2008-07-10 / Editorial Page

Across The Savannah

Exploiting a Third World Country

Email Tom with feedback and ideas for new columns. tompol@ earthlink.net Email Tom with feedback and ideas for new columns. tompol@ earthlink.net My friend, Hilda, took me on a humanitarian mission to Columbiana, a third-world country, last month. The goal was to feed starving children. "Hilda the hippie." That's what I call her. Altruistic to a fault and a tad naive, she fights world starvation anywhere she can.

Columbiana is third world all right. Strange languages batter the ear. Few people work, gangs roam the place, and the people look downright scary. Everyone wants money, and homeless people ransack trashcans.

Hilda says they're not homeless, just "residentially and nutritionally challenged."

We'd had little to eat ourselves on the trip over so we stopped at a kiosk selling banana leaf wraps with brown rice and shrimp- I think. On the drive in, I didn't see one cat or dog and I thought that was odd. NBC always shows scruffy dogs in thirdworld countries, cats too. And skinny boys with big sticks.

So, we're in a long line of stout people. (Think sumo wrestlers.) "They're not starving," I said. "These folks could leave footprints in steel."

Hilda gave me a wicked look and whispered, "You watch your mouth. They're nutritionally challenged; insufficient protein puffs up their tummies."

"Insufficient protein must affect the brain too," I shot back. The women had purple hair, and the men bristled with nose rings, safety pins, and tongue barbells and sported tattoos. One guy with a green Mohawk had ears covered with earrings. He looked like a fool. His anemic, gothic girlfriend had nails in her head, pointed end out. She made Morticia Addams look like a nun.

"These people came right out of Mad Max. They don't know diddly about art."

Hilda gave me that look again. "Body art is a vital part of third-world culture."

"If ever there was an oxymoron," I said, "it's 'body art.' "

"Don't be ignorant," she said. "Their bodies are like a, well, they're ..."

"Pretty ugly."

"You're not cultured at all to be a writer," she said.

"I don't consider cliché barbed wire tattoos on fat calves art. It's like their secret desire is to be a cow in a pasture. And they can't erase it. It's downright dumb."

"You're behind the times I see," Hilda said as the line pressed back against us. The two women up front were fighting over who got there first.

"The fellow down at the Hess station tried to sand his new tattoo off," I said.

"I don't believe you." "Oh it's true. The day after he got his tatt, he told his girl, 'Mary Jean, I love you so much I got your name tattooed on my heart.'

'Too bad,' she said. 'I'm dating your Uncle Luke now.' "Bringing you here was a mistake," said Hilda.

"And how," I said, sorry indeed I had come.

We gave up on the line; they were down to one serving of shrimp and the jumbos were bumping stomachs to see who got it.

Hilda resumed her mission; she looked and looked until she found the boniest kid in the place- a scrawny boy wearing baggy shorts resembling a shower curtain. She put her arm around his shoulders.

"You hungry baby, I'm going to buy you a Chic-fil-A, waffle fries, and a- "

"- I don't eat no meat. I'm a veterinarian. Get me a nose ring you old bat."

Hilda stood there speechless. I took her by the arm.

"How 'bout it, old bat," I said. "You ready to get out of here?"

"That kid is a dang brat," said Hilda.

Hilda, you should know, practices her humanitarian skills at the mall, preparing for the day she can afford to fly to Bangladesh. That mall bunch is tough. So far she's batting zero.

We left and headed to civilization, Home Depot. In the parking lot, an old fellow in overalls was spray-painting 2d nails purple-red and dusting glitter on them on a paint-splattered tarp in the bed of his pickup.

"What are you going to make with those, old timer?"

"Nothing. A fellow over yonder buys 'em and I make out pretty good."

He held a nail up to the sky and pointed toward the mall.

"Yes sir, that one will fetch $5. Of course it deserves to get hammered into yellow pine, but as long as them kids ain't climbed fools hill, I'll keep buying 'em and I'll keep painting 'em."

Hilda muttered something about starving sparrows and went to buy birdseed. I went to get a gross of key rings.

Sad to say, malls today aren't Southern a bit. Gas may be out of sight, but here's your chance to visit a third-world country. It's cheaper than you think, and it might be downright profitable. So grab a bag of nails, hop in your car, and go to the mall. Just be sure to get all your shots.

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