I had a male writing teacher who once commented that women are always apologetic about their work. We say, “It’s not finished,” “It’s just a draft,” and the worst, “I don’t think it’s very good….” This is nonsense. In the spirit of sharing and not living up to that teacher’s analysis of my gender I’m sharing today a chapter from my memoir-in-progress.
“In My Country” is not the first chapter of I FORGOT TO START WITH MYSELF, and falls somewhere in the middle. This is not meant as a stand alone essay, so you’re bound to have some who? what? why? questions, and I’d appreciate if you’d share them with me as I continue to craft what comes both before and after this chapter. Thanks for reading….
IN MY COUNTRY
The power is out in the supermercado, and the shelves with the non-perishables look like they’ve been rode hard and put away wet. I put my hand on the refrigerated case that’s still cooler than the air, and I speculate about how long it takes meat and cheese to spoil at ninety-five degrees with comparable humidity.
I eye the hotdogs—they don’t really spoil, do they?—and despite the fact that I grew up on meals of salmon, asparagus, and quinoa: I want them. I want the macaroni and cheese. I want the Velveeta. I want the Hamburger Helper. I want those not-even-Hebrew National-hotdogs.
My cart is empty—I could have done this shop with a hand basket—but it turns out I need the cart for support and use it as more of walker than a vessel. I’m thirty-two years old, living alone on an island off the coast of Honduras, and I’m not even halfway through two weeks of treatment for malaria, though the effects of the disease will last longer than I could ever imagine. To further complicate my self-induced scenario I also have a house under contract and a boyfriend who is cheating on me, but I won’t know these the ramifications of these game changing details until much later.
I step away from the hot dogs. I don’t need food poisoning to complicate night sweats, hallucinations, and incessant full body itching. It turns out the treatment for malaria is almost as bad as the disease itself, and once the course of treatment is started it must be completed to avoid giving the parasite the home field advantage of coming back even stronger than it began.
The cereal and long-life milk are gone. The bread and peanut butter are long gone. The beans are picked over. The battered bags of cookies are crushed into crumbs inside their packaging. My head tells me I should be able to live on mangoes, shrimp and avocados, but my heart says something different. I slide my leaden feet along the dusty floor, staring through and above the barren shelves as much as at them.
Then I spot it. The label is dusty and half-peeled off. The can is dented; and its exposed parts are flecked with rust. The price tag has three digits—way too high—then I remember to divide by twenty. My fuzzy brain computes the United States currency equivalent and I’m still appalled at the inflated price, which is three times what it would be at home. But I need it. I need this can of Campbell’s soup. It’s not tomato, chicken noodle, or cream of broccoli, any of which I could have passed by. It’s Chunky Sirloin Burger. I need that soup.
In my regular life I would consider this product completely vile as a stand-alone meal, and though I’ve consumed those creamy casseroles, never once have I prepared a meal with a can of soup as the cornerstone ingredient. Sirloin Burger represents the kind of food I work hard to avoid, but in my physically and emotionally weakened state I’m smitten with the idea of country vegetables and miniature burgers complete with grille marks. I need that can of soup.
I was lucky enough to grow up with my best friend right across the street, and because my house was mostly devoid of snacks we usually went to Debbie’s after school. Mrs. Burton often had a still-warm baked good waiting for us on the butcher block in the kitchen, but if she hadn’t gotten around to baking that day we’d dig into leftovers or hit up the pantry.
We ate Swiss Miss and Countrytime by the spoonful, added chocolate chips to scrambled eggs, and strove to discover the next unlikely pairing of dissimilar foods. We researched by eating a lot of Reese’s.
We were hooked immediately upon discovery of Chunky Sirloin Burger, and would pass up homemade eggplant parmesan or moist black bottom cupcakes in order to consume a wide variety of GMOs and a week’s worth of sodium before General Hospital was even over.
The phase didn’t last long, and the truth was: that soup had always grossed me out a little. It came out of the can as a solid mass that resembled dog food and re-coagulated quickly at room temperature. I tried not to ponder how they got those grille marks on burgers a mere half-inch in diameter. I always felt like I needed to lie down after I ate it.
In my fragile state I’m desperate for a taste of home, and the soup migrates into my cart. Everything is slower than the usual slow of island time, and I wait not very patiently in the checkout line where receipts are handwritten and manually calculated during the power outage. I hand the clerk the US equivalent of ten dollars for the soup and a box of saltines. I know with one shake of the box that the saltines are mostly crushed, but they’re the only thing I’ll keep down that day and even crumbs are better than nothing.
The dented and dusty can of soup wouldn’t make the malaria go away, nor would it bring me closer to home. Eating it would have made me sicker, and I had no intention of doing so. I just wanted it on my kitchen counter as a reminder that as bad as things can be they can always get better.
I lived on the island for nine more months. I bought the house, busted the boyfriend, and left before the military kidnapped the president in his pajamas.
I’ve never been an efficient bailer and knew it was time to leave long before I did. I made it official when I found myself starting many sentences with “In my country….” I’d say things like, “In my country a roofer doesn’t show up eighteen days late without so much as a phone call.” “In my country our power doesn’t come from an unreliable generator that runs on diesel fuel and is held together with silly putty and paper clips.” “In my country we can buy basics like fresh milk, light bulbs, and tampons.
The “in my country” statement that sealed the deal came when my friends and I witnessed a girl vomit while eating with her family at a restaurant. I said, “In my country when someone vomits on the dinner table the other people ask her if she’s okay. Or at least stop eating.” And then I booked my tickets to leave.
Life on an island thirty miles off the coast of a third world country is not going to be like life back home. Expats retreat from civilized nations in search of something different, but often what is discovered is not what was expected. People often say that if you want things to be like they were at home then you should just go home. Returning home might admit failure, so we adapt. We acclimate, acculturate and habituate.
We base our meals on what the stores have available and not on the latest recipe plucked out of a magazine. Magazines, among other things, are a hot-commodity on Roatan, brought down in a stranger’s carryon and passed among friends until the pages are free of bindings and bleeding color.
We adjust. We brush our teeth with purified water. Toilet paper goes in the garbage can, not the toilet. Gasoline is hand poured by the gallon jug into our vehicles behind a minimart. We discover things about ourselves. We expand our minds. We learn that we’re capable of much more than we thought. For some the perspective shift sticks, while others look for ways out or at least through.
That beat-to-shit can of soup stood on my counter as a reminder that life as an expat is not easy, and it’s not supposed to be. That’s not why we go and it’s not why we stay, though it often has something to do with why we leave. I don’t know what compelled me to spend my thirty-third year immersing myself in Honduran culture except that I’d made a teenage promise to some day live among foreign customs, and because at thirty-one I wasn’t getting any younger. A few weeks after my return I walked through Queens—the most ethnically diverse place on the planet—with my mother, and she said, “If you wanted to live in another culture you could have just moved to Queens!”
When I returned home I was incapable of summarizing my experiences into something palatable, so I said very little. I was quick to anger when someone heard of my recent adventure and told me they’d lived in Costa Rica for a few months. I’d silently rage at their comparison of my full cultural immersion to their three-month surf trip. “That’s not really living,” I’d say, “That sounds like more of a vacation.”
I wondered why that wouldn’t have been enough for me. For years I was unable to verbalize why I really went; I couldn’t quite comprehend it myself, so how could I explain to others? I said I went because I didn’t want to be a spoiled American my whole life, and I returned because I decided that being a spoiled American for the rest of my life wouldn’t be so bad. But there was more.
Five years later I am shocked at the physical and emotional danger I exposed myself to when I moved impulsively, alone, to an island thirty miles off the coast of Honduras. I wondered why I had to make it so hard. I could have traveled with a medical aid group or the Peace Corps. I could have enrolled in a language school or taught English. I could have at least traveled with a friend. I did not have to make it so hard.
But I did.
Jaime and Lucky on West Bay Beach, Roatan, Winter 2007