In 2013, I contracted a virus that I thought was the flu. It ended up being dengue, sometimes referred to as “breakbone fever.” The nickname is a reference to the levels of pain some people experience when they are in dengue’s throes. I expected my symptoms to subside once the active infection went away. After all, friends who contracted dengue, sometimes multiple years in a row, seemed to return to a sense of normalcy. Instead, the joint pain remained, below the fever pitch of “breaking bones” but nowhere near my old self. For a long time I waited for that “old self” to materialize, and for the pain to recede. It took three years to finally surrender to my present and admit that the pain isn’t going anywhere.
The sun has barely risen over Miami, and Dale Brown loads an orange shopping cart with everything he owns. Through the morning’s swampy heat, he pushes the cart to the edge of the railroad tracks, where he hauls the items one at a time into some overgrowth and covers them with branches. His tent from Walmart, meticulously rolled and packed. A garbage bag with clothes and a blanket. He unscrews the lid to a plastic gallon jug and empties his urine into the brush.
“You feel like an animal,” says Brown, 63.
This industrial neighborhood just beyond Miami’s far western edge is home to lumber yards, auto parts warehouses, and, in recent months, roving encampments of homeless sex offenders. This summer, Brown and a half-dozen other men were living beside a chain-link fence outside a hardware company. Five blocks away, more lived in tents and makeshift shacks. And 12 blocks from there, about a dozen arrived in cars each night.
A combination of federal, state and local laws has rendered almost all of Miami-Dade County off-limits to sex offenders with young victims. The feds say they’re not allowed in public housing. The state says they can’t live within 1,000 feet of a day care center, park, playground, or school. The county says they can’t live within 2,500 feet of a school. In a place so densely populated, forbidden zones are everywhere. And in the narrow slivers of permitted space, affordable apartments with open-minded landlords are nearly impossible to come by. Read more…
The stories of the more than 800,000 men, women, and children working in California’s fields—one third of the nation’s agricultural work force—are rarely heard. The new book Chasing the Harvest compiles the oral histories of some of these farmworkers. Longreads is proud to publish this excerpt about Heraclio Astete, who shared his story with journalist Gabriel Thompson.
Occupation: Former sheepherder
Born in: Junín, Peru
Interviewed in: Bakersfield, Kern County
Agricultural Region: Central Valley
Along with fruit and vegetable crops, California’s agriculture also includes livestock, from dairy cows and egg-laying hens to hogs and even ostriches. Then there are sheep and lambs—and the unique challenges faced by the workers who care for them. These sheepherders are predominantly temporary guest workers, often called “H-2A workers” after the type of visa they hold.
Theirs is a lonely occupation. Living out of primitive trailers that are dozens of miles from the nearest town, sheepherders can go weeks without seeing another face. It is also the poorest paid job in the country, with some sheepherders still earning around $750 a month; with their long hours of work, that amounts to about a dollar an hour. In a 2000 report by Central California Legal Services, ninety percent of sheepherders reported that they weren’t given a day off over the entire year. When asked about their best experience as a sheepherder in the United States, many responded: “None.”
Like many sheepherders, Heraclio Astete came from Peru, where he grew up caring for flocks of sheep in his hometown. And like many of the workers who responded “None” to the survey, he had a lot of complaints about workplace exploitation. When he suffered a potentially life threatening work-related illness, he decided to do something about it.Read more…
On a still summer night in the last year of last century an overweight woman in a wheelchair appeared, as if an apparition, under a street lamp in a parking lot on the west end of campus. I had not seen her when I pulled my car in. It was an hour till midnight, and I was covered in sand.
I’d spent the night playing volleyball and had returned home to married student housing where I was summering with a friend’s wife, while he interned in Minneapolis. She was a nurse who worked nights, and I was an English major lazing between my junior and senior year. We rarely saw each other; the only complication in our cohabitation resulted from my inability to lift the toilet seat when I got up to pee in the middle of the night. In the mornings we’d cross paths and she’d tell me, again, that it was no fun to come home and sit in piss.
That night in the dark parking lot, the woman rolled her heavy body from behind a street-lamp. “Excuse me,” she said, coming closer.
“Hi!” she said cheerfully. “Can you, uh—would you be able to give me a ride home?”
She worked at a telemarketing place near the corner of University Ave. and 42nd St. Work had let out, but the buses had stopped running, and she needed a way home. She crossed the busy intersection and wheeled into the expansive parking lot waiting for someone to help her. I was tired and dirty. I just wanted to slink into the stuffy efficiency, shower, and distract myself to sleep with PlayStation. But here she sat.
“Sure,” I said. “Sure, I’ll give you a ride home.”
Majid Hussain didn’t know who would turn up on his doorstep first: Colonel Gaddafi’s foot soldiers following orders to purge Libya of its migrant workforce, or vengeful rebels wielding Kalashnikovs and the conviction that everyone with black skin deserved to be lynched.
For months the Nigerian teenager had watched on television in Tripoli as rebels not much older than himself stormed through the desert in their cheap sunglasses and mismatching camouflage, and it had seemed inconceivable that this shabby army of the disaffected could pose a threat to Muammar Gaddafi’s calm and ordered capital. He had heard rumours that all Africans from south of the Sahara were at risk of attack from rebels seeking mass punishment for the few who had colluded with the regime – but surely these were just rumours? Every day Majid still went to work and returned home every evening to his reliable air-conditioning and his satellite TV. The rebellion had remained remote from his life, and he wanted it to stay that way.
This war is none of my business, he thought. I have already seen my own country torn apart by old hatreds – I don’t need to see that again.
Majid and his housemate Ali had laughed off reports on CNN and the BBC about fighting on the outskirts of Tripoli, and they didn’t want to believe the news that Gaddafi was bombing civilians in Benghazi. It was all Western propaganda, the two Nigerians convinced each other. Even when a spokesman for Gaddafi warned on public radio that they would flood Europe with migrants if there was any Western military action, the young men remained unconcerned. Read more…
It is always hard to narrow down my favourites from a full 12 months of longreading, so here are five—but certainly not all—of the standouts from the last year. They’re food-themed, mainly because my last year has also been focused on writing and learning about food.
I’ve sent this article to more people than I can count, and love the responses I’ve received “Ketchup comes from China?!” The full piece is worth reading, in part because what makes food so fascinating is not only where it is eaten but also where it came from, and how it is what it is today. Ketchup, once a fermented fish sauce from China, is now a sweet tomato condiment we all know and many of us love. You’ll never look at a bottle the same way again once you read this great piece.
Adjika holds a special place in my heart, having brightened up many a meal and been a source of great conversation on the road. A red and fiery condiment from the Caucuses, adija is brought to life beautifully in this Roads & Kingdoms piece.
“It was like the sun had risen in my mouth. Instead of the cold lumpiness of wood pulp, there was a spreading glow of summer: garlic, chilli, salt, and a dozen other spices I could not identify. I looked up in amazement and picked up the little dish of red sauce to smell it. The old woman smiled again. “That’s adjika,” she said.”
Worth a read for anyone who likes food and travel.
As a Canadian, I grew up referring to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese as “KD”, and had no idea this was not a worldwide phenomenon until midway through 2010, and I was appalled to hear that my American friends did not adopt this affectionate nickname. I’m not the only one. As author Sasha Chapman notes: ”The point is, it’s nearly impossible to live in Canada without forming an opinion about one of the world’s first and most successful convenience foods. In 1997, sixty years after the first box promised ‘dinner in seven minutes — no baking required,’ we celebrated by making Kraft Dinner the top-selling grocery item in the country.”
The Walrus investigates the history and current state Canada’s strange love for KD.
2011 was a banner year for long-form journalism and storytelling on the web, and correlatively a time to appreciate people like Mark who have propelled the Longreads movement forward. I love how this site started as a hashtag on a soundbite-filled medium like Twitter, pulling away the noise to highlight the words and weightier pieces that engaged us all. It has never been easier to find something good to read.
And as I travel, I find myself connecting the dots between disparate countries or foods, drawing parallels within the stories I digest as I go. It’s extremely hard to whittle down the many fantastic pieces this year to a short list, but the pieces I’ve picked below are ones that had a significant impact, and are now baked into my memories of the places where they were read.
1) The Man who Sailed His House (GQ): This piece could have been written matter-of-factly or reported as the news that it was at its base level: a man, lost at sea after Japan’s devastating tsunami, is finally rescued days later. Instead, Michael Paterniti’s beautiful prose turns this astonishing tale into the surreal, raising it above anything else I’ve read about Hiromitsu Shinkawa. Through the patchwork of photos from the tsunami and its vast scale of destruction, the sincere humanity of this story is not something you want to miss. [Read it in: Casablanca, Morocco]
2) In the New Gangland of El Salvador (New York Review of Books): I’ve been a fan of Alma Guillermoprieto’s ability to tell a heartbreaking story with grace for quite some time, and her longread about El Salvador is no exception. Returning to El Salvador after 30 years, the piece swings between descriptive travelogue and somber reporting, digging into the history of the country’s ferocious gangs and why they are so prevalent. [Read it in: Montreal, Canada]
3) The Possibilian (The New Yorker): I first discovered David Eagleman when I read Sum, 40 short stories about an imaginary afterlife. At times funny, at times sad and each packing a punch in a short two-page read, I’ve been foisting Sum on those learning English as the creativity and short chapters make it an ideal learning book. So it was fascinating to learn more about Eagleman and his own brush with death, how he has collected hundreds of stories like his, and how “they almost all share the same quality: in life-threatening situations, time seems to slow down.” In Burkhard Bilger’s wonderful profile of the quirky neuroscientist, not only do we get insight into how and why Eagleman writes the way he does, but we learn about the philosophies behind his prose and how his own history naturally braids in, pushing him further to take risks beyond most of our comfort levels. [Read it in: Chiang Mai, Thailand]
4) Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert (The Awl): I have Wikipedia bookmarked on both mobile and laptops, and it’s an argument-solver, fact-checker (with a pinch of salt) and using the random article generator, a great way to learn about new things you had no idea existed. In her Awl piece, the talented Maria Bustillos discussed the pros and cons of the service, noting that “Wikipedia is like a laboratory for this new way of public reasoning for the purpose of understanding, an extended polylogue embracing every reader in an ever-larger, never-ending dialectic.” Instead of being told how it is, you’re given the facts to make your own editorial decision. Great read. [Read it in: Bangkok, Thailand]
5) Deep Intellect: Inside the Mind of an Octopus (Orion Magazine): One of the more unusual and vaguely discomfiting pieces of the year (“Am I really sympathizing with the brain of an octopus? Yes, yes I am”), Sy Montgomery’s loving investigation of animal we often eat but rarely personify was a wonder to read. Whether talking about the study of octopus intellect, the description of octopus behaviour or Montgomery’s awe as he spends time with a 40-pound giant Pacific octopus, I couldn’t put it down. I’ll never look at octopuses the same way again. [Read it in: Istanbul, Turkey]
Bonus reads (hard to pick only five!)
1) Breaking Caste (The Globe and Mail): Veteran journalist Stephanie Nolen reports on Sudha Varghese, the remarkable woman who built a school for the Dalit girls (India’s Untouchable caste), giving them new hope. Nolen’s writing style and obvious research make the piece that much more interesting to read and her background section on Varghese’s life gives the story an additional human connection. [Read it in: London, England]
2) When Irish Eyes are Crying (Vanity Fair): With Moneyball‘s marketing campaign in full force and Boomerang on the shelves, Michael Lewis is everywhere these days. However back in March when Vanity Fair published his longread on the Irish financial crisis, his buzz had yet to crescendo. The piece sets out the background and confluence of factors that led to the Irish economic crash, as well as some unpopular opinions on how it could have been avoided. Very interesting read. [Read it in: Mae Hong Son, Thailand]
3) My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant (The New York Times): Brave piece from Jose Antonio Vargas “coming out” as someone who has worked as a journalist and award-winning writer for years, all while hiding that he was not legally permitted to do so in the United States. Living this otherworld reality meant that Vargas went about his days in fear of being found out, something he had spent years trying to avoid. Vargas attributes his decision to share the true story after reading about four students who walked from Miami to Washington to lobby for the Dream Act. [Read it in: New York, NY]