film production + social action

WEBlog 2: Arriving & Eating in Antuyo

I arrived in Antuyo on Monday morning, September 21st, unsure exactly how long I’d be staying. My arrival by car disrupted the class as all ten students ran outside to see what was up. They all instantly recognized me and, having recently edited all of the footage I had previously shot at the school, I felt like I’d already spent a full week with all of them. The shouts of “Michael” began here and continued for a full three weeks. After school, the teacher lead me to the top of the mountain to Yanet’s house so that I could speak with her parents about the possibility of my staying there. They were delighted by the prospect and offered me a room to take as my own – everyone else shared a room (and things got a bit more crowded because of my presence). They refused to take money from me, nothing for rent nor for the food they generously “forced” on me three times a day (more on this later). The problem, as it turned out, wasn’t an issue of me staying with Yanet’s family. The problem, from the perspective of the rest of the community, would be if I only stayed at Yanet’s house, as many families wanted the opportunity to host me. I was flattered but recognized this insistence as an obstacle to my filming. My hope in living in the town was to come to know a family intimately and not divide my time between many households only getting a superficial view of their life. I explained to the family (and the teacher who was facilitating the discussion) that for my purposes, since my time was limited, it was better that I stay with families who have children in the school and have the chance to get to know one or two families well as opposed to having a brief visit with so many. This discussion would come up several more times during my three week stay, but in the end I prevailed and ended up splitting my time between just two families: Yanet’s family who lived way up at the top of the hill (the furthest house from the school) and Bernardo’s family, who lived rather close to the school. Bernardo is 12-years old and is the furthest along in the class – meaning he’s the only sixth grader in a class that spans pre-school to sixth grade. In March, he’ll begin at the high school, which means he’ll have to walk about forty-five minutes down the mountain into Ahuac each morning and over an hour back (the trip is a lot longer when you’re walking uphill). Along with Bernardo is his five-year old brother, Roy, who provided much needed comic relief throughout my stay.

Both houses were pretty full. At Yanet’s I lived among her parents, her two sisters, her brother-in-law, her sister-in-law, two cows, a bull, three donkeys, two pigs, thirty-five sheep, a dog, a cat, and a number of guinea pig that roamed freely around the kitchen until their day of reckoning (Guinea Pig is considered a delicacy in the mountains). At the beginning of my stay, there was a chicken running around the house, but one night we ate well and thereafter there was no more chicken. Eating in general was a bit of an issue. Meat is a luxury (as is most protein) and is rarely eaten. The favored food group is starch – potatoes, rice, spaghetti. Most meals would start with an appetizer of raw potatoes, along with two local potato-like crops – Mashua and Oca – which would be followed by a big plate of sliced potatoes (sometimes fried, other times boiled or with a sauce) with heaping portions of rice and spaghetti. Sometimes this would be put into a soup and, if I was lucky a newly produced egg would be placed on top. Now, as you probably know by now, I love to eat. I’m rarely too full for another serving and love trying all sorts of foods. In terms of my culinary life, Antuyo was rock bottom. I simply can not eat that many potatoes. Fortunately, the appetizer of raw potatoes was served in a communal bowl and so I could fake how much of it I actually ate. The main course was a different story all together. As the guest I was given the most and as a guest, it was considered rude if I didn’t eat all that was offered to me. That didn’t mean just finishing what was on my plate. I quickly learned that I was expected to ask for and enjoy seconds. In fact, Yanet’s father usually seemed perturbed that I didn’t want thirds. When I explained that I already had two full plates, he’d always respond with, “I’ve had three plates.” “You’re bigger than me,” I’d tell him. This would make him laugh and the suggestion of thirds would be forgotten – worked like a charm every time. But I hope I’m not minimizing the challenge I faced three times a day – two heaping plates of potato, rice and spaghetti (which was served, for breakfast lunch and dinner) is no easy task. I often found myself playing the eating-encouragement game usually relegated to little kids…”Come on, Mike, just two more ‘big boy’ bites and you’ll be finished.” Drinks came in two forms: hot water with sugar or a tea-like drink that was made with water, sugar, and sliced apples. It was actually pretty delicious. All drinks were hot. On more than one occasion, after an afternoon of particularly laborious work in the hot sun, I decided it was worth the forty-five minute walk to buy a Coke in Ahuac. These brief visits into “civilization” would indeed sustain me over the course of what proved to be three difficult weeks of potatoes, cold nights, few showers, and toilet-less bathrooms.

I did have occasion to have meat a few times, however. About half-way through my stay I was sitting in the kitchen with Bernardo’s family after dinner, telling them about my own city. Everyone I spoke to about New York had very similar questions that clearly demonstrate how foreign our two worlds are: “What do you grow there?” was undoubtedly the first question anyone would ask. I’d have to explain that I lived in a city, that they we didn’t grow anything and that all of our food we bought in markets or at restaurants. “So what kind of animals do you have?” Dogs, cats, squirrels. “And what do you eat?” See, if you’re from Antuyo, that question can be answered very easily: “we eat potatoes.” I tried to explain that in my city there were people from all over the world, and so we ate, literally everything.

Well, not everything it turns out. It came out shortly after I made that comment that I had never eaten Guinea Pig. The mother seemed pleased at this prospect – “I will make it for you on Monday.” That was on Wednesday. On Thursday, I returned to Yanet’s house for several nights. In the afternoon, we were having a similar conversation which again resulted in the same discovery but now with an added caveat: “I’ve never eaten guinea pig, but Bernardo’s mother is going to make it for me on Monday.” Not wanting to be shown up by another host family, Yanet’s mother decided she’d beat them to the task and prepare guinea pig – Cuy (pronounced Coo-ey) – that night. The preparation of Cuy is a long and rather explicit process. First several Cuys are picked out of the bunch, based on size – the whole pack shrieks as it loses three of its brethren. The unfortunate few are taken outside where there necks are promptly slit and their blood drained. The Cuy is then sliced down the middle, its guts removed, tossed into a bowl and fed to the dog (who up until this point is watching along expectantly). The Cuy are then boiled, their fur removed and then sliced up, covered with some flour and fried. I was given a plate of two Cuy legs covered in a delicious, thick, red pepper sauce with potatoes on the side. I’ve gotta say, it really wasn’t that bad – a good taste and the consistency of dark meat chicken. I could however, have done without the dessert that was given to me – the much coveted jaw of Cuy. When I ate the same meal on Monday night with Bernardo’s family, Roy beat me to the task of finishing off the face. Can’t say I was upset.

It was a tough decision, but I’d have to say in the first annual Cuy making competition of Antuyo, Bernardo’s family takes the prize – the sauce was a little bit better and, as I said, I didn’t have to eat the face, which definitely made for a better experience.