A word on the set-up at AIDG (Appropriate Infrastructures Development Group – the Boston NGO my daughter Annie interns for) and its crew of multi-talented oddballs. Think (I´m talking to the Brits now) The Young Ones and factor in that most of the interns, women not excepted, are propellor-heads running on a mix of geekiness and radical idealism.
Take twenty-something Norman. “Oh no, the fun doesn´t stop with my first name”, he says in his soft Norfolk burr. “The second is Gripple.” Speaking of his first viewing of Avatar (that should tell you something) he insists he was “in paradise”. Only later does it slip out he was on acid at the time. He’s savvy, self deprecatingly witty and given to disarming acts of kindness. He´s also given to lapses of self awareness. It wasn´t so much his asking Jamil, a black New Yorker on their first encounter, “which part of Africa are you from” as his refusal to concede, when the usually equable Jamil reacted with controlled fury, that he might have said anything amiss.
Norman is testing a new AIDG stove designed to run on just about anything: including methane, piped through a crude hole in the wall from a king size vat of fermenting cowshit in the courtyard that also does for the interns´ cooking. To rate different fuels he needs to know how long it takes each to bring a set quantity of water to boiling point. Bubbles and steam being insufficiently accurate indicators, he uses a thermometer that registers 100 degrees C. Or did, till he broke it while drunk. Together we go into Xela where, with his limited but far better than my own Spanish, he asks locals for directions to the one shop in Central America he´s been told might sell such a thing. Said locals being vague on the matter – how often do you need to measure 100 C? – Norman, the moment he sees they haven´t a clue but are trying to be helpful, turns his back and walks off: leaving me to compensate with overly effusive “muchas gracias”. He isn´t rude; just even lower than me on EI.
Then there´s Stephen, a D.H. Lawrence lookalike from Southern California. A Catholic, he tries hard I´m sure to adopt the humility advocated by his mentor but is undermined by a profound sense of his own superiority; educational, intellectual, moral and every other way. In the bar one night he told me he´d been in Northern Italy so decided to do the Dolomites. “But I had to come down by nightfall. There was nowhere else to walk”. In the Sierra of California, by contrast, he could walk for weeks on end. As I recall though, the Dolomites are the southern edge of the Alps, meaning you can walk from Verona right up to Germany.
In a meeting Stephen, having kept silent for an hour or more, astounded fellow interns by prefacing his one contribution with the comment “I don’t know anything about this subject …” As everyone picked themselves off the floor he went on: “… but I have read a book that says …” He followed with fifteen minutes on how the book’s contents showed everything said up to that point to be blinkered and facile. “Next meeting”, Norman told Annie afterwards, “I’m going to say ‘I know nothing about what we’re discussing but have read a book on gliding’ – then talk for half an hour about that.”
Capetown Camelia’s a control freak who runs the kitchen, Lorna a serious obsessive. Lorna accosted Annie one day to insist she knew Annie had used her towel because the night before she´d hung it from one peg and now it was hanging from two. Annie pleaded not guilty before going on to suggest Lorna might in any case chill out a little.
This is serious Annie! You can spread diseases, sharing towels.
Like genital warts!
I´m impressed with Daniel, though I guess he´s on his best behaviour for me. Annie says he can be domineering (and she´s no slouch in that department, having scared me since she was seven). In conversation they move freely between English and Spanish but argue in the former. Though Daniel´s English is near perfect – he did one of his two masters at Imperial College – it falters when he´s riled. A recent set-to, on domestic violence in Latin America, had Daniel saying women could and should walk away from it, Annie and Jamil that while upper class women may have that option, the majority do not. The dispute was aggravated by two things: one, when Daniel played the ladino card, Annie invited him to make room for the possibility that an upper middle class Mexican-Jewish upbringing didn´t necessarily confer privileged access to the experience of the ladino poor; two, Daniel, for reasons too complex to go into here, has a few issues with Jamil.
It was the kind of debate where, the participants all being expensively educated, stats and heavyweight theory were tossed around freely. As Daniel grew more heated his grasp of English pronouns left him.
I will find a book. And I will read the book. Then you will read the book. When you have read the book, you will stuff the book up Jamil´s fucking arse!
Annie´s bossiness has always been tempered in my view by a keen sense of the absurd. By the time Daniel reached his anatomic finale she was rolling around the floor in tears. But here’s something serious. Yesterday we left Xela for nine days of travel. We´re currently in a lovely room overlooking Atitlan, described by Aldous Huxley as the most beautiful lake in the world. Last night an open air evangelical service was in full flow. Annie´s translation – He is here tonight! Can you feel His Presence? He is here in San Pedro tonight! – weren´t needed. It isn´t really about the words is it?
Evangelism, US style, has made serious inroads here on prime Vatican turf, with forty percent of the population now protestant (but see my earlier email on how these things get “negotiated”). Another example of neo-colonialism? Annie shakes her head: “it´s not that simple”. A lot of women here are up for the temperance message, she says, because it´s they who bear the brunt of drunkenness, both in its diverting of already low incomes and its fuelling of domestic violence.
The sigh of the oppressed. The heart of a heartless world … the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.