Being here on this little island between the Atlantic and the Caribbean has taught me a lot of things. I’m sure it didn’t mean to but it has done the job well. I feel like I am have grown a lot being here and I think it is from the simple fact that I have plenty of time on my hands to just THINK. For the most part this has been very positive and has made me so much more aware of myself and where I want to fit in back in my community at home.
Life on Dominica is actually pretty similar to the stereotypical life of the Southern US. They have the small-town mentality in ways both good and bad; everyone knows everything about everyone else (this can be a great thing if you are a newcomer and make the right friends in the beginning, it is impossible to make bad choices about friends or employees if you have half an island advising you), most people don’t leave the island, much less their village, cooking is very steadfast and traditional, families are close, children run around in the street and play on the beach by themselves, religion is strong, and people throw trash out and let it wash back up on the beach. If you went to a small town in Tennessee forty years or more ago this is pretty much what you’d find there (except maybe the trash, I think that is a more modern habit). Most people have a garden or know someone who does, the men work hard and the women cook and clean (although many young people are leaving, especially the women, for overseas education and jobs) But the two things that are the most like the stereotype of the Southern US is that the people are very friendly and hospitable, and the personal space is much smaller. People just show up at each other’s house to sit on the porch and watch the cars drive by. The way to announce you are coming over is to shout as you walk down the driveway. The island is so small you can’t help but bump somehow. But I really got to thinking about this space thing after I wrote my last letter about the Portsmouth Market.
I was trying to imagine a market like the one here (large, loud, bustling, hot, no clear signage, etc) working in Chattanooga for all different types of people. The people I had the hardest time imagining fitting in were people from my own social class- the mainly white, middle class, educated one. And I said to myself “why? Is it the heat, the loudness, the complete casualness (I’ve seen vendors sitting with friends who are taking nips of local rum), the fact that you have to actually stop and get to know the farmer in order to find out where their food is grown, how much it costs, what their name is, and where they are from? Is it the amount of time you have to spend buying your weekly vegetables and fish? My class of people seems to think we no longer have time for ANYTHING- even feeding ourselves home cooked meals- something that I wasn’t even aware I actually believed until I came here and discovered that I have time for anything I want to have time for. Of course having nothing but time helps a good bit.
But then I got to thinking about how I started my last letter- I started by saying that I don’t like crowds of people. Really, if you forced me to admit it I would probably have said straight out that I-don’t-like-people. Which isn’t entirely true at all and sounds horribly antisocial and I would never actually mean. But when I thought about it I discovered that although I don’t NOT like people I don’t feel completely comfortable with them. Which is ridiculous in case you hadn’t already thought that because I AM one of those beings. Of course there is a difference between being somewhat self reliant and/or enjoying being alone (something that some people are almost incapable of for whatever reason and that I have defiantly never had a problem with) and actually not being able to socially interact at all because you are too timid or antisocial. And then it struck me that THIS is why the market wouldn’t work. Because people would be too intimidated to stop and go right in to a real social interaction with people they don’t understand or know (if you truly understand farmers then you are actually a farmer and don’t have to worry about buying your food) It is strange to think that our society is pushing us two ways- in one way it has become hyper important to have lots of friends, be very outgoing and extroverted, and to socially interact in business and at work constantly. The other way has pushed us straight out of interactions with strangers. At home, if I wanted to, I could probably go for weeks and weeks living almost the same lifestyle I live now and never actually interact with another human I don’t know. I could go to the grocery and get all my food and go straight the self-checkout without ever having to say hello or smile at a soul (actually I don’t shop at stores that have those so that’s a lie), if I needed to mail something I just have to drop it in the box (that is assuming I actually mail things like bills and letters still- something that is totally possible to avoid), if I wanted new clothes, to go used book shopping, buy some nice chocolate, or to rent a movie I could do that all from the chair in my living room on my computer- I don‘t even have to talk on the phone. The other day Mike made an interesting observation- he said that you can buy anything you could possibly want directly from the individual, but over the internet (I think he was looking at hand screen printed tee shirts on organic cotton or something). So that means if I wanted a tailor to sew me clothes made from fibers that has been grown sustainably and bought fair trade, or a hat maker to make me a hat, or a handmade bagel with organic flour, or a bead making book I could order my clothes from the guy, my hat from the lady, my bagels from the fella, and my book from the author. To find those things in Chattanooga might actually not only be impossible but also take days and days. And who has time for that? In fact, who has time to peddle their products to one measly town when you can go world-wide? But I am veering from my point (although I totally am a humongous advocate for the good-old-days when you could walk down Main Street and find the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker (we’re just waiting on the ol butcher on our Main St)). My point is that if you are like me and tend towards shyness that it is not only very possible to live a solitary life but also might even be richer in some senses than one you tried to support solely on human interaction- especially if you live in a small budding southern city. But why did this happen? People are not by nature solitary beings. The only reason a strong culture and community exists is because of rather intense and regular social interaction. Imagine a community where you don’t personally know the men and women who grew the food you are feeding yourself and children, where you’ve never seen the land the cotton for your clothes grew on, where the man who makes your hats doesn’t take a tape measure and measure around your head, where your doctor doesn’t have time anymore to stop and listen, where the teacher isn’t interested in the way your child thinks, where your children no longer play outside with other children but inside with devices you might not be able to explain how they work, where you and your brothers and sisters and children no longer spend time with your grandparents and listen to what they learned and have to share from their long lives on this earth, and where your own self is suddenly too busy to shop from all these shops, know the owners, talk to your neighbor, or cook two solid (at least) meals a day and you can‘t figure out why.
Here in Dominica people have plenty of time for all those things but the sad truth is that the clothes are from sources unknown, the candles are not so nice- and certainly not local, the bakers have dwindled to a few large companies, and the butcher with his cleaver at the open air market is being pushed over by imported meat products. Of course, as I have written before, the poorness and isolation of this country protects it from the true horrors that might be lurking around trying to consume innocent communities and cultures. But maybe this is a small part of why no one has jobs. The largest amount of jobs here seem to be either in government or farming. But everyone still visits with their brother, buys food from their farmers, shops at the small village grocery (where you know the owner and his family by name), and has time to sit around and laugh.
Although my social life here has dwindled from hanging-on-by-a-thread to almost non-existent I have learned that if I plan to survive in this community I have to look people in the eye and interact directly with them, something that is surprisingly hard for me. I can’t just read the signs, follow the directions, and feel my way around (whether it be hike, beach trip, carrots, or a paintbrush I want). I have to meet a real live person and ASK; what is a good trail to walk here, how do I get to a beach, how much do these carrots cost, or where in this dimly lit rum bar/grocery/hardware store/pharmacy do you have paintbrushes? And as terrifying as it may seem to ask such a simple question of a complete stranger from a culture unfamiliar to your own, the answer is more often than not even more helpful than you expect. I might learn about a BETTER beach than the one I knew of, or a new way to cook carrots, or that the paintbrushes are right THERE, in between the lentils and the screwdrivers! (by the way, would you like a shot of rum with those brushes?). And nobody reacts the way I’d expect, which is to laugh in my face and tell me that I am extremely stupid. I have been ignored but you learn to not let that hurt your feelings, you just move on the next person. Of course, I am not a super pro at this bold human interaction and if the opportunity is there to pass it off to a fellow human I will do it. But I am much less timid than I was when I came and I am beginning to wonder what it was that made me uncomfortable in the first place. And what is it that makes us as a society so shy of our communities? I am sure it came about from lack of “time” but where did all that time go and what is it going to give our culture?