The Theme: Surrender
This was a theme which emerged while in the process of editing the photos. At the time, I didn’t know what the overall set of images was trying to say until I discovered that there were many images with people with their arms wide open. And the feeling that these images evoked to me was one of surrender. At the time of editing, I was in the US in graduate school, and there was such a stark contrast in terms of the way people lived compared to Nicaragua. Where I was in the US, life was regimented, structured, and planned; life and death are cordoned off, removed from the every day experience. There’s no room for error, and slight numbness to the visceral experiences of life is somewhat expected. It was quite the juxtaposition compared to the flow of life in Nicaragua, where there was this direct encounter with nature and life and death and the pits of volcanoes. There’s a surrender to the way people live their lives, surrender to the present moment, surrender to how nature leads us to move with the ebb and flow of energy and life. And I think there’s something valuable about that surrender, which those of us who participate in modern life need a reminder of every so often. All the people I met in Nicaragua were my teachers, reminding me of the importance to surrender to life, to love, to the present. I hope that this message can be passed on to you.
Casita Volcano, Hurricane Mitch, over 2500 dead
I visited a village which was a development created as a result of the disruption that happened from Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The rainfall had been so intense that it caused a lahar and landslide coming from Casita Volcano. Over 2,500 people died from it and many people lost their homes. Everyone I met in this community still remembers the details of that fateful time and how their lives and their families and neighbors’ lives were affected by it.
They shared stories about how some people were saved miraculously, how they survived, and everyone had multiple people close to them who had died. I spoke to the family pictured on the right. The parents of the children shared that they still get scared when they go to sleep at night and they hear the tapping of rain on the tin roof. They just pray that another landslide won’t come. Hearing a storm approaching brings back fear and triggers memories of that time, but their kids don’t have any of that fear because they didn’t live through it. But they make sure that their kids know just in case something could happen again.
Casita Volcano – Hurricane Mitch Memorial
There was a memorial where a lot of bodies had been buried. A woman and boy were the keepers of the small museum and memorial, maintaining the grounds and honoring the memories of those who died. The impact of the landslide was strongly felt here. Throughout this entire population, the older generation that I met carried the memory of what devastation had occurred. The children who didn’t experience it first-hand were reminded of the potential hazard in many ways- through the stories of their parents and also the surrounding artifact. The disintegrated buildings, gravesites, monuments were ways to remember- to honor those who passed, but also as a warning of what could happen. Hiroshima comes to mind- when you go to the city, there are no signs of destruction from the atomic bomb in 1945 apart from one building at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Over time, the city has been completely rebuilt, not holding on too tightly to the past story, so that the focus is on moving forward.
Casita Volcano – Hurricane Mitch – Rebuilding and Resilience
This man’s house was wiped out, and he worked hard to be able to finally construct a new house. I met him as he and his family were building the new house. He spoke of the landslide not with regret, but he knew that he had to focus and work hard to rebuild from zero. It had been about 13 years since the landslide, and he was proud to be able to build his house for himself and his family. There was this sense of resilience and strength that he had learned and that the children had as well. Even though the kids hadn’t experienced the landslide themselves, they watched their father work towards a goal over the years.
He shared a story about how people around were guided to leave their homes and to go to a nearby church. I was shown the path of the mudslide and how it seemed to circle right around the church, saving everyone inside.
This is the youngest volcano in Nicaragua and Central America. The story is that in the 1850’s, the volcano just emerged from the middle of the farm one day where a man was farming. There have been over 20 eruptions since the first one, making it one of the most active volcanoes in Nicaragua.
Cerro Negro – Farms and Families
I visited the farms and families around this volcano, and this young man (top right) showed me some of what was being farmed there. I imagined what that farmer in the 1800s must have witnessed and experienced when the volcano began to erupt from the middle of his land. Did he panic or calmly tell the people around him? Did he ever worry about that happening when he farmed again? I wondered if others who currently lived in that area worried about the same kind of thing happening and I asked the people I met. Not surprisingly, they were not so much concerned about the potential threat of the volcano. Like many people in the country, they were more focused on getting some of their basic needs met, like clean water, making enough of a living, and taking care of their families. In this area, their concern of a devastating eruption was far in their periphery.
I was talking with some of the younger members of this family about the land and life and the volcano. They weren’t at all interested in my random, theoretical questions about volcanoes. However, they were happy to share with me about the details of their lives, how frequent their water comes, what kind of food they eat, and how they see trucks full of tourists pass by almost every day to slide down the volcano. They were proud to talk about their family members, who was related to who, the newest members of their family, and how many generations they had living. They brought out their grandmother/great grandmother to some, and ran to get her to show her off to me. She was their pride and joy.
They showed me how much they valued the love of their family members, the deep roots and connections they had between them, and the cultivation of that love was the most important thing in their lives. I felt honored, like they presented me to the queen, as that’s how they treated her.
In modern times, tourists go to the volcano for “volcano boarding” as pictured here (right). Yes, I did go and yes, it was fun. It can also be potentially dangerous as it’s volcanic rubble that you’re sliding down, and with such high speeds, people fall, rocks can cause scrapes and cuts.
Cerro Negro volcano was also the site of the world record of fastest downhill bicycle in 2011. The world record was later broken by the same man in Chile, also down the side of a volcano.
I found it kind of comical to be honest. Wearing these orange jumpsuits looking like a pack of convicts, sliding down the side of a volcano on a wooden toboggan. I suppose it’s not what I pictured when I imagined exploring volcanoes in Nicaragua. I put it up there in the same category as taking the toboggan slide coming down from the Great Wall of China, these amazing places in the world juxtaposed with unexpected almost Disney-fied experiences.
San Cristobal – Tallest Volcano
This was one of the most painful, challenging hikes up a volcano I have ever done. It was sandy the whole way, and a 3 step up, 2 step down kind of journey. Somehow, the fact that it was the tallest volcano in the country, I believed that I needed to climb it. I’m not sure what it is about humans and the desire to climb to the highest places. Though in many cultures, the highest peaks are not meant to be climbed but rather circled like a temple and regarded as a sacred spot.
Our guide up San Cristobal was young when there was one of the biggest eruptions of the volcano, and he shared his memory of evacuating. He told it in a way that it just didn’t seem like such a big deal and it was buried so far deep in his memory that it was hard to recall. I got the sense that it wasn’t a hugely significant event, and he probably hadn’t thought about that day in decades. I suppose when you live around volcanoes and are surrounded by many stories and memories of eruptions, you don’t necessarily place any significant importance to the event. Many stories don’t get passed on simply because the people who experienced it don’t see it as out of the ordinary or story-worthy. Those stories meld into the tapestry of their own experience of life.
San Jacinto – Boiling Mud Pits
“Los Hervideros” as it’s locally known is a boiling, bubbling mud pit with a lot of volcanic activity brewing beneath the surface. When I went to check out the site, this young girl volunteered herself as the guide to show me around and explaining the mud pits. Her and her siblings were also selling some pieces of old pottery and rocks that they had found in the area. They were the unofficial keepers of the area and it helped to provide them with extra money.
San Jacinto and Momotombo – Geothermal Plants and Alternative Energy
There are currently two geothermal plants- in San Jacinto and Momotombo. They harnesses the geothermal activity of the volcanoes to generate energy. Elsewhere, they use wind turbines as another form of alternative energy.
Momotombo and Bees
I was told by several people and guides that certain bees were attracted to volcanos and the volcanic gas. I did a bit of digging, but didn’t get any confirmation on this, as there was no research at the time in 2011. When near the top of volcano where it was sulfurous, I did notice that there was little to no life visible, but sometimes I did see bees. This is a photo (below) of a bunch of hives that a beekeeper kept with Momotombo in the background. I was told that they kept their hives around the volcano because of this, and I saw many hives in the surrounding areas. I found it interesting that the local people were aware of this phenomenon, yet the global scientific community hadn’t acknowledged this. Years later, research was done to confirm that this was the first “discovered” bee species to live near the crater of an active volcano (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/07/bee-lives-edge-active-volcano).
Momotombo and Leon Viejo / Old Leon
The photo below (left) is in Leon Viejo, 20 miles from current-day city of Leon. This was once where the city of Leon was, established in 1524. In 1594 there were earthquakes and in 1610 a major eruption of Momotombo volcano led the people to move the location of the city. In the photo, you can see the proximity of Momotombo Volcano. The photo below (right) is taken from the cathedral in Leon, and you can see the volcanic range further in the distance.
The old city had been covered in ash and volcanic material from Momotombo over time, and it was overgrown by trees, and it was only uncovered in 1967 and excavations began in 1999. It is not a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the only colonial city of the 16th century settled in America which was not altered throughout history. The volcano was the main reason for the preservation of this site- both for the migration of a whole city to a new location and to help preserve the structure of the buildings.
Masaya Volcano – Surrounding Villages
This volcano was one of my favorites. If I had to pick a favorite volcano in Nicaragua, this might be the one. I got to know this volcano the best. I spent time with communities surrounding the volcano during the day and visited its caves and saw the glowing magma at night. Some of the communities surrounding the volcano were farming communities, where the soil is fertile but the sulfurous air makes growing conditions hard. The water issue was a common one in that area, where the water table had decreased so low, that they’d have to cart up tubs of water up the hills. Some more lucky areas had running water but only certain days of the week, so they had to limit their water based on the reserves in the tank. The sulfurous gas from the volcano affected not just the air they breathed, but also the water supply, the soil composition of the land, and there was even a village downwind from the volcano where the roofs had disintegrated from the effects of the volcano’s gas. To say that their lives were affected by the volcanic activity is an understatement.
Masaya Volcano – National Park, Two Volcanoes, and Five Craters
Volcan Masaya National Park is actually comprised of two volcanoes, Masaya and Nindiri. It includes five craters, one of which is active. The following images were taken at the visitor center of Volcan Masaya National Park. There were several paintings which supported the oral narratives I had heard. The paintings did not include the name of the artist.
Masaya Volcano – Sacrifices and Deities
The caption to this painting (left) reads:
“La Sacerdotista Aborigen/The Aboriginal Priestess:
The natives believed in the existence of a hag deity that left the bottom of the crater to advise them. In her honor, maidens and children were sacrificed.”I heard many such stories from people I met, stories and legends that were passed on and I heard firsthand.
Masaya Volcano – The Great Eruption of 1772
“The most famous historical eruption of the Masaya Volcano happened on March 16, 1772. It emitted an extensive flow of lava during several days, into the lagoon.
The inhabitants of Nindiri left in procession with a religious image attempting to stop the lava that threatened to destroy the town.”
The photo on the left below the painting is surprisingly reminiscent of this depiction from centuries ago. It was taken in 2011 and features Masaya volcano in the background and a procession with a religious image in the foreground. I took the photo not haven seen the painting in the Masaya Volcano Visitor’s Center.
Masaya Volcano – The Baptism of the Volcano
“At the beginning of 1529 the Friar Francisco de Bobadilla, ordered a cross to be placed on the crater, considered then as “The Mouth of Hell””
This cross still exists at the rim of the crater.
They tried hard to cast away demons and to tame the volcano.
Masaya Volcano – The Sound of Lava
One of the gifts that visiting Masaya volcano at night brings is you get to see the lava glowing. With the sulfuric gas blowing in your face, it’s not easy to stay at the crater at night, and the park rangers actually limit the amount of time you can be downwind from the volcanic gas.
But one thing I’ll never forget is hearing the sound of lava crashing and the unique sound it makes, like ocean waves crashing against the side of a cliff, only more powerful. You could really get a sense of the intense force that lays below that volcano. It felt like meeting the dark side of mother earth- not one to be messed with.
Updates – Masaya Volcano
In 2015 and 2016, Masaya’s lava lake increased in size. This video footage (right top) shows the crashing of the lava lake.
This video also includes footage of the birds which nest inside of the crater. This particular species of bird (Aratinga strenua) has a special adaptation to the toxic atmosphere coming from Santiago crater of Masaya volcano. The birds nest in the walls of the active crater; this offers them protection against their natural enemies.
A daredevil Nik Wallenda performed a high-wire walk across the crater of Masaya volcano in March 2020. (right bottom)
Telica Volcano – Witnessing and Eruption
I followed the seismic activity carefully while I was there. There was the report of an explosion and I rushed to Telica Volcano. Once I got there, the volcano was “burping” as in it expulsed ashes and volcanic rock. I personally felt visceral fear. I’d been to Vesuvius, lived on a volcanic island in Japan with huge aftereffects, I knew that volcanoes were unpredictable and that anything could happen. I didn’t stay too long, but it was enough to witness the volcano expulsing ash and to feel the vibrations of the explosions.
Telica Volcano – Evacuating Surrounding Families
The eruptions and seismic activity got to the point that they had to evacuate families in areas surrounding the volcano. When I arrived, a lot of the women and children had been evacuated already. For most families, they had at least one man staying to keep an eye on their land and their possessions. It was their duty to make sure that their land was taken care of, even if it may have been a risk to their health with the ash clouds and potential for a larger eruption. When I asked some of the men about their choice, I learned that it was more about survival- in the areas close to the crater, it was kind of a no-mans-land. Most of the families didn’t technically own land in that area, but because no one wanted to live and farm that close to the volcano, they could set up their homes there and it would be less expensive than having a home elsewhere. It also meant that then anyone could take their possessions and even potentially take their land. I was looking for some profound meaning of the experience for people living that close to the volcano, but in reality, it was much more about survival than anything else.
Ash had been collecting for the previous day or two as can be seen below (top left and middle), making the conditions in the area difficult to live in. A lot of homes and kitchens in the area are open, meaning that ash and gas can get into everything- pots and pans, vegetation for animals and crops, and orifices of people. This girl below (top right) had some respiratory problems and was going to be taken down the volcano/mountainside.
Below, some families were in the process of being evacuated and the civil defense came to check on people in the area and also to help evacuate those at risk. The local leaders and civil defense conversed with the families as they were preparing for evacuation.
When I looked up this volcano, which is on a peninsula at the northwestern most point of the country, I noticed that the crater of the volcano on Google Maps looked somewhat like a heart.
This volcano is far from the “main” volcano chain around Leon; there was not a single person encountered on the journey there.
The lake in the crater of the volcano apparently changes in color depending on the plant and animal life within the lake, how it’s reflecting the sky, and other factors.
But don’t be fooled by this docile-looking pretty and picturesque volcano. It was one of the most violent recorded eruptions in the Americas. In the 1835 eruption, ash was spread all the way from Mexico to Colombia and even Jamaica. And in 1951, earthquakes caused a fracture which caused a flood in the town of Potosi, which destroyed the town and resulted in casualties.
Ometepe – The Island With Two Volcanoes
This island is magical. It has not one, but two volcanoes. The legends, the stories, the nature, the people. It’s rich with so much life and history.
This was an unexpectedly difficult volcano to climb. On the Island of Ometepe, this is the volcano which is known as the masculine one, which is conical, dry, steep, and active. Getting to the top looks like how Mars might be depicted in some movies where it appears to be just sand and rock with no apparent life around. There were times where a small boulder/large rock would get loose and someone would have to shout warnings down below.
This volcano was also unexpectedly difficult to climb, but in a different way from that of Volcan Concepcion. Maderas was challenging to climb because the trail was so muddy that our feet would sink in the mud about a foot in some areas. And to take your foot out took effort. There were long stretches of this kind of impossible mud, but it forced us to take pause to admire the lush vegetation that surrounded this volcano.
The climb takes you to the rim of the crater, and inside of the crater is a small lake. Once you reach the crater, it feels like a completely new place. The whole way up, you’re beneath the shade of the thick forest, and once you reach the lake and the crater, you’re suddenly in this open-aired space without sloshing through mud. There’s something unique about being at the lake within the crater of a volcano on an island within a lake within the land.
Masculine Versus Feminine Volcanoes
I met this grandmother who was telling me about the two volcanoes on Ometepe, and how she grew up knowing the volcanoes as alive, with energy like a mother and a father. Other people I met spoke of the two volcanoes like grandparents.
Whether referred to as parents or grandparents, they all associated Conception, the taller, cone-shaped, active volcano as the masculine and Maderas, the shorter, dormant, wetter volcano as the feminine.
A lot of people had strong relationships with the volcanoes, like they were members of their family. They weren’t seen as these big giants to be feared, but more like these large forces which communicated with them.
You can see the difference in shape of these volcanoes, as seen from the shore of Lake Cocibolca in Rivas.
Learning to Read the Signs
I had many encounters which seemed strangely coincidental or magical. Somehow, spending time on Ometepe opened me up to receiving signs through nature. Sometimes the clouds would be in formations which were uncanny. Here (left) is the image of clouds that I saw one day on the shore of Ometepe. The clouds completely resembled the shape of the profile of the island and its two volcanoes.
Petroglyphs and ancient statues
These statues at the church in Altagracia, Ometepe show the pre-Columbian history.
Over 2,000 petroglyphs have been found particularly in the Maderas/eastern side of the island. They are thousands of years old and include zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures.
Ometepe – Volcanoes and Symbols Everywhere
On the island of Ometepe, the parks and playgrounds all had volcanic shapes and forms. Fountains, slides, statues. It shows the importance and significance of the volcanoes in this place.
If you look at the island from a bird’s eye perspective, you can see that the two volcanoes are the center and all the villages surround it. They are mental landmarks and grounding points. If you’re ever lost, you just need to look for the volcanoes to be able to anchor yourself.
These volcano statues (right) also have Catholic symbols embedded in it. One of the photos shows the Virgin Mary inside the volcano and other statues have quotes from the bible. It shows the syncretic relationship that many people in this area have.
Ometepe and The Legend of Ometepetl
In many places of the world, I have heard of Romeo-and-Juliet-type stories. In some places, it’s a story of unrequited love symbolized by mountains or other large land formations. In this case, I heard a couple of different versions of the story told to me by people in Ometepe.
One of the versions of the legend was that there was Prince Nagrando and Ometepetl. Ometepetl was from a different tribe, the Niquiranos. Their love was forbidden as they were of different tribes, but they could not help but fall in love. They esconded to a place where they could join and embrace. One day, however, they were discovered and both of the tribes were enraged. The couple ran away and were threatened to be killed. After several days of running away, they decided to kill themselves instead of giving in. Their blood formed the lake which the island of Ometepe sits in, and the two volcanoes of Ometepe were Ometepetl’s breasts. Another island, Zapatera, was Nagrando.
Legends – The Contrast of Native Culture and Christianity
The legend of Mocuana, the forest goblins, El Cadejo, La Cegua, Chico Largo del Charco Verde, La Llorona, El Padre Sin Cabeza, etc. These were some of the stories that were told to me and which I have also found published online. But there’s nothing like someone telling you their first-hand experience with some of these beings that don’t have a logical explanation to why they saw the man disappear or that the woman’s feet were backwards until after their interaction.
I learned that there were many myths and legends that seemed to spring up at the time that the Spanish came to Nicaragua. That this phenomenon was something that happened in many places where there were native people and “conquistadors”. My family in the Philippines, which also had a similar story of native people interacting with the Spanish as Spain “conquered” the Philippines for 333 years. In the Philippines, I was told of many spirits that would come at night. As a child, I was afraid of them and I wasn’t confident to know that they didn’t exist. But as I learned more across different cultures, a lot of these tales and legends and spirits were likely a way to keep children from wandering too far from home, or in the case of one culture trying to control another, it was likely a way of controlling the population by scaring them to stay home.
“The Nicaraguan folkloric legend of La Mocuana is believed to be based on genuine history and it is thought that La Mocuana was a living Indian princess. Her father was hospitable to the Spanish conquerers at first but then ordered them to leave. Soon the Spanish forces returned to take over the village and take their gold. The chief of the village had hidden the treasure and his daughter, La Mocuana, was the only other individual who knew its whereabouts.
During a battle between the two groups the tribe gained victory. Some time later the son of one of the Spanish soldiers came to live near the village and soon fell in love with La Macuana. She too fell in love with him and they planned to run away together. She gave him her father’s treasure so that they could have something for their lives together. The Spaniard preferred to keep the gold for himself and sealed La Macuana in a cave, running away with the treasure.
La Mocuana escaped through the back of the cave. The heartbroken princess began to wander the woods and was driven mad by the thoughts of betrayal and feelings of guilt. Country people say that her sad figure can be seen on dark nights. She is also said to lure drunkards and philanderers to her cave where they disappear.”
La Mocuana from: http://www.nicaragua-community.com/la-mocuana/
I was amazed at the the people who I met in Nicaragua. Relative to other places where I had photographed, people didn’t shy away from the camera; it was almost the opposite where they would show off. A lot of children had this fierceness and confidence yet playfulness. They looked at me with deep curiosity. They didn’t have a need to pose. I wasn’t used to kids being so brave and unafraid of a stranger.
And in some of the portraits I took of people, both young and old, you can see that look, of being unafraid, willing to look at me directly. Perhaps after having lived in Japan for 4 years, sustained eye contact was novel. And perhaps it’s also a sign of that time, when smartphones weren’t ubiquitous and we interacted more face-to-face.
Politics and the History of War
The effects of the Nicaraguan Revolution were still strongly apparent and felt. It was impossible to go anywhere without seeing some form of political statements, murals, flags, and other forms of propoganda. Almost everyone I spoke with had an opinion on what happened and shared with me some of the experiences during wartime. People shared all kinds of stories with me and their perspectives on politics in general. They shared about their personal experiences and those of their family members during wartime- how young boys were forced to fight and join armies, how people were kidnapped, how they survived. The history of course has a direct effect on shaping peoples’ mentalities, their livelihood, and how people plan or don’t plan for the future. I met many families who received food and livestock strategically before elections. To explain the complexities of Nicaragua’s history and politics in a couple of short paragraphs would be impossible. Yet it would also be impossible to spend any period of time in Nicaragua with the intention of understanding people and their lives and not learn about the history. So many people experienced war first-hand, while many people come from countries where the war-fighting is so far removed from everyday life. Here, everyone was involved, and as I was told, you had to pick a side. And if you didn’t pick a side, someone would force you into it. There were also people who fled to seek asylum elsewhere. Many people never have to face the brutality and intensity of physical violence. Many people never have to experience being forced to fight.
Juigalpa and the Museum of the Bizarre.
The museum is known as Museo Arquelogoica Gregorio Aguilar Barea. It has some of the most impressive and important stelae in the country. There are over 100 basalt statues from AD 800-AD 1500, as well as pre-Columbian artefacts and petroglyphs. This museum also had embalmed animals that had unique features- multiple heads and limbs. It also had this “cyclops baby” which was apparently born without a nose and just one eye (bottom middle).
I spent some time in an area which was tertiary volcanoes, meaning that it used to be volcanic and now it has just turned to fertile soil, more stable earth, and a thriving community of coffee and other plant growers. I compared in my mind what it was like in these environments, and it felt more stable compared to those who lived facing the effects of active volcanoes all the time. This community was growing and thriving with a booming demand for the products there, including coffee. The picture below (top left) you can see how they are farming the fertile and volcanic hills.
6000-year old footprints at Acahualinca
Las Huellas de Acahualinca (the footprints of Acahualinca) were likely preserved as a band of people walked across soft mud, and then were later encased by volcanic ash, thus preserving them. Some think that it was people running to escape from a volcanic explosion, but others say that the footprints are close enough that it would be considered a walk, not run. These footprints were discovered by construction workers in 1874, 12 feet below the earth. Some evidence points to dating the footprints at just 2100 years. Either way, it is one of the oldest set of footprints found in the Americas. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/983095?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
The city dump in Managua is/was known as La Chureca. There were around 1-2000 people who lived and worked at the dump. Apparently as a result of a major earthquake in Managua in 1972, many were left unemployed and scavenged in the dump for various resources. People were able to rummage through garbage to gather materials which could be useful and sold or used to build their own homes. It covered 7 square kilometers, and was the largest open air dump in Central America. The smell was overwhelming not just in La Chureca, but surrounding areas as well. One of the hazards of this kind of place was air quality. Not only was there rotting material, but the burning of trash and the fumes that came with that. Families lived and worked here. When I was there, there were talks of the improvements that were going to be made.
Since then, there has been a significant investment from Spain and other organizations to convert the place to a more sanitary recycling plant and also provide jobs and homes for people to live in.
It felt important to go here partly because people generally are not aware of waste, where it goes, what it looks like etc. I also went to the Zabaleen, Garbage City, in Cairo, Egypt in 2010, where the whole town processes the garbage from the city and materials are sorted and processed to be sold. There are places in the world where this is the norm but people are unaware that places like these exist. I also believe that it’s important to shed light on the shadow side of our lives, of the areas that we might judge, of the difficulties and hardships that not everyone has to encounter.
What I saw beyond the obvious challenges were friendships, camaraderie, people making the most of their situations. That kids can always find something to play with and learn from.
I met a family whose little girl had been born in the La Chureca. She was wearing a pink dress and wearing earrings, sucking on a bottle inside of a stroller (bottom right). This was all within the dump, with the harsh smells and dirt everywhere. Yet they were nothing but proud of her, proud of the fact that she was born there. They were happy to have me photograph her. To me, it was an example of the pride that people have of their children, no matter where in the world and what kinds of conditions. It was a lesson that we can choose to live with dignity no matter what others might think and with whatever conditions may be surrounding us.
An article about life after they transformed La Chureca: https://confidencial.com.ni/nicaragua-life-after-the-la-chureca-garbage-dump/
Artisans making pottery from black volcanic soil
I was happy to meet the women of this project where they were selling unique, handmade pottery made from the black volcanic soil. They created a website (https://www.nicablackpottery.com/home) and a Facebook page which you can see here: https://www.facebook.com/nicablackpottery/
INETER and Volcanologists
I went to the headquarters of INETER, Instituto Nicaraguense de Estudios Territoriales (Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies), where they monitor activity of the land, including seismic activity. From my time in Japan, I became well-versed in finding online monitors of sulfur dioxide levels, wind and wave live maps, and any seismic activity. I did the same in Nicaragua, and INETER’s resources helped me keep track of which volcanoes were most active and any seismic activities in the areas I was in or planned to go to.
I learned how INETER works as well with SINAPRED, Sistema Nacional de Prevencion, Mitigacion y Atencion de los Desastres (National System for the Prevention, Mitigation, and Attention to Disasters), to monitor and warn the population of earthquakes, volcanic activity, tsunamis, and landslides.
They also work with the Civil Defense to carry out evacuations and to ensure the safety of their citizens.
When I asked them about situations that I witnessed, as with the evacuation around Telica volcano when there were some explosions and heavy ashfall yet people choosing to not evacuate, they understood that there was a sort of grey zone. That they can order mandatory evacuations of the most dangerous areas, but because of the reality of some of the people living there, they can’t force everyone to leave if they want to risk their life to protect their land and possessions. Officially, they have to state that there are areas which are uninhabitable or need to be evacuated at times, but it’s one thing to make statements of an organization from the comfort of an office, and another thing to be living right next to the crater of a volcano without other options.
Meeting with people who research volcanoes, I learned that it’s a slow and unpredictable form of research. There are many ways of collecting data, and observing the changes over time. What amazes me is that no one has any sort of ability to predict major eruptions. As much as science and technology has advanced, there still remains this element of uncertainty, of unexpected change, which we cannot predict nor control.
The Uncertainty and Unpredictability of Life
The best that can be done is to create systems and structures in case of… yet there could be eruptions as massive as the one that made a whole city move, or larger, that it would be impossible to prepare for. And getting in touch with that aspect of expecting the unexpected, or accepting that there’s the potential for the unknown, is part of this life experience. As humans, we seem to try to control many aspects of our lives, to get things in order. We have systems in place with our bodies, with societal structures, financial systems, and most aspects of our lives. If we were completely able to control everything, we’d probably be more like robots, just running programs. But that spark of the unpredictability seems to make us unique, part of being human.
Valentines and Kids
My birthday being on Valentine’s Day, I’ve always loved the simple act of making a valentine, or love letter, or some small expression of love. When my birthday came, I had the idea to create a small activity for the kids I was working with on that day.
With a group of volunteers from La Mariposa (more information about this project in a section below), we brought supplies and together made little cutouts of hearts and put little messages of love. We went to a community which I had gotten to know and who lived on the outskirts of Masaya Volcano. It’s a community which often lacks water and other resources.
The kids gave them to their family members and it was just a reminder of appreciating the people we have around us. It doesn’t matter how many or few resources we have, there is always an opportunity to express and share love.
The project was originally “Volcanoes + Valentines” because I believe there’s something about the energy of a volcano and also being at the edge of life and death that forces us to burst open into love. This little project was one little way of making that connection.
This section includes some stories of experiences that came into my path and although it was not directly connected with the volcano project, these experiences were a significant part of the context of my time in Nicaragua and influenced the project.
Jinotega / AVODEC/ Eseperanza
I spent a month photographing for a local organization and non-profit. I had the opportunity to share the photos for their website and marketing materials. They do amazing work in the communities with helping to build water systems, education, prison rehabilitation programs, medical mission, and so much more. There are organizations which do development work and offer solutions which seem to address problems at the surface level, but this one led by Victorino Centeno is one of the most effective non-profits which I have seen. I stayed with his family and I learned about some of the root problems that people seem to be facing in some of the more remote regions and what the solutions are as well. They also invited me to spend Semana Santa with them in Bocay. I’m grateful for the time spent with them and all the learning that I got along the way, and to be able to share the photos with them.
One of the most memorable projects was the week that I photographed a medical team who flew in from Arizona. In just one week, the team performed over 100 surgeries and dozens of dental procedures. It was just incredible to witness. The main surgeon and the anesthesiologist were 80-something year old twins. They were so focused and helped so many people in such a short amount of time. I had never seen anything quite like that and the focus and endurance at their ages- they worked long hours into the wee hours of the morning while the 20-something scrub nurses were falling asleep. This man from Mancotal (below, top left) had this tumor growing on his head for 24 years before the team removed it for him!
While on the island of Ometepe, I was involved with a search party for an American who had gone missing. Without revealing the identity of the person or too much information, I will keep it short. It turned out that the man who had gone missing had likely had a combination of medication including an anti-malaria medicine, which had effects that caused him to go off the grid, losing contact with his family and also losing all access to his id, passport, money, etc. He made choices without considering the consequences, and that was how we picked up clues along his trail to see where he had been. It took days, but once we found him, I helped to keep an eye on him until an emergency evacuation by the family could occur. Within a day of finding him, he got himself put in a local prison on the island, where I helped to bring food to him and also attempted to get a bit more grounded. This experience gave insights to the difficulties of navigating the legal, medical, and political systems in place, shined a light on some of the disparities between different cultures, and how fragile the mind can be. I am including this brief version of this story here to paint the picture that my personal experience in 6 months in Nicaragua was a bit more dynamic than what the resulting photography book about volcanoes depicts. And there are many other experiences which shaped the way in which I navigated the country. This experience led me to meet people that I wouldn’t have otherwise and offered perspectives which I would not have gotten if not for the “random” encounters such as this one.
An unexpected encounter was with a Mayan priest I met while on the island of Ometepe. He offered some interesting insights into the 2012 Mayan calendar change. This was in 2011 and he said that of course it had nothing to do with the end of the world. He did, however, explain that there were three significant shifts that were going to happen, and that it was more of a gradual shift rather than an overnight change. One was that the energy would shift from being masculine-dominated to feminine-dominated. Another that we collectively would be moving from modern culture back to indigenous roots. And that the power would go from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere.
Beyond the Mayan calendar change, the Mayan priest also did a full horoscope reading of my Mayan astrological chart. Though there is a lot more information than is depicted here, these are some of the notes that I took.
Early on, I attended Spanish school. As part of the program I did, I learned some Spanish, lived with a family as part of a homestay, and volunteered with several projects at the center. This is one of the most sustainable tourist models which has real impact in communities while offering tourists the opportunity to get to know the country and language in-depth. If anyone did want to take Spanish classes in an immersive environment, learn about sustainable tourism, and to learn about Nicaragua, I would highly recommend this place. So much gratitude for this place to be my jump-off point when I first arrived.
Authors and Further Reading
Some of the books and authors that helped me to understand the context of the country and I’d recommend:
-Giocondo Bella’s The Country Under My Skin (link)
-Upside Down (link) and Open Veins of Latin America (link)- Though these books are not specifically about Nicaragua, this Uruguayan author paints a picture of the contrast of the privilege that comes from North America and looks at how backwards life can be from the perspective of Latin America.
-Poetry by Ruben Dario- one of Nicaragua’s most celebrated poets
-Poetry by Alfonso Cortes- easily my favorite Nicaraguan poet. He was completely underestimated and thought to be crazy, but that’s just the label that the world gives to those who are so connected to the deep truths that they cannot comprehend their perspectives.