Monday, December 19, 2011

Madrid (Spain)

Although Catalunya is lovely, it's a little disappointing that, after over a year, I haven't seen more of Spain. Madrid, the capital, made for a great getaway. For some unfathomable reason, the fast AVE train (2.5 hours) between the two cities was ridiculously more expensive than the flights (1 hour) from any of a handful of discount airlines. Later, a quick poll of Barcelonins revealed the AVE to be far and away the preferred method of travel, which explains how this business model thrives.

With Madrid being Barcelona's rival in all things, it's difficult not to make constant comparisons. Right away the architecture tells you that you're not in Barcelona any more. Whereas Barcelona's Modernisme delights are full of color and whimsy, the edifices of the capital are imposing, wanting you to cower before their might and money. The city's bigger and sprawling, with an extensive subway system and an enviable amount of greenspace, like the Parque del Buen Retiro (300 acres), near the center. Even with the size, we still opted to walk to the tourist haunts. Puerta del Sol, famous all over Spain for its televised New Year's Eve celebration à la Time Square, was dominated by a giant Christmas tree light structure. Plaza Mayor was packed with a Christmas market selling mostly tat and overrun with Bob Esponja (that's Spongebob Squarepants) and other odd characters available for photo opps - at a price, of course.

You can also visit the Palacio Reial, the official residence of King Juan Carlos... although the royal family actually live in another "more modest" palace? (Somehow, those words don't really jive.) It is oppulent with a grand staircase, a mile-long table in the state dining room, countless gold clocks, and five Stradivarius instruments!

The real jewel in Madrid's crown, though, is the Museo del Prado. In visiting one of the world's best art museums, we knew we had to pace ourselves... so we spent nearly an entire day there. It is impressive. In an average museum, you might be lucky to see a few paintings from each master. In the Prado you can wander through gallery after gallery devoted to the different periods of Goya, El Greco, Velazquez, and others. [It was really cool seeing Velazquez's Las Meninas in person, especially after seeing Picasso's labored deconstruction of it in our Barcelona museum]. The Prado's permanent collection is so extensive that it allows for interesting arrangements. One room might contain a formal family portrait alongside complementary ones of each member at their own hobbies, all by the same artist. Another room had portraits of dwarves that had been associated with the royal court. Of course, this being Spain, one would expect to see many religious-themed pieces. What I didn't expect to see was so many representations of breast-feeding, at least 2 dozen. Amongst the most disturbing variations on this theme were a heavily bearded lady nursing... and the Virgin Mary dribbling her "bounty" onto the fires of souls in purgatory! And while we're talking disturbing, Heironymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights also figures prominently among the Prado's collection. If it wasn't so strong an assertion against temptation and sin, it would have been Exhibit A in the case for burning at the stake back in its day (the late 1400's). The wild and trippy masterpiece has more in common with surrealists like Dalí - heck, it could even grace a Pink Floyd album - than anything else you've seen in a church.

Lastly, the food... While Barcelona has some fantastic eats, everyone agrees Madrid has superior tapas. Consequently, we went out for a tapas pub crawl in the La Latina neighborhood. There were a couple of false starts, including some croquettes that we later saw featured randomly in a Spanish foodie magazine (disappointing). But we had some fine beers and cheap beers (not the same ones though): and hit the motherlode in a bar where each tapa was so big, it was a challenge to put in your mouth. Bacalao (salt cod) and other seafood was piled 2.5 inches high, and other tasty treats needed the old knife and fork. Other typical Madrid treats we got to try were cocido madrileño (lovely chickpeas and different meats stewed until tender) and gulas (baby eels)! All in all, we had a nice taste of Madrid, but we definitely would like to go back.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Mountainboarding in Sant Pere de Vilamajor (Spain)

When I met Rich, he was into a sport called mountainboarding. Picture snowboarding... without the snow... and with industrial-strength monster wheels to navigate the terrain. I didn't quite grasp its significance in his life, until I asked him, "Hey, what's that say on your hoodie? I don't recognize the brand." Ever modest, Rich replied, "Oh, it's stands for Dangerous Brothers. They're my sponsors." WTH?!? Despite his protests that the sport was quite safe, I saw - not one, not two, but THREE, ladies and gentlemen! - dislocated shoulders in the first competition I watched.Nevertheless, we spent much of his first year in the States driving up and down the East Coast so he could ride with the Americans. Over time, as other responsibilities grew, much to our disappointment, Rich's participation in his first love dwindled... what better way to remind him that turning 30 didn't mean he was an old fart than to get a brand spankin' new board!?! On a brief trip to Oregon this summer, I was able to pull off the stunning feat of finding a skate shop in the small town I was staying in that happened to have in stock(!) exactly the board that he wanted, for an excellent price, and pick up a last season snowboard bag to ship it in, to boot! Now it seems only fair that Rich offers his perspective on his mountainboarding adventures in Spain, so without further ado...

There seems to be a fairly healthy mountain sports vibe in Catalunya, especially since the Pyrenees mountains are just a few hours away, and there are smaller mountains lining the coast. Upon moving to Barcelona and finding out that there is a small mountainboarding scene close by, it seemed like the perfect time to get a new board. This time I've gone for a more freestyle-friendly MBS Comp 95 The odd bit of freeriding is still on the table, of course.

One example of a nice freeride spot is Parc de Collserola. Just behind Tibidabo (the large church-topped mountain that pins Barcelona up against the sea) is a huge, unexpected, protected wilderness. Just half an hour on the commuter train gets you from the city centre to the entrance of the park, which is a popular spot for mountainbikers, dog walkers, and families at the weekend. It also contains some long downhill stretches, ideal for a bit of high-speed boarding. Unfortunately, the aforementioned popularity of the park means that some dog-dodging is sometimes in order, and powerslide dust clouds are not too popular...

In a small village called Sant Pere de Vilamajor about 1.5 hours away, El SoT is really where it's at, as far as freestyle mountainboarding goes. It's a bit of a trek to get there (plus I have to ask nicely for a lift once I'm close), but well-worth it to ride with some like-minded mountainboarders on some purpose-made terrain. Recently, El SoT celebrated its 3rd anniversary, and I was lucky enough to join them for the weekend. Unfortunately, the rain in Spain had skipped the plain that week, and had fallen mostly on Catalunya. So the conditions weren't ideal. However, we made the most of it and did our best to shred up the new terrain that had been carefully manicured in the preceding weeks. Among the new attractions were a beautifully-shaped tabletop and an amazing drop-off, which does a good job of scaring the bejesus out of you since you can't spot the landing until you're in the air! The wet prevented any big tricks, but it did give us the opportunity to work on our technique. A few photographers were also in attendance, so we could review our style (or lack thereof)! Judging from the photos I've seen, all of us need to work on our facial expressions: I look like I'm constipated...

I'm already looking forward to returning to El SoT. Wet, sticky landings took their toll on my joints after a day of riding, and I want to work on a few things that require a bit more air time. With winter on its way, things should dry up quite nicely so I'll soon be making that phone call to beg for a lift from the train station to the park. Can't wait!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Montserrat (Spain)

We returned to Montserrat, Spain. This time we gave the religious establishment a pass and headed straight out for the trails surrounding the monastery. Well, ok... first we did stop by the row of bright stalls tempting hikers and pilgrims alike with dried fruits and cheeses. Apparently, the town is known for their take on miel y mató (honey and Catalan fresh cheese similar to curd or ricotta), and at 1€/mini-tub, who could resist a little protein to start the trek?

We took the easier way up to Sant Joan, the steepest funicular I've ever seen. Riders seemed to lean subconsciously as it climbed the greater than 65% slope. Pepper, normally a confident public transport rider, did not like it.

Even from the top of the funicular, it is still a ways to go before making it to the highest summit at Sant Jeroni (1236 m/ 4055 ft). The trails snake around rocky outcroppings and some scrubby forest. Another hiker took advantage of the acoustics of the setting, serenading us with arias while we took a snack break. He appeared several minutes later - another case where the person did not match the voice... The rich tenor came out of a nerdy-looking skinny guy!

While some of the path has been fortified with poured concrete steps, other areas give way to crumbly shale. Occasionally, you'd turn a corner and bump into climbers setting up their harnesses, or one would appear out of nowhere from over the precipice. The views from the peak were worth the climb. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Mallorca, one of the Balearic islands.

Without the benefit of taking the funicular back to Montserrat proper, the way down was a grueling chain of seemingly endless staircases. At some point, people just stopped talking to push through it, and we lost half of our party in our pursuit to get it over with. Even the gentle slope from the parking lot to the restaurant was a struggle on shaky legs and the increasing cold as the evening drew in. A tiring, but great day in the open air!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Figueres (Spain)

We dragged ourselves out of bed early one Saturday morning to catch the train to Figueres. About 140 km/ 90 miles outside Barcelona, it is most famous for being the birthplace of Salvador Dalí. The Teatre-Museu Gala Salvador Dalí, which the artist designed himself, is the main reason coach tours descend en masse upon this small town.

Now, I should say that going into the museum, my uninformed impression of Dalí from his other works, and also, Adrien Brody's portrayal in Midnight in Paris is that he was a lunatic. My conclusion after this visit is, "My, wasn't he an extremely creative and ambitious one, though?" Although there weren't many sightings of his iconic dripping clocks, there were plenty of crutches, elephants, and his wife/muse Gala... from all angles... like the bottom of her foot... and literally, in holograms.

However, for me, the most amusing recurrent symbol was bread. Maybe it's not surprising in the context of the general obsession with bread in Spain, e.g. even piddly Menu del Día's include a generous basket of bread, Iberia Airlines may serve crappy food but offers second and third rounds of rolls, people leave the Forn de Pa with 3-4 baguettes at a time, etc. But Dalí elevates it to a new level, even refers to it as "fetishism." The outside of the museum is adorned with hundreds of little decorative sculptures, which on closer inspection are rolls. His Basket of Bread holds a place of honor in the gallery, and there's a gold plated loaf to boot.

Our ticket also included the exhibit on jewelry designed by Dalí. He seemed to approach gold and precious gems merely as other mediums for his art. The pieces were elaborate... and huge. Some had stones as big as your palm, and others had countless tiny emeralds winking in the spotlight. The exhibit also happened to contain the most mind-blowing and disturbing - which, after seeing several hours of surrealist work, means a lot - piece... a beating heart! It is a crowned heart-shape in gold with a tiny chamber housing a real heart formed out of rubies (recalling a traditional representation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which admittedly for me, adds to the willies)... that pulsates. That's right, folks, a fully-functioning ruby heart! If you click on pictures, you can see a video of it.

We also got to stroll through the Figueres weekly outdoor market with its gorgeous array of produce and stalls selling kitchen utensils and tools. As appears to be typical of Catalan villages, the selection of embutidos (cured meats) and variety of wild mushrooms would make a restaurateur weep. Alas, by the time we returned, the garbage men were already making short work of the forlorn pieces of lettuce left on the ground. So once again, we were too late to bring home any of the goodies. We were consoled by a little cafe that does nice cakes and excellent coffee and a hearty lunch menu (squid ink spaghetti!) for what would be a weekday price in Barcelona.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Ribes de Freser and Vall de Núria (Spain)

After eighteen months of quietly pining in storage, our tent was finally let out to play. Two hours from Barcelona on the regional train brought us to Ribes de Freser, where we caught the rack railway for a very expensive half hour ride. The destination was Vall de Núria in the Pyrenees Mountains on the French border... and by "on the border," I mean that you could get to France by foot in under 2 hours.

Vall de Núria is a mountain resort with extensive trails in the summer and ski runs in the winter. The valley also has a sanctuary (the original reason for its settlement) and posh hotel (so you can hike in style). As mentioned, we set up camp instead. At about 2000 m (~ 6600 ft) above sea level, the drop in temperature from still balmy Barcelona did come as a little shock. In the evening, we were layering under our winter coats and glad of low temperature-rated sleeping bags. Unfortunately, Pepper was less prepared, and all night we took turns re-tucking her in to stop her shivering.

The days, however, were quite fine. Perfect autumn weather actually. The mountains were some of the most beautiful we've been in. It was easy to see why so many people raved about the area - one couple we know even named their daughter Núria after the valley. The hiking was pretty technical, even on the flats, which explains the profusion of trekking poles we saw. Being above the treeline made for some incredible views, and it was hard to get "Climb Every Mountain" out of my head. I half expected to see a singing nun over each new rise. The gorge was dotted with pretty little waterfalls, and the quaint highland meadow made us feel like we had accidentally wandered onto the packaging of some Alpine cheese.

We're looking forward to going back!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

La Mercè & BAM 2011, Barcelona

Another year, another La Mercè! Barcelona, an already hoppin' place, explodes - literally and figuratively - with cool events for the major festival in honor of its patron saint.

On the way to the first stop in our jam-packed schedule, we just happened upon the most amazing light show being projected onto the Ajuntament (City Hall). With shout-outs to old school video games and incredible visuals warping the building in the style of M.C. Escher drawings or the movie Inception, Julie kept emitting squeals of excitement while Rich's jaw stayed permanently dropped. It was so awesome we came back a couple of nights later to video it. If you click on the slideshow of pictures, you can watch the video (it may take a little time to load).

Free concerts were hosted all over the city with the concurrent Barcelona Acció Musical Festival (BAM). The Excitements played retro soul, channeling Proud Mary-era Tina Turner. Quentin Tarantino would have loved Los Tiki Phantoms, who rocked surf instrumentals dressed in black suits with leopard-print collars and skeleton masks. The lead singer from Man Man (Gogol Bordello and Modest Mouse go to the circus) decided to put on a dress mid-show, looking disturbingly like Liza Minelli sporting a Sonny Bono mustache. Other picks included Wu Lyf (unintelligible lyrics but good music), Herman Dune (fun even without the puppets), and after waiting 30 minutes in the rain, a rousing Mando Diao.

The central Parc de la Ciutadella was a haven for the artsy phartsy. We caught the Saint Petersburg Ballet (La Mercè's invited city for 2011) performing Swan Lake around the big fountain and in the middle of the lake (on platforms!) in an excellent use of the park's spaces. The talented ensemble Hand Made demonstrated clever and fun storytelling, miming with only bare arms and a black light. A steampunk (modern day inventions made in a Victorian-style) funfair included a bar where the bartender serves drinks from inside a submersible, a merry-go-round, and a ferris wheel with an amusing selection of seats (e.g. a toilet).

We finished out our La Mercè festivities at the Correfoc (Fire Run). Drum corps from the different barrios pound out rhythms as the diablos (devils) burst through the fiery Gates of Hell lighting a ridiculous amount of fireworks. Appropriately attired members of the crowd (long sleeves, pants, masks, scarves, goggles, hats, and no synthetic materials) dance under the revolving showers of sparks... and those who didn't get the memo, er, run screaming to avoid burns. Giant monsters, including Cerberus the 3-headed dog from Hell, a very pissed-off looking pig, and various demons, also spout flames on bystanders. Everyone gets to play with fire, dance with devils, and go home reeking of gunpowder!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Final Thoughts on Nicaragua

My Farmer-to-Farmer assignment with Partners of the Americas just flew by. Here are some odds and ends about my time in Nicaragua:

- Nicaragua was very pretty. Being on the move meant I was lucky to see a nice swath of the country. Even though I missed out on the famed beaches, the more off-the-tourist-trail highlands were gorgeous themselves. The tourism industry has not quite developed as much as neighboring Costa Rica (and the prices reflect that!), but I would suggest you run, not walk, to visit the country... and the food's delicious! Granada is more developed, but it is in the range of charming and still worth visiting.

- My pitiful Spanish couldn't hold up. Since my level is such that I need to actively listen to the person talking, my ability to concentrate pretty much petered out after about 2-3 hours. Combined with the difference in word choice (Castellano vs. Nicaragüense... think British vs. American English) and the accent (Central Americans swallow "s", for instance), I imagine there was a lot I missed. The gap in technical language was also significant. After all, in a general Spanish class, you might be lucky to learn words like "leaf" or "plant." Not so much "tillage" (i.e. "plowing" to civilians) or "scouting" (i.e. fancy word for looking for stuff in an organized manner).

- Radio stations that played music in English were amusing to listen to with early to mid-90's hits on heavy rotation. It was disturbing though how my memory - rendered so worthless in Spanish - was able to recall perfectly so many of these little lyrical nuggets. Gin Blossoms, anyone?

Finally, despite some of the ups (Someone else made their own yellow sticky trap! Woohoo!) and downs (the whole pesticide safety nightmare), I still continue to be impressed with what USAID is accomplishing with Farmer-to-Farmer programs. If I get another opportunity to volunteer, I will do it again! ... if Rich would let me :p

Monday, September 26, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 12-14 Selva Negra, Matagalpa, and Managua (Nicaragua)

The final days of my assignment were spent taking in more of Nicaragua's sights and doing administrative work.

Selva Negra is a private reserve in the cloud forests. You can enjoy the walking trails, try the delightful assortment of cakes in the restaurant, and visit the coffee farm. The term "coffee farm" should only lightly be applied. In addition to organic shade-grown coffee production and processing, Selva Negra also maintains horticulture greenhouses, fruit trees, composting and bio-gas facilities, a cheese-making dairy, and an abundance of livestock (cow, sheep, goat, chicken, duck, and quail for starters). Most of the products and produce get used in the restaurant or by the farm workers, but through a partnership with the Rainforest Alliance, you might find their coffee being sold in your local Whole Foods. My overnight visit was a good chance to see another dimension of Nicaragua's agriculture.

Our return trip was not without its own excitement. President Daniel Ortega, whose face and logos and slogans are all over billboards, bus stops, and bumper stickers in Nicaragua (elections are later this year), was giving a speech in Matagalpa. It seemed like everyone in the highlands was turning out to see him. The roads were packed with caravan after caravan of wildly hootin' and hollerin' supporters. Then, we even passed the president's own car!

Our arrival into Managua itself was more subdued. I did finally have a chance to taste that traditional weekend Nicaraguan treat - the nacatamale. On the outskirts of the city, we drove into an unremarkable residential neighborhood. We stopped outside a house with a tiny handwritten sign ("Hay nacatamales") and shouted through the gated door how many we wanted. The lady of the house came out to hand us the steaming bundles in plastic bags. Slow-cooked, spiced pork was encased in masa (corn meal dough) mixed with potato chunks, peppers, and onions. The sizeable mass - roughly 2-4 times the size of any Mexican tamale I've ever had - was topped with a slice of tomato (and possibly a grape leaf) and then wrapped in a giant plantain leaf to steam. It all made for a greasy, spicy, porky bundle of absolute deliciousness.

We headed back into the office for my final work day, exchanging pictures and checking paperwork. I continued to work on the report, the single most important document for a Farmer-to-Farmer program volunteer's assignment. Aside from chronicling our activities, it also details all the recommendations I made to growers, the Farmer-to-Farmer program itself, and even future volunteers. My assignment was part of a larger, ongoing horticulture project in the Nicaragua Farmer-to-Farmer program so it was also interesting to observe any changes made based on previous volunteers' suggestions and document them.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 10-11 Estelí, Jinotega, and La Concordia

My impression of Estelí, as formed through the windshield of the truck, was a boom town. At least, every other building appeared to be a ferretería (hardware store). How can it possibly support all of them? A little digging told me that Estelí tops the list of most efficient cities for obtaining a construction permit in Latin America.

Being on the road wasn't too bad. The stretch through the city is actually the Inter-American Highway, which is the Central American leg of the Pan-American Highway. The latter, for those of you wondering, is the crazy route that runs all the way from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. How's about 30,000 miles sound for a road trip? So I got a little kick out of taking it for a spell.

Onward to Jinotega and La Concordia we went, where more potato and horticulture growers awaited. These were some of the most packed rooms yet. Members of the National Potato Commission, Ministry of Agriculture technicians, and chemical industry reps also were in attendance. Discussions about physical controls (e.g. using mulches and black plastic) and pesticide safety were active, and everyone wanted to talk about the new pest and disease problems in Nicaragua. Breaks came with typical Nicaraguan snack packs (carb base in the form of rice/yucca/or tortilla, shredded meat, and usually topped with a vinegar cole slaw) and drinks... even juice of nancite, a sort of sweeter tamarind or tangier membrillo flavored fruit.

As these days were partly organized with ongoing field schools, we got to hear some of the other guests also speak. It was interesting being on the audience side of things in Nicaragua and even more curious to hear who was making what recommendations. When you hear someone of influence talk, it's not too hard to figure out how growers might decide to make a mind-blowing two applications per week of multiple pesticides in homemade "bomb" recipes!

Not all recommendations were so horrifying, of course. There were also highly knowledgeable, dedicated, and conscientious people sharing their experiences and suggestions. It was really great to see when one of them would get behind an idea or new approach. Other growers respected their opinion, and a few more previously skeptical people might start to pay attention.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 5 - 9 Granada, Managua, Matagalpa, and Estelí

At 6 am, we caught the local bus from Granada to Managua. There were no chickens on board, but the guy drumming up business on the door did his best to keep it packed with fares. The constant stopping and starting nearly doubled the time, but at 20 córdobas (~ 90 cents) a ride, they had to line their pockets somehow.

In Managua, we got into the truck and straight back onto the road, heading to the main potato-growing region. While the highlands of Nicaragua are gorgeously pastoral and green, it can be rough going from a farmer's point of view. Since other pursuits like drying coffee and growing rice occupy the ideal land in the valleys, the steep and rocky slopes make manual and animal labor the norm for potatoes. Potatoes in Nicaragua are grown mainly for consumption. Some are used for seed, but not enough to meet demand, so much gets imported from as far as away as Europe. Very little goes for processing although french fries (chips) are on many menus, and chips (crisps) are also becoming more popular.

In Matagalpa and Estelí we met with members of potato growers' cooperatives. In the fields I saw plenty of familiar faces from my past, that is, of the insect and disease kind (e.g. leaf beetles, leafhoppers, whiteflies, white grubs, late blight, and Erwinia spp.). Growers were also worried about the newer guys as there are a couple of serious, emerging problems in Nicaragua. While there was plenty to chat about in the fields, we did formal training sessions, too. Sometimes in the most unlikely places. One was a tin-roofed, dirt-floored shack in the middle of a nature reserve, where the solar panel eeked out just enough juice to fly through one presentation and a couple videos. The ensuing discussions - almost in the dark - though were some of the most dynamic, which just goes to show that you don't always need the technology.

Visiting a warehouse gave us insight into post-harvest practices, and some suggestions were made for improving sanitation and storage. We also got better informed about the resources available by trotting around to several agricultural supply shops in town. We had to go incognito, posing as interested buyers. Apparently, the clerks in general in Nicaragua tend to deliver death stares to the shopper who dares to tell them, "I'm just looking."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Granada (Nicaragua)

Founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (for whom Nicaragua's currency is named), Granada was one of the first cities on the mainland of the Americas. It's pretty, too. The colonial architecture helps. I also suspect there must be some kind of municipal law that no building can be painted less than three bright hues.

Boat tours of Las Isletas in Lake Nicaragua leave from Granada regularly. The 365 small islands were formed when nearby Mombacho Volcano blew its top long, long ago. You can even buy one for yourself. The lake was warm and remarkably peaceful. This must be why the rich and powerful of Nicaragua build luxury complexes on some of them with infinity pools and basketball courts. One even had a helipad! I wonder what they must think of their decidedly poorer neighbors, a few of the locals who still make their living with a well-cast fish net.

Granada is also a great base for exploring the area. At about 1300 m, Mombacho Volcano is home to a cloud forest. We didn't get to see a sloth. Quite possibly the boisterous tourists, blasting Pitbull's "Give Me Everything" from their iPhone on the trail, scared them away. See-through butterflies and bromeliads like bird-of-paradise were still around. I even caught a fleeting, shimmering blue glimpse of a gorgeous morpho butterfly. ¡Toma!

Lower down on volcano, zip-lining was offered for another view of Mombacho. After suiting up in the protective gear, we got to see - and hear - howler monkeys before heading up. I felt some trepidation doing an extreme sport without Rich, especially after the guides asked us if we wanted to do tricks. I opted out of the upside down variations, but "Bouncing Seat" and "Superman (with the guide)" were good fun. Really, "Wheelbarrow Race" would probably be a more apt name for the latter. Despite the rain starting to come down, "Bouncing Superman (solo)" made for a great ending!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 3 - 4 Managua and Nandasmo (Nicaragua)

Heading out to Nandasmo, about an hour's drive outside of Managua to the southeast, I was impressed by the quality of roads in Nicaragua. I came expecting pockmarked death traps, and instead, found smoothly paved motorways and working roundabouts. Granted, there is still a bright assortment of frequently stopping chicken buses and the occasional horse cart slowing down traffic... but these just add to the local color, like the guys who rush the car at the stoplight, offering to wash your windscreen or sell you cashews and coconuts. Taxis seem to be a tad unlucky though, as we saw loose parts work themselves free of two cabs in as many days.

We were meeting with a community organization of women growers, but upon arrival, found the eager crowd to be closer to fifty-fifty. A brief tour allowed the leaders of the group to showcase the work they have been doing to promote home gardens (an asset in the face of rising food prices), composting, and new products like nursery plants and different vegetables (Yankees out there: Nicaraguans are also not sure what to make about okra either!). After the welcome speech, a local girl gave us a folk dance - not on the agenda, but a pleasant surprise nonetheless.

Our program offered slightly less opportunities for creative expression... although it did involve an arts and crafts project: Make-Your-Own Yellow Sticky Traps. Think flypaper, except it's for things that will eat your crops. I also preached about that cornerstone of my undergraduate program (Can I get a "Boiler Up"?) : Integrated Pest Management - a strategy of combining physical, cultural, biological, and chemical control methods to reduce pest and disease problems when they have reached an economic level of damage. I say "preach" because these folks made quite a good "choir." They were happy to learn new methods and chime in with their experiences and ideas. Scouting (regular, systematic monitoring of your crop) and encouraging beneficial insects ("good" bugs that like to kill the "bad" bugs) were also big topics. The group went back out to the field for hands-on I Spy. Seriously though, their good observations and samples they collected opened up on-the-fly discussions about insects and diseases and how to manage them. Finally, we ended with the cooking show portion of the program - recipes for quick and easy insecticidal sprays. Take that, Rachel Ray!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 1 - 2 Managua (Nicaragua)

After two delayed flights and a complementary personalized screening by those oh-so-kind Homeland Security folks in Miami, I finally arrived in Managua 20 hours later. The capital of Nicaragua sometimes gets a bad rap for safety, but I didn't really get to test this out. What with the -8 hours of jetlag, most of what I saw was the office or the inside of the hotel room. I did make a mental note that the security guards did patrol with a shotgun or handgun outside the hotel. However, I was told this was not necessary.

The first real day was spent in orientation at the Partners of the Americas office. In addition to the Farmer-to-Farmer program, the organization in Nicaragua has a variety of other development programs and projects, not all related to agriculture. They have a special relationship in particular with Wisconsin (their "Partner"), which explains why there seemed to be so many UW Badgers among the volunteers.

I am lucky to have a Partners Field Officer accompanying me during this assignment. Elisa will be my driver, translator, logistics coordinator, tour guide, and boss... and ok, maybe a little bit my babysitter. I also got to meet the other volunteer, Heath, who will be joining us for the first week. We discussed the proposed agenda, watched some videos we could potentially use in training, and struggled mightily and fruitlessly with the presentations I had prepared beforehand. Frickin' Linux! To be fair, Windows 7 wasn't playing nicely either.

I did get to see a couple of Managua's fiercely air-conditioned shopping malls. Other than the kiosks selling quesillos (creamy, cheesy, oniony things I can't wait to try) and haunting Movistar ringtones (which I had hoped to get away from), the malls could be in the States. Department store gift wrapping is still alive here though, and you can get guanabana (soursop) ice cream. Grabbing some quick bites to eat, the food courts have a dizzying array of options, including traditional Nicaraguan food. Beans, if not in the national dish of gallo pinto (beans and rice cooked separately and then fried together), come in a refried puree but with a dash of sugar. With those addictive forms of chips/crisps (ripe ones thinly sliced, fried, and salted) or tostones (green ones sliced thickly, fried or baked, smashed, and fried again), I've got to say "Yay for plantains!"

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: the Sequel (Nicaragua)

In July, I completed a volunteer assignment with the USAID's (United States Agency for International Development) Farmer-to-Farmer program in Mozambique. It was a very good experience for me... so much so that when I received an offer for another assignment, I decided - aside from the whole being apart from Rich and Pepper again - "Well, why not? Sign me up!"

Partners of the Americas is the organization that administers the Farmer-to-Farmer program in Latin America and the Caribbean. I will be working in Nicaragua providing technical assistance and training to growers and cooperatives as part of their ongoing project improving the horticulture (e.g. vegetable agriculture) value chain. As a Pest and Disease Control Specialist, it's a great chance to actually use both the entomology (bugs) and plant pathology (plant diseases) sides of my background... as well as a way to see how that whole learning Spanish thing is coming along.

I will be updating the blog with my experiences if you want to read along. So here I go, once more unto the breach, dear friends...

To read more about my previous assignment in Mozambique, you can start reading here:

To learn more about the Farmer-to-Farmer program, visit the USAID and Partners of the Americas websites:

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Final Thoughts on Turkey... mostly its food

We thoroughly enjoyed our Turkey vacation and the variety of new things we got to see and do.

If you didn't know it was going on, we were surprised that Ramadan did not make much of an appearance, other than in a few places... at least, along the tourist trail. We really wanted to experience a traditional iftar (breaking-of-the-fast) meal, but most places were strictly for the observing faithful (typically tents next to the mosque), and we didn't want to intrude. It looked like there was a chance in cosmopolitan Istanbul, but we arrived too late for the seating... and stupidly, it didn't occur to us until we were there, that of course, there would be no second seating!

Turkey offered a varied and delicious cuisine with not a bad meal in the entire trip. In a country where they also revere my favorite meat, my streak of eating lamb ran 13 days. On the coast, there were fried whole fishes and even calamari. Turkish breakfasts ensured a regular supply of fresh goat cheese and exceptional honey. Faced with tantalizingly prepared vegetables and a wealth of meze options, I decided to ignore the traveling taboos of eating of the raw, unboiled, and unpeeled... and was rewarded (or lucky) with nary a bellyache! ...mmm, ripe figs the size of your palm.

The real prize of Turkish fare, especially for backpackers, is the vast array of fast food. In all their shapes and forms, kebaps are king. The meat on them is real meat and bares little resemblance to the baloney-grade rotating skewers you see elsewhere. Red cabbage or garlic sauce did not appear in the original version, but frequently, three or four cold french fries would get thrown in. Pides (Turkish canoe-shaped pizzas), lahmacun (round Arabic pizzas with no cheese), and gözleme (Turkish crepes) were cheap and came with all kinds of toppings. My personal favorite were the börek, a family of rolled or layered flaky pastries that get stuffed with savory (spiced ground meat, cheese, spinach, potato, or some combination thereof) or sweet (fruit) fillings.

Finally, in our last days in Turkey, we became big fans of mulhallebi (Turkish milk puddings). There was your common rice pudding version, an almost flan-like one with a caramel syrup layer under a bed of ground walnuts, and another with a powdery burnt sugar envelope. It was relief to discover the "chicken breast pudding" was just another milk pudding in the shape of a raw chicken breast and did not actually contain any poultry. Cooling and creamy, they were a refreshing break from the sugar and honey stickiness of most Turkish desserts.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Selçuk, Ephesus, Denizli, and Pamukkale (Turkey)

Selçuk is the town functioning as the gateway to Ephesus. The ancient Greco-Roman city of Ephesus (Efes in Turkish) was the second largest city in the world in 1st century B.C. We heard that archaeologists sometimes use theater capacity to estimate population size. Assuming one in ten people were theater-goers makes me think the ancients must have been a much more cultured bunch... or that there was nothing better to do. For me personally, the true mark of civilization was the presence of toilet seats in the Ephesus latrines! We were lucky to arrive as the archaeological site opened and before the swarms from the cruise ships and coach buses came to view the largest collection of Roman ruins in the Eastern Mediterranean. For religious travelers, probably the most famous resident in the area was Mary, whose house where St. John took her to live (post-Ascension, pre-Assumption) is also open for visits.

Denizli also is better known as a way-station. The real draw is Pamukkale ("cotton castle" in Turkish), a short bus ride way. Hot springs flowing down the mountainside form strange white terraces, or travertines. You can walk up the surreal landscape without shoes and bathe in the shallow, pale blue pools along the way. Not exactly sure why, but the place seem to inspire the taking of many Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editıon-type provocative shots from the bikini-wearing masses. Even though the temperatures were soaring, the fact that the water running along these icy-looking surfaces (calcium carbonate deposits) was not the tiniest bit cool was difficult to wrap your head around. At the top of the slope, included in the ticket was Heirapolis, a Greco-Roman spa city. For a hefty surcharge, you could swim in the same antique pool. The other ruins were less impressive after Ephesus, but a more jarring sight was seeing the same visitors - still clad in their thongs or speedo's - clamber over ancient structures.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Kaş and Fethiye (Turkey)

After several abortive attempts, we finally got to try the meze (selection of small hot and cold plates) dinner on the terrace of our delightful hotel in Kaş. Found in the cuisines of many ex-Ottoman empire holdings, the Turkish meze we sampled included: stuffed grape leaves; pasta - or maybe it was cheese - and other unidentifiable chunks of goodness masked in thick yogurt; white beans and carrot in a tomato-based dressing; a concoction of finely shredded, roasted red peppers and bulgur; tomato-y roasted eggplant; pickled red cabbage salad; and a dip which looked like hummous but had a very strong walnut taste. Washed down with a generous glass of Turkish red wine (a nice, medium-bodied selection, maybe lacking a little in complexity) for me and an Efes beer (pilsner) for Rich, it was a delicious meal with a splendid view of the sunset over the harbor.

We headed to Fethiye to join in on one of the quintessential Turkish holiday experiences - the blue cruise. Gulets (traditional, two-masted wooden boats) have become a popular option for taking in the Turquoise Coast. Choosing the 12 Island itinerary, we cruised along to different small bays and islands for the occasional dip in the water or hike up to ruins. Unfortunately, with motoring being such a convenient and speedy option, the sails are for show in most boats. Our vessel's single attempt to unfurl its jib had us wondering if we had actually started drifting backwards. Life on board was very relaxing. The most pressing concerns were whether to snorkel now or wait until the next idyllic spot, flagging down the ice cream man who would chug along in his tiny skiff delivering joy to blue cruises along the way, or deciding which book to read next in the book exchange. We were lucky in that our dozen or so companions on the boat were amiable, well-traveled folks swapping funny stories (including one about a live show where Dave Chappelle had a nervous breakdown on stage for 9 hours... did you even know he was still alive?!) and not hardcore gap-year booze cruisers which can dominate the scene (kids these days!).

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Göreme and Kaş (Turkey)

We took our second overnight bus from Göreme to Antalya. Overnight buses in Turkey are great. The coaches are air-conditioned, and each assigned seat has its own built-in screen. It's a shame that all the channels are in Turkish. There's a bus attendant who periodically stops by to offer you goodies - moist towelette, drinks, snacks even - all included in the price. But don't be fooled just because he wears a tie or gives you cake. I looked out of the window at one stop to see our bus attendant in fisticuffs with an irate passenger. Sure, the passenger's surprise punch landed on the attendant's cheek and cut it open with his wedding ring. However, this guy was built like a boxer, and the ensuing fight required two groups to pry them apart with the passenger's kerchief-ed wife pleading loudly between them. The bus attendant resumed his duties imperturbably with only the blood spatter on his otherwise immaculate shirt to indicate differently.

The day bus from Antalya to Kaş was a different story. A long, boring one. The bus driver added an extra hour to the 3-hour trip by stopping for tea several times and picking up random people from the side of the road for extra cash in his pocket. These passengers crammed in on plastic stools down the aisle and included a woman with a crying baby covered in some kind of infectious pox.

Kaş is located on Turkey's famed Turquoise Coast. The town is set steeply into rocky slopes, and the water is very blue here. Boats dock in the small harbor, and you can even take a short ferry to the Greek island of Kastelorizo (Meis in Turkish) about a mile offshore. We came to this relaxing, beach town for adventure.

Sea kayaking is one way to view the sunken city of Kekova. Unfortunately, our trip did not really end up stopping there as planned. However, after fighting foul winds and swells for 3 hours without working rudders, I think everyone was quite happy to forgo the visit and make it to dry land. [At this point, any one who knows about our brutal 10 days of kayaking in Belize must be wondering why we would ever subject ourselves to them again. I guess that all we can say is, "Memories fade?!?"]

Our other adventure gave us a better sense of accomplishment. Canyoning is traveling through a canyon the adrenaline way. We scrambled and slid over boulders, abseiled (rappelled) down waterfalls, jumped from rocky precipices into icy pools, and rode zip-lines through steeper descents... all in an extremely unflattering get-up of helmet, wetsuit, and a canyoning "diaper"/harness combination. Really looking forward to abseiling for the first time, I was sorely disappointed to find my lack of coordination showed again in typically ungraceful style. Many of the straight out jumps involved a specific trajectory so as not to bash your body against the foaming rocks around or below. At times, I admit the fear threatened to overwhelm me, and I had to just suck it up and jump. The most panic-inducing was a jump from a tiny ledge down a 20 ft (6 m) narrow shaft in the rock with the guide shouting, "Aim for the bubbles!" Even getting out of the canyon again was a challenge - an unexpected portion of free-climbing followed by a relentlessly steep, vertical ascent of a 1 km hike... in aforementioned wetsuit. Seven hours after starting, Rich, of course, was still happy and leaping like a mountain goat!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Göreme, Selime, Derinkuyu, and the Ilhara Valley in Cappadocia (Turkey)

Once “the land of beautiful horses,” bred for the Persian empire (or Rich prefers “the land of adorable puppies”), the Cappadocia region is now popular for... rocks. Volcanic activity and millions of years created some fantastic geological formations. Hiking lets you see how each valley (e.g. Pigeon, Love, White, Red, or Rose Valleys) has its own features. Sedimentary layers create interesting striations. “Fairy chimneys” alternately look like pillars, minarets, soft-serve ice cream, meringue (ok, maybe those last two are only if you are hungry), or a certain male body part.

Taking advantage of the softer, volcanic rock, people have been digging out caves since ancient times. Whole underground cities even. We visited Derinkuyu, one of the fifteen excavated in the area. It has 11 floors underground with the oldest layer dating to several centuries B.C.! Used for protection from whomever was fighting topside, Derinkuyu could accommodate 25,000 people... and all their animals. When you see the large section that had been devoted to an underground winery, you know they were settling in for the long haul.

Of course, in those days, some of the people were hiding out in caves for religious reasons (think hermits in The Life of Brian). We visited a big ruin of a monastery carved into the rock in Selime. You can also see some of the rock-cut churches elsewhere in the Ilhara Valley and in the Göreme Open Air Museum. Most of those dating back to when Christianity arrived in the region (as far back as when they could say things like “my grandad hung out with Jesus”) are pretty simple, but later ones have frescoes.

Visitors to Cappadocia can share in the experience by staying in caves that have been fashioned into hotel rooms. We stayed in one in Göreme which came with the requisite Turkish breakfast (tea, coffee, bread, butter, honey, jam, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and ample hunks of fresh – probably goat – cheese). The most popular dish (or hyped tourist trap) in Cappadocia was the testi kebap. A casserole of meat and vegetables cooked in the terracotta pot that gets delivered to your table – en flambé in the posher places – and gets ceremoniously broken open to be served. After getting a few grits of ceramic in his mouth, Rich wholly endorses letting the professionals do it rather than taking them up on the offer to break it yourself.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Istanbul (Turkey)

For our summer vacation together, we opted for Turkey... along with the rest of Spain. We heard nearly as much Castellano in Istanbul as in Barcelona.

Istanbul exists at a crossroads between religions (Islam and Christianity), continents (Europe and Asia), and time (ancient and modern life). The Christian church of Aya Sofia, when finished in a scant 6 years (I'm hinting at you, Sagrada Familia!), was compared with the magnificence of Solomon's temple. Then it became a mosque. Now it's a museum. Mosaics depicting Jesus and company decorate the walls while giant medallions of a master Muslim calligrapher hang from the celings.

The Blue Mosque, still used as one, sits opposite. From the outside, it looks like a building from Coruscant, for all you Star Wars fans. All that's missing are a few lighters zipping around the background. Inside is a carpeted expanse covered with domes of intricate painted designs. Outside, we chanced upon a taping for Turkish television with a Rudy Guiliani look-alike. The program allowed us to have a free viewing of whirling dervishes. One poor fellow might have had to abort his prayerful dancing due to premature dizziness.

The sprawling grounds of Topkapi Palace were once home to the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. A selection of the crown jewels are available for viewing with blingin' thrones and emeralds the size of your palm a common sight. Should your tastes run more toward the spiritual, there are also some important Islamic relics. These include bits of the beard of the prophet Muhammad (stored in what looked like light bulbs) and the rod of Moses (handy for parting seas with).

A Bosphorus ferry ride will take you up the strait between Europe and Asia. Yalis, the summer mansions of sultans and the rich, dot either coast. The European side looks very European in architecture and high street shop options. The bridge at the mouth of the Golden Horn is a great spot to get a sandwich from guys frying the fish up on severely rocking boats.

It is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish). The food in Turkey has been fantastic so far, but we do feel guilty stuffing our faces in front of people who have to wait until sunset to eat. In the ancient Hippodrome and Sultanahmet park, families and friends gather in picnics to break their fast. Lines pack the pavements as restaurants do crazy business (kebabs so fast you'll freak!) in the hour beforehand. When the mosque finally makes the calls, the babble of the crowds goes silent for a good half hour as everyone chows down.

Turkey could challenge even the most hardcore sweet tooth. Most Turkish sweets seem to revolve around combining sugar in all its forms. Solving the problem of sugar dropping out of solution, Turkish desserts just coat everything in honey for good measure. There's your basic dozen variations on baklava (sugared and honeyed layers of pastry) or Turkish delight (jellied sugar coated in powdered sugar), which I did not think was good enough to betray your family for (see Edmund in the Chronicles of Narnia). We also tried out some sweets we are calling “goo on a stick” (multi-colored sugary taffy), “Turkish churros” (dripping with honey and dusted with coconut and pistachio), and “Turkish gulab jamun” (fried doughballs soaked in honey). They were all so sweet that Rich was using Coca-cola as a palate cleanser!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Final thoughts on Mozambique

Three weeks flew by quickly in Mozambique. From a professional view, it would have been nice to spend an extra week seeing how the lab puts into regular practice the training and recommendations. As a visitor, I would have liked to see more of the country itself. My hotel in Beira was a block away from the Indian Ocean, and I never even got a chance to see the beach. Below are some odds and ends from my time.


USAID's Farmer-to-Farmer Program was a very good experience for me. It was really great to use my agricultural science background and teaching skills in another environment. Thanks to the following organizations:
- Oregon State University Seed Lab
- SNS-Chimoio

Lost in Translation

Other than numbers and days, my limited Spanish did not really help my understanding of Portuguese. The Mozambican version sounds really different than the accents I'd heard in Brasil and Portugal.

When I first arrived, people kept mentioning talking to or getting help from "fow." It took a few minutes to remember "pao" (bread in Portuguese) is pronounced "pow," so then I realized "fow" probably referred to "FAO," the Food and Agriculture Organization!

Working with a translator was a new experience for me. One simple thing I hadn't considered before is that explaining anything takes at least twice as long. This made my estimates for training time way off.

A few, amusing times, the translator had to go several rounds between the lab members and me, only to discover that, as a scientist training scientists, I had already anticipated and understood their questions. So the translator was the communication barrier! It was great illustration that scientists around the world think alike.

Food and Cooking

Most of the Mozambican dishes I had were simple and unremarkable - beef stews or the ubiquitous grilled chicken and chips. I was really expecting to see a lot more beans or lentils in the diet, but many legumes (other than pintos and green beans) are imported and expensive. Vegetables seemed to be limited to the regular side salad of lettuce, onion, and tomato (this may be because I was visiting during winter). I am told that the highlights of Mozambican food are the seafood dishes, but I was too far inland to sample any.

Much of the cooking at home is done on charcoal, which does add a great smoky flavor. The downside is that this practice results in people getting sick or dying from the fumes and poor ventilation. One shocking statistic said that charcoal-related deaths in Africa were higher than the deaths from malaria! Part of the trouble I was told is that people who make charcoal make it from any tree - not necessarily the most efficient burning or least toxic wood.


As a developing country, I expected to see differences in the technology being employed. On one hand, a visit to a large seed processing/conditioning plant showed equipment and pesticide technology that was a old but still in use in the U.S. On the other hand, it was an awakening to hear a retailer get excited about the potential of their new product - hybrid seed. To put this in perspective, his current seeds were open-pollinated varieties, and hybrid seed technology for corn (maize) became available in quantity to American farmers in 1930.

Power outages were less than anticipated with only the occasional flicker. Phone and internet coverage could be really spotty. Vodaphone and MCel are the two carriers, and some people carry one of each to make sure they have service. The street corners of Chimoio were always littered with guys selling lottery-ticket-type strips of cards to top up your mobile.

Chimoio is the fifth largest city in Mozambique, and still, finding items on your shopping list, particularly electronics-related, could be difficult. Much in the shops are secondhand luck of the draw or poorly manufactured, giving China a bad rap in Mozambique. It took three stores to find a plug adapter for the scale in the lab, and we never did find a replacement light bulb or a good desk lamp to use for evaluations.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 17 - 21 (Mozambique)

My assignment ended in a flurry. After the most intense day of training, the lab members were happy to finally relax and take pictures. The translator and I had to get back to work after the brief respite. Final revisions had to be completed so we could leave the lab with the complete documents - more than 60 pages worth for each copy.

My time with the seed lab was over but not the work. USAID volunteers prepare a detailed trip report to document their experience and observations. Some of it could have been written during the weeks with the lab. However, as training outcomes and future recommendations are a large chunk, I waited to provide the most comprehensive information. This probably sounds arrogant, but the mixture of pride and relief at finishing that slog of writing (and realizing what we had been able to accomplish) felt almost akin to turning in my graduate school thesis.

The bumpy trip back to Beira was the first time I had really been on the roads late. It was easier to understand a news piece I had seen where a single highway accident had claimed the lives of 20 people. Chapas (the local transportation) are packed tightly, bicycles and pedestrians do not keep to the shoulder (people drive on the left), and lights on vehicles or streets are pretty rare. Apparently, the general lack of bicycles I had wondered about in Chimoio were a result of road checks discouraging them because of the amount of accidents they caused. And oh, yeah, we also passed a massive wildfire in the bush, which in the States, would have had camera crews swarming, did not even register a comment from my companions in the truck!

My last morning in Mozambique was spent finishing paperwork at the CNFA office in Beira. It was a quick trip to the bank to exchange Meticais for euros and off to the airport. No one in security questioned the bottle of water in my bag, but careful examination of the two bottles of piri-piri sauce was needed. It was probably strange for them to think that something as common as salt in Mozambique would be a souvenir.

Joburg was freezing again, even armed with my coat from the Chimoio market. I did get a nice surprise (and the supreme envy of my aero-engineer-by-training dad) when I got to board my first A380. There were two jet bridges to board the two floors, so those in first and business classes did not have to mix with the riff raff of steerage, er, I mean, economy. Inside it did not look too much different, except the overhead storage bins were impressively deep, and the sides of the plane were so concave that you got a fishbowl effect with the window. Unfortunately, these observations were not detailed enough for the grilling from my Dad, who even suggested I should have lifted a safety card from the seat pocket in front of me for a souvenir!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Gorongosa National Park (Mozambique)

After oscillating between the inside of the lab and in front of the computer, I was really looking forward to seeing a bit more of Mozambique than just Chimoio. It was my first time in "real" Africa (everyone agreed Morocco doesn't really count). For my final weekend, I wanted to go on a safari!

In its heyday, Gorongosa National Park was the premiere safari destination in Africa. Civil war and poaching caused devastating losses in the wildlife and left the 5000+ sq km (~ 2000 sq miles) riddled with landmines. In recent years, the Carr Foundation and the government - along with other partners, like USAID also - have been working to rebuild the infrastructure and repopulate the wildlife as Africa's largest restoration project.

The public camp was fully booked for several weeks, but luckily, I squeezed into a spot with Explore Gorongosa, the first private venture. I found out why when I arrived. National Geographic was shooting a follow-up on the park after their first film, Africa's Lost Eden (see the link below for the trailer).

Also, lo and behold! E.O. Wilson - Pulitzer Prize winner, the rockstar of entomology, and god among conservationists - just happened to be visiting this remote corner of Mozambique. He and his entourage were on a biodiversity tour. As I was explaining to my physicist husband, this was a bit like having Stephen Hawking in the next camp over pop in for a cup of tea. [As a side note, our college entomology club once drove 2 hours to hear him give a lecture with the words "E.O. or Bust!" emblazoned on the side of the van.] Alas, the poor man (82 years old and going) was pretty worn out with the travel and paparazzi. His packed schedule got thrown out of whack, so in the end, I did not get to meet him or attend his talk. So close yet so far away...

While I didn't a glimpse of E.O., it was a great consolation to see some equally rare creatures! With the short time frame, our game drives were so lucky that I was seriously starting to doubt the guide's claims that some animals were difficult to find. Elephants there are particularly skittish since their interactions with humans have been through the violence of war or unrestricted hunting. We sat and watched elephants twice... even though the previous guests had gone almost a week looking for just one! Even the night viewing was good. A mother lioness and her three offspring were lounging with their bellies full at Casa dos Leões (an abandoned building), a place where they hadn't been seen for 3 years. On a walk, I got props for spotting a hefty Pel's Fishing Owl, apparently quite a feather in the cap for many serious birders. On my final drive, we came across a herd of buffalo, which even the guide hadn't seen since he had started working there.

Gorongosa also has more common creatures, which I still found thrilling. Because of the lack of big predators, the park is abundant with easily viewed smaller animals. Baboons with red bottoms and vervet monkeys scamper in and about the trees. To those fans of The Lion King, the first time one of the numerous warthogs came trotting by, it was really hard not to shout, "Pumbaa!" Gorongosa is absolutely teeming with antelope from the tiny oribi to the almost llama-like waterbuck. There were all the reedbucks, bushbucks, hartebeests, nyalas, and impalas in between.

The diversity of the 10 different biomes within the park make it an attraction for birders as well. I am not one, but I could appreciate the cougals, cranes, vultures, thrushes, and herons, too. My favorite birdy was the lilac-breasted roller. I think this is a misnomer. Ok, yeah, it has a purple chest. But it also has beautiful turquoise bands across its wings that, in flight, flash iridescently like a frickin' morpho butterfly!

After early starts and extended game drives, it was relaxing to come back to the camp. Greeted with refreshing drinks (even Pimm's!), turn-down service in your private tent, and dinner on white tablecloths under a gorgeous view of the stars would make anyone enjoy "camping." The camp was really eco-friendly - including no electricity - without sacrificing luxury. Who would really want to quibble about a bucket shower when one could have afternoon tea and cakes delivered to your hammock?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 10 - 16 (Mozambique)

With most of the observations and customer interviews over, the real work began. The lab makes sure that farmers, processers, or retailers know that the seed sold in this region of Mozambique is what the label says it is. For example, the lab does testing to estimate how the seeds from a specific lot or field would germinate and produce healthy seedlings. Here are some of the things I did:

  • Made suggestions to improve the consistency and efficiency of their testing

  • Defined how each step should be done with the resources available - even down to how many times the equipment needed to be cleaned and with what

  • Checked that the testing adhered to - or at least, moved closer to - the international accreditation standards

  • Prepared documents so the lab could improve record-keeping

  • Organized a chain of command to monitor the steps, handle problems, and conduct internal audits

  • Conducted training for all the above

  • Answered questions

...and repeat. For pretty much every regular thing the lab does. Even mundane tasks like how you should handle soil. If it seems like a lot of paper shuffling, it's because the long-term goal of international accreditation requires a paper trail closer to Law & Order or CSI's chain of custody for forensic evidence.

It was a marathon of preparing training materials, working with the translator to get them into Portuguese, doing the actual training, and finishing any revisions. It didn't help that each morning, the rooster outside my room insisted that I get out of bed by 4:00 am. The training schedule became even more intense due to some final interviews with a customer and an unexpected tragedy.

A relative of the senior analyst died suddenly. Mozambicans really respect the time for mourning. Typically, a week of funeral leave is expected with up to a month or two off if the distance is far. Everyone who knows the deceased or even distant relatives go to offer their condolences. Funerals were not an uncommon site in Chimoio. I passed processions (a few open bed trucks with standing room only and a white cross at the head) for 4 different ones just going to and from the lab. It is telling that, hearing a relative of mine died recently at 51, the people in the lab considered it a ripe old age.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 5 - 9 (Mozambique)

The regional seed lab in Chimoio (my host organization) is actually responsible for all testing in Manica and nearby provinces. The entire lab is just seven people, who really have their hands full trying to keep up with the analyses, certificates, and field inspections. In the past, FAO and DANIDA have provided support, but funding has come to an end. My assignment includes providing technical assistance to help them best use their limited resources and improve the quality and consistency of their results.

My first full week I was observing the lab's practices, learning about their current protocols, and generally inventorying their current situation and resources. They have been very patient with my one-on-one interrogations, which could be nerve-wracking without knowing what to expect. Later in the week, we met with some of their customers (seed companies, retailers, and growers/producers) to interview them and get feedback about the lab's services.

The lab is actually located on the grounds of one of its customers. Originally part of SEMOC (Sementes de Moçambique, the only seed company in Mozambique before 1999), the lab now operates under the Ministry of Agriculture. The perks of being at the site were SEMOC letting us tour the processing/conditioning plant (I was told over a handful of seed, “Here, you can smell the insecticide [seed treatment]!”) and use of the canteen.

The lady in the semi-outdoor kitchen prepares a couple of options everyday. Notable dishes were Zambezi-style chicken in a peanut and coconut sauce and a whole, fried mackerel with a side of pinto bean-kale stew. Accompaniments are a huge pile of rice or giant lump of nsima, the southern African version of … grits! Yes, in various states of congealment, this is a major staple in the diet. According to the translator, Mozambicans prefer a more refined version compared to more “grit”-like Zimbabwean style. It seems to go pretty well with the piri-piri sauce and stays steaming hot, an added bonus when dining al fresco on a cool day.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 2-4 (Mozambique)

Bright and early we headed into the interior to Chimoio, about 205 km away from Beira. The EN6 was pretty busy - and potholed - since it links Zimbabwe to the port in Beira. Coastal plains gave way to brushy hillsides and worn mountains. Tiny stands sell hanging bunches of bananas, pyramids of oranges, stalks of sugarcane, or sacks of charcoal roadside.

Chimoio is the capital of Manica province and my base for the assignment. Arriving so close to the weekend, after introductions to my translator and my host organization, as well as a tour of the facilities, the rest of the day was spent settling into the place.

Chimoio's morning chill can sometimes threaten to merge seamlessly into the evening cool. Fighting a cold as I arrived, I finally admitted defeat for the sweater I brought. I had my eye on a used, Quicksilver jacket - which was overpriced for my foreigner looks - in the town's open market, but my translator wisely steered me to another, quite serviceable option... and really, for 50 Meticais (~1.80 USD), who can really complain?

Shoprite, located on the outskirts of town, was another shopping experience. A western-style supermarket, it is probably ten times the size of our local Dia in Barcelona. Advised to stock up on provisions there since it is cheaper than other shops, I was surprised at how expensive many of the items actually were. For example, a box of juice that normally runs me 0.80 euros is 85 Meticais (~ 3 USD).

My translator - and by extension, a couple of his friends and his son- watched out for me on the weekend. In town, we meandered through people's yards, then linking up to the path to nearby Cabeça do Velho (Old Man's Head in Portuguese, the language leftover from its colonial days). The granite mountain is like the profile of a man's face if he was lying down and looking up at the sky. In the rainy season, apparently, the water even streams from his eyes so he appears to be crying. We passed some wandering goats, women doing washing, and scraggly, greyish cacti on the way up. It was really windy at the top - probably a strain for the religious man chanting there-, but the views across the surrounding landscape were great.

Pleasing my mom and taking in the cultural experience, too, I went to church on Sunday. The small cathedral was packed with many overlapping shoulders (Mozambicans seem to worry less about maintaining personal space). I almost missed the offering, which required clambering over my neighbors to drop it in front of the altar. The music was much more enjoyable than in Spain - which leans toward a more unapproachable, operatic and organ-heavy style. The choir had a really nice call-and-response thing going, and drumming and clapping made the mass upbeat and joyous.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 0-1 (South Africa and Mozambique)

Twenty-two hours after starting my journey, I arrived... in the same time zone. This strange fact was a little difficult to wrap my head around. I almost would have preferred the jet lag. At least, it's a more plausible excuse for the weariness and disorientation of extended periods of time stowed in coach's upright and locked position.

Leaving the heat and humidity of Barcelona's summer, a southern hemisphere winter smacked me full in the face upon arrival in Johannesburg (South Africa) airport. At a nippy 34F/1C, other passengers in this way-station were bundled in blankets and an abundance of fleece. I watched a better prepared bulky woman shrink before my eyes as she shed layer after layer going through security. If you came ill-equipped, the airport had a high-end outdoor clothing and shoe company with stacks of floppy hats and zip-off trousers for those headed on safari. Other stores, like a butcher selling an assortment of bush meat jerky and a home decor shop where you could buy a real zebra skin rug, were easy reminders you were now really in Africa.

Mozambique, thankfully, is a tad bit warmer. Coming into Beira, Mozambique's largest port and second largest city, I swear I saw a crocodile in the shallows of the Pungue River. The fine folks from CNFA Mozambique came to meet me (and helped sort out getting the change back from my visa). After a briefing at the local office, there wasn't much day left to see Beira itself. I did manage to enjoy my dinner of grilled chicken with a side of piri-piri (the hot chili sauce that seems to come to tables here as regularly as salt and pepper) at a restaurant playing Mozambican music.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Introduction

A long time ago and in a city thousands of miles away... One of my professors at N.C. State related some of her work in class with berry growers in Latin America. Keen to mix my interest in agriculture and love of travel, I asked her how I could get involved in similar work. She revealed it had been as a volunteer with USAID's (U.S. Agency for International Development) Farmer-to-Farmer program.

Farmer-to-Farmer (or FTF) is not your average volunteering program and definitely not agri-tourism. A volunteer will spend upwards of two weeks in a developing country working on a specific project which has been identified to strengthen the local agriculture. The projects can be anywhere along the value chain from growers/production to post-harvest processing to the business side in finance or strategic planning.

I duly filled out profiles with the organizations who coordinate FTF - different ones for different parts of the world - and submitted my application to various postings. It never worked for me. I should mention that FTF is more targeted in that volunteers have years of experience so they can confidently consult on, say, "Vegetable Oil Expeller Design and Construction" or "Market Development and Promotion of Soy Products" - real assignments if you know anyone! Likely, being fresh out of grad school wasn't enough to make the cut.

With a few years under my belt, and the looming luxury of a European summer vacation allowance, I started trying again. Incredibly, CNFA - who coordinates FTF in Southern Africa- was looking for a Seed Lab Specialist! This, of course, was just the nice niche of agriculture I was working in previously, and therefore, a fantastic opportunity to transfer some of that knowledge. I applied and was accepted, got poked and prodded by the doctor, filled out the requisite paperwork, and tried in vain to assuage some of my parents' fears (Rich is 100% supportive as always... and Pepper doesn't know any better). I will be here nearly 3 weeks, and you can follow me in this ongoing series from my assignment in Mozambique.

To learn more about the Farmer-to-Farmer program, visit the USAID and CNFA websites:

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Corpus in La Garriga (Spain)

Our friend invited us out to his town's celebration for Corpus Christi, a feast day for the Body of Christ. La Garriga, about 50 minutes north on the train from Barcelona, is a town famous for its hot springs - which we can recommend! - and fine examples of Modernisme (Catalan modernism) architecture. Some of these buildings are open to the public during Corpus, including one whose smallish rooms were dwarfed by the religious paintings that would encompass entire walls - check out the painting of Jesus getting circumcised and other pictures by clicking on the Barcelona album on the left.

Casa Barbey was our favorite house though with intricate iron work, tile accents in floral motifs, a fountain whimsical with snail sculptures, and a gorgeous sundial in mosaic. With a hedged garden fit for a tennis court, it's a bargain at 20 million euros!

Other notable structures open for Corpus included the granite tunnels used as a bomb shelter during the civil war (exceptionally cool in heat of the day) and the Roman ruins of the bath house of Can Terres whose "series of small walls" (a la Eddie Izzard) were scorching hot. The indifferent docent reluctantly took a break from her sunbathing to tick off our visit on her record.

The pride of La Garriga's Corpus festival are the floral carpets, or "catifes," that different schools and organizations design and construct on the streets of the town. Bright carnations and gerbera daisies were set off nicely by the greens of stems and sprigs of evergreens, pale yellows and tans of dried grains and chaff, and deep browns of mulches. Even celebrities were attracted to the event - Rich can now say he said, "Hola!" to the President of Catalunya! He was passing by with the mayor of La Garriga.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sant Joan in Barcelona (Spain)

Living in a Catholic country means that important days in the church can also translate into public holidays... and yes, will we take'em! Witness our first holiday in June on the 13th was for Pentecost, which gets literally translated as "Second Easter." Another day off was on June 24th for the feast of Saint John the Baptist (Sant Joan in Catalan).

Barcelona celebrates with parties the night before on June 23rd. A few days beforehand makeshift stalls sell one of key components of the celebration - fireworks. Although there seemed to be plenty of ads for the package deals like you get for Independence Day in the States, there seemed to be very few bottle rockets in them, and instead, very heavy on the snap-and-popping kind that crazy folk like to throw at the feet of unsuspecting bystanders... and these tend to come in a giant size, that can blow an iron cover off a drain if aimed and timed appropriately. Firework safety also tends to be pretty lax with individuals letting them off with little regard for the place or people around them. Of course, this tends to make dogs out for their evening walks a bit nervous and people a little jumpy, particularly when the wielders of such explosions are small children of dubious hand-eye coordination.

We watched the antics with the masses that took to the beach. Here and there bonfires sprouted, and you could watch out for those who had shelled out the extra cash for particularly impressive displays. Rich was quite taken with an inventive youth whose trial-and-error with construction resulted in a pop can launching several feet into the air upon detonation, and Rich claims to still be impressed although a piece of the shrapnel came flying into his arm (he was uninjured). The cafe/bars along the beach were also doing great business with little to distinguish the patches of flooring and wood frames besides the choice of pounding music - house, reggae, and sentimental cheese were the options.

The other key component to the celebration was the pastry - the coca de Sant Joan. Traditionally, this is an oblong or rectangular pastry about twice as long as wide. The bakeries and pastisserias all advertise their cocas with special billboards all week, but judging from the crowds, most people wait until the last minute to buy theirs. It's easy to pick out the coca-buyers as the baker packages them in a distinctive carrying case- a cardboard portfolio with handles usually emblazoned with the name of the bakery or pastisseria. Since I have an aversion to radioactively-colored fruit (which I am slowly addressing through repeated exposure to English fruitcakes), we opted for the slightly less traditional coca which comes sprinkled with sugar and covered in pine nuts. It had more of a bread consistency, mildly sweet, and the faintest hint of an anise aftertaste. The coca was fine, but the final verdict was that panallets (the Catalan cookies you get during Halloween) are a much better use of pine nuts.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Everyday living in Barcelona: Transportation (Spain)

Alas, we said farewell to my Honda Civic in North Carolina... and pretty much all forms of personal transportation. Considering the rising gas prices, this makes us ahead of the game.

The public transportation in Barcelona is fairly good, and since our apartment is centrally located, very convenient. Even the shuttle bus to the airport is only a 10 minute walk away. The old part of the city, where we live, is predominantly a pedestrian zone anyway, and mostly we pity those who try in vain to maneuver their cars down the narrow streets and alleys. Traffic is legendary, and parking can set you back 30 euros a day. This is enough to convince many to opt for motorbikes, which can be left on the sidewalks. Getting a subscription to Bicing, a company which maintains red bicycles in locations all over Barcelona, is another popular choice. Skateboards and microscooters - much to Richard's dismay- also abound.

Since he doesn't feel comfortable risking his neck in this traffic, Richard leaves the longboard at home, and instead, chooses to walk the pleasant 40 minutes to his office listening to BBC podcasts. Most days I commute via the Metro (the underground train system) or the Ferrocarils (the commuter train system). There are specific areas in the tunnels designated by the Barcelona City Council for street musicians to play for change although you will still feel cursed if you accidentally step into a car with the odd accordion player singing "La Vie en Rose."
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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Everyday living in Barcelona: Home (Spain)

Some of you may be wondering what it's been like for us living in Barcelona. It's a tough job to try to encapsulate the myriad of differences and similarities in a blog, but after 7 months, I will be attempting a perspective in this series.

In any large city, especially one couched between mountains and sea like Barcelona, housing is at a premium. Wages (for those 80% who do have work) have not kept up with cost-of-living, and most people live with their parents or rent a room in an apartment with 3 to 6 other people. Our main considerations were the dog and wanting to feel like we were really in the city. The rent on our 500 square foot apartment is brutal, and since we are foreigners, we got hit up for the typical 3 to 6 months' rent for a deposit. We live in the old city so it's a fifth floor (read: sixth floor, since Europeans don't start counting until the second one) walk-up. The advantages are being a 10 minute walk from the center (Plaza Catalunya) or the city's largest park (Ciutadella), and the streets around us look straight out of a chase scene from the Jason Bourne movies.

We are lucky. Our place is furnished in IKEA-ware, and our penthouse suite is awash in natural light most of the day (for which our dog-turned-sunbather Pepper is grateful) and gets a refreshing cross breeze my dad couldn't stop gushing about. We have a washer in a little outhouse on the balcony and the dizzying dryer lines to go with it (I have yet to hear of anyone in Spain having a dryer... even the people with swimming pools). Our kitchen is small, but not much smaller than in North Carolina, and amazingly for a European place, has full size appliances! Most fortunately, we have piped in gas. The common alternative is orange butane tanks, which have to be carried and refilled by the "butanos," men who wander the streets, banging on their wares like an audition for STOMP!

Sure, it was an adjustment to begin with, but with our pictures up on the walls, it feels like a pretty good home.
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