An investment in friendship and peace

The mid-1980s won’t go down as a high point for U.S. diplomacy.

Worked into a lather by a left-leaning, land reform-minded government in Nicaragua, the Reagan administration imposed a trade embargo on the tiny Central American nation, declaring it “an unusual and extraordinary threat to national security” – a threat the magnitude of which, dissenters noted, could be measured by the fact that there was exactly one elevator in the entire Nicaraguan nation. But such were the times, and there followed the U.S.-funded Contra insurgency, the arms for hostages scandal and Oliver North. And as usually happens amidst such nonsense between governments, it was really the peasants who got hurt.

A group of Bainbridge Islanders working for the cause of peace sought a different path, which islander Nancy Quitslund recalled this week as a way “to get people in a different country that was considered a threat to the U.S. to know Americans, and Americans to get to know them.” Kim Esterberg went south to Nicaragua, looking for a community with which to start a sibling relationship. He touched down on Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua, and a “sister island” program was born.

In the 19 years since, governments have come and gone, but islanders have supported the sister island mission in countless ways. Imported to Bainbridge and roasted by volunteers on Day Road, the organic “Cafe Oro de Ometepe” still flies off the shelves of Town & Country Market and into the coffee pots of island households. The Ometepe calendar published by Alice Mendoza’s third-grade class adorns the walls of many households. And over the years, some 270 Bainbridge students have worked as volunteers on Ometepe, coming back with broader horizons (and in at least one case, a fiance). The two islands are locked in a long-term embrace.

The Review has done a lot of reporting on the Bainbridge-Ometepe Sister Islands Association over the years, but always from this end -- until now. We’re pleased to say that staff writer Tristan Baurick is now in Ometepe, on a three-week sojourn to experience that community and see the changes wrought by two decades of community-level diplomacy.

Over the next few weeks, Tristan’s stories and photographs will put faces with the names and places you’ve read about for years. The series begins today with a look back by BOSIA founder Kim Esterberg; future installments will examine the coffee cooperative, literacy programs and scholarships, clean water projects and other successes. Look for the logo denoting each Ometepe feature.

We’re not sure that Ometepe boasts the kind of perks that would put it on Money magazine’s list of Best Places to Live. But the little Nicaraguan island and its denizens remind us that “quality of life” is oh so relative. Nancy Quitslund has seen that realization cross the faces of the many Bainbridge students who’ve visited there.

“They don’t come back thinking, ‘We have to help them because they’re poor,’” Nancy says. “They come back thinking, ‘they’re rich in ways we’re not.’”

We hope you enjoy a look at our sister island of Ometepe, from the other end of the embrace.

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