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Cooking With Surfer’s Momma … Starry San Juan del Sur Nights …

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Teodora takes us to the markets to find the fresh ingredients needed for Indio Viejo …

Are You Hungry?… Me Too … Let’s Eat!

If you stop by my house for a meal, be prepared to dine on the cuisine of my latest travel venture:

  • Aji de Gallina from Cusco, Peru …
  • Moros y Cristianos from Havana, Cuba …
  • Chicken Tajine from Marrakesh, Morocco …
  • Tapas from Barcelona, Spain …
  •  or in today’s case … Indio Viejo from Teodora’s kitchen in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. 

Just a few days ago, we spent a few hours in the steamy (31 degree C) markets and kitchen of Teodora, a friendly lady who’s spent her entire life running restaurants and hostels in San Juan del Sur, on Nicaragua’s northern Pacific Coast.

A quaint little tourist town, San Juan has fantastic wide, white sandy beaches and lots of tiny T-shirt shops and seafood restaurants overlooking the beach and the sparkling ocean. A grand white statue of Jesus looks down over the town and ocean from atop a nearby hill.

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SOYA… a hostel owned by Teodora and the name of her vegetarian restaurant … today’s meal breaks the house rules and uses beef …

After introducing ourselves to Teodora, and asking her to please speak slowly in Spanish (“despacio, por favor”) so that we can understand, we toddle behind her into the town’s streets – market stall to market stall, neighbour to neighbour – sourcing the needed items for preparing a classic Nicaragua beef stew dish called Indio Viejo (yup, The OLD INDIAN)

First we locate a tiny wood-shack tortilla shop where we pick up a small plastic bag of Masa (corn flour dough for making tortillas, but today it will be used as a thickener in our stew) from an elderly woman in the smoke-filled shack.

We meander further along the noisy, bumpy street and step into a busy set of market stalls.  Moving from one stall to the next, Teodora selects fresh cilantro, tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers, garlic, and sour oranges, passing a very few Nicaraguan Cordobas (local currency) to each of the lady shopkeepers.

Vegetables in tow, we head back into the streets and trundle along a few blocks, stopping once in a while to have a friendly visit with local ladies pushing their sweet children in little “car”-shaped strollers – lifelong friends of Teodora’s. Of course, their Spanish chatter is too rapid for us to gather more than a few ideas of where the conversation is leading.

Our final stop is at a glass-fronted Carneceria (meat shop) where we pick out a couple of small pieces of res (beef) that are bagged by the young boy behind the counter.

All the ingredients we need now are in our bags, so we head back – in the typical tropical plodding walking pace – to SOYA, the hostel-restaurant owned by Teodora.

It’s time to start cooking.

Entering the hostel’s front opening, we pass through a dark, narrow hallway into the back area that blossoms into a small square that opens to the skies. On the perimeter of the square are rooms cheaply available for rent to tourists, and from what we can see, mainly backpackers of varying ages.

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In the centre is a square room with a door that opens into a congested kitchen – the room jam-packed with pots, pans, bags, coolers, vegetables and fruits – there is scarce room for any sort of food preparation.

Teodora, accustomed to the conditions, shows no signs of concern, and pulls out a ceramic soup bowl to place on the little bit of space by the sink. She also places a large teflon-lined pot on the stove, strikes a match to light a propane burner underneath, and begins explaining the preparation details of this dish.

Along with the essential cooking directions, Teodora includes little snippets of information about her sons (her one son Saul – she affectionately calls him Saulito – was actually my surfing instructor on Playa Hermosa the day before) and grandchildren, often flashing a bright gold-toothed smile, showing her pride in her family.

She talks quietly as she washes and cuts the beef, the vegetables, the sour oranges (I’ve placed the recipe ingredients and details at the bottom, so I won’t get terribly detailed here). I love it when we add a toothpaste-sized lump of rust-toned achiote paste to the masa dough and the entire stew takes on a rich orange-brown colour.

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There’s barely a square inch of space available amid the pans and dishes and clutter … Teodora cuts vegetables right in a bowl by the edge of the sink…

After about an hour of cutting, boiling, stirring, and sautéing a salsa garnish, the finished dish is ready to sample.

Each of Teodora, Maureen and myself, scavenge up a bowl amid the counter clutter and scoop a ladleful of the rich, thick stew into our bowls. We squeezed our way out of the tiny kitchen – two other travellers, one Romanian, the other Mexican, had begun preparing their own meals alongside us as we chopped and stirred.

We plunked ourselves down on a long concrete bench that runs along the length of one of the inner walls of the compound and try our first taste of Indio Viejo.

Mmmmm … the tangy sour orange combined with the strong garlic, corn flour, and cilantro flavours to make a full-flavoured, heat-free dish with tender chunks of beef that I’m looking forward to recreating in my – just slightly less cluttered – Canadian kitchen.

So, please drop by and we’ll enjoy some together.

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Nighttime in San Juan del Sur

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The brightly lit 24 metre-high white statue of Christ of the Mercy peers out at us from the north hill overlooking little San Juan del Sur.

Stately coconut and royal palms rise over this resort town that attracts tourists – mostly beautiful young things – by the throngs.

To a lesser degree, it’s a bit like spring break week in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. At night, pairs and groups of people migrate down the middle of the narrow, uneven streets into bars and restaurants pumping out loud music in styles of jazz, or salsa, or rock.

The town is a living organism with a heartbeat that picks up as the night moves on.

This evening, there’s a touch of magic in the warm night air – delight in eating fresh seafood with our group while sipping fluffy rum drinks and cervezas in the wide beachfront restaurant … a romance in the night sky as Jesus looks down over us, stars twinkling overhead. Our travel mates laugh and play in a light alcoholic haze around a circular table perched right on the beach sand.

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Dinner on the beach at San Juan del Sur …

 

It’s a great group we’re travelling with, although – full disclosure, I have to say this as some of them might just read this! But, honestly, we blended pretty harmoniously.

Travel company gAdventures thrust us together as we arrived in Granada, Nicaragua from regions around the globe.

Before we knew it, we were meandering throughout hot and humid northern Nicaragua as a troop containing an even 10 of us – 5 Canadians, 1 American, 1 Belgian, 1 Aussie, 1 Brit, and 1 Costa Rican (Esteban, our guide).

It was a wide-ranging selection of nationalities, genders, accents, ages, religions, and interests. And yet we somehow came together and melded well despite our differences.

Many activities we experienced and saw as a group … at other times we headed off in diverse directions as our interests and palates differed.

And I’m going to share a secret with you after this latest journey… come closer and I’ll whisper …

I don’t usually enjoy travelling in groups.”

I like taking odd detours and finding side streets with local interest that draws me in – group travel is usually just too regimented to provide the freedom and flexibility that I crave. And, for sure … there always seems to be a personality or two that drives me bonkers. Although, to be totally fair, it might be MY personality that gnaws at the others!

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A nighttime visit to see glowing lava inside the Masaya Volcano, near Granada …

 

One of the small joys of travel, for me, is that I often find myself meeting people that I may not approach or stumble upon in my own little circle, my town, my country.

I like to believe that many travellers are explorers seeking to open their minds and hearts to what the world has to offer, as well as discovering hidden parts of themselves that they don’t really understand just yet. There are minute-to-minute stresses and challenges that enlighten us about ourselves.

Travel is both an outward and an inward journey of discovery. 

…………………………

As the jets thrusters roar up for us to make the final taxiing turn onto the nighttime runway, I look out the small airplane window, soaking in the final views of a foreign landscape, and I ask myself,

How many vistas are lovelier than a lit runway at dusk, cold blue and warm yellow lights leading off into the far distance, hinting at a destination exotic and far off … or … just reminding me that I’m coming home.”

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INDIO VIEJO RECIPE:

Ingredients:

  • 1 and a half pounds of beef (or chicken, pork, or … tofu even)
  • 1 pound of corn flour or “masa” (pre-made corn flour dough)
  • 2 yellow onions
  • 2 bell peppers
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 1 bunch of fresh cilantro
  • 1 bitter orange (you can use lemon as a substitute)
  • 2 or 3 tbsp. olive oil or butter
  • Achiote or annatto (needed for coloring, although you can use sweet paprika as a substitute)
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • Approximately half a gallon (2 liters) of water

 

Cook cubed beef in the olive oil with garlic, diced onion, tomato and julienned bell pepper.

Add the water and boil with the lid on the pot until the meat is soft (about 1/2 hour).

Add some water to the corn dough in a bowl and mix until the dough is blended into a smooth paste. Add a tablespoon or so of achiote or annatto to make the corn dough slurry look slightly red. Add this to the beef/vegetable pot and mix it all together on medium heat.

Add the juice from the bitter orange, and let it cook for another 5 to 10 minutes until the mixture is thickened and boiling with large bubbles.

Serve with rice, and/or fried plantain.

The Dog Days of Nicaragua

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Diakachimba!!

The days start hot as soon as the sun rises along with the humidity here in Leon, Nicaragua. The air is slightly oppressive, filled with sun-scorched temperatures and steamy humidity. And still this isn’t the truly “hot” season yet.

The crumbly patchwork streets – a mix of some asphalt, some concrete, some cobblestone – are quiet this early other than the occasional woman who starts work early or the numerous slightly emaciated dogs that wander the neighbourhoods hoping to come upon a scrap of food… anything left behind by a late night drinker or a bag of garbage left untended.

On the surface and in many ways, Nicaragua is hard to distinguish from other Latin American countries.

There are ramshackle houses and vendor stalls made from tin and scrap pieces of salvaged wood… the kids play games in the streets … young Moms wander the narrow calles, sweet brown babies held snugly to their chests in light cotton wraps … bicycles loaded with entire families glide over the bumpy streets … Spanish voices float loudly in the air filled with diesel fumes …  scents of stale urine mixed with caffeine add to the melange.

But not everything is the same. There is something different here in Nicaragua…

The kids and moms and dads of Nicaragua just don’t understand the nature of the hard sell that any other Caribbean nation has known for years. Marketing your goods in a third-world country doesn’t just happen.

Nicaraguan sellers quixotically think that “No” means “NO”.

Most other Caribbean, Latin American, South American countries know this is patently false. You need to push and press and hold each rich tourist, it’s like a WWF fight, anything and everything goes. Take no prisoners, leave no tourist wallet unturned until you’ve captured the mighty US dollars from deep in the pocket.

Street vendors are just so polite in Nicaragua… and unlike Cuba, for example, no government officer or policeman is enforcing their polite distance. They just don’t know any better.

Only the dogs get it here in this Central American locale… maybe they have an international code by which they know the skill set needed.

The dogs are far better beggars than the children.

They have the hangdog look down pat as they stare at you from a few feet away in a head-bowed manner.

Then painfully slowly, one slow-motion paw in front of the other they approach and rest their scratched nose or scrawny-furred jaw on the edge of your leg and rest silent, unmoving. The eyes are sad, almost haunted, irresistible.

Once fed a small scrap or ignored for too long they turn and wander, ever so slowly back to their sleeping tribe on the edge of the pavement… laying in a circle nearby the black dog, and the tan dog, and the white dog with the black patch circling his eye.

…………..

Nicaragua is still in the early stages of its tourism industry and will take some time to develop along the lines of its other Caribbean neighbours. It’s not a bad thing… fewer people speak English in the hotels and street stalls – it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to practice Spanish.

So often when we travel, hauling out our rudimentary language skills, English is spoken to us in return, making it easy for us, but not so good for making the mind work hard to find the right words.

But in Nicaragua, we can work our skill set – or lack of one perhaps – as few people in this just-developing nation have studied English.

……………

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Nicaraugan street dinner in Leon with our group of Canadians, American, Belgian, Brit, Aussie, and Costa Rican

You might want to call it “Nici” time.

Eating in a restaurant in Nicaragua is a test of the typical Westerner’s patience. Prepare for long waits between each step of the eating process.

Menu arrives…. wait …
Drink orders taken… wait …
Drinks arrive… if you drink wine, don’t expect glasses or an open bottle for some time yet , yup… wait…
Food order taken… now the need for patience really begins… after 15 or 20 minutes expect the waiter to return to tell you that the lamb or soup you ordered is not available today (there are plausible rumours in our group that lamb has never been seen in Nicaragua despite appearing on every menu).
Wait for a menu to be brought again in order to make your next choice of meal.
The drinks will have been long exhausted before any food arrives, and liquid refreshment will not be replenished unless a waiter is forcibly made to listen to the order.
Once the usually delicious meal has been brought to the table and thoroughly enjoyed… it’s time to settle in and wait for la cuenta (the bill) to come…

In Nicaragua, a quick lunch or dinner is an oxymoron just waiting to be tested.

…………..

It’s a rich, cacophonous mix of sound at 6 am in this tiny village of Los Angeles on Ometepe Island, in the middle of huge Lake Nicarauga.We’re doing a 2 night Homestay with a local farming family. Our house Mom is a 60’ish divorced lady called Midea who needs the small income that we tourists provide.

As the morning arises, it feels like I’m in a blender swirling with loud whistles and whooshes of wind high in the trees- the palms, the eucalyptus, the ceibas.

The wind circles lower into the smaller trees and bushes- the sour oranges, the mangos, the bougainvilleas and hibiscus – and then begins to rustle the rusty tin roofs of houses and sheds creating shudders and bangs, then wooden doors swing on hinges, roosters crow from all directions, blue and yellow birds sing and squawk, and in the far distance a speaker pumps out a bass beat of mi-doh-mi-doh-mi-doh music, a horse whinnies… and finally I can feel the strong welcoming rush of the wind penetrating the gaps of the roof and walls running over my white cotton sheet – it feels fresh and comforting as I nod off to its caress.

……………
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Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro

One of 7 still-active volcanoes in Nicaragua, Cerro Negro beckons with the unique chance to surf or slide down its long, gravelly-smooth black front surface … it’s a novel experience that comes along so rarely that it would be crazy to pass by, right?

And it’s safe too, the volcano hasn’t erupted since 1999, so what are the chances it will erupt today?

A narrow, twisting dirt road outside Leon leads to the base of the beautiful conical volcano. After signing in at the official volcano office – they need sufficient information from you to pass on to your national authorities should you perish – it’s just a short drive on to the base parking lot where you look up to the 728m. high peak of Cerro Negro.

It’s an impressive sight, especially when you peer up along the north spine and catch sight of the small ants that are other boarders climbing to the peak for their rapid descent down.

The dozen or so of us -Dutch, Aussies, Americans, Canadians – are given a small backpack to carry with coveralls and protective gear, and then a plywood ‘toboggan’ with a square patch of thick linoleum on the underside that acts as the slippery surface for sliding over volcanic ash.

We’ve all been given the option to stand ‘snowboard style’ for the run downhill, but Dennis our guide informs us that there is little control on the upright boards and it quickly becomes extremely dangerous as speed increases. Hmmmmm. Each of us chooses the ‘sit-down’ version happily.

All set with water bottles and slathered with sunscreen to protect against the penetrating sun, we head off in a long line like marchers heading off to the first base camp of Mount Everest.

The early going isn’t very steep, but the size of the black rocks and boulders is fairly large – at one point a young American fellow dislodges a boulder about twice the size of a basketball that tumbles down and just misses the climber below.

The footing is a bit tricky at times, but mostly all goes well as we move higher and higher and the vistas grow more lush and appealing.

At the halfway point about a half hour in, we stop for water and rest and capture the scenery and each other on cameras… all the big lenses and iPhones are pulled out and smiling hikers’ visages preserved for bragging rights later on.

The cross breezes are becoming quite strong at this elevation, so our guide instructs us to carry the board in a horizontal way so that we won’t catch a draft and be pulled off the side of the mountain.

The climb is now a steady incline but smooth and gravelly underfoot as we mount the spine of the hill… now we are the ants that can be seen from far below.

A slight scent of volcanic sulphur permeates the air and the winds are becoming substantial – then in just a few moments we come over a steep rise and the sight of other ‘boarders’ in their sliding coveralls greets us – we’ve made it, we’re at the peak.

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Jesse... a co-traveller from Calgary looks ready for the big slide...

The verdant valleys stretch out in all directions below us, but the sight we’re most interested in is the one straight ahead – the flat, black expanse that drops off like a Black Diamond snowy ski run below.

Before pulling on our sliding gear, guide Dennis scrapes the gravel surface where we stand as on the backside of the black sliding surface is the interior of the volcano. We can see small steam and gas clouds rising up from below in the crater. As he scrapes a few inches into the surface of the volcanic rim, steam appears and, holding my hand close by I feel a glow of heat emanating from the ground.

We take a few fun photos, then begin to strap on knee and elbow pads, and pull on the well-worn coveralls over our own clothes. Gloves and protective eye goggles are next.

As we dress, Dennis instructs us that the toboggan is narrow and that it’s easy to fall off. We’re to keep our legs well outside of the edges and use them to balance ourselves and also use our feet as brakes, particularly as our speed increases towards the bottom half of the run.

We’re given a reminder that this isn’t a race and that although boarders have been ‘clocked’ at 120kph, we’re not here to kill ourselves. I look around me – everyone in the group smiles and nods. There doesn’t appear to be any heroes in this group.

It’s time!

We all climb that last few metres to the top and survey the run below.

Dennis sets us into one of two start paths, then he runs down down down the hill so that we can barely see him in the far distance. His job now is to signal us when it’s safe for the next boarder to start – he can see the bottom of the run and will know if the last boarder made it to the end safely.

Two by two we slot into the start ‘troughs’ and once the arm signal is given by Dennis below, the first pair (a Dutchman and an American) push off. They begin hesitantly, the toboggans gripping the gravel a bit, but then momentum kicks in and their speed increases. A long dust cloud forms like a vapour trail behind each sledder.

Now it’s my turn…

Clumsily I trudge over to the start slot and toss the toboggan down into the hot, black sandy-gravel. It’s as if I’m a space astronaut… all moves are slow and clunky. I plunk my ass onto the back of the toboggan and wiggle back and forth until I’m centred properly.

The hand signal from below comes and I push off with gloved hands – my speed increases faster than I anticipated. Loud grating noises of the board scraping gravel grow in volume and a cloud of volcanic ‘smoke’ trails behind as I go faster and faster.

Soon I’m at the halfway point and I see Dennis the guide waving excitedly at me. No way am I letting go of the reins that hold me onto this speeding sled. My will to live is too great to stupidly let go and wave.

By this point, there’s a constant upwards spray of black dust and gravel forcing itself into my nose and mouth and I fear I’ll swallow a big mouthful of gravel that is attempting to choke the life out of me.

I can see the bottom of the mountain approaching, but just barely through the dust cloud… the sensation of bumping, bouncing, gravity pressure, and loud noise feels to me like what I see in movies of astronauts blasting off a launchpad.

Then, in only about a minute and a half, the run comes abruptly to an end and all is quiet except for the excited voices of those who came down ahead of me.

I stumble up and off the toboggan and shake a pound or two of dust and gravel off the coveralls… I feel exhilarated and can still feel the bump and buzz in my bones, the gritty dust between my teeth.

In two or three minutes time, my group of fellow travellers in Nicaragua – Costa Rican guide Esteban, and Canadian compatriots Pierre and Jesse – high five each other and take photos of each other’s blackened faces, hair and necks. Our smiles stand out white against the black on our faces.

It’s been a good day!

The only way to describe it is in the lingo of excited Nicaraguans…

Diakachimba!

(Next week we’ll play out the final week of this Nicaraguan adventure)

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