This article appeared in an online publication earlier…
Tortillas and Sugarcane juice in Costa Rica
A small town named Filadelphia in the interiors of Northwestern Guanacaste province in Costa Rica is the gateway to huge acres of sugarcane fields. My guide, Ulysses (how epic is that?) points out the sodas lining the main street. Soda refers to the ubiquitous eatery found everywhere. The sun is riding high in the sky, and from the cool interiors of the sodas, local Ticos/Ticas raise their hands in greeting. They know where I’m headed. I spot sloths suspended from trees. I see orderly rows of sugarcane, lines of melons on the other side of the dusty road. “These belong to the company Del Monte. You have heard, yes?” I nod, my mind flying back to my local grocery store. I’ll always have this picture in my head when I see those tins next time, I think.
El Viejo Hacienda
The hacienda lies past the fields, past the streams where egrets continue to fish, unperturbed by my camera. Built in the 1800s, it retains much of its original timberwork. I wander into the courtyard, entranced by the view of the surroundings.
“Careful!” warns Ulysses, and I step back in alarm. Snoozing in the sunny courtyard is an iguana, all orange crest and striped tail. I was too busy looking about to have seen what lay at my feet. My heart is in my mouth.
“They’re harmless,” he grins. “They only fight among themselves.”
I’m not convinced and vow to pay attention. But the lovingly restored hacienda works its soothing magic on me. Upstairs are rooms whose wooden floors are scuffed with the imprints of a thousand visitors. The walls hang with pictures of another era. From the upstairs verandah, I see the clumps of weirdly shaped cacti, and beyond, the fields and mountains, misty in the noon haze.
The Sabanero (cowboy) culture, native to the region, gives me a glimpse into the lives of the hard- working people who have lived on this land for generations. I meet El Capitano, the ox who will help in grinding the sugarcane to make juice. He’s a robust bull, but docile, on account of his castration, Nina, the young lady showing me around, explains. Then she makes a peculiar ululating sound and, in an instant, is answered with the same sound from beyond the canopy of trees. That, she explains, is how the cowboys communicated with each other. We gather around to watch the churning of the old machine with El Capitano’s help.
I cannot help it – I’m captivated, held fast by the sunshine, the scent of woodsmoke, the nectar-like sugarcane juice, and the living groves of tamarind and mango trees. Ulysses leads me up the steps to the modest Casa del Sabanero. An open hearth with roaring fire, pats of corn dough, and an invitation to bake fresh tortillas. The taste is reminiscent of a simpler time, of sun, of community, of the earth, I think poetically.
The wetlands are only a short drive away. Through densely treed land, the van stops at the banks of the fast-flowing Tempisque river.
“You must see the monkeys. And crocodiles. Big!”
Ulysses’ appetite to let me make closer acquaintance with the stuff of my nightmares is unending, it seems. But I forgive him when I’m on the boat. A cooling breeze, jungle-thick banks, and the brackish waters of the Tempisque river.
Everyone turns to the right. And on the bank, amid the mud, lies an enormous monster. It looked at us balefully with one eye.
“That’s Boss”, claims the boatman.
“How do you know? Can you recognize him?” someone asks nervously.
“He had an accident some years ago – fighting with another male. He’s blind in one eye.”
Our boat dawdles near the bank. Suddenly he lifts up his huge girth and in a second, slides into the water. The speed was frightening. Our boat zips away.
A flock of black necked stilts peck through the water near the bank. And at last, in the trees, a clutch of capuchin monkeys swing. Except for two of them.
“What are they doing?” a curious 10 year old asks.
Silence, and then laughter breaks out on the boat.
“Eh, fighting, I guess”, says the embarrassed mother.