Here are three encounters of mine from last week. Nothing exciting here, but I think it gives a look into the social complexities of being an American in a small town Peace Corps environment.
Jon and I went out for dinner to a local restaurant. We ordered a dish called ‘Bayenet’ which translates to “each type.” It is a fasting food that combines several types of spicy bean stews, lentils, and cooked vegetables over Injera. It’s a staple of life here. While we are eating, an outgoing waiter comes up to our table, and just starts eating off our plate, his fingers soaking up as much of the stew as the sponge-like Injera.
While he chews, he makes attempts at conversation. He uses the command form, “Techewot” (translation: Play!) to break the awkward silence. I start to think about my reality: What is stranger to me is not that our waiter is eating off of our plate. What concerns me is that I no longer consider this strange.
How would that fly in the States I wonder?
In our towns we all have people we really don’t like running into. For some of us, we even walk specific routes to avoid these folks. Or we just hang out in our house for a weekend. Some of these locals are truly problematic: drunks and beggars who harass and shout. Perhaps worse, I am sorry to admit, are the people you can’t simply blow off. They might have good intentions, but they habitually ask you for things, talk about themselves, and won’t let you escape with a simple hello.
One such person lives a few blocks away, and is very proud of the fact he occasionally works with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He always shakes my hand for too long and is strangely obsessed with my hair. He thinks his English is a lot better than it is, and is always telling me about how his name means ‘development’. Here was our last exchange. In parenthesis are my thoughts.
D: Michael. Michael! It is me, development!!!
(shit) Hello development.
D: Where are you go?
(Quick! think of something important) I’m going to a meeting (brilliant!)
D: Wonderful! How is Mr. Dave. Mr Dave is good man. He is strong worker. Strong man. He America went? By the way, now you must fix my computer.
(Yeah that’s not happening) Yeah that’s not happening.
D: You see you will come to my office and look. You can fix it on Monday.
(How do I get out of this conversation?) Sorry Sir, I’m just not good with computers. You are better off asking someone else.
D: You know I work with Bill Gates? He is world RICHEST MAN. Number one in zee world.
You’ve told me before. That is quite exciting.
D: You will come visit with me yes. Shall I invite you? Coffee? tea
(I need to remember not to walk this way) Thank you but I am very late for…
D: Michael I must tell you! Your hair is so desirable. It is like woman. For me. I must tell you that for Ethiopians, hair is the most desirable. Body is less important. But your hair to me is most desirable.
(I need to cut my hair, and probably wash my hands when I get home) Thank you! I was going for the woman thing.
D: Surely! It is the most beautiful. I would surely like to touch it.
(Get out. Get out. Get out. ) Ok Development. Thank you, It was nice to see you, but I’m very late for my meeting. See you! Goodbye! Bye! Ciao!
I retreat to Jon’s House.
Last night, four Americans gather on my porch. My fellow volunteers and I are watching a massive lightning storm while they sip on some of the world’s worst wine. Jon and I are joined by our newer counterparts, Chuck and Laura. Later that evening we will make some Indian curry and watch Red Dawn. For those of you not familiar with this gem, Red Dawn is a 1980’s movie that stars Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen as brothers fighting a guerilla war in the Rocky Mountains against a Communist Nicaraguan/Russian takeover of the Midwest. Epic, right? I’m having a hard time deciding if it is the best or worst movie I’ve ever seen and may just conclude that it is both.
But first, we hang out on the porch, watching the lightning. The rain starts to come down hard, and it is a welcome sight. We are just getting out of the worst dry season in years. It rained twice in 3 months. (Not great when you live in a rainforest.) Water was very scarce during this time, and I learned to shower with a 2-liter bottle of water.
So as the rain comes pouring down a gutter, Jon looks at me.
Jon: “I almost want to take a shower, or at least wash my hair”
Me: (Taking my shirt off) Yep.
Jon: Cool I’ll grab the shampoo.
Chuck and Laura: Let’s never turn into them.