Saturday, July 14, 2012

First Spanish Meet-Up Today!

I'm so excited about the plans I have for Pooh and I this afternoon! There's a Spanish language MeetUp group that I've been a member of for a while but have never been able to join for their events. When I first joined, they met on the might that I teach, and then with everything going on with my dad, things were too crazy this past semester to even consider it. But tomorrow, I'm finally going to go! I've already emailed the organizer, who said it's kid-friendly, so Pooh and I will make the trek over there tomorrow afternoon to join them for an afternoon of fun in Spanish.

Unfortunately, P-Daddy already committed to helping my sister and her husband with their house remodeling this weekend, but I guess this way I can see what the group is like and whether it's a good choice for beginners. P-Daddy's not sure he's ready for Spanish conversation, but if there are a few other beginners, I think he'd be fine with going.

Just in case you have no idea what I mean when I say MeetUp, I strongly encourage you to check it out! It's a great place to find events and people in your local community that fit your interests. (No, they didn't ask me to advertise, I just love the concept!)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Haciendo Tortillas

I'm participating in Spanish Friday over at Latinaish today. English translation is at the bottom.

El sabado pasado hice tortillas por primera vez en años. Aprendí cuando vivía en Guatemala con una familia indigena. Fuimos al molino para traer la masa, y de una vez en casa, comenzamos. En Guatemala las tortillas son pequenos y gruesos, y normalmente no lo hacen con un tortilla press. Aprendi, pero no era difícil ver cuales hice yo y cuales hizo mi mamá. Nunca pude hacerlas redondas y perfectas como las de ella (todavía no lo puedo!).

Aquí comemos muchas tortillas, pero normalmente las compramos. Mis favoritas son las de maíz hecho en el supermercado Fiesta. Es un supermercado donde venden todo tipo de productos Mexicanos, y también tienen productos centroamericanos. Las tortillas son baratas y deliciosas, y hechas en casa. pues, en mercado. Pero no tan baratas ni divertidas como hacerlas en casa. Por eso decidí comprar masa harina y hacerlas por mi misma.

Preparé la masa, hice las tortillas, las puse en el comál (bueno, el griddle, pero no recuerdo la palabra en espańol), y envolvía en una toalla después. Salieron deliciosas! Pero más tarde, no eran tan deliciosas. No eran suaves. Una amiga me dijo que hay que envolverlas en toalla húmeda y calentarlas en la micro. Las hice así, pero todavia salieron duras.

El problema es, no tengo la energía ni el tiempo para hacer tortillas frescas cada día. Prefiero hacerlas cada 3 o 4 días, y calentarlas cuando comemos, pero no quiero que sean duros y sin sabor. Alguíen tiene unas sugerencias?

Last weekend I made tortillas for the first time in years. I learned when I lived in Guatemala with an indigenous family. We went to the mill to pick up the dough, and once at home, we got to work. En Guatemala the tortillas are small and thick, and they're not made with a tortilla press. So I learned, but it was never difficult to tell which ones I'd made and which ones my mamá did. I could never make them round and perfect like here. (I still can't).

Here we eat lots of tortillas, but usually we just buy them. My favorites are the corn tortillas from Fiesta. Fiesta is a huge supermarket that caters to the Mexican (and Latinamerican in general) population here. Their tortillas are cheap and delicious, and made in the store. But they are not as cheap or as fun as making them at home would be. So I decided to buy maseca and make them myself.

I got the dough ready, made the tortillas, put them on the griddle, and wrapped them in a towel as they came off. They turned out great! But later, they weren't so good. They weren't very soft. A friend of mine recommended that I wrap them in a damp towel and heat them in the microwave. That was better, but they were still a little hard.

Here's my dilemma: I don't have the time or the energy to make tortillas on a daily basis. I'd like to make them every few days and just reheat as needed, but I don't want them to be hard and tasteless. Anybody have any suggestions?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Vacation Food!

Jessica over at Life as Mom and Good (Cheap) Eats is one of my favorite bloggers, and she was talking yesterday at Food Your Way about how to eat well on vacation. With lots of kids and a budget to boot, she's a pro at creative ways to feed them all well. She's got some great suggestions, but not all of them fit our situation since our destination is in Latin America. But I think I can adapt hers to our situation pretty easily, even though we are leavin' on a jet plane and not staying local.

Stock Images - Flight 2
© Photographer: Bx3t | Agency:

Here's my Guatemala version of her five tips:

1) Vending Machine Allowance --> Not-Just-Water Allowance
Not long ago, I told P-Daddy that water is going to be our biggest expense. I was only half kidding! P-Daddy drinks a. lot. of. water. And by that, I mean A LOT! Here at home, we've got several Brita pitchers and we use them all the time, so it's not a problem, but in a country where you have to pay for every drop of water that you drink, this can add up! Luckily, water is fairly inexpensive, but I'm imagining we'll be dropping by the corner tienda for water pretty regularly (and really, it's totally worth it to avoid the revenge on a pretty brief trip!). At the tiendas, we are sure to see lots of interesting things to try, but buying little items here and there all the time can really add up, in both dollars and pounds, if you know what I mean. So giving ourselves an allowance for buying things at our water stops is a great idea to keep our budget (and our belts) in check.

2) Try-Something-New Day --> Try-Something-Typical Day
I love the food in Guatemala, but for many people it's just not all that. A simple meal of black beans and tortillas is right up my alley, but there are also lots of other traditional meals that are popular and delicious. Paches, jocón verde, pepián, caldo de gallina, hilachas, rellenitos...I could go on and on. While I've tried all these before, for P-Daddy they'll be new and different. I think we'll be having this day multiple times!

3) Fun convenience foods --> Fun convenient fruit
There's a fruit vendor to be found on the streets of most towns in Guatemala. He usually has a wheeled cart piled high with fresh fruit, and once he finds a prime location to estacionarse, he starts cutting it up and loading it into little plastic bags, into which he also sprinkles some chili powder and adds half a lime to squeeze on it. On a hot day (or any other day), there is no better snack than this fruit! Mango and green mango are my favorites, but cucumber is also yummy and refreshing, as is...well, again, I could go on and on. And yes, I know that it's technically street food, but I don't accept that! P-Daddy might not be so enthused, but if that's the case, we can head right on over to the market, where we'll have to cut it up ourselves, but the variety is greater and the price even lower!

4) Old Favorites --> Old Favorites
I definitely have my favorite restaurants in both Pana and Xela, and we'll be trying out a few of them while we are there. Probably starting with Giuseppe's pizza, which has the BEST albondigas pizza I have ever eaten in my life. I'm not normally a huge pizza fan, but my Guatemalan family lives right around the corner, and I'm grabbing the opportunity while I can!

5) Freezer meals from home --> Tienda Tacos
Taking freezer meals would be pretty impossible since we'll be on a plane or in airports for almost 9 hours before we arrive. Plus, we then have a 4-5 hour bus ride to get to Xela. Any freezer food we brought would be pretty stinky and inedible by the time we arrived. But eating cheap in Guatemala is pretty easy. When I lived there, one of my favorite cheap meals was a bag of tortillas, a bag of black means (not dried ones, but already cooked ones that you squeeze out of the bag) and a bag of salsa (are you seeing a bag theme here?). With just a microwave (or even without one!) you have a cheap and filling meal for very little out-of-pocket. Don't get me wrong, we are not planning to survive on beans and tortillas, but sometimes a quick and easy meal is just what we want! And our stomachs will thank us for not resorting to the street tacos...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Money Questions to Think About

As we plan for making run to the border, we definitely have a ton of questions about money. It's a topic we think about a lot, because finances will largely determine when we can go. For P-Daddy, these are generally long-term global questions:
What is the economy like?
How stable is the exchange rate?
What products and services make up the bulk of the economy?
In what ways can we make money in business there?
How much do we need to make in order to live comfortably, save 20% of our income, and have plenty of money in a travel and emergency fund?
For me, on the other hand, I'm more concerned with the smaller day-to-day questions:
What are rental costs like?
How much do staples cost in the market? in the supermarket?
What are transportation costs like?
What monthly salary do we need in order to make ends meet?
What kinds of jobs are available for expats, and do they pay local salaries or more?
Clearly, we overlap in some ways, but we make a good team in terms of planning since each of us is more concerned with different aspects of the financial side of things (I admit that this can be quite frustrating as well at times!). Many of those questions are long-term questions that we are concerned with, but they are ones that we'll answer over time as we plan to head for the border.

Right now, I'm thinking more short-term, since we'll be headed there for a short trip soon, and we are in the process of planning a budget for our trip. As a matter of fact, here are the questions that most concern me right now in terms of money:
What is the current exchange rate?
According to this site, the exchange rate for 7/7 is Q7.88 to 1 USD.
And here is a 30-day graph of the exchange.
Where are the safest ATM's for withdrawing money?
I've heard some horror stories about problems with ATMs, so I'll be reading forums and travelers blogs to see if there are particular ones to avoid in Xela and/or Pana.
What fees will our bank charge us for withdrawals?
According to Wells Fargo, we can expect the following fees:
$5 per ATM withdrawal
3% for withdrawals through a teller
3% for purchase transactions
Should we even consider traveler's checks?
Nowhere in Guatemala appears to take these. The only way to change them is at a bank, with your passport, and it can take quite a while. It's not worth it to take these for spending money, but I'm wondering if it might be worth it for back-up cash in case anything were to happen to the ATM cards. Though let's be honest, if our bag got stolen with credit/debit cards in it, the travelers checks would probably be in there too!
How much more can we expect to pay by using credit cards rather than cash?
For shuttles, Adrenalina appears to charge roughly $5 more per trip.
In hotels, I know that cash discounts are typically readily available.
Many (non-touristy) restaurants don't take credit cards at all.
What's the average cost we can expect to pay for meals?
This appears to vary widely. In some tourist restaurants, and especially in American fast food chains, we can expect to pay the same as we would in the US for a comparable meal. In local joints, it's much more reasonable (a few $ for a meal). I doubt this info is available online, but I'll be looking to see what else I can find.
How much can we expect to pay for hotels?
This appears to vary widely from place to place - I'll be talking more about this in another post
As I find more answers, I'll update here, and if you have suggestions or answers, I'd love to hear them too!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My first-ever bread machine bread

I'm a big fan of homemade bread, so much so that it's dangerous to my diet to have it around all the time. But I'm convinced that it's healthier than anything we can buy, and I also believe that being able to bake my own bread is going to be a necessity once we run for the border. See, while you can get all kinds of bread at Xelapan (or Panapan or Guatepan or wherever-you-happen-to-be-pan), loaf bread (pan frances, it's typically called in Guatemala) is just basically tasteless white bread. That's not what I want to eat forever, nor is it what I want to feed my kid.

I will say that I'm not totally convinced that baking my own bread is as cost effective as it could be. I haven't figured out the details yet, so it might be, but I know that we can get a decent loaf of whole wheat bread at Aldi for less than $1.50. If I ever sit down and figure out how much it costs to make a good loaf of homemade bread I'll let you know. But making our own bread is more about health and controlling what goes into our bodies than it is about saving money at this point in time.

Anyway, we've had a breadmaker for several years, and P-Daddy has made a lot of bread with it. A few weeks ago someone freecycled a breadmaker and we decided to grab it while we could, since we had no idea how long our current breadmaker would last, and we thought it would be good to have a back-up. It's a Zojirushi, which I understand to be a really good brand for breadmakers and rice cookers. So we are trying this one out to see how it works.

I'm using P-Daddy's basic bread machine recipe for my virgin loaf:

Add the following to the bread machine:
9 oz water
2 TBSP olive oil
1.5 TBSP sugar
1 cup flour (I used white)
2 tsp active dry yeast

Wait 30 minutes to let the yeast work a little, then add the rest of the ingredients:
2 cups flour (I used whole wheat for this part)
1.5 tsp salt
2 TBSP dry milk
Then turn the machine on and let it go. I prefer the crust on oven-baked bread, so after the bread kneaded and rose, I took it out and put it on our baking stone, separating it into 2 loaves.

After about 30 minutes at 350 degrees, it came out like this:

It was pretty darn good! With a little butter and honey, as well as a cup of coffee, it made a perfect mid-afternoon snack!

Monday, July 9, 2012

International trips with kids?

Several people have been asking me recently about whether or not Pooh will be going with us to Guatemala. My friends there want to meet him, and I want him to meet them and experience life in Guatemala. Normally, I'm all in favor of taking my kid anywhere we go, and he's pretty well-behaved in general, with the exception of the occasional temper tantrum.

Despite his good behavior and our desire for him to enjoy experiences outside of the US, we made the decision that for this trip, we are not going to take him. Don't flame me for it. This was not a decision made lightly, and it has little (though possible a little) to do with security issues. Instead, it was about the logistics of traveling with a three-year-old when only one of us speaks Spanish, and when we are all trying to figure out the way to get here and there. Here are our top three reasons why Pooh will stay home and have a great time with family and daycare while P-Daddy and I make a run for the border:

Reason #1: The surface purpose for this trip is to attend a conference on Mayan languages. It will take place in a relatively small town that I've never visited before and I'm just not familiar with it at all. I can't bring myself to subject Pooh and P-Daddy to being holed up in a hotel room for 4 days with no guarantee of either tv or internet. I can pretty much guarantee that there will be no kids play parks and likely not even a McDonald's with a play area. And because it's a small town, I assume there will be few English speakers, so P-Daddy would be exploring with Pooh without being able to communicate well. While he's happy to do that on his own, it would not be a comfortable situation for any of us with Pooh along. Mostly because he would become a crazy child sitting in the cantina while P-Daddy hangs out...

Reason #2: The underlying purpose of this trip is a reconnaissance mission to check out The Property and the surrounding town. If we can, we plan to walk the property several times to see what kinds of things are already growing, and to check out prime spots for things like a coffee patio and Mayan sauna. While he's a champion walker, Pooh would want to wander all over and explore on his own, and until we've had a chance to check out the area and any potentially unsafe areas, we don't want him running willy-nilly all over the place. I also want to wander extensively through the market to get an idea of the cost of food items these days. My experience in Guatemalan markets is that they are generally crowded, but there are tons of interesting people and things to look at. I would need to keep a very careful eye on Pooh (though he'd be easy to spot with his white-blond hair!), and this would defeat the purpose of being in the market to start with. Besides, halfway through the market, he'd have to pee, which leads us to the next reason...

Reason #3: The bathrooms! I've been in some pretty nasty places in the US, at fairs, amusement parks, rest stops along the highway, etc. But these places don't compare to what you'll find in some public restrooms in Guatemala. At Pooh's age, he is simply not able to wait and wait and wait until we find a clean bathroom. And yes, I know that in Guatemala it is perfectly acceptable for males of all ages to whip it out and pee anytime and anywhere. But that's not really the point. The point is (and this is really Reason #3), Pooh is only 3, and there are obstacles to overcome with kids that age that would not be as evident with an older child. We are just not convinced that at this age, Pooh would really get a lot out of this trip, and the logistical problems of traveling with a three-year-old would outweigh any advantage the trip would provide him.

I say all that to say that this trip is, in essence, a business trip, not a vacation. If this trip were pure vacation, we'd take him for sure. But it's not. And he'll have many opportunities in the years to come to experience what life is like in Guatemala!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Eating down the pantry update

As I've mentioned before, one of my goals this month is to eat down the pantry. We've got a lot of stuff in the freezer that needs to be eaten, or we'll have to throw it out, and both P-Daddy and I cringe at having to throw out food that would have been perfectly edible if we had only gotten to it in time! Since we are headed to Guatemala for 10 days at the end of July, this is the perfect time to eat what we have on hand. Not only will we save money, but we'll also rest assured that we are not leaving things to spoil in the pantry while we are gone. Plus, Jessica over at Good (Cheap) Eats is hosting a pantry challenge this month, so there's support to be had - what great timing!

This past week, we started the challenge, but we quickly found that the week of July 4th, with a big family bbq and friends in town was not a great choice of timing. So we did not make as much progress as I would have liked. We did, however, take a few steps toward our goal.

First, we limited our spending. For the bbq, I made a fruit tray and a veggie tray using some of our co-op produce, along with a couple other things we had on hand already. I also made a pasta salad, with elbow noodles that we already had. For meeting up with out-of-town friends, we just grabbed a couple bags of chips, and I've bought milk and bread, but other than that, our grocery shopping has been minimal.

Second, we also made an effort to eat items we already had on hand. After the bbq, we had lots of leftover veggies, which I chopped up into a chicken salad (made with canned chicken we already had) on Thursday. We ate that on lettuce wraps, with corn on the cob on the side, using up some of our co-op goodness. On Friday P-Daddy pulled a pork roast out of the freezer and roasted it, using a large can of enchilada sauce mixed with a bag of frozen pumpkin - it turned out delicious, especially served on fresh corn tortillas.

Today, I'll be taking the time to chop up many of our vegetables, so that they are ready to grab for lunches or easy prep for dinners.

As we head into the second full week of the challenge, our menu looks something like this:
oatmeal X2 (we've got about 3 canisters right now)
cheerios X2 (2-3 boxes to work our way through)
frittata X2 (an easy way to get our veggies in)
fresh bread w/ jam

fresh fruit and veggies (every day)
turkey dogs X2 (2 packs to use up)
leftovers from dinner X3
I'll get creative with other lunches on the weekend

tuna salad (about 5 pouches to use)
pork roast X2 (I'm freezing some of this for next week as well)
pasta (about 4 boxes to use, and we've got chunky red sauce in the freezer)
chicken tenderloin from the freezer
out for pho
I'll have to stop at the store for a few things, including milk, yogurt, and eggs, but those are things we need all the time anyway. Pooh is a huge fan of pb&j, so we may need to pick up a loaf of bread for him too. He's happy to eat it on fresh-baked bread, but he goes through it so quickly that I'd probably need to bake bread multiple times this week, and I'm just not sure I'm up for that (even though the bread machine makes it super easy!).