Dislocation, Dislocation, Dislocation
By Peg Clement
This classic "Lost Luggage" reprint first appeared on Talesmag in 2003.
One day you're sipping a warm frothy mocha cappuccino with your best girlfriend in a Starbucks on a cozy Saturday morning; your hands wrap around the warm mug and you huddle together. The next day you're gulping down a tepid instant Nescafé (the grains don't even melt) alone, in a dank kitchenette 3,000 miles from home, watching army ants march across your countertop. Nothing is right with the world.
I know whereof I speak. Although this is my sixth move to Africa as a development worker (and third as a single parent), it hasn't gotten any easier.
My life is intolerable. A frickin' nightmare. In total disarray. I'm starting this journal instead of throwing myself in front of a train. I don't even know if Zimbabwe has trains.
I burned out my trusty dual-voltage clock radio just now by forgetting to flip that tiny switch on the underside to 220 volts. It didn't sizzle or phhhht; it just doesn't work now. This despite my best efforts to bring every kind of plug I ever owned - fat prongs, skinny prongs, three prongs, two prongs, bulky British things.
Plus, what's with carpenters in developing countries? They install only one darn outlet plug in each room. Where on earth to find an extension cord or one of those multiplug doo-dads now? I haven't ventured out to any stores yet.
Genny suddenly has welts on her face - mosquito bites? Heat stroke? Where's a doctor? I couldn't call one if I knew; there's no phone in this apartment.
No dressers in the two bedrooms. Our clothes and her toys are lined up on the floor against the walls. If I didn't have this maddening cat with us, we could have stayed in a hotel.
Neighbors are looking in the windows.
Tonight we had cold potatoes with congealed oleo on top. The landlord, a cordon bleu chef with a walleye, says he'll bring us food till we get on our feet. But he's brought rum raisin ice cream and this mashed potato thing he calls cottage pie. My 8-year-old is not amused.
The Mobil map of Harare has started falling apart already - all 35 pages of it. Poor binder's glue.
I didn't fall asleep despite half-rations of a sleeping pill. I brought only nine of them; must use sparingly.
I can't find a file folder, a rubber band, a band-aid, sometimes even a pen. All I have is a cat and a daughter - no home, no car, no schedule, no workout, no e-mail, no friends, no housekeeper, no identity even. Who cares?
I fill in forms every day. Applications, registrations. And stop dead at the "address" part. Do I put this flat? My rented home I just abandoned in New York? My work back home? Does anyone else in the world have no address like me?
All is lost. A crummy decision to come here. Back in the States, everything was cool, I was on automatic pilot, everything was in place, in order, efficient. Now I'm reduced to a babbling idiot with no life.
Genny got up in the middle of the night before her first day of school today. She put on her carefully laid-out new clothes and came into my bedroom to say she was ready for school. At 1:20 a.m. One eye puffed with welts still. What IS that?
No more toilet paper. Each roll had about 10 squares on it, for crying out loud. I really need to find a store now; these little Kleenex packs from home won't last.
Third day and still no head-on collision. Thank the lord for small miracles. I bark over my shoulder at Gen not to talk while I'm concentrating on the right- hand-side driving. She gets real quiet.
Speaking of cars, there are no effing seatbelts in this rental contraption!
In fact, we're actually living sort of dangerously all around. No car papers in the glove box. If Gen winds up with a fever, I have no idea where to find a doctor or hospital. Is there a 9-1-1 service? Is it safe to drink this unhomogenized milk? And these bars and gates on the apartment - I'm keeping out whom precisely?
Cell phone education time. What is the "hash" key on this new Nokia they sold me today? What does "M.E.S." mean in the house "adverts" in the paper? Is a traffic light really a "robot?" I'm hearing "cozzie" and "designation," "filter," "give that a skip," "backies," "glam," and above all, SHAME. Everyone says SHAME to me, about the jet lag, the rain, ripping my skirt on the car's fender.
My back is going out. I have to ease into the car to go look at potential houses ramrod stiff, it hurts so much. Tossing in bed at 4:00 a.m., stark awake with jet lag, I have to roll over all in one piece.
My cosmetic kit has only five more Motrin, seven more sleeping pills. I have eight more Kellogg's Miniwheat cereals from home, 10 more sandwich baggies for Genny's lunches (no school cafeteria here), three-fourths of a jar of peanut butter (Skippy!), a pound of kitty litter left, and one bar of my favorite Dove soap.
Neighbors still walk by and look into my curtainless windows. A guard with a billy stick does, too.
This evening: steady drip, drip just outside the eaves onto something metal - Chinese water torture - clank clank. Yippee: another noise to listen to, as I lie awake at night tonight.
My briefcase is serving as my office, desk, and file cabinet all at once. I do work leaning inside the trunk ("boot") of the car. Office Auto.
Skitters threw up from, I guess, the change in food - Whiskers, at some rip-off price. She threw up right onto Genny's clothes on the floor of her wardrobe. At least I made my first foray into a grocery store today. Talk about depressing. Yogurt comes in only plain and banana and strawberry. I don't recognize any brands of milk or cereal or pasta.
Semanus Terribulus. Black Thursday today, cold cereal for supper, spent an hour in gridlock downtown in this rattletrap of a crap piece of rented metal junk. I am floundering, reeling, flat out since last Thanksgiving even, the move, the flights, thousands of arrangements. Spinning my wheels.
Can barely get the morning's clothes together. Straight from the suitcase, my office skirt and blouse are rumpled. Iron? Hah!
The darkest hour is just before dawn.
I didn't even know you had to turn ON the cell phone, and leave it on. It's my first cell phone ever! I thought it would kick on automatically with an incoming call. I've probably missed 10 calls for great houses for rent, for an office rental, from Genny's new teacher offering soothing honeyed words of comfort.
This shower can't even keep its own temperature. I'm getting alternately scalded and frozen as it switches back and forth. Gen can't seem to get the hang of the "telephone" hose that turns my tub into a shower. I "shower" on my knees kneeling in the tub. What's this country's aversion to shower stalls, anyway?
Oh yeah, overseas life as an expatriate is really, really exotic, you folks back home.
These young guys selling worms at the side of the roads - are they really LSD drug fronts? Really?
And get this: You can shove 200 V appliances with European plugs into the wall here, but only if you dismantle a local plug, remove the ground pin, and insert it manually into the wall's third socket hole! The guy who mows the landlord's back lawn showed me how. The lawnmowers here are electric. This is a trip.
I'm not getting the school lunches together well. In fact, I'm not getting three squares together at all. On this two-plate burner, a toaster, and one pan. White bread, cold French fries brought in by Le Chef, mealy apples I bought at the roadside, and now only 5 Mini-Wheats left.
The main problem is: I get no reprieve from the pressures of the move - a meeting on Day 1, school for Gen on Day 3, the conference involving that gruff Minister of Health and our Ambassador, and everyone here is sleeping at night.
Not enough light in our "flatlet." Maybe I have Seasonal Affective Disorder. That too. I can hardly read my book, certainly can't see well enough to pluck my eyebrows.
I badly need a surge protector for the laptop, I think; there are lightning storms out there. And this country has the highest rate of folks killed by lightning hits in the world! Great.
Gen was left unclaimed at school today. A mother's greatest embarrassment. They called my cell, which I had had to switch off in a meeting at the Ministry, then someone handed me a message. I cannot work like this till I make some arrangements for her in the afternoons. School lets out at 2:00 for cripes sake! No after-school care programs here, no sirreeee.
Our one source of evening "entertainment" is gone. The satellite dish inexplicably went out tonight - fuzz, snow. But a neighbor came over, so maybe there's hope for a social life after all. She's Italian. Her husband works on a rig in Angola. Her son Francisco is 10; her driver can take Gen to school sometimes, she said.
This no-phone thing is bad. This is a bad, bad thing. The mobile phone is still a mystery. And usually runs out of charge.
Myriad decisions. Thirty competing priorities.
No PBS. No beloved NPR, no whole wheat bread, no fat-free dressings, no 24-hour stores, no recycling, no School's Out, no 800 numbers, no garbage disposal, no celery, no notice boards with apartments for rent, those little tear-off tabs with phone numbers you can collect, go home, and start calling. No Borders, no library, no drive-up window at the bank. No garage sales or PTAs. Can't find a public photocopier.
I carry around wads of cash, forget to lock the car against carjackers, can find no place to jog yet, and the worst of it is: I still have no address for the forms.
They wouldn't take my credit card today for the office supplies because someone defrauded them out of $1,000 last week. Weird.
Each time I want to e-mail, it involves a half-hour drive downtown to the Sheraton, parking, maybe the business center is open, maybe not, maybe the computers are up and running, maybe not. They charge by the minute; screen changes take 45 seconds EACH. Today I saw my e-mail inbox: 75 messages. That would take 3 hours just to read, let alone respond to.
There's mud everywhere. Red mud. Gen tracks it home from school into this flat. Maybe I can ask my Italian neighbor if I can borrow her maid for a half day.
Still living out of the two suitcases on the floor. My shipment - now that's a laugh. I'll see it maybe next summer.
Language, customs, climate, roads, driving, shopping, new work, BAM.
A modicum of normalcy - I went swimming, someone invited me to a nice welcome dinner (had to bring Gen and stuff her into their TV room), I may have found a babysitter for next week, the cell phone answering machine works now. Like a settling newborn, I am finally sleeping through the night.
Cockroaches in the kitchen this evening.
Skitters disappeared yesterday. This $400 cat who survived 36 hours in a portable kennel aboard KLM and Kenya Airways. Then she chose 4:00 a.m. to meow me awake at my bedroom window. Just when I'd been getting my body trained to sleep in Africa, seven time zones away from home.
What's a "current" account at the bank? What's "forex?"
All these stolid humorless beefy ex-Rhodesian locals tell me they'll gladly move out of their houses and let me rent them, charging me in US dollars. I feel like a cash cow of foreign currency. Oh, so that's forex. OK.
Three more baggies.
We played our 50th game of Mancala tonight.
Still no office, no house, no regular e-mail, and Gen now wants to sleep in my bed at night. She's so quick to burst into tears these days.
One Month Later
On Wednesday we move into our new home with the Main-En-Suite (Zimfrench for a bathroom off the parents' bedroom, I now know). There's no phone there either. But I love the monkey nut trees, the pecan trees in the back yard, and the rooms are flooded with sunlight.
I found this jigsaw puzzle for sale at Bon Marché (more Zimfrench) - a simple kitty portrait on a pink background thing. We did it in the darkened living room this evening. Only 100 pieces; so much for that.
The city's 34 gas stations are shuttered; the country has run out of gas. My bike came in my air shipment; but someone stole the derailleur.
Friday @ New House
All in all, a normal day. I'm rounding the corner.
A loud tinkbell bird tinks me awake mornings; our housekeeper Margaret is going to make meatloaf tonight. I'm doing my sit-ups again, someone at USAID sold me four sacks of river sand to use as cat litter. Francisco came over as Gen's first playmate here. This weekend: an outing to see hanging rocks, a picnic with Sandy from school. I am breathing. Shipment scheduled for March 10; I can live with that.
Starbucks it ain't, but today I found some coffee arabica, so I can ditch the tin of Nescafé.
© 2003 by Peg Clement
Peg Clement, 50, has moved 38 times. Her career in international relief and development projects has taken her to live for 15 years in six African countries: Tunisia as a Peace Corps volunteer, Somalia working on refugee relief, Mozambique as a CARE employee involved with famine relief during their civil war in the 1980s, Madagascar training business school students and helping with rain forest preservation programs, Morocco as a training specialist with 15 private and public sector schools, and Zimbabwe as a democracy advisor inside the country's Parliament.
Peg now works at the State University of New York in Albany, NY, on democracy and governance projects in developing countries of Africa and Latin America. She publishes locally, regionally, and nationally with essays of her experiences as an expatriate woman and mother.