November 21, 2007

The Spice of Expat Life

Bwera mami! Tiyende! Shoot.”
- Brandon’s alcohol-induced mini-bus conductor impression

One of the best things about Lusaka is the awkwardness of expat life. On a daily basis I’m gawked, hawked and talked at, not usually in a menacing way but brusquely enough to keep me on my toes. In return I generally confuse the locals with eating nshima daily, jogging around the neighbourhood with vintage Mel Gibson hair and joking that it's my life's dream to be a mini-bus conductor (the gruff fellow who collects fares and harasses passersby to get on board).

It’s these kind of cross-cultural exchanges that get me through the days of endless back sweat, NGO frustration and homesickness. In a quiet city like Lusaka where it’s easy to slip into work-eat-sleep tedium, these interactions are a welcome reprieve from the inertia of expat life, as uncomfortable as they can seem at the time.

Sometimes, though, the absurdity of living and working over here can get out of hand. Saturday night was one of those times.

Even though I'm not the type to sequester myself in an over-guarded enclave with my own kin, I agreed to attend the 232nd Annual Marine Corps Birthday Celebration on promise of free food, drink and a perverted glimpse into American expat culture.


Lusaka's Taj Pamodzi hotel could have been Anytown, USA that night - the closest thing I can compare it to is a dreadful Amway flag-hag rally my mother once dragged me to in Cleveland. Sure enough, the marines came marching in lockstep to the national anthem, Old Glory and guns a' blazing, their gunnery sergeant barking orders and something about Iwo Jima. The corps - six spindly embassy guards no older than 20 - weren't about to be re-assigned to Gitmo anytime soon, but that didn't stop assorted guest speakers from branding them the heroic defenders of the military-industrial complex for the better part of two hours.

The keynote, none other than the marine commander himself, delivered a Georgia peach of an address. "I don' wanna offend anyone," he said in a beautiful Southern accent, "but I think you can compare the military to a pack o' dogs. The Air Force, y'all are French Poodles; well-trained and purdy, but always ready to nip at someone's heels. The army, well, you're a big ol' St. Bernard; clumsy, a bit smelly, but powerful. And the navy, you gotta be a Golden Retriever; faithful, a bit dopey and y'all love the water (laughs). But us, the Marines, we're like a Rottweiler; always vigilant, always ready to go for the throat. From Okinawa and Iwo Jima to Basra and Fallujah...[insert historically inaccurate militant rhetoric]" After a standing ovation and cutting a 'birthday' cake with a massive sword, dinner was finally served.

Riding a high of alcohol and chicken satay-fuelled nationalism, the weekend warriors hit the dance floor for a frighteningly synchronized Macarena while their teenage daughters mobbed the cigar-smoking marines. As I sat in quiet bemusement at the 'foreigners' table, I wasn't even in Africa anymore - I'd been transported into some expat purgatory which was entirely more terrifying than my attempts at local integration.

"Bwera, tiyen"(Come on, let's go) I said to my Zambian friends with a laugh, "I'll take riding the mini-bus over this any day."

1 comment:

Bryn said...

yeah they had that in NDJ too - 70 bucks to be indoctrinated in the fortress-like American Embassy? I made a point of missing the dinner and 45 minute History of the Marines slideshow.