Thursday, July 30, 2009

american me

Being here for six months now has made me more deeply love and simultaneously more frequently shy away from America. It's odd seeing the random bits that are filtered through here, living without TV but still able to read news online keeps me plugged in in a way that is probably both good and bad. Those Birthers for example. I mean, that's just embarrassing for everyone. And is tonight's Beer Summit a real thing? I kind of like that one actually. But I digress.

There are many things I've developed a deeper appreciation for since moving here. Health care, although we've been extremely lucky and in fact probably have a MD who is equally or more astute than any MD we've seen in the States, especially given his lack of equipment (he routinely uses a magnifying glass which makes me think of a mad scientist but yet he seems to use it well). Roads are another one. Damn, America, you have roads down to a science, generally pothole free and labeled so nicely with stoplights that work. Public services in general, the safety net of those three little numbers is something too easy to take for granted till they are gone.

There are some things that I enjoy but are obviously unnecessary, such as convenience. Being able to go to one store and get what you need instead of six stores and still coming up zeros, places to get a decent pedicure and of course, a variety of food choices.

But then there are some things that distance has allowed enlightenment, things that frustrated me when I lived there full time that I find even more annoying now, like the media. It's salaciousness, it's need to grip onto a subject and shake it like a dog with an iguana (oh, just trust me on this) until nothing is left and everything smells like shit. And one that has been particularly annoying is the boohooing over gas prices. Simply put, until you routinely pay the equivalent of $5 US per gallon (and that's on a good day) you can't realize how nice 2.87 or even 3.42 actually is. And imagine doing that while living on substantially less income. Perhaps that's why public transportation, as rickety as it is here, effectively makes the world go round. And the thing is, I never hear anyone complain. That's the thing that strikes me the loudest. There is markedly less complaining here.

And that can be both a good and bad thing. One of the reasons America became so great is because people DID complain. They stood up, they rallied, they cried out when things were unfair. This form of protest has brought a host of important changes to America, from the obvious civil and gender rights to all sorts of other issues. But sometimes, America me thinks you doth protest too much. Taxes are okay. Higher gas prices are okay. The former gives us the roads and the public services and many other things. The latter...well, the latter is a problem no matter how it's sliced. But keeping people and big business happy comes at great costs, doesn't it?

I write this with trepidation. The last thing I want to do is to sound critical or cavalier, I am sensitive to both and to be honest, feel more American now than I probably ever have in my life. I am proud of it and honored by the opportunities it has afforded me. Grateful that I've had the privilege of growing up well. But one can't see that without seeing the excess. Everything see, is a blessing and a curse.

Here, people live on very little. They eat the same foods every day, day in and day out. And when you ask them what their favorite food is they will tell you it's what they eat every day. Even the kids. Beans and rice. But what if you could have anything you want I ask them and they say without a hint of irony beans and rice. Here working hard and spending time with your family is a measure of your life. It's smaller and to those of us who've grown hungry it's often hard to fathom. That this could be your life in it's entirety, travelling very small distances and living as generations before you have lived with of course, small and large advances like electricity or running water or now, the internet. Being able to sit for hours in the evening simply being still.

Imagining our lives like this is easier for me now and harder still. I am aware of the separation, of what having some money and a passport can do. How lucky I am and yet also aware that if the shit really hits the fan these folks in all of these little outposts all over the world will probably survive a lot longer than most of us domesticated types. They know hand to mouth existence. They suck it up every single day. It's just how it is and yet there is a great joy entwined inside of it that has touched me more deeply and has made me think harder than I'd ever imagined. I thought I understood poverty before coming here and perhaps in in the States I still do but here, they've got nothing on folks here and these folks have nothing on folks in Africa. It's all relative I suppose. It's harder and easier. It's scarier and safer. It's just different.

I write this also because I am coming back for a bit. I've gotten a consulting gig in California, something very important to our family's ability to survive here and so in a week or so I'll be returning for a few weeks or maybe longer, back to the land of More after finally getting used to the world of Less and I'm a bit scared, scared that my soft white underbelly will show itself and I'll quickly forget all I've learned. That I'll wander the big grocery stores and buy more than I need. That I'll take luxury for granted. That I'll like the order of stoplights and exit signs and affordable gas prices more than I should. That I'll forget how to sit still.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

recorded for posterity

My kid is really funny. I know all kids are really funny but this one's living here with me and I'm keeping her alive till she's grown and ready to do her thing so you know, she's special. And if I don't write it down somewhere I'll forget. Nearly five years old is a fantastic age, isn't it?

Proof positive:

M: Mama, do you still hate John McCain
Me: Well baby, I don't know that I hated him...
M: Oh, yes you did
Me: Bygones. Whatever, I don't hate him now.
M: So do you want to invite him to the jungle then?
Me: It's probably better we keep our distance honey. No offense to him.
M: Well, would you want to marry him then?
Me: What about daddy?
M: He won't mind.

Or this:

M: Grandma and grandpa love me a lot. I think they love me the most besides you and Daddy. I hope they never have their own daughter so they keep loving me best.
Me: Um, I am their daughter.
M: Oh, yeah. I forgot about you.

And here:

We were driving and discussing for the first time that Mommies and Daddies Sometimes Split Up M is watching it happen to a friend in the village. I am gripping the wheel tightly, thinking we are going to have one of Those Defining Moments when it dawns on her that this is something that can happen in the world.

Me: Well honey, sometimes mommies and daddies decide they can't live together anymore so they agree to live apart. But no matter what they love their kids and it has nothing to do with your friend.
M: So sometimes Mommies and Daddies stop living together?
Me: (heart sinking while puppies everywhere die) yes...
M: Well, if that happens I'm definitely going with you. Can I have some ice cream?

And my personal favorite:

Mama, when I grow up I want to work in a Pizza Parlour.
Me: That's great honey. Make sure to tell daddy, he'll love that.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

oh baby

The baby came Friday after stubbornly not coming for a week. The hospital room (family only so I missed the good stuff) was bustling with nurses and they seemed to take good care. They did insist on repeated ultrasounds to check the baby's position which seemed a bit odd when everyone there had fingers but otherwise all was fine and my beautiful village friend birthed an even more beautiful baby and she's perfect through and through. Tomorrow we go to the center of the village, there are doctors who come through once a month with immunizations for babies and kids and they've invited me to come along.

In other news, M was pretty sick for a bit. The rash made no sense and her bloodwork came back showing some sort of infection but our wonderful MD was very calm and reassuring even as I panicked test her for malaria test her for dengue and he smiled and said no no, she's not sick like that and I figured he would know much better than me. What this place lacks in money and fancy equipment is made up for in other ways, like when the doctor called later that night to see how M was and to remind me to give her her medicine. Like when he said if she gets worse no matter how late you call me I want you to call. It's made up for again when he texted me the next morning to check in once more. It was all the way over the top three days later when I texted him from far away to ask if M could resume eating dairy and he responded in moments no ice cream till Monday and somehow these little kindnesses add up to so much.

And now she's fine, whatever it was has left the building and my jungle pixie is back to normal, running wild in the yard and tackling the dogs. We went and visited the new baby today, the first time M has seen her and she stood so still, so angelic, and peered into her eyes. Was I ever small like that mama and I touched her cheek oh yes baby and smaller still and she smiled a big smile and turned back to the baby, the one who will grow up with chickens and iguanas and a dozen people mothering her at once all under one roof and I looked at her mama over their heads and she looked at me and we smiled, the one that says she knows what I know now, that nothing will ever be the same and she already can't imagine not being this little girl's mom and I realized it once more, it doesn't matter what village you grow up in, we are all mothers here.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

i hate sick

M is sick. I don't know what is wrong with her. She's covered in a terrible rash and hot to the touch. I took her to our jungle MD this morning early, I called him on his cell and he said to meet him at his office and we did. He took one look at her and said it was an allergic reaction but to what? So we trudged across the dirt road to the laboratory where they took a bit of blood for further exploring and after lunch we'll go back and wait our turn. We'll wait our turn in a roomful of people, there are no appointments but then again there is cell phones that get answered and she's in okay spirits so far.

We have friends in town, good friends who we love and have missed and who've come to visit. The rest of the party is in the middle of a jungle inside of a cave partially under water right now while I sit with my child and wonder what the prognosis will be. J wanted to stay behind, he thought I should go with our friends but it's funny, it's so funny it's not even a thought because it's just like air or water when your child is sick you are a mother and nothing else not anything else matters until you know they are okay and the thought of not being there is not even a thought because you'd never even think it because this is where no matter what this is where you need to be.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009


We have a new neighbor, a retired American guy who has chosen this place like many who seem to be choosing this place as their new home. Feeling neighborly I invited him to dinner, remembering my first weeks of lostness and oh my god what the hell have we done. A major news flash I haven't yet mentioned is that I now have a working oven, not one we bought but one that was traded out of another house, my jedi patience paid off. So friends, I'd like to proclaim loudly: I can bake things. I can cook without using the top of my stove.

Not that I'm much of a baker. But still. And I had a precious tub of ricotta, one I found the same day I made my vegetable discovery so I figured no better way to break in the oven than to make a lasagna. Anyways, this is all rather boorish so let's get back to the new guy.

One of the things I've been startled to find here is that some of the expats I am meeting, (generally the older ones) have actually left America because of their disgust with the increasing liberalization of our nation. They have nearly exactly the opposite politics as I do which is often a conversation stopper and one I cannot reconcile in my head but hey, to each his own.

So when our neighbor came over, beers had been cracked and conversation started he began telling us about the things he's bringing down, from a big TV to a fancy BBQ. As he looked around at our sparseness he issued an invitation to come over anytime and watch TV to which I said well TV isn't really important to us but yes occasionally I'd love to watch CNN and was going to finish the sentence with when Obama is giving a speech when he interrupted me midway with ah so you like the Communist News Network and so I of course my sentence was left dangling with J smirking in the background. Being unsurprised at this point I started to laugh, look at us, neighbor, you can't imagine we'd be anything else, and since it's safe to say our politics are at opposite sides of the fence we should probably agree to disagree up front and he laughed and nodded and I couldn't help adding but I generally prefer baking lasagna for socialists and there was a bit less laughing that time (I never quite know when to stop) and the conversation moved on.

Over the course of a reasonably pleasant non-political evening I was struck by the mirror our neighborly neo-con held up for me. Newly here, he was trying to make this place like the place he is used to, a place this will never be. He wants the bugs gone and the electronics in. He wants it to be orderly and he wants it to be cool. I had different wants but I had wants all the same, the skittish what the hell have I done sort of thoughts that leave you with nothing else to do but try and find what you left. I didn't realize it until after he left, this thing he's doing that I did and everyone probably does and how it's just something he'll have to reconcile or he won't be able to stay.

And I was happy in realizing that while I'm nowhere near assimilated I am coping much better, I have stopped freaking out about bugs and am growing used to the heat. I find marvel in the rickety bits and find absolute glory in the length of the sky. I am calmer here.

Because when you strip away all the distractions, the TV and the restaurants the commerce and the convenience the hustle and flow you are left with more time to think about who you want to be and how you might find ways to find stillness in the rush. It's all a part of why we came but I lost that for awhile because one can lose herself when she's feeling lost and now I'm finding I'm slightly more found and no matter what comes next this place is starting to change me in ways that I suppose I expected but like a new coat you have no idea how it will fit until it's actually on.

And on a totally unrelated note: No Baby Yet!

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Friday, July 10, 2009

a day in a jungle life pt. 2

For Jennifer, because she asked.

It used to be different when I was small. There were 12 of us kids and we worked, we worked from when we were little all day to night. We grew everything, mon. Everything! Beans and corn, I'd have to take the corn and grind it and grind it till my arms wanted to fall off and then I'd make tortillas from it and the boys would eat, they would eat so much! My dad he grew everything, he grew everything we ate and hunted for our meat. And we had no electricity, only kerosene, the whole village had no power. Only 20 years ago did we get power here.

But now, things have changed. I wake up at 5am every day (in the same house she's lived all her life) and I sweep and I clean and I take care of whatever dirt has happened in the night and then I cook breakfast. I feed everyone in my house (8 family members spanning 4 generations) and I make fryjacks or johnnycakes or tortillas with some fried egg. After breakfast I wash, I clean the dishes (they do not having running water in their kitchen so they wash dishes outside) and mop and clean the bathroom and then I put beans on, beans are in the pot all day long. I wash them three times to take out the stones and put them on the fire with some garlic and onion and sweet pepper and if we have enough money we have meat too and I feed everyone for lunch, this is our biggest meal. I make a nice rice and beans mon, you know that. Dinner is leftovers from lunch and if they don't want it they have to cook for themselves.

In between I iron and wash clothes, when I was a girl I washed in the river but not anymore. Then I go to work some days (housekeeping and cooking for lodges or expats in the area) and I go to sleep early. I go to sleep early because I am tired! When I was a child we would sit and read stories and listen to a radio that had a battery but now, now we have a TV.

We have no cable but the kids they come with movies and we watch movies some nights or we go and watch futbol. TV, I can't say if it's good or bad in some ways it is good, it opens the kids minds from what is only here but bad because it makes them want. It makes them want. But I think it's better now mon, I think life is better now.

This day in the jungle life as told to me by my friend N, a woman who lives down the road from me.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

day in the life

I'm over at BlogHer talking about a day in my jungle life. Please excuse the crappy job I've done of linking, formatting's gone a bit wonky here. Again.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

the chicken is in the pot

Four hours later we emerge from the hospital triumphant. The baby is perfectly fine and with everyone's help the birthing account has been created. They are ready for their delivery. My friends asked me to come with them along each step, the MD visit, the lab, the ultrasound and seeing that floating baby made my eyes float a bit too. Here, there and everywhere the beat of life goes on.

Our last stop was the cashier and I stood off to the side watching them hand over what is to them an enormous sum. I see the father's eyes glaze over a bit and he shakes his head. Babies, they are expensive I say and he nods. The chicken is in the pot, he replies and that makes me laugh. Indeed. We drive home and they are smiling now, the weight of so much has been lifted.

Much of the MD appointment was in Spanish and my limited skills only took me so far. I ask when she told them to come back and they said we come back on her due date, the 20th. I start to laugh and I tell them they very well might be coming back sooner, the baby will tell them when to go so dates don't matter so much anymore. The relief is palpable and as we drive up to their little house swarming as always with kids and chickens and dogs and family everyone there is smiling as they tell them about the day. Later on my friend and the baby's grandma comes over with some freshly baked johnnycakes and gives them to me. Thank you, she said. They were worried and now everything is going to be okay. I tell her I am thankful for them, for all they teach me every day and while I can't make a nice beans and rice or very good tortillas, I can't catch a parrot or scale a fish there are some things I can do and getting things organized is one of them. It takes a village she says without a hint of irony in her voice. And it does.

Speaking of villages, there are some of our own that have moved some serious mountains this week. Linking is problematic some days so I have to give a giant squeeze to Jenny and Sarah, Brie and Amy, these fabulous woman have arranged to donate all of the supplies for the upcoming village art class which starts in a two weeks. The postmaster shakes his head at the boxes and as he opens them he is curious about what it's for and I tell him. Friends from the US want to make sure kids here can learn art and he smiles and charges the lowest possible duty, a token at best of .50 per box. Because of you these kids will get to do things they have never done before and holy cow, that's pretty darn cool. Another chicken is in the pot.

I'm starting to come around to this place, the bugs and the heat and the rickety nature of most things aside I see it more deeply now and less romantically, we need so much less than we think and yet we still need some things and there is a balance of Western and Not Western that is might not be necessary but is valued a lot, like rice in a sifter, we can strain out the icky bits before cooking it on the stove and a pot of rice goes a long, long way.

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

special delivery

Yesterday I took our pregnant friends to the MD so they can decide where to have their baby in a few weeks. The options are slim, there is a government hospital here so decrepit and awful that I am literally afraid to even go inside. The other option is a private hospital, better than the public one but still far below any lowered expectations I may have. The problem with the private hospital is that it costs money to have the baby there, around $500 US which seems like a steal yet far too outrageous a cost for most of the folks who live here. As our baby gift to them we'd already offered to help with some of the costs with the agreement that the rest would come from them. Problem is, they were quoted an inaccurate and lower fee the first time they inquired so now they are looking at about $200 more than they were planning, a cost that exceeds their budget.

They've been going back and forth, their stress level rising. The other day they decided to scrap the idea all together and go back to the public hospital but rumors, unfounded or not about the level of care have got them scared. We went to the private hospital so they could get the information again and hopefully accurately because they have to decide now, the private hospital won't deliver the baby without a couple of prenatal visits first.

When I picked them up their usually happy faces were grim. I asked how they were doing and was met with silence until the father said Jen what would you do if you were us? and I responded carefully, it's not my place to give advice and yet it's hard to watch young scared kids about to become parents not having a plan for what to do. I would learn as much as I can about my options and then go from there and they nodded and off we went. We went to the private hospital, the same place I took J those months ago that scared me silly and talked with a nurse. We learned the true costs of the delivery (the 500 US with 80% of that needing to be put down as a deposit two weeks before) if there are no complications, an additional 1500 US if things were to go south and a C-section was needed.) She hasn't had some of the blood work she needs and they will want an ultrasound (this is the only hospital in the area with an ultrasound machine) so that will cost extra too. I see their eyes roll back in their heads, I know the standard delivery costs are probably manageable but if costs go up they would have no way to pay. The other option for a few hundred dollars less is to go to a private doctor and birth in his office without equipment and hope for the best.

I tell myself babies are born this way all over the world every single day but no matter the mantra I feel like I might throw up.

So we get back in the car and the mother is silent and on the verge of tears, the father is getting agitated, he needs a decision and still isn't sure what to do. I decide to be direct and ask them how much money they have and he tells me what is in his bank account, all the money they have in the world isn't quite enough to cover the standard private hospital fees so I ask them then if money wasn't the issue where would they choose and it was the private hospital hands down.

The mother looked at me and asked where I would have wanted to have M and I couldn't tell her the truth, that every fiber of my being is screaming NONE OF THESE PLACES NOT ONE BECAUSE THEY ALL SCARE ME THEY SCARE ME A LOT but there are no other options so I looked at her and smiled I think I'd choose the private hospital too so we talk about options and they decide to ask an uncle for the rest of the funds they need and he agrees to give them the money and now strapped but decided they can move forward.

So tomorrow we'll go back to the private hospital and open an account, she'll see a MD and get her tests done and hopefully the birth will be routine and all will be well. They've asked me to come along and I'm awkward, I am not family and I am unsure of my place and yet they have asked and so I will go, not sure if I will be sitting in the waiting room or invited to come along. On the way home I carefully inquired about how much she knew about what to expect, the village is full of mothers so I have to assume they've talked it through. Do you know how to recognize when you are in labor and how to time your contractions and she nods slightly and I have to assume it's true. If you ever want to talk the whole thing through I am happy to just let me know and she nods again and I leave it at that.

There is no such thing as epidurals here and so she's in for it once it starts, there are no breathing classes or those cozy little mommy-daddy circle groups talking everyone through the routine, just a woman and her body as women and their bodies do what they do all over the world every single minute of every single day but my own lily-white body still can't quite manage it, knowing the luxuries of the West and the ways we are unbelievably coddled with soothing music and doulas, water births and prenatal yoga. And with machines that measure the baby's heart rate and medicine to help with the pain. Again I am reminded I do not think I am tough enough for this.

There are few cars out in our village so we offered to be on call so we can drive them to the hospital when her labor starts and J and I have agreed that when the time comes I should be the one to take them and he'll stay home with M, generally these things happen in the middle of the night so I expect this will be the same, a long drive down dusty roads without a clear sense of what will happen when we arrive but the fervent prayer that nature will naturally take her course and while it has nothing to do with me it still comes down to this: my own uncertainty of the world and it's struggles and how things are unfair and why some are privy to so much more and how many things can go wrong and how money makes you cautious and how money can solve your problems and even now I sit here scared for all the things I never had to think about before coming here.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

I am here

One of the things I thought I knew but did not realize the weight of it was how disconnected I would feel from all of you. I realized nearly a month gone that I have been blogging for three years now and it's more than blogging, it's chronicling, it's sharing, it's give and take. It's Just Posts and new babies and BlogHer and travel and heartache and tears and joy and laughter and love.

You see, I consider you real friends of mine.

And here I am sweaty with jumbled Internet that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, that crashes for no reason and that takes terribly terrifically long to load.

I read your blogs in my reader but how can you know it if you can't hear me speak? If blogs are read in the jungle do they make a sound?

They do.

But how would you know that if I can't tell you. night I spent an hour and was able to comment on just four or five blogs and I gazed at my reader like I'm about to split Cain from Abel not knowing what to do. I miss you and I miss all of you in this way, this proving I am here this standing in your cheering section this raising the roof like the littlest Who in Whoville I Am Here I Am Here I Am Here I Am Here and for some reason it feels lonelier to read about your babies and your families and your struggles and your joys without telling you I was there and I send you love across the water and I wonder if you feel it or if you think I've just stopped coming round.

I still come round but I come round different. I am different somehow here and now, me and yet not me, me yet not knowing who I am. Seems like the time a girl needs her friends the most and she can't she can't she can't let them know unless she does something like this.

She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes (when she comes) there are no six white horses but there's me and I see you and I hope you know I do.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

getting by with a little help from my friends

I have a new friend, one who has lived here all her life and has a son M's age. She's married to an expat, so in the many lines that are drawn and dotted here she straddles a number of fences, she's risen out of poverty but she hasn't forgotten it, she's familiar and comfortable with some things western and she's also deeply ingrained here. She's honest and she's unassuming and I like her very much.

We've agreed to get out of town once a week in pursuit of other scenic vistas, determined to show our kids more of the country and allow them to experience new things. Our first outing was today, we'd decided to go to an eco-park where the kids can play and swim. She offered to tack on a grocery shopping trip at the end of the day since we were close to the City and I happily agreed because dusty shelves filled with vienna sausages and pork and beans lost their appeal months ago.

So after a day of sun we headed into the City and parked the car. We walk across a busy street into an old garage, a dirty nondescript place where she promises we can get the best produce in the country so I follow her laughing inside because I'd never have even come close to this place on my own nor would I have ever had the slightest idea there was anything inside. So we walk into this dark and dirty place where a couple of guys are unboxing fruit. They nod at us and she heads back to a walk in freezer, a big one and she moves the log that was bracing the door aside. We walk inside and I realize suddenly it's my mecca, all the produce that never makes it to the villages is sitting on the shelves. Boxes of yellow peppers and baby carrots, heads of romaine and cherry tomatoes. Green onions. So I look at her and she's going through the boxes and taking out things she wants and making a neat little pile on the floor so I figure I will do the same and so I peek inside a box and then I see it, I see bundles and bundles of asparagus, something I've missed so much and have never once seen.

I grab a bunch and I must have squealed because she's looking at me now and she's laughing it's like the angels came down and shined a white light down on your face when you saw that asparagus and I started laughing too but not before I started singing hallelujah and gently caressing the lovely green stalks against my cheek. This makes her laugh even harder and I am pretty damn happy and even as I realize it's silly and these vegetables cannot possibly be local I still make a little pile for myself. Oh my god, I see blueberries.

I forget we are in a dirty nondescript little garage and when we emerge from the freezer I realize I have no idea what to do next but there's a guy there who weighs each thing and writes it on a scrap of paper with a total and we pay and as we pay we are still laughing one because I am such a giant dork and two because we are both happy with our bounty and our day and the knowledge that we'll bring these things home to our families and enjoy their wide eyed appreciation. This is followed by a trip to a real grocery store, one with real food on the shelves where I bought ricotta cheese simply because a lasagna has been a long time coming in this land of rice and beans.

My other happiness has more to do with realizing this is one more thing I've figured out, in a country with very few addresses or stoplights or signs but plenty of word of mouth I found a little treasure and amidst all the change and poverty and adjusting it's this, this way of digging deep and figuring out and being off autopilot that I appreciate the most. Well that, and a well stocked walk in freezer in the middle of nowhere.

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