It’s Veganuary…

If you’re currently experimenting with a change in your diet and seeing what Veganuary is all about, well done, you’re half way through. If not…it’s never too late (even in February). As well as health and environmental benefits, the animals appreciate it too.

If you do eat meat and wonder how you could possibly consider going without it, at least give some consideration to where it comes from. You don’t have to kill your own, but someone, somewhere does, and that’s worth thinking about.

One farmer in Ontario reflected on his own chicken-killing experience recently.

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(Credit: The Globe and Mail)

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A little story about beef

Global beef production and its effects on our planet – a compelling story map has the details.

This is worth a look at, showing a compelling analysis of global beef production and its effect on our planet. The Cost of Beef “story map” comes from an environmental perspective and is reputable, put together by esri, University of Minnesota and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Combining analysis, maps and photos, it presents a compelling argument that we cannot maintain the status quo.

For example, it shows the parts of the world where farmland is used to feed animals and for biofuels. More than one third of the calories produced from crops is not for human consumption and in the US less than half of all crops produced ends up as food for people.

https://storymaps.esri.com/stories/2017/cost-of-beef/index.html

“Our appetite for meat – especially beef – is taking a huge bite out of our ability to feed people.”

Cycling through peanut butter

For a touring cyclist there can be no better energy food than peanut butter. Actually it’s just excellent food period. Already one of my favourite things to eat, it became my number one food of choice on the road. Being vegan, sampling a lot of local ‘delicacies’ was out the window, so as I moved further south, seeking out supplies of my favourite essential foodstuff became a bit of a mission, one that fortuitously led to discoveries in every country.

What’s there not to like? It goes with just about anything, sweet or savoury. My first few weeks in the USA were easy. Oh, how I look back fondly on those idyllic times, stopping mid-afternoon at a local natural food store for some organic, additive-free, peanut butter. If I was lucky, I could even grind the peanuts myself. Such luxury…

Back home in Vancouver I happily make a peanut butter sandwich with avocado and Marmite (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it…). Lacking the special Marmite magic on my travels, I kept to my favourite accompaniment – bananas. Even in Peru, my love affair with peanut butter was still going strong. Who needs variety when you’ve got peanut butter.

I didn’t expect to become so dependent on it, but as I realised I might be able to find supplies throughout Mexico I made a point of searching for it – high and low. I migrated from bread (Bimbo!) to fresh, often delicious tortillas, but I needed some quality toppings and fillings. Beans (with jalapenos)? Avocado and tomatoes (with jalapenos)? Both great options, but I needed that delicious, sweet taste and energy from the peanut butter and it’s conjoined twin, bananas (you can’t separate these things).

It became a bit of a game to try and hunt out peanut butter in each country I passed through. If I found a good source I’d buy extra – just in case there wasn’t any across the next border. However I lucked out every time, with only one – and a very minor one considering my alternatives – snag: Skippy, Jif and their ilk.

Like I said, I try to eat peanut butter as it should be. And that means peanuts. End of. No sugar, no palm oil, no hydrogenated oil, no random other ‘natural’ ingredients. I’ll allow a little salt. If it’s organic, so much the better. From Mexico southwards it was a different story. But needs must, so I wasn’t complaining. I learned to embrace Big Peanut Butter. It definitely spread better. Large jars of Skippy and Jif were stuffed into my panniers. Occasionally I’d see a ‘local’ brand, which really meant some country-specific peanut butter brand owned by the usual suspects. One was called Peter Pan. On very rare and heavenly days I found authentic, 100% peanut butter, such as from cafe Al-Natur in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. And it came crunchy.

Was it expensive? For me, touring on a tight budget, absolutely. I could destroy my daily food allowance on just a single jar. But it was worth it. If I found one country to be on the cheaper side, I’d stock up. I could have bought jam for a fraction of the price, but it’s nowhere near the same. My $6 indulgence. The funny thing was trying to compare prices in each country. Most places it worked out roughly similar, $5-$6 or thereabouts. Gringo prices for gringo food. Panama had pretty good prices and Colombia seemed to be the most expensive. But by then I didn’t care. I was well in for the long haul and even while I wasn’t cycling at that point, it was just too good. I almost brought some home.

Guatemala: generosity from first to last

I was getting itchy feet. It was time to make tracks into El Salvador. After Christmas in Panajachel, I had a few days in the lovely town of Antigua (somewhere I would have liked to have spent more time) before making it to Guatemala City. This was going to be a new experience for me – the big city, el capital – and so cycling into and out of here would be a challenge.

Donning my face/dust mask (I don’t think it helped much) I dodged and weaved in and out of traffic, cursing the city drivers who wouldn’t indicate, the buses and their exhausts and tried to find another pair of eyes to keep myself in the clear on the road. Luckily though, the route was fairly straightforward and I managed to get to my hotel without too much trouble.

A couple of days there and I was off (unfortunately missing out on a visit to UPAVIM [United For a Better Life], a local group of women’s artesans that also set up education for local children). On New Year’s Day. What better (and quieter) way to get 2012 off to a good start. In fact it was a perfect time to get out of the city as it was eerily quiet. I wasn’t too interested in finding the best party in town anyway for New Year’s, so an early start out was perfect. I rang in 2012 chatting on skype to a good friend, and that was good enough for me.

It took two days to reach El Salvador, and my last night in Guatemala gave me yet another example of the generosity and warmness of the people I’ve met here. My map gave me the impression that the town I headed to was ‘big’, but it wasn’t. Asking a genteman who’d stepped off the bus if there was anywhere to stay in town, he said there wasn’t any hotels, but indicated there was somewhere I could find. He ended up taking me to his sister’s house!

By that point I was tired and didn’t care what they had to offer, so a dilapidated room and mattress was good enough, though I had to wander through their house to use the bathroom. Sheila and Jesus seemed to have a procession of visitors throughout the day, perhaps because they had a huge widescreen tv, still with it’s wrapping on. The next morning when I tried to pay Sheila, she refused, though she did seem quite interested in the gold ring I was wearing…

From day one, when I was helped by a young lad to push my bike up a short hill when I was slipping on the wet road, to this day, I’ve found the people in Guatemala to be hospitable, generous and welcoming. Most people here have very little and their warm attitude was quite refreshing and at times humbling. How would El Salvador compare?

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Fair Trade and comfort food in Xela (Quetzaltenango)

I made my way up and down a few hills to the relative metropolis that is Quetzaltenango (or Xela, it’s name in the local language). I was happy to get here for a little rest, gringo food, and to explore some local Fair Trade organisations.

After recuperating from my volcanic experiences, I set about exploring the Fair Trade aspects of the city centre. Xela is popular with outsiders and tourists for Spanish language schools and adventure touring. There’s a number of young gringos around the centre and several places that cater for this type crowd. Of most interest to me – food and Fair Trade. I found more than enough here to satisfy my cravings.

I started with a couple of places: Al-Natur and El Cuartito. El Cuartito is a western-style cafe and coffee shop that serves Fair Trade organic coffee that tastes rich, sweet and comes in western-style sizes. Perfect! Al-Natur is more interesting though, as it’s a Fair Trade shop and cafe.

Al-Natur is run by Mario and his wife Carolina. Established three years ago, it’s a great little one-stop shop for local and regional “fairly traded” products. “Fair Trade” as a certification is rare within Guatemala, and really only exists for coffee that is exported to Europe and North America. Within the country there isn’t any official “Fair Trade” certifier or organisation that supports Fair Trade (for organic, “Mayacert” does certification within Guatemala). So the products at Al-Natur, which are typical of the products from small producers, are made based on fair trade principles. Al-Natur sells quite a range of things: textiles made by women’s co-operatives and associations; shampoos and natural products; jams; granola; peanut butter; flour; tea; coffee; chocolate (for drinking); as well as others bits and pieces. Most products are developed by co-operatives and individual producers. Mario used to work in helping various women’s groups and co-operatives and so now Al-Natur is a place where those producers can sell their products. It was here that I found out about the Trama textile co-operative and ASICHOQ, the chocolate producer association. I visited both organisations last week.

On the vegan and food side, I quickly found a few places that became favourites: Artesano for fresh bread (and vegan muffins!), a place I stumbled into every day; the Blue Angel cafe for decent, simple food and vegan cookies; and Aeropagus where I had the odd bagel and some very tasty vegan apple pie.

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Resting in San Cristobal

I decided I would take a bit of time to relax in San Cristobal, and it was a good place to do so. Decent food (for me, plenty of vegan options), excellent coffee (mucho organic, local and some ‘fair trade’ options too) and an attractive centre that makes for some easy-going, meandering walks around and about the distinct colonial architecture of the town.

It’s been a great way to unwind a bit and though I haven’t explored much outside of town I did get to see a good few things here. As well as my Fair Trade visits, Dan suggested I visit one or two of the several NGOs that are based here. Most of them are geared towards helping the indigenous populations in Chiapas. I met up with Faustino & Gilberto at Desmi and popped into the office of Frayba. As Dan had explained to me on our visit to Acteal, the local indigenous populations have suffered heavily over the years and organisations like these two try do what they can to help.

Desmi promotes the interests and rights of mixed and indigenous communities in Chiapas. They work to promote economic solidarity through means of justice, equality, dialogue and environmental respect, all geared towrds creating autonomy within these communities.

Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas (Frayba) Center for Human Rights is an independent non-profit Civil Organization. Frayba was founded in 1989 through the initiative of Samuel Ruiz García, Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas. They work in defense and promotion of human rights, especially for the indigenous villages and communities here in Chiapas.

Changing tack…my time here coincided with an annual culture festival (Cervantino Barroco) so I got to sample some local music in different venues around the town. There is normally some music to be had here if you wander the plaza or some of the pedestrianised streets

I also took the chance (and I would certainly describe this as ‘taking a chance’) to send a couple of things back home. I’d tried to do so from La Paz and was confronted by the impressively convoluted way of using the Mexican postal system. When I was there, any package must first be inspected by customs, which was conveniently located about 3km away from the post office. So I expected more hassle here in San Cristobal, but firstly I had to find an envelope…

After trawling around town trying to find a large packet envelope (Mexican post offices haven’t got around to selling the kind of things you might need to send a package. Just stamps), I went back to the post office to await the fun. Amazingly enough it was not only straightforward but I got a lot of help getting it sent. The guy behind the counter found an old box that I could use; he packed it up (firstly having to check what I was sending) and conveniently ignored the extra few grams that took the package into a higher price band. I expected nothing but more hassle and so I’ve had to revise my view a little. The other strange thing was seeing the row of staff busy typing away on typewriters, though one lady looked particularly bored as she plodded her finger on the space bar to get to the end of the line…

I stayed at a nicely-run B&B called Gite del Sol. It was inexpensive and friendly, on the lower scale but suited my needs (apart from getting used to the cool evenings and crispy mornings). It’s run by a Mexican-Canadian couple so I kept hearing French and English as well as Spanish, as welll as the odd spattering of German too. As for food and coffee, I found some great places here. The best vegetarian (where I went repeatedly) was Arcoiris, which does a vegetarian buffet. It’s very homely and low-key and they do some ‘interesting’ combinations when using up the previous day’s food, particularly the bread…but it’s generally fresh and it was easy to find vegan options there. My top recommendation! There are a couple of really good bakeries (Madre Tierra and Casa del Pan Papalotl, which is also organic) too where I ate enough bread to make up for all the tortillas I’d been eating for the previous two months. For coffee I had too much choice…from the Cafe Museo, Casa del Pan, Madre Tierra, Cafe La Selva, Cafe Yik…all organic, some Fair Trade, all local Chiapas coffee.

Leaving San Cristobal was hard to do…but Guatemala soon awaits!

Bimbo: Mexico’s breadmaker mafia

If you were reading this blog a few months ago, you’ll know about the fun I had trying to escape the tentacles of the Franz breadmaker mafia. Luckily Franz is a regional player, albeit with a lot more reach than I bargained for.

However, for bread in Mexico there’s just no getting away from Bimbo (pronounced Beem-bo). I can’t fathom the reasons for the name, but obviously it’s not the same in Spanish. The cuddly bear mascot reminded me of Mr Stay-Puft from Ghostbusters, and it’s an appropriate comparison given the size of the Bimbo company. Occasionally when I feel like a change from tortillas I check out the Bimbo offerings.

A breadmaker mafia this size clearly has far-reaching tentacles and Bimbo are huge. Grupo Bimbo turns out to be one of the biggest food manufacturers in the world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grupo_Bimbo). They’re only the 4th largest food company in the world behind Unilever, Kraft and Nestle and were the world’s largest bread manufacturer in 2010. Stick that up your pipe and smoke it, Franz! So there’s no getting away from them (except in San Cristobal where I found a number of great independent bakeries).

I really know nothing more about Bimbo’s ethics – though I guess it operates in much the same way as any other huge multinational – but the bread I’ve found so far is vegan friendly. No random milk ingredients or sneaky dairy has been added (though plenty of other ‘un-natural’ ingredients are thrown in there), but I do get to ingest a wide range of interesting-sounding chemicals that are typical within modern bread that never goes stale.

The other fun thing is seeing all the Bimbo bread vans careering around the towns and villages. I think this is where Postman Pat came after the Royal Mail gave him his P45 all those years ago.