As I get ready to leave Clove Island with no prospect of return in the foreseeable future, I feel I am at risk of over-sentimentalizing my positive feelings. In an effort to make leaving a little easier, I am going to share the top five things I will NOT miss.
Inappropriate Stranger Questions
Yesterday I was in a taxi with a friend. She has a tattoo on her arm with her husband’s name with a Scripture verse from Song of Solomon. Taxis here are shared so shortly into our journey a middle-aged, not-so-small man joined us in the back seat. I was squeezed in the middle of said sweaty man and my friend. The man in the front seat had heard us speaking English and was asking me, awkwardly, to give him an audio CD with English dialogues because he wants to practice. Apparently, my willingness to respond to front seat man gave back seat man courage to poke me in the shoulder and demand that I translate my friend’s tattoo for him. I said it was about her husband. “Ah,” he responded, “And do you have a husband?…No?” I gave him my most exasperated look and told him that it wasn’t really any of his business.
But that’s not quite true. For island culture, asking if a woman is married is on par with asking, “What do you do?” in the States. It’s just a normal part of stranger small talk. I will NOT miss these types of conversations.
I’ve written about the heat before so I won’t go into it too much. But it gets really hot here. Really, really hot…and humid. My body has adjusted a lot and as the years have passed I have acquired tools to help me in my effort to keep my body from shriveling into a tiny raisin, like two mini-fans, one battery-powered and the other USB that I place directly in front of my face and the small of my back to keep me cool when there is no electricity…
The power situation here is ever evolving. I do not pretend to know the what or why. When we first arrived in 2013, we had great electricity. Then in February 2014 rumor has it that the director of the power company stole all the money and skipped town. We would go days and days with no electricity. All the food in our fridge went bad. We couldn’t sleep (with no fan- because there was no power- and it was hot season). We couldn’t even cool ourselves with a cold Coke because there was no power anywhere to keep a drink cold! Since then we’ve had ups and downs. Generally we get some electricity during the days. In recent months, we’ve had more. Sometimes it lasts all day and only goes out at night…makes sense, right? Who needs the lights at night?!?!
I’m pretty famous. People know me. I get hellos and how are you’s all over town. I’ve never played in a rock band or acted in a movie. Nope. I’m white. That’s all. Many of those “hellos” and “how are you’s” are accompanied by the word “mzungu” which basically means “white person”. So imagine, you’re walking down the street and someone walks by and casually says, “Hello, white person”. It’s weird and I don’t like it! Occasionally, I have the patience to stop and explain to my greeter that my name is not “mzungu” and I do not appreciate being labeled as such. This inevitably leads to the question, “Well, what is your name” and “Are you married?” I’ve been burned by this approach a few too many times. Now I reserve it for educating children.
Then I tried, “Would you like it if I said ‘hello black person’?” In every case, the “mzungu” offender responded with an affirmative. That would be fine.
So mostly I just ignore it. If a stranger yells, “Hey mzungu” from across the street, I walk by pretending I cannot hear them.
There’s another downside to being famous and conspicuous. Photographs. Seriously, it’s like the island is my paparazzi. Last weekend I traveled a historical site for a picnic. There were groups of high schoolers visiting, all with their smart phones and even video cameras to capture the dilapidated ruin they were visiting. Fortunately for them they were able to capture something much more interesting. Me. The braver kids would come up and stand next to me to take a picture (without asking, of course) and the shyer ones took pictures from a distance. I felt like a zoo animal.
There is no sanitation department on this island, nowhere set aside for trash disposal, no recycling, nothing. We’re on an island so where does everything go? To the ocean! It’s actually quite heartbreaking. The beaches are covered in trash. Go to the remotest part of the island and you will still find discarded flip-flops and shredded rice bags. The rivers, which run less every year, are clogged with trash.
Every week a fire is set on the beach in the capital to attempt to burn some of the waste. It fills the air with a putrid smoke, making it impossible to breath anywhere near the place.
The environmental degradation of this island is epic. Trees are being cut down en masse, which leads to soil erosion and diminishing rainfall. When the rain comes, it washes the soil into the ocean. The dirt and sediment spread out a mile into the sea, killing the fragile coral and the baby fish that seek refuge there. Fishermen have to go farther and farther to sea to catch anything. The trash floats around the surface of the ocean and snags in the dead coral.
My heart aches for this place because there is no easy answer. There’s no “if only they’d change this” then it would all get better. There are so many factors that add up to create this dismal situation- historical, societal, political and religious. The writing is on the wall. Clove Island is an Easter Island in the making, unless drastic changes are enacted soon.
I will not miss seeing the waste, hearing the fishermen’s woes and the farmers’ warnings, watching a civilization creep toward disaster.
It would be easy to despair. But I do still have hope for this island. There are marvelous people here. Yes, they ask strangers awkward questions (from my cultural point of view) and yes, they treat white people like celebrities and yes, there are serious corruption issues (that aren’t as well hidden as they are in the States) but I have met some of the most kind, welcoming, real people here. They work in small ways toward sustainable change, one person at a time. My friends, I will miss.