Back in 2007, I traveled with our campus ministry to HUT, which is kind of a missionary training camp, but also an excellent place to learn about the challenges faced in third world countries and poverty-stricken rural areas (including in the U.S.). We were only there for a couple of days, but I learned a lot. Not just the cliché “how wealthy I really am,” but far more important things.
HUT is an interesting place. Harding University has created several areas that represent different parts of the world. We spent Saturday morning touring and learning about specific challenges that face people living in such areas. We also learned some of the inventive solutions that have been created to help deal with these issues. We participated in activities that helped us better understand and then shared lunch. After lunch is when things got really interesting.
We all pulled scraps of paper from a bowl that assigned us to a specific “family.” We had groups of around four each that wound up in “Asia”, “Appalachia”, and even had some who became refugees that were rounded up and tossed in a tent at one point. We spent the afternoon working in our smaller groups and being forced in to situations that challenged us to think beyond our own communities.
Our family was tasked with building part of a wall for a new dwelling place in “Latin America” out of compressed earth blocks. It was not easy work, but we kept at it. The main reason was we knew we would be “paid” for it and that, more importantly, the “money” we earned was all we had to buy water and food and for the evening at the market. If we didn’t work, we wouldn’t eat that night. Hunger is a very potent motivator.
We thought we were looking forward to the end of the day and the market until we arrived there. Not a single “shopkeeper” spoke English (my high school French completely failed me)and the prices were astronomical. We struggled with how to stretch our extremely limited funds. We haggled, most of us for the first time in our lives. We ended up buying some water, a carrot, one lime (we wanted the vitamin C), and a couple handfuls (literally) of rice. The four of us looked upon our meager purchases as our stomachs rumbled from the afternoons labor.
Even as we scraped to get enough food for our meal, we were beset by “beggars” at all times. They were dressed in rags and constantly cried for our attention. Almost without thinking, I handed some of our “money” over to one small girl I couldn’t help but empathize with. We didn’t give away much, but it was the last of our funds. We were broke and had very little to show for it.
I could feel hunger creeping up on me as the market was winding down. I began to think about how much hungrier I would be in an hour. That was the moment I realized that I was not above begging. So we begged. And begged. And begged. Every shopkeeper, every market goer, anyone who might have something to offer. We ended up adding another fistful of rice and an ear of roasted corn (two of us successfully begged for one half each). That unassuming, broken ear of corn taught me more than I could have imagined during our meal later that night.
We had to carry everything back to our little shack. It was an odd moment when we had to decide how much of our water to use for washing (both ourselves and our carrot) and how much to use for drinking and cooking. We just weren’t used to considering such things. We found the happy medium and got to work preparing our meal. That’s when we had our first bit of trouble.
We were giving a few supplies, but they were not much. We did not even have a full box of small wooden matches. We still thought we wouldn’t have much trouble until we realized we needed to gather wood. It was late fall in Arkansas and everything was damp. Still, we gathered quite a bit of fairly dry kindling. We tried to find drier leaves to help get it going, but they were mostly all damp as well. Then we had our second strange debate of deciding if we should use some of our quarter roll of toilet paper as kindling.
Our group tasked me with making the fire while they used our one knife to cut up our carrot, slice the lime, and get the corn off the cob halves. I was still trying to get the fire going when they had finished. We gathered around our fire pit as each attempt resulted in a quickly dying flame and a wisp of smoke. I used match after match of our dwindling supply. I began to experience true fear that I would not be able to get a fire going.
We got down to our last three matches. I placed one against the striking strip on the box. I pulled the match across and it broke, the head peeling off, completely useless. I tried again with another match, it caught then quickly sputtered out before I could even touch it to the leaves. We were down to our very last match.
We recklessly unrolled and piled a lot of our toilet paper under our kindling. We waited for the air to still as we all huddled around the pit to block the slightest breeze. I truly wish I was over-dramatizing it now, but we were trembling (both in fear and anticipation). We held our breaths as I struck the match. A tiny flame danced at the end as I gently touched it to the paper. A flame quickly grew and consumed the paper and then just as quickly dies down. There were still smoldering remains of the toilet paper, but the leaves and wood had not caught.
We stared at the pile for moment. Then the anger set in. “NO!” I yelled out, sounding crazy even to myself. I threw myself to the ground and began to gently blow on the sparking bits of toilet paper. I slowly blew harder until I could feel the heat building. I blew more and caught a glimpse of a faint flame struggling to take hold. I pressed my face into the kindling and blew to the point of dizziness. Smoke began to curl and the fire suddenly caught. Within ten minutes we had a roaring fire to which we happily fed more wood.
Once we had some water starting to boil on the open fire, it was easy to laugh at ourselves, but I never forgot the fear of those few moments. We tossed our ingredients together and waited for them cook, occasionally stirring with our one fork.
We only had four metal mugs between us, so when it was ready to eat, one of us offered up her own cup for the rice and we shared the others for drinking water. Our meal was nearly completely unseasoned rice, but we were grateful. We shared it as we sat around the fire barely speaking, feeling strangely content and intimate. We only really started talking after someone got the first bite of corn.
“Oh my! That is the most amazing thing I have ever tasted!”
“What? The rice?”
“No, I got a piece of corn!”
“It’s that good?”
“Trust me, you have no idea.”
She was right, too. When I finally tasted a kernel amid the rice, my mouth flooded with a taste nearly indescribable. I know it was because I was eating mostly rice, but that corn was the best thing I ever tasted. We kept hoping for a bit of corn and were always sad when the next bite brought only rice. Later in the evening, we couldn’t stop discussing the taste of the corn. A girl named Christina described them as “explosions of flavor.” They truly were.
I learned many lessons that weekend (and I may write about more of them someday), but the corn, the explosions of flavor are what I think about most. I often apply it to my good friends, especially the ones I see far too rarely. When I do meet them, the colors of the world grow brighter and more saturated, they season and flavor my life. Running across them is a moment of great joy followed by sadness when we must part.
I often try to live in such a way that I can be an explosion of flavor. I hope that I have the same effect on my friends. More importantly though is that we realize we are all like those kernels for somebody. All it takes is being willing to stand apart, even when you feel lost in a sea of sameness. You may think you are unassuming, small, even broken, but you are capable of the most amazing feeling, sensation, understanding, or simple smile to those who encounter you. An explosion of flavor that seasons the world and makes it a magical and wonderful place.