Over the course of 9 months in 2017, my partner and I sold all of our possessions, including 2 vehicles, and a house full of stuff. In order to sell the house for its maximum value, we also completed 3 months of renovations that had been lingering for over 3 years. We wrapped up 2 businesses and left a town and tight knit community that we both cherished. We did all of this in order to seek out a life of freedom, away from the hustle and bustle of the 9-5 life, but most importantly, we did it so that we could travel. This is our story…….
As promised, Amanda picked us up from the bus drop off location upon our arrival. We were riding on the Tica Bus, a bus line just as fancy as Greyhound Bus, from San Jose, Costa Rica. After 7 hours, which included an hour or so stop at the Nicaragua border to obtain our entrance visas, we had arrived in Nandaime, a small town south of the more popular tourist stop of Granada.
Amanda told us to look for the grubby girl in a dirty red truck, and sure enough we spotted her as she drove up the road to grab us. We were greeted with enthusiastic hugs, and we were immediately enamoured with her positive and energetic personality. ‘Yup, we are going to get along just fine,’ I thought to myself as we drove off to her farm.
We had heard about Amanda and her Earth Bag house project from a girl that I volunteered with at Envision Festival in Costa Rica, back in February. Magda told us that Amanda is always taking volunteers to help her to bring her project to fruition. At the time, and knowing that we were headed up to Nicaragua at some point, I stashed the thought in the back of my mind, knowing that at the VERY least, we would want to check the project out. We have both been involved in numerous workshops and very small building projects to do with Cob building etc. on the West Coast of Canada, but had never seen a Earth Bag house. Our curiosity was piqued.
When our time in Silencio (read my last blog post here) was coming to a close, and we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do next, we remembered Amanda’s project, and I immediately messaged her to see if it was possible to come and stay there and help out. Of course, she wrote back right away, and the plan was set. We were headed to Nicaragua!
After spending a few days in San Jose to purchase a laptop and some other art supply essentials, we were on our way!
Amanda is Nicaraguan-American and her house is being built on 12 acres of her Grandfathers land. Having ditched the North American 9-5 Rat Race (or in her case 80 hours per week working) at the age of 24, she decided that it was time for a simpler life. One where she can experience life, not just let it flash by. She began her new journey by travelling around the world and volunteering on a couple earth build projects herself. After doing all of that, she decided it was time to start her own project. She had been to Nicaragua to visit her Grandparents numerous times, and was familiar with the land and it’s people. With building costs exponentially cheaper down here, she felt like it would be a great place to construct her home base, while she continued to travel and work remotely.
Her Grandpa still lives in the country, but resides up in the Northern part near his coffee plantation. The property that Amanda is building on has been a cashew plantation for numerous years. You can imagine our delight when we realized that we could gorge out on tons of cashew fruit while we stayed there.
Immediately we were amazed with the difference in the Flora and Fauna than that of what we had left in Costa Rica. Rich, diverse and alive hillsides, had been replaced with flat land, scrub brush and desert like conditions. Of course, it was the dry season, so the layer of dust on the surface of the ground, that was constantly blowing around all over everything, is only around for a few months of the year. But the climate was astonishingly dryer and much much different than what we had left only a few days before.
We were happy to still see numerous birds flitting about though. The National Bird of Nicaragua, locally known as the Guarda Barranca (check it out here, it’s stunning!), but commonly referred to as the Mot Mot (my personal favourite name), was a frequent guest near our camp kitchen. Their stunning colours captured our attention as they flitted about through the trees. Butterflies were also numerous, as were the ever so persistent ants! Chris and I had an absolute highway of ants about 2 feet wide that cut through our campsite every night. Thousands of them marching back and forth, only once daylight had subsided.
Our modest Camp Kitchen!
There was also another pest that resided on her farm that we had never even considered to be a possibility down here……TICKS! They are smaller and more of a reddy-brown (they look exactly like freckles and moles!) than the ones that I know from the mountains in Canada, but they certainly behave the same. Thankfully, we were told right away that there is no Lime Disease in Nicaragua, so at least that wasn’t a worry, but we were constantly brushing them off of us, and pulling the odd one out of our skin if they managed to evade our constant swipes, and had embedded themselves into our flesh. They were so small that you could barely grab onto them, and quite often I would need to use tweezers to pull on them. They were nasty little critters, and I have to say, not my favourite thing to have to deal with while staying there!
We ended up staying with Amanda for 3 weeks in total, and I have to say that we are pretty proud of ourselves for toughing it out so long. The conditions were challenging, we were dirty all the time, it was sweltering hot with no relief until night fall, dust blew on everything in sight including our food, plates clothes etc., and the ticks…..well you can just imagine I’m sure. However, the experience of it all far outweighed the trials and tribulations that we put up with, and we both came away learning a lot, and feeling like we had both contributed in meaningful ways.
Earth Bag Construction
First of all, I am certainly no expert on this, so please, click here to learn more about it.
We arrived after the walls had been erected, and the roof was just starting to be constructed. When Amanda picked us up, she said that it had rained the night before, which was in her words, “terrifying.”
This type of construction is done completely using earthen materials, clay, sand, straw, horse manure, and other natural ingredients, and it’s integrity depends wholly on being built in dry climates where you can depend on little to no rain during construction. You can imagine what would happen if rain suddenly unleashed on the earthen plaster that covers the walls……it would all literally melt off. Until you get the final Lime Plaster coat on the outside, that will repel water at best, and a sturdy roof with generous overhangs erected, the whole project is at the mercy of the weather. With the rainy season scheduled to start any day, time was of the essence.
We arrived to the camp to find 2 girls from Austria and another guy from New Zealand, already volunteering. Over the course of the project Amanda has had roughly 20 volunteers from all corners of the earth, help her on her land. She advertises for volunteers through different online platforms, and also has physically hung posters around Granada and other local tourist spots, in order to entice volunteers to come and help her and learn about this type of construction.
Some of “the boys” working on the project.
All natural building techniques lean very heavily on labour. The materials are generally cheap, labour is not. Amanda had a crew of about 10 Nica men ranging in age from 15-50 working on her house from the beginning. Thankfully in Nicaragua, the labour is pretty cheap, but even with that, budgets run out eventually and it is therefore necessary to get volunteers in to do some of the less skilled, time consuming jobs that need to be done. Mostly I worked on what I lovingly called “Stuffing Cracks”, but is actually referred to as plastering. It involved creating a measured mix of Horse Manure, Clay and Sand, getting it to the right moisture consistency, and then physically pushing it into the spaces between the bags. This provides a tight seal to reduce insects getting in, it smoothes the wall out so that putting the final plaster layer on is easier, and it helps to further stabilize the walls from expansion and contraction while moving from the wet to dry season.
In order to make the mix that I needed to do this, I literally walked around the farm and picked up dried horse poo from the ground. Amanda referred to it as something similar to an easter egg hunt, and I will attest that this is true. However, after a few days of hunting for sporadic piles here and there, I did finally find the hot spot where the horses get tied up every night……there was literally poo for days! Throughout the process, I couldn’t help but thinking what my 19 year old self would think of my 41 year old self picking up horse poo. I NEVER would have imagined that this would be my life some 20 years later……that’s for sure!
Having come from a hyper-organized corporate job, Amanda was all about using the white boards to create schedules and task lists each day. Every morning as we ate our oatmeal breakfast, we would go over what needed to be done for the day, and she would assign tasks to people, depending on what they felt like doing. Various projects came up including building a screen door for the shower, building bat boxes, putting a proper roof on the outhouse, shaping and tamping the pond (Chris’ job for the most part), planting trees and of course finishing the “stuffing.” However, I did get a really cool job towards the end of our stint there.
After seeing some of my artwork, Amanda asked me to give a try at designing metal security windows for her house. There were 10 windows in all, and 2 doors. She had presented various ideas to professional welders, but they all said that her ideas weren’t practical, and they wanted to just do the typical metal work that everybody else had. Obviously they didn’t have a creative bone in their bodies, so she leaned on those who did. Within her Nicaraguan construction crew, she found 2 men that had welding experience and were willing to take on the project. The first window took a bit of time, but after they got that going, they were rocking it! It was an amazing experience to see my own concepts drawn up, and then to witness them get created and installed as a finished pieces. So very rewarding, and one of my proudest moments as an artist thus far!
There were many more windows designed but sadly we left before they were installed. We will return to take more photos for sure!
We mostly worked about 4 hours each day, from 7:30 or 8:00 until about 12:00. The afternoons were optional, and although it was sweltering hot most of the time, Chris and I did manage to swing a few afternoon shifts, just to help her keep moving ahead. It’s a monumental task to build a house, one that I have experience in (coincidentally at the same age as she is), and we know the importance of keeping the momentum going. 2 days a week would be free, and because Amanda is also a traveller, and understands the importance of seeing and experiencing places, we generally would go on some sort of adventure on those days. We visited an incredible local swimming spot, tucked way back in the woods and off the beaten track, and also hit up the popular colonial tourist city of Granada a few times, Laguna Apollo, a lake inside an extinct volcano crater, and some spectacular nurseries where we scouted for plants for the property.
Our experience with Amanda was everything that we had hoped for. We were both itching to do some heavy physical labour, we have been wanting to contribute to a project in a meaningful way, and of course, we always want to be able to hang out with locals and be part of the fabric of each community we visit. Being located in a very rural part of Nicaragua meant that we were probably some of the first foreigners that many people in the community had seen. We were able to practice Spanish and learn about their culture in a meaningful and educational way, we went to the church on Saturday nights to eat local Nicaraguan food, which helped them fundraise for the community, plus we had a couple interesting nights at the local bar, where we were definitely the center of attention, and something new that the locals could gawk at.
Dinner at the church! Cooked outside on an open fire!
All in all, we are so thankful to have been able to take part in the project. And the bonus is that we are now located only about an hour away from her for the next 4-5 months as we start our next housesitting gig. So I am sure we will make our way out there again to visit her and check out her progress!
*Note to reader: I have so many more photos of our time spent in Nandaime. Please head to our Facebook Page to see them all!
** If you or someone you know would like to volunteer for Amanda in Nicaragua, or if you have any questions about Earth Bag building, please email me at the address below and I will connect you.
Thanks for reading! Please know that above all else, I aim to inspire others to just get out and see the world. Traveling is such an enriching experience, and I can’t even comprehend how much it has shaped me as an individual. If you have ANY questions, or need travel advice of ANY kind, PLEASE don’t hesitate to email me at the address below! I will do my very best to help you in any way I can!
Xoxoxo Happy Travels!
Current Location: We are currently in Rivas, Nicaragua, waiting to start our 4.5 month housesitting job on May 10th.
Travelling Plans: We will be here until mid-late September while we full fill our housesitting job.
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