Monthly Archives: September 2015

Workaway Volunteering, Mozonte, Nicaragua

Having spent three months lounging around (bar the occasional flurry of activity heading up a mountain, or down to the coral reef) we felt it was time to do something. Something useful, and hopefully enlightening: yes, we’d come to that embarrassing traveller phase of wanting to Make a Difference. We were, however, fully aware of the pitfalls of volun-tourism, not only a terrible mangling of the English language but potentially damaging to the local set up, too. So we did our research, and came across an opportunity to lend a hand on a smallholding near the Honduran-Nicaraguan border; the project promised to be about emersion in the local culture, a chance to get our hands dirty and help a hardworking family at the same time. Perfect.

As promised, we were well and truly off the traveller trail, with no other tourists in Mozonte other than another, long-term volunteer. Depending on age, the standard response from the local children would either be laughter or a look of utter confusion as we walked past, so infrequent were people of such a pale and sweaty persuasion. We were warmly welcomed by the family who graciously smiled as I stumbled through my limited Spanish (which I was quickly learning was far more basic than I thought). After setting up our camp beds, we settled down for an early night in preparation for a days’ work. And there was the rub.

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The morning came. After breakfast, we drank some coffee, played with the dogs, drank some more coffee. Our host came and went, occasionally pointing out the various fruits and flowers as he passed. By midafternoon we started to think we’d missed something – had we been up too late? Was an instruction lost as we desperately tried to translate everything? By dinner we were feeling very guilty, having done nothing but fill our faces as the busy family brought out meal after meal. We resolved to gather the right Spanish to ask our fellow volunteer. She laughed and told us this was the way things were in Mozonte.

The following day, the pattern continued – a days’ worth of activity constituting staccato conversation, a couple of hours navigating the dictionary or a local paper, three sizeable meals, a nap, and approximately twenty five cups of coffee. All in all, an odd combination of total inactivity while being highly caffienated, leaving us somewhat twitchy.

In truth, it was a bit of a revelation that I wasn’t at ease doing nothing. I come from a long line of snoozers, people who can sniff out a sofa and a Guardian supplement from a mile away, a tribe known for its abundance of comfortable jumpers and an itchy trigger finger when presented with the ignition for a living room fire. Unsuspecting, overdressed guests have been known to melt if they sit still for long enough in our house – which they inevitably will, having eaten themselves into a comatose state.

We decided that a change of pace was required, and set about spreading potential ‘events’ across the fortnight we’d agreed to. Everything from visiting a nearby coffee finca to clothes washing, walking to the local park or sweeping the patio would be carefully allocated its own day, savoured like a bar of chocolate eaten one square at a time. Meals would be anticipated with some excitement, being both something we could find enough Spanish to talk about (while pointing at ingredients – “what do you call this? What do you call THIS?”) and really delicious. This was especially true of breakfast, usually involving scrambled eggs, fresh tortillas, windfall avocados and juice blended from one or more of the many fruit trees on the property. As soon as plates were empty, we leapt on them like maniacs, fighting each other off and rushing to wash them in an effort to be helpful.

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It is perhaps a singularly British thing to feel this anxious about being in the way. We had, after all, paid to cover our food and our stay, so there was no reason to feel like we were taking our hosts for a ride. Nevertheless, a combination of our poor Spanish and the sense that everyone would find their jobs much easier without being interrupted by tourists madly miming at them left us feeling awkward. At one point we were invited to pick the ripe coffee beans. Fantastic! we thought, a contribution at last. As it turned out, it was job that definitely didn’t require two people slathered in bug spray and sun cream wearing their most sensible gardening gear, being as it was a ten minute task clearly only given to humour the overly keen house guests.

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And yet. As time passed we grew a bit more comfortable in letting the conversation take a pause when we’d run out of things to say that didn’t involve the weather. We learnt to space out the coffees to avoid the tell-tale twitch in the eye. And, we were able to experience things that we otherwise wouldn’t have: going to a rousing local football match and learning all the bad words; watching the local universities fight it out in a bone-shaking drumming competition; getting a private finca tour by the owner, a man incredibly passionate about what he does, despite the problems of drought and the cheap mechanised production enabled by the likes of Starbucks, who ensure that coffee growers like Jorge have to sell their coffee for less than it costs to grow it.

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As chance would have it, on our penultimate day we were given a job, clearing ground for a new batch of broccoli seedlings bought with the aim of adding to the farm’s diversity. Unsurprisingly, five hours in and we were exhausted, grimy and sore – a brief but revealing lesson in what farming here really takes. As we came to leave, we were genuinely sad to be saying goodbye, and the constant noise and chaos of the capital Managua cames as a quite a shock. Though hardly experts in farming, we’d learnt a lot – and were ready to tackle the next adventure with gusto.

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Coffee with a Cause, Guatemala & Honduras

As long term tourists we do our best to travel in a considerate way. It seems obvious that being polite, having a go at the local lingo and leaving a place as you find it are basically good ideas. Sadly it seems more travellers than ever have packed one more bottle of tanning oil in favour of their manners.

Take, for example, the tightly Speedo’d gent in Caye Cualker who considered it acceptable to get a nurse shark in a choke hold for the purposes of his GoPro album (presumably entitled ‘Proof I Wasn’t Brought Up Correctly, 2015’); how about the personification of a hangover in Antigua who left a trail of cigarette butts in his path while watching the cleaners trying to get her job done? There are the ubiquitous ‘shout-louder-and-they’ll-understand-mes’, always, unfailingly baffled when their approach is met with a blank look, as well as those with personalities set to ‘Arse’ when it comes to dealing with anyone unfortunate enough to have to serve said numpty in a country they’re not familiar with.

Of course, not all tourists forget to be human beings, just as not everyone will treat tourists with respect. It can be a minefield – a combination of traveller’s guilt, cash-poor countries and an amorphous tourist ‘industry’ often leaves those looking to have a positive impact – or at the very least, not leave a negative one – somewhat lost. So it’s lucky that there are people out there ready to show us one very small step in the right direction, and in one of our favourite ways – with a cup of coffee.

Cafe Armonia, Xela, Guatemala

Guatemala is famous for its coffee, and rightly so: with 8 regions to pick from, there’s a blend to suit every taste. Xela is a mid-sized town somewhere near the middle, a few hours from the better known Lake Atitlan. It wasn’t to be our favourite place (though this was no doubt tainted by the disappearance of my mobile on the infamous chicken bus), but we did find some very excellent coffee at Cafe Armonia, a Mayan-owned and run place with its own on-site coffee roaster.

It’s a popular spot for Spanish students and freelancers, playing surprisingly excellent electro and offering the ever-obligatory Wi-Fi. Best of all, the cafe only works with local smallholders, ensuring the profits go back into the mountain communities that painstakingly grew the coffee in the first place.

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CECAP, Santa Cruz, Guatemala

Santa Cruz must surely be the town with the most defined calf muscles, perched as it is on the side of one of the steep volcanoes around Lake Atitlan. Having heaved ourselves uphill, we headed straight for CECAP, a training kitchen and carpentry workshop built for the local adolescents to hone their skills for working life; off-site, there were also courses in sexual health and childcare and a nursery, tackling head-on the challenges of unemployment and teenage pregnancies that are prevalent in the area.

Back at CECAP, chefs in crisp white aprons bustled to and from the kitchen, serving simple coffees, fresh juices and excellent lunches. Lucky diners were left to take in the views and stretch weary legs, before tackling the descent home.

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Tazazul Coffee, La Ceiba, Honduras

After a long journey across the border we found ourselves in Honduras as the sun was setting. Things didn’t start well – the ATMs refused to hand over any cash so our taxi driver tried to charge us double to take us to one that did; when we arrived at our hostel, the setting was somewhat depressing (broken doors, stained walls, ripped bedsheets), though the decor was to become a moot point as the power went off. We managed to find some food then set about sweating quietly into the night – at least until the power came back on at 3am, switching on lights, air-conditioning, radios and fast-flowing showers all at the same time.

The next morning we debated our way via another taxi to the ferry dock in La Ceiba and were ready for an uninspiring wait for the boat that would take us to Utila (famous for its excellent scuba diving and generous tourist-to-local ratio). We didn’t hold much hope for our breakfast options, with only a handful of stalls selling Cokes and SIM cards in sight. And then, from nowhere – Tazazul. A small coffee caravan with its own pine-covered deck, it boasts excellent espresso, cakes and, incongruously, WiFi, all part of a not-for-profit scheme to bring funds to schools in the local area. The staff are friendly and keen to share tips on the surrounding islands – things were starting to look up.

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Rio Coco Cafe, Utila, Honduras

Utila is probably the least Honduran place in Honduras, full as it is with salty-haired, tattoo’d tourists looking to learn, or teach, scuba diving. Like Caye Caulker in Belize, golf carts are the transport of choice, and there’s a laid back air to almost everything.

The slow pace also envelops Rio Coco Cafe, only open Mondays to Fridays between 7am and 12pm – but you forgive their langurous attitude when the coffee’s as good as this. There are smoothies, bagels and muffins on offer and they have their own private pier for a dip in the crisp Caribbean seas. And, to reduce the guilt of doing nothing but navel gaze all morning, the profits go towards two major education projects in Honduras and Nicaragua.

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