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January 21, 2010

Traveling Down the Road

Patricia A. Kelly

As this goes to press, I hope to be asleep after a 12 1/2 hour flight home from Egypt. I've been very lucky to travel and to live in other countries, and my departure reminds me of some of those experiences. The lesson learned, as it can only be learned by seeing in person, is that other people are different than we, in thinking and behavior, and that it's okay. They're quite happy, thank you.


The evening of my arrival at age 16 in Mexico City, my home for the next three months, was spent at a crowded, heavily carved dining room table, surrounded by family members of my host family, the Torregrosas. Even the maids and the cook gathered around to get a look at me.


The cook Oudella, and her daughter Sella, were heavyset with long, dark, wet curly hair. Oudella's had a large plastic comb embedded in the curls. They were wearing housedresses, and were barefoot. Behind them stood small, 14-year-old, giggling Gabriella, servant number three. I was every bit as awestricken at the sight of these women with their gold-toothed smiles as they ever thought about being at me.


Dr. Torregrosa, smiling kindly, asked me to say something in Spanish. I answered, "I can't think of a single word."


I slept in a twin bed in the room of my exchange partner, Maria Luisa, on coarse, starched, muslin sheets, changed daily, under a beautiful crocheted bedspread. This spread was made by the woman I called the crochet lady. She spent a day a week under the translucent courtyard roof outside the kitchen door, crocheting and keeping company with the servants. I don't think we ever spoke, but I admired her from afar.


There was a sewing lady, a coarse-voiced, toothless, skinny crone, who made many of the family's clothes in the upstairs hall outside our bedroom. She smiled a lot, croaked out her Spanish, watched vintage American comedies on TV and, I think, smoked small brown cigarettes.


There was a bidet in the bathroom. The small children in our house believed it was for washing your feet. You should have heard the squeals from behind the closed bathroom door the afternoon my fellow exchange students and I took turns trying it out.


The night after I arrived, Maria Luisa and her sophisticated older sister Anita showed me the ropes, so to speak. Never kiss, hold hands, or dance cheek to cheek with a boy, or people will think you're "easy." Mexican boys think American girls are easy, so each and every one of them will try it. I complied, and they were right. I disappointed several Mexican boys at lovely parties we attended.


I was allowed to date without an adult chaperon, in the afternoon, as long as there were other friends accompanying us. My date of choice for most of the summer was a delightful young man named Mario Monroy Senties.


Mario's father was an architect. They lived in a lovely neighborhood called Chapultepec, and had an incredible swimming pool in their backyard. It was a simple tiled rectangle with what looked like a red dahlia growing, made of small tiles, from each end. Amazing!


I received my one and only kiss from Mario in the restaurant on top of the Torre Latino, on my last night in Mexico. It was a butterfly kiss on my right cheek. He was awesome. I'll never forget it.


I learned a lot in Mexico. I saw great wealth, and great poverty. I really got it the day I saw a lady outside our gate with a small wagon full of jars. Our servants gave her leftover food, and I saw her put two completely incompatible foods in the same jar, after she ran out. I got it. She and her family were really hungry.


I learned that, when you pile your family into the station wagon to drive them through the mountains to Acapulco, it's a good idea to wear your reserve Army general's uniform and to take your (unloaded) pistol to discourage bandidos. Of course, you would never take bullets with a car full of children.


I saw surgery in the hospitals of the poor, as Dr Torregrosa's brother-in-law was a pediatric surgeon. I went from my ranch house in Suburbia to a city house with a courtyard and tropical plants, terrazzo floors, a chauffeur, two maids, a cook an embroidery lady, a laundress, and more. I saw "Topes", rows of little bumps in the roads at street corners where stop signs should have been, as no one would have stopped for a sign.


Later, I lived in the Philippines, where I had servants of my own, a fulltime maid, a seamstress, a gardener and a caddy. The first three cost a total of $39 a month. Fely cleaned and cooked five days a week, and would have stayed six. She polished our linoleum floor dancing on a coconut husk, and baked our bread. I learned from her how to shop in the local market, a tin-roofed affair that reeked of urine, where the temperature surpassed 100 degrees and shrimp sometimes jumped on the tables.


We spent Thanksgiving snorkeling at some offshore islands, where our boatman spear fished for tiny, brightly colored aquarium fish, carefully saved to take home for dinner.


In the Philippines, people ate beetles. Our caddy, Rick, pulled them off the trees, peeled off the carapace and wings and popped them into his mouth. There were people without money to buy rice. There was bribery, extreme fatalism, and yeses that meant no, depending on the slant of the eyebrows of the speaker. There was also great warmth, happiness in the face of poverty, commitment to family, hard work and persistence in the face of adversity. There was a lot for me to learn. Imagine getting that, in a warm country, all you need is a rice pot, some rice and veggies to put in it and a change of clothing to live fairly well. I learned to really define need.


I also had the good fortune to visit Australia and to spend some time chatting with Aborigines. These people hear the voices of their ancestors, have no written language, never developed warm clothing for themselves, even when they killed a kangaroo to eat, and blew their noses onto the ground. Needless to say, European settlers find this habit quite revolting. On the other hand, Aborigines wonder why anyone would want to wrap respiratory secretions in a perfectly good cloth, and put them in their pockets.


So now, blessed again, I'm off to take care of another item on my bucket list, the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, not to mention plenty of other interesting sights. I think the museum interest results from too many childhood horror movies, but, I'm definitely also looking forward to revisiting King Tut's golden sarcophagus again


Travel is the best, and the best for real learning about what makes people different, as well as the same. I'll let you know how it went, this time, in the Valley of the Kings...


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