There's nothing like new discoveries and my latest is South African Red Tea (thanks yet again to my friends at Whole Foods)! I'm usually swilling mate (or my most recent favorite, Jasmine), but for some reason this little package of bright read tea caught my eye (re: the word caramel was screaming my name). I was delighted to see little chunks of actual caramel mixed in with the tea...who knew? Though it's caffeine free, it's still the perfect sipping tea, especially when I'm working my way through a major sugar craving (those come on about once every few hours). Rooibos actually means "red bush" and is super rich in antioxidants. In other words, every good for you--especially the caramel. Yum~
My two favorite aspects of traveling are planning the whole (usually tropical) shebang and the reintroduction back into my real life in Chicago (not so tropical). I get as much joy in the actual escape as I do convincing myself that I'm ready to return to the grind...this time with a whole new perspective, of course. Either way, I usually start and end my trip at the Breakfast Club, 1381 W. Hubbard St., my idea of a perfect exit/re-entry haunt.
Diners are strategically placed on every corner in the city, but few come close to matching the ideal set-up. Not only does the coffee need to be hot and strong, it needs to be poured frequently. Not only should there be buttery waffles and pancakes on the menu, there's gotta be a whole-grain version. Are the biscuits and gravy homemade or popped right out of tin cans? Are portions huge and worthy of sharing? Are there several of the day's newspapers scattered about, leftover from customers that happened to roll in before me?
When I find one deserving "yes" to every question, that's the place I love leaving on my way out of the concrete jungle, and the place I love coming back to after several weary weeks spent, often, in a real jungle. Through a giant order of whole-wheat pancakes smothered in soft butter and doused in sweet syrup, I can say goodbye to healthy eating and hello to road food in a foreign county: Beans and rice, here I come. And through that huge platter of soft biscuits and sausage packed cream gravy, I say hello to American eats once again.
It's always surprising to I realize that I can be happy with something small: chunks of fried yucca; a frozen, rum-laden pina colada; a warm tamale; a minty mojito. Ever since I got back from Nicaragua last week, I've been craving those four things in major doses. Fortunately, I brought back a fantastic stash of homemade mojitos; the other three are a different story.
To fulfill my intense craves, I immediately head to El Tinajon, my neighborhood Guatemalan joint. Not only does it serve spine-chillin' margaritas (usually my drink of choice), it pours a fantastic pina colada. I ordered one a few months ago on a whim (thanks to a $5 special) and can't seem to get enough since. Served in a frozen ceramic coconut mug, the drinks are made with chunks of real coconut, the liquor pour is heavy and it comes sprinkled with little slivers of fresh coconut that always has me chewing the last sips of my drink.
Since I've been back from Little Corn Island,Nicaragua, I've been getting a bunch of emails from travelers wondering if it is safe there, if it is worth it to go, and especially if Casa Iguana is a good place to stay on the island. I've been emailing folks back rapid-fire because I was in the same position as them before I went...wondering if the island was safe and if all of the bad reviews I'd read about Iguana online were true. Well, I did stay at Casa Iguana (casita #12 is my favorite, with the best view) and I totally loved it. The managers (Robin and Lee at the time) were awesome and the entire staff was so helpful. By the time I left, I realized that if I had wi-fi in my little hut with beach views, I could easily live in one forever. The lodge served great breakfast and dinner (thanks, Maribell) and it was nice to have a communal place to chill at every day on the east side of the island. Clean laundry came back in a jiffy and the internet cafe on their property was the only one on the island (hrs. 8am-12 noon). To me, it was the perfect place to get away and be in the jungle, yet still feel connected to everything. And the east side of the island was definitely my favorite. Any more intel needed, send the emails my way...but YES! Little Corn Island is safe, beautiful. humid (which I love) and a perfect place to fall off-the-map. Get going~
Before I went to Nicaragua, I'd heard that folks down there eat all sorts of things...sea turtles included.
But I had no idea I'd actually see one being slaughtered. I'd say it was probably one of the most intense things I've ever witnessed. To know that so much history was all wrapped up in the gigantic shell of one turtle and then, to watch a machete hack it to parts was totally nuts. Of course, I had to get in close and smell it and even touch the head (I couldn't believe that I was touching a fifty-year-old sea turtles huge head). The villagers loved it, though...they make turtle soup, turtle stir-fry, and anything turtle...and were standing in line to buy the turtles various parts. I asked one guy if it tasted like chicken and he said, "No, I don't like chicken." Wow. There is just so much going on in the world that I don't even know about, it constantly amazes me. You know, when you travel, you're always gonna run across some village ritual or something that you don't necessarily agree with, but jeez, this one was a toughie to watch unfold. Fascinating, but harrowing, if you get me.
Last week while everyone in Chicago suffered through the first real snowstorm of winter, I was lounging on the beach on a tiny island off the coast of Nicaragua. I gleefully played in the clear-as-glass waters of the Caribbean, snorkeled frantically with sharks and napped in colorful hammocks. Come dinner-time, I'd feast on just-caught lobster tails that cost a scant few dollars and guzzle (seriously) dozens of garden-fresh minty mojitos made with the best rum, Flor de Cana. What a life.
Now that I'm back from the beach, I'm making my old rounds and daydreaming about third-world countries. That might sound weird but it's amazing to me just how far the dollar stretches south of the border. It's put me on a mad quest to find out how far my dinero can go in the city. My first pit stop is Mekato's Colombian Bakery.
Sometimes I find myself skipping breakfast, especially when I am super-busy (though lately I have been addicted to peanut butter and orange marmalade whole grain tortilla roll-ups) and this photo that I took in Nicaragua just reminded me that I need to chow on breakfast, first thing. Every morning there, I would down a couple of eggs, beans and rice and buttered bread along with a bowl of fresh-from-the-trees fruit. It was awesome. Totally prepared me for my whole day and saved me from slamming a Snickers bar (not that they had that there). It's funny what you learn about food and how it fuels your body when you are on the road---I always eat more, exercise less, and discover that I don't gain a pound while out and about. This great breakfast was made lovingly by the chef at Casa Iguana every a.m..and Maribell also makes a mean set of pancakes. Still thinking about those little mamas!
I was in Whole Foods today getting some things to make a big pot of vegetable soup and trying to keep the total bill under $10 cuz that's all the cash I had with me...uh, the struggle to do that. Onions were $2.99 lb. for the love of god and I saw this delicious looking feta cheese for a scant $10 per tub. Christ. Anyway, I was thinking, "Where the hell in the world does money stretch and mean something?" and I came to the conclusion that it has to be the third-world countries. In Nicaragua, for instance, me and my entire film crew ate lobster tail (deep fried and delicious) with vinegary slaw, a huge platter of fried plantains and each had a super-strong rum and coke (we actually had to ask for more coke) for less than $20 TOTAL...including tip. Can you imagine?
Plus, we were sitting directly on the crystal clear Caribbean with our feet in the sand and not a soul in sight. I mean, isn't that what life is all about? I think it might be time to high-tail it to another country for a spell. Who can afford the states any more? Especially when you travel and see all of the the deals to be had out there. It makes coming home more and more painful every time.
I was stunned to find that while I was in Nicaragua, not everyone served mojitos (why did I think that was the drink of choice there?) and finding them was a little tough at first. After a week at Casa Iguana (awesome little hut-style hotel on the beach) on Little Corn Island, I discovered that they made the best on the island (sadly, though, they had a cocktail hour from only 5:30-6:30, so I had to find them elsewhere). But back in the village of Little Corn, the Cuban Place (owned by Twyla) made them Cuban-style all night long. Both were awesome and they're so simple to make. Definitely my favorite drink right now--even after drinking hundreds over the past week. Plus, the limes there look like oranges on the inside. That was cool...
~Here is the super simple recipe for mojitos:
I've gone from 90 degrees to zero degrees in less than eight hours. That reallllly sucks. I was just in Nicaragua on the tiny, remote (very remote) tropical island of Little Corn and now being back in the freezing (why do I live like this?) weather of Chicago; it's been a difficult adjustment. I'm already daydreaming of minty mojitos (drank about a hundred), snorkeling with sharks and eagle rays (minus the panic attack), Mirabell's pancakes (at lovely Casa Iguana), Nicaraguan coffee (I'm back on that wagon), big fat pina coladas (drink 'em quick before they melt), and Twyla's cuban-style lobster and shrimp dish (she's a mojito master, as well). I will lay out some discoveries of Little Corn over the next few posts, so let me just gather my thoughts....in the meantime, have a pina colada...you'll be thinkin' like an islander in no time~