"Every planet has its own weird customs. About a year before we met, I spent six weeks on a moon where the principal form of recreation was juggling geese. My hand to God. Baby geese - goslings! They were juggled."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Things I eat

Living on a different continent than the one I grew up on has me eating some pretty strange stuff, and I'm a vegetarian. I don't have to deal with roasted guinea pigs, blood soup, or chicken claws. And I don't eat eggs (family didn't eat them growing up), plus cheese is rarely eaten here. So all that's left are the innocent vegetable, fruit, and grain families.


Not so easy when you're me.

I'm a really picky eater. That's one of the many reasons I don't eat meat - I don't want to find gristle or bone or whatever in my food and suddenly realize I'm eating the flesh of another creature. No thanks! I also grew up in the Midwest, so it was meat and potatoes (and sometimes corn or green beans) for most days, pizza for the others. We weren't super adventurous until recently. I didn't eat fruit (ever). A strange incident in Mexico led me to hate avocados. Almost needless to say, I relish cooking my own food and I'm often perfectly happy eating the same dinner over and over again because it's not scary. I drank water with every meal, and it was the only drink I ever drank.

But now I'm here. And I don't need the Peace Corps Core Expectation to tell me that I need to be flexible and eat what's put in front of me; that's just a kindness I expect myself to take with respect to my host. It's ridiculously difficult though, more than I ever thought.

As I write this, I've just reached 100 days of being in Ecuador. That's 100 days of eating everything my hosts put in front of my face. My first host family didn't shock me too much right away. They themselves are mostly vegetarian, only eating the occassional chicken piece or tilapia fillet, so it was easy accommodating me. Each meal (breakfast and dinner) came with juice that was almost always filtered for pulp. I was happiest when they let me pour my own so I'd only give myself half a cup, but if they poured the cup full, I'd drink it dutifully (though very slowly). What's extra strange is these weren't fruits I was even familiar with: guava, guayaba, maracuya, babaco, tomate de arbol, mora, etc., all quite strange. My first family recognized right away that I don't need to eat a lot to be perfectly functional, full of energy and completely satiated. So I was usually able to eat the only (one) plate of food. Most of the time I ate rice, but it was a manageable portion. And sometimes they made carne vegetal, a delicious gluten meat substitute. My favorite breakfast was two pieces of toast with a slice of campo cheese and tomato on top on each.

And then we became volunteers and went off to our permanent sites, hugging our first families goodbye so we could start all over again with the awkward initial stage of adjustment.

It's day 20 now. The last 20 days, I've been eating everything my host feeds me - breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Every day, and usually three times a day, there's an issue with the amount of food she feeds me. She gives me too much.

Breakfast: Mountain of rice, mountain of french fries (and/or radishes), toasted bread with butter, a juice, coffee.

Lunch: Soup with potatoes, mountain of rice, mountain of fries or beans or lentils or etc., juice.

Dinner: Soup with potatoes, mountain of rice, mountain of fries or beans or lentils or whatever, bread with butter, juice, tea.

I have not once been able to eat everything she serves me. I came close once. At dinner, I was able to drink both the juice and tea, and clean the soup bowl, and eat the bread, and eat most of the veggies and a lot of the rice. I beamed proudly until she came over to take away the dishes and exclaimed, "You didn't eat anything! You're going to die of hunger!"

That's her favorite phrase. At first I countered it with things like, "No, I've lived 26 years eating like this and I'm doing fine so far," or "I have a small stomach, it's not possible for me to eat so much," or the biggest mistake ever, "You give me too much food."

But the mountains of food kept coming. Eventually I stopped listing those previous excuses and adopted, "I'm not hungry," or "I don't feel well," which is true because if I eat any more I'll throw it up.

Just the past few days, I've noticed I'm being served less rice and there's been less butter on my bread. I've come close to eating everything, but I still wish I'd get only half a soup bowl. Or no soup. No matter how hard I try and no matter how good she makes it (it's always good), I can't get used to it. In the U.S., I eat soup only on special occasions or when I'm sick. Here I have it two times a day. And unfortunately, my host uses chicken bullion to spice it up. My host knows perfectly well I don't eat meat - I even shy away from soups that ever had meat in them - but she doesn't consider chicken bullion to be meat. So despite every moral fiber in me screaming to toss that soup out the window, I eat it. I figure she already sacrifices a lot for me and to say I don't want bullion in the soup is probably asking way too much. I'm actually sure it is (and that's why I haven't asked her).

Mmmm, my homemade, handmade honey wheat bread toasted and drizzled with vegan butter. Oh, how I miss it. The only bread I ever find here is very strange indeed. It's always a roll, and always toasted flat on a skillet and sliced in half with a chunk of campo cheese or butter inside. It's the same everywhere. It's ok, just not what I would eat in the U.S. It's the only time now that I get cheese, and I don't mind it so much but I don't like it much either. It's a salty, creamy, sort of rubbery flubbery cheese and it's really the only type you can find here. So while my colleagues are missing their sharp cheddars, mozzarellas, provalones and the like from back home, I'm doing perfectly well. Giving up all animal products for a year was hard for the first month, but after that, I lost all taste for cheese. Literally, I can't taste it. Not like I used to. So I don't miss it.

And of course, every meal comes with juice. So far I think she's made strawberry juice, mora juice (like a blackberry, freshly collected up the mountain), babaco juice, and papaya juice. I love berries, so mora is my absolute favorite. A close second is strawberry juice, which is surprising because all my life strawberries were in the 'disgusting' category, so much so I couldn't even stand the smell of them. I just had babaco, and it was fine. But my least favorite of all is papaya. And probably just because of the texture and appearance. It looks like a neon orange cup of goo, thick as syrup.

The main course is usually quite innocuous aside from an overabundance of rice. I often get a slice of avocado (guess what, I love them now), and I absolutely love it when my host makes french fries. Even stranger, I love to dip them in mayonnaise (even when I have ketchup available to me). I don't know what it is about it, but that stuff's amazing on fries. But today I was reflecting on what was both my lunch and dinner: col morado, which means purple cabbage, but it's not like any cabbage I've ever known. It's chopped up, boiled, and served with lemon or lime juice and salt. But it looks like candle wax, dripped piece by piece into cold water. It's a little crunchy, but not at all leafy. I like it.

One of my favorite foods here, ever, is choclo on the cob. It's the Ecuadorian version of corn, but in my opinion it's not really anything like corn. It's whitish and the kernels are a bit bigger, and creamier and tougher than corn is. I actually find it kind of hard to nibble away an entire cob, especially so because the kernels are easier to pick off than they are on corn. But I noticed something funny - while I gnaw off the kernels with my teeth, my host picks them off with her fingers one by one. I heard from many other volunteers that they don't like choclo. Crazy talk. I love the stuff.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Wait for a bit, you´ll get cake

Let me share a story with you, a classic Peace Corps tale.

The other day, I was locked in my house. Yes, in. And I was also locked out of the kitchen. And my host left for three days. And all volunteers in Ecuador were in standfast for those exact three days (not allowed to leave site).

I crawled out of bed at the all-too-early hour of 5:30 a.m. to find my host before she left for Riobamba, but I was too late. She left just before I woke up, and put the padlock on the outer gate. Well, that sucks. Guess I'm not going for any walks until Sunday. I turn to the kitchen to go make breakfast and there too is a padlock. Uh oh.

I waited a little while to call my host because she was probably in a dead cell phone area, but when I did, she could still barely hear me and me her. I said anyway that I was locked inside and locked out of the kitchen, I didn't have the keys, but I didn't know if it got through. I went back downstairs and searched for the keys, but confunded, I just stood there staring at the kitchen door longingly when her cousin walked up and unlocked the outer gate. Horray! I'm free! Oh, but he doesn't have the kitchen key. I handed him the phone to call my host, and she said she gave me the keys last night. Which she most definitely didn't. It was unclear what would happen.

But by that time, normal human waking hours, my program manager got in contact with me to help and called my host. My host said the same thing, but she'd send her son to give me the keys.

So I kicked back, relaxed, tried not to think about eating. My supplies were:

-1 liter carbonated water plus water disinfectant tablets for the outhouse tap
-2 half full (or half empty?) peanut butters
-an orange sucker
-2 packets of 2 crackers each
-1 packet of mora jelly
-1 container of nutrional yeast (it's a vegan thing)
-1 tub of honey
-Lots of spices. Yuumm, spices
-1 bottle of orange Pedialyte
-Tub of powdered soy milk
-2 packets of 2 cookies each

So I'd be ok. Not exactly happy or satiated for three days, but ok. Maybe a neighbor would feed me too? I munched on peanut butter and nutrional yeast and honey and waited. Breakfast was long over, lunch passed, and by 2 p.m. I was getting worried. I started imaging how I'd find some food... I knew where some mora berry bushes were, that sounded kind of nice. There's always the cuyes and rooster and rabbits... hmmm. Not nearly that desperate.

I texted my program manager again, but just then, my host arrived by bus and thrust one of those oh-so Ecuadorian gray garbage can-looking fast food pails full of rice, salad, and fries, still a little warm, into my hands. I gobbled it up. And in her very motherly way, she presented her typical overabundance of food (coffee, juice, toasted bread with butter, choclo on the cob, etc.). I kid you not, as I write these lines, my host just brought me up a huge piece of cake for Mother's Day. Being motherly on Mother's Day, well done.

My host maintained I had the keys and I'm 100% certain I never got them. She went to look for them while I ate, and called me out. There was the kitchen key, under the outside stairs and under a bag, looking like they were very deliberately placed there on a pedestal. She asked the Spanish equivilant of "What exactly do you make of that??" and I responded that the rooster must have done it. It seems plausible enough if both of us believe the other had the key.

It's a lesson in one of the best pieces of Peace Corps advice I ever received: If things are crappy, like you're fully convinced you want to ET and go home tomorrow, just wait a day. Even just a few hours; things will be fine. A great big double rainbow will stretch across the valley, children will surround you and oo and ah at your fantastic knitting project and your host will make you french fries. And that actually happened.

But then the next day, a party across the street will keep you awake the entire night (it ended at 7:30 a.m.). At least there's cake. See? Just wait.