This has happened to me once before, this purchasing of an unwieldy object while on the road, as if I forget that this thing, this cumbersome thing, will accompany me through my travels for the next few weeks.
The first time it happened was with a large, unwieldy hat. I had spent four backbreaking, jeep-over-rocks days with two Chileans, a Brazilian woman and two French women, crossing the southwest of Bolivia in what is commonly called the “Salar de Uyuni trip.” The truth is, you spend very little time on the salt lake itself, which is, in a way, good, since despite wearing fancy sunglasses, I was pretty much snow (or salt) blind by the end of the afternoon we actually did spend there.
At any rate, we soldiered on to La Paz, the Chileans and I, having picked up a Japanese woman who was studying in Costa Rica and who now lives in Cambodia. We wandered around in La Paz, slowly, as you do, what with the altitude, and went to a late night folkloric performance and huffed and puffed back up to the hill where we were staying, and bussed over to Tiwanaku. The ruins were cool enough, but me the real prize was the steep bus ride back, where we got to see the clouds part, and Inti Illimani, a giant mountain for which a famous Chilean folk band is named.
But before all that, we wandered in the freezing cold of a Bolivian winter (our summer), Saran wrap ponchos at the ready for the next chubasco (cloudburst), and we went into a couple of stores. I have to explain that one of the Chileans was a beard-wearing, poncho-toting kind of a guy, the kind of person who stylishly sports whatever goofy thing he feels like. So when I put on the hat, he told me it looked great and that I should buy it. I was cold, and altitude-addled, and my Saran wrap poncho was dripping onto me, so when I looked at myself in the mirror, I thought, “he’s right. I need this hat.” And I bought it and sat on a low wall in the touristy area of La Paz where smarter people than I bought colorful scarves, and disputably not smarter people than me bought llama fetuses (for fertility), and I had this ridiculous hat that I now had to wear around for the next couple of weeks, because if I put it in my backpack, it would get crushed, and no longer look great. And so I wore it. Certainly more times than I have worn it since, which has been exactly once, for a costume party.
This time, in Nicaragua, I was mindful not to buy a ridiculous hat. No hats for me, no headwear at all. I even lost the baseball cap I’d brought with me, though I’m still not clear on how or where. It’s all right, it’s better off in the universe than with me, and it’s lived a good and travel-ful life. So this story is not about hats. It’s about chocolate.
What happened was, in talking with other travelers in Nicaragua, I learned that there was a chocolate-making class in Granada. The truth is, this is kind of idiotic, as Nicaragua, while known for its chocolate beans, is not particularly well-known for it’s chocolate, which is mainly processed elsewhere. And even though Nicaragua is known for its chocolate beans, these beans (and the fruits that hold them, and the trees that support those) does not grow well near Granada, as it is too hot. And oh, is it too hot. But I digress.
So everyone said the chocolate class was fun, and you get to make your own chocolate bar, and though I tasted one and found it pasty, I went to the class anyway. And I asked the guy who was packing chocolate in the front of the store if he was Ismael, and he said he was, and I told him how everyone thought he was fabulous, and that’s he’s all but carved out a niche of followers on TripAdvisor for his excellent chocolate making class-leading skills.
And so the class began. There was history and geography, and some biology, and then we went to a back area where we toasted chocolate beans over an open fire, in a clay pot, with a giant wooden spoon that felt like a small oar in my hand (that’s Ismael in the background). And we popped the beans out of their shells, and then brought them to the front counter, where we were given lava mortars and pestles, with which to grind the beans.
And we ground, and ground. Eventually, the beans turned into a glossy paste, which we put in a pitcher and made a succession of chocolate drinks, similar to ones that would have been drunk by the Mayans, the Aztecs (my favorite), or the Spaniards.
And then we ground some more, eventually making our own chocolate bars in little molds, with stickers with our initials indicating which one was ours. I put more cocoa nibs in mine, little broken pieces of dried, toasted cocoa beans.
And then they made us give back our aprons, which hardly seemed fair, seeing as how cute they looked, and we were released for the day, and told to come back the next day to pick up our chocolate bars, which were hardening in the fridge. And I realized that irrationally, I was not ready to part with my mortar and pestle.
It was lava.
And had a face on it. I told Ismael that I wanted a mortar and pestle, and he pointed me to the ones in the shop. But they were not as perfect as the one I had used, though, to be fair, nor were they encrusted in pasty chocolate. I pointed out the different design, and my lack of attachment to the mortar and pestle sets sitting in the store, and asked, partially jokingly, if I could have the one that I had so lovingly mashed beans in. And Ismael conferred with a couple of people, and they said yes.
Which is how, though it is, perhaps not quite as inconvenient as wearing around a non-crushable felt hat for a couple of weeks, I came to schlep a nearly four-pound chunk of lava around with me across three countries over the course of about three weeks.
But at least I now have a reliable way to grind sea salt. It’s only vaguely chocolatey.
Bought something idiotic? Please tell me I’m not the only one.