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Mimi On the Chicken Bus

(by Janet LoSole)

We’d always traveled, my husband and me. We even organized our honeymoon around a teaching stint in Korea. Ten years after the honeymoon and two kids later, we knew it was time to head out again, when we discovered we had amassed $18,000 in credit card debt. This time we sold every single possession, down to the last grain of salt, to wipe out the debt and finance a trip somewhere affordable, to learn another language and satisfy our desire to live with a smaller footprint. Costa Rica, we learned, had long established itself as an eco-destination, protecting more than 25 percent of its landmass, including national parks, wildlife refuges, and wetland areas, and it possessed an adequate infrastructure in health care, transportation, and education. Its pura vida (pure life) seemed ideal.


We rented a small house in a coastal village there to learn to live like the locals. I taught English as a second language (ESL) at the local crumble-down community center, and I became close with a student, a retired teacher named Flori, who was forever bringing me food.


Once we were established in our new home, my mom announced her arrival to our village for a three-week visit. I’d assumed our young daughters found our new lives ordinary because they adapted almost immediately, but when “Mimi” arrived, the girls flew into her arms and crushed her with hugs. They went berserk chattering about the minutiae of our ev­eryday lives, steering her away from the skinny, stupid dogs who wandered all over town, oblivious to cars advancing straight for them, and pointing out Eduardo’s video store where one of the work­ers, in keeping with his Colombian roots, slaughtered a shrieking pig on the front steps one afternoon.


My mother and I were badass role models, traveling the globe to satisfy our curiosity, and I hoped our example would influence the girls to develop self-confidence in their ability to travel when they got older. To prove her pluckiness, Mimi timed her visit to coincide with a trip to Nicaragua for a border run since we had to renew our tourist visas every 90 days. Despite the kidney-crunching condition of the roads, she endured the ride squashed into a “chicken bus” (the colorfully decorated bus often used for transportation in Latin America) as we bumped to the border, rubbernecking the imposing sight of the twin volcanoes on Ometepe Island, surrounded by the dry hinterland of rural Nicaragua.


At the border, she witnessed firsthand what we took in stride: hawkers, money changers, masses of people, women sell­ing drinks or gum, busloads on their way to Managua. Winding our way through lurching transports, we cleared the fence and reached the Nicara­guan side. I made the girls stand next to their grandmother under the “Bi­envenidos a Nicaragua” sign so I could capture the moment on film. “How many people can say they’ve been to Nicaragua with their grandmother?” I said, beaming with pride.

Three days later, when we returned to our village, Flori had left word that she had something special prepared for my mother. We strolled down the main Avenida to her home; I pointed out the pulpería, a small grocery store where the owner had stacked piles of papaya and watermelons underneath the awning. We pressed on towards Flori’s house, dodging roving pick-up trucks selling fruit on the go. The driver shouted as us through his megaphone, “Señoras! Piña! Quiniento la una!” (Ladies! Pineapple! One for a dollar!)


“I’m drooling over the fresh produce,” Mimi exclaimed. We did not always see eye to eye on global issues, but we shared an ideology about how one should eat: healthy and only healthy. I was taught the value of freshly prepared food from both grandmothers and, in turn, from my mother. When we assembled in my Italian grandmother’s cramped kitchen, my Irish mother stood over her asking for instructions. She took the feeding of her family as seriously as my Italian kinfolk did. It wasn’t until high school that I discovered other kids packed store-bought pastries, food I never would have dreamed of requesting.


When I got older, we shared recipes, and when we visited, we draped the girls in towels and conducted experiments in the kitchen (sometimes accidental combos like garlic and chocolate did not go over well).


Flori lived on the outskirts of the village with her large family including many children, grandchildren, and a couple of feral cats. She had a round and somewhat rickety wooden table set up in her backyard laid with small glasses filled with vino. An aromatic dish with steam rising from it had been placed in the center. After the first bite, Mimi and I looked at each wordlessly. I knew she wanted the list of ingredients. I translated that the dish was made of plantain, a staple in Latin America, and cooked with thick cream. (Back home, we reproduced it from memory, making a few substitutions based on the availability of ingredients in our small Canadian city, using coconut milk in place of the cream, and adding curry and spinach).


On a humid morning in October, we ordered transport for my mother, who was due to fly out that afternoon. She was weighed down by several items including my laptop and little mementos we’d collected. We were reducing our possessions to prepare for the strenuous trek north through Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, before flying home from Cancun. With my husband’s leave of absence from work coming to an end, and the girls nearly fluent in Spanish and well-versed in environmental conservation, it was time to head home. The girls said tearful goodbyes, but we knew it would not be long before we would be sharing stories and recipes at Mimi’s house, discovering a Canadian version of pura vida.

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Janet LoSole is the author of Adventure by Chicken Bus: An Unschooling Odyssey through Central America. She and her husband of 25 years use the communities of the world to homeschool their two daughters. Her writing on homeschooling and traveling can be found on her website, on Twitter and Instagram.

Savory Plantains

2 green plantains

2 T. coconut oil

1 small onion, diced

1 c. chopped greens (chard, kale, collards)

1 clove garlic, crushed

sea salt to taste

1 t. curry powder

1 can (13.5 oz.) coconut milk

Wash the unpeeled plantains with soap and water. Chop the tips off both ends.

Cut plantains in half, and place in a large pot of water.

Bring to a boil and keep boiling until the edges of the plantains pull away from the flesh. Drain and let cool.

While plantains are cooling, heat coconut oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Sauté onions until translucent.

Add greens, garlic, and sea salt.

Sauté until greens are wilted.

When plantains are cooled, peel them and shred in a food processor.

Add plantains to the pan with the greens, adding more oil if necessary.

Add curry and mix well.

Add coconut milk, and stir to heat through.

Serve with green salad.

Serves 6.