The True Value of One Banana (In A Second World Country Without Running Water)
by Sarah Feldstein
When I accepted a position to teach English in Georgia, my life was ideal on paper. I had friends and a full time job in a city I didn’t mind, with a Chipotle right around the corner from my reasonably priced apartment. Everything was fairly good, but there was no sparkle. I refused to settle. I had a healthy savings account and the teaching position provided room, board, transportation, a monthly stipend, and the opportunity to gain teaching experience to the benefit of my career. I threw caution and reason to the wind and embarked on my adventure, fearless, naïve, and blissfully happy.
A week into the program, I found out that the same healthy father who dropped me off at the airport now needed heart surgery. Suddenly my new adventure meant nothing. My family and my home were on the other side of the globe, I was in a country where outgoing planes only left every other day, and total travel time was over 36 hours. What if I needed to go home immediately? Would I even make it? I felt helpless. Thrown into a new environment while processing emotions I had never experienced, I didn’t know what to say to my new host family, much less how to translate it into a new language. I no longer wanted to be on my grand adventure. I wanted to go home.
At the urging of my conscience and my family, though, I kept my commitment. Rather than dwell on my own emotions, I tried to focus on the realities of my new home. In my ignorance, I was surprised to learn that my host family was accustomed to living under electricity rations or going without water for days, even though the fountains in the tourist centers still flowed freely and the hotels illuminated main streets day and night. The fading term “second world country,” accurately defined my new home, a city on its way to establishing the infrastructure to support the lifestyle it had already built. Things didn’t quite make sense all the time, but as I was often reminded by locals with a shrug, “It’s Georgia!” So I laughed it off and treated it as a lesson in global economics.
My host family kept the bathtub full of water at all times. This would be used for flushing out the toilet or necessary cleaning during the dry times. I was lucky, the longest I was without water was five days. I had a friend who was without water for two weeks. We generally got it back for one or two days before it went out again, and during those days we could wash clothes and dishes and ourselves, and fill up the tub again. This became normal.
In order to stay hydrated when the water shut off we drank bottled water, which was fortunately readily available at a cost just slightly higher than that of beer. Most of the bottled water was local mineral water, which had high concentrations of magnesium. Magnesium acts as a laxative, and if you aren’t used to ingesting it with frequency, drinking enough bottles of mineral water to stay hydrated can have some adverse side effects on the digestive system. Despite my best efforts to keep healthy, at a certain point my body stopped trying to adapt and it rebelled. I started to believe that digestive comfort was a luxury commodity for which I was willing to pay anything to achieve if only I could find the magic pill. My Georgian friends and family frequently recommended a shot of home brewed moonshine as a cure-all. That certainly numbed the pain of constant unmentionable rumbling, but wasn’t sustainable. My host mother accidentally discovered the best temporary solution: Bananas.
My host mother was an amazing woman who managed a huge family on a miniscule budget while working full time. She didn’t understand a word I said, nor did she have to. She looked distraught when I turned down food, so I would try to explain my churning stomach, which is a rather funny exercise in charades. I spent a lot of time helping her in the kitchen in an effort to learn more about her and simulate a familial relationship that video chatting with my own family couldn’t replicate. In doing so I saw firsthand what cooking and eating seasonally means. When figs are in season, you eat figs at every meal, because they are falling off the trees and incredibly cheap. Then you transition into persimmon season, then orange season, and so on. Beans, bread, eggs, potatoes and some local sour cheeses were staples during all seasons. Anything not grown locally, like bananas, came at a higher cost. I had never liked bananas, but knowing that they might be a way to solve my problems, I almost lost my mind with excitement the first time they showed up at home. When my host mother noticed that I liked them, they started appearing more often. I never saw where she got them, because all of the fruit stands I saw served the same seasonal selection. I know that her food budget was small, and not knowing the resources that were tapped to make those bananas possible is something that has plagued me ever since. At every opportunity I would restock the laundry detergent or cooking oil, anything to try to ease their financial burden outside of money that they were too proud to accept.
Wordlessly sitting next to my host mother while we shared bananas and watched Georgian-dubbed telenovelas remains one of my favorite memories of that house. Looking back, I know I failed her family. I went to Georgia selfishly, without ever considering what my experience would mean to anyone other than myself. I didn’t have the maturity to understand the many ways in which I’m sure I offended them. In asking questions about water, I unknowingly made my host family feel shame for their lack of ability to provide something that was well outside of their control, when they were proud because five years ago it wasn’t running at all. I didn’t yet understand that I avoided their family dinner because it made me yearn so deeply for my own family that was pulling through a crisis thousands of miles away. I struggled with the concept that I was there to make an impact in communities that are not unlike those without resources in my own country, and I became obsessed with what having a worthwhile purpose in the world might look like. Helplessness consumed me, and I shut down. In those moments on the couch with our bananas though, my host mother was just a mom who was happy that I was happy, I was able to tune out the noise of my brain and my stomach for a few minutes, and we both got a break from the daily struggle of survival.
Actual Cost: $1
True Value: The sum total of six months worth of daily Immodium and anti-anxiety medication, without health insurance
Sarah Feldstein lives a comfortable 300 miles from her very healthy parents, fills her bathtub with water whenever severe weather threatens, and now eats two bananas daily.