Thursday, April 30, 2009
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
I usually make an effort to make conversation with the cashiers when I go through the checker line at the grocery store. Or rather, I usually attempt to go along with the efforts that they make to converse and encourage more conversations. Invariably the conversation touches on the subject that both of us are at the present time extremely tired, a momentary discussion on the length of time till the cashier’s shift ends or lunch break occurs, and finally, some sort of comment on how I must really like peanut butter or tuna fish. The conversation’s purpose is really to fill the void of silence when you are going to be interacting with another human being in close proximity for several minutes, but occasionally, I am imparted with extraordinary tips for living.
A few weeks ago, when the weather was still cold enough to wear a scarf, I was informed by the cashier that she too had a Burberry (or however you spell it) scarf. I was about to inform her that this scarf was in fact a knock-off which was re-gifted to after my dad received it. I never expected to wear it, but scarves are actually extraordinarily warm. The friendly cashier informed me that her little cousin had borrowed the scarf for months and she detailed her exhaustive pursuit of the scarf for months. Which, of course she had to get back, if only because it went with the rest of her entire ensemble. Which is to say she had a purse, a hat, and perhaps some other accessories that I am not remembering that went with the scarf.
She then proceeded to discuss how she told her cousin she’d buy her a cheap knock-off. I almost interjected in here again to say, yeah, that’s what I’d do because I have one, but in what would prove to be a wise move, I remained silent (except, of course to comment that I indeed enjoy a good 5 lb jar of peanut butter, and no, the Salmonella scare wouldn’t discourage me).
As she was scanning the last few items, the cashier informed me that in no circumstance should I be traveling out and about with only one Burberry item on. If I was going to where the scarf, I had to where the whole ensemble. Honestly, I’m not sure if this was a circuitous route to expose my faux pas of wearing Adidas snap pants with an old suede jacket, or whatever ensemble I had traipsed out into the social realm of the grocery store in. Or, if she was trying to expose the farce that I was living pretending I was wearing a two-hundred dollar scarf. Or, perhaps she just legitimately believed in the intrinsic goodness of coordinated outfits. Whatever the case, I left better informed about how I should be doing things in the wardrobe world, but with even less motivation to act on said knowledge base.
The peanut butter, however, was worth every penny.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
In retrospect, the request probably seemed as bizarre as the person making it, but at the time, requesting that I be allowed to do my own laundry seemed like a good way to my host mother. She did not speak a world of English, and her husband Jose (pronounced yo-say, differently than the Spanish homograph) spoke only limited phrases. However, when he asked if I wanted my laundry done, and in a very subversive eschewing of patriarchal tradition, I requested that I merely be supplied with the necessary items for the task. I am guessing that I was viewed more like a control-freak than a helpful hand, but the fact that I was a Westerner taking up his lodging deep in the neighborhoods of this former colonial outpost outside the capital of
After proceeding through the language difficulties and navigating around gender presuppositions Jose supplied me with two requisite buckets and a bar of soap. My next difficulty was that although I’d been living away from home for two years, my ability to do laundry was still quite limited. That is, in the context of a washing machine, I knew how to press a couple buttons and ensure that my white boxers didn’t turn pink when washed with my red t-shirt, but beyond that I was clueless. The man filled one bucket up with water for rinsing, poured soap and then water into another, and even demonstrated on one of my shirts the process of dunking and then scraping one area of the shirt against another to brush the dirt off.
Immediately my mind was reminded of a sermon I had heard before leaving the states about how Christians were supposed to be like the new high efficiency washing machines. Not that they were supposed to be uber-efficient (I believe that is somewhat antithetical to the Christian life in some sense), but rather that Christians were supposed to be like those washers in which the tumbling of an article of clothing knocked the dirt off the other. So, along the same vein as iron sharpens iron, one article cleans another. This was of course, juxtaposed against the former washing machines in which a massive plunger spun and externally jarred all the dirt out of the clothing. Finally the washing machines had gone full circle and gotten back to how things used to be done. And were still done where I was.
What happened next was perhaps the most beneficial part of the experience. Perhaps because my strange white skin attracted them, or the site of a male doing laundry in a queer clearly inexperienced manner, or more likely because I was not surrounded by a group of my fellow travelers for the first time outside in this city, a group of young children gathered around to watch me learn how to wash my clothes. Even the son of the house I was staying at ventured within five feet of me, which to this point he had been to even approach or make eye contact. Later he would even engage me when he found I could speak a very limited Swahili. Still, even later he would tell his father that he wanted to learn how to speak “mzungu” or “white person,” which his father had a chuckle over.
I attempted to engage the youngsters in conversation and may have even startled them when I greeted them with a variation of hello that was correctly conjugated for the number of people I was addressing. And with that, one young boy proceeded to spew a sentence of rapid Swahili which I had not a prayer of understanding. Instead, I threw out a couple of my rehearsed phrases such as “I apologize,” “I don’t understand,” and “I know only a little Swahili.” He looked severly disappointed.
I tried to encourage the young man, and displayed my knowledge of another phrase “this is” which coupled with the universal climbing of intonation implied that I was asking a question. And with this, the children’s eyes lit up as a group of them barked out the Swahili word to tree in response to my finger pointing. Instantly, I had been transformed from strange man doing strange things strangely to strange man doing strange things strangely, but wanting to know what the children knew.
And for the next hour we played the vocabulary game and became more and more comfortable so that we even joked. I demonstrated that I knew the phrase “I know (blank) but I don’t know (blank)” and the children responded by expanding the vocabulary game from my finger pointing to their imagination. So that, one child when ask “do you know (blank)” and I would respond either with the affirmative to a delighted response or to with the negative to an even more delighted communal pointing to the object or entity in question. Of course, I had no idea whether they meant cloud, sky, or up but the intricacies of language in order to tease out the difference escaped me.I like to think of that moment kind of as the symbol of the trip. I was doing something that I thought would be a convenience to someone else. More than likely, them having to prepare the buckets for me and teach me how to wash was likely more of a hassle than actually doing the laundry. But I learned from it. And likewise, when I put myself in a strange position, I was able to learn more from an equally unlikely group of teachers. And, just as a blind person has a slightly enhanced sense of hearing, I believe that because I couldn’t understand the language I was slightly more enabled to appreciate the wonder of taking a moment to learn from a group of curious strangers.