Once Upon a Time....(time, time, time)
I have seen people light fires since I was a little girl, "How hard can it be?" I thought, "I'm pretty sure I caught all the pertinent details from the lighting of yesterdays fire out of the corner of my eye; I got this." This is all despite the fact that I've seen "Cast Away" several times and should know better. It isn't as easy as you'd think, I believe, was the motto of the moment. However, all I could recall from the movie, was Hanks' final triumph.
This was my guiding image as I squatted down towards the logs, lighting match after match and failing miserably to do what I had assumed would happen naturally (Tom didn't even have matches!). I had began with some prep work. The logs were actually still smouldering underneath from this mornings breakfast fire, but I did recall the need for dry grass, to......well, I wasn't sure for what, but I remembered it being a vital ingredient. Dry grass, check; matches, check.
After several attempts at lighting the grass bundle, I realized it was best to hold the brush (ahem) on a downwards tilt so the flames reach upwards (yeah, I was thoroughly breastfed as a child). Despite this significant discovery I could get no more than a minuscule brush flame going no matter how much I tried to tuck it into the logs and sticks. Clearly there was a piece of this formula that I was overlooking. The last light had seeped out of the twilight evening; I could barely make out the shape of the hut in the near distance.
Suddenly the scampering of little feet filled the air behind me, and the children appeared out of nowhere to swarm around me. The messenger service had sent me a rescue team. At first they sat around me shy and giggling, simply watching, but the moment the surmised my objective as I continued to try and get the fire going, they jumped into action. Their tiny little faces, the youngest must have been four at the most, bowed down, deep into the logs and began blowing, in unison: "Wheewwwww, wheeewwww". Before I could finish my arrogantly naive thought, "silly little chil-" the flames responded in earnest and caught on, growing quickly and fiercely. My initial exclamations and huzzahs turned into concerned scolding because they refused to abate their huffing and puffing and were now dangerously hovering over a growing, barely contained camp fire. I tried to pull them away, only to have them giggle, shrug me off and continue their exhausting stunt. There was nothing for me to do, but sit back and watch the process with apprehension and marvel in equal weight.
One by one they finally bowed off the flames and sat triumphantly down on the logs by some unspoken signal. I looked at the fire and saw that a few of the bigger branches had now caught that deep, hot coal look, whereas before, when I was giving it my best effort all I had ever seen were those light yellow, superficial flames. And then I understood what I had been missing and why my fire would never have been successful. These children had used team work and persistence to achieve this long lasting blaze; I had neither the common sense to ask for help nor the were withal to understand a flame does not equal a fire; I had rewarded myself too quickly, sought the end result too impatiently; my huffing and puffing was but a fraction of what was needed for the flames to take root in the logs. I'd needed the children; they knew it; I didn't. And this realization filled me with awe. I was nothing but a Visitor, age and privilege had no influence on that fact.
So, I did what any Visitor would do in this situation: the ritual of thanks-giving. I dashed off to the hut and returned with a large sized bar of Cadburys chocolate. This is a bar of chocolate I can, and do, easily consume in a casual 20 minute sitting between classes, waiting for a subway, walking home from the gym...you get? Consuming this treat, for me, is a non-event.
I looked around at the sincere, little faces with firelight dancing on their dark skin, and their large eyes warmed from within. I opened the package and slowly broke the chocolate down into small pieces, thinking this would be a pathetic gift indeed, as there was barely a mouthful for each. The Leader watched me with a quiet fierceness; the others murmured amongst each other, chatting about the fire flames and making a distinct effort to ignore the site and smell of chocolate, as if not to embarrass me into sharing what they assumed was just for me.
They oohed and ahhed as I began handing each their share. I just assumed they would swallow down the quickly melting bits as fast as I handed them out, but as the last piece was parceled off, I was nonplussed to see each had waited until the others had. The pieces had turned to liquid in their palms, but they still took patient, small licks with many murmurs of appreciation in between. This was a life-event, for me most of all. Then it took another turn; my previous awe was nothing compared to the deep feeling of wonderment that hit me next.
The Leader had not sampled her chocolate yet. Instead she had noted that I had not broken off a piece for myself. That sweet, stern, powerful little girl scooped up half of the gooey mess in her palms and dutifully handed it to me.
I, the Visitor, was so thoroughly naive, bumbling about with a contrived comprehension of local custom. I had finally realized that my privilege had only born ignorance and the absence of want, born from the surety of nothingness had given these village babies a wisdom I have only read of in scared texts. Above all, I knew, I was in safe hands...
It was after this moment, with our mouths filled with sweetness, our bodies warm, our hearts a bit of both, that the children began to tell me the reason behind their visit. It had never occurred to me that there might have been a purpose, besides Divine Angelic intervention. They chittered and chattered in native tongue, like birds returning home at sunset. I am terrible with languages; my mind seems only capable of retaining English, French, and Other, but for some reason my mother's tongue (ironically not my mother tongue which would be my father's language-ha!) has always hit a soft spot of familiarity in me. I think I understand it through my heart, not my mind. And of course, it is always, always the babies I understand and converse with best.
But the speed with which they spoke and the content of their tale, only gave me a few phrases to catch upon that left me more confused than if I hadn't understood at all. Translated, it went something like this:
children: .......Your mother's is not coming back......so sorry for you.....poor you........
me: No, she is coming. She will come.
me: I don't know. I don't understand. I don't....I don't know.
children: your mother is caught!.....She will not come back. (they point to the Leader).........?
me: I don't understand. My mother is coming.
children (to each other): She says she is not understanding.
children: You are not understanding??
me: Yes! I do not understand.
children (to each other): But poor her, she is alone, her mother has gone.
me: No, my mother is coming.
children: You understood?! Oh! You understand some but you do not understand everything?
children (to each other): Ohhh, she understands some but she doesn't understand everything.
At this point the conversation came to a standstill, as there was no way either they or I could miraculously cross this chasm in communication. To their credit, I have had many an awkward silence far more uncomfortable than this one with adults who had a perfect grasp of English. They understood the issue, but it did not offend them (nor should it). That, perhaps, is the very key to why communicating with children in a foreign land is ALWAYS more satisfying than communicating with adults: those cultural differences are never offensive to children; they rightly see them as superficial and therefore amusing, but innately insignificant.
However, the babies soon grew weary by simple fact that it was getting late, and they had surely not had dinner yet. They gathered the young ones up and without affectation slipped off into the night. I stood and looked around. "I, myself, could use some dinner", I thought. It was, after all, getting rather late. They had after all only gone to the market.
"Where were they?" I wondered, as the children's words echoed in my head, "Where IS my mother?".......