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Lyrics and Life

 

By Caitlin Ward

07/29/2015
Mary Mary/Fried Chicken
The Slackers

Mary won’t you come out of yonder tree
Mary ’cause I want you down here with me
See I know the place with the good fried chicken
With biscuits and gravy and all the fixins
Hey Mary, don’t you wanna?
Mary won’t you come with me?

Mary don’t you hide under all them books
Sweet little girl with them bad good looks
See I know the place with the good fried chicken
With biscuits and gravy and all the fixins
Hey Mary, Mary wanna,
Mary won’t you come with me?

I’m not actually sure if it was in honour of my arrival, or if I just happened to be arriving on the same day, but within an hour of touching down in Santo Domingo, we were on a mission.

One of my former students and a very nice fellow who works for La Federación de Campesinos Hacia El Progreso had come to meet me at the airport. The two of them were taking me to the mountains surrounding the city of Bonao, in the heart of the Dominican Republic, where I would meet the leader of La Federación and spend the next few days meeting community members who had hosted students who’d come to work with their communities, and visiting some of the 25 different towns who belong to this grassroots organization. But before any of that, there were things to do. We had to get . . . a thing.

I wasn’t clear on what we needed to get. My Spanish is paltry at best, and at first I was too busy warding off instant heatstroke to pay much mind to anything else. I’d come from a relatively temperate Saskatoon to the heart of an obscenely hot and very sunny Caribbean city. As is often the case on islands in the Global South, where importing cars is difficult and purchasing them prohibitively expensive, La Federación had been repairing the truck we were in with a dedication we often don’t have in Canada. That said, parts of this truck were somewhat past their sell-by date. Two of the windows no longer opened, and the air conditioning had breathed its last shortly before they’d picked me up.

So when we made it out of the mad traffic of Santo Domingo and eventually to Bonao, I was overheated and generally confused. We were going in circles in a particular neighbourhood, our kind driver leaning out the window and asking everyone on the street where we could get . . . the thing. My former student tried to explain to me what we were looking for, but her Spanish, while very good, was not completely acclimated to the peculiarities of the Dominican dialect. She wasn’t completely clear on what it was we were after, either.

When someone brought the bag up to the car, it was finally clear. We had been after charcoal briquettes this whole time — apparently not common in the Dominican, but necessary for the particular dish they wanted to prepare for me that night. They were going to make a smoker in the outdoor stove at La Federacion, where we’d be going right after we picked up the briquettes and some wine.
It was then that I realized I was going to be expected to eat a chicken.

OK, I know. For most people, that’s hardly a conundrum. It’s a chicken. They get eaten all the time. But I’ve been a vegetarian for the better part of three years. Chickens may get eaten quite regularly, but they hadn’t been eaten by me for a rather long time.

These moments come up with varying regularity in a vegetarian’s life: just how much of a fuss am I willing to make of myself right now? For me, the answer to that can vary quite a bit. I won’t draw attention at dinner parties if I can help it, but I know I can get pretty tetchy at restaurants and banquets.

In this particular situation in the Dominican Republic, though, I felt that it was about a lot more than my personal convictions regarding the environmental impact of meat consumption. I was coming to visit a variety of communities who had opened their homes and their hearts first to my students, and now, to me.

I don’t think I need to get into a description of the culture of hospitality among many impoverished communities. It’s pretty well-documented, and it’s hard not to have it come off as cliché. The upshot of this, though, is that I knew people with very little were offering me a lot, and I didn’t think I had it in me to refuse. And so, when my former student tentatively asked if I would be OK eating some meat, I said, “I’d rather be a good guest than a good vegetarian.”

I could end the article there, I suppose, with that line hanging smugly in the air. And given the kindness these communities have shown the bumbling Canadians who turn up on their doorsteps each May, it’s true that I wanted to honour their hospitality and their culture throughout my time there. Being a good guest in a foreign culture, though, is sometimes more complicated than eating a bit of chicken, and not always something to feel smug about. I found myself the inept and confused guest speaker at a community association meeting. I gritted my teeth through a three-hour mule ride up a mountain, determined not to let my Dominican hosts see how painful it was. I bit down discomfort and outrage about a great many things. I briefly went from reformed smoker to chain smoker in the name of not offending one student’s host father, and ended up shotgunning rum out of the bottle with a man in his 70s one night.

I came back to Canada with the lungs of a coalminer and the blood of a dozen chickens on my hands. Once I got back, I stopped smoking and returned to my tofu-eating ways. And luckily, no one expects you to get on a mule in downtown Saskatoon.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings