Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I Am Tortilla

My best tortilla ever.

Sunday was supposed to be our last baleada experience. We went all out: saved avocados, bought cheese from our neighbor and eventually gorged on grilled flour tortillas filled with, what else, beans. (And eggs, and all the other business we bought.)

Sundays and Wednesdays have been my favorite and most industrious nights since the beginning, because these are baleada nights and these are when we make tortillas. It took me eight weeks of constant attendance to make my first consistently large, round tortillas. Before then I dropped balls of dough on the floor, stretched them into triangles and poked holes in them with my fingers. But I kept showing up, peaking through the mesh window at five o’clock to see if the white dough was slapping in everyone’s hands. Everyone was patient with me.

There is a tortilla soundtrack. It goes WHAP WHAP WHAP WHAP WHAP WHAP as the balls are spread between the fingers and finally tossed back and forth between the palms like a hot potato. If you’re effective, it should be like juggling, and it should be fast. If you’re successful, the tortilla makes it on the hot griddle/stove (the only one we have, the size of a dining room table), with a dozen other tortillas in motion. Ten, twenty seconds, finger flip. You will probably burn your fingers a couple of times, and some tortillas, but if you make it off the heat, you can Frisbee toss it into the cloth-lined pot. Over 120 tortillas into the pot, sometimes dozens more, WHAP WHAP.

Angela showed me how to make masa this week, as I have earned my spot in the circle of trusted tortilla helpers. Flour salt, sugar, baking powder, water and Manteca. Ah, yes, Manteca. You knew it was coming. It’s lard. But gosh, I love me some lard if this is what it makes.

On the other end of the health spectrum I’m probably netting between 6-8 corn tortillas a day. On the weekends I help make them on the press, one at a time, tons of them, onto the griddle, into the pot. The corn tortillas are a silent affair. The best ones are thicker, and the super best ones are made by hand. I learned how to do that just this week, using my hand and a plastic bag.

Sitting next to Andrea yesterday morning I noticed she wasn’t eating her beans. “I am bored of beans. I have been eating them my whole life.” No kidding. If our daily diet here is indicative of the national meal plan, then beans and corn tortillas would probably seem pretty darn banal. I love it. I don’t know what I’m going to do without them except have a very confused digestive system.

Stretch and slap, stretch and slap.

Drew flirted with Candida (our 4’10” mother-in-residence and cook) until she said she would make baleadas one last time this morning. Five-thirty I had my WHAPing hands on, one last chance to practice before I take my tortillera skills stateside.

The second week of class, a creative student was asked a simple test question: “What are you doing?” and answered “I am tortilla.” I can't tell you how much we laughed at this, until I realized, Yes, you are, and yes, I am, too.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Vuelo El Tiempo, or: Money Is Like Beer

Time flies.

This morning I imparted my last wisdom to my class of advanced English math students. We discussed the question: How do we measure wealth? This week we talked about PPP and GDP and inequality gaps and all the little tricks economists use to make sense of money in the world.

Today, we talked about wealth other than money. The environment, your health, your level of security, family, love, happiness: this, we decided, is really what wealth is. I finished with this tasteful analogy: Money is like beer. One beer will probably make you happy, two might also make you happy, but ten will make you terribly unhappy and probably ill. Up here on the mountain, we live at a one beer maximum, and we are incredibly happy.

This afternoon I met with my beginner English class. They performed hilarious skits about dining out in restaurants. We talked about how they had grown in the past three months. (We also practiced for their exam, not quite a poignant, but necessary.) These eleven beautiful, inspirational women, 17-24 years old, beamed when they talked about how much language they had learned. Yolani, who learns irregular verbs in her spare time, wrote a message on the board at break, reading “CAITLIN IS A VERY GOOD TEACHER FOREVER.” I beamed.

When class ended the girls didn’t move. Lenis, my youngest and most saintly student, had tears running down her cheeks. “Time flies!” I said, and they nodded. “I can’t believe it’s finished,” said Maholy, our resident vocalist with American Idol quality, though she reserves it mostly for Christian music. They said they don’t want me to go. I don’t want to go. To Karla, our resident powerhouse, I promised a visit within two years. She promised that if I didn’t, she was going to hunt me down in America. (And she would, with a crossbow if necessary. You should see her with a machete.)

So now I can enjoy my time with them until Wednesday, studying, making hundreds of tortillas, even helping out at a Christian Music Festival at our school on Saturday. Have I mentioned how Christian some of these girls are? Super Christian. Have I mentioned how much it matters to me? Not at all.

This is a magical place, and today is a magical day. There was a flash mob ballet-esque performance by the students after breakfast this morning. I feel at peace and incredibly competent. I don’t want to go, I need to go, but this is my home, and this is my family. I’ll probably be back to the land of eggs, beans and cheese before long.

Madelin, Vanessa, Lenis, Yolani, Maholy, Karla, Glenda, Andrea, Selina, Nidia and Lorena. Don't worry, Yolani doesn't smile on purpose. She is actually quite pleasant. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Bus Didn't Run at 5AM Because The Driver's Father Died

We were hitchhiking up the mountain this afternoon in the back of a bright red truck and stopped in San Francisco, having cut a respectable hour or so off our walk. Ahead we saw a large group of parked trucks and people: fiesta! I also saw an ice cream cart and couldn’t believe my eyes: there is never ice cream up the mountain. Disregarding the fact that I had two ice cream cones in Comayagua earlier, we went to buy more.

Next to the ice cream cart was a man we had met just yesterday: I had described him as “A quarter past borracho” as he had a nice swagger and untucked shirt motif going. Today he was in his fancy pants and greeted us with a big smile, and behind him in the archway to the porch was Margarita, the daughter of our neighbor, Doña Erlinda, who supplies us with fresh milk and cookies (for a price) and cheese and Zambos and very fast conversation practice.

We knew from last week that Doña Erlinda’s father had died: nothing stays secret on the mountain, and Skylar (my co-teacher) made a beautiful card that we all signed and gave to her. Today Margarita was dressed in black and yet as we approached to give her a hug, it didn’t dawn on us that this was a different kind of party. She insisted we come in and say hello to her mother, which we did happily (She remembered my name!) and were given chairs. Dirty as we were from walking all day, we sat awkwardly in a room full of obviously related people, also in black. “This is a gathering because of my grandfather’s death,” said Margarita, bringing us cups of horchata.

Oh, boo. We had wandered into a funeral party.

From there things got sticky. Erlinda dropped giant plates of foods into our laps, which we were obligated by the Good Neighbor Never Refuses Anything clause to eat, even if it was 3 o’clock and we had just stuffed our faces a few hours before. We suddenly became overwhelmed with giant food plate, ice cream cone, and cup of something delicious. One ice cream cone hit the floor and was promptly picked up and put in a cup. Waste not want not, and also eat second lunch.

I could hear whispers from behind – Quienes son? Who are they? Well, technically we live closer to Doña Erlinda than anyone else, and as her closest neighbors and steady flow of dairy consumption, at least we weren’t completely estranged. But really, there’s nothing not strange about two gringos sitting in the middle of a group of quietly conversing Hondurans, wolfing down “extra meal” to stop their stomachs from realizing this really is overkill. I tried hard not to laugh.

When we finally finished the food and found a good opportunity to duck out, we gave hugs (very well received) and walked away quickly. Then there was laughter. Remember that time we sat in the middle of a funeral party trying to stuff tortillas in my backpack so we didn’t have to eat them?

About ten minutes down the road another truck stopped. In the back were two women, a baby stained with Cheetos orange, an old cowboy with no teeth, and what do you know? It was Quarter Past Borracho.

As funeral photos are unacceptable, here is a picture of my home I always am happy to return to.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

I Don't Shower Anymore.

Calcetines and (unnamed muddled pup) pout for Skylar.
Macarena had six five puppies last month. They lived in the old goat pens until they were big enough to enter the real world. Now they run sideways across campus, usually trailing Mom for milk or Dad for attention: neither of whom want to be hands-on parents. They are now big enough to leave little puddles of puppy poo outside our house.

The runt is named Penny (after the smallest currency in America, also because she is a girl.) She is sleeping in my lap to avoid the rain. Usually the dogs aren’t allowed inside, but this one was both shunned by her mom but also pushed out of the nursing circle so often that one of her brothers is literally three times her size. The other puppies sleep in a big hairy pile by the kitchen, to avoid the rain and to not avoid the food.

It is the rainy season. Every day between the hours of one and four (or from midnight to midnight, really) it can be expected to rain so heavily, it sounds like you are standing under a waterfall, your ears filled with rushing water. This can make teaching a bit difficult, and watching movies, and walking around without stepping in squelching mud, and crossing rivers, and getting your laundry to dry. But what it lacks in practical dry charm it makes up for with the most wonderful lullabye to sleep to. The mountain smells good and bursts with green.
Penny on my pants.

I don’t have very much clean clothing, but I can’t complain: no one here stays clean very long anyway, especially now that the water never warms up. Showering is a luxury and not a necessity; I’m quite content wash-clothing and shaving my legs on the porch and dunking my hair in a bucket.

The puppies don’t mind my unwashed nurturing.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Rainy Season

The toothless man approached us in the parking lot at the bottom of the mountain, at the foot of the road that would take us the 9 miles from Zambrano to campus. He was grinning, and he offered to drive us up the mountain, for a price: 350 Lempira.

All the walking is worth it, when El Caribé features in your weekend!
If you choose to do the conversion, this comes out to about $18: nothing to split between three people. But we were stubborn and determined not to spend another penny on our trip to La Ceiba. The weekend had been filled with completely adequate and well-located hotel rooms, direct travel charter busses, spontaneous and constant consumption of street food, a bit of rum, and other tidbits of cash that dropped here and there (like on three separate ice creams.) Pay for a ride? No way. We would hitchhike.

It was already sprinkling, and after no more than three minutes, the sky opened up and wizzed all over our arrogance. Drew, Mike and I giggled with frustration as the rain soaked us. I had chosen to wear my Birkenstocks. Walking on unpaved road in hippy sandals is only slightly daunting.

We saw a truck: We are saved! It’s going the wrong direction. We see another truck: For the love of a warm fire, please going up the mountain! It turns out he is! And he speaks English! But he’s only going about five minutes up the road. We squat in the bed of the truck dripping warm water down our noses, disappointed but appreciative. The truck stops, and we are invited inside until the rain stops. A ride would have been nice, but at least there’s that.

This is a warehouse that we always pass without recognition, and we run up the long gravel path to the door. It’s a bit confusing. A young girl opens the door, and it isn’t a house: It’s a start-up business that is going to begin pumping, distilling and distributing water within a month. Dad and Grandpa and Great Grandma and the whole roost is hanging out for family work day. Mike is drooling because, as our resident fix-it genius, he is impressed by the newness and “excellent craftsmanship” of the system.

Grandpa practices his English and teaches us how to clean water, the large systems way. Grandma gives us soup in mugs. Then the driver, Dad, gives us each a Tecate beer to take on the road and his daughter takes a photo of us with her iPad. She also shows us a dead tarantula. When the rain slows, we take off again, bewildered at our luck: the family said they would help us involve our students in their business development.

Jazz hands at Carnival with my brood, who got rides up the mountain, GAH!
But on the dusty road, which was not so dusty because it was in fact soggy, we didn’t catch a break for a while. An hour, maybe more, passes and then the rain starts again. A bus! We see a school bus slowly creaking around the frightening bends. They open the door to invite us in, and it is a political rally bus for the Honduran National Party. Old women reach out to touch me head and hands and bless me. The bus takes us through San Francisco, leaving us with about an hour and a half more.

We entertain ourselves with conversations about linguistics and economics and pinecones and what happened the night before: Mike watched the sun rise from the roof, Drew had one too many cervezas and couldn’t remember past the several hours of street dancing, and me? I recounted tales of running through the surf during dinner and doing bachata to the live band in the park and ducking through enormous crowds of colorful families and eating fried fish and singing Daddy Yankee’s “Limbo” at the top of my lungs. There is regaeton in my soul.

The rain started again just as we reached the gate to school: it is the rainy season, after all.

At this point it didn’t matter if a bucket of spite water has fallen on us: we were already as wet as could be and slowly trudging forward, 7 or 8 miles uphill behind us. It was the most I have walked so far without a ride. It also felt like coming home.