I miss learning to drive a sailing boat with a stupid orange life vest. I miss being on a motorbike almost every sunset. I miss eating anything possible on the street as late night snack. I miss writing our diaries in a small church. I miss planning a trip to the Far East that we never go on. I miss sharing a mouldy baguette on the mountain cause that was the only food we had. I miss ordering not knowing a single word on the menu. I miss screaming out loud as we dashing down in the woods on our bikes. I miss talking about ego two in the morning neither of us wanted to go to sleep. I miss coming back and the spruces still smelt the same.
There were twenty-two of us. If it was not for the situation that we were in, I’m not sure if we would have gotten along that well.
It was not that I was not aware of how different this island is from where we live. I expected the worst and yet it is a different story when you are in it. I was in shock at the very first night we landed on Pelerin. Except for the shore of the island, the entire land was covered with cones, cave houses. There were the pointy caps of the cones far from the middle of the lake when we were floating in our rowboat. The fisherman was spooning water out with a bucket. With the holes and the entry hollows on the pointy caps, the cave houses looked like cheeky skulls. In the darkness of the starry night and the lights from the houses, the cave houses danced and smiled to welcome us.
Our host was Will and his family. They were all born and lived here since, never left an inch off the island. The horses sniffed at us when we walked past them to the salon of his cave house. It was bigger than it looked. There was a gigantic red carpet in the middle of the ground. On the carpet, there were tables grouped together with our dinner ready, a great portion of clay-like dough, some greens I could not recognize and burnt fish in red soup. The food was divided into dozens of dishes on the tables though there were actually only three varieties.
Will and his family hugged and kissed us as a gesture of blessing us, as he said. They started grinning since the moment we walked in. We all sat on the couches making a circle around the red carpet. Maybe it was hunger, exhaustion or most probably, the shock, none of us spoke a word. I started to believe it was a ritual. I couldn’t even be bothered to look at anyone but staring at a dark fleck on the carpet. It got blurred and expanded. I listened closely to check if I was still breathi…
“Welcome you all!” Will clapped and started to introduce his family, they were all dressing in light yellow clothes with almost no intended cutting. The females are wearing dresses and aprons with a head cloth on while the males are having shirts and dark pants with straw hats.
We adjusted ourselves and forced smile as the heard the word “dinner”. We introduced ourselves by telling where we were from. There was not much going on except for the scooping sound of our plates and mumbling compliments about the tasteless dough.
We were staying in one of the cave house. There are two rooms on the first floor and the other two at the tip of the cone.
Viewing from the balcony on the second floor, all the pointy caps are glimmering with rising smoke. It was the silence of night and the breeze that drove me back to the room, to the wool carpets hanging on the walls and covering the ground, they kept me warm.
I lay on my mattress and looked up to the full moon thinking this is where I will be dreaming for the next thirty days… thinking about those hippos that might kill us while we were in the lake, the hole I might have slipped into when I was peeing, and the mosquitoes that could put me into a coma with a kiss… “Oh, yea, I guess we are taking the second floor since the girls are sleeping on the first fl…” I heard the guys were coming up from the salon… Maybe I should go over see if they need a hand for the luggage… I tried to move my leg, I couldn’t, I was sinking, sinking, sinking into my mattress…
We did a lot of home visits. Kids gathered at the fences waving and yelling friends in their own language. They all have similar houses with front yards growing tomatoes, paprikas, eggplants, pumpkins, and chilies. We noticed the chilliness since the sun had been blocked by the hill as we got to the other side of the island. Red lines are visible on my legs and my feet are covered in grey after walking through the spiky bushes and the overhead maize field. Hens are hopping around as a woman sitting by a stone stove fanning the grilled fish and chapati.
It was kind of dim in the house as the doorway was the only light source. There are several paintings of different styles, a portrait of an old man and a view of the other cave houses. I bet those paintings must smelt good when it was freshly painted from different petals and dried plant. A couple of taxidermic antelope and gazelle popped out next to those paintings, they looked so soullessr and a chill ran up from my back neck. I hesitated between sitting under the gazelle head and facing the antelope across the room, people kept thrusting into the house and I settled at the very corner of the salon looking right at the doorway.
Grilled fish and chapati was served with freshly-brew dark tea. They showed us how a rowboat is made, sew their own clothes, they all wore the same clothes. The host name was John, he introduced his family to us and made his 3-year-old son to shake our hands and say hello. The son was wearing a yellowish tunic to his knees with no shoes on. He walked back and forth among us giggling with a mug in his tiny hands. We did not talk to him much cause we were too busy keeping him in our cameras than in our hearts. It was perceived as a blessing there if one was being visited.
More tea, more grilled fish, more pictures of kids and more names to forget.
We started to work on what brought us here. We showed them pictures of water pump, electricity generators, machines that double their harvest only with them siting, watching. It would be a better world. No more fetching water for two hours every morning; they would have lights when they have guests after sunset, they would not have to look for branches for a fire to keep them warm and full. It would be such a better world.
Day after day, maybe it was the heat during the day that made me dizzy, maybe it was the aridness that stopped me from sweating, maybe it was the big bright sun that gave me sunburnt on my ears and bronzed mark on my shoulders, maybe it was the salty smell of the sand, maybe it was the distant sounds of the waves crashing the rowboats in fishing nets, there was this slackness in the air that got to all of us. Some just couldn’t be bothered and chilled out lying under an acacia with a cap over their eyes.
Every day, we woke up, we worked, we ate, we worked again, we chilled, we ate again and we went to bed. We woke up, we ate, we worked, we ate, we chilled, we ate, we went to bed. We woke up, we ate, we worked, we chilled… yesterdays were vague and tomorrows did not matter. No past, no future, just the moment…
I : Exactly! They don’t need anything. They are just perfectly fine, we fucked up.
Polina walks up and sits down: All good?
I looked down at the branch that I was playing with.
Polina: I have been living in big city since I was born and there’s always something to do. I have to squeeze time and like snap snap snap all the time, that’s kind of like a mindset that I was born with. And once I have free time I feel uneasy.
I : I just don’t see the point. They are just…what’s wrong with their lives? Just because they don’t need money, or electricity, or medicine that does not mean they need to be changed. They have been so happy and content until people like us came here and show them cell phones, computers, medicines stuff that they don’t have and tell them their lives suck, we just stuffed up.
I : Who cares about longer life that if they are not at all enjoying their days. And I don’t think a life including working my ass off for the stuff I don’t need is an idea of healthy life. I don’t need this…
Picking up his deodorant from his bag.
…I don’t need a cell phone…
Tossing it to the ground.
…I don’t need a camera, if it’s worth remember, I remember. I don’t need a lighter…
Tossing everything he picks.
…I don’t need these shoes, I don’t need this shirts or these pants…
Taking them all off.
Val ran off to the shore naked straight to the water without thinking anything, not the hippos, nor Polina, nor Will, they don’t understand, they do not understand at all. I just wanna get away from this nonsense, I can’t swim but that doesn’t matter. I will survive.
He was choking in the iced waves. He gasped and opened his eyes abruptly.
“Val, you alright?” Theo was lying next to him under an acacia in the field. “You were grinding your teeth pretty hard, mate.” I found myself sitting uptight and sweating all over. “Let’s go back. It’s getting chilly here, the sun’s just gone. Time for dinner anyway.”
The plan to help with the local people did not come up until one morning while everyone was working on the field. After the meeting, Dion and I started to walk up to the hills along a sandy path. Goats were bleating.
Dion : I learnt more from them than I gave. Maybe we just have to accept the fact that there are different people out there and stop forcing our codes onto others.
The trees are getting lusher like a forest as we walked further to the other side of the island. I was shifting left and right as I tried to stay under the little spot of the sunlight. A bunch of cattle rambled down from a slope followed by a man waving a crook.
I : Sounds like we are shaking off our responsibilities or guilt by consoling ourselves, that it’s just the way it is and there’s nothing we can do.
Dion: Hey, we didn’t cause the way they are today. It IS the way it is. The world is unfair. Besides, I don’t think a minor group of people in this world could change this, it takes EVERYONE. That’s what equality means.
I : Maybe it is easier to accept it is just the way it is.
A gigantic tree appeared. Bigger than a cave house. There were no bushes or tress on the root area under this king of trees, the crown as big as a pond. Thick vines were crawling all over the tree trunk like a staircase. We walked up along the vines, to climb away from all the nonsense. When I looked down for other trees, they were already blocked by a thin layer of fluffy clouds. Dion did not stop at all, he was right behind me.
We sat in the crown trying to find our cave house. I was sure about the spot, it was just too small now that I didn’t see it.
I : Look! A vulture!
Dion: What?! It can’t be.
I : Why not?
Dion: I’ve never seen a vulture since I got off that shabby rowboat.
I : That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Dion: A boomerang?!
I : All the way from those caves? Jeez! We climbed for ages.
Dion: If Juli were here she’d be saying OMG! It was shooting stars. I know it!
I : Ha! It’s probably them signaling us the way back home.
Dion is staring far.
Dion: Funny you call it “home”.
I : I’m actually starting to like it here. It might be boring sometimes but back there it is just too hectic. People just live for the sake of living, they might think they are happy but they are not.
The sky turns blue with amber above orange. The sun sinks, and I smile. I know it will rise again, I just know it. And I’ll be here watching everyday.
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