That feeling that the conversation has already happened. I already bumped my head on the glass mixing bowl drip, drip, drying on the rack. “Shit” already flew out of your mouth as your hand touched the cast-iron pan I can feel from arms length away. The moment in time – was it weeks, or months? – when I rolled over in bed and shook the activity of my dreams out of my head, fell back asleep, woke later without a trace of what had been, until it happened again, today.
Some people call it déjà vu. Sometimes it might even be. But sometimes – often times – it has already happened.
I tell people this. Or at least, I used to. I told you, one time, remember? You chortled and I think a shred of green roughage even fell from your mouth. It’s usually that, or maybe a half-smile and a nod – a gesture to placate the absurd. Or maybe you think I’m making it up, faking it, raking for attention with make-believe scenarios and hippy dippy hocus-pocus.
But really, it doesn’t matter. Does it?
To me, it is so true. It is maybe the truest thing. And also, these moments, these repeated moments of perfect simplicity, normalcy, that I dreamed before they ever happened, before you and I were “you and I” but just “you” and “I,” they are the moments I know – I have arrived. I am living the dream – my dream – that my deepest self dared not even think while awake. In these moments (the blurry double vision of your hand on red-hot black and the double wave of your shh shhhits crashing into my ears) my soul settles against yours, the dream and the reality merge, fate having delivered you to me and me to you to “you and I.”
There’s a great butcher here in Bernal Heights, Avedano’s Holly Park Market. Every time I pop in I get so excited to see the fresh lamb, goat, rabbit, duck, pork, etc. on display. We had our first lunch guests a few weeks ago, and so it seemed like a perfect excuse to finally make duck.
I bought two breasts and two legs, but once I arrived home I realized I had way too much for four people. I made the breasts for lunch; they were good.
But then, the next day I prepared the legs. Divine. We had a few ripe figs in the fridge, some good quality balsamic vinegar, and voila, duck legs like I didn’t even know I was capable of.
Heat an iron skillet to medium. While the skillet is heating, slice the skin on the legs, but don’t cut all the way to the meat. Add just enough olive oil to the skillet to cover the bottom. Once the oil is slick, put in the legs, less meaty side down, and cook for 3-5 minutes. Turn the legs over and cook for 2 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar and continue too cook for another 3 minutes, spooning the sauce over the duck. Add the fig quarters and stir to coat with the balsamic glaze. Remove from heat after another 2-3 minutes. Savor every last bite.
I love whoopie pies. They’ve been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. What’s not to love, really? Chocolate? Frosting? Puh-lease.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived in CA and people looked at me as though I were sputtering absurdities, probably put off by the word “whoopie.” Apparently there are no whoopie pies on the west coast.
I vaguely remember hearing the history of whoopie pies - invented by fishermen’s wives in New England as a way for the gents to bring a sweet treat with them that wouldn’t get ruined in their lunch pail. Yup, tasty AND handy. Whoopie pies = perfection.
I decided I needed to bake whoopie pies. I did some searching for recipes and found a few that looked good. (Who knew that the frosting is made out of marshmallow fluff?! Yet another thing that the west coast is missing out on.) Here’s the recipe I finally decided on:
Disclaimer: this is really, really cheesy.
I guess there are actually only seven lessons I learned in Ecuador, and the longer I am back in the States, the more clear this last lesson becomes. In many ways I was very independent. I went to college far from my family and once I graduated I was financially independent. I traveled alone. I lived in Brooklyn and was in a Ph.D. program as a 22 year old. But I let myself believe these instances of independence transferred to all areas of my life.
The reality of it was that in high school, college, and grad school I was filled with typical (and terrible) girl/young woman insecurities. I depended upon the opinions of others to tell me how I should feel about myself. I was never happy with my body, and so I believed the teenage boys who called me “thunder-thighs” and the middle school friend who said I was too heavy to fit into her clothes (I wasn’t, I have photographic proof). I didn’t know if I was actually smart, or just really good at tricking people into thinking I was intelligent. Yeah, like I said, typical, yet terrible.
In Ecuador, I spent a lot of time by myself. I was almost completely cut off from my support network of family and friends. Especially at first, I could only communicate rudimentarily in my clumsy Spanish. I ate whatever food I wanted, often alone. I read whatever books I felt like. Ecuadoreans, having a very different “ideal” for women’s bodies, always said I was too thin and should eat more so that I would look like a woman. There’s a line from some Julia Roberts movie about how she never knew how she liked her eggs cooked. It’s so cheesy, so cliché, but I found out how I like to eat my eggs (over easy, sometimes hard boiled). I discovered that I am happy and healthy at 142 lbs, exercising regularly and eating healthily.
I also had a relationship in Ecuador. It was unlike any other I’d had before, but then, aren’t they always? It was intense and there was a lot of love and learning, but I also put up with things that I had never even imagined. I learned where my personal boundaries are and that cultural differences can only explain away so much of what I perceived to be bad behavior.
I was robbed and attacked. I slaughtered animals and ate intestines. And worms. And monkey. I learned to make jokes in Spanish. I drove a 4-wheel drive truck on washed out dirt tracks through the Andes. I climbed volcanoes. I got homesick. I danced a lot. I did interviews and collected data. I wrote a dissertation. At the end of it all, I have a strong faith in myself, and not because other people do. I’ve been to hell and back and above the clouds and back again, and when Ecuador ended, I was really just beginning.
Not all of the lessons I learned in Ecuador were pleasant and my time there wasn’t all fiestas and mariposas. As I’ve mentioned, I lived in Brooklyn for nearly 5 years before I left to do field work. Before that, I was in college in rural South Carolina, and before that, a kid in the middle of New Hampshire. During all that time, I was never robbed. I was never attacked. No one ever hit me. I had never felt violated, physically or emotionally. I walked around New York City like it was the imagination station (an AMAZING playground in Gilford, NH), not paying the least bit of attention to my surroundings and trusting no one was going to bother me. I was never in the minority, I was consistently told I could (as a girl, then woman) do anything I set my mind to, and I had many relationships filled with trust and respect. In a nutshell, I lived in a very insulated, safe world.
I had heard Ecuador was dangerous, of course, and I took precautions. I didn’t go out at night alone after dark (much). I took taxis home. I used a small purse whenever possible and only carried the cash that I would need in a day, maybe one credit card, a copy of my passport, a $20 cell phone, and chap stick. Basically, I knew to only carry what I could afford to have stolen.
In a lot of ways, I was incredibly lucky, at least for a while. I was never robbed while backpacking in Latin America, nor for the first four months living in Ecuador. In fact, it was probably because of this luck that I got a bit complacent and let my guard down. And BAM – one night out at a restaurant I turned around in my chair to get my phone from my purse on the seat behind me and… there was no purse. A few months later I took the Ecovia (Quito’s trolley) to the FLACSO campus, where I went to the café and ordered a coffee to have while I was working. I reached into my bag and fished all around until I saw my hand come out the side-bottom and realized the bag had been cut and the walled (and my laptop charger) had been extracted by a quick reach in. These instances were annoying, but not scary.
Then there was the time my backpack was stolen. Or the time my pickup truck was stolen, only to be recovered an hour later (were there ever even thieves? Or just dirty cops looking to make some money on a gringa, see below). The worst, though, was my last day in Ecuador. I had gone to the beach with my dear friend, Lauren, and we took an overnight bus back to Quito. We arrived at the bus station in the center of town at 6.30am. There were many taxi drivers hoarding around the doors of the bus, trying to coax us into their cars but charging ridiculous prices. We decided to walk to the corner to flag down a “real” taxi. I saw a group of men up the street walking in out direction and we called to the taxi drivers a little over a block away to come to us, but they didn’t. I turned around and the three men were upon us, running. I turned and fled, stepping up on to the curb in my flip flop and breaking the arch of my foot, falling to the ground. I turned around and a man was on top of me, pressing me down on the dirty pavement. My hand thrashed out and my right fingernail touched the bloodshot raw oyster of his eye and scraped his face. I, a helpless turtle flipped on my backpack shell, squirmed and struggled to free myself from him and from the bag. I finally got the backpack out from under me and he fled with it. I stood up and turned to see Lauren standing with a blank face. It was only then I realized it was my own voice that had been screaming throughout the infinitely long 10 seconds.
Until that moment, I had felt ambivalent about leaving Ecuador. After that encounter, I knew I had to leave. I was so angry and scared. I couldn’t leave Lauren’s apartment for the rest of the day because I was afraid of every person, every flag and banner that rustled in the breeze, every shadow made by the equatorial sun. But I didn’t – and don’t – want to be a bitter person, suspicious of everyone. So, I boarded my plane and came home.
Being robbed and the complete physical violation I felt were not the only ways in which I learned to not trust people. In Ecuador, there was a strange acceptance of lying. It was considered normal for people to lie to each other – about things both big and small. Some of this was in a joking manner, some quite serious. I thought about this a lot while I was there, and even more when I came home. Because, we tell lies here in the US, too. The difference is, it’s not nearly as accepted here as appropriate behavior. So, we work much harder to ensure our lies don’t get exposed. I’m still not sure which I prefer. In fact, let me be honest, I prefer the truth.
And then, there was being a gringa. In Latin America gringa/o is a slang-ish term for a white person. While it kind of implies an American, it is used for anyone who is obviously not latina/o. It’s a name that is usually used disparagingly, loaded with colonial and imperial implications. It can also be used in an affectionate tone, as my friends often called me the gringuita in the same way you might call a beloved but unruly child “little monster.” But most of the time, gringa was hurled at me as an insult in an effort to make me feel like an outsider. Sometimes it was only a piece of a larger title, “la gringuita de la CIA” (gringuita from the CIA). Gringa/o also implies a person with money. This was especially difficult for me because I was a graduate student while in Ecuador, living on a very small research, then writing, grant. Of course, compared to most Ecuadoreans, my family is fabulously wealthy (middle class in the USA). Because people in Ecuador share money amongst family members and think nothing of it, there was an assumption that my “rich” parents would give me money if I asked. The result of this is that people were constantly asking me for “loans,” sometimes for clearly bogus reasons, sometimes for very serious things, like surgeries. It was a very strange position to be in to never be sure if someone liked me the person I am and the work I was doing, or because they saw dollar signs woven into my blonde locks. Most of the time, I think it was a little bit of both.
Being a gringa, rather than a gringo (male), was also significant. Machismo and sexism are serious challenges in Latin America (as they continue to be in the US and the world). Unwanted attention from men was a daily occurrence. I quickly learned that most of this attention was about trying to “conquer” a gringa, who hopefully also had money. Talk about having good reason not to trust one half of the people with whom I came into contact. The obviousness of the motivations of these men for pursuing me really opened my eyes and made me think about feminism (which I had always professed to espouse). The absurdity of the situation highlighted the extent to which I had consistently craved male attention to feel worthy, beautiful, smart, thing, etc., etc., rather than simply know these things to be true. As much as I claimed to be a feminist, I wasn’t actually. It took me being objectified – quite literally turned into a gringa object – to claim myself for myself.
Every person has an infinite amount of love and light to share, I’m sure of it. But we find ourselves in strange contexts facing circumstances, often unfathomable. We all are capable of doing terrible things, even to people we love. I guess now I live my life kind of how I used to pack my purse. I put it all out there, love, happiness, peace, energy, effort, kindness, sweat, you name it – but only as much as I know I could live without. The rest I keep inside behind some invisible boundaries, safely stored away for the moment I begin to doubt humanity – or myself – so I can dig deep, find my peace, and know I will be ok.