I went exploring, as one does during a pandemic lockdown. All within my one-kilometer radius. Not even! It was just a tiny slice of my circle. I’d never ventured off-road. Once, years ago, when I was new to the area, I went for a walk/hike with a neighbor. She was so absorbed in our chat that she missed a turn and we were lost for a while, until we walked on to within sight of a landmark. There are other places, not far, where it’s a bad idea to get lost, because you could walk for a really long time if you’re pointed in the right (wrong) direction.This hike was low risk. I would stay within a perimeter of tarmac road. Impossible to get lost. Usually I run on that tarmac circuit, from one village to the next and the next and back around to home. But I was tired of cars and, above all, curious. I looked at it on Google Earth. The outskirts of the villages aside, no houses were in the interior of the loop. There was a stream, some vineyards and other fields, and lots of woods.Tracks for farmers to access their fields would peter out into narrow footpaths, or not even. I saw boar tracks. Taking a photo of a little waterfall in the stream, I sensed movement. Fearing a dog (which I’m more scared of than boars), or, worst nightmare of all, a dog off leash, I froze. But instead, an enormous hare rounded a curve on the path across the stream, apparently to get up speed to leap over the water. Until it saw me, froze for a fraction of a second, and did a 180.
I explored these paths, free of all-terrain bikes for a change (more ferocious than boars) day after day, trying out different forks in the paths. I found a truffle farm, surrounded by electric fencing. Many capitelles, or stone refuges, built without mortar from stones found in the vineyards, to give workers a place to cool off for a midday sieste, when walking home would have been just too much work on top of the heavy manual labor they already did from dawn to dusk.
One place reminded me of a story. When the Carnivore and I were newlyweds, he wanted to take a honeymoon to Strasbourg. I’d never been to Strasbourg and wanted to see it. I still haven’t crossed it off my bucket list. Some turbulent events at the time of our planned trip had created bargains for travel to where I’d been in in the Peace Corps. I booked flights on a Wednesday; we left that Friday. I also called one of my favorite hotels, and the Carnivore was astounded when I asked for room 12. What on earth was he in for?
When we got to the first hotel, where I hadn’t specified a room number, the doorman greeted me by name. I’d last been there almost exactly a year earlier. It was a smallish hotel that was very mid-century modern in a way that was vintage back when I first went there in the mid-1980s and that had never been changed since. I loved it.
But we weren’t staying in the capital. I rented a small four-wheel-drive vehicle to go to where I used to live. No need for a map. This was not at all reassuring to the Carnivore. One could say his knuckles were white. Plus it was a former British colony, so I had to drive on the opposite side of the road. And “road” was a grand name for the bits of tarmac we traversed.Over an hour later, we were close. The countryside was very hilly, rising from plains of rice (the most delicous, aromatic I’d ever had) and pineapples to cornfields, then coffee. Above, in altitude, was tea. I lived just on the line between coffee and tea.
The road went up and down and around curves. Besides the enormous potholes, there were other obstacles—overloaded buses with people hanging off the back; overloaded pickups, their beds enclosed, where people would be squished seven or eight to each flat board that served as a seat (there was room for five butts, which meant one’s legs tended to be compressed to numbness during the ride); overloaded lorries that ground their way up hills and then went full speed down the other side in order to get maximum momentum to coast as far as possible up the next hill; overloaded people on foot, on bikes, motorcycles, ox-drawn wagons, all balancing impossible burdens.
We stayed at a hotel in a nearby large town, where, back in the day, I would stop for a milky tea when I would go to the big market on Saturdays. How I loved the market! I would buy a wedge of very local pineapple, which would be hacked with a machete before me, and wrapped in a dusty scrap of old newspaper. I would choose my rice from the open sack that had the most bees resting on it—a sure sign it was heavily perfumed. I would half-heartedly haggle for my fruits and vegetables, only because to not do so was considered arrogant. I would take my heavy bag home after an hour-long, two-leg trip on a bus followed by a pickup; the same drive in a private car was 20 minutes.
The hotel manager explained that for reasons I’ve forgotten there was a problem with the hot water. Instead, each day, several women hustled across the lush grounds with big basins of steaming water balanced on their heads. A different definition of running water.
I wanted to take the Carnivore to see one of my former students. We got in the car and headed even higher into the hills. “Watch out!” the Carnivore hollered. It’s true that there were often sheer drops and no shoulder on the side of the road. It’s why everybody drove in the middle, in both directions. I turned left, and since I was driving on the left, the Carnivore was certain I was doing a Thelma and Louise. “It’s a road,” I told him. “THIS is a road?!?!!?” he answered.
We went through a collection of shacks. Everybody came out to see; a car on this road was a big event. I waved. “Do you know them?” the Carnivore asked. “No, but it’s polite to wave,” I said. Honestly: same thing in rural France.
I turned right onto a much smaller lane. “Are you allowed to go here?” the Carnivore asked. “Sure,” I said. “It’s a road.” “THIS is a road?” he answered. It was admittedly harder going. Boulders gouged up through the red dirt in some places and deep ruts nearly swallowed us in others. I gingerly picked our way through. Non-native blue gum trees towered over us.I turned right again. “You can’t tell me this is a road,” the Carnivore said. “Yes, it’s a road,” I told him, driving over cropped thick grass. “You can tell because the grass is cut.”
Then I cut the motor. “We’re here,” I said. “But you said this is a road,” he exclaimed. “You’re just going to leave the car here?” “Sure,” I said. “There won’t be any other cars.”
I thought about that moment when I came upon this grassy lane. So similar. Coffee trees and grape vines are about the same size. The birds singing. The sweetness of the air. The absence of motorized sounds.I thought, too, about my housegirl, Jane. During training, we had been introduced to the concept of houseboys and housegirls, and I was sure I would be quite able to do everything myself and would never have hired help. In the 1980s in the Midwest, regular people didn’t have somebody come to do yard work or house cleaning. Kids—boys, usually—might make money mowing lawns or shoveling snow, usually for retirees. If you were able to do it yourself, you did. Plus, racism.
After a while on the job, my headmistress and another teacher I was close to invited me to tea. It turned out to be an intervention. Why hadn’t I hired a housegirl? Oh, I really can’t do that, I said. You have to, they told me: “If you have a job, you have to make a job.”
Well, that changed everything. I had been viewing the situation in terms of myself, proving that I wasn’t racist because I didn’t have a housegirl. The very term was offensive to me, even though my African neighbors and colleagues all had houseboys or housegirls and called them that.
Instead, the important framing was economic. If you have a job, make a job. My headmistress and friend informed me that they had found just the housegirl for me, and that she would be starting the next day and that I would pay her so much.
My housegirl, Jane, was a delight. She was indefatigable. When elephants trampled the pipeline bringing water to our school, she went to the river to fetch buckets. She washed my clothes by hand, then used the water to mop the floors. She sang as she worked. She always smiled. She gave most of her earnings to her parents and saved the rest to start a beauty shop. I was proud of her.
Back on the grassy lane, my former student, Editor (that was really her name), was surprised to see me. Our hasty trip hadn’t allowed time for a letter to arrive, and she didn’t have a phone. Or electricity. Or running water. She, her husband and two children lived in a two-room house (a sitting room and a bedroom) made of rough wooden slats. The kitchen was a separate hut outside, where Editor cooked over an open fire. She grew coffee and tea and vegetables. She once took me to pick tea. It is not easy.
I asked about a severe drought the year before. “Pff,” she said (just like the French do!). “We weren’t really affected.” But how did their crops survive? “The crops failed,” she said. “Everything.” How did she and her family survive? “We didn’t starve,” she said proudly. “We just ate every other day.”
Those words have stuck with me. There are people doing fasts to body hack, but this wasn’t about denial in the face of abundance; it was about survival in the face of famine.
Times are tough these days, but for some people, times are always tough, and lately they are worse.
I hope you are surviving and staying healthy. If you have a job, please do make a job. And I hope everybody gets to eat every day.