Friday, May 25, 2012

Emancipate yourself Mr. Larry

Pape and I headed out again this morning. Now that he knows I'm not going to judge him for being a betel nut chewer, he's a lot more relaxed about bringing it up.

God knows I've had plenty of partners who needed to go to McDonalds or Hardees for coffee and a biscuit every morning, so taking a nice drive through the highlands for some betel nut (or 'buai' as the natives call it) doesn't bother me at all.

Yesterday we stopped at a village hut along the road to acquire some betel nut and wound up having a public health extravaganza as a quick pulse oximetry demonstration for a curious little kid turned into a grand community event. I really enjoyed the experience, but I was worried that if we showed up there again this morning, people might start to get the wrong idea about who I was and what they could expect from me. As such, I asked Pape to go just a little further down the road this time. He completely understood.

One of many women selling betel nut and various other
little items along the highland roads.
He found a spot where a meri (woman) had pitched her umbrella and laid some betel nut out on a piece of cloth to sell. On the other side of the dirt road from where she sat, a crowd of men and boys gathered around a row of dart boards on bamboo poles and did what you do in the presence of a dart board. They threw darts.

I watched the guys play darts while Pape chewed his buai and chatted. Then I saw a familiar face.

Yesterday, before I kicked off the pulse oximeter block party, a teenage boy came up and introduced himself. I gave him my name and asked for his.

"I am Mr. Laripoulakalanipulikena . . . ."

(This is not exactly what he said. I could not understand what he said, nor can I remember anything but the first two syllables. So I responded as best I could.)

"Nice to meet you Mr. Larry!"

We shook hands in the traditional Papua New Guinea way, which is very light and only with the fingers. No gripping, no shaking, no assertive eye contact - just an understated physical acknowledgement.

His introduction was interesting in that he used the title of 'Mister'. I've met plenty of locals from Port Moresby to Lae and few of them have given so much as a surname, let alone a prefix, but this kid was 'Mr. Larry' . . . okay dude, whatever.

After a few minutes of talking to him and taking in his unbelievably soft spoken countenance ( I mean the kid was barely audible, he was so gentle) I started to figure out why he presented himself that way.

Mr. Larry wanted to explain to me why the children were congregating around my periphery.

"They are curious about you because you have stopped. Mostly the white men drive by fast, make dust."

He wanted to tell me about the elections and the projects in the area. He wanted to know exactly where I was from, but he qualified his question by assuring me,

"I have my own world map."

As if I wouldn't answer if I thought he was too ignorant to understand global geography.

Mr. Larry was engaging me as his equal. The children were transfixed by my wedding ring and non-melanesian physical attributes. To them I was an escaped zoo animal. The adults of the village were still pretty much hiding behind the bushes at that point, probably weighing the options, but Mr. Larry walked right up like we were at a cocktail party. He was 'Mr. Larry' because he was a man about the world, just like me. He wasn't going to be dumbstruck by me, he was going to be my ambassador. He was going to help me relate to these simple village folk who weren't nearly as sophisticated as big shots like he and I.

When I put the pulse ox probe on the little kid's finger and the mob gathered in response, Mr. Larry stayed off to the side, managing the crowd for me. He was just as intrigued by the pulse oximeter as everyone else, but he was guarded in expressing his fascination. He held his finger out eventually, but he was coy about it, and when it was time to go, he was the one who announced it to the crowd.

"Okay okay, dokta must go now. He is very busy. Maybe anotha time he test you!"

Of course he shot me a knowing glance as if to say, "I gotcha buddy."

A sentiment that I returned with a smile and a nod of gratitude.

So I was happy to see him again this morning as I sat and watched the dart league action. Gone was yesterday's paint on either side of his eye. His face was clean. There was no betel nut in his mouth. He wore an old soccer jersey.

After acknowledging one another he focused his attention in the same direction as mine. The darts.

Village men pass the time by engaging in the popular
pastime of 'throwing arrows' . . . otherwise known as darts. Notice
how that little boy enjoys the visual effect of the dart striking
the board from outside his field of vision. Also note what a really
 bad place it is to stand when sharp objects are in flight.

"These guys have no job so they are throwing arrows. Morning, night . . . always." he said with a bit of disgust.

I didn't know how to respond. Agreement would be insulting, so would disagreement.

I'd been passing village after village of bamboo huts. There were pigs, huge gardens full of sweet potato mounds, banana trees, cassava, sago, chickens, goats . . . I saw no sign of famine or homelessness.

I just smiled and kept watching.

"The babies too. Many having no shoes."

I grew up in the burbs. I used to run around my neighborhood all summer with no shoes and all it did was toughen my feet to the point that shoes were useless. I know for a fact that these little kids around here have feet like truck tires. Shoes would do nothing for them but create a breeding ground for fungus.

I let that one go too.

"Dokta, are you also dentist?"

"No, I don't do teeth. Why do you have one that's hurting you?"

"No, no pain but . . . I need to have my teeth refreshed. Too much smoke, too much buai . . . not clean like you."

Yesterday Mr. Larry had a full betel nut mouth going on. When they chew the betel nut, they mix it with lime and some other plant that stains their saliva dark red. Today his teeth weren't red, but they definitely weren't what you or I would call "clean".

"Do you have a brush or floss?" I asked.

"No I don't have. I must go to Lae for a dentist but it is two days by road and 200 kina."

By this time, Pape had gotten back in the truck and we were ready to head out.

"I have an extra brush and some floss. I'll carry it with me and if you see me again I'll give it to you."

He nodded and kicked at the gravel,

"Okay thank you dokta."

I shook Mr. Larry's hand, Pape started the truck and we were off.

As we drove along I thought a lot about Mr. Larry and the concept of freedom.

We toss that word around like a hacky sack, but what does it mean? How does it inform the sadness I felt when I thought about Mr. Larry?

Sure it was sad that he had no toothbrush and yearned for better oral hygiene, but that wasn't the point.

If a teenage girl says, "I'm watching my weight because I'm concerned about the negative health affects of obesity and I don't want to become a type II diabetic."

You think, "Good for her!"

But if she says, "I'm watching my weight because I want to be a size zero and be totally hot and move to Hollywood and marry a rich guy and have my own reality TV show."

You think, "Holy shit, that's awful! You poor, pathetic little victim."

Mr. Larry wanted his teeth to be clean, but it wasn't because he recognized the value of good oral hygiene, it was because he was ashamed of himself.

He was ashamed of the shoeless babies and the men who played darts instead of having jobs. He was ashamed of the way the children in his village reacted to me and perhaps even more so by the adults. From the moment we met he sought to distinguish himself from them and to let me know that he was better . . . more like me.

By contrast, I look around this place and I see a self-sufficient population. I see toddlers and elderly people climbing steep roads while carrying all kinds of stuff on their backs. These are people who would be in a nursing home in the states and here they're carrying burlap sacks of potatoes up a mountain.

I see lean, sinewed young men like Mr. Larry stacking bamboo poles and mending grass roofs, while young women herd pigs through a gully with two kids in tow and one on their shoulder; each just as chubby as a baby should be.

In fact, the only vestige of illness or poverty I see, comes in the form of the discarded packaging and wrappers from outside products that litter the roads. Some marketed items that managed to infiltrate this society and infect the mind of Mr. Larry with the idea that he is not as good if he cannot make the money to buy them.

I see freedom everywhere. Not the freedom of being able to choose from among 5 or 6 cars in my price range, but freedom from the sense that I need to have one of those 5 or 6 cars in the first place.

Not the freedom of knowing that Banana Republic will definitely have jeans that look good on me, but the freedom to stand butt ass naked in a river with 50 of my closest friends and not feel weird or uncomfortable or "judged" or anything other than cool relief from the summer heat.

We don't understand 'free'. We think freedom has something to do with lack of physical confinement or reasonable access to a vapid selection of products, or the capacity to adhere to some societal standard that existed before we were born. This is not freedom at all. This is the most insidious and effective form of slavery - the kind that does not require shackles because the slave thinks he's reaching his own conclusions organically. Like ants in an ant farm, studiously tunneling away at what we think is a world of our own design, oblivious to the fact that the parameters we've been dropped into are so narrow that they're practically two dimensional. The ants at least have an excuse. They're stupid and their slavery is corporeal. Ours is what Bob Marley referred to when he said,

"Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind."

Somewhere along the line Mr. Larry picked up some english language skills. Perhaps it was in the Seventh Day Adventist missionary school down the road, or maybe he had access to TV, but either way he picked it up. With it, he apparently picked up the idea that his way was wrong and my way was right. The latest convert to the church of the free market reached his epiphany right on schedule.

Already he's learned to be dissatisfied with who he is, where he is and what he is. Already he's accepted the idea that the only cure for his affliction is cash.

" . . . I must go to Lae for a dentist but it is two days by road and 200 kina."

Better get a job Mr. Larry. No time for tending pigs and growing kau kau. Instead you must give your time and energy to a company. Help them do whatever it is they do and they'll give you cash in exchange. Use that cash to go to town and buy the things you now think you need.

Forget the old ways. Produce and consume. Produce and consume . . . Welcome to freedom!

If his english were just a little better, or if my pidgin were a lot better, I would tell him all of that. I would tell him not to be fooled by my clean teeth and my gold ring and my medical gadgets that shine red lights on your fingers and miraculously tell you what your heart is doing. Don't be too impressed by the map I draw in the dirt that shows how far I've come. It just means that I am far from my family.

I usually fly economy for Pete's sake . . . you wanna talk about slavery?

I would tell him to be proud of the babies with the teflon feet. Be proud of the old ladies who carry firewood up mountains. Play darts with the other guys, why not? Chew your fucking betel nut and do it without shame.

Smile with a face full of paint and big ol' red teeth brother. Be Mr. Larry in full volume! Know in that moment that I am the one who is in awe of you and not the other way around. I'm the one that needs to figure out how to loose my own chains, because for all of my big words, I am just as comfortable in my cage as anyone else. I'm invested. I have to pursue true freedom cautiously lest I be turned into free market cannon fodder, but you can turn back Mr. Larry. It's not too late for you to cut and run.

The odds are against him, but I am hoping he does exactly that.

. . . I'll still give him the toothbrush though.

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