11 September 2016

Zen and the West African Service Economy

In opening, I remain closed. Being closed, yet I am also open. What am I?

Today, two answers.

Antennas at the Voice of America broadcasting outpost on Sao Tome.

1. A restaurant in São Tomé

It was sunset, and we were looking for a drink. The guidebook recommended a place called O Pirata (“the pirate,” or for us non-Portuguese speakers, “Oh, Pirate”).  It was, as promised, just after the National Assembly building, right by the water. There was a sign that said “O Pirata.” It was not lit up. There was no one out on the patio, yet there were chairs and tables – and inside, chairs and tables with tablecloths, knives, forks and spoons on top of them. Oh, Pirate – you did not seem to be closed for good, and it was 5:30 on a Thursday night. Yet you also – your front door in particular – did not seem open.

We stood quietly for a moment, pondering. Then I heard someone’s voice in the kitchen. 

“Good evening?” I tried.
“Good evening!”
“Is the restaurant closed?”
“No, I’m here. The other people haven’t come.”
“Oh! Can we have a drink?”
“No, it is closed.”

We decided to get a taxi back.

2. A pharmacy on a Sunday

I checked my temperature on Saturday: 34.4 degrees Celsius, which is less of a normal resting temperature and more of a normal hibernating temperature. Sometimes I run a little cold, so I checked Chris’s temperature: too low to read. I decided I needed a new thermometer. Many places in Cameroon are closed, or open only for a few hours, on Sundays. Happily, there is a pharmacy open seven days a week right on our block.

Approaching the pharmacy, I became confused. There was the sign that said “ouvert,” but there also was the barred front door. There was the security guard who’s usually posted outside, waving. It turned out, though, that instead of waving me in, he was waving me back. There was, I saw, a light on inside. I became more confused.

“Good morning!”
“Good morning.”
“Is the pharmacy closed?”
“May I go in?”

What then should I do? At a loss, I pulled out my thermometer and waved it around, explaining to the guard that it had un problème.

As if summoned by this tiny, malfunctioning wand, a man in a white coat appeared behind the closed door. He was the pharmacist. He agreed that 34.4 degrees was very low. He also agreed to sell me another thermometer. He went to the back and got me one, showing me the price. I gave him the money and held on to the thermometer. He went to the back again and reappeared with my change. We parted satisfied, though still curious. At least, I was.

These experiences remind me: beware of false binaries. Black or white? Open or closed? Like so many things, these exist on a spectrum.
Or as Miracle Max might put it,

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