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.

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310 days, 12 countries, 15,000 km, 30+ Fair Trade visits

310 days seems like a long time. It is. But it’s not forever and the end point is at hand. La senora gorda cantando.

But I look at it another way. It’s really the start of another adventure for me. Back in Vancouver, or wherever the future takes me, I’m looking forward to coming home. I’ve been able to appreciate the people and the things I have in life a lot more.

I’m sat in Lima airport, waiting for an evening flight to New York. I’m trying to reflect on the experience. Too much to summarise here: the ups, downs, falls, scares, good, bad, surprising, touching, the people…

My insights into Fair Trade just scratch the surface. Like most things, there’s a lot more to it than just the label on your coffee or chocolate. But it is a step in the right direction. I believe that, despite the downsides I’ve seen. We need to keep fighting for the marginalised producers. I laughed whole-heartedly at the recent petrol ‘crisis’ that gripped Britain recently – people running to panic-buy petrol when there was only the mere threat of a delivery strike. Imagine if banana and coffee and cacao growers went on strike….

It’s amazing what we take for granted and the people who provide these foods for us need a bigger say in the picture. Do try to buy Fair Trade when you can, and more importantly, get informed about the bigger picture and how we can help these millions of small producers and their children lift themselves, however marginally, out of poverty.

Edna shows her undercarriage, ready for packing up
I hit South America a couple of months ago, after swapping the bike for the bus

And don’t worry, Fair Trade Bike Ride isn’t going off-line. I’ve many more stories to tell from my trip and there’ll be more adventures to come, I’m sure of it. Thanks to everyone who’s read the blog and encouraged me along the way. I really appreciate it. Hasta luego!

 

Western Honduras to Nicaragua…in only two days

Sitting on the crowded bus, I marvelled at how quickly the miles passed and yet how I was missing all that was happening on the road. I could look out the window, but it wasn’t the same as seeing everything from the seat of my bicycle. But when the bus slowed to a virtual standstill, the driver ragging the gearing to get into first, I did feel slightly happier that I wasn’t riding up some steep mountain roads.

My few days in the Santa Rosa area in western Honduras were really interesting. But time was running out and I needed to make tracks towards Panama. It meant some long bus rides lay ahead. The first of which was getting to the Honduran captial, Tegucigalpa.

Santa Rosa parque central. Lovely square, nice church

Leaving Santa Rosa was a bit of a panic. For all the ‘laid-backness’ of the people in Central America, when it comes to bus travel, they somehow get over-excited and the bus ‘shouters’ make you feel like their bus is the most important place to be in the world. “You have to get on, now! (Even though we’re not leaving anytime soon…).” So I got into a bit of a tizzy trying to get my bike around to load her up, dumping my bags on the ground and making sure they treated her well when loading her up. I didn’t count on the blind taxi driver then driving over my bike bag. Argh! All a-fluster, I managed to get on the bus but then had 8 hours ahead to calm down…

Tegucigalpa was a place I wanted to spend as little time as possible. I heard negative things about it and the bus terminal was not in the nicest area of town. Arriving late afternoon I hope to be on my way first thing next morning. I didn’t get to see any of its nicer spots, unfortunately, so my experience is one-sided. I did get to wander about a little bit, but I was on edge almost the whole time. It’s a shame that I wasn’t able to see its good side, which it does have. My hotel was perfectly fine and safe, but I was glad it was a quiet Sunday morning when I left. I needed Plan B, as the bus to Managua, the Nicaraguan capital was full. It meant a bus to the border, skipping over and more buses from the other side. Not ideal, but getting to Esteli was do-able in a day.

Except…I get to the bus stop and they tell me they can’t take my bike. Unbelievable! I thought these bus people could take anything. Not this time, even though I waited for another bus. Eventually they pointed me over the road, to catch a different bus. It got me going, though not quite as far as I hoped. Eventually, after another bus ride, I was close to the border. I fancied cycling the remaining 15 km, even though it was uphill and I didn’t have much time that day. But it felt a lot easier than juggling the bike and the buses.

The border was its chaotic self. I even smiled at the $12 ‘tourist’ fee. Money changed, I saw the Nicaraguan bus. Relief! It was a “school bus”. This typically means anything goes, and with little fuss Edna was loaded up on the roof. We drove through more coffee country and I felt quite at home; the bus was packed, sweaty and jarring. But it was short, and I transferred to yet another bus in order to get to Esteli, my stop for the day. I timed it perfectly, after paying for tickets and toilets we were on our way again. This bus was a proper coach, so I got to sit back and reflect on my chaotic day. Four buses, a border crossing, an hour of cycling…and, very relieved, I made it to a simple but very nice hotel in Esteli just before dusk.

Nicaragua! The usual border chaos, but it was pretty straightforward

I was very relieved to get through El Salvador and Honduras. I’d heard plenty of negative things about each country, and though my experience was generally good, I always had a sense of caution in the back of my head. When even local people urged caution, as in El Salvador, it made me take notice. A couple of other cyclists I’d met in Mexico had their trip ended after later being robbed in Honduras. And though I was cautious, I had some very good experiences in both countries. The people were generally very welcoming, friendly and hospitable. Each country has a lot to offer visitors and I often felt that we listen to the media too closely when it comes to travelling. Sometimes you just have to put that to one side. The best way is to get out there and experience it for yourself.

Leaving Esteli...I was out before dawn

COCAFELOL, Honduras: random Fair Trade stop on the road

Breezing into Honduras from El Salvador I fell into the trap, yet again, of confusing provinces and towns. My stay in Nuevo Ocotepeque, my Fair Trade ‘base’, just across the Honduran border, did not turn out as I hoped. I was in the right province, but my intended Fair Trade visits were too far out of reach from the town. Plan B then…Nuevo Ocotepeque had nothing to distract me, despite trying hard – the circus was in town – so I decided to head to Santa Rosa the following day. It turned out to be one of my toughest rides of the trip.

I started with a long climb – a good three hours uphill. I was a wee bit nervous about cycling in Honduras having heard the odd story or two, and knowing the capital, Tegucigalpa, to be a little dodgy. So when a bloke stopped halfway up the hill and offered to give me a lift I wondered whether I’d found a very generous soul or a dodgy geezer. I wasn’t tempted, even though the climb was hard, I wanted to get up that hill all by my own effort. Declining as nicely as I could, I don’t think he understood my motivation. Eventually he moved on but stopped a little further up the road, putting me on edge. I passed him and waved. A few minutes later he did the same, to my huge relief. Looking back, I wasn’t sure whether he was more concerned about my safety or the fact I was crazy for cycling up this long mountain pass.

Weather conditions changed significantly at the top as I was greeted with strong winds, fog and the coldest temperatures I’d experienced in a while, but my long descent gave way to more sun and heat. It was near the bottom of this, in La Labor, whizzing past a sight to my left that made me brake in earnest. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity!

The co-operative has well-adorned walls, showing their Fair Trade credentials

It was the colourful wall display of COCAFELOL, a Fair Trade coffee co-operative. It was too good to miss, so I parked up with Edna, chatted to the security guard, and got myself a chance to look around the facility. I figured an hour here would still give me enough time to complete the ride in good order…

Sipping a welcome cup of coffee, I waited in reception for Renan, a young lad who works on the co-op’s certifications. They have quite a collection – Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and “UTZ”, and organic. The different certifications cater for the different growers in the co-op and the different buyers of the coffee. Producers have one of the three social/environmental certifications (Fair Trade has the highest number) but organic certification is only with a few producers. Although the co-op encourages organic production, the standards are strict to obtain and many producers are put off by the investment needed.

The co-op has over 300 producers and in total produces more than 2.5m lbs of green coffee. All the ‘premium’ quality is exported to foreign markets; the ‘second’ quality is used for domestic markets. AMPROCAL, a women’s co-operative, is a separate co-op affiliated with COCAFELOL who create the roasted and ground coffee products for the Honduran market.

COCAFELOL is an ambitious co-op, as I could tell just from their wall graphics out front. As well as quite modern processing equipment they have instituted a bio-ethanol operation for powering the equipment and it was the first time I saw the drying ‘greenhouses’. These help produce ‘micro-lot’ coffee that is typically produced in small quantities and can fetch higher prices when sold. In common with many other co-ops, they produce organic compost, including worms, that they sell back to the producers. The producers have access to credit via the co-op.

I got a quick tour and would have liked a little longer. Not only was it lunchtime, but I had a lot of riding still to do that day. I figured I was behind schedule but thought I’d still be ok for time. I trusted my map, I trusted Google Maps…

It all worked out in the end, though I rolled into Santa Rosa at the latest time of day I’d ever arrived, right around dusk. The climbing was particularly tough getting into the town, and the state of the roads and traffic didn’t help. I should have learned some Spanish swear words for that climb…

But there’s a great feeling to finish a day like that and my bonus Fair Trade visit really made my day. Unpredictable in so many ways, it encapsulated the good and bad of bike touring in strange places, and the bizarre things that can happen along the way.

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A Fair Trade Bus Ride…

How about this for a “Fair” trade…a Bus for a Bike?

It would have to be a very special bus for me to part company with Edna, my very trusty Surly Long Haul Trucker. But as I’ve learned so often along the way, things happen unexpectedly and plans change as a matter of course. Edna has done me very well. We made a good team, we got through the hard and bad times together and came out rosy, eventually, in Panama City. Some 9,200 km after leaving Vancouver eight months ago.

But Edna and I decided it’s time to take a break from each other. I’ve had my ladies along the way (Gemini, Agnes) though there’s only one lady now so it’s best for Edna to get back to Vancouver and have some rest. She’s in good hands.

Amazingly, time is running short for me and I’ve got plenty I’d like to see in South America. Santiago, Chile, was my original destination (though I chose it somewhat arbitrarily), but that looked unrealistic a couple of months ago. Getting from Panama to Colombia is incredibly foolhardy to attempt by bicycle (if it’s even possible). For me, my trip has been much more about the Fair Trade than the cycling, so it wasn’t a hard decision to take in deciding to fly to Bogota and make the rest of my trip by bus.

It’ll certainly be different. I have one very heavy bag now instead of four or five, I can’t nip around a town quickly and easily any more, or stop in random interesting places by the roadside. But I’m looking forward to a change and seeing how easily I can find some more Fair Trade visits.

A Fair Trade Bike Bus Ride…four wheels, not two.

El Salvador: watch out for hungry money-changers and ATMs

Getting across the border took a little bit of time, but luckily was straightforward.

Before then, I’d already been fleeced by the money-changers. My fault; my maths calculations took a nosedive when I was surrounded by four sweaty blokes shouting and waving in front of my face. But at least I didn’t pay them for the ‘passport stamp’.

On to Ahuachapan though. And after arriving there I needed some new currency ($US, strangely enough). I couldn’t figure out why but a few unsuccessful attempts to withdraw money at the ATM and my card was gone. A wee problem. Next morning, with some help from an English-speaking customer I figured out it’d be more than a week before they could fish it out. Luckily I had a backup and the card hasn’t been cancelled so I should be fine once I get it back. Assuming all goes to plan when I go back there to pick it up…

The upside is that it doesn’t change my plans too much and doesn’t leave me stuck in a one-horse town for several days. This area of western El Salvador is a large coffee-growing region and so there’s opportunities to visit a finca or two in the next few days.

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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