Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Tale of Two Nations

I am so not going to be the guy who sits at the bar buying rounds of drinks for people.

I said this to myself as soon as I saw the open-spaced Drive-Inn Outdoor Bar. It is attached to the Drive-Inn Guest House where I am currently staying. I imagined having to go through the opening scene of Miss Saigon every time I went home after work or waking up to some drunken argument outside my window in the middle of the night.

As it turns out, the Drive Inn Outdoor Bar is pretty lame. And the customers? A wild bunch. They don’t stop partying until 8 pm. Woo-hoo, fun times in Kalomo.!

This bar has no music, no bright lights, no mirror ball, no dancing, no displays of flesh. From what I’ve seen, the soft-drinks (Fanta Orange is big in this part of the world) seem to go as fast as the beers (Mosi and Castle – South African brands, which are pretty good ).

Getting in and out of here is an event by itself. As it is way off the town center, it involves driving thru rough roads for those who have motorcycles or cars and for those who don’t - walking thru unlighted, unmarked roads after sundown.

The thing is: the Drive-Inn Outdoor Bar attracts a steady clientele. I suspect that its most attractive quality is simply this: in a town with limited entertainment options, it is a place to go. For the price of a drink or two, one can have some private time, take a break from his or her daily toil and dream or talk about better things, better times.

And so, people come. Alone, in pairs or in small mixed groups. They stay for a couple of drinks but keep to themselves or their small groups Everyone is gone by 8 pm and the Drive-Inn closes shop.

As for me – I get home from work at around 5:30 pm (or 1730 hours as they say around here). I dump my stuff in my room, take out a bottle of water and a couple of sticks from my precious (and dwindling!) supply of Marlboro Lights and then I stake out my space at the far end of the bar. I come for the nightly show. From where I choose to sit, I have a great view of the setting Kalomo sun. Unmarred by pollution or the obstruction of tall buildings, it is always magnificent.

The strange thing is while the other patrons don’t socialize with each other, they don’t seem to have any qualms about approaching me to start a conversation. I am , after all, one of the town curiosities. Everyone knows English since it is the official language although, much like the Philippines, everyone also knows at least one local dialect.

I’ve met some interesting people in this way. Let me tell you about one of them.

Aaron (not his real name) works for a freight forwarding company (not his real job, you know the drill, haha).

I don’t ask people for their ages but I’m guessing he is in his early 20’s. He was born in the northern region of Zambia. His father died when he was 1 and as is the local custom, he was taken away from his mother by his father’s relatives. He never saw her again.

When he was 11, he heard that she died. At 14, he decided to quit school, leave his relatives and fend for himself. He has been taking odd jobs since then. The last one has taken him to Kalomo, which is in the far southern part of the country. He has been here for three years. He doesn’t want to stay for a fourth. He is saving up to go to carpentry school. He wants to have a trade so he can set himself up and go on business on his own.

He was curious about the Philippines. What kind of lives we have. What kind of government leads us. Although he struggled a bit with the English, it was obvious that he is pretty smart. His questions and line of thinking reminded me of my friends back in my University days.

Seeing an opportunity to share something about my country, I told him that the Philippines also has its share of problems but Filipinos , in general, are smart, resourceful and hard-working. We would always find a way to survive and help each other along the way. Like any other country, I told him, we had good leaders and bad leaders but we held the bad ones accountable and we were free to express our opinions against them.

He wanted to know if we had poor people too. I said yes.

He told me about life in Zambia. According to him, an average worker earns about 500 thousand Zambian Kwacha a month (about 5 thousand pesos or 100 US dollars). With expenses for rent and food, that is hardly enough for a single person to survive , let alone a family. But, the workers are still the lucky ones. At least, they get steady income. Most of the people fall below the poverty line, relying on subsistence agriculture to survive, with a good number classified as critically poor (note: I am providing the link to substantiate the info that Aaron shared) .

In the meantime, Aaron continued, the politicians who are supposed to help the people, have no idea what it is to be poor. They live in their big houses, drive their fancy cars and sit down to lavish dinners while the rest of the country struggles.

This was getting too familiar to me. Since I wanted to keep the conversation on an upbeat note, I reminded him that everyone has a choice. Quickly doing a mental inventory of my arsenal of feel-good stories, I chose to tell him about the People Power Revolution.

I said, “Look at the Philippines. We had a president who was not serving the interest of the people. We took to the streets. Without any blood being shed, we were able to get him out and replace him with a new President”.

Just to drive home the point, I added, “And we did this not once but twice”.

It took a while for Aaron to digest this story. In the meantime, “‘Your Man in Zambia is in da haus” went like a banner ad thru my head.

I was too early with my self-congratulations.

Aaron spoke up again. He said he was amazed that something like that could happen. But he said he was almost certain that this was not possible in his country “Why not?", I asked almost peevishly. I always hate it when people don’t get the point of my feel-good stories.

Even in the fading afternoon light, I could see the effort in his face and expression to articulate his thoughts clearly to me. He said – the politicians would mess it all up. Even if the people currently running the government would be booted out, there would be too much in-fighting and self-interests from among those wanting to replace them. They will all make similar promises and then the leaders might change but the problems of the country would remain the same. He ended by saying that someday, he hopes that politics and government in Zambia could be like what it is in the Philippines

He looked at me as if to check whether I could understand this – I, who in his thoughts, come from a country so much more advanced and ahead In progress and good governance.

I could have continued the conversation. I could have told him how far-off from reality his ideal was. I could have…

But when all a man has is a dream, why take that away from him? So, I kept my mouth shut, took a deep breath and recalled this line from A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite stories: “It is a far better thing that I will do than I have ever done; it t is a far better place where I will go than I have ever been”

And that, my friends is, how I decided to break the promise I made to myself on my first day here at the Drive-Inn Guest House.

I bought us a couple of beers.

And then, I changed the subject to something much more undeniably ideal than politics and governance in my country,

“How about that sunset, huh?”.


a) I may be staying at the Guest House for a few more weeks. The house where I am supposed to be transferring still has a huge hole in the ground where the septic tank is supposed to be. They brought me around to inspect it last week. It’s a concrete structure with a big backyard and a mango tree surrounded by a grass fence. When I move-in, I’ll be living by myself until the additional expected volunteers come in next year. The house is kinda isolated so I’m a bit concerned about security. There was a break-in at the Guest House last night. A few of my things were stolen, including my BP monitor. While I was sleeping , the the thief reached thru the open window and grabbed what he could. I have to say though that until last night, I’ve never felt threatened or unsafe since arriving. Even then, I want to think of the break-in as an isolated incident. I'm not taking any changes though. I slept with my pepper spray on the bed side last night.

b) What I am paranoid about is malaria. There was another volunteer who just left, pre-terminating her placement. In the two months that she was in the area, she got malaria twice . Having brought only one set of sheets and one towel, I’m now using the stuff she left behind – and yes I checked, you only get malaria by being bitten. Anyway, I SLATHER myself with insect repellant at night then I put on my socks, jogging pants and hoodie then I make sure the treated mosquito net is tucked-in tightly to keep the critters away. If I could take my daily phrophy-whatever (medicine against malaria) twice for good measure, I would. I don't want to go home early because I got sick. Anyway, when my tummy aches, the first thought that comes to mind is – is this the first sign of malaria? Haha, I’ll get over it and I'll probably be sleeping naked by next month (maybe not, the nights are chilly, but you know what I mean).

c) The views reflected in this blog are entirely my own and do not necessarily reflect VSO’s position on any subject. Heck, they might not even reflect my position 5 minutes after posting the entry. So, chill.

1 comment:

Dprabo said...

careful, you might have inspired a local revolution, big white man! when i watched hepburn's "the nun's story" this afternoon i was thinking about you and the malaria thing. hope you'll be okay.