For as long as I can recall I have tried my best to embody the contrarian, the Devils’ Advocate, the counterculture. I regularly adopt wildly argumentative stances with little basis just to be able to oppose my friends. I hated more than anything when my younger brother would imitate me–how I dressed, acted, my preference in beverages—because I felt that he was stealing the persona that I had uniquely crafted.
I was a pescatarian for the vast majority of my life, from birth until just recently. This came about naturally, as initially I was merely a compliant member of a pescatarian household. As I grew older, I was able to further educate myself on the benefits to vegetarianism. My friend Malcolm drilled me on the obscene amount of water required to raise a cow, my parents instilled with me their moral aversions, and “Food, Inc.” opened my eyes to the horrors of the meat industry. All the same, I tend to identify two alternative factors for why I adhered to this dietary constriction for so long: convenience again, and how it set me apart from my peers, upholding my contrarian orientation. I loved that nearly everybody I told about my pescetarianism had an anecdote to the brief span that they experimented with doing the same, and subsequently succumbed. Yet I had willingly deprived myself of the foods I had heard so much about, never once yielding to temptation. That is, until this year abroad.
Expanding what I was comfortable eating literally admitted me into my incredible host family (they refused to house vegans or vegetarians) and the Sunday churrascos (barbecues) are easily my favorite facet of life here. I value the collective responsibility of creating a group meal, and although we sometimes use alternatives such as zucchini or eggplant to accommodate friends, the traditional foods are all carne.
I absolutely adore baking. I have been baking since I was very young and in a split second would deem it my greatest and most distinguishing passion. Baking is something I was certain I could share with my host household, as it serves as a great means of socialization and ideally yields delicious results. Baking with my friend Annika here in Brazil has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and while I acknowledge the weight of that statement I will try my best to justify it accordingly.
Prior to this year, the thought of baking anything swarmed my head with visions of butter, milk, and eggs.My mom and I oftentimes equate how delicious a baked good is to the amount of butter in the crust, or cream and eggs in the custard. But, my friend Annika is vegan. Everything I’ve had the pleasure of making with her has been such, or dairy-free at the absolute least. This was initially an incredibly daunting task, I’ve been forced to rewire my brain about an ability I was supremely confident in. It has been otherwise enlightening for the same reason, I have been able to regain some of my humility and take the backseat as a student once again.
As I branched out in a new direction and expanded my diet, I lost a defining part of my identity. Until this year I never recognized just how much confidence I derived from filling my role as the contrarian. Whilst baking vegan was a strange and foreign experience at first, I now recognize that it has unveiled a newfound curtain tome. Both instances undermined deeply embedded fragments of my identity and forced me to experiment with branching outside of my comfort zone. While these shifts have rendered me more insecure to the question of how well I may know myself, I treasure the opportunity for humility, introspection, and discovery.
Coming from a small town in western Massachusetts and transitioning to the bustling city of Cuenca was overwhelming. Here I was—plunged into this foreign space in a new home, with people I had just met, speaking a language I was still learning.
Sitting down on my bed that first night, I felt entirely helpless and alone. Riding the bus for the first time, I panicked that I would wind up completely lost. Saying “no puedo entender” in seemingly every conversation I had, I worried about being able to communicate effectively. In this transitory period I felt lost. Luckily, as time went on, beautiful little moments began to shape my experience.
I remember first meeting two of my host siblings. They crashed into my life, and their light, laughter, and love collided violently with my sorry emotions. Graciously, they welcomed me in, asking question after question and, in turn, sharing stories of their own. Excitedly, they introduced me to the park in front of the house. Energetic, shouting “¡mira, Lucas, mira!” they demonstrated their parkour moves on the playground equipment, navigating each difficult task with ease. They encouraged me to try it out myself; so, clumsily, I attempted to mirror their movements. I soon learned that I was not able to contort my lanky limbs in the ways that their nine and ten year old bodies easily could. Later, they shared with me Pipas, sunflower seeds, sharp with lemon flavor. “Phew, phew, phew,” as they showed me the proper method for spitting out the shells.
I remember having spontaneous singing sessions—“Recuéardame” on repeat—with me chiming in every few words. When this got to be repetitive, we moved on to “Cuán Lejos Voy” from Moana and “Believer” by Imagine Dragons. After a while we hopped up, saying, “bailemos, saltemos,” our bodies wiggling in time with the music.
I remember boarding the bus, everyone squished together in one big jumble and witnessing the incomparable energy that emanates from the people, each with their own unique story. Indelible in my mind is the memory of that woman, face turned away from the man by her side, baby in her lap, with tears streaming down her face, her body rigid against the seat of the bus. What was her narrative?
I remember the pijamada we had, my four host siblings sprawled out on the couch in my room, their whispers piercing the nighttime silence every few seconds. The youngest, crying, pulled me out of bed and told me that she missed her mom, who is working in the United States. They asked for a song and, unknowing of any Spanish ones, I softly rendered a similar version to one that my parents sang to me as a kid.
I was slowly, reassuringly finding a rhythm. I realized that I had come into the experience with all of these expectations which were not being immediately met. I anticipated creating lasting bonds with my host family, navigating the city with ease, and becoming more comfortable with my Spanish skills. I came to understand that by focusing on these expectations, I was ignoring all of those little moments, each saturated with emotion and meaning, that were the stepping stones along the way.
All of these moments carry so much meaning. It is the unconditional love of my host mom, the light that streams through the curtain in the morning, the saludos that I share with my host siblings. It is cafecito and pan, joyful laughter and sudden tears, movies in Spanish and Bruja the lovable cat. It is all of this and so much more that create the beautiful jigsaw puzzle that defines my experience here.
I have always had an affinity for birds. In grade school I dreamed of working in a parrot rehabilitation center and poured love into caring for the hens I raised in my yard. Most days involved reading the field guide “Birds of Wisconsin” and my seasons were divided by patterns of migration. From loons at dusk to Eagles with prey; I would often sit and simply listen. These voices, I now realize, lectured many of the first of life’s elusive lessons.
Yet in adolescence I landed at a point where this appreciation fell away. There came a time when April chose to cut off from the oranges. I left purple years and Orioles without jelly. At life ́s heaviest, I saw the nature of Wisconsin as no blessing at all. Forests were cotton and trees swallowed each tick of my watch; I realize now I had set an alarm.
With adolescence came a longing to fit in and so I trained myself to see mass as the way. I was sure city was solution and took comfort in setting systems of equations that ate bigger numbers of people to produce higher chances of finding a flock. Happiness was a pseudo-probability derivative of people and punctuated by digits-calculations, constructions-as if science or statistics were the infallible variations of subtle math that neither lies. It was in these crowds that I envisioned each face gently weaving away to reveal my concrete perch while forgetting that systems and substitution were taught not only to solve for X, but importantly for Y.
Quite quickly what were once wishes transformed into reality, swift to unfold. I moved cities while traveling the world and was washed by waves of wonderful people. I was living what I thought should be my dream and though I would say I felt happier, life felt almost distracting. It culminated in academic pressure, a difficult relationship and friends with struggles of their own. After graduating completely exhausted, for the first time in many years, I allowed myself to embrace being alone.
Shortly after, the sky burst out in purple humming.
For so many years, the clattering of unhappiness forbid my mind from giving way to beauty’s songs. Yet the birds had never stopped singing. I had simply forgotten to listen. Perhaps in a world of frantic searching, it is the listening we need now most. For me, that meant to myself.
I had tried so hard for so long to fit into some mold that I forgot the simplicity of being myself. As we grow older we often lose touch with the joy this earth once brought us as children as we assume increasingly more imposed and inherited roles. For me, to listen to myself once again means beginning to learn to gaze through it all. It means staring so deeply that even the mud in the water eventually turns into love.
Ornithologists have demonstrated that birds can adapt their calls in both volume and style to adjust to acoustic terrain. So resilient are their hymns that they rely not on the world around them to be heard. It is in this resilient symphony where we can be magically reminded how love transcends sounds; words. We hear each call, and the differences combine. It is in the textured soundscape that we once again come to understand the way difference courts beauty.
This is an earth full of songs always singing, let us learn to let these voices be heard.
I’m sitting here trying to figure out what I could possibly say that could express what you’ve meant to me over the past three months and I’m drawing a blank. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be here in this situation, I would’ve called you crazy. No one expects to fall in love, whether it’s with a person or a place or a thing, and I’ve done all three in the past three months here in Urubamba. I’ve fallen for you, Perú, head over heels! I love the chaos of the mototaxis in the morning, I love the mountains that surround us in our little urban bubble, I love my Peruvian mama bear Soledad who never fails to make me smile, and I love all the people who I’ve been able to share this experience with. There is nothing short of a miracle that could stop me from loving you, Perú, and all the incredible experiences I’ve had with you. Every day is different with you, and I can never predict the way I’ll feel at the end of a day after work and Spanish class and homework, but I know I’ll go to bed endlessly grateful to be sleeping here in Urubamba with my host family in the next room and my best friends a short walk away.
I don’t know how to bring you home with me quite yet, and I’m tearing up right now just thinking about leaving you. What am I going to do without you next week? I’m going to be lost without pancitos for breakfast and besitos before work, and I don’t know how I’ll handle not hugging Soledad before bed. It’s crazy how fast the time goes by when you’re absolutely enamored with something. I feel like I’ve taken our time together for granted, but I know I’ll forever remember every day I’ve spent here. The smiles of my family are imprinted in my memory along with my afternoon walks to class and our incredible excursions exploring your astounding culture and history. It feels weird to say goodbye like this.
I know they say long distance relationships don’t work, but I believe in us. I know I’ll be able to keep you in my mind all the time, and it’ll be hard to shut me up when I start talking about you! I want everyone to experience the kind of love I have for you, Perú, and I know we’ll meet again someday. I can’t wait for you to meet my parents! They’re going to love you, I just know it. I don’t want to say goodbye because that feels too real, so I’ll just say nos vemos, Perú.
The rain was falling hard outside in messy drops while
Marilu took her cutting board off the shelf and a knife from the drawer,
setting up onions to be chopped. While she laid out her materials, I
did the same, but with a notebook and an audio recorder on my phone
instead of vegetables, both of us ready in our own ways to have a chat.
After a morning spent weeding in the chakra and discussing potential
rain-capture irrigation solutions with an American specialist, Marilu
and I had been driven inside by the rain, and it seemed like a perfect
time to learn her story, in a more holistic and inclusive manner than
our snippets of conversation in the previous weeks. When I asked if she
could tell me some stories about Canastas Verdes and her own life,
Marilu was excited to share, and, as the incredibly strong and busy
woman that I know, she had a lot to say.
Marilu began her story with the birth of organic farming
as she knows it in her own life, where years ago, it all started with a
sweet potato on the back patio. Since her childhood, Marilu and her
family had cultivated vegetables and herbs on a small scale, and as
organically as possible but not with those methods as their focus.
After she had grown into adulthood and began caring for her own family,
and her aging father in return, Marilu began to experiment with
different methods of gardening, adding new plants and researching the
importance of organic produce, but only to consume in the house. At the
time she was a teacher, and as the chakra grew, she began to look for a
way to sell the produce. At this time, more than eight years ago,
there was no market in Urubamba for organic vegetables, as most everyone
was comfortable with the status quo—produce maintained through the use
of pesticides and new-wave farming practices that began in the sixties.
Marilu, on the other hand, was looking to return to the farming
practices of her ancestors with respect to the apus to whom she speaks
in Quechua, her family’s native tongue. Organic farming, for her
originally, was a way to carry on the now-lost tradition of respect for
la tierra and for one’s own body, a departure from the chemical-driven
world. With this in mind, she set out with an iron will to bring
organic produce back to Urubamba and to the Sacred Valley, but she knew
she couldn’t do it alone. The municipality, and frankly the city, was
not open to the changes that she wanted to see, so Marilu began to speak
with other women who were farming organically and who wanted to sell
their produce, or at least who wanted to try.
In the beginning, this new association was made up of
eight women, all with their own chakras who were learning and growing
together with their organic produce. But, as Marilu says ardently,
organic farming is hard work—you get your nails dirty and you hardly
ever sleep. For many of the women in this new group, though they were
stronger together, this was too much, and little by little they began to
return to the popular methods, or at least to working solo. Marilu,
and the five women who make up the association now, pushed on, and once
their group was solidified, they began to develop into what they are
today—Canastas Verdes. Throughout this story of growth, Marilu
maintained her pride in the fact that Canastas Verdes was her creation,
her baby, so-to-speak, all the way from the first organic produce to the
name and to her title as President now. Although the work of the
association is incredible—highly involved in the community and done with
very little internal or external support—Marilu’s pride comes from her
own struggles and how she overcomes them, and, in fact, the ways in
which organic vegetables have helped her to do so.
Although I have known her for over two months now, Marilu
had never told me all that she was up against while building a program
of community health and involvement. That’s just how strong she is.
But she’s a single mother to a son with autism, who also cares for her
ninety-three-year-old father. She can’t afford a home of her own, and
often the cost of caring for her family and running Canastas Verdes is
too much, but after years of perseverance, she’s making it all work. In
fact, her son, who is now a young adult, has been her inspiration for
continuing with organic produce, because his health has benefitted from
the removal of pesticides in his system. In his younger years, when she
couldn’t produce enough for complete meals, her son struggled both
neurologically and physically, but since she was able to make an organic
diet possible, he has been able to function at a higher level and have
fewer complications. What’s more, Marilu says she has learned patience
and compassion through raising her son—as most mothers do, but with
greater intensity—and she asserts that he has been her greatest teacher,
and these lessons of humanity are ones that she takes directly into her
work. The produce that she grows comes from a love of the earth, of
the Pachamama, and a love of family, both for her own and that of
Tears are beginning to stream down Marilu’s cheeks as she
discusses all this with me, and they begin to flow harder as she details
the lack of action in the world, the ways in which most people sit by
and watch it all being destroyed. Here in the Sacred Valley, fed by
glaciers and maintained by very specific climates, Marilu and the people
of Urubamba are at great risk as the environment changes rapidly, and
she knows this. The water, the land—everything is being polluted and
mistreated, she says. No one wants to change their ways because they
think it’s too hard, but this will take a toll on their lives. Marilu
sees the pollution of her ancestral land, the planet, and of the bodies
of her neighbors, consuming pesticides and processed food, diets that
can cause cancers, Parkinson’s disease, and many other detriments to
health. She sees that soon there will not be enough water, and
therefore not enough food. She says of the people in poorer countries
and regions: “We’re like rats in a lab and we will be the first ones to
die,” her eyes read with sadness and anger. This is the reality that
she’s actively working against, but she knows it’s not enough and that
Canastas Verdes is running out of time.
We’ve been talking for over a half-hour at this point, and
Marilu points out that she should probably start making lunch. The
onion she’d prepared to cut will chatting sits untouched on the cutting
board in front of her—forgotten as she answered my questions, delivered
with passion and force like the most moving of speeches. But before I
go, she thanks me for taking the time to talk to her, and reiterates all
that she struggles against and the hope that she has despite it all.
By the end, we’re both crying and embracing, because the planet is dying
and we’re forced to watch it happen. Marilu is doing all that she can,
and I tell her I wish I could do more, both for Canastas Verdes and for
the Earth, but she just shakes her head and gives me another hug. “I
really should make lunch,” she says as she wipes tears from her eyes,
and I thank her for her time and say nos vemos—see you later—as she
finally begins to cut the onion.
After leaving Marilu to cut onions in the kitchen, I
walked slowly home in a bit of a stupor. The rain that had been falling
in a torrent just minutes before but the sky was now open and bright.
My feet moved slowly and my mind felt heavy as I wiped tears out of my
eyes, trying to hold back the ones threatening to spring forth with each
though of Marilu’s words. In particular “somos como ratas en un
laboratorio” stuck out in my mind and the pain that she expressed while
saying them. As I walked along the river that rushes passed the
cemetery, such a sentiment felt that much stronger—the power and life of
the Earth running parallel with death, a concept that will become much
more prevalent if we don’t care for the planet. When I got home to and
empty house, I sat down and tried to process the conversation I’d just
had, but I couldn’t do it in my head, so I called my dad and told him
all about it. Thankfully, he let me interrupt his day to recount
Marilu’s story because I really had to say it out loud to become more
grounded. Regardless, I was still overcome with a feeling of
helplessness—what had I really done to help her and all of Canastas
Verdes? What could I even do in the next few weeks that could be
meaningful? In fact, I felt quite guilty, because I had never spoken to
someone in such depth, in this place, about the direct impact on their
lives and that of their community from climate change and loss of
resources, and I felt like I was leaving too soon. If I stayed on with
Canastas Verdes for a year, could I make more of a difference? Up until
this conversation, I didn’t know the depth of the personal stories
behind this project, or the needs of Marilu and all the women, because
they hadn’t told me, and what’s worse, I hadn’t really asked. All of
this swirled around in my head even hours and days later, that is until I
was able to speak with Marilu again.
Exactly one week later, we got that next chat. In the
time between, I had been fully immersed in nature in the Amazon with my
mindset heavily influenced by Marilu’s words. I spent my time there
walking through the jungle with the group and our guide, Robin, taking
it all in with heightened appreciation. Although I have always had a
deep love of nature and a passion for its protection, there was just
something so powerful about her story, and then Robin’s stories, that
validated what I’d always felt and challenged me to think further on my
own impact and ideas. So after all this, I got to go back and hear
Marilu’s story again, this time as she told it to Raquel and Mindy,
leaving some details out but with all her important points. It was a
great experience for me to be able to experience her telling of her life
once more, because it gave me more clarity and a deeper sense of
knowing her. Within this same time, I was also privy to Marilu’s
answers to questions relating to how helpful I’d actually been in my
role as an intern/volunteer. After coming away feeling so guilty and
useless, though inspired, from our last talk, it was affirming and
hope-building to have Marilu say directly that I had done some good,
both for her and Canastas Verdes. Although this need to be validated is
somewhat egocentric, this second conversation gave me a push forward,
because in the time in between I had felt somewhat lost. What’s more, I
was able to talk to Marilu in-depth for a third time, in the same week,
while we answered the questions together for the Dragons’ Community
Grant Fund, something I am applying to for Canastas Verdes. And yet
again, Marilu’s eyes lit up with passion, and then watered with tears,
while we talked about her work and her struggles, and I was left in awe
for a third time in that week over how strong she is and all that she
Looking back on Marilu’s story and message, I realized that there is a lot that I need to change in my own lifestyle, and even more in the lifestyles of my two family’s (here in Peru and back in Maine). Actually, there needs to be a drastic societal shift, but I think while working towards that, I can also work small, by changing my own ways and looking to educate those around me. Eating organic, eating healthy, recycling, not wasting—because as Marilu says “La basura no es la basura, la persona con basura es la basura”. Change must happen, and fast because if not, we’ll have nothing left. La Amazonia, the glaciers that stand tall over the Sacred Valley, watering the people beneath and feeding into the global rainforest, and all the other life-sustaining and beautiful resources, will be gone sooner than we know. Here in Peru, the country is slated to be the third most impacted by climate change in the coming years, bringing home Marilu’s fears that much more. Living in this amazing place, making it my second home, I fear with her, and I can only hope that people begin to wake up, both here and all over the world, because the Earth is dying, crumbling right between our capable yet inactive human hands.
When thinking about what to get as a gift for my host family, my mind immediately went to peanut butter. There may not be any food condiment more quintessentially American than the creamy golden colored substance made from crushed peanuts and sugar. Peanut butter just doesn’t have the same tang anywhere else. It is the United States’ crown jewel: whether you are a Skippy or JIF fan, peanut butter forms a common bond between Americans. While American cuisine may be lacking, we can proudly call ourselves the founders of peanut butter. I knew I wanted my Indian host family to experience its deliciousness and get a taste for my childhood, as I had grown up eating peanut butter.
So 8,401 miles later, I finally gave my host family the prized peanut butter that had fortunately not been confiscated during customs. We arranged to have a formal taste test on that Thursday, and that morning, I eagerly woke up early and took my usual seat at the dining room table facing the window’s swaying palm trees.
I’m not a great cook, but I can proudly boast about making mean peanut butter toasts. As I began to lay out my ingredients, my host mom started to make her everyday chai. While I added cinnamon and honey to the peanut butter, my host mom added masala chai spices and ginger to her teapot. While I chopped bananas, my host mom poured steamed milk into the chai mixture. Finally, when I finished preparing plates with peanut butter and jelly, and peanut butter, banana, cinnamon, and honey, she added two spoonfuls of sugar each to five cups. Together, we crafted a breakfast I’ll always remember.
One by one, each member of my family came downstairs and enthusiastically grabbed pieces of toast before I could describe what I had created. As they took their first bites, I could see surprise turned to pleasure on their faces while I explained to them that this was a typical American snack. My host father jokingly told me that Indians typically didn’t eat sweet things for breakfast while I replied that sadly Americans did. My host sister Pritti declared her new love for peanut butter and stuck her finger into the jar, reminding me of one of my grandfather’s old habits. Pranoti added some ghee (a quintessential Indian condiment) to the toast, making it her own. While we continued eating our meal, I realized my role and my host family’s role reversed. I had been the one trying different foods daily and discussing the differences or similarities between Indian and American meals. Now, for the first time, they were getting a taste of how I had been feeling.
Food bridges cultures. My host mother’s careful preparation of chai, the staple Indian drink, paired with a classic American meal exemplified this notion. Through the taste of her masala chai, I am in India. Through peanut butter, I am in the United States. With both, I am on my bridge year.