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December 2020: Hopeful & Reflective (On A Half Decade)

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Days sick: 0
Days danced: 0
Many parts of this month were struggles to get through. This was mostly mental, but also a bit physical, though I’ve had several days of feeling like I’m “back to my old self” and I’ve become more cognizant of the coping mechanisms I employ (both positive and negative). Overall it was a good month. I’m really excited about the possibilities that 2021 holds, even though I know they’ll come with their own challenges.

Me with my mom’s “dumb cane” on Christmas Eve.

In keeping with the strangely hormonal ups and downs I’ve been having, I was basically depressed for the first several days of the month. Then I just somehow came out of it and jumped back into work head-on, though I’m anticipating a bit more of this over the current week first of January. Over the three weeks leading up to Christmas, I also had some very nice & memorable moments, like seeing the lights at the Mormon Temple and running around the Indian market with my roommate & a friend. But it’s been hard to shake this feeling that I’m still just barely moving forward. 

I’m still stepping in and out of the copper toxic state and it sucks, because I can manage such great productivity when I’m in a normal mental state. I get so envious of people who seem to accomplish so much, when I’m over here feeling like a Dolly Parton song. But then again, at times when I’m feeling almost “normal,” I remember how I got so little sleep & (almost) straight A’s in school for so long.

I used to do all my school work, hobbies, extracurriculars, paid work, AND cook for myself! Pictured here is pad pik king, some Thai pork I made last week.

I had one week that was so normal I found myself walking around the city just getting shit done, and by the end of the day I felt satisfied rather than overwhelmed by all the stuff still on my to-do list! Amazing.

Also, here in DC we’re back to paying for public transport in a few days, but buses just seem to get more crowded each day. One evening I even walked off a bus to get away from what amounted to a full bus playing covid roulette. In a move that normally would have greatly offending me, on a walk last week a woman purposefully bumped me hard in the shoulder, but I managed to acknowledge that getting angry wouldn’t change the past nor take away her invisible pain. I felt a lot like my mother and grandfather at that moment.

But let’s fast forward through some good days & some bad— I went to my parents for the holidays. My roommate and I arrived, takeout in tow, to a 22-foot socially-distanced Christmas Eve lunch, windows open behind us. It was very nice, but I miss hugging my parents, playing board games, just seeing them up close.

I spent the actual holiday with friends, but the year ended on a good note, cupcakes and all. I’m hopeful about a productive and (mostly) happy 2021. Maybe I’ll even get to go international again. As it stands, this seems like the perfect time to reflect back on what I was doing five years ago, before my health issues, before Korea, and just after returning from my first solo trip.

This was my view over the weekend, and I never would have guessed that this was where I’d be five years after finishing my fellowship… back in MD!

The year was 2015, and I’d just re-entered the US after 7+ months in Latin America. My first obligation was to write an essay. So the piece below is what I submitted to the Burch Fellowship committee after I got back from Peru in December 2015. The prompt was: “What you did with your Burch Fellowship” and “What the Burch Fellowship did to you.” This is what I wrote and turned in, verbatim (please accept my writing skillz as they were thx)…

Burch Fellowship Paper

Moving to a new country is hard. Doing it three times in one year is just about three times as hard. I did it anyway; seven months, fourteen flights, and countless new friendships. Sadly, eventually each of these experiences came to an end, though some were much easier to say goodbye to than the others. In this style of slow travel, living and working in a country for a few months at a time, my experience of Latin America was always in-between that of most everyone else; it was diverse, difficult, and delightful.

An apparent appreciation for quality chocolate and a transparent supply chain spans the Americas, from Guatemala to Ecuador to Peru, and thanks to support from my Burch Fellowship I had the chance to take part in each aspect of it. I got to know so many things which were not what they seemed to be, most of them being better, but some being disappointments. I became a godmother, saw one of the seven wonders of the world, attended wine tastings, and helped make chocolate across the continent.

¿Y cómo se llama esto? is generally the way I was introduced to a new chocolate job in a new cacao-producing country. I had never been to Latin America before this year, and there were always words that I could not pronounce, words without an English translation, or which turned out to actually have been indigenous words. Who knew? I certainly did not, so every day I stumbled through many words which I eventually learned, albeit after someone spells them for me five or six times.

Once I got there, I seemed to just fall into the Spanish, bumping into words I had not even realized I had learned until I needed to use them. Thus, I was always working on the first half of my Fellowship goals. The second half was a multi-level goal which took many months to fully understand, despite my having been the one to write it. I wanted to find my place in the world of chocolate.

Peru Cusco Chocomuseo Chocolate Making Workshop
Cusco Chocomuseo Chocolate Making Workshop!

A rather elusive community, the chocolate-obsessed have outposts in every country, usually in the form of cafes. I happened to work in three of these, starting in Guatemala as an intern in a chocolatería in Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala. Carlos, the owner of Danta Chocolate, was generous enough to train me in the art of chocolate making for two months in the summer of 2015.

I learned how to properly complete each step of chocolate making by also visiting a cacao plantation during my time in Guatemala, cementing in the importance of proper fermentation and drying alongside good roasting and refining techniques. Not only did I help make chocolate as part of a team, but I learned what it takes to build and run a successful chocolate business; Carlos was very frank about what everything costs, how to ship in the best ingredients, attracting and keeping customers. It was a whirlwind, but decidedly worth it.

From the outset I definitely took the path less traveled, both literally and figuratively. But I became more careful after leaving Guatemala, better-versed in chocolate making as well as living and thriving in a Latin American country, in cultures so different from my own. And I have got to warn you, it is no easy task.

Constantly, like those horrid action figures with the strings in their backs, the same phrase kept repeating in my head: ya vivo aquí. I live here. When I got the gringo price in Guatemalan markets, when Quiteños assumed I don’t speak Spanish, when Peruvian Taxi drivers tried to quintuple the price for a ride I had already taken a dozen times… ya vivo aquí.

It sometimes got very frustrating to do the day-to-day things, though the occasional complements to my Spanish were reassuring. I always approached things flexibly, often with more outward confidence than I would normally muster up. I tried to maintain a philosophy of acceptance, because when you’re in a new culture one of the most important things is respecting it, both the differences and the similarities.

At least once a day, I asked myself “Why not?” and had no good answer more often than not. By the end of my trip I was taking the initiative and inviting other travelers from my hostel to go find lunch or dinner with me, just for the sake of maybe making a new friend.

Chocolate on my face for a sea lion selfie.

I learned to always just go for it, even if I am unsure, because it almost always pays off. Go out salsa dancing by yourself? Yupp. Take the $2 chicken bus instead of the $30 private taxi? Okay. Hike this mountain with us at 7am? Eh, why not. Each of these things not only embedded lessons of patience and flexibility in my mind, but they turned into good stories.

Weekend jaunts around Ecuador were fit in between my shifts in the café in Quito and my time on the farm in Pacto. From tree to truffle, we made chocolate on the farm, then bringing it into Quito to sell at the café, alongside the coffee which we picked and fermented and dried and roasted on the farm.

As a server at the café I prepared food, talked to customers, spoke to tourist groups about chocolate and cacao, and made hundreds of cups of coffee. But on the farm I did nearly everything under the sun (seriously, everything was very sunny and buggy despite the high altitude). Brushing and painting trees, planting corn, harvesting yucca, fermenting cacao, collecting natural fertilizers, filling bags with dirt… the list is practically endless.

The variety of jobs on a working experimental farm is astounding, and simultaneously works your creativity and hones your ability to multitask. I have dared to try things here that I can honestly say I would not have been willing to do in the States. Over the course of those several months, many people asked me why I was studying cacao and chocolate making, and by the end of my travels, I had a solid and condensed answer for them.

Chocolate is an important part of the western childhood, and it has the ability to grow and change with us, going from the featured ingredient in a birthday cake to the craft food we pair with the wine at our wedding. It is well-known and –loved, and can have intricate flavors due to the complex chemistry behind its production. But the hidden side of chocolate is that of cacao and its cultivation.

Cacao is a global commodity with a storied and undeniable past in all parts of the world, and it is germane to topics such as agriculture, global poverty, environmental science, and anthropology. The consumption of both products has very far-reaching and almost unrecognizably intertwined implications, very few of which are well-known. So many people don’t know about one side or the other, and now that I have explored both, I’d like to keep one foot on either side of the river, hopefully running my own chocolate café one day, with visitors from all over the world.

I have formed friendships with such people, so many of whom I otherwise would have never met, of that I am sure. Everywhere I went, although there was certainly danger, there was promise as well. There were always people willing to help, people interested in hearing my thoughts and opinions. Strangers, all of them, until we each got to say our piece and liked what we heard. I saw the daily struggles of many people, the prejudices and truths that they have to face before they even have a name for them.

Though before I thought myself rather well-cultured, versed in the meaning of hardship despite not having experienced much of it, I found myself constantly proven wrong. Rather than learning that I knew nothing, I learned that I know nothing. I know nothing of the pain of having a child at sixteen, of never being able to leave the village you were born in, of working seven days a week or else being unable to feed your children, of being born into a family so poor that your job at seven is to beg in the streets.

These are unknowable hardships, so far beyond the realm of my experiences that I can understand them in name only, empathizing in the best way I know how. My Burch Fellowship taught me about agriculture and commerce and budgeting and culture, yes, but it also allowed me to learn the gratefulness and humility I need to have to be the best person I can be on a daily basis. I found beauty in the struggle and ignorance in much of the success.

Each day, I have nonspecific desire to return to a moment I had in Latin America, so many amazing ones that I could not even specify which country I fell in love with the most. Each has its own quirks, slang, and toughness that is hard to put into words. When asked what my favorite part was about each country, I always have the same cheesy answer: being able to look up at the sky each night and see the stars, knowing that although they aren’t always the same stars, that everyone sees the same breathtaking beauty, night after night.

My friends and I may not always be on the same continent, but we always have nature to remind us that we don’t have to be. So until next time, Latin America. I can’t wait to see what you’ll show me next.

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