Apr 2012

Blog, Recipes

DISCUSSION 10 Comments

Nacho’s Kitchen: Stuffing Face in Belize

Sheena here!  Well, while I originally intended on blogging right from the get go of our trip, time seriously does fly when you are having fun. For any of you who have been near me for extended periods of time know that the most likely thing I’d choose to blog about would be food. I love cooking, baking, experimenting with new flavors, and finding healthy, wholesome ingredients.

To say the least, food preparation has become quite the challenge on the road. How I miss the oven and a fridge large enough to pack five children inside.  Not that I would ever do that. Luckily, something I find equal enjoyment in is tasting the local foods while traveling. Brad and I are up for trying just about anything anywhere; road side stands, comedors, markets, they are all game. Given my slight stomach issues, some of you may be thinking I should be a little more selective. Good news though, my weak tummy has been doing crunches lately and building strength for the next round of countries we are approaching.

With every new country, we have become familiarized with a new set of flavors and sensations. I often forget how different the food truly is from home. Not so much the basic ingredients per se, but the arrangement of them into meal time staples. I’ve become quite accustomed to the deliciousness of the mashed plantain, the dirt cheap bowls of fruit topped with yogurt, your choice of cereal toppings and honey, freshly squeezed lemonade, non-refrigerated boxed milk, eggs sold in bags, water sold in bags, mangoes topped with chili powder, tortillerias on every street corner, taco stands.

The same goes for the general way of life in Central America. It is no longer a surprise to see mangoes littering yards like garbage, truck drivers taking a midday siesta under their vehicle; hammock strewn up to the underside of the vehicle frame. It is no longer strange to see livestock walking down a busy city street, 25+ people in the back of a pickup truck, red tuk tuks, baskets being balanced on top of heads, and people taking baths in the river and drying their washed clothes on river rocks and barbed wire fences. It’s rare not to see a hammock outside of every home, often inside as well. A few weeks ago we rented a room in a well off family’s home, and interestingly enough, a hammock was strung up between two beams instead of a couch.  Many sites have become common place from day to day, and we often forget how spectacular they are.

Anyway, I’d like to share those experiences with you, and better late then never (I think), I’m going to back up and start with Belize.

Our first food stop in Belize was at a road side stand worked by cousins – two chocolate skinned younger girls, shy in demeanor, but unable to conceal their bright smiles. We sat down under a strung up blue tarp and filled up on rice and beans, barbecued chicken, and coleslaw. Every lunch from here on out was a similar concoction of fare: paper plate in hand and food doused in Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce and pickled hot peppers and onions. There were of course varieties; potato salad instead of coleslaw, pork instead of chicken, but every meal included a tall bottle of Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce. She was one smart entrepreneur as I’ve never seen a product in so many back alley restaurants and mom-and-pop grocery stores. I can only compare its popularity to a bottle of Heinz ketchup on the table in all American burger joints. Marie Sharp also made some fabulous chutneys and jams, my favorite being the mango and guava jam.

Breakfast was a delicious encounter. After talking with Taiowa, a native of Belize, he insisted we must try the fry jacks for breakfast. A fried dough that puffs up and is eaten with other morning staples: beans, eggs, meat, and fruit. Given that they are fried into a hollow plumpness, they are of course perfect for stuffing with other treats. From experience, I can tell you fry jacks do not disappoint. They reminded us of Indian fry bread from the Native Americans in Arizona. And while I didn’t see the Belizeans eating their fry jacks with honey or jam, I know this would be an undeniably perfect replacement to stuffing them with protein. Besides the fry jacks, there are also Johnny cakes, a fluffy local biscuit, sometimes made with coconut.

With every heaping mass of rice and beans consumed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, there are equal portions of seafood devoured. No surprise here as the country’s coast bumps up against turquoise waters laced with coral and schools of fish. A taste of lobster is a must here, however if you come during the non-harvesting season, those critters are illegal to cook up and dip in butter. Due to past overharvesting, they are left to play and make more lobster babies. So it goes, no lobster for us, however we did get our fair share of snapper, shrimp, and conch fritters (deep-fried balls of battered conch meat).

As for something really authentic, we got a taste of few Garifuna dishes which made their appearance in Belize 300 years earlier. Hudut, Bundiga, and Cassava bread were all brought over when escaped and shipwrecked slaves settled along the coast of the region. They mixed with the native Caribs, forming the Garifunas. Hopkins was one of their primary settlements, and where we tried them all. Hudut is a coconut broth fish stew, accompanied by mashed plantains and cassava bread (hard flat biscuit made from the cassava root).  Bundiga is made of clumped grated banana cooked in a coconut milk and served with snapper. Both were unique, with the bundiga being the most original and the hudut being something we would consider cooking in the future.

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Mar 2012

Blog, Central America


Hudut and Cheating Evolution in Belize

If there’s one thing we can say about Belize after having spent a little more than a week there, it’s that the people are, as a whole, some of the happiest and friendliest we’ve come across in our travels thus far.  When we arrived in the coastal town of Placencia on our second day, we asked a group of locals where we might find a camping spot.

“Yeah mon! You could prob’y camp in ya van at my gromma’s house!  Hey Priscilla, take these two ova to my gromma’s house and ask if dey can camp ova der. When ya get ya van situated, come on back an’ we can drink an’ smoke togetha!”

When we were unable to navigate Nacho into the guy’s grandmother’s yard due to low tree branches we tried two other locals.  One said we could camp in his front yard for free, although we kindly declined because it didn’t offer much privacy, and another engaged us in an hour long conversation about Belizean national pride, although he didn’t have a place for us to camp.  In the end we opted to stay closer to the town of Seine Bight where we had seen an actual campground.  All the while, everyone we passed on the roadside flashed a huge grin at us and waved.

We spent most of our time in Belize on the Caribbean coast between the towns of Placencia, Seine Bight, and Hopkins.  We split our first few nights between the campground near Seine Bight and a spot at the Jungle Jeanie lodge in Hopkins.

Placencia is a small village at the tip of a long, skinny peninsula with equal parts indigenous Garifuna culture and foreign tourism.  We had a good time hopping between restaurants and bars and hanging out with our campground brethren, but soon had our fill and headed off to Hopkins.

Hopkins seemed to better fit our style; to get there it required navigation of a rough dirt road, and the main street in town was mostly dirt.  These obstacles have kept it slightly less discovered by tourism, and hence it seemed to retain its Garifuna culture slightly more so than Placencia.  Still, it had been outfitted with enough decent bars and eateries to keep us entertained for a few days.

One evening we had hoped to try some Indian food at what would have been our first Indian restaurant since leaving home.  Unfortunately it was closed, so we opted to try one of the only places open that night: a foreign-owned place called Love on the Rocks.  The idea is that you order an expensive fish dinner and then they bring it out to you uncooked along with a really hot ass rock.  You then put your uncooked fish on the hot ass rock, where it proceeds to get stuck to the rock and burn the hell out of itself while you desperately try to get it unstuck with your fork.  All the while the waitress stands there staring at you while you struggle.  Finally, you eat your overcooked rubbery fish while the stuck fishy bits that remain on the rock turn into a smoldering black mess.  Sheena thought it was awesome, as did several others we met in Hopkins, but I found it all very asinine.  If I wanted to cook my own fish, I would have stayed home.  And I certainly wouldn’t have cooked it on a really hot ass rock.

The good part about the rock ordeal was that a Garifuna drumming group was playing.  The Garifuna are an indigenous group in the area who are known for, among other things, their hand drumming.  They’re also known for a really tasty fish curry called hudut.  Instead of incinerating the fish on a really hot ass rock, they make a curry out of coconut milk (which they make by hand) and pureed plantains, and then stew fish in it.  It’s served with cassava bread and mashed plantains, and it’s absolutely transcendent.  I know this because we tried it the following night at a local place called Innie’s.  But I digress.  Click the button below the picture to listen to a bit of the drumming, which I recorded at the hot ass rock place.

[audio:http://www.drivenachodrive.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Garifuna-Drummers-Hopkins-Belize.mp3|titles=Garifuna Drummers – Hopkins Belize]

Finally on our last day, after having waited out some rainy weather for a couple of days, we tagged along with a boat that was headed out for a day of snorkeling and fishing.  We both knew that if I was going to catch a fish at all on this continent, I was going to need some professional help.  Our group included Patrick the Belizean boat captain, and two other couples.  We would go several miles out to the barrier reef (the second largest in the world) where there would be more to look at than in the murky water closer to shore.

As we made our way out of the Sittee River into the Caribbean, the weather wasn’t looking promising.  Storm clouds still filled the sky, and rain could be seen falling into the sea in the distance.  Several miles offshore, as we approached the first barrier islands, it started to rain.  Patrick steered the boat to one of the islands where we disembarked and took shelter under the thatched eve of a vacant hut.  Once the rain passed we boarded the boat and headed into a shallow cove to net some sardines.  If I was going to break my bad luck fishing streak, we were going to need some serious bait.

Patrick’s magic bait worked wonders.  Within half an hour we had reeled in several barracudas.  Later we pulled in a couple of triggerfish (which are protected, so we released them), and a couple of red snappers.  As our friend James from Home on the Highway was quick to point out, fishing from a boat is cheating.  I would tend to agree, but we have to remember that I’ve discovered through nearly three months of field research that it’s impossible to catch a fish from the shore. This indicates that I’ve been fighting a war in a place where my adversaries don’t even live.  Through the miracle of internal combustion I was able to bring my fight to the battlefield.  We won’t call it cheating, we’ll call it mechanical assistance.

Oh, and the snorkeling?  The name “snorkeling” sounds ludicrous.  Swimming around with fake webbed feet and an oversized drinking straw mouth extension is ludicrous.  But once you get over the ludicrousness of the whole affair, it’s really pretty awesome.  We swam around, cheating evolution, for hours checking out coral and fish.  We also stumbled across a couple of giant sting rays, which Sheena and I followed around at what we considered to be a safe distance.

On the boat we befriended a couple of professional hair designers from Connecticut who were preparing to retire to Belize.  Raymond, an energetic fellow originally from Hong Kong, and his wife Michelene invited us back to their hotel to barbecue our red snappers.  However, before we could eat Raymond insisted on giving both Sheena and me haircuts.  He also taught me how to properly layer a woman’s hair, so I no longer have an excuse not to cut Sheena’s hair (we’ve been cutting each other’s hair for years, but recently she’s been asking for layering, which I’ve been able to dodge on the grounds of ignorance).

After haircuts and a delicious snapper barbecue, Raymond and Michelene were kind enough to offer us their room’s extra bed for the night.  In the morning they treated us to breakfast before heading back to the airport.  I guess the locals aren’t the only generous ones.  We followed their lead and moseyed our way inland, to the west, toward the Guatemalan border.

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Mar 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 19 Comments

Belize: Many Terrible Things Are Waiting. Right?

Before we got to Belize I didn’t really know much about it.  I knew that the official language was English and most tourists spent their time in the island system off the coast rather than inland in the jungle.  I knew that Mennonites had a strong presence here.  I knew that Floyd Landis was raised a Mennonite and ended up taking banned drugs to win the Tour de France. So basically the country had a strong presence of people linked to people who cheat to win the Tour de France.  My knowledge was clearly a bit thin.  I had heard that there were no fast food chain restaurants in Belize.  Well at least that’s redeeming.  We were also told that we’d be robbed blind the minute we stepped over the border or may even fall prey to some druggie. Things can change in a moment and the tables do not take much time to turn.

Oh, but before we talk about Belize I have good news to report.  While my research over the last couple of months has indicated that the Pacific Ocean is almost completely devoid of life, the Caribbean has proven to be a cornucopia of edible fish.  Meet my red snapper.

Of course I was only able to get to this one after catching a barracuda and a triggerfish.  Boo ya! (or whatever the hip kids say these days).  More on fishing in the next post.

Feels good to get that out in the open.  Life is good again.

We beat the odds by crossing over the border and not getting robbed blind.  Things were looking up.  By the evening we had arrived in the country’s capital, Belmopan.  We stopped at a Chinese-run hotel and asked if we could pay to camp in their parking lot.  They nearly robbed us blind, but then opted to let us camp there for free.  Camping in a hotel parking lot in a country’s capital might seem uncomfortable, until you realize that the population of Belize’s capital is only 16,000.  That’s exactly 80 times the population of Farmersville, Pennsylvania; the town where Floyd Landis was raised as a Mennonite before growing up to be a big fat cheater.

While camping in the parking lot of that Chinese hotel in Belmopan, we made friends with Durman, the parking lot security guard.  He told us that Prince Harry of England would be hosting a party in Belmopan the following evening, and everyone was invited.  Our minds wandered to what could come of this.  Belmopan’s population was small, so the party would probably be small.  We imagined ourselves laughing at really funny jokes with Mr. Prince, doing belly button shots, and making impersonations of Ace Ventura.  Later, in a moment of weakness he would scribble his cell phone number on a napkin and invite us to stay in Buckingham Palace when we get to London.

We slept on it, but in the morning decided to forego Prince Harry’s party and instead drive to Placencia to camp.  It sounded like more fun than belly button shots and Ace Ventura impersonations, albeit only a little bit.  We accepted the fact that we’d regret our decision in a couple of years when we find ourselves camping in a wet London back alley, creating little perimeter dams out of soggy saltine crackers to keep the hobo urine from soaking into our sleeping bags.

Accepting our fate, we drove on.  A couple of hours outside of Belmopan we came across a sign advertising “Blue Hole”.  We pulled over and walked into the jungle to find a nice little swimming hole created by a sinkhole that collapsed into an underground river.   Just downstream from the swimming hole the river ducked under a mountain and disappeared into darkness.  With a guide you can take an inner tube down the river into the dark subterranean cave, and presumably come out somewhere else.  We didn’t have a guide so I just stood in the cave entrance and watched leaves disappear into the darkness as I dropped them into the current.  It kind of felt like when I was a kid and used to send cow pie boats through the rapids in trout streams, except that if I slipped here I would be sucked under a mountain.

On our way to Placencia, a small town on the Caribbean coast, we passed through dozens of small villages.  Standing in stark contrast to the scary robbers that we expected to see based on everyone’s warnings were the smiling, happy faces of Belizeans.  Most don’t own cars, so they walk or ride bikes.  This gave us an opportunity to see hundreds of people on our drive across the country, and nearly everyone was smiling.  Furthermore, we didn’t pass a person on the roadside, be it a walker, cyclist, or someone sitting on the porch of their home, without them giving us a wave and a huge smile.

Oh, but the fast food chain restaurant thing?  Turns out it’s not true.  Subway opened a store in Belize City, but the government later required that they obtain their bread rolls from a local source.  If Subway would exist in Belize, it would serve its sandwiches on Belizean rolls.  They said “no way” and closed their doors.  Later, McDonalds tried to open a branch in Belize City.  They were given permission with one stipulation: they would have to source their beef from Belizean ranchers.  They also said “no way” and pulled the plug.  Later, Subway relented and reopened their doors.  Now if you want to eat at a fast food chain in Belize, you’ll have to find the only one in the country: a Subway serving its sandwiches on Belizean rolls.  I don’t know about you, but I find this story very refreshing.

What we thought we’d find in Belize based on hearsay: scary robbers.  What stands out in or mind after actually having visited Belize: all smiles.  To hell with naysayers.  The Mennonites even looked nice and nonthreatening in their horse drawn buggies with their suspenders.  So to hell with Floyd Landis too.

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