Hungry hearts and hungry stomachs

Food. My favourite subject. The only thing that beats a nice meal, is a nice foreign meal where you really have no idea what to expect (or what you’ve just ordered). And the only thing that beats a foreign meal is when it’s so delicious, you consider immigration. My favourite menu surprise was in Madrid, 2009 – crunchy churros, dusted with angelic white icing sugar and filled with caramel sweeter than a puppy wagging its tail.

In Central America, however, there aren’t a lot of surprises. You can bet a puppy’s tail that there will be rice and beans on the plate. But rice and beans for hungry hearts on a budget really hits the spot.

Going bananas
Let’s start with youth hostel breakfasts. Most of the time it’s included in the pocket-friendly $20 por dos personas per night price. In Panama City we realised there are about 5 taste combinations hidden in strawberry jam, peanutbutter, bananas and white bread. These are, in no particular order – jam and banana on bread, jam and peanutbutter on bread, peanutbutter on bread (the same goes for jam), banana and peanutbutter on bread and if you buy a 20c sachet of oats, peanutbutter and oats in a cup.

To our delighted surprise, the most popular hostel breakfast served in Bocas del Toro (Panama) is pancakes and syrup. Only one taste combination there, but it sure is nice.

Where Panamanian hostels serve bananas for brekkie, their Costa Rican counterparts serve pineapples. With pancakes and syrup. Hello sugar!

So after one month of traveling (and a lot of bananas) – the best breakfast award goes to Casa Tranquilo in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Thick slices of freshly baked banana bread, served with scrambled eggs, some fruit and the best hostel coffee in Central America. Yes.

Another breakfast favourite (mine and the Costa Ricans) is gallo pinto (loosely translated as ‘spotted rooster’). Rice with black beans, some onion and cilantro (if you’re lucky), served with fried eggs or chicken/beef in a tomato sauce, washed down with some exotic fruit juice. I got obsessed with it for a week, but now I’m dying for a peanutbutter toastie.

Let’s do lunch
Okay, I’m not really going into lunch, because we never have it. We usually have (wait for it…) bananas and beer as a midday snack. And sometimes empanadas (if we feel a bit reckless with the money in our pocket).

Winner winner chicken dinner
Besides the glorious ceviche, the fish market in Panama City also serves deep-fried fish with rice (surprise!), patacones (plantane fritters) and salad. All the meals in Central America are served with coleslaw or lettuce, which is really the only time we get to eat something green. They aren’t big on veggies, and a small head of broccoli at the supermarket costs around $4. My biggest concern at the moment is not global warming, but sufficient fibre intake. ‘Nuff said.

Most of the time we would order a casado (set meal) at a local eatery for dinner. We are usually beyond starving by then, so rice and beans are a welcome sight for hungry eyes. A casado consists of a meat (pulled beef or steak / pulled chicken or pieces / fish), rice and beans (served separately), plantanes and a precious green salad. It usually costs anything between $3 -7, and if you share it, you can afford to buy more beer. It’s all about having the right priorities.

But this is definitely not the last time I’m going to ramble on about food – I still have a low-budget dinner in Costa Rica story to tell, a variation on rice story to tell, stale bread and pineapple jam story to tell and a lobster story to tell. Stay tuned.

In the meanwhile, here’s some over-exposed food snaps. I always feel silly taking pictures of food in public, so don’t expect a lot of these.

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Gallo pinto with chicken. And cas juice, I think.

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A casado fit for a king. Casado means ‘married man’s plate’, because it’s the type of food a married man will eat at home. Bearded Wonder was one happy camper after this meal.

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The zen and art of figuring out bus schedules

The idea of being an “okay let’s pack up and go” kinda traveler is quite charming. So at 3pm one shady afternoon in Bocas, we decided to pack up and go to Costa Rica the following morning. Yet, after 5 minutes of Trip Advising, Lonely Planet consulting and Googling, we went to reception and booked an extra night of accommodation – commuting from a Panamanian island to San Jose is quite similar to the Greeks’ game plan when they wanted to enter the city of Troy. The only difference is that instead of a nifty wooden horse, we had bus schedules.

Obviously, there are loads of companies that will sort out all your transfers and passport control woes in a jiffy. But seeing that we’re on a meal-a-day budget (and a bit proud), we wanted to do it on our own.

In the end, it was quite easy: we had to get up at 5am to catch the first water taxi to the mainland, in order to catch the first bus to the bigger bus station, so we could catch the daily bus to San Jose (departing from a very non-specific bus stop in the middle of a non-specific street. We waited underneath a rusty old sign that said ‘San Jose’. I thought it was the name of a bar. It was in fact the bus stop.)

However, crossing borders is only fun after you crossed it. If you want to enter Costa Rica and get your complementary 90 day visa, you have to have a ticket out of Costa Rica. Which we didn’t have. Some travelers said they had to have $500 cash on them to show that they’re able to pay for the duration of their stay. Which we also didn’t have (see remark about “meal-a-day budget”).

We walked to the border post with all the ‘clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose’ attitude we could muster. And then we accidentally walked past passport control and into Costa Rica. Illegally. Realising that this can’t be right because we only saw banana trees and friendly locals around us, we turned around and walked back with zero ‘clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose’ attitude, because we felt a bit stupid.

All drama aside, the friendly border control guy stamped us in – no questions asked. And then we were all mucho bright eyes, happy hearts and buenos Costa Rica!

When the bus stopped in San Jose (at a non-specific bus stop in the middle of a street with no name), we were bombarded by a million amigos with taxis and a ‘good price, where are you staying?’ Now, the Bearded Wonder is quite The Main Amigo when it comes to reading a map, sniffing out bus stops and locating hostels on nameless streets. But after 12 hours of commuting, a traveler’s treat isn’t an ice cold beer, but a $8 taxi ride.

So we had to eat bulk nacho chips with tinned corn that night. But that’s part of my next post. Which will hopefully be more exciting than this one (because it will be about food!)

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This is what we look like when we cross borders and bridges.

The traveller’s dictionary: new definitions of established words

Collider: n. An accelerator/space in which two backpackers are made to collide. Physics of heavy loads: moving through the crazy streets of San Jose, the second backpacker collided into the first backpacker because he said “go left” and she heard “stop”; not being able to look over her shoulder, the backpacker had to do a full 360 turn and in the process collided with an innocent Panamanian commuter.

Dos billetes a Bocas por favor

Jumping straight into our next adventure, our tale of Bocas del Toro is one of starfish, cruiser bikes, happy hours and the night I (almost) froze to death.

Before I get going on the starfish, cruiser bikes and happy hours, here’s a quick travel tip: If you’re planning to take a night bus to anywhere in Central America, take a ski jacket with you on the bus. And maybe a 2l bottle of sherry. I’m sure pure alcohol will also do the trick. The average temperature on our night bus from Panama City to Bocas was around -45 degrees Celsius, give or take. And I didn’t have the ski jacket, sherry or pure alcohol with me to lessen the blizzard that was emerging from the aircon. Nope. I only had the Bearded Wonder, a packet of plantain chips and a will to survive. It was 10 hours of pure hell and blasting Latino music (which is awesome, but best enjoyed with a Cuba Libre in hand at a beach bar).

But I digress from the good stuff. We were on our way to our second stop in Panama, and we were stoked. Bocas del Toro is a province super close to Costa Rica, and the most popular part of this Caribbean province is its islands. And the most popular of the islands is Isla Colón and it’s town, aptly named Bocas Town. So it goes without saying that we descended the island with gusto (and gust).

Oh and what fun we had! We stayed for 5 nights – but it felt like 50, because in Bocas, time goes slower than a Panamanian on a cruiser bike.

Speaking of cruiser bikes – the one day we decided to cruise to Playa Bluff, one of the beaches on the island. It was a cool 7.5km ride, with the Caribbean sun on our skin and an open, rickety, rocky, sandy and extremely hilly road at the soles of our feet (which obviously peddled the $5 cruiser bikes). It was perfect. Until my chain fell off. We tried to fix it, but ended up pushing/pulling the bike to the first beach bar. And obviously, life was perfect again because we had beer and Cuba Libres and the most beautiful, sandy beach at the soles of our feet.

With Dutch courage on our side, we made our way back to town. Sitting on the good-for-nothing bike, the Bearded Wonder pulled me forward on the even road – which was loads of fun (for me). I pushed the bike uphill and cruised downhill. However, no chain = no brakes (which is something one ought to keep in mind when going downhill on a surprisingly rocky and steep road).

It literary went downhill from there. I crashed and fell so hard that for a moment I thought I fractured my hip. Which is horrible if you still want to do the cha-cha in Cuba. Luckily I fell to the side (already getting my cha-cha groove on) and landed ungracefully in the bushy side of the road. While I waited for the Bearded Wonder to come to my rescue, a whole family of bugs who haven’t eaten for days, feasted on my legs. Scratching, crying and limping, we made our way back to town. The Bearded Wonder obviously didn’t scratch, cry or limp – he tried his best to make that awful walk back easier. And he made me brinjals for dinner. Bless.

I walked with a pimp limp for days, but I got my groove back the moment I tasted Taller de Sabor’s empanadas. Warm little doughy pockets, filled with mashed potatoes, rosemary, chicken and garlic. Every day we pimp limped to the little shop, had our daily quota of goodness, and pimp limped along with the stray dogs and exotic birds of Bocas. It really is such a nice little town, with its clapboard houses and island breezes. It’s also a bit of a party spot, so every night we ordered 6 beers for 75c a pop at Mundo Taitu’s bar.

But the best bit of Bocas is the starfish beach. Clear, warm water filled with plump and happy starfish and loads of little fishes that like to bop around with you. Amazing.

Enough words. Here’s some pics:

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Starfish beach is every bit Caribbean.

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Isla Carenero – a small island right opposite Isla Colón.

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Our daily meals and a Panamanian on a cruiser bike. Dos empanadas and uno casado to share* at Chitré.

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A clapboard house and Bocas Brewery – they have a delicious milk chocolate stout made from Bocas cocoa. It’s every bit as good as it sounds.

*A casado is a set meal of rice, beans, chicken and patacones (fried green plantanes). Mucho bueno!

Uno bearded amigo y su esposa en Panama

Yes! My Spanish is horrible, but collectively, our mucho-hand-gesture-gringo-spanish managed to take us from Panama City to islands and over borders.

“So what did you do between your ordering-a-beer-and-buying-bus-tickets-gringo-spanish conversations?”

Well, I’m glad you asked. We spent our very first Panamanian morning walking the streets of Casco Viejo (it’s the old part of Panama City and UNESCO World Heritage Site) during the wee hours of the morning. When the birds woke up, we were blessed enough to hear their morning banter:

Panamanian birds making small talk. Place: Plaza de Francia, Casco Viejo - Panama.

And we walked some more. My metabolism was still on South African time, so craving something delectably fishy, we went to the fish market for 2 polystyrene cups ceviche – raw seafood marinated in lime juice, served with more chopped onion than can be good for any living soul….Oh, but it is. We washed it down with two Panama beers and then, during an onion-induced high, considered moving to Panama.

This is pretty much what we did during the rest of our stay in Panama City. Between the walking and sharing small portions of things, we also went to the Panama Canal and saw a pretty big boat squeezing past the locks. Impressive stuff. But the entrance to the canal was a bit expensive and we couldn’t really eat the rest of the day.

See, for me, Central America is not really about doing – it’s about being. Being hungry and eating something you can’t pronounce, being curious and walking every street twice, being lazy and just sitting on park benches, being a typical tourist and buying a Panama hat, being excited and striking up a conversation with a fellow traveler (wearing said hat) and being grateful for the adventure.

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Casco Viejo is big on murals. It’s really such a strange, magical place.

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If I had a porch in Panama, it would look like this one.

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The famous Altar de Oro. According to the Lonely Planet (and local legend), a priest painted the altar black to disguise it when the pirate Henry Morgan attacked Panama.

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Casco Viejo is full of run down spaces and brand new places.

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Yup. That’s me at my happiest.

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Raspa’O – shaved ice with melon concentrate and, wait for it, condensed milk. Oh my. It was amazing.

‘Bratislava’ actually means ‘small town with gigantic heart’

Should you ever find yourself in Vienna with time on your hands, go to Bratislava. Here’s why:
– It’s only an hour by train from Vienna;
– It’s grungy exterior is really beautiful in a poetic kinda way;
– The town is nice and small – perfect for just wandering around;
– They have sheep’s cheese gnocchi and delicious jam doughnuts. You know you want to.

And this is what it looks like in moving (and static) pictures:

My second attempt in making short travel clips. Place: Bratislava, Slovakia. Track: East Harlem - Beirut.

(Or, should you happen to plan a trip to Europe, skip the West and just go East. Trust me.)

The traveller’s dictionary: new definitions of established words

Purgatory: n.(pl. purgatories) The 10 minute breaks during an 18 hour bus trip through Western Europe. Mental anguish or suffering: for every pee at a roadside service station, she had to pay €0.50; while vacant-eyed people wander aimlessly around the parking area, half-stretching during open-mouthed yawns, she felt like running back to Amsterdam.