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hard life

Dusk. A grey sky over cleared burning fields. Howler monkeys hoot and growl from nearby stands of trees. A man walks along a foot path from the fields towards the road.

And the sun goes down at the end of the day… cloud, mist and smoke making for an atmospheric scene.

I pass a rough building constructed of wide weathered grey wooden boards. The shack is set in a muddy yard in which chickens, turkeys, and dogs wander, each in their own fashion. A group of people are near the road, an old man standing, an old woman seated beside him, and two small children.

The man hails me as I pass and so I stop. “Where are you going?” I have no real answer to this question and so I gesture vaguely down the road. “Somewhere close?” he queries. He is clearly concerned by the approach of darkness.

I hesitate and then tell him I am looking for somewhere to camp. He, on the other hand doesn’t hesitate for a second.

“Would you like to stay here?”

I look at the bleak mud yard and the field behind the house and nod without much conviction. The man turns to his wife, who seems somewhat less sure that a impromptu visitor is a good idea. I explain that all I need is somewhere to put up my tent and that I have everything that I need with me but casting my eyes over the muddy animal infested yard again I also have my doubts. However, after a brief discussion it is agreed and I push my bike off the road and lean it against the shack. I stand uncertainly near the bike watching the couple who remain by the road.

The man I saw earlier in the field joins the group and the old man explains the situation. The younger man hawks and spits on the ground. He also seems nonplussed by the presence of a foreign visitor on a bicycle. I join them by the road and he questions me exhaustively about where I have come from. He particularly wants to know where I stayed last night and I cannot oblige him by telling him the exact location of the anonymous field I slept in.

Eventually we move closer to the house and the children fetch moulded plastic chairs for me and the two men to sit on in the middle of the yard in the gathering night. We are in the midst of a swarm of flying insects that slip and burrow under items of clothing, wiggling and tickling. The chickens run frantically under foot pecking at these insects while we all study my map; the men indignant at its inaccuracies and omissions.

As it gets even darker the children, a five year old girl and a six year old boy, are directed to put the chickens into their pen for the night and they run after them grabbing at a wing, a leg, a neck and flinging the squawking, protesting, birds carelessly over the fence.

I go to set up my tent but the old man leads me to the house and shows me inside. The door opens onto a dark windowless space, a pile of corn cobs occupies the dirt floor, sacks and implements for cultivation lean against the walls. I should sleep inside, they will hang up a hammock for me, they have a spare one. OK. I agree.

We move to the kitchen – an open thatched structure with a packed dirt floor. He shows me a pot of beans and presents me with two eggs. Cook them how you like them. He points out a basket containing a tomato and an onion. I accept the eggs – there seems to be plenty of chickens.

The boy attempts to stoke up the fire, adding a couple of bits of wood and blowing furiously but the it merely smokes and smoulders. The dogs and some chickens are still underfoot. A tiny kitten, too, mewing piteously.

After watching the boy struggling futilely with the fire for some time the old woman adds a couple of dry corn cobs, pours on some liquid from an unmarked bottle and flames leap up. I scramble the eggs by the light of my head lamp, heat some beans and toast a couple of tortillas and then sit at a table to eat. The woman stands at the other end of the kitchen grinding corn in the dark. The boy runs to and fro on errands with a torch.

I have finished eating when the men join me at the table. The woman brings a crude kerosene lamp to us – a single smoking uncovered flame that casts a small dull orange pool of light. The woman brings tamales and the old man offers me one – I refuse it embarrassed to be taking food out of his mouth. He breaks it in half and presses it on me. I eat.

Tamales finished, the woman brings plates of beans and eggs and tortillas to the men. They talk to me in Spanish – asking questions about my bicycle, about Australia, about my life – but the language they use amongst themselves is unintelligible to me. I do not see the children or the woman eat.

The men examine my head torch at length and I wish, desperately, that I had a spare one to leave with them.

Eating done, it is time to rest: they have decided that I will sleep in the same room as them – the second room in the shack – there are two hammock slung across the middle of the room and two double beds, one on either side of the door. Clothes hang from sticks suspended from the beams overhead that support the tin roof. A gap between the top of the wall and the roof provides ventilation.

The men insist I try both hammocks and the choose the one I find most comfortable. My choice made, I fetch my water bottle, head lamp and a cover and slide into the hammock. The younger man swings in the hammock beside me and asks me the names of various things in English: dog, sister, brother, cow, horse. The old people and the children bed down but the patter of rain on the tin roof has everyone leaping up again.

I remain in my hammock and the family eventually returns with a crate of young chicks which is placed under my hammock, where they peep and scrabble through the night. The young man slides back into his hammock next to me and hawks and spits onto the dirt floor.

The hammock is wide and comfortable and I sleep well enough, waking only once during the night when the old man leaps from his bed alert to the barking of one of the dogs.

It is still totally black when the rooster crows – loud enough for me to suspect that it is in the room with the rest of us. I try to sleep some more but the old man turns on the radio – spluttering and crackling – and the two men converse in the dark room. In the pitch black space they arise with only the occasional flash of torch light to assist them. The beam of light passes across my face from time to time. The two children get up also and then, finally, the old woman. The gap between the wall and the roof has still not lightened at all when I tumble out of my hammock and grope for my head torch.

Outside the men are saddling horses. Chickens and dogs are underfoot. The men bid me goodbye, gravely shaking my hand and insisting that their home is my home and I must, of course, stop by when I pass by that way again. Then they ride into the darkness.

The old man, his son and six year old grandson set off to work in the field before the sun has risen…

… while the old woman and the little girl stay behind to tend to the housework.

We woman are left alone and as the sun rises I also go to make my leave but the woman insists that I eat before I go. She lights the fire and is busy around it.

The little girl talks to me. She is shy but insistent – if my attention drifts at all she prods and pokes me and continues to test my grasp of Spanish with urgent whispered mutterings.

Lorena.

Lighting the kitchen fire.

Dogs, chickens and cats underfoot.

The old woman calls me to the table and the girl follows to study me eating. The plate is beans, eggs and tortillas again – and I couldn’t ask for a better breakfast.

..

There is a secret here, in this house, that eludes me, but I feel the need to understand.

Sun rising.

I get on my bike and ride away totally humbled by these people.

{ 7 } Comments

  1. matt | May 30, 2010 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Nice work, poetic

  2. Francesca Coles | June 4, 2010 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    Hello Anna. I hope you’re travelling well. Thanks for sharing your experience of being welcomed by this family. I hope you meet with much more kindness on the way. Cesca.

  3. Lucie | June 5, 2010 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Dear Anna, I was too busy to read your posts in the last couple of weeks, but now I’ve read them all. So you are in the jungle! I heard about a big storm hitting Guatemala, so I hope that you were far from where it hit, and are safe and well! Take care, and write and take pictures. Together, it’s poetry!

  4. julie | June 17, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    What a special experience staying with this family – such generosity and kindness! They must have been fascinated by you, as obviously the little girl was. You write so beautifully – this particular account is very moving. I agree with Lucie and matt.

  5. Christopher | June 21, 2013 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    Beautiful. You are privileged to have this experience.

  6. Tim Joe Comstock | March 27, 2018 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    A secret of a family with, no doubt, broken hearts.

    Donde esta la madre de Lorena?

    Every small story is but the flickering of a quick moment of revelation that leads to a vast tale of glory, pain and the simple fact that all we can do, after all, is saddle up and venture forth into the morning light.

  7. Jacques JURY | April 7, 2018 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much, Anna !
    We met on the fruits’ marcket of Condrieu, south of Lyon. You were hurried by schengen administration
    Where are you in April 2018 ?
    Will you come back in France, in the south-east ? Visit more beautiful sites than industrial Rhône valley ?

    Sincerely

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