Category Archives: Food

What is Atole?

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Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t handle new foods really well.  Calling me “picky” is something of an understatement.  I started teaching myself to cook dinner approximately two months ago, when I realized that I actually want to try and be a healthy eater.  Prior to that, cereal was my lunch and dinner.  Vegetables and I have an extremely tenuous relationship:  I am only just now attempting to make myself eat more vegetables (this means once or twice a month).   Seafood revolts me outright.  While I’ve improved dramatically since returning from India (and hopefully people who have been paying attention will attest to this), the prospect of new food, specifically when someone else is providing it, stresses me out immensely.  I hate offending people and it seems to me that rejecting food is a surefire way to do that.  On the other hand, the idea of eating any kind of fishy creature makes me want to throw up.  I suspect that would be seen as offensive as well…

Granola bars are always a safe bet.

But, back to Nicaragua and Roberto, Sr.

After leaving Volcan Masaya, Roberto drove us to the market in the city.  On the way to the market, Roberto told us we were going to try something called “atole” later on.  Having never heard of this and being concerned about potential ingredients, I asked what atole was.  Roberto explained, but unsurprisingly, my ingredient-related vocabulary is weak (if non-existant) so all I was really able to comprehend was that it involved corn.

Exterior of the market (swiped from a Google search)

Masaya’s market is the largest open-air market in Nicaragua, which is pretty sweet.  It consisted of a labrynith of stalls and courtyards, full of salespeople hawking their wares.  It was a little touristy, but if you were willing to poke around, there was some unique stuff.  I struggled with the haggling.  Every time I’m in a place where haggling over prices is expected, I do my best to live up to the expectations but the conversation usually ends up sounding like this:

Me: “How much for this?”

Vendor: “100 cordoba”

Me: “I can give you 60?” (poorly done, you’re supposed to drop by half and then increase)

Vendor: (laughs) “100.”

Me: “O-okay.”

Shameful.  Fortunately, we had Roberto who, when we wanted to make a purchase, would handle the haggling for us.  He saved me at least $30 in total by casually telling the vendors what we’d pay, instead of asking hesitantly as I have a tendency to do.  At one point, Sara was trying to figure out the cost of a t-shirt.  When the vendor told her it was $5usd, Roberto caught my eye over her shoulder, winked and shook his head to indicate that we could find a better price elsewhere.

Interior of the market (also from a Google search because I tend to avoid taking pictures in marketplaces)

Our expedition to the market was entirely too successful.  Once we finished up, Roberto took us to a nearby street vendor for the aforementioned atole.  When we realized we were going to be eating street food, Sara and I had a mini celebration in the back seat.  Earlier in the day, we had been (half) joking about using our last day in Nicaragua to go to as many street vendors as possible, eat as much of their food as we could fit into our stomachs, and then deal with the aftermath of those poor decisions while on the plane.  This street vendor  had two cards situated next to each other on a street corner.  One cart had a pot of some kind of thick, opaque liquid while the other had little empanadas.  Roberto first offered us the empanadas, which had sugar on top and something reddish-orange inside.  He said it was queso, but it didn’t taste like that.  They were extremely good.  However, Roberto clarified that this was not the atole.

Atole!

Process of elimination indicated that the stuff in the pot was the atole.  This caused me some anxiety – what was in there?!  The vendor gave us bowls and spoons made from coconut shells, which was extremely awesome.   She then served us the thick, white liquid and put some cinnamon on top.  I know I like cinnamon.  This was comforting to me.  Regardless, I still felt pretty apprehensive because I had no clue what I was about to eat.  The only thing I knew was that I had to try it because Roberto was so excited about it.  So I did.  And it was good – very sweet, creamy and warm.  With the cinnamon, it was kind of like eating pureed oatmeal.  We all had another empanada, finished our atole and then Roberto tried to pay for us.  We nixed that quickly and said we wanted to pay for him because he’d been so awesome all day.  He allowed this, but then paid for the empanadas.  Sneaky.  

Back in the car, Roberto explained that this particular vendor made the best quality atole in the area.  Apparently, atole needs to be started at 4am.  It needs to be stirred all day and is literally just made up of corn and cinnamon.  He promised us it was very good for the system, all natural, no chemicals or preservatives.  He told us that he didn’t bring everyone for atole, only the “chicos y chicas mas bueno.”  That was adorable.  He said that for the malo chicos y chicas” he drove very fast and didn’t do anything special.  Furthermore, since we were over on time (we were about an hour past when we were supposed to have returned to the hostel) he was going to tell the hostel that the car broke down so we wouldn’t have to pay the extra $7/hour.

As we got closer to the hostel and he learned that we were leaving the next day, he said he wanted to drive us to the airport.  We were going to have to pay a taxi to get there anyway, plus he was charging a fair price and we were devastated to be leaving him, we agreed.

After saying goodbye to Roberto at the hostel, Sara and I walked over to the mall in search of a music store.  We found one, but pickin’s were seriously slim and none of the artists recommended to me by Roberto, Jr. or the waitress from the coffee shop were there.  I did buy a salsa CD, but unfortunately it’s awful.  Although it was getting darker when we left, we wanted one last meal (and not from the food court).  There was a nearby restaurant called El Churrasco that we passed every time we went to and from the mall, so we decided to try it out of curiousity, even though the doors were tinted and it looked closed.  I could see two waiters inside leap up from their seats as I opened the door.  We were the only two customers there, even though it looked like a nice restaurant.  Expensive, too, as we learned from looking at the menu.  We decided to stick with appetizers (grilled plantain and cheese for her, grilled chorizo for me) and alcohol (last chance for Flor de Cana, Nicaragua’s #1 rum!).  The food was excellent and although it was a little awkward being the only two people in the place, we managed to survive.

I want Roberto to adopt us. Also, as one of my friends pointed out, I definitely missed the black pants, striped shirt memo.

The next morning, we were up and out by 4am.  Before we knew it, we were at the airport again.  We had one of the security guards take a picture of us with Roberto – one last picture in Nicaragua!  Checking was easy and I was able to help a Nica woman and her mother (92 years old and adorable) fill out their travel forms.  I was so proud of myself for remembering what ama de casa meant, as I don’t believe I’ve heard it since vocational vocab sophomore year of college.

There are more pictures that I would like to add to this post… however, Sara needs to send them to me first.

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Nicaraguan Mallrats

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Let me begin by saying that we were a little intimidated by Managua.  We had heard a lot about what not to do there and were feeling less than encouraged by guidebook quotes like, “tourists tend to land in Managua and leave.  Quickly.”  We’d also heard a lot about how unsafe and discombobulated the public transportation was (everything from it being impossible to figure out to the great likelihood of being robbed at knifepoint while on it).  Our hostel had a list of warnings on the wall, right next to a map that clearly outlined “safe” and “unsafe” neighborhoods.

However, we’re not the kind of people to sit in a hostel all day because we’re afraid to venture outside.  We didn’t do anything really extraordinary, but we did end up sharing what is a pretty common pastime with a certain class of people in Managua.

the mall.

We went to the mall.

Stop.  I hear you judging (I’d be judging).  Before you jump to the conclusion that I’m a mallrat or start heckling me for going to a mall when I’m in a freaking foreign country and could be doing ANYTHING else, let me explain.  I hate malls with a burning fire-and-brimstones passion.  If I go to hell when I die, hell will be a shopping mall around Christmas.  Commercialism and chaos.  I did have a brief mallrat phase when I was about 12 (I lived in South Jersey – there really isn’t much else to do), but I got over that fast.

So, obviously I was a little annoyed to be in a shopping mall in a foreign country, even though our options were limited.  However, as I looked around and slowly noticed that we were the only tourists there, I realized that we were, in fact, sharing an experience with the residents of Managua.  I decided to enjoy it.

Having spent little time inside malls since before India, I was overwhelmed and occasionally found myself casting my gaze around for a nice quiet space with minimal sensory stimulation.  However, I persevered and we wandered aimlessly around for a bit, before deciding the ultimate experience would be to see a movie in Spanish (well, subtitled in Spanish).  Sombros Tenebrosas (or, Dark Shadows) was the movie of choice.  Ticket buying was in and of itself an experience:  apparently going to the movies on a Saturday night is THE thing to do in Managua.  Everyone was seeing either Ice Age 4 or Madagascar 3.  Tickets were less than four dollars.  That alone made the entire experience worth it.

Since we had about an hour or so of extra time before the movie, we decided to complete our Nicaraguan mall-going adventure by venturing down to the food court to see what we could find for dinner.  It. Was. Insanity.  Absolutely packed.  I briefly contemplated the fact that if I was doing this in America, I would be seriously cranky.  But, it was Nicaragua, so I rolled with it.  The sheer number of people packed into the space was overwhelming.  There were also a concerning number of fried chicken places.  In a feeble attempt to be somewhat healthy, we ended up at a place called GoGreen! that did paninis, salads, etc.  I got a quesadilla that sounded good on paper, but in practice was so bad I gave up after half.  Courtney’s panini was likewise.  I decided it would be a better choice for me to have gelato instead of eating any more nasty, uncooked, limp, cold quesadilla, so I bravely navigated my way across the food court to the gelato place, where I stood in line behind two teenagers who were clearly on a date for what seemed like an eternity.   My length of time waiting on line was increased when two people casually stepped in front of me.  There’s the very real possibility that I was allowing for too much personal space between myself and the two teens.

the food court. Ignore the watermark, I swiped this from Google. Bizarrely, none of us thought to take pictures while in the mall…

As I learned, the way this gelato place worked was that you paid first, then ordered your ice cream.  I successfully managed the first piece, then waited for another period of time to place my order.  Clearly, I wanted gelato pretty badly.  I learned quickly that I was not allowed to order two flavors together and that the flavor I wanted more was a “different price.”  Okay.  So, as I was debating my options, the guy scooping the ice cream said (in Spanish), “Reese’s! You’ll like it, here, try!” and pushed a sample into my hand.  Never one to say no to free ice cream samples, I tried it.  I felt bad ordering hazelnut instead because he clearly wanted me to like the Reese’s.  However, as he handed me the hazelnut, he said, “disfruta!”  This means “enjoy!” except he said it quickly and I wasn’t fully paying attention (ice cream can be quite the distraction), so I said, “que?”  He repeated it in English and said, “you can enjoy!”  It was the highlight of my day.  I promised I would and returned through the sea of tables, chairs, and people to Courtney and Sara, who’d been wondering what on earth had happened to me.

We learned the hard way that the staff will not allow you into your theatre until the exact time printed on your ticket.  Our movie started at 4:10 and we were not allowed past the ticket stand until 4:10.  Also, our seats were assigned, which was actually kind of awesome.  We got to choose the seats at the ticket booth.  America should pick up this habit, because arriving late to a movie and getting crappy seats is never fun.

After the movie, we stopped by the supermarket to get some stuff to nosh on for dinner.  For some reason, I wanted tortilla more than anything else, so I bought a small pack of those (mistake: they were terrible).  We also found Nica chocolate (previously mentioned in the “Coffee, Volcano, & Where Almonds Come From” post on the former Blogger-hosted blog.).  I bought a bar of the 75% cacao chocolate, which was so rich that it took me two days to get through half the bar.  It was so gloriously wonderful though.  I’m devastated that it’s gone.

Leaving the store (foreign grocery stores are always fascinating, by the way), we realized it had gotten dark.  As we’d been repeatedly warned against wandering around after dark in Managua, this was not ideal.  Fortunately, the walk was not long and we made it back safely, where we met Roberto, a 19-year-old native who worked in the hostel.  He was hysterical and I’ll be talking more about him in the next post.

We decided to hang out on the patio behind the hostel, where I planned to do some writing in my journal.  However, we met John, an older American, and Malcolm, a 20-something from Toronto, instead.  We chatted a lot about traveling and where everyone had been. We also had a nice, healthy conversation about politics, which is always interesting, if one-sided.  I meet very few travellers who tend to be more conservative, which I’m inclined to believe is because traveling opens your mind to the point where it’s hard to accept certain policies or conservative belief systems.  (Obviously, I’m speaking in generalizations here and as we all know, there are exceptions to every rule)  Regardless, conversations and nights like that are the reason I really enjoy the hostel lifestyle.  The people are always interesting and everyone has fantastic travel stories.  Malcolm mentioned that he’d been in San Juan for a night and had stayed at the Naked Tiger hostel.  His review of the place made us exceptionally glad that we’d opted out.  Apparently, although the location was beautiful, the owners weren’t very hospitable, the other visitors acted as though they were above everyone, the nights were madness, and therefore, it was predictably weird during the day.

patio & pool, by daylight, minus the bat

As we sat and chatted, there was a bat that repeatedly swooped low over the backyard pool, occasionally skimming the surface.  It did it a few times before I realized it was drinking the water.  Very cool.

Next time:  Taking Courtney to the airport & Robertos 1 and 2

From San Juan to Managua

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Shame we had to leave, I was becoming accustomed to the view…

Saturday, June 30 was our day of transition from San Juan del Sur to Managua, due to a scheduling conflict that had arranged Courtney’s flight home to be the day before Sara’s & mine.

The packing situation in my backpack had deteriorated rather considerably since our arrival, thereby necessitating that I take everything out and start over.  Good times.  The souvenirs and gifts I’d purchased took up a large percentage of space.  I suspect that had something to do with the two pounds of coffee I’d bought from Cafe del Flores.

Once we were all re-packed, we decided to take one more stroll through San Juan, picking up some last minute souvenirs and making a pit-stop at a bakery that we’d driven by on our way home from the beach every day.  We may have been too successful in terms of souvenir shopping (yes, that’s possible).  The bakery, or panaderia, was called Pan de Vida (“Bread of Life,” I like it).  It had a brightly painted storefront with subtle wooden sign and a single door.  Walking in, I had a moment of confusion because it appeared we had walked right into the kitchen, instead of the bakery itself.  There was one woman, wearing a Survivor: Nicaragua  headscarf, kneading bread on a long counter, who looked up as we entered.  She washed her hands and came over to greet us.  The kitchen itself was yellow, clean, and felt friendly, with a brick oven in the back.  The woman showed us a small selection of fresh bread: aceituna (olive), sourdough, multigrain, regular, banana, and carrot.  Courtney bought a loaf of the regular and I bought some sourdough, figuring that would be enough to get us through the next day or so.

Swiped from a TripAdvisor post, this is the bakery

We returned Hotel Estrella after this, thanked the manager for everything and walked down the street to Casa Oro to await the shuttle to Managua.  While we waited in the reception, we watched part of a video on scuba diving in Nicaragua.  It seemed to focus predominantly on some bizarre creature with no clearly discernable eyes, legs, or mouth and with no real way of moving about, short of being buffeted by the current.  It looked rather like a sea cucumber or an overlarge slug with a duster around its bottom side.  For the record, I just Googled “sea cucumber Nicaragua” and, whatever this creature was, it was not a sea cucumber.  It was, however, gross.

We shared the shuttle to Managua with three girls from Canada who were on their way to Leon.  I really wish we’d been able to see Leon because I’ve heard many great things about it, including the fact that it’s less touristy than the other places we’ve been.

Two hours later, we arrived in Managua.  It was not entirely what I was expecting, not that I could articulate what that was exactly.  There were many American chains.  I’m always disheartened when I see Burger King and McDonald’s in foreign countries.  They are so gross.  Managua was cleaner than I expected, plus it had the first traffic lights I’d seen in Nicaragua.  We hit traffic almost instantly upon our arrival, which worked in our favor a little bit because the driver wasn’t entirely sure where our hostel was.  The road the driver wanted to take to the hostel ended up being cordoned off due to what appeared to be a block party.  Fortunately, another taxi driver offered to lead us in the direction of the hostel and all was well.

Taking a little siesta in our dorm room

We were staying in the Managua Backpackers’ Inn, a clean and well-kept hostel located in a safe neighborhood, just off the main road and a five minute’s walk from a shopping mall (y’know, in case you’re into that sort of thing).  We checked in and found that we were only paying $12/person for two nights.  Amazing.  We left our stuff in the 6-person female dorm we would be sharing with two other girls who happened to be deaf and wandered around the hostel a little.  I was thrilled to see that there were hammocks in the backyard, next to the pool. I swear, one day I will live in a place where I can install a hammock.  That may be all I want out of life.

Next time: Movies in Managua