophy of Life, in one line, for January , 2013
- Celine – “Be firm, but diplomatic.”
- Edbert – “If you set your mind to do something, do it 100% or don’t do it at all.”
- Camelia – « Il faut asumé ses choix dans la vie, et ne jamais les regreter. » (she said that it could not be adequately translated into English, so it is left in the original French.)
- Alan – “Love what is, but leave the world each day better than you found it.”
- Kevin – “Pursue sustainable happiness.”
- Eric – “Do no harm.”
- Ethan – “What’s the worst that can happen?”
- Kai – “To feel connection through the emptiness of permanence.”
- Mary – “Your moment by moment interactions are always more important than you think, and your personal problems are always less important than you think.”
- Gosia – What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
- Christine – “Just roll with it!”
- Mitch- “I’ll get back to you.”
- Mandy- “Don’t rush through life.”
- Gabriela – “Learn as much as possible, listen more than you speak.”
- Becky – “If you believe in yourself and the people around you – anything is possible.”
- Ricardo – “In action, you get the glory of success or you pay the consequences of failure, but you never have regrets.”
- Caroline – “Do what makes you happy but not at the expense of other people’s happiness.”
- Saddman – “Do what it takes to be happy.”
- Lee – “You are going to die – squeeze out every last drop.”
- Thomas – “Treat each situation in the present moment as an opportunity to define yourself that feeds the larger and constantly evolving definition of mankind within the scope of the universe.”
- Aiden – “Work for the greatest happiness for all.”
- Vernon – “Dar servicio para el bien, cuidando la naturaleza.” (Do servive for the good of all and take care of nature.)
I came to Nicaragua not knowing what the expect. Flying into Managua, I thought I would be laying bricks; my composting toilet would be forever tucked away in the back of my portfolio. But boy was I wrong. For one wonderful week, I had an amazing adventure that took me from the streets of Nagarote to the shores of the Pacific. I rode in the back of a motorcycle, a kayak, a pickup, a flatbed truck, and a donkey-drawn wagon. I even brought Gangnam Style to the local nightclub. Besides finally having the chance to build the composting toilet (with my homeboy Ethan and homegirl Gosia), the best part of the trip was getting to meet the people who were also invested in building a better, more sustainable world, all the while having a great time. Working with Snr. Perez and his family hit home what sustainability really means, and, personallly, what architecture can do for the world. Architecture is more than drawing a nice section; it’s digging the foundation, it’s performing soil tests, it’s sharing a homecooked meal, and it’s eating a year’s worth of Gallo Pinto. I am more confident than ever that architecture can be a force for positive change. I cannot wait to have another adventure and change the world, one composting toilet at a time.
Edbert Cheng — Cornell University ’16 — SNN Composting Toilet Team
The second week of the CUSD/SNN delegation is, after only one full day, shaping up very nicely. A core group of six students has bridged the two weeks. A couple of those had come to Nicaragua in June of 2012. Many of them were leaders in CUSD before coming to Nicaragua. Naturally, they have assumed leadership here in Nagarote. The four working groups: communications, house construction, composting toilet and landscaping are now rolling like a well fired locomotive.
Today, “Sábados Nagarote”, a local television program hosted by Manuel Real featured the “new sustainable adobe model building” being constructed in Nagarote. The editing and the sound track were less than professional, but we all enjoyed seeing ourselves on Nicaraguan television. Minutes after the program ended, we were interviewed by the editor of Nagarote’s only print newspaper – “El Clarin.” A 12-foot banner for the front of the construction site has been designed and commissioned for $50 dollars, while informational quarter-cards are being produced to hand out at around town, to answer questions about the construction. Add to that this blog and numerous entries on the Facebook pages of SosteNica and CUSD. In sum, the communications team has been busy, productive, and successful.
Simultaneously, the composting toilet team has been hard at work. Because there is no provision (at this writing) for finishing their composting toilet building, the architects and engineers have been pushing ahead at a break-neck pace to advance their project. They have cited and dug 1.2 meters for their foundation, in dirt almost as hard a rock. They have taken two horse-drawn cart journeys to gather local building materials, not from the Home Depot but from Mother Earth – one for boulders from the shore of Lake Managua, the other for sand from a 6-kilometer remote sand pit. They have ordered and received bricks, as well as a specially designed toilet bowl. They have mixed a lime and sand mortar and laid an impressively solid foundation — all in one week.
Today the landscape team visited a local nursery to source plants for the patio garden in the model building as well as for the model rural garden at the home of Mario Perez. They have already watered and mulched Mario’s citrus orchard and dug an impressive banana circle, to which they routed the run off from the family’s outdoor shower. They have laid out three beds for double digging, and have actually double dug one of them. They have a shared work day planned with the UNAN Leon (the national university’s agro-ecology program) during which they intend to dig and plant terraces, garden beds, and more. They too are burning with enthusiasm.
Last, but certainly not least, is the team building the adobe model house. Tomorrow, Sunday, they have invited the Nicaraguan masons to join us on their day off. After having rebuilt the foundation stem wall, tamped the sub-floor and spread crushed stone, dug a pit into which adobe mortar was mixed, they are ready to lay the very first adobe block. This is, in some sense, the moment we have all been waiting for. The photos will speak volumes about the progress we have made.
“Adios amigos!” was the refrain on Thursday when Kai, Camelia, Becky, Ethan, Kevin, and Celine said goodbye to their Cornell colleagues Mary, Mitch, Gosia, Edbert, Mandy, Christine and Allie. It was an emotional moment, hugging one another two blocks from the bus terminal in Leon. We have worked hard this week, endured minor injuries, stomach ailments, tropical heat and frustrations on the worksite. Despite setbacks, their spirits never flagged. We accomplished a lot this first week, setting the stage for a second wave of students, Lee, Thomas, Carolyn, Aiden and Sadmun, arriving on Friday.
As a going away event (known here in Nicaragua as a “despedida”), our group traveled from Nagarote to Leon – some by public transport, others in our “rabano” (the ruby red “radish” van). After a brief tour in Leon, conducted by Rachel Lindsay, we piled 19 bodies, Nicaraguan style, into the Rabano for the final miles to a Pacific beach for a going away lunch. La Barca de Oro is an open-air thatched roof restaurant in the village of Las Penitas.
For one bliss filled hour, students body surfed, paddled kayaks through a mangrove forest, lounged on a beach known as La Isla de Juan Venado and reveled in the secluded natural beauty.
Today, it’s back to the two work sites. The first adobe blocks have been positioned at the eco-center while the foundation for the Perez family composting toilet is all but complete.
We eagerly look forward to the arrival of the second group of students, with their clean clothes, willing spirits, and yet-to-be-tanned skin.
Francisca Perez is a lovely campesina. She lives with her husband Mario, on three manzanas (about five acres) of very dry, compacted, deforested land just outside of Nagarote. They share their small home with two of their three sons – Francisco and Jose, a daughter-in-law and two very precious grandchildren.
Francisca put a lot of effort into her first garden, some years ago, even though her soil is really exhausted. With significant effort, she managed to get some annual vegetables growing. Then, when she wasn’t looking, her chickens escaped. It’s amazing how much damage twenty-five chickens can do in just a few hours. The devastation so discouraged Francisca, she gave up on gardening.
Her sons haven’t shown much interest in farming. Jose works as a bouncer at a bar in Nagarote. His younger brother Francisco aspires to be a singer. He really has a nice voice, as he demonstrated to our group, accompanied by his guitar, despite its missing one of six strings.
When some of the Cornell students arrived to help build a new composting toilet, Jose and Mario at first only watched. Eventually, they joined in with surprising enthusiasm. Then, when the landscape crew started watering the parched citrus orchard, laying out an expanded garden area and digging a hole for a banana plant to take advantage of the overflow from their shower, Francisca rekindled her fire for gardening. She works hard, every day, frying pork scraps to sell in the Nagarote market. They call it “churasco”.
Despite her many family and market responsibilities, today Francisca and her daughter-in-law prepared an impressive “sopa de gallina con albondiga” – a hardy chicken stew with corn masa dumplings, tomato, yucca, quequisque, chayote, elotes, potato, and assorted herbs. At 1 PM all 18 of us had gathered in the yard, seated on hay bails where she served us an impressive country style lunch of soup and tortillas. Can you imagine whipping up a meal for 18 guests as well as your seven family members at short notice?
While Francisca is very special, she is not unique. Hundreds of thousands of women in Nicaragua work from sun up to well into the night, without complaint. They are as loving as they are talented and hard working. It was an honor for us to dine with Francisca and to devote some of our sweat and ideas to the future of her household.