On a Saturday, many of the staff were coming from teaching their respective colegio (high-school) classes, and began to arrive individually. Some of us, the author included, came straight from the class they had just taught. These days are never short. It is often difficult to find energy for anything after. However, this special Saturday gave each of us something to look forward to: THE COMPANY HOLIDAY PARTY!
We knew we were going to a restaurant. We knew there would be paella. We knew we had to dress nice. We didn’t know anything else. We met at the office. We greeted each other with the same exhausted expressions as most Saturdays, but there was a glint, a spark of excitement that came from knowing we were all going to be together for the night. We so rarely get the whole crew together.
I arrived a little early, around 5 pm, and only one other teacher was there. He and I watched some comedy, and I opened my first beer. I took a quick shower and dressed for the occasion. As I finished getting ready, the others began to arrive. Each and every one of the crew looked fantastic in their ‘dinner attire.’ Everything began to move a little faster. Multiple greetings, hugs, handshakes, backslaps, beers cracked, wine poured laughter, adoring voices. All of a sudden it was time to line up for the group photos. In typical fashion, we took one nice photo and several frivolous ones. The frivolous ones are always more of a true representation of our inner strangeness. Now that the pictures were taken, we loaded the cooler, double checked for bags and purses and packed into the buseta (mini-bus).
On the ride to our still mostly unknown destination, chosen and planned by the ‘elusive’ administrative staff, we found our inner children that hide just below our professional surfaces. With the excitement of going on an elementary school field trip, we began singing 90’s pop songs, laughing out of our seats, and exchanging the jovial stories of the season. I am sure the bus driver hated us.
As we neared the destination, the city gave way to some really incredible views of the central valley from our windows. You could see the city’s glow. The lights timed perfectly for our Holiday spirits. After what seemed a long time, since most of us needed to use the restroom, we arrived at the restaurant: La Lluna de Valencia. http://lallunadevalencia.com/
We exited the bus in the street and walked through a brick and wooden garden. It was already past dark, and we couldn’t see much, but you could tell it was beautiful. Once inside, the atmosphere livened and we all immediately became aware of the incredible establishment we had entered. The lofty, wood-beamed ceilings, classic Spanish decorations, polished wooden tables, and rich warm lighting invoked a sense of home, comfort, and peace.
As everyone found their seats around one of the two large tables that were reserved, the wine and sangria began to flow in torrents. Our general manager was quick to provide a beautiful toast, thanking all of us and officially beginning the party.
The entire crew feeling comfortable, delighted, and hungry began to tell stories and jokes. Laughter could be heard all around. We were a cacophony of merriment. Wine in nearly every glass, the first course was brought out. I wish I could tell you what the first course was. I wish that at some point I could recall the look, taste, and feel of that course. However, what actually has stuck in my mind is when our gracious host arrived to greet us. Vincente Aguilar Cerezo is the type of man that could easily have a novel written about him. His incredible positivity, charming presence, and booming voice and laughter deserve their own story. For now, suffice it to say that he made the experience perfect for us.
Vincente brought a wine skein with him. He taught us the ways to use the skein. We had to slap the leather pouch, and squeeze a stream of wine into our mouths. He first demonstrated this by making a round of our entire group and doing the pouring for us. If he believed you could handle it, he would pour it from your nose into your mouth. Strange, I know. But, as they say, when in Rome. I doubt you could deny him even if you wanted to. His demeanor was intoxicating all on its own.
The next course arrived, sardines with oil and garlic on delicious bread. We continued our joyful satisfaction of each other’s company. The mood was increasingly more fun, we got louder, the food was passed around and consumed. After a few more refills, the main dish was delivered: massive, piping-hot pans of traditional paella. Vincente, our amazing host, served every plate whether it was vegetarian, pescatarian, or the fully traditional chicken variety.
Once the entire room had been served their dinner portions, the lights began to grow dimmer and flicker out. A giant bowl was placed on a stage in the center of the room, and Vincente took his place. The final lights were extinguished, and Vincente lit the bowl on fire. The blue glow of the flames danced in the bowl and the host began to stir and lift the flaming liquid high into the air. A waterfall of fire was the only illumination in the room as Vincente ladled his mysterious wizard’s potion. The show was something to admire indeed. This flaming liquor was then divided among the guests and a toast was given by the bearded Vincente like it was straight out of a storybook. This was the perfect culmination of hospitality and grace.
Afterwards, the lights were restored, and the party continued with a delicious caramelized pudding for dessert. Our group then revealed the Secret Santa gifts. This was special in so many ways. One by one, we delivered our gifts with hugs, laughter, and love. The party could not have ended any better. We all felt loved as though we were all family.
Our buseta ride back to the office was more of the same: loud laughter, singing, story-telling, and general joy. I won’t lie, it felt a lot shorter than the way to the restaurant. This night was incredible in every way. We continued to build these rare and amazing friendships that will be remembered for the rest of our lives. There are no ways to truly express how unbelievable it feels to be part of a team that can share such great memories and experiences. With every gathering, we truly become more like family, and since most of us have left ours in our respective motherlands, this feeling really creates an unmatchable joy in our usually busy lives. I will forever be grateful for the companionship we have developed. SALUD!
Never have experienced the Holiday season in Costa Rica (or any other country) I didn’t know what to expect. There are no snow-covered rooftops, no fields of pine trees, no bells jingling all the way. However, there are tamales. I have not witnessed a tradition here that is more carefully observed than the Holiday season tamal. Unlike Mexico and the Unite States, the Costa Rican spelling is Spanish (literally from Spain) without the last letter ‘e.’ Nearly every family in Costa Rica will partake in this tradition. So many that the University of Costa Rica concluded in a study that “196 million pairs of tamales [are] eaten during December [which equals] three tamales per Tico per day.” (www.ticotimes.net) That is truly a mountain of tamales.
Dating back almost 500 years ago, the tamal tradition has been more Costa Rican than the phrase, “pura vida.” Recipes vary from home to home, but this is incredibly family oriented. “Grandmothers and mothers will teach granddaughters and daughters how to make tamales; making sure the tradition is kept alive.” (qcostarica.com) Although it may not have always been part of Christmas, it has been part of tradition since before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Costa Rica. “The corn filling symbolized the sun god for indigenous people 500 years ago, but when Spanish conquistadors colonized the isthmus, the food became part of festivities celebrating the immaculate conception and Christmas.” (www.ticotimes.net)
No historian can pinpoint the exact origin of tamales, but we do know that they have been around for millennia. “Tamales originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC. As making tamales is a simple method of cooking corn, it may have been brought from Mexico to Central and South America.” (en.wikipedia.org) For our intents and purposes though, the tamal tradition in Costa Rica can be considered beginning with life itself. “The truth is, all Costa Ricans will remember having eaten them since they were small children.” (qcostarica.com) Therefore, they have been around as long as anyone can remember.
Although tamales are made year-round, the tradition is based around the Holiday season, especially the month of December. It doesn’t matter when you decide to eat them, you will see people enjoying tamales for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. However, “they are absolutely fundamental for coffee break time” (qcostarica.com) known very properly as tamaleada, “the tradition of taking a break from buying gifts to invite friends over to the house in the afternoon to share a tamal, a cup of coffee and some good conversation.” (www.ticotimes.net)
Whether you are an outsider like me, a visiting tourist, or a local the tamal tradition in Costa Rica is all-encompassing. You will see the supermarkets fill entire isles with the ingredients to make them. Anyone here will tell you about their experiences making tamales with their families every year for as long as they can remember. It doesn’t matter if you are staying in the city, or on a remote beach front, if you happen to be in Costa Rica in December, you will experience the beauty and magic of the tamal. And on that note, I think I smell tamales coming from my Tico mom’s kitchen. Time to eat!