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Orchids and Flying Bears

Granada, Nicaragua, January 13, 2003

I spent the last week in Esteli, a small but vibrant city that I visited earlier in my travels. I returned to Esteli to specifically brush up on the Spanish language in the Escuela Horizonte.

Egdalina Lanuza is the founder and administrator for the school. Her vision was to create a school that provided a strong language program within the context of Nicaraguan culture including the history, politics and economics of the people.

The program offers one-on-one instruction, afternoon activities and home stays. I stayed with Dona Luisa Ibarra (a recent widow), her daughter Faviola and her husband Juancin. Dona Luisa's husband's family had lived in the same spot for over 200 years. She is a great cook and a very knowledgeable storyteller.

For the afternoon activities we made excursions to the local museums and art galleries. One day we took a bus to a local waterfall for a refreshing swim. The hour long walk back was equally enjoyable passing cattle ranches and farms along the way.

The most memorable outing was the day we visited Miraflor, an organic cooperative of 60 ranches. The cooperative began 10 years ago through the inspiration of a local German farmer who had diversified his crops and eliminated the use of chemicals on his land. The local Nicaraguans formed a cooperative with the same intent and after a 3 year transition, they also diversified their crops and eliminated chemical use.

Miraflor which is 60 kilometres north of Esteli spans some 200 square kilometers, 1,500 meters above sea level in the vast Cloud Forests of the region. Totally self-funded, the cooperative has developed several programs including organic farming, ecotourism and wild orchid cultivation.

My fellow students for the week Scott Garnest, Kate Foley and I began our day at 5 a.m., meeting our guide Ariel and catching a bus to the junction high in the mountains. From here, we walked for about 20 minutes through the mist-enshrouded forest to where we collected our horses at a small finca (ranch). None of us had ridden much so this was an adventure in itself. Later it became a painful adventure - in the end.

Our first stop was a small lagoon that branches off the local stream. We tied our horses up near a narrow, muddy, steep path leading downwards. Ariel told us the lagoon is rapidly being taken over by a variety of aquatic plants. Unfortunately this is not a natural process but an example of unrestrained use of chemical fertilizers. The damage to the lagoon is irreversible. Eventually the lagoon will be consumed by the plants, along with the home of many aquatic animals.

After this, we mounted up and headed to our next stop, the Orchid Farm. On the way we passed a local baseball league's championship game. Ariel's team was eliminated last Sunday in the semi-finals. Nicaragua is the only C.A. country were baseball is the national sport.

The Orchid farm is home to some 200 species of wild orchids, 40 of which are yet to be named. The cool highlands with its constant humidity and moisture makes this the perfect climate for these incredible plants. The children of the area are employed to walk the countless paths, collecting orchids on dead trees and tying them on to the trunks and into the crotches of living trees. This is a labour of love to enhance the region for it is prohibited by law to sell the orchids. In March and April, the forest becomes a literal paradise of colors and smells when the giant oaks and matapalos become covered in blooms.

An incidental side trip down one of the many paths brought us to a breathtaking lookout across a deep valley to the mountains on the other side. Then Ariel showed us a hidden surprise; a rope swing into that great wide-open, drop-off. I have not been on a rope swing for a long time but I was pumped and after a quick warning of falling into the abyss below, off I went. What an exhilarating ride. We all took several turns but Ariel showed us the best way to do it - upside down.

Our final destination for the day was a giant Matapalo tree. These trees are a parasitic variety that surround existing trees (usually oaks) and literally swallow them whole. After the dead tree within rots away, the Matapalo is left hollow inside. These trees live on an average of 100 years and more.

The one we visited rose through the forest canopy for more than 30 metres. The inside cavity could fit 3 people in it at the same time. There was nothing to do but climb to the top using the many tendrils and openings as footholds and hand grabs. The shape is somewhat reminiscent of the Spanish architect Gaudi and his Church of the Sacred Family in Barcelona which is very organic in design. So ended our day at Miraflor, exhausted, sore and ready for sleep.

I have been in Nicaragua for over a month and I still have not seen it all. I am back in Granada getting ready for the beach at San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast. The surfing is supposed to be the best in Nicaragua. I have never surfed before so maybe it is time to learn.

And now the story of the flying bears. One day Kate and her Spanish teacher went for a walk in the park. The Spanish teacher asked Kate what her favorite animals were and Kate said in English "birds and snakes". The teacher thought she said "bears" and gave her the Spanish word for that.

"I have never seen any bears, are they big?", asks the teacher.

"Oh no some are as small as my hand," says Kate. "I can not believe you have never seen a bear. They are everywhere, in the parks, in the trees, why I just saw some fly right by us a moment ago." And so ended the Spanish lesson along with this chapter of the journal. See you in San Juan del Sur. Surf's up.

Previous entry: Happy New Year from Granada, Nicaragua

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