Outside magazine, May 1994
Three days of walking, and, ah, you arrive at the outskirts of a remote village.
Doesn't matter where, really. Could be Tonga or Peru or New Guinea or Rwanda or a Siberian Chukchi settlement. Time to get reacquainted with fellow human beings. The dogs are going crazy, and they follow you in ragged packs. Walk toward the center of the village, and children form an advance guard. Dozens of them surround you. Soon enough, older people--adolescents--develop the courage of children and sidle up. The responsible adults usually come last.
And here's what happens: Sometime within the first 20 minutes of pleasant social interaction, someone insults you. More than likely it's one of the teenage males. The kid is rattling away in the local idiom and people are laughing. They are laughing at you. It's a mean, denigrating laughter. The village bully has you in his sights. He's probably calling you:
A gringo son of a goat, Zionist barf-bag, imbecile, moron, pervert, suckfish, accursed spawn of filth-devouring evil. You are, according to your tormentor, a stench upon the land, an illiterate dim bulb, a pig-dog, a snot ball, and a cow flop, not to mention a fatty, a dummy, a heretic, and a coprophagist.
The urge, of course, is to respond in kind and insult the bully in idiosyncratic English. Get in his face. Let him know that he's a sack of pus, a shit-weasel, and that you'd be delighted to introduce him to the dumb end of a baseball bat.
Such a response, in my experience, is more trouble than it's worth.
In places that lack TV, a stranger's visit is the evening's entertainment. Respond to abuse with more abuse, and the game escalates. Suddenly everyone's dashing in to figuratively pull away a bit of your flesh like piranhas in a feeding frenzy.
What I do--what I've done in Tonga and Peru and New Guinea and Rwanda and certain Siberian villages--is laugh right along with everyone else when the first insults start flying. I continue to laugh along, just as merrily as all get-out. It's smart to seem a little confused.
I look to one of the adults--someone who seems bothered by the attack--and, smiling, gesture for some translation. What are we all laughing at? The fellow may not be able to meet my eyes. He stares at the ground. The insults dribble off to a muttering ambiguity, and there is much less laughter. More folks are now staring at the ground. The crowd seems shamed. There's a new tension in the air.
Tension, of course, is the comedian's friend. Make them laugh here, and you've got 'em. Feel free to work out your own shtick, but I've found that singing "Tea for Two" in a Donald Duck voice while tap dancing usually works. The tension is broken, the bully defused, and everyone's laughing. Now you can get on to the serious business of making friends.