alex jeffries

Adventures in International Domesticity

Published (updated: ) in letters from near and far, rwanda.

Their babysitter asked if I had gone on any adventures.

I think she meant traipsing up volcanoes, tracking gorillas, and crossing borders.

So far, I said, I haven’t done those things. The adventures I have had have been a sort of domestic tourism where I find myself as the de facto babysitter, marriage confidant, and target of teen girl mockery.

In one instance, I’m at a local supermarket with a husband and wife as part of a series of errands that started with the pursuit of live roosters (more on this later) and led us to the pursuit of boxed juices. I work closely with the husband and the wife, and know firsthand how strong their personalities are. But seeing them removed from their realms of power — from the hotel where they’re having their impacts — and reduced to passionate discussions about which plates they should buy for a dinner party was jarring. I suppose it’s like that feeling as a child when you run into your teacher on a Saturday at the Blockbuster, and you realize your teacher is a normal person who also watches videos on the weekend, and doesn’t exist solely to chastise you for your Spanish conjugations.

One evening I go over to a family’s home, ostensibly to learn how to make challah, but the making of challah includes a lot of downtime, and the adults have a lot of work to do, so I spend the afternoon with their 6-year-old who shows me the fruit trees in the backyard (in his estimation, the fruits rank as follows: mango, pomegranate, guava), performed many bike tricks around the car in the driveway, and then we did karate tag on the trampoline.

Another week, the family’s girls meet some American teenagers who were traveling through, and they bond instantly over braids, the dances from Fortnite, and rapping along to Cardi B.

Last night the chef cooked for a dinner party, and this group of Kenyans, Mauritians, American travelers, American ex-pats, and Rwandese all watched the kids perform gymnastics routines as cartoons played in the background.

At the teeming Kimironko market, a 16-year-old was overwhelmed with being quietly, consistently asked to check out beads and crafts, and needed to hang in an open area while her mom, sister and our driver went to haggle one last time, so I stood by, riffing to the best of my ability on brightly colored fabrics, and the Kardashians, the two things I knew she enjoyed.

Back to the roosters, which were for one of the main dishes for the dinner party. As it was the chef’s idea, he was eager and ready to get two live birds to bring back home to prepare. His wife hadn’t yet been to the market, and so she came along. The problems began as he walked over to the wooden box corralling the roosters. As their owners picked the birds up, they flapped, and cried, and wailed. The wife was shaken, and what ensued was a long conversation throughout the stalls of the market about how we couldn’t all travel back in the same car with those roosters together, knowing that they were alive and would soon be dead, and though she was fine eating the chicken once it was cooked, this closeness to them was something else. A moment that he’d been looking forward to, and one that should’ve taken a minute or two, was drawn out, and became more about the two of them. Sensing the chef’s mood was spoiled, but that the roosters were still needed, the assistant slipped off to buy them himself and took the birds back on a motorcycle taxi. We gathered into the car and headed to the bank.

Then, on the teenage girls’ last night at the hotel, I got a good old-fashioned relationship status pestering, the kind that used to be confined to passed notes, and Sadie Hawkins dance invites. The 6-year-old let me know — loudly and often — that his babysitter liked me. One girl: “You’re not cute. You’re okay. But you smell nice.” Here I was thinking I had outgrown teasing.

In the living room, I find out the family’s traveling to see one of the Harry Potter parks in August, and I get into a lengthy discussion about the books, the movies, and which sister is the bigger fan. Where I work, there is a Harry Potter museum. I have my own storied experience growing up with Harry Potter. And here, in another country and on another continent, I am reliving all that time spent binge-reading books into the early hours the day they were released.

For the last moment of the evening, on a day filled with roosters screaming, the dust of a market, a fruitless wait at the bank, 2-for-1 pizzas, grocery shopping, and work, the couple and I walk by a video game kiosk. There, he sees FIFA 2018. He asks how much it is, if it is the new one, and checks to make sure it’s a legitimate copy.

Then she pulls him aside, whispers in his ear, and then offers to buy it for him.

At that point, errands had worn me down. Things happen more slowly here. I’ve spent three hours at banks now accomplishing what takes four minutes at the bank near my office. As frustrating as errands are — home or abroad — gestures like that one, and having someone to share moments with is special, no matter how difficult the days or weeks might be.

So while the adventures I’ve had aren’t National Geographic ready, I’m taking them all in. I have lakes and hikes and border-crossings on the agenda. Those adventures are the obvious ones, though, the prescribed and understood ones. After hours in the bank, I am certainly ready for them, of course, but I also think about the moments and adventures I’ve been having that I couldn’t easily sign up for online.

I could certainly have them anywhere. They’re not unique to here, or there, or wherever. I didn’t set out to find these adventures, exactly. But by picking a place to just be for a chunk of time, rather than to travel to see as many things as possible on an unending checklist, maybe falling into a routine, or the routine of others, the family dinners and errands and squabbles and tendernesses, was inevitable.