My apologies; I know this is the post that friends and family of PCVs least like reading, the inevitable “I’m on vacation and have so much free time and good internet how could I not update my blog, even though I know most of you only read my blog because its different." (Side note: typing on a Spanish version of Open Office, took me a while to figure out that whatever the word for italics is in Spanish does not start with an "I", but rather a "K" for "Cursive"- Ctrl C must already be taken). And its coming after an unforgivable blog hiatus of 3 or so months. Unforgivable, but justifiable. My mom made the mistake of telling me that her friends, ("some of who [or is it whom?] are English teachers, ya know") said that I was a good writer.
"Right, mom. You're just saying that so I'll update it." Living in a household with 4 stubborn and, lets be honest, reluctant (unwilling, lazy) men has given her an armory of subtle tactics of beguilitude which we've all caught on to by now (for the worse). She got defensive.
"No! They could have just as easily have said that it was 'interesting' but they actually said it was really well written, and that you should write a book or something". This of course brought on a bout of stage fright, which, coupled with laziness, basically equates to writers block. And someone once said (was it Vonnegut? Help me out English teachers) that writing without anything to say, simply for writing's sake, is about as base as talking to hear your own voice. Which, according to my dad as i continually interrupted him during Vikings games is the most obnoxious thing ever. But, like I said, ce genre de chose is inevitable for PCVs so bare with me. I'll try to keep it short and relevant. Seeing Mexico, the first "developing country" I’ve been to outside of Africa, has given me some shareable insights.
The first is that there are actually two Mexicos. There's the real Mexico, which is basically friendly and happy and cheap and is quickly developing itself and only speaks un poco de Anglais, and then there's Senor Frogs' Mexico. This one speaks English with a charming, barely perceptible Mexican accent and hires Metallica cover bands to entertain you (do sound checks) while you drink gigantic (watery) margaritas and eat food that will (probably) not make you sick. It puts up great big windows facing the manicured beachfront and thick walls covered in signed photos of Jimmy Buffet facing the real Mexico on the other 3 sides. The taxi drivers that take you between bastions of "Senor Frogs' Mexico", allowing you to bypass the 3-second stops in the real Mexico necessitated by the otherwise awesome buses have phat wads of American dollars and Canadian funny money in their pockets which they were kind enough to exchange for you, "And I'll give you a real deal too. Ocho, no nueve pesos on the dollar cuz joure mis amigos ahora ¡Que bueno eh!"
But there is only one Africa. Monsieur Frogs just doesn't have the same ring to it - in fact would probably offend the French tourists - and there's no way the shrimp wouldn't give you a wicked case of intestinal parasites. They have not yet learned how to censor the bad parts because they don’t know they’re bad, since they probably don't have a cousin in Miami or Nuevo Jork who sends them postcards and money every two months. Or they just don't care. In Mexico you are greeted at the airport with smiles and at least a façade of contented prosperity. In Africa you are greeted with demands by armed policeman for a gift. They don’t care if you enjoy your stay. They know you won’t be coming back either way because visiting Africa only appears once on your bucket list.
Since I didn’t vacation in the states I didn’t have to experience the same kind of culture shock that most volunteers go through in miniature on their sabbaticals to the States, other than a wide-eyed 2 hour layover at JFK. The culture shock I did get to experience in Mexico took on 3 forms: anonymity, indulgence, and for lack of a better expression, child rearing. We’ll start with the last one, because it was an underlying theme of my vacation, for better or worse.
I got to know the newest member of my family, little Lucy. Forgive me, adult Lucy, as you look back on your crazy tio Alex's blog and see the anecdotes I shamelessly share (shameless for me at least) – I know I run the risk of turning this into one of those embarrassing stories Gramma will love reminding you of when you introduce her to your boyfriends (which you wont have until you are 35 and an M.D). One afternoon Lulu was facing me, held by my brother Matt as we talked in the kitchen, when she got a perplexing look of consternation and extreme effort, and then unbridled joy. She had painted my brother and a large spot on the floor with orange applesauce poo. Matt turned to my dad and while laughing, said “look grandpa, my baby exploded”. I grabbed my sunglasses and a few beers from the fridge quicker than I had moved up to that point the whole vacation and B-lined it for the pool. This scene would have never happened in Togo because of the following reasons: Lulu would have been laying in the dirt, not held by her dad over a surface that would actually show signs of having been pooed on; even were she being held for some reason, it would not have been by her father but by her 4 year old sister who would have dropped her immediately and gone for a bucket shower; and the poo would not have been of a healthy applesauce color but of a sickly, brownish green. (Take that you laudatory English teachers).
Africa has a lot of kids. Most poor places do. In fact, if you took two maps illustrated with runny water colors, one of which showing the Human Development Index (HDI) - a composite statistic that takes into account everything from GDP to "happiness" - in shades of blue (celeste, indicating a low HDI, to ultramarine, indicating Scandinavia) and the other showing the birth rates around the world from high to low in shades of yellow - lets say mellow yellow to goldenrod - and you smeared the two maps together, the whole world would come out an even shade of shamrock green. Cela veut dire que the two are quite close to being inversely related. Which for the purpose of this post means that Africans are very good at, or at least very experienced at, raising kids. The two don’t necessarily go hand in hand. (Mom's art teacher friends, please don't take this paragraph literally.)
After a maternal leave of, oh, 20 minutes, the women go back to life as it was before baby: farming, spending hours over a hot smoky stove, cooking for 10+ dependents, all with baby strapped snugly on their back with a simple sheet of pagne fabric. Diaper changes? Just get out a clean pagne. Mealtime entails a little readjustment of baby’s position and mommy’s breast. If she’s a really "experienced" mother the second readjustment will suffice. You kind of forget that baby exists until it’s old enough to be taken care of by the next oldest daughter, aged 3 and ½ years, who better keep it quiet or we’re gonna have to wake daddy up from his mid-morning moonshine nap and you know how much of a temper that gives him. Older children do not have time between taking care of infants and constructing brooms to sell for lunch money to have their own temper tantrums. They have to bottle them up until they have their own 7 kids and an alcohol problem.
Jump to the same scene in the "Global North" (This is what the politically correct development sect is calling rich countries nowaways). Just raising one child is a full time job for both parents. I’m not condoning one method or the other, just pointing out the vast discrepancies among 1st and 3rd worlds which are different enough to induce culture shock. My brother and sister-in-law are perhaps the best parents I've ever seen, and have already raised two 4-year-olds to a point where they would pass Togo's college entry exams. Seriously (No. Hyperbole). These girls are the definition of sharp. I watched them phonetically recopy my mom's shopping list and add a few items at my request ("ponee, bentlee, teebownstayks") all in their second language. But this care in child rearing sometimes comes at a cost: mommy and daddy's free time/social life/(hair/love life/marriage/sanity?) Wherase raising a bakers dozen in Africa is dirt off ya shoulda.
I digress. What was next on my list of culture shocks. Ah yes, anonymity. Sweet, unassuming obscurity and unimportance fitting of my age, economic and social status, and contributions to the world. No more immediate, unmerited (and unwanted!) celebrity-hood thanks exclusively to my melanin deficiency. Peace Corps volunteers are probably overly sensitive to being identified by a physical characteristic as cosmetic as skin color, which is natural given the effort of our educators to ensure we understood that beauty is only skin deep, and that staring is rude, and that we never, ever bring attention to something strange about someones appearance. Africa missed the memo on that one. If you're a little heavyset, "the fat one" will trump your name for what people call you. If you are really tall, you are forevermore "the giant". And if you are white, no matter how hard you try to establish a distinct identity, you are "the white one". Even to those people who respect you enough not to call you yovo, you are yovo. And in Africa, skin color goes much deeper than the thickness of your skin, through your physical body and beyond into incomprehensible metaphysical qualities that influence the value of a person in the eye's of God. Whereas a fat black person might eventually just be ignored while walking through the market, a yovo never escapes his curse-blessing, and is never allowed to blend in or forget that he doesn't belong. Although the money from his money tree orchard can stay.
Which is why i felt a tangible weight lifted from me as I walked into the enormously diverse JFK International Airport. The removed weight amounted to much more than the sum of the apparent weight of photons emitted as white light by my skin and absorbed by the surprised and unaccustomed eyes of Africa. When i wasn't stared at, or even looked at really, once in my entire trip through airport customs I got the urge to make sure i hadn't disappeared. So i did the most unorthodox thing i could think of doing that wouldn't get me arrested, and I was relieved (and a little embarrassed), when the young Latino-looking couple next to me took a few steps back. But then they went right on as if it was only the 3rd or 4th strangest thing they had yet seen that morning. Don't ever take for granted being able to do jumping jacks on an airport tram without someone accusing you of making a "scene".
In my entire vacation - and here for reference I will point out that I am also including just-caught garlic roasted shrimp, spicy machaca a la Mexicana, fresh squeezed orange juice and homemade yogurt smoothies in the running for this honor - the most delectable thing I tasted again for the first time in 18 months was the bliss of anonymity, prepared with care by the cooks of acceptance and nonjudgmentality ¡Delicioso!
The last of my "culture shock big 3", indulgence, probably doesn't need a lot of explaining. I ate. A lot. Of everything. I'd lost about 18 lbs since arriving in Togo in September of 2011 and so set for myself the lofty and noble goal of gaining half of it back in 3 weeks. Mission accomplished.
Its not that indulgence is unheard of in Africa. But except for an elite class of rich men who are constantly overindulging themselves, indulgence is primarily reserved for a few days of the year. And then it just entails eating massive quantities of the same stuff people always eat, maybe a bit more meat and macaroni and a lot more SoDatBe. In order to indulge you either have to make sacrifices or you have to have abundance. "Abundance" is just not an idea that really carries any meaning in Africa, so indulgence comes at a cost and is used sparingly. I haven't yet decided if I think its a good thing or not.
Anyway, those are the big ones. But I'll leave you with A few Other Things I Forgot Existed and Was Pleasantly Reminded of On My Vacation: customer service, "bite-sized" 12 oz beers, cheese that has to be refrigerated, refrigeration, an abundance of petit monnai, mid-afternoon exercise, (actually, physical exertion in general between 10-3), diversified economies, middle class citizens, universally understood language, enchiladas (never again will I take you for granted), wolf sized dogs, rat sized dogs, infrastructure, leisure activities, public spaces, civic pride, environmental stewardship, (relative) gender equality, and ice-cubes.
I would love comments. Please, for the sake of encouragement, just say something like "Wow, Alex! That was really... interesting. Don't quit your day job".
"Hah!" I will retort, "I don't even have one!" And I will submit a new entry post haste.
p.s. I wanted to tell you this but it didn't really fit anywhere in this post (accept maybe in that last paragraph under "environmental stewardship" and i didn't want to ruin the aesthetic of the list with a lengthy, irrelevant parenthetical side note. I tend to avoid those at all cost) and that is that I am really excited about the next chapter in my Peace Corps service: the organizing of a national environmental youth camp in Togo. In order to begin addressing the incredible but essential developmental hurdle of instilling a sense of intrinsic value for the environment, PC Togo will be putting on its second annual Camp ECO-Action to teach kids about nature and give them the tools to protect it and ensure a sustainable environment, economy, and future for their hungry little country. We have to raise about $7,000 for it to happen - the community will contribute close to $3,000 in kind - so please consider helping. It costs $119 to send one child to camp for a week, including room and board, transport, and all fees associated with running a national camp. If you aren't convinced yet, remember your donation is tax-deductible. Learn more about the camp and donate!
|The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception|
|Hilly historic district of Mazatlan|
|Seemingly endless beach|
|I asked myself this same question...|
|Mi hermano y su hija Lucia|