To survive with any kind of sanity intact when living overseas, it is best to learn right away that you can’t stop the craziness from happening, so flexibility and an ability to laugh at the situation, solve it and move on are necessities. (Luckily, none of these things take up any suitcase weight, so they are easy to haul from city to city, post to post, country to country.)
These traits are not ones that come naturally to many folks, myself included. Having been raised in the same house in southern Idaho for my entire life, I had a pretty set outlook on how the world around me should be. My days had a pattern to them that made sense for a middle class family with fifteen llamas and some room to run. Drop me in the middle of the Dominican Republic at the age of eighteen and suddenly, that box that I knew so well didn’t hold the right tools for day to day life. There was no large lawn that needed to be divided and conquered by the kids, no llama stalls to muck or bales of hay to haul to the feeder and no endless piles of books and newspapers to flip through as I lazed away a Sunday afternoon. (Three kids meant splitting major chores three ways, but I got pretty good, as the middle child, at finding ways to make my portion a bit smaller whenever I could. With the lawn, I quickly learned that taking the middle section and offering to mow first had some major advantages. By mowing first, I could accidently forget to take care of the section we loving called the “grasshopper lawn” and then it suddenly became the job of the sibling with the third that also connected to that part. And by making my end line a few yards in on either side, I could save myself a few passes with the mower, leaving them to the others to clean-up. The stalls were a bit harder to divvy up, but multiple breaks to lean on my pitchfork or always being the wheelbarrow pusher and then taking the long route back saved me a few scoops here and there.)
There I was, eighteen years old and living in a land that was vastly different from anything I had known. I was with a school group, but we each lived with a local family, so I was often on my own and flexibility and spur of the moment problem solving were not really a part of my repertoire at that time. Having been in the country only a few days, it was time to start school at the local university. My host family took me in a cab, but I was too overwhelmed to really focus and keep track of our routing. After a morning of orientation, I was expected to return to my host-home for lunch and the afternoon break. While everyone else seemed to scatter as soon as we were released, I quickly realized I had no idea in which direction I lived. None. And I had no idea what to do. Eventually, one of the counselors for our program must have seen the stricken look on my face and quickly consulted his list of addresses for foreign students and put me in a cab back to my residence, at which point I couldn’t even figure out which floor I lived on. (I’d blame jetlag, but it was only a three-hour time difference. It was more being so far out of my comfort zone that at the time, I didn’t even know where to start in processing this new life.) Luckily, Host Mom was standing on the balcony, yelling “Rubia! Rubia!” Figuring I was the only blonde girl in the entire neighborhood, I followed her directions until I made it home. Talk about learning on the fly!
Luckily, by the time we moved to China with Peace Corps, I had nearly an extra decade under my belt, with more foreign travel and general life experience to guide me. I quickly adapted to the 9AM calls on Saturday morning, telling me to be at the gate in twenty minutes for a department outing to the countryside. (Who needs a shower if you are going to the countryside anyway, right? And personal time?? It doesn’t exist if the danwei leader wants an outing. You just go.) Having course schedules change the night before the new term became routine and learning that all exams must only be marked in red ink or they must be remarked were tidbits that I just stocked away for the next round of classes.
Knowing that there is no way to know how a day is going to go, I shouldn’t have been surprised this week when I went to do a bit of grocery shopping and ended up with a barricade behind my car, at yet, I must admit to a minute of sheer wonder. How did that pole grow organically from the asphalt in the twenty minute I was gone?
Here’s the deal. On my way home from volunteering at a local refugee school (blog post on that to come soon!), I decided to stop at a local grocery store to grab a few items. It was just after lunch and the small parking lot was packed! I drove around the side of the building and found a great spot near the end of the spaces available. Pleased with my parking, I headed in to by some crazily overpriced cheese, some pasta-fixings and a few odds and ends snacks.
I wasn’t in the store more than twenty minutes.
As I did a bit of 4-wheeling with my cart across the parking lot that could play backup to Craters of the Moon, my focus was mostly on keeping my cart going in something resembling a straight line. I didn’t actually look at my car until I was nearly behind it, at which point I spotted the newly arrived pole. I stopped, looked around, double checked that this really was my vehicle (our make/model is super popular amount ex-pats in KL) and once I’d confirmed that yes, this was my SUV, I took another minute to ponder. How had I parked there? Where did the pole come from? And more importantly, what was I going to do?
My first thought was to just pull it out myself. Sure, why couldn’t I, wearing a dress and sandals, just yank that metal pole out of the ground? Needless to say, plan A was a bust. After shoving my groceries in the backseat (there was no way the trunk was lifting with that pole inches away), I went in search of a parking lot attendant. While explaining my situation, the guard looked confused, so I just asked him to walk with me to my car. As we got about halfway down the line of vehicles, he started laughing and said, “Oh, that is *your* car.”
Yes, that is my car!
Without another word, he unwound a giant linked chain, did some magical pushing and pulling on the pole and out it came. As he dragged it across the asphalt, he motioned for me to pull my car out and be on my way. No explanation, no apology. This is just the way it is.
All those years ago in the Dominican Republic (I’d rather not date myself by saying just how long ago it was, but suffice to say, I had no email address, as the internet was nearly non-existent, especially in Santiago and calls from home were horribly expensive long distance, once a month), had I been in a similar situation, I’m pretty sure I would have sat down on the curb, tears in my eyes, waiting for someone to make it better. Luckily, a few handfuls of countries and even more ridiculously random events later, Tuesday’s outing didn’t ruffle a feather.
Heck, it was nearly a VIP parking spot! If only the chain were a red velvet rope…