Saturday, January 1, 2011

Third World Green Daddy Part 11: Infantile Ramblings, and the Joys of Local

Our Sam's about ten days old now, and we've been busy welcoming him into our life. There have been a lot of things to do, some of them daily affairs and some one-time shots. My wife gives him massages, and I diligently put him face-down as much as I can, because I read somewhere that it's good for a kid's development to spend some of his waking hours on his tummy and not his back.

On that note, my wife and I have arrived at sort of an international compromise as far as sleeping goes. I grew up in the States hearing that it was important to lay babies on their backs when they sleep in order to avoid Sudden Infant Death. But in Colombia, people are more concerned about kids lying on their backs and choking on vomit. I looked into the matter a bit, and found that there isn't such compelling evidence either way. So we've decided to sleep the baby on his side.

Sam is a big, healthy baby. Even in his newborn photos, he looks a bit like the babies they use in movies that are supposedly a newborn in the movie, but the baby actor clearly is a few months old! Sam is low-hassle, like we try to be. He only wakes up once or twice in the night to eat, and only cries when he's hungry. Otherwise he's either sleeping, or awake and looking around inquisitively. This doesn't mean I don't always worry about dropping him, or smushing his fontanelle, or Sam's exploding from overexertion when he has to shit. But I know we lucked out as far as early childrearing goes.

I like to think that Caro's complication-free birth and Sam's being such a good, easy baby have to do with our own merits. We eat well, don't have too many bad habits, sleep well, try not to sweat the small stuff. And of course it's always flattering to think that one's good fortune is actually one's just dessert. But life doesn't work like that. As my mom says, there are plenty of healthy, decent, responsible people who have tough labor or awful kids, and there are some really horrid people that have laid-back, wonderful children. It's sort of a crap shoot.

We had to register Samuel at the local notary. Normally this is done by the father, because in Colombia it's customary for the mother to spend forty days of "diet", basically staying in the house, taking care of the baby, and recuperating and adjusting to life as a mom. But my wife accompanied us to register Sam, much to the consternation of the women working at the notary office. Likewise, when we went to affiliate him to my wife's health insurance, we got a scolding for leaving the house so soon after Sam's birth. My wife explained annoyedly to the health insurance people that in order to get medical attention for the baby, we have to affiliate him, and since the insurance company's procedure involves having both the baby and the mother present, she didn't see any other way of doing things.

We also got a special piece of furniture made for Sam's crib

The crib had been on the floor, but my wife Caro didn't want to have to bend over every time to pick up the baby, so we ordered a sort of stand with a raised border so the crib doesn't fall off. This also has the advantage of numerous other shelves underneath, so now our room is a bit less cluttered with baby paraphernalia.

Normally one buys this style of furniture--pine wood, stained dark--in Puntalarga, a town in Boyaca. In our town there is a store run by Puntalarga carpenters that you can buy direct from. We've already had a desk, a bookshelf, and a shoe rack made to spec by them. But for this crib stand, they said they were backed up with orders until January. We ran across another furniture maker, this one in the town of Arcabuco, and he made the thing for us in a week, for $20US! So it looks like we've found a new go-to furniture maker. In the house we're rehabbing, my mother wants to furnish her room entirely with stuff made by the Arcabuco guy. He sells at about a sixth of the price of the Puntalarga people. I like patronizing local artisans like those of Puntalarga, but if their prices are so high, it means they've already got a lot of demand and renown, so I prefer to switch to lesser-known but equally local sources.

Speaking of local sources, I wanted to talk a bit about the grocery-buying practices of a Third World green family. We eat a lot of fresh produce. Not only fruits and vegetables, but also many of our starchy staples are bought fresh--potatoes, Andean parsnip, plantain, cassava. So we go to the fresh market every week or two. My mother is always amazed to see us bring home fifty pounds or so of fresh produce, often for under $30US! Even our main Western-style staple food, bread, we buy fresh every day or two at the bakery below our house.

In our town there are two marketplaces, each of which operates two days a week. One market is big and bustling, with lots of stalls, peasants milling about, discarded produce on the ground, stray dogs nosing around--what one envisions when one thinks of a typical Third World market. We sometimes go there, but the distance and the dirtiness often discourage us. At this market you can get a wide range of things, and cheap, but you have to go to a lot of stalls to get everything you need. The other market is a bit more upscale, as far as my small peasant city goes. It's cleaner, with fewer, bigger stalls. We like to go there, because we have a stall we always go to, and they have in stock almost everything we need.

For the stuff we don't get fresh, we go to one of a number of supermarkets in our town. There is Carrefour, which is like Walmart but French-owned. I don't like going there. It's expensive, poorly-run, characterless, and any profits go to French shareholders. Really it's only good when we want certain luxury imported items, like Spanish goat cheese, which we're sort of addicted to. There is another big chain store called Exito, which was originally Colombian, but now a large part of it is owned by Casino, another French megaconglomerate.

We have a small supermarket down the block called Fami, and I like going there. It is affiliated with Comfaboy, a local workers' pension fund. When Fami doesn't have what we need, we go to Chispazo, which is a large supermarket chain that I believe only exists in our town. It has the low prices and large selection of a Carrefour, but with better, personalized service, and we know that profits go to our Colombian neighbors and not far-flung capitalists. For quick needs like gummy worms, cookies, or sliced bread, we go to a corner store called Vertice, which also sells little locally-made health foods like quinua pancakes and medicinal supplements.

As if I weren't already convinced of the merits of shopping local, yesterday I was again reminded that local is better. Our car was filthy after days of hauling rotten wood from our house rehab project. I wanted to get it washed before our night drive to the New Year's Eve party, but everywhere I went was closing at noon or so, so they wouldn't take my car. I went to gas stations and large professional-looking car washes all over town, but none would serve me. Finally, as I returned home crestfallen, I remembered a parking lot-cum-carwash nearby, and tried there. Sure enough, there were open and happy to clean my car. It was a father and son team that didn't mind working on New Year's Eve, and I could be confident that my six dollars were going straight to them, not to some big business owner or franchise that doesn't even live in my city.

On that note, one of Sam's cutest little shirts says "Locally Grown" on the front. My cousin got it for me in the States. It's a funny shirt, and a nice acknowledgment of the importance of sourcing locally. The only problem is that it's made in Bangladesh! Such are the ironies of the United States of Outsourcing.

Last night I started to read Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" just before we went to a friend's house for New Year's Eve. Thus far I haven't found it to be a stinging critique of all that is the US, as David Brooks has alleged in a review. I have though picked up on sort of the middle-class guilt, or even self-loathing, that seems to be an important force in the US. Anyway, as my wife and I drove to our friend's party with our child in his newly-installed car seat, I felt sort of thrilled to be young and middle-class, starting a new family. I think this is something nice about being middle-class in the Third World. Because it's somewhat of a rarity, and not taken for granted, you don't feel the type of hand-wringing contrition that some bourgeoisie seem to feel in the US or other wealthy countries. This has its ugly side to, as the relatively well-off in the Third World are often unconscious of their good fortune, insensitive to the systemic poverty around them, or simply insistent on the personal merits that have lifted them up the economic ladder. But I think my wife and I, having seen poverty and wealth in developed countries and the Third World, are well-placed to appreciate what we have without feeling a paralyzing culpability about our life.

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