I write this on the 2nd anniversary of our departure from Oregon. This post is for our friends Linda W and Randy S, who encouraged us to write about the differences in life beyond the experiences we would have called “normal” two years ago; this anniversary is a good time, then, to think back on some of the adjustments we’ve learned to make in foreign countries.
Amazingly, in 2 short years, KC has accumulated 4 traffic infractions, so we can speak with some authority about what it’s like to be pulled over around the world. Invariably, police have been professional and polite, but some stories are funnier than others:
This speeding ticket should have been simple, but it was the third time that KC had failed to interpret the policeman’s instructions properly and Officer Ditheko of Mahalapye, Botswana was losing patience:
First, we ignored the signal to pull over. [In our version, we both studied the traffic cop’s gesture – palms down patting the air in front of him – and concluded he was merely warning us to slow down.]
Then we tried to outrun him! [Again, not exactly how we would have described it…]
Finally, after the high-speed chase [actually, just a medium speed chase by this time, having slowed down to what we thought was an appropriate speed], the police managed to turn KC around and point him back to the original location of the speed trap. At which point KC sat in the car politely waiting with both hands in full view on the steering wheel for Officer Ditheko to return with the ticket. This was too much for our poor constable and that’s when he started bellowing… “MEEEEEEEEEKKKS!!!!!”
Apparently the driver goes to the officer, not the other way around, when getting a speeding ticket in Botswana…
The “old world” and the so-called “third world” are not nearly as charming nor as gritty as one might romanticize; rather than ladies haggling over garden produce in the village market, fast food and large supermarkets with Nutella and Tabasco sauce* can be found in even small towns in every country. We get a kick out of familiar trademarks remaking themselves in emerging economies: Remember Woolworth’s? In southern Africa where it’s affectionately known as Woolies, our favorite old-fashioned five-and-dime has re-branded itself as the upscale, organic-supplying darling of the middle class and the expats.
Or take 7-Eleven. In the US it’s just another formulaic convenience store. Internationally, though, 7-Eleven aims to be the new McDonalds (bigger, actually). All 7-Elevens offer the usual worthless junk food (I was horrified to see a Slurpee machine in Bangkok yesterday, but KC did some comparison research sampling), but they adapt to each specific country. In Thailand we can buy airtime for our mobile phone, in Cape Town we paid our water bill, and in Seoul we could lounge at sidewalk seating with draft beer from a keg.
Never fear, though: there are plenty of markets, and we do the majority of our shopping for necessities in tiny stores, many of which double for a family’s living room. (Big, well-lit, modern grocery stores of the suburbs are the venue of the middle class with cars who can afford to drive to and stock up with big quantities. Prices are often, if not always, comparable or better in the tiny corner shops.) Better yet, in many places trucks and hand-carts still trundle through narrow streets pedaling filtered water, the catch of the day, and even ice cream door-to-door. During our 6 weeks in Istanbul we managed to get on one produce-seller’s regular route and he began stopping under our window twice weekly and yelling up to see if we needed mushrooms or apples. You can’t beat such service for convenience and price; I find that we are less likely to be charged tourist prices by the neighborhood shops and sellers.
Sometimes finding supplies in a foreign country is a real goose chase. Where does one buy propane if we’re not in Latin America where delivery trucks have loudspeakers screeching “GAAAASSSSS” at 6 am? Where can we buy Velcro if we have no idea where the fabric shop sits? And a surprisingly repetitive problem: where in the blazes do you find contact lens solution? In every country, every new town, we go through these or similar questions multiple times.
Language barriers provide an extra layer of complexity to shopping. Next week when we leave for Indonesia, KC will resume surfing. Surfers wear a special shirt known as a “rash guard” but it’s not enough to protect KC from developing deep sores on his chest because his ribcage rubs against the surfboard. The raw sores don’t heal because he’s in salt water every day, so he thought to buy a computer mouse pad and affix it to his rash guard for extra padding. Yesterday, he took his shirt and mouse pad to a tailor who sets up a sewing machine on the sidewalk. With some pantomiming, he had no problem explaining his plan, but the thick neoprene of the mouse pad wouldn’t fit under the sewing machine’s presser foot. The gentleman made an impressive effort to explain where KC could find a different tailor, but hand-signal directions only gets you so far in a city the size of Bangkok. Plan B: a tube of rubber cement and our own sewing repair kit should do the trick.
People-watching in other countries leads to the realization that gender roles – especially for men – are arbitrary. For starters, if you’re on Facebook, maybe you’ve noticed KC wearing pink lately… he picked it up in Africa, where pink is a standard color for men. And with the color of African men’s skin, it’s no wonder – they look great. (KC, on the other hand, required 1.5 years of living in Africa and the tropics to work up a sufficient tan to pull it off.)
Another cultural difference we noticed early on but have almost forgotten about with time is the fact that men are more affectionate with other men than we see in the US. Come to think of it, Thailand is the first country where I haven’t noticed men and boys walking down the street with an arm casually draped over the shoulder of another male or walking arm-in-arm, heads together, deep in conversation. For some great photos illustrating my point, this blogger discussed the same phenomena from a visit to India.
There are plenty of other examples:
- In Korea, teenage boys lined up in the manicure station at the spa.
- In poor regions, men and boys frequently wear women’s winter hats and coats and ride ladies bikes, probably more as a result of supply and demand than out of any particular fashion trend. But nobody seems to notice and life goes on, more warm and with less tired feet.
- In Egypt and Thailand, men’s traditional dress, practical for the weather of those areas, is a long cotton galabeya or pa-kow-ma, respectively. Less and less men wear them as those traditions fade, but they are still completely normal.
In the past two years we’ve learned that the rhythms of daily life differ all over the world but only to a certain degree. We can always find something to eat or transportation to the next town or a guy who will produce a spare part if we look hard enough. I suppose it’s the challenges and rewards of the differences, not to mention the hilarious moments captured forever in our memories, which made us want to travel in the first place:
- Cheese and milk are luxuries these days (dairy is virtually nonexistent in Asian diets) and a bottle of Yellow Tail chardonnay (a low-end wine selling for $5-7 at home) in Seoul costs $20, so we adjust our intake accordingly.
- Mr. Thul, our tuktuk driver in Cambodia, proclaimed us his brother and sister after we hired him for the 3rd time.
- Where in America would we EVER see a white horse gallop out of the back of a restaurant, clatter down the front steps, and trot away across the front lawn?
One last thing about speeding tickets and Officer Ditheko of the “high-speed” chase: When we pulled away, I caught a glimpse of two young children, both under the age of 6, peering at us from the backseat of his patrol/family car with eyes as wide as saucers. I can imagine that Mom heard a good tale of “Dad’s a hero!” over dinner that night!
*Tabasco, Nutella and canned tuna are the three items that are ubiquitous everywhere we’ve been. Even more than pasta and Neutrogena products, a close second.