the other side

After a trip to the USA, a Zambian friend of mine has been back in Zambia for several weeks. I followed his trip mostly through Facebook posts of his most recent meals, but also through his intermittent Skype calls and emails over the three week journey. The first and one of the most memorable for me went something like, “Anna, you can’t see anything here! You cannot tell where you are going! There are so many trees!”

I’ve been asking him a lot of questions since he’s been back. Mostly because it is fascinating, and it is almost like I am reliving all of my firsts of travel again as well – the first time on a plane. The first time in another country. The first time at Chick-fil-a (“Anna, everyone that side loves chicaful.” That took me a little while to translate correctly.) So many new experiences seen through such an incredible perspective.

Just a little profile of my friend: he’s one of the kindest and most caring people I’ve ever met, with an incredible sense of loyalty and a dramatic history. He’s not a very large man, but has a huge smile and personality. It’s fantastic to see him with his family, as well – they all have smiles that seem to go completely from ear-to-ear. He’s also one of the first people who really welcomed me to Zambia and to Wiphan. And he currently works as Wiphan pastor and all around go-to-guy.

We were walking through the compound this week, going to visit the home of a student with an on-going illness and recovery process. And I asked him, maybe for the second time, what about his time in the states was the most surprising to him. He again mentioned the weather (“there are no seasons there!”). But then he said something that kind of blew my mind:

He told me he very much liked the way America views time.

He likes the way Americans say they will be at a place and they are there. The way programs start at their appointed time. The way that people are always on the go. In Zambia, time just looks so different. There isn’t a go, go, go attitude. There’s no such thing as filling your schedule to the brink of full and then adding in a couple more appointments. Unemployment is high and opportunities can seem  scare. During the day, you can often find many people at their homes and without work to complete. Time seems abundant and schedules seem lax.

That’s what blew my mind.

When people ask me what I like about Zambia, time is often on my list. Frankly, it is generally near the top (it is certainly not the “all parts of my body are sweating” heat or the incredibly large critters on my walls). Admittedly, time is infuriating here, everything moves slowly and with difficulty and nothing starts on time. But it is this slower pace of life, this accumulation of minutes and hours. This slowdown of the 9 to 5 and evenings full of events that has a lifestyle appeal on top of all of the other needs and reasons to pack my bags and trek across the ocean.

It’s a pretty classic case of “the grass is always greener on the other side” without a resolution of which side actually is greener.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about what my life will look like a year from now. Practically thinking through the details of where I will be and what I will be doing while simultaneously day- dreaming  about the other details that make a space and a place home and fill in the gaps that practicality can’t really cook up. (If that all sounds vague, don’t worry. It definitely sounds exponentially more vague in my mind as well. I infuriate myself.)

I find my friend’s response a challenge. I’ve spent a little time in a lot of places with things I love and things that are hard about them all. And while the constant packing and moving helps me keep any hoarding tendencies to a minimum, it also makes deep relationship and community really difficult. I’ve probably said this a million times, but community is really difficult to cultivate as a single in a place bent towards family. Some days I feel successful at it and other days I feel as though I am just scraping by. I’m as likely to blame time as the difficult variable as I am to blame anything else. But I get to make this choice. 

I get to choose to live in a space that’s in between too much time and “ah! there’s never enough time!”

Here in Zambia, it is pretty common for someone to say “this side” or “that side” instead of saying right and left (think about it. How much easier would your life be if you didn’t have to deal with the peskiness of remembering your right from your left?). But it can be really confusing if you’re not looking at a person referring to some particular side. As my English continues to drown in a sea of the Queen’s English mixed with Zambian phrases and accents, I have started to pick things like this up. I refer to here as “this side” and America as “that side”.

And I get to choose to live my life in between this side and that side. In between the green of this pasture and the green of that one. There’s a middle ground where time is just… time. It is what we have and what we get and the only way we really lose it is it by traveling across time zones. Otherwise it is much less a loss and much more a forfeit.

It’s still interesting to hear stories from that side from the cultural perspective of this side.