Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Collecting stories for the Madame

A colleague of mine who arrived in Pointe-Noire a few days ago also had her name added to the "lost baggage statistics"-list. She is rather new in the company and has not travelled much in Africa, so the whole experience wasn't very pleasant for her to start with. The worse for her I guess was the fact that she didn't have any extra clothes to wear. Despite the fact that I hardly know Pointe-Noire and cannot speak much French (neither can she), I felt obliged to assist her in getting a few pieces to wear until her suitcase some day arrives. We got a driver who can hardly speak English, but when we mentioned the word "shop" his face lit up, he jumped in the car and off we went. 

After a couple of minutes' drive deep into Pointe-Noire's "informal" shopping area, I started wondering if the word "shop" might not have another meaning in French. My colleague was visibly getting more and more nervous and kept telling me that she didn't feel comfortable. She kept explaining to our driver and he kept nodding his head until he stopped in front of a small shop selling suitcases. I immediately realized that we probably should not have told him the whole story about her lost luggage issue, because the words he actually grasped was not only "shop" but "luggage" as well. I tried another approach and said "clothes" while tugging onto my shirt.  "Ah", he said and off we went deeper into Africa. After another 5 minutes drive he stopped and showed us more shops across the street. He got out with us, took us to one or two shops, but unfortunately they were only selling clothes for men. 

I could see that my colleague was now really upset and wanted to leave immediately. I don't think she was annoyed with our driver's inability to understand her; I think she was getting scared as we were approach by each and every Congolese beggar who thought they could get a few bucks from us. I for one stand out like a sore thumb. This is really annoying and I understood her concern, but at this point we had to find clothes and I was seeing this whole predicament we were in from a completely different perspective. I told her to relax and said: "Listen, don't worry, we are fine. We are busy collecting stories....". I tried my luck again with our driver and said to him "No-no-no, we want clothes NOT for me, for MADAME". "Ah" he said once again and exchanged some French grammar with one of the street vendors. We got in the car again and drove around the next corner where we stopped right in front of a shop which looked like it might be selling the stuff that "Madame" would be interested in.

My colleague didn't buy much, I think at this stage she was too confused and nervous to really shop. There were no changing closets, the whole shop was about the size of a Woolworths' changing room so she had to fit in the air while 5 beggars and 5 shop assistants were watching her every move. On our way back she asked me what I meant by "collecting stories"? I could only explain to her one of my favourite quotes.....

"Tourists bring back souvenirs, adventurers bring back stories"

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