Vista del Gran Río Térraba y la desembocadura al mar

Vista del Gran Río Térraba  y la desembocadura al mar

domingo, 30 de octubre de 2011

Intercambio Cultural

This is truly a cultural interchange, a fusion of cuisines between “tico” and “gringo”, latino and northamerican. I returned home today at 1:30 pm after working with youth in my neighborhood on environmental issues in the community. It’s Sunday so I cannot go to the Soda la Amistad. What will I eat quickly for lunch before I head to another meeting at 2:00 pm? I refuse to cook in the afternoon. It’s too hot. I open the fridge. A peanutbutter and jelly sandwich sounds great and quick. I have peanutbutter that a friend in my community gave me because he knew I liked it. I also have a jalea (jam) de guayaba that I made not too long ago. Wait, do I have pan (bread)? No hay pan. ¿Qué voy a hacer? OK, I’ll eat some peanuts with some yogurt. I eat them, but I’m still hungry. Wait, I have an idea. Brilliant! I have masa. I can make a tortilla and put peanutbutter and jelly on it! ¡Riquísimo!

I thought this was a funny anecdote and I wanted to share it with my readers (If I have any). In the US, it would have never occurred to me to make a tortilla. However, after living here for well over a year, I have to say that lots of cultural customs have rubbed off on me, especially the gastronomy. Making tortillas is something I have picked up and will share with friends and family back home.

miércoles, 12 de octubre de 2011

Mamón frenesí - Mamón Chino

“Mamón frenesí” o “Mamón Manía” is what I call it. Starting in July, the mamón chino harvest begins in my community and lasts until mid-late September. I call it the “confite” or, candy of Costa Rica, as streets and yards are filled with the peelings of the fruit, similar to the large quantity of candy wrappers that can be found on the ground. Internationally, the fruit is known as Rambutan. However, in Costa Rica it is called “mamón chino.” The fruit itself is round, about the size of a ping-pong ball, and its flesh has a yellowish white color. To eat the fruit, one must break open the skin or cascara, which can either be done with one’s mouth or hands. There are two varieties, red and yellow, some of which are sweet and some of which are acid, depending on the quality of the mamón. Both varieties are surrounded by an outside skin which is covered with a leathery hair, which may appear prickly but is in reality harmless. The fruit is not indigenous to Costa Rica, and is said by many in my community to have been brought by the United Fruit Company. The actual origin of Rambutan is East Asia. The fruit is tropical and has many interesting qualities.

In my backyard, I have a mamón chino fruit tree. This year’s harvest was a good one. The fruit is harvested using what is called a “varilla,” which usually has long blades to cut the clusters (piñas) of mamones. Although I enjoy eating mamón chino, I mostly let my neighbors and kids in the neighborhood harvest the tree. You know it’s a frenesí when you come home in the afternoon from an activity and an 11 year old boy from my neighborhood is 25 feet up in the tree trying to lower himself some piñas de mamón.

Why am I not a “mamonero” (this is the term I use for a mamón addict)? First, I prefer many other tropical fruits that abound in my community, such as papaya or aguacate (mmmm guanabana). Second, many of my friends have mamón chino trees as well, so I have people constantly trying to give me mamón chinos to take home. I like to eat mamón chino in “conserva” instead of eating it in its raw state, as cooking it allows me to eat the seed as well. When cooked, the seed has a taste similar to almond or cashew.

The harvest in my community is so large that most people with a big harvests of mamones don’t know where to send them to be sold. In other words, there isn’t a large enough local market. I have always thought that with some further investigation, a market could be found somewhere in Costa Rica. Interestingly, one day I passed by the local MAG office, which is the agricultural department of Costa Rica, and two of the workers were taking tests of mamón chinos from local fincas that produce the fruit in large quantities. They were checking for features such as acidity, thickness of the fruit, size, weight, sweetness, etc. These tests were being taken to improve the future quality of the fruit.

It’s a true frenesí. There are tons of tropical, delicious fruits to be eaten in my community that are, in large part, not ever harvested and are left for the birds. Mamón chino, however, is one fruit that people in my community truly value and will spend the time to pull them down, or even climbing up in the tree to cut down the most difficult clusters of mamones.

La droga perfecta

They say that caffeine is a drug. Although by no means am I addicted, I have to say that there is nothing better than sitting down and sharing an afternoon cup of coffee with some great friends in my community. The “cafecito” is one of my favorite and most appreciated aspects of the Costa Rican culture. Even though coffee production is definitely not one of the agricultural activities in my community, as I live in a tropical climate, the afternoon café is still quite ingrained as one of the daily activities.

I love having cafecitos with friends, chatting about a range of subjects - from politics to differences and similarities between US and Tico cultures – and munching on a piece of cheese, bread, or tortilla. It’s even better during Christmas when families and friends are making tamales. ¡Qué rico! Under the influence of café, I have had some of my most memorable conversations with my Tico friends and counterparts. We even come up with new and ambitious project ideas. I usually finish my cafecito feeling like I am on top of the world and that I can help organize any event or work with any mini-empresario. The cafecito is also a time to reflect and can be relaxing.

There is an essence to sharing café and conversing one-on-one with family members or friends. The cafecito could help me sum up what my experience in the Peace Corps is about, which is collaborating and working with people. When my time in the Peace Corps finishes, I’m going to miss the cafecito and look back on it nostalgically, not necessarily for the café or the tortillas, but for the friendships and relationships that having the cafecito helped form.

jueves, 6 de octubre de 2011

Sounds from the morning 2

It’s 10:30 AM, and as usual in September, at about this hour the morning coolness is wearing off and the afternoon’s sun begins to heat up the tin roofs, making the sound of rain drops as if it were raining. Quite the contrary. It’s just the beginning of an especially dry winter day. We’ll see if this drier weather continues on to October and November, the most heavy hit months for rain.

A man passes the house, shirtless, tugging on his shoulders and head a jumble of pots, pans, and other cast-iron cooking utensils. Who knows where he’s from. I have never seen him before in the community. He’s got to be incredibly strong. He passess by house to house, hoping that a “señora” leaves her morning chores (oficios) to buy something: “SARTENES, OLLAS, COMALES!”, he shouts. These are the perfect tools for this Christmas’ tamales, chicharrones, olla de carnes, and other frituras.

I have no plans to buy anything from him. But I have to admire his determination to even try to sell anything in this heat, much less do so carrying around iron pots and pans. He probably doesn’t even profit much from what he sells, but the little he gains he will take home to his family. It’s humbling. He’s one of the many venders that pass my road from time to time selling anything from newspapers, bread, oranges, to rugs. I hardly ever buy anything from them, but I appreciate listening to their chants from inside the house as they pass by selling.

jueves, 15 de septiembre de 2011

Fruta Milagrosa

As you can imagine there is an incredible variety of tropical fruits in Latin America that many in the U.S. will never have the luxury or luck to try. Quite often, I am introduced to a new, interesting fruit. Not too long ago, I was in the local MAG office, when my friend Carlos, one of the MAG workers wanted to show me a fruit called Fruta Milagrosa (Miracle Fruit, also called Fruta Mágica (Magical Fruit)). Enthusiastically he explained to me that after eating one of these small fruits, which are about the size and shape of a blueberry, all foods that I eat will have a sweetish taste to them. The fruit is also similar in appearance to coffee. The fruit grows on a small bush. I’m not sure if this particular bush will grow much taller but it is currently about 3 feet tall. The fruit tastes similar to a sourer blackberry and has a seed inside.

As Carlos has a propensity to exaggerate, I skeptically believed him and ate the fruit. About 15 minutes later, I went to eat lunch in La Amistad. I had already forgotten that I had eaten the so called “fruta milagrosa” earlier, as I had put little belief into what Carlos had told me, as it sounded like something from a Lord of the Rings movie.

I put a good amount of “chilero” on my food because I like the spicy taste. I don’t have a weak tongue. I took my first bite of rice and beans and I was surprised by the fact that today, lunch had a sweet taste to it. I definitely didn’t notice any of the chile that I had poured on. I could literally eat the seeds of a hot chile pepper and not have any burning sensation. After a few more bites, I then remembered that I had eaten the Fruta Milagrosa, which must be the reason for the pleasant fruity taste to my food. Carlos didn’t exaggerate after all. This fruit, among many others that I have had the pleasure to eat here in Costa Rica, is definitely unique and unlike any other fruit that I have eaten in the U.S.

domingo, 11 de septiembre de 2011

Eating Habits

It may be of interest to my family and friends to know what my eating habits are like in Costa Rica. Although I live on my own, I still keep much of what I eat pretty Tico. After all, there is nothing better than a plate of gallo pinto for breakfast or a typical casado for lunch. In the US, I almost always ate a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. In Costa Rica, I still eat my bowl of oatmeal. However, on the side I like to have a bowl of chopped papaya, pineapple, and coco, and a side plate of plátano maduro. I know it’s a lot of fruit and may even be too much, but I certainly am not gaining weight and when there is so much abundance, I figure why not take advantage of the extra vitamins.

For lunch, I eat at the local “soda” La Amistad. Doña Norma, the restaurant’s cook and owner treats me like a son and always serves me a riquísimo typical Costa Rican casado or soup. On Mondays she prepares my favorite, olla de carne, which is similar to a beef stew in the US. Olla de carne is loaded with ayote (a type of squash), chayote, plátano, yuca, camote (sweet potato), papa (potato), cilantro, cebolla (onion), etc. Thursday is another soup day, though it varies which type of soup. She sometimes prepares a sopa de pescado o pollo, but usually she makes a sopa de mondongo, which uses the cow�e99s stomach. The other days of the week, I eat the classic “casado”, which consists of a plate of rice, beans, a picadillo and/or salad with pollo en salsa, carne en salsa, bistek, or chuleta. I especially enjoy eating at La Amistad because I always have great conversations with the restaurant’s owner and its clients, as many work in the OIJ (the Costa Rican government’s FBI), the local courthouse, the hospital, or are older community members that have unbelievable stories about what Ciudad Cortés was like in the United Fruit Company years.

Around 4:00 PM, I like to have a cafecito with my friends from the Panadería Murillo. We like to drink our coffee strong, which we jokingly call “café con el “American Touch.” El cafecito gives me that extra boost to participate in my evening activities. Its always accompanied by a good conversation con mis amigos.

For dinner, I typically prepare my famous “sancocho” with an egg or a slice of cheese. The “sancocho”, which I have proudly nicknamed it, consists of a huge bowl of vegetables that I have either grown in my garden such as okra, yucca, green beans, and mustard, or that I have bought from one of the local farmers such as ayotes or elotes (corn). I also throw in all the spices that I have in my garden such as chile peppers, basil, oregano, ginger, tumeric, cilantro, and lemon grass. I have to say, it’s quite simple (or complex) – a huge bowl of boiled vegetables with a piece of cheese (which is also bought locally) – but I have never gotten tired of it. I’m so accustomed to always having fresh produce that when I go back to the US, not having access to the abundance of fruits and vegetables will be something that is difficult to get accustomed to.

sábado, 27 de agosto de 2011

Sounds from the morning

The sun rises and sets early here in Costa Rica. That means if one wants to take advantage of daylight, and the coolness of the morning before it gets hot and humid, one needs to wake up quite early, at least for US standards. Activity - and not always human activity - usually starts around 5:30 AM. Like it or not, I am almost always waken up around this time by either the seemingly thousands of roosters that surround my house or the chirping of the “cocalecas.” The scientific name for this bird species is Aramides cajanea. Cocaleca is the word Costa Rican’s use, perhaps because they make a sound that is somewhat similar to the name.

By about 6:00 AM, the sounds of bicycles passing my house begin to be heard. There are several bread-sellers that ride through the neighborhoods with large carts filled with baguettes attached to the front of a bicycle and a horn attached to the handlebar to signal the arrival of the day’s freshly baked bread. “LLEGOOOO LLEGOOOO…… (HORN SOUNDS).” By this point it’s about 6:30 AM and the borrowed U.S. yellow school bus, which is used to transport locals from Cortés to Ojo de Agua instead of students, rumbles by, shaking the foundation of my house.

By 7:00 AM, the streets have quite a bit of activity as high school and elementary students are on their way to school, gently poking along on their bikes while talking in groups of friends. Also, many adults are reporting to work at this time. This routine is quite different to that in the US, where many people on a work day aren’t getting to work until 8:00 or 8:30 AM.

With all these sounds and movements, it definitely puts pressure on me to start my days bright and early with lots of activity. This can lead to exhaustion by the end of the day, as many of my activities don’t actually start until the evening. This means I start my day at 6:00 AM, but it often doesn’t finish until 9:00 PM. It’s safe to say, by the end of the days I am sometimes dizzy due to fatigue. I am still working on finding an equilibrium between resting sufficiently and taking advantage of the sunlight before it gets dark at 5:30 PM.