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Photo by Tom Pablo, South America Semester.

using the world aroud us

I’ve spent the past week in the amazon. along with catching and monitoring tropical birds, finding a poisonous spider on my backpack strap, showering in the dark knowing a turanchala was somewhere in my stall, and getting eaten alive by bugs even though every inch of my body was covered in insect repelent, aka pure deet which is not the best thing for my skin, I also learned that I am food illiterate. I really have no idea where my food comes from.

I have always had a great relationship with food. the way I talk about my favorite foods could be compared to the way a newly wed might talk about their new spouse. I have found that this group shares the same enthusiasm for food, and when we are most homesick all we talk about is the food back home, which never actually makes the homesickness better. food has always been one of the main ways I connect with those around me, and yet I never stop to think about where the ingredients come from farther than the supermarket. my time in the amazon was spent rewiring my brain to start asking these questions.

we arrived in boca on a boat that rocked at each movement of my friends that surrounded me. I could already feel the sweat dripping down my neck and I knew I didn’t smell great as we were greeted by don alberto and julio, the head of tourism and the president of the community we would be spending the rest of the week with. boca is made up of about 20 families who graciously accepted and warmly welcomed in a group of teenagers who were eager to learn about the rainforest. we were traveling with an organization called fauna forever, a team made out of the friendliest group of biologists who would listen to your endless questions about each plant or bird or monkey we saw.

that afternoon, I saw my first cacao plant, a plant that brought me endless reeses, birthday cakes, and chocolate ice cream, and yet I didn’t even know what it looked like until it was in my hands. I broke the plant open against a tree trunk and found that the cacao beans were covered by a white sweet substance that tasted better than biting into the shell of the cacao.

we walked towards another house, and were given sugarcane to chew on and practiced cracking open brazil nuts, which is the main crop and business of the area. I chewed on both while watching the sun set over the madre de dios river. I couldn’t help but feel guilty about how little I knew about the process of harvesting and creating so many of the foods I loved, and couldn’t wait to learn more.

the next day I was led out in the heat to cut down bananas and plantains with president julio, a man I’d later mark in an aggressive game of soccer that left everyone drenched in even more sweat and in need of a shower. I assisted in carrying the plantains back to our campsite, and saw them cut up, thrown in a pan of oil, and then served on a plate still hot. I’ve never tasted a snack so delicious. I experienced something similar that afternoon when I pulled yuca out of the ground with don alberto and then ate fried yuca with my dinner.

Later that week, I watched a chicken get killed by one of my friends, and then plucked its feathers, and I felt a little too connected to the chicken leg I ate with my rice later. I felt I needed to watch this at least once, especially since this is the way many people eat in the world. they eat what surrounds them, not what can be shipped from other countries and neatly packaged without any thought about where their food was coming from.

as much as I loved watching the blood spill out of the chicken, I definitely enjoyed making hot coco straight from the cocoa bean. we met with the woman who let us use her cocoa plant, who also had incredibly cute twins who distracted us from extracting the seeds from the fruit.

after we collected the seeds, we cooked them until the shells cracked open like popcorn, and got our first look at the beans that we would grind into powder. after three times through the grinder, jorge our guide decided we were ready to add water and a lot of sugar for a final product of steaming hot coco. it made of all of us sweat more just sipping on it, but we still went for more and more cups of it.

the past week has taught me that it is so much better to eat things that you yourself took out of the ground, or off of a tree because you were able to see the source of your fuel, something I was never able to truly do in a supermarket.