Lost In Translation

October 24, 2008

My parents have just returned from Ireland, soggy and overfed from the 3,000 calorie Irish breakfasts that consist of shocking servings of potatoes and rashers (bacon). Of course they returned to find an inbox full of how I have been spending my African days eating termites and avoiding boda boda collisions. I know my mother reads these weekly mass-circulated updates with a bit of trepidation: will I reveal some family secret, or worse, something about Sandra Torti herself? Here it is mom…
Growing up, my mother had some classic lines that we still razz her about today. If we were burning ants with a magnifying glass or poking out the cloudy eyes of dead fish with sharpened sticks, she would say, “Now, how would you like it if a big giant came along and did that to you?” Even more famous was her line about shipping Kiley, Dax and I off to a juvenile detention centre for random things—like honking the horn in the grocery store parking lot or for feeding my unsuspecting sister anchovy paste on the underside of potato chips.
Of course, the all-inclusive Sandra line that I am reminded of daily in Africa is, “Don’t touch that, somebody’s pissed on it.” What? This was especially true for pop cans or beer bottles that we wanted to collect from the roadside ditches for money, or random pieces of clothing that we would find in the tobacco fields. Here in Uganda, with the pit latrines (or lack of), outbreaks of cholera are a regular occurrence (caused by ingesting water contaminated with the “liquid stool” of those suffering from the bacterium). The last reported case of cholera in the US was in 1911. So, mom has been right all along, except here, someone has not only pissed on it, they’ve shit on it too.
Certainly, when I was in Costa Rica, there’s no wonder why I came back with intestinal parasites as long as spaghetti noodles and two other types of worms eating from the inside out. Our drinking water came from the Cuen River where the villagers swam, washed their clothing, bathed, and shit, along with the pigs and chickens on the shore. I needed my mother there to tell me, “Don’t go in the river, everyone has pissed in it.”
At the Entebbe Saturday market I was equally horrified to see a vendor having her toenails clipped with her dusty foot balanced on a cabbage for sale! The young boy attentively working at shaping her nails didn’t seem concerned about the clipped nails flinging into the cabbage pile. Oh, how I miss the sanitation of Canada.
I cringe to watch as the street chicken vendors simply pour water (from an unknown and probably unpurified source with cholera-laden stool) on the wooden tables to clean the surface that they chop the raw, unrefrigerated meat on. And to think, we can go to Starbucks and request a coffee steamed to a particular temperature.
I think of the warnings that bombard us in North America, and how important warning symbols are. This week our staff cook, Ruth, who speaks Lugandan fluently (and English when necessary), quietly pulled me aside. She showed me two packages: one was a bag of cumin seeds, the other parsley seeds to be planted. “They are same?” She asked. They did look identical, but I told her the parsley seeds had to be planted in the ground first, then she could use the green parts for cooking. “So, we not eat?” Her eyes were as big as golf balls, and I wondered if she had already dumped a bunch of parsley seeds into our spicy peas for lunch. I pointed out the line on the back of the parsley package that said HIGHLY POISONOUS. DO NOT EAT. Ruth shrugged. Where was the highly effective skull and crossbones symbol that frightened us as children on the Javex bleach and Ajax containers? I had just saved our lives, and all the JGI staff. There are no warnings that I’ve noticed here for too hot, keep cold, poison! or otherwise. Road rules are of course negotiable as I have described. The milk that I buy is “Long Life” and actually has an oily residue that floats to the top, obviously the integral part that keeps it living long! Bread products clearly have no preservatives and all the cookies and crackers have a rained-on kind of quality to them. I like to refer to the ginger snaps from Nairobi as “ginger snap-less cookies.” You don’t even need teeth to eat these.
This is the beauty of travel, the strange and peculiar, learning the inner workings of another culture and the inevitable lost in translation moments. Last night I watched an obviously pirated copy of Rocky IV. I realize that beefcake Sly Stallone is difficult to understand at the best of times, but this movie was apparently translated into English as a second language (despite the movie being in English already). I ended up reading the subtitles because they offered an entirely different (and more intriguing) story line.
“You do not there, our shoe escape.”
“That Patrick is the same thing last year.”
“There no something there.”
“Do not what they push.”
“Yesterday is crummy, that is myself. Forgiveness I no do this again.”
”Big no matter. I are is stupid.”
This was Rocky’s conversation with Paulie about the death of his wife. Even better was this line: “When you last tread a measure?” This was Rocky asking a woman when she last went dancing. Who doesn’t love to tread a measure on a Friday night?
With the diversity in staff at JGI, my vocabulary is also expanding. Mary-Lou informed me that Speedos are called “budgie holders” in Australia. A flashlight is a “torch” of course, and a beer cooler is an “eskie.” Jacques, a Ugandan, informed me that if someone has put on weight, you say that “they are fatting.” Imagine! And, this is totally acceptable! Jacques said for Ugandans, not much changes in their appearance because they either have no hair, or it is so slow to grow, and their skin is always the same colour. Think of how often we make remarks about how tanned or pale someone is. Or, blushing for that matter. If anyone told me I was fatting I would be devastated. I would have to start treading a measure everyday. Jacques says it’s okay to be told that you’re fatting, it is actually a complement that you are healthy. In an AIDS-ravaged country being slim associates you with being sick. In fact, in one village, they call AIDS “Slims.” As in, “he’s got the slims.”
Driving through Kampala the signs spell it out, this acceptance of fatting. There are posters everywhere for “MAKE BIG HIPS AND BUM.” Speaking of bums, at the Chinese grocer in uptown Entebbe, there was a sale on toilet paper yesterday, advertised as “Cheap Whiper!” When I Googled Masai Mara National Park game drives, a Kenyan safari group promised that they would provide “hospitality and a homely atmosphere.”
When Jacques, Brian (Discovery Channel Dude) and I went to Masindi and stopped at the Travellers Internet Café and Restaurant, we laughed until we nearly wet ourselves over the menu. Under salads, they listed chocolate bars. Twix, Mars or Bounty. When I asked my chocolate fiend friend Denny which salad she would choose she replied: “It’s quite simple. The Mars bar is the only real chocolate bar of the bunch. Bounty is made of coconut, therefore it’s practically health food, kissin’ cousin to the humble granola bar! Twix contains a large amount of what Brits call “biscuit” and must really bear the moniker of “cookie”. Salad is a relative term and since some of my relatives used to work for Mars, I would have no option but to order the Mars Bar!”
In addition to the Mars Bar salad, guests could enjoy “lime jice” (juice) with a tot (what we would call shots they call tots). There were cigarettes listed below the toast and eggs, and we wondered if we should have stopped for the “Finger Linking Chicken” that we saw on the way through Kampala.
I’ve had even more laughs—like seeing a photo shop called “Trust God.” Or, when I was walking Levi, the Rhodesian Ridgeback (my unicorn on a leash), a guy riding a bike actually stopped to ask me, “How long does it last?” Meaning, how long would Levi live? Dogs never last long enough.
When I went to the market Tuesday night (not to buy cabbages with toenails), I almost bought a pair of jeans for 25,000 shillings (13 bucks). They were called LIVES and had a red tab and stitching, just like Levis, but made in Thailand. They fit like some of my grandmother’s early knitted sweaters—the Nordic knits that would cut off my circulation at the too-small armpit, and then stovepipe out into blooming sleeves. That is, if I could force the too-small neck hole over my head!
I passed on the LIVES and bought some mystery Arabic perfume instead. I have no idea what it really is, probably vegetable oil with goat extract—but it was 90 cents for 3ml and I haven’t had an adverse reaction to it yet. Although, the scent only lasts as long as the flavour in a stick of Juicy Fruit gum.
Some of you have asked if I inherited the travel bug from my parents. Well, my dad would scream at the sight of any bug, especially a travel one and the expense that comes with my mother’s travel itinerary. Certainly, my mom has been an intrepid armchair traveler for years and once my siblings and I were old enough (read: mature enough to not beat each other to tears), we began our family adventures, much like the National Lampoon’s Vacation—without the station wagon. Until then we had thought the mountain at Canada’s Wonderland was Everest.
We still fought to near death, mostly because my brat brother was guaranteed the front seat for every trip because he would get “headaches from the fumes” if he sat in the back. We drove up and down the US Eastern Seaboard (Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire, Georgia, Sanibel Island, Hilton Head) several times, earning our first real trip on a plane to Bahamas when our behavior improved. Then Puerto Vallarta (because every family should visit the gay male mecca), Seattle, Vancouver–and when my parents became empty nesters, we still reconvened to visit my sister in Banff, en masse, twice. Now they travel to Austria, Scotland and Ireland, creeping a little further overseas each time.
It’s my mother’s travel writing that makes me smile the most, and even though she will probably be fretting that I have exposed her to the world, this is where I come from.
From burgeoning travel writer, Sandra (in part), from Ireland:
Drove all along the Antrim Coast – saw the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge. Of course had to walk the Giant’s Causeway – bravely climbed up then was crapping when I had to get back down. Crossed Sally’s Gap (highest point I think). Walked through Newgrange, a Passage Grave 85M in diameter x 11M high (got to the entrance and couldn’t go in — big chicken). This is in the cradle of civilization from Neolitic times, built in 3200 BC (estimated 40-80 years to build).
While I was taking pictures of the rocks we were on I thought I would get a couple shots of the kelp and stuff – slipped on the rocks – my camera went flying out of my hand and I grazed my shin on the rocks – I thought OH SHIT I haven’t got any medical coverage if It is fractured. But It just really hurt, my camera survived the incident with only a dent (good thing it didn’t land in a tidal pool that would have really been my luck)….
Hope all is well, love your letters, puts me right there (scared shitless sometimes for your safety but still want to hear all your stories just the same!) Be careful chat soon!
What never gets lost in translation is how travel stains and tattoos our skin. Wherever I am in the world, fatting or treading a measure, or sipping a lime jice with a Twix salad, the rest of my world follows me. All the remarkable places that I have stood follow me like a shadow, or is that my mother?

The often misinterpreted Marabou Stork. They have two inflatable air sacs (a bright red one at the hindneck and a pinkish pendulous one that hangs below their neck). The field guide to Birds of East Africa describes them as having “bald heads and naked pink necks with scabby black spots.” They look like knock-kneed heroin addicts and hang out in the city’s rubbish dumps clattering their bills, but are also known to bleat, grunt and squeal.
Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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