"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–South America


I have written before about my broad characterizations of the continents in which I have travelled and worked; that is, what I liked best about them.  South Asia was all about philosophy, culture, complexity, and surprise.  There was not a day in India after I first arrived until I left that I didn’t wonder about something from the most mundane to the spiritual.  Why do they do that?  How can they do that? India was an explosion of colors, sounds, smells, music, noise – a kaleidoscope, an acid trip, a never-ending sensory experience laid on top of the piety, the devotion; the religious, caste, and communal violence.  Landing in India, my first country after New Britain, Connecticut; as a 26-year old in the Sixties; and as a naturally curious person, I was truly lucky.  I was about to be sent to Algeria because I spoke French, and memories of the movie made of Camus’ The Stranger – bright Mediterranean sun, long civilized lunches under umbrellas flapping in the sea breeze – excited me by the prospect. 

India, I thought.  Black Hole of Calcutta, disease, pestilence, women with rings under their eyes.  Then I found the “real” India, the kaleidoscopic India, Benares, Calcutta, Bombay.  Of course the India I saw was not in any sense the real India which like anything else was a matter of perception and expectation.  I was able – as I have been all my life – to conveniently airbrush out the nasty, the unpleasant; keep it at bay, at a distance so that it would never or infrequently intrude on my own, personal experience.

I never lived in Africa, but travelled to 25 countries, to some – like Mali and Senegal – many times.  The experience, then, was colored by the travel itself – crowded, dark, mosquito-infested, airless, dismal airports; waiting in immigration lines for hours, fighting for purchase at baggage carousels, being shaken down for bribes, intimidated by “health officers”, ripped off by taxi drivers, shuttled and shunted from one piss-poor, roach-infested hotel to another.  Yet, when I finally arrived, got settled and relieved, I loved Africa.  For the people.  There were moments of cultural interest.  My driver in Mali was a Traore, a noble lineage he informed me, going to explain how the Traores ruled great swaths of West Africa, were much more royal than the Diarras, how the Bozos, Peuls, Songhai, Malinke, and Sarakole were far inferior to the Bambara.  I assumed there was a lot of self-serving distortion in the account, but I did go on to learn about these tribes, their cultural exclusiveness and inter-relatedness and their history.  Yet, it was the driver who interested me.  After years in India, his forthrightness, frankness, and immediate social connection was a welcome change from the very obscure, shifting, and questionable friendships in that country.

I travelled all over French West Africa and found the the same directness, pride, and assertion.  I taught a five-week course on health planning in Senegal and was constantly challenged by my adult students.  I had to earn their respect and even if I got it, I had to keep it through my own intelligence, knowledge, and behavior.  There was an equality that I never felt in India.  Although Indians could be subservient if not toadying on the surface, they dismissed foreigners as inferiors.  How could an American, the common Indian wisdom went, possibly have anything to teach us, a civilization nearly 5000 years old?  They were right, I concluded after five years in India; and I left with far more understanding, knowledge, and insights – both personal and cultural – than I ever imparted to them.  Nevertheless, foreigners always felt manipulated, deceived, and ignored.  We were a very temporary phenomenon which had to be accepted for a while, but which would soon disappear.  Might as well take advantage of them if you can.

This is not to idealize Africans or denigrate Indians.  There will always be deceit and manipulation where huge gaps exist between rich and poor.  We were always “walking wallets” stuffed with greenbacks there for the taking; but when there was nothing to be gained by the personal encounter, or when the social gap (never the economic) was closed, there was always this directness and honesty, something I never felt on the Subcontinent.

There was a sexual directness as well.  Sexual encounters in India, a notoriously Puritanical culture (at least when I lived there), were always there for the asking; but the asking usually followed the same circuitous route as professional or other social logic.  There were always proscriptions, inhibitions, and demurrals.  Not so in Africa.  Class was of no matter.  Sexuality was a sensuous and sensual reality.  Women and men looked at each other, wanted each other; and whether or not this interest actually culminated in sex, there was never a diffidence, or coquettish retreat.  In Haiti – more African than anything else, but more characteristically so because they were so far from Africa – women would look with the same direct, appraising survey.  I loved it.

In South America I found neither the cultural stimulation of India and South Asia, nor the directness, sensuality, and humanity that I found in Africa.  The level of social inequality was such that as a foreigner your social milieu was of the white, non-indigenous, and wealthy elite.  I may have eaten with Aymara peasants on my long exile in dreary, rainy Puno, but we all sat alone, hunched over our soup and bread.  My world in Bolivia and especially Ecuador where I did live was either with the indolent South American expatriate refugees from Chile and Argentina, joined by the Spanish lineage local elites; or with the hard-drinking, surface macho, business/professional clan.  I hated both.  I hated the long, drawn out Sunday parilladas at expatriate villas passed in idleness and ignorance.  I hated the beer drinking bouts at local bars where I had to listen to the bloated, impossible, male fantasies of fat, mustachioed men who got drunk to fuck their wives and had nothing else going on.

Only in Central America was I able to work in the middle – although the usual small oligarchy ruled the countries, and there were always poor, landless peasants, there was also a middle class, or at least moderately so.  I worked with committed professionals in small non-governmental organizations and found none of the pomposity and flights of macho fantasy that I suffered in South America.  This association continued in the United States where, through the family and friends of our Salvadoran and Guatemalan housekeepers, painters, landscapers, etc., a certain degree of interaction was always possible.  I don’t idealize this either – most relationships were built on money – but there was the same social glue that I found in Central America.

I am through travelling internationally, or at least to the Third World; and as I have written before, I loved every minute of the 45 year ride.  If I were to go back, however, South America would be the last place I would go.  Whereas Asia had culture and Africa humanity, South America had a stunning physical beauty, and my experiences in the Andes, on the altiplano and in the jungle were memorable.  It just was never enough.

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