Saturday, September 16, 2006

At home (or not) in the city

September 11, 2006

Yesterday I tried to take my first walk and didn’t have much luck. I got lost (even going a short distance). Yes, the guidebook is right. There are no landmarks in this city and no center. I didn’t have any real problems. But I didn’t feel safe.

A lot of men whistled at me and made smooching sounds or under the breath comments. I haven’t experienced that since high school. And it’s a strange, and unwelcome change, from Kyrgyzstan, where no one harasses me in any way. They consider me much too old to warrant any attention in any case.

I felt I had to take my watch off, even though it’s not of any significant value. After I put it in my pocket, I continued to look around me vigilantly, feeling obvious and out of place on the quiet Sunday streets.

I learned that Sunday is the day of rest and most businesses are closed. Even in the middle of the day, the streets are virtually empty.

I made a mini-project for myself to learn the bus routes, thinking that would force me to pay more attention to my surroundings, to learn my way around, and to have more contact with the people I feel too separated from.

That worked relatively well. I took two buses yesterday. I got off of one too early, and ended up needing to take a taxi. But at least I learned something in the process.

Today, during my lunch break, I went out to a nearby market to start buying souvenirs for my Kyrgyz colleagues. I told the guard I was taking a look at the market and left. I asked passersby where the handicrafts section was, found it, and was doing just fine when I suddenly noticed the wide-hipped cleaning lady at my side. Someone had sent her after me, to mind me, to take care of me.

She immediately instructed me to take off my watch, and to be careful with the plastic bag I carried. I appreciated the sentiment of her protection. But her presence made it impossible for me to shop. Could I spend $10 on a painted box for my niece knowing that she likely earned less than that in a day? No. So I bought something cheaper.

She led me to a Jamaican café for a quick fritanga – fried platter of stewed chicken with black beans and fried plantains. And when they didn’t have Diet Coke, she went out and brought one to me. Only when I convinced her I could make it the several feet back to the office on my own did she leave.

I am allowed to walk the ten minutes to work. But then am shepherded from the office to another office and back home. Everyone I have contact with seems to know where I am at any one time. While this is very nice from a security perspective, it unfortunately leads me toward the more typical expatriate lifestyle, of living a life outside of and beyond the local community. I haven’t had a chance to have extended conversation with anyone besides my colleagues, so Awalter, my Spanish teacher, has become my main window into the culture.

Today during Spanish class, Awilliam told me he loves chicharon, fried pig skin.

“Have you tried it?” he asked.

I said I hadn’t. But I’d be interested in trying it if it was locally popular.

“I have some right here!” he said. And to my surprise, he unzipped his black portfolio. He popped a skin into his mouth, with a crunch, and handed one to me.

I took a bite of the hard, crunchy thing and didn’t like it especially.

“Is this a pig hair?” I asked him, looking at a small red hair on the skin.

“Yes,” he said, seeming embarrassed, as though it wasn’t supposed to be there. “But it’s been well fried.”

“And this too?” I asked, finding one more, and then several others. The hairs made it too easy to imagine the pig’s paw and I found it pretty gross. I put it to the side of my papers during the lesson, then gave it back, thanking him for the experience.

No comments: