Monday, September 23, 2013

How Do I Love Coconut? Let Me Count The Ways...

Team Research and Development
I dubbed us Team Research and Development.  Mazen, the funniest Brazilian I've ever met, is research and I'm development.  I have no patience for researching things online.  Well, I do but it's often scant and I get sidetracked.  I start off finding a youtube video on how to make coconut oil and end up watching a video on hydroponic greenhouses noticing how the guy in the video has his purple collared shirt tucked into his jeans which are sitting ridiculously high on his waist and he has a really weird laugh.  Never mind what I'm trying to learn about, I'm too transfixed on his high waisted pants to pay attention to anything else.  What happened to my attention span?  Has it always been this bad or is it a combination of living in a world replete with electronic devices where we are taught to multi-task?  I've discovered that "multi-tasking" really just inhibits you from getting anything done in a timely manner.  How many tabs I have open on my internet browser is a good indicator of how little I'm actually accomplishing.  If I have more than three or four, I write on my blog for about five minutes, then I read half an article on Guernica, then I think of a random youtube video I've been meaning to watch, then I open up the Spanish English translator to tell me some random word that popped into my head that I'd like to memorize, then I begin an email, get distracted and go back to reading the article on Guernica.  Are you seeing the trend here?  The less tabs the better.  But I digress.

Making coconut water
Mazen's attention span is slightly sporadic as well but he is into watching informational videos on youtube and not noticing high waisted pants on men.  We'd been talking about all the uses of coconuts and soon realized that we'd make a good team in the production of coconuts.  Do you know all the things you can do with coconuts?  Besides drink their nectar and add years to your life in doing so?  You can make coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut flour, and dried flakes of coconut to list a few.  So we set to a project on it.  Mazen bought three mature coconuts and I took to cutting them open and grating them against a cheese grater to make shredded coconut.  With the help of two others, it took around an hour.  At this point, I'm not sure what happened to Mazen.  Where he was while I was doing all this demanding physical labor against a cheese grater was lost on me.  He must have gotten distracted doing something, I thought to myself.  There's no way I could ever find fault in that.

When I tracked him down we queued up a few youtube videos on the next steps of coconut processing since both of us couldn't really remember what to do.  Go figure.  Turns out I didn't need to shred the coconut, just cutting it into small pieces and putting it in a blender with water would have been sufficient enough.  Too bad I wasn't paying too much attention to the video I had watched before cutting into the coconuts.  Think of a cat stalking prey, pouncing on it, then freaking out, running off and then serenely sitting and licking it's paw.  I always said in my next life I'd be a cat, I suppose I'm on my way.

Just like this little guy
The next step was blending the flakes with warm water to make coconut water. Then transferring the coconut water to a bowl and manually squeezing the pulp, then putting it through a cheesecloth to separate liquid from solid (a little FYI, when squeezing it through the cheesecloth, the liquid can spray far and wide like a shaken soda can, my shirt was rather wet by the end).  To make oil, you just boil the coconut water until the water evaporates and the oil remains.  This was Mazzen's task and I took to researching other various ways to make coconut oil, you can even just set the coconut water on a windowsill and it'll eventually separate.

Coconut oil!  Cha-ching!
I was super psyched about drying the coconut pulp and making flour with it.  Obviously, a dehydrator would be optimal but the hostel was lacking one so I had to use the oven.  You put it on the lowest temperature and keep the oven door slightly ajar so it dries ever so slowly.  I read this information and only retained the first part.  I also forgot all together that I was even drying the coconut.  I placed the tray in the oven and guess what happened?  I got distracted by one thing and then another so that several hours later it occurred to me that I was supposed to be checking the coconut every hour.  I ran to the oven and could smell burning.  One tray was beyond repair but the other tray was perfect, more or less.  Like trying to draw a straight line on a piece of paper while sitting on a moving bus, it was perfect enough for the first time.

"Mazen, I burnt some of the coconut!"

"How?  Didn't you leave the oven door open?"

"No, was I supposed to?"

"Yes, we read about it online!"

Slipped my mind.  Regardless, I was able to take the unburnt coconut flakes and put them in a blender and blend them until they were fine.  Then I made savory pancakes!  From a whole coconut, to coconut water, to coconut oil, to coconut flour.  How wonderful to create in the kitchen like that.  Do you know how much those three coconuts cost?  30 cents.  Do you know how much a bag of coconut flour or a jar of coconut oil costs?  Upwards of $10.  Pretty darn cool, if you ask me.  Now get yourself some coconuts and start processing!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Papaya is Spanish for Papaya

It's easy to be a sugar fiend in the Caribbean.  You have at your disposal a plethora of tropical fruits that you can purchase from the farmer's market on Saturdays or street vendors every sunny day of the week and gorge on like Pooh Bear with his tub of honey.  The fruit that just takes the cake for me is papaya.  There are so few times in my life where I have eaten papaya.  I don't tend to buy tropical fruits back home because they are not local, they taste bland as they are harvested before coming to full fruition and they are expensive.  (I will admit to my addiction to dried mangoes however, I cannot get enough of those back home.)

Here's the thing with papaya and others can attest; sometimes it tastes like vomit.  I'm sorry for the repulsive reaction you may be having thinking about said flavor.  I have tasted papaya in the past where the flavor has been so revolting I have lost my appetite.  So I stopped eating papaya, for years.  The first time I tried papaya was in Australia ten years ago.  It was delectable.  I ate it in my oatmeal every morning of my two week stay as a volunteer on an organic farm with a spoonful of seeds sprinkled in.  Eight years later, I ate papaya again in Thailand.  I remember a specific incidence that turned me off of papaya until present day, here in 2013, four years later.  I had ordered a fruit salad, my taste buds eager for some tropical goodness.  I was in a little cafe with a nice view of the ocean, I believe it was in Krabi.  I dug into my salad with abandon, an organic farmer excited about the harvesting of tubers.  I bit into the papaya and my taste buds writhed in disgust.  They recoiled much like one would if they were forced to walk through a cave replete with cockroaches (I did this in Malaysia of my own volition, don't ask me why).  Why did the papaya taste like that?  That flavor was quite possibly the most disgusting taste ever, in the entire universe.  What happened to that papaya?  So I didn't eat papaya ever again until now.

I am not the only one with unfortunate tasting experiences with papaya.  I have talked to at least a handful of others who don't eat papaya because of similar instances.  A quick google search proves that there are many in the world with this opinion; vomit, dirty socks, soap, rotten.  There was a point during a homestay in April that I was fed papaya and didn't want to be rude so I ate it.  I have not stopped eating it since.  It was amazing.  I think perhaps the bad flavor has something to do with what stage of ripeness the papaya is at.  My hypothesis is that when a papaya is overripe it has this rather gross flavor.  But when it's at the perfect ripeness, that flavor is better than fresh chocolate chip cookies ten minutes out of the oven.  I have housed entire papayas for meals, I cannot get enough of them.  To think one day I will very well live in places where papaya is not grown (this goes for pipas as well) makes me justify eating them as if I am a bear storing up fat before hibernation.

And do you know the nutritional value of the seeds as well?  I will admit, the seeds don't necessarily have the most pleasant flavor, they are quite bitter with a flavor of pungent black peppercorns but I ignore the taste when I eat a spoonful as it's wonderful for your gut health.  Mainly, they prevent parasitic infections (which can be rampant in these parts, trust me, I know from experience) as well as bacterial infections.  If you're a nerd for learning about nutrition as I am, you can learn more from this useful website on superfoods.

Vomit, dirty sock, soap and rotten flavors be damned, I haven't eaten one since Thailand that has tasted repulsive.  I have a feeling even if I did at this point, I would still power through it as I have joyfully discovered my obsession with this fruit is pretty much unrivaled.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Put Boquete In Your Pipe and Smoke It

Oh, Boquete, you stole my heart.  I was dialing Nicaragua on the phone and then your call came in.  I couldn't refuse you, your crisp mountain air, your river running through town, your hot springs, your hikes, your waterfalls, your warm sunshine and even your rainstorms.

I have lived for the better part of a year in tropical climates.  Puerto Viejo being the most extreme.  Wet clothes take days to dry if there is no sunshine, jeans that have been folded up on the back shelf reek of mold after a week of no use, pages in books have an extremely unpleasant pungent odor, forget ever wearing any type of shoes other than sandals, you share your living spaces with all kinds of jungle critters, your bedsheets always feel damp from the humidity, the list could go on and on and on.  I'm done.  I'm ready for something else.  I kept thinking Nicaragua but something wasn't clicking.  I kept dialing the phone and getting a busy signal.  I couldn't figure out why I was dragging my feet.

Then I went to Boquete, Panama for four nights, extended my stay two more nights, and had to force myself to depart.  Boquete was birthing a new me and I would quite frankly like to stay within the warm womb and never cut the umbilical cord.  I was bereft without my mountains that I am so used to living near and I didn't even realize it until I was in a range of them breathing fresh cool air and hiking everyday.

Do you know what it was like to arrive the first night and feel chilly for the first time in months?  To put on a pair of jeans, a hoodie, my green sauconys and feel nice and cozy?  Do you know what it was like to not wear the same shorts and tank top that I have pretty much been wearing since December?  To rotate the few long sleeved shirts I have instead of my tank tops?  It felt luxurious.  Do you know what it felt like to sleep under a down comforter?  It felt decadent.  Do you know what it felt like to wear wool socks at night?  It felt cozy.  Do you know what it was like to rest my head on a pillow that didn't reek of mold?  It felt clean.  Do you know what it was like to leave food out on a kitchen counter, get distracted by something for 15 minutes in a different room (Me?  Get distracted?  Never!), return to the kitchen and NOT find your food being overtaken by ants?  It felt strange.

Sometimes we don't even realize we were looking for something until after we have found it.  I love the beach, I love the humidity, I love the heat, but I need a break.  I come from a place with four distinct seasons, sometimes six if you know anything about stick season and mud season.  I was so sure I was ready for permanent summer and now that I've basically been living in summerish weather since December, I crave something different.  That northeastern American ostrich in me is rearing her head out of the sand and looking around for a change in scenery and climate.  I'm ruffling my feathers a little and trying out a new nest.  I'm ready to spread my wings and fly to a new place.  I don't think ostriches actually fly but whatever.  Work with me on this.

I've struggled a bit to absolutely love Puerto Viejo for the three and a half months I've been here.  The beaches are stunning with the jungle on the shore but honestly, I thought Tulum was second to none.  Perhaps I am biased because I was with my best friend and her newborn there.  But still...  It's expensive here, often times things are on par with prices in the states.  It's not the safest place to be especially after the sun sets which is at 6PM.  In Tulum I used to go for bike rides at night to decompress after a challenging day working hard on my tan at the beach.  I never felt my safety threatened there.  Here, I do.  And every week, you hear of a tourist being robbed on the street sometimes in broad daylight.  They are usually non-violent, they just want your money or camera but still, it's rife here.  It's not in Boquete.

Boquete is this dreamy little town high up in the mountains with an ex-pat community for sure but not so overwhelming that you feel you've stumbled into mini North America.  There's lots of Spanish spoken there and while you're looking upwards, scratching your head, trying to remember a word in foreign tongue, you're staring at mountains in every direction and you're inhaling crisp air with no detection of humidity or mold.  There's not a party scene here, which means there's not a drug scene here.  Perfect for the "I'd-rather-read-a-good-book-and-go-to-bed-early-oh-my-god-I'm-becoming-my-parents" person in me.

Yes, I will miss being able to go grocery shopping clad only in a bathing suit and sarong.  Yes, I will miss my early morning back floating sessions in the ocean.  Yes, I will miss the constant hum of jungle creatures.  Yes, I will miss howler monkeys.  Yes, I will miss being that slightly crazy woman who stands at the shore and talks out loud to the waves (but there's a river in Boquete that I've already done this with).  Yes, I will miss exfoliating my entire body with sand every time I take a dip in the salty water.  Yes, I will miss rice and beans cooked in coconut milk.  Yes, I will miss my pipa man.  Yes, I will miss the immense inner growth I experienced here.  Namely, working through the worst bout of homesickness I've ever experienced coming to realize that now I wouldn't trade those weeks of feeling so utterly alone in Puerto Viejo for anything.  It all gave me the strength to continue.  It showed me the rock I am made of.  I chiseled a stronger me out of that sad woman and now I am even more ready to trace my next voyage on the map of Central America.  I'm choosing mountains over oceans for the next little span of life.

Goodbye Puerto Viejo.  Hello Boquete.