Posted by: fullandbye | May 17, 2011

Norwegian Independence Day!

Today is Norwegian Independence Day. I’m not Norwegian, but growing up in Seattle, I’ve come to know and love no small number of Scandalnavians. Mostly though, today reminds me of the opening passage of Kon Tiki, a passage that I believe ranks as one of the greatest book openings of all time.

It goes,

Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.
If, for example, you put to sea with a parrot and five companions, it is inevitable that sooner or later you will wake up one morning at sea, perhaps a little better rested than ordinarily, and begin to think about it.
On one such morning I sat writing in a dew-drenched log-book:
May 17th, Norwegian Independence Day. Heavy Sea. Fair wind. I am cook today and found seven flying fish on deck, one squid on the cabin roof, and one unknown fish in Torstein’s sleeping bag…
Here the pencil stopped, and the same thought interjected itself: This is really a queer seventeenth of May–indeed, taken all round, a most peculiar existence. How did it all begin?

Granted, I’ve never done anything nearly so badass as sail across the Pacific on a balsa raft just to prove a point. I’m pretty sure that Thor Heyerdahl (and his 5 shipmates) have pretty much all of us beat in the badass department. But what I love about this passage is how succinctly it describes the situation of realizing that a small series of rational choices can suddenly land you in a situation that is, at least by the highly problematic and relative normative standards, very weird.

Say, for example, that a peace corps volunteer just COS’ed and left you all of his pots and pans. And say that your keys fell out of your pocket in a taxi you took to his old house, and say you did not realize your keys were gone until you were locked out of your house that night. This is what happened to me yesterday.

In any event, today I returned to Port Antonio from Moore Town in an attempt to find my keys, or failing that, to at least get the backups (of course there were backups!) cut as my new primary copies. I had no reason to worry over the security implications of losing these keys, but I was really sad to lose the keychains–one a hamsa with the traveler’s prayer written in hebrew on the back, and another a bottle opener shaped like a bear that has been with me since I turned 21 and has opened countless bottles of delicious beer. In any case, the search was on!

So it was. Soon after arriving at the Texaco station that serves as the transit hub of Porti, I had managed to enlist pretty much all the taxi men in my cause to find my keys and they all assured me it could be done. Unfortunately, we followed a red-herring at first and so I waited a long time for Jason’s Mitsubishi when I should have been trying to track down Fedex’s corolla sedan. I did not remember the car other than that it was a black sedan–itself a bit of a rarity–but everyone assumed that this could only mean Jason.

Eventually Jason arrived, and the lack of keys in his car confirmed my suspicion that it was somebody else. Jason did not know Fedex’s number but he had my number and said he would work on getting Fedex’s number and he would call me with it and I could track down Fedex that way. Bit of a bump, but so far so good.

Eventually, yet another taxi man (Tinka) claimed to have seen Fedex’s sedan at the garage in Prospect, so off I went with him to Prospect to see if things would pan out. Unfortunately the car in Prospect only looked like Fedex’s car, and Fedex was nowhere to be found when…A phone call!

Jason with a number for Fedex? Nope! Fedex himself? Of course not. The voice on the other end of the line was a friend of a friend of Jason who had a number he thought might belong to Fedex. Good enough to be worth a shot. I dialed the numbers and lo! Fedex on the line! He remembered driving me to Anchovy yesterday and had a set of keys in the car that he thought were mine. The only problem is that he was on his way back to Porti from Kingston and would be awhile returning.

By this point, the car I was traveling in had pulled into a yard to drop off an entire family of four. And so I found myself describing the keys and keychains to Fedex while the family looked on, clearly amused at my detailed description of a keychain shaped like a hand and a bottle opener in the shape of a bear…

And here I thought to myself “This has turned into a rather strange day”. It became even stranger (and sweeter) when a little girl in this family, sympathetic to my frenzied state, wandered in the house and returned with a mango taken from their tree.

In any event, Fedex called as he returned from Kingston and all it took was a quick trip to the street from the internet cafe to finish the handoff. Keys are returned to me. The taxi men will be shortly notified that the search is off, and life will return to “normal”.

And here is where things get extra weird. The transit system in Jamaica appears to be pure chaos, but there is really an order underlying everything. From the time the search for Jason began to the time I met up with Fedex to get my keys was less than three hours and it would have been less than hour had Fedex not been out of parish.

In the immortal words of my friend Huelo (currently a PCV in Bulgaria), “It takes a village to babysit an absentminded American”. I had more successtoday with this informal system than I’ve had tracking luggage with the highly developed systems of major airlines. Given this practical situation, my pre-existing notions of chaos and order were shown to be remarkably ill-founded. I should not be surprised. But somehow I am.

This controversion is the strange and wonderful nature of cultural immersion that happens over months and years. It is no ordinary thing to find a fish in your friend’s sleeping bag, but taken in context it makes some sense. Likewise, it is no ordinary thing to talk about an aluminum bear while standing in the front lawn of a family of strangers, but taken in context…what else was I to do?

An entire cadre of Peace Corps Volunteers closed their service yesterday and returned to the US. It has been 716 days and this morning since I left Seattle and I have not been back yet. I’m going for my first visit home in August. I’m really excited but I’m also really curious. This morning proved to me the extent to which the strange has become familiar but I have yet to experience how the familiar has become strange.

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