So far, the rainy season in Costa Rica has been, uh, rainy. Really rainy.
In fact, with a recent line of tropical storms stopping by to dump inches of the stuff on us every day for the past week, the locals are calling this one of the worst rainy seasons they’ve seen in while.
And while Costa Rica’s storms are beautiful in their own way, the constant, monotonous downpour has left everyone in the office feeling a little waterlogged.
So it was a truly joyous occasion when an unexpected visitor showed up to join us on our walk to work this morning.
Sun! Glorious sun!
It broke through the low ceiling of clouds and a chorus of angels began singing.
Okay, actually it was us singing–and badly–but still.
We shamelessly belted out our anthems of appreciation:
Blue skiiiies smiling at meeee.
I’m walking on sunshiiiiine!
Here comes the sun, doo do doo dooo.
As we walked, we turned up our faces, spread our arms wide and basked in it like little flowers.
Even our shadows came out to see what all the commotion was about.
They were pretty happy, too.
And sweat ‘staches be damned, the hot rays felt oh so nice on our pasty skin.
Ninety-nine bottles of sauce… Take one out, pass it about…
Wait! We just put those in there.
Okay. Many of you have probably been wondering just what the heck we’ve been doing with our time during the day here in Costa Rica. How do we earn our keep in this beautiful place?
Well, I’ve mentioned before that we came here primarily to work for an up-and-coming, family-owned hot sauce company called Chile Town. We knew before we arrived that there would be some office work involved, including writing press releases and blog posts for the company website. We also knew that we would potentially be making some of the sauce itself.
What we didn’t know is what, exactly, making hot sauce entailed.
It starts with the chile peppers, most of which are grown and hand-picked right here on the property.
Without giving away too many trade secrets before the sauce gets released to the U.S., I will say that some of the hottest peppers in the world are grown and used right here. For that reason, caution must be used even during the picking-process. Notice the gloves. You don’t dare touch your eyes or exposed skin after handling hot peppers.
At this point some type of magic happens and the peppers are somehow washed, seeded, and mashed up into what we call… well mash. By the way, at Chile Town each individual hot sauce uses an individual type of chile pepper – unlike many other hot sauces, which just use an extract to bring the heat, the sauces we’re helping to make here actually use the heat and flavor that come directly from the chile variety itself. So a mild(er) sauce like the one called La Muñeca (“The Doll”) uses a less-spicy variety of pepper (yellow scotch bonnet) than the sauce called Bandito (“The Bandit”), which uses orange habaneros.
It’s all very scientific.
And if you think habaneros are spicy, some of the Chile Town sauces get even hotter than that!
*By the way, thanks to Becs for taking most of the following photos. My gloved and mash-covered fingers were not about to get anywhere near my beloved camera. Or my hair, apparently, which is a mess. Apologies.
So what we end up with is this mash.
Of course, the color/consistency vary depending on the type of pepper we’re using. These are smoked jalapeños for the smoky Don Fuego (“Fire Boss”) sauce.
The first part of this entire process is really just basic cooking – we mix all the ingredients according to Aaron’s (aka “The Mayor’s”) top secret recipes and stick ’em on the stove to simmer.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Once all the ingredients are partying together in the pot and the sauce starts to thicken up, it’s time to blend. This ensures a smoother, even consistency and that all of the flavors are truly melded to perfection.
The problem? An industrial-sized blender, Aaron owns not.
So we use the small one. Again, and again. And again.
I’ll admit that this is probably the scariest part of the process for me. I mean – you have this substance that is 2 kinds of hot – temperature and spicy – so if the blender decides to say… I don’t know… blow up in your face, you’re seriously burned. Heat burned and heat burned. Not pretty. I’ve caught a splatter or two to know.
So we try to use the utmost precaution, especially during this phase of sauce production.
Once everything is blended, it goes back in the pot and back on the heat. This time it needs to get to a certain (extremely hot) temperature before it can be bottled. The goal is to have everything nice and evenly cooked to the desired level of thickness.
Aaron’s stove takes a beating.
While the sauce is cooking, we need to wash bottles. Lots and lots of bottles.
And of course, since no one wants to buy empty hot sauce bottles, we need to fill ’em.
This step is a tid bit precarious, but it’s nothing we can’t handle.
We are sauce-making machines.
No thanks to this punk, who didn’t even bother to watch.
Once they cool a bit, we add the seals and labels. Eventually, they look like this:
Pretty groovy, huh?
Ironically, the most stressful part of the process is after all the sauce is made and we’re cleaning out the pots. When the cold water hits the warm hot sauce remnants, the noxious chile fumes somehow get set off and I’m thrown into an ugly, hacking and sneezing fit. It ain’t pretty.
And while Erin’s superior writing/editing skills have since earned her a place back in the air-conditioned office, I really don’t mind toiling over a steaming hot chile pepper concoction several days a week. A true sense of accomplishment accompanies every seal of every lid; and while I dread the potential day when Aaron opens a bottle of sauce I made from one of his recipes and, God forbid, something just doesn’t taste quite right, I will at least savor the experience until that time.
Even though all of the bottles that eventually get sold in the U.S. will have been made to exact specifications in a factory by qualified professionals, I know I will smile every time I see one because I am now a first-hand witness to just some of the frustration, sweat, and determination that goes into creating a product.
I wanted to have a post ready for you about what I do during many of my waking hours here in Costa Rica (and no, contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t about this). But as I was going through some of the pictures on my hard drive, I ran across some that slapped me with my first real dose of homesickness.
I snapped these just before we left for Costa Rica.
I think they knew I was leaving.
And their very demeanor made me feel bad about it.
You’d think they were raised Catholic or something.
The guilt was palpable.
Clearly, my mistake was taking photos of the moment. Because now I have to admit how much I miss Mara’s mitten paws.
And Capone’s curly tail.
Looking at these now, I have to ask myself, were they trying to make me feel guilty on purpose?
We’ve been in Costa Rica for over a month now. The halfway mark has come and gone, and every day it seems like someone finds a way to remind me of how soon we’ll be leaving.
And as that time gets closer, I find that I’m looking for something – anything – to prove to myself that all this has been worthwhile. All the questions I’ve had to answer, all the explaining I’ve had to do, quitting my job, leaving my family… What during this experience has changed in me for the better?
Yesterday at the grocery store we debated. We held the familiar bottle of Bacardi Gold in one hand and the seemingly-exotic Cortez in the other and judged.
Do we go with what we know? Our good ol’ communist friend Bacardi? Or do we take a chance and opt for the not-too-expensive-but-not-the-bargain-but-practical-middle-of-the-road-local-flava?
Okay, so Cortez isn’t local. The bottle says, “Ron superior de Panama.” So it’s rum from Panama? My Spanish is already improving. Go me.
But the bottle is in Spanish, which makes it seem a bit more authentic, no? And while we can’t hide my pasty white thighs or Erin’s bright auburn hair in this town, we can certainly try to drink like the locals.
Or at least that was our reasoning at 7:07 last night.
Today I know I can most definitely not drink like the locals.
I think the Avett Brothers said it best:
When I drink… I spend the next morning in a haze… But we only get so many daaaays Now I have one less.
The state of Washington – at least the western side – is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful states in the U.S. In Seattle you can immerse yourself in hues of green you thought existed only in paintings or heavily-photoshopped photographs. There’s a reason they call it the Emerald City.
Have I mentioned green is my favorite color?
But of course on the flipside, there’s the rain. It’s the blessing/curse that makes all the verdant beauty possible but, when preempted with continuous overcast, dull gray skies, can start to drag you down after awhile.
So far in this Costa Rica rainy season we’ve been very lucky. It rains almost every afternoon, but that follows at least 5 or 6 hours of heavenly sunshine. Except for the last 3 days. Three days of clouds. And it’s all thanks to Hurricane Matthew which, according to weatherstreet.com, is apparently heading toward Central America in a hurry.
In honor of our very own Hurricane Matthew, Jota (remember those guys?) put together a little something special.
At least the real hurricane is staying pretty far north of Costa Rica.
But anyway, the rain is fitting because someone left us this week – someone we will miss dearly. And even though she left us for a better place – an island off the coast of Florida, to be exact – I think the significance of the fact that we’re not going to see her again before we leave here is only just now starting to sink in.
Meet our “host mother,” Judy. We’re staying in Judy and her husband Gifford’s beautiful home while we’re here, and Judy has been one of the most gracious hostesses I’ve ever had the pleasure of mooching off of – err… staying with.
From her homemade hummus to her vastly better-than-mine beans ‘n rice, Judy has spoiled us rotten over the last 4 weeks sharing her delicious food, vast knowledge of holistic healing, exceedingly comfortable diggs, and, best of all, the pleasure of her company.
Erin and I imagined we’d one day have to share a tearful goodbye with someone on whom we’ve come to lean and ask for guidance, but we never, ever, ever imagined that she’d be the one to leave us! The news came as a bit of a surprise and, as with all great relationships that eventually come to an end due to insurmountable circumstances, it might take us a little while to get over this one.
But we do have plenty to keep us busy. With Hurricane Matthew spoiling our beach plans for the weekend, our friend Carla will be giving us some rainy-day cooking lessons.
We were too shortsighted to take advantage of that with Judy while she was here, and we don’t intend to make the same mistake with Carla. Her “Tico food” is out of this world delicious, so stay tuned for some peeks at how she intends to fatten us up this weekend.
A few nights ago, Erin and I were having a rare, quiet evening indoors. I had just cooked us a dinner of thick quesadillas with sautéed onions, mushrooms, and some type of orange cheese that melted into a beautiful, gooey, stringy mess. Chased with a couple of our favorite Nicaraguan beers, it was decidedly more successful than our attempt at rice ‘n beans.
It hadn’t even started to congeal in our arteries when we heard a knock at the door.
Who could that be? We thought.
We weren’t expecting any company, and the couple of miles on the dirt road that carries you from town to our place of residence may as well be a million to those of our (mostly car-less) friends who dare navigate the labyrinth of potholes in the pitch black of night.
Not to mention the fact that we didn’t hear anyone approach, and our windows were wide open. We’re in Costa Rica and we have no a/c. Our windows are always open.
Erin crept to the door and I followed close behind. You know, to watch her back. Then she opened the door to a most unexpected visitor, indeed.
Hey, I heard you girls are new in town. I thought maybe I could take you out, buy you a few flies, you know… rrrrrribbit…. see where things go.
Then maybe we could head back to my place and take a dip in the pond.