In my continuing series of Letters Home, I am happy to answer my friend, Nora's, inquiry about cultural differences. Of course, we all know there are bound to be cultural differences, but what are they? She asked, specifically, for those that really struck me when we first moved here. There are no shortage of those. I'll describe a couple here (with brief guest appearance by my husband). I find that my ability to adapt to these cultural gaps is startlingly simple and simultaneously a total pain in the ass.
First, as I mentioned in my initial blog back in December: the smells in Rwanda are unique and extraordinarily different than anything I have ever smelled in North America or Europe. Much of the scents here are dust, dirt, flora, fauna; but, there's that one element that screams of a huge cultural divide between Rwanda and the U.S.: the un-deodorized bodies. Though we see deodorant for sale in all the major supermarkets, I don't think I've, yet, met anyone who uses it. The human body, here in Rwanda, has a spicy scent that is, to my olfactory senses, slightly offensive, and there are certainly flavors.
The other day, two men came to fix our alarm, and as I whisked past them in my hallway, I suddenly had vivid images of Uganda in my mind. Theirs was not the typical Rwandan body odor. I have NO explanation for why this is. But, I know the different scents. The Ugandan scent is a bit lighter, more spicy. The body odor of Rwanda has been, typically, more sickly sweet with an underlying, thick sense of earthiness that hits you, hard, at the back of your throat.
That observation of a cultural difference may seem a little harsh to some of you. I felt it was essential to share because I want so many of you to understand that some of the biggest cultural differences here (and everywhere I have lived) seem to be the smallest things. I always rack my brain, trying to come up with the big, the bold, the wacky differences, and then I realize it's the small stuff. It always is.
On that note, and with a much more pleasurable cultural difference, are motos. In Uganda, they are, so delightfully, named boda bodas. I wish they called them that here, too, but, alas, they do not. What are they, you ask? Ahh, a very good question.
Let me tell you, first, that after I lived in Uganda in 2008 for a mere 3 and a half months, I pined, shrilly, for boda bodas when I returned to DC. My life was so much easier in Kampala, so cheap, so reliable, so quick. In D.C. I, instead, had to take Metro, or a bus, or my bike or a taxi.
Motos are, of course, motorcycles. Taxi motorcycles. And, the bonus in Rwanda, is that they are all registered with the government and each driver carries a helmet for his passenger. The other bonus is that they only allow one passenger per bike (in Uganda, they pack 'em on there till someone falls off--then they know it's time to go).
|A Ugandan Pile Up (photo courtesy of Google)|
|Ridin' in Rwanda (photo courtesy of Google)|
Yes, this is dangerous, but I wear the helmet every time. And it is SO MUCH FUN! I have been advised to get my own helmet that fits my head snuggly. The best are made in the US with kevlar (by the Army, presumably?). Regardless, I am careful and tell the driver to slow down when things feel like they are getting out of hand (drivers are usually very good with me). In addition, I can walk to most of the places I need to get to (post office, grocery story, cafe, etc.). But I defy any of you to try to reject this cultural difference when you get here. Gosh, they're fun!
Finally, when I spoke to Mark to find out what cultural differences struck him, I found my husband slightly more reticent on the subject. He was, however, succinct in his reply to my query: "I like how dignified and proud Rwandans often are. I very seldom hear a self-deprecating comment." He went on to say that he doesn't often find he can even figure out what the cultural differences are in a country until he has been there for a very long time. So, stay tuned: he'll probably have more to share in a year or two. My two cents on his observation: people here are very proud and there is not a lot of irony. I'm curious to see how that plays out with my slightly sarcastic sensibilities, in the long run. I know this: I will likely never stop wearing deodorant, I will always pine for motos when we leave this country and I will adapt to this curious lack of irony--I promise. Really.