The Best Meal of My Life

What journalists report is really only a tiny fraction of what they record and observe. While much of what is left out is truly inessential, there are also real gems among the scribbled notes and memories we invariably collect through the years. Here is one such precious memory from my own travels.

One night several years ago, I was on my way back from interviewing rebels on Negros Island. A team of guerrillas escorted me from their camp to the road leading from the mountains to the coastal highway and said that was as far as they could go but the village where I had arranged for a motorcycle ride was not too far off and the way was clear.

Trudging by my lonesome, I got caught in a thunderstorm and steeled myself for the prospect of an hour or two of wet and cold hiking. Then I saw a small hut by the side of the road and thought to get out of the rain and see if I could wait it out.

As I stood under the small overhang of the thatch roof smoking, the door of the hut slid open and the head of an old man poked out. “Are you alone? Why don’t you come in out of the cold?” Behind him I could glimpse the inviting glow of a fire.

Deciding it wouldn’t hurt, I accepted and climbed inside. In the narrow space within, an old woman, his wife, seated beside a stove stoking the flames. The old man asked her to brew some coffee and, as she did so, we sat down on the bamboo floor and I offered him a cigarette and we began to talk.

He told me about their life as farmers, of how it was hard given the poor soil and the usurious rates of the landowner, of how it had become doubly difficult since their children had grown and left to raise their own families, of losing a son to the “paghimakas” (struggle), of how military patrols often stopped by to question them about the rebels, chuckling softly as he wondered what the rebels would do with an old man like him, as the coffee came.

When we were done with coffee, he turned to his wife and said: “He must be hungry, let us eat.”

Over my protests, the wife took down a basket hanging on the wall, put it down on the bamboo floor and took off the cloth covering its mouth. Inside were two salted fish and some slices of a root crop called “bisol.” Seeing it was all they had, I hesitated. But the wife picked up one of the fish and broke it in two, giving half to her husband who, picking up the cue, began chewing on it while he took a slice of bisol. The wife then took the remaining fish and handed it to me as she began eating her own half.

Not wanting to offend them, I began eating my not so fair share. And we returned to talking.

In time, the rain stopped and they said I had better be on my way so I could reach the village before the sun broke. As I stepped outside and hitched my pack to my back, I offered them some cash in appreciation.

This time, it was the wife who spoke, gently putting her hand on mine and guiding it back to my pocket, saying: “No. We are happy you came by and shared a meal with us and listened to our story. Thank you.”

And so I went on my way, my heart and spirit filled with what was unarguably the best meal of my life.

You see, heroes give selflessly even if, it seems, they cannot afford to. They do not take away, neither life nor wealth that is not theirs. Nor do they need to claim the title. Anyone who has to is not.