Thursday, 15 December 2011

Deeper into the Jungle

This is the most rural existence I have ever experienced. From our village, a two hour hike into the jungle, we walk another four hours through the mountains. During the rainy season, and after two days of almost solid rain, with each step you don't know if you will slip, fall, sink knee deep into the mud or, if you're lucky, touch firm(ish) ground. The rain falls, fast and heavy, drenching everything and making each step more treacherous than the last.

Things are calm for us here, as we're not out harvesting corn or rice. Sometimes, in spite of how lovely it is to be welcomed into somebody's home, well fed and provided an intimate window onto another kind of existence (where I grind corn as the sun sets and milk cows as it rises – neither anywhere near as efficiently as my hosts), I wonder how important our presence is here. But then I remember. Three weeks ago there was a combat nearby and my colleagues came to the village to accompany these scared families for a few days. We then left. And the paramilitaries came back, this time into the village. They forced everyone together, threatening those who would not cooperate and told the shop keeper he was no longer allowed to sell here and that the food everyone buys from town will from now on be rationed. So we came back.

Before leaving, my colleagues had warned me that here the river is simultaneously the water you drink, your shower and your toilet. People seem to think it's curious that we want the water we drink boiled, but I'm relieved the household matriarch does it for us uncomplainingly. Dogs and pigs come in and out of the house more often than people. The earth floor is uneven and often littered with the urine and excrement of animals or small children. A proud plump hen sits in a crate under the table guarding her eggs. Well-used machetes hang, decorating the wall beside the entrance; fresh green plantains are propped against buckets of corn and mud-clumped wellington boots. Rice hangs from the ceiling. Yuca just plucked from the ground rests beside plastic sandals cracked and split by repeated attempts to wade through the thick, glutinous mud. Candles and torches lie around the place waiting for the sun to set to be put to good use, since electricity does not reach here. Flies land on all parts of the body. Thick smoke from the stove permeates the atmosphere, making the hot air even heavier. Hens cluck, pigs squeal, birds sing, cockerels crow, dogs bark, machetes hack, splintering wood for the stove, and the constant lively buzzing of the jungle pervades the home, as boundaries of inside and outside and notions of private and public space cease to exist here.

Certain sights and sounds from the jungle are so loud and alien falling on foreign ears that, under these conditions, we are often on edge. We frequently ask what the different noises are, as immediately our minds are drawn to warfare, combat, shots. At times the sounds are the latter. Other times it turns out to be a strange bird or even a frog and our hosts laugh at our ignorance.