What visual comes to mind if I say, a traditional fishing village on a remote Indonesian island? Can you imagine looking out over calm, reflective waters at dusk, seeing the silhouette of a tiny-framed Asian man, dark-skinned and shirtless, his triangular rice-hat shielding the dimming rays of sun? Slowly, rhythmically, paddling his battle-tested boat and his filled fishing nets back to toward his home. A picturesque scene indeed, and one not so hard to find here in SE Asia. Yet, it’s a far cry from what we witnessed while roaming this fishing village just outside of Maumare, Flores, one of the 17, 000 islands that make up Indonesia.
Always, there has been something fundamentally humbling when seeing life still being lived by the laws of the land. Human beings having to hunt on a daily basis for their neighborhood’s and their own family’s supply of food. Having traveled through neighborhoods somewhat similar to these throughout SE Asia and Central and South America, the raw, challenging conditions of villages like these might not always look exactly the same, but the experience of them and the profound impressions they leave always resonate similarly inside of me.
Although this particular village didn’t show us the hunt, it did show us the hungry. Dozens of families reliantly awaiting the return of flopping fishing nets, allowing for their roles in supporting the food chain to begin. Wow, to see an entire community essentially living, surviving off fish and fishermen? Again, experiencing first hand life still being lived as it were centuries ago, it brands a beautiful awareness of just how grateful I should be, but also how envious I can be of others who can be so happy, with just so little.
When we first arrived to the village, the majority of men were all out at sea. The only males to be found were either toddlers or the ones old (and skilled) enough to build/repair the ‘sidewalks’ leading to the villager’s humble homes. And boy, did those planks of bamboo need some love and affection. Even walking as gingerly cautious as possible, my bodyweight didn’t last long and after only the first few steps Snap! My left leg thrusted through a vulnerable piece of bamboo, leaving my leg dangling over the ocean below.
After initially hopping off our motorbikes we made our way down the dirt road that lead up to the ocean. With the mid-afternoon sun blazing, the smell of yesterday’s drying fish was stout. As we passed the makeshift shops and shacks, the local women, all sitting on dusty steps raised above the junky, polluted streets (every other one with a newborn plugged into one of her breasts) quietly began whispering. Stopping whatever it is they’d been doing with their hands, so they could now point with their fingers and follow with their eyes. Simultaneously, a flock of kids began to gather, tugging on our clothes and poking at our backpack. With huge smiles, they were sweet and playful, but their open and empty hands let me know they were expecting something in return. Tiny palms opened and up in the air, the only English words they spoke were, “Misstah, Misstah”, Mister, Mister. With a handful of the pint-sized beggars completely naked or only barely dressed, most were borderline filthy, while a few others were still dripping wet from bathing themselves in their salty, ocean-sized bathtub.
Balanced upon scaffolds of bamboo stilts merely held together by tied pieces of cloth, the fragility of these villager’s homes was shocking. Constructed by thin pieces of wood and roofed by tattered rusted tin, it appeared as if they could crumble into the water beneath at any given moment, slightly swaying back and forth as the winds got stronger. The contents of each of these ‘homes’ were very similar. No front door, no walls, no beds. There were no toilets, showers or running water. And when considering this part of the world’s unapologetic heat, the thought of these families not having electricity, for as much as a fan, hurt my soul.
But this is life here. The only life they have, the only life they know. And though these conditions may seem appalling or unfortunate to you and I, the joy and life swimming around these waters suggested something a little different.
This is what being a kid in the middle of an underdeveloped and impoverished island means – not knowing any different. Being perfectly content with using an empty bag of potato chips as a pirate hat. Giving the same excitement and attention to a tire, long piece of string and wooden stick that kids back home would give to their digital toys. Sure, by some people’s judgement, the cards of life are stacked against the kids of this village, but don’t tell them that as they seem completely unaware. They are seemingly surrounded by a community rich with unity, family and camaraderie . Something some of the most fortunate children in this world never get to see, feel, or experience.
Admittedly, the shouting of Misstah, Misstah and continued openhanded jabs to the belly became annoying. However, now being able to find some shade and take my sunglasses off, I began to notice more than just hands being wide open. Children were now doing some sort of scratching or motioning to the inside of their hand. One hand wide open, while the other, with their index finger and thumb pressed together , scratching circles into the open, tiny palm.
Are they drawing imaginary coins on the inside of their hands, Ashlie asks me. Is that what they want from us? Coins?
If so, they were out of luck. We didn’t have any coins, and I damn sure wasn’t about to pull out my wallet and covertly try and sneak any small bills out from it. I’d tried that act once before while on the outskirts of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. That day, it only took half a second before I was completely mobbed by a mafia of kids; yelling, pushing and crawling over one another trying to grab every Cambodian Riel I had. Then, ultimately, the young toddler I’d originally wanted to give a few bucks to, ended up bruised and bawling in the process. Lesson learned.
While sat and shaded under one of the fishermen’s tin roofs, a few of the kids came over to where myself and our Indonesian motorbike taxi-driver, Marleno, were sitting. Still not exactly sure what to make of me, one of the meek lads began the scratching of the palm routine. I couldn’t help but laugh and try to explain, in charades, that I did not have any coins. Even pulling the insides of my empty pockets out and letting them hang free.
Go. Leave him alone, Marleno firmly says to the youngsters in their mother tongue.
Pure smiles quickly turned to frowns and instantly I feel guilt-ridden. I tried to explain to Marleno that if I pull out my wallet there will soon be a swarm of kids flying my way – and I truly didn’t have enough Indonesian Rupiah to give each and every kid a dollar’s worth.
It’s ok, not problem. But, they no want your money, Marleno says with a generous chuckle.
Wait. Huh? I thought to myself. At this point I was in a mild state of confusion.
Well, what do they want then, why the hell do they continue to scratch the inside of their hand?
They hope you have pencil to give them, they ask you for something for write with, for the school, Marleno explained.
My shoulders dropped, my heart ached. If I’d never felt like a presumptuous, stingy SOB before in my life, I had now. THAT is why they kept pointing to and pulling on our backpack. THAT is why they were drawing into the palms of their hand. For a pencil. Shamefully, I glanced over to Ashlie and I could see the teardrops building in her eyes. For almost the entire hour before she and I had been scheming on how to escape this village without having to open up and lighten the load of the wallet. In that moment, we both shared the same amount of unspoken humility. And, I had to redeem myself. I had to make it right. But, I knew we only had one pen in the backpack – but, I also knew that we weren’t leaving that village until each and every one of those kids had a pencil.
And that is exactly what we tried to do. The only problem for us was that this nook of the island was extremely remote, and if there were not pencils to be found nearby, we’d have to motorbike forty-five minutes over and then back from the nearest town. As fortune would have it, redemption was not that far away. There were two stalls there within the village that sold pencils. With Marleno interpreting, we bought the only nine pencils that one of the stalls had, and then had to bargain feverishly to erase the last 2-pack of eighteen from the other shop’s shelf. Alas, I held in my hands 45 pencils! Which, at the time, seemed like way more than the amount kids circling around my hips. Unbelievably, minus any phone calls, texts or smoke signals, every kid within a five mile radius had been notified of the pencil lottery. More and more, and then even more kids began rounding corners, while charging at us and screaming, Me, Me, Me, Me! Consequently, the number of empty little hands tripled in a matter of seconds.
I was now engulfed in a frenzy of screaming desperation. Trying my damnedest to, one-by-one, give each of these kids a pencil. I was overwhelmed by the kids pinching, grabbing and trying to snatch all the pencils out from my hands. This had quickly turned itself into that same level of Cambodian chaos.
And although there were plenty of proud smiles coming from those who’d already gotten theirs, there were moments where it felt as though I was rationing out tiny portions of bread to starving refugees who hadn’t eaten in weeks. Some kids were now frantically crying and being pushed into the mob by their parents, who now, too, were afraid their child would not walk away with something to write with.
With those same parents now shouting at me and an elderly, grumpy shop owner now screaming at them to shut up, I could feel my patience, temper and wherewithal ready to collapse. And so, I hauled ass. With the remaining pencils firmly in grip, I wiggled my way through the mob and ran as fast as I could down that long, dirt road. Tears, frowns and negative vibes were replaced by laughing screams, and the clan of kids were soon on my tail. I will never forget that dash. Beams of hot sun shining down on my shoulders, the warm breeze now blowing in my face, and the joyous sound of all those village kids running just behind me. It was one of those moments. The ones that friends and family love hearing about, but you, only you will ever know what it felt like to be in.
Sadly, after I handed out the last pencil there were still a few empty palms, but not many. Redemption had been served and the crowd of parents and villagers who’d gathered around the finish line were overwhelmingly appreciative. Paying their respects with glowing faces and customary half-bows. But, in the end, it was Ashlie and I who were most grateful. Grateful for this small fishing community being open to nosy outsiders, ones who will never forget their afternoon spent sprinkling pencils throughout the land of Flores.