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Creative Nonfiction

I will be sick. There is no way I won’t be sick.


You have to eat it. 


I look down at the bowl. It’s plastic and turquoise. A dull turquoise. Perhaps a sea foam green. It’s hard to tell in the dim light of this street-side comedor.  


I’m vaguely aware of salsa music playing from a radio. If I could hear it above Tegucigalpa’s groaning and squealing traffic, I may be able to identify the artist. After four months traipsing around Central America, I’m starting to know the music.  


But none of this changes what I’m staring at in my turquoise-maybe-sea-foam bowl. It’s your standard salsa - chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, cilantro. The problem I’m having, though, is with the raw clams sitting with the salsa in a soup of their own blood.


Curiles


I’d read about this Central American delicacy in my pre-departure research, but had skimmed and dismissed the warnings. I am neither a foodie nor an adventurous eater and I knew a blood clam would never pass my lips. But as my spoon dips into the thick dark broth, phrases I've read flash in my mind like neon lights in Times Square: “blood clams can ingest viruses and bacteria,” “hepatitis A,”, “typhoid,” “dysentery,” “query where your clams are harvested.”


I look across the table at Manuel’s family - his mother, father, wife, and uncle - who are sipping Cokes and nibbling on the soda crackers that come with the clams. They are smiling at me. I smile back and drag my spoon through the blood, excuses flying through my head.  


“I am allergic.”


“I am recovering from an illness.”


“I am a pathetic gringa with a sensitive stomach.”


“My doctor told me to never eat raw clams in their own blood.”


Instead, I smile at Manuel’s mother and say, “This looks so good.”


I am the only one at the table with a meal before me. Manuel’s family is very poor. As I will see later, they live in the slums of Tegucigalpa in a two-room shack with thin mattresses on the floor. Manuel has a baby daughter, Diana, who is bundled into his wife’s arms. The entire family survives on the smattering of money Manuel manages to send home from the United States each month. Now, though, as Manuel’s kidney disease worsens, hospital bills accumulate and the remittances diminish. 


And so, I cannot refuse the curiles. His family has scrimped and saved to welcome me with the most special of Honduran platos, an extravagance they can’t even afford for themselves.


Manuel Garcia and I had come into each other’s lives a year earlier. As a young assistant producer at Dateline NBC, I was assigned to work on a special about ailing individuals who didn’t have health insurance. My job was to stake out a free Latino clinic in Washington DC and find a documented uninsured migrant who had a serious health problem and who would let our cameras follow them for the duration. After three weeks, I found Manuel, a 27-year-old Honduran with debilitating kidney stones. 


He was a house painter who had come to the U.S. on a special visa after Hurricane Mitch had decimated Honduras in 1998. Not long after his arrival, though, kidney stone attacks kept sending him to the ER. Manuel received treatment each time, but couldn’t afford the surgery he needed. Still, he dragged himself up and down ladders, painting houses day after day. Eventually, the pain relegated him to bed full-time.


After several months, one hospital finally provided Manuel the surgery, at no charge, to remove the kidney stones, but little improved. The stones had done permanent damage to his kidneys, requiring more surgeries, more treatment. The cycle of pain, complications and prescriptions never seemed to end. 


As Manuel struggled, I’d left Dateline and moved to El Salvador on a Fulbright. Still, we kept in touch, and when he asked me to visit his family in Tegucigalpa, I jumped on a bus and headed west. His family waited for me at the bus station with excited Spanish, a flurry of hugs and the promise of a special meal to welcome me to Honduras.


As I lift the spoon, clams and salsa shining with blood broth, I smile at the family. What else can I do? I am touched by the warmth and sacrifice of these strangers, but terrified by the bowl of glistening raw clams and vegetables before me. 


Buen provecho!” says Tio Miguel, offering the Central American version of bon appetit.


I try to inconspicuously hold my breath as I gulp down that first spoonful. My eyes tear with the burn of the peppers and an involuntary shudder jolts through me as I feel the clam slip and slide around my mouth. The blood is salty, fishy and my stomach revolts as I think: “I just ate blood.”


I grab a handful of soda crackers, trying to clear the taste, and wipe my eyes. 


“Mmmmm!!!!” I say with gusto, knowing that is the response Manuel’s family needs to see. “Please have some,” I say, offering the bowl. Everyone takes a little bit, but a mountain of curiles remains. “Have more!” I insist. But they won’t. They do not want to take away my special meal.


Each spoonful goes down much like the first. I am going to get so sick, so sick, so sick. The words drum through my mind with each bite along to the salsa music still playing in the background. 


I am wondering when the first twinges of nausea will hit. How bad will it get? Will it come only as nausea? Or like stomach cramps? How long will I be out of commission? Will I need to go to a hospital? Should I go to the hospital right after dinner? What if I get hepatitis? Should I have some Gatorade on hand to stay hydrated? 


I am not a soda drinker, but that evening, I take big swigs of Coke with each bite, hoping the syrupy sweetness will help. Finally, I see the bottom of the bowl, and then it’s over. 


I await the inevitable.


A salad once made me violently ill in El Salvador. Ice did it in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Too much alcohol in Colombia. A sandwich in Haiti. Unfamiliar meat, which may have been goat, in Mexico. I have a long and colorful history of getting ill all over Latin America.


But guess what? Despite the raw clams, raw blood, raw vegetables….despite the flies buzzing around that little comedor….despite my hypervigilance to every little movement of my intestinal tract for the next three weeks...despite it all, I stayed healthy. Not even a rumble or a burble in my belly. How’s that for luck?

July 02, 2021 19:09

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29 comments

K. Antonio
22:31 Jul 02, 2021

I loved how this is creative nonfiction. This line: “I am a pathetic gringa with a sensitive stomach.” THANK GOD I'M A VEGETARIAN. I enjoyed how this story uses food as a catalyst, how we get to know more about Miguel. I loved how YOU were smart offering up the grub to get some of it to diminish (fill disclosure: I've done this several times.) Food can be so triggering, and bring back so many memories. I think this weeks prompts really highlighted that in some way. I can't remember the last time I ate meat, but before going full vegetaria...

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Kristin Neubauer
20:49 Jul 03, 2021

Thank you so much! The funny thing is that I actually AM vegetarian - even vegan (ish) - and I was back then. But it was hard to bop around Central America back then without eating meat when I was invited out as a guest. I didn't want to be the arrogant American. Funny story, when I was in Argentina several years ago, the bureau chief and his family (he is Argentine) took me out to one of the top steakhouses in BA. What to do? I ate the steak and, if I had enjoyed meat, it would have been extraordinary. In my effort to be polite, I we...

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21:06 Jul 02, 2021

I do understand that feeling of seeing and eating foreign food for the first time. Sometimes we don't know what we are getting into. I love this; love how the story is centered around a foreign food, how it will taste, and the fear of not wanting to upset the family. I have this habit of not eating food prepared by someone I am overly familiar with. When I do, I start to feel just like this character. I like how she decides to simply eat the food instead of hurting their feelings. I know some persons might disagree on it but, yeah, I could ...

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Kristin Neubauer
20:41 Jul 03, 2021

Thank you so much, Abigail! This happened so long ago - back in 2000 - that I hadn't really thought about it in years. But somehow the memory worked its way back to my consciousness when the prompts came out - I guess I needed to tell this story!

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Kanika G
16:49 Jul 20, 2021

Hey Kristin, this was very interesting creative nonfiction piece. I'm amazed you managed to finish the dish, not sure I would have. We get to know so much about Miguel and the Cental American culture. This is the third or fourth story I've come across this week that's nonfiction. I think food inspired a lot of writers to write their true stories. Well done!!

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Kristin Neubauer
20:21 Jul 27, 2021

Thanks so much, Kanika! That's funny that a food prompt inspired so much creative nonfiction. Everyone has food stories!

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Kanika G
10:27 Jul 28, 2021

Yes, lots of people have food stories and each story was mouth-watering. :)

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Josh C
00:19 Jul 11, 2021

I'm not normally one for memoirs or travel journals, but I loved this one! It took me back to the days of travelling (only a year and some ago but it feels like a long time). it also is a great reminder of how privileged so many of us are compared to others. Happy to read more like this!

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Kristin Neubauer
15:41 Jul 25, 2021

Thank you! I'm not big on memoirs or travel journals either....but I've found that I"m more interested if they read more like a story and less like a stream of consciousness. It sounds like people sort of enjoyed this curiles story. I'd like to take another crack at a creative nonfiction one and see if I can make it interesting. Probably not for awhile, but one day!

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Thom Brodkin
23:53 Jul 07, 2021

I am so impressed by everything about this story. I love that you gave us a glimpse of who you are and who you are is pretty damn special. I love how well you brought me to that table with you. How you made me feel the clam and taste the blood. I love how you made a true story come alive. It’s not as easy as people might think. It’s easy to tell the facts but hard to share the raw emotions. I hope this is the first of many creative nonfiction stories. You obviously have stories to tell. Stories I want to read.

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Kristin Neubauer
16:00 Jul 08, 2021

Thank you so much, Thom! That means a lot, especially after reading your great creative nonfiction pieces. I will mine my history to see if anything else comes up. I won't manage anything for this week, but maybe next week. Thank you for the inspiration!!

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Thom Brodkin
22:07 Jul 08, 2021

Hey I just posted one for this week. Can you give it a look and let me know what you think. I want to clean it up while I can still edit.

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Shea West
18:22 Jul 06, 2021

I get this feeling when a food is offered and I just can't bring myself to eat it. How long can I uphold the lie that I'm allergic to goat cheese? If you think I said MY ENTIRE LIFE- Then you are correct.

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Kristin Neubauer
17:49 Jul 07, 2021

Hahahaha! Clearly, I understand....it is a horrible feeling!

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H L Mc Quaid
14:31 Jul 04, 2021

More creative non-fiction please! This is great. Informative, funny and infuriating (with the medical insurance issues). I can relate to this so much. When I was in the backwaters of Kerala, my river guide took me back to his hut, where his feverish wife cooked fish and rice in banana leaf. It was delicious, but I kept wondering whether she had diphtheria and what kind of water she used to cook the rice. As I didn't want to be an Ungrateful American, I ate it, and was fine (well as fine as an American travelling across India can be). I ...

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Kristin Neubauer
17:40 Jul 07, 2021

Thanks so much, Heather! I like your story about the fish and rice in Kerala....I feel like we need to see some creative nonfiction from you! And thanks for the note on the tense - as usual, you are absolutely right. As usual, I am too late to fix it here, but I will on the original!

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Daniel R. Hayes
00:30 Jul 04, 2021

This was a classic KN story!!! A touch of charm, a touch of culture, and a touch of awesomeness, sprinkled with pure writing talent! I really enjoyed reading this. The meal itself turned my stomach and when she took a bite, I was screaming Oh no!! eeeewwwweee!! ;) I'm so glad you shared this story! I thought it was wonderful and I always learn something new when I read them. I love learning about different cultures and the foods they eat. It's so interesting! I thought you did a great job as usual writing this; no doubt taking some i...

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Kristin Neubauer
13:42 Jul 04, 2021

Thanks so much Daniel! This is creative nonfiction so it was a retelling of every moment of that experience. I hadn’t planned on writing for last week but this story popped into my head and I figured I could knock it out pretty quickly. I’m glad you liked it!

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Kristin Neubauer
19:11 Jul 02, 2021

Author's Note: I hadn't intended to write this week, but I want to thank Thom Brodkin and Corey Melin for inspiring me with their recent forays into creative nonfiction. This isn't polished or literary for sure, but it sure was fun to write!

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Yolanda Wu
08:52 Jul 13, 2021

I love this creative nonfiction piece! It's told in such a way that I would have immediately known it was you who wrote it, because it definitely has your unique touch of charm! I love your delving into the specific culture through the food, and how you captured the feeling of trying something foreign for the first time. In that situation, I definitely wouldn't have been able to refuse the food either. I feel like you've had so many interesting experiences that creative nonfiction stories from you would be so exciting to read. I'm so sorry ...

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Kristin Neubauer
20:39 Jul 26, 2021

Thanks so much, Yolanda! Apologies for my long-delayed response. I hadn't logged on for over two weeks because of work, school and a million other things. I can't see managing a story this week, but I'm going to try to get back to reading regularly. I'd love to write more creative nonfiction, but writing about myself feels so ego-indulgent. I'll see what bubbles to the surface whenever I manage to write something other than an academic paper again. Music camp??? Do you play an instrument? Or are you a singer? I played bassoon through...

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Yolanda Wu
22:05 Jul 26, 2021

It definitely sounds like you have been busy! I'm almost two thousand words into a story I want to post this week, so we'll see how the rest of it goes. In terms of music camp, I'm in the school choir, I used to be in the band as well 'cause I played clarinet, but then I quit because... well, I wasn't very good. We were meant to have our annual concert last weekend, but then it got postponed because Victoria has been in another almost two week long lockdown. Hopefully it'll be announced today that lockdown is lifted. Also, I totally get ho...

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Kristin Neubauer
10:45 Jul 27, 2021

I hope you'll be able to finish your story this week - I'm looking forward to reading it! I started off playing the clarinet too in middle school. I wasn't very good at it either - my cat ran out of the room everytime I squeaked. They needed a bassoon player in high school and asked if I would do it. I sounded like a dying moose at the beginning, but I liked the bassoon a lot more so stuck with it and got better....to the point where my cat would fall asleep next to me when I was playing. Hope your lockdown ends soon!

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Yolanda Wu
22:19 Jul 27, 2021

I've finished the story, but I need to do some editing before I can post it. I'll let you know when I do. Yeah I can relate to the bad instrument playing. I feel bad for my parents who had to listen to me practising at night. Lockdown has been lifted and we're back at school, but there's still a lot of restrictions. Sighs.

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Babika Goel
02:17 Jul 10, 2021

It's a lovely mix of emotions spread on the table and a well-described fear.

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Kanika G
16:35 Apr 12, 2022

Hi Kristin, just checking in to see how you're doing. I haven't seen a story from you in sometime. I too haven't posted one in a long time. Just wanted to say Hey and hope you're doing well. 🙂

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Thom Brodkin
17:20 Mar 15, 2022

Hey there, I finally won one. I know you've been away but if you get a chance sneak back and read it. I miss your feedback. By the way, it's me, Thom.

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Deidra Lovegren
18:59 Oct 23, 2021

So...any chance you'd like to discuss your writer's journey on a laidback little podcast? https://www.readlotswritelots.com/wp/ Drop me an email if you fancy a chat @ lovegren.deidra@gmail.com

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Palak Shah
09:44 Aug 09, 2021

This is a very creative non-fiction piece and it was so relatable. I loved reading it. Well done :))) Could you please read my latest story if possible? :))

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