Friday, March 26, 2010

Playing with the locals

First the story:
I'm in Maputo, the Capital of Mozambique. I know not a soul and nobody at my hostel speaks English. So I was really and truly on my own to see the city. I walked around and saw the sights of town a bit, but wanted something different. So I decided to do something I've wanted to do since I got to Africa: I picked a bus and got on it. I laugh when I think about doing that at home, that's what crazy people do. Whatever, I guess I'm that guy now.

I picked Costa du Sol, because Spanish tells me that probably means Sun Coast. If ever there was an inviting sounding place this was it, so I got on and rode the bus for a while. Then when the time felt right, I got off. I found myself on the coast, and since it's Africa the sun was there in abundance. I wasn't quite sure what to do from there, I didn't exactly have any clue where I was or what one should do an unknown portion of the way to the Sun Coast. A group of kids my age had gotten off on the same stop; part of the reason I decided this was a good place was that so many good looking young people seemed to think so too. A mixed group of college age people came up and started talking to me, asking where I was going and what I was doing. I admitted that the answer to both was negative, so they invited me to come to the beach with them. I had nothing else to do so I decided sure, why not. Generally speaking anyone who approaches you out of the blue often wants something, but I chose to ignore that voice in my head.

We went down to the beach, whiskey came out and clothes came off. We swam, we laughed, we played, everything was cool. Only one of them really spoke basic English and my Portuguese is all but nonexistent, so I kind of just had to go with it. At one point the girl who had attached herself to me started telling me about how she was hungry. I wasn't quite sure what to make of that, sometimes idiomatic things don't translate well (before that she asked about my son, which meant something along the lines of "Do you have a girlfriend"). So I just kind of laughed and played dumb, but of course it didn't go away. She got the translator involved, and it became clear that this was a Buy Everyone Lunch kind of deal. I'm not sure whether I should have ditched right then or not, since the cards were now on the table. 9 times out of 10 I would probably have bounced, but I decided to just go with it this time. They shared their whiskey with me first, it was only like $1 for all 6 of us, and bottom line if I left I had nothing better to do. So I did, I swallowed my reservations and just went for it. But then, predictably, it didn't end there. Like always, once the gate was opened the requests kept coming. In short order I was asked if I'd pay for 1/2 of another bottle to be split between 6 people, and for airtime. One hard and fast rule I have is that anytime someone who is not your girlfriend or child asks for you to pay their phone bill, it's over. That was the final straw with the "tour guide" in Kampala, that ended our flirtation with the Realtor in Mbale, and that has been the end of countless people met at bars. Don't ask, I'm not your daddy.

So there it was, I got back on the bus and went home. I will probably never see them again, who knows what could have been. Sorry guys, peace. I don't regret the experience, and would probably do the same thing again. Nothing lost, and it was a fun afternoon. To quote Forrest Gump: "and that's all I have to say about that."

And now the boring commentary:
Traveling alone is a funny thing. When I signed up for it I was extremely hesitant. It wasn't so much that I was scared to travel solo, as that I was worried about having to spend that much time with myself. Spending that much time in isolation leads to a lot of questioning yourself and getting to know yourself better; and quite honestly that was my main hesitation. Having to ask "who am I really," just sounded like one challenge I wasn't really ready for. I swallowed my qualms and went for it, and I have never regretted it since. I still haven't had one of those dark and stormy night moments of clarity or anything, and I still see pretty much the same person in the mirror. So I guess that's a good thing. As much as everything seems the same, I'm sure I have changed though. I think it's like one of those things where you can't tell how fast you're moving until you look out the window. I've glanced out of the looking glass from time to time, but never really deep enough to gauge where I am. One thing I have seen however is that I seem to do Africa a bit different than most of the other travelers I meet along the way.

Most people I meet don't associate with the local people beyond the basics. They are polite and distant, but ultimately uninterested. On a certain level I hold that over them, and gloat on how much better I am for giving everyone the time of day. The thing about it though, is I understand why most people don't venture out of the bubble. Interactions with local people usually don't turn out well, I hate to be the one to say it but it's true. When you take two very different groups of people, one group rich and one group poor, the result is predictable. At one point or another 9 times out of 10, the poor person is going to ask the rich person for money. I could claim cultural sensitivity and deny it all day, but the bottom line is I have seen or been a part of this hundreds of times, and the result is usually always the same. Whether it's seconds or weeks, eventually it will usually come.

My philosophy has always to give people a chance and basically give everyone the same chance and expectations as I would at home. Just like at home I talk to strangers, but like at home I'm immediately skeptical of anyone who crosses the street to approach me. Like at home I allow hawkers to make their pitch, then politely say I'm not interested and apologize for some odd reason for not wanting their crappy product. Just like at home I avoid the eyes of beggars then spend the next five minutes beating myself up about it.

The other side of the equation though, is that I don't accept nonsense from people that I wouldn't at home. I have no problem with buying a friend lunch or giving a friend business to help him out, but I will not buy a friend. If you don't know me, you're not going to get anything out of me. If I find out you are exploiting me, then I am not going to call you back anymore. I guess it's just the safety net. This is a long way of saying that in order to have real interactions with locals, you have to keep your guard up and have a set of rules. If you get uncomfortable then ditch it and go back to the hotel. Take a chance, as long as you're smart about it you have nothing to lose. I understand why most people choose to avoid the situation entirely. It's uncomfortable to realize again and again that most people look at you and only see dollar signs. It's a harder thing to admit again and again that you would rather walk away than give someone a dollar.

The way I see it at the end of the day, there are three choices:
1. Don't play with the locals, stay in the Mzungu bubble. It's easier, it's more comfortable and it's more pleasant. You won't be alone, 90% of people take this route.
2. Go with the flow, and play Mr. Rich Man. As long as you're paying the bill at the end, everything will be fun and fine and your new friends will take good care of you. It's only when you say no that things get awkward.
or 3. Try and fail again and again. If your new friend asks for something in the first few minutes, oh well just another day. Maybe it will take a few hours though, in which case it's a few hours of good fun. Sometimes they don't want anything, and that will probably be the story you'll tell all your friends back home forever about how great you are. "And then my boyfriend Antonio took me to a local bar... Yah, he's a local... and I was the only white person in the whole bar..."

So that's the rant. It sucks, but it's the truth. The important thing to keep in mind is that this mostly happens to people travelling or new to the game. If you are a tourist spending your time in tourist places, you're mostly only going to meet tourist oriented people. If you look like you don't know what's going on, someone will appear to help you out of your money. Just like at home, no one in their right mind would choose to hang out with clueless tourists day after day unless there's a financial incentive. That's the most important part though: When I wasn't a tourist I made very real friends who shocked me over and over with their caring and generosity.

I am closer with my Ugandan friends I've known for less than a year than with many of my American friends I've known since middle school. Partly that's because of the cultural difference in relationships: it's been said over and over and over that in the West wealth is measured by possessions, while in African it's measured by friends. But it's also because I have actually asked things of my friends here. At home asking for something as small as a bite of a sandwich was impossibly hard. Because I am such a fish out of water here, I have no choice but to ask for help from people. Admitting that you need someone else and allowing them to help just brings different kind of closeness that I have always been squeamish of. It's because I gave them the chance to put me in my place, that people like Eddie, JB, Rodney, Fred, James and Veronica changed my life and my view of what a friend should be.

In the end, to me it's worth it. It's worth it to me to get knocked down time after time with uncomfortable situations. I could take another 10,000 fake friends and still, the thing I'll treasure most about Africa is the summer when I was introduced to what my life might be like if I were an African and treated like a brother by Eddie and JB.

Most people didn't have my experience, so I understand why they don't see the point of trying. I won't hold it against you anymore, I get it.

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