In the southern region of the United States, comfort food is fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and a massive pitcher of sweet tea. In Australia it’s veggie mite on toast, and in England, comfort food is fish and chips and a cup of hot tea. For me, growing up in rural Wisconsin, my family’s comfort foods were cinnamon rolls, craft beer, and a strong piece of parmesan.
On bath days when I was younger, frozen blueberries were my comfort food: my mom let me eat them in the bathtub while she washed my hair, the warm water melting the frost on the outside of the fruit. If I was lucky, I would accidentally squish one and the color would seep out, the fruit making blue veins in the sudsy water.
One of my favorite things about Arequipa are the big, open markets. Mercado San Camilo—one of the largest of these markets—is wonderfully overwhelming. It is filled, floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall, with fruits, meat, fish, cheese, plantain chips, toasted peanuts—and most everything in between. San Camilo’s fruit aisle is my favorite; grapes, strawberries, and fruits I had never heard of like cherimoya are piled high, arranged in lines like a textured, tumultuous rainbow.
During my first week here in Arequipa, I was extremely excited to be here, but I also missed the soft familiarity of my home. So I went to Mercado San Camilo to buy blueberries.
I went up to a woman in the fruit aisle, my eyes scanning the grapes, strawberries, and oranges. I asked her if she had blueberries, and she just looked at me, a confused expression on her face. After several minutes of trying to explain, she shook her head, and instead filled a bag with an orange fruit she called maracuya (passion fruit) and sent me on my way.
I was surprised—Peru has everything. There are fruits I have never tried before, a whole section of booths in San Camilo with different kinds of sauces, and over 4,000 different kinds of potatoes. Being a country with a potato selection that impressive, I thought, surely, they would at least have blueberries.
But they don’t.
The maracuya were round and orange, their surfaces smooth and like giant marbles. I stuck my thumb into the coarse outer layer of the fruit and broke it open. On the inside there was gel the color of bonfire smoke, dotted with oblong black seeds. Great, I thought, this woman has sold me a bag of rotten fruit. I smelled the gray coagulation inside, expecting it to smell like compost, but it didn’t—it smelled fresh. I decided to try it, and—as it turns out—gray is just the natural color of passion fruit, because it wasn’t rotten. It was delicious, the inside smooth and sweet and a little bit tart.
I had gone to the market to find something that would make me feel like I was home. Instead of finding what I came for, I came back with a bag full of weird gray fruit that I have now learned to love. And though Maracuya aren’t blueberries, they are still sweet and they still bring me joy, even if that joy is a little different from what I am used to. And, though I haven’t tried yet, I am certain I could eat maracuya in the bathtub.
For me, home and comfort has always been blueberries, good cheese, and my dad’s homemade bread, shared between a certain and safe group of people. But now, home for me is plantain chips, maracuya, and fresh ceviche. Our definitions of home and comfort can be fluid, if we let them be. At Volunteers Peru, that’s part of what we try to help people realize: just because you’re far away from what you know and the people you love, that doesn’t mean you aren’t home.