An excerpt: Cameroonian patience

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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25 Responses

  1. Great story! I enjoyed your excerpt.

    And related to it (from your sister’s standpoint.) We’ve sent small packages to my sister in law in Kenya that either haven’t made it all or have gotten there minus most of the contents. Sigh. And all she really asked for was taco seasoning mix!

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Wonderful excerpt, Alexis. I felt as if I were there with you. I don’t have any constructive criticism to offer–I’d have to read it with different eyes to do that, but one thing I noticed were references to other parts of the trip. I’m assuming this excerpt comes after those so the reader will understand the references.
    Karen

    • You’re right, Karen. I’m trying to pick excerpts that don’t require too much previous knowledge of the story to understand, but there are still a few references.

  3. Alexis, I thought this excerpt was well-written and fun to read. It makes me want to read more.

  4. All right, but…
    unless you have been there earlier in your book, I think it would feel better with more “atmosphere”: surroundings,
    colours, odours. people’s chat overheard , dress ; the gestures the rituals of talk and body movement. It does not feel like Africa enough, it could be a second hand market in SE Europe. (in summer time?)
    Were you not “drilled” in the local habits (corruption/ additional income- that-comes-with- position) etc before going? parcels like that hummm innocent lambs…
    also did you tell your reader the value of the CFA/$?
    just my twopence as you asked for it.

  5. You’ve whetted my appetite! I enjoyed this, and am interested in seeing more.
    I can relate to the anticipation of mail/packages, having been a traveler myself.

  6. I’m not qualified to offer advice or criticism, so, I’ll forego that. I did like the read. It kept my attention. I could feel your impatience, your irritation, the sting of unfair loss, even the sun…nice touch there about moving to avoid sun burn. Very evocative. Little details like that–sparingly used–really make a book, I think.

    I spent a couple of years in Korea, bargaining there is expected. If you pay without bargaining, you lose face. It’s almost like the vendors are disappointed if you don’t haggle. I don’t like to haggle. Had a friend who did it for me…in Korean.

    Best regards, Galen

    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  7. It gives us a good look at a culture so different from our own. And it shows us how frustrating it was for you (and would be for us in your shoes) to adapt.

    Helen
    Straight From Hel

  8. I’m going to buy your book. its well written and i’m already hooked.

    Steve Tremp
    http://www.stephentremp.blogspot.com/

  9. I really enjoyed this, Alexis. Thank you for the glimpse into your work and into your trip. I was reading from a “reader’s” perspective so no criticisms as far as I can see! I’m very interested in reading the entire work. What a marvelous adventure you’ve had!

    ~Jen

    • Thanks, Jen. That’s why I put those comments at the bottom… So you’d enjoy it first as a reader and only look for criticism as a secondary. I don’t want you to feel like you have to work coming to my blog!

  10. Lexie, one minor quibble. You write that they “conversed in French, allowing me to hear every excruciating detail of their exchange.” You were standing right there so you could have heard them in any language. You could UNDERSTAND them because they spoke French. Otherwise, tres bien!

  11. Great excerpt, Alexis! I’m looking forward to reading more. The conversational tone makes me feel like you’re telling me about your travels over a cup of coffee, which I think is a perfect voice for your book.

  12. Great story! Having traveled through a lot of Africa and living in Ghana, I can empathize with you plight. I now make friends with Americans who are willing to lug a package back across the ocean.

    The only suggestion is the phrase “…elicited a fist pump…” I’m a fan, too, of the word elicit, but it seems like it was work to do the fist pump rather than joy. The sentence doesn’t flow with this word.

    There’s my cent franc worth:)

  13. Hi Alexis,
    Great writing there! This is my first time getting a taste of your memoir! Wow, sounds like an incredible adventure! You had me hooked to read on, which is a wonderful writing technique. And now I’m curious to read more!

  14. I love reading your stories, Alexis. Nice job!

  15. Hi Alexis,
    I really loved your excerpt, and I look forward to reading the next one. It reminded me of how lucky we are to live in developed society. Keep up the good work!

  16. Hey Lexi,

    Loved the excerpt. My minor critique is that the transition from the post office story about pants into the book-buying adventure with Benoit seemed kind of abrupt. I re-read that paragraph where you met up with Benoit a couple of times, expecting some kind of tie-in or some more definite closure about the pants after you came to terms with the fact that you weren’t meant to have pants on the trip.

    Just my two cents 🙂

  17. Enjoyed reading the excerpt 🙂

  18. Thanks, everybody, for such great suggestions! I’ll incorporate them during the next round of revisions.

  19. Lex, I love it. I vaguely remember reading this story from your blog, but in not such detail. Now, I have the full picture! And re: the voice, It’s totally YOU. I’m hungry for more!

  20. I was riveted to this. Great excerpt!

    As far as critique, there’s not much to single out. But I did agree with Alan Davidson about the word “elicit.” And also with Heather about the rapid transition.

    Because of the feeling of suspense you created in the first half, I kept expecting the package affair to somehow impact the next scene at the marketplace, but it did not (unless that’s coming later). So a transition that lets the reader know the package story was self-contained would fix that niggle.

    Otherwise, all I can say is that I agree with Steve Tremp:

    “I’m going to buy your book. It’s well written and I’m already hooked.”

    P.S. I found your style compelling. You immediately set me up with the feeling of wanting to know what was going to happen next.

  21. Hey Lexi! …This is a hilarious passage! I do really like your style, and you’re so good at pointing out the humor in these situations. I know your book is not a comedy, per se, but you really are funny!

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