Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Smile if you're Sad

So I was en route to Entebbe airport in Uganda one day, flying with Air Tanzania, and we stopped in a city called Mwanza to refuel (it was featured in a horribly biased documentary, which was some how nominated for an Oscar, called “Darwin’s Nightmare”). While looking out the passenger-seat window to get a better view of the UN aircraft parked on the tarmac (they do flights to the refugee camps located near the Rwandan/ Burundi boarders in Kagera district, near Mwanza), I noticed this:

Yeah, that wet stuff surrounding the left wing it is jet fuel. It had just poured out moments before I took the shot because someone forgot to stop pumping it in. As a result, fuel literally burst out of the wing and began pooling on the tarmac, spreading underneath the plane and filling the cabin with nauseating fumes. Shocked, I looked out the window to observe the reactions of the ground crew, expecting them to take my panic seriously and run about madly in an attempt to immediately fix the problem. Instead they stood in a small group and looked on with big smiles, laughing happily.

This mzungu was shocked.

I guess the fact that highly inflammable liquid had doused the left wing and spread underneath our plane didn’t strike anyone outside as being dangerous. Maybe it was a ‘routine breaker’ - something that could literally light up a dull week by throwing an amusing sound and light show, starring burning engines accompanied by a chorus of screaming passengers.

My mind started to carelessly interpret events through an “us vs. them” lens. I was tired and had not eaten breakfast.

How dare "they" have the audacity to act so carelessly and laissez-faire towards a potentially dangerous situation! If this happened in Canada, “we” would do something about it immediately or heads would role big time and public humiliation would follow on the 6 o’clock news! No one would dare laugh, but instead be uptight and serious!

Flustered, I sat back in my seat, shut my eyes and thought about the training session in cultural awareness I received in Ottawa in June. One of the seminar leaders talked about how body language and facial expressions mean different things in different cultures. For example, people in Thailand apparently smile if they are in pain (maybe a Thai reader could verify the accuracy of this statement) and confuse any non-suspecting Westerner who may think they’re just extremely happy.

His observation in Asia offered an interesting perception on things. So with it in mind, I began to perceive the ground crew as stressed, shocked and ridden with anxiety; their laughter reflected a cultural norm to ward off anxiety during times of duress. This was much more pleasant than “they want us to burn, burn, burn because they’re bored” interpretation, and so I stopped hating them.

Surprised at my sudden change of heart, I started to think of other things I could analyse through this new perspective. I thought of a comment made by a visitor to Zanzibar a few months ago, who remarked on how happy people looked, especially the street beggars, despite the apparent poverty in which they lived.

To instead think those 'poverty smiles' reflected the pain and misery stemming from life lived in miserable, dollar-a-day conditions, and not a happiness found through a minimalist lifestyle (sorry to the Saddus and Buddhists reading this) put an interesting spin on things.

Smile if you're sad.

A fire truck eventually arrived and someone casually sauntered over from the group and grabbed the hose to spray down the plane with water, with a smile in tact. We finally left some time after and arrived at Entebbe two hours late, much to the chagrin of those waiting for our arrival.

They were frowning, which I guess was a good thing.


Anonymous said...

That was awesome! You should take these and turn them into a book!


Anonymous said...

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