Life and work with the Happy People
My travels eventually brought me to a unique and surprising land which I like to call HappyLand for obvious reasons although the first name I donned it, Dog-Shit Land, was also very appropriate. Let me tell you about this place: it was green and lush and the sound of squawking and trilling and croaking (the toucans) and tweeting and any other bird sound you might conjure filled the otherwise deep and paranoid silence. Bugs with six, eight, a hundred legs flew, crawled and burrowed incessantly, filling the grateful retina with a movement absent from the fearful landscape. In this land everyone was happy happy and there was dog-shit absolutely everywhere.
Let me tell you about the dog-shit: from the sky I’m sure that HappyLand looked like an acne-ridden adolescent. Every square metre had at least one dog-shit. Usually there was more. Walking down the street was a navigational nightmare. Not only did you have to dodge melon and avocado-sellers, small (but silent) crowds gathered around gambling stalls, man-deep potholes and gutters, but one false step and splat. Your learnt to distinguish between types of dog-shit: there were the orange bloated kind that squashed like mousse under your foot; the dark oily type (the most dangerous) that made you slip and slide and lose your balance; the pale crunchy type (the best) that had been sitting in the sun and was desiccated and did not stick; and the black glutinous type (the worst) that attached itself and stuck around for days and days. You’d think the locals would have different names for the different types of dog-shit, but they didn’t.
They never spoke about the dog-shit. They never ever questioned why there was so much of it around when there were so few dogs (I had my own theory about the source). No-one discussed public health issues, municipal responsibilities or very simply, the unbearable stench. No-one even laughed when someone slipped in poo, or got it between their toes. I noticed this strange blind spot immediately upon arriving in this place, when I apologised profusely to the taxi-driver for dirtying his car, explaining that I had stepped in two dog-shits ever since leaving the plane. He smiled awkwardly, looked around embarrassedly, acted like I’d told him his flies were undone. Without another glance my way he lifted the suitcase into the car and started rambling on about the traffic and the heat. The hour-long journey to my hotel was spent enveloped in the reek of shit.
After two weeks of being a tourist in HappyLand I learned not to refer to the (dog-shit). It made people uncomfortable. They would smile and their eyes would glaze over. They would talk about the weather, the best way to cook beans, the latest civic event, but never, ever about the (dog-shit). I eventually let it go, and focused my attentions on the other marvels: the trees, birds, monkeys, sloths.
Then I managed to secure myself some temporary work at a big reputable institution full of environmental economists and lawyers who strived to out-do each other by driving ever bigger machines into work each day which they parked in each others’ spaces. During my first meeting with the team I suggested working on the obvious environmental and sanitary issue: the dog-shit. These people were professionals; they would agree this was a most pressing issue. I was wrong.
One person walked out of the meeting room with the excuse of needing to urinate (he never returned), another got up and started writing indecipherable equations on the board, and the remaining two coughed and laughed about something stupid an environmental lawyer had said the other day. Unwilling to be put off by this strange reaction (and refusing to believe it!), I repeated the suggestion, raising my voice over the awkward laughter. There was no response and the meeting was hurriedly adjourned. The next morning I received a formal caution signed by the Head of Department (one of the laughers) advising me to revise my attitude and to never raise my voice again.
I was, of course, astounded. But I kept quiet about the (dog-shit) and kept to myself, working on a less incendiary issue (beaches). That is until one afternoon a large burgundy spiral (dog-shit) found its way into the corridor just outside my office. I was returning from lunch and upon stepping into the building relaxed and lifted my eyes from the ground, when I felt something soft and sticky wrap itself around my foot. I looked down but the smell had already classified the (dog-shit): the black resinous type.
Cursing aloud I marched straight to the Head of department’s office, marking my stride with dark syncopated streaks. I knocked on his open door and without waiting for a reply marched in. He looked up and winced, but rapidly replaced the treacherous look with a broad unsmiling smile.
“Yes?” he said.
“You can smell it can’t you?”
“The dog-shit. I saw you wince at the smell. I know you can smell it.”
He continued baring his teeth, although his eyes were darkening and his pupils dilating. “Can I help you?” he said.
“Yes you can,” I said raising my voice. “Tell me why you are pretending not to notice the very obvious dog-shit smell. I saw you react to it when I walked in.”
“I have a meeting in a few minutes,” he said, getting up from his desk and collecting random things together.
He was no longer smiling, and it shocked me. It also worried me: what happened to the happy people when they stopped being happy?
“I have no time for this,” he continued, his voice low and careful. “Your attitude is starting to be a problem. I’m beginning to think this won’t work out. I’ve already had enough complaints from other people about your attitude.”
“My attitude?” I cried, flinging my hands up in exasperation. “How is this about my attitude? This is about the dog-shit all over the…”
“I suggest you stop right now! You are insulting me and everyone in this building and I have just about had….!” He caught himself and started laughing nervously. “Look haha I need to go haha. We’ll talk tomorrow.” And he dashed out of the office, as if running from his own shadow.
The next day I received a letter dismissing me on the grounds of unacceptable conduct. I did not bother to protest or argue or defend my case. It was time, I had realised, to move on. And so I left that verdant, happy, dog-shit country two days later, with an advance cheque for a month’s pay, and a broad smile of my own making spread firmly across my face. As with every place I’ve been, I have learned something from HappyLand. What it is eludes me. Some day I’ll find out.