Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Homeland....At Last

As we exited Customs' detainment into the airport lobby the sun of freedom shone brightly in my eyes (literally, the sun was shining in my eyes) but was dulled when my ears were assaulted by FIL’s voice calling out to F to get his attention.
“F!!!!!!!!!!!!! F!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

OMG! F failed to tell me we were going to be chaperoned by FIL for the next 3 weeks!!!!

Thankfully, that was not the case. FIL’s voice belonged to F’s cousin who is FIL’s nephew, hence not only did his voice sound the same, he looked like FIL as well. But that, my digital friends is where the similarities ended. And that went for the rest of the family members I met. F's extended family was amazingly nice. I liked them, A LOT. Not near as crazy as the American contingent. This greatly eased my mind.

What I was not prepared for however, was the massive culture shock. Traveling Westernized Europe did not make me as worldly as I thought it had. I apologize for my arrogance.

As I said, The Homeland is classified as a 3rd world country. So I was expecting 2 things. Dirt roads and mud huts or wide tree lined streets with white washed, walled in homes. See, I'd never really seen any pictures of The Homeland, not the parts where people live anyway. Just the tourists’ parts.

When we left the airport and the heavily armed police, there were tree lined streets and heavily armed police. This gave way to a dirty, over crowded, polluted city, and more heavily armed police. Think NYC about 20+ yrs ago. My senses were bombarded with the sickening smell of diesel fuel. Overwhelmed by the non-stop honking of horns. My nerves became raw from the constant near misses during every car ride. 2 lanes of traffic became 4 or 6. Nobody knew how to stay in their own lane. Motorcycles whipped and weaved in and out of traffic. F and I were horrified one day while we were on the "Expressway" and we looked out our windows to see a family of 4; On a MOTORCYCLE. The 3 yr old was seated happily between the handle bars, Dad was driving, Mom perched side-saddle with a BABY held in her arms. Not a helmet in sight. A BABY ON A MOTORCYCLE!!!! Adults and children darted into traffic narrowly making it to the other side of the street. Every morning we were awakened by a man making his way down our street selling his "fresh" bread. Everything was dirty.
It was a team effort to take a hot shower.
In the beginning it was just part of the adventure. By the time we were close to leaving I had all I could do to not fling open the patio doors and scream down at the Bread Man to “SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!!!”

I stuck out. F stuck out because he was with me. The Natives couldn't decide if he was one of them or not because he was dressed like an American, and his knowledge of the language was "broken" or "crappy" as his cousins put it.
The first “National Monument” we went to was a lesson I’ll never forget. First of all the “Tourism Police” were dressed head to toe in black with blood red accents. They carried guns. Menacing? You better believe it. Especially when you can’t speak the language but you know you are being discussed by the use of “Madame” over and over again and then are told to stay in the car with a person you’d just met (F’s cousin who picked us up at the airport) who’s not telling you what’s going on and your husband gets out of the car and disappears into a throng of tourists. Second, F’s passport says he was born in The Homeland. So he got the “Resident’s” price. Me? F had to pay the “tourist” price for me. His price? 3 “dollars”. The price for a “tourist”? 65 “dollars”. Because he couldn’t PROVE I was his wife. I was floored. That marriage license would have come in handy, but who would think to take a marriage license to go see the Statue of Liberty???(you realize I’m just using lady liberty as an example right?) Because I am married to F I am now considered to be a “Resident” even though F hasn’t lived there for 30yrs and is an American Citizen. On several other trips to go see “National Monuments”, we were with a tour group. Our guide knew we were married (he required no proof) and so when he purchased us tickets he purchased a “resident” ticket for me. EVERY SINGLE TIME I handed over my ticket, I was questioned, “You a Resident???????” F would either be in front of me or behind me in line and it got to the point when they would look at me questioningly and asked me “you a resident?” I’d just point to F who would then jump in and explain that I was his wife. One other couple in our group was the opposite of us. She was the “Resident”, he was the foreigner. She told us that when she went to book a ride on an over-night train the booking agent wouldn’t book her in a room with her husband because she could supply no proof that he was indeed her husband, and women who are native of The Homeland are not allowed to travel over-night in the same room with a foreign man who isn’t her husband. So she had to book the train as a foreigner and pay foreigner prices. She told us that because she is a woman who married a non-native man, she herself is no longer considered a Resident like F is.
The Homeland is not about gender equality.

Sticking out is not an all out fun time party party!!! I got stares. Open. Point. Blank. Stares. I decided I would meet all stares with a winning smile! It didn’t help. No one would smile back at me. They would glare, or look away, but no one, save for ONE woman in a grocery store, smiled back. That trip, to the grocery store, was the most self esteem devastating hour of my life. I looked different than everyone there. I dressed different than everyone there. I stuck out. I knew I would. My appearance didn’t cause any great commotion, other than people running into each other because they couldn’t stop staring, but it caused me great emotional turmoil. The hostility was palpable. I didn’t belong and they wanted me to know it. As I told Eldest Sister when we got home, I consider myself a strong, confident person, but by the time we left that grocery store, I had all I could do to keep my head up and my eyes dry. After awhile it got to F too. Before the trip was over we were both returning the stares, without the smile.
The people we actually interacted with were always friendly and polite. No one was rude. The Rule that CBF taught me on our trips applied well to The Homeland as well, "Always Make Friends With the Help(bartender)." F is amazing at this, and it got us so many great things. And as I learned more words, I became a great delight and source of entertainment because the Natives weren't expecting it.
But they still stared.
They just weren't hostile about it.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Wow your experience sounds just like one I had when I spent a couple of weeks in Ecuador with my ex. I'm assuming you were in South America- no driving laws, people constantly staring, the hositality for being forgein... fun times. It is such an eye-opening experience to go to a country like that- I learned a lot from my experience but I was not excited to go back again...