Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Nicaragua Así

Our Dutch friend, Harrie, also runs a tour company here in León called "NicAsí" which basically means "Nicaragua As Is".  The main idea behind his company is to give no-frills tours of real life in Nicaragua.  Matt has originally heard of this through Wiki-Travel and had planned on doing a cooking class with him here in León, but we also discovered many other tours and activities he runs and decided to do something else.

Sunday evening, we went to a Gallera, a rooster fight.  Let me be clear that I am against cruelty to animals and think that forced animal competition for entertainment is wrong.  On the other hand, this is part of Nicaraguan culture - this rooster fight happens every Sunday whether the tourists show up or not.  Our tour group had 16 people, but there were easily a hundred locals (mostly men) there who didnt pay much attention to us.  Since we want to experience the local culture, we decided to go.  There are actually quite strict rules for the rooster fights and the animal owners take the care of their fighting roosters very seriously.  When two roosters fight, they must weigh the same and their nail is taped over and a small artificial nail is attached.  The idea here is that everything should be equal in the fight - the nails are measured to be the same length so neither rooster has a natural advantage.  The match lasts 15 minutes or until a rooster goes down.  This is not a fight to the death.  If a rooster goes beak down or runs away, they are given a 20 second break; if the same rooster goes beak down or runs away again, the match is over.  If there is no winner after 15 minutes, it is a draw.  The two rooster owners will talk to, or "coach" the rooster during the match and during the breaks, will wipe blood from their eyes and body.  One owner even did mouth-to-mouth on his ailing rooster. The roosters fight as a result from natural male aggression.   There is a reason why a farm usually has many chickens and only one rooster.  In nature, if two males encountered each other, they would also fight for dominance.    

Betting rules are as follows:  the two owners bet against each other (let's say 1000 cordobas) then they take bets from others for their rooster.  There are no side bets - that is considered black market.  If rooster A wins, owner B has to pay him the 1000 but Owner A has to pay back 90% return to all those who bet him.  So if you bet 10 and won, you'd get 19.  If you lose, younlose your 10.  If it's a draw, the owner gives back the money less 10%.  So if you're an owner who bets 1000 and takes 200 in bets and wins - you get 1000 form your opponent but have to pay 380 back to betters, making a profit of 820.  If you lose, you lose your 1000 but at least get to keep the 200 from betters.  In a draw, you'd make 20 from the 10% fee. 

This is where many local men come to relax on their one day free from work.  Aside from the gringos with the tour, there were only a few women - maybe 5 or 6 - who all appeared to be with a man who was there.  Alcohol and snacks are sold and consumed liberally.  During the fight, Many people are calling out to their rooster or just yelling obsenities.  Both before and after fights, owners show off their roosters.  Harrie explained that while you cannot train a rooster to fight, the roosters are "trained" in two ways: the owners will tie a leash around their foot and "walk" them or take them running to improve over all physical fitness and there are "rooster boxing gloves" which they will tie over the rooster's nail so they can spar without cutting each other.  It was interesting how much the rooster fight mimicked boxing - the roosters would spend a lot of time with their necks entwinded just sort of pecking at each other and then they'd make big moves, like flapping their wings to get some height and striking with their nail.  While the evening was fun as far as atmosphere goes, we only watched a few matches and the truth is, its kind of gross.   Once again, the idea was to see Nicaraguan culture, as is.

On Monday, we did our cooking tour.  Along with the two of us, there were two travellers from New Jersey.  Matt and I would be making the Iguana while they chose to make Indio Viejo, a different traditional Nicaraguan dish.  We started by heading to the central market to buy all of our ingredients.  Along the way, we saw a vendor who was selling turtle eggs, a traditinal delicacy that is now illegal.  Here is another Nicaragua "as is" moment.  There are many modern laws here, including a ban on talking on the cell phone while driving and rules against selling turtle eggs.  The problem is: none of the rules are enforced.  It's all well and good to have speed limits and stop signs, but as there are no officers giving tickets, no one seems to follow the laws.  

We went together with Harrie and his trainee, Luis, to buy our Iguanas, a type called Gorobo which is different from the Iguana Iguana (Green Iguana) that Matt had as a pet.  We bought two LIVE iguanas, decently sized, whose hands, feet, and mouth were all bound.  Then we all went to buy the beef for the Indo Viejo.  Harrie then handed the two couples a shopping list and said, now you go get the rest.  The fun is, he said, watching you try to find some ingredients you've never heard of, especially when you don't speak Spanish.  He was disappointed that Matt and I were able to maneuver our way so fluently.  However, I did learn that "frijoles en vara" are string beans and that "chimote" (I think) is baby corn.  We also bought some oil in a unique fashion.  Everything for the locals here is about saving money, so merchants will buy large, costco-sized jars of condiments, such as ketchup, mustard, mayonaise, and oil, then make custom plastic bags for customers.  Buy buying bulk and having no packaging, people can get exactly how much they want for less.  We bought a bag with a liter of vegetable oil.  

After we had all our ingredients, we took some local transportation to the family who would be instructing us.  What was that transport?  A pick-up truck with a metsl frame and a tarp that serves as local busses here.  There were about 12 people sitting on the benches along the sides and another 10 crammed in between.  As we were standing, I was barely able to reach the overhead bar and almost knocked a woman in the face with my grocery bag! 

Our first stop was a tortilleria, where we learned how they make the masa and then we got to make our own tortillas,  by hand.  Of course, they were nowhere near as good as the professional ones, as far as shape goes, but they suited our needs just fine.  We then headed to the home of a local family who would show us how they prepare their traditonal food.  We began with the Iguana soup.  You may recall that we had bought two LIVE iguanas.  The time came for their life to end.  The father of the family handed me a large knife and instructed me to saw off the head.  I was afraid that I wouldn't be strong enough and would just cause the Iguana a lot of suffering, which I couldnt't bear, so Matt cut off the heads of both Iguanas.  Then we each cut off the hands, feet, and tail.  Now, when you cut the tail, at some point, you cut through a nerve and even though the iguana is dead - he has no head - the tail begins twitching violently.  It was extremely freaky.  We then pulled off the skin and the father cleaned out the organs and cut each iguana into about 6 pieces, similar to a chicken: leg and thigh, arms (instead of wings), breast and upper back, upper tail and lower back.  We learned some interesting things about these iguanas, such as: they have TWO penises!  We also took some video of the heart still beating after the iguanas head had been cut off for more than 5 minutes.  

Once the butchery was done, the four of us did the rest of the prep - cutting and slicing all the vegetables we had bought and squeezing the juice from about 2 dozen sour oranges.  The rest of the soup was easy:  throw the iguana into some chicken broth with veggies and let cook/boil until done.  We then watched as the other couple prepared the Indio Viejo, which involves dissolving corn dough in water to make a thick stew.  While everything cooked, we sat down to enjoy some Nicaraguan salad with our tortillas, which is a lot like Israeli salad with pita, except spicier.  The Iguana soup was ready first.  It was a lot like chicken soup, except with Iguana.  In fact, at the risk of being cliché, the iguana really did taste like chicken!  The big difference is that the bones were more like fish bones - thin and sticky.  But it was white meat and delicious.  Then we all partook of the Indio Viejo, a thick stew with meat and vegetables.   By the time we were done, we were all stuffed and happy.  It was really a remarkable and memorable experience!

As we ate, we learned the myth behind the name of the dish, which means "Old Indian".  It goes as follows: before the Spanish arrived here, it was the tradition of the local people to offer lunch or dinner too any traveller who passed through their village.  When the Spanish arrived, they would travel in large parties.  One village saw the approach of the Spaniards and was worried, becuase they knew they did not have enough food to feed the travellers but could not neglect their custom.  One villager told eveyone to trust him, as he had a plan.  When then Spanish arrived, he went to meet them and said, "Welcome to our village.  It is nearly lunch time and it is our tradition to invite you to eat with us.  Will you join us?". The whole village was in fear at this invitation!  What was this guy doing?  Didn't he remember there wasn't enough food?  The Spanish accepted, but asked what they would be dining upon.  "Well," explained the villager, "yesterday, an old man died in our village. Since we are very poor and cannot waste any meat, we have been preparing and tenderizing the old indian body since yesterday and now he should be ready to eat." The Spanish thanked the villager for his kind invitation, but being averse to cannabalism, decided to continue on their way.  With this simple fabrication, the village was able to maintain their tradition without losing all their food. Pictures of the cooking and eating process will be on facebook shortly. 

Today, we headed down to the beach, Poneloya and Las Playitas.  The tide here is very strong so we didn't stay in the water too long.  Tomorrow we leave León, which we have enjoyed very much, and head to Granada.

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