Saturday, September 20, 2008

Compare and Contrast

Driving down the road yesterday, I marvelled at the cleaniless of the streetcorners. There were none of those ubiquitous plastic bottles I'd come to expect, no candy wrappers, no pop cans, no shanty-towns, no potholes filled with nasty water, no barbed wire, no corregated iron gates, no haphazardly glass-shard topped walls, no open sewers - and no people. Granted, I was driving through a residential neighborhood, but it was hard not to notice the distinct lack of human interaction. Besides the well manicured berms and beautiful sidewalks, I could trace no sign of what actually went ON on these streets.

Cut to East Timor - where the streets are dusty, noisy and filled with garbage. My morning walk from the hotel to the office consisted of no less than three boys trying to sell me phone cards, two sidewalk vendors, a bank, three restaurants, one infant health clinic (with waiting families outside the door), a billard hall with its doors open, two stinking garbage heaps in the middle of the sidewalk, a dump, a hole in the sidewalk filled white worms and water (always made me gag), a random piece of barbed wire sticking out from the wall (caught my clothes more than once!), a pile of broken glass, and two brothels - sometimes with clients, sometimes not.

(I came to appreciate those brothels when giving people directions to our office for interviews - everyone knew where they were!)

If I ventured out in the day, I'd immediately be overwhelmed by the heat, radiating up off our concrete office yard. I always felt sticky and saggy (if I was coming from the beach, I felt sticky, saggy and DIRTY). For the first two or three days I felt smelly, too, but I soon learned that everyone - even malai - smelt that way to a certain degree. I can't say that I ever enjoyed having that body odor smell in the office, but I didn't bother me the way that I expected. The best thing I could do was mitigate it with an open window (if in the car) or just deal. I dealt.

In fact, with all the other smells around, I found that BO was the least offensive. Heat always seems to intensify stenches, making everything smell slightly overripe. Even "nice" smells (flowers, for example) became overpowering; the sweetness of the frangipangias lingering on far after I'd pulled them from my hair. What I really hated was the garbage pits and the open sewers; I always had a fear I'd slip and fall into one. Michael told me he once saw a severed dog head in the garbage pile by our office, which didn't endear me to them. I'd often watch with interest though, when a mother hen and her chicks picked through it - wondering what it was they found to eat in there...

I also stopped wearing makeup, because it just melted off my face. By the end, I might slap on some mascara if I was going out to dinner, but that was the extent of it. In fact, I stopped washing my face properly, full stop. That's because I ran out of face soap the second week in, and I was sweating so much anyway that it didn't really matter.

Really, the only hygiene thing that changed was my feet: they were ALWAYS dirty. I mean - black. Yes, I'd be wearing shoes - sneakers, even - but the dust would just seep its way in. This was problematic for me because I love flopping down on my hotel bed at the end of the day - a hotel bed that was pristinely crisp white. I had to take to washing my feet about four times a day though, just to be able to relax.

Dirt was everywhere, in everything. I took to washing my hands a whole lot and wiping down my computer on a daily basis, just because dirt got stuck on the keys. In the shops, everything had a fine film of dust on it. Shopkeepers would often throw water outside their doors to "keep the dust down", which worked, but also created some indavertant mud-pits.

These are the things that strike me now, as I'm re-entering American life. We are so clean. Our houses are so large, and our streets are spacious and safe. Communicating with someone is extremely efficient; I wasn't off the plane 5 minutes when I got a cell phone call (in customs, which is illegal, by the way). I went to the grocery store yesterday and I wanted to by dried apricots, out of season. Sure enough, they were there. And clean.

So, this time around, I can't say that I'm in culture shock, I'm most in culture awe. I'm grateful to live in a place where things are so comparatively EASY we don't even know it.

And yet, I'm miffed that we don't *have* to know it.

While I think most Americans would argue that America is great, it's all the more inspiring when you see what else it could be like. I am truly blown away by all we have here.

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