Monday, September 5, 2011

Travels to Tabod – Part III – The Man

We finally arrived at a trail that followed the contour around a ridge to the house. Fatimah arrived a few minutes of awkward incommunicability later, and caught her breath. Then she introduced me, and explained why I was there. The man agreed to talk to us on camera. There was a small house and a tiny shelter that served as a kitchen built into the 30o slope. The man and his wife were home, along with their toddler son. The two of them looked at our motley group without either joy or fear, just a mild interest and with some hidden sadness. He was lean and his face was weathered. The house he lived in was, like most houses there, bamboo-slats tied together, roofed with thatch.

I started rolling the camera and Fatimah translated for me. The man answered my questions directly, and without anxiety.

I asked, “What is a hunger season?” His response was much more perceptive than I expected. “This. Now is a hunger season. This small pot of roots is all that we’ll eat today.”

He opened up his little pot for me and I could see it. A pot of steamed cassava, wrapped in banana leaves.

I asked him, “Are there years that are worse than others?” I was trying to get him to talk about food insecurity, something I was taught as a Western-minded development person, to be concerned about. There are uncertainties in farming; the rats or boars that may come, the loss of stored rice to mold, maybe insects. His response was astonishing. “Every year is bad. Every year we are hungry.” I was trying to get at the uncertainty: we’re OK except when… But there was no uncertainty. His hunger was certain, year after year.

 “Do your kids go to school?” “Yes, in Imulnod.”

Imulnod? That’s where we had just hiked from. Maybe they go there occasionally, or for special events:

“Every day?” “Yes.”

Perhaps he misunderstood me. I thought of a different approach:

“Where do they sleep?” “Here”

His kids do what I just did. Every. Day. It’s wonderful that he’s close enough to send his kids to school, and that he wants to see them educated. But it’s not too many more kilometers before the trip really would be impossible. This family was on the border, the part of the highlands that still has daily access to the lowlands.

I stopped rolling the film and asked if I could look around. He consented, and, for the first time, I saw his view. The panorama was incredible. He had a small field of corn where the jungle had been cut back, allowing for an incredible 270o view of the lowlands and ocean. And then I saw behind the ridge: behind us, on the next ridge, houses and fields dotted along the interior, further on into the mountains. My heart grew heavy in my chest. As far as I could see, people lived as he did. That was our target. Starting with this family, and going on in: these were the people I had come to speak to. These were people who needed help.

 I thanked him profusely. I felt bad. I barged into his lunch unannounced and asked him some bold questions and now I was leaving. But what else could I do? I’d have liked to spend more time up there with him and others, but we had none to spare. And that is probably our own fault. Perhaps out of embarrassment, I gave him what would be my lunch (some crackers) and started back.

I walked back down the hill, keeping pace with our guide, reflecting on what I had seen and heard. We arrived back down and Fatimah went ahead of us. When we caught up, one of the villagers had climbed up one of his coconut trees, chopped down a few coconuts, and was bringing them back for us. He sliced a hole in one, and handed it to me.

Coconut water is an incredible thing. I’m not sure there is a more refreshing drink in the world. It has something like carbonation when fresh from the macheted coconut, and, I am told, has the same osmolality as blood (and in a pinch, can be used as an IV fluid). In any case, the liter or so of coconut water hit the spot. I lost a lot of sweat that day, and it felt good to put some fluids back.

After some more hiking, we arrived back at Imulnod. I was tired, but fulfilled. My melancholy job was complete. I had found a person in need, and documented his plight.

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