Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me

I usually get the royal birthday treatment at home because mine is the first in the "birthday season" as my friends and I refer to the period between Halloween and New Years when almost everyone we know has a birthday. At the very least, there is schnapps for the grown-ups while the 20 or so kids in my neighborhood come by for candy. This year is a little different but still fun. And it isn't over yet.

Started celebrating with a chinese dinner in Managua last night. We were the only ones in the restaurant. The owner was from Hong Kong by way of the Bay Area and he was very attentive, but I can't say it was like Vancouver.

Since today I get to do whatever I want, I went running, bought donuts from the lady walking down Calzada and ate a big Nica breakfast. Then I made Jonathan accompany me to the Masaya Municipal market. I bought another apron, a plastic basket, and lots of flowers. We priced 100 pound bags of rice and beans for our trip up North.

We had Cokes in the Central Park and in a sign that it truly is my day, a lady came by with my favorite honey. She wanted to quit for the day so I bought all four beer bottles she had left for 2 bucks a piece. She wanted me to buy her a soda, too, and this is a sign of how long I have been here, I refused. I wanted to check out the Yucca festival, so Jonathan complied. There was a small festival area set up in Estacion featuring agricultural products, in particular, Yucca. I was surprised to see that it looks like a small shrub with potatoes attached for feet. I was also surprised to see Pithaya wine, so I bought two bottles, one red and one white. Although how you make anything white out of Pithaya is beyond me. I asked the guy selling it, but the music accompaning the small girls dancing on the stage in traditional dress was too loud for me to hear his response.

It began to rain really hard, as if all the rain that had been missing for the winter decided to fall on the Yucca festival in Masaya. I still had one more stop I wanted to make, Marisol Embroidery which was half a block behind the Yucca festival, but we got in the car and made a really big circle just so we wouldn't get wet. They shop had lovely cotton dresses and tops with embroidery and elegant linen suits and dresses. I bought a white gauzy sundress that is way to young for me. Really, I think it is a girl's dress. I saw a few things I liked, but they were too big so I asked if they could make me a smaller dress. I ordered a mint green linen sheath dress with cut out embroidery. The daughter of the owners waited on me, taking all my measurements for the dress. 82 cm seams like so much more than 32 inches. The dress will be ready in a week and cost 25 dollars.

I have been in Nicaragua a long time now, so I will not celebrate what a good deal this is until I actually get my dress. I asked if she had one of the blouses she was wearing in my size. No she said. Well, make me one of those, too I said.

We drove out of Masaya on roads that were muddy rivers, but they only went over the bottom of the car for about a block. My Danish/Chilean neighbors brought me flowers. Laurence and Thelma are coming by with my fruit custard tart later and I have decided to go to Chico Tripa for dinner.

Nice day.

Halloween Party

Friday night was a big Halloween Party at the kids school. Given the recent events directed at the US I was glad to see this guy with a rifle INSIDE the school gates watching the crowd which consisted entirely of small children with their families. OK there were some scary high school kids, too.

I felt even safer because this group of girls was roaming the halls.

I used up a lot of memory taking pictures of maids in uniform holding Halloween bags for their charges.

My kids were dressed up as the Jonas Brothers with their friend Hobbes. Noah played in a high school ensemble - a rousing rendition of Eleanor Rigby.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Interesting Times

Let’s just say things are a little tense here. Since the secret meeting of the Sandinista supreme court justices that overnight changed the constitution to enable Ortega to run again, there have been little protests. Eggs were thrown at one of the magistrates, and in retaliation a non Sandinista civil coordinator was beaten up by thugs reported to have been hired by Daniel. She has been saying that the government is deliberately supporting gangs in the barrios. Students protested against the attempt to take over student standards by the Sandinistas. A television reporter was beaten up at the University Rotunda. Right outside the kids school. While they were there. Thank God it has those 12 foot fences and armed guards.

Today, there was a protest at the US Embassy (we got a little email saying it might not be the best day to show up for a passport renewal). The reason was a condescending speech by the US Ambassador condemning the constitution change. He pointed out how long it takes to change the US constitution and I thought of all those years my mother spent on ERA and her bitter disappointment. Young Sandinista thugs were bussed to the Embassy. It is well fortified. The news video shows masked juveniles gleefully scribbling on signs, drinking beer and firing mortars in the air. There were only about 10 police officers standing by doing nothing.

Here in Granada, we heard cars honking and went to the door expecting to see another high school group driving around advertising a party. But it was the Frente. Packed into pick up trucks and buses. They were probably celebrating something. Sandinista black and white flags. Pink hats (the new softer Sandinista colors). It was all young men. I watched them go by and couldn’t help myself and flipped off the boys in the last truck. A big firecracker was promptly thrown on my neighbors roof.

Silvia and Lucia waited a bit and headed home. Silvia mentioned in passing she would do anything to start a new life somewhere else. They are ready to send the boys in the family to Costa Rica to keep them away from what they see as impending military service if Ortega is re-elected.

We discussed having our chele boys roll up their windows on the way to school in the morning so their little bourguoise faces wouldn’t attract attention in Managua.

I’m sad. I wanted so much for it to be a party of the people. All my years of lefty sympathy for socialist governments. What a joke this one is. A dangerous joke.

Running commentary

I'm trying to step up my miles a bit but it is hard because I have found that I detest the sensation of dripping sweat and being covered in bugs after a run. It is always interesting though. This week I saw a pickup truck full of people (AKA private mass transit) swerve to hit a dog sleeping on the left side of the road. I saw a man wheeling a hand cart down the main street. It was full of little pigs. He called out - Piglets! Piglets! just as if he had fruit or flowers in his cart. I really wanted one, but I held myself back and bought some bananas from the next cart. I ran through a herd of cows down by the lake. There were about 20 of them in varying brown and beige colors, cows and calves slowly moving down the road. A guy on a horse sort of nudged them out of my way. I saw about twenty people drink something out of a plastic bag and throw it in the street.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is there such a thing as too much chocolate?

I roasted and ground up another two pounds of cacao yesterday. I started to make antioxidant cup cakes to take over to Laurence and Thelma's last night. Unfortunately we didn't have any electricity most of the afternoon, so my oven wouldn't light. I went to plan B and decided to try chocolate mousse. But I don't have any cookbooks; I haven't made mousse since I lived in Berlin, and there was no way to check for recipes online. I had to wing it. Amazing what we do when there is no internet. At one moment, Jules was swimming, Noah was reading a book in the hammock and I was experimenting in the kitchen. The electricity came back on just in time to throw the cupcakes together. Mousse saved for another day.

Decided it be a perfect time to try mole sauce, so today looked up a Oaxacan Colorodita and Moni and I tried to make it. Actually, I translated and told Moni what to do and she did all the work. I was very excited about having tortillas with the chicken mole, but for the first time ever, Natalie didn't come shout at my door at 5 to see if I wanted tortillas. Maybe she or her grandmother are sick. I went to ask the neighbors who were sitting in their rocking chairs on the sidewalk if they had seen her. No, not at all. I asked at the Pulperia and they said, she wasn't here today and we wanted tortillas too. They directed me to a close by pulperia and said if there weren't any tortillas there, they were not to be had this evening. It was closed up.

Jonathan was sure he would have better luck, so he took his bike and went to a different pulperia. They told him where to go into the barrio to find the tortilla lady. He went down a dirt path and asked everyone he met, yes, just down that way they said. Doña Maria's developmentally disabled son was sitting in front of the house and Jonathan asked him about the tortillas. He indicated yes and the mom called from the house - come on in. He found Doña Maria at the back of her house surrounded by a huge pile of firewood. Her gigantic comal was on a wood fire and she was throwing tortillas at an incredible rate. He asked for twenty and she said, just wait a little bit. While he waited for the tortillas, he asked her about her work. She decided to do tortillas twenty years ago so that she would have enough money to take care of her son. Her hands were calloused and she tossed and turned the tortillas directly on the grill. Jonathan came home with piping hot tortillas. They were the best yet.

The mole was amazing. We had the mousse for dessert. Yesterday, Laurence asked me what kind of cake I wanted for my birthday. I said, fruit tart please.

Here comes the rains

The last few days have been cooler and rainy, more like the usual Granada weather for this time of year. Folks have been seen in sweaters. We found a scorpion and two snakes in the house in addition to the usual mice and doves. More ants. I guess everything is being flooded out. Last night was a really hard rain. We walked over to Laurence and Thelma's for dinner and we got soaking wet. Noah was trying to hold an umbrella over the antioxidant cupcakes I was carrying, but he kept catching the water pouring off of the roofs and redirecting it directly onto the cake. The street was a river. When we got home, water was dripping off of beams and down walls - inside a few rooms.

I don't know if it rained up north or if this is the start of enough rain to save the planting. I hope it does more than just cool everything off.

Hungry times

Even though it is north of the Equator, winter is coming to an end in Nicaragua now. This rainy season has been anything but with high temperatures and very little rain because of El Niño. Many people have told me this is the worst it has ever been. The planting has been stalled throughout the country with a prediction of NO harvest in some of the North. Other areas are looking at a harvest of only 10%. There is an official drought, and this combined with the effect of the world economic crisis (ie people already don’t have enough money to feed their families) is predicted to result in lots of hungry people. The government is buying all of the rice and bean harvest, such that it is, directly from the farmer to avoid price speculation in the coming lean months, but they are being criticized for having no plan to make sure that people can eat.

Rosemaria told me she was talking to a friend the other day who had put on a little weight. Her friend was only half joking when she said, I’m getting ready for the winter, girl, you’d better get some meat on those bones while you can. Jonathan was listening to Este Semana this week. They were talking to people in the north. They think they only have enough food for two more months.

So we are trying to figure out how to help. We are thinking of filling the car up with beans and rice and driving up north in the next few months.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Just another morning in Paradise

When I got up with Noah at 5:30 to get ready for school, he was worried about a little mark on his hand. Is this a bat bite? I just had a little flush of panic, but I reminded myself that his room is completely sealed and we have seen no bats in the house since it was fumigated. It was a little too dark to see what it looked like. While he was in the shower, I googled bat bites and was relieved to see that bat teeth make little round puncture wounds, not 3 mm slashes. Upon closer inspection, no skin was broken and it actually looked like a teeny tiny scrape that had just lost its scab. Of course, we still have 48 hours to start rabies shots if we need to.

Jonathan was listening to the news on the Sandinista radio station (the only one that comes in). Last night, the Supreme Court approved Daniel's request to override the constitutional limit on reelections. This opens the door for his name to be on the ballot in 2011 and could be the beginning of the dictatorship. It isn't so much the extended term of Daniel's (his first term WAS a long time ago) presidency, but the complete disregard for the constitution that troubles me. Even though we have our own constitutional irregularities (bear arms) and voting problems (if only Al Gore had been president . . .) I still really value the solidity of the Constitution and the strength of the institutions that support it in the US.

I firmly believe as visitors and foreigners, we have no right to pass judgement or act on politics here. But I'm curious what the people will do to ensure democracy and protect the constitution.

Shopping Trip

I had a lot of fun tagging along with Thelma yesterday on her weekly shopping run in Managua. I’m not sure what was the best part, eating the yummy pupusas at the Salvadoran restaurant (60 cents a piece and they weren’t little), smelling all the essential oils at Naturaleza or watching the family that mixes up cleaning products in their front yard go about their work with an engaging toddler underfoot. A half wall of cement separates the workshop from the street and acts as a shop window. The mom and her daughter along with several sons are tending 8 fifty gallon drums and a constantly running hose. Each drum has a different brightly colored cleaning product. The more caustic chemicals are in back. Everything for the home and a lot of stuff for the car. You can get pool chemicals. Or bleach. Customers come up with empty soda bottles and have them filled with different things. Using cut off bleach bottles for funnels, they fill your container and put a little piece of plastic under the cap to protect your car. The older son put the baby down and walked around to the other side of the car to load the bottles. Thelma got 25 dollars worth of cleaning products in 4 10 gallon containers and 4 bleach bottles and 2 two liter soda. They filled up a Sprite bottle with lime scented floor cleaner and gave it to her as a freebie. I limited myself to a gallon of lavender scented floor cleaner. Could it replace Fabuloso in my heart? I love the smell of lavender Fabuloso because it reminds me of vacation in exotic places where someone else is cleaning my house. Lirio laundry soap has the same effect.

Before picking Zoey up at school we had to go to PriceSmart (Costco) because I needed some things. It is just as horrible here as in the States. Except it has the added convenience of accepting credit cards. But only American Express. Which I didn’t have, so Thelma bought my groceries and printer ink.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Test Kitchen

I have a friend who really likes the cakes I make and would like to try to make cupcakes to sell in her neighborhood. The fabulous chocolate cakes I make are a labor of love and no expense is spared. When I told her how much I spend on butter, sour cream, cream and chocolate, it was clear that there was no way she could sell it at a price people would be willing to pay. (And I would never tell her how much it costs me in the States using organic products!) But I liked the challenge of trying to meet a price point and still come up with a quality product. I know this is the basics of small businesses, but it is not an area I have explored much in my life. Upon discussion we decided 5 cords (25 cents) would be the very most people would be willing to pay. As a starting point, we were aiming for less than 2.5 cords in expense per unit. We were not adding in labor, figuring that the 50% profit would cover it.

Basically I have three models of chocolate cake in my repetoire – Sour Cream Fudge which I make for grown-up birthdays, Devil’s food, which I make when it has to be quick and Dairy-free Chocolate cake for cupcakes to bring to school. We started with the Dairy free which I had to look up on line because I didn’t bring my
Joy of Cooking cookbook with me, which was a big mistake. It has the fewest and cheapest ingredients. I did a little more research and we went to work. We used cacao paste because it is the cheapest chocolate option and as Diana Brement just pointed out to me, full of antioxidants. We aren’t just making cupcakes, we are making anti-oxidant cupcakes! In fact, that is such a good idea, I just might pursue it in real life.

As I was entering the ingredients into my spreadsheet, I was impressed that Silvia could tell me how much a pound of anything costs. It is a universal Nicaruguan skill as far as I can tell. Whenever I ask someone how much something is going to cost, they can tell me exactly. Like I say, I need 2 ½ pounds of chicken, a pound of tomatoes and three bananas and Moni will say, give me 115 cords. I am starting to be able to do it, too. But I couldn’t remember how much I pay for a pound of flour or a quart of oil. But back to cake. We entered our numbers and discovered that the total cost per unit of our cake was only 2 cords! That left us 3 cords of profit per piece or cupcake.
We were thrilled with our profit margin until we realized that selling 24 pieces would mean that we only made a 72 ($3.50) cord profit for spending all morning cracking cacao beans with our fingers. We must expand sales to make it worth our while.

The cake was really yummy…and so inexpensive…and so full of antioxidants. Further research is needed.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Adventures in Cacao

It’s a very simple idea with a lot of steps. Cacao is grown in Nicaragua and I wanted to use it in my baking. At least once a week, I make chocolate cake, brownies or chocolate chip cookies. So far I have had to use imported chocolate – not even high quality, but expensive (relatively) Baker’s chocolate and Hershey’s cocoa from the States. The local high end chocolate makers don’t distribute unsweetened chocolate. My friend Laurence who makes delectable chocolate treats for his business, Eurocafe, explained to me how to go to the market, get the cacao, roast it and return to the market to find the miller to grind it into cacao paste.

So Silvia and I headed to the market for my Spanish lesson and bought some cacao. It was new to Silvia because she doesn’t usually use it. We found a guy with a big bagful and bought two pounds. Once I knew what it looked like, I saw it lots of places. The cacao beans are fermented and then dried, like coffee. They still need to be roasted, so we took them home and when Moni came to cook dinner I asked her how to roast them. It’s like roasting coffee at home – another skill I learned in Nicaragua. You toast the beans in a pan on the stove or in the oven until they are the right color – which is dark brown and the husks are easy to crack off. But actually, the husks aren’t that easy to get off. I spent two hours crunching beans between my fingers. (I unfortunately picked a time when I had no paid staff to help me; Jonathan did one bean and decided to focus on his beer and the sunset.)

Sunday morning we went to the miller with my pathetic little pile of beans. He was grinding up a huge quantity of masa for someone’s tortillas. He ran a lot of water through the machine and then threw my beans in. The were ground in about 4 seconds and my coco paste didn’t even extrude out of the machine, the miller used his hands to wipe the paste out and scrape it into my container. The service cost 7 cords (35 cents). I probably got about a cup and half of paste out of a pound of beans.

As my first baking experiment, I made brownies with my usual recipe substituting 1/3 of a cup of paste for 3 ounces of baking chocolate. They were heavenly; you could taste the smoke of the toasting.

Pig Business Update

Lucia and Eugenia came by today to give us an update on the pig business. Frankly, we were a little worried that they were going to ask for money to buy another pig to improve their margins. The cost of transport is the same for one pig or many up to a certain point and it has proven to be expensive for them. They have been talking about increasing the number of pigs to 3 a week for a while. They had stopped coming to weekly meetings – whatever, it is their business to run into the ground if they want to – so Jonathan and I agreed, not one cent more until they can clearly demonstrate a profit to us.

But they came to PAY US BACK! They had $100 saved up which they wanted to use as a first payment AND they had enough left over to buy three pigs this week! We are so excited. Jonathan told them we didn’t want the money right now, but he made them promise to open up a savings account with it. They were really uncomfortable with the idea of the bank. They felt like they would be giving their money to someone else. You mean you can take it out whenever you need it? Eugenia asked. Jonathan reassured them pointing out the money would be available for emergencies when they needed it.

Lucia is going to MINSA (Health Department) today to make sure everything is done by the book. With three pigs, they will also be able to eat some of the meat, which is something they haven’t been doing as it has all been going to customers.

Friday, October 9, 2009

How to make hot chocolate

Go to the market and find someone selling cacao. It is in an actual burlap bag and looks like small stones. Watch him scoop and weigh it and make sure he gives you a little extra instead of a little less. Take it home and roast it, use a comal on a wood fire if you have it, if not a stove and frying pan will do. Roast it about 20 minutes until it looks like good coffee. Let it cool and rub the skins off. Winnow away the remaining chaff. If you don’t feel like going back to the market and having the miller grind it for you, smash it up anyway you can. A rolling pin and cutting board work okay but scatter debris all over the kitchen. Put one big spoon of chocolate grounds and two big spoons of sugar in a mug. Steep in a tiny bit of hot water. Add steamed milk. Amazing flavor. Chew on choco nibs from between your teeth for the rest of the evening.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Fall is in the air. It is now getting dark at 5:45 instead of 6:15. The boguanvilla are blooming and all of a sudden there are three people a day coming to the door with beautiful plants on their heads to sell. The watermelons aren’t any good anymore, but there are guavas. It is really quiet in Granada and all the restaurants are just hoping to be able to hold on until the tourists come back in December. We are still waiting for the rains.


My pool is reflecting the full moon of Sukkot as I write this. It has always been my favorite holiday, well for at least ten years anyway. In Seattle, I make the sukkah out of bamboo and sheer curtains and put fir boughs, laurel branches, grape vines on the roof. I always order a lulav and etrog from the temple. In the mornings I eat my breakfast out there with my oatmeal and coffee steaming and watch the heavy frost melt off the lawn. Every year, we have a potluck. Sometimes it is raining, but it is always fun. Then last year of course we had the best sukkah and supper of all for Noah’s Bar Mitzvah party.

I wanted to recreate our usual practice here, but last week I was overcome with lethargy and indecision. Finally, on Wednesday, I drove to Caterina with Silvia to look for some bamboo. I couldn’t find the street where all the bamboo folks I know are, so I asked around a little and someone directed me to Juan Nicaragua. I made the mistake of asking for reglas instead of cañas so he didn’t have any poles but he said he would get me some. Would Saturday be ok? No, I said, because I have to finish by Friday night. So we agreed I would come back Friday at 4. Which I did. Instead of the 1 to 2 inch poles that I thought I asked for, Juan’s wife and small son brought out eight 3-4 inch poles. They were pretty heavy and didn’t look like they would hold together with string the way I usually build my sukkah. But there was no other choice. Anyway, I noticed that Juan Nicaragua’s family makes some pretty nice baskets, so I asked if I could have one of those, too. Well, his wife said, these are already ordered by someone, but she hasn’t come yet. Oh I can come back, I said, how much are they? 32 cords ($1.50). Great, if this one isn’t available, when can I come back for another one? She replied, If you have 32 cords now, this one is available!

As we drove back, the fields were all ploughed, but not planted. Angel said the farmers are waiting for the rains to come, but they aren’t coming. Who knows when/if they will be able to plant. Then we discussed Daniel’s (Ortega is always referred to here just by his first name.) plan to buy all the beans and rice directly from the producers and sell them to venders to avoid price speculation. Like most current Sandinista programs, it sounds good in theory but we talked about the various ways it would get corrupted along the way.

We had to stop at La Colonia so that I could get wine for dinner and pesticide to spray my bamboo. Yes, the dark secret of environmentally friendly bamboo is that it is always full of bugs. It is all treated with poison. Except when it isn’t and then you have to treat it yourself so the powder post beetle doesn’t turn your house to dust. I am learning a lot about bamboo these days. Anyway, I was very apologetic because Angel had been working since 5:30 in the morning and it was almost dark. Don’t worry, he said, the day is for working.

I had to let the pesticide dry on the bamboo, so it was practically dark before I started on my sukkah. I decided there was no rush to finish the sukkah before sundown. Sukkot is a whole week and we could contemplate and consider and add to the design. There is no lulav nor etrog. Is it necessary to have the actual piece of material cultural or is it enough to have the idea of the prop and use it as a point of departure, of discussion. Is the absence of the lulav and etrog more powerful than the presence? Especially since here we are trying to figure out how to do the things we are accustomed to doing or even what is the minimum we need to do. Is the negative space more meaningful than the object? What is the minimum I need to do to feel like I am fulfilling my obligations as a Jew, a mother, a host?

This year it is two poles of bamboo with mosquito netting draped over them suspended over the courtyard and embellished with flowers. Jonathan had been judging the high school entrepreneur contest (like Junior Achievement but with a Sandinista edge) at Avi’s school so Avi and the beautiful Regina, his girlfriend, joined us in our makeshift Sukkah. It was just big enough to stand together and say a few blessings.