My first week on the job was quiet, waiting for the shack to be functional and scooting to the beach in the afternoon lull. At first I stayed alone, letting the beauty of the beach, the water and slanting sunlight wash my mind and body clean. Eventually, I succumbed to their invitations and migrated to the La Susana employees who camped out down the beach from the restaurant in a cluster not unlike the cliques that gathered together to horse around on the circle green at my boarding school. Here, however, the gang smoked cigarettes, drank hot maté and cold forties of beer and told jokes I couldn’t understand, the girls unselfconsciously sunning their thonged derrières. They all lived together in “containers”–shipping containers that had been converted into bunks, worked together and “played” together. I was a curiosity first for my presence, then for my paleness. “Muy blanca, ella es muy, muy blanca,” I heard whispered often. Obvio.
Though slow at first work became utterly manic. The town of Jose Ignacio, which could easily be described as “sleepy” on the Monday before Christmas, was positively brimming by the 27th. The ceviche shack, for all its dreamy, I think I’ll quit my job and get my hands dirty romance, had certain inherent complications, such as (in no particular order), exposure to the wind, making chopping herbs impossible on a breezy day; complete separation from the kitchen, making it extremely difficult to time when to fire orders; one sink, shared with Uri the sushi guy and the bartenders; the aforementioned sink having a drainpipe prone to clogging and spewing water onto the floor, around my feet and occasionally even over my feet. In addition, my limited Spanish did in fact make me flail and I was quite clearly the butt of jokes, which is to say people were laughing at me, not with me (for which I don’t blame them). My hands were not only dirty, they smelled of fish without cessation, and hours each day spent making my Ceviche La Susana mis en place, meant the yellow, red and green bell peppers, together made my nail beds a special shade of shit brown.
In other words, almost all of my dreams were coming true.
My most often-used phrase—puedes m’ayudar?—was becoming my calling card, and in my efforts not to miss anything important, my ears perked up at any utterance of the word ceviche, which produced a reaction in me as though someone was calling me by name. Nico, the Uruguayan hipster cashier, often hung out in the shack in the early evening so that he could keep one Ray Ban-ed lens toward the late-setting sun. He’d perch on the bar a few feet behind me whispering ceviche, ceviche, just to see me crane my neck to find out whether there was in fact an order for ceviche or what was going on, like a dog sniffing the wind.
I spent Christmas—the only harbinger of which was a man wearing a speedo, sunglasses and a Santa hat while enjoying his sandy al fresco lunch—making ceviche, cloistered by busy work and sunshine from my family and the cold of the northeast. I dined with Belle and Marcelo, who were practicing parenting on me, and spent my last night at their place before New York pals were arriving and taking over the guest rooms. Marcelo had created a makeshift tree under which were many adoring gifts for Belle and two extremely thoughtful gifts for me: a Turkish towel and maté paraphernalia including gourd, pipe and yerba.
On December 26th I moved into the casa in which sundry employees were living. Two guys and two girls inhabited the two upstairs bedrooms, respectively. I was to share the living room, which had two single beds in it, with a chica called Victoria. Due to a deluge the ceviche shack closed early and I wore my navy plastic poncho home as I walked to the house in the rain through La Juanita.
I arrived just as Nico and Veronica, two of my new roommates, were leaving to go to a party in La Paloma for the night. “It’s going to be very complicated. Lots of my friends will be there,” Nico explained mysteriously. “Want to come?” I declined his offer in favor of a few hours to myself to write and get settled, and while I relished quiet, contemplative time outside of my ceviche shack during daylight, whilst sitting on my bed looking out the window at the setting sun below the clouds, the grim reality of the house was undeniable. The kitchen was a maelstrom of fruitcake crumbs, half-drunk wine glasses and gourds with caked maté. The floor was grotty and the bathroom particularly fetid, with stalagmites of toothpaste growing from the shelf beneath the mirror. I miraculously found the Uruguayan equivalent of Lysol on a shelf in my bedroom/living room and sprayed the cushioned toilet seat before sitting on it.
In characteristic form, I forced myself to take the plunge and dove right into the filth by taking a shower. A drain full of hair, a windowsill with dirt ringed soap slivers and a floor like a petri dish, made me feel as though I was getting dirtier as opposed to cleaner under the feeble stream. After my shower, as I looked through my bag for something to put on, I couldn’t bring myself to unpack. It seemed my clothes would need to be washed if they so much as touched the living room shelves. I congratulated myself for stuffing sachets of Santa Maria Novella potpourri in my suitcase, as it brought sweet-smelling cleanliness and glamour to me on my thin foam mattress atop a flimsy wooden bed frame.
In fairness I had been warned: that night as I “slept,” hundreds of mosquitos dive-bombed me. I pulled the poly-cotton sheet over my head thinking it might protect me, but they knew I was there cowering, and buzzed near my ears to wake and lure me out. I warred with the bloodsuckers all night and when I rose in pinkish dawn light, it was to find the wall beside my bed a canvas of bloody splats where I had murdered the Draculean insects in my frantic half-sleep. I over-dozed in the bug-less respite of morning, and when I woke it was to the unmistakable squeaks and sighs, umphs and groans of morning sex coming from the room above. The bar manager and his girlfriend, the hostess, were enjoying the delights of youthful summer love. I didn’t begrudge these two their aurora fucking, but I knew I couldn’t remain in this house for another night and started to gather my things, hoping to sneak out before the couple finished their dayspring fornication.
Leaving my packed bags at the casa in the hope of some miraculous as yet unknown lifeline, I went to work. That evening, I recounted this to my newly-arrived New York City friends over dinner. They naturally laughed at the hoopla, but were aghast at the description of where I was currently residing. “We’ve got a room for you. It’s small, and on the other side of the kitchen (a.k.a. it’s the maid’s room), but it’s clean and it’s yours.”
I moved blissfully in with them that night after dinner and stayed for a week in the lovely maid’s room of their beachfront rental–the exact room I hoped for on this journey: small, white, one single bed with a window above it that framed the waxing moon and a clean bathroom. Why such simple things are so hard to find I shall never understand, and I plan to someday have a room such as this to give adventure-seeking, solitary artists and lost little lambs with aching hearts shelter from the storm.
P.S. Don’t be misled by my anecdotes of endless chopping and constant moving, I am sublimely happy.
* * *
Ceviche La Susana, recipe by chef Marcelo Betancourt (serves 1)
1 large fillet of local white fish (Brotola), cut into inch cubes
1 large pinch sea salt
1 glug of Tobasco Sauce
5 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed pomelo (grapefruit) juice
1 tablespoon brunoised mango
1 tablespoon sweet corn, blanched on cob, then shorn off
2 tablespoons julienned criollita (red, yellow & green bell peppers and red onions, cut into matchsticks)
1/2 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped
Prepare your mis en place. (Depending on how many servings you’re planning on, this can take a while if your knife skills are underwhelming. If you’re serving 100, I speak from experience when I say you may want to get started. Like now.)
Chill all ingredients.
Add ingredients to a small bowl, stirring to blend ingredients. Let chill for 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a cold clean bowl. Garnish with a mango slice. Eat immediately.
To comment, please click here and scroll down to where it says, “Leave a reply.”
Tags: Ceviche, Ceviche Girl, José Ignacio, La Susana, Travel, Uruguay