Lend me some sugar

Recently, my tico neighbors lent me some Outkast-style hospitality and invited me to participate in a rural family tradition: processing sugar cane, or moliendo caña.

The day I attended, the activity, now more social than subsistent, drew about twenty family members and friends to (a) help, (b) watch, or (c) poke the oxen’s bums with sticks.

Not for the faint of heart, the process can begin as soon as the sun peeks over the horizon. Everything begins with the hauling of cane from the fields to the trapiche (cane mill). From there, driven by brute ox power, the cane is squeezed into juice and the long stalks tossed aside.

The juice is poured into a jacuzzi-sized vat, which is heated carefully by fire underneath (preferably monitored by a dedicated attendant or two).

As the water boils off, a thicker liquid is left behind. Some of this liquid gets diverted into large metal canisters and cooled in tubs of water. It will be warmed and used to make agua dulce (literally, “sweet water”).

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As more and more water evaporates, a fluid miel (syrup) is left behind. As the liquid reaches this stage, it’s time to execute an exit strategy and remove the syrup from the heat.

This is the moment the spectators have been waiting for. As the exit trough drops into place, spectators flock from the sidelines. They extend bowls, slabs of wood, and pans, eagerly awaiting a dollop of the orange-gold syrup. As soon as they receive it, they retreat to their benches, tree stumps, and four-wheelers, dump in clouds of powdered milk, and whip furiously with their utensil of choice. Some will add peanuts or mint for a jazzy touch. These independent projects will yield cajetas – rich, flaky brown sweets.

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Meanwhile, the trough is filled with steamy syrup from the vat and stirred with a wooden rod. As it starts to cool, the liquid becomes thicker and more viscous.

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The liquid is scooped from the trough and scraped into molds, where it will harden into tapa de dulce, a solid cake of sugar. This is the final product.

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Once upon a time, the tapas de dulce were packed onto horses and marched down to the coast in Puntarenas to be sold. Now, with the world at its mechanized height and sugar much more readily available, this isn’t a for-profit enterprise. Rather, it’s an opportunity to uphold an old tradition and compartir – to share – time with family and friends.

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State of the Molly

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The biggest obstacle to planning your future is not fear, nor indecisiveness, nor lack of commitment.

It is not having a chair tall enough for your desk.

This realization makes me a little concerned about my levels of grit and determination. I do not have to walk three miles for clean water, nor do I have cross a gorge on a rickety bridge to get to school. I simply have to stack a yoga mat, four placemats, used gym clothes, a backpack, and a blanket to reach staggering new heights – i.e., to rest my elbows on the table while typing.

I am feeling very empowered because I am reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, and after Chapter 1 (“The Leadership Ambition Gap”) I have already solved a seating problem that has dogged me for five months, and I have made popcorn IN A POT. I danced around the kitchen to the dull dings of the kernels bouncing about the pot. I was elated.

And it is times like these where I think my life is a farce.

If you’re asking why so serious?, it’s because Molly talked to her parents. This isn’t the first time this has transpired; nay, this is but a new episode in a series. After a lapse of x-number of months, I know to expect a thorough inspection of my life’s ambitions and plans. A “State of the Molly.”

It’s a good thing. I think.

I have been putting off and putting off confronting my next life step. First I blamed it on not having a functioning computer charger for two months. Then I blamed it on not having a functioning desk (hence today’s triumph). I feel like I am at the top of one of the staircases at Hogwarts: the choices for my next step swivel in and out of play. The staircases will briefly connect at some point – there’s a path to get somewhere – but how am I to choose even a staircase if I don’t know my final destination?

It’s time to whole-heartedly pursue this mystery destination. So I’ll start with the question posited by Ms. Sandberg (or really by the book Who Moved My Cheese?…whose title in and of itself rivals the following question):

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

 

Of horses and hoops

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The second day of the benefit fiestas was lent to more futbol (a given), a subasta (live animal auction), and carreras de cinta.

A carrera de cinta is an activity in which participants mount horses of varying degrees of staggering beauty, accelerate into a sprint, and try to put a small stick through an engagement ring-sized hole. This is up there with bingo for the size of crowd it attracts, though this seems a little more justified.

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In a sea of men, the Hermanita (my adoptive little sister) was one of two women, and the youngest competitor by at least a decade (or two). We’ll diverge into Women’s Studies: Rural Town in Costa Rica Edition at some point, but suffice it to say, I was proud to see her holding her own.

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(really not feeling the whole pawned-off-to-the-highest-bidder thing)

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(because everyone loves a good anachronism)

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As to these prizes? I can’t promise there wasn’t more Tupperware involved, but there were definitely some bottles of vodka to dilute it.

Of bailes and bingo, beers and bartending

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Last weekend, San Luis banded together for a weekend-long fiesta to benefit a community member who had suffered from an accident. From this event, I learned the beauty of a tight-knit community.

I also learned the scientific formula for a proper Costa Rican fundraiser. It is:

(cerveza + fútbol + cerveza + bingo + cerveza + baile + cerveza) x rum² = IMMEASURABLE SUCCESS

On Friday, the Accountant asked if I would like to bartend for the weekend’s festivities. I’ve always had a closet desire to bartend; always been wary of the judgement that would come from my parents; and always feared that I lack the grit to command respect from rabble-rousers. But it seemed like a smashing way to spend the day, so I conceded.

To which the Accountant said: “You’re the second female bartender in San Luis history.”

Most excelente.

So with this girl ensuring a steady stream of cervezas, let’s move on to element #2. The afternoon’s soccer match, set to a smattering of rain, pitted two family clans, the Matas and the Lobos, against one another. (Side note: you know you’ve achieved reproductive success when your surname can single-handedly populate a soccer team.) (Second side note: Lobo = wolf, Mata = seedling. Anyone find the match-up disproportionate? Don’t, because the Seedlings won.)

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With the fin of futbol, all eyes turned to the auditorium for a riveting game of…bingo.

Yes, bingo.

The fervor with which people flock to a game of bingo is astonishing. Of all the festivities that day and the next, the crowd peeked at bingo hour. You might think, with all the hullabloo surrounding it, that the bingos churn out cars and sofas and flat-screened TVs, or maybe even, like, a super moist chocolate cake.

No. More often than not, it is Tupperware.

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Bubble building.

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If it’s one thing I absolutely love, it’s unapologetically dropping off the face of the planet.

It’s my favorite side effect of undergoing a major life change.

For the past two months, I’ve been operating under the assumption that it’s completely acceptable to not communicate with anyone because, you know, I’m experiencing extreme internal turmoil as I adapt to my new environment. Obviously, communication with the outside world would hinder the tenuous equilibrium settling into place.

Obviously.

If we’re being honest, though, my transition to living in Costa Rica was about as difficult as writing the sentence “Then I moved to Costa Rica.” It’s been one steady exhale since I set foot in San Luis. Days and nights slip loosely from one into the next, and time takes liquid form.

I’ve spent the past month blissfully constructing a new, fancy-free bubble. Bubbles, however, have their virtues and vices. Living in a whirling fish-eye lens brings certain things into magnification and shrinks others into obsolescence. Moments of blithe joy can melt into stinging self-consciousness and irrelevance. I don’t understand why the shifts happen or when they happen, but I’m learning to appreciate the perspective they bring. To feel a little unbalanced and unsure, a little raw and rash, is good for the soul. Not everything that’s shaky needs to be steadied. Not right away.

Sensory input is partially to blame. I’m living in a place where I can get a headache from running into low-hanging bananas; where the only litter on the ground is from monkeys tearing apart of bromeliads; where night after night the sky is a swirling sherbet mess. It’s a place where every morning I descend the hill to a gradient of smells – freshly wet leaves replaced by the puffy lavender of the lavandería, then by the sweetness of frying plantains. It’s a place bursting with things I want to learn, people I want to understand, beauty I want to absorb. It’s a lot.

This is a super indirect way of saying that presently, all is good in the proverbial hood. Maybe I’ve been crashing into too many seedless fruits, but I am oh so content here.

[Author’s afterthought: Hammocks inspire introspection, for better or for worse.]

Allariz {Warning: may contain pulpo}

The towns of Ourense are famous for their rich (and rather strangecarnaval traditions, so my friend Kaitlyn and I posted ourselves in the capital city to partake in nearby celebrations and to do some explorations of our own. Phase one of exploration was, at the suggestion of Kaitlyn, Allariz.

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Never heard of Allariz? That makes two of us. Allariz is a bitty town (in the neighborhood of 5,000 people) located about 15 km from the city of Ourense. Along the coast of Galicia, towns melt into one another seamlessly; in the interior, separation is more distinct.

Due to some…complications with our Couchsurfing host, we arrived in Allariz much later than initially planned. Peppered with Galicia’s typical indecisive drizzle, we stared blankly at our new surroundings and started walking.

I have long held a suspicion that my nose operates reflexively; that is, it receives sensory input and routes it directly to my legs without first passing through my brain. I don’t hate it. So where did our first directionless steps lead us? To food, of course! Before long Kaitlyn and I found ourselves wandering up a hill and into a clearing of tents filled with pulpo (octopus) and churrasco (barbecue) stands. And so we ate.

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This marked the first time I saw the entire prep process for pulpo a feira, the octopus dish Galicia is so famous for. Using long, metal rods, the cooks submerged and then removed whole octopi from large metal boilers, placing them on a wooden planks lying across the boilers.

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Then, taking scissors, they snipped the tentacles into discs and piled them on round wooden plates, sprinkling the final product with aceite de oliva (olive oil) and pimentón (paprika). You will rarely see pulpo a feira on any other kind of plate, because (1) of tradition and (2) the wood absorbs water, but not oil.

The final product:

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This random square of tents in random Allariz gave me the best octopus I had in Galicia, period. The teachers at my school often told me that the province of Ourense boasts the best pulpo, and I wholeheartedly agree. Accompanied with a crusty loaf of pan rústico and a bottle vino tinto, Kait and I felt as fluid as octopi by the time we were finished.

As the town sank into its daily siesta, we slipped down by the river for a post-feast coffee. We settled into Café Bar A Fábrica, posting ourselves by the floor-length windows so that the Río Arnoia gurgled just feet below our feet.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon walking – by the muddy banks of the river, through the cobblestone streets of the casco viejo (old zone), up a grassy knoll overlooking the town.

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Puente de Vilanova, a Roman bridge

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Iglesia de Santiago

Iglesia de Santiago

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Beautiful towns do indeed come in small packages.

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The name of the game.

If you know me personally, you might have noticed that I have totally failed to address here the fact that I returned from Spain for good…like ten months ago.

My bad.

When I returned to the States last June, I fully expected to work for three months, pop a u-ey, and return to Santiago to teach for another school year as an Auxiliar de Conversación. With that in mind, I landed a serving job within a week of my return and started restocking my piggy bank.

But there were other issues in play. My in-house counsel presented a persuasive list of reasons to stay in the States, beginning with finances and ending with life ambitions. While the jury was still out, this happened: IMG_2846.JPG With a feeble sputter, out went my alternator and down went the gavel. It was time to face the facts. Besides stitching up my car, I needed to take responsibility for some lingering college loans, do some undistracted soul-searching, and establish a direction for my life. So on September 23, the day my return flight left Atlanta for Santiago, I tracked down a bottle of albariño and held a pity party for one on my couch. Whatever the following months would hold, Spain would not be a part of them. If you think I was about to acknowledge that with actual words in actual writing, you are, as my coworkers are fond of saying, trippin’. Denial, after all, is the name of the game.

So let me condense the last ten, non-Spanish months of my life: Molly became a server and, while dueling hopelessness, aimlessness, and physical exhaustion, she cultivated a variety of skills. Now, for hours on end, Molly can run in dizzying circles with gourmet hamburgers; gracefully hurdle children springing into the aisles; effortlessly fend off the advances of wayward condiments and creepy old men; and tirelessly refill Diet Cokes that are sucked down with the urgency of sucking venom from a snake bite. The skills I’ve developed during the past months will probably never make it onto my resume, though I could (and probably will) write a book about my experience with my current restaurant, because it has been that ridiculous. That’s for another time, though. The point of this post is to alert you of the progress peeking over the horizon. Have I discovered my life’s calling? You jest! But I have established its short-term direction. With my fiscal obligations currently fulfilled, I am excited to announce my next country of exploration: COSTA RICA!

Come mid-April, I will be ditching my Chuck Taylors, mustard stains, and greasy kitchen floors for hiking boots, thickset mist, and the cover of a rainforest canopy. This chica will be interning with the University of Georgia’s Costa Rica Program. I’ve already had one life-changing experience with UGA’s Oxford program during my undergrad years, so to be helping provide a similar experience for other students (in a whole new country) is making me positively giddy. So as they say in Costa Rica: pura vida. The next chapter begins oh so soon.

Cheers!

Molly

Of surfers and seagulls: Laguna Beach.

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Last weekend, I slipped the confines of my job and stole away to California with the best traveling mates in the world: my parents. My dad was headed to Laguna Beach to attend a conference, so someone had to come along to woo potential clients with her beauty, provide endless childlike zeal, and eat the chocolate left on the pillows. Obviously I’m talking about my mom, but they let me tag along, too.

It was a renewing trip in so many ways. Five days away from work was the longest break I’d taken since starting. I swapped running in circles with hamburgers to running through circles of seagulls. I traded serving for being served. And I was surrounded by Laguna’s stunning Pacific-Coast beauty.

Laguna Beach seagulls

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Equally as inspiring as the scenery was the conference itself. The conference focused on developing policies to reshape America’s future (with regard to immigration, economy, preserving freedom, and so forth), and the conference attendees were deeply passionate about changing America for the better. Airborne viruses aside, there are few things more contagious than passion.

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On the last day of our stay, we checked out of our cliffside accommodations and saw the region’s most famous historical sight: Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776 by Father Serra. The mission borders the neighborhood of Los Rios, which claims to be the “oldest neighborhood in California,” and is absurdly precious.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano

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Los Rios General Store

Los Rios General Store

I returned from California refreshed, mentally and physically. Walking into work the next day, the general manager cocked his head, peered at me over the rims of his glasses, and said, “You’re never allowed to leave for the weekend again.”

Oh boy.

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Winterless wonderland

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I know y’all in the North get a good chuckle over how the South freaks out over winter weather. Here in Atlanta, the mayor declared a state of emergency over a potential inch of snow so this didn’t happen again. But snow is an absolute marvel to those of us who never get it. As I began writing this post, I couldn’t concentrate because it looked like some unearthly giant was grating romano cheese over my backyard. Sheafs of white pelted everything in sight. It’s more than a little distracting when your backyard turns into a highly decorated bowl of spaghetti.

If it gives you any idea of how foreign winter weather is to us, take me as an example. After I left work last night, I got into my car and realized I couldn’t see because, lo and behold, there was a sheet of ice plastered to my windshield. Feeling prepared for the first time in my life, I remembered that I had put an ice scraper (tag still attached) in my trunk. I pressed the open key, walked to the back of my car…and realized my trunk was frozen shut, rendering my ice scraper totally and completely useless. (The solution? Spoiler alert: coffee mugs aren’t just for drinking anymore.)

Anyways, what I initially intended to say is that I’ve got some photos from Laguna Beach headed your way this weekend. Hope you stayed warm and kept your ice scraper in your glove compartment!