Sunday, July 15, 2012

One small step for man... one giant step for Catherine

I wonder how Neil Armstrong felt before he stepped onto that dusty surface of the moon. Everyone back on earth was holding their collective breath—would it support him or would he just sink to his armpits in cosmic dirt? Did he climb halfway down the ladder and gaze at the bleak landscape and wonder at the strangeness of all, the otherness of this world compared to his home, now hanging in the sky like a jewel on black velvet? Did he clear his throat before he spoke to millions, in an attempt to cough out his uncertainty and apprehension? Could his eyes stretch wide enough in eagerness to take in the firstness of this experience?

And then, I wonder if Neil Armstrong realized that planting his feet on the moon was like strolling out your front door compared to a reverse-culture-shocked individual walking into The House of Choice.

You’ve probably been there a time or two and never even realized the momentousness of your trip. I admire your joyful obliviousness. Not so for me, when, after a year of being in Papua New Guinea (PNG), this past June I walked into a Western grocery store while on a week-long holiday in Cairns, Australia.

In PNG, choice is often limited. Only one or two stores in town may carry the items you are looking for, and within their aisles you might have one or two options of different brands or quantities, if at all. Even the stocking of the shelves is limited; often there are only a few items on the shelf, and when they are gone, the store may or may not have more in the back room. Anything that has to be imported (so anything that is “Western” in nature or coming from Australia or US) is quite expensive. Rice Krispies (known as Rice Bubbles) is over $15 USD per box. Meat, cheese, eggs, chocolate, peanut butter, brown sugar, powdered milk, eggs, cream, foreign fruit... all of these can eat into our budgets and are rationed with creativity (one of my friends blogged about prices here).

So, we get used to it. We make substitutions (and even substitutions for our substitutions). We are delighted when the food item appears in the store and could care less about the brand. And we get used to not needing to discriminate between foods—so the day that I went to the store to buy canned corn and there were three options, I stood in front of the shelves with my mind in turmoil. Three choices? How was I supposed to pick the right one? Why did three exist in the first place?

So imagine with me the emotional turmoil when you are faced with an entire aisle dedicated to cheese slices.

They even have a sign dedicated to cheese slices. Wow.

I had heard about people breaking down and sobbing in the grocery store aisles. Now I knew why.

What was I supposed to do? In our center store (which has an unusually high stock of “Western” foods), we only occasionally have one brand of a packet of cheese slices—12 slices for $15 USD. And here there was an entire aisle. My fingers twitched around the shopping basket handle in consternation as I tried to hold back my first raging conclusion—just buy everything because A) its dirt cheap and B) because in PNG, if you don’t buy it when you see it, it may be gone the next day and not reappear for months at a time.

No, I took a deep breath and admonished myself. You know that’s unreasonable. Just buy one kind of cheese slice. Or maybe two.

Ha. And this from the girl who thought three kinds of canned corn was too many.

It’s a strange sensation to realize that you are somewhat paralysed in the aisle, praying for guidance about food choices, and watching other shoppers browse past you in oblivion as you struggle with emotions that have been building throughout the day due to over-stimulation of the senses—there is just too much food, too many advertisements, too much choice. And then it is compounded from your attempts to control what you know are ridiculous reactions to perfectly normal situations (after all, this is my world that I’ve lived in for 20+ years...I’ve frequented grocery stores innumerable times. It’s not like I am an astronaut or someone taking huge and climactic steps for the world!). But reason is inconsequential by this point, and soon escape seems like the only option.

Maybe we don’t need to buy cheese right now at all.

At this point in time, my aunt discovered me standing rather distraught in front of the refrigerated shelves and came to my rescue, deftly choosing for us the major delicacies of the evening meal—sliced cheese, sliced sandwich meat (ham!), grapes, whole wheat sliced bread, and apples.

As I trotted behind her while she shopped, I marvelled at the wealth and beauty of this clean and organized grocery store... and laughed as I envisioned myself standing speechless before all that plastic packaging. Moon-landing or not, grocery-store shopping could give space-travel a run for its money.