Or, how to cook your own food
So, you’re not keen on making sandwiches with avocado, onion, and tomato on white bread. You know how said bread is made and what ingredients go into it. You know it contains chemical leavening agents in place of eggs, and that it’s dairy free (and therefore vegan). You might also have an awareness of the mutual exclusivity between white bread and paleo.
Whether you’re staying in a hostel or have rented an apartment, or you’re a PeaceCorps volunteer and made arrangements other than a homestay in order to avoid the awkwardness that would ensue when you pass on the soup because it’s cooked with chicken bones; or the breakfast, when it contains eggs bought with the host-family’s hard-earned money or laid by their family hen…
The money you have to live on consists of either a meager stipend or nothing at all. After searching far and wide to secure an apartment or a room in a hostel or hospedaje with a kitchen—with a dependable landlord and rent within your budget, you finally find it and obviously can’t live on your stipend or lack thereof when you spend most of it on rent. Your coworkers, peers, or most people in your age range go out to bars and clubs every night and dine at restaurants that cost 45 Q for an entree.
Your apartment, or the hostel or hospedaje you are staying in, has a stove. The town you are staying in has a market that caters to locals. You can either trek to the market every day to buy the fresh produce you need, or you can supplement it with a few dry goods. Namely, havas aka fava beans. These have 20g protein per serving and are reasonably priced. If they don’t taste delicious at first, you will eventually begin to crave them. When purchased fresh they cook a lot faster, but it’s a good idea to keep a stash of the dried variety at home (or in your backpack when between hostels, apartments, campsites, etc). You can also buy purple corn, a popular “superfood” among the raw foodist community. Like dried havas, it’s sold by the pound inside most local markets. When dried, it looks a bit like animal feed—especially when stored in large burlap sacks as it often is. That shouldn’t wig anyone out, however, since most cows are fed corn—as are most dogs and cats that eat commercial food.
But seriously, purple corn is good for you. Just ask Blythe. She loves it. You can also buy quinoa, which I personally don’t love for reasons similar to my general aversion to rice. However, if you like grain—quinoa is most likely your best bet. Unless you’re gluten intolerant, wheat berries provide a nutritious alternative to rice. Another food considered a “superfood” in the states are cacao beans—also sold in markets in Guatemala with an astronomically lower price tag. Cacao tastes great in a trail mix with cashew nuts—another “superfood” that is sold in the states for $10 a pound. In the local markets of Guatemala, the price per pound is 4 or 5Q (under $1). You can also buy goji berries—another “superfood” in the states, known in other countries as “wolf berries”, for mere pennies when compared to the $20 a pound they sell for in the states.
Cooking your own food is often possible at your average hostel. However, when traveling though Guatemala for the fourth time, the girl I was traveling with seemed a bit more hardcore than me. I thought I’d seen it all, but she suggested we stay at an hospedaje that looked straight out of a horror film. The room cost about 10Q for both of us, and we slept on a cot in our sleeping bags only to wake up to noises of 10 cockroaches scurrying on the floor. The shower was a definite no-go, since neither of us had “shower shoes” or flip flops, and all of the toilets were clogged. We peed in empty water bottles. The next night, we went to the hostel across the street for 100Q. At this hostel, unlike the previous, we had kitchen access and wifi. In the kitchen, we cooked the havas I’d purchased from a market months ago in a town I can’t recall the name of. I’d nearly forgotten about them, but the fact that I had them eliminated the need for us to trek 10 more miles into the next town to eat. Lesson learned: dried goods are good to have on hand in case of a crisis or otherwise.
Good things to travel with, in case you stay somewhere with a stove, include:
1.) A metal measuring cup, to double as a drinking glass—from which you can drink a hot beverage or broth without the threat of melted plastic, and use for cooking. Don’t travel with glass, since your backpack will most likely end up strapped atop a bus with questionably-secure rope. Glass can easily break in situations such as this (thereby ruining many important belongings i.e. your laptop). This didn’t actually happen to me, unless you consider nightmares in a parallel universe an alt-reality, if you believe in the existence of alternative universes or dimensions and consider dreams a gateway into them.
2.) A small metal pot with a lid, that you can buy at most markets in Guatemala. The metal is thin, of a similar thickness/texture as the metal measuring cup. You can also buy one in your home country before you leave, but if saving $ is the goal—wait.
3.) A tupperware plate, such as these. If you’re traveling with a partner or a group—one person should carry them because they’re feather-light and stack in a very convenient way. In other words, it’s as easy for one person to carry 4 of them as it would be for 4 people to carry one each in their own individual packs.
4.) A knife, purchased when you land at your first destination. If you take a bus to Mexico en route to central america from the states, you might not need to worry about it being confiscated. I’m not sure. However, if you take something like a Leatherman Juice (which I loved, and nearly fought the security officer at customs to keep) or a swiss army knife, you need to check your bag. It’s ironic, since the first rule of backpacking is to pack less than what would necessitate a checked bag. So, either check your pocket knife or mini multi-tool device in your bag, and deal with baggage claim, or wait until you hit Guatemalan soil and purchase one at the market in the next town.
5.) A fork and spoon, or a spork (one that won’t be taken from you at customs) carved from bamboo, like this one sold by Bambu. Yes, it’s very hippie and was very hyped in 2009 at co-ops in Northern California and Southern Oregon—but it’s also very functional. I can’t hate on it; it was a gift from my former roommate in college. It fits in your pocket and you could even drill a hole in the middle and wear it as a necklace for convenient use. Otherwise, buy a metal fork and spoon at the market when you arrive at the town you plan to stay in. The fork can even double as a tool for self-defense, should you ever need it.
6.) Pepper spray or mace. If Belize is on your backpacking itinerary, a store in Belize City sells it. On a keyring. On my first trip to Mexico for work back in 2009, my then-boyfriend’s close friend gave me her pepper spray keychain as a gesture to keep me safe. Like the Leatherman in 2011, this was also taken from me at customs. When I found a near-identical one filled with bear mace in Belize, I bought it. There was a time, in fact, that I actually needed to use it.
What you don’t need, but might want:
1.) A bowl, made of plastic or metal. I recommend metal, since in most cases you’ll want to eat soup from it. If you really want to minimize—trust me, this is a good idea; less is more when it comes to backpacking—use the metal measuring cup instead. It’s totally versatile, and when you consider the odd shape of a bowl (and curse it each time you attempt to pack your bag) you will later rejoice in the versatility of the metal measuring cup. You will leave your plastic bowl at the hostel or give it to the homeless man on the sidewalk. You will not miss it.
2.) Glassware. If you stay in a place long enough i.e. if you work or volunteer there, you may want a glass or two. Ever wonder about that vintage pyrex your great-grandmother donated to Goodwill in the early ‘90s? It’s in Guatemala. Vendedoras use it to serve their Tang and arroz con chocolate. And as a side note, please: sit down and drink your beverage from pyrex as opposed to accepting a to-go styrofoam glass that will undoubtedly later manifest in the lake or the ocean, or on the streets of Guatemala City.
Vintage pyrex glassware is useful, novel, and more fun than drinking from a metal or plastic cup. Buy one in the market or from a used-appliance store. Can’t find one? Walk past the tourist-ridden main street and venture into the real part of town.
The point is, to cook havas or purple corn (or black beans, pinto beans, red beans, etc., if you so choose) you need only a cheap metal pot of a small size, in which you can pack clothing as well as your metal measuring cup/drinking vessel when en route to your next destination. Don’t buy glass unless it’s cheap and you don’t mind leaving it behind (since it’s likely to break, and could ruin the rest of your luggage i.e. your clothes). A knife is useful, but if bringing one from the states and your mode of transport is by plane—don’t be surprised when the customs officer pulls you aside and asks you to spread the contents of your bag across the surveillance belt.