“That water is horrible.” The man stuck out his tongue and gagged.
He said it in a friendly way, cajoling, sticking out his tongue again and catching my eye before placing the hard plastic cup down. There were two cups—both Pepto Bismol pink—that I rinsed out between patients, my back turned to them, hoping they wouldn’t notice the lack of soap.
Sheila’s eyes narrowed at this comment, and she turned to him sharply.
“Un poquito alto, sir,” she said, reading his blood glucose level in flatly accented Spanish, though the man was addressing us in English. “Keep taking your medicine. Next.”
As he filed out, Sheila straightened the objects aggressively on our plastic table, banging stethoscopes and stolen pens into piles. “I mean, what did people do before filtered water? What did they do before Brita? The water here is fine.”
The water really was terrible.
I was thinking about going back to school for medicine, and signed up to volunteer at a local clinic in a place I’d never been. I arrived in the capital of Belize to quiet streets and houses painted the color of jelly beans. After a few weeks I learned not to question certain things. The water from the tap was toxic to anyone not raised in Belize, and to some of those who were. Machetes hung from belt loops, most often used to hack open coconuts but also to spin idly from fingertips. Wearing gloves was a luxury not to be used while pricking blood from the fingers of diabetics to test their glucose levels.
“If you’re not clumsy, you’ll be fine,” Sheila told me. She was the head nurse, a forty-something woman with choppy Spanish, a cold British exterior, and glasses on a string around her neck. I’d seen her dip into the stash of plastic gloves exactly once: when the receptionist’s daughter walked in wailing, her head split in two from a bicycle fall. Sheila was laughing as she sanitized it and stitched her up.
“I want my mother!” The girl wailed. “I want my grandmother! I want my aunt!”
“You just want everybody, don’t you,” Sheila said, smiling grandly.
I lived with a family in San Ignacio while I worked at the clinic. We ate corn tortillas, rice, and refried beans with every meal—served with scrambled eggs or flapjacks at breakfast, and with charred chicken on Friday nights. They doused everything in the local brand of hot sauce, Marie Sharp’s. At first I loved it, especially when my homestay mother Lily made fryjacks for breakfast or salbutes at night. But after the first week, meals began to look different. Breakfast was a lone egg and a stack of white bread—always four or five slices, maybe because bread was cheapest. At first I nibbled on the blackened pieces to be polite, but eventually I left them untouched. The carbohydrate-heavy meals weighed in my stomach.
At weekend dinner, the meat was often tough with gristle or chewy with fat, but I tried my best to eat around the inedible parts because I was ravenous for protein. I didn’t see anyone else in the family feel sluggish or sick from the food, but overall, San Ignacio was not a healthy town. Working at the local clinic, I knew that 99% of the patients had diabetes. Most couldn’t afford the produce at the farmer’s market; most were obese and didn’t get much exercise. When my homestay father found out I had to walk up the highest hill in San Ignacio to reach the bus stop, he worked out an agreement where the local elementary school bus driver picked me up outside our front door. “That hill is too much for every day,” he told me.
At the clinic, Sheila was my only source of conversation, and she was not interested in having it. We had one doctor who took a cigarette break after each patient he saw, even when that patient was a woman in labor. Our ambulance drivers were all male volunteers who often sat on the roof with my homestay father drinking until four a.m.. Each day, I had an hour for lunch, and I ate what Lily had packed for me. She packed me lunch because she was required to, as part of the stipend she received to house me. Many families in San Ignacio earned a chunk of their living this way. They depended on visiting volunteers. They set up spare rooms with flowers and pastel walls and invested in new beds. My room was painted lavender and the door locked from the inside with a wooden spoon.
Lily made me breakfast and dinner, and each day she left a brown paper bag on the table. At first I thought this was kind of adorable, but it was always more white bread, usually with a smear of sugary jelly and peanut butter. The clinic was at the end of a dirt road; there was nowhere nearby to eat, unless the woman who sold oranges from a sack on her shoulder came by the office. So I would eat the sandwich, sitting in my navy blue scrubs, reading a book I had brought. I normally didn’t overlap with Sheila, but one day I was sitting in the kitchen when she came in, glancing suspiciously at my silver tinfoil-wrapped sandwich.
“What is that?” she said. “Did your homestay mom pack that for you?”
“Does she always?” She leaned over the table, glancing down over her glasses.
I nodded again, unsure of which side to take.
“Just that? What are you eating at home, does she make vegetables?”
“A lot of beans—”
“Refried, right?” Sheila said, not waiting for an answer. I wondered what had made Sheila move here from England. She didn’t seem to like San Ignacio all that much. She wasn’t married. Occasionally, at unexpected moments, she talked about her son.
She clucked and turned her back to me as she opened the fridge, saying something about the ignorance of health and the poor spread of knowledge and the pure disdain for health, which seemed extreme even to me, but I was too scared of her to even respond. She turned back around with four Tupperware containers.
She spread them out on the table and opened the lids. There was a large pink piece of salmon—how I missed fish!—marinated and roasted and sitting on its oily black skin; a bright salad of cherry tomatoes with garnishes of basil, their red skins shimmering from a layer of olive oil and salt; a bowl of yellow corn scraped off the cob and mixed with plump black beans; quinoa—where had she found quinoa?; Aromas of herbs and oils and fresh food spread from the table. My cold hard sandwich sat next to all of it, an imprint on the bread from where my fingers had picked it up. I sat there hesitatingly.
“AT THE CLINIC, SHEILA WAS MY ONLY SOURCE OF CONVERSATION, AND SHE WAS NOT INTERESTED IN HAVING IT.”
“Well?” she said, gesturing.
“You’re going to get sick soon. Eat!”
With a full mouth and genuine curiosity I tried to ask her gentle questions, but but she was as uninterested as before. And I did get sick, but not until months later, when I’d left Belize for Buenos Aires. Sheila’s shared lunches had a drastic effect on my days in San Ignacio. My mind always felt fuzzy until lunch, and clear for hours after; my energy dipped until I heard the lunchtime bell. I dreaded weekends, and I tried to leave town with friends so I could choose what to eat. And each day at one p.m., I brought my book to the table but always left it closed, entertained enough by the fresh food in front of me and Sheila’s blunt instructions on the best way to cook it, always phrased in a way that made me feel as if she were chastising me. “You never poach salmon in plain water!” she told me once with an intensity that startled me—I had never poached salmon at all. Of course you could freeze avocados, and you could certainly microwave corn on the cob if it was just a few ears. I nodded seriously, though I was no more likely to be able to cook in the next few months than stitch up a howling girl’s scalp by myself.
When I left the clinic, Sheila didn’t hug me. “Well, alright then,” she said with a curt nod before turning away. I got warmer goodbyes from the doctor, from the volunteer ambulance drivers, from the pharmacist who always sat enclosed in her office. But I can’t remember anyone else’s name.
Kyle Lucia Wu is a writer living in New York, and an MFA candidate at The New School.