Last Monday, I kicked your butt into gear. This week, a gentler form of inspiration, an excerpt from my book.
Wanna learn about my travel memoir first? Check out this post.
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Packages from home take on new meaning in Africa. Peanut butter? Like gold. A favorite deodorant? More valuable than cash. And batteries for my digital camera that actually worked — they elicited a fist pump into the air.
So when I returned to Dschang, Cameroon, after a week in the village, I beelined to the post office. My sister had mailed me a parcel weeks before, and I desperately hoped it would arrive before I left the region.
The post office’s small main room was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded and loud, with mostly men yelling toward what appeared to be the front of the “line.” What was this chaos? Were they picking up government paychecks? I was about to tap on a man’s shoulder and ask when a post employee recognized me – not many whites frequented the Dschang post office. He gestured to follow him behind the counter, into the package room, where I had collected a parcel from my mom the previous week.
“Bonjour,” I greeted the woman behind the desk as I took a seat in one of her office chairs. “Do you have a package for me?”
“I think I remember seeing one here for you,” she said, getting up from her seat to shift through boxes and padded envelopes that crowded shelves, waiting to be claimed.
“Really?” I pulled my passport out of my bag, knowing she would need to see it to confirm that I was the intended recipient.
“Yes, it’s here,” she confirmed, reaching behind a few boxes. “But, oh, I remember this package now.” She pulled the thick envelope out from behind the others. “I’m sorry to tell you there’s a problem. It arrived in poor condition.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” I said quickly, assuming the mail had been dropped in a puddle or smashed by the weight of other boxes. After all, it had crossed an ocean to reach me. “I’ll take it regardless of its condition.”
Now on her desk, the package clearly had ripped open sometime during its voyage, but the tears were at least partly covered with clear plastic tape. I held out my passport, eager to collect my parcel and leave so I could delve into my gift, but the employee wasn’t as ready as I was.
“You can see this package arrived here weighing one-and-a-half kilograms,” she said, pointing to scrawl on the envelope that apparently was official. Then she moved her pointer finger to a different part of the parcel. “But it left America weighing three kilograms.”
What was she getting at? My package had been so badly damaged that it lost half its weight? How could that happen? I looked at the woman, puzzled.
“I’m afraid some of the contents of your package were removed,” she clarified.
My mouth dropped open. So the problem hadn’t been the weather, nor the distance. I had overlooked the most obvious danger to mail in Africa: postal employees. Someone had helped themselves to my mail, my precious gift from home.
“There’s nothing I can do,” the woman continued, as she copied information from my passport into a logbook, “because I don’t know where the contents disappeared.”
Stolen, I thought, gritting my teeth. The contents didn’t disappear. They were stolen.
“Sign here please,” she finished. “That will be 1,000 CFA.”
My blood pressure rose another notch. Now I had to shell out cash to collect my ravaged parcel? I didn’t even know whether anything of value was left inside. After my other frustrations this week, I wanted to shout, “Can’t you Africans do ANYTHING right?” But I refrained, taking a deep breath and reminding myself that this was Africa, and I was lucky to receive the package at all. Handing the woman a bill, I picked up my pathetic parcel and silently exited out a back door.
On a doorstep behind the building, away from the pedestrian-filled street, I sat to examine the contents. Three books, in English. Score! A lightweight, black summer skirt that would reach just above my knees. And a huge package of Nerds candies, my family’s sugary favorite. I poured a handful of the brightly-colored candies into my mouth, indulging in the sweet taste of home. Apparently the thief didn’t appreciate Nerds like I did.
One item in particular was missing: a pair of lightweight hiking pants my sister had sent to replace the pair that was stolen in Ghana. That’s it, I thought. I’m not meant to have pants on this trip.
I was still in a sour mood, silently cursing every mail courier in Cameroon, when I met Benoit that afternoon. We walked along a strip of road where Dschang’s book vendors spread their wares, the cheapest place to buy schoolbooks for the children in his family, used books at second-hand prices. The list in my hand was somewhat daunting, about five books for each of the eighteen Ndi Wamba students, but I still expected to finish the task in an hour or two. How hard could it be to buy books when we already knew exactly what we needed?
Benoit knew which vendor we would give our business, the same stand where he always bought his books. After exchanging a greeting with the seller, he began re-writing the book list in a different format, ignoring my plea to work with the original list so we could start purchasing immediately.
“Having it written the way I want will make it easier to keep track of the books,” he insisted.
“You’re making a simple task more difficult,” I hissed. But I could see that this would have to be done the African way, so I fumed while he reorganized, thinking about Suzanne’s comment, God brought you here, one year after Father’s death, to help us. Maybe she was right. Or maybe God had another reason for bringing me to Cameroon: a lesson in patience.
When we finally got down to business, Benoit began with the elementary students’ books, reading each title off his list and watching the vendor pick it out of his pile. This system satisfied me until Benoit held up one of the books in the pile and asked, “How much for this book?”
I took a deep breath, hoping they wouldn’t bargain separately for each book. But oh, they did. Since Benoit and the vendor hailed from different parts of the region, they conversed in French, allowing me to hear every excruciating detail of their exchange. During the next three hours, the two men repeated the same conversation dozens of times:
Benoit: (Holding up a soft-cover math textbook) “This book. Your price?”
Book seller: (Pauses for a moment to think.) “3,000 CFA.”
Benoit: (Dramatically) “Oh, no. 3,000 CFA? Not for this book. Give your real price.”
Book seller: “That is a fair price for that book! Where do you think you’re going to buy that book for less than 3,000 CFA?”
Me: (Calculating exchange rate in my head. 3,000 CFA was about ten bucks.)
Benoit: “I won’t pay it. Name your real price.”
Book seller: (Hems and haws.) “Alright. I’ll let you have it for 2,500 CFA.”
Benoit: (Thumbs through book.) “For this?! You say you’ll give a good price, and then you do the opposite. If I want to pay that much, I’ll go to a bookstore and buy it new.”
Me: (Shifting my position to avoid getting sunburned.)
Book seller: (Shaking his head.) “How do you think I make my living? I absolutely can’t take less for this book. This edition just came out three years ago.”
And so on and so on, until the two men either agreed on a price or realized they couldn’t, at which point Benoit would say something like, “Well, since you can’t offer a respectable price for this book, let’s move on,” which meant we’d have to restart negotiation for that book after bargaining for the others.
During one particularly lengthy exchange, I became so agitated that I stepped in and said, perhaps a little too sternly, “Just give him 2,500 CFA, Benoit. I don’t have all day.”
But apparently I did have all day. It wasn’t until the sun started to go down, and I was chilly enough to pull my fleece out of my bag, that we finally left, lugging a cardboard box full of books.
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If you’ve made it this far, you should know that my critique group hasn’t yet read this section. No one has, except my mother (she gets to read everything first) and, well, you.
So if you want to offer constructive criticism — you’ve spotted a cliche or a line of dialogue that doesn’t work or something simply doesn’t make sense — by all means, hit me over the head with it in the comments.