Yoost The South African – 1

By this time the contractor was not doing any actual work on the Alamo Road project, although the project was not yet complete. The project manager had quit. The owner of the contracting company ignored phone calls and emails. The contractor’s engineers, pavers, truck drivers, cooks, laundrymen, security guards and other assorted workers were all still living at the project camp, though, collecting paychecks while patiently awaiting instruction.

Joost had been sent to the site by the contracting company owner to guard the project manager. Being that there was no project manager at the site, Joost had nothing to do.

I was under orders to visit the project every single day. Being that no work was being done on the road, and there was no project manager  to talk to at the site about when work would begin again, I also had nothing to do.

Joost and I got into the habit of doing nothing together for two hours each day. We would sit in his erratically air-conditioned office and tell each other stories …

(With any luck, men from my PSD teams will never read this; if they knew that I kept them standing outside in the brutal sun for two hours while Joost and I leisurely chatted about anything and everything but business, they might hunt me down looking to deal me some suitably nasty retribution …) 

***

Another day at Alamo Road … one South African man and one American woman sweating in a ratty office trailer tricked out in cheap indoor-outdoor carpet and blond paneling, set up inside a berm topped with razor wire, guarded by fifteen Iraqis with dusty AKs and one very old, rusty machine gun that probably doesn’t work, donkeys wandering by with tin bangles, Iraqi engineers wandering in to shake hands and smile and walk back out, AirCon cut off in order to conserve fuel, dust languidly rolling in the open door then drifting gently through the air in a brown haze to settle as fine, thick of dust on everything, including our eyelashes …

I arrived at Joost’s office at the usual time. As another dust storm blew up on the drive out here, I welcomed the bottle of cold water that Joost offered.

Joost is a big blond bear of a man, at least 6’4” tall, with blond curly hair and fair skin. Gracious and unselfconsciously thoughtful, he has a very low-key demeanor, a steady temperament, and a quirky, dry sense of humor that he’s willing to apply to nearly any subject.

When he was settled in his chair with a cup of hot tea and we had lit our cigarettes, I asked him if he knew a good story  to tell me because I had none.

“Well,” Joost told me with his usual thoughtful voice, “You know that we have many donkeys here in camp.”

A number of donkeys live at the site: feral donkeys, strays. The donkeys have wandered in from the desert and stayed. I nodded to Joost and leaned back in my chair, wiggling my body armor to get it into its comfortable groove.

“You also know,” Joost said with a twinkle in his eye, “that the men here in camp toss their empty food tins over the berms around the camp, and especially in one area.”

I nodded. Trash is scattered all around the berm, the lighter bits of it blowing up to catch in razor wire strung along the top of the berm.

“The donkeys walk through this area of tins,” Joost explained, “and often get a tin stuck on a hoof. They walk around all over the desert, then, with the tin stuck on that hoof until the bottom of the tin is worn through or pops off. Then the tin is caught on their ankle! They have a tin can bangle on their ankle.”

“The tins don’t fall off?” I asked.

“They do not fall off!” Joost cried, laughing. “And Seren,” he said, “some donkeys have four or five tins stacked up on their ankles! Then the tins jingle when they walk around, like women with many bracelets.”

I laughed, delighted and charmed by the idea of feral donkeys jingling around like scruffy little desert versions of Santa’s reindeer.

“You think this is funny,” Joost said with mock severity. “But they are not around your ankles! Three days ago,” he said, “I became bothered by this, and so I caught one of the donkeys with many tins on its legs. I took all the tins off of this donkey’s legs, and then I gave the Iraqis a lecture about cleaning up their camp.”

“I told the Iraqis that they must use their machinery to dig a great hole,” Joost said. “I told them that it should be a deep hole. Then they should scoop up all the tins and all the paper and plastic lying about the outside of this camp, and put it into the hole. Then they must light it on fire and burn it. When it has burned down, they must bury it deeply so that the dogs and foxes don’t dig it back up.”

Joost paused to light a cigarette, then smiled at me through the smoke. “The Iraqis stared at me as if I came from another planet,” he confessed. “Finally one of them said, Why? Then they all stared at me some more.”

“So you see,” he concluded, “the Iraqis don’t see the mess that they have made around them. They don’t see that they make a mess of their home. I come from Africa, which is also a mess in many ways,” he admitted. “But never do people leave such rubbish about, because if they will, the animals come. The hyenas will come, and then they will attack people. They will be a problem. So everyone in Africa will pick up their rubbish and carry it with them until they can burn it, and then they will bury it properly.”

“Now I have a question for you,” Joost said, abruptly changing the subject. He leaned forward over the desk as if he would tell me a secret. “Why are Americans so loud?” he asked.

I said that I didn’t know why, but that I was aware that it’s true.

“You are not like other Americans,” he said. “You have a soft voice. You are not loud like other Americans, so I will ask you this. Why must they speak so loudly? We are right here, just beside each other, but they speak so loudly as if they would like the whole pub to know about their marital problems and their personal life. Why do they do this?”

“Once I spoke to a man about this,” he said. “This was a (Afrikaans word) … do you have a word in English for the short man who wants attention and power?” I laughed and admitted that we just called them short men compensating. “Yes!” Joost cried nodding and grinning, “this sort of man.”

“This American man that I asked, he was a very loud man himself,” Joost explained. “I asked him why he felt he had to do this. He told me that in America, if you speak softly people assume that you have no self-confidence and no power.”

I shrugged and said, “I think many American men believe that.”

“I think this is plastic self-confidence,” Joost declared. “Noise is only plastic power, and I don’t like plastic. I think that small man was very insecure,” he concluded, “and so I think many American men might be quite insecure, to rely on such plastic.”

“I will agree with you,” I told him. “I like the British PSD men that I work with for this reason, and also because they’re always willing to laugh at themselves. Americans take themselves very seriously. You’re like the Brits, Joost.”

“That is a sad way to live,” Joost said. “Isn’t it sad, to be unable to see the absurdity of life in each day?”

I agreed.

“Now I will ask you another question,” Joost announced. “What does egalitarian mean?”

I explained what the word meant. We smoked for a minute while he thought about that.

 The Iraqis are egalitarian,” he finally said. “The cooks will sit down to tea with the engineers who have nothing to engineer, and with the man who doesn’t iron the clothes, and with the machinery mechanics who have no machinery to fix. The man who supervises the man who doesn’t iron the clothes will sit down to tea with the guards. They all sit together and just talk. They will not compete with one another; they will just talk about different things. Is this true in America?”

I thought about all the places that I’ve lived and worked: Minnesota, north Florida, Wyoming, Mississippi, Oregon, South Dakota … Joost waited while I did that.

 I have to think about this,” I finally said.

“In South Africa,” Joost told me, “the gardener would never be invited to sit for a cup of tea and a visit, because of apartheid.” We both agreed that in England that would also be true: we agreed that the Brits, even here, are snobbish to anyone that they consider beneath them. They won’t have a conversation with the Ghurkas at the gate, or the cooks.

“Americans,” I told him, “in general would be friendly to people like the Ghurkas and the cooks and the Bangladeshis who clean our rooms here in Iraq. We would chat with them, thank them, and perhaps sit and drink a Coke with them… but there would often be limits to the friendliness, I think, for many Americans.”

“What would the limits be based on,” Joost wondered.

“For instance,” I said, “how much money people have and how they view themselves with that money. Whether they think the money puts them above others. Also,” I said, “it depends upon what part of the States people are from. For example, it would not be considered good form to sit and drink tea with the hired help if you lived in the South. And if you did sit and drink tea with them, the conversation would probably be carried out in such a way as to acknowledge the class or income difference between the two people.”

We told each other some short stories about living in lower class/lower income parts of different towns, then moving to a more prosperous side of town. In both the States and South Africa, we concluded, the people in the lower income areas will spend much more time chatting with their neighbors. They will spend more time outside in their yards or gardens, and generally are more laid back and friendly toward everyone. In the more expensive parts of a city or suburb, people tend to be defensive about their own space and often will not even know the names of their neighbors.

Joost lives in a neighborhood where many CEOs of large companies live, and many ministers of the government reside. “They are all very aware of how much money they have,” he said thoughtfully. “They want to spend that money in obvious ways, so that others will notice that they have this money. They compare themselves to each other.”

“That’s the same in America,” I told him. We thought about that for a few minutes.

“Do you speak with your colleagues in this way?” he wondered. “When you eat dinner with your friends on the base, do you speak about these things?”

“You’ve been on a military base,” I said laughing. “And you must know some engineers.”

He laughed.

“These conversations keep my brain from atrophying,” I told him.

He leaned forward again, alert. “Now you have taught me another word,” he said. “You must explain to me what this word means …”

_______________________________________________________

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