Friday, September 17, 2010

Can we go out?

When I was a kid, I always wanted to “go out.” I’d ask my mom if we could go out today and she would reply “Where?”

“I don’t know, just… out.” I always wanted to go somewhere fun, that would generally involve shopping, although for the record, going to home depot with dad, despite being a technical example of ‘shopping,’ did not meet the minimal requirements for ‘fun.’ Other than that, I had pretty low standards. I would take a toodle through the IGA with grandma as a good time.

I still find Home Depot the most boring place on earth and I still want to go out. I appreciate coming home a bit more these days, but for the most part, I want to go out and see what is going on. Get me outta here. I will go anywhere – I just want to go!

Ok, that’s not quite true – I should qualify that I have a list of places I will not go. I have informed God that Afghanistan, Somalia and the Central African Republic are off the table. I think the first two are fairly understandable. As for the Central African Republic, the thing is I don’t actually know anything particularly damning against it, but that’s precisely my concern. I’ve never heard anything good either. I am fairly certain it’s in the bottom five on every UN development indicator list ever drafted. It doesn’t have to be the worst, but if you only squeak past Somalia in terms of maternal health but not the Congo, that really isn’t saying much, is it?

But aside from those reasonable exemptions, I’m pretty flexible.

Ok, that’s not true either. I do have a few marginal requirements. For example, I have to have access to reasonable sanitation systems somewhere in the country or at least in my house. Now I am willing to concede that ‘reasonable’ is a loose term. My friends make fun of me because I am incredibly picky about cleanliness in Canadian loos. If a stall isn’t up to snuff, then I have no scruples about rejecting and moving one to the left. “How on earth do you survive in third world countries? You can’t possibly hold it for eight months at a time” They sound only marginally incredulous – like they secretly think I must. Personally, I believe that though I may have to put up with it in third world countries where infrastructure lags decades or centuries behind, I certainly don’t have to do so here in Canada, the land of peace, order and good septic systems. I saw a book at Chapters once on implementing sanitation systems using the basic environmental resources available. I will be purchasing that book and memorizing it. I may not have any ability to fathom modern engineering, but people have been disposing of their poop in creative ways since the dawn of history. I am sure it can’t be that hard to sort out.

So there’s that to consider. Issue number the next is that slight fear of flying. I think we’ve covered that previously. Damn oceans are always in the way. But the truth is, all the good viewpoints in life require taking a bit of a running leap, don’t they?

I’m sorry, that was rather cliché. It’s still true though.

Speaking of oceans, another issue I have is the distance to water. I am from Vancouver. It rains 75% if the year, and you know what? It’s actually wonderful. I’d take 10 degrees and drizzle over -30 and dry any day. My prairie counterparts always counter “oh but it’s a dry cold.”
Hell no.
Forty below zero is just damn cold. Anyway, if you are from Vancouver, I think you are bred with a higher water requirement. You’re not a cactus; you are a kelp. You need the water and you can take more of it. I remember during the dry season in Nicaragua thinking to myself “I could go for a little rain right about now.” I dry out; I get parched. I live in a city that puts up palm trees and pretends it is a tropical rainforest. It is technically a rainforest region – it’s just a temperate one (we tend to downplay that aspect though). What's important is that we get a steady supply of water in large quantities

While any old body of water and a fairly reliable annual rainfall is necessary, a short distance to the ocean in particular is what would be sufficient. There is something about being within a short distance to the ocean that makes one very calm. It’s just good to know it’s there if you ever need to get on a boat in short order – if you need to escape a revolution or if there is a major disaster for instance. It’s also nice to have in case we do end up running out of water after all but have a working desalination machine on hand (I think they mention some pointers on how to build one of those using cedar planks and broken clam shells in the Sanitation for Dummies book). Even if you just feel a little woebegone, it is very calming to have a sit next to the ocean.

So that rules out Uzbekistan for sure (double landlocked).

I have also decided I could not ever move to Abbotsford. Yes, I know it’s in BC, has a fine sanitation system and is within a reasonable distance to the ocean (although, a bit petulant if you ask me – not entirely unreasonable but petulant). I don’t care; it’s still not worth it. I’ll admit that it has some beautiful mountains. But aside from that, all I think of when I picture it is a row of giant box stores and large SUVs sitting in front of them (the Escalade and Durango type, not the respectable 4x4 type).

I don’t have anything against chain stores per se – it’s always nice to find your favourite brand of toothpaste in an unfamiliar town thanks to a neighbourhood Safeway. But these are not the benign type of supermarkets with an overactive cheese section and an aisle of underwear and sweatpants to fill out a few extra square feet. No, places like Abbotsford have the serious big-box giants. There are many heinous reasons to hate them: they mistreat overseas workers and undercut the economy so that we all become addicted to the cracksicle of cheap, disposable consumer culture. But that’s not even what really frosts me about these places. No, it’s actually much less noble: inevitably, you go in, find the ONE thing that is unavailable to you elsewhere and then look at the range of 25 check-out counters and see that you have an option of TWO that are open – both a football field’s distance away from wherever you happen to be standing and each other. By the time you check one to see how busy it is (and it’s always busy, because they hide the true size of the line by snaking it up and down) you find that the other less busy one has filled up. What was just a three-minute trip to get duct tape and popcorn has just left you in line-up limbo until the next morning. You remember that book/movie with Natalie Portman about the girl that gave birth in Walmart? Yeah, she goes in for a pregnancy test and some olives and 9 months later…

Poor Natalie… you’d think her agent or someone would have noticed she was missing.

So, I have ruled out suburbia, landlocked countries, failed states that are terrorism hotbeds and Home Depot. That happily leaves a lot of places though. I am ALWAYS willing to go out to coffee-growing countries. This includes, but is not limited to: Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, Mexico, Kenya, Vietnam (although, I take issue with the mass-production of poor-grade Robusta almost entirely destined to become instant “coffee” so that is qualified heavily), Indonesia, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea and Madagascar.

I recognize that many of these places are exotic. I can lower the bar if that would help. I still enjoy a good toodle around the grocery store (provided it falls below the giant box-store square footage requirement). Even as an adult I have found grocery stores to be at times incredibly wonderful – and other times incredibly harrowing, like Superstore on a Sunday at 3pm when every mother brings her entire brood and shops using the extra-wide carts that double as strollers – it’s the nightmare you imagine it to be, but what have I been telling you about big box stores?

When I lived in Managua, I used to stop by a grocery store called La Union on my way home. Sometimes I needed things; often I just made up an excuse. There was something so calming about the place – maybe it was the air conditioning or the shiny magazines detailing the glamorous lives of the Hispanic world’s royalty or the fact that it had a bookshop in it. Maybe it was the fact that it was the only place in Managua (and thereby in the entire country) that had a steady supply of feta cheese, peanut butter and fine Argentinean wine within five feet of one another. I think what it really was though, is that it was like home. Grocery stores the world over are organized in the same typical way. Moving clockwise or counter-clockwise from the entrance around the perimeter: fruits/vegetables, dairy, meats, fish, bakery. Inside: rows and rows of canned goods, cereals, baking supplies, and then the junk food and – anywhere except Canada – the wine and beer aisle. While I love going out and seeing new things, there is comfort in finding that we all need the same basic things, the world over. The brands lining the aisle of La Union are often different from home, but you can find the same sort of thing that people everywhere love and need: food, beauty and toilet paper.

Nelson Mandela said, “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” I don’t think I can justly boast that that is my intent when I yearn to “go out” but I do think I can justly say it has been the most delightful surprise consequence of all my outings. Some times we go out and find little mundane things that lift our spirits (two-ply on sale!) or we go out and life is forever changed – we cannot return home without seeing things in a new way.