In search of lost time

I’m getting so good at meeting new people and being awkward they should probably invent a new word for it:

matt, v. mat. 1. to act in a manner that is discomfiting to oneself and/or to another or others, esp. upon first meeting. 2, colloquial, Zambia circa 2013. to meet somebody and then proceed to be painfully, spectacularly awkward.

It’ll be in the OED by 2015.

My goal for yesterday was ambitious: I needed to charge my second phone. There are two major cellular networks in Zambia, Airtel and MTN, and I have a phone for each in case I’m in an area where one works but the other doesn’t. However, I don’t have the proper adapter to charge my Airtel phone using my solar panels. So I decided to bike a few kilometers to Kampampi, a small town nearby – really just an intersection with a few shops – and find some amalaite. I cruised in and on my second try found a shopkeeper who agreed to charge my phone for one kwacha. Perfect. But what would I do until it finished charging?

Easy – sit on the bench outside with the store owner and his three brothers and hang out. We were at the corner of a major crossroads. I’d blend right in. I bought a Pepsi to complete the image of the relaxed local and began chatting with the proprietors, four brothers between the ages of 19 and 32. We had a lively conversation consisting primarily of me asking how much something cost and getting a one-word answer in reply. After our repartee wound down a bit (the shop was only so big, after all) I had time to ponder idealistic, life-affirming, big-picture thoughts. Thoughts people think in Africa. Thoughts like, I had to move halfway across the world to realize that I CAN taste a difference between Pepsi and Coke. (Coke is better, no question.)

Beyonce projected throatily from the speakers next door. Also some early Destiny’s Child. I approved. Several of the brothers’ friends kept slouching in and out on this lazy Sunday afternoon, skulking young men whose narrowed and unsmiling eyes lingered on me. Showing that I couldn’t be intimidated, I asked them confidently what their names were, if they were married, and what their fathers did for a living. That sure showed them.

At one point they all started eying my bike and talking animatedly in Bemba. I couldn’t understand much more than incinga (bicycle), but I was pretty sure we all knew that seven is more than one. Maybe they were arguing over which of them got to keep it. A small TV was playing a karate movie from the ’80’s in the back and a crowd of children were clustered in front of it, mostly ignoring me. A first. I peered over disinterestedly, feigning a casual dismissiveness like any true martial arts master would upon seeing the slowed-down-for-moviegoers version. I flexed my forearms nonchalantly. Meaningfully. Time crawled ponderously, then decided to give up and sit down. More of those big-picture thoughts. Damn it, why do people here keep thinking I’m a woman? I don’t look like a Zambian woman OR an American woman. I’m not even wearing my skinny chinos! Hmm, looks like that pullup bar is paying dividends already.

As it turned out, they were not plotting to steal my bicycle. Though I think I was asked to give it to them at more than one point. After more waiting, more awkwardness, and more big-picture thoughts, time finally and mercifully began lurching forward again. I got my phone back fully charged, finished my Pepsi (ugh, the sugar leaves a weird aftertaste in your mouth and a throbbing in your head), issued farewells to my partners in loitering, and rode away deliberately and unconcernedly, as if I could have stayed the entire afternoon.

Any time I feel awkward or nervous or uncertain here, I figure I must be doing something right because I’m moving outside of my comfort zone and learning something new. Based on the causal relationship Being Awkward = Personal Development, I’m happy to announce that I am doing something right every single time I step outside my chitenge-curtained front door. In my more awkward of moments, I recall this line from Proust:

The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.
-Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

As I sit here in my mud hut in Zambia typing a blog post into my smartphone, I realize with no small irony that I’m in the strangest land I’ve ever known. However, I’m not visiting this strange land. I live here. The source of my awkwardness is not in trying to visit the place but in trying to know the people. To try to behold the universes of the people in my village, the universes that they behold and the universes that they are. And in so doing, to try to effect our own voyage of discovery together.


3 thoughts on “In search of lost time

  1. In understanding their “universes” you enhance yours, and and are already accomplishing much of the “Secondary Directive” of building bridges of understanding. And this is hard work!

  2. Props for making the conscious effort to interact with the local Zambians, even when you’re not required to. I know I’d be tempted to spend all of my free time shuttered away in the relative privacy of my home, but of course that’s not why you’re there (your earlier quote about sitting on one’s porch as often as possible comes to mind).

  3. I think it is possible to lessen one’s uncomfortableness in certain situations by repeated exposure. So it’s great that you are continually putting yourself out there in new situations. I am proud of you!

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