April 22, 2008

I’m Not Even Sure How To React To Something Like This...Maybe I'll Just Drink Myself To Sleep

I’m not positive who originally said it, but I recall hearing a rather famous quote that went something like: “A little bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing.” Meaning that, armed with only a small amount of knowledge or information, a person can make many stupid decisions without knowing all the facts. Or at least that’s how I interpreted it. Recently, I’ve modified that quote in my head to: “A little bit of development can be an infuriating thing.”

I recalled this recently when I read Julien and Martha’s blog. They are my friends serving with the Peace Corps in Georgia, the former Soviet republic. They were comparing their job with that of a friend of theirs stationed in Malawi (Read their entry here). Julien was arguing that in some ways, Malawi is certainly a very difficult assignment, especially in terms of pure statistics. That would probably be in areas like poverty, life expectancy, and other such factors. But at the same time, he said that the thing that made living in Georgia difficult were the times that he was exposed to things that hinted at “western” or familiar culture. I notice that here, too. Basically, my interpretation is that if you don’t see a mall, you might not miss it after a while. But what if every morning you passed a mall in your local town, but instead of rocking out the GAP and Chick-Fil-A, the stores at your local mall all sold wool vests and burkas, and the food court only had a store that sells a casserole made with bamboo leaves and fried goat meat. It would kind of get your hopes up, but then let you down even more, right?

Maybe I’m not understanding what Julien was trying to say, but that is how I interpreted what he and Martha wrote, and made it fit my own paradigm. See, I go to work every weekday at a call center that is completely high-tech and fully outfitted. It has high-speed internet, multiple coffee stations, and vending machines that sell bags of fried plantain chips. All of that is pretty modern, and when I’m doing my thing, I could just as easily be working in Houston as in Heredia. But every night when I arrive home, I find out that some asshole who apparently rides around Berlín on a horse has shut off our water. That appears to be this guy’s job this time of year: He shuts off the whole town’s water at 6 p.m. or so, and turns it back on sometime in the early morning. Usually. Sometimes it’s out for longer. This has been going on for about three months or so now. And the reason he does this is so that the coffee farmers won’t water their farms at night. I swear this is true. Still, I seem to be the only one that is annoyed by this; everyone else in the town has accepted it as a fact by now.

One way or the other, though, after a day of walking about 45 minutes to catch smelly buses and getting sweaty and sticky from the grit of the city, it would be nice to be able to return home and take a shower or even drink a cup of water that doesn’t come from our newly-installed holding tank on our roof. But I can’t because this fucker turns off our water every evening before I get home.

There are also multiple times when our phone and/or electricity goes down. No one really knows why; it’s just what happens. And in some cities around here, they have super-high speed internet. But in Berlín, we can’t even get dialup. In fact, they initially told us it would take two years to get a mere phone line. And people traveling around in packed Hyundai Elantras stop door-to-door to sell the strangest things; one weekend it’s a guy selling mirrors, the next it’s two-for-one pizzas, and the next someone’s offering to give you pots and pans in exchange for your unwanted rings and other items made of gold. Again, I swear this is true.

So in my mind, the problem seems to be the mixing of the old and the new. Or, the developed and the developing. There are many, many aspects of life here that are deeply rewarding, but there are also many that drive me nuts.

The latest piece of news that is leading me to this rant is both sad and disturbing. It was reported in all the papers last week, and if it weren’t both sad and true, it would be a mock headline for The Onion. The event that I am referring to happened last Thursday when a 24-year-old girl was crushed and killed by a banana truck that tipped over in the middle of San José. Now, I really, really do not want to make it seem like I am trying to make light of this tragedy. Like I said, it is sad and depressing, and was even more so after I read that the driver of the truck had something like 50 transit infractions.

This event is just a culmination of so many things involving development and whatever would be the opposite of development. If there were no demand for exporting bananas to Europe and America, the big truck probably wouldn’t have been in the San José area in the first place. And if the road had not been detoured due to construction crews patching potholes in the road, or if the transit authorities had pulled the driver’s license about 40 tickets ago, then the truck might not have tipped over. And if the cities here valued pedestrian traffic as much as car traffic, the girl might have had an adequate sidewalk to safely walk on far away from the road.

In any case, this article made me sad, and what made me even sadder is the realization that I will likely continue to read stories like this into the future, and that the only thing that will eventually remedy this developmental imbalance is good, old-fashioned time. And maybe a good booze-fueled cry to get it all out. But one way or other, the message seems to be clear: development is a slow, gradual process, and it's a painful one at that.

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