December 8, 2016

What is Okay?

So, 5ish months in, one of the biggest things I've learned from this Sabbatical is that there are any number of ways to think about what is "okay." 

Santiago Street Peacock.
In my hometown, okay means the 24 hour grocery store is open all the time (I don't have to plan for food needs), the gas stations always have gas (I don't have to plan for travel needs), the ATMs always have money, but also everyone takes credit cards (I don't have to plan for currency needs), the electricity is always on, the water is always running and hot and potable, and everything *just* *works*.

Big Fish at GAM (

This backdrop of everything just working supports the Silicon Valley lifestyle I've had for the last decade plus, where I work way more than 40 hours per week most of the time because I don't have to schedule the downtime to manage the little life things like picking up prescriptions or bread or laundry.  I can just do those things whenever suits me, more or less.

Native Sculpture in Plaza De Armas

But traveling, even in the US and Canada, you leave a bit of that convenience behind.  On the road trip in US and Canada, we were checking in and out of hotels/motels and using laundromats while relying on shaky Internet and going through very long stretches of rural nothingness (including US federal and mid-western numbered state roads that were unpaved).  During our road trip, it was clear that basic things had started to take more time and so we started to build in more space and time to handle the unknown, even in our homeland, home language, home culture.

Enter South America.

Guess what?

Famous Bogota Gate of Graffiti from El Pez (

The South American idea of Okay is *very* far off of the urban US idea of Okay. 

Toilets?  Ideally they'll flush, but maybe dangerously close to overflowing, and *definitely* you can't flush your toilet paper (unless you're somewhere fancy, where they will have a sign bragging about how you shouldn't throw your toilet paper on the ground and should instead (gasp) embrace the fancy place you are and put it in the inodoro (you know, the thing that eliminates odors).

We didn't try any of the treats from the Woman of Ceviche in the Panama Fish Market.

Water?  Tap water was often not drinkable and gross even if not dangerous.  Occasionally it was straight up not potable (usually with a notice of work hours when you can't drink the water, but occasionally, in places like Lima, just embarrassing for a major city not to have this issue under control).  Unless it was known as bad or disgusting, we drank tap water and had drinks with ice on our travels and were very pleased not to get sick from the water on this trip -- we thank all of the cheap wine for keeping our systems extra sanitary.

Trash?  What?  Throw it out the car window.  Litter on the freeways.  Put it somewhere sort of near the extra-full bin.  Or, in the case of the rubbish strike in Valparaiso, just pile it up in the middle of the street for one full month of stink.  This was okay for them.  They were sort of upset, but not really.  They knew it would work out eventually, and they were right.  It did.

This an okay stove in Peru (Guinea Pigs fattening up by scraps in the floor not shown)

Safety?  See that ledge without a barricade?  Good.  Don't go over it.  See that rusty bit of metal?  Good, don't touch it.  The South American version of safety assumes a much stronger sense of self determinism and control than the US (perhaps Californian?) version does.  I found myself being much more thoughtful about my own safety there because I *had* to be.  I couldn't trust that dangerous situations would be identified for me, so I started to do my own surveys.

Time?  Definite commitments of time are not a thing in South America.  They acknowledge all of the variables that could go wrong and merely target general time goals.  Everyone hopes it works out, but if it doesn't no one is super upset, they just try maƱana. This is their version of Okay. 

Duck taped boots?  Just fine on our final portion of the hike through the Andes.
The German/Swiss/US time-billing culture, on the other hand, assumes that it is our obligation to manage our own variables to ensure we can meet time goals to ensure that third parties can depend upon us.  This is our Okay.  But there is so much infrastructure in place to support us in doing so that it is *reasonably* possible. 

This approach is just not remotely possible in South America and nothing brought this reality home to me more than the AirBNB host who waited 3 hours for us in the apartment.  She knew the earliest we could have arrived, and she just was willing to wait as long as was required for us to get there (after crossing the Argentinian/Chilean border in the Andes).  This was Okay for her.  We were very grateful.  But I couldn't imagine a Californian AirBNB host waiting in the unit for 3 hours for the guests to arrive simply because their flight/train/whatnot was delayed.

The Rosario fountain show was all kinds of broken.  But it, too, was okay.

In short, the way your local culture treats "Okay" is a serious issue that determines quite a bit of your quality of life.  High standards of Okay are easy for the folks who live there, but more than likely, if you are a service provider or otherwise working in that environment, a high standard of Okay is high stress for you, because you are not allowed any external excuses.  Meanwhile, a lower standard of Okay has lots of slack, much less immediate stress, and while traveling, for us, is much easier to handle assuming we build in the time for the assumed non-starts. 

Overall, I think in retirement I'd prefer to be in a less high-standard Okay society.  But, in an emergency, I think I'd much rather be in a society with a very high standard of Okay.


Jen said...

Interesting observations, as always. To throw another example in the mix - when I was traveling in Japan, I really appreciated the high level of Okay, but I could see how living there may change that appreciation to feeling oppressed. It seems like the people end up exchanging personal flexibility in return for stability/reliability.

bt said...

Good point -- I am looking forward to closing out the Asia trip with Japan because I am certain I will appreciate how well and easily everything works. I should probably add Japan to the German/Swiss/US-time-billing culture reference.

Arvay said...

Nice post. It did get me thinking. I have quite a few Fairbanks vs. Bay Area moments, but I'm sure the leap from Fairbanks to a developing nation is WAY bigger than that. :)

bt said...

So, interestingly, our next stop from the bay area is Mazatlan (we're here and it is wonderful!). E was describing our next travels in the bay and had a friend stop him and ask if he know what to expect when we got here, as if the Mazatlan that can support spring break excess can do nothing except that. In fairness, we are here interfacing with the sailing community, which is fairly far removed from the party community. But even so, Mazatlan's ideal of okay (outside of spring break) is *much* closer to the US than anywhere in South American (our $55 apartment has electricity, air conditioning, fans, a kitchen, and we can walk to all sorts of stores, amazing ceviche, etc., plus they are keep almost US hours here and Uber works perfectly. And yet, despite Mazatlan being much more like the bay than many of the rural towns we visited on the US road trip, the bay area perspective is that this nothing more than a hedonistic party town. I can't help but wonder if perhaps that's how/why much of the world sees the US as it does.

Angela Knotts said...

Very thoughtful & thought-provoking.