Rat for Dinner

(October 31, 2014)

Shing! Part of the fern fell to the ground. There’s just something satisfying swinging a bush knife in the jungle. (Machetes are called “bush knives” here.)

Thunk! Hmm. That didn’t feel so good. Skinny little tree was tough.

My village host Ruban and I were out hunting mushrooms in the jungle. He cut a trail ahead of me up and down the steep sides of the mountain. He was a little ways ahead of me when the ground gave way under my feet. I slid down the mountainside. One foot slid into open space.

“Steve!” Ruban shouted.

The three small fingers of my right hand found a tree root to hold on to as I slid–the thumb and forefinger still held the bush knife. I pulled myself up, stood up, and grinned at Ruban. I was fine. But then I saw why Ruban yelled. I had nearly fallen about six feet into a ravine cut out by heavy rainfall.

The family dog was digging at the foot of a tree. Ruban and his son went to investigate. I knelt down to wash the mud off my legs and toe shoes in a creek. “Steve, look,” Ruban said. I looked up and saw him holding a dead rat. The dog had killed it. Or maybe Ruban had. A slice opened up the body from the head down to the rear quarters. A baby rat still clung to the mother’s belly.

I thought Ruban said the dog would eat the rat. But then he wrapped the body in a leaf and put it into his string bag (called a bilum). I had to ask twice more in Melanesian Pidgin to understand what he said, but I eventually learned that Ruban’s wife would fry up the rat for some of the family to eat.

Up and down the mountain we went, hacking through the jungle, until we came to a creek I recognized. It was the place people came to wash. Someone had split a bamboo section and diverted a little bit of the ground to make a tiny waterfall.

The two of them stood still, waiting. I rinsed off my head, unsure of what I was supposed to do. They still waited. I pulled my shirt off and rinsed off my chest. Ruban’s young son had gotten undressed, but Ruban made him wait. Apparently guests are supposed to wash first. I sighed and pulled off my clothes, conscious once again of how very white my skin is compared to theirs, despite having the best tan of my life. I washed and Ruban pointed out some suds on my back I missed rinsing off. When I finished, the son washed, and then finally Ruban.

The three of us returned to the village. Ruban handed the leaf with the rat to his wife Maria, who unwrapped it. She showed it to Debbie.

Debbie & Maria

Debbie sitting with Maria

“Oh,” Debbie said with a smile, “A rat.”

“She’s going to fry it,” I said.

“Want some?” Maria said with a chuckle. Someone must have told her about “whiteskin” tastes.

Debbie smiled but declined politely.

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