Sunday, July 13, 2014

Trip to Ecuador

In January of this year, my boyfriend and I went on a 4-week trip to Ecuador (sabbatical through his work). I'll try to share our experiences, both to preserve our memories, and in case it could help other vegans looking to travel to that area as well. (Note: must take malaria pills if you're traveling into the jungle at all. See a travel doctor for specifics.)

Quito

We started off in Quito, Ecuador, and the first night was a bit scary. When we landed and hopped in a taxi to get to the hotel, the taxi driver didn't seem to recognize the address and was bringing us around in a pretty sketchy looking area - poorly lit, muddy road, plus this was our first view of Ecuador - we hadn't yet gotten used to the stray dogs on the streets and poor communities. From all the pictures online, the hotel looked a lot better than what we might have found in the area he was driving us to. He stopped at a house of someone he knew, asked directions (we assume, we don't know Spanish very well), and luckily, eventually, he brought us to the right place.

It was a beautiful hotel ("Casa d'Campo Hotel Boutique"), but on the other side of the hotel property fence the city was all torn up and under construction. The hotel was pretty new; perhaps now the area around it is nice too. We had a pretty spacious cabin all to ourselves.



One of the hotel staff spoke English and I think she was around when we had breakfast the next morning, but either way, we had practiced saying "no huevos, no leche, no carne" etc. before we left. Most of our hotel breakfasts were toast, fruit, juice, tea, so pretty similar (limited) vegan options as we would find in American hotels.

Otavalo Craft Market

That morning we set out to see the famous craft market in Otavalo. We took a $27 taxi to Terminale Carcelen in Quito, and a $2/person, 2-hour bus ride from there to Otavalo. It was a little bit confusing (probably mostly b/c of the language difference) to find where to buy the bus tickets, and we were surprised to find out you had to buy toilet paper for the restrooms at the bus station - and they didn't even have toilet seats. Eventually we found the TP, found the tickets, and were on our way. There were people trying to sell snacks to us on the bus.

In Otavalo, we couldn't find most of the veg-friendly restaurants that Happy Cow had listed. We did find Buena Vista, which opened at 1:30pm (that was a bit late for us for lunch, but we couldn't find anywhere else around with vegan options). They had several vegan options including a veggie burger with avocado, baked potato with guacamole, smoothies, a hummus sandwich, and vegetarian pasta options. I had never thought to put guacamole on a baked potato, but it was really good! Not too expensive either. We spent $20 for 2 people, including tip, beer, fresh juice, and meals.



The craft market was pretty large, lots of pretty things. We're not that into buying pretty things just to have "stuff", but thought we should check it out anyway. We got a "taranjo" (sort of like a guitar) and a wooden flute for my boyfriend's musical sister.

Back in Quito for dinner, our choice restaurant was closed (it seemed that a lot of places are closed on Sunday nights in Quito), so we got some pasta at another restaurant - nothing special. The taxi driver bringing us back to our Casa d'Campo hotel had almost as hard of a time as the first. He made a lot of calls. We felt helpless to help or communicate with him, and could only point to the address we had on our itinerary.

River Boat Tour

The next morning we began our 5-day river boat tour adventure. Logistics were again a bit of an issue. We were supposed to meet a rep from the cruise at the Quito airport to fly to Coca, but we couldn't find the rep at first. We were told to wait at the check-in line for a specific airline, but didn't realize there were multiple check in lines in different areas of the airport. Once we found them, check-in and security went smoothly.

Once in Coca, we waited around to take a motorized canoe to the cruise boat. A very tame squirrel monkey who was surely fed by tourists in the area stopped by to say hello.

 

On the river boat tour, there were about 20 people, mostly older/retired-age. The whole group spent a lot of time in the motorized canoe exploring the rainforest along the river. We saw rainforest animals and learned about the local culture.

Our first excursion was to a native's house. We learned about hallucinogenic plants, birth control plants, saw limes, pineapple, and banana trees, and chickens that the family occasionally sold. We were told they hunt tapirs, monkeys, squirrels, and macaws. Traditional houses are elliptical shaped so that there are no corners for spirits and dirt to collect. Three generations, including ~8 children, typically live together in one small house. The guide told us that the oil companies in the area are ruining the local's culture. The government makes some attempts to help the indigenous people, but their efforts aren't very helpful: families prefer to live ~500 meters apart from one another, but the houses the government set up are all close together. In addition, the government houses have metal roofs which make them very hot inside (the natives thatch their roofs together from palm branches). As a result, a lot of the government-built houses aren't used.

One question that came up was, why, if they know of a plant with contraceptive effects, do they have so many children? The guide told us that families need a lot of children to collect food, but whenever a group is going to move to another area, they'll use birth control so that they don't have pregnant women and young children to protect when they may encounter enemies while relocating.

On other canoe rides and land excursions, we saw lots of birds, a tapir (which the guide hadn't seen in a year!), a caiman, bulldog bats, glow worms, pink dolphins which came up above the water just enough for some air, dusky titi monkeys, turtles, snowy egrets, herons, and leaf-carrying ants. We learned that the leaf-carrying ants chew up the leaves for compost to use to grow mushrooms, which are actually their main food source, not the leaves!

   

We found out that Amazonians consider dolphins like they do humans - it sounded like they believed in reincarnation and that dolphins may be former humans from their tribe, so they don't eat dolphins. Elsewhere in the world, people use dolphins for bait to catch catfish.

We visited a school, but unfortunately (or fortunately, if you don't like being around lots of children running around) the teacher wasn't there that day, so classes were canceled. There were only a handful of kids hanging around. The teachers were in another town getting oil for the generator and the school's "bus boat". Kids come from both sides of the river to this school, so the kids on the opposite side of the river need to be picked up by a bus boat.

My favorite outing on the river boat tour was a trip to a couple "Clay Lick" spots to see parrots eating clay. Some parrots have evolved to eat clay from a few specific areas because, well, it's a multi-step process: First parrots evolved to eat fruit before it was fully ripe, to get it before the other animals. The fruit plants in turn counteracted that by making toxins in their seeds and unripened fruit in "hopes" that the fruit would be eaten at an optimal time for the seeds to develop into new plants. The parrots then "discovered" that eating this clay helped to detoxify their bodies after eating the unripened fruit!

We saw lots of parrots and parakeets. At one of the clay lick spots, we watched as the birds flew from branch to branch, getting closer and closer to the clay area at the bottom of the forest. When some of them had just about made it all the way down to the clay, a big red macaw swooped in after them! It was a beautiful bird, I didn't get a chance to take a picture, but it scared all the smaller birds away.




Overall, the river boat tour was nice, friendly and knowledgeable guides, but I preferred our trip to Tanzania, where we saw a lot more animals up close. It's hard to see birds and monkeys hiding in the trees from a canoe in the river, but we probably got as good of a look at rainforest wildlife as we could have expected. I've heard of resorts where monkeys will come right up to the lodging areas, but (a) those are expensive, and (b) seeing tame monkeys fed by tourists isn't really the same as seeing animals how they are naturally in the wild.

Food and Cruise Logistics

It seemed that, despite our efforts before the trip to make sure the cruise knew that we were vegan and would provide vegan food for us, the message didn't make it through to the chefs. The first dinner I think they thought we were vegetarian or ate fish or something, but we clarified with them, and they were able to provide some rice-based dish with eggplant, vegetable soup, fruit, and a cucumber / tomato / apple salad. We gave them feedback, said we'd like soymilk at breakfast, more beans/protein-rich things at meals, etc., and they did pretty well to provide that for us. Most of the meals on the trip seemed gluten free, too. We had plantain patties, lots of fresh fruit, stir fried vegetables, rice, beans, manyoke, lentils, heart of palm, vegan empanadas, and more. Every time we came back from a canoe ride we were greeted with fresh juice and a snack.

The first night on the cruise, we didn't have sheets on our bed or clean towels. (We asked for some the next day and they provided them.) We would have also appreciated it if the cruise had been non-smoking, and if they had sent us a packing list - ponchos and flashlights would have been useful.

Quito & Pichincha Volcano Hike

Back in Quito after the tour, we ate at Quinua, an all-vegan restaurant where we each had a very nutritious lunch for $4.25. It included soup, veggies, potato/fake meat thing, and greens. For dinner we went to El Maple, an all-vegetarian restaurant with lots of vegan options including 3 types of seitan, tofu, hummus, soy cheese, and more.

The next morning we had arranged for a guide to pick us up at the hotel to hike up Pichincha Volcano. The elevation was hard on us at first - especially me with exercise-induced asthma and low-blood pressure. I had to stop every few feet it seemed, to get blood flowing back to my head, but we made progress up the volcano. It was very foggy and cold there - not much to see, even when we were at the top. I wouldn't recommend this hike. Lunch was also disappointing. We had told the company when booking that we were vegan, and what kind of foods we ate. They said they could accommodate us, but the guide just gave us some fruit and junk food for lunch.

Montanita

We stayed on the beach near Montanita for the remainder of the trip, 18 days. To get there from Quito, we took a flight to Guayaquil, bus from Guayaquil to Olon, and taxi from Olon to our condo in San Jose. (The bus station was a bus station / shopping mall and we had one okay meal there, at Cajun Exotic Cuisine on the bottom floor.)

Our condo was very nice - huge for just the two of us - and just a short walk down to the beach. There were several condos on the property and a lounge area that overlooked the beach. Most of the time we were the only humans on the beach; often we were accompanied by the neighbors' dogs. The condo had a full kitchen, refrigerator, stove (no oven in the condo itself but I believe the owner said there was a stone oven on the property that we could use if we had wanted to), and internet access. The power went out three times, and it would have been nice to have screens on the windows to keep the bugs out. The condo did have air conditioning.



We spent our days relaxing, reading, walking on the beach, taking trips into nearby Montanita (~20 minute $0.50 bus ride from our condo) for restaurants and groceries. We had cable TV in the condo to watch some shows at night (found some of our favorite shows in English), and one night we went into town to check out the night life. (I think we got there too early; there wasn't much going on, but we sipped drinks by the ocean.) We saw lots of different critters on the beach, depending on the tides and the time of day: crabs, slugs/amoeba-type things, birds, sand dollars, and a (dead) puffer fish.


We took a day trip tour of Isla de la Plata, known as "Poor Man's Galapagos" and saw blue-footed boobies, dolphins, lizards, pelicans, masked boobies, tortoises, and lots of pretty, colorful fish on the snorkeling part of the tour. The tour was through Machalilla Tours, it was $45 per person and included lunch (we brought a couple PB&Js along instead and got a few dollars off the fee).


Food

We thought we had see online something about a "regular" grocery stores / supermarket in Montanita, but it's a pretty small town and after walking around quite a bit, we saw no such thing. We got most of our food from little shops/stands on the streets. People had lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, big bags of rice, dried beans, etc. We also found pasta, bread, peanut butter (although I think we used the wrong phrase... my dictionary didn't have "peanut butter" so I looked up "peanut" and "butter" and the woman seemed to laugh a me a bit, so I'm guessing I got the point across, but didn't use the right word). We were asking the condo staff where to buy tofu and soymilk, and the owner offered to bring us some from Guayaquil. We ate lots of burritos with fresh made guacamole, lentil soup and lentil dishes, rice and beans, tortilla chips and guac, pasta, and LOTS of fresh fruit. The fruit was amazing. It was disappointing coming back to Wisconsin's imported, un-ripe, un-impressive fruits.

There were a couple somewhat vegan-friendly restaurants in Montanita. We ate at Tiki Limbo, which had falafel, hummus, Pad Thai with tofu (it wasn't very similar to regular Pad Thai, but it was some sort of Asian-inspired dish). Another restaurant, Karukera, had English translations on their menu and had a soy veggie burger. Watch out for eggs on veggie burgers.






Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Elimination Diet - Wrap Up

Update on my progress with the Elimination Diet:

I'm mostly back to eating all of the foods that I successfully added back in during the Elimination Diet. I feel a lot better than when I started. The troublesome foods for me were:

  • lemon & lime juice
  • soymilk, soy yogurt (but not tofu... there's something different about how they're processed...)
  • oats
  • mushrooms (didn't test all kinds because I don't really like the taste)
I'm still re-testing / planning to re-test a few iffy foods:
  • nuts
  • oranges
  • rice milk
I still have some digestive troubles, usually uncomfortable less than 1 hr/day, not every day, so overall I would say that the Elimination Diet was a success and I recommend it to others who are having issues. Feel free to contact me for more tips, the exact instructions (they were free online, but now they've been moved into a book the authors are selling), my thoughts on what I would have done differently, etc. Keep in mind that not everyone's bodies are the same, and some people may even be bothered by the "baseline" foods that this diet starts you out on. It's just a "best guess" list of what works for most people.




Tips for Emailing


Here's a list of all the tools I find useful in email, and the things I wish everyone else knew about emailing.

“Undo Send” feature (Gmail)

Have you ever sent an email and then seconds later realize you forgot to attach something, forgot to finish off a sentence, or regretted sending it at all? There's a solution (at least in Gmail): Enable the "Undo Send" feature. Here's how:
  1. Click the wrench/settings button at the top right. Choose Settings.
  2. Go to the "Labs" tab.
  3. Search for "Undo Send" lab.
  4. Enable the "Undo Send" lab.

Where did my e-news subscriptions go? (Gmail's Promotions tab)

Some time ago, I noticed that all my e-news subscriptions had stopped coming to my inbox. Some people wouldn't be bothered by this, because they just send them to the trash bin anyway, but I do have several e-news subscriptions that I actually want to read.

Where did they go? Gmail switched the inbox format to put certain messages into separate tabs: "Promotions", "Social", etc. If you don't want to have to check multiple tabs for your messages, you can switch it back like so:
  1. Click the wrench/settings button at the top right. Choose Configure Inbox.
  2. Select which tabs you want enabled. If you have "Promotions" or another tab checked, those messages will be separated out into a separate tab. If you want everything in your inbox together, un-check everything but "Primary".
  3. Click Save.
Alternatively, you can drag the e-alerts that you want in your main inbox to the “Primary” tab. There will then be a little message at the top asking if you'd like to always have messages from that sender go to your Primary tab.

Sensitive emails

If you're sending an email with sensitive information about another person, or information you don't want a certain person to see (e.g. you're planning a secret bday present for me?), make sure to check that they're not in the "To:" field. (no-brainer, right?) This happens most commonly when someone blindly "replies all" to a message.

Make your points heard, questions answered

If you have several important points in your email or questions you would like answered, make use of bullets or numbers. Emails shouldn't be a written out script of a telephone conversation. Readers skim emails and may miss questions if they're buried inside a paragraph.
  • Use bullets
  • Use numbers
  • Bold font
Likewise, if you’re responding to an email with a list of questions or topics, it’s sometimes helpful to respond in the text of the original email, perhaps in a different color, so your answer is right below the appropriate question and the reader doesn't have to scroll up and down between their email and yours. Here's an example, where the sender has asked for thoughts on the following get-together options (this format probably wouldn't be necessary for such a simple conversation, but it's just an illustration).
  1. movie?
    I've love to go to a movie, are there any comedies out?
  2. dinner?
    I have dinner plans every night this week, but maybe next week we can go to the Green Owl!
  3. ice skating?
    No thanks, it's the middle of summer.

Group Lists

Google groups, Yahoo groups, etc. are a great way to set up easy emailing between people working on a project together, a group of friends who want to coordinate monthly get-togethers, or for an organization's email list. I've used them / been on lists of all types.

If you're starting up a list, give some thought to how the messaging should work: Do you want the default reply to be to everyone on the list, or just to the sender? Is it a group where only the leader should be sending out emails and the members just receive information? Groups can be configured for each type of use. You can also configure the group to give messages a prefix (e.g. "[Chess Club]"). There are lots of configuration options - if you're wondering about how to make the email list work a bit differently, check out the settings; it's probably there.

If you're on an email list like this, when responding to an email, take an extra second to think about whether it makes sense to respond to everyone on the list or just the sender. The default setting may not be appropriate for every email. For example, if the sender has asked for the group's input on a project, it's likely that everyone else in the project will want to see the discussion also. If the sender asked a large email group to respond if any of them would like a copy of a book that he has extras of, the whole group doesn't need to know what your response is - just email the sender.

Don't miss email responses if they're grouped together (Gmail)

Gmail now collapses email replies into the same line as the original email (called “conversation view”). I've heard from several people who say they've missed emails because of this. There are two options:
  1. Get used to it
  2. Turn it off
If you want to use this view, get in the habit of clicking on the top of an email (somewhere to the right of the sender's name) to make sure that there are no more messages in the reply. If there are more messages, clicking on the top email will collapse it and show you the other messages.

If you have the email open when the person replies, you'll be notified via a yellow box in the lower right corner (see below).



If you do not want to use this feature, and prefer to have each email in a separate line in your inbox, disable it like this:
  1. Click the wrench/settings button at the top right. Choose Settings.
  2. In the General tab (the one that's open), 7 items down (at least at the time of writing this), is the Conversation View feature.
  3. Choose Conversation View Off.
  4. Scroll all the way down to Save Changes.

Random Keyboard Shortcut

Control + Enter is a shortcut to press send.

Don't want to lose unread messages? (Gmail)

Sometimes I'll keep mark a message unread if I need to address it later. "Later" sometimes comes after months, and that message is now buried on the 16th page of the inbox. If you want to keep your unread messages at the top, hover over "Inbox" on the left side until you see an arrow by it. Press the arrow, check "unread first".

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

My 3 Favorite Tofu Recipes

Tofu Tip: If you can find Wildwood's vacuum-packed tofu, you won't need to press it first! Their site says it's available at Whole Foods, Willy Street Co-op East, and Hy-Vee. I saw it at Willy West today too.


Basic Broiled Tofu (adapted from Veganomicon)
Use in pasta dishes, sandwiches, burritos... pretty much goes with anything

1 pound extra-firm tofu
A spray bottle of olive oil / PAM or 1 scant teaspoon olive oil

Braising sauce:
1/4 c water
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 T fresh lemon juice (1 lemon)
2 T soy sauce

Preheat the oven to broil. Cover a baking dish with foil for easy clean-up, and spray with Pam.

Cut the tofu into strips. Do 10 strips if you’re going to fit them into an 8”x8” baking dish.

Mix all of the ingredients for the braising sauce together in a liquid measuring cup or something you can pour from easily.

Place the tofu in the pan and pour ½ the braising sauce over the tofu. Put the pan in the broiler and cook for about 10-15 minutes, until the tofu is lightly browned. Remove the pan, flip the tofu, and pour the rest of the braising liquid over the tofu. Put back in the oven for 5-10 more minutes, or until tofu is desired firmness. At this point the tofu should be golden brown.


Lynn’s Tofu
Really yummy with rice & vegetables

1 lb. firm tofu
3 T. canola oil
1 T. nutritional yeast
2 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. ground ginger

Cut tofu into small squares. Heat oil in pan over medium heat. Add tofu and cook until nicely browned, flipping each piece once to get the other side. Mix nutritional yeast, soy sauce, ginger, and a little water if needed, together in a bowl, then add to the tofu and stir until well coated.


Nigari Tofu (from Lisa)
I don't normally mix this with anything because it's so flavorful on its own. Have some veggies & quinoa or a baked potato or something on the side.
I never have all the right ingredients for this, but it's pretty good with my substitutions, too.

2 cloves garlic, minced
2 T. Chinese sesame oil (or sub other oil)
2 T. soy sauce
1 T. mirin (or sub sweet wine)
1-2 tsp. brown sugar
1 T. lemon juice
crushed red pepper, to taste (optional)
1 pound tofu, pressed for 1/2 hour or longer

Combine all ingredients except tofu in a shallow baking dish. Whisk until well combined.

Cut the tofu into 1/2 inch by 1 1/2 inch pieces (doesn't say what thickness, maybe 1/4 inch?). Lay them out in the marinade in such a way as to allow maximum contact with the sauce. Marinade at room temperature for several hours. Turn them and move them around (or just tilt the dish so the sauce goes over them) every 30 minutes.

Pan fry or broil to desired firmness. (If broiling, I would leave them in that same pan, and check after 10 minutes, flip, do another 10 minutes or so.)



Saturday, February 15, 2014

Rich and Creamy without the Cows

One of my favorite meals before I went vegan was fettuccine alfredo with broccoli (and sometimes chicken). I remember liking Applebee's version of it especially.

Today I made used The Chicago Diner's recipe for alfredo sauce. They suggested serving the pasta with spinach, but I did it with broccoli and Beyond Meat chicken: pretty. Definitely just as filling and creamy. It does have a different taste that (what I remember of) dairy-based alfredo sauce, but it's still a good sauce.


Fettuccine with Cashew Alfredo sauce recipe from The New Chicago Diner Cookbook
(I'm just showing the sauce recipe here. The cookbook also includes steps on cooking the pasta & spinach.)

1 c. raw cashews
1 c. almond milk, divided
1/4 c. + 1 T. nutritional yeast
2 T. lemon juice
6 whole cloves garlic
1 T. dried onion
2 tsp. canola oil
1 1/2 tsp. sea salt or more, to taste
1 1/2 tsp. dried parsley
dash dry ground mustard (finely ground)
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 T. chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
  1. In a small mixing bowl, cover the cashews with water and let soak for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
  2. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal "S" blade or a blender, combine the cashews and their soaking water, 1/4 c. of the almond milk, and the nutritional yeast, lemon juice, garlic, dried onion, canola oil, salt, dried parsley, mustard, and black pepper. Process until the cashews form a smooth, creamy liquid, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl at least twice.
  3. Transfer the mixture to a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the remaining almond milk and cook for 5-7 minutes, whisking constantly. Remove from the heat. Add more salt if needed.
  4. Once the sauce has reached the consistency of a rich gravy, pour it over the pasta.



Thursday, January 2, 2014

Elimination Diet - Day 103

It's been 10 days since I stopped eating gluten, yeast, and corn (again), and so far it doesn't seem like it's getting any better. I had 2 good days, but then felt bad again. So I don't know what to think. A friend shared some info about non-dairy milks (and other products) containing carrageenan, and while I didn't think the research seemed very conclusive, I don't have any better hunches. And my stomach often feels a bit strange right after eating cereal & almond milk, so maybe it's that?

I'm also leaving for Ecuador in a couple days, and I'm sure I won't be able to find almond milk very many places there. Soymilk's probably more prevalent, but I've already discovered that soymilk definitely upsets my stomach. Also, while traveling, it will probably be harder to avoid gluten and corn. So for these reasons, I'm going to try no almond milk for a while. And I may end up adding gluten and corn back in, but I'll try not to for a while yet, just in case those really do have an affect this long after stopping.

Sigh.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Elimination Diet - Day 99

Good news: I had a green smoothie today with my NEW VITAMIX!!! So excited to use that more often. It's really fun to kick it up into high gear and watch it pulverize the kale, and also fun to think about how healthy it's making me.

Bad news: I still don't feel well even though I stopped eating gluten, corn, and yeast. I didn't completely stop eating yeast right away. Hopefully soon I'll feel better - or at least before our 4-week trip to Ecuador (= more interesting blog posts coming soon!)