Monday, September 9, 2013

Mala(droite) is Mala(ly) Dressed in Trinidad

When I was 20, there was one place I always wanted to go to: Europe. As you may recall, this unhealthy obsession with the continent resulted in many episodes, a particularly traumatizing one of which resulted in a maniacal bubble bath incident. Now that I am older (no comments on the wiser), my tastes have become less geographically dependent. In other words, if I have to see another European church, I will throw up. Then perhaps I will take a bubble bath.

These days, my only criteria in traveling are to see something I haven’t seen before, or see friends and eat junk food.  So when I finally knew for sure a move to South Africa would not be happening for work, I decided to use 9 days of the inevitable downtime brought on by a lackluster New York international development community summer to go to a new country. That box must be ticked every year; it’s imperative.

Even though my understanding of the world has dramatically changed over the years, my decision making process for most things still consists of the same three steps:

1.     Choose something random
2.     Justify said random thing in my head through mind tricks and self-conditioning
3.     Bombard friends, family, or unsuspecting interns with unanswerable questions to reinforce my justification of said random thing.

After spending an hour zooming in and out of the world on Google Earth, I finally landed on a small country I’d once heard has a ton of my brethren – Trinidad. A little scared off by the prospect of once again assuming my position as the awkward Indian, I decided that the cost to get there trumped all other factors. After all, the plane ticket price difference between Trinidad and EUROPE could buy at least 10 hours of therapy. I figured that should be enough to work through any identity crises.

In the midst of my mind tricks and self-conditioning to justify my decision, I took the occasion to demonstrate to the world the degree of my nerdiness by looking up the following:

·      Weather data to see if rainfall patterns will make it an enjoyable experience during the specific period I am there
·      The GINI coefficient, GDP per capita, infrastructure, and transparency indexes
·      The 3G and WIFI coverage across the country

Satisfied with the information I found, I then moved to step three of my decision making process in the form of interrogating our office interns. Like most people in America, they both knew of people who were from, had been to, or had heard of Trinidad. Based on the combined twelve seconds of conversation this country had taken in their lives, I asked a series of questions pertaining to specific cultural phenomenon, the transitioning economic status, and the logistics of getting around the country. Though their answers mostly consisted of blank stares and a few hints that end of my tenure in the office could not come soon enough, I felt I successfully fulfilled step three, and booked a ticket.

For those of you international development/affairs/anthropology people reading this post, I know you can relate to the very complicated and delicate process of packing for a trip like this. Though I was going on a vacation, assembling my outfits required a semi-sacred ceremony that comes with fieldwork: the Ceremony of Clothes Separation.

The Ceremony of Clothes Separation is especially important for the female sex, and involves the painstaking process of organizing clothes by both appropriateness and crappiness. Ceremonies generally result in four categories of clothes, as follows:

-       Category 1, Bumf**k Developing Country: These are clothes that have once doubled as rags, your dog’s chew toy, or clothes you wore while painting your apartment. The ONLY appropriate location to wear clothes that fall into Category 1 is in bumf**k Africa, Asia, South America or the like. No matter what dirt surface you must use as a bed, no matter what insect, animal, or child attacks you, no matter how blazing hot the sun may be, no matter how much you sweat, poop, or urinate yourself, it does not matter; there are no standards to be met in Category 1 clothes.

-       Category 2, Big City Developing Country: One solid step above Category 1, Category 2 clothes are appropriate to be seen in big African, Asian, South American, or the like cities, but are still meant to be sweated through in poorly ventilated markets, public health facilities, or government offices. These clothes provide moderate comfort while ensuring those around you that you are neither a prostitute nor trying to be blatantly disrespectful of the prevailing culture or religion.

-       Category 3, Middle America: These are clothes appropriate in the company of middle, suburban Americans (and Canadians), and are generally found in Kohl’s, American Eagle, or other blah stores.

-       Category 4, Normal Life: Normal life clothes are those you wear in your day-to-day existence at home in New York, San Francisco, Europe, Dubai, Tokyo, Montreal, or the like. One or two Category 4 outfits must be included in your suitcase regardless of the final developing country destination, as completely leaving these outfits out will inevitably be met with your long lost friend inviting you to dinner during your layover in Paris, forcing you to roam the streets in smelly, sweat-stained Category 1 or 2 clothes, and resulting in immediate entry denial at the door of your favorite restaurant. No crêpes for you, Mademoiselle, no crêpes for you.

Being a woman traveling alone, assembling the clothes I would take could make or break my experience in Trinidad, for how to not draw attention to myself while also not passing out from heatstroke while also being allowed in public places in proper cities is a delicate balance. Somehow, some way, after all of my trips to Africa and Asia, I made a cardinal mistake – nearly all of the clothes I packed fell in Category 2. After all, there would be no major European or Middle Eastern city layovers on this trip. Made sense to me. Unfortunately it did not make sense to Trinidad.

From my nerd research, I knew Trinidad is solidly a middle income/medium economically developed country. What I forgot is that countries that fall in this area of the economic development spectrum often take on a strange phenomenon – a lot of people in major cities have enough money to buy nice things, including nice clothes, nice shoes, good jewelry, etc. BUT, the idea that economically developed countries have of appropriateness still has not taken root.

Put another way, people are always overdressed. Go to a casual dinner, and the majority of the people in the restaurant look like they’re about to go to prom. Go to an informal meeting at a temple or church, and everyone has on a suit. Sure, many people, especially those who have lived abroad in Europe, Canada or the States understand the importance of jeans and shoes that don’t kill your feet, but the majority of the wealthy people on any given outing in a major city in a middle income country will be wearing something I would consider appropriate for a wedding.

Then there was me. In Category 2 clothes. Sweating. A lot. Don’t get me wrong; the people I met in Trinidad were by and large very kind, though they all asked me the same question: “Why are you dressed like a homeless person?”

And compared to everyone else in the country, it was a valid question. Some examples:

Location One: Zip-lining
What I am wearing: Shorts, stained t-shirt, 3-year old tennis shoes
What they are wearing: Tightly fitted jeans, halter-top, new Pumas, jewelry

Location Two: Hiking in the middle of the mountains
What I am wearing: Same shorts, a different stained t-shirt, 3-year old tennis shoes
What they are wearing: $100 tights, $100 sport shorts, new Pumas, $100 basketball jersey. And a similar outfit to change into after hiking

Location Three: Temple in the Sea
What I am wearing: Linen pants, t-shirt (no stain), Converse shoes with holes in them, $20 kameez I bought in Queens to take one picture before ripping it off out of fear of passing out
What they are wearing: Tightly fitted jeans, tightly fitted kameez out of every Bollywood movie ever, 4-inch stilettos, ton of jewelry, full make-up, incredulous look at what I have on

As evidenced by the Ceremony of Clothes Separation, one of the most stressful parts about traveling abroad for work is trying to look at all professional after pulling your shoulders out of that terrible 12-hour coach flight seat AND trying to feel safe AND not trying to ruin your clothes at the same  time. Hopefully you can thus understand why completely misjudging where Trinidad sits on the Ceremony of Clothes Separation, drawing attention to myself for no other reason than looking like a hobo, and not having to care about my appearances was AWESOME.

Normally I have a heightened paranoia about someone stealing my stuff. In Trinidad, I that paranoia was not to be seen. When I found out I’d need to pay the guesthouse in cash, I marched straight up to the closest ATM, withdrew 2600 Trinidadian dollars (about US $420), stuck the cash in my linen pants pocket and slowly sauntered back. Usually withdrawing that kind of cash would result in at least four plastic bags, 5 rubber bands, three pockets, a lock, a bat, and the fastest non-suspicious walk possible. In Trinidad, I accidentally dropped the giant wad of cash on the ground and barely blinked in response.

Normally when I buy any expensive article of clothing, I take hours to get on and off the subway in New York. The painstaking process of making sure no one scuffs my new shoes on my commute home is exhausting. In Trinidad, I didn’t care what the hell I stepped in, who the hell stepped on me, the amount of rain that soaked my clothes, or what stains I amassed running around the island. It made for much more efficient travel, I must say.

All in all, I had a great time in Trinidad, because I could give a crap about how I looked. Of course within 2 hours of returning home, I was back to doing my expensive shoes, new glasses, "Do you like my pants?" dance, but I will always relish admiring those beautiful Trinidadian landmarks while looking like a slob. If you ever get the chance to go to a random country and not care about appearances, I highly recommend taking full advantage. Just make sure there are no Normal Life layovers in the process. Crêpes are important.

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