We’d been given the bread for free and we were ravenous. Hunger was the thing we had feared most when we decided to travel without money. Often enough it would happen. We would go hungry and occasionally to the point of distraction. It was those times that we asked outright for help. The first few times it was scary, trying to cobble together the Spanish to tell our story to bakers.
‘We’re travelling without money. Do you have anything you’re going to throw out today that we could eat?”
Fear, shame and worry. Guilt. Should we be taking from these people? Do we have a right to ask?
The taste of gratitude was quickly soured by the hard object that cracked against my tooth as I chewed the bread. I spat it into my hand.
‘FUCKSSAKE! There’s a tooth in my bread!’
Something felt strange, crunchy in my mouth. Sandy. My tongue, then my finger, confirmed it.
‘Shit, Em. It’s mine.’
There was no pain yet, just the terrible fear that comes when you lose your teeth in a nightmare. Only, I wouldn’t wake up from this. I was crumbling. I looked at the fragment of rotten tooth. It looked beige, ceramic, unfamiliar, as if it were never mine in the first place. It certainly wasn’t mine anymore.
The panic passed pretty quickly, replaced by the strange calm of somebody resigned to the facts. Our travel insurance had run out months ago. We had no money. No medication. There was nothing to be done. This might hurt, it might not. We had some salt in our backpacks and so long as infection could be kept at bay this would be fine.
‘We need to eat more fruit.’ Emma said. ‘We’re getting no vitamin C.’
Our bodies had been aching a lot. Beyond even the many miles we’d been walking between cities and lifts. We knew the ache of miles from our long walk in Spain. This was different; not from the accumulation of miles but from the lack of nourishment. We had let our sense of shame and guilt prevent us from asking for the right kind of help. Emma was right, we needed more fruit and so we would need to ask more fruit vendors for help.
My feelings of shame and guilt crumbled with that tooth. It had been used to chew too much refined sugar, too many sickening products. It was a rotten tooth. Of all of the explanations for our feelings of shame, foremost perhaps is a mindset formulated in the same places that first demanded refined sugar. Westerners wanted their sugar white. Still do, largely. It ruins us. We clamber for the sweet things that we extract with great violence. Slavery then for those who cultivated it. Slavery now for us, the addicts.
Stepping away from that world of addiction and money is the bravest thing I have ever done. I feel no shame that we were reliant on other people, that we took what they offered. Because they gave willingly and generously and with grace and smiles. And even though I say I will repay their kindnesses, there are some things that can never be repaid. I can be kind and generous to other people, and will be. But there is no guarantee that it will reach back to those who gave to me. So many of them lead lives of great hardship. I didn’t really understand it until we were moneyless. For many of the people we met it is normal to give what little spare they might have. They are not accumulators or hoarders. They give to their neighbours and their friends and to strangers passing through. And they give without any expectation of anything in return.
I put my tooth inside a small case inside my backpack, just in case it could be attached again later on. A stupid idea. When something decays and crumbles, let it go, along with everything rotten. And don’t forget what made it so. That’s what I’m trying to do now, because I’ve fallen back into old habits. But not too far.
Soon I’m going to get the rest of that tooth extracted. Funny what can remind you of what.