Monday, March 21, 2011

Personal Space? What Personal Space?

Personal space varies in importance and distance wherever you go. Americans generally prefer to have lots of it. People stand a few feet apart when talking and no one wants to sit in the middle seat of an airplane or a car. In Botswana you are fortunate to even get a seat on a bus and people stand a lot closer than I am used to when they talk to me.

I have had so many funny moment from traveling here, but one really sticks out. Buses here have five seats to a row. There are two seats to the left of the aisle and three to the right. I generally try to sit in one of the two seats on the right so I am not squished in, but another strategy is to sit in the row of three and pray that the bus won’t fill up. I try to sit in the aisle, and in my mind, if a person comes along after me, they should have to sit in the middle. Things don’t work like that in Botswana. There is an expectation that you will slide over to an unoccupied seat if someone wants to sit in your row.

I was on a bus and sitting in the aisle seat of the 3 seat section. There was a woman sitting by the window and the middle seat was not taken. The bus was not that full and I had hopes that maybe the seat would stay empty. I took out a book and started to read. A few minutes later, I had a baby thrust into my lap on top of the book and then the mother slid into the aisle seat, sliding me over into the middle seat. It all happened so quickly that I was too shocked to react. I went from enjoying a book in the aisle seat to holding a baby and sitting between two rather large women in the middle seat. I was so packed in that I had to hold my arms out in front of me to fit.The woman smiled at me like nothing happened and took the baby back. We chatted for a few minutes and while she talked to me, she pulled one side of her shirt down and started to breast feed the baby. I went back to my book and hoped the driver would go fast.

The lack of personal space also extends to casual conversations. Last week, I was sitting around just after a meeting had ended and one of the drivers came over to talk to me. He stood very close to me and we talked for a bit. Then he told me he had an important question to ask me. He grabbed my hand and walked me over to a nearby couch. We sat with our legs touching and him holding my hand in his lap while he talked to me. It was uncomfortable in so many ways but I just laughed. In the US, men sitting very close and holding hands might draw stares. Here, it is no big deal and is a sign of friendship. The driver leaned over until he was only a few inches from my face and we talked about cowboy boots. He had seen some movie that had cowboys in it and he wanted to order a pair of cowboy boots from America. We sat and talked like this for at least 15 minutes.

It is times like these that I realize how I have changed. It would have been awkward or upsetting if either of these situations happened in the US. Here, I just laugh and go with the flow because at the end of the day it is really not a huge deal (and it makes for a great story to tell too).