Nicaragua: The Country of Killer Bugs and Heat Stroke, Apparently

In just over a month now I’ll be heading to a small community in Nicaragua called Pedro Arauz. What do I know about this community? Absolutely nothing except for the fact that it is near a city called Tipitapa, which is northeast of Nicaragua’s capital, Managua.

Why on earth am I spending $2000 and using vacation  days to visit one of the poorest countries in the Americas? This is what most people ask me when I tell them that’s where my next ‘vacation’ is set to take place.

I’m going on an outreach trip. I’m volunteering for 7 days to build a water supply system and a community learning centre that residents can use as a space for collective discussion, idea exchange, and ultimately systematic learning.

I chose to go on this trip for a few reasons:

1. I’ve always wanted to do something like this and I’ve become really bad at making excuses for not doing what I want

2. I graduated with a minor in Global Studies and wrote at least a dozen 20 page essays about developing countries, without ever experiencing any first-hand

3. I missed the opportunity to go on a trip like this in university (I was much better at making excuses back then) and this is the first trip like this I’ve found that allows me to go without having to quit my job (aka I won’t be away for a month)

4. This trip is a complete 360 from any other travel experience I’ve had thus far (and I’ve had a lot). I’m all about ‘new experiences’.

When I found out I was accepted to go on this trip, I was thrilled. I also had no idea what to expect. In the weeks leading up to my trip, here is what I know for certain:

1. I will be spending the majority of the day involved in intense physical labour outdoors
2. I will be sleeping on the floor in a wooden house, covered by a mosquito net
3. I will have no access to running water or electricity. No wifi. No toilets.
4. I will be eating nothing but rice, beans and tortillas prepared by women in the village 3 times a day

I researched Nicaragua enough to know which vaccines I needed to get, but not enough to know much about what to expect on this trip. I think I will be moved by the realization of how much I take for granted, I will be humbled by the people who live so fundamentally differently than me, and I know I will appreciate the luxuries that I have back home (luxuries being my bed and toilets that I can sit on, of course). That’s about as far as I’ve gotten with expectations for this trip.

My friends, family and coworkers, however, have been taking care of the expectation part for me. I thought it would be neat to compile all the advice, expectations and stories that were shared with me before I embark on this trip, and then compare it to my actual experience when I come back.

Here are just a few of the things I’m told to expect when I go to Nicaragua. After sharing this with my mother, she’s already offered to pay me $2,000 to cancel this trip.

1. You are going to get sick

I’ve heard it all. From food poisoning, to traveler’s diarrhea, to rabies, to Hepatitis (which I’m already vaccinated for :)),  all the way to AIDS. Yes, AIDS. I actually had someone tell me this was what I was going to pick that up when I go there. Rest assured, everyone. I’ve had a  bunch of needles stuck in my arm over the past couple weeks to protect myself. I’m also drinking Dukoral at the end of the month. I’ll be fine (I hope).

2. You are going to be overwhelmed by bugs

Someone described the bugs in Nicaragua to me as “straight out of a child’s nightmare”. For someone like me who would seriously jump out of the window of a moving car if a bee flew into it, this is terrifying. I think my most favourite story was about the big black hairy spider that lives in Nicaragua that when startled, stands on its hind legs and rubs its front legs together, spewing off hair follicles that give you a burning rash and can make you blind if it gets in your eyes. Suddenly I’m second guessing taking those malaria pills my doctor prescribed to me. Mosquitoes seem like child’s play now. I was later told about the spider that can eat through a horse’s hoof and the one that can devour a small bird. The worms on the beach that lodge into your feet and have to be drawn out with a match also make me want to throw up. At this rate, I may just walk around wrapped in my mosquito net all day.

3. You are going to get shot

Not scared. People can get shot in Toronto, too.

4. You won’t be able to handle mixing cement for 8 hours a day and hacking through boulders

No defense here. This one is probably accurate.

5. How are you going to go to the  bathroom without washrooms or toilets?

Everyone seems to be really concerned about this one. It may or  may not have something to do with the fact that my bladder is abnormally small and one drink usually yields about 5-8 trips to the bathroom for me. I guess I see everyone’s concern. I pee a minimum of 3 times during the night. It may not be ideal for me to sneak outside alone in the middle of the night to empty my bladder. Especially with all those killer spiders out there. But everyone has given me great solutions. My favourite was ‘just pee in your pants’, followed by ‘lady pee funnels‘ as the runner up. I’m sure I’ll appreciate sitting on a toilet seat when I come home, but I’m excited for my leg muscles from all the squatting.

6. You are going to die from heat exhaustion or sun stroke

I get that it’s hot. And I know I will be doing physical labour during the sun’s peak hours.  I do hot yoga in a room that’s about 38 degrees celcius and walk out with wet hair and a shirt that I can wring out. I checked the weather for Nicaragua this afternoon. It’s was only 32. I think I can handle this one. I will also have access to a water filter that makes the water in Nicaragua safe to drink. I’ve actually had friends make fun of me for how much water I drink in a day. I got this.

7. You are going to get robbed

I’ve heard everything short of ‘hide your kids, hide your wife’ on this topic. When I went to Barcelona by myself, I had people sending me articles about how Barcelona was rated #1 for European cities you will get mugged in. My mom offered to pay me to cancel this trip too. But, I left Barcelona with my digital camera, phone, iPod, $1000 and my passport.

Just to clarify, most of the above advice is from people who have never been to Nicaragua. I’m not going on this trip to lie on the beach. I’m not going on this trip to see famous sites. And I’m  not going on this trip to stay in a 4-star hotel while eating some of the world’s best food. I’ve been on trips like this already. I’m going on this trip to try something new and break out of my comfort zone. I’m going on this trip to experience a new culture, to discover a new world and to help a community that lacks things we take for granted every day. I’m not really sure what to expect. But I am completely okay with that.

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Slow Cooker Herbed Chicken & Veggies

My slow-cooker is such a doll, cooking dinner for me all day while I’m at work. Came home to a heaping batch of this the other day!
Let’s face it, the last thing you want to do when you get in from work is slave over a hot stove. Everyone loves coming home to a warm, home-cooked meal. Enter slow-cooker. This guy will change your life, or at the very least, he will cook you dinner while you’re out.

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All you need to do for this recipe is toss all the ingredients in your slow-cooker and let it do all the work. Perfect for the lazy chef, the pressed for time chef or the I can’t cook chef.

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For this recipe, you’ll need one package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, one onion, 4 cloves of garlic, some olive oil, chicken broth and your favourite vegetables and spices. I used red-skin potatoes, parsnips, carrots, mushrooms and green beans for the vegetables and basil, parsley, paprika, rosemary, oregano, pepper and garlic powder for the spices.

Start by chopping all your vegetables and placing them in a large bowl. Save the onion and garlic for later. Add olive oil and spices and toss until well coated.

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Transfer the vegetables to your slow cooker. Slice one onion and 3-4 cloves of garlic and place them on top of the vegetable mix.

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Meanwhile, coat your chicken with olive oil and spices the same way you did for the vegetables. Brown the chicken on both sides in a frying pan.

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Add to the slow cooker on top of the onions and garlic.

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Add 3/4 cup of reduced sodium chicken broth (or mix one part chicken broth with one part water) and mix inside the slow cooker.

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Set your slow cooker on low for 5-6 hours or until veggies are soft and chicken is fully cooked.

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If any broth has not been absorbed, add a 1-2 teaspoons of cornstarch to thicken.

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You can make this the night before and warm it up when you get home for work or let the slow cooker make you dinner while you’re out. You can leave the slow cooker on the ‘keep warm’ setting all day if you make it the night before and don’t want to have to reheat it when you get home.

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Slow Cooker Herbed Chicken & Veggies

Ingredients:photo 3-2
1 package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts
olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
3-4 cloves of garlic, sliced
3 large carrots, peeled and chopped
2 large parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 cup of green beans, chopped
1 cup of mushrooms, quartered
2 cups of small round red-skinned potatoes, halved
3/4 cup chicken broth
generous amounts of basil, parsley, oregano and rosemary
dash of paprika, pepper and garlic powder

Instructions:
1. Add carrots, parsnips, green beans, mushrooms and potatoes to a large bowl. Coat with olive oil and spices. Mix well.
2. Coat chicken breasts with olive oil and spices and add to a frying pan on medium heat. Cook until browned on both sides.
3. Add vegetables to a slow cooker. Top with slices of onion and garlic.
4. Add chicken to the slow cooker.
5. Add 3/4 cup of chicken broth to slow cooker (or enough to make an inch and a half layer at the bottom of the slow cooker).
6. Cook on low for 5-6 hours or until vegetables are soft and chicken is fully cooked.
7. If chicken broth is not all absorbed, add 1-2 teaspoons of cornstarch to make a thicker gravy.

Enjoy!

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Roasted Curried Squash and Chickpeas with Lemon Tahini Dressing

It was only a couple weeks ago when I discovered that I had been missing out on butternut squash. After making a Butternut Squash Soup with Apple (and sneaking a piece of squash before blending it into a soup), I wondered how I had gone so many years without ever cooking with this vegetable.  So there I was, on a mission to find some awesome butternut squash recipes. Mission accomplished.

This recipe is adapted from a recipe posted on a food blog I follow called Lattes and Leggings. Check her out. Her recipes are incredible. This one is a spinoff from the original recipe posted by Food & Wine.

Just like my love-hate relationship with spaghetti squash, butternut squash also likes to give me a hard time. If you can get past the peeling and cubing, the rest is simple. After cutting off the ends of the squash (and nearly cutting off my fingers in the process), I peeled the squash with a regular potato peeler. Nothing fancy. You`ll want to be sure to remove all of the skin and any green bits underneath. Your final product should be light orange.

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Cutting the squash in half and still being able to blog about it with all 10 fingers is always an accomplishment. On the plus side, this almost counts as an arm workout for the weekend.

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Luckily, once you`ve made it to this step, it`s all smooth sailing. Remove the seeds from the squash and get ready to chop!

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Dice the squash into small cubes and transfer them to a large bowl. The hard part is over!

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Add 1 can of chickpeas, 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon of curry powder, and a few shakes of garlic powder, basil and parsley. Add a dash of ground black pepper and mix together.

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Transfer the mixture to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and cook on 375 for about 40 minutes or just until the squash is tender.

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Meanwhile, you can start preparing the lemon tahini dressing.

In a small bowl, combine 3 tablespoons of lemon juice with 2 tablespoons of tahini and 2 tablespoons of water. Whisk together until blended well.

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Gradually whisk in 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil and top with a generous amount of parsley flakes. Add more tahini until you have your desired thickness. Finish with garlic powder and pepper to taste.

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When the squash and chickpeas are done, top with a light drizzle of the dressing. This dish can be eaten hot or cold.

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I promise, this will not last long.

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Roasted Curried Squash and Chickpeas with Lemon Tahini Dressing

Ingredients:squash 12

Curried Squash and Chickpeas:
1 medium butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1 (15oz) can of chickpeas
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tsp parsley, basil and garlic powder
dash of pepper

Lemon Tahini Dressing
2 tbsp tahini
3 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp water
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tbsp parsley
garlic powder and pepper to taste

Instructions:
1. Preheat oven to 375. Peel the butternut squash, cut in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Cut into small cubes.
2. Add to a large bowl with chickpeas, olive oil, curry powder and spices. Mix well and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
3. Cook for about 40 minutes or just until the squash is tender.
4. Meanwhile, whisk together the tahini, lemon juice and water in a small bowl. Gradually add the olive oil and spices and continue to whisk until well blended. Add more tahini for desired thickness.
5. Serve squash and chickpeas hot or cold with a drizzle of the tahini lemon dressing on top.

Enjoy!

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Signs Your Mom is Trying Too Hard to Get You Married

Did you just mention a guy’s name?  Doesn’t matter if he’s your friend, your coworker, or the repair man that came to fix your air conditioner. She wants details.

She will flirt with men your age in an attempt to hook you up. Sure, she tells them all about her daughter, but the guy never really knows if she’s trying to set  him up with you or her.

She thinks you’re too picky. Give him a chance, she says!

Are you running out to the grocery store to pick up milk? Not in those sweatpants, you’re not.

No matter how many times you’ve recapped your awful dates with guys you met online, she insists you should ‘get back out there’.

She wants to know why you’re not interested in your neighbour. You know, the one who didn’t even finish high school.

What about the magician from your cousin’s bat mitzvah?

The cookie man that works at Costco?

Why not the guy half your height?

She’s worried when you tell her all the guys you hang out with are ‘just friends’.

She keeps you updated on everyone who is getting married and having babies. Whether you know who the heck they are is irrelevant.

She introduces you to men she barely knows.

What about the guy you went out with that hasn’t called you in over a month? You should see what he’s up to.

She tells you to be ‘nicer’ to guys and ‘let loose’. You know exactly what she means.

She says things like, ‘You know, I’d really like grandkids someday’.

She calls you everyday wanting to know about that nice guy you mentioned in passing. (He turned out not to be very nice).

She wants the world to know she has really nice daughters.

She carries pictures of you in her wallet to show to ‘nice guys’ she meets at the grocery store, at the gas station, at the bank and even at funerals.

She has your phone number memorized, for the sole purpose of handing it off to eligible bachelors. And when they call you, she swears it wasn’t her.

Well, there goes your chances with any man your mom has met.

Lasagna Rolls with Spinach and Ricotta

Put a new spin on lasagna with these lasagna rolls stuffed with ricotta and spinach.

lasagna 3Ingredients:
Lasagna rolls:
1 package of lasagna noodles
1 container of ricotta cheese
parmesan cheese
grated cheese (mozarella, cheddar or both)
1 egg
fresh spinach, chopped
dash of parsley, pepper and garlic powder

Sauce:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 can crushed tomatoes
1/2 can of tomato paste
1 onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
generous amounts of basil, oregano and parsley
dash of crushed red pepper flakes (or more if you like it spicy), pepper and garlic powder
1 bay leaf

Note: If you don’t want to make your own sauce, you can use a jar/can of your favourite ready-made pasta sauce.

Directions:
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the entire package of lasagna noodles (usually about 12). Cook until almost ready.
2. Meanwhile, get started on the sauce. Heat the olive oil in a separate pot on medium heat. Saute the onion and garlic until tender.
3. Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and spices. Bring to a boil then let simmer on low heat for 25 minutes.
4. In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta and egg. Mix until lightly blended.
5. Add generous amounts of spinach, shredded cheese and parmesan cheese. You can add as much or as little as you want, depending on how cheesy you want it to be. Add the parsley, pepper and garlic powder to taste. Set the cheese and spinach mixture aside.
6. Remove the lasagna noodles from the pot and drain under cold water. Place the noodles on a flat surface and run a line of the cheese mixture down the middle of each noodle. Roll up each noodle.
7. Spread a layer of sauce on the bottom of a 13×9 pyrex dish. Add the lasagna rolls on top, open side faced down. Top with the remaining sauce and parmesan cheese. Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees or until lasagna noodles are soft and rolls are heated through. Add shredded cheese on top and bake for an additional 5 minutes or  until cheese is completely melted.

Bonus: You can use the same recipe to make stuffed pasta shells.

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Enjoy!

Roasted Eggplant with Mushroom Stuffing

Looking for a vegetarian option for dinner? This recipe is so easy and makes a great meatless alternative. Best part? You can even eat the bowl!

Ingredients:
1 medium eggplanteggplant
2 tbsp butter
1 small onion, diced
5-6 medium mushrooms, chopped
3/4 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
1 tbsp parsley
1 tbsp basil
dash of pepper
1/2 cup grated cheese (cheddar or mozarella)

Directions:
1. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
2. Slice the eggplant in half lengthwise and scoop out the pulp with a spoon. Be sure to leave a 1/4 inch thick shell. Chop the pulp into small pieces and set aside.
3. Cook the eggplant in an ungreased pyrex dish for 15 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large frying pan and saute the onion until tender. Add the eggplant pulp and mushrooms and continue cooking until soft. Add the bread crumbs, parmesan cheese and spices. Continue cooking for 5 minutes.
5. Remove the eggplant shells from the oven and spoon the contents from the frying pan into each shell. Return to the oven and cook until eggplant shells are soft.
6. Add the grated cheese on top and broil for 3 minutes or until cheese is completely melted.

Enjoy!

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The 5 Guys You’ll Meet on Tinder

You’ve probably heard of it. Tinder is the newest fad for online daters. Profiles consist merely of your name, age and a few photos, removing the social stigma associated with online dating sites that require a detailed profile. So how does it work? You set your preferences for age, gender and location and the app pulls up people around you who fit your criteria. If you see someone you’re physically attracted to, you ‘like’ them. It’s only when two people both like each other that you have the option to send them a message. Essentially, it’s not much different than meeting someone at a  bar. You’re initially interested because they’re cute, you chat them up for a bit to see if they’ve got some personality, then you ask them for their number and eventually go out on a date.

Guys love it because

1. They don’t have to put in much effort. A simple ‘hey’ is enough to warrant a reply.

2. They can tell their friends they’re just using it to get laid.

Girls love it because

1. Not every guy on there is a socially awkward stage 5 clinger like most online dating sites.

2. You can filter out the creeps with the ‘block’ button.

And both men and women love it because you can meet people without having to leave your bed. If it doesn’t work out, you’ll meet someone new in less than 24 hours.

No matter what kind of guy you’re looking for, you can almost guarantee you’ll come across him on Tinder.

The Nice Guy

He’ll actually want to know about you. He will ask all kinds of questions to show he’s interested. He will text you almost immediately after your first date to say he had a great time and that he hopes to see you again. He’ll never make you wait around, always confirm dates in advance and works around your schedule. He will bring you a bottle of wine when he comes over,  compliment you even after your hair went frizzy from the rain and he will never let you pay for anything. If you’re sitting on a patio at night, he’ll ask the waitress for a table inside when it gets cold. If an obnoxious drunk is yelling in your ear, he’ll offer to switch spots with you. And if you don’t understand the rules at a baseball game, he’ll miss a couple innings to explain them to you. But of course, you won’t be interested.

The Self Absorbed

He will think he has you before he even meets you. He will ask you absurd questions just to ‘test you’. He will act like he is the only one who gets to decide if he’s interested because he can’t fathom the idea that someone may not like him. When you ask him how his week’s going, he will write you a novel about what he’s been up to. And you’ll wait for the ‘what about you?’ But it won’t come. He will insult you and you will never really be sure if he’s kidding. When you go out for dinner with him and order a $6 roll of sushi and hand him $20 when the bill comes, he’ll take it. And he’ll keep the change. When he comes back from a weekend trip, he will tell you he had a one night stand and realized he hasn’t gotten it all out of his system yet (surprise). At least he’ll be honest.

The I’m New to CanadaYou-must-be-new-here2

You’ll talk minimally, but the Irish accent will be enough to make you agree to a date. You’ll have no idea how to pronounce his name before you meet him. Good thing he’ll be bringing you out with his friends so you can wait for them to say his name and not have to ask him what it is. You will never really talk about anything serious or intelligent. Or maybe you will, but you’ll always have trouble understanding what he says when he doesn’t speak slowly. He wont exactly be the Gerard Butler from PS I Love You. He’ll be more like the PS I Want to Drink With You. Or the PS I Want to Sleep With You. If you don’t put out after 3 dates, he’ll probably lose interest. After all, he’s new to the country and he will have heard that Canadian girls are easy.

The I Don’t Look Like My Pictures

When you don’t recognize the person calling your name, you’ll know this date will be over before it starts. You won’t quite know  who this guy is that you’re about to get drinks with but it definitely won’t be the guy in the pictures. When he replies with “word” once you agree on a bar to go to, you’ll know his pictures weren’t the only thing from high school. When you’re texting, he’ll tell you he’s looking for a new job. But you’ll have no idea that this means he’s been unemployed for months and passes time by smoking marijuana while playing video games. He’ll also tell you he just quit smoking cigarettes. 10 points! And 20 points quickly lost when he pulls out his electronic cigarette and smokes it inside the bar. Aside from the fact that you’ll already hate him for tricking you with old pictures, you’ll have absolutely nothing in common with him and everything he says will be a turn off. You’ll end the date early and be in bed at 1030 on a Friday night. You won’t be seeing him again.

The Liar

He’ll charm your socks off from the minute you meet him and you’ll have instant chemistry. He will tell you he’s looking for something serious and you’ll believe it because he calls you often, always wants to know when he’ll see you again and he lets you in on personal things. You’ll know when his dad is sick, when his sister has a baby and all the details of his past relationships. But eventually it’ll be too much effort for him to keep up with his own lies.  So he’ll be honest. He’ll tell you he’s sleeping with other girls, that he never wanted anything serious, and that he thought you were lying when you told him you don’t sleep around. And then he’ll tell you that you should probably go home and think about all of it and let him know if you still want to see him.

In the end, you’ll be thankful for the free dinners and drinks. You’ll appreciate the good conversations. But you’ll realize you sure know how to pick ’em!