06 October 2008

On Leaving the Caribbean

Excerpts From a Culture Jumpers Diary...

I woke to the familiar sound of Spanish being spoken in the apartment stairwell. Parents were walking children to the bus stop. The dust had settled after the initial rough landing in our new American city, so far from our Caribbean home. It was time to settle in regardless of how dizzy or out of place we felt. The new sights and sounds were something we would simply have to get used to, after all, we were no longer in Cibao, and over the years culture jumping had become a matter of practice for us.

Smiling Mayan eyes peered out at the bus stop from a tightly wrapped bundle tucked neatly in a baby stroller. The crisp cold morning breeze stung my badly chapped lips, as I turned to face a sun that refused to warm me. These are the contrasts, adding to confusion, that contributes to my dizziness.

The grocery stores in the United States are larger than I had remembered. The range of products spread over a few acres of warehouse shopping included everything from home improvement and clothing, to a shocking display of twelve different kinds of olives. They did not however, have the regular olives or achiote I needed for the arroz con gondules. These were the cultural comforts that I would have to learn to leave behind.

Entering Starbucks was much like taking a passage through time, leaving the bright cold outdoors and being enveloped in a thick aroma of warm cafe while a jazz piano oozed from the speakers above. A menu boasted dozens of drink varieties swimming with corn sweeteners when all I craved was a simple café con leche with a spoon of real cane sugar. Next door to Starbucks was a little 20 by 20 Mexican grocery which carried the olives and a few spices I had unsuccessfully searched for at the larger grocery. There I discovered I could sadly replace the pasteles of Navidad with tamales. …It was going to be a rough Christmas.

The sound of the coquí singing after an afternoon rain has been replaced with the call of Canadian geese soaring above. It was both comforting and confusing to see a family of otters taking a swim. They never seem to take notice of me as I press the button and wait for the walk signal to grant me permission to cross the busy highway. Wild strawberries are planted at the local mall which has a woman's clothing store sporting ''Cacique'' underwear. I inquired within as to how the store got its name. The manager informed me, “I think it is European.” …Of course, isn’t everything?

At times I feel at home in the familiar surroundings and with the expectations of life in a small (and sometimes small minded) US city; like when the apartment manager asked me for my green card. At other times I feel like I have arrived on a new planet to discover life and document sub species for classification. Some things have not changed a bit, racism and ignorance abound here, while other things have changed too rapidly for me to take in, with highways replacing wetlands and nesting grounds. Then there were those twelve different kinds of olives on display at the mega grocery.

Twelve different kinds.

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