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Birmingham fair trade campaigner MaggieJo St John with the latest on her trip to Nicaragua. This week she's doing her bit for the local tourist board, and checking out the cut-price recording studios.

Shaken and stirred, I'm just back in Esteli after an interesting few days further south. One of the purposes of this visit is getting to know the other rural community tourism programmes here in Nicaragua and I spent time with UCA Tierra y Agua (Union of agricultural co-operatives Land and Water)

Their community tourism programme began in 2002 and, with funding to help construction and training activities, has been developed in a truly communal manner.

Three cooperatives each run a community guesthouse for visitors: one is very much a family affair: At Nicaragua Libre you're surrounded by the smallholdings of 8 families, with their chickens, pigs, fruit trees, herbal plants and basic crops of beans and maize.

Another, La Granadillo, a few kilometres away offers the chance to walk to the National Park of Mombacho with its coffee farms on the slopes of the extinct volcano or to cycle to a local river to relax and bathe in crystal clear waters, that contain dissolved minerals so my skin this evening is beautifully clean and smooth, despite
sweating a good deal on the return 12 kilometre ride in the sun along a dusty, stony track, followed by two bus journeys to get home! Hence the “shaken and stirred”.

The third community programme is on the island of Zapatero in Nicaragua's huge lake, Lake Cochibolco. It's a two hour boat ride, past small islands and then into more open seas (Although the lake is so big, that I have the impression of always of being at sea - that is until the spray from the waves hits my tongue. Then the sweet not salty water reveals that you're on a vast lake).

As you head out Mombacho and Concepcion volcanoes rise majestically upwards: Mombacho, extinct and thickly vegetated, Concepcion, a perfect cone, currently rumbling and giving out ash and smoke.

The island has some 1700 year old carvings, the remains of an indigenous culture. The complete carved stones are on display in Granada; left on the island are a mix of unfinished or damaged carvings. Each was of a human with the face of an animal, probably their totem.

If you stir yourself from your hammock you can try your luck at fishing with a net off the stern of the small wooden boat that you came across on. Holding the main weight of the net in your left hand, you gather part of it in your right, while gripping an edge between your teeth. The skill is to throw the net way out from the boat, only opening your mouth after you've thrown it, but before you go overboard with the net.

If you open your mouth before or as you throw, the net doesn't land in a full circle on the water, so as it sinks it doesn't gather the fish in its folds. We succeeded in bringing in two or three at a time, but not on each throw. The smaller fish we returned to their sweet water life; the larger were destined for the supper plate!

The communities were truly welcoming and offered us a wonderful service. Only some members of the cooperatives have joined in but gradually more are taking part. When I asked why some women had not joined in I was told that they felt too shy, that they felt they had no value, nothing to offer.

Such humility is common here but for all my fancy education, I'd make a poor show of preparing meals on their wood burning stoves and surviving the rigours of collecting water several times a day in a container on my head. There is much for us to learn and share.

The women are also becoming involved with additional income generating projects and weaving simple bracelets, threading seed necklaces and printing T shirts, while the men are tending beehives and diversifying the fruits they cultivate.

The mix of members is interesting. Some of the cooperatives are comprised of people who have lived a long time in that part of the country. Others are families who came from the north in the 1990s when the Sandinistas lost the election and Violeta Chamorro's government came into office.

They are families who were given land during the 1980s; land that had been part of the huge estates of Somoza supporters. However, in the early 1990s they were thrown off that land and had to seek somewhere to live and work. Some of them ended up on the mainland, others on the island, mainly women and children who have since formed new relationships with the local men.

I was glad of the chance to relax as the previous ten days were very busy, and the radio played a big part in that. We recorded the listening material on to CD for the English for Community Tourism book. In fact it's a 3 CD box set! However, no such thing as a box set here so we'll have to think about packaging possibilities

This was a new venture for me, and for the radio station. They were really helpful; an it's interesting to note that post-Christmas they have less business, as here too people have overspent! They were able to give us 2 full days in the studio. Our technician was excellent and even though he doesn't speak English he could tell when we'd gone wrong and find the place by reading his oscilloscope.

And we gradually became professional enough to repeat a part when we made a mistake making it easier for him. He then only had to erase the first faulty versions and leave the corrected one, instead of a “cut and paste” job and it cost just fifty pounds - no typing error there, 50 pounds for 2 days studio recording time!; okay we didn't get any editing but we can live with that! ).

We made such good progress that we finished the recording early on the second day so I could take everyone (ten people - 6 varieties of English speakers from around the globe and 4 Nicarguan learners) off for a treat at a local organic finca and cafa. Wholemeal bread, brie style cheese and yoghurt, washed down with fresh fruit drinks - scrumptious. And sitiing in leafy green shade in T shirts in early February - lovely! (Spent another 50 pounds on meals for everyone so have four hours of recording at total cost of 100 pounds).

Book your trip to Nicaragua now? Lots of reasons to do so; it's a great country and the people are wonderful. And in answer to that question, it is very safe.


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