Last-minute culture exchange
The entries on this blog are fewer than I’d imagined posting; to my failure in improving anyone’s English or critical thinking skills or attitude towards HIV/AIDS here, I can add the failure of sharing foreign culture with Americans. That’s two minuses out of a possible three; the only other PC objective was to show these guys American culture. Maybe I’ve done that, although to think that Jason and I might represent all of America for someone is laughable. They don’t know to categorize us as liberal or conservative, urbanites or country folk, lower or higher middle class. We’re not going to starve and we can use a computer, but beyond these qualities they impose superficial classifications: we’re rich, white, and . . . oh yeah, rich.
I am most consious of modelling American culture at the grocery store. Unlike a lot of volunteers who have to foot it home a few km into the bush, we can take a taxi up to the school gates. This means we can buy more groceries than we can carry, and we usually do this in order to cut down on trips to town. As the cashier scans all my frivolous selections—two kinds of cheese, crackers, lots of vegetables, chocolate, wine—I sense disapproval. I’m buying more diverse and just way more, period, than the general pop-in-for-a-bag-of-pasta customer who lives in town and can drop by daily. I buy two bags of pasta to last two weeks, then tomato sause, green peppers, garlic cloves, eggplant, . . . the items pile up on the small counter so that the cashier must pause in her scanning to start bagging the groceries. Then the bags take up all the counter space and she must call for back-up, someone to bring a cart over to hold my excessive purchases. She seems put out.
I feel guilty every time. Does she think I’m extravagent because I’m white? Am I consuming an inordinate amount of resources? I see Afrikaaners in Spar all the time loading up carts, so my spending can’t be that abnormal to the cashier. At home I would be affirmed in spending a lot, but here, the advertisements hanging throughout the store contradict what I feel the employees expect; the marketing tells me to buy more, their body language tells me I’m ridiculous for having more than a couple of bags.
There just isn’t nearly enough on this blog about the taxi service here, and that’s by far one of the richest cultural experiences. When we first arrived, I thought that developing certain skills would improve my taxi experiences. For example, I would learn the peak times of catching a ride and not have to wait so long for the trip to start, or I’d learn to distinguish between fast and slow, reckless and safer drivers. Wow. That was only a bit naïve.
I kept trying to decipher a pattern where there was none. Their “schedules” are determined by chance to an extent that defies trying to place a ball-park hour on best times to travel. I can recognize cars, and only just now, drivers, but the drivers are so many and changed so often that it’s impossible to associate one with a particular car. I’d ask the drivers to turn down their radio when they were blasting us all out on defunct sound systems, I’d ask them when they thought we might be leaving, I’d refuse to sit in the front seat on the hand break just because I appear to be a small girl to the tate who wants the seat. I thought I was being assertive, proactive, but I was really only making things hard for myself. Now I know the only way of improving taxi rides is to improve my own attitude about them as there’s no way to impose order on what can only vaguely be called their “system.”
About a month ago, Jas and I were going to a volunteer party. I’d just showered, was wearing a dress, and felt a faint recognition of the pleasure to be found in primping before going out. I didn’t wear sunscreen because I didn’t want to feel sticky. I was clean, dressed up, excited about the party, and I wanted to arrive that way.
A taxi picked us up; we were the first customers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t five other people lurking around ready to jump in because that happens a lot. But not that day. We circled through the village, once, twice, a third time. He picked up a man, then two very big memes who piled into the back seat with Jason and me. I knew I’d get sweaty during the ride, my illusions of going out had at least acknowledged that reality. But as one meme sat on half my left thigh, my shoulder happened to become positioned right under her armpit and I then had two people’s sweat to contend with. Luckily (?), the memes only wanted a ride to the petrol station, so we dropped them there, then went driving around town to look for customers again. This was normal, but I was still relieved when we finally left 45 min later.
As luck would have it, one passenger wanted to go to be dropped at the hospital in the next town—Oshikuku. This involved some off-roading, then the driver stopped to talk to some friends, then he hung out at the hospital chatting with some more people, drove around looking for new customers, and then stopped again to air up his tires. At every stop, we lost the benefit of the wind produced by moving. We’d been in the car for two hours at that point; it usually takes one to make the whole trip, and that’s considering the normal delays. Jason said what I’d been thinking myself: “Maybe we should just get out and catch another ride. We could be here all afternoon.” He was right. We weren’t just unlucky but on an usually frustrating ride. The problem was that the next ride might be just as bad. Plus, we’d have to stand in the sun indefinitely and pay extra to split up the trip. We decided to stay where we were. I had finally given up my unrealistic expectations about being fresh for the party.
When we finally left left the tin shack where young barefoot boys had been cajoled into giving the taxi driver some air, we stopped again upon pulling onto the tar road. The taxi driver’s phone was ringing. I couldn’t repress a groan. “Hallow! Hallow?” he screamed, then again, and again. A stream of Oshiwambo followed at a volume that one would expect to use when addressing someone across a field. I exchanged looks with Jason; we were on the taxi ride from hell. The driver talked on and on, shouted, actually, for maybe five minutes. Even the other Owambos in the cap were beginning to express impatience, not that that ever helps. Finally, the driver hung up. He looked at the person beside him and laughed, “Wrong number!”
“Wrong number?” I said aloud, incredulously. “Wrong number?” Though I was merely repeating the words the driver had just said, nobody but Jason understood me. It was OK, because I was really talking to myself anyway. I began to laugh uncontrollably. “Of course! Of course we sat here baking on the side of the road while you went on and on with someone you don’t even know, while you conversed with a wrong number!” (I could say whatever I wanted as they could only understand my tone.) Jason looked at me with concern; I appeared to be cracking up. But the only problem was that I couldn’t stop laughing.
It was probably a healthy response. We finally made it to Oshakati after three hours and fifteen minutes. It was a record—one I hope not to break.
Today I’m going into town. I knowledge I have now, as an experienced volunteer, entails no special techniques for catching a good ride. Instead, I know to resign myself to whatever I get, short of a very drunk driver. I know that nothing I do will alter the course of the taxi ride I’m destined to take. So, I hope I get lucky.