After 18 Months on the Move in Latin America, The Disorientation Sets In

One weekend, about a month after coming to Lima, we took a taxi to the city center. Sitting in the front seat, I was looking out the window. One, two-floor houses with colorful facades and armatures springing from the roofs, always ready to accommodate another floor. Fences painted with the names of politicians running in upcoming or past elections.

Suddenly, I couldn’t recognize where I was. Continue reading “After 18 Months on the Move in Latin America, The Disorientation Sets In”

Dear Expat, So Where is Your Home?

Ever since we left our familiar life in Israel, and moved to the Аmerican continent, we haven’t stayed long in one place. Six months living in Vancouver, five months in Mexico, two months in the heat and rain of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, four months in Colombia, followed by Ecuador and Peru. One of the things I have been enjoying most about this nomadic lifestyle is the sense of living in the present. Gone are the days of planning holidays, vacations, next career steps. In a few days we’ll pack our bags again and head to Chile. How long are we going to stay there? I don’t know, and that’s what I love about it. Continue reading “Dear Expat, So Where is Your Home?”

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Corn

It’s called elote in Mexico. Mazorca in Colombia. In Ecuador and Peru it goes by the name choclo. Get your corn on the cob on the street, with cheese and mayonnaise on top.

Or maybe with butter, and sprinkled with lemon juice.

Street vendor in Bogotá

Or better yet, sautéed with onions and chopped chiles, topped with lime juice and chili powder and served in a cup.

Esquites, also called vasito de elotes (“little corn-cup”). Guadalajara, México.

In a soup, as dried or popping kernels…

Pumpkin soup with popcorn, Galápagos islands

… or entire chunks of cob.

Ajiaco, a popular soup in Bogota

As roasted nuts.

Crunchy corn nuts called Cancha is the default snack in Peruvian bars and restaurants.

Cooked, fried and served with grilled meat.

Medellin

Mashed into dough, and steamed in plantain leaves.

Tamale is a traditional Mesoamerican dish which is 8,000 years old. This Nicaraguan Nacatamal is the best one I’ve tried.

As the base for arepas, those flat, round corn “pockets” popular in Colombia.

Arepas stand, Bogotá

Yellow, white and purple.

Purple corn in a supermarket in Lima

Turned into a drink.

Oxanna having a glass of chicha morada, a popular Peruvian soft drink, made by boiling purple corn kernels with pineapple and cinnamon.

Or a dessert.

Mazamorra morada, a purple corn pudding sold on the streets of Chorrillo, Lima

If there is one thing that unites the residents of Mexico City, Bogotá and Quito, it’s the ubiquitous presence of corn on their streets and in their lives.

Xochimilco, Mexico City

Growing up in USSR and then Israel, corn was never part of my world. Potatoes being the main staple food in our Russian Jewish home, I don’t remember my parents ever buying or cooking corn. I must have tried it at least a few times, but if I did, it didn’t leave any impression on me.

Cuenca, Ecuador. If you don’t have a dinner at home, just get your kid a corn cob on a plate

But this has changed during the year that passed since we set foot in Latin America. Starting from Guadalajara in Mexico, slowly making our way down to Peru, the road took us through cities and villages, highlands and valleys. And almost everywhere we went, corn is still vital to human settlement, just as it was for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans. Little by little my indifference turned to curiosity turned to awe.

Cotacachi, Ecuador. Otavalo woman in front of her family’s maize field

Of all the grains consumed by humans, maize is probably surrounded by more legends and folklore than any other. Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation story teaches that the first grandparents of people were made from white and yellow corn. For Maya people living between Yucatán and Guatemala, Maize has been sacred because it offers a connection with the ancestors, feeding the spirit as well as the body.

People of Maize. Palacio de Gobierno, Mérida, Yucatán


According to an Aztec legend, before the arrival of the god Quetzalcoatl, the Aztecs only consumed roots and game animals. They did not eat corn because it was beyond their reach, hidden behind mountains. So Aztec people sent their priests to ask Quetzalcoatl to help them get the corn. He agreed.

On the left: Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god. Pyramid in Teotihuacan, México

All of the other gods had already tried and failed to move the mountains by using force, Quetzalcoatl instead transformed himself into an ant, made his way toward the mountains, found the corn, took a grain between his teeth, returned to his people, and handed over the grain of corn to be planted.

But that grain of corn won’t shoot sprouts without rain. For this you need an assistance of another god. For Aztecs, that was the role of Tlaloc, the god of rain, the one with circular eyes, to the right from Quetzalcoatl.

Diego Rivera’s Tlaloc Fountain. Mexico City.

But it’s not just the mythology and history of corn cultivation and consumption that is fascinating. Gradually, I have come to see how awesome maize itself really is.

Just look at it. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Rows upon rows of kernels sitting tightly on top of each other. Like a city wall made of bricks. Like a horde of tribesmen holding defense. Like a golden shirt of scale armor. Each kernel too small to count, but together can sustain a family, a civilization.

Take a bite. Sink your teeth into it. You made a dent, but you still have a long way to go, so choose your next dig. Do you move from top to bottom or rotate it around its axe? Don’t hurry, give it a time, respect its symmetry. Is there anything else that feels, that tastes like that? It’s completely alien.

And what’s left after the corn is eaten? A burial ground. Each kernel, however small was its contribution, leaves a mark. Its path in this world acknowledged, remembered. A cemetery of fallen soldiers.

“Bandolier, corn and guitar”, Tina Modotti . Palacio de Bellas Artes , Mexico City.

Corn husks also have a role to play in the communal effort. In Mexico they are used to wrap tamales. One artist from Queretaro makes a living by painting over dried corn leaves.

Is it any wonder that corn and its place in culture fascinates Latin-American artists?

“Folklórico Mexicano” by Alfredo Ramos Martínez. Museo Soumaya, Mexico City
Fragment of Diego Rivera’s mural in Secretaría de Educación Pública, Mexico City

I have often asked myself why the culture here feels so grounded and potent. By now, at least one piece of the puzzle is in place.

The Grim Truth About Living in Latin America

Life in Latin America is easy, if you are an expat. The people are nice and friendly, the culture is rich and vibrant and living is usually cheap and with higher standards than those you are used to. But there are also grim sides to the Latin American story, that no one is talking about. Well it’s time someone broke the silence and told the truth.

Continue reading “The Grim Truth About Living in Latin America”