Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cooking Salvation

I’ve been devastated by the medical diagnosis of one of my closest friends on the street, F. She was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in her uterus last year and although was able to have four radiation treatments, at $800 a pop, she’s now out of money and therefore, unable to receive more help. She’s praying that it won’t spread, but obviously, cancerous tumors tend to grow not shrink, over time. At the moment F. is buying time, wishing for a miracle. She hopes money for an operation to remove the tumor will somehow (magically) appear. She has three daughters under her care: one is sixteen, while the other two are under 10 years old. F.’s doctors claim that the cancer was caused by her 15 years of working on the streets. They have forbidden her to continue working in the sex industry to avoid further aggravation of the tumor. F. is 32 years old and sex work is the only job she has ever known. She was a street kid who had her first child at age 12 and even though she first worked in the domestic service industry, she quickly changed to sex work in her teens when she realized she could make quadruple the money. With only a basic education and with years on the streets, F.’s choices for other employment are extremely limited. She knows she could work as a domestic servant for pennies, but doesn’t see it as worth her time. Anyway, the thought of working for employers after being a “freelance” prostitute for all these years makes her cringe. (F. has never, ever had a pimp in her life). Despite the excruciating pain, F. still tries to service several clients daily, but knows she’ll have to stop for good very soon.

One of F.’s greatest talents is her ability to cook. I’ve had the opportunity to eat dozens of meals at her home so I can testify to her culinary arts; there’s no question about it, F. is a phenomenal chef. She’s from Guayaquil, the big port city on the coast known for its good food and especially delicious seafood. F. has always told me that if she could change careers she would open a luncheon-cafeteria spot in the historic center. That would be her dream. Despite the tragic turn her life has taken, a silver lining has emerged. F. has slowly started to sell lunches to the other sex workers on the street. Lunch options are limited in the area, so the women welcome the delicious coastal cuisine that F. provides (furthermore, the vast majority of the women are from the coast and crave this food from their province). F. charges $2 for each lunch which although sounds cheap, it the going rate for lunch in the area. F. is establishing herself as the “personal chef” for all of her fellow sex workers. They request lunches for the following day and F. happily obliges. F.’s lunches include a steaming soup or stew (sometimes a delicious seafood stew for example) and a huge second course, which usually includes an ample portion of rice, a salad of avocados/tomatoes and some sort of meat. It could be more seafood, like fried fish, or a chicken stew, grilled beef, pork accompanied by a coconut and lime sauce, etc. Anything goes. F. is creative and has a growing clientele. Despite the success F. is slowly accumulating on the streets, she tells me that she’s still just breaking even. She typically sells 15 lunches daily at $2 each so earns perhaps $30 at the most. Taking into account her huge shopping trips to buy the food and the taxi she must take from her house in South Quito to the historic center with all the lunches, she barely breaks even earning $30 (depending on what she decides to cook for the second course). For that reason, F. still tries to service a couple clients a day. She knows her business will slowly grow, word of mouth, but for now she must supplement her income from her lunches with sex work. F. tells me that she would need to sell at least 30 lunches daily to earn a living from this venture.

F.’s luck keeps getting better, again, despite her tragic medical circumstances. One of the owner’s of the brothels in the “official” red-light district which is about a 10-15 cab ride from the historic center, called La Cantera (Stone Quarry), recently offered F. a restaurant space next to her brothel! The owner is the only woman who is the head of a brothel in La Cantera and she is known to treat her workers well. I would even call her a feminist of sorts, to be discussed in another entry. Of course her focus is on earning money but the safety of her women comes first. Their treatment is her priority. Anyway, this woman heard about F.’s health issues and knew she is an excellent cook; coincidentally her cook had recently left, so she had an empty lunch space to offer F. You can imagine F.’s happiness. I went to visit her the first day she opened and she and her oldest daughter, B. were in the kitchen chopping, stirring, mincing, and frying all sorts of things. They had huge pots—industrial sized cauldrons, like out of a witch’s tale. The place was packed, mostly with the sex workers who work at the brothel. A few clients were also present. People kept streaming in, I was so happy for F. Having been a waitress for five summers during college, I jumped in and started serving people and helping out in the kitchen. I helped them wash the endless stack of dishes (no dishwasher, naturally) and serve the lunches to each customer. They kept sending me on little errands like to buy more ice, coca-cola, limes, or eggs. It was super fun. F. and her daughter were laughing and carefree. F. also packed some lunches to bring to her fellow sex workers where she works in San Marcos, in the historic center. Now she was making some money.

But the sad, sad truth of this situation is that even though F.’s dream did come true, as she now has her luncheonette, she is still just barely earning the money her family needs to get by. Perhaps she successfully made the transition from sex workers to cook, which in itself is truly amazing, after working her entire life in the sex industry, but she is not making the money she needs for her medical treatment. F. knows that. She told me that she isn’t going to think about her cancer and just hope for the best. She hopes that her oldest daughter will be able to take over the lunch place, in the worst case scenario, in order to make a living for her two younger daughters. The tragedy of F.’s situation has not been abetted by her new lunch spot. The money she needs for treatment is way beyond what her new lunch business can provide. If she didn’t have cancer, F. would be in a great situation and truly completing her dreams of finally leaving the sex industry. Sadly, it took a fatal diagnosis to force her out of the sex industry, when it was way too late. And sadly, it was this fatal diagnosis that allowed her to receive the charity of this woman owner of the brothel who is as devastated as everyone about F.’s situation. Although not many people know, those that do are going out of their way to help F. I think many of her fellow sex workers friends on the street buy her lunches to support her, even though they know these meager offerings will not serve for treatment.

Everyone is most worried about F.’s children, as one would imagine. F. is petrified and for this reason, most often slips into denial about her condition. She keeps telling me, “Anita, I know a miracle will happen. Either God will remove this tumor or the money will appear.” I nod my head in agreement, although my heart hurts thinking about it. I’m not sure I believe in miracles. F. hasn’t begun thinking about the long-term future; for example, where her youngest children will live, if (when) something happens to her. I think for now, the hardship of just getting through each day, earning enough to feed her children is enough to worry about. Some people don’t have the luxury of thinking beyond today and perhaps that’s for the best.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the most engrossing blogs that I've read.