Meeting My Son’s “Family” in Africa

When the Peace Corps sends volunteers to other countries, there was an original placement of two or three weeks with a family. (I say “was” because I don’t know the current arrangements; this goes back a couple of decades.)

Mark, my son, was sent to Mauritania on Africa’s west coast; I came to visit him.  He wanted me to meet his family; I did.  There were some communication problems, so I kept smiling and nodding and pointing to attractive things about me in their home.  One thing was the pretty hands and feet of the young women in the family, pretty because they were covered with henna drawings.  So, with the courteous and generous nature of Africans, the girls wanted to put henna on my hands and feet.  Of course I agreed.Henna design

I gave them some money; they went shopping for the henna. (I don’t think they call it henna, but that’s the only name I have.) Soon, amid much laughter and delight, everyone was involved in painting me.   Later, when I took a shower, worried that the henna would “run,” I found I didn’t need to worry.  Nor did later showers remove the henna.  But many people with whom I associated there, were likewise decorated, so I didn’t worry about it.

Then I took the plane(s) back to the U.S. Now I stood out, like some sort of wandering minstrel without a musical instrument.  People oohed and aahed, frowned, looked askance (don’t get to use that word often) at my hands, arms, feet, and legs decorated with swirls of henna.

I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for when I returned—more comments.  Then school started again.  By now, I’d showered many times—that African henna product is persistent.  My students made comments, wondering if I hadn’t showered after working in the yard or something.  I used that experience to try to teach about diversity, but probably failed.

I still treasure the memory of that afternoon of fun the African girls and I had decorating my visible body parts.  I have no idea what they were saying; they had no idea what I was saying, but we all seemed to understand each other.  Maybe—just a thought—maybe the United Nations reps, each country’s leaders, and most of the population of said countries in the world need to have a “henna fix.”

Mexico: One Aspect of Good Manners

Americans are free and easy with shaking hands upon meeting a new acquaintance, and the “firmer the handshake” the better.  In fact, it seems as though some new friends try to outdo everyone else in the “firmness” of that handshake.

But other countries aren’t quite in the John Wayne Manners Corner, so here’s how that’s different in Mexico. (And perhaps in other countries.)  Handshakes there, except by Mexicans who have had previous experience with U.S. visitors, are “soft.”  Gentle might be a better word.  Might even be considered “flabby.”  Go with gentle, and whoever is shaking hands with you will appreciate your thoughtfulness.  And shaking hands, at least when I was living and traveling and teaching there, was the usual way to greet a friend or neighbor.

Some friends of mine there, would chastise me for how visitors would crush their hands. I pled ignorance, and apologized for my fellow Norte-Americanos, and then changed the subject.  When I lived in Puebla, Mexico, I was close to the headquarters of Volkswagen in that country, which was handy, since I could get my cranky vehicle fixed when it stopped running.  This plant was owned by Carlos Slim, who for years was the richest man in the world…yes, the world.  Now, this year puts him at second richest man in that same world.  He also owns the string of restaurants I recommend for clean and safe and relatively inexpensive meals, Sanborn’s.  There the water and ice cream is safe…or has been in my experience. I always had the same thing….something like a sliced hot dog bun, with beans and cheese slathered on it, then I added salsa….muy delicioso.  And cheap.

A fun place to eat in Mexico City, besides a Sanborn’s on every corner (considerable exaggeration there) is the place that had a huge wild and wide variety of hats dangling from the ceiling.  I think the restaurant was called Anderson’s, but I will have to check further to see if someone has dared to re-do it and drop the most fun at hat-matching that a diner can have while waiting for the food to appear.  A more special place is the Chalet Suizo, which has a Swiss theme, of course.  If you read Carolyn Hart’s novel placed in Mexico City, you will see this restaurant mentioned. I took my visiting children there for dinner and lunch.

There are so many things to cover when speaking about Mexico City, that it requires another entry. Or ten. Or twenty.  So, soft hands when shaking; good appetites when eating at Sanborn’s; and satisfying “looking around” at all this wonderful city offers.

Africa

It is impossible to describe an entire hemisphere in short snapshots of writing, but I’ll try to cover one aspect, which is true.  I went to Mauretania to visit my son who was in the Peace Corps there. (His last year of college, he confided that he didn’t “know what he was going to do,” so I suggested joining the Peace Corps.)  After two years, he’d have money saved (they took a huge chunk of each monthly salary and put it into savings for when his two-year obligation would be over), have excellent recommendations, and would be two years older—and hopefully, wiser.

So, while Africa was not my destination of choice, I landed in Senegal, where I had to take a smaller plane to where my son was.  The first unusual thing was that airplane personnel came by and moved us around; I decided it was to even the load??  I sat next to a UN representative, which was great since I could ask lots of questions.  (One also needs lots of “shots” to go to Africa; check with your doctor.)

We landed, me wearing a two-piece pant suit in the 130+ degree heat.  We were to stay in the UN housing, which, dear taxpayers, was very modest….think Motel 6 suffering starvation…which was okay with me.  Since I was to meet Mark’s friends and colleagues, he gave me some advice.  Most of it typical, except the hand bit.

In many countries where a particular religion is dominant, a person uses one hand with which to cleanse oneself after using the bathroom; the other hand with which to shake hands upon meeting and eating.  Sounds simple, except in the nervousness of meeting strangers, one suddenly forgets which hand to shake with.  If you pick the wrong hand, it’s seen as an insult.

One of the personnel, I never really knew his job, asked if I wanted to go watch the fishing vessels come in at the end of a day’s fishing.  I said, sure, but that I needed to take a package given to me by a woman at home for her daughter, also a Peace Corps volunteer.  He said, “fish first, then delivery,” and drove on—a bit fast I thought—on a road marked with a sign that indicated some country had donated highway materials to this area. (These signs were everywhere, but the funniest was one which indicated to “watch for the train crossing” when there was no track, nor would there ever be a train. (Signs like this, for a wide variety of “gifts”—mostly not needed—to this poor nation, were frequent.)

When we got to the fishing village, my friend gestured to leave the package for the volunteer in the rackety pickup, without locks on doors.  I said, “No.”  He said, “Not a problem. No one steals in Mauretania.”  I couldn’t believe that, then he told me this:  “If someone is caught stealing here, one hand is cut off, so everyone meeting him or her knows they are dealing with a thief.”  Right away, I wondered if the hand that was used for cleansing was cut off; if the “good hand” was, that person could never shake hands again.  (Use your imagination, please.)

I wasn’t convinced, but it was his country, not mine, so I left the package on the front seat of the pickup (remember, no windows, no locks, open air!) and walked to the beach to watch the largest fish I’d ever seen being towed to land.  It was a great picture—sun, surf, tide, fish.  But I kept thinking about that package.  When we returned to the pickup, it was still there, exactly as I’d left it.  (Try that on some street in the U.S.)

This is what I like about traveling; one learns so much.  I’ve written six novels featuring countries I’ve been in—and am in the process of “editing” them.  Argentine Assignment will be available shortly.