Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Nicaragua: Managua Primero Dia

Morning breakfast at the Hilton Princesa.

My room in the Hilton Princesa faces east. Due east. As demonstrated by the powerfully blinding sun blasting me in the face refusing to allow me to sleep through to my 7am wake up call. I'm tired and want to sleep a bit more. I pull the covers over my head but the fluffy white comforter is relatively thin and the light pierces the veil.

I don't want to get up and close the drapes and drop a pillow on my face. It's thick and luxurious and effectively blocks out the sun. Success, but the pillow now restricts my ability to breathe. I have no choice: I must get out of bed to close the drapes.

Once closed, the room is dark. Almost tomb-like with a slight glow shimmering around the edges. Finally, I get back to sleep for just a few minutes. Problem is, I've expended so much mental energy thinking about how to abate the light, pulling the covers, using the pillow and then getting up and closing the drapes that my mind is up and running. There is no going back to sleep.

Carretera Masaya - The world outside my window.

Breakfast is in the hotel restaurant and it's the standard hotel fare found around the world. Fruits, juices, pastries, omelets and eggs to order, and a hot line of ready to eat goodies. Nestled amongst traditional breakfast fare like ham, sausage, hash browns and waffles are Nicaraguan items like beans and rice, fried plantains and something that looks like pressed and fried soy bean patties that turn out to be fried cheese.

The quality is to be expected. Dried out hash browns, overheated ham slices and rice on the dry side. Rouki tells me that the rice and beans are very traditional and I wonder if this is an accurate example of Nicaraguan cuisine. I certainly hope it isn't.

I decide to go with a mixed plate of rice and beans, a slice of ham, a slice of sausage, a hash brown, some of that soy-looking fried thing, a small croissant, two fried eggs, a coffee and a glass of sandia agua fresca (watermelon juice). I'm eating the soy-looking thing and it's dry. It may have been fried nicely but it's been sitting in the steam tray for quite some time and now it's resembling the texture of leather. Rouki later tells me that it's a traditional Nicaraguan item of fried cheese and not the fried tofu I had been thinking.

The eggs are the highlight of the meal. Eggs over easy, but they need some help in the form of hot sauce. I ask one of the staff (who by the way, have been more than helpful and friendly) about hot sauce and they disappear for a considerable while. I start to wonder if someone has forgotten when she reappears with a bowl of chopped onions, chiles and vinegar. I'm guessing they don't have bottles of Cholula or Tabasco, so they made me a hot sauce fresh. That's nice.

When it comes to coffee, there's some good stuff here in Nicaragua. Evidently, the good stuff is exported to places like the United States where people like me pay high prices for good coffee. In-country, they drink something that other people call coffee.

Actually, I can't get too down on their coffee. It's pretty bad but unlike a lot of the bad in the United States, this one actually seems like it has a good brew ratio. The flavor is unfortunate, but at least it tastes unfortunate. Unlike American coffee that can barely taste unfortunate because they use too little to really notice.

Of all the agua frescas in the world, the sandia is my favorite. I can drink an entire watermelon's worth [with enough time], but this stuff tastes like watermelon grown in the middle of winter: dead. There is no discernable flavor. Just limp watermelon-ish liquid that looks red. There's no sugar added and it really needs it. I wonder if this could be a new diet fad in the making.

After breakfast, Roberto is back with the van and we're whisked away to the Crowne Plaza where we're meeting the competitors and holding their information session. Baristas from all across Nicaragua are here. Twenty-two of them.

Cleofas leading the barista session.

You know, the more that I judge outside of America, the more I enjoy it. As Cleofas Arreola leads their session, I watch their faces. These baristas make roughly US$140 per month, which is a decent wage here in Nicaragua. But I see in them an openness and eagerness that so readily gets lost in the hyper-competitiveness of the United States Barista Championship. I'm eager to see them in action on Friday.

Lunch brings us to the local mall, the Galleria Santo Domingo, where the competition will be held. In the mall, we run into Lorenzo of La Marzocco who's in town at the end of his La Marzocco Central American Goodwill Tour. He joins us for lunch and is off back to Milan in the morning.

Our host, Julio Peralta takes us to RostiPollos, a local chain specializing in rotisserie chicken. It's a de facto feast. After a really good amuse bouche of tortilla chips and pickled onions, we order some salads. I go for the Ensalada Tricolor con pollo. It's garnished with dry chicken breast, tomato wedges and is actually not bad. Brent goes for the mixed salad and Martha with the chicken caesar.

Julio, Rouki and Brent at RostiPollos.

For our main meal, Julio orders up two Super 4 combos: whole rotisserie chicken, a big bowl of refried beans, three rolled and fried tacos (like flautas), fried cheese and a stack of corn tortillas.

The tortillas are thick and weigh a ton. One is gonna be more than enough. They're thick and dense but I'm not getting a massive corn flavor like the ones I sampled in Mexico City. The refried beans were something else. I'd never tasted any bean quite like this. Fried and mashed into a thick puree, the beans had a distinct sweetness and tasted slightly spiced. Brent noted that it tasted like butternut squash, I thought it reminiscent of spicy pumpkin pie.

Our RostiChickens.

After this mornings' taste of fried cheese tiles, the fried cheese at RostiPollos was actually pretty darn good. Salty cheese cut in cubes and deep fried. Why this isn't popular in America is beyond me. With a tall glass of Coke, I could tear this dish up. The taco/flauta was pretty good. Thick, crunchy tortilla wrapped around shredded chicken and topped with a kind of cole slaw. Tasty.

But with a name like RostiPollos, one would expect the chicken to be the specialty. Indeed, there's a wood fired rotisserie oven churning out chickens and while the leg and thigh pieces are properly cooked, I found the breast to be on the dry side of moist. You know how dried chicken breast dries out the mouth when you eat it? It wasn't that bad but there was some drying action. Better to stick with the dark meat, 'cause that was pretty good.

Martha and Cleofas eye my salad.

We're running out of time and hustle our way back to the Crowne Plaza for the afternoon Judges Workshop. Seventeen people have decided to pursue the certification. Some are owners (or soon to be owners). Others have ties to producing coffee. The session is being led by Cleofas in Spanish leaving Brent and myself fending for ourselves in the back of the room.

Throughout the day there's been small explosions in the traffic circle just outside our windows. Tensions have been running high in Managua since the weekend when elections were held to vote on the new city mayor. The Sandinista incumbent, Alexis Arguello, is fighting to hold the position from opposition candidate Eduardo Montealegre.

You don't have to worry about sniper fire if you have your laptop.

According to our sources, tensions have been rising because of the Sandinista's refusal to release election records supporting their claim of victory in the race. Clashes and riots led to the shooting of two opposition supporters on Monday and CNN today reported the finding of burnt and discarded votes in support of the opposition in the city dump.

Protesters in the traffic circle have been holding vigil and firing off improvised explosives the size of large firecrackers all day long. Sandinista supporters storm and damage a local mall, forcing the mall where the competition will be held this weekend to close "for security reasons." Those of us from out of town joke that the situation could spark into violence but there seems to be more than just a little truth to those jokes than we'd like to believe.

Alirio, Brent and Rouki lounge in the bar.

I hate to say this, but secretly I'm hoping for a flare up here in Managua. It's sick, it's twisted, it's deranged - I know this, but I can't help myself. To see a revolution again up-close and personal brings me back to the days in early 2001 when I was in Manila during the EDSA II Revolution. Back then, I had my press pass and video camera and shot some fantastic footage. Secretly I curse on Canon for building such a crappy tape mechanism that causes their cameras to crap out after a while. My Canon is sitting back home in Maryland because of that crappy mechanism. So much my guest appearance on CNN.

Nik Orosi once told me that while fighting raged around them in Croatia with fighting and blackouts, Nik and his friends partied the nights away at underground nightclubs. Instead of getting worked up and worried about the violence that could flare up at any moment, we find ourselves encamped at the Crowne Plaza bar where we occupy ourselves exploring the finer points of Flor de Cano rum, with the obligatory sides of Coke and water con gas.

Julio pondering the wonders of Nicaraguan rum.

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