“Award trips”—that’s the name we in the office give to the trips our writers make to find out about the finalists in the Slow Food Award for the Defense of Biodiversity ‘They meet them, try to understand more of their past, spend a bit of time with them, follow them in their daily working life—and assail them with questions. They are investigative trips, but also check trips. If the entrant is then confirmed as a finalist, a biography has to be written for the jury. Sometimes, though, the candidature is not confirmed, either because the situation has changed since the entry was submitted, or because once on the spot it becomes clear that the situation or the background, however interesting it might be, doesn’t fit the criteria for our award. When we do have to eliminate a finalist it is always with reluctance.
Until you get down to the small change, these seem like normal trips, meetings like any other. But in reality they are quite different because the people we meet do not have a great deal of contact with the outside world, they don’t normally have visits from journalists, they are not used to people paying a great deal of attention to them, especially someone who has come a long way just to meet them. Without doubt, they find it flattering and even moving, but it is also regarded as an extravagance, especially at first.
The visits are nearly always to places far from the usual tourist haunts, and so are full of small events and incidents that would never occur on a ‘normal’ trip. But it is these incidents, sometimes funny, sometimes touching, that later become the essence of the whole experience in our minds.
Jesus Garzón comes to pick me up at the airport. The terms are clear: his association, which has restored the practice of transferring grazing animals to different pastures (known as transhumance) over long distances, has the absolute minimum of resources necessary to carry out its work. He can’t afford any additional outlay. He is more than willing to take me around to see the various flocks and shepherds, but all the expenses have to be down to me, from petrol to meals. It seems a reasonable request and we shake hands on it. The first evening we stop in a small hotel in the Pyrenees; he, in gentlemanly manner, heads to reception first and asks if they have availability for the night. “One room or two?” asks the receptionist. And quick as a flash comes the masterstroke. With complete, perfect elegance Garzón replies, “Please do as the lady requests,” and he vanishes to get the bags from the car. All I have to do is ask for two rooms and one invoice, made out to Slow Food. But I have not forgotten the amazing ease with which someone whom I now consider a close friend handled the situation. He couldn’t ask for two rooms because it wasn’t he who was paying the bill; the couldn’t book just one because we’d only just met; he couldn’t ask me what to do because it could have been embarrassing for me. But his hesitation, if there was any, lasted not more than a fraction of a second. I understood right there that one of the reasons for his success was his quick thinking and the speed with which he came to decisions.
I met the Chambi brothers in Puno on Lake Titikaka. They had founded the Chuyma Aru association, aimed at restoring the Aymara culture. It was July, their winter, and Puno is at 3,830 meters of altitude. Now, at the top of the list of the things I can’t cope with are the cold and high altitudes. We were in their office, wearing scarves, quilts, overcoats and gloves. I had arrived 24 hours earlier and already migraine was getting the better of me. I had nausea and every molecule of my body, my brain in particular, was imperiously demanding oxygen. But there was none to be had. Every so often someone arrived with a cup of maté but after the first few, however tempting the idea of a hot drink was, I couldn’t let myself accept: one of the symptoms of altitude sickness is water retention and drinking makes it worse. They didn’t bat an eyelid; they smiled when I asked them to repeat something, when I apologized for being rather vacant, they just carried on serenely. The cosmogony of the Aymara takes any natural phenomenon as a sign, a message to be interpreted. The next morning, greeting me and replying to my apologies for the state of my appearance (the night had been just awful) they said, “Illness is a sister who comes to visit you to let you know that you have an imbalance within you.” “That’s as may be,” I reply, somewhat irritated by such imperturbability, “But now that I’ve got the message I would like this ‘sister’ to get herself out of my hair fast.” They look at me with severe expressions on their faces: one does not make jokes about Aymara culture. So a feeling of discomfort for being so brusque adds itself to the nausea—and this is my parting memory.
I come in from Santiago in Chile. While still in the airport there I decide to call home and I discover that my family has been trying to get in touch with me for a couple of days to tell me that my maternal grandmother has died. I have missed the final farewell, the funeral. It is not the first time that such a thing has happened due to my travels but it makes me very melancholy. I’m never where I ought to be, I think. I get to Coronel Moldés, in the province of Salta, to the guesthouse on the farm where Carlos Lewis has been reintroducing old crops and traditions. It is called Finca Santa Anita to distinguish it from his father-in-law’s bigger Finca Santa Ana. And I arrive on Saint Anna’s Saint’s Day, July 26. So I take part in the mass celebrated in the house, which is followed by a snack based on hot chocolate. There are lots of children and lots of elderly people: then, during the prayers, I discover that Saint Anna is not only the patron saint of the farm, but the protector of grandparents too. It’s a comforting coincidence and after the mass I silently toast my grandmother, raising my steaming mug a few inches.
Labé is the second city of Guinea, lying 600 kilometers from the capital Conakry. I arrive after a 12-hour car journey, traveling with Boubacar Camara e Mamadou Bailo Diallo, who are behind the restoration of a traditional drink known as sintin, produced from the seeds of a plant that grows in the forest. When they said ‘the second city’, I imagined somewhere more or less like Conakry but a bit smaller. Wrong. Labé is an amalgam of tin roofs, of non-asphalted roads and of ancient vehicles that leave rivers of dust and exhaust fumes in their wake. Our hotel is bang in the center, with the promising name of Grand Hotel de l’Independence. But the grandeur is all in the name; it’s a tenement screaming out for maintenance. My room has old, dirty furniture; practically nothing in the bathroom works and nobody, it would seem, has cleaned for decades. Even the sheets have that lived-in look. But I’m tired, I want to carve out a clean, ordered corner of the world for myself and then sleep, mosquitoes permitting. I have what vaguely approximates to a shower, I stick the electric mosquito device into the socket, I put my own sheet over the one provided by the hotel, my own pillowcase over the one supplied – and there we are. I try to relax, I even begin to read a good thriller I’ve brought from home. Then the peace suddenly ends. The ever-vigilant corner of my eye catches a small, dark mouse scuttling across the room. In just ten seconds I am dressed, all my belongings are in my suitcase and I am down two flights of stairs to the reception. Wide awake and with all the nonchalance I can muster I say, “There is a mouse in my room, could you call me a taxi?” The lads control themselves for half a second, then explode into unstoppable laughter. The ’boss’ arrives. “What’s going on?” “Madame la blanche has a mouse in her room,” splutters out one. “And she wants a taxi.” adds the other, breathless. I look on, a bit bewildered, but in the end even I start to enjoy it all. Not even the ‘boss’ can keep a straight face, although he decides I merit a bit of consideration: “Madame, I cannot find you a taxi at ten o’clock at night. And in any event, where would you want to go?” A good question. And I don’t have an answer. So I change tactics. “Alright, but I am not returning to that room under any circumstances, so will you please sort the matter out.” I’m willing to laugh at myself, but not to sleep with a mouse. In the end we go and wake Boubacar who lets me sleep in his room ,while he takes the one where I saw the mouse. The next day he confessed that at first he thought that I’d let the state of the hotel get to me and that there wasn’t any mouse; but when he’d been in bed about half an hour he too had the pleasure of seeing our little friend dart across the room—even with the light on. That conversation between the lads in the hotel and me, and the one between them and Boubacar became the standing joke of the trip. And the next time we meet I don’t think we’ll be able to resist going through those moments all over again, laughing until tears are streaming down our faces.
Cinzia Scaffidi, a journalist, is the head organizer of the Slow Food Award for the Defense of Biodiversity
Translation by Maureen Ashley
The Slow Food Award 2003 prize ceremony will be held in Naples on October 9