Thursday, February 05, 2015

will work for chocolate

We did a lot while we were in Nicaragua. This was a fabulous, beautiful, enjoyable vacation, but it was not a sit on your tush at the beach and order cocktails from the pool boy sort of trip. We were doing things, experiencing things, and trying to make the most of our time there. It all started within the first 48 hours.

Our house was just a few blocks from the Chocolate Museum where they have a cafe, some info on the history and production of cacao, and then a few tours that allow gringos to get to know what it takes for us to get our chocolate fix.

Walking into the place you are struck by the smell. The deep, rich aroma of dark chocolate wraps around you like a warm hug. The next thing you know you have handed over $20 to take a "bean to bar" chocolate making class. Traveling with kids there is always that moment when you hand over money for something, be it a tour or a class or a plate of food, and you hear that flushing sound. The sound of money flushing down a toilet because the food you just ordered won't be eaten, the tour you just paid for will be spent sitting in a corner talking to a beetle, or the class you just took will be spent taking your little one to the hygienically questionable potty or saying over and over again, "that's not for climbing!"

This was not one of those times.

The enthusiasm of the young Nicaraguan fellow leading the class was inviting, even roping in the little ones. We did everything from roasting cacao beans to shelling them to crushing them to a paste while chanting silly little rhymes in Spanish. After a lot of work, our mashed up cacao became chocolate we could keep and eat.

History, chocolate, science, chocolate, Spanish, chocolate. The kids declared chocolate school the best kind of schooling ever. Maybe we should have ended on that high note, taken our home made chocolate bars, and headed into the sunset. But we got greedy.

Hey, let's sign up for the big cacao plantation tour tomorrow. High on dark chocolate we handed over wads of Cordobas, still early enough in our trip that exactly how much was handed over was unclear to me, and agreed to  meet early the next morning for a "tour of a cacao plantation with lunch."

Maybe I should have read the fine print. Or any of the print. But reading the print would have meant looking away from my chocolate. So somehow the phrase "4 hour horseback ride" escaped me.

I hate horses. Ok, not so much hate as fearfully respect them enough to never actually have physical contact with one.  Until now.

The next morning we got into a van held together with duct tape and rattled through the streets of Granada out of town to the "marina". The group consisted of me with my kids, our travel mate Amanda with her husband Marc, daughter Gabrielle who is the same age as Naia,  and Marc's mom. Then there was the pastry chef from California traveling on her own, and the three amigos. Three young dudes having a guys week in Central America who provided much needed comic relief to the whole trip.

This van ride was Naia's first official introduction to the Land Of No Seat Belts. For a gringa tot who has been strapped into a 5-point harness literally her entire life this was an awakening of the spiritual kind. This girl who does NOT like to be strapped down was now free. She looked up in awe and asked carefully and hopefully, "Mama where are the seat belts?" There are none honey.

Cue the dance music.

I will write separately about transportation and the miracle that my daughter never split her hear open while jumping around freely inside of moving vehicles another time.  Now we have a horse to ride.

A fishing panga took our ragtag tribe through some of the beautiful islets and coves around Lake Nicaragua. We spied monkeys and iguanas and bats and exotic birds and watched fisherman cast nets from colorful boats.

The panga landed at a concrete pier and we hiked up a steep hill to find a sorry group of horses who I am certain audibly moaned when they saw our big gringo butts arrive laden with backpacks and children.

Smiling confidently I explained to the guide in my best cave Spanish that I would be hiking from here, and although my son the experienced horseback rider would be going by horse, the little blonde one and I would be happy to walk. Everyone else was mounting their horses, and the man said to me basically, "You're never gonna make it. Get your gringa butt up on that horse."

My first thought once I was on the topside of the horse was, "Holy hell how does one actually STAY on the top of this thing and not just slide off the other side?!"

Zach was giggling so hard I was worried he might stop breathing.

Not only did I need to figure out how to stay on this horse, but I had to do it while keeping Naia in my lap in front of me on the horse too. And away we went! "Tour of a cacao farm" actually means 2 hours on horseback each way up a steep, rocky mountain on only what can very generously be called a trail.

My whole body was tense. I was concentrating as if I was steering the sailboat down waves in a gale. The terrain around us seemed lovely, lined with plantain farms and Mombacho Volcano looming in the distance. However I was unable to take any photos because that would require me letting go with one hand, which would have sent Naia and I tipping over only to be trampled by the line of horses plodding along. Luckily Marc easily managed to use one hand to operate a camera without sliding down the side of his horse. So the riding photos are from his camera. (Thank you Marc!)

We made our way up, and up, and up the mountain and finally I was able to give my arms and rear end a break and get off the horse for a little cacao lesson. Our guide was fabulous, he took us from the plantation of cacao trees to the fermentation rooms, explaining with great enthusiasm and detail how these trees eventually become chocolate. However, doing the tour with an active, inquisitive 4-year old means the tour sounded a little like this to me.

The cacao pods grow on the tree for (Mama, I have to pee, can I pee by one of these trees somewhere?)

The best kind of cacao come from the (Oh mama, look a beetle! Is that a catching beetle or a poison one? Mama can you see it? LOOK! That one, is that one ok? I wanna catch that one ok?)

The beans need to be fermented for (I'm hungry. Do you have more snacks in your bag? No I wanted the OTHER snack!)

Here the beans are dried in the sun and (Mama are they beans or seeds? Can we plant one in the ground and grow a chocolate tree at home?)

So I have nothing enlightening to say about the chocolate making process, except to say that the people who work in these cacao plantations live hard and work even harder. It's remote and beautiful and poor and simple and I will never ever complain about spending $4.00 for a high quality chocolate bar ever again.

We had picnic lunch at a beautiful overlook near the plantation. The food was...awful. Soggy "chicken ham"  sandwiches (a hilarious meat invention that flummoxed the three Muslim guys who requested vegetarian and were told that chicken ham is in fact, um, not meat.) And then we had to get back on the horses and make our way down the mountain again.

 This seems like a good place to end the story. I conquered the horseback riding, we all went home feeling great, and went about exploring another part of the country. But fate was not going to let us off the hook quite that easily. Back on the fishing panga the skies started to look a little dark.

"Storm clouds mommy," observed Naia. Oh no honey, we're in the tropics. There's always an afternoon shower it's no big deal.

Pause. Inhale. And WHAM!

A gust of wind hit the panga so hard it slapped the water sideways as we all instinctively crawled to the high side of the boat to keep it from tipping completely. The storm swept in fast and furious with rain and fierce, steady wind. Our boat driver thought fast and pushed the outboard as hard as it could go, maneuvering us into the lee of a clump of lake grass. We all held onto the weeds anchoring ourselves into place, waiting for the storm to pass. Naia laughed, face turned into the wind like a nutty little boat kid. Gabrielle cried, terrified of the weather. And one of the young guys recited poems he wrote. There we were in the middle of Lake Nicaragua somewhere on a rickety old fishing panga in a gale with not enough life jackets listening to a guy named Mohamed recite poetry not meant to be heard by children.

Spoiler alert, we made it out alive. The storm passed, we motored home wet and smiling and culturally enlightened. And our duct taped, seat belt-less van was waiting. We hopped in, drove about 1/4 of a mile, and then saw this.

That storm knocked some trees down into the road. The only road. Motorcycle, horse cart, some cars, and our van were all trapped on either side of this fallen tree. Now in the US someone would have whipped out a cell phone and called some authority or another requesting that the tree be moved, and then called a cab or a friend to pick them up on the other side of the tree and head out for a latte until the problem was taken care of.

Here in Nicaragua they problem solve with machetes. The man from the horse cart and one other fellow did not hesitate in heading right to the middle of the tree and hacking it away, bit by bit. Amazingly, the tree began to chip away right down the center. In a matter of 15 minutes it was cut apart enough for all of the men folk to grab an end and haul each half off to the side of the road.  And life moves on.

It's all about hard work. Bringing cacao from tree to bean to chocolate bar is incredibly hard work. Living and working in Nicaragua is incredibly hard work. Riding horses is harder work than it looks. And traveling alone with your gringo kids is hard work too. but all of it, for various reasons, all of it is so worth while.
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