A Redemption in Madagascar: Spilled Milk #8
People ask me why I love travel, real travel. The answer? It’s transformative.
I am no stranger to the concept of food as an instrument of negative emotions, even shame.
Shame-based feelings around food are commonplace in our world. I’m not immune to them. The one thing I can control is how I deal with those feelings. I also believe in a prescriptive outcome designed to morph negative feelings into something redemptive and worthwhile. Feelings can be changed, even toxic ones.
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One year, I sent my kid to camp with a box lunch.
The first day, he came home and I saw he hadn’t touched it. I ask him why. He tells me that all the other kids sit at the lunch tables and pull out a brown bag containing grocery store cold cuts on white bread, a sugary soda and a couple of Twinkies for dessert. He got a ton of shit for pulling a small Danish-made glass tray with a rubber covering out of its custom insulated case.
In his omakase, I had prepared that morning were several variations on fresh vegetable salads, cold broiled fish brushed with sweet soy, homemade dehydrated strawberries, vegetable chips and coconut water. All foods that he ate regularly at home, and loved… but on that day, I knew he really hated me and our food life.
On some evenings when he was growing up, think 2012, our home looked like a Food & Wine magazine centerfold from the 90’s. Whole lamb on a rotisserie (you could see it turning through the windows leading out from the dining and kitchen area into our back yard). An Iberico ham in a cradle for me to slice up for guests. A platter of gravlax that just took off the cure.
I might excuse myself, pretending to be texting work, but I was really tweeting about how awful it is that in America, one in five people go to bed hungry at night. I was the problem and solution. Arsonist and fire department. I learned over the last 5 years that you could add a giant wagon of shame draped with the impostor syndrome to that diagnosis. I got to bed that night long ago feeing insanely grateful that I can provide so well for my family. I am humbled by how lucky we are. But I also can’t sleep because I can’t get over how lucky we are. Shame works horizontally and vertically it turns out.
A year later, I am in Madagascar.
It’s a lawless country. There is no real elected legitimate government. I am in the most rural part of the southwestern corner of the island, living in a village called Morondava with Sakalava tribespeople who make their living on the sea. Every morning, a small group of their handmade canoes, fitted with 6 foot sails and out-riggers, head out 25 miles into the ocean in search of fish.
One day, I head out with Jama and one of his 9 kids. He fishes every day, all day, sometimes sleeping on the canoe. He owns 2 pairs of shorts and 2 shirts. He has a small, rusted piece of metal that he uses as knife to cut bait. What he catches is traded in the local market for clothes, fruit, rice, wood, and essentially if he doesn’t catch fish his families economic engine grinds to an immediate halt.
Fish heads and tails he keeps for soups and other dishes for his family to eat. His wife is a superb cook. They live in a cluster of small huts that blow down several times a year in big storms. He is always smiling. Always. After a day at sea with him he invites us back to his house.
He apologizes that he can’t feed us. The catch was light and he needs to bring it to town. His wife is a proud woman. She begins digging in the sand behind their sleeping hut. She pulls a small canister out of the sand that I later come to learn is 5 year old instant coffee that has turned beige and lost 90% of its flavor and all of its aroma. She boils water in a dirty pot that was used to make rice the night before. The burnt/stuck starchy bits create a drink that on some days might be the only food she and her family have to eat. Her kids have never seen white people before they met me.
She boils the water in the rice pot and adds the instant coffee. She takes the hem of her dress and wipes out a half dozen small worn cracked bowls. She pours the hot drink into the cups and passes them around to me and my crew. Her family sits quietly and watches. Jama is beaming. My work mates begin to decline, politely, demurring as best they can. It’s awkward.
I shoot them all THE LOOK.
The look tells them to drink that hot brew and love every fucking drop of it. The look says it’s better to be a good guest than an unnecessarily honest one. I think the look is all about my own shame.
We all drink the coffee, my crew gets it. I love them. They grab candy and snacks from day packs and we all share with each other but only after we have scarfed down their generosity.
I buy all of Jama’s fish. I give him my knife. I ask him, privately, if he is happy? He works so hard and his life seems very tough. He laughs at me. Howling deep throaty laughter. Then he apologizes to me and says, “white people are crazy.” He doesn’t understand them at all he says, but he also tells me that he likes me. He gets very serious and tells me quietly that he hopes that someday I will find the happiness and contentment that he has found.
I think that sometimes shame is obvious.
Or maybe Jama is gifted in other ways I hadn’t realized. I cried and left. I slept very well that night.
People ask me why I love travel, real travel. And the answer is because it’s transformative. I came back from that trip a different human being. I had been redeemed with wisdom, from Jama.
I could act my way out of my dilemma.
I could turn that negative toxicity into a vehicle for change, for helping people.
And I don’t live in that shame any more.
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Such a special experience. The perspective of how we look at things is awesome and brings us down to reality in every culture.
You have the gift, not only of storytelling, but of writing it down. I could SEE your son’s lunch, Jama, and the dirty coffee water of hospitality. Amazing… transforming… thank you.