• Sara B.

I visited a Slaughterhouse (and other happenings over the last few weeks...)

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

I could technically change that title to "worked" since I was given the opportunity to - for about 2 whole minutes - help in the first stage - electrocution - of the pig process. So let's say I "worked" in a slaughterhouse two weeks ago. Four days out of quarantine. That shows you how antsy I am to have any excuse to get out of my house and off of our street. But more on this exciting experience later (I promise I'll keep my summary of this experience clean!)

We have now officially hit the one-month mark of living in Costa Rica (at this very minute, in-fact). Almost daily something pops into my head that I could blog about, but then the next day, that thought wanes or something trumps it or it doesn't seem to have enough meat to fill out a solid entry. So I think this will shape up to be an entry not with one theme, but a look at a few of the ups and downs of what I think is going to be our entry into the second stage of culture shock: Rejection.

What life's like

Well, we're still car-less. Which means we're technically still in quarantine unless we want to leave our kids behind and drive into the sunset, Johel and I, on the new motorcycle we bought (trust me, the thought has crossed my mind more than once....thankfully for all of us, I don't have a motorcycle license...). While it was always our plan to get a motorcycle, since gas is crazy expensive (about $4/gallon - which makes running quick errands in an 8-seater old Honda Pilot seems a bit irresponsible), I don't recall it needing to be new (at least in my mind, but now I'm thinking Johel had other plans...). Out of desperation and the lack of a vehicle a few days out of quarantine, we caved and bought a new one just so we could avoid all the rigamarole of the technical revision, registration and delay on license plates. It was ready to go the minute Johel drove it out of the store. Yay!

So we are now at least somewhat "free" to buy our own groceries to the extent they'll fit in our backpack on the ride home. Our first trip out was to a Fruteria (fruit stand) in a nearby town where I filled up on mangoes, spinach, thyme and other wonderful produce. It was my first stint on a motorcycle and I'm not going to lie, I was a bit frightened. But I passed our emergency contacts out via Whatsapp on both sides right before we got on (US to CR and vice versa - "you're doing this because we are going on the motorcycle together, aren't you?" Johel asked me. That is such a dad question. Of course that's why!), kissed the kiddos good bye and then arrived home an hour later, alive to tell the tale. (Phew!) So, while we are still waiting for all of us to have the freedom to head out together, we can at least now get our own milk from the store. Low expectations (ok, let's be real: very low expectations), I am learning, is the key to staying sane when moving to a rural community in another country.

Another note is that our house still remains unfinished. I will eventually write a blog entry, pages long and broken into chapters, urging everyone I know to never, ever build a house abroad while you are in your home-country unless you are a gazillionaire who is willing to pay an arm and a leg for inefficiencies and errors and omissions (which is not us). But it is what it is and we learning to live around the open electrical cables hanging from the ceilings, floors without tile, exposed water pipes outside, and the hole in the laundry room where I think the dryer exhaust goes. Just this week, we finally caved, fired our current carpenter, stuck in a new company (at a higher price tag), and are now feeling a bit comforted by how they showed up bright and early on day one to start to plow through what's left. They might, just maybe, soften our view of Costa Rican contractors and architects. Maybe. (But I doubt it.)

Given these first two parameters, things are moving quite slowly here. Ironically, this is what we were hoping for, but I feel like it's been taken to an extreme way too quickly. We have yet to find a balance between productive-slow and waaaaay-to-slow. Some days I'm shocked at how I look back on my day and realize I barely left my house or front yard except to workout with my sister-in-laws ("CardioAntonio" - I highly recommend it:) and teach the kids at our school spot under the caimito tree.

I do laundry and hang it to dry, sweep (which, thanks to the gravel pit in our front yard and everything being open, is actually a HUGE process - someone, please gift us a vacuum for Christmas!), prep and then clean up at least 1 meal, usually 2. I plan my English classes, some days teach a few hours and that's it. A task here, a task there. But the day passes and I manage to stay "busy" all day while hardly leaving my property. I end my days partially feeling like my brain-cells are dying and I'm going to go back to the US slower-moving, dumber (as in, I'm not engaging my brain enough), probably chubbier (BIMBO is the only bread-brand I have yet to find here, as a sad example), and just overall less efficient. Again, ironic, considering all we complained about in our US life was the "rat race" feeling of being two working parents with three young kids. Yesterday, I was venting to my mom about the ludicrousness of being trapped here and not being as fast-moving or out-and-about as I used to be. "That is the Tica way of life," she told me. "But I'm not Tica!" I sobbed. This is a problem.

"We're running a bit of a s**t show, here"

Johel's words, not mine. In a moment of frustration, this was a perfectly accurate description of how some days are shaping up. Kids, due to lack of sleep or too much fresh air (I'm thinking there is such a thing!) or having their mother as a teacher, turn into wild, angry beasts that sometimes respond in unexpected (and unruly) ways to our requests for help, demands to get ready for bed, and pleas to stop pillow-fighting (if you are a parent, you know full well that, amongst siblings, someone always winds up wailing!).

Three times per day, we are parked at the sink washing endless piles of dishes (God, we miss take-out!), thanks to us deciding not to install a dishwasher, as we were going to "have the kids do it." Riiight. For some reason, the kids' protests here seem less reasonable, the negotiations last longer, and the wails are definitely louder (I'm hoping this is just due to lack of pictures on the walls) than in Madison. Our kids are sometimes hyper-sensitive or hyper-selfish in ways that we are still struggling to figure out how to manage. That, against the backdrop of a cluttered, unfinished house and sometimes frustrated (for other reasons) parents, and our life feels just like the heading described. What almost makes it harder is that this counters with the kids being uber-happy and uber-helpful. Just pick one, for goodness sake, so we can get our parenting strategies straight in this new environment! Child-rearing during an international move is a whole different animal that Johel and I have yet to master.

An attitude of making-do, conservation and self-sustenance

Our wonderful Tico family is one of stay-at-home wives and agricultural-laboring husbands. No one is wealthy. Most are (quite) low-income. One family member, who drives a tractor for a large pineapple company, makes a "good wage for that kind of work" and earns about $800 per month. That's barely enough to cover all the bills, even in this small town living in a small house. He's got a mother he helps to pay for, as she never married and is now too old to work. He has to cover a few other out-of-the-ordinary expenses as well, so money it tight. I'm slowly, through our interactions with family here, seeing how people work to make ends meet.

Example one is the other day, when I popped over to my sister-in-law Alicia's house to ask for a recipe she'd mentioned to me once using a squash the veggie vendor gifted me (I'm his best customer, I swear). I commented to her that we "have nothing in my house that I can turn into a meal!", telling her that we were out of most fruit, meat, cheese, and (gasp!) tuna. I happened to have salt, pepper, squash, onions, garlic, and milk to make a decent soup she suggested. The next day, she kindly offered to drive me to the "big" supermarket nearby to just do an honest grocery shopping since I didn't yet have a car to go on my own. On the way, Alicia told me "but Sara, there is always something you can make. When I don't have anything, I mix rice with eggs. That is a meal. People eat it."

This is true. Coming from a city where we had tons of wonderful, international, local, and eclectic food venues practically out our front door, I've been (just a bit - I'm going to give myself a bit of grace, since there have been days where I honestly have no clue what to cook with what I have...) a bit of a food snob. I miss access to a local co-op where, if I suddenly crave something or really want to eat - that day, that minute - something the store has, I can just run and pick it up. Or if I'm just too tired to cook and can't think of what I'd want to eat, I miss having the option of just biking over to a great, high-quality restaurant for an amazing sandwich or great fish tacos. Now, three times per day, we have to cook something. And the ingredients aren't always going to be diverse or organic. I just might have to (continue) eating lettuce salads with lemon and salt dressing for another few days til the veggie vendor passes to replenish my stock of other produce. Her comment made me realize that of course I could have made something. If we're to survive (and thrive) here, we need to stop having the Madison-mindset. It's time to get a bit more creative and flexible with how we approach food and what makes a meal.

Last Monday, homeschooling consisted of a morning of family tamale-making. It was awesome. My in-laws, sister-in-law Sara and nephew, and the kids and I chopped and grilled (to soften) banana leaves, cooked masa over a wheel-well grill, and assembly-lined the tamale-making process, all in an open-air rancho. I was assigned the task of tying up tamales with string my father-in-law was precisely cutting next to me. He is an interesting man, very quiet but with a big heart. He sometimes mutters to himself, more because I think he doesn't like to express his opinions too loudly for fear he'll have to engage in a more deep, potentially "heated" conversation about them. He's sweet but old-fashioned-in-a-Tico-man sort of way.

There he is, next to me cutting string from a big ball of cooking rope, and he starts to notice after a few strings that there are about 2 inches of "extra" on the tamale bows I'm tying. He continues to cut but is now analyzing the length, comparing each string to the last, and muttering to himself about how it's "just a bit too long" or "[he] might have just cut that a bit too short." He quietly agonized over getting just the right length of string so as not to "waste" it. While so minor, it fascinated me. This was string. How many times in my life had I used string, excessively, when cooking? Or a bigger-than-necessary piece of plastic wrap (or worse, a piece of plastic wrap for something that really only needed to be plastic-wrapped for a hot minute before I tossed it or took it out to eat it?). I found it strange and eye-opening that he was so focussed on not wasting one inch of that string. And why shouldn't he be? It's hard-earned money that is going to waste. He reacted the same way when we grilled the banana leaves to soften them. We had two wood-burning grills going and wrapped up the task before either had burned the wood down to ash. He paced around the rancho looking for other things to cook (at nine in the morning over an open flame?) out of frustration for the fact we were burning wood that had been chopped without using it to cook anything. It's worth noting that this man supported eight children and a wife in rural Costa Rica driving a tractor his whole life. Using everything you had and not letting a thing go to waste was clearly in the forefront of his mind, and it left an imprint in mine.

We, I'm realizing, are the only one of my husband's siblings (minus his eldest sister, Elena, who is a single mom and works six days a week as a secretary) who doesn't kill some of our food. And grow most of the rest. My sister-in-laws have chickens for laying eggs, chickens for meat, chihuahuas that Johel and I might turn into meat if they don't stop barking all night long (this is a joke - kinda), oregano plants, cilantro sprouts, fruit trees, and squash vines. Several have cows that they milk. One has some pigs they slaughter. All we've got, thus far, is a guayaba tree that drops fruit on our roof regularly with a "boom!" so loud it makes us want to slide under the dining room table for cover.

People in this town, of course, rely on grocery stores for most meat, dairy, and staples, but really, they could get by alright with what's just growing around their house. It's inspiring and exciting to think about what it will be like once we get stuff in the ground to have year-round produce (and maybe chickens for eggs and meat - for this Johel says I'm on my own-) to have to work with. Not something we've ever had before and the thought of having to utilize a lot of what we would grow right on our own property will present a fun challenge. Plus it'll take away a bit of the shame I feel when, every-other-day, I have to send one of my kids to their Tia's house begging for her to sell us some eggs....

Back to the Slaughterhouse

So on that note, I'll come back to my "working at the slaughterhouse" story. It seemed a fitting experience since one of my long-term goals here is to have the kids raise and help process their own chickens. Back in Madison, we hosted a Tico kid, Esteban, several times whose family owns a slaughterhouse that processes cows and pigs. They are the second biggest in the country, and it is located 15 minutes from where we live. Esteban offered to take me on a tour if I ever wanted, and I decided to take him up on it (out of a mix of "could I really handle watching the process of a slaughterhouse?" to "well, if I eat it, I should be able to see where it comes from" to "yes, please, I need something to get me out of this town!"). Operations at this particular venue are from 2 a.m. on, depending on how many animals need to be processed on any given day. So I arrived late on a Monday night in my PJs to his family's house, crashed for a few hours, set my alarm for 1:30 a.m. and him and I got ready for the big event.

My biggest hesitation, honestly, was the smell. I was worried it was going to knock me off my feet. I was more worried about that than even watching the whole ordeal. This slaughterhouse processes the cattle first. Without giving gory details, let me just say it was fascinating and the smell didn't bother me a bit. We had on lab coats, rubber boots, and helmets before we entered the processing room where there were about 20-25 people working to take the animal in, kill it, hang it, and then begin processing it. It was super quick, super efficient, and not "dirty" in the way I was thinking. I think seeing all the steps of what parts go where and what gets disposed of and what doesn't, how they clean everything, and how they remove certain things, tag it, etc. was so methodical and quick, it was incredible to watch. We stood right in the middle of it, so much so that my biggest fear actually went from fear of being sick or converting to a vegetarian for life, to instead being worried that a hanging animal carcass would bump me as workers pushed it down the assembly line, and I would go crashing face first into a waste can of something I didn't particularly want to be covered in. Once we finished the cows, we headed to the pigs. After a lesson from the man who handles the first step - electrocution- they actually let me do it (on my own!) on two pigs. And while, as my brother sarcastically texted me after, it didn't make my "life feel complete," (ah, brothers....), it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and as someone mentioned to me: "an important life lesson on how meat isn't born in plastic."


So here we are, chugging (slowly) away at getting our life started. One month in and not at all as we'd envisioned. But thus far, we've had many wonderful moments (like how at night we each make a "grateful for" card and share it with the family to end the night on a positive note), more than our share of stressful ones, and still a lot of adjusting and learning to do. Now if we could just get those license plates, we'd be pretty good to go...

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