The “off season” in baseball is sort of a tricky thing. After spring training and a very long season, all one can hope for is to have a few months off to relax and spend time with family and friends… right?? Unfortunately, while in the minors, wrong. Playing in a winter league shows is a way for players to work on their game skills. If you are asked to play, it usually is a good sign that the front office is keeping you in mind and wants to see you improve. So when Ryan was asked to play in the Venezuelan Winter League- and that I could join- we packed our bags and headed to South America!
Traveling to Venezuela was an eye-opening experience for me. I travelled abroad in college to Australia and visited Puerto Rico on a family vacation, but had never travelled to a place where English was not a well known language. Culture shock set in when we boarded our flight from Miami and only heard Spanish on the intercom. Silly me, I took French in high school, and was not exactly leaping at the idea to be in an unknown city alone while Ryan was on the road. Still, the culinary explorer in me was excited to try new things, and thus we landed on Margarita Island with empty stomachs and positive thoughts on our seven weeks in Margarita.
The Laguna Mar resort (our home for October) is the Hawaii of Venezuela. Most travelers are from the mainland of Venezuela and were traveling with their families over school vacation. Our stay included a gigantic morning breakfast buffet where we were able to sample an array of Venezuelan dishes. Traditional Venezuelan food is not made for the light eater. Most main dishes consist of red meat, pulled beef (carne asada) or sausage. You can find fresh fish along the coasts, red snapper being the most common. The meats are served with beans, tomatoes, plantains, and a corn meal based grain product. Corn meal is combined with milk, water, and egg to make arepas, a popular dish served at all meals in Venezuela. For breakfast they are formed into little half moons and fried. For lunch and dinner, an arepa can be a meal and is stuffed with queso, asada, or pollo. They are everywhere– road side stands, restaurants, and even at the ball park!
Oh the ballpark in Margarita… what an experience that was. Going to a baseball game in South America is best compared to attending a European soccer game hosted in a Latin night club. Music is playing almost the entire game, the announcer is always screaming into the microphone to pump up the fans. The fans are on their feet most of the time cheering and waving noisemakers at their favorite players. Cheerleaders run out between innings and dance, leaving little time for baseball and much more time for entertainment. Ear plugs were a necessity to sit through the longer-than-usual games. Games tended to last four hours or so, which led to lots of getting up and sampling food in the ballpark.
The Margarita ballpark had an extended outer concourse where food was available for fans. Little carts and
windows had individual stations for food ranging from traditional Mexican, to hamburgers and hotdogs, to Venezuelan dishes. Ryan’s favorite was cachapa, a sweet corn pancake, served omelet-style with ham and mucho queso. The sweetness of the cornmeal combined with the salty ham to make a filling breakfast or lunch. I never had one, but can see recreating one sometime soon. I fell in love with plantains, which were roasted in the oven and served savory with a little bit of melted cheese on top. I have only seen them deep fried and serve with cinnamon and sugar in America, so for me this was a real treat. Another common food at the ballpark was parrilla de pollo, a stir fry/fajita hybrid served with chicken, green bell peppers, onions, and french fries. Depending on the field, the french fries were substituted with mini cornmeal cakes. The dish was served bland and a little plain, but was corrected by homemade salsas and guacamole. Almost all of the roadside stands made their own pico de gallo, mild to crazy spicy salsa, and a cilantro, avocado creamy sauce. The DIY toppings were a great way to pack in some spice and more vegetables into our dinners.
Our time was unfortunately cut short in Venezuela due to one quick salad and one long lasting parasite. We learned the hard way that it is better to eat unhealthy in foreign countries than to eat nutritiously and risk your health. We did leave with some hilarious memories and another cuisine to check off our list as we continue to explore the culinary treasures of the baseball world.