Scrambled Priorities: How Sharing my Last Meal Got Me An Apartment.

columbia

My day had been long. Six weeks of living in Bogota, Colombia had tried to teach me to be flexible, but my dwindling budget adamantly argued against it. Yet, I wanted to stay. The music alone was enough to convince me, and the gorgeous mountains, the sensual dancing, and most all, the people, all made want to be a part of Colombia. It seemed a part of me, though I have no Colombian blood or roots. I was in love with a country, but my pouting stomach wasn’t much impressed with my infatuation.

I had accepted an unpaid internship teaching a low-income school, and part of the deal included housing, a daily meal, and daily transportation costs. The fine print was that it didn’t all happen at the same time- instead of the promised host family, I was placed in a hostel for three months, the transportation money came at seemingly random times, and the daily meal didn’t exist until halfway through the internship. Such small changes were massive to me and my mini-savings. Mostly a cash based economy, at least for transportation and the most affordable food, I couldn’t even just swipe up my credit card to get me through, like all the other broke college grads I knew back home. Many days I would eat at pricier restaurants I couldn’t afford just because they accepted foreign credit cards.

Something had called me here, and I followed without questioning what it was. On days like today, I mostly questioned my sanity. Finally alone in the hostel kitchen, after a long and crowded commute, I took inventory.

Three eggs.
Salt.
Dried oregano.
Pepper that actually turned out to be a bag of cigarette ash. Who keeps that?!
Sigh.

That would have to last me until the 3 pm lunch meal at school tomorrow. With vallenato as my theme music, I started cracking. Not one of my 5 roommates were back yet, and I had to eat fast.

“HI!”

I drop an egg, startled to hear a voice when I was very focused on my self-pity. Felipe, the Colombian tutor of one of my roommates, was smiling at me. Rather, at my eggs. More specifically, my cracked and broken egg now on the floor. I would be 1/3 hungrier than anticipated and it literally brings tears to my tired eyes.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. My school is around the corner, mind if I wait?”

Yes, my mind screams. Yes, yes I do mind, because I need to eat my 2 salty oregano eggs in peace while I contemplate how I fail at adulthood.

“Not at all,” my traitorous mouth responds. We chat as I heat the skillet, and Felipe doesn’t make any attempt not to stare at my food.

“I’ve had a long day! Class all day, haven’t been home. Mm, that smells good.”

How good can scrambled eggs possibly smell? Nice try. I’ve had a long day, too smart-ass. And again, my mouth ignores my better judgement.

“Quieres?” Do you want some?

Felipe happily accepts half of two scrambled eggs, as I apologize for not having more. He incorrectly thought the apology was directed at him; mostly it was me talking to my stomach in soothing, motherly tones.

We chat as I stare at the empty bowl in my hand, approximately 1/3 of the meal I had planned for my belly. The morning commutes were the hardest, when my stomach most resented my wallet’s rebellious nature against nourishment. Tomorrow would be not be fun.

Eventually my roommates arrive to pick up Felipe, and I’m left alone to wonder how to fix my life and make better decisions that don’t leave me nauseous with hunger. With no immediate conclusions, I sent myself to bed.

The next day, the 5 am alarm seems louder and angrier, while the mountains seem colder and rainier. It rained almost every morning for July, August, and September. Rain is the kind of thing that looks nice from a window, and not so nice from a freezing courtyard where you wait for a thin stream of hot shower water. The Andes were beautiful, cold, and blurry through my groggy eyes.

Everyone else on my team had a host family that stuffed them full of Colombian delicacies, and I imagined chiseled, muscular host brothers feeding grapes to my colleagues, Greek god style. As they complained about gaining weight, I laughed enviously. At lunch later, I gorged myself with bread as the Colombian teachers murmured about how foreign women eat too much.

In the grocery store, I cautiously pick out just enough to make the minimum requirement for credit card purchases. A dozen eggs, bananas, french bread, pointy local fruits, and I splurge on a bag of black beans. That should last me ten days, until the next time we get transportation money.

As I start to make a two egg omelet, a familiar voice greets me. How does Felipe even get in? He pretends to accept my food in a shy way, but I know it’s not coincidental.

The next day, we have sunny side up eggs with bread, and the day after that he tries black bean soup, made entirely from black beans, onion, and salt. I’m not thrilled with this routine I’ve found myself participating in. The internship will be over soon, and maybe I was wrong to want to stay somewhere I can’t belong.

The next day, as Felipe chews another variation of black beans, he says

“So you know how to cook a lot of things.”

What a dumb sentence. It’s not a question, it’s some pointless observation.

“Yea,” I agree amiably, “I try to cook with what I have.”

Suddenly, Felipe launched into a long monologue about how he would love to learn to cook anything, but it seems complicated, and he doesn’t have time, and there’s homework, and his schedule, and so forth. Not caring about his perspective, I add

“Well, I like to cook when I have more ingredients.”

“We have spices at my house,” continues Felipe, thoughtfully this time. “My sister is abroad, and her room is empty. My mom wants to learn English, and I want to learn to cook. And the room is just there…”

I am exactly 100% more interested in Felipe’s monologue.

“Wait, are you offering me a place to stay?”

“Well, if you want, yea. You can teach us things, and you’ll get your own room. Like, if you want.”

Two weeks after feeling obligated to share my food with an almost stranger, I moved into my own room, all thanks to sharing my smallest meal. I’d been sharing a small, windowless room with five other people for three months, and portioning out every bite of food. Now I had access to an entirely stocked kitchen, with real pepper and then-some. And Felipe learned to make every egg dish possible, from scrambled to quiche, with everything in between.

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