The Land and Its People

04Jun02

Permafrost is a swampland, only further north and with a fancier name.  Frozen solid in the winter months, it turns to mush in the summer, necessitating the construction of often crumbling boardwalks in many portions of the town.  The lack of paved road – impossible to maintain in the winter, I assume, gives a dirty feel to all of Bethel and one gets a vibe of entrapment and alcoholic hopelessness from many residents.  Dogs tend to roam the streets unleashed, not helping my nervous fear of canines.

For what is ugly in Bethel – the crumbling, shanty-town like horizon with only the faintest view of mountains far away – there is some beauty.  The sky is clear in a way I’ve not witnessed before, with no haze and huge clouds.  The river produces tons of fresh fish each summer, and one hears that wild berries exist everywhere and that a short boat ride on the Kuskokwim takes one to not only berry patches, but miles of untamed wilderness.  Tundra rains, lasting all of 15 minutes, give way to clear skies and sunlight.

Coming home from work today, I decided to take an alternate road.  Not two minutes into my detour, I regretted the move as unleashed dogs barked and snapped at one another ahead.  I did, however, spy a woman of about 50, jogging toward me in the distance.  She soothed my nerves as surely she’d be better prey.  It wasn’t the dogs to whom she fell prey, however, but a woman in her mid to late 40’s yelling at her from a porch about “pushing it without stopping.”  When the jogger was well past, the woman’s attention turned to me, still dressed in clinic attire.

“What,” she asked, is a jogging woman and a guy wearing a necktie doing on a road reserved for drunks?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied, “but I’m starting to wish that I were, myself.” 

With this conversation began a strange friendship with Hoppi.  An American by birth, Hoppi previously lived in Mogadishu, Somalia and considered Bethel “a step up from that.”  She’d just obtained her first salmon of the season.  Her refrigerator was unusable, as it was filled with peat for gardening, so she gave me half of the fillet.  She invited me into her modest home and cleaned and prepared it for cooking.  475 degrees, 45 minutes.

She gave me a 20 minute tour of shortcuts to the hospital, with such advice as “if you turn down this path and hear dogs barking, find another one.”  Hoppi was friendly in a pure, earthy Hippie sort of way that I quite enjoyed.  As I walked home, raw meat in hand, I only hoped that the dogs wouldn’t notice.

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