Alison Berkley: The Princess’s Palate
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
I’m pinned between my parents in the back seat of our very small and very expensive rental car on a dusty dirt road deep in the middle of nowhere, Costa Rica. My brother Dan is at the wheel, flying over bumps and jerking the car from side to side trying to avoid them. My sweaty, sunburned legs stick to my Mom’s and I can’t seem to create any space between us no matter how hard I try.
“Oy, Daniel! Jesus!” my Dad says, pressing the heel of his hand against his forehead.
“Oy vay!” my Mom says, echoing her husband of 42 years.
“Stop saying ‘oy’ already!” I say. “You sound like two old Jews!”
“Oh Alison, you’re just irritated because you have to pee,” my Mom says.
Oh, there’s nothing quite like traveling with your whole family.
It’s true I have to pee after drinking three Imperials (one of two beers you can get in Costa Rica) at the Fiesta del Torros in Santa Rosa, which is like a small-town carnival where the main attraction are the bulls.
Thanks to my brother, we get to see the real Costa Rica. After living in-country on and off for the last six years, he’s gone native, or at least tried to. He speaks the language and lives 10 minutes inland where he pays $150/month for a one-room cabana with a bathroom, small refrigerator, and one of those gas burner things. He keeps a 2-gallon jug of water in the shower because the running water doesn’t always work, so it’s kind of like camping inside. Especially because it always smells like a campfire: Someone is always burning something, whether it’s trash or brush, and we’re constantly amazed the whole country doesn’t burn down.
His place is located right behind Soda Rosales, a small roadside restaurant run by the family who owns the property. Everything is cooked over an open fire, including the cashews and plantains that grow in the yard and the eggs laid by the family’s chickens that wander freely about, clucking and crowing as they please.
The first night we meet up with Dan at a local restaurant in downtown Huacas, where we eat heaping plates of fried rice with lobster, shrimp and fish. Dan knows all the pretty waitresses and flirts with them in Spanish. After dinner we go across the street to the Italian gelato place for coconut ice cream cones.
That night we sleep in Dan’s cabana since it is air conditioned, and he takes the one next door. The mattress is a thin piece of foam that sort of feels like sleeping on a dish sponge, and when I wake up, my back is stiff and I can feel a thin layer of dust or ash coating my teeth. I’m glad we’re only there for one night and look forward to moving over to the condo my parents rented on the beach and getting back to some of the amenities I prefer, like a kitchen and a swimming pool, which is an absolute necessity when it’s 90 degrees by 10 a.m.
A few days after my parents arrive, we head over to Playa Portrero to meet up with my cousin Todd. He’s renting a big house with friends that’s $6,000/week on top of a huge hill overlooking the ocean and the peninsula with an infinity pool and a staff at their disposal. When we arrive, they’re already three sheets to the wind with that soggy, glassy-eyed expression and slurred speech that suggests they’ve probably been drinking all day. It takes us hours to drag them out of the house and down the hill for dinner at a little restaurant on the beach.
They’re loud and boisterous and order margaritas and American-style dishes like chicken wraps and onion rings that just aren’t good while we stick to the traditional casados (rice, beans, salad, fried plantains with meat or fish) and beer. Todd orders a round of tequila shots, and I toss mine over my shoulder because I just don’t want it and switch to water, which he gives me hell for. Then I can’t stop yawning, and he gives me hell for that, too. It’s funny, I used to love to party with my cousin Todd but all I can think about is how I’m dying to leave.
The following night we go to the Fiesta del Torros with just my brother and parents. After driving down a dark, desolate dirt road deep into the jungle we arrive in a town with bright, colorful lights strung where the street is filled with people, music, food and dancing.
The main attraction is a bull ring where a small but lively crowd sits on bleachers made from old wooden slats. We see a half-dozen bull rides, my mom cheering for the bull as it bucks riders off its back and charges at the cluster of teenagers and townsmen who run around trying to taunt it in the ring. We eat arroz con carne and churros (fried bread sticks with sugar) and drink our Imperials and stomp our feet to the music. The celebration is contagious and seems to wash over me like the waves do, bringing with it such a sweet pleasure and keen awareness of the experience of joy, of being in the moment.
On the way home, my brother finally pulls over so my mom and I can get out and pee in a ditch on the side of the road, giggling like two silly teenagers.
When we get back in the car, her sitting close by me doesn’t bother me anymore. I just sit back and feel the sweet warm wind on my face as we bump and swerve along. Everyone seems to be quiet now, suspended in reverie, wondering how long this carefree moment can last.
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