If you are counting with shower days, I only have fifteen days left here in Bahia Bustamante. In comparison with the lifestyle in which I beg for “more time,” here I find there is just enough time to “waste.” Along with six hours in the garden, the day’s rhythm concedes to reading and writing and sitting in the sun with Sybil until conversation finds us. The night falls and there always seems to be just a bit more reading or talking or thinking that I have failed to squeeze in!
In the garden
I have grown fond of worms. For most of my life, I have enjoyed placing them on my nose or dangling them above my mouth to gross out friends and defy the norm. Here, I can’t help but admire their “underdogness.” I sift through compost to prepare a raised bed of healthy new soil. It’s as if the whole earth wiggles. There is something in how worms are lowly, undecorated, and to some—gross. Yet, they are signs of encouragement. Their presence screams: “this soil is healthy and yummy!” I feel like we are on the same team, me and the simple squirm-ers.
The aphids have invaded. Sybil and I fight the good fight. We enter the garden each morning and tentatively turn over leaves. I cringe and wail as I find a leaf covered in grimy, evil aphid babies. You know they are born pregnant? The scoundrels. What is awesome is that we combat them with cigarette juice. We collect all the cigarette butts around town and soak them for a few days in water before spraying the tobacco sludge on infested plants. As a girl who in 11th grade designed an entire Dante-inspired ring of hell for those who mindlessly toss their cigarette butts, I especially enjoy this repurposing.
There is a raised bed that I favor. The arugula and leeks grow side by side. In sowing, someone must have spilled the arugula seeds. I love the way Astrid looks and talks about these seeds. I think I perceive them the same. They are mistakes. When you look at the bed of soil, this is the first thing you notice—they are not in their prescribed uniform line. But because they are ours, I am fond of them. Each time I look at them, I shake my head in affectionate disbelief. “You weren’t supposed to, and yet you did!” I think it is in familiarity that imperfection becomes most beloved. It reminds me of the kids I looked after at summer camp. I would tell the boys the rules of the farm—“no more catching chickens!” And then, a little daredevil appears behind me with not one but two roosters—one under each arm. All thoughts of rules are gone. I am left reveling in the grit and spunk of this little boy. My spilled arugula seeds are rule-breakers—rebels in the finest sense.
Japanese lettuce seeds
my rebel arugula seeds
Dawes was playing in my head with this view.
In the kitchen
I tug open the heavy blue door and step into the kitchen. I am sent to collect rosemary flowers and dill. Reentering the creative space, I try to conceal my juvenile smile as Juan Pablo remains straight-faced. He lifts his black apron overhead and hands it to me. He is quieter and more serious in the evenings. His head is filled with master plans for dinner.
Earlier in the day, I stepped in for Tomy, the dishwasher who has a day off. All morning, octopus stewed red on the backburner while I scooped hot water off the stove, and washed plate after plate. At one point, I suggested that Juan Pablo and I need a secret handshake. Pablo looked at me, and with his familiar deadpan said, “Sarah, this is not summer camp.”
He’s had it easy. It’s hard for me to develop a comeback quick enough in Spanish. This time, I manage to muster a retort—“For me, my whole life is summer camp.” Fernanda turns from the coffee she is pouring and gives me a wink and a thumbs up—she is always on my team. Juan Pablo nods his head in the slightest acknowledgement of my zing. I interpret it as “not bad.” Getting Juan Pablo to break his cool is almost as hard as getting Blake Habicht to hug you.
From the beginning, people here have teased my “cheery, all-in positivity.” They first categorized my nature as the “classic American oh-my-god” tendency to overreact. Sybil once told me that as Americans, we live in the extremes—something is either incredibly awesome or unbelievably awful. I told her life is too short to live in the middle. With time, I think I have entered a category all my own. In learning that I worked at a summer camp, they now have a fitting name for my constant cheers, encouragement, and silly notes left everywhere— “summer camp Sarah.”
Tonight, Pablo plans to incorporate seaweed into every course. Thankfully, I know the word for genius in Spanish and tell him how talented he is. He feigns a coldness towards me as I bested him earlier in the day running our daily loop twice 'round. JP, as I call him, makes it clear that tonight is different. Tonight I am not baking bread or washing dishes. I am his sous-chef. It is the real deal. I love how although he teases me ceaselessly, he also takes me seriously. With thirteen guests, my best is needed tonight.
JP informs me, “This is your cutting board. You are in charge of keeping it clean.” He hands me a hand towel as he holds his own. He instructs me to keep it with me at all times. Demonstrating, he tucks his into the side of his apron. I do the same. I cannot take how gravely we are handling dish rags any longer, and so I tell him we make a great set of twins. I break his serious composure for a moment. His tense posture surrenders into an easy laugh. I celebrate my victory and plan for many more throughout the evening.
I cut circles out of big, stewed pieces of Gracilaria seaweed. 1..2..3….29..30. My left palm is marked with angry red remnants of perfect circuitry.
“Tranqui, Tranqui.” We come to a slow spell as Pablo extracts bones out of the fish. So I make mate. Covering the mouth of the gourd, I tip it over once and then again to rid the herbs of unwanted dust. My eyes level with the mouth of the gourd, I pour water with extreme attention—desperate against “mate lavado” – washed mate. I pass the yerba to JP. He knows how hard I tried and how much I care. He gives me one word, and a face worth a thousand. “Frio.” I throw up my hands and laugh at how ridiculous he can be. I persevere and pass the mate around the kitchen to Analia, to Fer, and eventually to Franco who cheers for his “lavadito.”
I return to my cutting board. I stuff each seaweed circle with a polenta, onion, tomato mix and create what looks like a mini empanada. Each one is delicate. I press the sides together as Pablo watches over me. He hands me a bowl of whipped cream and gives me quick, indiscernible instructions. Something about underneath and past the blue door? There are so many people in the kitchen. I panic. I return apologetically and ask for the directions once more. Heladera is a fridge…got it. JP is exasperated. It is the height of his culinary performance and me asking for language clarification is like asking Coach K for a mint during the final timeout of UNC game.
For a while, he is quiet. He plucks each fine bone as I stand silently—an act of apology. He knows I know and I know he knows. The moment I wait for comes. He looks up at me with a goofy, wide-eyed smirk and all tension evaporates. I am thankful for humor—the harbinger of mercy, and Juan Pablo’s patience with me.
I stand with my hands folded together in front of me. I have no task, and therefore I feel a bit out of place. He looks up again, “Sarah, cooks never cross their arms. There is always something to do.” Reminded of when soccer coaches were always tough on me, I appreciate how JP is never satisfied. With Juan Pablo’s high expectations, comes an assumption of my high potential. A smile will not leave my face. I know my hands are needed in this kitchen.
We are in the middle of nowhere—tacked on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean with electricity only five hours out of the day, and yet Pablo and I are hunched over oven-warmed plates designing the aesthetically pleasing main course. A spoon as paintbrush, he swipes each plate like the professional he is with sauces of dill, garlic, and orange. I delicately rest a twig of dill, a rosemary flower, and a candied orange peel on each corresponding brushstroke.
Tally another Sarah victory. I find Juan Pablo’s hand towel strewn across the counter as the main course leaves the kitchen. Folding it, I motion to him. With all the weight of expectation cooped up in his body, he reacts too quickly. Uncharacteristically, exasperation speaks for him and his shoulders heave. He cannot believe I have forgotten again. In the middle of his reaction, he halts. Recognition washes over his face and his whole body responds. It is not my dish towel, but his! His bright, teasing eyes return for good this time. He snatches the towel from my hand and bows in defeat before tapping my head with it. This is all the apology I need. “ Buenisimo Sara, buenisimo.”
Home is in North Carolina. But, I take seriously Wendell Berry's imperative, "Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction."