The ugly American


Back when I was considerably younger, my favorite daughter (I only have one!) spent a few years in the Peace Corps. She was stationed in the southern African country of Botswana, where she taught English in a small village’s even smaller school.

Because we saw this as a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we bit the proverbial bullet and purchased the necessary airfare. And, since I’d also spent about three years with the U.S. Air Force in England (several years before), we decided we’d stop there on our return trip for visits with friends.

We were living in the Boise, Idaho, area at the time, and our departure was from SeaTac. We drove non-stop to Seattle, caught a few winks and departed early the next morning. Twelve hours to London’s Heathrow Airport, and then another 12-hour, overnight trip to Harare, Zimbabwe.  Our flight landed in Harare at around 6 a.m.

As our flight from London was generally east and a whole lot of south, we approached the sun as it was rising over eastern Africa.  Anticipation, sleeplessness, whatever the reason, one of the very first things I did — or at least wanted to do — was to kiss the tarmac in Harare; like the Pope (although I was very far from being Papal). My reason for wanting to kiss the tarmac/ground was an intense feeling of being “at home.” I never had it prior and have not had it since — ‘tis a puzzlement.

After a rather circuitous trip to my daughter’s village (four of us hitchhiking with about 40 pieces of luggage), we arrived exactly one week after we’d left Nampa, Idaho. It was worth it.

My daughter was able to take some time away and had arranged a truck for a frugal safari. So after a dinner of spaghetti (the sauce was ketchup) and a bit of shut-eye, we hit the road. Well, the “road” was more or less tire tracks wending through the Kalahari Desert. We had a number of adventures and misadventures (ask me about the rogue elephant that nearly trampled our tent) along the way, but the point of this story is our visit to Victoria Falls, with a quick hike over the Zambesi River into neighboring Zambia.

I had heard the phrase, “ugly American,” and I had even witnessed ugly behavior while stationed in England. But I never thought I’d become one. Well, I did: souvenir bartering in Zambia led me to trade my T-shirt for some unforgettable, authentic, gotta-have-it, certainly not made-for-export, woodcarving. I had already traded my rain poncho for something or other (and come very close to exchanging my Rx-sunglasses) from a 10 year old, so a T-shirt to another kid seemed a good bargain. 

Picture this: over-weight, half-dressed white guy walking back across the bridge and sidling up to Zambia/Zimbabwe customs. That’s the first time I became an ugly American. I’m certain there were others, but that one stands out.

In the grand scheme of things, I am only one guy. What difference could my misbehavior really make?  How ugly can one person be? But it may also be a matter of scale. If I do something untoward, that thoughtless and selfish act may be of little import. I may be the only one who suffers the consequences. If someone important does a thoughtless act, the consequences are magnified. If I think that Americans should get the coronavirus vaccine before the rest of the world, the onus is on me. If our president says, “America first,” the onus is on US (pun intended.)

Yes, I am a Democrat, though not one who pictures Joe Biden descending from Heaven. I hope that Mr. Biden will be a good, true, decent president. Not one who has been ugly.

Mr. Biden’s presidency will be demanding; maybe we should all help.

Cris Torp is a resident of South Beach

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