After hopping off our motorbikes we made our way down the dirt road leading up to the ocean. With the mid-afternoon sun blazing, the smell of yesterday’s drying fish was stout. As we passed by the makeshift shops and shacks, we captured the local women’s attentiond. They were all seated upon dusty edges raised above the junky, polluted streets (every other one with a newborn plugged into one of her breasts) and 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 children began to gather around us, tugging on our clothes and poking at our backpack. With big, banana-sized smiles, they were sweet and playful, but their open and empty hands let me know they were expecting something from us. Tiny palms open and up in the air, the only English words they spoke were, Misstah, Misstah, Mister, Mister. With a handful of the little beggars naked or just barely dressed, most were borderline filthy, while others were still dripping wet from having just bathed themselves in their salty, ocean of a bathtub.
Although this village wasn’t showing us the hunt, it was showing us the hungry. Dozens of families reliantly awaited the return of filled and flopping fishing nets, so that their own roles in supporting the food chain could then begin. Upon first arriving to the village, I noticed that most of the men were all out at sea. The only males to be found seemed to be the toddlers or the ones old (and skilled) enough to build or repair the raised ‘sidewalks’ over the water and leading to the villager’s humble homes. And boy, did those planks of bamboo need some love and affection. Even walking as gingerly as possible, my bodyweight didn’t last long, and after only my first few steps, snap! My left leg punctured through a vulnerable piece of the bamboo, dangling over the ocean below until I could push myself up again.
Balanced upon scaffolds of bamboo stilts that were merely held together by thick, tied pieces of cloth, the fragility of these villager’s homes was shocking. Constructed by thin pieces of wood and roofed by tattered rusted aluminum, it appeared as if these things could crumble into the waters beneath at any given moment. The contents of each shack was 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 the life here. The only life they have, the only one they know. And though these living conditions may seem appalling or unfortunate to you and I, the joy, life and energy swimming around these waters suggested something to the contrary.
As 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 for 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 wii’s and playstation consoles. Sure, by some people’s judgement, the cards of life are stacked against the opportunities these children will ever be privy to, but these kids seemed to be surrounded by a community enriched by unity, family and camaraderie. Something some of the most fortunate children in America will never experience.
Admittedly, the shouting of Misstah, Misstah and continued openhanded jabs to my back and 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 those little palms.
Are they drawing imaginary coins on the inside of their hands, Ashlie asks me. Is that what they continue to ask us for? Coins?
If so, they were out of luck. We didn’t have any coins with us, and I damn sure wasn’t about to pull out my wallet and covertly try and sneak any small bills or notes out from it. I’d tried that act once before while on the outskirts of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia and it was sniffed out immediately. 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 note of Cambodian Riel I had. Then, ultimately, the young girl I’d originally wanted to give cash to, ended up on the ground – bruised and bawling in the process. Lesson learned.
While we sat and shaded under one of the fishermen’s tin roofs, a few of the kids came over to where Marleno, our motor-taxi driver, and I were sitting. Still not exactly sure what to make of me, a couple of the shy lads began the scratching-of-the-palm routine. I couldn’t help but laugh at their persistence, and then try to explain, in charades, that I did not have any coins. Even going as far as emptying each of my pockets and letting each side’s inner cloth hang like elephant ears.
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 beehive of kids flying my way – and that I really didn’t have enough Indonesian Rupiah to give each and every kid a dollars worth.
It’s ok, not problem. But, they no want your money, Marleno says with a generous chuckle.
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, they ask you for something to write with, for the school, Marleno explained.
My shoulders dropped and 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 an entire hour before we’d 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 knew I had to redeem myself, I had to make it right. Knowing we only had one pen in the backpack, I also knew 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 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 to the nearest town. As fortune would have it, redemption was not 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 seemed like more than the amount of overly excited children now dancing around my every next step. Unbelievably, minus any phone calls, texts messages or smoke signals, every kid within a ten mile radius had somehow been notified of the pencil lottery. More and more, and then even more kids began crawling out from the corners – charging towards us and shrieking, Me, Me, Me! Consequently, the number of empty little hands tripled in a matter of moments and I was now engulfed in a frenzy of screaming desperation.
Trying my damnedest to, one-by-one, hand each kid a pencil, I was overwhelmed by them pinching, grabbing and trying to snatch the things out from my hands. This had quickly turned itself into that same level of Cambodian chaos.
There were moments where it felt as though I was attempting to ration out tiny portions of bread to starving refugees who hadn’t eaten in months. Some kids were now frantically crying and being pushed deeper into the mob by their parents, who now, too, were afraid their child would walk away pencil-less.
With parents now shouting at me and a grumpy, elderly shop owner now screaming at them to keep quite, I could feel my patience, temper and wherewithal ready to give. Suddenly, I caved. And with the remaining pencils firmly in my grip, I forcefully 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 was soon on my tail. I will never forget that dash. Beams of hot sun shoving my shoulders forward while the warm breeze blew against my face, the joyous sounds of all those village kids running just behind me did nothing but add to my momentum. 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 inside of.
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 smiles and customary half-bows. But, in the end, it was Ashlie and I who were most grateful. Grateful for this small fishing community being so open to nosy, presumptuous outsiders. Ones who will never forget their afternoon spent sprinkling pencils throughout the land of Flores.