September 11, 2007

"The Little Differences"

In the movie Pulp Fiction, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson begin the movie by discussing Travolta’s recent trip to Amsterdam. Before they get to the famous “Royale with cheese” moment, the conversation includes this snippet:

JT: “But you know the funniest thing about Europe is?”
SLJ: “What?”
JT: “It’s the little differences. I mean, they got the same stuff over there they got here but just there it’s a little different.”

I’ve been thinking about this conversation as I adjust to life in Mthatha and figure out how to describe what life is like. So, in the spirit of Pulp Fiction, here’s a list of the “little differences” I’ve found in adjusting to life in Mthatha, South Africa from life in Nome, Alaska.

-Light switches are opposite from the U.S. Push down to turn on, push up to turn off.

-Neither Italian nor Mexican cuisines appear to have penetrated the market much. Pasta is relegated to a tiny corner of the store and pasta sauce is often impossible to find. Salsa is similarly hidden (though not hot sauces) and I haven’t been able to find black beans – a staple of my diet – anywhere

-Speaking of food, Mthatha has to have the highest grocery store per person ratio of any town I have ever lived in. They are everywhere! I’d be happy to trade a couple grocery stores for a good bookstore, as Mthatha doesn’t have one of those.

-For all my 25 years, I’ve used Crest toothpaste, only to move to South Africa and find Crest has overlooked this market. So I’ve been forced to switch to Colgate, much to my dismay.

-Cars here (and I am sure this is true all over the world) are much smaller than the behemoths Americans drive. Several people refer to the truck we drive to Itipini as a “tank” because it is so big to them, when, in fact, it is smaller than what in the U.S. is classified as a “light truck.” Consequently, I am learning a lot of new car models that major manufacturers make but clearly do not even bother marketing in the U.S. as they are so small. Also, I haven’t seen a car yet with power windows.

-There’s always an attendant for everything. If I go to the gas station, there’s someone to pump the gas for me. If I park someplace, someone will offer to “watch the car” for me and then help me out of the space when I come back. At the grocery store, there are people to help carry the groceries to the car. Of course, everyone wants to be paid for this.

-People in Mthatha seem to like clean cars, as there are a number of car washing places around town. (Not the automatic type, but people who will wash your car by hand.) This compares to Nome, where people seem to measure their manhood by how dirty their truck is.

-In my house, the toilet, bathtub, and shower each have a separate room. And the room with the toilet is not the room with the sink.

-I can't find plain ol' orange juice anywhere. It's all some sort of orange-fruit mixture. Another staple of the diet down the drain.

There are many, many more but that’s a preliminary list.


a said...


Power windows in cars are the bane of my existence. Inevitably, I fail to close my window before the driver turns off the power. I'm tempted to move to Mthatha. Can you give me directions on how to get there?

Faith, Hope, and Love,

Caminante said...

Well, if you use Colgate, you support my father's pension ;)