Thursday, December 23, 2010

Like Ema’s Smile

Rain pelts Yarina palms, whipping and beating at the thatch-roof. I feel no water. Remarkable the way these dry, layered palms cinch in pairs with long strips from tall trees. They are as a fortress.

Night has fallen. We are snugly tucked under the mosquito net. It looks nothing like the ones in department stores back home: wide and long, it’s like a cube of airy netting tucked under the slab of foam that supports our sleeping bags.

Above the mosquito net, I hear bats. Children left uncovered awaken with a stream of blood trickling from their scalp. EIMG_4633 (600x800)xposed heads are open targets for such flesh-biting, darting, winged creatures. Being that their homes are tucked among the thatches overhead, this white cube of netting provides sure relief.

I have heard that snakes enter mosquito nets rather effortlessly. Better not to think about snakes before bed. I dismiss the thought, and smell the rain instead.

As if we are under a waterfall, it whips and sloshes through the mud surrounding our hut. Down the hillside it rushes. Through Aunt Dena’s tidy rows of pineapple, drenching her mint and lemongrass which stretches out of the brown earth, the water follows a predestined trail carved by machetes through hard dirt. A hungry stream groaning toward the rising river.

These same machetes hack deadly snakes, slash pineapples and hoist hands of banana from their lofty places. It cultivates the earth, clears the weeds, and carves trails through fierce, raging undergrowth which wars to dominate every path: from one community to another, from gardens to huts.

Time for laundry. After scrubbing fruit and charcoal stained clothes that have been soaking in rankish river water, with a pasty, turquoise laundry bar, we dip the clothes into the current, watching as cloudy white suds disappear into the cold, moving mud. I close my eyes, face turned up toward the sunshine. I suck in a deep, contented breath of soap and mud and wet sand. The sun, the blue of the sky, and the green of everything growing above the river is intense and alive. And it seems the blue is holding everything together.

In language study, I learn there is no name for the color blue. There isn’t a concept of blue? But what of the sky? I resolve to ask the question again when I may string together a few more vocabulary words in Ashéninka. No blue? There are words for black and green and red. One color for red is basically translated raw. The raw that describes a freshly slaughtered animal. No blue-- but raw, blood red. I note this observation in my notebook, feeling somewhat important-- like an anthropologist. I am very satisfied. I close the notebook, and hold it up to my language tutor, Ema. Red, raw red? I question in Spanish-- is raw red the color of my notebook? No, she insists raw red is purer and my red notebook is really a sort of pink. Names for shades of red, but no name for blue.

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I watch Ema. I record her voice that I may wake to her words each morning, at the push of a button. It’s as if she is with me when she is not. Such a tiny, barefoot wonder. Few teeth to speak of. Coarse, unruly hair. Does she own a shirt without holes, or shorts that haven’t been crudely stitched in odd places? I have yet to see either.

I stare at her as she speaks into the funny little box I hold near her mouth. Oh my, but isn’t she beautiful! Content. Wise. Laughing easily. She possesses peaceful resolve. Neither time nor person can steal that certain, impenetrable beauty that is hers alone. And when she smiles! Is there anything so lovely as her smiling contentedness? I include this in my notebook. Ema’s smile.

I often think of her smile at unusual times. It depends little on the ease or predictability of circumstances, for she has neither. Clearly perplexing is that smile, when she launches hushedly into her sagas… her 20-something daughter having died, her own debilitating sickness and those speechless fits of fever, death hovering. Her voice is nearly hoarse as her stories unfold, as if she were looking around to see who might hear…

So cautious they are-- and skeptical-- especially of us. Our skin is a different color. Our feet are so big, and we stand a head taller than most. We are dangerous. There are stories of the white man, and every person seems to know the same one: White Man comes to slice, then peel off their faces, rendering them unrecognizable. He who cannot be recognized can never be found. The white man steals their children and peels their faces, too, then sells their organs. We are the foretold face-peelers.

But not everyone thinks this way. In the clustered spread of huts that is Yarina Isla, we are surrounded by a loving Grandfather who is from another tribe, and his son, Hermano Hyoni (Yoni) who is married to an Ashéninka woman. They have four children, three girls and a boy. They are believers.

When the children have all bathed, and cleanish clothes are all strewn about, darkness begins to settle over the river. Everyone is hungry. I make an extra large pot of soup. The whole eggs have been carefully dropped into a boiling broth, and when they are hard, it will be ready to serve: a fat pot of potatoes and peas and bit of corn in a creamy broth. The fire hisses and sputters when soup spills over the side of the blackened pot.

Behind the potato-pea-corn and cream soup is another toppling pot crowded with slivers of freshly-cut yucca. Every meal must include yucca. A dug-up root, it is still earth-encrusted when the rough, brown bark is hit with a machete, peeling away two layers of protective bark. The starchy center settles into tepid water.

Little MacDina comes toddling toward the fire. Her face is layered with runny nose, caked-on dirt and smeared plantain. Lice crawl from her head. And still, she sparkles, eyes twinkling while she babbles jibberishly. I tell her to sit down and wait for the soup. She throws her doll on the floor and screams. She hits the monkey with her doll. Then she obeys.

Hermano Hyoni is sprawled in the hammock, while his daughters, Laura and Yoselin are pushing him. Baby Caleb is crawling toward a whirring bug that has hit the floor, and is his to smash in-hand. Hermana Manuela gathers some bowls and tells the children to call Abuelito. The soup is ready.

Candles resting atop cans of tuna and evaporated milk are spread throughout the hut. We eat soup by candlelight. Sometimes we are silent. Sometimes everyone is talking at once. Sometimes Hermano Hyoni is playing a guitar, and other times Manuela is preparing the bird or the rodent or the fish he’s caught. Other times we are praying together, or studying the book of 2 Peter. We sing and laugh and listen to one another. And always, there is a certain sweetness in the mysterious clashing of our different worlds. This melding is at times uncomfortable. Awkward. Complex. For them, and for us. But without fail, it is always something beautiful. Like Ema’s smile.

To see more pictures from our latest adventure click here.