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K & Cocky

It is now September and, totally off my usual migratory schedule, I’m back in the north. Home in the Hammer, enjoying brilliant blue skies – even Hamilton Bay, the maligned body of water that shares its shores with steel companies and suburbia, has an aqua shine to it these days. I couldn’t ask for a better homecoming. My buddy with a bosom, Cocky, was at the airport to meet me, after her own month of travels. A treat to come home to, but now she’s gone too. I may get a chance to go for a sail on that same water if this weather holds for the Labour Day weekend which it is supposed to.

 

barnacles

My last two weeks in Costa Rica were spent down in sweet calypsolandia, Cahuita. Although it rained lots in July on the Caribbean coast just as it had been up in Monteverde, I ended up being followed by beautiful weather from the green mountain to the seashore. There were some casual showers of course, and maybe one night of insistent rain, but the month of September in Cahuita means dry weather. Hard to fathom how, when it is hurricane season just to north, but I stopped trying to figure out weather a long time ago.

moat and land

We got a lot of hot sunny days that sent us to the beach, but we mostly stayed at home. It was glorious to be back basking under those big trees, bathing in the cool water, being serenaded by the howlers and bailando with Roberto.   I was amazed at how much the papaya seedlings we had planted in July had grown in the four or so weeks I was away.  But then the growth of vegetation in Costa Rica always unnerves me a bit – you just don’t want to sit in one place too long if there is a vigorous-looking vine nearby.

limon malecon

 One afternoon we went up to the Port of Limon, a place I really only have known as a bus-changing town.  We walked around the ‘malecon’, the boardwalk that follows the seaside. Limon is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, having been visited by Christopher Columbus in 1502, so if it seems a little worn that should be understandable.

limon penguins

Development in Costa Rica by the Spaniards took place from the Pacific side, and so the Atlantic coast was left to fend for itself against all that crazy rainforest vegetation. In the mid-1800s the government decided to build a railroad and connect Limon (particularly its port) to the rest of the country. They brought in Chinese and Jamaican workers to build the tracks and thus the Caribbean coast is very much an extension of Afro-Caribbean culture with lots of chop suey houses around. 

park

There is no denying racist elements that existed (and unfortunately still do.) When the railroad was finished and the banana plantations became a major employer, the black population provided the workforce.  They weren’t encouraged to travel throughout the country, couldn’t afford it anyway, and the fact that they were foreigners themselves made it able to control their movements through their documents.  Eventually they went to work in other parts of Costa Rica as laborers were needed and Afro-Caribbean families settled elsewhere in the country. But the heart of the calypso-blooded community will always be Limon. 

wouldabeenice theatre limon

The city developed once the railroad took off, but government money was never pouring their way.  In the last year or two, there has been a move by the Costa Rican government to bring economic development to the area although people are waiting to see the proof.  There was an attempt at revitalizing the waterfront of Limon several years ago, but earthquakes and storms destroyed much of the expanded boardwalk as well as what must have been a great little outdoor concert theatre in its short life. As Limon grows into a bigger cruise ship port (it is already a large commercial harbor and a popular cruise ship stop)  hopefully some of the wealth that visits its shores will be spread in the area. Although Limon is known for its poverty,  its richness of spirit and culture is as much a part of life there. The biggest threat to that, after poverty,  is the drug trade which feeds on the poverty and changes the spirit.

rasta in limon

The city has a funky flair to it and lots of local color, from the bright hues of the buildings to the cacao skin of the residents. When you take the highway east of San José, over the mountains of Braulio Carillo National Park, and through the miles of flat banana and pineapple fields, over the wide rivers coming out of the mountains and arrive in Limon province, you know you are in a different culture than in the rest of Costa Rica. The food changes – instead of arroz y frijoles, you are now eating rice and beans cooked in coconut milk; the music changes – from salsa and merengue to calypso, soca and reggae; and the language is English-based Limonense-Creole rather than Spanish. It seems that most people are fluently tri-lingual – speaking Tico Spanish and British English as well as their own Caribbean-tongue.  It is a disappearing language as are many of the indigenous languages that are being used by less and less natives of Costa Rica. My experience being there with Roberto is that every plant, bird and insect has a different name in Limon than elsewhere in the country. The words are English-based, but the names are distinct to this region. I can get very lost trying to follow the lilt and tilt of the language used in Cahuita.  

puerto viejo

We had some beautiful days and were out on the ocean as often as we could force ourselves to go for the walk through the forest to the beach.  There was another hot night spent in Puerto Viejo, which has a number of bars that cater to different crowds – we go to Maritza’s, which has a live band on Saturday nights and always plays a great variety of music for dancing from soca to salsa.

beach to point

In the middle of all this it was my birthday and Roberto promised to go out in the sea and get me lobster for dinner.  So we spent two fine mornings on the beach under a big sun, the sea a calm shiny turquoise stone.  Roberto used to be a diver (snorkeler) and caught and sold octopus, fish and lobster, but quit a number of years ago as he saw the population of these sea creatures diminish. The banana plantations in the area have caused lots of pollution – from their chemical effluent to the silt run-off to the plastic bluebags that they put over the banana bunches – all this stuff ends up in the ocean and, along with a bad earthquake or two, things have never been the same.

lobster

 

But it didn’t take him long to get four nice-sized lobster for dinner and we were thankful for the bounty. We were blessed with the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the sea and took advantage to walk through Cahuita National Park’s shady trails, sharing our time with the monkeys. 

 

 

cahuita bridges

 

Cahuita’s beaches are stunning and the National Park is one of the most beautiful in the country. Between the white sand beach, the reef off the point, the hours of hiking, the constant presence of birds, insects and animals, and the fact that you can enter for a small donation from the town access point, it makes for one of the nicest parks to visit in Costa Rica. They have built bridges over some of the swampier areas (where before there were submerged wooden walkways), using the same recycled-plastic material that the Monteverde Reserve has been using on its trails and signage for a few years now. It was interesting that we could smell the plastic off-gassing in the very hot sun – something that I’ve never noticed up in the cooler cloud forest.

bananas

 

 

We also continued taking care of Roberto’s little farm. We seeded corn and within three days it was two inches out of the ground – when I head back there in November I should be eating elotes, the young corncobs.

 

 

R cutting tree

 

 

 

Roberto climbed up his castaña tree, the glamorous cousin of the breadfruit, to chop off the top limbs before it gets too tall and he won’t be able to harvest the fruit.

 

 

R in big leaves

 

 

This tree is also growing on the bank of his stream and, knowing that it will fall one day, he has been concerned that if it is too tall it will fall on his casita.  So I took pictures as he shimmied up the trunk and took his machete to the big elegant leaves and chopped off the top.

 

 

R in cut tree

 

 

Afterward he said he was getting too old to do this stuff – between the possibility of falling, wasps, snakes, and other risks he felt lucky to get the job done in one piece – but my guess is he’ll keep climbing and chopping as long as he needs to, for as long as he is truly able.  His age is just making him realize how vulnerable he is and that when it hurts, it hurts harder.

 

braulio carillo

 

 

We went back through the mountains to San José for my last two days in the country. There was a full day of music awaiting us and we took advantage.

 

noche inolvidable

Wandering around the city, we caught the Lubin Barahona orchestra outside of the National Museum.  It was big band music and boleros being sung by old timers.

 

 

dancers

 

The crowd was mostly older couples who were happy to be dancing on the street while the music played on and the rain held off.   Like in most cities, there is live music playing for free to be found most weekends.

university choir and master key

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then caught a gospel concert in the Melico Salazar Theatre at night – a contest between three local gospel choirs (won by the University choir) with Master Key (a five man acapella group from Costa Rica now working in the US)

manuel obregon, master key, tapado

with Manuel Obregon, a musician I’ve known for years in Monteverde (and seen him play here in Toronto twice). He’s one of the most experimental composers in the country – here he was playing gospel with our friend Tapado, the country’s top percussionist, at his side. Manuel never fails to amaze me with where his music takes him and he takes alot of other musicians along for his musical rides. The Let It Shine concert was presented by a gospel choir group and held to celebrate Black Culture Day, August 31. It was a great way to extend my time in the cultural richness of the Afro-Caribbean community.

he and me

 

The inevitableness of leaving woke me up early on the last day of August and when it is time to go, it is time. It makes saying goodbye easier when you know you are going to return within a couple of months (si dios quiere.) Heading to my happy home in the Hammer also makes things easier. I can still feel the Caribbean sun on my skin and if I listen hard enough, the gentle arrival of the waves lapping the beach and gently rocking my soul.

waterstump

 

The mellowness of life in the jungle and on the sea exists in stark contrast to the busyness of my life back here in the city as I prepare for a trip to the northeastern US, continue overseeing the Spanish translation of Walking with Wolf, work on the historical record of Bosqueeterno S.A., and catch up with my northern friends.

Stay calm, Kay, stay calm – but keep that ball rolling, there is lots to do.

flower

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It is morning – you can tell by the chorus of birdcalls and the chanting of the howler monkey.  I think it is going to rain for, according to Wolf, the monkeys sing out at dawn and dusk but also to complain that the rains are coming.  It is so hot and humid here in San Carlos, and the clouds are sitting so low, that I’d say the howler is probably correct.  I think it is going to pour.

  HOWLER MONKEY WAITING ON RAIN

Last week while I was still in Monteverde, I was soundly asleep when all of a sudden there was a huge roar right outside my window.  A congo (howler) was in the tree not ten feet from my window, about twenty feet from my bed.  He was so close that I could hear the roar gurgling up in his throat, like coffee rising in the stem of the percolator getting ready to boil.  I’ve heard these roars a hundred times, from a tent in the forest, and from a tree at the side of a trail.  But nothing prepared me for the force that came out of that monkey that morning at 5 a.m.  I woke with a start at the sound of it, looked at the clock, realized I had no intention of staying awake and once my heart beat slowed, I thought about falling back to sleep.  However, every time I was just about back in dreamland, the guy started roaring again.  I ended up lying in bed just listening to that roar in his throat building in force until he released his monkey-like cockadoodledo.  Later in the day I ran into a neighbor who asked me if I had heard that monkey – how could I have missed him?  She also couldn’t get back to sleep – a second monkey in a different troop was close to her house and these two guys seemed intent on keeping us awake that morning. 

I can hear one outside now but he is probably half a mile away, which is an acceptable distance, so his roar is no louder than the rumble from the volcano.  I’m up already anyway, getting ready to pack and leave for Alajuela and a family fiesta with Zulay before heading into San José for the big interview with the Tico Times tomorrow. The other thing that is telling me it is morning is the aroma coming from the kitchen – fresh Costa Rican coffee and gallo pinto (rice and beans) made with Lizano, the Costa Rican condiment of choice. 

Last night we had Nectaly, Zulay’s cousin, over so we made a big pot of olla de carne – that is, a meat and vegetable soup/stew. I love this dish as it gives you a little of the redder-than-usual beef that is pasture fed along with a wide selection of the root crops, squashes and other veggies which are common here but more difficult to find imported in Canada – yucca, yampi, tekiske, elote, ayote, chayote, camote…bueno, there are many. 

 

Nectaly waiting for Zulay to serve up the olla de carne

 

 

The last few days here we have been feasting on tamales which in Costa Rica are made with a milled and cooked corn mash, rolled with some vegies and chicken or pork inside leaves from the banana family and steamed; pejibayes, served with mayonnaise, which is the fruit of a specific palm tree and a food that sustained the natives for centuries and my absolutely favorite food here; breadfruit, a ball of dense vegetable that grows on the most beautiful large-leafed tree I know; and the nuts of the castaña, the false breadfruit tree. 

  A COSTA RICAN TAMALE

  THE BEAUTIFUL CASTANA, COUSIN OF THE GLORIOUS BREADFRUIT

I’ve been lucky in my life here in Costa Rica to have been introduced by my Tico friends to a wide variety of exotic fruits and vegetables, animals and even insects. I’ve spent hours pulling snails, sea cockroaches and other small critters out of tidal pools and off the rocks, then painstakingly cleaning the sand and refuse out of them to make a seafood and rice gastronomic delight. I’ve tried a bit of everything including iguana, armadillo (both with chickeny or rabbity-like meat), tepizcuentle (a small rodent-type animal that is known to be the best meat around and is now farmed – and truly tasty), and my first year here I ate turtle.  I know that it was completely not right but I was staying with locals at the time on the Caribbean and they were still killing turtles for food then.  And as I ate the tender pieces of juicy meat served in a spicy salsa, I have to say I understood immediately why people would eat these now endangered creatures – they are the filet mignon of the sea, a little bit fine steak, a little bit lobster.  I also very politically-incorrectly sucked a turtle egg one night, but I won’t get into that….the event just about wiped out my reputation as having a social-conscience and all I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

 BREADFRUIT CENTERPIECE AND 4-FRUIT JUICE

Most people when they come to Costa Rica eat rice and beans in some form or other, as well as rice with chicken or shrimp, or casada – the daily meal named after what wives serve up for their husbands, combining a mixture of the more inexpensive foods that can be served up on anyone’s table (rice, beans, cabbage salad, ripe plantain and a protein such as egg, cheese, or meat), fresh fish at the beach, chicken or pork when inland.  But if you get outside of the restaurants, and are willing to try new foods, there is no end to the variety here.  Papaya, mango, pineapple, avocado and banana are common and can be bought anywhere – when in season, they are of course much sweeter and tastier here than you would ever experience with imported ones in the northern world.  But there is also caimito, mamones chinos, guanabanas, guayabas, well the list goes on. And each one has its own flavor and texture.  I’ve learned that mamones (a variety of lychee nut) are great for traveling as you crack open the colorful spikey skin and get a grape-like juicy treat from inside with a minimum of fuss and mess; that green mangos with salt and lime are very satisfying to curb your hunger; that there are a whole bunch of different fruits that involve sucking sweet white flesh from around large seeds inside pods, such as guavas or anona or cacao; that there are several varieties of citrus, including lemons and limes as we know them, but also sweet or sour, orange or green limones and oranges; that there is a tree that grows little fruit that taste like cookies and I never remember what they are really called so I just call it the cookie tree and love the little fruit whenever I find them; and that nanci,  a small yellow fruit the size of a small crabapple, can be soaked in guaro, the national cane liquor, making what I call an authentic Tico martini.

 

 

A sampling of Tico food – a partially-used breadfruit (which became the centerpiece above); the nuts of its cousin, the castaña; pejiballes; papaya; creamy avocado and the leftovers of a tamale.

 

 

Of course in many parts of the country the influence of foreigners has brought new kinds of cooking, new spices, new flavors.  When I first came in 1990, I couldn’t find a satisfying piece of pizza if my life depended on it (and sometimes I felt like it did) but now I’d say that the pizza you can get here, often in Italian-owned restaurants, is better than what I find in Canada (or you can go to Pizza Hut if you are so inclined).  The variety of fish – red snapper, tilapia, seabass, calamari, shrimp – often cooked with a generous dose of garlic, keeps my seal-like tendencies very satisfied. I wouldn’t say that in general Costa Rica is known for its fine cuisine, but the freshness of its food often balances out the simplicity of its preparation. The jar of hot chili peppers, onions and vinegar that is often sitting waiting on the table as a condiment adds some spicy flavor.  And the large presence of other cultures here means that you can find fusion-foods to die for in communities all over the country.

Then there is the question of red beans verses black beans – there is a whole discussion here about the intelligence, virility and general sex appeal of those who indulge in one type or the other (and we are talking daily), depending on which community you are in, but I’ve never really formed an opinion on that so will stay out of the controversy. But I will give you a small cooking tip – when preparing black bean dip to serve with nachos, a little leftover strong coffee and a touch of sugar adds great flavor.  Mmmmmm, coffee, time to get the day started. 

 

Beautiful Marilyn, Zulay’s niece – raised on red or black???

September 2019
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