Embrace the customs, become part of the scene.
In Costa Rica, I lived on lard and coffee. There was lard in the bread, in the rice and in the beans. There was lard in the cookies, in the imitation Doritos I ate at the school where I taught; it was coating the potatoes and being used to fry bananas in the cafeteria. Damaris, the woman I lived with, normally bought only three food items when she went to the supermarket in the city: a sack of rice, a sack of beans, and several sticks of manteca vegetal —vegetable shortening. Everything else we ate came off the farm.
The lard came in a fat plastic tube and, unopened, looked like slice-and-bake cookie dough. For some reason, there were drawings of clover leaves on the packaging. I watched Damaris fold back the lard’s plastic skin and insert a large metal spoon as she prepared a pot of rice. She scooped out a generous dollop of the viscous, bone-white mush and plopped it into the pot.
“Why do you put lard in the rice?” I asked Damaris as she stirred.
Damaris furrowed her brow slightly as she turned to look at me. “Lard is good for you,” she said.
Out on the farm, Rafael was cutting broccoli. “Wait until you see this broccoli,” he had promised. “It’s beautiful, perfect.” Everything Rafael planted grew into something beautiful and perfect. I helped him work seeds into the soil sometimes. He was demanding; he threw work boots at me when he needed my help, then instructed me on how to bury the seeds, and when the seeds grew into shoots, how to replant them. For broccoli it was three shoots to a hole. He dug the holes by twisting his machete into the ground, and I planted. Dirt pressed under my nails, fast against the quick. This was, unofficially, how I earned my keep. My labor supplemented the checks that Rafael and Damaris received from the government in exchange for my room and board. I did it with pleasure.
Rafael’s farm was dominated by coffee bushes, the arabica variety, produced for mass consumption. Banana trees between the coffee bushes were there to provide shade; the bananas that grew on them were a bonus. The other things Rafael grew—broccoli, chayote, blackberries, sweet lemons—were not intended to be sold, as the coffee was, but rather for him and his family to eat.
“Look at this, Doña,” Rafael said, as he entered the kitchen with a full satchel. He opened the satchel on the table and flawless stalks of broccoli spilled out onto the waxy checkered table cloth.
“Nice,” Damaris murmured approvingly. “Berta!” she called. In a moment her five-year-old daughter scampered into the living room. Berta was precious and wiry and wild, a real gift of a child. Her stick-straight hair hung down over her face. Her feet were bare; she refused to wear socks in the house, and Damaris had given up pushing worn, white socks over her heels just to have Berta peel them off when she wasn’t looking. Anyway, most of the children in La Victoria, especially in our neighborhood, ran around barefoot. Their feet withstood the rocky texture of the dirt road that I still had trouble navigating gracefully, even in my hiking boots. “Get me four eggs,” Damaris told Berta.
I looked at the broccoli on the table, longing to eat it just like that, still dirt-encrusted, hard and cold. To feel something crunch between my teeth. Before I knew it, Damaris had cleaned and cut the broccoli, thrown it into the frying pan, broken the eggs over it, and dumped the remaining lard—maybe three large spoonfuls—into the pan.
I ate the soggy, eggy broccoli already planning how I would sneak out in the morning with my Swiss Army knife, saw off a fresh stalk, and relish it raw as I ate it hidden among the coffee bushes. I would have to do it in secret to keep people from thinking I was crazy. Nobody in La Victoria ate vegetables raw, it just wasn’t done. You might as well eat dirt or tree bark. Lard was a component of everything edible, like butter where I grew up, only butter made things taste good, and lard just made things heavy and greasy, as far as my gringa palate could discern.
But I learned. I ate so much lard that I began to crave it; my body seemed to require a daily allotment of it. It was one of two substances that had that effect on me.
The other one was coffee. As for the coffee, my addiction had been intact for some time before my arrival. It had little to do with my being in Costa Rica, though it was one of the things that drew me to Costa Rica in the first place, along with the rain forest, the beaches, and the chance to see a three-toed sloth. As it turned out, my job placement found me spending most of my year in the highlands, hours away from the beaches and rain forests I had once associated with Costa Rica. I did see a sloth once, clinging to a tree on the side of the highway. Moss grew in its fur and when it turned to look at me, it moved as if its batteries were running down.
But coffee—coffee was everywhere I looked. I lived in a town where coffee bushes lined the road, where half of the men over the age of thirteen picked coffee for a living. I loved being surrounded by this drug of mine, seeing it in all of its stages of growth, the red and yellow berries littering the dirt road during coffee-picking season.
Sometimes, during that wet, ripe season, I picked the ready coffee cherries off the bushes and sucked on them like candy. I unleashed their juices with the pressures of my teeth. They tasted fresh, their texture fruity but the flavor distinctly caffeinated.
The best berries would be roasted in a nearby city, then exported to countries like the United States. If you’ve ever read the menu at Starbucks you’ll have seen a Costa Rican blend called Tres Rios. If you’ve ordered this blend, you may have tasted the beans of which I speak—perhaps the very beans that I watched grow outside my door, on Rafael’s farm, bursting into festive reds and yellows during the rainy season.
Within Costa Rica, you can find choice coffee—Caf é Am érico, Café Britt—in hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists. Off the tourist path, you’re more likely to find “inferior” blends, some of them cut with sugar, like Café Maravilla. Brands like Maravilla are made from the lesser beans, some of them green and immature.
But I had trouble telling the difference between those grades of coffee, as well as the flavor of the beans from which they were made. On Rafael’s farm, I picked the harder, younger green berries before they turned their warm hues and sucked on them as gleefully as I sucked on the red and yellow ones.
Those berries were as delightful as what would become of them.
The lard, however, I could have done without.
I heard voices in my head. There were two of them. Some people have the devil on one shoulder, nudging their id, and the angel on the other, appealing to their superego. I had the tourist and the traveler, two entities that were, in my mind, just as polarized.
On my left shoulder sat the tourist. When it spoke to me, it encouraged me to ditch this dinky town and make a beeline for the beach, where I could stay in a nice hotel and sleep in a bed with fresh sheets free of that mildew smell. The tourist sometimes wished I could speak English instead of struggling with Spanish all the time, and maybe hang out with a few more gringos. On Thursday nights around ten o’clock, the tourist whispered in my ear, “You know, Alden, if you were in the States right now, you could be curled up on the couch watching E.R.“
The traveler sat on my right shoulder, embarrassed that it should have to share a body with someone as crude and culturally insensitive as the tourist. When I was coming home from the city, even when I had enough money to take a cab, the traveler encouraged me to take the bus like everyone else in La Victoria. “You’re not a spoiled gringa,” the traveler chided me. The traveler reveled in the fact that I lived kilometers—only the tourist still thought in miles—from any American hotels or restaurants, and it would object to the term “American,” since Costa Rica was as much a part of America as the United States.
When the tourist watched me being served food fraught with that tasteless, pointless lard, its little voice sounded in my left ear: “No, Alden. Don’t eat that. It’s just not worth it. It will make you fat, and besides, it sits like cement in your stomach. You would never eat that at home.”
Then came the voice of the traveler, the one who wanted me to fit in. “Shut up,” it told the tourist. To me it said, “Just do whatever you have to. You’re not here to challenge anything, you’re here to learn. You want to be Costa Rican. So eat the lard, gringa! EAT THE LARD!”
Lard, I ate. I had no choice; it was lard, or starve.
At home there was no coffee. I found this strange, like living on a farm in Idaho and not having potatoes in the cupboard. In the mornings I was served agua dulce, a sweet hot drink made from sugar cane. Damaris used a knife to scrape off bits from what looked like a big block of brown sugar and stirred it into hot water. It looked and tasted like watered-down maple syrup.
“Coffee is bad for the stomach,” Damaris explained. “Imagine the pain I had, Alden. The doctor told me coffee has cocaine in it.”
I thought for a moment. “Do you mean caffeine?”
“Yes,” Damaris corrected herself. “Cafeina. So the doctor told me to stop drinking it.”
I yearned for coffee, and I lived in the one house in La Victoria—on a coffee farm, no less—where coffee was banned. I was a modern-day version of the Ancient Mariner: Coffee, coffee, everywhere, and not a drop to drink! There were no restaurants in La Victoria, only a cantina, and Rafael had forbidden me to go there.
He had pointed out the cantina on my first day in town. It was a one-room building with a Coca-cola sign painted on the wall, and it had swinging doors, like a saloon. “The only women who go there are prostitutes,” Rafael had explained to me with a warning stare. He was often very stern with me, as if I were an unruly twelve-year-old, and not a teacher of twenty-two. Then, after a second, Rafael softened and said, “Well, not prostitutes really, just bad women.” I doubted they would serve anything other than beer and guaro, anyway. The men inside were bored-looking, always hunched over their drinks, and if they caught sight of me as I walked by, they hissed: “Macha! Ay, gringa!” They scared me. No, the cantina was not the place to go for coffee.
There was nowhere else to buy it either. La Victoria was a very, very small town. There was one road. Everyone swore it would be paved by the time I left; it never was. Along the road there was a church that doubled as a pulpería (they sold candy, Coke, batteries, diapers), a nursery school, and an elementary school for grades 1-6. A woman sold vegetables out of her house. That was it. The high school was in a town nearby called Juan Viñas. Some took the bus to go to school in Juan Viñas, but high school was optional and many teenagers chose to pick coffee, cut sugar cane, or have babies instead.
My life was at the school. My life was with the kids, teaching them English, and learning Spanish from them. We traded word for word. I liked the arrangement, though the time in between sometimes dragged, and without coffee, I dragged along with it.
Things changed when I met Ana. I was outside on the patio, munching on cookies between classes, and she walked up to me just like that.
“You’re La Teacher,” she observed. I wasn’t that hard to pick out. I was blond, and my clothes were different. La Victoria had never had a gringo teacher before so I was somewhat of a celebrity.
“Yes,” I said.
“My son Jason is in the first grade,” she said. Jason…dark eyes, quiet in class. I met so many people during my first months in La Victoria, and it was always, somehow, a shock to connect relatives to each other. It was made more difficult by the fact that everyone seemed related. “Why don’t you come over to my house after school?” Ana suggested. “Have a little coffee.”
“I’d love to,” I said, brightening palpably. “I love coffee.” Ana laughed at what she considered my hyperbolic response. She pointed across the street. “Just go over there and ask for Ana,” she said.
Ana lived in the compound next to the church. Her son, Jason, was an agile soccer player with enormous brown eyes. He was shy, but get him in the school yard with a soccer ball, even a little plastic one, and watch the kid go. Ana had those same saucer eyes and black, feathered hair. Their house was one in a row of tiny box-like houses that the government had built for low-income families. I walked through Ana’s open door to find her sitting in front of the television, watching a telenovela.
“That Eduardo,” she said, shaking her head at the television screen. “He’s no good. He cheats on Maria Luisa and last week he slapped her. He’s just like my husband.”
“Where’s your husband?” I asked, looking around suspiciously. The house was tiny and I already knew that there was no one else in it.
“He left me,” said Ana, and her eyes started to tear. “He’s been gone for a year.” Just as I was beginning to wonder if I should comfort her, she pushed her tears away with a fist and stood up. “Would you like some coffee, Teacher?”
“If it’s not any trouble,” I said, attempting a casual shrug.
Ana walked into the kitchen and plugged in the coffee maker. In my house, a mesh bag that Damaris had once used to make coffee hung on the wall. Coffee grains were placed inside the bag, boiling water poured through it, and a coffee cup held underneath. Ana was more modern; she had a Mr. Coffee. Ana also had an electric stove, as opposed to the wood-burning stove that Damaris used.
Ana prepared a plate of saltines while the coffee was brewing, slapping margarine on one cracker and then placing another cracker on top, like margarine sandwiches. Tourist jumped up and down on my shoulder in a mini-tantrum that I should be subjected to so many variations of unhealthy, fattening food. But my stomach was rumbling, and the craving was there. When the coffee was ready, Ana poured a big mugful and added three spoonfuls of sugar from the sugar jar on the table.
“My husband is going with another woman now,” Ana said, handing me the mug. Like a Pavlovian dog, I felt my heart speed up as I brought the cup to my lips. The coffee was bitter without milk, but full and sweet.
I sipped at my coffee as Ana showed me her photo album, pausing over pictures of her husband, a very young-looking man with a moustache. “He’s not the best man,” said Ana. “He hit me. He hit Jason. But Jason needs a father, you know.”
“It seems like you’re better off without him,” I offered.
“I don’t know,” Ana said, shaking her head. It was clear to me that she would take him back in a second.
Suddenly, I had a friend. A friend who filled and refilled my coffee cup until my hands shook. I was happy.
I told Rafael and Damaris over dinner. “I went to Ana Solano Coto’s house after school,” I said. “She’s very nice; we had a good chat.”
I watched Rafael and Damaris exchange a look and I wondered why they didn’t say anything. Finally Rafael said, “Ana is not a good woman.” I brought my attention back to my rice and beans and left it at that.
Between classes, when I had nothing to do, I hung out in the cafeteria with Doña Ruth, the cook. Doña Ruth was an enormous woman who came to town on the bus. She served up rice and beans for lunch every day, plus mortadela—a mysterious kind of sausage—or other meat products when the school’s budget allowed. Later in the year, I saw on the news that mortadela was made from horse meat. They showed footage of skinned horses strung up on meat hooks. The skinned horses were red, and looked strange, as if they were wearing costumes.
“Eat the horse, gringa,” Traveler whispered, and I did.
I watched Doña Ruth cook a huge potful of rice, adding lard from a tub, and I had to ask her, “Why do you have to add lard to the rice?”
Doña Ruth looked at me sideways. “That’s how you make rice,” she explained simply.
“When I make rice,” I said, “I don’t add any lard at all. Or just the tiniest bit of oil.”
“You can’t make rice without lard,” Doña Ruth said. “It would get all stuck together.”
“That doesn’t happen when I make rice,” I said.
“You must have a different kind of rice in the United States,” said Doña Ruth, and she scooped another spoonful out of the tub, adding it to the pot of beans.
We drank coffee during morning recess. The teachers made it in the school’s electric coffee-maker. I helped carry out the tray of coffee cups and the metal sugar container with its lumpy, yellow sugar. I was getting used to drinking coffee with lots of sugar and no milk.
The teachers laughed at me as I drained the last of the coffee pot into my cup.
“Ay, Teacher,” said Elsita, the second-grade teacher. “What a cafetera you are.”
I loved it that there was a word for someone who drinks a lot of coffee.
Miraculously, despite my eating habits, I did not gain weight. I lost weight. Maybe some chemical bond between the caffeine, lard, rice and beans, and occasional chlorophyll molecules made energy-burning more efficient, I considered. Or perhaps the fact that food had lost some of its appeal. I couldn’t take all the lard-ridden food; though I craved it, I became full far more quickly than I normally did. And I was becoming downright skinny.
I learned that in Costa Rica, one’s appearance was an open topic for conversation. If you looked pale one day, several people might grimace and say, “Ay Teacher, you look really pale today.” At the first signs of weight gain you would be called gorda, fat girl. If you were fat enough, Gorda might become your permanent name, as Teacher had become mine. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I became flaca, skinny girl. Ana soon commented on my newer, bonier self.
“Teacher,” she said. “You’re wasting away! Is Damaris feeding you?”
“Rice and beans, every day,” I told her.
What I didn’t tell her was that Damaris and Rafael had finally given me a little talking-to about my visits to Ana’s. They didn’t like Ana; Damaris made this clear by growing mute every time her name came up, and Rafael responded to any mention of her by adding to his list of Ana’s transgressions. She wore spandex shorts, for one thing. Also, Rafael was friends with Ana’s husband, and thought the breakup had been Ana’s fault.
“She drove him away,” Rafael said. “She was a bad wife.”
“But Ana said her husband used to hit her, and their son,” I objected.
Rafael looked at me blankly. “You have to teach them somehow,” he said.
I still snuck over to Ana’s house after school, on the sly, like a teenager with an undesirable boyfriend. Ana was my best friend. She always gave me coffee and filled me in on the telenovela that was her life.
In March, there was big news. “The woman!” Ana said, slamming her hand down on the arm of the fake leather couch. “Did you hear about the woman?”
“What woman?” I asked innocently, though Ana was not the only gossip in La Victoria, and I’d heard a small buzz about Ana’s husband having a girlfriend.
“That harlot, that loose woman, the one my husband is seeing. She’s having a baby! She’s already big!” Ana started to cry, plump tears sliding onto her hot pink t-shirt. The t-shirt was tight, and I thought to myself, Rafael would have something to say about that shirt. I put my arm around Ana and let her cry like that for a while.
“He’s a jerk,” I assured her. “You’re better off without him.”
My words never seemed to comfort Ana, though she did seem happy to have someone who would listen to her. Some people in town had lost patience with Ana’s endless lamentations about a guy who wasn’t worth missing.
“He’s not a good fellow,” the first-grade teacher told me when I inquired about him. “He left Ana—she’s a handful anyway, always complaining—and now he’s back in the house he grew up in, living with his mother. Twenty-nine years old and he’s still being taken care of by his mamá!”
I never met Ana’s husband, but I saw “the woman” at school. She wasn’t as pretty as Ana. She had buck teeth and hacked-off bangs. Her first daughter—I didn’t ask who the father was—came to kindergarten in a cute blue jumper. The woman picked her daughter up at the school every day at noon, and soon, I noticed that her belly was growing round.
One day, after he got home from work, Rafael entered the house with a huge smile on his face and requested coffee.
“Please, Doña,” he begged Damaris. “Could you make some coffee? Just a little coffee?” He whined like a child and flirted with Damaris until she giggled, flattered by the attention, and headed towards the kitchen. I was shocked. I hadn’t realized that Rafael still had an appetite for coffee, or that Damaris kept a stash of Café Maravilla on the top shelf of the cupboard. She put a pot of water on to boil and spooned the powdered coffee into the sack on the wall.
“Would you like some?” she asked me. “Oh yes, I love coffee,” I gushed. Then she yelled into the bedroom, “Berta? Café?’
“Sí,” Berta called out from behind the curtain.
Damaris served me my coffee in a heavy glass mug, with several spoonfuls of sugar and powdered milk. The powdered milk was a gift from the government via the school; the kindergarten teacher thought Berta was too skinny and that the milk would help fatten her up. The coffee tasted like hot, melted ice cream. Rafael received his mug and slapped Damaris on the thigh in thanks.
Berta got her coffee in a bottle. She drank it with childish sucking sounds.
“Do you like coffee, Berta?” I asked her.
“Mmmpg,” she said enthusiastically through the nipple.
A few days later, Dave, my American director, came to visit me in town. He observed my classes and offered feedback.
“Let’s show my boss how smart we are, shall we?” I urged my second graders. Dave sat in the back of the classroom as the kids and I went through the alphabet, shouting out the words we had learned.
“What are some words that start with s?”
“Sun! Sit down! Stomp your feet!”
“‘Stomp your feet’?” Dave said after class. “Smart kids.” We were sitting at the school, outside the office. David stood out dramatically in the town, even more dramatically than I did because he stood over six feet tall. You could spot his blue eyes from sixty meters away. People—especially women—stared at him. Some even walked out of their houses to get a better view. “Are there any problems I should know about?” he asked.
“I’m not having any at the moment,” I said. I had already told him about the constant precautions against catching lice. So far my hair was still nit-free. “But my five-year-old host sister drinks coffee out of a bottle.”
“Kids all over the country drink coffee,” he said. “It’s available, it always has been. No one worries about stunting their growth.”
“And then there’s the lard thing,” I said. Dave smiled. He was, of course, used to gringas complaining about the lard content of the Costa Rican diet. There were over seventy volunteers in the country at the time, doing what I did, and I was not the only one with a tourist on my shoulder.
“Ah, manteca,” he said. “Years ago in Costa Rica, few people could afford to eat meat. Most lived on rice and beans. The thing is, you need a little fat in your diet, just like you need protein and carbohydrates, and there is no fat in rice and beans. So the government advised everyone to start using manteca.“
“People eat meat now,” I observed.
“Lard has become a staple in the Costa Rican diet. Just like coffee.” Dave smiled. “So you see, Alden, lard is good for you.” He squeezed my shoulder. “Anyway, you look like you’re wasting away. You could use a little meat on your bones.”
The pregnant woman—I still did not know her name—walked by the school yard. She was not shy; she craned her neck to stare at us as she passed. “Look,” I said, nodding my head in her direction. “That’s the woman who’s pregnant with my friend Ana’s husband’s child. But Ana’s husband doesn’t live with either of them. He lives with his mother.”
My director laughed at me. “Ay, Alden,” he chuckled. “You’re becoming quite the chismosa.” The girl who gossips. In a word, I felt I was becoming one of them—the women of La Victoria.
The girlfriend had her baby, another girl. “He didn’t even go with her to the hospital,” said Ana. She didn’t seem to know how to feel about this. She smiled, as if gloating; then her brow wrinkled and her gaze fell, as if she felt the indignation of single mothers around the world.
I was teaching animals that week. In my first grade class, I held up a picture of a dog. “Dog,” I said. The kids repeated the new word.
I barked. The kids laughed at me, then barked. “Who wants to be a dog?” I asked.
Soon hyperactive Rosa Elena was on all fours, barking and howling, crawling up to her classmates and nipping at their heels. Twenty-five first-graders were laughing, screaming, and pretending to be dogs. It always amazed me how such little people could make such big noise.
Ricardo’s shrill voice cut through the din. “Look!” he said, pointing outside the classroom door, “it’s the Red Cross!”
A wave of gasps passed through the room. I looked out the door and there it was, the Red Cross van, bouncing over the rocky road, heading east. The Red Cross only came when something bad was happening. This was the first time I’d even seen it; until now, I’d only heard about it in the context of horror stories, like the time Rafael told me, “Gemelo’s brother got run over by a tractor and the Red Cross had to come.”
Ana’s son Jason sat in the back row. He was so quiet, so obedient and sweet. All the quiet kids got stuck in the back. Jason sat at his desk, staring at me attentively, not knowing that down the road, his twenty-nine-year-old father was having a heart attack.
“The doctor said it was the lard,” Damaris explained later. “It clogged up his heart.”
Word spread like wildfire through the town: Ana’s husband had just dropped to the ground while he was picking tomatoes. The closest phone was in the center of town, and by the time the Red Cross got there, he was dead.
“He was so young,” I said.
“So now we’re supposed to stop putting so much lard in our food.” Damaris suddenly looked away. Her eyes turned pink. “Just imagine—I didn’t know it, but I was killing my husband! My food could have killed him!” She looked at me with disbelief.
“Poor Ana,” I said. It was the wrong thing to say. Any mention of her name and they went silent.
“She’s better off without him,” the teachers in school whispered.
Ana cried after her husband died, but she said it was for Jason, and not for herself. “Jason needs a father,” she said. She put a hand on her cheek in distress. “I’m working on getting him a new one,” she said, a strangely out-of-place tone of mischief in her voice. “There’s a guy in Juan Viñas who thinks I’m pretty.”
The gossip at Ana’s house took a turn, and from then on, it was Ana telling me about the new men in her life. I listened attentively and sipped at the coffee she made me. The more I listened, the more coffee I drank. I walked home with shaking, sweating hands and a buzz in my head. I avoided telling Damaris and Rafael where I had been. “Paseando,” I told them—just passing around. And I sat down with them for a lard-reduced meal.
Alden Jones teaches travel writing, fiction writing, and literature at Emerson College in Boston. Her work has appeared inAgni, the Iowa Review, Time Out New York, Puerto del Sol, and other magazines. In the summer she leads academic and adventure trips abroad, most recently to Cuba. This story was originally published in Coffee Journal (winter 1998-99) and reprinted in the Best American Travel Writing 2000.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.