Monday, July 26, 2010

Our First Feria

We waited in vain for several weeks for our famed Feria de Vino y Chorros. It was supposed to be about three weeks ago, but they finally got around to having it this past weekend, which kinds of defeats the purpose since the harvest of chorros is actually over now. We heard restaurants were stockpiling them weeks ago, saving them up for the feria. Chorros are mushrooms, the kind of mushrooms that look like something from Super Mario, bright red spotted caps and beige yellow stems. Of course, since they were out of season already, the mushrooms served at the feria were a different type. They, like other varieties, can’t really be cultivated so they are hunted for in the wild. The vino here is not from grapes, it’s fruit wine. It has a much stronger flavor and is very alcoholic tasting. Not something you would have a glass of with dinner really.

Thursday they started setting up tents on the main road by the park for food and art vendors as well as a stage. This is when we realized it was a big deal. The last “feria” was no more than a few tables set up in a school gym, so this was a marked improvement. Friday we headed over in the evening to find that all the nicer restaurants in town had stands set up selling various platos tipicos with the addition of chorros. Chicken and chorros, beef and chorros, tacos and chorros, chorro soup. Friday we didn’t have dinner, but we arrived in time for a traditional Lenca folkdance. It was an amazing group of 10 or so Hondurans, ranging in age from about 12 to maybe 30. They were dressed in traditional costumes, big colorful flowing dresses for the ladies and blue button up shirts and cowboy hats for the men. It was such a fun show to watch. They danced for a good hour with about 3 costume changes in what reminded me of a square dance to songs ranging from traditional campo songs to modern Polache. It was possibly the first real cultural ‘thing’ I’ve seen here, so it was pretty great we thought.

After the dance, a band came on called Fenix Epocas (which doesn’t really mean anything). What a group. The lead singer was probably in his mid 50’s with glasses, the backup singer a 16 year old kid and the keyboardist looked perhaps like he was blind. But they were pretty darn good. They started off with what else but the Beatles! Of course, I was enthralled and started clapping and bobbing to the beat. Sadly, either people here don’t understand English (possible), don’t know the Beatles (doubtful), or simply just don’t find dancing and clapping in public to music very exciting (likely) because I think I was the only person dancing. I was, in fact, the only person that looked at all pleased about what was going on. Well, me and a small group of other gringo missionaries from Georgia. I looked like a complete idiot, I’m sure of this because everyone was staring at me. But the band continued, more Beatles, Rolling Stones, Take Me On, Another Brick in the Wall, Pretty Woman then some funk and disco. Still no one danced. I felt sorry for the band, they were doing great but no one seemed to appreciate them.

We headed down to the other side of the fair where other festivities were taking place. A big screen was set up where they were projecting modern music videos and teens were beginning to dance – this is the music they apparently like to dance to. We also saw a troupe of gypsy jugglers. Most of them weren’t very good except for one guy juggling with fire sticks. We couldn’t decide if they were gringos who were just so dirty and tan that they looked Latino or if they were actually Latino. Either way they just looked like regular hippie/gypsy types, I guess they look the same everywhere. Before we left, we headed back to see the live band and they had started playing rock español which people were getting a little more into.

Saturday, the feria continued and our friends, the couple from Siguatepeque, came to town to join us for the festivities. We saw multiple versions of the schedule claiming the parade was at either 10 am or 1 pm. It turned out to be at 11 am (go figure) so we missed most of it because we were walking around elsewhere. We saw the last few ‘floats’ go by with young girls throwing candy like you used to see in the US and some adorable kids dressed up as chorros. We then settled in for lunch. We chose the nicest restaurant in town because we figured it would be a good opportunity to taste how good the food while at a fixed price plate that we could afford. I had chicken and mushrooms, Nolan had beef and mushrooms, delicious! Neither of us are big mushroom eaters, but we thought they were pretty tasty. We perused some of the stands for a bit with some other volunteers we ran into, honey, pañuelos, broccoli, cheese from a jewish shop, dulces, fruit wine etc. There wasn’t all that much to see.

Later that night we headed back for more live music and dancing. This time there were four simultaneous acts. The first was a private party at the alcaldia for 150 lemps, we didn’t check that one out. The second was a middle-aged man lip synching to what sounded like Tom Jones in Spanish. Interesting. The third was a latin group with some brass. They were awesome, upbeat and funky so we watched them for awhile. Aside from the few folks dancing near the front, everyone else just stood and stared. This I can kind of understand, just standing and listening, but the last ‘act’ if you could call it that, was a DJ with latin pop playing. Again, a few teenagers were tearing up the tiny dance floor, but an even larger crowd was gathered, staring straight into a wall of 12 gigantic speakers with a DJ peeking out from behind. That I will never understand. There was nothing to look at! Honduran music culture befuddles us sometimes.

The night ended with a display of fireworks, my personal favorite. I don’t think, however, that many pyrotechnic specialists exist in Honduras because the show was, well, poorly timed. They would set off about 10 of the exact same fireworks in a row, one after the other. Then there would be a few minutes pause, then another 10 of a new kind, then a pause. Some of the bigger ones were dangerously low and looked as if they shot almost straight into the ground. We headed home soon after the fireworks ended. The crowd was probably 99% 15 year old greasy looking Honduran boys that were both a little intimidating and mildly annoying, so we decided to be old married fogies and call it a night.

The work of Nolan and the children

I have a new found appreciation for Nolan and the work he does. Last weekend I accompanied him on an exploratory visit to a fuente (water source) in a barrio of Intibuca where they are having some problems with their current system. Nolan’s task is to figure out what is wrong and how to fix it so that the residents can get more than 3 hours a day of running water. We headed out with the Junta de Agua (water board) in a pickup up into the mountains. We stopped along some random side road, got out and started walking. The people we go with to different communities are all so interesting. I thought it was funny the outfits mostly. Here Nolan and I are wearing out REI lightweight ripstop hiking pants, northface hiking shoes and wicking shirts while the president was wearing some kind of work boots, jeans and polo shirt and carrying his computer. The secretary was wearing black dress pants, a leather jacket and baseball cap. Another member, the vocal, was wearing jeans, dress shoes, a cowboy hat and button up shirt. And we just set off into the woods on some tiny unmarked trails, these guys tiptoeing down muddy slopes and hopping creeks like mountain goats. It was raining so it was getting muddier and muddier as we went, but people here almost don’t notice the rain, or so it seems. The scenery was beautiful, as it always is. We would be tromping on narrow trails through dense woods then all the sudden pop out into someone’s random corn field or pasture with cows.

We hiked for maybe 25 minutes to get to the fuente where we talked and took pictures etc. They are having trouble capturing all the water that is being stored up behind the dam they built. They also need a section of the system redone. As we were talking with the Junta, I realized what a different experience Nolan and I are having with work. I sit in an office or store and chat with my lady friends and drink coffee (sometimes) or talk about marketing and abstract things. Nolan meanwhile is out here, a real engineer, discussing important design elements, troubleshooting problems and hiking 5 hours a day through dense jungle-like conditions. His vocabulary too is so different. I admit I hardly understood what was being said about the system, but Nolan got every word. I’m sure he’d be just as lost in a finance lecture though.

We hiked back taking a different route to follow the conduction line (I’m getting a hang of the lingo) downstream a little. By the time we got back to the car, it had only been maybe an hour or hour and a half of hiking, but I was exhausted, soaking wet and thirsty. Nolan was fine as ever. It really is a tough job he has, and I admire him for doing it so well. But I’m still hoping to go back out again with him and learn to survey.

Something else I’ve been meaning to write about here is the kids. I think kids here work as hard, if not harder than adults. With one of my groups, UMMIL, who has an artisania shop and café in town, there is a girl who works in the shop, let’s call her Maria. Maria is about 16, her family owns a pulperia in another neighborhood. But Maria works at UMMIL 7 days a week, nearly all day except a half day Sunday. She takes orders and makes food at the café, helps sell artisan stuff and does most if not all of the cleaning and organizing. Maria also goes to high school in the evenings where she is studying “comercio” or business, so in her free times at work, she does homework. She’s the sweetest girl, not at all depressed by her situation, but I just imagine that it must be so much work for her. She’s only 16 and she has a full time job and school! How many 16 year olds in the US can say the same? Maybe in the US kids have a part time or weekend job, but a full time, 7 day a week job and school?

Then there is the kid who lives next door to us, let’s call him Miguel. He’s 14 years old, also the cutest thing ever. His dad is I think the nephew of our host mom and his family helps run a Pepsi products distributor in town. So Miguel gets up at maybe 6 or 7, I see him a lot of times in the morning heading out. He works at the Pepsi place all day with his dad, loading and unloading big trucks of soda and water (which are heavy and he is a small 14 year old). Then he also goes to school at night a technical school, coming back at about 7:30 in the evening after long days, but always with the biggest smile on his face. In his free time, Miguel is taking care of his 2 year old brother who’s always running around in their yard. But he’s the most polite, happy looking kid I’ve ever seen.

Lastly, we just met a boy at a place where we go to get fried chicken. His family runs the fried chicken place and a pulperia. He’s always there at the desk, selling stuff if his mom or dad isn’t around. He’s only 9. He goes to a bilingual school so whenever he sees us he just starts chatting away in English, asking us all kinds of questions, anything he can think of. So adorable.
And those are just a few examples. Now, this is not to say that Hondurans are breaking some child rights laws by employing their children. That is not the point. First, I don’t know if there are such laws or what stance they take on this kind of work. Second, I think the kids are doing it mostly on their own accord to help out their families. Third, it’s not the sort of manual slave labor that would cause a child any real harm. Fourth, they are all still attending school simultaneously so they are still getting an education. So these kids are mostly (hopefully) learning a lot about having a business. Maybe not so much about the finances or risk, but about the management and work required. I am really in awe of the stamina and dedication these kids have, maybe because they have to. If they didn’t work, who knows what situations they and their families would be in.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Beatles - Hello Goodbye

I think I finally understand the Beatles song, “Hello, Goodbye.” They wrote it about Honduras. When I walk down the street, I say ‘Hola’ or ‘Buenos Dias’ and people reply with an ‘Adios.’ You say goodbye and I say hello. It makes perfect sense actually, why waste words saying hello and goodbye to anyone you pass for only an instant.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hondu-talian Food

Whatever his faults, Chef Boyardee (Boiardi before his unfortunate succumbing to Americanization) would be a gourmet Italian chef in Honduras. Not once have I experienced a can of his that included sauce ingredients as mayonnaise or ketchup. Italian food here definitely has a uniquely Honduran flavor. No surprise then that we would be eager to start making our favorite dishes ourselves.

We started slowly, first making pasta with canned sauce. But a few days ago, our experimentation finally ended up in homemade, from scratch, Italian cooking.

Our first attempt took us back to familiar grounds, our never ending struggle to become pizzaioli. Given the many shortcomings of our Honduran ingredients, ConAgra tomatoes, flavorless pepperoni, lack of water buffalo to make mozzarella, and plain white flour instead of Tipo ‘00’ premium Italian flour, it turned out pretty good.

While your average Honduran pizza (or picsa as it’s pronounced here) tastes pretty good, it does stray farther from the authentic flavor than even American pizza (there are of course Pizza Huts here, but those are way out of our everyday budget). Honduran pizza uses quesillo, a basic cheese somewhat similar to mozzarella. Also, there is very little, if any, sauce. Basil is just about impossible to come by.

Needless to say, we were determined to attempt to recreate our favorite home cooked meal here. We had originally hoped to find a place to live with an outdoor oven or at the very least a wood burning fogon. Unfortunately, living in a city makes those hard to come by, so we had to settle for your standard electric oven.

A couple weeks ago, we found a pizza pan at a hardware store (yes, a hardware store). And, when the grocery stores in town received shipments of mozzarella, we know it was time to start planning a pizza night.

Last weekend, we made a trip to Siguatepeque, a large city about an hour away, to visit some friends of ours who were placed there. While there, we received some Honduran cooking lessons, learning to make homemade flour tortillas for baleadas. We’re hoping to try making them ourselves at home sometime, but again it’s made a little more difficult since we don’t have a fogon. We were also able to visit the supermarket in Siguat where we found canned, whole tomatoes to make our pizza sauce.

We made the pizza Monday night, and were pleasantly surprised by how it came out. Used to using a pizza stone heated in the oven before placing the pizza on it, we were impressed by how crispy the pizza was with a metal pan. It reminded us of our first pizza attempt after coming back from Italy, not quite Italian, but definitely a step in the right direction. We hope to improve on it by experimenting with a fresh tomato sauce. It is something we’ve never been able to get quite right in the US, but we have plenty of free time here to play around to get it right. Also, we are hoping to have our cheese kit sent to us so that we can make fresh mozzarella from fresh raw milk, and when we finally get some basil seeds, fresh basil makes a world of difference (not to mention we’ll also be able to make pesto).

Our Italian food journey didn’t stop there. The next night we decided to make Pasta Carbonara. For those of you who don’t know what this is, it’s a delicious dish featuring spaghetti in a creamy egg sauce with bacon. Normally, we would use pancetta, a specialty Italian bacon traditionally used for the dish, but this being Honduras, we used normal bacon. And lo and behold, it actually turned out to be one of the best Carbonaras we’ve made so far, in the US or Honduras. I think the secret is when the power goes out halfway through the cooking. When that happens, you rush to cook everything while the electric burner is still hot, the heat slowly dissipating, guaranteeing that the sauce will be creamy instead of scrambled eggs. Just goes to show you, even though the pasta could have been a little warmer on the plate, sometimes it pays to have unreliable electricity.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Honduran Meal: From the Market to the Dinner Table

We feel like real Hondurans, we’ve made our first plato tipico from scratch.

It began with the purchase of dried beans at the market for L 9 a pound, about 50 cents. This pound will probably last us at least 4 meals, they expand to triple their size when soaked and cooked. Then we went through the painstaking task of picking through the beans to remove and rocks, bug or bad beans. Sounds simple enough but a pound of beans is a lot and you have to look at every one. Imagine people doing with this will 10 pounds of beans or more. You then have to soak the beans, at least 24 hours, then rinse and boil with water for a few hours. I think beans soften faster here for some reason. They only took about 2 hours, whereas in the U.S., I feel like I’ve boiled beans for 4 hours and still they were hard. You can eat the beans directly after they are boiled, which people often do, or you can freir them. We blended up the beans with a little liquid in our licuadora (aka blender). A little oil, garlic and onion in a pan with the beans and you fry ‘em up, three times. We heard the trick was to fry the beans, then let them sit for a day, then fry them again, three times. Remarkably it does seem to improve them. The first round we made baleadas, which we’ve mentioned before, an unassuming but delicious mixture of refried beans, scrambled eggs and mantequilla in a flour tortilla, often including avocado, quesillo, queso seco or chorizo. We can’t say they were the best baleadas we’ve had here; it was only our first try. The beans were good, but they weren’t baleada beans. So we cooked them again the following day and they were better. We served them the second time with scrambled eggs, avocado, fried platanos and corn tortillas (L0.50 each), basically like baleadas but separated out, plus the platanos with creamy mantequilla. That’s your plato tipico for you.

Beans are obviously cheap and plentiful here, making them a staple of the Honduran diet. In La Esperanza, the potato is also a major dietary pillar. The potatoes here seem to be akin to a Yukon Gold. They are not a baking potato with a rough, thick skin. They are medium to very small with a thin, transparent, yellowish skin. You’d be surprised at their actual appearance if you just saw them at the market, caked in ¼ inch of mud and piled high in big sacks. They don’t bake well at all we’ve found. They are commonly pan fried whole (the little ones anyway). They make excellent mashed potatoes, hashbrowns and French fries. Other traditional crops like yucca, sweet potatoes and pataste (a vine vegetable with a pear-like shape and texture, but more akin to a potato in soups) are common.

So…now more about the market La Esperanza is famous for. You can get all the normal stuff here, carrots, celery, onions, cauliflower, grapes, beets, green peppers and avocadoes (which are still expensive here). You might be surprised to know that broccoli is very common here, at least in La Esperanza. It’s well suited to the climate and quite delicious at about L 5 a head. Limes are very common also, but people refer to them as lemons. Three to five limones for 1 lemp. We get roma tomatoes, although the price has doubled in the past few weeks from 10 to 20 lemps a pound which probably is signaling that the season is just about over as it gets into the colder, rainier months. There are some fabulous apples here. You can get the US varieties to be sure, imported and waxed and perfect looking. But we prefer to buy the Honduran variety, something like your standard McIntosh. We are hoping to try to make apple cider and hard cider once we have the tools. Apples are L 20 for a bag of about 8 small ones. We’ve also started buying oranges to make fresh squeezed juice. The oranges here are not orange at all really, more of a yellow-green with a thinner, smoother peel. They go for L10 for a bag of 10-15. We have strawberries too and blackberries which are incredibly sour. Cilantro is by far the most common herb and it comes in two varieties; the kind you find in the U.S. and another kind that just looks like dandelion leaves, which we’ve yet to try. Oh yes, and the mangoes which are piled high in the beds of trucks and parked along the road, “Lleva mangoes, lleva mangoes” the hombres shout. “Veinte por bolsa.” Similar beds of trucks are full of bananos (not bananas), minimos, and platanos.

You can of course get fresh made things, like tortillas, made from dried corn (white or yellow) or fresh corn (they taste like eating corn on the cob but in bread form), cuajada (a fresh milk cheese sort of like mozzarella but less formed and saltier), tamales, tacos, and charramuscas (fruit juice popsicles that are frozen in plastic bags).

The ‘market’ runs every day here, but the weekends are when it’s really bustling. There are at least three streets that are permanently set up with wooden stalls shaded by tarps as well as two interior buildings that sell more dried goods. On busy days all the spaces and streets between the permanent stalls are lined with lencan women and other vendors, their goods spread out on tarps, in baskets, in wheelbarrows, in big plastic sacks, shaded by beach umbrellas, next to the guys shouting “Cargadoras, cargadoras,” selling cell phone chargers. Each stand has a hanging scale they simply hold up to use, most everything is sold by the pound. We like buying from the men and women on the street, they usually have the fresher products that they have just picked and brought in from the campo that day. They are out there early, 5 or 6 am, staking out their spot – people seem to keep their same spots like some unwritten rule governs their placement. We’re starting to know the people we regularly buy from. It reminds us of our days in Baltimore at the farmer’s market.

It truly is a great food environment for us. We can just stop at the market on the way home from work and pick up just about any fresh produce we need for that night’s dinner, which is useful when you’re fridge is still in another house and you don’t want to go there that often.

*all pictures were taken with the consent of those pictured

Friday, July 2, 2010

Just a quick update

Pine forest near Yamaranguila

We know we haven’t written for a couple weeks. Lo sentimos. We’d like to say we’ve been extremely busy, and well, that’s at least half true…

Nolan swiftly recovered from his bacterial infection and was back at work in no time. He finished up his first topo study last week and is now in the design process which involves manipulating the most complicated excel spreadsheet you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s a masterpiece to behold really. They’ve finished his office at the municipality (yes, he will have an office) and is just now waiting for the computer to get hooked up. He’s also going to start work next week with PLAN, an ONG, or NGO for those of you speak English, that does all kinds of work. He’ll be doing more topo studies with them. I might be working with them eventually on food security and nutrition projects. We also both met with the president of the patronato (kind of a mix of a neighborhood association with the power of a town council) of one of the barrios of Intibuca. He wants us to do a road survey (as if we knew how to do that) because they want to pave their roads, and help with fixing their water system, as well as some educational charlas on water conservation, leadership and community hygiene. He actually used to be a PC Spanish teacher so we had a good time chatting with him.

I have been busy as well, touring a bunch of the local aldeas where my women’s groups work. Last week, we both went to a community called Cofradia in the municipalidad of Yamaranguila just south of us. We visited two groups, one that makes white clay pottery and the other that makes woven baskets out of pine needles, amazing stuff. Both groups are located up in the pine forests, in a beautiful but very poor and isolated community. The tours of the communities are fun but exhausting. The people we visit usually feed us and welcome us into their homes, but bumping around all day in the back of a pickup truck makes your butt and back quite sore. Most groups just need help selling their products. They make good quality items for very cheap prices, but there is little tourism or market for their products here. I’m trying to figure out how to help. I’ve also been designing a new logo for another group I’m working with. They make jellies and canned peaches and other fruit products and need a new image to help market and sell their products.

Barro blanco

Cestas de pino (pine needle baskets)

Weaving tejidos (textiles)

In other news, we’ve officially decided to stay in our current apartment for the duration of our service. It’s in a good location, is safe and secure, is near people we know, is clean and it saves us a lot of time and money in moving and having to furnish a new place. We signed a lease just today. We’re hoping to get a sofa bed to put in the living room for guests and we still need a refrigerator. We’re also thinking about painting the walls. I hauled some dirt back from one of the communities I visited this week so I can start planting herbs, veggies, and flowers in pots on the patio. If anyone wants to donate seeds, I’ll take anything and everything you can grow in a pot. Especially basil, which you can’t really get here.

We also received some wonderful care packages, thanks Moms, with some spices and other goodies so we’ve been trying to cook more elaborate meals. We made campers, meatball subs, creamy chicken and rice and brownies, just to name a few things. We have the fixin’s to make hummus, we just need to find some pita bread around here. We did find a good bakery with French bread and everyday it seems like something new is stocked at the supermarket. Our task for this weekend is to figure out how to make good refried beans from scratch. We’re also BBQing with some volunteers on Sunday for the 4th of July – can’t believe it’s that time of year already. You don’t realize how much you rely on the changes in season and national holidays and vacations to give you a sense of time. Here it’s like one continuous season so all sense of time is lost.

Also, for those of you interested in sports, we were able to watch Honduras lose all three of the first round games in the World Cup. Sadly, the Seleccion (that’s what they call the national team here) didn’t score a single goal, although we think they improved by the last game. We bought ourselves some snazzy jerseys though to support the team. Sadly, the US also lost to Ghana, so now we don’t know who to root for.

We’re officially allowed to travel starting on July 15th so we’re already planning some trips to visit people in other parts of the country. The newspaper is saying this year will be a bad one with lots of rain in September and October so we want to get some travelling in before we’re stuck at home.

We hope you are all doing well. Don’t forget, emails, letters, care packages and visits are all more than welcome!