Monthly Archives: February 2014

Life Is Like A Box Of Chocolates: El Museo de Choco

El Museo de ChocoWe’ve passed by Granada’s El Museo de Choco, the Museum of Chocolate, many times but on the day that celebrates all things chocolate, Valentine’s Day, we finally stepped in.  It was a very hot day so we chose their signature drink, iced chocolate, an amazingly refreshing and satisfying concoction. A few days later we joined a group of five other devotees in a class, “From Bean to Bar” which was designed to teach the rudiments of the making of chocolate.

The cacao tree with podsThe class also presented a better understanding of the role of the cacao (pronounced ca COW) tree within the broader context of history. We learned, for example, that the cacao tree was indigenous to the Mayan homeland and that it was grown in most family garden plots. So, unlike the Aztecs who reserved the chocolate exclusively for their royalty, all Mayans, from the nobility to the lowest classes could enjoy the fruits of the cacao tree. The Mayans preferred it as a hot, frothy drink flavored with honey and chili peppers.

Roasting the beans in an ironwood cauldronroasting cacao beansThe  fermented cacao beans, which grow from twenty to sixty per pod, were roasted over a low fire in an ironwood cauldron for roughly fifteen minutes.  As the day’s temperature was ninety-plus degrees it was hot and sweaty work to stir the beans over the fire, but with a bit of song and dance by all participants, it played out well.

We then winnowed the beans, cracking the husks, picking out the nut meat and placing the small pile into a basket. Next, we crushed the nibs using a stone mortar and pestle to make the paste necessary to produce the cacao butter for the sweet drink.

stirring with a molilloFinally, we were ready to create our libations: First, the frothy Mayan drink and then the Aztecan brew, traditionally flavored with honey, vanilla beans and black pepper.  The Spanish version, which the conquistadors were quick to expropriate, incorporated sugar milled from imported sugar cane and milk from their transplanted cow herds along with cinnamon and other spices. Chocolate barsWe finished up our tour by making our individual candy bars; one bar combined the chocolate with honey and chili peppers and the other bar was mixed with honey, almonds and cinnamon.  At the end of the class we toasted each other with another glass of iced chocolate drink (no dinner necessary after that!).

The world has moved forward tremendously since the days of the Mayans, Aztecs and Spaniards. Cacao is still grown in Central America and since it is indigenous to the land, tends to have the highest quality and can be produced organically. However, the demand world-wide is simply too great. Vast monoculture plantations are found in Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere to supply the sweet tooth, particularly in the developed world. The upshot is that the sun farms, far removed from the rain forest of Central America, are vast acreages which require herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers and eliminate habitat diversification for animal species and crop diversification for the worker’s economic protection.

Cacao production has, for better or worse, joined the ranks of the commodities of modern world.Cacao Liquer

By Anita and Richard, February, 2014

 

The Cafe Of Smiles

Although Nicaragua is the largest nation in Central America, it is the most sparsely populated and second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  Hardship is a looming shadow over this country with an estimated 45% of the population living below the poverty line which, needless to say, has a much lower threshold than in the United States or other “first-world” countries.  Add high unemployment and under-employment levels for able-bodied citizens and guess what happens to people with disabilities?

There are few services or opportunities for people with disabilities in Nicaragua’s countryside and so Granada, which has a special education school and some educational options and NGO programs, is a gathering place for families with members who are disabled.

The cafe of smiles and Smiles CoffeeWhich brings us to el Cafe de las Sonrisas, the Cafe of Smiles.  With a little digging we found that it is the first coffee shop in the Americas and the 4th in the world to be run entirely by people who are deaf and mute.  Big things behind little doors-Cafe SonrisaThe home of Smiles Coffee is located behind an unassuming entrance on Calle Real Xalteva in a large colonial building with a beautiful interior garden courtyard filled with a variety of plants and a central fountain.  Surrounding the courtyard are tables on one side, walls covered with images of the international sign language and an adjacent hammock workshop and showroom.A hammock to lounge by the garden  After ordering one’s coffee or a simple Nicaraguan-style meal from the menu and cards, which are designed to assist customers in communicating with the staff, you can wander over to the workshop areas.  The numerous large and open-air work stations create a pleasant and interesting waiting experience where one can watch employees weave brilliantly colored hammocks.

Weaving hammocks at Cafe Sonrisa   The signature quality product, called The Never Ending Hammock, symbolizes the goals of:  1) providing employment for the disabled of Nicaragua and, 2) highlighting an environmental focus on recycling plastic bags, the raw material from which the hammocks are made.

Weaving hammocksThe cafe is the latest addition to the Social Center Tio Antonio and is an inclusive educational and employment center for persons with disabilities.  The founder, Hector Ruiz, is a Spanish emigrant who has made his home in Nicaragua following a foray in Costa Rica as a restaurateur.  Early in his time in Nicaragua he met a man who was deaf and mute and began to help him by locating a teacher.

Just beginning the weavingSoon he was introduced to several other persons with similar disabilities and his efforts to assist with their education grew until he required a funding source to continue.  Aided by a local hotel, he opened a business to teach job skills and employ persons with various disabilities to make and sell beautifully crafted hammocks which has subsequently morphed into Tio Antonio Centro Social. The non-profit business, within the context of a community center, offers support to the hearing and visually impaired population in the areas of education, health care and dignified employment

weaving a hammock chairThe goal of Tio Antonio is nearing fruition: building self-sustaining businesses that flourish based upon product excellence and first-rate service. Customers return and bring their friends and recommend the shop to others because of the beauty, quality and value of the hammocks, the tasty fresh fruit drinks, satisfying, typical-style Nicaraguan meals and the whole-bodied flavor of the coffee.  In addition to the above, the knowledge that one is supporting a truly worthy endeavor nearly guarantees a smile pasted on the mug of the customers as they leave el Cafe de Sonrisas.Hammock factory next to cafe Sonrisa

By Anita and Richard, February, 2014

 

An American Napoleon In Nicaragua: The Little Generalisimo

Never heard of William Walker?  Don’t be alarmed: we hadn’t either until we reached Granada.  September 15th might be Independence Day in Nicaragua but September 14th is considered even more important to Nicaraguans as it celebrates the day that William Walker fled the country.

One of the few original houses in the city not destroyed by William Walker

One of the few original houses in the city not destroyed by William Walker

The United States in the first half of the 19th century was in the grip Manifest Destiny – the notion that we, as a nation, should spread across the continent and as far north and south as the flag was able to carry our young democracy. That these lands were occupied and governed by other sovereignties was of little importance. The prevailing thought was that it was, after all, the God-given destiny of the United States to control these lands and peoples.

WilliamWalker

Walker, a man of big dreams but small stature (5’2”), began his filibustering – the old definition meant unauthorized attempts to encourage foreign rebellions versus the new definition of legislative stalling – career in Mexico in 1853. After initial victories by his tiny volunteer army he was routed and skedaddled back to California. In San Francisco he was charged and tried for “conducting an illegal war” but a jury of his peers found him not guilty after a speedy deliberation of eight minutes. The country was ready for citizens with expansionistic ideas!

Nicaragua, like most of Latin America, won its independence from Spain in 1821. Freedom however brought its own strife. The country was divided by two power centers: Leon, the Liberal Party’s power base, and Granada, the Conservative Party’s bastion. A low-level and intermittent civil war between the two power centers continued throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s. In 1855, with the dispute escalating, Leon requested foreign assistance in its ongoing conflict with Granada and who should heed the call but our freebooter and filibuster, William Walker.

With a small force of American and foreign adventurers, Walker landed in Nicaragua and, with the aid of the Liberal’s military forces, advanced on Granada. The conflict ended with Walker’s victory. His next move astounded even his Conservative supporters. In 1856, following a rigged election which Walker orchestrated, he had himself declared President of Nicaragua and presided from 1856-7. He went so far as to call for Nicaragua to be annexed to the United States and recognized as a slave-holding state.

William Walker's Presidential Palace

William Walker’s Presidential Palace

All this lethal tomfoolery had the unintended effect of unifying Leon and Granada, the once implacable foes. And Walker’s expansionistic language threatened Nicaragua’s neighbors; Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador. Counter attacks were launched, Walker’s forces were defeated and with Granada, his capital, under attack Walker struck his colors and retreated. His spleen was not yet empty.  In the wake of the retreat an aide-de-camp ordered the burning of the city.  At the outskirts a sign was posted “Here was Granada”.

The battle of San Jacinto-Walker's resounding defeat had him fleeing for his life

The battle of San  Jacinto – Walker’s resounding defeat had him fleeing for his life

Little remains of the original colonial city of Granada; the Catedral Merced, the Casa Gran Francia and a colonial home near the cathedral. The remainder was destroyed in the conflagration or subsequently lost to renovation and expansion.

La Merced - still standing

La Merced – still standing

And our old friend Walker? He survived and made his way back to the United States. However, not one to admit defeat, he regrouped, refortified and returned to Latin America in 1860 to aid a disgruntled faction of English colonists on the Honduras Bay Island of Roatan. He sailed from the island intent upon attack but was intercepted by the British navy, who deemed him hostile to their interests in the region.  The Brits turned him over to the Honduran authorities in Trujillo, Honduras and he was executed by firing squad on September 12, 1860. An inglorious but fitting end for a freebooter, filibuster, and would be king.

By Richard and Anita, February, 2014

Slow Traveling: Putting Down Shallow Roots

Boy with a stick & tire We like to travel slowly.  When we came back from Big Corn Island to Granada at Christmas we almost felt like we were coming home. Neighborhood Kids  True, this was our third trip back in as many months and there was that warm, fuzzy feeling of the familiar.  True, it was great to return to a city we knew and nod again at familiar people on the streets.  True, it was so much easier to know already which direction to go to find the shops and visit favorite restaurants than to set off on the initial exploration of a new city.  And true, it was wonderful to see and talk to friends we had met previously.

Our initial plan in December was to spend Christmas in Granada and, at the beginning of the New Year, make our way through Costa Rica with a visit to the Caribbean side and head to Panama.A smile and a wave  But… we couldn’t get excited, even as we stared at the map at places that had previously stirred our imagination.  We felt kind of fizzless.  When we looked at bed-and-breakfast places, hostels and hotels all we could see were the hefty dollar signs attached and we lacked the enthusiasm to dig a little further for places to stay that were more reasonable.  Our act of procrastination and deciding to not decide on the next step presented a third option:  Why not stay a couple of months in Granada?

Pigs in a poke (kind of)And so, we reached out to the expat community.  During our previous visits we’d heard that there was a monthly meet and greet of expats who were establishing and reinforcing business contacts but then we learned there was also an informal gathering every Friday in front of the Grill House on Calle Calzado.  A few people, foreigners who now lived in Granada, both permanently and for shorter stays, and also people passing through would get together around 5:00.

Catching a bite to eatWe almost missed our first meeting. A rainstorm had us waiting in the inner courtyard with no group of expats in sight  When we gave up and came outside, though, there were a couple of tables pushed together and a few people sitting at them conversing.  We boldly walked up to the table (we never would do this in the US) and asked, “Is this the expat get-together?”.  In short order we had new acquaintances, an appointment to see an apartment, a list of places to inquire about volunteer opportunities and an invitation to lunch the next day.

A working familyThat is one of the beauties of slow travel. Since there is seldom a fixed itinerary there is no reason not to extemporize on the travel agenda. We have great latitude in deciding to extend a stay in places that please us, settle a bit more into a community and explore previously undiscovered places.  The only requirement of slow travel is that the roots must, of necessity, be shallow. For at some point we will pack up and be moving on again.

La fiesta - Granada, NIC 2013

La fiesta – Granada, NIC 2013

By Anita and Richard, January, 2014