Get out of your comfort zone. Say goodbye to your night light, your mini-fridge, and your flush toilet. Say hello to living close to nature by visiting a remote sustainable community.
When I was 16, I experienced a month-long homestay in Mexico. It altered my life. Since then, I’ve been traveling internationally, solo. So, my taste in travel is based on that. When I leave home, I want to get to know the history, culture, and traditions of others. What’s more, I try to blend in with the locals.
I don’t frequent the Pizza Huts or Starbucks, although I did join Peruvians at a McDonald’s in Lima once. I’d much rather eat street food. I prefer authentic food made by hand. And, I like to see what my food looks like before I order it. Plus, having owned a small cafe in South America, I prefer that my money is going directly into the pockets of the working poor or middle class.
So 40 years after my first homestay, I had another unforgettable homestay. This time, in a remote region of Nicaragua. The closest city is Esteli, but these mountainside farming communities are nothing like Esteli.
Searching for something off the traditional tourist route, I went to the mountains of Miraflor, not far from the Honduran border. The region is attractive to backpackers that want to have adventures, and get close to nature. I got to experience life with a typical agricultural family, far from the city life.
As I gave up my shower — along with other routine “amenities” I opened my heart and mind to the people that have lived, simply, in these mountains for generations. I recognized what really mattered. Family.
My Homestay Family
I’m paired with an older couple who are my hosts. Yes, they call it a homestay. And, it really felt like home.
After 48 years of marriage, it would appear that the couple has a comfortable life. They own land now, where previously they were the hired hands. What’s more, they are active participants in the church and coffee co-op and feel blessed for what life has served them.
What comforts these people lack are balanced by the joy of living close to nature. The main noises heard are roosters. The young guy who escorted me on the 90-minute walk from the bus stop to my homestay also seems like part of the family. In this small community, everyone must be like an extended family. Plus, many of them are partners in the coffee plantations. My guide’s mother and sister are part of the co-op with my homestay grandma.
This is a very humble family, yet I get the impression that they have far more material items and comforts than most in this region. They have a large farm with plenty of animals. On the property sits a small old home and a second detached one-room building that sleeps about six. Despite the fact that this family seems to be very comfortable, in many ways, their income is minimal. Again, these are primarily sustainable living communities. Almost a cash-less society. However, there are certain things that would be nice for them to have which they cannot afford.
The homestay mom points to a nice-looking cabana across the road. She says it’s their property and can accommodate eight people. But there’s no toilet, so the building stays empty. While they have one non-flush toilet outside their main house, she said it would cost about $175 to install one here. And, that is too much. That hits me like a brick. This family, that seems to have it all for this community, can’t afford to install a toilet for the price of what many pay for one night in a hotel.
Products of the Revolution
Much of the revolution took place in this part of the country. The mountains were a place from which the two sides planned their attacks. My host family recalls the Contras came into their community three times. They set fire to properties, pillaged, and basically brought about so much unrest that some old-timers still have PTSD.
Each family member that mentions the revolution, does so with a sense of thanks. The older generation talks about progress and equality as a result of the revolution. The family’s great-grandmother gave birth to 16 children. All were born at home. There was no access to pre- or post-natal care. Six of the children died.
Before the revolution, illiteracy was high. The grandmother began to work for the plantation at age nine. After the revolution, she recalls, things improved. Doctors would visit and vaccinate the children. Today, all six of her children have college degrees. One has an advanced degree, and two studied outside Nicaragua. A third gives lectures all over the world speaking about women’s rights, which came along with the revolution. We have some pretty high-brow discussions about language and sexism. The siblings are big proponents of non-sexist language in schools, workplaces,s or society in general.
Only two of the six children still live in this remote community. But, the others visit frequently. Beyond family visits, the mountains call to them. They may be urban dwellers, but the off-the-grid natural beauty of the countryside is in their hearts.
Of course, the revolution doesn’t change things overnight. But it does set the direction. This community is still working to expand its educational facilities. Each year, they add on another grade level. In this way, more kids will get an education without having to travel into the city.
Early to Bed, Early to Rise
On the weekends, many of the adult children and grandkids visit. I was just one more chatting, eating, or working in the kitchen.
Before dawn, they start grinding corn to make fresh tortillas. The mother and one daughter show me just how much masa to put in my hands, and how to roll and pat them into perfect thin rounds. To prevent them from sticking together, we stack them between circular cutouts of plastic paper. At first, my tortillas are a pretty bad-looking bunch. But, after they taught me how to work with both hands, they are better shaped.
While we women are in the kitchen making the tortillas for the day and brewing homemade coffee, the men tend to the animals. They have many chickens, a few pigs, horses, and goats. The cows produce about two buckets of milk a day from which they make cheese. Husband and wife work together on this. She adds rennet and stirs, waiting for the liquid to thicken. After about an hour, he immerses his hands in the red plastic tub and forms a soft wet ball of curd. He holds it for a long time, squeezing it gently, to drain the excess liquid.
During the day we take strolls. We sit perched high on a mountain top, enjoying the sounds and views from all around. A few hours later, we’re back home. We savor the farm-to-table dishes and drink herbal tea or coffee. Then, at night, we cross the street to hang out at one of the son’s homes. Here, too, we help ourselves to pitchers of herbal teas or coffee. The warm liquid is perfect in the cool evening before getting under the heavy blankets and mosquito nets.
Sunday is a special day. Perhaps because there are no other meeting places here, the church is even more important. There are two churches in this rural community. One is pentecostal, with loud music crossing through the pastures. The second is a catholic church without a priest. As a result, this becomes a community house of worship. People of all ages gather here. They take turns reading passages and interpreting them. Others, make music with their voices and a few instruments. With no stores, restaurants, or even parks for miles in any direction, the church is a magnet for the community.
- Before you head up the mountains, check out the pacas (resale shops.) Buy a rain poncho and jacket, and rubber goulashes, if possible. The higher you go in the mountains, the colder it gets, and there can be a lot of precipitation. There’s only one road, so the rest of the time you walk through the countryside. Expect to get muddy. Possibly, all the way to your ankles. Or more
- Bring a flashlight, since there’s no formal electricity. While the homes will have their own simple solar lighting, once outside, the only lighting is from the sun or moon.
- Bring fully charged devices, and expect them to drain quickly. There likely will not be any electrical outlets. And, there are no stores.
- Hire a local guide to explore more. For $10-$20, you will get good company, a half-day of trekking or horseback riding.