by Sara Dykman
So many people ask us why we are on this trip. Why are we dragging ourselves through all kinds of challenges, from isolated mountain passes to hot, oppressive, busy highways? I almost always say the same thing: I am here to have an adventure, to learn about other cultures, to see the biodiversity the world offers, to learn Spanish, and to EAT.
As cyclists we can't skip the stuff between tourist hot spots even if we wanted to, and for this we are left with a taste of reality. Sometimes it is a night with chickens in the backyard of a poor family´s home in the country side, or with the bomberos at fire stations in a quiet town. Many times it is literally a taste of something new. And because cyclists eat a lot we are always happy to taste something new. We are never too full to accept an offer of a snack, a meal, or a feast.
Hands down the food of Central America has been my favorite of the trip. Perhaps it is because I've really embraced my less-than-vegetarian practice of eating anything in front of me, or because my Spanish is better, or because we are simple braver than ever. But mostly I think I love the food because the folks in Central America know something people in the USA are still learning: Beans are more than a magical fruit that makes you toot. Beans are a delicious power food that should be eaten for as many meals as possible.
Beans can be found just about everywhere in Central America, usually accompanied by corn tortillas, cheese, and a communal bowl of something spicy. Until Nicaragua we'd really just fallen for gallo pinto, a bean and rice medley that was simple and dependable. Costa Rica had been a bit too expensive for eating out, and the world along the panamerica highway in Panama offered mostly American fast food options. Street food seemed to have been phased out of both countries as food prep rules were phased in. This meant that we prepared the majority of our meals each day.
In Costa Rica we discovered beans in bags: refried beans you can buy at the supermarkets for less than a dollar. Just about every lunch Nia and I settle in for a giant feast of tortillas filled with beans in a bag, a veggie combo, a slice of avocado, a dab of hot sauce, and (if we are lucky) a few salty chips.
In Nicaragua street food reappeared. On a rest day in Leon Nia and I would stop in the longest lines we could find and buy what ever was waiting for us once we reached the food vendor. Our theory was that the best food would have the longest lines and thanks to this we sampled several varieties of deep fried tacos and discovered manuelitos. The manuelitos were this incredible, super-salty cheese chunks wrapped in sweet pancakes. We first bought two, began eating them, and made it just half a block before we turned around to buy two more.
Crossing into El Salvador we'd heard rumors of pupusas, a kind of cheese stuffed tortilla served with salsas and salad. A sort of Latin American grilled cheese. We tried several on our second day in El Salvador, but it wasn't until we met Lorena, Luis and their family that we discovered the full potential of the pupusa and understood why El Salvador is famous for both pupusas and friendly, welcoming people.
Nia and I were biking up a forgiving hill as the sun was setting on our second day in El Salvador as a women in a black car leaned out the window to ask if we liked the famous El Salvadorian pupusas:.
''¿Les gustan pupusas?''
''Si.'' We shouted back, giving Lorena just enough time to invite us to her house for diner and tell us she lived two blocks after the second gas station as they drove away.
We found their house half an hour later on the main street of Ciudad Barrios. The front of their house opened to the street's traffic and was not a living room like in the States but Lorena's hair salon. We parked our bikes between fake nails and jewelry cases careful not to break anything before disappearing through the store into their kitchen.
Lorena, her husband Luis, and their three kids were amazingly welcoming. So welcoming in fact we took them up on their offer to stay another day at their house to relax and see some sites. Both nights for diner we had the famous pupusas. My favorite were the cheese filled pupusas, but they also served pork filled and a mixture too.
Lorena didn't stop at pupusas. For breakfast we ate beans, cheese, tortillas, sandwiches, and coffee. For lunch chicken soup prepared with whole carrots, potatoes, zucchinis, baby corns, and plantains. For snacks we hit of the street side candy shop and bought handfuls of colors and shapes. It would have taken us month to discover which shops sold the best of this and that, but with our generous guides we jumped right in and found the cream of the crop, the pupusas of the pupusas.
When we crossed into Guatemala the pupusa vanished, but not the generosity. On our first night in Guatemala we got a taste of this generosity...a literal taste.
When I asked Mireira if we could camp at the church next to her house she said no. No, we should just stay with her. That was how we ended up staying at Mireira's house and sharing a few meals of beans, eggs (some of the best of my life), coffee, and tortillas with her.
The tortillas of Guatemala are made of corn meal and water. Women clap small balls of dough flat and perfectly round before cooking them on a flat pan on their stove or outdoor fire. As we ate tortillas with Mireira I couldn't have guessed we'd be making them with another family just a few days later.
After a painful day of steep uphills and scenic-less riding, my lungs and eyes burned from the smog of Guatemala City. Even though we had avoided the city we couldn't avoid the sprawl or the contamination the city generated. The only respite was the cold, mountain air we'd reached after some slogish climbing. As the sun faded away we began looking for a place to ask about camping.
We found a community building, currently transformed into a dental clinic and asked about camping. We were given permission to sleep there once the man in charge came to explain the lights and locks. When the man came, he didn't explain the lights or the locks. He instead invited us to his house to pass the night with his family.
In the morning, Francisco had already left for work, but his wife Marida, their oldest daughter Maritza, and youngest son remained behind. In perfect Latin American fashion the young boy puttered about as Marida washed a literal mountain of clothes and her daughter, Maritza taught Nia and I how to make tortillas.
We woke up too late to see Maritza make the dough. They buy whole corn, soak it for some time, then take it up the street to be ground into corn meal. They then mix the corn meal with water and set it aside to rest until forming it into small balls they clap flat and round. Every other day they cook about 300 for their family of five.
Each women claps the tortillas a bit different, each forming a rhythm as they quickly and effortless form hundred of tortillas. In the time Maritza could make ten, I could pull off one, disformed and extra thick idea of a tortilla. It was a source of many laughs and a nice morning in the Guatemala highlands.
That same morning we had a taste of birthday culture and candy as well. My birthday had passed the day before and we had bought a hippo-like piñata and some candy to fill it with. Nia and I had contemplated filling it up, hanging in from some road side tree, and smashing it with a stick to celebrate my 29th birthday, but a piñata is best smashed with groups bigger than two.
We found the least shy kids in the neighborhood and ruthlessly fought my piñata till it bled candy. The kids and Marida dove for the candy and could be found the rest of the day by following a trail of candy wrappers.
Like trying to bash a piñata, sometimes we would swing and hit, some times we swing and miss. On our last night in Guatemala a friendly bombero from the fire station treated us to street side tacos and aguas.Agua literally means water but has slowly transitioned into meaning soda and juice. The next day the bombero invited us to his house for an amazing bean, tortilla, egg, and juice breakfast. He also had us try these small,round yellow fruits call nances. They were a miss if I can say so. Fruit should not taste like fermented cheese.
And the list goes on. As we travel by bike we grow hungry. This hunger forces us to try new foods, explore labyrinth-like markets, splurge at supermarkets, and accept the generous offers of the people we meet. The views I've seen in Central America will fade long before my memories of the people I've met and the food I've eaten.
As one would say:
or enjoy your meal.