Lost Downtown 1994

“Beam me up Scotty!” The proposal of marriage to an American citizen rescued me from the difficulties of living in that African region which was struggling in the aftermath of a dictatorship. I arrived in America in 1994 expecting, like Dick Whittington, that the streets would be paved with gold.
Although it had taken me less than a week to get here by plane from the poverty ridden Africa of the Nineties, I might just as well have made an interstellar journey. The places seemed light years apart. Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, had been grimy and dingy — a broken down city. Little Rock, on the other hand was gleaming, with the Excelsior Hotel dominating the skyline. It was set like a jewel overlooking the mighty Arkansas River.
The entire culture was different to anything I had encountered before. Coming from a newly developing nation on the continent of Africa, the influences I had grown up with led me to assume that the United States was a paradise of wealth and stability. The ‘Voice of America’ radio which we listened to as children in Rhodesia was one form of brainwashing worldwide in the middle of the twentieth century. Our perceptions were further affected in the era of our early teens by the multitude of imported automobiles from the USA resembling spaceships. They were brought in and sold as a result of the booming price of copper.
However instant fortune did not seem a likely event in Arkansas – one of the poorest states of the USA. Here to welcome me were the amazing members of my new tribe. Family in the South is everything.
I had never before met people like shop-till-you drop May Belle, who was married to my fiancé’s younger brother. She introduced me to the whole new concept of twenty-four hour shopping.
“I need to go to the store,” she said, after I had been here about a week. “Why don’t you come with me?”
“Uh oh,” said Paul in a gloomy tone, “Wal-Mart? Everyone goes there. It is more Southern than grits. A black hole sucking in humanity. Mysteriously, many go in but few seem to escape. It feels like the well of souls. First you park a quarter of a mile away, then join in the procession of zombies marching mindlessly like in Dawn of the Dead along the aisles. They snatch up some discounted item that they don’t need, don’t want and will never use; simply because it’s such a bargain.
“Here are some greenbacks, baby girl; but don’t come home with 30 pounds of potato chips because you are saving a dime on each pound.
“Why not you buy yourself a pair of shorts? It is hotter than hell round here in summer.”
Having heard the word Wal-Mart bandied about in conversations, I unconsciously associated it with some kind of brand of ice cream. My fiancé further complicated my perception by his words. Realising that Walmart was a shop, or store as the shops are called in America, I leapt at the opportunity.
May Belle was carrying her coffee in a large insulated cup with a perforated lid on it. To my surprise the vehicle had a special place designed for it. I was taken aback at her nonchalance at drinking inside a motor vehicle. In Zambia we had used the word transport. It applies to any form of motor driven vehicle. Everyone without transport is ready, at the drop of a hat, to climb on board a truck or into a car and go. Carrying a drink in the early nineties would have been considered bad manners, and you would lose your place.
May Belle brought along Louis her two-year-old son, and we all piled into one of the immense USA type vehicles that the locals drive fearlessly along (what seems to a Zambian) the wrong side of the road. I looked out of the window. We seemed to be moving at breakneck speed down the highway, and I looked on in amazement as a whole New World flashed before my eyes. I felt that I needed sunglasses as the color jumped out at me. Billboards. They were fantastic. Zambia had been short of paint for years and I was used to grey.
Buzzing by, the cars all looked brand new, not a single Zam cab. The ubiquitous taxis (along with the majority of the vehicles) on the road of the capital city of Zambia, had cruised the streets like shabby mobile junk heaps. I thought of the city I had left behind, where a car ahead of you would suddenly veer sharply to the left or the right. It was only avoiding a pothole. Lusaka that straggly, mishmash of housing. Once the city had been planned but, with the advent of Independence the new powers that be, had built over haphazard anything-goes buildings, with the occasional fine new one. I remembered the teaming thousands of pedestrians along with exhaust fumes and faint aroma of bad sanitation.
Little Rock, on the other hand, was scenic; with houses subtly painted in earth colours. These blended into the scenery so naturally that, for the first week, I barely saw them.
As we sailed off the highway my heart was in my mouth. Apparently it was my moment to die. The car coming in the opposite direction was travelling at an equal pace, and directly in line for a head-on collision. Little did I know that my driver had complete faith in a small red yield sign that would miraculously stop the oncoming car.
Although I had grown up walking African jungles and even seen a lion in the wild – this journey was not for the faint at heart. Turning round to look to Louis for assurance, I saw that he was secure in his child seat and appeared quite unconcerned. He was muttering:
“Pooh, I want Winnie the Pooh.” For my part, I was far too worried about whether or not we were going to survive this ordeal. (It took a year before I was to get used to this sort of suicidal dicing with death.)
May Belle drove slowly, as if on the prowl, around the car park looking for an empty spot. There seemed acres of space to me, but she wanted to park some 100 yards from the immense front of a building, and all those spaces had been occupied. Five other cars were having the same problem. Hardly anyone walked in Little Rock, certainly not to the store.
Finally we settled on somewhere suitable and I noticed that, here too, many people were carrying drinks of one sort or another. I laughed at the conspicuous consumption. Where I had come from one had to be aware to cope with the pickpockets, and avoid falling into the chasms where the pavement had given way to an underground trench.
We walked towards the entrance in a square box-like concrete edifice with huge letters: ‘Walmart’. Inside was aisle upon aisle of gleaming cellophane wrapped items. With all the weird vibes and bustle I soon became separated from May and Louis, drifting off mesmerised by the merchandise. Shelves seem to reach to the ceiling. In Zambia the old supermarkets had had little on their shelves for years.
Wouldn’t it be good to own a microwave? A vacuum cleaner… or coffee jug that can tell the time and wake you up! Oh computer chips. Oh plastic, all white and sparkly. Everything you can imagine to plug in and be labor saving. If there are poor people in Little Rock I don’t know where they are. How much does life in this world cost?
I began to feel quite faint as waves of panic gnawed at my stomach. Surrounded by products, perfumes, music and items that I had never encountered in my life before: the more I tried to think, the more uncertain I became…about anything, about everything! Trying to read labels on the items only contributed to my confusion.
I felt in my bag (or purse as it is called in Arkansas) and pulled out the dollars that I had stuffed therein. I wanted to count them. Uh oh, watch the greenback. Look at the dollar bills, they are all the same color – (in Zambia the different amounts are in different colours). An old gent on the front side and some version of building with Grecian columns on the other. I fiddled desperately remembering how my Paul had told me to put them in order with the highest denomination on the outside.
Where am I? What did I come for? Where are May Belle and Louis?
The panic mounted.
Eventually a shop assistant came up and spoke to me politely in Southern tones. Sadly I shook my head because I barely understood the new dialect. In retrospect it is obvious that she wanted to know if I needed help.
I gaped at her disorientated, and with total incomprehension. Unconsciously holding my breath and feeling giddy, I sort of grunted and smiled vaguely. She gave up, and moved away to straighten up some towels.
All at once the ringing in my ears was replaced by clarity, like a bolt of lightening out of the blue. I had remembered Louis, May Belle’s son. He would have drifted to the toy section surely. Of course that was where I found him.
He smiled up at me and told me about Barney.

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Travel journalist interested in world politics with particular reference to linguistics & ethnic variations. Humanist.

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