The law of the American jungle is to remain calm and share your bananas.
Pulling up to a stoplight in Ocean Beach, I look to my right and notice a man holding a cardboard sign that says, “Can you please spare some change, homeless and hungry, thanks.” Feeling guilty, I root around in my bag for something to offer the man and pull out a Luna protein bar. Ironically, Luna bars are advertised as “the whole nutrition protein bar for women.” Somehow, I don’t think that this man will mind. He probably needs the extra folic acid and calcium more than I do. I check my door locks, roll down my window a crack and hand him the bar. As soon as he takes it, I roll my window back up and look forward.
Whenever I encounter this kind of person at a stoplight, I am always faced with the same dilemma. Should I give him money? Is he going to try to approach my car if I ignore him? Is offering a Luna bar enough? I’m sure he must get tired of hearing the click of door locks being checked, the blare of the radio being turned up, the squeak of windows being raised – like me, most people will do anything to avoid making eye contact. Countless times I’ve driven right by, not even giving thought to the implications of the tattered cardboard sign and rusted shopping cart.
You see, I’ve been taught not to share my bananas. I live in a culture where what you have is yours and what I have is mine. My family used to live in a house where our lawn connected with a small side-strip of our neighbor’s grass. My dad would often mow our neighbor’s bit of grass when he was working in our yard. One day, our usually good-natured neighbor came out and yelled at my dad for coming onto his property. Don’t cross my border, don’t touch my bananas, he was saying.
United States citizens pride themselves on protecting their borders, always trying to find a way to keep “them” or “the others” out. However, I’ve encountered some cultures that seem to have mastered the art of sharing bananas, loving neighbors, breaking down borders. Last summer, my friend Rachel took a trip to India. While there, she visited a safe house just outside of Mumbai set up as a refuge for women and children rescued from prostitution. The center was simple and poor, full of people needing refuge. As soon as Rachel and her team walked in the doors, the women running the house ran to the kitchen and immediately began to heat water. When Rachel asked what they were doing, the women replied, “We’re putting on water to serve the chai. You have traveled so far, you must be thirsty.”
It was clear to Rachel, even through the interpretation of a Hindi translator, that hospitality and generosity were deeply engrained in these women. Their selflessness was overwhelming; there was never any question they would share what little they had with their guests. So often at home, I have to be reminded to put the chai on, to pass the banana, to share what I have.
It was only 7:00 a.m., and the Mexican sun was already beating down on us unremittingly. My fellow travelers and I decided to brave the heat and set out for a day at the beach in La Paz. We spent the day at la playa swimming and splashing in the cool water. In the late afternoon, we beached ourselves on the sand and began to build a sand castle. Interested in what we were doing, some of the locals came over to join us. We all sat on the edge of the beach, toes in the cool water, constructing a veritable sand kingdom.
It was a team effort; black, orange, brown, and white hands scooping sand into towers and moats. Some of the Mexican ladies traveling with us brought us offerings of fresh mangos splashed with lime and sprinkled with fiery chili powder. We descended upon the cool, ripe fruit and began to pass mangos around. We passed the fruit in a sort of rhythm; take a bite, juice running down arms and face, pass it on, repeat. I don’t even know whose hands were holding the mangos I was eating, but I’m positive that at one point we were all eating off of the same mango. By the end, all our hands were identical orange; sticky-sweet sand fingers working in sync to craft our sandy empire.
In Mexico, faced with the challenge of overcoming cultures and colors, I am willing to share my mangoes. Sometimes, all it takes is a taste of someone else’s selfless chai, mango, banana; encountering a different way of doing things is the first step in changing the way we ourselves think and act. And after those experiences, maybe we will be quicker to share our bananas back home.