The last day on the field. Everyone was under pressure to complete their last interviews; every mile had to be pushed further.
A colleague and I had to visit La Libertad; she had to interview grassroots entrepreneurs while I had to photograph them. We were expecting fabulous stories of empowered women; we were not expecting a rickety ride through a hill in an old pickup truck, followed by a long walk through woods and across a stream into pristine and quiet forest villages. We journalists got onto our work. Dogs, cows, horses, cats, ants, children gathered around us. The people greeted us and offered as sweet annona (custard apple). We eased ourselves under a tree and a faint breeze.
But where was Jeff (or Jean Francois or Juan Francis)? Never would be disappear from our sight. Rather, never would he let us disappear from his sight, and maintain that vigour even for the rest of the journalists travelling in other groups, via GPS.
I forgot about him and began to work with my camera and dust off ants. My camera lens picked up Jeff bending and inspecting a bamboo post that wasn’t there a moment before.
As the security adviser to IWMF and thereby to the journalists and fixers on the field, the role of Jeff in keeping us safe and healthy is something that sunk in only towards the end of our fellowship period. Somehow, he always had at hand that what we needed: a band-aid, screwdriver (not the vodka-based elixir after a long day’s work but the real metal one), headache and diarrhea and nausea and allergy pills, duct tape, extra pen, tissues for a runny nose, energy bar, extra shoe lace, door stopper. Why did he have them all is a question that makes no sense in asking; that he brings to this job his training as a former military man is obvious. “I joined the military when I was 16,” he had said. Images of malnourished child soldiers had flashed before me when he had said that; and here he was, feasting on steak and potatoes while checking his phone for the updates on the last group of journalists still on their way back to the hotel. He ensured that all our needs were met, and our needs, and wants, were diverse, weird and many. Together with Pedro, each night, he planned the next day’s travels. It was no easy feat, while we complained of heat.
Earlier in Mexico City, he had taught us how to escape from gunshots, extricate ourselves from handcuffs using bobby pins, crawl like reptiles during a blast, and kick a man where it would hurt him the most. We joked a lot then even as we all hoped that we wouldn’t have to employ any of the life hacks he taught us.
When I saw him at a distance that hot morning in La Libertad, perching down to the bamboo pole that he dug into the earth and looking deeply into it, I knew that he was on the job. He found some strings to tie his mobile phone to that bamboo post. “This is the only point where there is phone signal,” he later told me, when I went to check his contraption. Salvadoran kids surrounded this white man dressed in black and big dark glasses, as he spoke into the bamboo pole, in his attempt to reach out to the “outside world” through this antenna. A circle of boundary was drawn in dust around the post. I respected that boundary, as I learnt to observe my respect shift to awe of this man because of whom we were able to let our guards down.
Soldiers stay awake so that we can sleep, is something we have all heard during patriotic moments. But I experienced this first-hand as I snoozed in the cars or ventured into some backyard in the midst of nowhere, because Jeff stayed vigil.
He may have wanted to boogie his stress out to the reggaeton in this beautiful Latin American country, but his antenna is was what kept us safe, enabled us to be the journalists pursuing every thread of evidence, and let us boogie in the car’s backseat.