For three months I lived in the Kairak mountains of New Guinea with a tribe of semi-nomadic people called the Bainings.
My body is sprawled across the back seat of an old, flaked-paint Nissan Pathfinder, ripped leather upholstery scorching my skin in the dense heat of the afternoon.
I cannot move; pain is tearing through my body.
In the preceding few months I've endured malaria (twice), dysentery (many times), and countless more oozing wounds casually diagnosed by doctor friends as tropical ulcers (jungle rot, they shrug, happens all the time). I've been confronted by mad women claiming my boyfriend as their own, wielding bush knives and stern instructions to break it off immediately. The "or else" bit implied.
But in this moment, here in the back seat of this slummy little truck, this is the thing that is doing me in: for three months I've been living with a tribe of semi-nomadic people, and they have been feeding me way too much weird crap.
My "brother," Levi, cranes his neck in the window and sighs: "Sister, I think it's time you come down from that mountain."
Levi is also a Baining—but a more modern version of the tribe. He hasn't lived in the village since his teens, a couple decades now, and doesn't miss it. "Those guys are wild up there, sis," he scolds me.
But time and again I go back to that pretty ridgeline high in the hills where I've got a tiny hut, a million dollar view, and the company of a very sweet family.
There are a handful of staples up on the mountain—and not a hell of a lot else. Mostly sweet potatoes, which are always delicious, and then their more starchy, less flavorful relative, taro. There are wild capsicums, occasional tomatoes, papayas, and pineapple. And a lot, a very lot, of peanuts.
A fire gets made in the morning and again in the evening. With the exception of when I'm there and I try to lug sacks of rice up the hill for them, what they eat is pretty much always the same : a coconut-based broth full of whatever was collected on the bush walk that day.
In the back of Levi's truck, in the throes of pain, I remember vividly that the evening meal two nights prior had a bit of greens I didn't recognize. Usually we eat pumpkin tips—the fuzzy young leaves clipped from just above the stem. It is in New Guinea what bok choy is to China and iceberg lettuce is to middle America: the greens of choice. At first glance, they seem a by vine-y, but soaked in salty-sweet coconut creme it all goes down smoothly. I even learn to love it, to crave it.
But this night, the greens were very different—more twiggy than vine, another species altogether. Pliable enough to swallow (barely) but still quite rigid—dense and fibrous, more like the roots of a small tree. It's not that these greens are poisonous, I'm just not used to eating sticks for dinner.
The pain I feel now, 48 hours later, is accompanied by a stark mental image of something not unlike the way logs and debris pile up around the bends of a river. I imagine a thick dam of twigs, utterly undigested, slowly cramming themselves into the corners of my digestive track, jabbing and tearing that thin intestinal lining like blunt glass on tissue paper. Dear god.
And yet this isn't the first time I've dined with the tribe on less than ordinary fare. Just a couple weeks prior, I woke early one morning to the sound of Nerus and Elias, the two youngest brothers, shrieking in excitement outside my hut. Ramilang, the eldest, had just returned from the bush with a basket full of mumut, local lingo for what is most definitely rat.
The boys swing into action helping their mother collect kindling, stoke a fire. Ramilang works each carcass over the open flame, the fur singeing off, moisture whistling as it escapes from the small limp bodies.
There's no fine handiwork involved in the prep. When Ramilang's done, he passes them off to the younger sisters who chuck the charred corpses against a piece of hardwood and hack them into bits with quick thumps of a bush knife. Then again, the meat is handed off, back to the mother who dunks them in a large caldron of coconut soup, to simmer and tenderize until dinner time.
As evening falls, I pace nervously, hatching plans for mock-illness, or letting my mind wander to scenarios in which the rat stew may have already been dispensed out—maybe a gift to a passing relative? Maybe sent with the boys as school lunches?
But no. As dinner is served, I glance around a semi-circle of faces, warmly lit by the fire, oldest to youngest shoveling handful after handful into their mouths, overcome with sheer delight.
I dig around my soup furtively, hoping for a solid bit of something recognizable: a hunk of potato, a slice of banana. Nah. It's all just rat and broth. I tentatively slide small spoonfuls of the milky liquid down my throat —this bit is painless enough, I think.
But then May turns to me, one of the middle girls about my age, her dark skin adorned with a speckled mask of capsicum seeds (which looks fabulous, by the way). Her blissed-out gaze falls flat as she glances my bowl, mumut untouched. In one quick swoop she fishes out a fat bit of flesh. Kai-Kai, she offers, eyes as expectant as a child. Eat it, she pleas.
Before I can process the proper pidgin translation for 'No, thanks, I'm an uptight a-hole with food issues' she's already shoved the hunk into my mouth, which agape from disgust, she'd mistaken as a gullet poised for delivery.
And so I have just this split-second in which to decide: spit or swallow. I bite down, giving in.
While I don't know precisely what part of the animal I'm eating, I can venture a guess: it tastes like shit smells. I feel my throat tighten, begging to gag. But I fight it.
It's the first meat I've ever eaten with them, and the first meat I've eaten at all in over five years. So, in effect, I've just broken vegetarianism for pretty much the last thing anyone I know would ever want to consume. Cool, nice one. Great job, me.
But you know what? It feels really good. Not in that stock post-vegetarianism oh-my-god-meat-it's-so-good-omg-orgasm kind of way, but in that way that reminds us that food is often so much more than the proteins, the fats, the calories, etc. It's about communion and sitting together and sharing. It's about getting over our own dumb shit.
That afternoon of near-death in the back seat of a truck eventually passes, and my friend Levi offers to give me a lift home. No thanks, man. I've got errands to run, bags to pack. I'm heading back up that mountain.