Let’s see, where should I begin? I suppose I could do my normal “hello from so-and-so” entry, full of details about this trip, but maybe I will do something different this time. This time, I think I’ll start from the very beginning.
This trip began like many others: with a Lyft ride to the airport. My driver was a man named Prosper. Really. He greets me in heavily accented English and puts my bag in the trunk. Inside the car, Bob Marley’s greatest hits is playing on the car stereo. We start the ride like any other, with him asking me where I’m flying. After I answer him, he asks me if I recognize the music playing on his car stereo. When I say that I do, he explains that Bob Marley is very popular where he’s from, which is the Ivory Coast in west Africa. With that, we fell into silence as he navigated Portland’s slow city side roads to avoid the late-afternoon highway traffic.
“There are a lot of people who talk to themselves here.” My head snapped up from my half-doze and I noticed Prosper referring to a man on the sidewalk, one of my city’s many homeless. On the verge of a light retort, carefully crafted to acknowledge his comment without getting into a full-blown discussion (fellow introverts will recognize this skill), Prosper then asked a question with such sincerity that I stopped myself.
“Are they homeless because they are mentally ill, or do they become mentally ill because they are homeless?”
A question like that can’t really be laughed off, at least not by me. I felt compelled to offer an equally sincere reply. Though I admitted I didn’t know all the reasons for our current homeless crisis, I briefly summarized the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill in past decades and how that’s contributed to more of them living on the streets. Then, I asked him whether seeing mentally ill people was unusual in his home country. He replied that it was. “You might see one sometimes, but most of them are in places where people take care of them.” Imagine that.
I thought that would be the point where the conversation dwindled and I could resume the nap or remark on the warmth of the September sun, but instead a spark was ignited. We began by discussing how countries take care of their people. He told me a story about how, several years ago, he had a painful tooth. He went to a facility in Portland and received a quote of $3000 to fix it. Unable to afford it, he decided to tolerate the pain until he could return to west Africa on his annual visit home. There, he had the tooth fixed for the equivalent of $30 (and “the doctor did a very good job, too,” he added). The Ivory Coast has a few things over the U.S. Go figure.
As we inched slowly through the city on our way to the airport, our conversation moved faster than 4:00 traffic on I-84. At this point, Bob Marley was singing “Don’ worry, ‘bout a thing; evr’y little thing’s, gonna be alright” in the background, and we talked about everything from the economy to the balance of capitalism and socialism. It turns out, though Prosper may not have known why there are so many mentally ill people living in our streets, he knew more about U.S. politics than most Americans. He’s a fan of Noam Chomsky and has read all of his political works. He could speak about the nuances of our government in a way that I rarely find in everyday life, much less from the driver of my Lyft. Naturally, our conversation veered to the state of our current political climate, which prompted him to passionately exclaim “This country is so crazy!” This, coming from a man whose homeland had two civil wars in the last 17 years, a high rate of crime, and is at risk for terrorist attacks. It’s humbling to hear him say this.
As y’all know, I try to avoid discussing home politics on this blog (my last post in Chile notwithstanding). Rather, if I mention politics, it’s within the context of my destination country, and only if it plays a role during my stay. However, this Lyft ride was exceptional and the conversation reached such an epic proportion that I was compelled to jot it down the moment I cleared security and arrived at my gate. I wanted to commit it to memory before the edges frayed and it disintegrated with time. During the course of an hour-long drive to the airport, we covered everything from mental illness to two decades’ worth of U.S. politics. When we finally got to the airport, I was a little sorry it had to end. All I could do was shake his hand and thank him for the pleasure of our conversation.
Oh yes, I suppose that finally brings me to this trip, after going off and starting things with the motherlode of all digressions. Well, if you’re still reading, this trip is yet another chapter in my digital nomad adventures, this time to Argentina. Last year, I was so enchanted with Chilean Patagonia and my new Chilean friend, Fernanda, that I decided to head back to the continent. After six weeks of digital nomad-ing in Buenos Aires, David and Fernanda will join me and we’ll all travel together to the Argentina side of Patagonia, after which we’ll explore Ushuaia, the southernmost point before Antarctica. As per usual, I will post less frequently during the digital nomad part of my trip, lest I bore everyone with repetitive tales of the challenges of living/working in a foreign country, including how hard it is to find decent soy sauce in Latin America. (Hint: it’s really hard, and when you finally find it, you’ll pay four times the price.)
There. Now, having covered all my trip basics, I’d like to briefly return to where I started: with Prosper. At one point during our conversation, somewhere between the elements that contribute to the cost of healthcare and the follies of the electoral college, I expressed a moment of exasperation with the current state of my country. Prosper glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “Don’t worry, it will get better,” he said.
(“Don’ worry, ‘bout a thing…”)
Prosper was a timely reminder of one of the many things I love about home—that up until a few years ago, we welcomed people like him and have such a wonderfully diverse culture to show for it. We’re a place where people could come from all over the world to follow their own personal American dream and prosper. Despite his frustrations with this country and its crazy systems, he is still living in the U.S., following his dream of a better life. Over the last few years, each of my trips has started with a general need to “flee the chaos” of my home for some respite; however, this time, my conversation with Prosper helped me to leave with a sense of optimism.
It will get better.