Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reflections on my Cell Phone

What would we Peace Corps Volunteers do without cell phones? Although Nicaragua is still a developing country, it has been able to make one of those infamous “technology leaps,” as it goes from having limited to no phone service immediately to cell phones, skipping the land line phone in-between. You see leaps like this with internet as well: the country has no internet whatsoever, and then the next day you see someone has a Netbook laptop and wireless connection in their house. No slow dial-up modems here! Developed countries did all the dirty work and now technology is cheaper and faster, making it accessible to the masses.

Probably nowhere is this more evident in Nicaragua than with cell phones. Just about every Nicaragua, rich or poor, young or old, has a cell phone. When phones start at about $10, they’re not too expensive, even by Nicaraguan standards. Every Nica teen can be found chateando – sending text messages back and forth to friends, in their spare time. Often you’ll see a person who looks otherwise somewhat poor (used clothing with stains and rips, the hardened look of someone who works in the field, strong calves from hauling water)… but then you notice that, Hey – isn’t that a $100 camera phone in their hand?? Nicaraguans place great importance on their cell phones.

Although cell phones have arrived in all their glory, sadly cell phone etiquette has not. Here are few informal “rules” that Nicaraguans like to follow. 1. Whenever your phone rings (and yes, you will always hear it ring because it is NEVER to be put on silent mode or turned off), you WILL answer it. No matter if you are at work, teaching a class, in a doctor’s appointment, riding a horse, driving a bus or in a meeting with the Director of Peace Corps: that call must be answered. And if possible, answer it while you are still in the room in which the meeting is taking place – just ask everyone’s pardon and try and make your conversation short, but of course don’t lower your voice. The person on the other end of the line might not hear you! 2. As mentioned before, driving while talking or texting is perfectly acceptable. One’s social life doesn’t wait! 3. It is perfectly acceptable to ask to see a friend or even a stranger’s phone and search through their text message history. You don’t have anything to hide now, do you?? 4. Whenever you are without music (out in the villages, in a car without a stereo, on a farm…) you must play the songs stored on your cell phone at full volume. Background music here is a must, no matter where you are. And you must strive to have a well-rounded music selection: ABBA, Air Supply, the BeeGee’s, bachata, salsa, meringue, reggaeton, and of course, the Titanic theme song.

One of the annoying things about the cell phone companies here (there are only two, “Claro” and “Movistar”), is that it is very expensive to have a cell phone, compared to the U.S. Here, cell phones work on a pre-paid system. You go to any corner store, restaurant, grocery store, etc. to put some dollars on your phone every week. Calls to other Nicaraguan cell phones can cost up to $0.25/minute! Sometimes there are “promotions” where you can send 500 text messages for $2 or something, but I usually end up spending quite a bit on my cell phone every month. All Nicaraguans understand this, and the constant complaint you’ll hear is, “Ay, no ando saldo!” “Dang it! I don’t have any cell phone credit!” This is often a lie; since the person is probably just being pinche (cheap) and wants you to make the call for them on your phone (you’re a gringa right? That means you have lots of money, yes?) Also, phone calls are made very short to the point of almost feeling rude. Both parties in the conversation know that time is money and only the important details are shared before the conversation is rushed to a close. Here is a sample conversation between the Head Nurse at my Health Center, Hileana and I (she is calling me):

Me: “Hello?”
Hileana: “Hello Penny – you know what? The pregnant women’s’ meeting today has to be cancelled. There’s an emergency here at the Health Center…got to go. Talk later.”
Me: “Uhh…okay? I’m out here in the middle of the village waiting for you… Are you alright? What happened??”
Hilean: “Adios Penny!”
Click.

Hm… Well, it looks like if I want to find out what happened in this story, I’ll have to call her back. Tricky little devil – she’s not going to get me to use my credit! It goes without saying that the person who is making the call has complete power over the conversation: what the topic is, how long it lasts and who does the talking. It’s their money after all!

In Peace Corps, we use cell phones as our main mode of communication to the main office, the safety and security officer, and of course to other volunteers. Since text messages are much cheaper than making an actual call, we usually communicate by texting. Some of the texts we send and receive I’m sure would be quite confusing and/or hilarious when seen by someone who is not in our inner Peace Corps Nicaragua circle. Here are some variations of texts that I have sent and received:

WAS JUST WOKEN UP BY A BAT FLYING AROUND MY HOUSE. CURRENTLY COWERING UNDER MY MOSQUITO NET. DO THEY SUCK HUMAN BLOOD??!!

JUST HAD 7th BOWEL MOVEMENT OF THE DAY. NOT NORMAL, RIGHT?

NO RUNNING WATER FOR THREE DAYS. SILVER LINING: DON’T NEED TO WEAR SUNSCREEN ANYMORE SINCE I’M FORMING A PROTECTIVE LAYER OF DIRT.

JUST SAW AN OLD WOMAN ON THE BUS WITH A USED T-SHIRT THAT SAID “I LOST MY PHONE NUMBER…CAN I HAVE YOURS??” NOT SURE IF I SHOULD TELL HER WHAT IT MEANS OR NOT.

OMG-JUST FOUND OUT THAT TIGER WOODS HAD AN AFFAIR! DID YOU KNOW THAT??
(Five minutes later….)
OH WAIT…I GUESS THAT HAPPENED LIKE 2 WEEKS AGO…

JUST GOT PUKED ON BY A BABY ON THE BUS…GREAT WAY TO START THE DAY.

I’M GOING TO BE LATE TO THE MEETING; I’M BEING HELD HOSTAGE IN MY HOUSE BY A STRAY DONKEY THAT IS BLOCKING MY DOORWAY, EATING PLANTS IN MY FRONT YARD.

WHAT’S THAT RHYME ABOUT POISONOUS SNAKES AGAIN??? IS IT RED AFTER YELLOW KILLS A FELLOW? RED AND BLACK, OKAY JACK?? TEXT BACK QUICK!

JUST SLAUGHTERED AND DEPLUMED BY FIRST CHICKEN. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TODAY??? :)

Well, that’s all for now. A new blog entry will be coming soon about my Holy Week vacation which starts tomorrow. I’m planning to canoe the San Juan River which separates Costa Rica and Nicaragua with a group of friends. It’s like Nicaragua’s mini-version of the Panama Canal. Should be beautiful!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Riding in trucks with Nicaraguans

Today I went to the nearby city of Estelí, “The Diamond” of the north of Nicaragua. It’s one of my favorite cities in Nicaragua. There are a few nice restaurants that serve some good gringo treats like wheat bread, homemade yogurt, and my personal favorite; a cucumber and celery juice drink (it’s amazing!) I was running the usual errands – going to the bank, getting my hair cut, shopping at the market, etc. when I ran into some neighbors from my site – Don Silvio and his wife Doña Yelva. They too were running errands. Their family owns a successful restaurant/pool business and they also have a fritanga where they sell fried food like tacos, enchiladas and plantain chips every night. They go to Estelí weekly and fill their pick-up truck to the brim with groceries to supply their little business. People who own vehicles in Nicaragua are rare, at least outside of Managua. There are not too many cars and trucks in my site and everyone knows who owns one. Most people who own a vehicle have a family member who works in the U.S. and sends money back, which is the case with Yelva and Silvio. They’re wonderful people to have as neighbors, always giving me free tortillas and juice. I sometimes watch telenovelas with one of the younger daughters in the evening, getting my fill of Spanish soap opera drama.
I chatted with my neighbors a bit on the street in Estelí– it was mid-morning and they were just beginning their errands, as was I. I was tickled that I actually recognize some people on the street. I’m realizing that I recognize more and more people now as I walk around town, in the classrooms when I give classes… I guess it’s a sign that I’ve been in my site almost a year. Don Silvio and his Doña Yelva offered to give me a ride back to town that afternoon in the back of their truck. I agreed wholeheartedly. Anything is better than riding in the crowded, sweaty, and slow old school buses that we use here for transportation (you may recall a previous blog about it).
At 3 pm I met up with Silvio and Yelva again. By this time their weathered but cared for pick-up was weighted down with large sacks of potatoes, tomatoes, melons, mangoes, onions, cucumbers, watermelon, papaya, pineapple, ground meat, chicken filets, paper towel, straws, paper plates, and eight 5-gallon buckets full of cooking oil. I wasn’t sure there was going to be room for me in the back of their truck with all their loot, but they managed to squeeze in a plastic chair for me to sit on. As we started down the road, I felt like I was in a county fair parade – sitting high atop all of these fruits and vegetables as we slowly passed people staring at me in the street (no matter what I do in Nicaragua, I’m stared at).
Travel in the back of pick-up trucks is very common here. I’m pretty sure that Peace Corps doesn’t allow volunteers to officially do it, but that doesn’t stop anyone. If you didn’t ride in the back of a pick-up, you simply wouldn’t get anywhere. Ironically, for my work at the Health Center here, that is our main mode of transportation. When we go on visits out to the remote villages, up to 15 nurses will cram in the back of the poor old Ministry of Health pick-up, hanging on for dear life as we jolt up and down over rocky roads and through rivers.
I’ve really grown to enjoy rides in the back of pick-ups, and it’s been a while since I’ve had “the pleasure.” As I settled in for the 45 minute ride back to town, I took a bite of the sweet mandarin orange that Doña Yelva tossed me as we took off. She’s a nice motherly type – constantly in the kitchen cooking with an apron on. She always has a smile for me and is always game to try whatever I’ve tried my hand at cooking or baking. She especially liked the banana bread I made a couple weeks ago. She and her family have built a mini food empire in our little town and make most food for meetings, luncheons and social events.
The wind is refreshing due to recent rains, which is odd since it’s the middle of the dry season. Nevertheless, everyone has been enjoying the temporary fresh feeling in the air and the lack of dust. The weather is cool, probably in the low 70s in the shade. I tied my hair up tight in a bun to avoid the agony of combing it out later after a thorough brushing by the wind, and stuck my sunglasses on to protect my eyes. Bugs were flying into my cheeks like torpedoes.
The wind was strong and carried back to me the scents of the cargo we were carrying. I caught whiffs of pineapple and mango. The cooking oil next to me started to slosh back and forth and through a leak, some oil found its way onto my shoes. Darn it. Hand washing clothes is one thing, but I hate hand-washing shoes.
As we moved farther away from the city and into the mountains, I shifted my gaze outward. In a crowded bus, you don’t have the luxury of a view, so some of the landscape looked foreign although I had passed it uncountable times before. Because of the lack of rain, the small mountains were dry and dusty. Shades of brown speckled the scenery, the monotony being broken at times by a lush green tobacco farm. The north of Nicaragua is known for many crops: coffee, corn, beans, and tobacco. Tobacco farms are some of the most luxurious – the big bucks the crop pulls in allows the owners to have vast plantations and pretty buildings. The large green tobacco leafs looked out of place among the dry expanse of dust.
As we sped along the Pan-American Highway going north, more smells came to me. Manure from cows, the smell of burning trash, burning plastic, burning firewood, burning leaves… My nose for burning materials has grown rather keen in Nicaragua. We drove through the smells of pigs, horses, and truck exhaust. As soon as I smelled one thing, it disappeared only to be replaced by another. We curved around the sinuous highway, winding our way up into the mountains.
Many other trucks passed us with passengers in them like me, hitching rides in the back. Their heads were covered with towels or scarves and they tucked down into the bed of the truck. When we passed through a shaded area of the highway, the temperature did drop quite a bit. Wait a second, were those goose bumps on my arms?? No, false alarm. It’s not that cold in Nicaragua. I stuck on my sweatshirt anyway to cut down on the wind.
As we neared our town I began to see all the usual landmarks; restaurants, bus stops, and churches that lined the highway. We had to slow down or swerve to avoid missing dogs who wandered onto the road or the occasional cow. Finally, we reached the turn-off for town. As we drove the few kilometers to reach the house, Silvio and Yelva started to recognize people. Honks of greeting were exchanged as were yells of “¡Adios!” We pulled up to our street and I hopped out. Safe and sound, and in record time. “Did you watch all the food?” Don Silvio asked jokingly. “Don’t worry,” I replied, “nothing flew out.” I didn’t mention that just as we had taken off, a large bag of fried pig skin had been picked up by the wind and smacked me in the face. A small price to pay for a scenic ride through the mountains.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cooking with Soy

For those of you readers who know me personally, you know that I’m not a great cook. I do enjoy baking, but growing up with a super-Mom who was an amazing chef sort of hindered my cooking abilities. You’d think that this would have caught up to me before now, but living in the U.S. on my own during college, this was never a problem. There were always fresh vegetables available to throw together a good salad or pre-made food at Fred Meyer (one of my favorite stores). In Peace Corps, now that I’m no longer living with a host family and I’m officially “on my own”, my lack of cooking knowledge can be frustrating. I’m learning some basic staples, slowly but surely: beans, pasta sauces, stir fry, etc.

I’ve also been sharing my baking knowledge with some friends here who are lucky enough to own ovens. We’ve made banana bread, cakes, cookies… I’ve introduced them to the novel concept of wheat flour. They’re slowly coming around, but prefer their white bread for now.

In return, Nicaraguan women are always eager to teach me how to make Nicaraguan food. I’ve made corn pudding, tamales, soups, pasta dishes, tacos, fruit juices and even pizza with them. A Nicaraguan woman (or 13 year old girl for that matter) is a thing to see in the kitchen. In Nicaragua, as in many Latin countries, the kitchen is still mainly the woman’s domain. They are groomed from about the time they can walk to run errands, cut vegetables, pick out meat at the market, fry rice, bake beans…Each household has a certain ways of peeling oranges, certain rules for cooking (no eating Nacatamales - a traditional dish - before sleeping), and no citrus when you’re sick (!)

In my quest to learn how to cook for myself (since tomato and onion salads and oatmeal can get a little old, even I’ll admit), and in an effort to improve nutrition practices with local mothers, I’ve started cooking with soy. Soy is nothing new to my food vocabulary – I am a vegetarian – but in the U.S. I always bought pre-made soy milk, tofu and soy meat. In Nicaragua, you’ve gotta start with the actual soy BEAN. I guess I knew they existed: edamame, roasted soy nuts… But I never thought much about how the bean was changed into the milk, the meat, or into soy sauce. I first learned about cooking with soy through Peace Corps – many volunteers teach local women how to use soy beans to add protein and omega-3 fatty acids to their diets. Soy beans have twice the amount of protein in them than red beans and they also have the same type of fat (omega-3) that salmon does. Soy also contains no cholesterol and is rich in fiber, iron, vitamin B and calcium.

Needless to say, it’s a great food, especially in nutritionally inadequate Nicaraguan diets. And it’s cheap (even by Nicaraguan standards), $0.50/pound. When red beans can often rise radically in price depending on the season, soy beans can be an economical substitute.

So, how do I get all that good food out of this hard little bean, you ask? Well, after putting together about ten soy “workshops” with various groups in my site, cooking with soy is one thing that I do feel pretty comfortable with. I’ll walk you through the steps. Below is a group of ladies making soy that I worked with. They´re all mothers of special needs children. 1. Buy one pound of soy. Clean the soy beans, picking out any twigs, rocks and dirt that come with it. Wash the beans with water, rubbing them with your hands, changing the water three times or so.

2.Put the beans in lots of water to soak for 12 hours.

3. Wash again, rubbing with your hands to take off the outer shell of the bean (although this is optional).

4. Grind the beans at the local mill (if you’re in Nicaragua), or with a hand mill, or even using a blender with water. Mills are everywhere in Nicaragua – a fellow volunteer once equated the number of mills here the prevalence of Starbucks’ in downtown Manhattan. They are mainly used for grinding corn for tortilla and for coffee.

5. For every pound of beans, add one gallon of water to the ground beans.

6. Using a cheesecloth or fine strainer, strain the ground beans from the water, saving the water in a separate container.

7. This liquid you now have is the SOY MILK! The leftover ground beans are SOY MEAT! So easy, I know…You can understand why I like doing this.

From here, you usually boil the soy milk, constantly stirring. Some people like to add vanilla extract, sugar, cinnamon, etc. to give it flavor. Nicaraguans like to add Maizena which I think is like a cornstarch, to make a pudding. You can also blend the milk with bananas to make a smoothie. Or mix it with rice and sugar to make Arroz con leche. Others use the milk to make flan, or yogurt. To make soy yogurt, add ¼ cup of yogurt bacteria (or just plain yogurt) to every liter of milk. Heat the milk and yogurt mixture slowly until it’s the temperature of “blood” (gross, I know). Take it off of the heat and put it in a clean container and cover with a towel for 3-5 hours until it takes form. Refrigerate. You can add fruit or other flavorings to make it tasty. Above is the group of mothers enjoying the soy food we made.

Using the soy meat, you can mix it with spices and vegetables to make “sausage.” You can also make fried soy cakes by adding an egg, some flour, veggies and spices and forming little round cakes. Another recipe I have calls for adding a few bananas, an egg and sugar and cinnamon to the soy meat and then frying the cakes to make a sweeter treat.

Last week, during my “volunteer visit” which I wrote about in the previous blog, we made soy chili, which is by far my favorite soy recipe. We added the soy meat to sautéed onion and garlic, lots of tomatoes, tomato paste, chili powder, green and red peppers, and some water and cooked (probably for about 40 minutes). (The soy meat takes a while to cook – otherwise it turns out a bit crunchy). Then we added a few cups of cooked red beans. YUM!! I’m sure it would be good with some cheddar cheese on top, but of course that’s not available down here except in Managua.

In the future, I’m planning on making soy flour, soy cheese (aka tofu), and one of my favorite snacks, roasted soy beans. It’s pretty fun making something from scratch. I also have plans to make my own peanut butter, and maybe even my own chocolate. I get inspired by other volunteers who have cooking classes in their sites and are experimenting. Peanut butter is a “value added” product that some Agriculture volunteers are trying to promote in communities that produce peanuts.

Above is my aerobics class group enjoying the soy milk we made (also in the photo, second from the right, is my site-mate, Kristen, a Small Business volunteer). I’m sorry I don’t have more photos of making soy, when my computer was stolen in December, a lot of my photos were lost. I encourage you to try making some soy – the beans are available in the bulk section at most stores. I found it in my small hometown in Alaska while I was home in January, so it should be available pretty much everywhere.

That’s all for now. I’ll keep you updated on my cooking adventures!