One of the things I like about traveling, is that it unfolds my origami perceptions of how the world works, and reveals nooks I didn’t know where there, later refolding my mind into a totally new formation, another preconception of how the world works, which is also subject to change. Just like there are a seemingly endless parade of origami figures you can make (if you can do origami, which I cannot), there are endless facets of the world and of myself that will continue to unfold for me for as long as I remain observant.
Here is one such change.
But first, a story from Chile. I like a good lead-in.
A few years ago, my coffee grinder died in a very catastrophic way, which blew coffee all around my very tiny kitchen, and most importantly, left me with no way to grind the beans I so lovingly purchase and transport back to my home, owing to the fact that coffee is delicious, and I am fully addicted to it.
In search of a coffee grinder, I went to a department store, walked to the area with the coffee makers, and said, “Venden molinillos de café?” (Do you sell coffee grinders?) And the woman said to me, “Sí, pero están agotados” (Yes, but they’re out of stock). Ah, I said, “y cuando llegan?” (when will they be in stock again?). And, instead of saying “tomorrow,” or “next week,” or “I have no idea,” she said: “Es relativo.” (It’s relative).
I thanked her and walked away, coffee-grinderless, thinking about how that was not the right use of the word, at least as I know it. What she seemed to want to say was either “unknown” or “unpredictable,” but she was using a word that to me means “subjective to the situation at hand.” Which really is not the answer to the question, “when will you have this item that I so desperately want.”
The presence or absence of coffee grinders is a binary function. You have them, or you don’t have them. You don’t kind of have them for some people and kind of not have them for others. They’re not coming tomorrow for me, but next week for someone else.
I have thought long about this, and since then, found a coffee grinder to buy (and later, get fixed, on Tenderini, because that is where you get kitchen items fixed in Santiago). What kinds of things are actually relative? The sensation of cold or warm, where I will consider that my upcoming foray to San Francisco is summery, because I am in the dead of winter, and while their summer may feel like spring to people coming from a real summer, it will likely be warm to me.
Perceptions of beauty. I find beauty in decrepit buildings and peeling paint, and even layers of posters that are glued up over each other again and again until finally they start to peel off. You may think that’s hideous. But the perception of beauty is relative.
And what about nice?
I used to work for a website that also teaches online writing classes, and I occasionally sat in as a guest commenter, and gave feedback to the students on their stories. I saw some lovely writing there, flocks of birds that moved like schools of fish, and fading desert skies that drained their color as the sun went down.
I also reviewed a piece written by someone who had been to India and had a wretched time. She felt taken advantage of, and not appreciated, and falsely accused of or presumed to be rich. I got the sense that she thought she was Julia Roberts in the movie version of Eat, Pray, Love (which I haven’t seen), minus the meditation. In this piece, she kept on talking about how she was polite, and how she was rejected, or treated poorly, even when she was as polite as possible, which according to her, evinced a lack of niceness of the people she encountered.
And I tried to explain how your version of polite or nice may not hold much value in another culture because it is all relative. And she wrote me back, explaining that even the iced coffee was “bad,” and I wondered to myself if India is known for its iced coffee, and also, what, exactly constituted a good iced coffee in her book. I knew that in her ideal world it would be delivered politely, but never got at the crux of the problem with the drink.
And then I got to thinking about nice. Specifically, I got to thinking about how nice is relative.
I was recently in Asunción, Paraguay, and, on a cool, rainy day, I made a plan to see what I consider to be some of the sights in Asunción. First I would go to Mercado Cuatro, and then I would walk a distance that turned out to be much longer than I might have guessed, but lovely all the same, to the cemetery. Everyone I told thought this was tomfoolery, but no one tried to convince me not to go, and so off I went.
Mercado Cuatro lies along one main street, with a skinny little island in the middle, which we all perched on, ready to Frogger ourselves across oncoming traffic, because that’s how they roll in Paraguay. Most of Asunción has no traffic lights, and people cross the street knowing this, without shaking their fists or growing frustrated, you just have to get to the other side, and so you do, puddles be darned.
I came across several women selling yuyo, which are any manner of fresh herbs that you can select, and the stall owner will mash for you in a mortar and pestle, and then scoop out and put into a bag for you to add to your tereré, a cold mate-based drink. The consequence of this is that every few steps, between diesel fumes, I would get this incredible aromatic kick of lemon verbena and mint and other unknown green herbs that smelled more citrusy, or piney, or like oregano, but tangier.
I was curious about the herbs, so I stopped to talk to a couple of the “yuyeras” (women who sell yuyo). We kibbitzed about different herbs, what they were called, and what they were good for. At one stand, a man came over and picked out a few packets of herbs for himself. While the woman was pounding his herbs, I recognized on her cart one herb that we also have in Chile, called ruda (rue in English). The guy who had come over was telling me that I could get a bunch of ruda, not to grind up (it’s pretty strong), but to put in water and keep in my house, to keep away “mala onda” (bad vibes). The woman agreed that that’s what it’s good for, and I told her we had it in Chile. Later, I asked the man how long the ruda could stick around before losing its power, and his answer was a definitive “twelve days,” and the woman agreed.
As I walked out of the market and towards Mariscal Lopez, a main street that would take me to the cemetery, I got into a few random conversations with people. Am I headed in the right direction, etc. Always with the raised eyebrows saying, “that’s far,” and me saying, “I like to walk” or “I can take it.” The woman who sold me my lunchtime chipa (bready snack) with four cheeses inside was surprised that I liked to walk in the rain, but when I pointed out that I was on vacation, so what else was I going to do, she sort of shrugged. When I pointed out that I could go to the mall after the cemetery, she seemed satisfied.
I finally got to the cemetery, but not before passing important buildings, a soccer stadium/field, the US embassy and a few other heavily-guarded enclaves. I talked to the woman huddled under an umbrella at the first cemetery entrance, and she (for reasons I suspected, but did not exactly understand at the time) directed me to the entrance to the Spanish section. I went, and photographed, and a limping, 40-something man came towards me, greeted me and asked me if I was looking for “algún pariente” (a family member). This is the part where we laugh at how I still cannot shake a slight Spanish accent that developed since I moved to Chile, which makes everyone think I’m Spanish.
Having seen my non-family members’ graves, I went to another entrance, and here there were several “albañiles” (technically, masons, but this is what people who work in construction/remodeling are called in Paraguay). I smiled hello, waved, wished them buenos días which they mirrored back, and wandered further in, turning around to see six curious heads trained on me, as I bumbled over stairs and wandered between graves in my pink raincoat.
I got towards the back of the cemetery, and saw four more albañiles, having a round of mate. I said hi, and when they asked me what I was looking for, I explained that I was looking for an older part of the cemetery. No particular part, just somewhere that was really old. And one man came out from under the roof, and said he’d take me there.
And he did. It was a fenced-off, mud-only section of the cemetery, graves stained with lichen, and we entered through a hole in the fence, past an orange tree surrounded by a green and orange array of fallen oranges in various stages of mold. His rubber boots were better suited to the mud than my shoes, and the mud in Paraguay is more slippery than you might think, but we made it out again, and he took it upon himself to take me to the grave of Epifanio Méndez Fleitas, an influential Paraguayan guitarist who lived in exile during the Stroessner (dictatorship) years, and whose mausoleum was embellished with a metal cutout of a guitar. Later he took me to the grave of Alfonso Ramirez Montiel, a famous harpist (the harp is the national instrument of Paraguay), and explained his importance.
I thanked him for coming out into the wet to show me around, and we shook hands, and he pointed me to the Czech section of the cemetery, with castle-like sculptures and graves in stones in every color of brewed beverage, from weak tea, to the orangey shade that comes from putting pure cream in your coffee. Here, another man (from the second group of albañiles) came up to me and pointed out some of the older graves in this section. We talked for a bit and I thanked him, and explained that part of what I like to do in cemeteries is just be. See if I can feel the presence of the dead, or if there is the sound (in the rain) of dripping water, or maybe the falling of an orange into the slippery red mud.
And we shook hands too, and he left me alone.
And I got to thinking about how relative nice is. To me, help when I want it, and explanations of things I might not know about, and a couple of jokes, and pointing things out, and asking about my family, or making sure that I’m okay, and then leaving me alone are nice.
One of the things that’s odd about traveling around in Latin America when you are a long-term expat (in Latin America) is that you have two very different lenses to look at things through. I see something, like Mercado Cuatro, through the eyes of a market-going Chilean, and I think, wow, the herbs smell good, they have different electronic goods, they grill sausages on the street (in Chile it’s usually meat on a stick), and you can change money everywhere. Then I put on my (untraveled) United Statesian glasses, and I think, this looks like chaos, I can smell raw meat, the buses look like school buses, driven through a Crayola factory, with all the colors, what are those guys talking about, is it me? Is it safe to change money here? Are people looking at me?
And then I go back to nice.
Chileans might not be entirely crazy about the stranger-talking-to-you scenario. There are exceptions, of course, but my chatty ways have caused more than one unknown Chilean person to cringe, or clam up, or even walk away. People in Chile are generally helpful if you ask for help, but then usually take their leave. In the situation where an unrequested tour guide has glommed onto you to walk you around, Chileans might be wondering what the self-appointed tour guide wants, or how to get away from him. It would run afoul of their feelings about niceness.
And some Americans would probably enjoy the help at first, but then start to worry about why someone was guiding them around a place for no reason, or expectation of pay (or did he expect money?), and when it was cold out, and realize that they were alone with a strange man in a strange country in a place full of dead people, and wonder if they were next. Or they might think the comments about the herbs were too superstitious to be taken seriously, or think that people telling them that someplace was too far to walk to was impolite.
Or maybe not. I have elements of US and Chilean culture in and around me, and all I could think for so much of the time that I was in Paraguay, from people explaining traditional food (at the Feast of San Juan celebrations at the Centro Paraguayo-Japonés), to the woman at the hostel in Encarnación explaining how she makes “cocido” (a drink based on mate and caramelized sugar that could almost replace coffee in my eyes, but then I never would have gotten to tell the story about the coffee grinder), and telling me that she makes it better than many other people, was how nice people were.
But would everyone think that this way of relating to people was nice?
On my way to the bus station to get out of Asunción, I was on a multicolored city bus with a bumpy metal-plate and wood floor. There was some confusion about pulling the string to ring the bell to get off the bus, and I did it twice, instead of the customary once, and the bus driver (who must have a crappy job, because the buses are loud and slow and from what I was told, the drivers are not paid very well) yelled at me the Paraguayan equivalent of “stop ringing the damn bell, I will stop at the bus stop you moron.” And this was admittedly not very nice.
But then the guy at the back of the bus sitting near the back door I would soon descend from, shouted in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear “Maybe if you stopped driving the bus like an effing clown, people wouldn’t have to wonder where the stops were.”
And I thought to myself, “How nice.”
And that nice?
It really is relativo.