In This Crowded Shelter
Posted on August 3, 2011
The glassy blue water blended itself into the powdery sky creating, as it were, no visible horizon. Instead, there was but one uniform sheet held up in front of us as we motored through choppy, tropical waters in a small fiberglass skiff. We were off the coast of the Azuero peninsula, in the Gulf of Panamá, trolling for yellow-fin tuna at break-neck speeds. The peninsula was a wild sort of place with untouched forests that crept to a wind-swept beach upon which the lonely ocean crashed. With no signs of civilization, one would have assumed the small boat that had awaited our arrival, ten meters out, bobbing in the ebb and flow of the languid tide, was simply dropped into those lapping waters from an invisible chasm in the sky.
As company in the diminutive vessel, there was my father in-law, brother in-law, the pilot who flew us from provincial Panamá in his somewhat dated prop-plane and the owner of the boat who had brought along his teenage son for the afternoon – all six of us huddled around a busted cooler in the middle of the skiff like the homeless crowding around a rusty barrel of fire in the night. The fisherman and his son spoke no English and my Spanish was far too broken to rely on it for pleasantries, thus we hurtled forth, a fishing rod erect out either side of the craft like insect antennae, in virtual silence listening only to the crash of the boat on its own wake like some broken assembly-line machine. Just about the time I felt as far removed as was possible from the two bare-footed Panamanians – our lives, mine and theirs, seemed not like two variations of the same thing but two entirely different things altogether – the son of that weathered fisherman broke the silence, leaned forward to within ear-shot of me and yelled out over the hum of the Yamaha four-stroke in Spanish slow enough for me to understand ‘Do you have Facebook? I have Facebook.’
His simple statement, of which, I may add, he was perfectly delighted, was for me, a revelation. Here was this boy whom by experience alone was probably more of a man than I, and whom, if he did in fact go to school, probably did so in classroom with a dirt floor, this boy of no more than sixteen who every day came home no doubt smelling of dead fish and tackle and who every day woke to the sound of a rooster’s cry, asking me, first-world traveller, second-rate writer, about facebook, concerned, surely, with his ever-expanding online network. This was not the first time, nor the last, that I experienced this revelation.
I had felt it years before, traveling Southeast Asia, when I observed the bond between Soukyian, a Cambodian tuk-tuk driver, and his younger brother, Cee, who brokered the discounted ride to the firing-range, and who had come along to watch a Canadian try to fire an abandoned Russian AK-47. I listened to the two bicker about which was the more efficient route or who would get to finish the nutty-liquid treat we bought from a street vendor outside the S-21 prison camp, and, could not help but detect, in those two dusty Cambodians, a younger, sandier reflection of myself and my brother. I felt it again while walking up a mountain road in search of coffee plantations in rural Guatemala with Antonio, who was my local guide, while he spoke to me about the plot of land he had just procured, of his aspirations of farming the land and of making his fortune from the toil and providing to his family a life of security and safety. We may have lived, Antonio and I, in two very different countries, but the motivations that lived within us, the priorities which defined our forward motion, were, on some basic instinctual level, equivalent.
When I was young, and my mind was still a dry sponge gasping in the hot sun for the quenching dampness of knowledge, I would dream of wandering this great planet, of exploring its distant lands and getting to know its exotic cultures. It seemed, to a boy of such naiveté, that there was a finite number of categories of which all the people of the world must fit into and be classified thus, like species of plants to a botanist, and understood. It appeared, to his raw unsophistication, that to know the world of man would be to know the all the differences within it – for, is not diversity what man offers so exclusively to this rich and vibrant kingdom? Imagine the boy’s surprise when, as a man later in years, he finds out by way of traveling the world that to comprehend the race of man is not to be aware of what differentiates its natives, but, in fact, what unites them.
Fears, hopes, dreams, love, rage, desire – all these things and more – possess no class or colour, they know not the wealthy from the poor nor black from white and are, entirely and completely, universal. Does not the flame both the thief and beggar burn? Or the hammer bruise? Does not the blade both the winner and loser cut? Does not the presence of fright make race the beating heart within every man? Yes. All we humans, in all our moments of bigotry, our hours of bias and days of narrow-mindedness, through every discriminating glance or partial decision made, are the same. We are the same whilst we quarrel, we are the same whilst we debate and even whilst we march upon our mother earth, with the drums of war a-beating and the flags of hate a-waving, are all alike.
A storm will always come. The winds of change will blow across every plain, rustle each forest, and raise bumps upon the skin of all who know its chilled embrace. There is no ear that is deaf to the rumble of far off thunder, nor an ego immune to its shaky portent. The rains will make wet the shoulders of the clever and of the inept and waft, to and fro, in no particular direction over the scurrying crowds. North, south, east and west, the waters will rise and all of the races all over the world will seek out, when that time comes, higher ground. And all those people, all worried for their lives and the lives of their loved ones, will be all warm, all safe, all relieved within the same crowded shelter. All of man’s bridges will crumble and all his buildings will be undermined as will his be his pyramids of social standing and of ancient preference. The African and the German, who shiver both from the same damp chill, will know there is no difference between them. The Indonesian, American and Australian, all huddled together for warmth, will know that they are the same. The fathers will all hold open the doors to that shelter so that their families may enter safely before them. Mothers of different tongues will nod and share sighs of relief that their offspring is safe within arm’s reach. It is only we humans that know prejudice. Only we humans are aware of some difference between us, a difference that nature knows nothing of, a difference that fate and destiny scoff at upon their cosmic course.
It is this state of things, this very human condition, the core of everything, not the skeleton but the very marrow in the bones, this unseen current, this natural concrete which binds together the fabrics of all walks of life, that, as a writer, I yearn to tap, to harvest and to, one day, comprehend fully. It is this truth that gives reason to all life. It is this reality that levels to the ground the pillars of sand that man hath built with his intolerant hand and stood upon with weary balance. It is this fundamental depth that unifies us.∗
Originally published in Digital Americana