Short Stories… Still

October 20th, 2013

 

More stories! Woo!

 

Sadly, this will probably be my last post from Zambia. Things are wrapping up here, which means only a post or two more until the end of the project. I won’t get sentimental just yet.

 

– – –

 

Travel Makes Us Richer

 

One of my favorite quotes is “Travel Makes Us Richer.” I like to think it has to do with the idea that travel is mind-opening – live in one place for too long and you become accustomed to that location’s rules, regulations, and basically, that culture. It becomes easy to forget that there are other people out there living in entirely different situations from our own. I guess I like to think that one of the best ways to grow as people is to experience new things – and one of the best ways to do that is to travel, especially to somewhere we’ve never been before, amidst people we’ve never met before.

 

I have to admit that after 6 months between India and Guatemala I was feeling pretty good about myself. Indeed, coming to Zambia, I saw many new things, but a lot of what I saw I recognized. Except perhaps for the heat, there wasn’t nearly as much culture shock as there had been.

 

Which is why it was great to meet Lenka.

 

On my way out to the guest house one day, I stopped at the Zambikes office in town, and there was a lady from the Czech Republic buying a bamboo bike who wanted to see the production facility. I was headed that way anyways, so I offered to take her along, as the bus system can be hard to navigate the first few times.

 

I won’t re-iterate the entire conversation we had, but needless to say, it was completely different from what I expected. Here I was in Zambia talking to someone from the Czech Republic. I suddenly had to deal with a completely new perspective on the way the world works – and especially, the way the U.S. works. It’s easy to forget, as a traveler, that you might be the only person from your country that others interact with – the sole representation for the ideas and actions that your country embodies.

 

I like to think I do a pretty good job, but of course, that’s just my opinion.

 

Again, without getting into details, it was just really nice to be “shocked” again – here I was all comfortable with Zambian culture, and here comes someone from a country we as U.S. citizens rarely think of (I admit that, while I know the general locale, I would probably struggle to pinpoint the exact location of the Czech Republic on a map). Also, she was awesome, so that helps (hi Lenka).

 

To make things better, Lenka had met a backpacker from Belgium, so the next day we all went out for lunch. I would be remiss if I didn’t give one example of what happened that day, so I’ll just top off with this:

 

We spent a lot of time talking about cultural norms (to which I readily admitted the U.S.’s very prevalent and wasteful consumer culture and obsession with buying things to make us feel good about ourselves), and food. I mean, we were going out for lunch, so it was pretty inevitable. Then a question came up – one I probably should have expected, but I found humorous all the same:

 

“Kyle, Kyle. I have a question that’s really been bugging me. It’s something I really want to know. Do Americans… eat hamburgers?”

 

“Yes.”

 

(gasp) “I knew it!’

 

– – –

 

Tarven

 

In India I noticed not spelling errors, but things that were phrased in, shall we say, not exactly perfect English (“Shiniest and Best!”). In Zambia these seem to be few and far between, or at least a little less glaring, but they’ve exchange word forms for the spellings themselves.

 

Point and case: Down the road from where I live there is a tarven… it sells alcohol late at night.

 

There are a few more I’ve noticed, but for whatever reason I can’t recall them just now.

 

– – –

 

Welcome to Africa… Still

 

When you travel there are often “welcome to [here]” moments. In India the it’s when you get swarmed by taxi drivers outside the airport. In Guatemala it’s getting on the chicken bus and realizing it’s more a dance party than a bunch of people sitting and staring out the window. In Zambia it was dialing my aunt’s number and hearing that it had been disconnected (it had not).

 

Most of the time these moments happen over and over and even after you’ve been part of a culture for a month or more, you still discover new things are just, well, different.

 

I’m not a pilot so I can’t say if any of the things I’m about to describe actually happen in the US, but I like to hope not. As a pilot though, Joel has a few stories to tell about the quality of air traffic control in Africa.

 

(1) When you come in to land at an airport with a control tower, you have to radio over and ask for permission. Usually the air traffic controller will inform you of other traffic in the area, the speed and direction of the wind, and the runway he’d like you to land on. This is, of course, to prevent crashes, and all in all to have a more efficient airport. It makes sense for many of the larger (and even some of the “smaller”) airports we have in the States and that are dotted all over the states. Then there are the “really small” airports that consist of a dirt (or grass) landing strip, but no hanger, air tower, taxiway, etc… usually a private airport constructed by someone who would rather have a two hour flight into town than a fifteen hour drive.

 

These “airports” might not get used more than once or twice a year.

 

Joel was coming in to land at an airport that about fits this description, but for some reason, it had a control tower. So he radioed in to ask for permission – no response. And again – no response. After a few minutes a meek voice came on the air and said,

 

“I’m just the sweeper, but you can come!”

 

The guy in charge (probably the only one) had apparently gone to lunch, or otherwise out for a stroll, thinking no planes would come in. So the janitor gave Joel (very informally) permission to land.

 

(2) Similar airport, similar situation, but this time, the controller was where he was supposed to be! Woohoo!

 

This time, as luck would have it, there were three planes who had come into the airport at the same time. This isn’t as uncommon as you might think in a place like Zambia – Flying Mission sometimes does multiple flights a day, and there are other private charter companies around. I wouldn’t say it’s likely at a small, private airport, but it does happen.

 

In any case, Joel radioed in and got back, “Cleared for landing no traffic to affect you.”

 

Immediately after, someone else came on and said, “Hey Joel, I’m first in line, please circle and wait for me to land.”

 

This plane and another looking to land had apparently received the same response: “Cleared for landing no traffic to affect you.”

 

The air traffic controller had never had more than one plane in at at time. He had his line down pat… the pilots had to figure out landing orders between themselves.

 

Welcome to Africa.

 

– – –

 

Relationships

 

My aunt Sue constantly reminds me that Africa is about relationships. In the United States, you can go into a store, buy something, leave, and that will be that. While it doesn’t hurt to form a relationship with the shop owner or the employee serving you, it’s not something that happens very often. Sure, you might ask the cashier at the coffee shop how they are, but that’s usually the end of it.

 

(1) In Zambia, on the other hand, everybody has relationships with everybody else. I notice this everywhere I go with Sue – she knows everybody she’s going to buy from. When we buy Talk Time on the way home from Lusaka, there’s a particular guy at a particular intersection she likes to buy from. He watches out for her, and she watches out for him. One time we drove up and he said, “Ah, Ms. Bolthouse, how are you?” They talked for a bit before he mentioned business was slow that day. As it ended up, I needed some Talk Time, so I bought some. “Thank you,” he said, “this is helping very much!”

 

(2) While waiting for the Zambikes’ guest house to clear up, I was working as a bike mechanic at MICS (Macha International Christian School). I had to go pick up some parts. Gil, one of the school administrators, went with me. We first went to his friendly neighborhood mechanic – the shop is out of his house – and sat and chatted for a bit. After maybe 30 minutes, we finally got around to asking about the parts. “No,” Harden said, “I don’t have that, I don’t think. But my brother does! Let me send you to my brother.” So he told us where his brother’s stall was in the market. We showed up, and his brother had all the parts ready. Of course, we stayed and chatted a bit before buying those parts, too.

 

(3) For commercial reasons, British Airways is canceling all service to and from Lusaka on October 25th, 2013. The last flight out is on the 26th. My flight was supposed to be on the 30th.

 

I remember when I changed my flight from Guatemala it was a bit of a pain. Actually, my mom changed my flight (thanks mom!), but it was still a pain. You know, you have to call the airline, get transferred, get put on hold, etc. etc.

 

Not here. Sue has a relationship with the BA ticket office in Lusaka. She just called up her friend Lufunda and explained the situation. “Okay,” he said, “I will fix this for you no problem.”

 

“And what happens to you?” Sue said, wondering, if the BA office in Lusaka closes, if Lufunda would get transferred or what. It had never occurred to me to ask that question. I’m just not practiced at having relationships with the people I buy things from. But everybody does it here.

 

Sue hung up, and ten minutes later I had an e-mail from BA confirming my flight out on the 26th.

 

– – –

 

Finethankshowareyou

 

I want to contrast the above post to something I’m going to call “etiquette.” When you learn another language there are a couple key phrases it’s usually important to know. These vary from language to language, but they are usually along the lines of “Hello,” “How are you?” “What’s up?” – generally, whatever introductions that culture uses frequently.

 

Which makes it interesting to note the English phrases people know… especially those who know little English.

 

I’m convinced the first phrase anybody learns here is “How are you?” As I walk down the street or around the airstrip little kids will shout at me, “How are you?” It’s adorable… until they shout it again, and again, and again… and you realize that’s the only phrase they know.

 

The next phrase people learn – let me take a note from The History of Love by Nicole Krauss – “finethankshowareyou.” I put it as one word because, well, sometimes that’s how it’s used. It’s not like people ever put in punctuation – “Fine. Thanks! How are you?” It’s one word said end over end, tumbling out of the mouth as if it’s a speed competition, like the faster you say it the better your English.

 

Even better, sometimes people will just interject with that phrase randomly. You don’t always have to ask people how they are to get “finethankshowareyou.”

 

“Hello.”

“finethankshowareyou?”

 

(a nod of the head)

“finethankshowareyou?”

 

It is at some times, funny… and at others it’s a bit frustrating.

 

I don’t want to judge the style or level of education here – and certainly, there are some Zambians who are smarter than I am – but it reminds me a little bit of consumer culture in America – people just programmed to do one thing or another without really understanding why. I kind of wonder if, as the five-year-olds shout “How are you?” they really understand what it means; if the cashier at the grocery store really knows what they are saying when they say they are “fine.”

 

Certainly we have niceties in the U.S., but I like to think that if people stopped to think about it, they would know the meaning of the word “fine.” I worry that the regimen of rote memorization is becoming a cultural standard, as if the rest of the world now agrees with the U.S. that teaching students how to memorize is akin to teaching them anything beneficial.

2 thoughts on “Short Stories… Still

  1. Marilyn says:

    Great post. What’s Talk Time? Can’t wait to see you on the 27th! With bells on!

  2. Dad says:

    You have become quite a reflective and insightful writer, and I very much enjoy reading all your blogs. You’re as good at this writing as your Aunt Susan is at “having relationships.”

    Safe travels. If you keep writing, we’ll keep reading.

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