by Kaitlin Harlow

I am currently volunteering in the desert. My shoes are always full of sand, my face sometimes sunburns at 8:30 in the morning, and the last time it rained my entire host family freaked out and proclaimed that climate change is destroying the world. Here in Perú, surrounded by this dry and dusty landscape, I find myself thinking often of the greenest place I have ever been: Ometepe Island, Lake Nicaragua.

Finca Bona Fide, a 43-acre educational farm on Isla de Ometepe in the southwest of Nicaragua, is full of coconut trees, tropical fruit plants, weird berries, colorful butterflies, birds, bugs, mud, and monkeys. The closest things to “indoors” at the farm are the compost toilets, since they actually have four reed walls and a roof. Everything is hot and green, and it is all framed by gorgeous views of Lake Nicaragua and the dark silhouette of one of the island’s volcanoes. For two weeks during my semester in Central America with Carpe Diem Education, I found myself here on Ometepe working with Bona Fide’s permaculture farm.

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When I first arrived in the jungle, the sun had almost set, and we were told to go put our backpacks away in our houses before it was too dark. We walked along a narrow trail to our room and reached it under the very last light of the day. Three walls, a partial roof, a concrete floor, three bunk beds, and ratty bug nets filled this new “house.” It was totally open to the jungle, and we were all very aware that any creature (Were there tigers here? Gorillas??) could come in and eat us in the darkness, which fell hard and quick.

When we turned in for our first night after dinner, I faced a dilemma: should I keep my headlamp on in order to see any approaching tarantulas or scorpions, or keep it off so I wouldn’t be able to see the millions of holes in the scrappy net hanging over my bunk? The jungle was screaming with animals and bugs, and it was a million degrees, and I thought I would just lie there awake all night until suddenly I opened my eyes, and it was bright out!

After that first night, I went on a bunk safety mission and secured my fort with duct tape and bug repellant bandanas. As I accepted my new surroundings, the sounds of the jungle became less of an affront and more like one of those soothing sleep soundtracks, and after working in the dirt all day I stopped caring (mostly) about spiders and scorpions. I thought being happy on the farm was going to be impossible, but it turned out to be one of my favorite places in Central America.

Finca Bona Fide’s permaculture farm serves as a model to the local community for sustainable farming under local conditions. On the island, most families live in small, isolated villages and are rice farmers who depend on an annual harvest for their entire year’s income. Bona Fide aims to meet the long term needs of these communities by paving the way for better food security and economy, driven by more resistant farming systems: Bona Fide meets with local farmers to demonstrate new planting techniques, donates seeds to spread plant diversity, and cultivates that plant diversity by maintaining and constantly growing their nursery.

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Slowly transforming local farms into more efficient, permanent systems helps preserve local environment and culture by keeping farmers from having to sell out to increasing tourism and cash-cropping. Bona Fide funds a community center in town called “Mano Amiga” as well, where meals are provided to kids during the week to combat malnutrition. Sharing new plants and farming techniques helps improve local farming systems to eliminate the problems of financially unstable monocultures in the long term, and the children’s free meals program helps combat the problem of malnutrition in the short term.

It is an entire lifestyle of rice farming and narrow diets that Bona Fide seeks to change, so I think their means of leading by example and offering support when it is solicited is an effective way of bringing new ideas and tools for improvement to the community without being forceful or patronizing. They get the community involved with the farm firsthand in a positive way by hiring locals to sustain it as gardeners, farmers, and cooks, and sharing their nursery with anyone interested.

My group’s specific project at the finca was SURVIVAL; also, general farm upkeep.

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We learned about permaculture, natural medicine, and jungle farm life from crazy haired, sharp witted, card game master and “earth mother” Mitch. He introduced us to the bitterest leaf in the world, which was great for chewing if you felt sick but so bitter I could only last less than 60 seconds, and explained the tenants of permaculture design modeled around the farm, like natural building (every farm structure was made from a clay mixture called cob or plants harvested there) and polycultures.

Hauling firewood uphill, sifting compost, filling plastic bags with dirt to be used like pots for new seeds, snipping roots of the bottom of plants (purpose of this chore: still unknown), and feeding the chickens were typical tasks. I became la reina de gallinas after familiarizing myself with their entire luxurious morning routine. Those chickens are seriously living the life, with fresh lime juice squeezed into their water buckets; banana tree and moringa leaves snipped daily as healthy snacks to compliment their kitchen slop; and termite nests hunted down and machete-ed off trees for their enjoyment. So spoiled.

Unlike the Bona Fide chickens, no one makes food for me anymore–here in Perú, I am totally culinarily independent. I have to budget and shop at the market and actually cook real food for myself, which at first resulted in a few dinners of moldy plantains and rice mixed with scrambled eggs. It turns out it takes effort to eat healthy, but at Bona Fide, every single meal was effortlessly the freshest and most organically I have ever eaten.

We took turns helping the hilarious local cooks with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which in my case usually just meant meticulously cutting up pineapple for fruit salad, squeezing limes for limeade, or grating bricks of cane sugar for cacao tea. To make our daily salads, someone took two steps out of the kitchen area to pull some moringa or katuk leaves off a plant, put them in a bowl with some starfruit juice for dressing, and voila! Everything was that freshly harvested (so no oil or dairy or meat) but excluding a morning staple known as “earth mush” everything was so delicious that I didn’t mind. There were also constantly bananas to snack on and even very fresh steak one time when some of us attended the weekly town cow slaughter and bought some meat.

One night, a volunteer from Germany came up with an ambitious idea for making coconut curry, a welcome change from our usual go-to’s (rice, veggies, salad, repeat.) The first step was coconut, so my Carpe Diem mate Alexa and I headed down the hill to a patch of coconut trees with a giant butcher knife to harvest some. We didn’t anticipate that the big round ripe ones we wanted were too high up on the trees to reach! We tried jumping and shaking the tree with no luck, and then I attempted to boost Alexa up into a tree with my hands without success.

30 minutes later, we were covered in dirt, coconut-less, and staring calculatingly at our chosen tree. For our next strategy, I climbed onto Alexa’s shoulders and we slowly rose, wobbling, trying to avoid a huge train of ants that was marching beneath our tree as well. Now, I could just barely grasp the lowest coconut. I latched onto it and yanked, but it wouldn’t budge. We wobbled more, I latched onto that thing, and on the count of 3 heaved with all my strength.

A huge cloud of dirt exploded into my face, the whole branch gave, and immediately Alexa and I, in our precarious tower formation, toppled backwards into a bush. We couldn’t stop laughing, but I had the coconut in my clutches! I had pulled the entire branch down lower, so now we could reach more coconuts and were soon tramping back into the kitchen, covered in dirt, now an hour later, ready the hack the coconuts open with machetes and later enjoy a very delicious curry dinner.  

One of the local cooks who helped with all this food preparation was Roxana, a bright and funny woman who would tell us stories about how when she went to school everyone loved her and would cheer “ROXANA!” when she came in. During our second week at the farm, the rice field of Roxana’s family was ready to harvest, and we volunteered our services to do the harvesting. Even with all 12 of us, harvesting her field was intense work under an obliviously burning sun.

First, the machete-wielders would saw off a clump of rice stalks. Then I would gather all of the stalks, heave them onto my shoulder, and haul them over to a mountain of green and gold rice stalks we formed. The next step was to dry the rice and beat the grains off the stalk, but we only worked on completing phase one. There was so, so much rice! The field stretched on endlessly as our arms got more and more scratched up and our clothes sweatier and sweatier.

The tiny golden grains were delicate, and when they fell off of the stalks and into the dirt Roxana directed us to collect each and every one, because they were money.

We finished about half of the field that day, and the next day another group came to finish the job.  It was strange to imagine that all of these plants, though there were definitely a lot, were the entire livelihood of Roxana’s family, but I felt that I understood what it was like to live on Ometepe significantly more after I spent a day in one of its fields.

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On our last night at the farm, we threw a magnificent pizza extravaganza. It was a final celebration during which we spent the entire evening from around 4 until around 9 making dough, picking fresh ingredients, admiringly tasting the pizza sauce that Alli (part-Italian) whipped up, and then cooking pizzas in the wood fired oven.

It started pouring, but we ran in and out of the kitchen, soaked, covering our pizzas in farmer cheese (special treat from the village), pineapple, bell pepper, moringa leaves, basil, parsley, onion, and more. It was the best pizza I have ever tasted, and followed by a muddy dance party, it was one of the best nights of my life, too. I was only at Bona Fide for two weeks, but I was surprised that it was filled with nights that I loved like that, and that I learned so much about permaculture and my ability to cope with the nearness of tarantulas.

I went swimming in Lake Nicaragua during a thunderstorm, pondered life in a tree house overlooking the lake, showered in outdoor stone fixtures with trees growing in them and incredible views of the volcano, howled at howler monkeys, and ate an average of 10 bananas a day. Now I shower indoors like a normal person and swim in the Pacific ocean in Lima, but I will never forget the horrible green leaf bugs flinging themselves at our faces at night or showering outside in the rain or the surprisingly amazing nature overload that was Finca Bona Fide.

Service can take many forms, and one of those forms–a particularly interesting one–involves mud and machetes on a farm in a jungle on a volcano on an island.

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