What Did I Eat? Jungle Polo by Guest Blogger Vesna Plakanis
Vesna Plakanis and her husband Erik are certified naturalists and owners of the outdoor backpacking and tour company A Walk In The Woods. Her guest blogger post about some mystery meat in Costa Rica will make you laugh. Or gag.
When in Costa Rica...
My husband and I love to travel and explore. We love to go where the locals go, we love a lot of adventure mixed with a little luxury, we love to try new things and immerse ourselves in the culture, the scenery and the sights of sounds where ever we go. In fact, we love adventure so much, 20 years ago we left corporate America to start a hiking company in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. No, we had never owned a business, let alone a hiking company. No, we had not worked in the tourism industry, I was a Commercial Producer and he was the Comptroller of a Post Production House in Atlanta. But, we lived and breathed the outdoors, we were rabid environmentalists who believed that if we didn't have a healthy planet, nothing else was worth while, we also had a seven year old daughter and we saw how quickly those years flew by. I had lived in Knoxville, an hour from the Smokies, and the first time I saw those ancient mountains, it was love. I had sent Erik on a 10 day backpacking trip through the Park and when he came back, he too was in love. We took classes in primitive skills and became certified naturalists and two years after his hike, we took the plunge and moved to the hills of East TN.
So yes, we loved adventure and we love to explore. In our off season, we try to travel to various places. We are half way through all National Parks in the Country and are slowly working our way around the globe. Although we love to backpack, on our big anniversaries we try to do something special. For our 10th, we went to beautiful Costa Rica for 10 days. Our first few days were spent hiking through Manual Antonio National Park, exploring the beautiful black sand beaches, watching monkeys play on our deck, exploring hidden trails, and trying out the local foods. My husband and I are generally Vegetarians but we do eat fish so finding local delicacies is generally not an issue. Neither of us, however, eats meat. My husband has not had meat on purpose since he was in his 20's and when he and I married, I was already almost there so it was not a difficult leap for me. We chose this lifestyle for both compassionate reasons and for environmental reasons. I do know the few times we have accidentally eaten meat, like Pork or Beef, we were both a little queasy. I tend to do better but my husband has a sensitive stomach brought on after eating a bad batch of oysters in Charleston, SC in his early 20's.
My Spanish is just good enough to get the basics, but bad enough to get us in trouble. Thankfully, the beautiful people of Costa Rica are patient and helpful so for the most part, we were able to navigate well throughout the gorgeous countryside. By day four, we were ready to do just that. We were heading to the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest. For those of you who have been to Costa Rica, you might know that the roads away from the main towns are not always great. What might take us an hour in the States can take half a day or more. But, we were in an adventurous spirit so bad roads and pot holes as big as our rental car was no deterrence. We left early, in great spirits and enjoyed driving slow enough for the three toed Sloths to keep up overhead.
As we approached the turnoff to the road to Monteverde, we noticed that the trip had been several hours longer than we had anticipated. Several years prior to our visit, there had been an earthquake and according to the locals at our hotel in Manual Antonio, many of the roads were still in bad repair. Although the road was paved, we experienced that first hand and were getting a little tired and hungry. When we turned off the paved road to the Cloud Forest, we were a little dismayed to find that the road was worse. A dirt road, narrow in spots, with more pot holes, cows running down the center of the road and still a long way to go. In the spirit of adventure and to prevent getting crabby with each other, we stopped at the first place along the way that served food.
The place was a lovely farm, obviously someone's home. It was by this time, late afternoon so the lunch "crowd" had left. But the lady of the house insisted we come and sit on the porch. She explained that the kitchen was closed but insisted on getting us a beer. As I said, my Spanish is good enough and I had been there almost a week so my confidence was up. I thanked her generosity and told her we would drink our beer quickly so she have a siesta before the dinner "rush." She shushed me and said that they were pretty much out of food but she saw we were hungry and thought she had some fish soup. We were overjoyed and drank our beer on the porch, enjoying the cooling breeze of a late day and the views surrounding us. She came back and explained that she was sorry but the fish soup was gone, but she had found some chicken soup. My husband, who can only say a few words in Spanish that include beer, bathroom and check please, was completely oblivious to the change of culinary direction. Not wanting to hurt this overly kind woman's feelings, I smiled as she handed us our second beer and told her that the soup would be perfect. I explained what happened to my husband but he was enjoying the beer and atmosphere and in the spirit of "when in Rome" he wasn't bothered by this. She quickly came back with bowls of hot soup. The soup smelled delicious. It looked like it was broth with chunks of dark chicken meat, rice and vegetables. By this point, we were both pretty hungry so we happily dug into the soup. It was as delicious as it smelled and I happily ate the first spoonful of soup. I ate a second and when I went for the third, my spoon brought up what looked like a big chunk of spinal cord. The spinal cord was fatter than my index fingers and middle fingers combined. I put the spoon down and pondered it's size. Now granted, it had been over a decade since I had eaten chicken but I didn't remember a chicken having a spinal cord quite that large. I dug in around the puzzling bone and ate a few more spoonfuls of rice, veggies and broth until I felt that I had eaten enough to show my gratitude to the kind woman who had opened her home to us. My husband had the bowl in his mouth and was sipping up the last of the broth, happy and ready to continue our adventure.
After paying the lady and tipping her generously, we left as the afternoon was turning to early evening. The dirt road was no longer an annoyance and we continued the adventure, our spirits soaring as we thought about the zip line adventure we were scheduled to do the following day. Driving was slow not only because of the road conditions, but because of the beautiful birds sitting on fence posts that begged to have their photos taken, the cows and dogs running in front of us when we drove through villages and the Iguana that ran beside us for a few feet. It was at that moment that the short passage that my husband and I had read that morning about this very drive came to me "Costa Rica is famous for the number of iguanas running freely from one side of the highway to the other and from a papaya treetop to a house roof. Some of us consider iguanas as very interesting creatures, others consider them quite adorable; some even try to keep them as pets but more interestingly, many locals I have talked to, go from one extreme, which is being annoyed by the iguanas, to the other extreme which is “delicious,” it tastes like chicken."
My husband slammed on the breaks as he too remembered that very passage. "Oh my god, we just ate Iguana Soup" he cried. He ran to the back, opened the trunk, and frantically rifled through his suitcase until he found the pepto bismol. He got back in the car and drove in silent horror for a few miles, while I was laughing so hard I couldn't catch my breath long enough to ask how he was feeling.
Luckily as we climbed into the mountains, the views helped to distract us, until another Iguana ran out in front of us. Yes, they do taste like Chicken. And yes, my Spanish is still bad enough to get us in trouble. I seemed to have missed the Spanish word for "Jungle" in front of Polo.