A Taste for Water

A while ago I wrote about beverage choices in Nicaragua. Today I am revisiting that topic with a focus on water. Whenever I have volunteered in health clinics in Latin America the issue of dehydration comes up with surprising frequency. Of all the frustrating and difficult health conditions one sees in these clinics I never anticipated that dehydration could rank so highly as a major concern. Dehydration worsens dozens of common health problems and was almost single-handedly responsible for the numerous daily cases of urinary tract infections and kidney problems (including kidney failure) that walked through the Nicaraguan clinics I volunteered at.

These home carbonation gizmos are getting quite popular. One of my favorite drinks is carbonated water, a few squeezes of lime and a few drops of Stevia

Even more interesting is that when I talk to patients about staying hydrated they say the exact same thing that people in the States say: “I don’t like the taste of water.” How can we lose our taste for water? Our species drank water, and only water, for hundreds of thousands of years. Three quarters of our body weight is water. All animals on earth, indeed almost every living organism, consumes water. We are the blue planet; if the Earth had a flag there would be water on it. If we had a sports team it would be called The Flood, if we had a mascot it would be…well you get the point.

I trace water’s fall in popularity to the three “Cs”:

1)    Competition – It is a challenge for water’s simple taste to compete with wide variety of highly sweetened and processed beverages available. The complex tastes, textures, colors, and smells make water seem lackluster by comparison.

2)    Contamination – our water supplies include many elements that alter water’s taste (the chart below contains a few common examples but there are thousands..), this is true even in Nicaragua where both natural  (volcanic soil) and man-made (agricultural run-off and factory waste) elements influence water’s taste.

3)    Containers – water picks up the taste of plastic, metal, and some ceramics. Glass containers solve this problem well.

In addition to keeping the urinary tract and kidneys healthy, staying hydrated also helps with reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. The signals for thirst and hunger are similar and often get confused with the result being that often when people think they are hungry, they are actually dehydrated. Staying hydrated decreases overall calorie consumption.

Pollutant Effect of water flavor
Iron Metallic taste
Chlorine the taste and smell of disinfectant, for most people it brings to mind a swimming pool
Decay of organic material or non-harmful bacteria Musty, moldy, or woody smell
Hydrogen sulfide gas and or sulfate reducing bacteria Rotten egg odor
Chlorides Salty or brackish taste
Sulfates Salty or brackish taste
Phenol An industrial waste. Can cause an objectionable taste in chlorinated water due to the formation of chlorophenols.
Zinc From corrosion of plumbing





Beverages and status in Nicaragua

A while back I assisted on an eco-tourism project in Padre Ramos, in the remote Northwestern corner of Nicaragua. One of our tasks was to improve the palm thatched, wall-less and floorless, restaurant in town so that they could host foreign tourists. I was in charge of re-making the menu and noticed the only beverage offered was Coca-Cola, despite the fact that right next door was a house that processed coconuts. The operation consisted of three grinning teenage boys jamming to salsa while hacking away with machetes to slice off the nuts’ thick green husks. A tall glass of delicious coconut juice from the machete boys ran 12 cents while the restaurant charged 40 cents for a glass of Coke. In spite of this, the locals, who had an average salary of a few dollars a day, never drank coconut juice and loved Coke. I was inspired to dig deeper into the matter, from then on I talked to every Nicaraguan I met about beverages.

The restaurant in Padre Ramos, they had a large pig that roamed around eating scraps, we recommended that they keep the pig in the back, away from the customers.

Water has an image problem in Nicaragua. The poorest Nicaraguans drink only water, they don’t have money for juice, soda, sports drinks, coffee, or any other beverage. To drink something other than water says to your peers, “I have expendable income, I am doing well.” If you are hosting a social event here it is an absolute must to provide sweetened beverages, if you only provide water people will gossip about how cheap you are for weeks.

It goes beyond water is bad and everything else is good. There is a beverage hierarchy in Nicaragua. Water is at the bottom, above it are home-made juices and coconut water, sold in little plastic bags or ladled out from 5 gallon buckets, the next step up is domestically made bottled juices, coffee, sweetened drinks and sodas and on top of the heap are American brands of drinks and sodas such as Gatorade, Sprite, and the undisputed king, Coke.

Water’s place at the bottom is not just a matter of fashion, getting parasites or toxic exposure from water supplies occurs frequently. Even in urban areas with water treatment plants there are problems, the plants have frequent mechanical failures and when heavy rains come the run-off from agriculture and industry can overwhelm the treatment plants and contaminate the water. The enforcement of environmental regulations here is near nonexistent.

The consequences are an increase in chronic disease (such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes) from all the sweetened beverages and widespread chronic dehydration, many people just won’t drink anything if water is the only option. At the health clinics where I have volunteered patients come in frequently with conditions caused, at least partly, by dehydration: urinary tract infections, chronic headaches, and every variety of kidney disorder.




Culinary tradition versus ecology in Nicaragua

The iguanas are a startling sight, you can buy them live (their limbs tied with string) or this lady will butcher them on the spot.

Over past decade Nicaragua has slowly take some steps towards preservation of endangered species. Two of the recent government policies have conflicted with century old culinary traditions in the country; the ban on eating green iguanas and sea turtle eggs.

The iguana meat is most commonly cooked with vegetables and ground corn to make a dish called Indo Veijo (“Old Indian”). It is eaten year round but is a particularly popular during the Lent, the catholic ban on red meat during Lent drives this tradition. Since Lent occurs at the height of the Iguana’s reproductive cycle the tradition has had significant impact on iguana populations. The iguana meat is believed to have medicinal value, traditional healers here say it can improve a variety of ailments, including impotence. Turtle eggs, which look exactly like ping-pong balls, are consumed in the same way as chicken eggs, boiled, fried, or in soups. The popularity of turtle eggs is due to the ease of harvesting, for the impoverished coastal populations it’s a free food, a large basket of turtle eggs can be collected in less than an hour.

Sea turtle eggs for sale in the market in Rivas, Nicaragua

Despite the laws one still encounters the foods for sale in markets, as I did recently. In general, laws here are difficult to enforce. The police force is underfunded and many laws are interpreted unpredictably; exceptions are common for certain groups, times of year, and of course the occasional bribe works as well.

Further inquiry regarding the iguana and turtle egg laws yielded a wide array of answers. I was told by several policemen and merchants in the market that the fine for those caught selling or eating Iguanas is $5 per iguana, about 1-2 days average salary in Nicaragua. I could not get a consistent answer regarding fines on turtle eggs, some said the police will just take them, other reported you can get arrested, jailed and fined a few hundred Cordobas (a hundred Cordobas is a little over $4). Most of the enforcement of the turtle egg harvesting is done by non profit organizations (one such group: http://pasopacifico.org/). Though they have no legal authority, the presence of volunteers has, in many areas, been successful in preventing illegal egg harvests.


Health Club Time Machine

The first time I lifted weights was in 1986 in my friend Cameron’s attic. Like many teenagers at the time, Cameron improvised a gym with some weights from a garage sale, a few milk jugs, and cleverly arranged spare furniture. In that era of Rocky and Conan movies, the gym was very much of a guy thing, Cameron’s sister Maggie was not allowed to enter. A UB40 cassette and a St. Pauli Girl poster provided the atmosphere, and the talk was Redskins, girls, and who could get access to a car. We wore clothes reserved for household chores. Paint drops speckled cut-off jeans, grass stains decorated sweat pants. The environment at commercial gyms of the era was only a notch higher. They were often poorly lit; equipment was disorganized and loosely maintained.

Health Food Store, Diriamba, Nicaragua

The same could be said of 80s health food stores. They had narrow aisles, haphazard shelves, and it wasn’t uncommon to find moldy bread and off-tasting yogurt. Expired products weren’t surprising as employees were often more interested in reading their activist newsletters or planning their next road trip than in ringing up groceries or stocking shelves. In the 90s, chains such as Whole Foods and Gold’s Gym replaced the funky local places and the corporate mindset turned gyms and health food stores into hygienic, efficient, and orderly palaces.

What brought this to mind was my recent foray into the gyms of Nicaragua where fitness is still very much of a macho thing and the gyms look the part: rusty equipment, homemade barbells, peeling paint, water stains on the wall, padding fixed with duct tape, and weights strewn across the floor like underwear in a teenager’s bedroom. Half the guys don’t wear shirts, and most are in flip-flops or even barefoot.

The manager in his office/corner of the gym

In the States, gyms take themselves seriously and the rules reflect that: re-stack weights, no swearing, no sandals, no cut-off jeans, and for God’s sake don’t let a drop of sweat escape your towel! Sweat is treated like a regrettable byproduct of exercise, something to be aggressively eliminated with a disinfectant spray bottle and constant towel swabbing. In the tropics you sweat when you take a nap so the gym is a real sweat fest, no different from a basketball game or soccer match. The sights and smells remind me that this is a sport, people are grunting, sometimes even yelling at each other. It’s invigorating, I feel pumped up in this gym. In fact, everyone looks fired up, no one is here because of doctor’s recommendations or because they need the discipline or feel guilty about the muffins they ate at lunch.

Early morning at the gym/temprano en la mañana en el gimnasio

Perhaps North Americans have lost some perspective in the race to sanitize, sterilize, and gentrify the wellness movement. Why is that comfortably middle class clients often come to me with the complaint they can’t afford to be healthy? Is health now perceived as part of the good life that goes with a big salary, or at least big enough to buy $90 Lululemon yoga pants and $4 kombucha probiotic drinks? Health has been packaged and sold to us, and it’s mostly a rip-off: overpriced supplements, posh grocery stores, high fashion workout clothes and celebrity style personal trainers. And the gourmet movement, having mocked health food for decades, has come around just in time to convince everybody that they need to have fabulous kitchens and cook like Martha Stewart or their kids will get diabetes.

My cohorts in the throwback Nicaraguan gym make a convincing case that health is a blessing available to all of us. Not only are they well lubricated with salt water but they have no money, live on Gallo Pinto (the Nicaraguan national dish – rice and beans, served with a side of vinegar soaked cabbage), and yet have muscles that would make Stallone and Schwarzenegger proud.