It started with lethargy, irritability, bleeding gums and pinnacled with Anthony losing a tooth. In late 2013 we had given ourselves the scourge of the sevens seas, every 17th century sailor’s worst nightmare: scurvy. And yes, we had earned it ourselves. But really this started a few months earlier, after we left the farm of our good friends Eilif and Carola, high up in the Peruvian mountains of Ancash, as we began our journey South to Patagonia.
Before we left Eilif and Carola’s farm, they had given us a package which contained a new shirt, new socks, a kind letter and some money to thank us for our work. We spent their gift on food, (predominately cakes) and then began what would be six weeks of moneyless travel without volunteering on farms for food and accommodation. Before this the routine had been to work for a few months and then hitchhike to the next place, which usually took less than a week. The drivers who whisked us to our next destination often bought us food. And there was always the promise of food at the next farm.
But this time was different. Once we left the mountains we returned to the deserts of Peru and Chile. The landscape was harsh and sparse and towns were few and far apart. Hitchhiking is more common in Chile, but we waited for long periods when we first arrived. Peru had treated us well whilst hitchhiking, so it was a small shock to the system to be waiting for hours on end again. As the hours and days passed we got hungrier and weaker, and knew that we had to become a little more proactive about getting food. After we waited for what felt like an eternity at the Chilean border, we decided to walk, and stumbled across a food market. We’d read about people asking for food in bakeries and at food markets for scraps and food destined for the bin.
”We should ask” I said to Anthony. ”You ask, I’m too nervous.”
And so we nervously walked around the market trying to assess each vendor until Anthony went and spoke to a middle-aged woman selling bananas.
”Hi,” he said, “We are English backpackers, travelling without money. Do you have any old or damaged fruit that you do not want?” Without hesitation she reached for a fresh bunch of bananas and gave us several. We were elated but shocked. Not only had she given us good fruit, but had acted so nonchalantly it was hard to believe that we hadn’t just paid and that she had given us the fruit out of compasion and generosity.
Over the next six weeks bakers and green grocers were our friends. We didnt take the piss, though, and out of some unspoken rule we would only ask if we were really hungry and if we hadnt eaten all day or since the day before. We also looked for food on the road-side (strange what food falls off the back of trucks), in wild orchards and on fruit trees, and participated in a little table-diving when the opportunity arose. Overwhelmingly though, the majority of our meals came from the generosity of the people who picked us up. It was humbling.
Now, this might all sound easy enough; you’re hungry, so you go and ask for some food. But for me it was not, and it took me months to really get my head around it. Each time we would enter a shop to ask for old bread or bruised fruit I would be filled with dread and intense nerves. I later realised that I wasnt actually nervous but filled with guilt and shame. Shame of having to ask for help and food, for charity. And guilt because I had put myself in this position. I am not sure why or how this came to be, but I think it may have something to do with the values that are treasured in my culture. Typically, individualism and independense are highly regarded trates. When I was 13 I begged my Dad to help me get a job in the local Pizza Place, and I loved the independence it gave me. Some cash in my pocket to spend on whatever I wanted. I don’t beleive these values are bad, just that having these values created an internal conflict when I had to ask for food. I am no longer independent, but dependent on everyone around me, and I have no way to give anything back for the generosity I recieve. It is interesting to note that I did not experience this when sticking my thumb out and getting into someone’s car, maybe because this is a more socially acceptable exchange, where you offer the driver conversation, distraction and good company for a ride.
But my view on this has changed. I’ve thought about it a lot, begun to read the brilliant Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein, and have started thinking about these exchanges and the world around me differently. First I saw the food I asked for as a gift, and that I had not begged for the food but asked for help. And I realised that the people who helped me actually wanted to help me, and that they gained from the exchange as well. I started seeing the gifts as something that isn’t necessarily between two people and reciprocal, but rather circular and between many people. So, whenever people help me out, in the long run they are helping other people in the future, through me. I have been overwhelmed by generosity and gifts. It is how I am surviving, but in the past I have given gifts and I will give more in the future. Open-ended gifts to complete strangers.
I have always enjoyed giving things in the past and for some reason not reconciled this feeling with how other people who help me must feel. Just before New Year we got a ride on the island of Chiloe. It was a middle aged couple in a huge truck. After driving for 30 minuets the driver pulled over to a road side cafe. His wife got very excited and started to tell us about the local delicacy, and that they made the best one at this cafe. When her husband returned she presented us with the food like we were royality. We awkwardly refused, explaining that we were vegetarians, and she graciously put them back in there bag and then into the glove compartment. They were too kind to say anything, but we could tell they were hurt by our refusal. And this is the point, the person who is giving recieves from the exchange as well, and by refusing a gift you are refusing their generosity.
But back to the point at hand. Scurvy. Despite the generosity we recieved we didn’t eat enough nutrients, especially, apparently, vitamin C. This was due to us not asking enough fruit vendors for old fruit, due to the shame and guilt that we initially felt. Over the Christmas period our families sent us some christmas money and money for my birthday, a welcomed relief. This money went on a campsite for a few nights, booze and food for Christmas with our friends and, you guessed it, cakes. Copious amounts of cakes. Dulce de leche is one of the true unsung heroes of the dessert world in the UK. There is a lot to be said about this heavenly paste.
In our case, having a little money was harder than having none. When we had money we had to budget to the penny to make it last the entire festive period and as such our diet remained poor. Pasta and a stock cube is cheaper than a vegetable sauce. We refused to ask for food at the green-grocers when we had money. And who wants to be poor and sober? And so the scurvy set in. I remember maybe a week before Anthony lost his tooth we had been rained into a small shelter near the Pacific in Patagonia. A group of drunk old men spotted us and jollily stumbled over to talk. Several of them had few teeth and coupled with the drunkness and Chileano accent, were somewhat impossible to understand. The younger of the group, who still had his teeth, began to speak to us about the drunk men, He told us how they make very little money and so are unable to buy good healthy food in Chile as it is so expensive. He then explained that this coupled with alcoholism had caused them to loose their teeth. A cautionary tale that was apparently lost on Anthony and I.
The fear that we felt when Anthony lost his tooth (especially as our medical insurance ran out just before Christmas) far outweighed what I had felt when asking for fruit. After this incident we began to take our food situation more seriously. Now we seek fruit out everyday and spend time speaking to the people in shops who help us, rather than shying away out of shame. We carefully scan the woods and forests for edible fruits and foods. And we keep an eye open on the side of the road and in the back of trucks. And, of course, we accept the generosity of others, whether they are people giving us rides, other backpackers, or just another complete stranger.
There is a lot to be said for the taste of food, any food, when you are hungry. Especially when you put yourself in a vulnerable place to recieve it. But more than that, there is a lot to be said for coming to understand more deeply The Gift; and I have found that I have come to understand it so much more deeply when I am in a position of need.