My breath froze as another bead of sweat rolled down my back.
A deafening noise pierced the suffocating humidity and engulfed my senses. I gasped for air through a bone dry mouth. Then I saw it.
The waitress emerged from the cafe with a steely, determined expression fixed across her face. In her apron, beside her pen and notebook, was a pistol.
I froze. Everyone froze, entranced by the sight of the pistol and the ensuing confrontation we were powerless to stop. Patrons deftly lowered their cutlery with extreme care so as not to attract the attention of the waitress, and held their breath lest they become her next victim.
She strode defiantly toward her target with the practiced assurance of a seasoned veteran, and neared the pistol with her right hand, never for a moment removing her gaze from her intended victim.
Bead after bead of sweat rolled down my back as my heart beat quickened and opened every pore of my skin. I dare not speak, I dare not breathe, and wished I could somehow evaporate into the soupy evening.
Why had I chosen this cafe? Why had I not sought the safety and air conditioned comfort of an indoor eatery where the scene I am now witnessing are unheard of? Was it the view, the cuisine, the cool breeze skipping across the river?
Except the breeze had disappeared, as if in a vacuum, as if it too feared the wrath of the waitress with the pistol. The incessant hum emanating from the loud speakers served to bless what could be my final meal.
Brunei not a violent country. This was not a violent city. Yet this scene was not uncommon. Not unheard of. I should have known better. I admonished myself for inviting this danger into my life, a life which could at any moment be truncated.
I admonished myself again. I knew the target was defenceless. I knew the waitress, with her pistol enjoyed a grossly unfair advantage over her tiny victim. Yet I felt no sympathy for the creature. I felt no compulsion to defend it. I wished it gone. Now, and forever, never to return to this place. I cared not for its welfare.
Extracting the water pistol from her holster, she fired upon a stray cat for the umpteenth time that day before clearing away the remains of a family’s meal. The desperate mangy cat scurried for cover and the waitress holstered her weapon for the next battle.
The waitress then quietly carried the assorted cutlery and crockery back into the kitchen.
I wondered how long the water bottle full of Powerade had been in the fridge.
I’d put it in the night before a long ride, but never did the long ride. Lockdown got in the way, then a sore back, then lockdown, rain, lockdown, mechanical problems…and another lockdown. Today’s hike is long enough to justify Powerade and a second bottle of water; even a cut lunch. And bubble tea.
I took a sip of my bubble tea before I set off on the long descent down the steep rocky steps which would carry me into the valley below. The sun was climbing and the light breeze on top of the escarpment was pleasantly cool.
About 10 minutes into the hike, I saw a man dragging himself up the steps.
“Hi,” he exhaled, looking frantic, tired and sweaty, it was warmer beneath the canopy.
“Are you going to the bottom?” he asked.
“My sons are halfway down, one of them left the stove on so I’ve gotta go to the top to get reception,” he puffed, “…to tell someone to turn it off. Can you check on them?”
And he resumed his battle with the steps.
The boys were comfortable and in good spirits. They had food and water.
“Are you guys hiking with your Dad?”
“He’s nearly at the top,” I explained, “he shouldn’t be too long.”
“Yeah,” they grunted, with the customary enthusiasm of adolescence. I had to ask:
“Which one of you left the stove on?”
“Me,” replied the youngest, about 12 or 13.
“Well, he made us come down here, and we made him go up there,” added the 15-year-old, “…so now we’re even.”
I kept walking.
After about 40 minutes of descending step after step after step I reached the valley floor and walked among towering blue gums set against a backdrop of sandstone cliffs. The sun pierced through the canopy and the birds played and sang in the trees, their melody broken only by a call from a fellow hiker.
“Oh, it’s Keith,” she exclaimed to a group of young adults who were listening to her engrossing tale.
I’m not Keith, and she soon realised as I approached.
“You look like Keith.”
I greeted the small group and asked them where they’d started their hike; at the top of the stairs I’d just descended, or from one of the two other trails which meet at this junction.
Hiker’s small talk, curiosity, politeness…
No response. The friend of Keith had returned immediately to her engrossing tale.
I kept walking.
I followed the river towards a campsite I hadn’t yet visited and wondered if I could reach the other side of the escarpment and make it back to the carpark in two to three hours. I had limited food but plenty of fluids, even some bubble tea.
I soon came across a friendly older gentlemen taking samples of the flora and making notes in a notebook. He told me he was an ecologist conducting a survey on the health of the bush in this particular patch of the valley. He was waiting for a young man whose impressive technological equipment would make his mapping much easier. Maybe I’d seen him.
Maybe. He might be among the group of young people at the junction, listening to a tale from a young woman with a backpack.
“Oh, Wendy, yeah, I know her. She’s on a five day expedition trying to get away from people and find some solitude, but apparently she keeps running into people, even people she knows.”
Including Keith, I surmised.
I left the ecologist to continue his survey and found a beautiful spot by the river to enjoy a peaceful lunch in the sunshine. I watched the water fold itself over and around the stones and followed the bubbles sliding like mercury over the stones in the refracted light.
I savoured my cut lunch and water, and sipped on my bubble tea, not yet realising it was bubble tea. To me it just tasted like Powerade and delightful refreshment as my body responded to the heat of the valley floor.
I followed the river for a few more minutes then turned back, deciding to tackle the hike to the other side of the escarpment another day, when I had more food, less hunger, new hiking shoes and more bubble tea.
I didn’t see the ecologists on the way back, nor did I see Wendy. Perhaps she’d found that elusive solitude. I didn’t meet Keith, nor would I know if I had, and I didn’t see the boys or their father. Hopefully he’d found someone to turn the stove off. Hopefully he’s found a way to motivate his reluctant teenagers.
Alas, all that was left was to ignore the heat and the accumulating sweat and ascend the steps to the carpark.
Step after step after step.
Sip after sip after sip.
My water was running low, but not yet empty. My bubble tea was running low, but not yet empty. I’d timed it well and should run out of water at the car park. Every sip of hydration was fuelling my body, but I knew at this point that the fillip was as much psychological.
A few more steps, a few more steps – and there it was. The viewpoint, the reward, and the end of a solid hike.
I shed myself of my sweaty, smelly shirt and slipped into something more comfortable for the short drive home. I also decided to empty the remnants of my water supply into the bottle with the Powerade, to sip on the way home.
That’s when I realised I’d made bubble tea…accidentally. I squeezed the remaining mixture from the bottom of the water bottle and felt something solid, but gooey, in my mouth.
I spat it out.
It felt like bubble tea. Solidified something wrapped in a coating of gooeyness. The translucent destruction of flavoursome iced-tea. Famous throughout Asia, but I’m not Asian.
“I’m very like bubble tea,” Chinese people would tell me in broken English. I’m very dislike bubble tea.
I spat out the bubble and realised there could be more in the bottom of the water bottle, so I ditched it. I reached for my other water bottle to wash my mouth out with water. It was empty. Of course, the water was in the bottom of the other bottle – with the bubble tea. It was the bubble tea.
How did this happen?
What have I been drinking all morning?
Will I get sick?
I rushed to the kitchen tap to rinse and replace the bubble tea. It was only when I emptied the water bottle into the sink that I saw it.
One single blob of solidified Powerade, like an oversized bubble in a bubble tea. Then I saw more, looking like bacteria or tadpoles. Had I just consumed tadpoles? I don’t think so, surely I would have felt them sliding down my throat. Why didn’t I know I was drinking bubble tea this whole time? I thought it was just plain old Powerade. Then I saw it. The blobs had attached themselves tightly to the inner walls of the water bottle. I had to scrape some off with my fingers.
I didn’t get sick. But then I didn’t get sick from my first COVID jab either. The water bottle has been soaked numerous times with hot water. I’m still deciding whether it’s safe to use again.
I will never again leave a bottle of Powerade in the fridge for weeks on end. I don’t recommend home-brewed bubble tea.
The Honduran environmental activist devoted much of her life to campaigning for the protection of the natural environment and indigenous people of her native land, and only stopped fighting when she was assassinated during a campaign.
Caceres fought for the protection of the natural environment in a country and a region plagued with corruption and impunity among politicians and big business, especially resource companies whose projects threatened the land she worked to protect. International organisation Global Witness once declared Honduras the most dangerous country in the world for protecting forests and rivers.
Caceres knew she faced enormous obstacles and danger. She knew she faced corruption at the highest levels. She knew she faced multinational companies operating with impunity and enormous budgets. She was reminded of these obstacles on a regular basis, throughout her activism, when she received death threats.
She was once quoted as saying;
“…When they want to kill me…they will do it.”
During the lengthy campaign for the Gualcarque River, the Honduran military opened fire on the group of protesters, killing one member. More protesters would be killed. Still Caceres fought.
Courage is encapsulated in the famous quote from Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, when Atticus says to Jem;
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
Unfortunately for Caceres, and the land and the people she protected, the man with the gun in his hand had the backing of many powerful organisations. The company behind the proposed hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River, Desa, was eventually ruled to have organised the squad of seven men, yes seven, who carried out the hit on Caceres. A number of the hit squad had been trained by US Army special forces. Thus, it took seven armed men, some with specific military training, to silence one woman.
Caceres utilised her intelligence, her dedication and her courage to peacefully defend the natural environment. Not only did she fight, she often won. The Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras which she co-founded and led staged many grass roots campaigns to protect the environment, indigenous people and women, before the action for the Gualcarque River.
Berta Caceres knew she faced enormous obstacles and danger, but she fought anyway. That is courage.