Saturday, February 25, 2012
No way to hide it - I'm not from around here
I’m realizing that you never see your own culture and privilege more clearly than when it’s juxtaposed on another. Take running, for example.
I’ve never thought of running as a cultural thing. Back in Canada, I just slapped on my runners and headed out the door, figuring I looked no more or less out of place than anyone else out for a run that morning.
But in Honduras, going out for a run marks you instantly as a gringo - a person from “away,” and one with the leisure time and energy to need exercise. A hard-working Honduran never thinks about such things, because a typical day’s long labour is quite sufficient.
“Le gusta caminar?” asked a friendly young fellow as I slowed my pace at the end of my run this morning. Curious about the sweaty older woman making her way up one of the many steep hills in Copan, he asked me how much I walked in a day. Maybe an hour, I said, and then asked him the same. “All day - I have to for my work,” he answered. We left it at that.
The baseball hat I wear on my run is culturally distinctive. Women don’t wear hats here, and definitely not baseball hats. My size, my shape, my short hair - all culturally distinctive. I tan up easily and am already blending in quite nicely in terms of skin colour, but my height and habits will always distinguish me as a privileged foreigner.
Today I passed a foursome from the American bilingual school here in Copan, and they might as well have had signs taped on their backs declaring their heritage. They stood out with their Tilly hats, hiking boots and expensive day packs in a country where most people count themselves lucky to own one of those little packs made out of string and that weird grocery-bag material. I regularly see whole families of tiny people staggering down from the mountainsides with giant bundles of firewood digging into their skinny shoulders; I can’t imagine what they think of us big, fussy foreigners with our water bottles and light lunches carefully nestled in padded packs, heading out for an easy stroll.
I’m not suggesting there’s anything shameful in being a Westerner. I’ve got no urge to carry prickly, heavy bundles of firewood on my back, or work hard all day for almost no money. I wouldn’t change my lot for that of one of the tough, hungry-looking campesinos who I see in town every Sunday buying cheap pieces of foam to soften the hard dirt floor they’re sleeping on.
But it’s just striking to see how very different we are, forever more. I can come to Honduras as a Cuso International volunteer and congratulate myself for being willing to live on a tenth of the income I could earn back home, but the truth is I’m still remarkably comfortable. I’ve got a hot shower whenever I want one and a fridge full of food, not to mention money in the bank, a partner with money in the bank, and many different options to fall back on in a pinch.
Even my Honduran home, at $325 a month, is twice as expensive as what a typical Honduran family can afford in Copan Ruinas - and completely out of reach for those poor sods from the countryside who I see selling firewood door to door to all the people who cook their frijoles and tortillas on outdoor stoves. I have the healthy bones, the good clothes, the solid education and the nutritionally alert brain of someone who has spent their life benefiting from Western privilege.
I try to remember that when I’m out there running down a dirt road and wondering why the Chorti people aren’t returning my friendly Canadian smile as they pass by me with babies on their backs and a stack of tortillas they desperately need to sell. I’m playing at living like a poor person. For them, it’s no game.