Paquito, the family parrot, is screaming in rapid fire. I know by now the sound of Jose Sr., in the kitchen opening and closing the refrigerator door, shuffling supplies in the bed of the truck outside my window and scurrying outside my cracked door in the dark of the early morning. I’m trying to fight back the sleep that fills my head and my heavy body. Jose Jr. gets up in a frazzled daze. He is walking in and out of the bathroom, in and out of the screen door, looking again in the refrigerator, walking around brushing his teeth, hopping on one leg to put on baggy green pants. I emerge from my temporary room wearing the pair of green cargo pants Jose Sr. had given me the night before—tight around the waist, low in the crotch, and loose and long in the leg. Jose points me to a cup of tea he had prepared for me—apple, which Jose’s mother says will soothe my stomach—and urges me with his short, quickened pacing around the room to gulp it as quick quick quick as I can.
It’s three in the morning and we’re rushing to get into the truck. It’s loaded with a barrel of sugar and a bee smoker and replacement frames for the hives and a few old long-sleeved shirts for the next two days’ work. We’re driving five hours from their home to tend to the bees. If this trip is like the one we took last week my job will be simple: help carry the buckets and buckets of sugar the bees require since the flowers are lousy this time of year and hold the smoker—and keep it going—when Jose Sr. holds a bee-covered frame in his bare hands—the tiny, quizzical creatures exploring the gaps between his fingers and the cup of his palm—looking for the queen.
Last time the smoke gave me a headache. They use the tarry, buckeye-sized nuts from the coyol tree to fill the smoker. When lighting hit in the morning, Jose stuffs it full of burning newspaper and old, rotten wood and the nuts and shakes it like a maraca. But before we start the smoker or put on the protective veils or scoop buckets full of sugar, we eat breakfast.
Many of the breakfasts here in Costa Rica have been the same. But instead of growing tired of the simple food—beans and rice served with eggs or queso frito make a dish called Gallo Pinto; Jose’s mother, Margarita, makes empanadas, too, filling them with stewed beef or ham and cheese or sweet fruit.—I grew to love it.
The three of us plop down on overturned buckets under a teak tree—its umbrella-sized leaves help to deflect the already baking sun. On the long drive here I always fall asleep, in the passenger seat with my head kinked over to one side. But by about an hour into the drive I wake to an angry hunger. “You woke up already. I want to eat now!” my stomach seems to be saying to me with gusto. Like the other mornings, today I kept quiet and tried to get back to sleep in the rumbling truck. We’re all hungry when we get to where we’re working.
Today, in the tupperwares we packed last night, we have Gallo Pinto. The condensation from their residual heat drips from the lids when we peel them off. The rice has the texture of, well, day old rice—with the core of each grain regaining its firmness—and the beans are smashed. When Jose Sr. pulls out a bottle of hot sauce we smile and give a tired cheer. Gulps of chilled water help the rice and beans go down. It fills our bellies. And before I’ve cleaned off my spoon, Jose is over filling the smoker.
I love picnics—whether they be for breakfast and highly informal, like the one in the story I just shared or thought out down to the last detail. Picnicking is like eating in a movie theater. The less the food is constrained by the circumstances, the better. I’ve brought hamburgers into a movie in my cargo shorts or smuggled in hummus and a whole bag of pita chips.
Much in the same way, picnic food seems to be more fun when it’s not. Once my family and I ate a bucket of fried chicken on a picnic. Another time there was a full salad—with a cute little Tupperware for the dressing—and a rotisserie chicken and dessert. There’s a Duke of Norfolk show coming up this next week in the park downtown. Feel free to bring a picnic. Maybe we can share with each other when we get down there.