IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FOOD – PART ONE (well maybe part 125 by now)

Tracey says “you always say you travel for the food, but you haven’t really written about it.”

Well, here it goes.

As a chef, I learned that Mexico has one of the five ‘master’ cuisines, along with India, China, France, and the fifth one which I cannot remember (too many Pisco Sours I guess).  Mexico did not disappoint – Standouts included:

  • Menudo:  a tripe soup with fresh oregano, onions and lime in a thin broth with hominy. One of my all-time favourites.
  • Limonata:  a wonderful fresh lime juice with a touch of sugar and sparkling water.  This was made outstandingly by the bartender on the Mazatlan ferry.
  • Horchata:  a rice-based drink with vanilla and cinnamon.  Wow!  Made in a small village near Mezcal.
  • Hot Chocolate:  made fresh for Tracey.  The chocolate was ground in a mortar and pestle, added to rich milk, and cooked on a tin sheet – over a cactus wood fire no less.

I don’t think we had a bad meal in Mexico. We searched out roadside stands and only ate inside once!  The people are eager to add complex spices to the meals and the freshness was outstanding.

I have to mention the Chorizo.  Being a sausage freak, I was happy to try out every variation of sausage to be found. Where was the best? Easy answer! We stopped at a roadside stand in Guatemala, where a man with a mop was brushing his grill with water to create steam for the cooking sausages. They were amazing! Just the right amount of smoke and stuffed with a very herbal mixture. I could have stayed at this roadside stand for a week.

Antigua,Guatemala surprised me. Confit? That’s what the menu says. Do they actually cook them in the melted goose fat?  I must order it to find out.  It’s just OK – not completely traditional, but the ambience and the 35 year old rum contributed to a great night out. The Sangria was pretty good too and Tracey said the bread pudding was her favourite.  This same night we had an aperitif of hibiscus flowers and aguardiente (fire water) a great blend, not too toxic and very unique!

Nicaragua. In Leon we went to a traditional restaurant and I had the local specialty ‘Chanco con Yucca’ otherwise known as Sauerbraten. It was a fermented/pickled pork roast with a southern twist!

Gallo Pinto – rice and beans – all the time, everywhere – you can’t escape them.  The same with Pollo Asado – roast chicken. In Mexico I kept screaming ‘pollo asado’ every time we passed a sign advertising roast chicken, harping on about getting some. Never had any the entire time we were in Mexico. Good thing, Seven countries later and it is the only thing on every menu and most times the only thing on the menu. I’m ready for something different. Oh, the Gallo Pinto was best in El Salvador.

Motoring down the highway in Costa Rica, we spot a couple of semi trucks out in front of a restaurant and a couple of  local workers seem to be enjoying their meal inside. The decision is made, we pull in.  Uh Oh, it is a Chinese restaurant.  Well let’s try it anyway. One of the best chow meins we have ever had!

Panama forgot how to cook.  No salt, no spices, no flavour?  We ended up cooking our own food here, not for lack of trying the local fare. We went down to the ‘row’ where all the best restaurants were and……. Still the same result. Pack your own lunch here.

From Panama we hopped onboard the Stahlratte.  One night we set up a grill on the beach and made skewers of some local fish. I did not see the fish but it’s meat was the toughest I have ever seen! I could not cut it with a knife let alone chew through it. Pass the salad.  Otherwise the food on the boat was quite enjoyable.  I volunteered to do the cooking for our merry band of 25 travellers for a couple of days and had fun rifling through the galley and trying to build a meal. Thanks Ludwig for letting me play.

Colombia beckons. Stayed tuned it starts to get funky now.

 Cheers

Miles

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JUST CAN’T GET THAT VAN HALEN SONG OUT OF MY HEAD

Arriving in Panama we have a feeling that we have actually re-entered the U.S. as we roll down a four-lane divided highway with police speed traps everywhere.  Our first couple of nights are spent in the city of  David, the country’s second-largest city and half-way between San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica) and Panama City(the capital of Panama).

As we begin to head further into Panama, we recognize that this thin squiggle of land offers a surprisingly diverse selection of landscapes and a melting pot of cultures.

We arrive in Panama City on the Pan-American Highway, first crossing the famed Panama Canal on the Bridge of the Americas before arriving in the Balboa district of the city.  Panama is a centralized nation, with about a third of its population of three million living in Panama City.  As we look over the canal toward a sea of skyscrapers, it is obvious that Panama City is reinventing itself as something more than home to a canal.

Our destination in the city is Panama Passage, a guest house specifically for overland travelers.  Staying here is a great decision.  It is a nice change to be surrounded by like-minded people who don’t think we are completely insane.  Our fellow guests included travelers from the U.S., Britain,the Netherlands, Germany, and Ecuador.  We were part of a great mix of individuals traveling on their own, as a couple, with friends, by 4×4, and on motorbike.

On our first evening, we head out with the other guests of Panama Passage to the Amador Causeway at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal.  The causeway is a 2 km palm-tree-lined stretch of land connecting four small islands to the mainland.  Once the haunt of pirates, the islands were connected in the early 1900s with rock and dirt excavated from the Culebra Cut in the Panama Canal to form a breakwater for a protective harbour for ships waiting to enter the canal.  Along the causeway, we enjoyed views across the water to the city’s glittering skyline.

Panama Passage is situated in a great location allowing us to walk to the Mercado Público, the covered farmer’s market of Panama City, where we purchase fruits, vegetables, and most of the makings of our meals for a few days.  We create a connection with four fellow travelers to share dinner-making duties over four days which allows us to have some fun in the kitchen and also enjoy the great cooking of some of our fellow travelers.

One morning we head off with Mirjam and Daan (www.farawayfromflakkee.nl) to Parque  Natural Metropolitano, the only protected tropical forest within the city limits of a major urban area in the Americas. This 265 hectare park is located on the northern edge of Panama City and partially overseen by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute which carries out scientific studies here.  This land is the protected home of more than 200 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles.  We quickly delve into the earthy environs of thick jungle, enjoying the quiet and dappled sunlight.  Almost immediately, we spot a group of tamarins (pint-sized primates) making their way across our path.  We see plenty of birds, duck out of the path of the occasional butterfly, and spend time watching the mesmerizing army ants trekking across the trail.  Eventually our trail heads up Cedro Hill to a 150m lookout point with sweeping views of the city, the bay, and the canal.

Later the same day I join Helen and Paul (www.goingoverland.com ) on a visit to Panama’s star attraction, the Panama Canal.  We visit the Miraflores Locks, watching a couple of ships pass through the locks and touring the fabulous visitor centre which provided a wealth of  information about the canal’s history and its impact on world trade as well as information on how the region’s natural environment is crucial to the function of the canal.

A few nights into our stay at Panama Passage we are joined by fellow Calgarians, Sandra and Jordan (www.hasselmann.wordpress.com ) whom we met at home earlier in the year.  We had been hoping to meet up with them on the road and although they had left Calgary a few months before us, they had enjoyed a longer tour of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico and then faced some weather challenges in Central America getting them into Panama City just a few days behind us.  It is great to see some familiar faces.

On our final day in Panama City, we join Helen and Paul to visit Casco Viejo, the city centre during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Over the last century, as population growth and urban expansion pushed the urban boundaries further east, the city’s elite abandoned Casco Viejo for other parts of the city and the antique mansions were left to rot.  The neighborhood rapidly deteriorated into somewhat of an urban slum with low-income families and squatters moving in.  Regardless, it is a charming neighborhood with narrow streets, turn-of-the 19th-ceutury Spanish, Italian, and French-influenced architecture, bougainvillea-filled plazas, and a breezy promenade jutting into the sea.  There is now a public and privately-funded project underway to restore the areas buildings and the neighborhood’s historical importance.

Stay tuned for more fromPanama…

Tracey

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PURA VIDA!

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Entering Costa Rica, it is immediately obvious that this country is different from most of the others in Latin America.  In a region of the world historically plagued by internal strife and civil wars, Costa Ricans are proud, peace-loving, and have no army. Roads are in good shape, homes are water-proof and have floors made of something other than earth, and shops carry more than the basic essentials.  And that is only what we notice in the first half hour.

Over the course of the afternoon and early evening, Miles tackles a rough, muddy, partially flooded road taking us along the northern shore of Lake Arenal to the tiny farming community of La Fortuna where we arrive a couple of hours after dark.  Another sign of the country’s prosperity arrives as I begin to search for a place to stay.  We are surrounded by swanky resorts.  After using my best negotiating skills, I come up with a rate of a mere $75 per night (half the usual rate).  This seems absurd now that we have become accustomed to decent accommodation for under $20.  We continue the search.  Miles spots a hotel that he somehow senses is the place for us.  He’s right.  Pulling into the driveway, we are greeted by the biggest smile we have seen in days.  Miles develops an immediate rapport with this hotel-owner and the two of them quickly negotiate a price of $21 per night including breakfast.  Seems like a deal.

We enjoy dinner at the hotel restaurant, sharing a bottle of wine and some fun conversation with our host, Florian.  He barely speaks English but is eager to learn.  Our Spanish is really quite pathetic but Florian is very patient with us.  We have quickly gained an affection for this warm and welcoming man who has made us feel very much at home.  He quickly taught us the expression “Pura Vida!”,Costa Rica’s unofficial slogan.  Over the next few days, each time that we ask Florian how he is doing, “Coma estas?”, his response is always, “Pura Vida”.  This is symbolic of the easygoing nature of this country’s people, politics, and personality.

Before retiring for the night, we undertake the challenging task of laying out all of our gear to dry.  Miles’ feet have been treading water in his boots for hours and my gloves are beginning to grow mold.  We use every possible hanging spot in the room and then sleep in dense humidity as we are surrounded by wet clothes, boots, and bags.

In the morning, we are blessed with sunshine and head into town visiting the central plaza, Catholic church, and some unusual shops.  When it’s time to head out, we find our Ural parked in by a van.  There is nothing to do but enjoy a cold drink while we wait.  “Pura Vida!”

Now we are off to the Rio Fortuna Waterfall.  As we head into the lush rainforest, I am hoping to see some of Costa Rica’s famed flora and fauna.  I’m certainly not disappointed.  During our hike down a steep path to the waterfall, we spot spectacular flowers and a tremendous variety of plant life spreading from the forest floor to the tops of the canopy.  The trunks of the tall trees are hosts to all sorts of vines and bromeliads and other plants grow out of every crevice.  Although we hear plenty of bird and animal noises nearby, we don’t spot any wildlife – other than several people enjoying a swim at the base of the waterfall.

On awakening the next morning, we enjoy the hotel’s amazing view of the Arenal Volcano.  This is one of the world’s most regularly active volcanoes with frequent powerful explosions sending cascades of red-hot lava rocks down the volcano’s steep slopes.  What we didn’t realize until arriving here is that the top of the volcano is almost always obscured by cloud and fog, so unless you embark on a dangerous climb, you are unlikely to see any of the activity.  But on this clear morning we were lucky enough to catch a rare view of the top of the volcano spewing smoke from the hot lava rocks within.

Florian and his wife bid us a fond farewell with a final and enthusiastic “con mucho gusto”.  We head south and into Talamanca Mountains.  Reaching higher altitudes, we are once again driving through cloud forests where we face steep climbs, pouring rain and avalanches.  But we make it through and in the western foothills, we arrive at our home for the night, San Isidrode El General.  The next morning we are off again and heading south on a route that follows the Pacific Ocean.  Despite the heavy rains, we enjoy views of the lushly forested mountains tumbling into the Pacific.  On the banks of the many rivers flowing into the ocean were mangrove forests and swamplands and we watch pelicans and herons flying above, feeding along the silted banks, and nesting high in the canopy.  A fitting end to our time in this eco-rich land.

Tracey

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SPEAKING OF LESSONS LEARNED…

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Tracey’s last post ended at – lessons learned.

So, what have we learned?

Lesson One: The best way to improve our Ural’s braking ability is to leave a wet towel hanging off the back to dry, allowing it to drop into the driveshaft while zipping along. Stops the bike much more quickly than the brakes. There is a side benefit as well – a nicely polished driveshaft.

Lesson Two: The world is full of information, sometimes accurate and sometimes not. Honduras is a country we were warned about by every fellow traveler- military shakedowns for money, corrupt police, and unfriendly people. Nobody seemed to have a good story to tell. Well, some lessons you just need to learn for yourself.

We were leaving town one morning when two motorcycle police pulled in behind us. They began to follow us and eventually slowly passed us on the right, continuing down the road. My spidey senses started to tingle. I made a quick detour for unnecessary fuel… eventually, we pulled back onto the road and continued…about two kilometers down the road on a blind bend with jungle on both sides, a motorcycle was parked across our lane and two policemen lay in wait for us…one of them motioned us to stop and we thought the gig was up…slowly he looked around and approached us…. he extended his hand to mine and said “Welcome to Honduras! We just saw you back there and wanted to tell you to have a safe trip and enjoy our country” Then he went around to shake Tracey’s’ hand and we were off. This same scene was repeated less than an hour later with the same results. Honduras treated us well.

Lesson Three: When the rains come – make tracks. As the tropical storms battered the countries in different ways we learned to keep going. Other travelers chose to wait. Waiting allowed the water to build up – with bad results. We drove over many landslides, including one while it was happening. Being stuck on the wrong side, when there is only one road leads to…. being stuck. By shifting our routes and plans to take advantage of good spots of weather, we were able to be rained upon but always continue. As we learned later, other travellers were stuck for as much as 5 days in various places due to ‘waiting it out’. Waiting it out means waiting until December.

Our biggest ongoing lesson is still ‘people are people’. Guarav Jani, the Indian film maker, said to us one time “Reach out with your hand, put it on the other person’s chest and feel their heart – it is the same beat as yours.  That person is not a newspaper or a government. That person is the same as you.”

We are reminded of the power of his statement every day, it is a message we will always carry.

Miles

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STORMS AND SANDINISTAS

As we continue our drive toward Leon, the devastation of the flooding becomes very obvious.  Even in the fields that were not immersed in water, there is tremendous damage to crops.  This will be particularly devastating to Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America.  The country’s economy is overly reliant on agriculture and with the corn harvest underway this flooding could not happen at a worse time.

It is particularly difficult to witness this devastation in a country with such a tumultuous history:  hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, war, poverty, crime and corruption.  The country seems to be continuously brought to the brink, but continuously it fights back.  In the coming days, we will learn that the rain we are experiencing is beyond the ordinary for this time of year and has caused severe flooding in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.  It is possible that the worst road conditions we will face are still ahead.  There are reports of fatalities and entire villages being evacuated.  We have seen that it doesn’t take a full-blown hurricane to tear up these poor mountainous countries.

As we head down the road, the sun does come out, but only for a short time before we are once again donning our rain gear.  We are headed to the historic city of Leon, the dusty bullet-scarred city which was once the capital of the nation.  It lost its title in 1852, but has been at the forefront of Nicaraguan politics ever since and was a focal point during the Sandinista revolution – an event that we would soon learn a lot about.

Driving through Nicaragua, it is hard to avoid the smiling face of the incumbent president, Daniel Ortega.  He is everywhere.  It feels more than a wee bit like Big Brother is watching.  Posters proclaiming his loyalty to the people are stationed on government buildings, roadside monuments, and even trees.  Each time we see a television, there he is.  I imagine that this extreme publicity is due to the upcoming election, bet even with an election, this was over the top.  I had to learn more about this man.  Word is that he is an ex-bank robber but he did also became a veteran Sandinista leader.  On becoming President, he refused to occupy the new Casa Presidencial, calling it a symbol of the opulence of the previous administration.  This actually seems like a noble move to me, but we learn that such moves are not proving popular, as Nicaraguans are more concerned about where they will get their next meal than with the posturing of the President.  I’m curious to see how Ortega will make out in the election.

Nicaragua’s real hope lies in its people, and despite the nastiness of everyday politics, it appears that democracy is here to stay, as is the relative freedom of speech that it entails.  Nicaragua may still be the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but their people are well-educated and intent on improving their lot, as we are soon to witness.

Continuing our tour of Nicaragua and approaching Granada we see a line of shiny motorbikes accompanied by their smiling, laughing riders.  We can’t resist stopping to see what they are up to. The group welcomes us with open arms and we enjoy sharing stories of our travels, exchanging information on our bikes, learning about the club’s message of peace, and becoming somewhat educated on the country’s past and present politics.  This group is gathered to prepare for a parade.  Nicaragua’s Vice President is heading toward Granada and the group will be part of his supportive escort into the city.

I never expected to see these two images sharing space.
I never expected to see these two images sharing space.

 

Caught up in the fun and positive energy, before I know it the group has me waving the Nicaraguan flag and preparing to lead the parade.  We are overwhelmed with the enthusiasm of this group and their excitement in having us join in their celebration.  Minutes later, we are positioned to lead the Vice President and his supporters on their grand entrance into Granada.

Leader of the pack.
Leader of the pack.

As we sit waiting for the Vice President’s approach, the reality of what we are doing begins to sink in. My mind is recalling the numerous pieces of advice I had read from the Government of Canada about how to stay out of trouble in foreign countries.  At the top of the “Things Not To Do” list is “participate in political rallies”.  Any gatherings, particularly of a political nature are to be avoided under all circumstances.

As much as we are enjoying the company of this great group of fellow riders and wish them the best in spreading their message of peace, we recognize that participating in a parade in support of a political figure who we know virtually nothing about is really not the smartest move.  Not wanting to let the group down, we lead the parade for a short while, pull off to take some photos, then let the Vice President and his supporters roll into Granada without us as we head further south toward Costa Rica, grateful for the warm reception and lessons learned.

Tracey