16 December 2015

School Haul

Or, Now That Chris has Filled You in on Various Topics Social, Cultural, Geopolitical and Historical…Blair Takes You Shopping for Binder Clips

When you’re setting up a classroom, and an apartment, you end up buying a ton of stuff. (Full disclosure: for “you’re” and “you,” read “I’m” and “I.”) The classroom supplies and lavender baking pan proudly displayed above were the fruit of a long and eventful Saturday shortly after school started. Why did it take me so long to post this, you may wonder? Well, first of all, I had to shop for other things. Second, I had to recover – physically, psychologically, emotionally – from shopping for these other things.

There is, in fact, a whole huge category of things that are just about as easy to get in Douala as in Boston, for about the same price. We have supermarkets and pharmacies and home-goods stores and all like that.[1] This blog post, however, is not about that category, but about the next category over: the things that exist here, but not necessarily in an obvious (to the newcomer) place.

I already had an idea that there would be no one store for our needed miscellany – that the thrill of the hunt, with its attendant suspense, false leads, sweaty walks and sweatier taxi rides, would be very much alive and well in downtown Douala.

Reader, I won’t make you wait any longer – I was right!

Over the first few weeks, I came to realize that much of what one[2] needs, or feels very strongly one needs, is available somewhere in Douala – you just need to keep asking people where to find it. Start with coworkers; continue with employees of stores that looked as if they might have what you want, but upon closer investigation do not; if necessary, move on to taxi drivers and ladies selling bottles of peanuts. Then, walk into and around various places, using your soft eyes just as recommended on The Wire.[3] Sometimes, you may need to ask an employee (especially if, say, you wish to justify your presence in what has turned out to be an employees-only section). One option is to dig out your smart phone and hope Google has a locally-recognized French equivalent for, say, “accordion file.” At other times, the word may come back to you from eighth grade, the last time you learned any French that was practical. Or, you may be able to sort of describe your way around the object (“je cherche... un truc…dans lequel je peux ...ranger des papiers?…il est en plastique ou parfois en papier…?”) while still using your soft eyes so that, if it swims into your field of vision as you talk, you can point to it and thereby put an end to everyone’s discomfort and confusion. At still other times, you might prefer to make a rough sketch or to engage in some ridiculous mime (“I’m opening…an accordion file!!”)

Hopefully some combination of these tactics puts your quarry in your hands. All that remains, if you’re in a big store, is to take it up to the till, work out a mutually satisfactory arrangement with the teller re: your change (the ideal: a 75-CFA discount. Who has change for something that ends in 75 CFA? Stand your ground on this), get your receipt stamped by someone by the door, and then - crucially – remember where you actually found this item so you can tell others and later re-stock. (FYI, for those who are interested – those sweet orange stacking files, front left in the photo? Tsekinis, in Akwa. I *think* they also supplied the hot pink clipboard – if so, they’re clearly a go-to source for neon plastic office supplies that I may need in the future. They are definitely where I found the baking pan.)

If you are shopping on the street, the vendor will be much less particular about the stamped receipt and usually much more helpful about finding change. However, you will probably get sunburned while you stand around bargaining. Re-apply, Anglo shopper!

I have mentioned the two main categories of things you might shop for, with their ease of discovery and reasonableness of price compared to that in, say, Boston; however, I would be remiss if I did not discuss two other categories.

1.      Things that, if they exist, cost 7-20 times as much as one might expect them to. These include:
a.       Clothes hangers with clips. I spotted some for sale at an expat supermarket for about $9 apiece. I heard that a more local-friendly mart would be getting some cheapo-looking ones at the end of the month, but that month was October. How do people here hang up their pants and skirts? HOW?! For clothespins on wire hangers do not work.
b.      Baking soda. After one time buying tiny sachets of Alka-Seltzeresque powder from the guy on the corner who also sells doughnuts, soap and cigarettes, and about a week or so carefully sprinkling the tiny sachets into the cat’s litter box, a large box was finally found at Casino supermarket. Price: I don’t like to think about it, because I prefer to think of myself as someone who makes rational purchasing decisions. Suffice it to say that it was about 7-9 times what I had expected, and that I walked it straight up to the cash register and never looked back.
c.       Hanging files. There is just…no such thing. What can I say? Binders are not the same. Nor are the 3 tiny accordion-file briefcases below the map of Cameroon. Words fail me.

The above is a small slice of the pie, but a bitter one. Thank you, then, universe, for the last category – the one that eases the sting of all that went before. This category, larger by far than the preceding one, I shall call:
2.      Things that are cheaper and easier to find in Douala than in Boston. It includes:
a.       Socks
b.      Shoes
c.       Sunglasses
d.      Sponges
e.       Hats
f.       Tissues
g.      Mayonnaise
h.      Chargers and converters
i.        Wind chimes
j.        Jump ropes
k.      Kola nuts
l.        Peanuts
m.    Cell phone minutes
n.      Floor lamps
o.      Beer
Every third shop sells beer, and usually has a table and chair for you to consume it out front. This includes corner stores, wine shoppes, and office-supply stores. Plus, the beers are 65 centiliters – about twice the size of what I’m used to. Take that, America.
The rest of the items on the list are, if possible, even easier to obtain. If you sit outside long enough with your 65-cl. beer, someone will walk by selling one or several of these things. Tissues, mayonnaise, kola nuts and peanuts have set prices. Everything else is discutable.

[1] They’re not all in one enormous air-conditioned building with a big red circular logo on the front (tiny sigh), but they are here, and they are fine.
[2] One is a gently-reared, middle-class American lady who has been in the Peace Corps once, but who is not currently – thus, who is still reflexively cheap, but who now that she is in possession of a larger income, will damn well buy those throw pillows, thank you very much.
[3] Some people may interpret one’s soft eyes as “looking confused” and one’s wandering as “rummaging through what turns out to be the Employees Only section." Haters will hate. What matters is, did you find the fine-tip Wite-Out pen?