August 23, 2011

the airport safari cowgirl

In my hammock trying to recreate a look of anxiety. And my hair.

I suffer increasingly powerful anxiety when I'm around...whatever, let's just say it....white people. My Peace Corps brothers and sisters don't really count because we all bathe, figuratively speaking, in the same bucket of dirty water. So generally any white person in Uganda outside of about 140 people mildly freak me out for reasons that aren't entirely clear to me.

Sure I spend a fair amount of time at my site and those prolonged exposures naturally change the way I talk and think and act to the point where western small talk absolutely flummoxes me. Peace Corps talk inevitably devolves (evolves?) towards global politics, the weighty metaphysical, the Development Carnival or... poop (and the quality/consistency of). Village talk with my teaching colleagues usually centers around rain (the absence/presence of) and how "stubborn" our students are (very stubborn).

(Quick aside: A bunch of us were at a bar where we met this German backpacker who was traveling through East Africa. "Oh you guys are in Peace Corps? You guys are all the same, you sit around drinking beer and talking about how much you hate being in Peace Corps." He had a beer with us and then went on his merry little way. When he left, we kept drinking beer and now talked about how much we hated German backpackers. I will always grudgingly admire that man for speaking truth to power or at least truth to a bunch of smelly inebriated PCVs. In our defense I would argue that most of our complaining in merely venting and most of us cherish our experience and opportunities here.)

None of these things (metaphysics, global politics, poop) really interest anyone outside of Peace Corps or at least not in the context of oh-hey-here-we-are-standing-in-line-at-the-supermarket-together conversations. I was in Gulu buying supplies (Gulu is like the regional capital of northern Uganda and the armpit of the Developement Juggernaut) and some guy noticed my Twins hat and started in with the baseball small talk. I felt a constriction in my chest and the normally free flowing opinions regarding bowel movements or the ongoing NATO led Libyan "intervention" slowed to a trickle. Nothing I was comfortable talking about fit the scenario so I stammered out some platitudes about Liriano and darted away as quickly as possible. I don't think this affliction hits all the other PCVs to the same extent as it does me but I'm positive it's there in some shape or insidious form.

Right. I'm at the Johannesburg airport to see the Africa Region Peace Corps Medical Officer (or AR PCMO in Peace Corps parlance) located in the PC regional headquarters. If you're afraid of white people airports are like the seventh circle of hell. But anyways there I am in the Johannesburg airport waiting in line to get my passport stamped and doing my best to be non-nondescript. Like actively thinking about looking non-nondescript lest some passerby make the mistake of talking to me about anything other than, for example, Ayn Rand's hypocritical rejection of practical socialism via a book touting an idealized capitalism. I'm wearing headphones and sun glasses more to discourage potential interlocutors than for entertainment or fashion purposes respectively. My hands are tightly locked to the straps of my backpack because I've consciously decided it's likely to draw the least amount of attention while giving me the added bonus of having something to hold, tightly, on to. Occasionally I glance up from the floor to monitor the progress of the customs que lest I inadvertently am holding it up (thereby drawing attention to myself) and that's when I saw her.

She's mid forties, tall, thin, blonde and I suppose attractive, though what really catches my eye is what she's wearing. The first layer is your standard issue khaki cargo (too) shorts and muti pocketed button down short sleeve shirt which, while a bit silly on any occasion, is not out of the ordinary among safari tourists. But the "over layer" of this first layer is a distressed leather frilled frock/vest that is too large to be a vest but too short to be a free standing dress (hence my "frock"). Imagine a blonde hippy from the late '60s trying to dress like a Native American but without the beads. Frilled like that but more so. And instead of hippie think aging yuppie. I'm trying to avoid the word garish but I can't. It was garish. And expensive. There are some articles of clothing, or maybe ensembles, that you can just look at and realize "Whoa that must have cost a lot of money." She also carried a handsome canvas travel bag again in her alliterative khaki color. Naturally this whole array was crowned with oversize sunglasses and an audacious safari hat. She didn't look like she had come from a safari so much as she looked like she was trying to look like she came from a safari. An expensive safari. She was making a statement.

I should interject that from where I left I bought a banana for less than ten cents from a bare footed woman clad in what would be described in America as "rags" with a bunch of bananas carried on her head like the Chiquita banana lady. The contrast between that and the slick cleanliness of the Jo-burg airport already had me reeling even without including the airport chic fashion show.

I was mesmerized. I wish I could have taken a picture but that would have been decidedly conspicuous and anti-nondescript. No sooner had the question "is she married?" scrolled across my mind then I saw, who I assumed to be, her husband who was dressed like the spitting image of The Man in the Yellow Hat from the Curious George children's books. I can offer no improvement on that description.

Are these people real? Where are they going? Do they dress like this all the time? Maybe this is the "jet set" and they dress according to the airport they will be parading through. If that's so, is this their Africa get up? Do they have a special sub-Saharan Africa get up? Better yet, do they have an even more specific sub-Saharan Big Game Safari Outfit to contrast with a a Just General Safari Outfit? Do they also have a sub-Saharan designer Desert Nomad airport chic outfit for Addis Ababa? Freaks! FREAKS!

While these thoughts and observations are tumbling through my mind I snap back into white people paranoia mode and notice the customs que is about to pass me by. To avoid the stern looks and any chance of possible brief (!) conversations I quickly scuttle off through customs, dutifully avoiding the eye contact of any passerby.


tangata said...

You're looking like a later day David Foster Wallace. Please stay away from looped rope. Don't know if the hammock counts or not.

Kevin said...

Write a book, damnit!

Just saw that you had knee surgery. Hope the recovery's going well and you're back in Gulu, safe from all the creepy white folk and their reality TV talk.

Letter's on the way.

tangata said...

Ok, so your last post was about not feeling comfortable with natives, the new one about tourists-who's left? you still write beautifully, more please! about whatever!
ps like the new glasses, your hair is so long!

jacob said...

If I wrote a book it would be titled "RANT" (just like that in all caps) unless of course that title has already been taken by, I dunno, Arjune Yashvin Kumar Patel, Tony Stewart or Irving Walsh.