Central America, vegan, vegetarian

Surviving Nicaragua on a plant-based diet

Nicaragua is undoubtedly the hardest place on my Latin American adventure to be a vegetarian or vegan- the former is a barely grasped concept, and veganism really barely exists. That said, there have been some fantastic spots I’ve been while roaming the country with delicious, healthy food. Unfortunately because it is mostly gringos that go there, the prices are a lot higher than the average food in a local comedor, and I’ve mostly eaten in.

Being gringoville, Granada is an easy place to find vegan food. Although there aren’t any specialist places, most of the cafes and restaurants offer something. The Garden Café is a haven with a vegan salad comprising of cucumber, tomato, onion, leaves, hummus, chickpeas, grains, flaked almonds and pitta. They also do a chunky hummus and avo sandwich. Pita, pita also does a hummus falafel salad plate, though at great expense.

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In Managua, the amazing Ola Verde has a huge range of delicious options including this lentil moussaka with an amazing cashew cheese topping. Portions are a bit small for the price, but they also have a deli counter selling the sexiest tomato hummus, natural peanut butter, tofu, and pots of pre-made couscous salads, marinaded tofu, proper dark chocolate etc. For other staples head to whole food shop La Naturaleza, which is basically the only place you will find a good range of soy based burgers, smoked tofu, and other healthy things.  The bookshop Hispamer has a gorgeous café which is a haven in the city which serves the best smoothies ever and an amazing quinoa salad, which you can ask for sin queso. A bit out of town but near to my house was the Restaurante Andana, worth a cheap taxi ride for a low-cost, local style vegetarian buffet meal, which when I went included the usual gallo pinto, plantains, salad, and a veggie burger. They also do a big range of salads and smoothies.

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If you are thinking of doing Spanish lessons, the beautiful La Mariposa eco hotel and Spanish school is set less than an hour out of the city in the small town of La Concha and includes vegetarian, organic, home-grown food as part of the bundled price.

In Leon head to the beautiful Casa Abierta, the most peaceful eco-hostel with a lovely relaxing vibe. Or if you’re just there for the day, still drop into their restaurant which has an all vegetarian, and largely vegan menu including salads, burritos, pastas, and really unusual smoothies. I had the falafel salad with the best vegan mayo- or if you are a veggie, my friend had the goat’s cheese topped with cashews which was also delicious, especially paired with a colibri smoothie of fresh orange, passionfruit, and basil.

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24172567_10214344485781930_501166124_nThough I generally prefer independent places to chains, Casa Del Café, which is omnipotent in Managua, does an exceptionally affordable lunch menu where you can get a salad, soup, and drink for just $5 which is great when you’re on the run or need an easy, cheap place to go. Their chia pudding is also creamy and immensely satisfying. It’s also worth knowing the supermarket La Colonia does a breakfast for just 45 cordobas (just over $1) which includes gallo pinto and a tortilla (which is vegan) or if you are a veggie, also a fried egg, and a slab of Nica cheese, with a coffee.

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On the whole it’s not easy- I tried to explain in multiple ways not eating meat and still got served ham- but if you can find the right places, there’s lots to choose from in Nicaragua and supporting those business supports a better, healthier, and more sustainable lifestyle- so go for it!

Central America, South America, Travel

Weird and wonderful things you will see or will happen to you in Latin America

When you travel on another continent long term, you have to expect cultural differences. Apart from the major things- like the Inca ruins, phenomenal mountains, exotic plants, foods etc., here are some of the more random different things you will find when you travel in Latin America.

You will fall down all the time

Health and safety is just not a thing. For once I’ve had to start paying attention to where I’m walking after falling over basically every day for the first two months. The pavement (if there is one) will not just be uneven, it can have random bits of metal sticking out of it, holes, or sometimes be missing completely (I was once texting while walking and fell into a nearly waist-deep hole in the pavement in Bolivia). If people are doing building work above you, you may also get hit in the head with flying sparks. A lot.

People sell random shit in the street

Sure, people sell stuff on the street at home. But usually it’s part of some kind of market place, or there’s some kind of plan to it. Here, people just sell what they can to get by: I’ve met people randomly wondering around selling only teaspoons, selling kitchen scissors, selling women’s bras (who buys these out in the street?! It’s not like you can try them on), llama foetuses (offerings to PachaMama, or Mother Earth,) and once even a man pushing a wheel barrow with a self-pumping shower head attached to a tank to demonstrate his wares worked). In Peru they even sell ayahuasca, an incredibly powerful hallucinogenic drink usually prepared by spiritual shamans in strictly controlled religious ceremonies- just in re-used coke bottles on the side of the road. I would not recommend taking your chances on something that dodgy and mind-altering for less than a dollar…

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Terrifying mannequins

I guess people have to buy these second hand but my god, in Bolivia I was starting to have nightmares about mannequins coming to life like terrifying zombies, Doctor Who style, after seeing these menaces meant to entice you to buy clothes.

Drinks come in bags

Have you ever tried a drink out of a plastic bag with a straw? It’s really common in all the countries I went to. Apparently it’s because the owners of the little pulperias (corner shops) can’t necessarily afford the bottled versions, so it’s cheaper to buy a vat of coke and sell it on like that. Just don’t expect to be able to store it in your backpack for later…

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Corner shops are behind bars

Speaking of puplerias, for some reason they are often behind bars- like a corner shop prison- and you have to peer through (into what is usually the front room of someone’s house) and ask for what you want at the little window (assuming someone is actually there).

Everyone has hearing problems 

  1. At least, that’s the only explanation I can come up with for why the music is blasting out SO BRAIN-INCINERATINGLY LOUD, for no reason, ALL THE TIME!

No one knows how to queue

When you can go into shops, no one knows how to queue, which is a nightmare if you’re British (or also just appreciate good manners). The number of times I’ve stood a respectful distance behind the person in front of me, only to have someone else dive in front is incredible. Or even when you’ve already reached the counter- someone will just butt in front- and the shop keepers never say ‘sorry I’m already serving someone.’ It blows my mind.

Crazy busses

These could merit a whole blog post in themselves. Having travelled the best part of 4000km from Bolivia to Nicaragua by bus, I’ve tried every kind of these. They vary hugely, but all of some things in common.  Jesus is everywhere, sometimes Mary too, with some kind of slogan about mi fiel amigo (faithful friend) or rey de reyes (king of kings). They will be pumping some kind of latino music, full blast, all the way. If you’re on a long distance bus (actually usually surprisingly comfortable) they will instead be blasting badly dubbed versions of old American movies. Don’t count on getting any sleep. The local busses are usually worst- often second/third/fourth hand American schoolbusses, and falling apart doesn’t cover it- I once heard something fall out of the bottom of one in Costa Rica, and then whatever part it was dragged along the road for the next 19 miles. No one seemed fazed by the noise or the smell of burning. They will somehow fit 100 people in a space designed for 40.  And if I told you that the inter-urban mini busses in Nicaragua are locally called intermortales (loosely translated, between-deaths, or as I called it, the death bus) that will tell you all you need to know about them. I usually closed my eyes as we overtook on a mountain bend, and were on the wrong side of the road as several lorries sped in our direction, and tried to pretend I was somewhere else.

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Addresses

In a lot of places, street names or house numbers are not a thing. Nicaragua is the worst offender for this, making it impossible to find anywhere as a non-local because there’s no such thing as a conventional address as we know it. Instead, addresses are descriptions of where things are- mine is ‘from the statue of Monsenor Leszcano, two blocks north and two and a half blocks down, with a green gate’ (not to mention there are several houses with green gates on my street). The worst is when they make references to seemingly random- or actually non-existent things- e.g. I was given the direction ‘from where the tree was  two blocks north… etc. etc.’ Which tree? I asked- it’s a huge city, there’s more than one tree- it turns out ‘where the tree was’ refers to a tree which was destroyed in an earthquake. In 1972. How I’m meant to find out where a tree was twenty years before I was born…?

Directions

So then you ask for directions from people who do know where the tree was. The problem is, people will give you directions even if they have no idea where the place you’re looking for is, so as to save face. This has happened so many times to me I now have a policy of asking three people before going anywhere if two of the directions match.

Men have willies

Like me, you might have taken this as a given, but more than a few (no, not all men)  seem weirdly proud of it, like children at a birthday party, and pop them out in the street to show them off when you walk by. I’ve never been flashed before this trip but it has happened  A LOT. Just ignore them or give them a sarcastic slow clap. They don’t deserve the attention they’re looking for.

Clowns and zebras

It’s not uncommon in Nicaragua to see a clown waiting for a bus, sitting in the back of a cart, or just getting groceries. They come and perform on the busses for spare change, but I love seeing them just chilling in normal situations. In La Paz, Bolivia, the traffic is also directed exclusively by zebras. I’m not quite sure why.

People tell it as it is

You will get called chela or chele  (white woman or man) ALL  the time. It’s not meant to be offensive, people are just literal in their descriptions. If you are a bit fat you might get called el gordo or a bit thin, el flako, and apparently no one gets upset about this.

Humidity

Which doesn’t help when your hair is very affected by humidity and you generally look ridiculous. For the last several months I’ve had to scrape my hair back into a plait every day because naturally it has basically looked like this.

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The sense of community is real

In my barrio, families and neighbours sit out on the street together in rocking chairs, chatting and watching the world go by. They are close in a way that is rarely the case in Britain anymore. Every morning when I walk to the bus stop they call out ‘hello, my friend!’ ‘Buen Dia! ‘Adios!’.

It is this warmth of people that I’m going to miss the most. Although the crazy stuff is sometimes hilarious, sometimes frustrating, and I can’t deny I’m looking forward to life being easier for a while when I go home, I’m sure it’s going to wear off quickly and I will miss the surprise and adventure of discovering new things through travel. Let’s hope the next journey is just around the corner…

Central America, Travel

Nicaragua diaries: trying to adapt to life the Nica way

On my first day in Nicaragua, the door of my taxi fell off while we were driving. The driver, seeming irritable, got out, forcefully kind-of reattached it, then said grumpily to me ‘you need to hold it’.

Obviously.

Welcome to Nicaragua.

No doubt about it, Nicaragua is the most chaotic country I’ve been to on this trip. Every day seems to have brought new and unexpected challenges, perhaps more so in reality because this time I wasn’t just here as a tourist, I came to stay for three or four months and volunteer, live in a local barrio and try to understand the culture better. It’s a country which has made me feel inspired, bemused, and sometimes just frustrated in turns, as I’ve tried  to adjust to living in a very different culture, and always standing out as an extranjero, or as the locals call white girls, a chela.

I started living in the small town of Ticuantepe, which is on the outskirts of Managua. I was lucky to have been given a home for the first few weeks with a lady who has now become a close friend, and her four cats. I spent three weeks trying to improve my Spanish at the fantastic La Mariposa school in La Concha, a very tiny pueblo which seemed worlds apart from the capital city of Managua I now call home. Every day I caught the local interlocale microbus for the 20 minute terrifying break-neck journey up through the green hills and valleys to get to La Concha on narrow, winding roads. Locally, the busses are referred to intermortales- literally, ‘between deaths’, or as I came to think of it, ‘the death bus’. You hailed it down wherever you were, and it would barely slow to a stop as you launched yourself through the doors, desperately trying to reach a seat before falling into your neighbours lap, and if not, trying to stand up with nothing to hold onto in a bus so small even I, at the height of 5ft5, had to crouch. Sometimes people would have whole vats of produce, mechanic tools, live animals with them- you name it. (In a later adventure with a friend, we brought her two cats on the microbus-  and tuk-tuk- and regretted it.) What was nice was the way people would help each other- they would hold my bag for me if they got a seat and I didn’t- or even hold each other’s babies or children, and pass them forward when it was time to get off. That would never happen at home. When it was my stop, you had to yell out bajar aqui or grab the attention of the guy hanging out of the window, who took the money, to get it to stop, before being somewhat bodily thrown out again.

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Bringing a cat on a tuk-tuk- NOT recommended.

The school was fantastic; sustainable tourism at its best. It was also an eco-hostel, built sustainably into the green tropical valleys, but which uses its proceeds to fund a huge array of community development projects: an animal rescue shelter (these things don’t generally exist in Nicaragua), a school for disabled children, a kids ‘breakfast club’ to help make sure children received adequate nourishment, extracurricular activities for children, solar power initiatives, clean cookstoves for people who lacked adequate technology for cooking,  reforestation, and were also building a medical centre in a very rural region which lacked one.  Apart from that, they had an impressive cultural and political program through which I got to go on trips to get to know the surrounding area, and got a thorough history of Nicaraguan politics. Phew.

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Most importantly, I learned to understand better  the reality of people’s lives in developing countries. I’m not going to go all patronising/ Barbie Saviour on you, but even though I’ve seen some of this before through travelling, actually living somewhere which lacks those amenities I take for granted at home has given me a whole new appreciation of privilege, and what a lack of it means. According to one of my teachers, most of the people in La Concha did not have access to running water. Instead they collected water from a municipal source for ‘bucket showers’, and used a latrine-style toilet where waste was collected from underneath (rather than a plumbed system where you can simply flush your- er- deposits- away).  Even now where I live in the centre of the capital city, we only have proper running water in the evenings- in the morning it’s just a dribble, and during the day nothing at all. That’s what a lack of infrastructure means in reality- and my experience is relatively plush compared to others. Power cuts were frequent, sometimes lasting twelve hours at a time. Sometimes the water goes completely: you always have to have some stored in case. Cars are too expensive for a lot of people, and it’s not uncommon to see people using horse and carts as a main method of transport.

One day, relatively early on in my time here, I was sitting in the living room doing my homework when I glanced up and nearly jumped out of my skin. There was a chicken on the coffee table. A real, live chicken, looking right at me.

Where have you come from?  I implored her. As I slowly got up, the cats awoke from their slumber and clocked her. Oh boy.

Then began a frantic chase to see who would get the chicken first- as I and the cats literally ran in circles, cartoon style, around the poor bird while it hopped back and forth out of our way, until I was eventually able to cover it in a bucket (to the utter confusion and uproar of the cats), scoop it up, and deposit her somewhat unceremoniously outside, where I assumed she had wondered in from one of the neighbour’s back yards.

Another time, not thinking about the fact a second-hand clothes pop-up in Nicaragua might be less substantially built than a regular clothing shop at home, in the changing room I leaned against the wall for balance while trying to wriggle out of my trousers, only to discover the walls are made of cardboard when I crashed sideways through three stalls, ending up a sweaty beetroot mess, half undressed on the floor with my ankles still tangled while a gaggle of Nica women pissed themselves laughing and pointing at me. I laughed with them as they helped me up, trying to act as though I wasn’t dying inside from humiliation as well as from the pain.

The pace of life in Ticuantepe seemed very tranquilo and for that reason I felt very safe there, but perhaps this was naive and I was still far removed, because  I was completely shocked when an incident occurred which I only found out the true nature of later.  Coming  back from eating out one night, my friend Judy and I encountered a police blockade in the road.  It was unusual to see police at all.  There was a woman crying, with blood on her face, and two legs sticking out from a motito (tuk-tuk). We didn’t know what was going on so got out of the way.  I’ve since learned that we had stumbled into a murder scene. After a minor collision, an argument had spiralled out of control, and another very young motito driver, who was not even involved, was shot and killed by a drug-dealer. The legs I had seen poking out were the legs of a young man who had been murdered during the time we’d been eating dinner.

In this way, the first few weeks were a good introduction to life in Nicaragua; a place which is full of warmth and fun, but also one in which people’s lives are shaped by the harsh realities of a country which has come out of revolution, civil war, natural disasters, and for many, poverty.

After living in Ticuantepe, I moved to the capital city of Managua, to volunteer with a fantastic local organisation called CANTERA and continue to learn more about Nicaraguan life.

With thanks to everyone who made me feel happy and welcome when I first arrived here.