A writer is like a bean plant – he has his little day and then gets stringy. – E. B. White
Traveling for leisure is fun, but traveling for other reasons is funny. I once spent a week in a remote and rainy little corner of Costa Rica called Tortuguero as a guest volunteer with the Center for Marine Conservation, a group dedicated to sea turtle conservation.
One of six Central American countries with coasts on two oceans, Costa Rica is known for its many nature reserves, scenic volcanoes and rain forests. While the term rain forest may conjure up colorful images of squawking parrots, fanciful trees and jungly vines, first and foremost there is rain – lots of rain.
Arriving by air to the capital city of San Jose, our trek to the research camp began innocently enough. The plan was to ride a bus for about three hours northeast on a primary road toward the Atlantic coast before transferring to a small ferry for the short hop over to Tortuguero. Mother Nature had other ideas. About an hour into the stormy journey, the road became impassable because of a rain-induced mudslide. After idly waiting around an hour or so for news, the driver decided to backtrack and take a more wiggly northern route towards the Nicaraguan border, through banana plantations and down to the river.
Our roundabout journey then began to smooth out as we boarded small open boats while haphazardly tossing our luggage around and under us. However, almost immediately after getting underway, the rain began dumping down. This was no drippy drizzle. The clogged up sky tossed great sheets of rain at us as we swept around bends in the river. Soaked like sandbags in a ship’s bilge, our hardy little group finally arrived at the research center sorely in need of a hot meal, where we were treated to that wonderful staple of Central American cuisine, black beans and rice.
Now, I like beans and rice. I really do. Most of our volunteer group did, too, except for one older gentleman named Dave who seemed not too excited about them. Thankfully, there were other foods on the local menu as well. However, throughout the week we experienced beans and rice in the morning, afternoon and evening. Not a day went by that beans failed to make their regular menu appearance.
Our research camp accommodations were pretty basic – bunk beds in buildings separated by gender and a common cafeteria area. We spent the days helping two researchers catch and tag small birds in mist nets, while our nights were devoted to sea turtle patrol. Walking the beach to spot sea turtles might sound romantic, but it was challenging to say the least. Because sea turtles only come ashore to lay their eggs and do so only at night, the beach patrol walks began around midnight. No lights are allowed, as they might disturb the nesting turtles, so we stumbled awkwardly through the rain and sand, tripping over logs rather than turtles.
One afternoon while chatting with Dave, he was lamenting the never-ending parade of beans and rice at every meal. He was anxiously looking forward to the weekend and our return to San Jose, where a modern hotel and restaurant awaited. On Saturday, we took another boat to the small local airstrip where we stood in the rain awaiting our flight. Swooping out of the clouds came a twin-engine propeller plane, which taxied toward us. The pilot jumped out and opened a small forward hatch. We pitched our bags into this compartment and jumped on board. Thankfully, the short flight was much less adventurous than the outward journey.
Back in the dry and comfortable hotel in San Jose, we all, and especially Dave, agreed that, after a week of research camp food, it was time to treat ourselves to a nice late breakfast in the dining room. I sat across from Dave at the table, teasing him about what he might order. No beans and rice this time, but rather a large omelet with toast, juice and coffee.
Now the real fun began. There were ten of us seated at the long table. Dave was sitting in the center with his back to the kitchen. When our food came, I noticed several plates of, you guessed it, beans and rice! Though no one had ordered them, I could see that they were yet again standard fare accompanying every meal. Dave, however, could not see this from his spot at the table.
Perfectly on cue, as if I had bribed the waitress in advance, she took a plate of beans and rice and plopped them right in front of Dave! His eyes stretched wide, his lips pursed, and his whole body began to tremble. Trapped between two other diners, he tried to twist and turn around, doing anything to get away from the omnipresent beans! He shouted, “THIS IS NOT WHAT I ORDERED,” but the server had already returned to the kitchen. When Dave finally spun around, all he could see was the serving cart loaded with more plates of beans and rice! To avoid a complete meltdown and international incident, the rest of us began consoling Dave that this was not some cruel April Fool’s joke. Thankfully, his omelet came out next and he lived happily ever after.
Beans and rice – they are not just for breakfast anymore!