I was welcomed into the cloud-covered farming community of Turrialba, Costa Rica with a BBQ by the folks I would be house sitting for over the next six months. Very little English was spoken here, but a couple of locals at the party did. Francini was one of them – a young girl who was studying to become a teacher. It was a wonderful way to get to know my new neighbors, whom I would probably be calling on for help during my stay.
I lived across from a church that was used for many purposes other than worship each Sunday. On many nights, music would blare from it until late in the evening. Other times, it was a quiet hotbed of activity and often I wasn’t sure what was going on over there. One day, I saw Francini and asked what was happening. She said they were going to be holding a benefit for her uncle who had recently suffered a heart attack. They were making 800 tamales to sell over the weekend. I wanted to help and she gladly accepted the offer.
One man had the head of a huge pig on the counter, attempting to pry open its mouth. We were all cringing as we watched the struggle unfold.
Inside, tables were set up in makeshift assembly lines. Banana leaves had to be chopped from the trees then cut to size and cleaned before any food could be put on them. In the kitchen, someone was peeling potatoes while others were cutting carrots and peppers. In the back, a large cauldron of oil bubbled away with huge pieces of pork. Pots of rice on the stove simmered in starchy, butter-laden broth. This was a massive operation taken on by family and friends, and it didn’t appear to be their first go-around.
One man had the head of a huge pig on the counter, attempting to pry open its mouth. We were all cringing as we watched the struggle unfold. One of the ladies told him not to use any of the head but he was adamant that the jowls had to be part of the ingredients. It took me back to the days of eating barbacoa on Sunday mornings with my grandparents as a child.
I took my place by a stack of banana leaves, was handed a rag and shown how to gently wipe them down and stack them in a pile. The following day was when the assembly would begin. I said I would be back to help. As I walked home, I thought about the sense of community I’d witnessed, something I hadn’t been used to in America. The way people pitched in by taking food they’d grown themselves or purchasing what they needed to help someone in need was a beautiful thing. Everyone happily working together, smiling and laughing then going home exhausted was a testament to the power of teamwork.
The following morning, everyone was there again, getting amped up on coffee and sweets before the workday began. The leaves were lined up on the table and then handed down to the next person, who had their filling in front of them. They passed it to the next person who added their ingredient, then passed it on again until the package was complete. A married couple sat at the end of the table, painstakingly tying each one with twine. The old man’s farm-worked hands hurt after hours of tedious wrapping, crossing and tying. His eyes reflected the pain when I glanced over at him. He rarely took a break.
Everyone happily working together, smiling and laughing then going home exhausted was a testament to the power of teamwork.
The finished products were taken to the back to steam in large metal pots sitting on a makeshift stove. They worked throughout the night until they were all done. By Sunday morning, the church was ready to serve up these delicious bundles for a mere 2000 Colones ($2USD) for a two pack. Some were taken to a different church to accommodate people living farther away.
They sold $2000 worth of tamales, drinks, fruit cups and sweets by the end of the day. It felt good to be part of the group and opened my mind and heart to the power of collaboration. It made me reflect on my old life, where people would come home from work and lock themselves inside for the evening. It wasn’t uncommon to not know a neighbor three houses down after living in a place for many years. It felt much more rewarding to know these new people, even if just by face. I felt happier and safer than I had in years and will never see community in the same light again.