Longform

In Chile, Houses as Extreme as the Landscape

March 19, 2019 – T Magazine (Cover story)

AT THE EDGE of Concepción, a small city in southern Chile, a 60-foot tower stands on a hill, a stark concrete rectangle among eucalyptus and pine. Set at the end of a pockmarked road that threads between unassuming two-story homes, the tower looms over the wooded hillside. Square windows of various sizes puncture the walls like the black spaces in a crossword puzzle. All right angles and hard geometries, the building could be a silo or a sentry tower looking south toward the Bio Bio, the river that, for 300 years, marked the border between the Spanish colony and the territories of the unconquered Mapuche peoples to the south. Instead, it is the home and studio of Mauricio Pezo, 45, and Sofía von Ellrichshausen, 42, whose firm, Pezo von Ellrichshausen, is part of a group of innovative Chilean architectural practices that is establishing a regional aesthetic, one that alludes to Brutalism while also respecting the country’s peculiar topography.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s Casa Cien, so named because it’s 100 meters (328 feet) above sea level, relies on a limited floor plan, repeating the same square divided by an asymmetrical cross in the seven stories of bedrooms and office space in the tower, which are stacked like an interlocking vertical puzzle. Narrow spiral staircases made from hand-carved blocks of Chilean cypress connect the tower to the kitchen and living room in the podium. The couple cast the exterior in reinforced concrete, then manually chipped away the outer layer in a process that Pezo, who spent his childhood two hours outside Concepción, describes as “aesthetic demolition.”

Read more in the New York Times, and in Spanish here.

The Lost City of Aguachile

March 13, 2019 Eater

I Saturday morning and a crowd of 30 people has already clogged the narrow central aisle of Mexico City’s Mercado de San Juan, the gourmet food market in the historic center. Bottles of Pacifico pass from hand to hand as waiting customers dance to banda music blaring from a precariously placed loudspeaker over chef Luis Valle’s cramped, chaotic kitchen. Flames leap as Valle throws a whole octopus onto the charcoal grill. Plates of crab tostadas, raw scallops as wide as beer bottles, and grilled tacos stuffed with smoked marlin pass over the counter by the dozen.

The dish that made Valle and his eight-seat stall, Don Vergas, famous within months of its opening in February 2018 is aguachile, the unofficial state dish of his native Sinaloa. The backs of six small shrimp crest a shallow pool of lime juice, their tails cozy under a tangle of red onion, cucumber, and cilantro criollo. Valle crumbles a pair of tiny, spherical chiltepín, a wild chile from Sinaloa’s eastern foothills, between his thumb and forefinger, showering the plate in a red flurry of capsaicin. The shrimp, still uncured by the lime (as they would be in ceviche), are slick and sweet and snap like cucumber.

The dish tastes like the sea and the dry inland forest, as bright and dazzling as Valle himself, cracking jokes to customers who, in the span of just a few minutes, have become his new best friends. Among his favorite subjects was the origin story of the dish itself, its beginnings as an indigenous preparation that had drifted out of Sinaloa’s eastern hills and west toward the Pacific, a version of the dish that he’d never actually tasted himself.

Read more at Eater

 

Our Fish

October 2018 – The Believer

It was sunset along the Lago Mentiroso, or Lying Lake, a narrow bow of water north of the Madre de Dios River, deep in Bolivia’s Amazon Basin. Blue macaws shrieked high over the dark, still water. Fireflies gathered in the water hyacinth that fringed the lake’s edge. Every so often, a deep porcine grunt and a heavy splash echoed out from under the tall, dark naves of half-submerged roots. “Una vaquita,” whispered Jairo Canamari, one of four fishermen from the nearby village of Trinidadcito who’d brought me out to the lake that day—a little cow. It’s one of several names used for the giant, invasive fish that, in the last forty years, has become both a plague and a blessing in this remote corner of Bolivia.

Twenty-six and slight with close-cropped hair, Canamari stood at the helm of our ten-foot canoe, parting the reeds and canes as his older brother Rafael, who sat silently at the back of the boat, rowed us to shore. Gabriel and Ahismed Justiniano Montaño, also brothers, took the middle of the boat, Ahismed with paddle in hand, Gabriel rolling sticky tobacco into graph paper. The hull was already filled with the still bodies of red, yellow, and silver piranhas caught earlier that afternoon for the next morning’s breakfast. At any hint of the big fish, Ahismed’s attention darted like a cat’s toward the origin of the sound. Gabriel blew fragrant smoke through his nostrils: “It keeps the caimans and snakes away,” he explained. He was whispering too. That’s what you do when there are paiche around.

Read more in the October 2018 issue of The Believer, or in Spanish in Gatopardoreporting sponsored by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

As the dams rose in Brazil, so did the floodwaters in Bolivia

August 17, 2018 – The LA Times (A1)

No one in the Bolivian village of Cachuela Mamore saw the flood coming.

The Mamore River, which curves along Bolivia’s wildly diverse, 2,100-mile border with Brazil, always rises during the months-long Amazonian rainy season. But the flood in 2014 was different.

Within weeks, the river had reached villagers’ doorsteps, and all 38 families — fruit farmers and fishermen, mostly — fled inland.

For the next five months they returned to their waterlogged citrus, banana and avocado orchards, which had once been their primary source of income, and plucked fruit from the low branches to scratch out a living. When the water finally receded, the fruit trees collapsed, and the native fish in the river’s stagnant waters disappeared.

Now, the families of Cachuela Mamore still live in the makeshift huts of wood, plastic tarps and corrugated metal that they cobbled together after the floods, living alongside the dirt road that connects the village to Guayaramerin, the nearest major town.

The villagers have also come to believe that it was more than just seasonal rains that caused the Mamore to crest its banks. They blame a pair of dams built downstream and worry that two more dams planned in the region could undo their lives and traditions.

Read more in the LA Times; reporting sponsored by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting

Mennonite Cheese is Mexican Cheese

December 2018 – MAD Dispatches

It is seven a.m. in the Mennonite colonies, dead in the center of the northern Mexican state of Durango. In the Mexican settlement across the highway, where they observe daylight savings, it’s already eight and but nothing will open for another two hours. Here in the Mennonite colonies, it’s a different world: the morning still starts with the sun and work stops for no one but god.

Abraham Klassen started his day at five am, colony time, milking his eighteen cows then sitting down with his wife and , three children, and in-laws for a silent prayer and breakfast of coffee and homemade bread spread with homemade butter and homemade jam. Just before seven, he hitches a rickety wooden cart to the back of his brother-in-law’s faded orange tractor and heads out to collect milk from the neighbors.

Last night, giant storm clouds walked in on tall stilts of rain, leaving the oat fields drenched. Low stalks of corn, just a few weeks into their summer flush, were neck deep in standing water; the rutted dirt roads, cut with Teutonic rectitude past white fences and white churches, were totally waterlogged.

“Days like today, it’s too muddy to work in the fields,” Klassen tells me in Spanish as he hefts steaming metal canisters onto a rickety wooden cart hitched to the back of his brother-in-law’s orange tractor. He squints up at the clouds, rolling in like gauze to bandage the huge frontier sky. “There’s always something to do. You get a break from one thing, it’s just a chance to do another.”

Read more in the book You and I Eat the Same, published by MAD Dispatches

Escaping Hate: A Trans Woman’s Journey North

March 13, 2018 – The Nation

In the early hours of a humid morning in March 2017, Alexandra Acevedo made her way to the railroad tracks that skirt the edge of Tenosique, a border town in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco. The sun wouldn’t come up for a few more hours, but the gravel path was already crowded with immigrants. Most of them were from Honduras like her, and all of them were trying to board the cargo train known as La Bestia, or The Beast, which they hoped to ride to the US border.

While Alexandra waited at the station, three masked men emerged from the darkness and dragged her to a hidden corner behind the platform, where they robbed, beat, and raped her. It was the worst attack she’d suffered in the months since leaving Honduras, but certainly not the first. When the assault ended, she gathered herself, and limped up the slope to a migrant shelter called La 72. Founded by Franciscan monks in 2011, La 72 was the first shelter in Mexico to open a dormitory exclusively for LGBTQ migrants like Alexandra; it was also the place where, as Alexandra tells it now, her new life as an openly trans woman began. (more…)

After the Quake

November 12, 2017 – Roads & Kingdoms

The Istmo de Tehuantepec has always been a fiercely independent place. In the southern part of Oaxaca state, the Istmo is the narrowest point in Mexico, the cinched-in waist of the country’s reclining odalisque, a region known for its raucous parties and dark sense of humor and bold resistance to anything imposed from outside. In 1981, Juchitán de Zaragoza became the first municipality in Mexico to elect an opposition party to power. Nearly a decade earlier, San Mateo del Mar, populated by the twice-conquered Ikoots indigenous community, had developed and implemented an entirely bilingual preschool program, the first of its kind in the state. In the course of the 19th century, Istmeños resisted interventions and invasions by the British, the French, and the Mexican government itself (in 1850 Mexico’s first indigenous president and national hero, Benito Juárez, responded to a revolt to reclaim use of local salt mines by sending troops to burn Juchitán to the ground). The people are brash and combative, defiant and proud, a little difficult and wickedly funny. Above all, they are self-sufficient. But all of that goes only so far in preparing you for catastrophe.

At 11:49 p.m. on the night of Sept. 7, an 8.2 magnitude earthquake struck off the southern coast of Mexico, the strongest to hit the country in a century. Felt as far south as El Salvador and as far north as Mexico City, no place suffered greater or more widespread damage than the Istmo, where more than 800,000 people were affected and more than 70,000 homes damaged, nearly 15,000 of them beyond repair. (more…)

The Prawn War

25 October 2017 – Roads & Kingdoms, Slate, CNN’s Explore Parts Unknown

(text and photos by the author)

Victos Fernando had been missing for four days when his body washed up, bruised and salt-soaked, off Sri Lanka’s northern coast. He’d disembarked with three other fishermen on April 2, 2011, from the crowded harbor of Rameswaram, a small island off India’s southeastern coast, to sail for the fertile breeding shoals on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Strait, the narrow body of water that separates the two nations. The day before, the governments of India and Sri Lanka had both issued warnings against going out to sea. The two countries were slated to play a cricket match that day and tensions would be high.

Someone, after all, would have to lose. (more…)

High Hopes

Summer – Sabor Journal

Emiliana Rojas, 29, wakes up every morning at 6am in a distant corner of El Alto, a low-income sleeper city that sprawls dustily over a flat ridge 4000 meters above sea level before tumbling over steep red cliffs into La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital. She prepares a simple breakfast of hot milk and barley for her four-year-old daughter, whom she then wakes, feeds, and takes to school. From there, she spends two hours on crowded tin-can minibuses to reach her job, cooking at a small, pleasant café called Qñapes in the wealthy Zona Sur, 1000 meters closer to sea level. She leaves work most days at 10pm and rarely reaches home before midnight. “I cook all day, every day,” Emiliana told me, “and I love it.”

The full feature story on culinary schools El Alto, Bolivia  appears in issue two of Sabor Journal, ‘Spirulina Dreams.’

From Feeding Gods in the Temple to Mortals in the City

25 April Roads & Kingdoms

My favorite place to eat in Mumbai is A. Rama Nayak’s Udupi Sri Krishna Boarding, a real mouthful of a name for a simple place. Set in a leafy South Indian enclave called King’s Circle, Rama Nayak’s occupies a pair of bright, breezy rooms up a flight of stairs in a nondescript building next to the Matunga Central railway station. Crowded, Formica-topped tables flank narrow aisles patrolled by a small army of lungi-clad kitchen attendants who ladle food relentlessly from small metal pails onto banana-leaf plates until you tell them to please-god-stop. (more…)