The Day I Almost Tasted Heaven |
by Sarah Elizabeth Porter

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Balkans for two long years. The food was bland at best, and botulism-inducing at worst. After eating sarma (something that looks like cabbage rolled into a snowball) for months on end, light seemed to finally break through the cabbagey clouds and a beacon of hope shone down on my famished and withered taste buds.

To my delight and immense gratification, the city I was placed in had just recently started sporadically selling tortillachips at the one tiny grocery store in town. The theory is that every once and a while a shipment truck traveling through the real part of Europe takes a wrong turn and somehow ends up in the Former Yugoslavia. The items then seem to simply be dumped so the driver can return home under the assumption that he has delivered all the products to their respective and proper destinations. And on a very lucky day they trickle down and end up here, in my little town.

And what a lucky day it was. The first time that I saw that sparkling, shiny green and black bag I almost hyperventilated with sheer elation. I used to endure a stifling three hour bus ride to the one large grocery store in the capital for the sole purpose of hoping to bring hope a bag of tortilla chips. I would then cradle them lovingly in my arms before shoving each one down my throat without chewing. After making this incredible and unheard of discovery, I bought the only three on the shelf.
Then the drought came. For months and months not a single tortilla chip rained down upon me, or fell off the truck. While walking home one day with another volunteer, Laura, I was thinking about a giant plate of nachos dripping with grease and processed cheese that comes out of a pump. Something spoke to me that day; it was almost as if the voice of God was calling out. As fate would have it, we were right in front of the grocery store. I stopped and looked up at the dimly lit marquee. It seemed to be conveying some sort of message, a message that fate brought me here and I could not turn back. This could be the day that the nachos returned.
But I wasn't sure how they could have possibly restocked them so quickly, especially since the Americans were the only ones that bought the strange, salty, overpriced snacks. But there always was the remote possibility that yet another truck had gotten off course. I was leery; my Peace Corps experience had taught me that to have any expectation is to walk the path of folly and perpetually dashed hopes. Nevertheless, I approached filled with optimism but while simultaneously preparing myself for the impending disappointment. I gazed upon the very small snack selection. Discontent and frustration quickly ensued. How could I be so stupid? How could I let myself believe that the chips had returned? Lightening rarely strikes twice. And if anything, the chip god who makes the trucks veer off course would most certainly redirect the driver to another town, with even hungrier and more depressed Peace Corps Volunteers.

But then something on the bottom shelf shoved in a corner caught my eye. There was a glimmer of green and a hint of black. Could it be? Were the divine rulers of the universe smiling down on me and rewarding me for my efforts? Blessing me for sacrificing two years of my life to live among the locals, among the second hand smoke and the track suits of Eastern Europe? Yes, yes they were! Oh holy day! The last bag of tortilla chips, and it was all mine! I was already planning the speech
in my head to Laura that I had seen them first. But, I would let her come over for nachos if she wanted to. Only once though. It was as if the gods heard my inner greediness because as I reached down to pick up the bag to cradle it to my breast, the incompressible happened.

Every tortilla spilled out as if the bag had been filled with sand. Nacho after potential nacho poured out one by one onto the dirty floor into a salty, stale tortilla chip mound. The very last bag of tortilla chipswas on the floor as if to mock me for even daring to hope. I quickly pondered eating some anyway; I’ve done worse with my life. Why was the bag torn open and then put back? How could life be so unforgiving and cruel?

I went over to a group of workers that were milling about in front of the boxes of unrefrigerated milk and the buckets of homemade cheese that sit in the middle of the store. While clutching the empty bag I tried to explain in broken Slavic what had just happened and why there was now a heaping pile of snack goods in the middle of the isle waiting for them to clean up. They laughed and all gathered round to investigate. There were several minutes of contemplation, speculation and intervals of pointing. Before they scooped the chips back into the bag, which served as a makeshift dustpan, they suggested that we could go ahead and eat them. I thought about it again. They weren't all touching the ground. The ones at the peak of the mound were probably still good.

Two days later we returned to the same store. In a masochistic effort to torture ourselves, we decided to peruse the snack corner. We knew there was no way another truck had gotten lost so soon, and as the age-old proverb goes - a watched pot never boils. Or more appropriately, a heavily monitored Balkan grocery store shelf never bears tortilla chips. There it was, the gaping hole that the chips had once sat. But then, the unbelievable happened. Once again, something shined and shimmered near the back. Black met green in a harmonious salty and crunchy melody. Another bag awaited us. We were given a second chance. A salty and crunchy blessing of good fortune. We were delighted and squealed with joy. The only thing now missing was cheese that comes in a can.

But, something was awry. Amongst the glare of the colors on the bag, something else gleamed and flickered. Something that was not normally on tortillachip bags. After a closer inspection, it appeared to be a staple. But not just one staple, an entire string of staples. Like a little staple family, all lined up in a row. The unthinkable had just occurred. After putting the chips back into the bag and on the way to the dumpster, the bag took a detour, just like it's original truck driver had. Instead of being placed in the proper trash receptacle as one does with food that has fallen on a dirty floor, a stapler was found, used accordingly, and the bag went back on the shelf.

I think we all know and have seen what happens on the sidewalks. Several forms of animal and human waste and fluids get deposited and then all these "treats" get tracked into the store by our shoes, and onto the floor where a bag of chips once had its contents dumped. And then it's put back onto the shelf to be sold at full price.

I guess incidences like this make you appreciate what you have, to be so close to tasting heaven only to have it ripped away from you in an instant. I imagine that those recently diagnosed as terminally ill felt close to what I felt that day. I suppose I should have been grateful; it gave me something to do with rest of my Peace Corps service. I could now spend my time pondering the question, will someone eventually buy the bag of chips, staples in all, or will it sit there until the end of time? I couldn’t wait to see which one happened first.
Sarah Porter is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, human rights activist, has an MA in International Affairs and lives in New York City.