Passion Points: Giving Back
On the last morning of a sun and sand-filled family vacation at Carlos Pellas’ exquisite new resort, Mukul, I found myself seated with about ten other wide-eyed guests in a sunlit barnyard, hemmed by golden plantain fields and guardian foothills. As hulking oxen, scruffy horses and a neighbor’s curious children looked on, our radiant hostess, a tiny but sturdy woman of irrepressible vitality, served us tortillas with cuajada (homemade farmer’s cheese) and pinolillo, an ancient beverage made from blended grains and spices – in this case toasted corn kernels, wheat, oatmeal, cinnamon and cacao.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) was well under way in the Nicaraguan countryside, and our group had gathered at Doña Lupe’s home to prepare traditional rosquillas – simple bite-sized, donut-shaped crackers that are baked by the hundred in the days leading up to Easter. While Doña Lupe kneaded the dough with all the force of her wiry frame and reviewed its ingredients – milled masa, cheese, butter and milk that her cow had supplied earlier that morning, Mukul’s Manager of Corporate Social Responsibility, Jon Thompson, served as translator for our group.
So many far-flung luxury hotels take great pains to obscure the hardscrabble world just beyond their walls, but in the case of Mukul’s founding family, it was a concern for this world – and a desire to invest in its fragile future – that has anchored their vision and informed every phase of its execution. Now their guests are invited to acquaint themselves with and even participate in the realities of life in rural Nicaragua. Prior to our rosquilla-making lesson, we had visited the nearby community of Las Pilas and its storied mill, which has been run by different generations of the same family for decades. This was where the masa for our rosquillas had been ground. Afterward we had stopped in the town of El Coyol to see its elementary school, where Jon and his team are using community theater to foster discussion on environmental conservation and sustainable farming practices. Next on Jon’s ever-lengthening agenda: bolstering the area’s personnel-strapped baseball and soccer leagues. “I have many areas of non-expertise,” he laughed modestly. In his spare time, Jon runs a Fair Trade coffee cooperative in the country’s northeastern jungle. Mukul’s guests have him to thank for the outstanding coffee that arrives on their terraces each morning just after sunrise.
One of Mukul’s most successful – and most inspiring – initiatives provides local families with access to safe drinking water by arming them with highly effective, low-cost ceramic filters designed at MIT. In a region where many live on less than $1 per day, a $25 water filter is a costly luxury and an expense that the recipient households could not have absorbed on their own. Though Jon and his colleagues might have simply distributed the filters, they knew that ultimately a hand-off wouldn’t make the lasting impact for which they were hoping. Instead, community leaders met to determine each village’s most pressing needs, and in exchange for a filter, participating families committed to sixteen hours of community service in support of the projects they, themselves, had proposed. The residents of El Tambo, for instance, where Doña Lupe lives, collaborated to dig a well for the local school. Since the water filters were introduced, reported cases of diarrhea, parasites and other infections have dropped significantly, and the once beleaguered doctors at the community health clinic can allocate their energy and resources to issues that would previously have fallen between the cracks. The clinic, by the way, has received a number of upgrades courtesy of Mukul, including a two-bed recovery room, two new bathrooms, a storage room, a septic system and a handicapped-accessible entrance ramp.
That evening, a heaping plate of fresh, crisp rosquillas, delivered directly from Doña Lupe’s kitchen, appeared with our coffee at the end of dinner. Collectively, and with varying degrees of precision, we had molded well over a thousand prospective rosquillas, and she had spent the whole of the afternoon rotating trays in and out of her rustic wood-burning oven. Over the course of my week in Nicaragua, I had woken up each morning to life-affirming views of the glistening Pacific, witnessed a troop of boisterous primates escort my elated little brother from hole to gorgeous hole on Mukul’s golf course, and even peered into the smoldering crater of an active volcano, but I knew it would be a long time before I forgot the rough-hewn beauty of Doña Lupe’s farmstead, humble yet idyllic, or her wonderful generosity of spirit.
It struck me that what had most impressed me during my stay at Mukul were the guilelessness and warmth of the people, from the waiter who proudly doubled as Pellas family historian, contextualizing each of the ancestral heirlooms and photographs on display in the resort’s dining room, to my transfer driver from Managua, who, after politely fielding two hours’ worth of questions about the country’s flavors and seasons, pulled over to a favorite roadside produce stand and began assembling a bag with all manner of flamboyant tropical fruits, repeating their names slowly to help me remember them: zapote, jocote, níspero. At the end of my week at Mukul (an ancient Mayan word meaning “secret”), I was quite persuaded that the “secret” of the place lay somewhere near the intersection of luxury and authenticity – splendor and substance. I left Nicaragua wistfully but profoundly refreshed, and grateful that we had been able to give something back to a place that had given so much to us.
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