Thursday, August 7, 2008

Clocks, Currency, and Stars

The other day, an eight-year-old looked at my watch and said, in French, "thirty-seven". I clearly lack the language skills to disavow him of the idea that "thirty-seven" is an appropriate way to read a watch, so I just smiled and nodded.

After dinner the other night, I had a conversation with my host dad about economics. First of all, Senidia (pr: sen-juh) is a reasonably well-educated man. He holds an important political position just under the mayor of Keleya. He speaks French at work, and often surprises me with how well he speaks English. However, on this night, some holes in his education became clear when he asked me the following: "I always hear about how the dollar rises and fals. The CFA (currency here) never rises and falls, why is that?" I tried to answer his question, but again, I don't think my language was good enough to explain the gold standard to him, or to convince him that the CFA actually does rise and fall.

After my meager and stumbling answer, he followed up with: "In the US, there is so much wealth, but still people are poor - why doesn't the US just print more money for them?" It's a good question - one that I remember my mother struggled to explain to me in my youth. Without giving a lecture on Latin American economic history, I tried briefly to explain the complexity revealed by his probing. Unfortunately I think my attempt to equate currency markets and commodities like mangoes fell well short of insightful. I was frankly taken aback at the seemingly uneducated nature of his reasoning because the rest of the time Senidia is a tremendously able-minded man.

All this got me to thinking about how people can be looking at exactly the same thing and can think or believe entirely different things about what they see.

The next night, the power went out. (Yes, they have power for exactly four hours every night in Keleya). On a clear night with no moonlight and no artificial light for miles, I finally glimpsed the stars I had always imagined. I saw the Milky Way in a depth and quality that brought new meaning to my understanding of "galaxy". I imagined that this was the way the Greeks saw the sky when they all drank into the night and told stories about the constellations. I saw Venus, Earth's nearest neighbor, in all it's green twinkling glory. I saw a satellite slowly tracking across its orbit, and a shooting star burning up on its way toward earth. I saw Scorpio, the Big Dipper, and the North Star.

Then I looked around at the faces beside me. I wonder what they see when they look at the stars.

1 comment:

Alan L said...

I love looking out at the stars on a dark night. One of my favorite things to do on the Submarine was to go to the bridge at night while surfaced. I have never seen the sky so clearly as I did out there in the ocean. The other awesome thing was the bioluminescence on the bow, it seemed the entire front of the boat was glowing as we cruised through the water. I couldn't imagine trying to explain economics to someone in High school here, much less someone who has trouble with english. Good luck and I hope you are having fun.