Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Murky Business

“It’s a murky business.”--the cryptic remarks of a white, middle-aged gold speculator from Phoenix as he details his latest (legal?) business dealings in Ghana. And while his industry and mine could not be more different, I feel like maybe he is speaking for both of us in some way.

I'll explain what I mean, it just might take me a while to get there...

Arriving in a developing country with a wad of crisp US dollars is an easy way to feel big in one’s britches. The stacks of local currency yielded by this foreign sum means that everyone walks into the heat and humidity with fat pockets and feeling like a high roller. But for those of us to whom such a sensation is not the normal state of affairs, this effect inevitably proves fleeting and deceptive.

Having learned my lesson several times before, I doubled the amount of cash I changed upon arrival before heading into a part of the country that I had been told was, for all intents and purposes, functionally cash-less (although I would later learn that there is in fact one working ATM in the Afram Plains where I had been working). Better safe than sorry. So I set off into the bush with my collection of neat bank envelopes, each spilling out with one colorful denomination or another.

Fast forward almost a month and a half: I am at a small hostel on a beach, far away from a lot of things, and I find myself stitching together smaller and smaller bills in order to cover a bar tab that has, in the past few days, exceeded both reason and possibly even memory.

How many of those did I have?


Good for me.

After the 50 and 20 and 10 GH cedi notes are finished, I find myself erecting piles of 5 and 1 GH cedi notes, which begins to worry me some. The bartender looks skeptical but unsurprised--I get the distinct feeling that this is not uncommon. I finish the count and am just clear with some taxi fare left over. There’s even a bit extra to buy a drink in celebration of my modest financial accomplishments.

“One Mario Special, please.”

“You’re ridiculous,” the bartender obliges.

They’ve named a drink after me, which is about as much of a compliment or an honor as I should hope to expect. It is a cocktail of home-brewed akpeteshie (palm wine) flavored with fried bananas (also local), a little bit of rum (or a lot) and some sprite (and I mean Global-South-cane-sugar-no-corn-syrup-added type Sprite, not the poor, subsidized American excuse). For the past few days, I had been sipping these concoctions slowly while watching banks of fog and storms chop the waters along a narrow coastline of mangroves and palms. To my immediate west, there was a thankless lighthouse hailing ships on a lonely peninsula. So I drank a few extras and stayed on the beach a bit longer each night to keep it company.

I’m pretty proud of that.

But my current situation does not involve so much pride, but instead, something of the opposite: pure pragmatism. I’ve still got a week and a half more, a few cities, and a few more beaches to cover before I head back to the states. I better start making friends.

Leaving Ghana, like the few other memorable times I have limped back across the border towards home, will be an inglorious event. Sometimes traveling, and especially traveling where you cross-cut several different socio-economic strata in short periods of time, can be as physically trying as it is mind-fucking. Getting back home, normalizing your brain and your body, and working through the absurdity of transcending such spaces with such ease, can be like shaking off a bad hangover. You are left with memories that, once removed from their material surrounding, feel entirely unreal and inexplicable; you would doubt they actually happened if you didn’t know better and while the moments themselves may remain clear, connecting the dots proves a different task altogether.

But maybe that is part of the reason for doing this--to get so far outside your head and so far out of your normal reality so as to enter a sort of altered state of consciousness. Sounds dramatic, I know, but maybe part of the motivation (for me at least) to get out, get out, get out and travel often and leave home behind is that I crave the novelty like a clean, clear-headed high. The perspective gained is illuminating. The things experienced become tales, like Ahab and the white leviathan, to be told and re-told as much for the thrill of reliving such things as for the entertainment of others.

This is a pure exercise in privilege, I readily admit. I can’t say if I do any good through any of this or if I make a difference, though I do try my absolute hardest and it tears me up sometimes. But I do feel myself becoming a better person through it. That’s a poor excuse, but it might be what is left after all is said and done--everything else is up for debate, this is the only thing I feel certain about.

I wish the answer were more straightforward. I wish that I could say definitively, like some college student after few weeks “living” in Kenya and building schools that “I made a difference”, but the world is just such a complicated fucking place. Such an assertion would be naïve at best, self-congratulatory and ignorant at worst. So often have people with the best of intentions done the greatest of harm (cue PSA on the history of development and aid intervention in the Global South). Maybe I am just the latest iteration of good intentions gone awry. Maybe I should just stay the fuck at home.

It is only the fools who walk around with self-righteous convictions. I may not be a good person, but at least I have enough perspective to doubt myself (but perhaps not enough to stop doubting myself before it becomes counter-productive). At least I hope I am a little less of a fool than I used to be.

So while arriving in a developing country may be an easy way to buoy your financial ego, leaving that country with loose pockets, an empty bottle of anti-malarials, and a general sense of sobering confusion feels much more like humility.

But I much prefer humility anyway. At least that shit has got some staying power.

It is a murky fucking business, but I love it desperately.


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