Friday, October 3, 2014

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away by Richard Brautigan. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. West With the Night by Beryl Markyhm. Madame Bovary by Gustauve Flaubert. Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybeck. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Those are my top ten. For now.

I didn't have easy access to the internet or TV in Honduras. I panicked before going and found a way to pack ten paperback books into my one suitcase for the year but when I arrived, I was soon consoled. There was a library in my house filled with twenty years of visitors' books. It was there I found Margaret Atwood, Dorothy Day, Jhumpa Lahiri. Female voices that made me wonder why I spent so long reading stories by old, white men.

My list is nothing compared to the book suggestions of Junot Diaz. Lily Stockman (here and here) has a list I'd like to make my way through as well.

Right now though I'm mostly reading issues of the New Yorker and last week I stumbled on Meghan Daum's essay "Difference Maker". It reminded me of what I love most in good writing; things that seem confessional but in the end, as the writer points out in an interview, are often "attempting something much more nuanced and generous, something outward-looking rather than navel-gazing." She has a collection of essays coming out in November (!!).

And to follow in the theme of females and essay writing, my heart fluttered a bit when I stumbled upon Vela magazine, an online magazine publishing female voices in long form. I hope to spend some of my weekend printing out a handful of those essays (because I just can't read longer essays on a screen nor do I want to) and enjoying my first fall in two years.

Pictured above: the messy but abundant volunteer library

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I arrived early to a job interview on Friday (yes, it's been six months since I've returned from Honduras and I'm still job searching) and while the trees were bursting with oranges and reds, the weather spoke more of summer. The place where I was interviewing was located on the outskirts of Humboldt Park, a 207 acre park in West Chicago. I've ridden my bike through it before and driven through on my way to Logan Square but never spent much time sitting in its grasses, walking through the pathways.

I have lived in Chicago for four years and am not well versed in urban planning but I have seen the city develop and transform since I first came. Logan Square, an area where I spent plenty of time during college, went from being largely Hispanic to now, not as much. It's now the site for Chicago's version of the High Line, also Chicago's first urban orchard. An old market and bazaar selling cheap goods was recently sold and is now part of a $100 million dollar development plan for apartments and grocery stores. Neighborhoods change quickly in a city; not always for the better but not always for the worse either and yes, grocery stores do seem like a good idea.

I can see that Humboldt Park, on the outskirts of Logan Square, is on the cusp, beginning to develop in the same way. The large park that sits in the middle of the neighborhood is filled with flower gardens, a lagoon, soccer fields, domino tables, an art gallery, prairies and food trucks (selling nothing artisanal; just fried chicken under heat lamps). Realistically this makes the neighborhood ripe and appealing for the young, urban dwelling upper class. But it's also impressive as it is now, especially after reading Jane Jacobs this summer and realizing just how hard it is to make successful, diversified parks in lower income neighborhoods; parks that act as an asset to a community rather than an empty spot that depresses and further emphasizes danger (example, here). 

I like the idea of urban orchards but I also want cultural diversity too so I have no hard stance on the matter. I just find hope in the steel structures on the Paseo Boricua, the two Puerto Rican flags that were erected on both ends of the neighborhood's main street meant to showcase the neighborhood's pride and cement it into the ground. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

This is not a food blog. I'm not sure what it is. The most I can decipher is that it's a blog of my thoughts interjected with quotes from authors who say it better than I. But I read a lot about the subject of local food and follow food blogs and also eat, you know, three times a day so I guess it's inevitable that the subject of food comes up every now and then.

Before moving to Honduras, I was of the ilk that tried to clear their life best they could of environmentally harmful practices. I nannied for a family who did the same. They fed their son out of glass containers. His toys were stuffed or wooden because the idea of a child exposed to plastic seemed unhealthy. I have no problem with this. As Barbara Kingsolver says in the book that spurred this post, "It is the worst of bad manners ... to ridicule the small gesture."

But then I went to Honduras, where the orphanage I worked at fed 450 mouths out of plastic bowls, plates and cups everyday. It hit me suddenly. There are more harmful things than a plastic bowl. These kids were exposed to a myriad of other dangers, and what's worse than eating out of plastic is having no food to fill the plate in the first place.  

The two worlds have different dilemmas and different decisions to face obviously but I realized that a dose of reality -- rather a year of reality -- was good for a little perspective.

As part of my job last year, I took photos of the organization's services so that fundraisers could use the images for various marketing materials. I received a nutrition request asking for photos of the children when they were eating a meal. One of my favorite photos of the bunch was of a girl named Escarlet when she was taking a bite from her lunch. While editing, I began to focus on the plate she was eating from and realized that fundraisers would see something they might not like: that lunch for the day was just rice, broth and a lime.

That's eating local for you. All of the organization's produce and meat were raised onsite. Milk and cheese came from the ranch's cows, bread and tortillas were made daily. It wasn't certified organic but the farm never overutilized antibiotics or pesticides, which is not the case for most of Honduras' unregulated produce. But due to the sheer amount of mouths the organization needed to feed and lack of international funding, sometimes eating from the farm's bounty meant eating sopa (at timesjust another name for rice and broth). Veggies would float around there if you were lucky.

On very special celebrations like Easter, we had beans, platanos, avocado, cheese, eggs, tortillas. A bit oily but still, a feast for the eyes and stomach. The organization was doing everything they could to improve the diet but even that came with unforeseen difficulties. Some of the children went up to Guatemala for a soccer tournament and came home complaining about how gross the black beans were (in Honduras, pinto beans were the norm) so you can see how western suggestions like salads for lunch were never too popular.

Cooking is extremely personal to a culture so I never really fought that. I ended up learning a lot from cooking down there that I never expected. One learns most from frugality, and I learned that pancakes, crepes, tortillas, bread, pizza dough, cakes all were accessible to me as a cook because there was never a shortage of flour. I also realized how much eating locally makes sense in terms of climatology. Up north, tomatoes are wonderful in the summer as are greens in the spring and hearty kale and winter squash in the winter. On the other hand, pineapple, bananas, mangoes, papayas tasted heavenly in that Central American heat. 

I'm fortunate that I have enough food on my plate to worry about where it comes from. I'm also glad that before all of that preoccupied me fully, I was taken away from western food concerns and learned how wonderful it is just to have beans alongside your rice.

Pictured above: the rice and broth soup; an Easter feast

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

From an early age, probably due to too much Wendell Berry and a hippie of a brother, I have wanted to get my hands in the soil. It's a commonplace, romanticized notion these days but then again, when hasn't it been?

At sixteen, I spent a month on a trail crew, where I weeded, stripped logs and cleaned up roadside trash in the same national park where an isolated Kerouac once lived on a 6,000 foot peak. After studying in Spain, I went to Nazano, Italy for three weeks to work on an organic farm and after college, the itch still tingled underneath the skin so I headed away from the city, down to Honduras. Although not my first country of choice, I was convinced to go after hearing that the place where I would be working was situated on 2,000 acres of property with a self-sustaining farm and garden.

In all of my well-intentioned but futile attempts at country living, I've come away with very little knowledge on how to actually grow anything. I tried growing herbs (herbs!) from seed last year that never yielded anything that I could use in a kitchen. In Italy, I harvested zucchinis but mostly worked busing tables on the weekend when the farm's restaurant needed extra hands (and mostly just indulged in the house's expresso machine and the homemade tiramasu in the fridge). It took me a year in Honduras before my friend and I finally hunted down one of the farm hands and told him we wanted to milk a cow before we left for the States. The 22-year-old who helped us couldn't help but chuckle when I talked of my dreams of one day being a granjera.

I do, however, feel plenty confident in my ability to climb mango and guayaba trees and come away with a shirt full of fresh fruit. There's an art to it, I swear.

I'm now about to move into an apartment that doesn't have a yard or even a balcony. I have some succulents and a purple heart for greenery and a dream that next summer, I can spend Sundays at an urban garden learning how its done. I mean, I was never one to learn Spanish from textbooks. The concepts clear on the page were never fully digested until I actually had to speak Spanish everyday for a year. And the same goes for vegetable gardening; a seemingly simple endeavor, I just don't think I'll ever learn until I get my hands in that soil.

Monday, August 18, 2014

 Always, always dreaming of Mexico City but for now, I guess this little pocket of Chicago will do.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In one’s mind, the end product always appears monumental; the work of art one always knew they had in them. But as always, the process is messier than that.

I remember there was a moment while studying in college, where I was also working, writing a short story collection, and editing the college’s literary magazine, that I realized my only time for reflection was in the 20 minutes on the bus from Roscoe to Fullerton. Woe is me, I thought, for being too busy to let my mind wander. But really, I was a bit nostalgic about my younger years where my only preoccupation was thinking of what I’ll do once out of the suburbs.

That lasted very shortly because I’ve come around to favor the latter option. Being busy trumps indulging in a musing, which in short, is why I made the decision, however disinclined, to write in this space. No, people do not need to be kept at the screen any longer, but I can’t stomach wanting to publish my writing; I just have to do it in whatever medium is available to me at the moment.

In its own way, the same goes for why I flew to Seattle last weekend. After returning from Honduras, I was faced with idle time and accordingly, a slight feeling of uselessness so I decided to organize a fundraiser with my fellow ex-volunteers. I flew to meet up with the group in Seattle and on Saturday, we collectively ran 91.2 miles and raised $10,000 for the orphanage I spent my time at last year.

You would think the highlight of the weekend would be celebrating how much money we raised or the moment I crossed the finish line but really the highlight was dancing to Prince Royce in the kitchen with my ex-volunteers as we made banana pancakes, rhubarb compote and coffee.

And that’s because as Shonda Rhimes says in her Dartmouth acceptance speech that I loved every word of, the end product never ends up as you imagined. But that is just as important, more admirable, more impressive than achieving the ideal. In the end, it’s all about the work. The aim is usually just a superficial expectation that springs up from the reverie and more often than not, springs up from too much time on social media (which always seems to conceal hard work).

As Beryl Markham says in West With the Night, "Work and hope. But never hope more than you work."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Paul Theroux wrote the most apt descriptions of Central America in his 1979 book “The Patagonian Express”, most all of which still hold true today, especially this line that seems to sum it up pretty curtly: “El Salvador deserves to be serene but it is not.”

I am reminded of this sifting through the daily editorials and reports on the flood of Central American children coming through the border (overwhelmingly Honduran). A similar gut feeling that sat in my stomach reading Theroux’s words return to me when I read a Chicago Tribune editorial that begs the question, “When has there not been violence and poverty in Central America?”

Amidst these countries of undeveloped cloud forests, unscathed jungles and protected coral reefs is a lot of loss. Loss that I don’t know if people ever recover from. 

Traveling in Central America in general was kind of like my trip to Guasale, the border town I had to go through on my way to Nicaragua. The travel guide warned that one didn’t want to spend much time in Guasale but my friends and I had just endured a sweaty bus ride through southern Honduras that lasted five hours too long and we were hungry. We found a comedor (or you know, someone’s house) which sold us lunch and so we ended up staying to eat a two dollar meal. The cook’s three year old son talked to us in between his Dora episodes and chickens pecked at the ground by our feet and there, we ended up eating the best meal of our trip. 

Accordingly, travel in Central America is rarely recommended (as my Dad let me know, Honduras wound up on the travel advisory section of the paper quite often during my year there) but it is surprisingly delightful where you least expect it.

El Salvador has its surfers, Nicaragua has its buzz (coined the new “Costa Rica”) and Guatemala its language learners, which left Honduras to me.

Rarely did I meet another gringo and if I did then most likely we had mutual contacts. Mostly I was packed shoulder to shoulder on buses with locals. On one bus ride from Tegucigalpa to where I lived in Honduras, a man selling rosquillas sat down next to me. He knew a little bit of English (“I live eight years in States – two kids there”). After spending hours on buses, I welcomed conversation from people I probably should have best avoided. He, for example, confessed that two of his years in the States were spent in prison.

He moved on from me, walking toward the front of the bus to sell his cornbread biscuits that are somehow a delicacy in Central America. By the time he made it back, I had a new woman sitting next to me, and he was out of his rosquillas. “Gracias a Dios, se acabรณ,” he said. Thank God his work for the day was done, he sighed, wiping his hands.

The lady turned to me, “Primero, Dios. Despues, nosotros.” I laughed, perhaps one of the first times I understood something clever in Spanish and perhaps because it’s a wonderful statement all the same. Thank God first, she joked, then thank us.

I really wonder if in my lifetime I'll see Honduras rise up from its third world barriers. As Katherine Boo writes in Behind the Beautiful Foreversher novel about an Indian family living in a Mumbai slum, "If a house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?" Perhaps pessimistic but I don't think it was written to be discouraging; instead to help put things in perspective, inspire some compassion, to say one should have a little sympathy for these children because so much is stacked against them from the start. And from what I've seen in Honduras, there are people down there who are not discouraged by a shaky foundation, who think building what you can even if it cannot endure the rainy season is better than giving up, calling it a day and saying a banana leaf will do.

If things change for our neighbors south of the border, which I hope they do, I suppose God is to thank. And next, the people who made that change happen. 

Pictured above: Copan Ruinas, Honduras; Volcan Pacaya, Guatemala; Ometepe, Nicaragua; Cayos Cochinos, Honduras; El Zonte, El Salvador