Friday, September 26, 2014

Three beans from Nicaragua.

It used to be that no trip to the tropics was complete without a visit to the market and walking away with a few cordobas, quetzals, or limpiras worth of unroasted green coffee beans. I got the idea for doing this after chatting with the head roaster at the venerable Salt Lake Roasting Co. and seeing how easy the process could be duplicated at home. Once I had the beans (getting them through customs could be interesting – Is it a food? A vegetable? Plant matter?) all it took was a few minutes per handful in a stainless steel pot on an open stove. (Outside – always outside. As your neighborhood will soon find out, coffee roasting creates a lot of smoke.)

I really got to see how easy the process was after visiting Ethiopia, where I sat through a month’s worth of “coffee ceremonies” – after dinner, a girl makes a small fire on the kitchen floor (literally) and roasts a handful of beans in a hammered tin pot, then grinds them and makes coffee using a handheld drip system. Good stuff.

Green beans from the market were usually of erratic quality. The impression I got was that the bean sellers were not the bean harvesters – they were likely aggregators pulling together beans from a number of producers, or getting the non-exportable excess from a higher-quality farm. It was always impossible to determine the precise pedigree of the bean other than they were “local”. One exception to market quality was in Sulawesi, where the beans I saw in markets were about as pretty, plump, and uniform as green coffee beans can get.

Nicaragua has a coffee culture – probably more so than what I’ve found in places like Guatemala or Honduras – but the coffee quality is overall lower than what I found in adjacent nations. A lot of that has to do with topography – Nicaragua has a lot of mountains but they are relatively low elevation. That also is a fact that means the nation will lose its coffee crop much quicker to global warming than nearby nations with higher peaks – in Guatemala, for instance, as the temps warm, the trees can to a certain extent be moved up the mountains.

Nicaraguans like coffee, but they also like it weak – so weak that children drink it, and more than once I had to convince a waiter that no, our 2-year old did not need coffee to wash down his pancakes. For a couple of reasons I did not come home from Nicaragua with green beans, but after getting some tips from locals in Granada I did bring back several bags of locally roasted beans. I doubt these will show up at Albertson’s any time soon, but in case you are interested …

1. Café Premium Segovia ($3.70/400g – nearly 15 ounces)

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This pre-ground bean was the cheapest of the lot, and my least favorite. The roast was medium to dark; in the espresso machine it yielded no crème. The taste was floral and bright and somewhat acidic – similar to what I’ve tasted from Rwanda – but not to my liking.

2. Casa del Café ($6.75/400g)

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Case del Café is a local chain of coffee shops – their hacienda-style café just off the main square in Granada is a grand setting. These whole beans were the priciest of the bunch but not the best. Despite being a medium roast the grinds are a few shades of brown too light by my reckoning. In the espresso machine you get a decent crème, and the flavor is full but feels dialed back – as though there’s another 20 percent of the flavor that’s not showing up.

3. Café Las Flores ($5.75/454g)

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This medium-roast whole bean was the winner of the three by far, and a great deal compared both to other Nica coffees and what you find at home. It ground a consistent dark brown, and in the espresso machine it yielded a gorgeous thick crème. The taste was expansive and smooth. This was the one I wish I’d filled my suitcase with.

Hey – why is Guevara celebrated but not Sandino?

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American troops with Sandino’s battle flag:

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Radiance vs. ordinary light.

Reach for it.

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(Fourth of July Lake, White Cloud Mountains.)

We are down to not months, not weeks, but days. This is not the time to get lazy and complacent, folks.

A week ago Kintla was swimmable, but doubt it now.

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My guess is same goes for Bowman.

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Due to decisions we’ve made, it’s unlikely we’ll ever live in a big house, buy a fancy new car, or eat at swanky restaurants when we’re not being treated. On the other hand, every weekend we can go out and recreate in one of the world’s great landscapes.

Keeping it real, part A: Bowman Lake.

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Keeping it real, part B: Stanley Lake.

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Keeping it real, and clean, part C: Sawtooth Mountains.

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Keeping it real, part D: Ovando.

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Keeping it real, final installment: Whitefish Lake State Park.

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Keeping it sweet in Ovando.

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Red Meadow Lake, Whitefish Mountains.

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Some new snow along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, Whitefish Mountains.

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Whitefish Trails with the baby.

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Whitefish Trails on my lonesome.

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Back to Polebridge.

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Back along the North Fork.

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An end-of-summer paddle in Bowman.

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An end-of-summer paddle in Stanley.

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An end-of-summer wheel dip in Redfish.

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Hiking toward Sawtooth Lake.

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Biking toward fall.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mucho la Nica.

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(Asuncion, León)

I first went to Nicaragua in 2002. Then, I crossed overland from Costa Rica and stayed for about a week. I found the country to be interesting but gnarly. There were few services for visitors, personal security was a major concern, and the feeling was not just ‘third world’ but also decidedly ‘post-war’. My most vivid memory of Managua was seeing people chopping apart trees in the street medians because they needed firewood.

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(Bus station in Subtiava.)

Nicaragua in 2014 is much different, and after spending a week there we came to think we were in a special place during a special time. The country lacks the smooth banality of a place like Costa Rica but also the abject danger of a place like Honduras. I felt safer there than I have in almost any other country. It’s decidedly third world but the poverty does not seem as grinding as elsewhere. The people are friendly, and everyone went nuts over Cooper. As a follow-up on Managua, 2002 vs. 2014, I can report that while the capital is not about to win a beauty pageant, the trees in the medians have grown back and uniformed workers now trim the median grass with weed whackers. You should still watch your stuff, but it’s no longer necessary to use a cab when making a nighttime trip of a half-block (as was routinely recommended in 2002).

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(Basilica and square in León.)

In 11 days we spent $850: that figure does not include, of course, the plane tickets ($650 each) but does include the $10 per person entry fee and a night at a hotel in Denver, as well as all food, hotels, bus and taxi rides, tours, guides, and incidentals in the country. Notable expenditures included surfing lessons, day-use fees at a hotel in Lago Apoyo, and a tour of the small islands along the south shore of Lago Nicaragua. Most hotels were in the $45 range – including tepid water, satellite TV, and air conditioning – and most dinner tabs in sit-down restaurants came to about $10, a few beers included.

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(León)

Nicaragua is the largest nation in Central America but a lot of the big sights are fairly concentrated, meaning you can go from city to mountain, and mountain to coast, and back again just using a series of two-hour bus hops. When we first planned the trip we thought about spending the entire week in a single beach hotel, then in our normal fashion gradually chipped away at that. Our itinerary, day by day, included:

1. Missoula-Houston
2. Houston-Managua-Léon
3. Léon
4. Léon-Las Peñitas
5. Las Peñitas
6. Las Peñitas
7. Las Peñitas-Granada
8. Granada
9. Granada
10. Granada-Managua-Denver.
11. Denver-Missoula

(It seems like we spent a lot of time in the air but we had an afternoon departure from Missoula and a night in Houston, ensuring an early arrival the next day in Managua. Returning, we had an afternoon departure from Managua and a late arrival in Denver, then an early flight home. Even with the hotel rooms that schedule was cheaper than a one-day haul each way, but also seemed best for breaking the trek for Cooper.)

Crime in Nicaragua in 2013 was roughly comparable to that of the United States, and the country is well-advertised as the safest in Central America. In looking more closely at things, you quickly see that crime stats are hard to interpret and compare, let alone believe, and they don’t take into the special consideration the plight of the tourist, who is almost always, in every country in the world, at greater risk of crime than a local is. So while crime is not an inconsequential concern, I believe in Nicaragua it’s not much greater than what an American tourist would find in a traditionally-considered ‘safe’ country such as the UK or France.

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(Hotel rooftop, León)

The weather was not as ‘bad’ as I thought it would be (hot = bad), but can say it was still pretty darn hot. The mornings were bright and clear and manageable until about 10, when steamy sweaty heat kicked in. That lasted until about 2, when the sky clouded and eventually broke into air-filling downpours – take a deep breath during one of these and you could also get a cup of water in your lungs. Those storms usually cleared off by sunset, leaving what could actually be pleasant sunsets blending into warm evenings.

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(Las Peñitas)

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(Hotel courtyard, León)

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(It was getting late, and hot, and Cooper was crying for a juice. Just then it seemed a city full of juice stalls was totally absent of juice stalls. We wandered around and finally found juice in this bar, and Cooper drank it through a straw while music pumped and people yelled.)

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(Iglesia de la Merced, León: built in the 1500s, razed by pirates, and rebuilt.)

There’s a lot of country to see, and we just scraped the surface. Maybe next year Cooper will be ready for the 24-hour epic by bus from the capital to the Caribbean.

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(Headed home: Honduras and the Gulf of Mexico)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Packing, U-locks, and Nothing.

Packing.

I can’t count how many times I’ve gotten on a plane in one country and gotten off in another. It’s always somewhat stressful to land in a new place, but even more so when that sort of traveling has not happened in a while. The worst part about packing for this trip is I keep remembering things I should take, then forgetting what it was I had remembered.

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Long term gear review: Rhode Gear Gorilla U-Lock

What is there to really say? I bought this in 1991 to lock up my old Raleigh mountain bike, and used it thousands of times since. I’d keep using it, but after so much locking and unlocking the key has lost all of its grooves and is essentially round. It still works, kinda, but someday soon it will probably quit me, and I don’t want that to happen in the “lock” position.

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Bottom line: a worthwhile purchase. Rhode Gear, however, seems to have gone out of the lock business.

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Slow time.

What’s this? A weekend with no objectives? Feels weird. Just picking blueberries and watching the current.

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Friday, August 1, 2014

Degrees of freedom.

Laura made here annual milk run to Atlanta this month and took the baby, leaving me with two weeks of wretched bachelor excessiveness: too much biking, too much skiing, too much hiking, too much red meat, too much red wine, etc., etc. But as usual, when things get tough, I roll up my sleeves and look at the tattoo on my bulging bicep, and that gives me the inspiration and strength to forge on:

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Sunrise ski run on Logan Pass. In the parking lot, in the half-dawn of morning, a Japanese tourist came up to me and said "Ski run closed. You make trouble for ranger." Must have been something going around, because later that day, by Ptarmigan Lake, an earnest hiker stopped me and said that the tunnel was closed. It was open.

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Thanks to the wonders of technology, I can now gather all sorts of data on meaningless activities. Here's the run-down from 14 days of riding solo:

city biking: 15 miles
skiing: 4 runs, 9 miles, 2,400 vertical feet
hiking: 67.1 miles, 9,900 vertical feet
mountain biking: 143.9 miles, 13,900 vertical feet

Back in Glacier, I hiked the famous Iceberg Lake Trail, realizing only too late I had left my skis in the car:

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More from Iceberg:

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I also did the Highline:

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High above the Highline Trail -- it rained and blew hard for about 90 minutes, all the while with the temperature in the high 40s. I got some shelter at the Granite Park Chalet, then emerged to this:

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Grinnell Peak and its glacier. It's hard to capture the wild and desolate starkness of hiking all day to peer into something ancient and empty like this:

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And looking down on the Salamander Glacier:

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Glacier is full of wildlife, like this creepy huge chipmunk:

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Here is some deer they have stuffed in front of a mural in the visitor center, where I spent most of my time watching interpretive movies and getting brochures:

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The view from Ptarmigan Pass, near where the tunnel was supposedly closed:

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An evening stroll around Swiftcurrent Lake:

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Early morning at St. Mary:

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Biking in Ninemile -- who knew?

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More from Ninemile:

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Driving the family car without family in it, I also went to Yellowstone and the Beartooth-Absaroka. Lady of the Lake, just north of Yellowstone.

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From near the summit of Wilse (11,800 feet) in the Beartooth.

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I actually pulled the plug on Wilse about 150 feet below the summit because this guy was hogging the trail. I went left, he went right: both faced with overhanging cornices, vertical rock, and glacier ice, we were soon back looking at each other.

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Humiliating loser's descent from Wilse:

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Random lake (actually, Gardner, I think) on the Beartooth Plateau. Any given 10 square miles of the Beartooth will easily have 100 lakes, ranging from backyard-sized plunge pools to something a mile long. So, yeah, basically: God's Mosquito Country.

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I camped at a trailhead the second night, and as it was getting dark a truck pulling a boat pulled up and set up camp near me. It was a ranching couple from Red Lodge, and they made me some gin and tonics. The guy was a talker, and mostly he talked about grizzly bears. "Oh, the griz around here mostly just keep to themselves," he said at one point. Not a minute later he was practically in my face -- "These are not the fat and happy griz you have over in the Flathead. These guys are lean and mean!" And then, a bit later, "Oh, the grizzlies now are mostly down low in heavy timber where the berries are." And a bit later: "You got to watch out all around here -- this is griz country."

Alas, no griz. Only a stupid black bear. The bears somehow get at all the huckleberries first. SO NOT FAIR!

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This is the last run of the season. I mean it. No more. That's it.

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Homeward bound.

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