Thursday, November 19, 2009

Volcan Masaya

Ken and Kathy converged on Nicaragua last week. They each had obligations in New Orleans in consecutive weeks and given the nonstop Continental Houston-Managua express, much to Lily and Josh's agreement they dedicated the intervening weekend to exploring Nicaragua. One of the many highlights was our spontaneous sunset visit to the Masaya Volcano, just 30 minutes Northwest of Granada. Since we haven't posted much content on our blog in the past couple of weeks, we wanted to put something up to quench the insatiable thirst of our readers (anyone out there?). Perhaps we will invite the K's to a "guest post" on Amor y Chocolate.

Here are some of images of this surreal visit offering 360 degree views of the Managua-Granada area of Nicaragua. We hiked to the rim of several craters, visited an ancient lava tunnel, a bat cave home to more than 20,000 bats. After the sun had set giving way to a crystal clear vantage of the starry night (plus planets), we edged to the rim of the active crater, gazing down some 2,000 feet to see the red-orange lava glow.

Sun sets behind the active volcano

Lily, Kathy and Josh aprovechando la vista

Lily prepares for spelunking (with bats and lava... really a match made in heaven)
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Friday, November 13, 2009

Fruits of labor

Xoco General Manager Juan Carlos Saenz cuts open a fermented and dried special fenotype of Xoco beans.

The pecan-like center shows a through fermentaion and drying.

Damn it tastes good!
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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Genetic modification, au natural

Here is a brief walk-through of a fine cacao nursery process.

Step 1: Grow scion trees (recipients of the graft) with carefully selected seeds from conventional (forastero) cacao, known for its rapid development and strong root structure.

Step 2: Once the scion is mature, an experienced grafter slits the bark...

...and neatly places the bud from the fine cacao tree in the slot.

Discarded genetic material
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Monday, October 26, 2009

Trip to La Playa

This weekend we went to Morgan's Rock, an ecolodge north of San Juan del Sur. It is situated on a 4,500 acre property owned by a French family that is involved in many agricultural and reforestation efforts in the country. The resort is very committed to sustainability and is beautifully designed so that it leaves a minimal visual/physical footprint. It employs about 100 people, around 40 at the hotel and 60 at the farm. It was an incredible place and I learned a lot from being there.

The view of Morgan's Rock (the big one on the right), named after Senator John Tyler Morgan who was the biggest advocate of building a canal in Nicaragua, not Panama.

Relaxing at the beach. I was so happy to be in the ocean! The waves were excellent for body surfing and we had the bay all to ourselves.

Suspension bridge connecting the hotel lobby/restaurant/pool area to the guest bungalows. This bridge, unlike most I have seen in Nicaragua, was not a gift of Japan.

View from our bungalow.

Now I will tell you a little bit about my first baseball, er, I mean beisbol experience, here. Baseball is the most popular sport in the country. The staff arranged a pick up game between the hotel vs. the farm workers and we were invited to play/watch. I decided to sit this one out but Josh was starting pitcher for the hotel team. A number of things happened last minute to make the field playable that were slightly unusual. A large man and his tiny daughter on a tractor came out of nowhere to mow the field and deposit sand on home plate, which was somewhat of a lagoon when we first arrived at the pasture. Other than the human spectators that kept coming out of the woodworks were also two cows bellowing every so often from right field and howler monkeys occasionally chiming in. Some images:

Before the game, Josh and I went to the farm to have breakfast. The farm produces most of the food that the hotel restaurant serves. They have dairy cows, sheep, horses, chickens, a rooster and ducks. We first learned how to milk a cow, then went to the chicken coop to play with some 2 day old chicks and select freshly-laid eggs for breakfast and then proceeded to the kitchen where we made tortillas (mine was super gordo...I have some room for improvement in my technique). We had some amazing cafe con leche with Matagalpan coffee and fresh milk, scrambled eggs, tortillas, homemade cheese and gallo pinto (of course). YUM!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bienvenidos a Granada!

I arrived in Managua on Sunday night and have spent the last 1.5 days in Granada, where Josh and I have set up base camp. Base camp is very wonderful. The house is located on Calle de Caimito about a block and a half from the central park.

Here's a view from the front hall:

The main bedroom:

The courtyard (my favorite spot):


Guest Bedroom:

Yesterday, we went out on Lake Nicaragua, which is a quick drive from our house. The lake is MASSIVE - it is the largest lake in Central America and the 10th largest fresh water lake in the world. We took a boat around the isletas - there are about 370 little islands that were created by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. Some are inhabited by fishermen but most seemed to be fancy second homes.

Another highlight of yesterday was going to El Zaquin, a great steakhouse just around the corner. Here I tried an amazing kind of juice that I am now obsessed with called Pitaya. It is bright purple and unbelievably yummy! I think I might have to get some now...

Friday, October 2, 2009

Amor y Chocolate

Phenylethylamine (PEA) is found in chocolate.
PEA is a chemical associated with adrenal health. It is created within the brain and released when we are in love. Supposedly, chocolate has the ability to create a mild version of the "warm fuzzies" you experience when you are in love. It's so true that this food is a love potion! And you thought it was all Godiva hype. PEA is one of the reasons why love and chocolate have a deep correlation. PEA also plays a role in increasing focus and alertness, which can certainly help if you're in love.

Great website for chocolate lovers. Lily visited Sweetriot in NYC... hopefully they will become a dependable purveyor of Xoco cacao

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Back to work

When the daylight curfew was lifted, it was time to get back to work. A bit backed up, we had a long day planned visiting existing and potential clients in the Santa Barabara region. This was not without its own excitement.

After twisting for 60km on a mountainous dirt road for a couple of hours, we reached a bridge, spanning an expansve and beautiful river. Put bluntly, the bridge was terrible. It was constructed from old cables and capped with metal plates. Indeed, there were several metal plates missing in key parts. The suspension bridge swayed in the breeze.

Here I am, scoping out the crossing.

Here is the trusty 4x4 and the warning sign: max. 5 quintales. Do you know how much a quintal is? If you do not know, I suggest you do not look into it. The math doesn't quite add up.

The speed limit was 5km/hr. My colleague wanted no part in sitting in the pickup during crossing. He got out and walked across the bridge, as you can see in the distance of the photo. He video taped the crossing, and I suspect he was secretly scared of the potential consequences and excited to capture it on video! Suffice it to say, we made the crossing with little difficulty.

Above a Xoco client's farm, this is a rocky peak veiled in the fog.

Surveying a potential growing site.
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Since Zelaya's return on Monday, September 21, the government has imposed curfews for varying hours throughout the day. The longest stretch was from Monday at 4pm to Wednesday at 10am (a total of 42 hours). There was an eerie silence about the city, and roughly half of the vehicles I saw drive by the hotel were official (police, military, red cross).

I have been staying at Hotel Casa del Rio in a very pleasant neighborhood of San Pedro. The owners, Jose and Jenny have been fantastic as contacts, tour guides, and as friends. During this period of political uncertainty, they have gone far out of their way to make sure that I am feeling safe, well-fed (staying well-fed during a curfew, by the way, can be a logistical challenge!), and up-to-date on the political developments.

Since last Wednesday, we have not had a daylight curfew, which has allowed Sanpedranos to go back to work and live normal lives, at least during the day. On Thursday, all flights - domestic and international - were reopened for service. For example, the most recent curfew was from Saturday 6pm (yesterday) - Sunday 6am (today).

From many angles, this week has been a fascinating experience, and I have felt comfortable and safe.

I can say that this week marks the first time in my life I have had a curfew imposed on me. Throughout my teenage years, my liberal and trusting parents sheltered me from the knowledge of what it would be like to have a curfew restriction. Thanks to the Honduran government, I now know!

The eve of Zelaya's return

On the return trip from La Ceiba to San Pedro Sula, we paused in the coastal town of Tela. It was Sunday, September 20. As I would later discover, my return from La Ceiba coincided with ousted president Manuel Zelaya's overland journey from El Salvador to Tegucialpa, la capital de Honduras. I'm afraid our two journeys didn't have too much in common, with the exception of enjoying the spectacular Honduran landscape.

An abandoned railroad pier extends a quarter mile out into the Caribbean from the beachside, sleepy town of Tela. At the end of the pier, a half dozen fishers tested their luck. All along the pier, scores of little kids catapulted themselves off of the pier into the warm sea.

I like this shot of a fisherman's bicycle on the pier, looking west down the coast.

Preparing for a backflip with a twist.

In Tela, we enjoyed banana-pineapple smoothies and the local delicacy, pan de coco (coconut bread).
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At Pico Bonito, we stayed at a little eco-hostel called Jungle River Lodge. The pull-out from the river rafting excursion was literally at the lodge itself.

The lodge is about 7km up the Cangrejal canyon from the city of La Ceiba (which is the jumping off point for ferries to the Honduran Bay Islands). From the open air veranda of the hostel, this is the morning light meeting the trough of the valley. The water was the perfect temperature for a morning swim and the gentle breeze coming up the valley provided therapy for the bustling daily commute in San Pedro.
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Rio Cangrejal: aventuras

Last weekend involved an escape of the blistering heat of San Pedro Sula. Accompanied by a couple friends, I drove to La Ceiba, which sits on the Caribbean roughly 200km east of San Pedro. Our objective was to enjoy the wilderness area of Parque Nacional Pico Bonito and the Rio Cangrejal, which flows along the eastern fringe of the park. We had arrived to a jungle paradise.

Due to abnormally low rains in the past several months, the river level was low, but still navigable by raft. The lower water level was more favorable for jumping off of rocks into the water. Thus, our afternoon consisted of a "river spelunking" session and a 5km paddle down a very technical section of the river.

Rock #1

Rock #2

I believe this rapid was called the Chile Pepper.

While I have rafted rivers in Alaska, Washington, and Arizona, I have never had to respond to a command on a techincal river in Spanish. I think this was a good step in the right direction towards fluency.

The Team, led by our fearless guide Darwin*

* Shoutout to Betsy for recommending this man of many talents, ranging from paddling to mixing a mean Cuba Libre
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Monday, September 14, 2009

Lunch spots

Lunch can dictate the quality of life. How quickly do you eat lunch? With whom do you eat lunch? Are you looking at your computer while trying to wolf down "lunch"? Is lunch just food? Or, should it include some non-caloric nourishment as well?

Here are several Honduran lunch spots:

Restaurant on the Caribbean coast, just north of Puerto Cortes. Whole fried fish and lime.

Tropical fruit on the farm, Copan region. Freshly harvested pineapple (picked ripe out of the ground, warm and unbelievable), oranges tossed down from the tree, other tropical vegetable stalks.

Roadside bodega. Carnitas, fresh squeezed pineapple juice. On the right, a sugar cane press is visible. In the center is a big stack of coconuts, which were unloaded as we ate.
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Post harvest production

Cacao must be fermented in wooden boxes for 5-7 days post harvest in order to bring out the complexity and quality of the beans. This image shows a 3 tier fermantation system, where the beans (which ferment in their own pulp at roughly 125 degrees F) are cascaded down 1 tier every couple of days until they are ready. The leakage on the lower-left corner of the image shows the gases released during fermenation. Xoco plans to capture this energy in order to generate power for its post-harvest production benefit centers.

The next step is drying. Beans are traditionally dried for several days under the sun on an expansive area of stone (or concrete). Removing all of the liquid finishes the bean's journey before entering the "chocolate factory."

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Exploring Honduras

I have spent the last week in Northern Honduras visiting cacao producers and continuing to familiarize myself with Xoco's operations. Honduras is beautiful and mountainous. I am staying in San Pedro Sula, which has a steamy Caribbean climate. The day after I arrived, Honduras faced off against Mexico in the World Cup qualifier. The game was in Mexico, but this did not do much to dilute the good-natured fanaticism of the Honduran people. Soccer jerseys abound, everyone assured me that if Honduras won, the next day would be a public holiday. Mexico was positively favored to win, especially with homefield advantage. With my coworkers, I went to a large outdoor public mall surrounded by bars and restaurants. The game was projected on several big screens around the courtyard. What energy! Honduras hung in there, and only gave up one goal on a penalty kick. Back to work...

Work involved visiting an old fine cacao farm northeast of San Pedro. After our analysis of the trees and operations, we enjoyed fresh lychee, trying to stay in the shade. Temperatures have been consistently 100+ degrees with intense humidity.

After enjoying a snack and cooling off in a nearby river, we moved a bunch of mattresses! (Seems logical, right?)