Africa Beards, Expat Guilt, and Mac’n'Cheese
Last summer, it was a beard. This summer, it’s Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
Almost exactly one year ago, I arrived in Uganda, expecting to see some elephants, learn a bit of Luganda, raft down the Nile, and maybe, in between visits to national parks, do a bit of economic research on agricultural cooperatives. It didn’t quite work out as expected. I spent the next seven weeks working eighteen hours seven days a week, all the while battling against the implausibility of our research design, the madness of my coworkers, and all manner of comical medical problems. I left fifteen pounds lighter, even counting the quite hideous beard I had managed to grow.
There were a handful of reasons why I went razor-free for the summer. For one, the truly hideous fuzz was a source of humor for me and my fellow RAs even in the darkest of times. The guest house where I stayed had neither hot water nor a mirror, so looking sharp seemed like an overly daunting challenge (Never mind that my Ugandan co-workers were inevitably dressed to the nines and squeaky-clean every day). More than anything, though, growing a beard was a bit symbolic of the mentality I took with me to Africa. It’s a mindset of relaxed personal standards that I think many Westerners carry, packed in alongside their guidebooks and bug repellant, when the travel to the developing world. The third world is, we tell ourselves, a bit freer and a tad less disciplined—which is part of our justification for making drunken asses of ourselves in Cancun or visiting hookers in Bangkok.
This summer, though, there will be no prolonged facial-hair-growth. I have interviews with government ministers and NGO presidents, and as a result, I’m taking a page out of my Ugandan friends’ grooming book. In fact, I think I’ve worn a button up shirt for more consecutive days then any time previously in my life, an experience I’m—rather surprisingly—enjoying. Who could have possibly guessed that not looking like hell would provide a jolt of confidence?
Instead, my weakening of personal standards has come in a different form, which is, I am afraid to say, a bit direr: for the past two weeks, I have been a lacto-ovo-vegetarian. I decided I would be loosening up my usual veganism before I even arrived, having been warned by nearly everyone I talked to that survival as a vegetarian in Ecuador was going to be hard enough, without added restrictions. I suppose there’s an element of truth to their cautioning: I’ve already received several lectures from my host mother about how I’m going to become feeble and fragile if I don’t start eating meat, and most waiters just seem puzzled when I ask if there’s a vegetarian dish. Still, though, I’m surviving, and, for the most part, content with the moral compromise I have made in the name of minimizing my already nearly unmanageable stress levels.
This weekend, though, I think I took “compromise”to a new level. I needed change for a $20 bill, a massively large denomination that is almost impossible to break in Ecuador.* Feeling the need to compensate the local corner store for cleaning out all of their small bills, I bought a seriously overpriced box of authentic, fantastically overprocessed Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Consuming an entire family sized box in one sitting—replete with a cup of milk and a few ounces of butter—was, I think, a culmination of the animal-product binge I’ve been on since I got here. If I’m breaking the rules a bit, I suppose, I might as well break them a lot: hence, an endless stream of pizza, cake, cookies, omelettes, and yogurt.
I’ve written before about how being vegan anchors my sense that, yes, I am in fact a moral being, and yes, I do occasionally live those morals. Here, though, I’ve been thinking more about how my decision to go from vegan to vegetarian appears to other people. I’ve explained to a handful of Ecuadorians that “Yes, I’m usually vegan—but while I’m here, I’m just vegetarian.” From the relativist perspective of anthropology, temporarily suspending my veganism is a Good Thing, because it indicates that I am not trying to impose my Western idiosyncracies on a foreign culture. It strikes me as a bit awkward, though, because here I am, offering that same expat mentality: “Hi, I have morals in my country, but they don’t really apply when I’m here.” It is, in a sense, no less diresprespectful than growing a really, really ugly beard.
In the name of my own sanity, I think I’m going to postpone my return to level-seven veganism until I get back to a country where tofu is a household word. In the meantime, though, I’m trying to sort out the right way to live in a foreign country—to balance the openness of anthropology with my own ethical beliefs, and to find an equilibrium between high standards and the fact that I am, sort of, on vacation.
* Remember how one time the U.S. Government released a bunch of Sacagawea dollar coins… and then they were never seen again? That’s because they’re all in Ecuador.