As I sat in a local restaurant in Cartagena, Colombia - one of the lovely beaches considered a part of the tropics on the North coast of this beautiful and often misunderstood country - I pondered, and wondered, and thought. Yes, wine does that to me. I'm not on a vacation per se, but I am abroad and enjoying myself. Then it hit me: I travelled. What am I doing to ensure I don't leave a massive footprint behind?
To begin with, this is the tropics. I am in the midst of the most perfect climate for year-round fresh and local fruits and vegetables. Although not all of them are harvested any time of year, several are, and the others usually come to fruition twice, three and even four times a year. It is also considerably less expensive to purchase the local fare, and these lovely goodies taste far better than anything that has travelled miles to get to my plate. And, of course, I get the bonus of eating healthier along with that! A morning here without fruits is unthinkable. While walking down the streets, cries of 'Aguacate, maduro, maduro, MADUUUUUUROOOOO!' (avocado, ripe, ripe, RIIIIIIIPE!) accompany my footsteps, and small, local producers sell there fresh produce for such low prices you'd think you stole them. Wheelbarrows abound: bananas can go as cheap as 5 cents each when you buy several at a time; pineapples range from around 75 cents to 1.50$ each; and 8 large mandarins cost only 1$. Paradise indeed! And the most interesting part is that the trip these fares made to get to the city often has no footrprint; believe or not, there are still many of these farmers who can't afford vehicles and at times bring them in ON FOOT. Those who aren't badly off can be seen with their horses.
Then, while sitting at the beach, sunbathing (and accidentally getting burnt instead), I heard other cries - this time, from people who were selling their ready-made products. Desserts, bowls of sliced fruits and small meals were being sold by the locals who prepared them - with lots of love - in their homes. I don't tend to buy most of these items as they are often not vegan, but those who aren't and wish to keep their food miles low can do so easily. Also, these people can't afford to purchase pesticides or imported food, so most of the ingredients they use come right from their farms. I especially adore the panela-covered sliced coconuts. Panela is a sugar derived from sugar cane juice. They prepare panela in a similar fashion as maple syrup. Since this is a plant and not a tree, they use a machine to press out the juice just like Italians do to press tomatoes to make their sauces. They then boil this sweet water but, unlike maple syrup, the result is a block of hard sugar. To loosen it, a knife is scrapped along it to make thin slices that can be used to cook or put in your coffee. This hard powder can then be boiled with water to create a caramel which complements coconut wonderfully!
If you're like my mother - you don't trust individuals with your food unless they are under a restaurant's supervision - there are several of them that are locally owned and purchase ALL (or almost) their products directly from local farmers, with the exception of rice. Not only is this environmental and good for the local economy, this is the best way to get to know locals and their culture through their food. I do admit that Colombian cuisine isn't as varied as what is available in industrialised countries, and their basic staples are the same as for other under-developed nations - rice and beans - but some of the flavours are surprisingly exquisite, especially in vegetarian restaurants, where the chefs tend to be much more creative. Everything is homemade and if the owners themselves didn't prepare it, they bought it from a local vendor who supplies the city's vegetarian restaurants. Vegetus in Medellin is home to the best vegan ice cream I've had in my life. The milk replacement is made with oatmeal and the flavours are just lovely. For those of you who have not always been vegan: imagine a quality slightly higher than Ben and Jerry's and with an array of flavours that can blow you away.
The same goes for any country in the same situation. If you have lived similar experiences or would like to know more about my own, the comment space is waiting for you! I know Lapis Lazu is in an area where he can benefit of the same wonderful vegan paradise; who else?
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