Thursday, April 23, 2020

No Inside Voices in Nigeria

We were in a sea of people and luggage, sweaty and despondently huddled together, running into one another and shoving at shoulders and waists to get through, like a mosh pit of a pugnacious punk show.  The scent of overheated bodies in the sweltering Nigerian winter unpleasantly drifted into my nose.  The lack of airport A.C., and 90 degree weather meant that I was perspiring hard, feeling the beads of sweat on my forehead, and my neck, dripping down to the crook of my back.  I was being pushed by the wave of angry (predominantly) men around me, being forcedly moved forward and backwards, side to side, swaying in the sea of aggression which ever direction the current carried me. 

The people of Nigeria were in the middle of a socio political protest after their gas subsidies were removed.  Prices of gas doubled overnight, affecting all aspects of their life. Daily staples such as rice, bread, and oil, and gas generators, used frequently as back up due to unreliable energy, became almost impossible to afford. With the majority of the Nigerians living on less than $2 a day, this made a difficult life, a struggle, and with this, people took to the streets hastily fighting against this new unsustainable deck they’d been dealt.

The airport workers looked exasperated.  Things were getting progressively out of hand.  Overweight luggage was being hurled.  Flights were getting canceled.  People were getting hurt.  There were limbs being broken,  gurneys housing bodies floating high above the crowds.  I panicked internally, unsure of what else to do but just continue to go with the literal flow I was in.  It was loud, and I could understand nothing but the frustration and anger in the voices of the people, but the volume was nothing new to me.  There are no inside voices in Nigeria.   

I was here in this warm in all of the ways country, because of my uncle Tiger, who married into our large jewish clan.  Two weeks prior, we were picked up in a chaotic flurry of excitement and love from his family in Lagos at this same airport we stood in now surrounded by a very different chaos.  We visited the cities where his family lived, and the remote village where he grew up.  I saw first hand the inconsistency in electricity, and how at night, when the TV would go out mid show, and the light would disappear, his brother would run outside, using the guidance of his eyes in darkness to feel his way around their generator in hopes of a few more hours of entertainment.  

We’d sit around, and dip sweet white bread into even sweeter coffee, and watch Nigerian dramas.  His siblings, son, nieces and nephews yelled at each other over the speakers, using their hands to speak nearly as loud, just barely missing knocking over their full drinks in a slapstick array of movements to get their points across.  It was noise overload.  Background music, the tv, honking cars, revving motorbikes, and dogs barking.  There was the yelling; inside of the house, outside of the house, over one another, one louder than the next.  No one ever hearing anything but the sound of their own voice, somehow in an incredibly zig zagged route, everyone understanding at the end.  And for a brief moment, the yelling turned to laughter.  Loud laughter, none the less. 

The volume of joy, and the volume of anger was the same.  And I thought of this the whole twelve hours to our gate, barreling through the rollercoaster of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in the midst of this demonstration. Through the hoards of fury, I listened for glee.  Their knack for turning a distressing situation positive, was one that they had unfortunately grown accustomed to, but an attitude I admired. 

Salt dried sweat marks stained our clothes as the heat subsided.  I closed my eyes greeted with the slightest second of silence as everyone decompressed the stress of the day.  It didn’t last long as yelling commenced from one end of the gate to the other, continuing onto the plane.  Not an inside voice could be heard through all of the yelling. 


“No, you have to come up this way!”  He yelled throwing a tray of ash over the side of the snowy hill from the opposite rooftop.  I had arrived to Goreme unprepared for the climate. I was wearing several layers and could feel the chill through each and every one of them.  He was sporting long blue socks and white strapped sandals, a thin beanie, a worn t shirt, grey joggers, and an unzipped hoodie.  His cheeks kept warm with facial hair at its spikiest point of growth, slowly on its way to becoming a beard.  His chest hair so thick I could see it peeking through the neck of his shirt from the rooftop I stood on.  He yelled something  I couldn’t hear and disappeared.  

The snow was melting into grey slush, and I could see my panting breathe in the air, like a heavy smoker exhaling their first lungful of nicotine.  He met me at the bottom of an incline with a foot wide path and led me up the slippery slope, showing me how to walk correctly in the snow to not fall down.  I lacked snow legs, bunglingly trampling up like a new born baby goat.  He showed me to my room, a trail of water from the snow melting off our shoes behind us towards the bed as I set my bags down.  He took a seat, shuffling his sandals to the intricately gold-inlaid red cushion lined sofa in my room.   I asked his name.  
    “Mustafa” he said through grinning red stained teeth of a boy who started smoking at the age of 8.

I met him later in the common area for tea.  The wood burning stove in the center of the room keeping both the kettle and our bodies warm.   He invited me for dinner and I sat along side him and his friends as if I had always been a part of their lives.  Turkish hospitality wasn't a myth.  

We had vegetable soup and a communal bowl of bright green salad dressed with lemon juice and Turkish olive oil.  Mustafa grabbed a loaf of bread out of the basket and ripped pieces off for each of us.  They shouted at one another in Turkish before his friend got up and ran back and forth to the kitchen, grabbing condiments out of the fridge, disguised as cheese in their repurposed plastic feta tubs. Olives, a few mystery pickles, and a 6 quart jar of what I thought were green beans.   
    “Be careful, they’re spicy.”  Mustafa warned me, but I wasn’t one to say no to spice. Tiny tangy crunchy green chilies fermented in red chili paste.  I ate one, and then another, and then another, unable to stop myself.

    "These are incredible!”  I screamed.
    “Yes.  My mother made them.  She made all of this.” He gestured with his hands to the the condiments.  “She never buys anything.  She grows it all, and preserves and pickles it.  She makes jams too.  And food for me because she knows I love it.”  
    “I think I love your mother!”  I said to him.  
    “Yes.  Everyone does.  Try this.”  He handed me a piece from one of the feta containers.  “It’s unripe melon, pickled in salt.”  It was acidic, refreshing, full of texture.
    “When it’s ramadan and the poor families have nothing, she puts together boxes of things she’s made for them.  She loves doing this.  She even knocks on the doors of the rich and tells them to give her money for the boxes and she’ll make them a box too.  And they do it, because they love her foods.”  He went on to tell us more about this inspiring woman.  How she was married at 14.  Moved to Kapadokya from a small town hours away.  Started a farm in what is now the hotel where we stay.  

I was still munching on chilies,  completely captivated with every new bit of information I learned about his mom.   For the first time in ages, I felt like I was right where I was meant to be.  I wanted to know everything about her.   
    “What’s her name?” I asked.
    “Kismet.  You know this meaning?”  I knew the feeling.

*His face kept warm with a spiky shag carpet of growth, not yet a beard.

Calderiada de Chocos

I woke up in the backseat of our 3rd rental car this week to my adopted Colombian family yelling about parking and hearing the word “bacalao” several times.  I fell asleep in the middle of a sadly true political story on This American Life, and my neck hurt from the position I had left it in for the last hour leaning against the the side of headrest.   I don’t usually nap because I wake up in funk, but I turn into a baby in a car and drift so easily asleep.  I was hazy eyed, bloated, and sick of sitting in the car after 4 hours knowing we had another 3 to go.  I wasn’t hungry, and definitely just wanted to make it to our final destination of Porto, but that wasn’t completely up to me traveling with 3 others.  They were hungry and in need of a break.  I slowly got my shoes on and made my way out of the car to a town of one main street, and a sky filled with smoke.  It was cold, and my eyes weren’t fully open yet.  

“Where are we?” I asked rubbing my eyes again yawning for what seemed like the 5th time in a minute. 
“O Bacalhau!” Papito Joe responded, his mustache fully covering his upper lip as he smiled.  He had been researching where to eat along the way since before I nodded off, looking at reviews and carefully zooming in on the map to see which of our highway routes connected.  It came down to this place, and one more about a half a block up.  We checked both, the other being a tiny cafe, and after turning the corner passing what appeared to be a semi lost senile old man who stared at us with a fiery confusion unsure of who we were or what we were doing in his unburdened by tourists town, we settled on O Bacalhau.  

The chalkboard menu outside was a mix of writing that hadn’t been changed in the last 10 years, and layer upon layer of poorly erased chalk, making the “Prato do dia” and what type of meat they had, mostly illegible.  It was 1pm and this being the main restaurant of the town, it was packed.   After a lot of googling about the area, I found what led me to believe that Tremês as it was called, has between what Portuguese wikipedia says is a population of 1981 inhabitants, and French Wikipedia says is 2146.  My mediocre reading of Portuguese suggests that it is a town of ceramics, and as far as I could see, the main clientel and passerbys were single old men, construction workers, olive oil factory workers, and elderly couples.  We were the youngest, and by far the most unfamiliar faces that had walked in that day, if not ever.  It was a scene out of a movie where the bustling restaurant filled with people merrily eating, chugging down carafes of wine, and chatting, suddenly stopped, looked up, and stared at us.  Antonio the owner, whose name was written on our paper place mats, gestured at a table for 4, and I sat back to back with a construction worker dressed in his bright yellow uniform, on his lunch break eating a pound of steak, and drinking a liter of wine to himself.

This place was old, and classic.  It was cold.  The tables were all black rectangular, and one step above cheap plastic, reminiscent of a once a week church dinner.  The bathroom didn’t have a lock, or a toilet seat, but somehow remained clean with the line of old ladies waiting their turn to pee.  There was a glass case next to the kitchen with pieces of fruit you could order for dessert like slices of melon and pineapple, or a whole apple or banana. Fruit sat directly next to slices of cake dry looking cake.   

Couples finished up their meals, put their coats on, and went to sit at the bar to chat and have their after lunch espressos.  Huge cazuelas of potato stew, metal platters of meat with unsalted crispy yet soggy fries, lightly dressed salad with large rings of raw onion, and grilled fish with boiled potatoes flew by our faces, as either of the two front of house workers rushed across the restaurant to bring and clear dishes from the 50 plus people currently occupying the space.  In the kitchen was one older woman, wearing a uniform of all white with baby blue trim ruffles on the sleeves, a bonnet, and a pair of heavy paned glasses attached to her neck with a metal chain.  They must have constantly been fogging up from the amount of steam and smoke back there.  She was holding down the entire kitchen alone, grilling bife to a perfect bloody rare, charring fish with the most pristine of grill marks, and scooping up what I later found to be my favorite bite of Portugal, their Prato do dia; Calderiada de Chocos. 

Our table got set one person at a time as Antonio hopped around the restaurant collecting single place settings from empty tables any time his  hands were free.  
    “Were we supposed to grab our own?” Dani asked chuckling.  When he finally got a minute to hold his head above water, he came over to our table and used his limited patience to try to figure out what the hell we wanted with our broken Portoñol.  We got a carafe of vhino verde, a bowl of bread and olive oil, salt brined olives, Calderiada de chocos, salmon, and when Joe asked between the ribs and the beef, Antonio grunted “Bife, bife” and walked in a sluggish hurry back to the kitchen.  The front door to the restaurant opened, and in came the old man from the street, still looking confused, but relieved to be inside of somewhere familiar.  He sat at the bar with the rest of the regulars, only after making direct eye contact with our table.  

Our food came surprisingly quickly for how busy it was and how long it even took to get the table set up.  We had enough food to feed a family of 6, and I’m glad my hunger came back when it did.  I didn’t want the meat as good as it looked, or the salmon, as surprisingly medium rare I hadn’t expected it to come.  I didn’t care about the fries, or the boiled potatoes.  I was after the stew.  Potatoes cooked in the rich tomato based soup, thickened the broth and broke apart with a stab of the fork.  Huge thick pieces of cuttlefish lay atop them, and chunks of tomatoes, onions, and peppers were strewn throughout it all.  I scooped a decent amount onto my plate, and soaked up some sauce with a piece of bread.  It was salty, acidic, rich, hearty from the warmth and the potatoes, light from the seafood.  The cuttlefish cut with ease, and I had never had one so tender and enveloped in flavor.  Sure it could have been hotter.  But I was so surprised at how insanely flavorful something so simple could be that for maybe the first time in my life, I didn’t even care that I didn’t burn my tongue. 

I was so happy!  Surrounded by happy families, by this particular family, and to top it all off, a slightly tipsy Dani’s mother gave me a hug and told me how happy she was that I was part of their lives, that I was the best thing to happen to their daughter, and that she was so glad I was there.  I began crying in the middle of the busy restaurant, tears of relief and joy, so filled with love after a tough year of loss.  Dani and her father looked up from their intense discussion about what to order for dessert to see me tearing up.  
    “What did you do to my friend mom!” Dani jokingly yelled.  

Dani and Papito Joe attempted to order dessert from what they had seen on the chalk board outside upon entering.   
    “Un budin, y un mousse de chocolate” Joe said to Antonio.  Antonio looked at him with a blank expression, scrunched his nose, and gestured with his hand as he sternly told us “No, no no!”  Joe asked what he recommended, and Antonio pulled him up, smiling for the first time with us, led him to the glass case in the back, and pointed at something. 
    “What did you get?!” I asked excitedly.      
    “I don’t know?”  Joe shrugged. “He said this was the best, so we shall see.”  

I watched as Antonio opened what looked like the container for a store-bought cake and scooped a slice of something onto a plate.  A tartshell filled with almond paste and topped with almonds appeared, and Lyzeth cut it into pieces for everyone to try.  I drank my coffee down quickly, and looked around at a now empty restaurant minus the 3 men sitting at the bar with their flat caps and their shots.  The chef came out to relight the wood burning chimney to heat the restaurant, and helped clear plates from abandoned tables before sitting down to lunch for herself and the other 2.  
    “Oh! So expensive!” Joe said to us.  “A whole 8 euro a person!”  He laughed.  We got up, thanked them, and they smiled before taking a bite of their food.  “Obrigada! Obrigada!”  We got back in the car, and set the GPS for the rest of our trip to Porto.  My heart and my stomach were full.  

In the week I’ve been in Portugal I’ve found a few things that I entirely love about their eating culture.  Service is painstakingly slow  and lacks patience to start off.  You can sit for a half hour without even an acknowledgment that you’re there, and when they come, you had better be ready.   They’ll scoff, and try for a maximum of about 30 seconds to answer any questions, or explain any confusion, but the effort is minimal.  Sometimes the food is quick, but when they’re busy, you wait.  But I like that.  It means that you have to make an effort to talk to those around you, your loved ones sitting with you at the table.  To connect, instead of sit on your phone rushing to get through your meal to get back to your busy life.  Wine and bread are important.   They come, and the bread absorbs the alcohol as you chug it down, impatiently beginning to get hangry as you’ve waited for ages for just your order alone to be taken.  By this point, you’re drunk and everything is just dandy.  You’re talking nonsense, and giggling, and ordering another liter of wine for 3 Euro, and then the food arrives, and portions are a plenty!  A plate for one can easily be shared amongst 3, but that doesn’t stop the Portuguese from inhaling it all themselves.  And there’s a theme in their dishes, and it involves potatoes!  Every plate had a form of potato, from the stew, to the fries, to the boiled.   Their braised dishes start with onion, peppers, garlic, and tomato, and then what ever meat, bean or starch gets added to that.  And their salads are dressed simply with vinegar, Portuguese olive oil, and salt.  Nothing is complicated, or overbearing, or intense.  It’s simple, and rugged, and heavy, and perfect in all of its imperfections.  I think I like it here.  

My Oaxaca Market

I had gone to the same vegetable woman everyday for the past month since I moved north in the city.  She sat elevated behind a mountain of vegetables directly next to, and across from two other women selling the same exact product, but I chose her.  Something about the way her tomatoes shined in the flickering light burning out above her that first day caught my eye and instead of battling in my mind for a half hour about who and how to choose, I followed the glow of the light.  That being said, I’m not sure she was happy I did.  She’d skip me when I was waiting patiently, and charge me a different price everyday for the same product I had paid a peso more for the following afternoon.  But like a bad relationship, I went back for more, hoping, thinking, she’d change. At this point, I thought it might piss her off more if I went to either of the other women, so I stayed safely by her side.  

After filling my bag with vegetables, I’d walk a few stalls down to the cheese woman.  She also wasn’t too keen on me, but she had the herby queso fresco, and the good quesillo, so I needed her, more than she needed me and my addiction to her salty rolls of Oaxaca string cheese.  She too would  over charge me, make me wait, shake her head or ignore me when I’d ask a question, but I kept hoping one day she’d learn to like me. 

I’d go up the stairs to get my fruit, the woman there always chit chatting with the dried goods man behind her,  telling me what was good, and giving me the best deals because she knew I bought a lot!  Mamey, ripe papayas, sweet baby yellow Mexican mangos that dripped juice from your mouth and down your arm as you’d bite into their sweet golden flesh.  I would always walk in and grab a few things and she’d convince me I needed more with a slice off of something or a speech about another.  She was always right.  I needed it, I needed her and her supply of fruit.  

After fruit, I’d walk left where sometimes an indigenous woman from a town an hour or so away would be sitting on the stairs with woven baskets filled with various snack items.  Big chapulines spiced with chili and lime, fried peanuts with whole chili de arbol, crispy garlic, and lots of salt, and my most favorite; crispy chickpeas with chili and spices.  I’d buy what was supposed to last me a week and eat it in a few days if it even lasted me that long, knowing I was taking a risk since she had no real schedule.  

Back down the stairs, was the other dry good man, where I’d get bulk rice, beans, nuts, and dried fruit.  He had large sacks of dog food, medicinal herbs, flowers, and every item one needed to make various moles.  A recipe containing every item in your pantry and then some, one can imagine the quantity of jars, sacks, and containers he had splayed about.  At prime time he had a line of abuelas waiting to get their goods   He was pretty popular, and incredibly talkative even with a line of impatient women yelling at him.  He would always show me something I had never heard of and explain it’s origin and how to use it.  I appreciated him.  He took the time to educate me, and had the patience to listen to me and my slow progression of Spanish language skills. 

I’d go past my veggie and cheese women again who paid me no attention, round the corner where the poultry stalls lay. The eldest chicken butcher with one lazy eye would always stare out and nod at me.  He had the sweetest young boy he brought under his wing, teaching him how to pluck feathers from a warm body, break down the corpse, and debone the parts.  The young boy would stop, look up from what he was doing, smile leading into a giggle, blush, and never utter a single word.  He’d focus his eyes from my blonde hair back down to the blood on his board and hands, quickly getting back to work before the old man noticed he was distracted. 

This is when we hit the line of indigenous women selling bags of prepared foods and blandas, or the largest burrito sized Oaxacan corn tortillas that they used for everything, including plates and napkins.  “Que le damos guera!” They’d all yell in a choir of one starting and then the next and the next, so that 6 women were at different points of asking me what I wanted at once.   Every item laid out on their color full tablecloths in pre-portioned plastic baggies. When I was lazy I’d get a bag of cactus salad, and some cooked black beans , flavored with the leaves of the local avocado tree, and pureed.  They were my favorite.  They’d offer me more things, sometimes so cheerfully forceful in their approach I couldn’t say no.  A bag of rice, some scrambled eggs with green beans,  a few blandas, still steamy and warm.  

I’d go to my juice stall next.  Super Jugos Angelita, where Angela herself would serve me, making my favorite juices in the city. Most days I’d go simple with a jugo verde; freshly squeezed orange juice blended with celery, parsley, and pineapple. She’d pour it into a plastic bag, stick a straw in, and do some sort of dizzying tie with the plastic and her fingers.  On other days, I’d tell her how I was feeling, and she’d whip me up a juice for cramps, headaches, hangovers, periods, anything I ever needed.  She was my juice doctor, and I came everyday.  

My hands full, my stomach grumbling, I’d take a sip of my juice, and head home up the steep hill to my little house.     I’d meet my roommate,  and we would talk about our day while spreading black beans on crispy tostadas, crumbling queso fresco on top, and adding slices of avocado.  We’d cut up chunks of ripe tropical fruit, and take shots of mezcal before heading to bed, dreaming of what juice we would get for breakfast the following morning at our Oaxaca market.