It’s 6:15AM and I wake up to the chorus of poorly rehearsed roosters. The inch of foam beneath me uncomfortably reminds me that I spent the entire previous day romping through the rain forest. I roll over to see the sun beginning its own slow rise as it crawls above the mountain horizon on the other side of the valley.
I walk down a rickety flight of stairs, my sore legs forcing me to put both feet on each plank. On the kitchen table I see at least 40 lbs of pure pork carnage – a spinal column with muscle attached to each vertebrae, still doused in blood, four hefty leg remnants, and a mound of neatly sliced cubes of fat and strips of skin.
“Merry Christmas, man.” says Jody casually (Jody is a new rafting guide for Costa Rica Outward Bound and was my traveling buddy for this trip). Merry Christmas? Oh yeah, I somehow managed to forget that it’s Christmas despite the clear presence of festive decorations like uncovered pig limbs. Where’s cinnamon rolls? Where’s peppermint flavored hot chocolate and candy canes? Where’s grandpa calling at an obnoxiously early hour to giddily shout “ho ho ho” in between sips of his favorite liqueur-ridden coffee? The only thing that resembled normalcy for my Christmas 2010 was the date on the calendar. Nothing else was similar. At least there were tamales. Wonderful, homemade tamales.
Rancho Tinamu is owned by a very humble, very short Costa Rican man named Santiago Parra. His son Hector can drive a 4×4 horse-truck up mountains very well, allowing you to drink Pilsen beers and watch the sunset from the back. His family, like virtually all in Latin America, loves to prepare traditional tamales every Christmas. Hoping to score a couple, I offered to help. As it turns out, they’re serious about their tamales. When you’re making 400 of them, you better have a well orchestrated assembly line, which is exactly what they had.
Sons fetch wood for the fire. Daughters clean and chop the carrots, peppers, and potatoes. Parents cook the rice and meat. Gringos stir the masa and clean the banana leaves. Everybody plays a part and for some reason, you just sort of feel like you belong there. Unfortunately, however, in order to avoid getting rained on, we had to leave early before they were ready. Tamales would eventually come from yet another hospitable Tico family, the Lopez household.
After crossing Rio Savegre in a “so 2010″ kind of cable car (literally a lightweight metal box suspended 15 feet above galloping river currents that ungracefully lurches across wires that feed through pulleys on either end) and climbing another couple hundred meters in altitude, we arrived at the infamous Lopez Estate. For some reason, I wasn’t at all surprised to be greeted by a paradoxically youthful old Tico man sporting a wilted bucket hat, dirty polyester dress slacks, and a two-tooth grin with a gap that’s almost not big enough to let his spry spirit spill through. He’s whole energy and half crazy.
Here you are, I thought to myself. The man, the myth, the legend. The He Who Shall Not Be Named of Piedras Blancas responsible for the progeny of what could have easily been the entire cast of the Costa Rican 300 movie that didn’t quite make it to production.” (His many sons’ physiques look like they’ve been carved by the same machete he is wielding when I meet him.) Don Hormida Lopez Sr. has his machete unsheathed for two reasons:
- He IS in Central America, after all
- He IS about to slaughter a fat holiday pig, after all
Would I like to watch the brutal massacre unfold in about 30 minutes?, he invites me. Well, considering the entire family gathers around for such a cheery occasion, I guess my only other option is to chase the chickens around the coupe by myself. Sure, why not?, I respond. Besides, I’ve never seen anything like this and I’m actually genuinely interested to see what the real pig-to-pork process is like. In only as much graphic detail as is necessary to illustrate the ordeal, I’ll start from the beginning (honestly, it was pretty brutal so if you don’t care for animal violence, skip this part).
After the machete Blade of Reality is freshly sharpened, Gabrielle gets the green light to lasso the unsuspecting pig and remove it from the protective walls of its pen. Almost immediately upon seeing the Axe of Misunderstanding, it goes from being generally disgruntled to being completely terrified. Once it’s corralled into position, the worst screams, no longer squeals but discernible screams start coming from some dark place within its struggling body. It was horrible. Four crunchy hits later, the sturdy thing finally went quiet. Meanwhile, I couldn’t believe how well even the children handled it. I guess I wore my City Slicker Badge unwittingly as I was pretty much frozen for at least ten minutes afterwards. Once it was done though, whew! Big breath in, slow breath out. I kept trying to tell myself that this was a normal part of living on a farm and that the family will be better fed for it and slowly but surely, the justification was complete. It wasn’t easy to watch, but I definitely see how it’s much more humane than a lot of the ways meat is mass produced. Don Lopez and his sons would later tell me that they always try to make it as quick as possible out of respect for the animal, but this was a rare case. Merry Christmas Eve.
The rest of the night was spent hiking around their beautiful property, trying to translate English children’s books into Spanish, admiring the many fruits and vegetables they grow, and eating healthy servings of gallo pinto. All of course, while raw meat slabs occupied the next table over. No gifts were exchanged other than kind words and blessings – in fact, the day was very much like any other day for them. All in all, Christmas with the Lopez family was a total trip but an relatively unremarkable. I can safely say that I will always remember Christmas 2010 in Costa Rica. For better or for worse, but mostly for better.
After another long day hiking out of Piedras Blancas, we had to make a decision: camp out in a small village nearby or stick to the barely-traveled dirt road, hoping for a ride. Forty-five minutes into the latter, hitchhiking thumbs sore, we saw a pickup truck tumbling towards us. The ride we got to Santa Rosa was unforgettable. Dirty, tired, and soaked in my own sweat I put my backpack down amongst a tiny yappy dog, a sizable pile of ____ poop, and a weathered Costa Rican man wearing the preferred footwear of all of Central America: the cheap rubber boot.
With rails around the back to support standing, we all bounced along the road, up and up and up until the whole world it seemed was below us. Huge sweeping valleys on either side. Rolling green hills down below. Pink and yellow and blue and orange speckles of sun in the clouds that we drove through. Rejoice! Sweet salvation! It was a beauty pageant of nature and I got to be the judge. Had my camera not crapped out three days before, I certainly would have taken photos to share.
A day later, I found myself at the beach at Manuel Antonio. Four days of surfing, reading, and meeting more people from Vancouver, Washington than logic should dictate.
Incapable of being restless for more than 10 minutes, I explored the area and stumbled upon this old decrepit lookout tower on the hill above our base. Naturally, I decided to ignore every impulse that told me to not climb it for obvious safety reasons. Had that happened, I wouldn’t have gotten up close and personal with a huge vulture on top nor would I have witnessed such incredible views of the surrounding bay. Minus one point for being unsafe, plus two for being unsafe.
New Year’s Eve was wonderful. The last time I was in Manuel Antonio, I met this really great Argentinian couple living there as raft guides. They asked if I would like to go to their place for NYE celebrations and dinner. Sabrina and Lucas from Bariloche made Tacos Argentinos, their own version of Mexican tacos. Imagine tacos but instead of the usual hard or soft shell, you get what are basically crepes. They introduced me to some of their other guide friends, Canadians with some GREAT stories, and together we celebrated 2011 in each of our own prospective home time zones. Fireworks from their balcony. New food. Great people. Loads of language-related jokes. I get the sense that it was somehow very indicative of what to expect in the year to come.