Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Best Thing About St. Croix (besides new friends) - Raw Food!!!!!

As a reader of this blog you have heard me whine about food quite a bit - especially the lack of choices here in Puerto Rico. I have never been a big fan of meat, especially beef, and beef is the only decent meat here. All other meats (unless it is frozen chicken breasts) have bones and tendons and sinew and skin and tattoos and other gross things attached. Fresh fish? Nope. So going to St. Croix was an opportunity to have a few more choices than Puerto Rico although having been there before I was not expecting much. I was, however, elated to find a Raw/Live Vegetarian Food Restaurant called Lalita! This was a true find and I had a juice drink there one day and had two dinners there which were both superb. I had met a couple local vegetarian people at the airport (one was the nice gal distributing the free rum samples) and they had told me about it.
One of the appetizers was a "pizza." First I have to add a little about "raw" food. Raw food is not cooked. They use a lot of nut pastes made by soaking nuts and macerating them in the food processor and they make a lot of cookies and "baked" goods by dehydrating components that are held together by sugars (agave nectar, honey etc). I think some things at this restaurant were cooked - the bread and tortillas used for sandwiches and maybe this wafer for the pizza? When I suggested the restaurant the people I suggested it to were great sports...but didn't realize it was a raw food restaurant, they thought it was just vegetarian! One of the guys, "Kellog" (his code name) was a little disappointed when I told him his lasagna wouldn't have melted cheese and noodles! He was a great sport and ate there AGAIN, and then AGAIN when his wife joined him on the last day of class! So this "pizza" had a wonton-like crust with basil pesto, Parmesan cheese, tomato, spices and bell pepper puree. It was alright but not my favorite of our choices.

Another thing we tried was the Pad Thai. Since rice noodles are only soaked it counts as raw I suppose but I don't even care about raw or cooked really. I was ecstatic to have yummy, flavorful, and beautiful food! This is the most excited I have been about food in a long time! The white ribbon on top is made of young coconut meat - something we have LOTS of in the yard. The baby greens and reds are things I want to grow hydroponically and I don't know what the sauce was but I figure it is fish sauce, hot peppers, sugar, lime juice and other typical Thai spices.

CJ ordered the watermelon gazpacho which was really yummy and beautiful. There was mango, watermelon, tomato, onion, cilantro and I don't know what else but very flavorful.

I had the beet ravioli. They used a mandolin I suppose to slice the beets. I don't know if they were raw or not - maybe they were tender because of the thinness? Inside was a cashew paste and the sauces were pureed bell pepper. There was pistachio dust on top. Very tasty.

Greg had this spinach soup that had Dr. Seuss-like swirls of pureed bell pepper. Very tasty flavorings.

This is the lasagna and side salad. The "noodles" are shaved zucchini and there was corn, ricotta, some kind of green (spinach?), sun dried tomatoes and other stuff. Kind of a deconstructed lasagna really.

Another appetizer we had were these rolls that had seaweed, avocado, carrot, other veggies and instead of rice - grated jicama! I love the crunch of jicama! Like I said, this was the most excited I have been about food in a long time. For dessert we shared a few things - mango cheesecake, a silky chocolate torte that was killer (very very rich), cookies-n-cream (non dairy non-soy ice cream and a broken up cookie (dehydrated nuts, sugars, and other stuff). All were amazingly delicious!

Besides the raw place I went with Ricardo and Stephen to a sushi sashimi place called Dashi. It was very good and had some nice combinations besides the normal yellow tail (can't get enough of it) and smoked eel (gotta have it). It was Ricardo's first time eating sushi/sashimi and he enjoyed it with only a teeny tiny bit of wasabi.  So I managed to corrupt a few people and get them to try new things with great success. Now I am super excited about getting a raw food cookbook so I can start trying to eat like this at least once a week. I know I can get nuts here and possibly some of the other main ingredients. Instead of growing veggies with fish I will probably go hydroponic and look forward to designing a covered area for that and possibly a few special chickens?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Aquaponics/St. Croix Trip

The aquaponics course was on St. Croix - the island Jeff and I almost (and thankfully didn't) moved to. This is the first time I had been "off-island" in 2 1/2 years and I was ready for a short change of routine. I stayed at the dorm and was fortunate to not have a roommate and to have a room that had screened windows on both ends for ventilation. Because of that I could turn the fan off at night and still have a little breeze! I didn't rent a car since I figured it would just sit there from 9-5. I planned to join other people in taxis which we were misguidedly told were around $20. They didn't tell us that was PER PERSON for a jaunt into town. There was a cheaper option - the public system - that worked great for $2.50 but didn't go everywhere and didn't operate after dark (you know, when you need it after dinner in town) I was super lucky to have joined up with a really great group of people for the week - they were fun, smart, like-minded and also didn't really need to spend all day listening to someone read to us all day. We decided to ditch out of a few of the lectures that were about things we already knew about or things we were not going to do (biofloc). CJ had a car and rounded up a nice little group of folks (me included) to go off on island excursions. The first thing on most peoples' minds was the beach! The beaches and diving are really nice on St. Croix. Puerto Rico has some nice beaches and others that are ok but St. Croix beaches are cleaner and whiter. Diving in St. Croix is wonderful also, but the weather was a little rough the whole week so diving was a no go.

The beach trips involved playing in the water, drinking drinks and going to Turtles Deli for lunch. When Jeff and I visited 6 years ago our favorite place was Turtles because of the great sandwiches and nice little beach. The beaches are all on the Fredriksted end of the island where it is mainly beach bars. We ate at a place that I thought would be crappy but turned out to be pretty good - I had pork wontons with a really good ginger tamarind sauce and we shared other stuff too. CJ wanted to drive around the island so we did that for a bit and it made me homesick - the roads are just like our jungle roads. We even went down a road that only one car would fit on and encountered a burned out car - just like home - time to back it up and out and end the little trip on the back roads! The water was clear and you could see turtle grass, reef and turquoise water.

On the other end of the island the water was quite rough and as it turns out, our trip to Buck Island as the class finale had to be cancelled (and they had no alternative). I arranged an alternative activity that I'll blog about later.

I don't know if you could get to this beach and I definitely don't think I'd swim in this area but it was really pretty.

Back in Fredriksted for a couple nights we were there a guy was bringing his horses out into the water for a bath. They would get out and roll in the sand just like dogs do...feet up in the air with a head toss!

We visited Pt Udall and the monument there.

Another day we went to the Arboretum. I always enjoy arboretums because it gives me ideas for the one I am making on our property. It was really fun to know what most of the stuff was and to be able to point out highly scented flowers or odd fruits. This sausage tree is one I don't have but it is high on cool factor with the odd, prehistoric fruits hanging off it. Then we came across a cannonball tree which we do have in the yard.

The cannonball tree flowers smell really nice and are almost orchid-like. The girls did a jewelry run into Christiansted - CJ got a bracelet and a nice ring and I got a hurricane ring (Sonjas). Erika picked up some things for her son. The girls only trip was fun and started off with a fresh fruit drink. I had cacao and banana and almond and spiralena looked tasty too. It was really nice to be somewhere else for a week (somewhere that was still warm and slow). It was really nice to have intelligent conversations in English with people interested in the same things. In Puerto Rico I know enough Spanish to follow along but can't formulate specifics about permaculture or general philosophies about food and living because I don't know the words nor do I have much human contact (except weekends when we are diving and/or caving with folks who speak both spanish and english). I had a sore throat the whole week. It reconfirmed how lucky we are to have ended up in Puerto Rico instead of St. Croix. St Croix had lots of smokers and drinkers and if you are there for more than a week it would be excruciatingly boring. In Puerto Rico most of the smokers are tourists (we know where to avoid going), there are tons of outdoor lakes, hikes, caves, mangroves, waterfalls, forests etc to explore. Work is hard to find but compared to St. Croix is a lot more likely. Puerto Rico also has good tasting water. Water was horrible and scarce in St. Croix so I actually bought a couple gallons. I have to say that St. Croix food options were much improved over our previous trip or I am used to eating such awful crap that marginal food seemed wonderful! The overall assessment though was that it was a nice trip full of very interesting people and conversations. If you are planning a Carribean vacation though skip St. Croix, only go to Puerto Rico if you know someone there (they don't understand tourism and even for locals doing basic things is difficult).

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Downstream Cueva YuYu - Water World

Jeff, Tom and I headed back to Cueva YuYu to pick up the surveying where we left off the last time. Mapping is time consuming and difficult when you are floating in water over your head so the last time we didn't get really far. I forgot how long the drive was just to get to the walk-in spot. Tom drove and it seemed like we went round and round all these back roads forever. Once we parked the weather looked good, the river was low and it was a go!. I remembered the hike. First we had to basically walk in boggy tall plants and up a slope before getting to a kind of "real" trail which then disintegrated into a "kind-of-trail" that would be hard to get out on alone in the dark. Tom knows the way which is great, but it would be better if we knew it too! We rigged up the rope, tossed it into the hole and one by one went down. Our hundred foot rope brought us to the first landing. We put another rope down the final drop that ended in the river. Here Jeff is on the final drop. This ladder I suppose was used at one time or another but isn't usable now. We try to avoid touching it.

Once we are in the river we head downstream. This cave is wet, foggy, drippy, waterfally (like that's a word) and kind of gargoyly. This giant stalactite was a waterfall making lots of noise, mist and beauty. In wet caves like this with moving water and lots of drops it is hard to hear because the cave acts like an echo chamber. This makes it hard when reading out numerical measurements. On this trip we went low tech and used a tape measure for distances. After a while we get to the waterfall where we have to go up and over and do a second drop down a rope into the river. The mist makes it look like Tom is getting beamed up like on Star Trek.

When we descend we continue on. Lots of water and lots of great formations. Lots of water. This cave is cold and this section requires being in water about a third of the time. A lot of that is water over our heads. It is physically harder for me than the climbing-type caves...I have a hard time with all the arm work required for the swimming. I had a wetsuit, surfer shirt over that, life vest over that and my cave pack. We also kept the harness on for a lot of it since we needed it for drops. Once we took off the harnesses we had to carry them and when you are in the water the packs get heavy despite the drain hole in the bottom.

We liked this formation that just touches the water surface. Wet caves always have nice, clean formations since the water levels rise and fall and clean them. If you think too much about that (and about all the recent rain) sometimes you wonder what you are doing inside an underground water chamber!

After a while we get to the dreaded "sump." A sump is a spot where the water ends at a wall but it has been explored past that point and is an area you can dive under and arrive at the other side so you can continue on. In a swimming pool it is easy to swim the length under water, but there is a mental problem about being underground in total darkness (except for your lights) going under a wall that has a hard ceiling (rock) and you don't know how far you need to swim to get out from under it. Add to that the problem that we are wearing flotation, entering the sump from a floating position and carrying a pack that can snag on formations we can't see and it can be a mental challenge. When we arrive though, it turns out to be our lucky moment and the sump is just a "duck under" of sorts requiring only a small breath hold. So under we go. Crazy, huh?

Here's Jeff in another "duck under" type spot that actually has room.

Now we travel via swimming and it starts to get cold. The formations are interesting and clean and we are trying to make good time and look around at the same time. I am trying to take some photos, but you may notice that things are a little blurry since the shots are taken while floating around!

The coolest thing about caving (besides the physical work) is the geology. It is like an adult amusement park with slides, dripping water, waterfalls, huge formations, lots of sound and it lets your imagination take over. You can't say that about many places you can visit. We love diving, but you don't imagine things when you dive. Caving lets you imagine and observe and do physical work. It is also a mental challenge at times.

This area had a low ceiling and the squareness of it was intriguing. The way the stalactites drip down from the ceiling is pretty neat. While floating I looked up into the high areas and could see immense formations. I imagined gargoyles flying down and fighting with each other. Gargoyles can fly, can't they?

The rock was all polished but dark. The water adds an element of "creepy."

More formations.

To get an idea of the scale of things you have to look at the yellow blip on the left. That blip is Jeff traveling past some gigantic blocks.

(continues with part 2)

YuYu 2

So there he is going between the giant boulders.

The scalloping on the rock is smooth but at the same time very sharp. Everything is wet and slippery. The easiest path here is through the water.We get to another area and have to climb up and over.

After all the rappelling and traveling we encounter a tire. Man's reach touches even the most remote of places.

Lots of watery, drippy spots.

This next view is taken by me from in the river below Jeff, and Jeff is looking probably 60 feet up at something embedded in the ceiling. Holy shit! It's a red and white plastic cooler! At some point the water rises THAT HIGH? We were hoping that area was a safe spot to climb to if the water levels started to rise. Guess not.

Now we are back at one of the neatest formations. We are cold and tired but at least heading back. Usually the trip back is shorter than the trip forward, but in this cave it seems incredibly long probably because we are cold and tired. I start imagining I smell hot coffee and popcorn (of all things).Just look at this formation!

More formations.

We have to climb up little pools of swirling water and mini waterfalls. Doesn't this just seem wrong?

This formation almost looks like flowing drapes. Now it is time to go up the rope from a position floating in the water just down from a big waterfall. It kind of looks like Tom is walking on the wall, but the reality is that the rope just hangs straight down into the water and you can't touch the wall until you are at the top.

Then it is back in the river until we return to the entrance. The rope is still there and we take turns going up it. We can tell it is raining above and getting dark. Up the first rope to the landing we go, then up the second rope and into the regular world. Now all we have to do is hike out, drive out and home. We stop at La Familia for some great mofongo and are tired with fat mofongo bellies.

We left the house at 6am and got home around 11 pm. That did include an hour long stop for dinner but....a long and tiring and rewarding day. We were clean until the end when we climbed up and over the muddy lip of the entrance hole. We also had a few slips in the jungle on wet grass that landed us flat in the mud. Next stop is in a week or so...Cueva Camuy! I can't wait!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Aquaponics Course Overview

I just spent a week on St. Croix attending an aquaponics course. The course was presented by Jim Rakocy (the aquaponics god), Don Bailey (money man), Jason and Charlie (fish and plant guys). If you follow our blog you know that there is no green food in Puerto Rico and you know that I need to change that. Aquaponics sounded like just the thing...fresh fish and fresh veggies. I thought I wanted to set up a hydroponic system and then the thought of raising fish as well came up and since Jeff has always had a fish tank we figured why not aquaponics? I signed up for the expensive course and last week started my journey.
Jeff took me to the Mayaguez airport and there was a taxi sitting at the curb. If you know the Mayaguez airport you know that this is not good and that the taxi was for me and the other 2 passengers of the plane that had mechanical problems. Cape Air put us in a taxi, or "Breaking Bad Mobile," to head for San Juan. (If you don't watch Breaking Bad on tv you should.) Of course there was no way to get there in the same amount of time (30 minutes in the air = 2 hours on the ground) so I missed the connecting flight. They put me on an American Eagle flight that left at 2pm instead of the 11:30 Cape Air flight I was supposed to be on. I arrived on St. Croix at 2:30 instead of noon but that was fine since I wasn't renting a car and would just go check in at the University and wait for others to arrive.

Just so happens that 2 other people from the class were on my American Eagle flight and were on it because of flight problems. Diana and Pablo (from Argentina) and I then waited for Stephen at the airport for an hour or so under the misguided idea that the taxi rate would be less with more people in it and we didn't want to have Stephen have to pay a lot more and have to find things on his own. Since I was late and was pleased to have others to join we figured it would be ok to wait for him. The 4 mile trip to the University was 8 dollars each - the shock that just kept shocking as the week went on! I got checked in (stayed in the dorm) and then headed into Christiansted for dinner with some other folks. We wandered for an hour maybe trying to find somewhere decent to eat and then settled on what turned out to be kind of crappy food. The company was great though! The next day class started and was a long day of researchers reading powerpoint presentations to us (researchers are not teachers). The class also turned out to be way to large (92 people) and that is a number they were not prepared for. Hooray for the afternoon when we got to go outside to actually see the set ups! This is what I want...green food. This is a member of the morning glory family called Kang Kong and it is a tasty green you can you raw (new leaves) or cooked - it is "water spinach." I snagged a couple shoots and brought them back with me. All this green is "planted" in water - the giant water troughs are called "raceways" and the plants are planted in little mesh pots sitting in holes made in a Styrofoam type sheet with holes in it that floats on the water. Fish crap water is circulated through these raceways and feeds the plants.

They were growing many herbs, different kinds of lettuce, cantaloupe, cucumbers and there are many possibilities that they don't grow since they don't make money (they tie up the raceways for months rather than weeks as is the case with lettuce).

Green green green and oh, what's that under the covered area? A sewage treatment facility? Nope - all the filters and degassers and fish tanks required for the fish breeding part of the system. Kind of industrial looking.

A peek under the rafts shows beautiful root systems and nice leafy greens - that's what I want.

Besides all the clarifiers, bio filters, take-the-chunks-out filters, fish rearing tanks and everything there was another way to do things that was a little more simple but kind of disgusting. The Biofloc system. Everything in this course was developed by the University of the Virgin Islands (mainly Jim Rakocy). It is all on the internet everywhere. This course was geared to about 30% of the people who attended. The people who want to raise fish and vegetables FOR PROFIT (theoretically). The rest of us were home hobbyists (40%) or people from all over the world who already raise Tilapia on a large scale and I guess wanted to hear it from the master before he retires. I don't fall into the "commercial" category. Isn't this lovely? A sewage treatment pond in your yard. Don't you want one?

Raising fish commercially is involved and the master has perfected how to do it with the goal being to produce even sized portions of fish that don't have a terrible "off flavor" and to produce vegetables to basically pay for feeding and raising the fish. There is an added goal of making "added value" products (breaded fillets, fillets with herb packets and recipes etc etc) in an effort to earn more money. Since we are basically fishing out all the naturally occurring fish in the oceans this may be the wave of the future. Unfortunately China kind of has the market on Tilapia and probably everything else at this point. Lots of energy demands that don't work for us on this scale because of the solar but could work for a backyard design.

I am having some philosophical problems with the whole deal so I focused on taking away some applicable construction ideas for my hybrid system. If we want to have an attractive pond with koi this would be a good construction idea. Coated welded wire mesh and metal stakes are the structure of this fish tank. The liner is tied to the walls which would be less costly than a fiberglass or plastic tank and more importantly, easier to move around and locate on the property. I could then berm up dirt against the walls and plant nice looking things there.

More welded wire mesh, wood beams and cement for construction of the building for the fish tanks - I like the idea of using the wire mesh to keep shade cloth from flapping around in the wind for a greenhouse structure. I think another layer on top of the cloth would really keep it in place on the roof. The wire would keep chickens and cats out.

I enjoyed checking the fish mouths for eggs ..

It was interesting sexing the fish before separating them for sex changing.

They are kind of attractive fish. A bit boring to eat but that mildness lets you do lots of things with it and here in Puerto Rico fresh fish options are slim to none.

I'll have a few more posts about the trip - extra curricular activities and my philosophy about what I want to do next...I am kind of tired of thinking about it right now though.