Community of Communion & the Chinese Food that Wasn’t

Circa August, 2015

Santa Elena, a neighboring town, was in the midst of a 10-day festival honoring — you guessed it — Saint Elena. Our two boys and I were at the carnival erected in front of what was called the new Catholic Church. The new church had an expansive, metal roof but at this point had only a dirt floor and tall walls comprised of short styrofoam blocks housed in thin metal wire. The wire-enclosed blocks extended down from the sides of the tall roof, forming 30+ foot tall, waving walls. The intention was to continue fundraising efforts via vehicles, such as the carnival, that would eventually provide enough money to finish construction.

The carnival had three rides: a large boat that was raised into the sky on a single arm; a spinning wheel of death which also ended up at a higher elevation, though at an angle and at 40 mph to encourage nausea; and, finally, bumper cars. The boys were big, big fans of the bumper cars. They also liked spinning nausea, but felt the elevated boat was, well, beneath them.

We quickly went through the first bag of chips I’d purchased at the 18-wheeler trailer that served as the ticket office. Each ride cost 1,000 Colones – less than $2 per person, per ride. I was less concerned about the burn rate than I was about the long term maladies I might suffer from the repeated abuse I was receiving on the bumper cars and the wheel of nausea.

All of the rides had been elevated above the muddy terrain by a makeshift series of logs and boards bolted, and in some cases tied, beneath them. This tribute to impromptu engineering in the face of some significant torque was oddly matched with the requirement that I share the car with our youngest as he was deemed too small to safely ride solo. Yes, the spinning wheel of death might become unbalanced on the logs driven into the mud and send us into a very brief orbit, but if this came to pass we’d be doing it together.

For the bumper car experience I had to squeeze into the small, seemingly never-washed car and, per the instructions of my diminutive companion, not touch anything so he could feel like he controlled the action from his even smaller perch on my lap. There were no seat-belts and, since I wasn’t allowed to touch the steering wheel nor brace for impact via the gas pedal, I was just 230 pounds of bouncing ballast.

After another 30 minutes of back pain and nausea I called for a break in favor of a trip inside the church to get food. We left the carnival area and headed inside the almost-walled church. Immediately there was a whole different vibe, partially because no one was hitting me with a bumper car, but mostly because there were more people than I knew existed in this area sitting on plastic chairs listening to a very somber sermon.

I hissed at the boys to remain quiet and we walked around the edge of the foam walled area to get to the back, where a number of picnic tables had been set up in front of the kitchen area. We’d been here a few days before and had eaten an amazing meal. Tonight was “China Night” and my mouth was already watering at the fully-stocked buffet warming under dim lights. This was the closest I’d been to Chinese food in over a month.

I smiled warmly at the collection of people seated at the food ticket table, but no one smiled back at me. That seemed odd for Ticos, but with oversized fried wontons staring at me from behind the steamy glass, I pushed forward and threw in an “hola” for effect.

This time I dd get a reaction from the guy seated directly behind the cash box. He said a lot of things — in Spanish — but had perfected the local art practiced by many men in the area of not moving his mouth or attempting to enunciate so I was only able to offer my blank, stupid face in reply. After an awkward pause one of the younger girls seated next to fast-talker took pity on me and chimed in and said, in English, “We’re not serving food until the service is over.”

I apologized profusely and asked how long the service normally runs.

“Seis y media.”

I took comfort in this estimate based on the fact that it was already 6:20. Surely we could manage to wait for 10 – 15 minutes.

About a half hour later, after many false-starts at what appeared to be the conclusion of the service (hugging neighbors, singing standing up, singing seated, etc.), the priest pulled out one of the biggest bibles I’ve ever seen and, with a seemingly arbitrary flair, flipped it open somewhere in the middle and began to read aloud.

My oldest son, who had done quite a bit better than my youngest with waiting (he’s NOT the one on the floor making dirt angels) looked up at me — dismay in his eyes — and said “Daddy, he’s not going to read that whole book is he?”

As it turned out, the priest did indeed try to read the whole book. At 7:15, the bible still open before him, he declared it time for everyone to line up for communion, and everyone in the giant room did indeed line up. It was now officially obvious that this sincere, devoted congregation was a lot more worried about their service and related worship than they were about our access to egg rolls.

I picked my youngest up off the ground, dusted off part of the dirt, and drug them both around the lengthy, slow-moving line of those waiting for communion so that we could rejoin the carnival and its three food carts to binge on cotton candy, candy corn and churros. The elongated waiting, the sugary dinner and the late hour (the boys routinely got up at 5:00 a.m. for no reason so any time after 7:00 was now officially late) led to bickering and a tearful ride home.

It would be many more months before I tasted Chinese food again. We did not return to the carnival that year, and if it’s up to me we’ll skip it this coming year in favor of a donation to the church, homemade fried rice and twirling the boys in circles in our yard until all involved are nauseous (all much more direct routes to the same destination).