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Rice and beans: three times a day

It could have been any one of countless days in my year as a volunteer English teacher in rural Costa Rica. My alarm went off at 5:30 and I struggled to get out of bed, did some schoolwork, and took a cold, refreshing shower. I dressed in khakis and a white dress shirt, slipped on my comfy, Costa Rican rainbow flip-flops and headed into the kitchen, where I sat down as Miriam fired up the wok. I was running late as usual, but whipping up a batch of gallo pinto—rice and beans—only took five minutes.

We’d talk some, Miriam would give me a hard time, and I’d take in yet another gorgeous day shaping up outside. Meanwhile my breakfast was almost ready: rice, beans, a few spices, and manteca, or lard. If I was lucky, Miriam would throw a salty scrambled egg in with the mound that was my breakfast. If I was really lucky, I’d get one or two of the tortillas that I liked to nibble on so much. If I was unlucky, this would be the umpteenth time the crunchy batch had been fried, or I would find a nice surprise like the staple my sister found when she visited.

When Mama visited, she was sick of the diet by the second day. “I guess we’ll have more rice and beans forever,” she half-groaned. I thought she was being silly—I had been eating this stuff for months!—but only Miriam had a right to really complain. How many times had she made rice and beans? How many times, from adolescence through marriage at 18 through life as a 54-year-old grandma, still cooking and cleaning and getting more and more tired? Three times a day, nearly every meal of every day of every year—40,000? “I’m old already,” she said on occasion. She certainly felt that way when her health failed, often due to asthma. And her figure, like that of nearly all middle-aged Costa Rican women, had rounded considerably. Too many servings of rice and beans.

For a Latin American country, I got the short end of the stick on cuisine. Costa Ricans eat rice and beans three times a day, and tortillas, and not much else—paralleling, I thought, a certain lack of imagination in the nation as a whole. The spiciness of Mexican food was but a dream, as was the renowned beef of Argentina. Instead we ate a lot of chicken, and pig, and carne—mystery meat. Lunch was the most likely time for the tedium to be broken, with a stew or soup or a little cabbage salad. That was also usually the only meal where we wouldn’t drink strong black coffee—my family couldn’t afford milk—but the afternoon cafécito made up for that. I suffered from a severe shortage of vegetables, and longed for food that wasn’t fried or greasy. Miriam was a great cook, but economic status and national tradition meant she could only do so much.

It was said that Costa Ricans had started adding manteca to their diet decades ago, when the country was dirt-poor. The government recommended adding it as a nutritional supplement to rice and beans, and the habit stuck, even as the country became the most prosperous in Central America. My region, like those of most of my fellow WorldTeach compañeros and compañeras, had seen little if any of that wealth. Marbella (pop. 350), located two-plus hours down a dirt road from the nearest city, Santa Cruz, is almost at the end of the (bus) line. Most of the men work in construction, fieldwork, or other forms of manual labor. There isn’t enough work to go around, and the steadiest work, in construction, is only available because of gringos building developments nearby. There are few men in their twenties in Marbella, few options for young women, and few chances for the average Marbella kid to have a different life. As their English ticher for the year, I tried to widen their worlds, and get Gloria and Ingrid and Luis Miguel to think about the possibility of a different future. The younger kids—kinder through third grade—made great strides. But it was with the older ones—fourth through sixth grade—that I hit the wall. Despite all my efforts, the motivation wasn’t there. Either they didn’t want to leave, or they didn’t see how English would be useful in their lives, even as tourism drew ever closer.

But pondering so was counterproductive, especially with breakfast ready. Miriam hands me the plate, then pours my coffee. It’s a good, filling breakfast, if a predictable one. (Maybe a little too predictable: in November, in a cruel twist of fate, my body became allergic to black beans, forcing me to pick out the rice from the beans when Miriam invariably forgot about my strange condition.) Suddenly it’s a few minutes past seven, and I’m late for school. A quick gracias, I throw on my dusty black shoes, and I’m off. I’ll be back to brush my teeth during the first recess; Miriam will start on her chores. She’s done feeding me until dinner, when the family—and probably a few paying visitors—will crowd around the dining table, for yet more rice and beans.

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