Month Of TDC In Review 2014

The Month of TDC now comes to a close. The challenge caused me to change my lifestyle over the month, take on new perspectives about poverty, and witness my hyperactive metabolism at work that. All of it served to make for an interesting physical and mental adventure.

What It Was Like

Just like any long-term challenge, you’re new set of rules constricts what you will and will not do. You come to expect things. I came to expect small calculations throughout the day to matter down the line, because when I accidentally wound up with less than I planned, it meant a couple spoonfuls of measly scraps for dinner. I came to expect food fantasies triggered by the aphrodisiac fumes of every bakery in the city. And I came to expect a barrage of thoughts and questions regarding poverty that occupied my mind late into the night.

Given all that, the flip side of a challenge like this is the newborn tactics that emerge to help you cope with the lifestyle change. I learned the tricks of the marketplace, like the butter-zone fifteen minutes right before six o’clock, when old lady vendors only want two things: to get rid of you and to get rid of the extra stock before it goes bad. Great deals. Store loyalty goes a long way, as it does between peers. I learned a deeper meaning of the word ‘gratitude’ when accepting invitations to potluck meals at a friend’s apartment (to which I owe you, June & Freja, an enormous amount of thanks). And I learned how to better approach people on the streets or the doorways of adobe homes and talk to them about how things were. 

Something New

Hunger itself was relatively easy to avoid after a while, but I also came to expect a deficiency in any kind of good quality food. This surprised me actually, because it taught me something that the weeklong Two Dollar A Day Challenge never did: I’ve always balked at the decision to eat fast food simply because it’s cheaper, since it is always better to spend what little resources you have on healthier foods, isn’t it? Buy an apple and leave the fries, right? As it turns out even healthy cheap food is nonetheless somewhat bunk, in that you can tell you’re still putting away low cost produce.

At least McDonalds is at first masked by the taste before you realize you’re eating cruddy food. After thirty days I grew tired of simplistic, bottom shelf items like salty cheese and ended up craving something with more flavor even if it meant flabby burgers from the food stand down the street. (Not to excuse those who depend on such consumption, but the Month of TDC successfully gave a reason for it that I hadn’t thought of before.) Mealtime became more of a box to check, which is really a shame because I honestly love eating. That being said I did learn to get better at cooking since every time I stepped into the kitchen it was like trying to solve a riddle that always started the same: what can I make with these few ingredients?

The Physical Effects

After the three day fast at the beginning of the month, I had a sense of what sort of physical effects might be coming. There was a ghostly sense of exhaustion that haunted me at all hours of the day, coming and going as it pleased. I could tell I wasn’t getting enough sustenance on a week-to-week basis: In the states I hover around 164 pounds (75kg) when I’m fit and well fed. After three months of traveling in South America – where the rare workout consisted of a brief visit to the rock gym – my muscle and fat reserves had diminished to roughly 154 pounds (70kg), which was more or less expected and gave me a benchmark going into April. But when I stepped onto the scale, a little over halfway into the challenge, I had dropped to an alarming 150 pounds (68kg). That gave me pause.

In response I began a small workout routine on my apartment floor, and tried to balance my six-sol budget to capture all of the food groups. This was difficult, as it seems two dollars was just enough to get three of the four important nutrients in one day. Not to mention volunteering at 12,795 feet (3,900mts) and pulling ten-hour shifts at the clinic demanded a lot more than an inconsistent diet. I found myself staggering fruits and vegetables on a schedule. The weight loss eventually leveled out, but I unfortunately hit rock bottom on April 28th coming in at 148.5 pounds (67.5kg). I can feel my family cringing as I write this.

The more noticeable effects came from the rollercoaster my body experienced when I attempted to make the challenge more entertaining for myself. I tried switching up my imaginary income so I could have anywhere from $0 to $3 at random. I went on hikes and long walks with only one kind of food to see how long it took until I came to hate the taste. I branched out with edibles and tried buying things like unfamiliar plants, grains, traditional herbs, and goat and sheep organs. Heart’s my favorite. I even went three days eating exclusively food cooked on the street, which did things to my digestive track that I have never seen before and will probably never speak of again.

Cheating, Learning, Concluding

When breaking the rules of TDC, it simply asks you remember that those who live on two dollars a day for real don’t have the choice in the first place. I found myself sparing a cup of coffee or the occasional pastry two or three times a week, and there was always a sense of guilt sitting on my shoulder and squawking into my ear like a parrot. Walking the blurry line between keeping myself sane and maintaining the purity of the challenge was an uncertain experience. The world’s poor truly don’t have the option of a luxurious life with extra food, yet most of them probably haven’t experienced such habits with enough frequency to miss them when they’re gone. It didn’t feel right anywhere I turned.Last Call

Despite the moral conundrums of imitating poverty, I believe the challenge has done what it was designed to do: I spent the entire month of April investigating and engendering myself with an onslaught of empathetically emotional experiences that have changed the way I see poverty in the world. The contrast I found with my daily life was a stark one and helped me realize just what kind of things genuinely poor people go through that I may never have to. There is no way for me to really know what that life is like, but such an undertaking has left me with a healthier respect for the things I don’t know. I hope that next time I approach someone receiving aid that I never feign to understand the complexities of their day-to-day life, nor the exact reasoning for helping them.

Gaps In The Supply Chain

MarcoIt’s interesting to get a closer look at just how a country works to help its least fortunate citizens. Recently I got to learn about the administrative supply chain of the Peruvian government that delivers aid to the poor. There are five large social welfare programs all subservient to The Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion (MIDIS). To address the impoverished families as a whole, MIDIS made them a deal that said ‘you send your kids to school everyday and we’ll feed them. You send them to the clinics and we’ll give you $35 a month.’

Although this only continues through the elementary years, it provides an incentive structure to help keep the children healthy and the parents financially stable. To maintain a sense of efficiency in a timely manner the socialized bureaucracy then breaks down into a crew of private delivery companies that compete for government bids. Getting all these organizations to function properly together requires social-worker watchdogs that are constantly on the prowl, doing oversight and checkups.

That job falls to a man named Marco who, at the prospect of some free research labor, was happy to have me along. He revealed to me the logistical issues of feeding those on two dollars a day, and the economical facets of aiding each community. Simply working out the kinks of the private company delivery operations is a chore; one of the schools we visited in Huarocondo had 67 students but only received food enough to feed 40. Other schools have up to 360 kids to feed, all of whom would otherwise only receive three meals of basic potatoes at home.

However out of date records can’t compare to the enormous amount of effort it takes to coordinate one meeting of all the families to pay them their monthly dues. After sending their kids out on the long walk into town, the parents will take their livestock out to graze (commonly known as the chakra) and can disappear for hours into the maze of mountain valleys beyond the road. The supply quantity is there but the demand seems to move around inconsistently, and makes a hard target to hit.

Micromanaging the distributions is all about the details –9 litres of vegetable oil… 100 thousand grams of evaporated milk…stored dry and off the ground etc. – of which Marco and I went inspecting as we stalked classrooms and offices before reconvening to approve or disapprove of what we saw. The more I listened to the conversations with the teachers the more I saw the gaps in the way it worked. The government requires MIDIS to buy food in bulk from Peru itself, which may be supporting national businesses, but presents the problem of quality nonetheless.

Things like quinoa and lentils are in such high demand abroad that the only thing left for MIDIS to give to the schools are ten pound bags of mixed grains which cook at different rates, presenting a problem to the mother’s who volunteer in shifts to come in and prepare breakfast and lunch. Furthermore, because the entire country’s production of breads, potatoes, and meats is so dependent on artisanal family vendors specific to every neighborhood, the government has no industry to buy from. Kids get bags of mediocre crackers from a commercial company for twice the price of two hearty pieces of local bread.

This web of food economics goes deeper than basic supply and demand. I could ramble on about the free riders, institutions, and targeted moneys that all came out of the woodwork once I got up close and personal with government aid programs. Its enough to make one’s eyes glaze over, yet this fascinating tree of giving seems deeply rooted in the world of the poor and those living on two dollars a day. Investigating a new system of poverty alleviation allows me to learn and observe the effects of these efforts, and to see what it really means to these people when someone gives their kid a bowl of beans.

Lost To Alcohol In Poverty

Alcohol abuse is usually treated as a symptom of poverty, but the more I observe its proliferation amongst the poor the more I consider it as a problem in and of itself. Drinking is actually less in South America relative to Europe and the U.S. And of course imbibing is a vice in every culture and isn’t specific to those in need. I should be the first to admit this given that most people my age are actively discovering the meaning of a beer after work and the adventures of a tequila-fueled Friday night. While I don’t pretend to omit myself from my fellow young adults, I do feel the urge to condemn those who turn to drinking as a complement to their poverty. The first thing we tend to do is base our scrutiny of these people off interactions with them.

A local carpenter I had met the day before cornered me one afternoon in the streets of the community. He was swaying as he stood and asked me to come to his house to teach him English and maybe throw a little financial support his way. He would teach me Quechua and we could celebrate the holidays together. I wanted to yell at him and tell him to go do something productive, to leave me alone. I wanted to tell him to stop buying booze and get his own financial support that way. When I finally loosened his grip enough to walk away I said a curt goodbye and left. He followed me.

This became a trend over the next few weeks, with drunkards waiting outside my apartment door and approaching me on the street. Every time I ran into one it put a new twisted perspective on poverty and alcohol dependence that hadn’t occurred to me before. Alcohol itself is a social lubricant, a relaxant, and a depressant all in the same bottle. Even I have found that affording for drinking takes my mind off the Month of TDC, but what kind of influence does such a drug have on someone who is really poor? When their world is predisposed to limitations at every turn, doesn’t that warrant some sense of enjoyment wherever they can find it? Beer is cheaper than tickets to a show or a new TV set. Poverty comes with hardship, and hardship needs rest. Who am I to deny Mr. Carpenter a slew of drinks when I would seldom deny myself a pour at the end of a rough week? Is drinking really a luxury when we all have monetary responsibilities, regardless of amount?

These questions emerge as I worry about future me potentially working in foreign aid, where the moral dilemma of helping addicts and alcoholics in impoverished villages is a common problem. The humanitarian vein in all of us provides the immediate prima facie response: By no fault of their own, people are driven by personal tragedies to drink excessively and require a demonstration of care that donations may be able to provide. We ought help those in need regardless of why they are where they are. On the other hand, a self inflicted waste of human capital would take valuable resources from a family that needs it and feed it, instead, to the vacuum of light beer and Don Blank White Label that smothers him beneath the poverty line.

In this niche issue area within the greater burden of poverty, my experience with alcohol on two dollars a day has led me to a semi-drastic conclusion: these folks don’t deserve help, at least not my help. Alcoholism is patiently alleviated by close relationships and intimately instilled codes of conduct, the kind of love and care that an aloof foreign organization is rarely capable of giving. It may appear cold and practical, but then again so are simple donations. The required affection for deep seeded troubles is lost, to some degree, when we try and spread out our efforts to cover the large spectrum of needs in the poor world. At some level the local society – the friends, family, and company – take on a responsibility to better themselves for themselves. I’m not saying a focused, concerted action couldn’t cater to such a dearth in welfare, but we are indeed alien to the culture and shouldn’t flatter ourselves with overzealous obligations lest we leave those we can actually help out in the cold. We out of town good-doers are not omnipresent curers and we are reminded of this by gentleman like Mr. Carpenter, who test how far we’re willing to go to help those who seem lost.

I would love to hear why I’m wrong in the comments:



Incomes And Shocks On A Two Dollar Budget

What fun is a challenge without a twist to keep it interesting? As time goes on in the Month of TDC the constant trips to the market have allowed me to familiarize myself with exactly how much food two dollars can buy. The two-dollar budget hasn’t necessarily gotten any easier, but I suppose I am impatient when thinking past the routine to the feast on May 1st. I sometimes feel like a middle school boy again, who waits impatiently, tapping his foot, and listening for the bell. As a result I decided to inject yet another dose of reality into the last two weeks of the challenge:

Just south of Cuzco, in the last town beneath the mountains, there is a tiny community of identical houses built in six parallel strips. A few years ago the river that cuts through the area swelled in a rainstorm and flooded the whole valley floor. Everything below the water level was inundated and destroyed. The mirror image housing and the scores of reconstruction projects you see there today are put on by the government to repopulate the basin. Passing this on the way to my volunteer made me wonder how a poor community would weather such an event, since a torrent of river water would not have differentiated between low and high income neighborhoods as it drowned the small community. Tragedy doesn’t discriminate, even from those living on two-dollars a day.

At the TDC event held at my university (eloquently captured in this video) they have a way of including such variants in the weeklong challenge. Every morning you pull from a hat to decide your income for the day, since budgeting exactly two dollars per twenty-four hours isn’t entirely realistic, and also to determine a ‘shock’. These are strokes of fortune and misfortune that either add money or take away from your day’s spending money. They were based on taxes, natural disasters, and other features of the Honduran environment where La Ceiba Microfinance operates. Using this model I decided to employ the same method to complicate my Month of TDC in the Peruvian setting.

April 17th I was afforded two dollars to spend, but was taxed twenty cents because of an unexpected frost on the western region’s mango fields. On April 18th I got zero dollars to spend and similarly had no up or down shocks. Luckily I had left over lentils and pasta from the week prior, which I quickly used up. April 19th I pulled from the hat a one-dollar budget, but then lost a third of it when a landslide took the life of one of my sheep. Today I got lucky and was awarded two dollars of income again with the added bonus of the Semana Santa festival – providing free food – and boosting my total to three dollars.

This has, of course, spiced things up a bit and I am thankful for the break in standard scheduling, but again I get a bit queasy when I treat poverty as a game. A natural disaster such as flooding may infuse a little more excitement into my day, however the corporeal loses felt by the real Cusqueñan peoples in that valley were no doubt devastating. I have to check myself and realize the horror from their perspective, when from my white-bread tourist life the only real difficulty in the last month has been the drop in exchange rate by five cents. The volatility of a poor life deserves careful consideration and mindful attention, especially for those working in sectors of foreign aid.

Blood And Antiseptic. Cultural Sensitivity Part 2

SalaI was dealing with cultural differences until she pulled out the knife. Everyone knows that practicing tolerance when visiting another’s home is good manners. Before sending students abroad my university preaches ‘Not weird, just different’ for confronting cultural shock. Many factors contribute to differences in how people live their lives and that deserves respect. We only have to compare the east and west coasts of the United States to know that. Nonetheless, when we take on the challenge of experiencing someone else’s world we see how far we are willing to go before we reach something that stumps us.

On a cold day at the Huancarani health center, I thought little would really surprise me after spending a few weeks in Peru. That was until I heard a commotion down the hall and went to see what was going on. A worried mother came through the door with a one-year-old girl in her arms. The child had been burned by what was probably scalding water, and had a dreadfully raw area of exposed skin spanning across her chest and on top of her shoulders. Screaming her head off, every little move seemed like torture to her. Soon there were a few nurses and medical interns at her side inspecting the wound and discussing what to do. For one reason or another they decided not to wash it. They laid her down on the table and began cutting away the dead skin and applying antiseptic while the mother held her down.

Freja (a nearly graduated medical student from Denmark) shook her head a little as the two of us stood back by a speckled oxygen tank and a dilapidated chair. We were waiting to help should they need it, but just as they were about to lay on another gauze the door swung open. The father came in with a family doctor from their rural community. She had with her a green canvas bag from which she removed a knife and rather large guinea pig, fighting to escape from her grip. The guinea pig (or cuy) for all intents and purposes is a sacred animal in the ancient Andean tradition and everyone in the room knew what she wanted to do with it.

Immediately the nurses threw up their hands and there was an explosion of voices. The father scooped up his daughter and held her away from the bottle of antiseptic like it was full of poison. The family doctor shouted loudly in Quechua and took the cuy by the neck, giving it two twists, as one would pry a weed from the dirt, before the animal hung in her hands like a limp sack of flour. Finally one of the nurses took some semblance of control and told the father that they had years of medical experience and that their treatment was going to save his child while the cuy would only make her worse. The father, on the verge of tears, pleaded that this woman had just as much if not more experience in traditional medicine and had been with their family since the beginning.

Unnoticed by everyone the woman had used the knife to gut the poor rodent and pool a handful of blood in her palm. She dashed across the circle of people and dumped the red liquid onto the child, coating the burn. She stopped screaming. The healthcare staff was horrified and Freja turned her head in disgust. The family was ushered from the room and out of the building as they continued to, literally, wring out the dead animal onto the girl. It was over just as quickly as it had begun.

We tried to make sense of what had happened. On one hand this story could be told in retrospect as a satirical portrayal of a silly outdated culture that hasn’t yet come to grips with the modern times. At best the girl will sport an opaque scar for the rest of her life and be miserable until the skin heals over. On the other hand, however, a worst-case scenario is more serious. The child reacted positively when liquid was applied to the burn, and since the antiseptic would have only encourage pain without proper washing, the family probably thought the cuy blood was actually curing their daughter. After the clash in the health care center, they would most likely not return even as their child got worse. Dehydration, foreign liquids, and living conditions where the level of sanitation is next to nil could mean a massive infection spreading over ten percent of her body and without medical attention could be fatal to a one year old. That’s a dead kid.

Cultural sensitivity should be utilized regardless of profession, but this is the gordian-knot-esque conundrum faced by any and all who pursue a career in the field of international affairs. How do you react when the opposing cultural practice falls so far outside your own bounds of reality that it has no chance of being tolerable? When there seems to be no way of calling it anything other than ‘wrong’. At the sight of the woman striding towards the child, blood in hand, there was a little voice in the back of my head telling me to stop her. Yet I have been told that to act on that voice would be to cross a cultural boundary and step on a set of norms where I have no right to be. I ask myself, “If I were really living on two dollars a day, away from modern medicine and immersed in an ancient Incan culture, wouldn’t I believe that to work too?” With the potential fate of the child’s worst case scenario in mind, I’m not sure I can believe that line to be uncrossable.

The Faces Of Tourism. Cultural Sensitivity Part 1


Tourism isn’t just for the sites. The first time I was in the small town of Huancarani I was passing through to the rainforest on the eastern border of Peru. Some middle school friends and I were on our summer vacation traveling with parents and our science teacher. There was a big tour bus and a guide to show us all the majestic sights from exotic birds to Incan ruins. We were tourists good and proper. Venturing into foreign lands, however, can be done a variety of ways, each revealing a select window into the local culture. On my first trip to Peru I was biking, rafting, and going on museum walk throughs. In Huancarani I was treated to soup and chicken. This time I came to volunteer, a tourist to the droves of indigenous people living on two dollars a day.

Honestly I found myself better received when I was the first kind of tourist. As the white guy with a camera around his neck I paid to see things and then went back to the hotel or on to another archeological display, but as a volunteer I was stepping into people’s everyday lives. There is still a growing sentiment in the international aid community, relevant to all volunteering, where field workers realize they aren’t actually helping but hurting. I feared succumbing to this second type of tourism and frequently I did whenever the clinic workers found it more useful to do it themselves than teach a tall gangly gringo the ropes.

Constantly coming up short and observing others complete tasks their way led to an inwardly sickening feeling that I was little more than a medical tourist. It didn’t take long before that frustration turned itself on the Month of TDC: low income communities are probably tired of western-good-intenders constantly peering in upon the details of their personal lives. I have already noticed that Andeans, and especially children, are weary of getting their pictures taken probably because they understand their face may show up on an NGO website with the implied caption of ‘Help Me I’m Poor’. Taking up space whilst trying to help those on two dollars a day was turning out to be an unwanted foreign influence that would not bring any less stress to an already stressful life.

The point is that an aid based volunteering role carries with it a responsibility that large hawaiian shirts do not. The solution, I found, was two fold and became evident when I was actually useful around the clinic. First, study the subject and it’s setting before trying to go and further it’s cause. The real help for a medical clinic would come from someone with a solid understanding of treatment, local practice, and the Spanish language. Although my castellano is up to par, my knowledge of doctoring goes little farther than taking blood pressure and cleaning wounds. Bringing about valid aid to those in need demands a set of learned skills that truly serve that need.

But it’s the second part of the solution which is pertinent to the two dollar a day challenge: In order to live on less – in any country – there exists a mindset born of a social/cultural standing that develops around a life with limited resources. A culture of the poor, if you will. For an outsider to investigate such a mindset without being intrusive he or she has to exercise a great degree of respect and cultural sensitivity, so as to ensure that both parties benefit without the tainted effects of invasive tourism. My fifteen-year-old tourist self was oblivious to this fact and it wasn’t until I began this month’s tour for understanding poverty that caution really made itself clear.

That being said, I then ran into something born of a two-dollar mindset that extinguished any desire I had to understand a culture of the poor. It happened when she took out the knife…

To Be Continued


A Look At The Real $2 A Day

Take a pile of puzzle pieces and toss them over the floor of your house until they lie in every corner and behind every piece of furniture. If you can picture yourself coming home everyday and trying to construct a whole picture just from observing the little clues all around, then you have a sense of what its like to really live in a foreign community. It’s a fascinating, frustrating mind game that tests your patience and adaptability until you understand what it is you’re really looking at. Every new object and everybody’s habits feed into a greater picture of their culture, the diversity of which you only see when you live amongst it. They say you master a language when you reside in a country where it is spoken. The same can be said for understanding a different way of living, even living on two dollars a day.

During these few weeks I am sleeping in the attic of a maternity ward perched on the mountainside town of Huancarani Peru. The women waiting to give birth come from their rural community homes to stay on the level below me, and within a five-minute walk of the health center where I volunteer. Their living situations mimic those of their actual houses in the countryside with an adobe wood stove in the corner, one simple bed, and a bathroom of squalor conditions. They found that women would not come if they were provided anything other than what they were used to. This being the case I was always interested to go out on early morning community visits to see what it was really like where these women came from.Patacancha

On one such excursion I found myself in the Patacancha community running an annual checkup on water reservoirs. The healthcare staff who brought me along introduced the president and from what little conversing I did – between their discussing in Quechua – I learned a great deal about the area: each house makes an average of 150 soles per month, which translates to about $1.80 a day per family. Almost all the income stems from selling potatoes in the tiny shops of Huancarani and the edges of Cuzco, some three hours away. Besides the exporting of spuds the population sustains itself on harvests of grain and beans once a year, storing, selling, and eating each respective gathering in thirds.

The result is an obvious threat of malnutrition. Given that more and more people are born into the village every year the demand to produce and provide is higher. A few NGOs are active in the area and one can observe family names and identification numbers tagged on the outside walls of the homes. There are sixty-two men (who are the heads of households) representing roughly one hundred forty women and children. That means the entire community probably makes about $3,320 a month.

Life in the Andes is without a doubt a spectacle to behold. Observing one group of indigenous peoples go about their day can dawn a whole new understanding of the region as a whole. The value, though, of such an experience is being able to glimpse the intricate clues of where these people come from and how they receive you as a foreign influence. I believe I am blessed to have the opportunity to get an up-close look at all the puzzle pieces, so I may have a better perspective on what it is we’re trying to do as we attempt to alleviate the pressures of two dollars a day.

The Cooking Game

I’m slowly learning to make the most of $2 a day. In fact I’m learning a lot of things that will hopefully prove useful in the weeks to come, like how work and eating conflict. The price of a pen to replace the one that ran out of ink costs the same as two peppers and an egg. My haggling skills have also increased as I spend more time sorting and digging for the better quality. I learned to buy white peaches instead of orange ones, but I also learned how eating too much raw avocado too fast will make me fart like a jet engine for approximately the rest of my life.

So lets play a learning game. When I look back at the list of things I bought on a daily budget there are some that seem reasonably well balanced and others that make me smack my forehead and say, “That was it?” But when the money leaves the palm of my hand under the guise of a good idea, that’s all I can do. You the reader may have a better perspective on what it is I can cook. Take a look at last week’s meals:

April 1                                           April 2                                      April 3                               April 4

1 cheese bread                           1 cheese bread                      1 egg bread                      1 egg bread

1 chocolate empenada            1 cinnamon croissant        2 muffins                          1 chocolate empanada

1 pack of crackers                    1 giant avocado                    5 carrots                           5 potatoes

4 peppers                                    ½ kilo flour                            ¼ cup peas                      1 bullion cube

5oz steak                                           –                                             1 egg                                    2 peaches

¼ kilo rice                                       –                                              1 handful peanuts          6oz chicken

.      –                                                    –                                              1 tomato                                    –

.      –                                                    –                                               3oz cheese                               –                                            

.      –                                                    –                                               1 bag mini pastas                   –

The game is simple: write out the best recipe you can come up with and post it in the comments. If you decide to play Beginner you can take all the ingredients and make a wonderful meal. Intermediate has you working only with one day’s rations and Hard mode means you have to make the days supply last for all three meals. If you’re feeling brave try Expert: spread the food over all three meals, no oven, no microwave, and no drinkable water. All water must be boiled first and for every ingredient above the first three used at dinner you must delay going to bed by another half an hour given that digestion is a heavier process at altitude.

I have found that creating exciting meals out of what is sometimesbland food distracts from the lack of quantity thereof. I challenge you to April third, when I ate the egg bread for breakfast and took the two muffins with the block of cheese for lunch. At dinner I poured the peanuts into a bowl and smashed them up with a rock from the garden (as is the Andean way). I added left over flower from April second, a little borrowed oil, salt, and water. I mixed it up into a tasty peanut sauce that I then spread over the steamed peas and carrots. Finally I put some chopped tomatoes in a frying pan with the egg and poured the cooked mini bowtie pastas in overtop. Slowly it browned until I was left with plate of golden egg noodles. Although it proved a savory meal I was up later than I would have liked. What should I have cooked instead? Anybody who posts a recipe in the comments that impresses me this weekend will earn a $5 donation to La Ceiba in their name.


Grades For Food. Cash For Food. Food For Food


Grocery stores beat it into our brains that food is abundant. Subliminally we learn to think of meats, fruits, and vegetables as edible objects with little individual worth, as one tomato is grown and processed in the same way as millions of others exactly like it. They’re just sustenance. If it goes bad we will simply buy some more. It’s a problem that has to do with how we value food and appreciate what it does and is. I was trying to think abstractly about this as I sat outside the door of a small town shaman, waiting to go inside. My professor, Beatriz, who had brought me there was instructing me to open up my mind in preparation for the reading.

We sat on the curb and I gratefully accepted a handful of manna (popcorn) she had bought on the street. She told me how she worked through school after her father died and became an agricultural engineer. My ears perked up when she explained the system they had in the university cafeteria where the top ten percent of students with the highest grades ate for free. They got a whole bowl of soup, one plate of food, and a glass of juice. To some this incentive was frivolous seeing as the contents weren’t exactly top notch, but to Beatriz it was the way to go. She would study hard to get the grades and then take even more soups from those who considered themselves above such mediocre quality. Her stomach wouldn’t make a sound for hours when she worked her hotel night shift every evening, allowing her more time to study for the next day.Beatriz

I wonder what the effect would be should we choose to apply this same sentiment to our own jobs. So often I feel like we value everything we do in monetary terms instead of what we actually earn for ourselves. If you think about it, in the last few hours at the office you have probably gained two jars of sauce, three cuts of beef, and four gallons of milk to last you until the end of the month. We already do this in terms of pretty dresses or fancy cars, so why don’t we value our foods for the delicious delights they are? We clearly need them more than we do another luxury and I think our appreciation of it should reflect that.

Food for food’s sake demands we remember how lucky we are to have nature’s banquet at our fingertips. Plants, pickers, and all manner of vehicles had to work hard themselves to bring you that one blueberry sitting on top of your cereal. I’m not preaching the meaning in every pea, but next time you pick up a fruit don’t just eat it. Enjoy it for what it is: a really good piece of food. This was on my mind when I asked the shaman if I was going to get a good job and eat well in the future, he peered over the coca leaves lit beneath the dim light of the claustrophobic green sanctuary and said, “Yes, but you will have to go very far, and work very hard to get it.”

Genie In A Microwave

Before leaving for my week at the clinic I found myself focusing on the subject of food which takes the spotlight in this week’s posts

As I was staring morosely at my meager meal of chewy bits of cow and a cup of rice, broiling on the stove in front of me, I glanced up to my decorative ceramic kettle that looks like a deformed version of Disney’s teacups. If I were to rub such a lamp, I said to myself, and should a genie emerge I would immediately know what my first wish would be. I would wish for a microwave.

So often when we think of ‘cheap’ food our minds go to things like instant ramen, craft mac&cheese, and hot pockets. Left overs from previous meals are even more economical. These are all things that become a quick hunger satisfier with the press of a few buttons, on a machine many of us take for granted. Microwaves are not always a luxury in the developing world especially given the fact that they require electricity. What this means for a lot of folks is that if it isn’t eaten when it’s cooked, it may never be hot again.DSC_0460

Gas heating systems run everything here from showers to ovens. It is normal in countries where this is the case to see a motorbike speed by with gas canisters strapped to it. I have begun to notice the lack of constant snacking due to the opportunity cost and I am realizing what part patience plays in eating on low-income foods. I could be chowing on crackers and candies all day, but the cheap and healthy foods like meats and vegetables are the ones that will allow me to make it through the month, and they take longer to prepare. A microwave would help me to make healthy foods into quick foods as well, but for now I have to deal with the issues of a stove. It’s like arriving home after a ten hour day with little to no breaks and having to wait twenty minutes for a potato to boil, only to discover you’re out of gas. Imagine having to go out and replace the canister on your grill just to have a hot pocket.

Despite the fact that one out to be grateful to have food in the first place, regardless of its condition, a magical box that uses invisible waves to jostle the molecules in our food and make it steaming hot is a marvel of technology. Especially to those who are being driven mad with hunger and the extra wait.  As soon as the genie granted me my first wish I would probably grab him by the tail and slam him in the microwave. When you’re hungry, anything might taste good.