One of the things that amazed me most about Costa Rica was how cheap the fruit was. Luscious papayas that were half the size of my arm were sold along the side of the road for 50 cents. In American supermarkets, papayas cost close to five dollars if not more. Mangos, watermelon, cantaloupe, everything cost the equivalent of pennies and yet was still utterly delicious.
Being so inexpensive, fruit was also served with every meal, and I don’t just mean grabbing a piece from the dining room table fruit bowl. No, fruit could almost be described as an art there. Each morning at breakfast, along with my bowl of cereal and toast, my host mom prepared a plate full of elaborately cut up fruits. The fruit plate alone would have been more than enough to get me going in the mornings, but my host mom seemed to like putting out a bowl of Frosted Flakes as well (I think she found Tony the Tiger cute). Coming from a northern state in which the only reasonably priced fruits available year round were apples and grapes,it was a real treat to be eating papaya, watermelon, and honeydew melon every morning during what was the dead of winter back home. In Costa Rica, it’s summer like year round.
My host dad Carlos wasn’t well. I never learned what had happened to him, but he was extremely frail and had to have special meals prepared for him. I thought he might have had a stroke since his speech was sometimes slurred. Although I talked the most with my host mom Flora, I did share a special bond with him and it was over fruit.
Every evening after dinner while Flora cleaned up, I remained at the table with Carlos since that’s where the television was located. Carlos was a major television aficionado, especially of the American crime dramas CSI and Law and Order. It was one of the few things he could still enjoy since I know he didn’t get to go out much. While we would watch, Carlos would eat a mango and every time that he did this, he would always ask me the same thing, “¿quieres mango? Although mangos weren’t my favorite fruit, I always said yes because I found his asking me if I wanted any to be the sweetest gesture ever. Flora later told me that the mango was one of the few fruits Carlos could eat as it wouldn’t affect his digestive system, unlike other fruits with high acidity levels.
One of the weekends there was a mandatory trip to Isla de Chira. It is an extremely small island located in the Gulf of Nicoya, visited by hardly any tourists. It’s what puts the developed in developing, but as the focus of the program was sustainable development, it’s of course where we went. On the island we stayed at an eco-lodge run by a group of indigenous women. Accommodations were sparse to say the least. The walls of the lodge were not connected to the ceiling, so the inside was completely covered with behemoth grasshoppers. Needless to say I didn’t sleep a wink that night.
Shortly after arriving, our hosts prepared a small snack for us. Unlike San Jose, which enjoys a temperate climate year round due to its location in the central highlands, the Gulf of Nicoya area enjoyed excessive heat. Being terribly hot from the sun and the extremely high temperatures we were famished, but the snack of cut up watermelon slices quickly refreshed and revitalized us. We ate slice after slice, never feeling full since watermelon is essentially nothing but water. They also put out a plate of sugary fried dough balls but it was the watermelon that cured our heat exhaustion and made us feel sated. Although I still shudder whenever I think of the monstrous grasshoppers that lurked in droves around me while I tried to sleep, I do always remember the delicious watermelon that I ate slice after slice of, because it really was that good.
In my first year of Spanish class, I learned the words for all types of fruit including plátano, which is the word for banana. Little did I know that in Costa Rica, the word for banana is banana; it’s just pronounced in a more Ricky Ricardo type manner. Plátano is used for something else. Plátano is the word for plantain.
Prior to studying in Costa Rica, I had never seen, heard of, or eaten a plantain. Within a few days of living there, I had done all three. The plantain can best be described as a cousin of the banana. It’s similar in look and size but not in taste. Whereas you can peel a banana and eat it immediately, with a plantain you cannot. A plantain is meant to be cooked. It can become sweet if left to ripen for enough time, but overall it’s eaten more as a savory, salty type food. A popular snack in Costa Rica and other Latin American countries where the plantain is native are plantain chips. I became addicted to these and I think the chips accounted for the couple of pounds I put on when living in Costa Rica.
To eat a plantain, it’s generally first cut up into slices which are then fried in oil, either to a crispy or mushy goodness, depending on how ripe it was. Although it seems like they’re relatively easy to cook, I have never once been able to replicate, in my American kitchen, the taste I experienced in Central America. I don’t know what it is, the wrong type of oil, too much oil, too little oil, but it’s never been the same.
The Caribbean side of Costa Rica is nothing like the Pacific side. The Caribbean side is another world entirely. The people are different, the culture is different, even the language is different (you will hear more of a Creole-type English spoken there than Spanish). This is because of the large population of individuals of West Indies descent that live there. When the railway was built in Costa Rica linking the Pacific with the Caribbean side around the turn of the twentieth century, scores of laborers from the West Indies, primarily Jamaica, were brought over to work. When the railway was completed, many of them remained, thus forever changing the makeup of the country’s Caribbean coast.
On my fourth weekend living there, I traveled to Puerto Viejo, one of the largest and most popular villages with tourists along the coast. Although my weekend was filled with a variety of things, including sleeping for the first time under mosquito bed netting, biking five miles while getting a flat tire on the third and being offered marijuana by a true Rastafarian, it was the meal I had at a small soda (similar to a diner), Ms. Dolly’s,that was the most memorable. At this meal I had the opportunity to eat patacones, twice fried plantains. They’re made exactly the same way as plantains, but after frying them for a first time, the pieces are then removed and individually smashed down, either with a bottle’s bottom side or a tostonera, to about half their original height, when they are fried again. Although one might think that a fried plantain is a fried plantain, with patacones, you can really taste the difference.
When I would travel back to Puerto Viejo some weeks later, this time with a different group of people, I didn’t get to eat atMiss Dolly’s. The girls I went with were all “West Coast avocado heads” as in hardcore vegetarians. One girl I swear had grown up on a commune as the amount of hair she had under her arms resembled a mini national forest. To them, the idea of eating native food, especially a native, Caribbean style meal didn’t appeal in the least. So we ended up eating at an overpriced, health food style café. I don’t remember what I had but it sure wasn’t something I still remember five years later. Needless to say I was not a happy camper to have missed out on eating some patacones.
When I go grocery shopping today, I’m often dismayed by the ridiculously high prices for fruit that I know costs the equivalent of less than a dollar in the countries in which it is native. (The fruit’s country of origin is denoted by the little stickers affixed to it). Although once in a blue moon I’ll splurge on a plump mango that makes me think of my host dad Carlos, or papaya, the fruit I found to have a taste similar to vomit, I can’t help but feel that fruit just doesn’t taste the same as when eating it in Costa Rica. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Costa Rican tourist officials somehow played a hand in making fruit native to Costa Rica less “delicious” upon export to other countries, as a means of luring people there. That would be some marketing ploy.