Tuesday, November 30, 2010

La Matanza

A few months have passed since I arrived here in Costa Rica and in that time I have done quite a few interesting things. Yesterday I got to do something I have looked forward to since I began thinking about entering Peace Corps.  

One of Peace Corps goals is to share American culture with the people we come in contact with.  As this past Thursday was Thanksgiving we decided to throw a Turkey day feast with all the fixings for our beloved family.

There are three of us in our community and we had to cook for 25 people but first we had to make sure that we had all the necessary foods.... mashed potatoes... check.... green bean casserole... check.... stuffing, scalloped potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie... all check.  Unfortunately when we went to purchase a turkey, we were disappointed to find that the only turkey available was small and 85 dollars.  Apparently they take advantage of our insatiable need for pavo this time of year.   Clearly this wasn't a viable option, so we began exploring different possibilities. 

Of course there is always chicken but that’s kinda boring, ham would be nice but we would be missing out on the whole Thanksgiving fowl theme.  So there we were in quite the pickle.  I relayed our predicament to my host family and my madre Miriam told us that there were some wild ducks that had taken up residence nearby.  I got really excited, changed in to appropriate attire and began my search for an appropriate weapon.  I chose a heavy stick for the job. 

This was my time to tap into the barbaric instinct we all have to kill and eat.  It’s an element of survival we as Americans generally aren't in touch with.  First we had to ask the neighbors permission if we could duck hunt on their property. They said yes but the ducks that were there had since "flown the coop."  Major bummer, she suggested that we try one of the other neighbors who owned some ducks.  Off we went in a group of 10, 3 hunters and 7 children that wanted to witness the deed.  

We arrived at the neighbor’s house and were greeted by the welcoming quacks of a flock of ducks.  After the customary greetings and small talk we got down to business.  We wanted 2 of the biggest ducks they had. We weren't so sure how much they would cost (a chicken typically cost $8.)  So we were happy when we agreed upon the price of 8000 colones or $16 for both patos.  We picked our ducks put them both in a sack and went off on our merry way. 

It was decided that we would kill the ducks in the morning and eat them that night so they would be nice and fresh.  I quickly volunteered to be one of the decapitators.  Aside from bugs, a few large spiders since I have been here, a squirrel with my car, and a snake that I shot with a slingshot when I was a kid (after which I felt terrible) I haven’t really killed anything.  Would I be able to go through with it? Would I freak out? Would it fight back?

There was only on way to find out. Killing should be a natural part of every human’s life, we are on top of the food chain.  Hypothetically we should be able to kill and eat anything we like whether that be a deer, cow, bear or duck. Like most college aged Americans most of the meat I have eaten over the last few years has come frozen, pre-breaded and in a Tyson’s re-sealable bag.

I woke up that morning with one thing on my mind… death. Not for me but for the unfortunate duck that had the audacity to taste delicious, when baked in an oven and served with gravy.  I went to our neighbors house were the victim had spent its last fateful night in a chicken coop. 

How it would be done was the subject of some debate. I wanted to hold it across a log and do it quick with a machete. However I was quickly informed that they normally tie up its legs and cut saw off its head with a sharp knife.  Being new to the whole process. I decided to listen to the pros and go with option two.

My buddy John went first.  When he pulled his duck out of the coop it scratched the shit out of his forearms, really shredding him up.  Needless to say he had no qualms about the beheading, a few weeks ago he killed a chicken, so he wasn’t quite as new to it as I was. Watching the process was quite the experience pretty gruesome and awesome in its own right, it definitely gave me an idea of what was about to come.

I was up next, the duck was tied up, I had the knife in one hand and its neck in the other. Yes I was nervous, excited, scared and anxious all at once. I delivered a one liner,  I borrowed from Arnold Shwarzenager in Commando “Remember when I said I wouldn’t kill you?... I lied.” And then I started. Sawing and pulling as hard and as fast as I could (that’s what she said) but I was making little progress.  I was cutting in the wrong spot, I had hit a vertebra, and the only thing to do was continue.

So on I went, for what seemed like an eternity. At one point I had to readjust my grip on its head during which it began flapping and I felt the sensation of warm blood oozing down my hand. And just when I thought it would never be over the head came free and the deed was done. It was all over, my heart was still racing and I was super pumped.

After the two minutes of involuntary movement from the carcass began the bad part… plucking.  What you do is put the bird in boiling water for a little bit and then go at it…  pulling out all the plumage. Unfortunately the ducks were in the process of growing new feathers so what is normally a ten minute process turned into an hour and a half of tedious plucking until we finally got them halfway looking like something you would buy at Food Lion.

If you haven’t already guessed it by now la matanza means the killing.  The night was a great success; all of the food was amazing.  We had more food than we could eat. As such my Tico family did what most Americans do on Thanksgiving… eat, get sleepy then eat some more.  We also had a few mojitos, which may or may not have had something to do with it, but regardless it felt like a proper Thanksgiving.  Which is a hard feeling to capture when it’s not cold outside and everyone is speaking Spanish. All in all, I felt good about that day. I felt connected to my family and connected to what I was eating.  I felt like I deserved to eat that duck and given the chance I would do it again.

The funny thing is that while this may have been an epic moment in the life of Eric Mitchell there are millions and millions of people who do things like that each and every day and think nothing of it.  It’s just how they go about living.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Something funny

I find this a comical aspect of what has become my everyday life, perhaps you will too...

My family only has one bathroom.  Entering the situation, this is something that I expected and was prepared for.   What I wasn’t expecting was that it would be in the kitchen situated right between the kitchen sink and wood stove, with nothing but a dinky door separating myself and my bowel movements from what’s going on in the kitchen.   In fact the other day I got was talking to my Gerardo and got up to go to the bathroom… instead of waiting for me to finish, we simply continued the conversation it was pretty funny.

What’s more is that as in the states, the kitchen is the center of family activity, it’s where they hang out, eat, and watch TV.  My diet consists mostly of rice and beans, as such there is not much I can do to be subtle.  The bathroom always kind of smells bad so that is not an issue I worry about.  It’s just that the door does little if anything to prevent unwanted sounds from traveling to the unsuspecting ears of my gracious host family. 

    I also live on the same piece of property as my host parent’s kids and grandkids so more often than not there are a lot of people around.  While on the subject I embarrassingly clogged the toilet and had to ask my padre for a plunger which they didn’t have.  So he taught me a good trick that I am sure some of you may put to good use.  All you have to do is fill a bucket with water and pour it in the toilet, it took care of the clog no problem.  When you think about it pouring water directly from a bucket creates a lot more power than your average flush.  Another thing is that septic systems don’t work like they do in the states so instead of flushing the toilet paper you simply put it in a trashcan right by the toilet.  Surprisingly it doesn’t smell bad.  In the grand scheme of things I try to keep in mind that since I am in Costa Rica I actually have electricity a TV and potable running water, even a microwave.  Which is a lot more than a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers can say.  I am glad to say that I have yet to wipe my ass with a leaf, though I am sure it will happen eventually.

Both of these photos were taken in my town

A Time to Adapt

A Time To Adjust

Now that I have been in country for more than a week and all my nervous jitters have come to pass I am now entering a transition phase, adjusting to my new Costa Rican life.  Like most things some of it is awesome and some of it kinda sucks.

The town I live in is small so that means there isn’t too much to do we have a restaurant, a pulperia (convenience store), a candy shop, a café and a coffee shop and that’s it.  No bar, no market, no plaza no mucho. What is cool about the situation is that I don’t really feel like we need any of those things.  I always have something to do and chilling with my family has turned out to be one of my favorite things to do.

This is my family... and Allen (the tall Chinese guy) who I spend most of my time with, we are quite different but we have a good time

My average day…

Yesterday in Spanish class we had to talk about our daily routine here vs. in the states, it wasn’t until then that I really stopped to think how different my life is now.  Sometimes I even forget I am in Costa Rica and I just think I am in a small town where they happen to speak Espanol.

Here is what I do most days…
I wake up around 5:45 or 6 am sometimes I chill in bed, sometimes I read and sometimes I finish my homework. Regardless which I do at 6:30 I head next door to meditate with Allen in his room.

I have been meditating for about 2 weeks now and it isn’t very easy.  The type of meditation we practice is one where you memorize a passage containing some sort of wisdom and slowly repeat it in your mind.  We do this for about 30 minutes sitting Indian style with our backs upright.  Its amazing how hard it can be to concentrate your mind on one thing, I often find my mind drifting in about a million different directions, and once it starts meandering its hard to get back on track.  Some days are better than others but every day I’m glad I took the time to do it. I feel alert and ready to start my day.

After that its time for breakfast, which consists of a full plate of gallo pinto (rice and beans), tortillas, an egg and coffee, I have the same thing almost everyday.  Sometimes there will be a variation, instead of an egg and tortillas I will have an empanada with gallo pinto.  Its always good, but it took me a while to learn to start my day off with a full stomach.

At 8 I head of to one of two places Spanish class or technical training.  Spanish class consists of 4 people, John, Allen, myself and our professor Fiorella.  Our teacher just turned 25 that being the case it isn’t really much of a classroom setting. Oftentimes we go outside, go to the café or go on field trips.  The goal for our language training is that we learn to communicate and feel comfortable interacting in the Tico (Costa Rican) culture.  So most days we are sent on missions to interview local business owners, teachers and anyone else that will talk to us.

Technical training takes place in my town, that means that every other volunteer has to take a bus some are only like 15 minutes away and others are more like an hour.   Each day we talk about a bunch of different things, ranging from learning styles, classroom management, interviewing techniques, mostly its boring, but since some of this stuff may be useful once I get to my site,  I try to keep an open mind about it and pay attention. 

Regardless of whether we go Spanish class or technical training I have to walk up a monstrous hill, every time I end up panting by the time I get to the top of it. While it has gotten a little bit easier I am beginning to wonder whether or not I will ever be able to walk up it easily.

We come back for lunch at noon until 1 which means more gallo pinto.  We go back to class until 5 or so and call it a day.  By the time we get home its getting dark.  Being close to the equator there is 12 hours of sunlight and 12 hours of daylight all yearlong and it gets dark quick.  That makes it seem like its really late after my 6:30 dinner. 

After dinner we normally chat and play some cards, I taught them to play war, a game called 31, and am in the process of teaching them spades.  It is always fun and its something we can all do.  My niece Maybel and I got in a “fight” when I caught her cheating and told her I don’t like playing with “tramposas” she didn’t talk to me for a day, it was pretty funny.

Afterwards I go next door to do whatever homework I have with Allen and normally by this time I am beat and ready for bed its 9:30. I brush my teeth contemplate on whether or not I can go another day without showering and read until I’m too tired to keep my eyes open.  This normally happens before 10:30.

Were I in any other place, doing any other job I would say that my life is lame.  But the fact is that I feel really lucky to be here.  Each day is a new experience with new challenges, sites, and happenings.  For example today I found a dead coral snake in the middle of the road, its one of the most poisonous in Costa Rica and my Padre told me its been years since he has seen one in this area. I go to bed each night knowing I had a full day so I don’t feel bad about going to bed early.