Food Remains Ever So Important

By Seneca, Tufts 1+4 Participant

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.

All The Little Things

By Luke, Tufts 1+4 Participant

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.

A Meditation on Birds

By Andrew, Tufts 1+4 Participant

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.

Peanut Butter and Chai

By Alex, Tufts 1+4 Participant

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.

I Think I Just Met God and She’s an Elderly, Ecuadorian Woman

By Darby, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Surrounded by churches and cathedrals, blue domed, white trim, ornate gold detailing, pastel colored statues of the saints, in Cuenca you can’t help but think of God. Whoever or whatever that may be. A man? A woman? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t think I ever have been. I know what I’ve been taught and what I’ve been told. But I don’t know what I believe.

I was baptized as a Christian before I could speak or even think and a confirmed Catholic since 2014. However, in recent years I’ve been distancing myself from the Church and its potentially dangerous rhetoric regarding the rights of women and those who identify as LGBTQ+. Arriving in Cuenca reminded me why I felt called to Catholicism in the first place.

It was our first day here. A Monday. A few of us decided to leave the hostel to get some fresh air when we stumbled across the many churches, essentially one on every corner, that Cuenca has to offer. But we only actually stepped foot inside the last church we saw, Santuario Mariano del Carmen de la Asunción. It’s situated in La Plaza de las Flores, across the street and overshadowed by La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción.

On that slow and hazy Monday morning, as I was kneeling below the pew, I could hear the faint sound of the parishioners singing, praising. Maybe it was a choir? I was very far back in the church, not wanting to disturb what was happening before my eyes, almost like a museum exhibit or ballet performance, taking it all in as quietly as possible. I could feel the the powerful, looming notes and phrases bouncing, vibrating, echoing off the walls. I made the sign of the cross, the father, the son, the holy spirit and prayed.

I prayed mostly for myself, as selfish as that seems. The exact opposite of what God calls us, encourages us to do. And as much as I hate to admit it, I needed help and I didn’t know who else to ask. Since landing in Quito, my first time out of the United States, I felt like my world had been turned upside down and I couldn’t get a grip. I prayed for the ability to make it through the next second, minute, hour, day, week, month. To have patience with myself and with others. To have courage and be kind.

Right as I said, “Amen,” under my breath, an elderly woman approached me. She gingerly reached out her hand to me, sliding it softly against the wooden church bench. Still kneeling, in her short stature, she was eye level with me. I was hesitant to embrace her. Possibly a larger metaphor for my apprehension about living in a foreign city, miles away from all I’ve ever known.

Her hands were wrinkled and peppered with age spots. Signs of her life lived. She wore a gold ring, a plain wedding band of sorts. And she had something covering her hair. A short black veil? She said something to me in Spanish that I couldn’t fully grasp the meaning of, but be assured that I was hanging onto every word. She was beaming with a maternal pride. I knew she was glad I was here. It was the first time I felt welcomed in Cuenca.

It was our religion, albeit varying in degrees of commitment and devotion, that united us. The motion of my kneeling, praying, signing the cross, it said more to her than I could ever convey in a sentence, let alone in Spanish. Maybe it’s by the grace of God, my strength and determination, or sheer luck. Who knows? All I know is that so far my prayers have been answered. And that is the most comforting fact of all. That someone or something is listening and for the first time in a long time, I am being heard.

A Life in Condensed Milk

By Roger, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Brazilian food, in all its decadence, is often accompanied by dessert(s) made with Leite Condensado, or its boiled derivative Doce de Leite. The gum-numbingly sweet, slow-flowing white syrup is present in cakes, chocolate puddings, tarts, and just about everything else one could dream up. The postprandial sugar-induced torpor leaves me dazed and feeling as though I’m swimming in the stuff itself, which, accompanied by the often laxer Brazilian sense of time, makes the hours move slowly and gives life a dreamlike sort of feeling. Indeed, the sense of time here can leave and has often left me in a sort of lax daze as I wander through sunny streets that flow together like some great jungle-gym and take more food as it is offered, which it will be until the pan is clean. This feeling only wears off once I realize that time really is still moving normally for everyone else, and I’ve been astonished more than a few times as I’ve checked my watch and seen how the hours have dripped by.

So what to do? Does one try to “stay vigilant” against the sweet tide, attempt to keep a clear head, and not succumb to decadence? Or is this an example of ignorance, of cultural rejection? It is very true that utterly shunning condensed milk, both as a desert and a lifestyle, will not a happy year in Brazil make. But overindulging is an equally fatal tourist trap, and with dozens of grams of sugar per spoonful, it’s hard not to slip closer to utter depravity with each bite, with each day. Should I, or should I not, join the Lotus-Eaters in their dreamy Brazil days? On the one hand, I might lose parts of myself in the sea of creamy sweetness forever-but isn’t that what I’m here for? Still, my greatest fear is leaving this year with little more than a goofy smile to present as a result. This, in combination with the ever-present temptation to sip condensed milk and let the hours pass has resulted in adversity that I haven’t expected. The Brazilians themselves are not a lazy people, by any means. They alone seem to be immune to the sweet allure of seeming-endless hours and plates of sweets, and manage to work all the harder for it. Those who cometo Brazil, however, may find iteasy to suck the spoon and not take it back out.

My best solution is to lash myself, like Odysseus to the mast, to something that will keep me grounded among the drippy, easy hours that are so easy to eat and lose without being satisfied. Yes, laze in a hammock for all the hours of the day-just read a book while you do it, and finish it by the end of the week. Yes, spend that little bit of extra money on another Uber ride to save time-just make sure you save a little, for the end-of-the-month account. Yes, take a third portion of condensed-milk cake-just make sure you take an extra-long walk on the sand the next day. A little bit, a smaller bite, and by the end of my aventura doce, I might have something to show for it.