Ever productive, I have thought of a new invention during my colitis-induced hiatus: portable toilet seats. Seriously! How many times have you done the hover-squat in a public restroom? Chosen a bush over the port-a-potty poo-pourri at a concert? Lived on a farm where you couldn’t tell if the yellow drops on the seat emanated from a human or from the giant wasp living in the bathroom wall?
Hey y’all! Life at La Iguana is chugging along just fine, thank you very much. I’ve passed the halfway mark (makes sad face)! At this point, I’ve accumulated enough photos and knowledge to write a post about how we’re so divorced from our food sources that we have no idea how real food looks or tastes. The following are a few examples of foodstuffs we grow and process by hand from the finca.
Before this trip, I had only ever encountered turmeric as a powdered spice that I usually skip in recipes, since I didn’t know what it did and didn’t want to spend $5 to find out. As it turns out, turmeric is a root vegetable. One root sprouts three or four finger-like offshoots, and when they’ve been harvested the smallest ones get stuck right back in the dirt to germinate again.
The rest of the turmeric gets a nice little scrub-a-dub-dub and the fingers get broken off into separate pieces, then sliced by volunteers who are too tuckered out to continue hauling gravel or digging trenches. When sliced, it looks a lot like someone wrapped a baby carrot in ginger root skin. It also stains like henna, so my fingertips (and my arms, from where I scratch my mosquito bites; and my laptop’s keyboard; and all our clothing) now boast varying shades of yellowish-orange.
From here, the turmeric sun-dries on a tarp, and then gets dehydrated on a bed of netting stretched across a wooden frame, and covered with transparent plastic to protect it from the rain and magnify the sun. We hand grind it in the same grinder we use for the sun-roasted cacao beans, and generally one harvest produces enough of the spice for the Salazar family for a whole year. The powder also works great as an organic tie-dye, much to my excitement!
Did you know that cashew nuts look like this?
Did you know that when you spend several hours crawling through the underbrush, ripping cashew nuts off overripe and molding fruits on the orchard floor (FDA, please close your eyes and ears), that the sickly sweet smell of the fruits sticks to you way longer than all the spider webs that you walk into during the “harvest”?
Did you know that you can’t eat cashew nuts raw because most humans are allergic to the oils inside the nut; that if you persist in eating them raw you run the risk of blindness; or that when you are hand-cracking and hand-peeling each individual nut, then scraping the nut-meat out of the shell, and then you scratch a bug-bite with a gloved hand covered in the aforementioned oil, you will regret it like a bumblebee regrets using his stinger?
And are you familiar with the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize that the giant sacks of nuts you harvested, cracked, shelled and toasted produce hardly enough actual nut-meat to make a batch of cashew butter?
So it turns out that beans don’t grow in cans, and that they actually don’t contain manufactured iterations of corn and sodium in massive quantities. I cannot confirm whether real beans come with their own Jacks and Giant Beanstalks, but I do know for sure that a harvest looks like this when it’s laying out to sunbathe:
I also have learned that I would like a zen garden made of beans, large enough for me to walk across and then to eat for dinner. And that ticos take this poem‘s sage advice literally:
Beans! Beans! They’re good for your heart!
The more you eat, the more you fart;
the more you fart, the better you feel,
so eat your beans with every meal!
For Semana Santa the volunteers at La Iguana did not have to work, so we decided to walk to the beach. Of course, with the beach being 25 km away and temperatures climbing into the 90s, this was much more easily said than done. Elise, Pedro and I set out at 7:37 am, turned left at the end of the driveway, and followed the single dirt road that meanders through this mountain range. The first couple of hours consisted of steep downward twists, opening onto spectacular views of the valleys below. The road made quick work of dusting us in its red clay, and the sun was equally efficient in turning us into sweaty messes. As a silver lining, the dirt caked on my calves formed a protective layer – so my sunburn looks like a rosy pink pair of knee-socks rather than a hot pink pair. That essentially set the tone for the day: hot, dusty, sweaty, sunburned, parched.
For lunch Elise packed an assortment of salad, bread and sweets, but we all vastly underestimated the caloric demands of this undertaking. Thankfully, Pedro periodically stopped to graze on roadside plants, and shared with us both his harvest and his bountiful knowledge of the chemical reactions each piece of herbage would prompt in our bodies. In this manner we snacked on tococa, starfruit, and some wild berries that tasted like movie theater popcorn butter. Eventually we arrived at something like a town, and rested on an iron swingset next to a small papaya orchard. And there on the ground, amid the premature and the overly ripened, the stunted and the rotten fallen fruits, lay a papaya so perfect it could have been painted into the scene. It was separated from us by a rusty barbed wire fence and all of society’s reprobation against stealing, but hunger and thirst won out, helped along by that human instinct towards accumulation. I am more than a little ashamed, but still strangely pleased, to admit that I snuck into the orchard and moved this golden egg to the other side of the fence.
I was much less pleased with myself when I stood up to discover a van full of people idling across the street, its occupants staring at me. Anyone who has been caught red-handed knows the flood of indecision that descended on me in that moment, followed by the internal admission of guilt. I kind of darted back and forth in my barbed wire cage, thought about crouching behind the trees (which were only as thick as my calf), and then looked at Elise and Pedro and said “well, I’m just going to have to walk out of here.” So I did, and the van’s occupants didn’t care, but probably got a kick out of that filthy girl doing that weird dance in the papaya orchard. An hour later, after we’d been walking on a flat stretch of unshaded road for several kilometers, that papaya tasted like the gods’ nectar. We scooped out the insides with a spoon and used our teeth afterwards to scrape the skin clean. It was perfectly ripe, perfectly sweet, imperfectly acquired but perfectly timed*.
When we started again on the road to Parrita, our destination town, it was 12:30 pm and we had heard several conflicting reports of how much of the trip remained. We spread out along the road: me in front, Elise in the middle, and Pedro bringing up the rear, dancing along to the tunes blasting from his portable speakers. To the many passersby, we must have looked crazy with our dirt and our sunburns, coming seemingly out of the middle of nowhere and with no obvious destination within what’s typically considered “walking distance.” Then again, Nietzsche tells us that those who were seen dancing were called crazy by those who could not hear the music. It certainly could not have been clear to those motorists what type of internal music propelled us to walk yesterday, and I can’t speak for Pedro’s or Elise’s motivations. Personally, part of me needed a break from La Iguana’s mountainside seclusion and part of me just wanted to see if we could really make it to the beach.
Spoiler alert: We did not, ultimately, reach the ocean, but the reward of the journey was the experience itself. It was in the astounding landscapes and scenery, the roadside snacking and incredulous motorists, in observing how the towns are arranged here, how families spend their holidays. It was in seeing how kids here don’t mind talking to a pack of potentially crazy strangers, concerned only that “la muchacha tiene sucio por detras” (as one little girl told Elise).
For lunch, we chose a shady patch of dirt on the side of the road, flanked by palm oil plantations. As we divided an avocado three ways and probed our salad, which in the heat had melted into a soupy substance, a man noticed us and asked some reasonable questions about how we arrived at our current state of affairs. Once we had communicated that we had just walked 20 km, mas o menos, he invited us into the shade of his backyard. Within minutes we were rich with ice water, frozen guanabana, and Milwaukee’s Best Premium Beer. Our new friend, whose name we never learned, next enlisted his son to give us a tour of his backyard farm. They harvested some manzanas de agua for us, and fetched a machete so we could drink and eat coconuts moments after they cut them down. This level of generosity is endemic in the tico culture. We left eventually, but not before Pedro got a calf massage with Icy-Hot and we had to refuse a second round of cervezas. When finally we hit the road again, we were also armed with the knowledge that Parrita was only a 20 minute walk away.
The hitchhiking chapter of our trip began almost as soon as we arrived in Parrita. I was a total Doubting Thomas here, and tried to convince Pedro and Elise that we should cut our losses and catch a cab home. What person in their right mind with functioning nostrils would let the three of us near, let alone inside, their car? As it turns out, three such drivers existed on our way back. The first drove us far past his own destination, taking pity on our sorry selves and depositing us at the main road. The second car was a Jeep that had passed us earlier in the day. Its occupants deliberated for a moment before deciding they could make room, even though it meant that one of their number was dangling off the back of the truck. I squeezed in the front next to a couple: our male driver and his girlfriend, who balanced a stein of beer with experience as we bounced along the familiar rocky road. They were not concerned that my feet were wedged in between their bags of groceries. Their comrades in the back were equally unconcerned that Pedro or Elise would defile or crush the stash of watermelons that occupied much of the trunk space. As I watched the kilometers speed by, I had the sense that I was seeing all our hard work unravel, deconstructing our progress in a fraction of the time the road had demanded from our feet. On the other hand, it felt like watching a movie in rewind that documented all the ground we covered that day, and everything we had accomplished. Every turn of the road brought either a view with a specific memory – “I can’t believe we were eating lunch here 3 hours ago!” – or one I’d totally forgotten – “did we really walk all this?”
Eventually that ride came to an end, just as we arrived at the mountainous leg of the trip. I was glad to have leap-frogged the flat stretch where the sun had eaten up my shoulders and clawed at my calves, and found a happy satisfaction as we labored on the most uphill parts of the return trip. It felt as though we earned the views from the top. Only after we ascended the steepest, longest hill (rounding out our walk at an estimated 32 km) did our final ride find us.
As if this had been the plan from the beginning, our last driver not only was headed to Mastatal but also knew La Iguana, supplying Lidia’s and Juan Luis’ names with an implied “of course I know the Salazars!” We spoke with him a bit, but we were all so giddy to have a ride bringing us basically to our doorstep that I doubt we made much sense to him. We saw an unidentified mammal run across the road, which looked like a cross between a monkey and an opossum. Our driver hardly even blinked at the critter, even though he said it was a rare sight. We arrived back at the driveway just after sunset, just in time for dinner.
And with that, the day ended as strangely and as normally as every other day at La Iguana. I shoveled rice and beans into my face hole with gusto; we snuck treats from the fridge and sampled some freshly made truffles. Elise and I fell asleep in conversation, laughing with each other over the ridiculousness of the facts. And then it was morning again, and I wrote it all down.
*To anyone at FICO reading this, I am well aware of the very strong taboo against taking property from an orchard floor: that it is stealing, that it is wrong, and that it is not justified.