I spent last week on the farm of Carlos’ father, having loads of new experiences.  I blogged about it before, but promised further details.  Thusly:

Cows in the early morning fog stop to say hello on their way back to the pasture.

1)      Drinking coffee with milk fresh from the cow:  Fresh coffee- grown not 10kms from the kitchen where it was created and cut with milk still warm from a cow I said hello to later- was the best dang coffee I’ve ever had.  Strong, rich, smooth, and naturally sweet.  Probably laden with fat and certainly unpasteurized, and you know what?  Mmmm… good!  I could get used to somebody making me that kind of coffee every morning.

2)      Having beans and rice for breakfast: Gallo pinto is leftover beans and rice from last night mixed with newly sautéed onion, cilantro, and bell pepper.  It’s the typical lunch food of Costa Rica, and it’s tasty.  Throw a fried egg on top and you’ve got breakfast.  I thought “Good, God, no!  I can’t eat beans and rice for breakfast!” when I first heard of this custom, but when you’re in somebody else’s house, and somebody else is cooking, and its eat what you’re given or be rude… I guess the only approach to take is “when in Rome…”  In truth, I discovered that it’s actually not bad, even for breakfast!  Although, after 3 days of beans and rice 3 meals a day I headed to the market for some fruit and salad fixings.  Then I opted for the “I’m not that hungry, I think I’ll just have fruit,” approach for a few days to give my system a chance to catch up with the rest of me.

3)      Seeing chocolate before its chocolate:  Believe it or not, chocolate doesn’t come in bar form from the get-go.  It’s actually a plant, the beans of which become chocolate.  The fruit looks strange- large, heavy, and ugly (think yellowish green, slightly fuzzy acorn squash that turn black before they drop off the tree).  It’s full of promise though, and the ripe fruit does, indeed, smell a bit like raw dark chocolate.  Not strongly, but if you’re up close you can catch the slightest hint of it.  If given the choice, though, I’ve got to say I think coffee in the raw is much prettier and smells better.  I was amazed that something so divine as chocolate came from a plant that ugly!

These ancient petroglyphs can easily be seen from horseback. Carlos says they're a map of the area and points out the mountain and river in front of us .

4)      Horseback riding in the mountains:  I’ve been in the mountains.  I’ve ridden horses.  I’ve not done both together until last week.  There were hills to be surmounted, fast-flowing rivers, cliffs,  and waterfalls to ride along, and wide vistas of green valleys and distant peaks, all made a bit more exciting by the scent of horse and the change of perspective being up higher gives you.  I was pretty pleased that my riding skills, not much used since I was a girl, came right back to me.  I didn’t need a boost into the saddle and I had no problems guiding my well trained steed where I wanted him to go at the pace I wanted to move.  Dismounting was a breeze as well, but walking afterward?  That was a bit painful!  Those horse riding muscles are a little out of training, it seems.

5)      Getting my 4-wheel-drive truck stuck:  We drove down a mucky, steep, narrow mountain track from one vast, muddy tropical farm to another.  We had no problems getting there, but on the way back  the upward incline was steeper and the hill we’d nearly slid down before was too slick with clay-mud for my truck to go back up.  It slipped.  It slid.  It bogged down.  My engine whined and got hot, and we tried the “stick some rocks under the wheels” approach.  That didn’t work.  We tried the get out and push method.  That didn’t work either and all I managed to do was go backward.  We were muddy, hot, sweaty, out in the middle of nowhere, and I was nearly in tears.  I don’t deal well when I can’t think of a solution and don’t have a clue what to do.  Then Carlos disappeared for ten minutes and came back with a local friend, discussing whether or not a few horses hitched to the front might be able to pull the truck up.  Ultimately what it took was figuring out that my 4-wheel-drive only engages when I lock the front hubs(!), and 3 guys pushing, to get us going again.  If nothing else, now I know.  My truck’s tougher than I thought; I just have to actually engage the 4-wheel-drive!  I also know that when there’s a problem Carlos just smiles and says, “We’ll figure something out, this is no big deal.”  That’s a pretty refreshing revelation.

6)      Being hugged by a 96 year old woman:  Carlos’ abuela is tiny, adorable, and possibly the oldest person I’ve ever met.  She lost one husband to WWII (yes, Costa Rica sent men to Europe to fight in WWII).  She has been married to her second husband for twice as long as I’ve been alive.  She was a school teacher, and now lives on a farm perched high on a tropical mountain where, if it doesn’t rain today, it will rain tonight- guaranteed.  She wasn’t entirely sure who I was, given that she’d never seen me before, Carlos only visits a few times a year, and she’s got dozens and dozens of grand and great-grandchildren to keep track of, but she hugged me happily all the same.  She’s incredibly sweet: I was wet because, of course, it was raining outside, and 45 seconds after hugging me she was back to hand me a towel.

The iron stove has been tiled over to add insulation, beauty, and to help prevent burning yourself.

7)      Cooking on a wood stove:  This was a bit of a challenge, and at first I was worried that I’d make a complete disaster of it.  With a wood stove you can’t guarantee an even temperature- the first things you cook take forever, in the middle it’s hard not to burn things, and by the end it’s back to waiting.  You have to keep track of the fire, making sure it’s actually burning under the areas where you’ve got food cooking and adjust it if it’s not.  You also can’t touch the outside of it without burning yourself.  It’s hot.  Every pot and pan you use will be blackened on the bottom from the fire, and you’re guaranteed to have dirty fingers afterward.  But the food… ¡que rico! There’s a slight hint of smoke which lends everything a richer taste, and you can’t beat the sense of accomplishment you feel when it’s all over.  I made salad and fresh tortillas (which I’ve gotten pretty good at since I bought a Costa Rican cookbook my first week here) while Carlos made gallo pinto.  The first tortillas were a mess- unevenly cooked and stuck to the pan since at my house I use teflon and no butter.  Once I figured out the lubrication-to-temperature ratio and threw those first two tortillas to the cat and three dogs waiting by the door way, it went pretty smoothly.  I had to shoo Carlos, his dad, and his brother away from the stove and make them wait for dinner.  They were wandering by and eating tortillas faster than I could cook them!

8)      Eating homemade cheese for lunch:  Fresh cheese is about the best thing ever.  It tastes like cheese, but not like any cheese you’ll find in stores back home.  Apparently, it’s not hard to make (if you have a few cows).  You just milk the cows, leave the milk in the bucket (covered, of course) for a few days, and wait.  Once the solids have separated from the liquids (a process that results in a bit of a sour smell, but if you’ve ever sniffed real cheese you know that already) you pour the whole thing into a cloth-lined press.  Use the press to squeeze the solids together, effectively ridding them of liquid in the process and the result is fresh cheese in the press and buttermilk if you collect the liquids.  Then you eat it.  Really.  No salt, no fancy flavoring, just the rich flavor of fresh cheese.  I’d be the size of a house if I lived on a farm.

9) Waking up to toucans outside my window:  One morning I opened my eyes and right outside the window was a brightly colored blur.  I’m blind without my glasses and don’t sleep in contacts…  I scrambled for sight and as soon as my glasses were settled on my face that blur resolved itself into a toucan perched in a tree outside my second floor window.  He stared at me, I stared back, and I realized: my life is nothing like I expected, and I love that.