Some years ago when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Azerbaijan, my American underwear started to fall apart to the point that I was embarrassed to hang them on the clothesline on my balcony.
Not a problem, I thought. I was going to the capital that weekend and I would do some shopping.
“How much?” Quickly doing the necessary mental math, I realized the price would be $12, and if I bought four pair that would equal 50 percent of my monthly stipend. It was embarrassing to tell the sales lady that this American could not afford underwear.
Oh, well, perhaps at the local bazaar. One color, brown. Not an ordinary brown, but a rough-textured kind of army brown. Were they army surplus? No way to ask that with my limited Azeri. I bought two pair. They were even more ill-fitting than Soviet-made shoes, and they chaffed something awful. But not to worry, they fell apart after a month, and I had kept my old ones, mostly because there was no practical way to throw them away.
Every time I went to the neighborhood trash bin, someone would follow me and take my trash from the bin (because it was American?) unless I set it on fire and stayed to watch it burn. Imagine the uproar if someone ran down the street shouting “the American is burning his underwear!”
A couple of months passed. A care package from home never arrived. The selection at the bazaar stayed the same. But I was off to India on vacation, then home to the States. Surely in New Delhi ...
“Yes, sir, we have many beautiful underwears.” Then he looked at my midriff and enthusiastically demonstrated the stretchable waist band. I bought two bright-blue “beautiful underwears.” Back in the hotel room, I discovered they were baggy in the front, tight on the legs and the fly was sewn shut. Oh, well, I thought, I am only here for two more weeks, then home.
My sister met me at the airport.
“Hi,” I said, “I need new underwear.” We drove straight to the nearest K-Mart, and there they were — a whole row of “underwears” in beautiful colors and different styles.
It was great to be back in the USA.
— Warren Carlson lives in Medford.