spelling bees and hot sauce.

I broke my first glass at work last week, a margarita glass with a few drops of strawberry or mango pooled at the bottom of the stem. No big deal, right? As they say, there’s more where that came from. And like every other human being since Adam, I could blame someone else – the bar staff, for instance, who, in the utter insanity that is a Friday night, had let the ledge fill to precarious capacity with empty glasses, making it undoubtedly impossible to ensure the glasses I set down would be safe. But sure – in the end, my fault. My flatmate Kenny, also the bar supervisor, immediately says, “Hot sauce.” I shrug my shoulders without a clue as to what he’s talking about, and get back to work.

Later that night, I was in search of the containers we use to store extra cutlery in. I ask my manager Jenna if she’s seen any, only for her to cryptically reply, “No, but I do know where the hot sauce is.” What is it with these people and their hot sauce? She had her dinner in front of her, so I try to think logically and guess that she needs it for her meal. Then, in a line spoken with the same gravity as “Is this Clarice?” or “I see dead people,” Jenna says,

“Candace, I know you broke a glass.”

I was soon filled in about the staff tradition that for every glass or dish you break, you have to taste the hot sauce. Even the kitchen staff hold to it, yelling excitedly after each breakage, “Hot sauce!” At first, I was tempted to track down the dirty sod of a customer who ratted on me, but there were soon graver issues at hand…

Allow me to digress. We’ve got units of measurement for pretty much everything, from light years to temperature, from kinetic energy (joules) to weight (pounds or kilograms, take your pick.) Heck, a couple of professors from Cornell in the 1940s even invented a system for measuring pain, each unit called a “dol” and equal to “just noticeable differences.” Sounds objective to me. So I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn last Friday of the Scoville, the unit used to measure the hotness – or “piquancy,” if you feel like being technical – of a chili pepper. Based on the amount of capsaicin present, it ranks peppers and hot sauces on a scale from 0 to 16,000,000, the latter being pure capsaicin.

To give you a point of reference, consider the following statistics:
• 100-500: Pimento, bell pepper
• 2,500: Jalapeno pepper
• 5,000: Tabasco sauce
• 100,000: Habanero chili
• 2,000,000: Law enforcement grade pepper spray
• 5,300,000: The ammunition used in the FN 303, a semi-automatic less-lethal launcher (whatever that means, it doesn’t sound good.)

So we’re talking pretty damn hot here, ay? Now to the illusory hot sauce – the sauce I would soon be tasting as penitence for my broken glass is called The Source and is 7,100,000 Scoville units.

Oh. My. God.

Thankfully I wasn’t informed of this wee fact until later. All I knew was that the other servers wouldn’t even carry the box that contains the sauce – let alone the bottle itself – without a cloth around it, for fear of a stray drop finding its way within a thousand miles of their eyes or mouth. So we’re not talking about your average tabletop Tabasco sauce…and here I was about to try it. The Source – the third hottest hot sauce in the known world (apparently the first is rumored around 16,000,000 Scovilles – and yes, that is the hottest you can go) – but the source of what? As I soon found out –

Pain, misery, and absolutely indescribable agony. Hell in your mouth.

The first few moments were fine. Even anticlimactic, as the group of servers gathered around me as if waiting to watch a ten car pile-up they already knew was going to happen. But this was no atomic bomb; this was a noxious gas drifting slowly, silently, in until the entire village doesn’t wake up in the morning. The nerve endings in my tongue went into anaphylactic shock, or some other horrible sounding medical condition that can only mean certain death. It spread down my throat and into my ears, which felt like molten lava was being funneled in. Breathing only amplified the pain. Kenny handed me a glass of milk and a few limes, as if they could do anything. Tears streamed down my cheeks, bloody useless if you ask me, whereas my mouth would have much appreciated the extra moisture.

Tired of being a spectacle, I moved up to the kitchen, in no less pain, but hidden in a corner with more limes and a glass of water, feeling immensely sorry for myself. Was this what it had come to? I was alone in a country far from home – far from anywhere, for that matter – with a substance three and a half times the equivalent of pepper spray in my mouth. This was as low as it could go.

But it had been a long week, and quite frankly, I was over it. Over the early mornings and the late nights, over the complaining customers, the never-ending phone calls, over my freezing bedroom and the time difference that seemed to mock the near impossibility of having a decent conversation with my family. I was over feeling alone.

Last Thursday in the office, a colleague asked no one in particular how to spell supersede.

“Supersede?” I ask in that way you might repeat the word given to you at a spelling bee. I’m an English major; this is what I do.

“Oh no, no, Candace, I don’t mean the American way,” she says. In situations like these, I can actually feel the anger flare up inside me, pangs of sudden outrage shooting through my chest.

“Do Americans really spell things that much differently?” someone else asks.

The original colleague to ask peeks her head up over her computer monitor from across the office. “Spell program.”

“P-r-o-g-r-a-m-M-E, if you want the UK way,” I say.

Another person asks me to spell color. “Add a ‘u’ before the r,” I say a little too smugly.

I turned my back on them, determined not to feel belittled, when another colleague – the aforementioned culprit of mispronouncing my name – says under her breath, “How do you spell ‘idiots’?”

Ah…vindication from the English! 

All of this is to say how easy it is to feel isolated here. While New Zealand may have seemed familiar and Westernized at first, it can also be anything but that – which may be all the more disconcerting. I mentioned the time difference, currently placing sixteen hours between me and my family and friends, most of whom are on Eastern Standard Time. I am always a day ahead – when I’m getting ready for bed, they’re just hitting the snooze button in the early hours of the day. It can be fun, as my dad sometimes jokingly asks whether to buy or sell and which stocks did well that day. But it is equally disconnecting. Not to mention the swap in seasons. While my friends are on Beach Week and working on their tan, I’m wondering how I’m going to make it through this winter with the coat I’ve brought with me.

And so I fight the self-pity. I chose to come here, after all, and no one’s making me stay. It took an adorable old man I served at the restaurant last week to remind me why I’m here. Our conversation started off normal enough, with my accent cueing him to ask where home is for me. As I’m often asked, he wanted to know what I think of Obama and if I’ve gone to university yet. “You’ve got the whole world in front of you,” he said, “The whole world.” We talked about my plans to write and hopefully return to London next year, but then he left me with a line I won’t quickly forget: “You are going to have a very interesting life.”

My first instinct was to almost ask, “Really? I am?” because it honestly doesn’t feel like that all of the time. When I’ve answered the fiftieth phone call at the office or run the hundredth dish out from the kitchen, all I feel is the lack of sleep weighing me down and pushing on my eyelids. Sometimes it takes a stranger to remind me why I’m here.

One of the main employment websites in New Zealand is Seek.co.nz, very similar to Monster or CareerBuilder. They’ve got a commercial on TV right now with a kicker of a tagline: “If we didn’t seek, we wouldn’t find.” But I think the inverse stands true as well – if we couldn’t find, we wouldn’t seek. Sure, sometimes life is about the journey, but who doesn’t love the destination, especially if the journey’s been long? I think all of us need to have some kind of reassurance that all this endless striving and running will lead to something in the end.

But right now I’m doing a bit of both – seeking constantly, leaving no stone unturned, and finding out a lot or a little along the way. Maybe the key lies in bearing all things with patience and an open mind – seeking even when we don’t always find; finding what we don’t always seek; and occasionally, luckily, getting it right.

And remember – when life gets hot, even into the millions of Scovilles, just stick your tongue in a bowl of cream. It’ll do the trick.

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1 Comment

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One response to “spelling bees and hot sauce.

  1. janell rardon

    The thought of you sitting in the corner of that restaurant with a burning body — which could have been allergic to those Scovilles (or whatever their called) — makes me very, very concerned. I love hearing your heart but at the same time want you right here next to me. Somehow, as your mother, I think you are safest when you are with me. Funny, that won’t ever change, I suppose. Now my heart knows differently — you are safest when you are in the center of God’s will — but my head, well, that just hurts thinking of hot sauce and spelling bees. HUGS and BLESSINGS and LOTS OF LOVE FROM A DIFFERENT TIME ZONE.

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