Flipping the Tortilla

Trip Start Jan 15, 2013
Trip End Jan 27, 2013

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Bosques de Chachagua

Flag of Costa Rica  , Province of Alajuela,
Saturday, January 19, 2013

Today we "flipped the tortilla." That's a Costa Rican phrase meaning we changed the paradigm or the program. Instead of exploring Costa Rican biodiversity, we had an opportunity to learn about Costa Rican culture by exploring the nearby village of Chachagua.

Our first stop was at the home of Rosea. She is a single woman with five children who has aspirations to open a small restaurant, a soda in Costa Rica lingo, in the heart of the village. Rosea has five children and they all live in a home built by her ex-husband. When we inquired about her former spouse, from whom she is now divorced, she shared that he is a free-lance horse trainer who has very irregular work; they are divorced. She said that divorce is quite common in Costa Rica. Her ex-husband does help support the children by providing milk for the family and diapers for the baby, Santiago. The land where Rosea’s house is located was given to her by her in laws; they also provided the materials to build the home.

Rosea’s home is a simple structure that we estimate to be about 800 square feet. Large double doors opened on the front, which also included a large covered porch. The house is constructed from rough lumber and has been left a natural finish. The front room was small and filled with well-worn, homemade furniture. The bedrooms were tiny, but each one was decorated, and despite being quite modest, the whole house gave the appearance of a very happy place.

The most striking part of the home is the large outdoor-covered kitchen, which is also a sewing area. It is an all around comfortable gathering place that has been built just a few steps away from the back door of the house. This is where Rosea taught all of us how to make empanadas. Her eleven-year-old daughter Angie demonstrated the technique; then we all got involved in making our masa-encased pies filled with black bean paste and fresh cheese. Once we had put our pies together, we passed them over to Rosea’s boyfriend, who dropped them into a skillet filled with hot grease, where they bubbled and popped until they turned a golden brown. All of this was done on an outdoor, homemade stove that was fueled by long lengths of burning wood.

Pico de Gallo sauce, hot coffee brewed Costa Rican style (see picture), and a drink called toad water accompanied the empanadas. Toad water is a mixture of sugar-cane molasses, hot water, lemon, ginger, and sugar. It’s called toad water because of its brown, murky color. The same color of water that toads prefer to lay their eggs. Despite the name, it was delicious, as were the empanadas.

We also had empanadas when we traveled to Patagonia. However, those empanadas were baked in an oven with a flour-based crust instead of the corn flour, masa. They were good, but these were much better. Of course these were also fried, probably in lard--we didn’t ask. A fact well known to all of us Southerners is that frying always makes things tastier, especially if lard is used, even if it does send one to their grave in a more timely fashion.

Rosea’s sixteen-year old daughter, the mother of the infant Santiago, also had a small business selling hand-sewn items. Lana bought a beautiful potholder.

After the empanada lesson, we made our way to the nearby San Francisco School. Secondary education up to eight years is available free of charge in Costa Rica and every child also gets one meal a day without charge while in school. School is not in session during January and February. Despite this, a group of children were present to give us a tour and demonstrate some native dances. As we stepped off our mini-bus a child grabbed each of our hands and led us to a seat in a large open-air courtyard. There they welcomed us by singing their national anthem, and then they had all of us sing together our Star Spangled Banner. A demonstration of native dancing followed, including participation by some of our group. The session concluded with all of us doing the Hokey-Pokey, a dance that seems to have universal appeal to children of all ages.

The young people we met ranged from first- to eighth-graders and were delightful. They all had beautiful dark olive skin and very bright brown eyes; they bristled with energy and exuded a sense of joy. They were perfect ambassadors for Costa Rica, which is reputed to be one of the happiest countries in the world. After the dances, the child that accompanied each of us upon arrival found us again, grabbed our hand, and took us for a tour of their school. It was impressive with beautiful murals of the Costa Rican country side painted on many of the exterior walls. The children were clearly very proud.

The young lady who accompanied Bob spoke excellent English, quite easily responding in very clear English to his southern accented queries. She said that she had learned her language skills in school. Rafael had earlier told us that most rural schools, such as this one, do not teach English. However, this school has been the recipient of financial support from the Grand Circle Foundation, a foundation administered by the parent company of our tour operator, Overseas Adventure Travel. One result of this support is the ability to include English language as part of the curriculum. Such bilingual skills make a huge difference in the life of the child; Rafael says that in Costa Rica a person is considered illiterate if they do not speak English. In addition to supporting English language skills, the foundation has provided a well-equipped computer classroom. Many of the children said computer skills was one of their favorite classes.

After the tour, we all came together again for a question and answer session. The children asked about our travels: How many countries and which one did you like the best? We all answered one-by-one. They cheered over and over as we of course said Costa Rica was our favorite. We asked them their favorite classes and what they aspired to be when grown. It was interesting to see that many of the girls professed a love of mathematics. The answer to the latter question ranged from doctor to architect, policeman, firewoman, chef, and football player, meaning soccer of course. Several said they wanted to be a forensic doctor, which led us to believe the CSI has made its way to Costa Rica.

Our morning culminated with a visit to a child’s home for a lunch of typical Costa Rican food. We broke into small groups; ours accompanied Deanna, an eighth-grade student, to her nearby home. Her parents, who did not speak English, were waiting for us. Thankfully one member of our group spoke very good Spanish, so it was possible for us to communicate with words instead of only with gestures or relying on Deanna for translation. Mr. Barboza, Deanna’s father, gave us a tour of his four-bedroom home as his wife did the last of the food preparation. The kitchen was modern, even including a microwave oven where the homemade tortillas were heated just before serving.

Our lunch menu included rice and black beans, lettuce and tomato salad, an egg fritter with green beans, fried yucca, a beef patty, tortillas, and star fruit juice. For dessert we had fried plantains with molasses and butter. It was all quite delicious and filling, and the conversation flowed at the table thanks to our tour member with Spanish skills.

Mr. Barboza is a tenant farmer. He owns his home but not the land on which it is constructed. He and his wife have been hosting visiting families for nine years, but that will soon come to a halt as his youngest daughter is in her last year of school. Mr. Barboza made a comment that indicated it might be time for another child, to which his wife responded with a rolling of her eyes and a shaking of her head. Their home is surrounded with fruit trees—plantain, grapefruit, lime, banana—and flowers were in abundance. Across the gravel road in the front of their home was a large field of taro.

After lunch we returned to our lodge for some much needed down time. We all gathered again in the late afternoon to prepare appetizers from our grocery store purchases yesterday. We thought the highlight was the guacamole. Clearly the team that made the avocado, tomato and onion selection did an excellent job. Later we dined on a special Costa Rican buffet provided by our lodge.

Wow! This was a real foodie day. No one went to bed hungry. It was also an extremely rich and rewarding day to have the opportunity to meet and visit with members of the local village and to share meals with them in their homes.
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