I’ve definitely maintained a sense of cultural conservatism within my first month here, but now that I’m settling in with my daily routines and becoming familiar with the country, the honeymoon stage has worn off and I’m ready to get my feet a little more wet. Despite the precautions of colleagues and friends due to the country’s tense state against photography, I intend to take photos here. It’s what I do, it’s my passion, and I think that there are a lot of opportunities out there following the collection of this rarely photographed location. And I think thus far I have been able to handle the situations that arise by playing the “white American tourist” card or using my femininity to bop around and giggle for the sake of a photo, so I’ve felt pretty confident with my camera in hand. All in the name of good photographs. (Sorry Feminist friends).
After work, I’ve been adventuring around the city on foot, traveling to different locations by day. I was beginning to settle into a surreal life surrounded by expats and weeks of fun-filled dinners and drinks and beaches, but I don’t want to forget the fact that I’m in a third-world country, and all around me is a place full of people that I will never again get to explore or connect with. The locals here are just as important as some of the expats that I meet from European countries, if not more interesting and more rare in experiencing their unique connections and experiences. Both types of people here (the expats and the locals) have a weighted value in their encounters, and so I’ve decided to focus more time on the less glorious, more rugged, more difficult, and perhaps a bit more dangerous and adventurous engagements.When I leave for these adventures, I usually follow one of the roads from my house straight for awhile, as to not get lost, but until I am engulfed in an entirely new setting that I have not yet explored. I pass through the smelly streets and the barefoot kids in their underwear selling tomatoes and dive headfirst into the ghettos off the beaten path of the city, alone but wearing an innocent, playful smile. Once you turn off the streets, the houses are community-style, filled with hundreds of rooms all sharing the same tin roofs (or thousands of pieces of tin overlapping) for a size of about two blocks. The alleyways are small and dirty, and you’re constantly ducking and diving through little paths and sometimes through actual homes with hanging sheets as doors. Earlier in the week, I ran into a swarm of children playing soccer when they intercepted me and my camera. I couldn’t stop laughing at how they posed for the camera and jumped all over me, eventually stealing my camera for a few shots.
Yesterday I decided to adventure a little further. I took some photos of a man with his vegetables on the streets, and then proceeded to the left down some stairs off the side of the road into one of the little village communities. I met an older woman in her tiny 6×6 foot home, cooking on an electric stove. She allowed me to take some photos of her, innocently smiling in the awe of technology. She appreciated every photo I showed of her, as it had been one of the few times she had even seen a photograph of herself. I advanced the path through the winding village, asking to residents bathing by pouring teapots on their head, “Puedo pasar?” (Can I pass through here?). Their mildly perplexed faces always turned to pure joyful amusement upon seeing their faces framed in my camera playback.
I was invited into someone’s home. It reeked of alcohol. There was a baby being fed from a bottle on a woman’s lap. The woman’s red, dyed hair bobbed up and down as she bounced the baby and chatted drunkenly with her friends. The others lay around the room on couches inside the tiny, make-shift house with the scent of vodka, rum, and beer swirling around my face. A larger, young woman with sweat beading down her face gripped my thigh as I walked past, alcohol oozing from her breath, marveling over my white skin. Yes…. yes, I’m white. I shook it off. They loved having their photos taken. I spent some time in their house chatting with them. They’re from Cameroon and they want to teach me how to dance…. I can’t wait for that.
As I was about to leave, I noticed a man outside staring at me, waving a sign with his hands that I was unfamiliar with. I knew something wasn’t right, and I innocently waved at him playfully as to break any tension… But there was no changing his mentality and glare. He approached me as I was exiting the house, asking what I’m doing, and why I’m taking photos. I responded that I’m simply walking around and I enjoy using my camera… I explained that I work for the United Nations Development Programme, I’m from America, and the photos aren’t being used to harm them. (This is what they fear.) It’s difficult to negotiate with an angry, older man in Spanish. Sometimes the words you know just don’t cut it, especially when you can’t mutter them with as much force in a foreign language. As much as I tried to reason with him through my broken Spanish, he didn’t want to hear it. He wanted me to delete my photos– the ones of this mother, and then all of them. As he stood over my shoulder, my heart broke inside as I deleted photo after photo. The ones of his mother were beautiful– an older women with a broken smile, hands that worked hard her whole life, in that tiny, tiny wooden shack of a house. It had so much story behind it, and with each “delete” I was breaking inside.
Then I heard my name being called from behind me. “Magi?!!?” I turned around. It was my friend Encarna. Apparently, this is her village! I know her from David, the guy who runs the Drexel program here. I’ve met her a few times and she’s always been incredibly sweet. Yet again, I felt a stroke of luck that she had happened to walk by and notice me, right when I was sensing the anger intensifying and the problems not dissolving. She explained why I am taking photos in their local tongue, but the man wasn’t having it. He took out his phone to call the police. I felt so horrible for dragging Encarna into this situation, and I wasn’t about to sit there and let this man tell me what to do. I mean, technically I can take photographs and I had permission from everyone I had taken a photo of. This guy was the only one who was upset, and it had to be from his old-school mentality from the government. I decided to just get out of there, rather than allow the situation to brew. I apologized to Encarna and told her I was just going to leave.
As I turned to walk away, the man stopped me and said I have to stay, as he took out his phone to call the police, but no way in hell was I staying there… When he tried to touch me, I said no, you can’t touch me, and you can’t make me stay, in Spanish of course. I walked away as fast and calmly as I could, but I was freaking out inside. The main street was only a few yards away, and once I turned down the street I knew I was safe… the walk to my house was only 10-15 minutes away. With a determined walk, I passed street upon street on the way to my house, digesting the entire scenario in my head and calming my nerves with each step. I was feeling like someone had squeezed my lungs together.
It’s such a strange concept and situation to experience running into problems for taking a photograph or even the mere fact of feeling uncomfortable in a third-world dictatorship. I never thought I’d find myself in a place like this, and although I generally feel safe and accommodated, every once in awhile, you’re bound to hit a roadblock. You’re bound to. And you can’t forget where you are. It’s a vital lesson to not feel invincible and have reality brought back into check, especially for me, especially here. The locals are curious and friendly, but amidst them, you never know who is watching. This experience is a never-ending roller-coaster of lessons and encounters with people that I could have never, ever, ever predicted, and also never been more thankful for. Mind-opening is an understatement, and I’m not sure if I could find the correct word to sum it all up.
Despite these things, I really like it here. I really like my life here. I enjoy my days. I enjoy the people– locals and expats. I enjoy walking around the city, despite the hot, stuffy weather. I enjoy my job and responsibilities. I enjoy being independent, grocery shopping or scouring the city for the best, cheapest pineapples from the street vendors, and walking through Martinez for peach juice and finding a few friends because it’s such a small community. I enjoy being able to pick a mango off the tree outside and eat it or have a fresh coconut cracked for me when I’m thirsty. I enjoy the simple life. I enjoy having time to read and study Spanish, and I enjoy being able to practice speaking my Spanish openly, free of judgement. I really don’t like my living situation, but I enjoy the fact that I have so many opportunities with new friends or simply in the city to over-compensate for not wanting to ever, ever be in the house. I enjoy the fresh fruits from the street vendors and discovering new things daily. I enjoy the African fabrics adorned in the streets and the countless “Buenas Dias” that I hear as I walk down the street every morning to work. I wake up at 7:45 every morning, go to work at the UNDP office, head home for a break around 12:30 to make lunch and take siesta, and then I head back to work for the afternoon. Work is intense, but interestingly intense, and it thrills me. Then I sometimes go for ice cream with Coline, or walk around to take photos, or make Spanish omelets with Dianis, or I meet up with Chavi for Spanish lessons, or shenanigans with my British friends, or I go for a run with Rosa or meet up with Gaafar for a movie, or I have dinner with all the Spanish embassy interns at the Tapas bar, or sometimes we stay out for “la ultima cerveza” again and again on a Tuesday night. I’ve made myself right at home.
I enjoy it. I’m happy here.