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.
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?