47 – ugly american

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.’ ― Virginia Woolf in 1882

Back in 1958, a couple of authors by the names of Burdick and Lederer coined the phrase, “the ugly american.” With this phrase, which was the title of their book, they painted an often accurate picture of americans as self-centered, ethnocentric (if you can stretch your imagination to consider “american” as a singular, amalgamated ethnicity, rather than all the separate ones), nationalistic snobs who were condescending to all other world cultures, whether as diplomats or tourists or even missionaries. This picture wasn’t always true, and isn’t always true, but sometimes it is and even in 1958, the authors weren’t exactly writing fantasy literature.

On a very hot and humid spring day in 2012, I was sitting on the very top of the main temple of Xunantunich, where the Mayans sacrificed young virgins to their gods many hot summers before. I could hear and see howler monkeys in the enormous mahogany trees around me, and I was eye level with them in spite of their height in the trees. Xunantunich is on the edge of the Mopan River, which we crossed by ferry to reach the ruins, but you can see into Guatamala from the top of the structure. Kamikaze hummingbirds were swarming, so I didn’t stay at the top too long for fear of involuntarily contributing bits of skin to their nests.


The next day I found myself riding in a van going east on the Western Highway. I was dozing as much as the bumpy van full of college girls would allow, as I had hardly slept the last night for the humid heat and the itch inducing mosquitoes. I was drafted for this trip, to be the cook for this group on another mission trip to Succotz, Belize.  At 11:05 we stopped at the Belize Zoo, having completed our mission time and beginning the recreational phase of the adventure. As the students made their way into the zoo, I settled down at a picnic table in the shade to write, having been to this zoo a couple of times in the past. This particular zoo’s claim to fame is the fact that all the animals are in their own climates with familiar soil and flora and unobtrusive enclosures. As ecologically sound as a zoo can be, if a zoo could ever qualify as such. This is where I remembered the term “ugly american.”

The tour bus pulled into the dusty parking lot, bringing cruise passengers in from the coast at Belize City. I guess I just wasn’t ready for the spectacle because I had been working with dark skinned Belizeans all week. Suddenly (I would say “without warning” but the tour bus should have alerted me), pasty white skinned american tourists, loud in voice as well as clothing, began pouring out of the bus like an avalanche of old chunky soured milk. Men in sleeveless shirts and matching shorts flicked their cigarette ashes and butts onto the dirt below and then moved on towards the entrance of the zoo.

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After that, as though they might have been segregated on the bus, came a flock of trendily dressed young to middle aged women in high heels and jeans, slathering spf 89 onto their surely carefully chosen patches of exposed skin. About the time they reached the entrance came another bus – this one unloaded with a swiftness to make the first look like sloths on sedatives. Elementary school group. The kids scattered like sheep from a wolf, all over the parking lot in seconds, but then the wolf exited the bus, straightened her bra, and began screaming at the kids to finish their juice boxes, throw away the plastic bags that held their PB&J sandwiches, and LINE UP.

I quickly found my earbuds and managed to increase the volume of some music enough to almost drown her out.

Solitude is a mental state more than a physical state.

My people finally came back out and we continued our trip to the coast, to board a small plane and fly out to Ambergris Caye.


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