Punch to the tear ducts

by Mike

Tacanga used to be a little fishing village around a tight bay, but now it’s more of a tourist village. On the other hand, this morning I woke up to the smell of lobster cooking in garlic and thyme. “Where did that come from?” “The sea.” Seems obvious, I guess. The old lady who takes care of our little hotel on the hill was cleaning the floors, and in between preparing lunch for her very welcoming family. Our room is almost in a turret with a full view of the little bay. We have a ceiling fan and a bed. Outside is a WC and a shower, shared by one other empty room. It’s 40,000 COP = about $20 USD, but it includes free coffee and the smell of cooking lobster.

How great would it be to swim down, grab a lobster, take a coconut or banana off the tree and improvise lunch? Last night we had a fried fish dinner on the beach and as we finished a little boy, probably 7 years old, came up and asked if he could finish our plates. We’d been throwing fish fins to the cat. He kicked the cat away and tore into the fish head, stripping with his teeth any flesh he could get from the leftover pieces. He finished one fish head and went to the next, then the next, scooping up any leftover rice hiding on the plate.

I had to turn away because I didn’t want the kid to see me crying, I’m sure he gets too much pity. Earlier that night we had considered staying in an 80,000 COP room because “Why not treat ourselves to a hammock on a porch for one night?” Azure asked me if I’d seen this in India, and of course in Mumbai I had seen it, families sleeping on the sidewalks and cooking on an empty coffee can, all their possessions strewn on the sidewalk over 10 feet before the next family’s plot started.

The bus ride in was like this. The top of Colombia is this random place on the map that none of us had ever considered – it’s the crown of a continent where it meets a sea, not Buenos Aires, not Rio, but somewhere else down here on the side. I’ve looked at places like this on the map since I can remember (specifically, I can remember doing this in 3rd grade) and asked, “what’s there what’s there?” which is probably an indication of my pressing instinct to travel. Well, what’s here is this long, flat area. Very natural, probably scientifically defined as a swamp… a lot of water. I couldn’t tell if it was fresh or salt water because the sea is right to the left as we drove, but the water on the other side of the road was vast, so it could be fresh. There are hundreds of naturally-made stumps sticking up out of the water and other trees lining these lagoons, and in the middle of this all there would be a shack somehow stuck in the mud with people sitting in the shade with laundry on the line. Then the land would spread out and the shacks would multiply and it would be a village of thousands living in the deepest poverty I’ve seen, including commercials for charity that mercifully run only during the holidays, when we’re out of the country. Dirt floors, tin rooves (roofs?), people running barefoot, you know. Men sold fish on the side of the road and people would get on the bus to sell the cheapest, mass-produced fried things that were of course laced with preservatives so the men could buy them in September and sell them until they all sold.

I don’t know if you can really travel and see “how other people live” without going and seeing how they live in places like this.

The four of us talked about poverty a long time last night over cards and much-needed liquor. Emotions ran from pity to anger to guilt. The conversation ended up, as it always does, veering to the role of Western governments and our own roles in or out of those governments. But when the kid comes up and asks for a piece of the fish we’re going to otherwise throw away, we give it to him. We would have turned away an older, less-cute beggar who was that kid grown-up. In other words, it’s not a sustainable thing for the kid because we’re teaching him that asking for food is enough. A more sustainable thing would be to give money to libraries or to NGOs, but then do you withhold the fish head when a kid shows up at the table?

I don’t know I don’t know.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Punch to the tear ducts

  1. Judy Loewen

    Mike,
    I love how and what you and Azure write – it moves me.

    I don’t know how you say no to a kid (and don’t know that I could), but if you are looking for other ways to make a small difference – microloans seem the way to go. Check out kiva.org. Through them you can make a loan as small as $25. It is combined with small loans other people offer, and given to people that you choose from their website. My understanding is that if the loan is paid back, you can get your money back (eventually) or you can turn around and select another person to loan it to. You can even give a gift certificate to someone so that they can make a loan. It’s new to me – but it sounds like it makes sense…. Stay safe!

  2. That does seem like a good idea, Judy. Thanks for the lead.

    In the meantime, I read the papers back home and see how many gun deaths we have among our own youth and wonder why not put those $25 toward the problems in Seattle?

    Though I look at the poverty here and think that it couldn’t possibly exist in the States. I don’t know if it does in some corner that I’ve never visited, but we have building standards, food handling standards. As Azure said in her post, when we talk about our middle class disappearing, we’re in no threat of becoming this poor, as after WWII Europe could rebuild because even the razing of an entire city couldn’t erase the knowledge of progress. (“progress”)

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