Somewhere near the Equator
It’s too hot to think. The rains come in relentless succession, a break of a few hours and then the sky darkens again. There’s no thunder or lightening, just a downpour, followed by hours of sprinkling. No wonder everything is so green.
All the food has spoiled. Even the rice has sprouted and the white beans have turned black.
There’s something odd about being hungry when you’re surrounded by fertility. Every other creature is well fed. Snakes, bugs, birds. And I’m getting thinner by the minute.
Not that losing weight is something I shouldn’t be doing. I admit it, I’m fat. Another few weeks of this and I’ll have to change my self image. I’ll surely have to change my pants and belt. Believe it or not, they sell American used clothes here. When Goodwill gives up on selling their donated clothing, they pack it into bales and ship it overseas to third-world countries like this. Most of the pants are too big in the waist and long in the leg for the locals. I’ve been buying good-quality canvas pants for less than a dollar for as long as I’ve been here. Seven years this month.
How was I to know that the government would turn against us? They used to welcome foreign retirees. Now they’re hunting us, tracking us down like arthritic prey. Losing weight has been a blessing for my knees. Suddenly, I’m spry as a fifteen-year-old. If this keeps up, I may take up jogging. Running for my life has been great training.
I used to have a lot of friends, all ex-pats like myself. We’d meet for coffee every morning and stay at the table for hours, complaining, bragging, scheming. Now there’s nothing to complain or brag about. We’ve all lost everything, and our only plans would involve getting back to somewhere safe. Or maybe I should say “safer.” I’m not sure anyplace is safe anymore.
Nobody wants migrants, unless they’re very rich. Even then, the host government will find some way to extract as much of that wealth as possible. When visa on arrival disappeared, I should have seen that as an omen. The next step down is for your home country to confiscate your passport. Your bank freezes your credit and ATM cards. Suddenly you’re nobody.
All these measures are justified as “security.” They’re only fighting terrorism, right?
Nobody wants poor people around, especially if they’re foreign poor people. It’s hard enough to tolerate your own citizens languishing in poverty, but some other countries’ citizens is more than you can take. Dirty, smelly, needy humans with nothing to offer. There are too many of them. They breed rapidly and harbor disease.
I’m not poor. In fact, thanks to my social security pension I’m better off than the vast majority of the local populace. But that’s not enough for the super rich who are in charge of this country. They want to court the super rich from other countries so they can have their impoverished country all to themselves.
I was thinking about my 401K account back in the States when the snake bit me. It was green and as big as a garden hose. It quickly bit me above the right ankle and then slithered away. It hurt, and I was startled by how suddenly it happened. I had not been expecting this. I guess I’m lucky it didn’t bite me again, or return to coil itself around my body and suffocate me, but then maybe it wasn’t that kind of snake.
I knew something was badly wrong when I began to lose all feeling below the knee. The numbness then spread above the knee, halfway up the thigh. I found that I could not easily walk, with the affected leg pretty much useless for propulsion. I looked around for a branch to use as a cane and found one that although too short, helped a little. Where should I go? I recall seeing a building a few minutes ago, behind me on the road in here. Maybe they could help me.
By the time I got back to the main road, the numbness had been replaced by searing pain and at least the illusion of heat. I became deeply frightened. Maybe this was it. All she wrote.
I lay down in the road, hoping that anyone driving by would see me before they ran over me. Suddenly I was very sleepy. I would close my eyes and rest a bit. When I had napped for a while, I would formulate a plan…
I woke up riding in the back of a truck. We were driving fast and there was a girl in the back of the truck with me, making sure I didn’t bounce out of the truck, because it sure seemed like we were hitting a lot of bumps. Suddenly we stopped in front of a building. Was it a clinic? I sure hoped so.
It was a clinic, but a very rudimentary one. There was no doctor on call, just a middle-aged woman who looked tired and a bit malnourished. She examined the wound and, after splashing it with alcohol, cut a large X with a scalpel. That hurt even more than the bite. She began to use a large hypodermic syringe with no needle to suck blood from the wound. Lots of blood. I either fainted or fell asleep.
When I awoke, I was in a room with another patient. He was an old local man who looked like he had no where else to go. Come to think of it, neither did I. I got the impression he had been here for weeks and was used to staring off at nothing in particular. Since he made no attempt to communicate with me, I reciprocated. Maybe someone articulate or in charge would enter the room. I waited.
Night fell and no one came. I fell asleep again, and woke having the urge to pee. Since I could not get my leg to work, I decided it would be too dangerous to try to get out of bed by myself. So I wet myself and went back to sleep. That was actually harder than you would think. Years of conditioning had to be overcome to allow me to let go and empty my bladder.
The next day I heard loud voices outside. Soldiers or police came into our room and started speaking to us in angry voices. I don’t know if my roommate could understand them, but I sure couldn’t. They probably assumed we were halfwits and left after a few minutes. Then, almost miraculously, two women came in and started the long process of cleaning us up and getting us out of bed. The smell made me think my companion had overcome his fears of fouling his own bed a while ago.
We were being made ready for discharge, but nobody had yet told us where to go or how to get there. It was obvious that neither of us could walk. We were taken outside. The day was warm but not yet overly hot. Two men on motorcycles pulled up and motioned for us to climb on back. Neither of us could easily do so, but with the help of the women, I was able to. I wrapped my arms around the driver, terrified of falling off. We sped away. I don’t know what happened to the other vehicle or my roommate, but I hope he made it away safely.
We rode down a sand road in between banana trees. Coconut palms lined the main road, but where we were, it was simply banana trees and some sort of fruit tree, maybe mango. I got the impression we were heading towards a city, for the number of buildings gradually increased, as did traffic. We arrived at a gas station that also seemed to be a bus stop. My driver consulted with some men and bought me a bus ticket, which he gave to me with a shy smile. I smiled back and thanked him. Then he helped me find a spot on a bench, which previously had held a man who seemed to not mind being forced to squat on the ground so I could sit in his place. I waited, wondering where we were headed. Hopefully a place without snakes.
When it rains this much, there are always more mosquitoes than you think are possible. Even if people try to spray poisons, it merely makes the blood suckers laugh. They will get you eventually, giving you what they gave your closest neighbor. Dengue, drug-resistant Malaria, Zika, Japanese Encephalitis…well, the list goes on if you’re interested in knowing all the ways you could succumb to mankind’s most ferocious enemy.
When dusk falls, the swarms of mosquitoes become clouds. A person can actually disappear inside one. I’ve seen it. Imagine a fog that sucks your blood! The man who I displaced on the bench smiled and handed me a handful of small mushrooms. He motioned that I should eat them. I hesitated, then thought, why the hell not and did. They didn’t have much a flavor. Someone else offered me a sip of water from a bottle. I took him up on that offer, as well.
Twenty minutes later the bus arrived. When I stood to begin the tedious process of climbing into it, three people helped me and I was inside in an instant! Never before have I felt such gratitude, such generalized love for all mankind. It was then that I wondered if the mushroom hadn’t kicked in.
Psychedelic or not, the journey was delightful. Four hours of crawling along muddy roads, dodging potholes and watching the setting sun through streaked windows became an amusement park ride! Just when I began to tire of the experience, we stopped and everyone got off.
Not only did I not have any idea of where we were, I had no money. Even if there were a hotel, how would I pay for a room? It was then that I heard someone call my name.
“Mr. Coffey? Mr. Daniel Coffey?”
“Present and accounted for, sir!” I replied, grinning madly and saluting like a crazed boy scout.
“I’m Jeffers Peterson from the Coca Cola Corporation. We’re glad to see you made it. If you’d missed this bus, the next one might not run for a week. Damn rains.”
“How did you know I was coming?”
“Four years ago in Sri Lanka you entered a contest. “Why I prefer regular Coke to the new Coke Light.” We were impressed by your essay and we used your photo in a billboard campaign that was quite successful. So when we heard you were in Surinam we got ahold of your management and swung a deal. Now we’d like to do it again, only this time with the new coffee flavored Coke. You can either praise it or find it lacking. Doesn’t matter. Either way we’re confident sales will rise.”
“As far as I know, no one knows I’m here. You say this is Surinam? I thought it was Sarawak.”
“You can’t hide from the Internet. Google knows where you are within a meter or so, any time of day or night. You look tired. Let me take you to your hotel.”
Smart Coca Cola Executive. I was more than tired. I was completely depleted. We stopped at a drug store to buy me a proper cane. The stump I had picked up in the forest was too short and covered with a green fungus. At the hotel I drank two liter bottles of water first thing and then asked for four more, which they promptly gave me. Then I fell asleep for long enough that it was the middle of the next day when I awoke.
It always surprises me how many Muslims there are in the world. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, but most people don’t know that. They think of the Middle East when they think of Islam. Here, the streets were full of women in burkas and men is dish dashes, which always remind me of nightshirts.
I was impressed by how white everyone’s teeth were. I felt utterly and completely alone and yet totally comfortable with that. I am most at home when I’m nowhere at all.
Now that I was pleasantly refreshed and my leg was almost healed from the snake bite, I felt a new sense of gratitude. It turned out that I was not a lost soul, nor forgotten by the world entirely. My friend from Coca Cola showed up around dinner time and suggested we dine together at an air-conditioned restaurant with cloth table cloths, perhaps the only one in the city. Surely it was no place I would have ventured on my own.
It turned out he had a business proposal for me.
I represented a class and age group of soft-drink customers they would like to woo. True, we were not their main audience, but an important one. There were still a lot of us baby-boomers around. While we no longer drank a quart a day, we could still be counted on to drink a quart of some soft drink per week.
They had gone so far as to test focus groups of people over sixty-five, and despite the fact that there are many more choices for soft-drink brands and flavors than there were say, sixty years ago, Coca-Cola still tested at the top of the range. Even Alzheimer’s patients prefer Coke.
They were considering an ad campaign. Previous slogans had been The Real Thing and Coke is It. Now they were contemplating Coke Is You. There was some concern this last slogan would confuse Alzheimer’s patients, but statistically, they were still a small slice of the pie.