Friday, July 13, 2007


Avast, rambling soap-boxing dead ahead!

Being in a third world country makes you think a lot about differences in social class and how they are expressed/reinforced. Here in Honduras, rich people do a lot to set themselves apart from the lower classes. They live not only in their own neighborhoods, but in, like, their own towns. They have their own schools, hospitals, and restaurants. They go to their own clubs (they don't mix socially with poor people). I had this somewhat explained to me when I went through training a long time ago, but mainly just being in a different country made me take a special interest in a lot of things that I hadn't thought too much about before, and that was one of them.

I began to realize how much more aware of class I'd become when I went back to the states last week. I had never thought of my family as wealthy before, but suddenly we seemed super rich. I mean, grandma has all kinds of beautiful wood furniture and a real piano in her house! Is that not the height of opulence? I was hard pressed to see even one beat-up or old car in her neighborhood of Olympia fields. All my relatives walked around the house with their personal mac laptops constantly online with the wireless internet network, loath to leave our air conditioned splendor and go outside into the muggy Chicago heat. Is this really a normal standard of living for us?

You could make the case that we're not as class-oriented in the states, and we may not be, but: those differences exist, and once you start to see them, nothing looks the same anymore. The airport is a place where we especially go out of our way to make rich people feel like superstars and everyone else feel like cattle. Seen at a departure gate in Chicago: a blue carpet ringed with gold cordons and a sign that said "special elite access" or something to that effect. Hey, why can't I walk on the special elite access carpet? Then there was the fact that literally almost every single person in my family had their freight-class flights delayed or canceled trying to get out of Chicago. I wonder if that happens to the world class business travelers? You think they get assigned the same level of importance as everyone else and bumped down when a little cloudburst rolls in?

Thinking about this kind of thing had me in kind of a pensive mood when I got to Atlanta, where I had a 12-hour layover. Long enough to justify a hotel, something I can't really afford. Neither can the majority of American travelers! So myself and at least 100 other people were stuck in - guess where - the shopping center of the Atlanta airport, trying futilely to find a way to get comfortable and sleep. This was a big, circular atrium with four stories of shops ringed around its edge and some pieces of airport art scattered around the middle and a few hard vinyl chairs. I looked all around it for a decent place to sit and found every corner occupied by sleeping travelers. So I went and checked out the Delta airlines desk at like 11 pm to see if I could get my boarding pass and go out to my gate, where there would certainly be more (and more comfortable) places to lounge. No, the well-groomed Delta representative said. Not until less than six hours before my flight. I could go relax in the atrium, if I wanted. "No seats", I muttered, turning away. There was nothing he could do, of course.

So I went and tucked myself up against a potted plant on the beautiful shiny (freezing) stone floor and tried to get some Zs using my backpack as a pillow. It didn't work very well.

Why do we put up with shit like this? In Central America, at least it's okay to be poor. There are many poor people, and they take care of each other. Almost anyobody can afford a hotel for a night if they really need one. Almost anybody can manage to find a meal if they really need one. A person doesn't have to own a car to be treated like a human being.

On the other hand, the defining superficial factor for getting respect here has more to do with the color of your skin. It may even be less pronounced in Honduras than in other countries (like Guatemala), but racial prejudices are still so deeply ingrained in the society that most people aren't even aware to the extent that they exist.

This point was driven home on the third leg of my three-airplane trip from Chicago to Tegucigalpa, when I did a miniscule puddle-jump from San Salvador. When I checked in, the person working at the TACA airlines desk printed me out a business-class boarding pass. I didn't even notice until I was getting on the plane and tried to find my seat. Probably, she was too afraid to ask me what class I was flying and look disrespectful, because of course EVERYBODY knows that all gringos are rich. After what happened in Atlanta (A lonely, depressing night by any account) it was poignently ironic and lifted my spirits quite a bit. Practically every time I board an airplane I wonder what it's like to fly first class and if I'll ever do it. Apparently, the chairs are nicer and they give you a free newspaper. Also, you get off first which means being at the front of the line to go through Immigration and Customs (my favorite perk).

Even living at the economic level of a completely normal Honduran (somewhere just above secretary and below taxi driver, or thereabouts), it would be a lie to say that I really feel the sting of discrimination here. How can I? I'm white. I've just gotten the barest glance of what it's like to be treated like a second-class citizen. Living with it all the time must be pretty hard on a person's sense of self-worth. This talk of reducing or erasing poverty in the U.S. and the world is ludicrous without assuming some kind of change in our social mentality. If no respect is ever given to the poor class, how can they respect themselves?


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