Christmas in Liberia, as it turns out, bizarrely combines elements from American Christmas (namely, a widespread disregard for the religious origins of the holiday in favor of its commercial aspects) and Halloween (in particular, children begging and wearing masks and face paint). Town was absolutely packed with kids running around with new toys, playing games and asking for money. In fact, it was so crowded that someone made the surprising but wise decision to dispatch police to direct the normally chaotic, unregulated road traffic (comprised of UN and aid vehicles – generally Land Rovers or similarly sturdy trucks in decent condition – local vehicles – overloaded station wagons and minibuses that one expects to collapse at any moment – and many, many motorbikes).
Santa Claus is not very well-known here, but he has an incredibly creepy stand-in: Old Man Beggar. The Old Man Beggar I saw was a child wearing a skeleton mask and a ski jacket (in the 90-degree weather) that had been stuffed to give him a (not very jolly) belly, dancing down the street followed by several other children and asking anyone and everyone for money.
I actually had quite a pleasant, though decidedly low-key, Christmas. I went to the Catholic Christmas Eve service with my landlord, had chicken foot and fish head soup at the principal's house on Christmas Day (though I, coward that I am, avoided both of those particular elements), walked around town to see the holiday goings-on, and hung out with the hyperactive, face paint- and glitter-covered neighborhood children until I couldn't stand the demands for money anymore. And I read. A lot.
I have to say, one thing that I really enjoy about Peace Corps is having the time to read. There are generally a lot of great books floating around among volunteers, books that I wouldn't necessarily have known to look for in the US, but am generally pleasantly surprised to discover. Since being here, some of the most engaging books I've read have included Emma's War, a true story about an aid worker in Sudan who ends up marrying a Sudanese warlord, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, about the way in which supposedly “neutral” aid is manipulated to oppress other countries and further the USA's agenda abroad, Graham Greene's Journey Without Maps, about traveling across Liberia by foot in the 1930s, and most recently, The Pilgrimage, a mystical though nonfiction work by Brazil's Paulo Coelho (who also wrote The Alchemist) and The Devil in the White City, about the H.H. Holmes murders during the Chicago World's Fair.
I haven't read as much science fiction as I did in Kenya, where I read quite a bit. I think science fiction particularly appeals to me for several reasons: 1. I'm a dork, and 2. A recurring theme in a lot of science fiction is that of dealing with others who are different. Think of every alien story you have seen, heard, or read – even though they are “about” aliens, they are really about human nature; the core question is “How will we, as human beings, react in the face of entities who are different from us?” Will we react with fear and violence, or unintended cruelty under the guise of scientific investigation? Or will we react in a completely different way? (Side note: the movie District 9 is a fantastic example of what I'm talking about, in a context that is especially relevant to work in Africa). I think, if you have been reading this blog, that you can probably imagine why that particular theme appeals to me. Though if my own cross-cultural experiences can be said to broadly reflect on the ways in which people act in the face of something new and different (like a nerdy white lady), then what I think will happen when we finally make contact with extraterrestrials is this: we'll mock them mercilessly and laugh them off the face of the planet.
Anyway. I allowed myself a few days' respite from grading, but I'm starting to worry that I won't finish before I go. So I should probably stop rambling about Christmas, literature, and science fiction, and suck it up and get back to work.