January 2013

Walter Biggins

nonfiction

How to Cook a Tapir: A Memoir of Belize by Joan Fry

In Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al," one of the greatest pop songs ever produced, he gets at some key existential questions in the third verse:

Man walks down the street
It's a street in a strange world
Maybe it's the third world, maybe it's his first time around
Doesn't speak the language, holds no currency
He is a foreign man, he is surrounded by the sound,
The sound -- cattle in the marketplace, scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity
He says "Amen" and "Hallelujah!"

The question, of course, is: Why do we travel? Why do we seek to discover new realities in new places, with new people and new languages, and then -- upon finding them -- immediately retreat into the familiar, into what's there that is in common with us instead of distinct from us? In countries where we don't speak the language and don't share the religion, we gravitate toward those who do: fluent natives, expats, tourists. The Paul Therouxs and Pico Iyers, who bravely plunge into the unknown (but for a sizable paycheck, in familiar U.S. dollars), are rare.

Often, we say that we travel so that we can "reinvent" ourselves, even though every traveler who has any sense whatsoever discovers quickly that, as Buckaroo Banzai says, "wherever you are, there you are." New ground under our feet doesn't new hearts and souls under our skin, and it never has. Indeed, the magic of Simon's song is that, as unfamiliar as its South African sound must have seemed to listeners in 1986, its catchiness and urban-fed lyrics feel just as familiar to his American listeners as Simon's previous material.

So, maybe we travel to find ourselves, à la Eat, Pray, Love, and countless other memoirs of narcissistic white folks using foreigners to rejuvenate and rediscover their passions. It's such an established genre that travel writers from Theroux to Rebecca West and V.S. Naipaul has satirized its myopia for decades. It's a genre into which Joan Fry's How to Cook a Tapir delves.

In July 1962, Joan Fry, a newly married college sophomore from New Jersey, headed off on a "working honeymoon" to British Honduras (now Belize). She went there to find herself. Indeed, Fry acknowledges matter-of-factly that a large part of the reason she got married was to have an excuse to leave Jersey and discover her true calling. Even her job there -- an ESL teacher of elementary-school children -- is a white girl cliché. Love of and commitment to her new husband, Aaron Ward, seems almost an afterthought. Aaron, a budding anthropologist, was studying the Kekchi Mayans of the country's south. The Kekchi were under-analyzed at the time, so Aaron could make a name for himself on them. Also, being in grad school meant that he could avoid being drafted into Vietnam. Having a wife meant having someone to cook for him and to give him convenient inroads into the culture of Kekchi women, who were otherwise inaccessible to him in some ways.

These two deserved each other. The couple's year in Belize, and gradual marital disintegration, is an old story, and Fry doesn't make her version any more interesting than countless others. Their squabbles -- over Joan's smoking cigarettes, Aaron's week-long absences into the bush, his controlling nature, her naiveté, his intentional condescension toward her, her oblivious condescension toward the natives -- neither illuminate nor entertain, and they make up a good third of the book.

Fortunately, Fry's sense of discovery gradually extends outward, into the community in which she lives. "Community" is a difficult concept for her, at first. Fry grew up a shy, retiring girl used to solitude and unused to hard labor. Thrust into a two-room house, in a village where neighbors dropped into her living room-kitchen-bathroom unannounced, Fry had to learn to be as socially bold as the people around her, just to survive. Also, she had to learn to cook, or she and Aaron would starve. Here she is with a recipe, early on in the book, when she and Aaron are in survival mode:

CONVICT SOUP
1 package of Knorr's dried soup mix, any variety
Water

Before buying the soup, hold the package up to the light and check for pinholes. After opening it, inspect the mix itself for black specks. If you see holes or black specks, the cockroaches beat you to the soup. Discard and try another package.

Add more water than the directions tell you to and boil the hell out of the soup for twenty minutes because nobody drinks the water in places like this without boiling it first.

Eat it anyway.

Two things get revealed there: one, Fry's dry, blunt wit, which she directs at herself as much as anyone else; and two, her keen but practical interest in cooking. Both traits keep How to Cook a Tapir from curdling -- too much, anyway -- into navel-gazing. Shy Fry finds that the kitchen is a portal into the everyday lives of Kekchi women, so much so that most of the book's chapters end with a recipe. Fry chronicles her evolving culinary skills and, through them, a sense of the everyday lives of the people around them.

In exploring the everyday life, as opposed to the mythologies and rituals that make up Aaron's only interest in these Mayans, Fry gets out of herself. She observes familial habits with acuity, and captures the nuances of how children talk and play and learn. She figures out that cooking and cleaning are social rituals as advanced -- and full of ribaldry and horseplay -- as prayers and black magic.

Partly this happens because Fry doesn't have a choice. Kekchis intrude. Personal space is not a concept they understand or care about. On November 17, 1962, Fry "decided to keep track of everybody who stopped by over the next few days -- who they were, what they wanted, and how long they stayed." She woke up at 5:45am, and started her journal. She ended it at noon that day. "I'd had twenty-eight visitors and had stopped taking notes," she writes. "Counting Maxiana, I'd fed one, doctored three, told seven what time it was, and accepted four gifts of food."

Gradually, irritation turns into wonderment, and then into normalcy. She becomes a competent user of dried beans, herbs, the livestock, and the ever-present chili peppers. She mediates disputes between husbands and wives. She parties hard at the fiestas. She gets by without refrigeration or running water. She shares her food and supplies, as her neighbors share with her. She's not quite a native -- her white skin, U.S. passport, and funding from the outside world ensure that she never will be -- but she becomes a local.

At the end, she writes of what she's learned:

I was twenty years old and trying to create a life of my own, as distinct from my parents' lives. I had intellectual pretensions and looked down on a lot of people, but I was also a romantic and I wanted some kind of rapport with the Maya. But the Maya didn't know they were supposed to be noble savages and kept behaving like people -- and I ended up having to make the same decisions I would have made in Verona [New Jersey]. Do I like you? Why? Because you're curious. You're smart. You have a sense of humor. I like your take on the world and I want to find out more about you.

Though the events of How to Cook a Tapir take place in 1962 and 1963, it's clearly a memoir written long after the fact. That both strengthens and weakens the book. Though Kekchi recipes evoke lucid memories in Fry, her portraits of the place and the people are often too curt and veer into the romantic clichés she wants to avoid. Children are mostly angelic. The fashions of the women are vividly shown but the differences in speech patterns and gesture among them are not. The prose often plods instead of sings. The remembered dialogue feels, too often, purely expositional and not conversationally distinct in the way actual people would talk.

Fry's book is ultimately a very particular portrait of a young woman's growing up, and a fuzzier, more generic glimpse of the lives of Kekchi Mayans. Still, a glimpse is better than ignorance, and at least she learned how to cook, and to share.

How to Cook a Tapir: A Memoir of Belize by Joan Fry
University of Nebraska Press
ISBN: 978-0803243613  
296 pages