Sunday, February 27, 2011

Define "Cold"...

First, I have never quite grasped the concept of "Writer's Block."  How could someone stare at a blank page or an empty screen and NOT have something to write about with all this great material to choose from around Dakar...

I have read with interest the stories of winter from America this year.  You couldn't hold a global warming conference anywhere in the U.S. when - at one point - 49 states had snow on the ground (including Hawaii).  Nor'easters blanket New England on a weekly basis.  Syracuse has recorded 157 inches of snow this winter - that's BEFORE the month of March.  Nowata, Oklahoma hit minus 31 degrees.  Nowata, Oklahoma.  Why is it the only thing I can picture when I hear "Nowata, Oklahoma" is Junior Samples sticking his head out of a cornfield saying, "Population 3,971. Saaaallluuute!"

For more of Junior Samples, try:

Many of you have wondered, "What is winter like in Dakar?"  Surprisly similar, as you will learn from my observations while out running last week.  First, I made my way down an oceanfront promenade called the Corniche.  The Corniche is actually a four-lane highway that runs along the ocean route, and adjacent to the Corniche is a huge stretch of concrete sidewalk.  Think Storrow Drive along the Charles River.

One particular stretch of the Corniche is about two miles long and features a small beach.  Normally, there are over a thousand people walking down this particular stretch after work, and there are hundreds more exercising on the beach.  This particular day, the numbers had dwindled because of the weather. 

Any souls brave enough to fight the temperatures wore woolen, knit hats and gloves.  The exercisers - who are usually dressed in soccer uniforms - were more likely to be wearing a warm-up track suit with long pants and jacket on this particular, blustery day.

I left the Corniche and ran into a neighborhood that gave off an aroma of desolation.  Six men were bundled up, warming their hands around an open pit fire they had built on the side of a street.  It looked like a scene out of Mad Max, except instead of burning a tire in an old metal garbage can they arranged rocks and were burning what appeard to be some old furniture.  The time of day was just prior to sundown.  These men looked like homeless people and were preparing themselves for a long night. 

Children scurried to get from one place to another, deftly avoiding open space as if the wind would carry them away.  Many people stared at me as I ran through, with some even calling out comments that (I think) warned me against running in this type of weather or that I was not dressed appropriately for the conditions.

I returned to my neighborhood and did not see the guards.  There are six houses on my street and each house has a security guard on duty.  Since there is no crime in my neighborhood, the guards bring plastic chairs outside and set up a central watchpoint where they can hang out and shoot the breeze for hours. There were no guards outside today.   

I found our guard inside our garage.  He was wearing a heavy overcoat as if he were on the sidelines at a Green Bay Packers game, hoping his unit would not have to go onto the field.  The garage door was open just enough for him to be able to record the comings and goings of pedestrians.  I asked why he wasn't outside enjoying the beautiful day and he shuddered while responding there would be no outside for him today.

Then, he asked me with an incredulous voice, "Aren't you cold?"

It was 17 degrees on this day.  I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  Oh, wait.  That was 17 degrees Celsius.  About 63 degrees for you and me.  And it was the coldest day of winter.

This week, it was back to normal.  I came back to our neighborhood and saw three guards out mingling.  I said to our guard, "I have some news for you."  He asked if it was good news or bad news, and I replied that it was just news.  He was still wearing a jacket and I had to inform him that it was 88 degrees outside and that winter - all six days of it - appeared to be over. 

He laughed heartily.  But, he did not  remove his jacket.   

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Customer Service Aplenty - Part Deux

For some reason, merchants guard their change as if these coins contained real silver, gold and copper while throwing paper money around as if it contained real wood pulp. 

I once rode with a taxi driver who stopped at three different places looking for a 500 CFA coin (approximate value: $1), but no one would give him change for a 1,000 CFA bill.  Never mind that the driver wasted much more time trying to find a coin than trying to find his next customer, these people are absolutely steadfast about the need for coinage.

My local convenience store/gas station absolutely refuses to give out change unless someone makes a purchase.  And there are two ironies here:  they will not give out change during the day when the bank - located one block from the convenience store - is open AND the employees don't own the store, so I imagine they would get paid for walking to the bank, cashing in bills for change, and walking back to the store.

You may have already guessed this information is required reading to appreciate the story of my most recent shopping experience at Casino.  One other note that will add tremendously to your reading pleasure is to understand Part One of this story occurred sometime in October, whereas Part Deux takes place in February.

I went to Casino ostensibly because it is the only place in Dakar where I can find a particularly yummy brand of cashews.  They are prepared "Senar Style" which (I think) means that the entire cashew nut is first grilled, then shelled and bagged.  These cashews are WAY better than dry roasted peanuts, which is the closest comparison I can make in the U.S.  Before I leave Senegal, I will be visiting the company to ask them to fill an entire carry-on suitcase for my personal consumption in the U.S.  If they even last the plane ride home...

In any case, I walked to the cash register with a 200 gram bag and the cashier looked at me.  She asked me something in French, which the bag boy translated to me in English as, "She wants to know if you have money."  I looked closely at the cashier and it was - yes indeed! - "I'm a B*tch!" from October!  Apparently, she thought I might try paying with a credit card and she was planning to refuse my purchase.

I said, "Oui" and she ran the product through the bar code scanner.

I need to digress for a moment to tell yet another story about the Casino bar code scanner.  Ever since that fateful day when I was charged $20 for truffles that I did not buy, I only purchase a few things at a time at this fine grocery store.  That way, I can clearly see what is being scanned and how much it will cost.  One day, I went to purchase a bag of cat food (clearly, another blog entry is forthcoming on that) and noticed the store had replaced the usual ten varieties of Friskies with a single variety of store brand.  Every section of every shelf contained the same variety of store brand cat food.  Usually a 1/2 kg bag (one pound) costs 675 CFA (about $1.40) and a 2 kg bag (5 pounds) costs about 2,400 CFA (about $5).  When they scanned the store brand through the bar code, someone had - once again - entered the wrong price in the system and I refused to pay $5 for a $1.40 bag of cat food.  Every cashier in this store has finally determined I am the one customer who does not take kindly to paying three times more than I should because of bar code idiocy.

Now, back to our previous story...  My lovely cashier ran the product through the bar code scanner and the price came up as 2,090 CFA (or, $4.18).  I handed her three 1,000 CFA bills.  She asked if I had change.  I said no, only bills.  You may realize that she was speaking in French and I was speaking in English, but we were communicating quite well.  Or, so I thought.

The next thing I know, the bag boy translates for me in English, "She wants to know if you have any change."  No, I repeated, I only have bills.  The cashier looked at me.  She asked me AGAIN if I had change.  The bag boy reaches into his pocket and pulls out some coins.  I honestly thought he was going to pay the 90 CFA for me just to put an end to this Mexican stand-off.  But no, he shows me his change and asks, "Do you have any of these?" as if I didn't understand him the first time.  I held my tongue, but the cashier absolutely would not open her cash drawer to make change.  Had my command of French been a bit better, I would have said, "You do realize your job is "cashier", which means "one who makes change", don't you?"

Instead, I tried a different tack: "No comprendre Anglais?"  I asked.  She shook her head no, raising her eyebrows as if to say, "Who, me?" and matched that facial feature with a smirk that would have made George W. Bush proud.  "Oh, that's too bad," I replied loud enough for anyone within earshot to hear, "because I was going to call you a F***ing B*tch!"

Suddenly, her eyes lit up.  "Oh!" I said, "Vous comprendre Anglais! Donnez mon f***ing changer!"

At this point, my favorite cashier now realized that in my few months in this fine country, I was able to grasp enough French to survive in a supermarket.  She slowly opened the register.  She handed me a 500 CFA coin, effectively shortchanging me by 410 CFA (or, about a dollar).  I said, "Non, neuf!" and held up nine fingers.  By this time, two other customers were waiting in line and one of them clearly understood English.  For the benefit of that customer - and now anyone within three rows of this particular register - I held out my hand and proudly pronounced, "My f***ing change, please."

My favorite cashier slowly counted out coins and handed me the worst possible assortment of coins she could think of handing me (think a dime, two nickels and five pennies instead of a quarter).  I nodded my head, smiled and walked out of the store.  Those who know me will vouch that - while I may have a crude sense of humor - I rarely use profane language anywhere other than a golf course.  But, I can now see the allure to becoming a stand-up comedian because there really is something satisfying about dropping the F-bomb three times in one minute in front of an audience to chastise someone who clearly relishes her status as "I'm a B*tch!"

Maybe she thought she was making me look like a stupid American, but I know better.  For pennance, I will return to Casino.  And buy a small bag of cashews every week.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Customer Service Aplenty

Please note this is the first of a two-part blog entry.

My reputation as a celebrity shopper at my local grocery store was confirmed this Friday.  Frequent readers to this blog will note Casino is the name of a French-based grocery chain, although the following entry just might make you wonder if the store might be more aptly named "Price Roulette"...

The Casino where I shop is a newly built store in a newly built shopping mall.  The mall was built to attract European businesspeople, Non-Government Organization aid workers and embassy staff.  This is not a "local" market, but it is bright, clean and has the largest selection of "European" groceries.  In other words, this should be the marquis store in their Dakar chain of six stores.

The cashiers at Casino are hired based on "personal characteristics."  No, that doesn't mean "hot chicks," it means personally related to some character who manages the store.  As a group, they have all the intelligence of French Onion Dip and all the personality of French Onion Dip left out in the sun for three hours.

Now that you have some background... one sunny day, the Whitest Guy in West Africa ran up a tab of 42,000 CFA, but only had 40,000 CFA in currency and needed to pay with a credit card.  In any ordinary country, the card would be swiped, you would sign and be on your merry way. 

At Casino, the cashier will give you a dirty look.  She will ask if you have any money.  She will ask if you're sure you do not have enough money.  She will ask to see your money to prove that you don't have enough money.  She will stare at the credit card as if it will cost her a week's pay if she tries to swipe it through the machine.  She will reluctantly swipe the card with abject disgust.  She will give you the receipt after asking someone else for a pen.  After you sign, she will hand you a copy of the receipt.  You will not be merry, she will not be merry, but you will be on your way.

The next time I went there, I bought a few items and again paid with credit card.  As I was handed my bags, I looked at the receipt and noticed that a 2-pack of 200 gram dark chocolate bars was listed as "chocolate truffles" and I was charged the equivalent of $20.  Normally, one 200 gram dark chocolate bar is about $3 and the package said "save 40 euros."

I don't speak French very well, but I could point.  I pointed to my chocolate bars and I pointed to my receipt and said, "non truffles; deux chocolat bar."  The cashier looked at me and - with a very snotty grin said - "Merci, Bonsoir!" and then she held her hand up - like a policeman stopping traffic - and waved goodbye to me with a slow motion of her four fingers.  Apparently, there is a universal wave that translates to, "I'm a B*tch"... with a capital B.

Well, now I'm pissed.  I went back into the store to check the price and - wouldn't you know it! - the two-pack of chocolates was displayed in the space normally reserved for truffles.  Obviously, someone had loaded the incorrect price into the bar code system because truffles were indeed $20.

I located one of my colleagues, who speaks perfect French, and asked him to translate because I obviously was not going to pay $20 for a two-pack of chocolate bars.  He explained what happened and his cashier (completely different from mine) did a price check by running my two-pack through her bar code scanner.  It came up $20.  She looked at him and said, loosely translated, "Look, the machine says these are truffles."  My friend replied and I replied that they were obviously not truffles, but our ace cashier had probably never seen truffles before and could not believe the bar code scanning device could actually be wrong.

I took her back to the aisle to show her the mistake.  One shelf had my chocolate bars in single packs.  One row beneath held the two-packs.  The packages looked identical (save, of course, for the fact that one was a two-pack wrapped in plastic while the other was a single bar).  I said, "Une chocolat, $3.  Deux chocolat, non $20."  She looked at the packages, looked back at me, pointed to shelf and pointed to my package and said, "Look: you buy truffles."

We asked to see the manager.  My colleague explained the situation.  The manager was wearing a green uniform and apparently needed another manager, who was wearing a red uniform, to complete the transaction.  The manager in the red uniform must not have had enough authority because he called in a third manager - who was obviously very important because he was the only one not wearing a uniform.  I think he was not wearing a uniform because he did not want anyone to know he was the manager. 

Anyway, the third manager agreed that maybe one of Casino's employees had inserted the wrong price into the scanning system.  Note I said "maybe" because the manager never went back to change the pricing or give anyone any instructions to change the pricing; he was happy to charge truffle prices for a two-pack of chocolate.  But, he said I could return the product for a full refund.  We spent approximately 35 minutes to get a refund based on a bar code error.

But, wait!  There's more!  To get the refund, I had to go back to MY cashier!  What a joy it was to see "I'm a B*tch" twice in one day!  The manager stood next to her and informed her that she needed to refund my purchase.  That meant she had to go into her cash drawer and pull out actual cash money to give back to me!  Oh, the look on her face.  Why didn't I bring a camera to the grocery store?

That would normally be a pretty good story, but it's not over.  While I was getting my refund... remember how the second cashier did a price check on my two-pack?  Well... she never deleted that price check so my colleague was ALSO charged $20 for truffles on his bill, even though he never even bought any chocolate!

Once again, a manager was required to delete this phantom purchase.  The problem was, my colleague had just handed her 100,000 CFA in currency and she now was required to hand him back change - including the difference for the truffles.  This required the second cashier to perform basic subtraction - a task for which she was obviously not prepared for.  She and my colleague spent the better part of ten minutes trying to reconcile the difference between his bill; both pre- and post-truffle. 

We spent a total of 45 minutes trying to check out of the store.  When we returned to the house to unload our groceries, we discovered that neither one of us brought home any chocolate. 

(Part Deux - Next Sunday!)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tourism: The Great Economic Hope

Senegal is widely accepted as being the arts and music capital of West Africa.  The country was recently host to the "annual" Festival Mondial Des Arts Negres.  I say "annual" because that is exactly how the festival is billed, even though this is only the 3rd Festival since 1966.  A nice, working link is included below:

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.  This blog entry is about one man's dream to build an economy in his native country - a country that does not appear to have any major manufacturing facility to employ its citizens; a country that still imports most goods from France 50+ years after Independence and has its currency linked to the Euro; a country with an official unemployment rate of 49%.  That man, of course, is the Honorable President Wade (pronounced "wod", as in "spit wad").

So, President Wade, like every great leader before him in every great country, determined the best way to provide for his people - and also ensure his legacy - was to do something for his country.  I'm not talking about leaving the country to his son like most 80 year old world leaders who are currently being overthrown (although that would make for another excellent blog entry).  And - to his credit - Wade did not build a giant statue of himself.  No, Wade went one better. 

He commissioned the largest bronze statue in Africa.  At about 49 meters high, it slightly outranks the Statue of Liberty (46.5 meters, or about 150 feet) and absolutely dwarfs Christ the Redeemer (a mere 38 meters tall).  Just in case you were wondering, the statue was also built on a hill about 100 meters and is located adjacent to the airport. Welcome to Senegal!  Build it and they will come...

The statue was commissioned at a cost of $27 million.  And, with all the great artisans in Africa - including world reknowned sculptors - the chance to earn $27 million for building this statue would have provided quite a spark to the local economy as well as defining Wade's commitment to investing in Senegal's arts and tourism sectors.  So, the builder lucky enough to earn this windfall was (drumroll please....) North Korea. 

I can't make this stuff up, but all of the above has been widely documented by others much more qualified than me.  Criticisms have been leveled, expectations have been scaled back - such as Wade's expectation that he should personally earn 35% of the revenues from the statue because the "intellectual property," or "idea for the statue," was his - and the statue was built anyway.  Now, bring on the tourists!

Oh wait, tourists usually need some reason to visit a particular location.   Mount Rushmore aside, most people won't actually burn their hard earned vacation dollars to stare a giant monument.  So, enter the annual Black World Arts Festival: 21 days of music, films, lectures, arts and crafts and a giant celebration of Senegal's place as the new tourist capital of West Africa.  The event was attended by dozens of heads of state and many famous artists, musicians and actors.  By most accounts, it was a success in terms of drawing visitors to the region.  That's why I decided to offer up a couple of sidebars to the event.

The first item is that Senegal's electricity is not especially well known for its reliability.  This can generally be traced to two factors.  The first is that Senegal's electric system is highly dependent on oil and diesel, so the recent increase in fuel prices cannot be immediately passed along to customers and puts additional strain on the power provider's finances.  This is also related to the second reason: Senegal's electric utility is absolutely corrupt.

With profits being skimmed and a rise in the price of oil, suppliers were not paid and they reacted swiftly by cutting off access to the fuel required for the power plants.  Rolling blackouts are the norm here.  What would President Wade do about that?  Certainly, he would not allow his country to be embarrassed on the world scene with rolling blackouts during a signature event.  The results were amazing!  21 days of power aplenty!  After the festival, the country returned to heavy rolling blackouts for about a month...   

The other sidebar is about whether or not tourism generates economic benefits for the locals.  With all those tourists expected, many college students were hired to work booths, hand out literature, give directions and act as general public ambassadors.  The students sometimes worked eight to twelve hour days and were asked to be "on call", meaning it was difficult for them to plan anything for the entire 21 days of the festival.  Rumors of Spike Lee and several other top celebrities filled their hopes and I know of one student who met actor and international humanitarian Danny Glover at the event.

What were their wages?  Just how much did they earn?  It is now February 6 - thirty-seven days after the festival ended and fifty-eight days after they began work - and none of the students have been paid a dime for their efforts.  Repeated visits to top officials result in responses of, "You'll need to see Mr. So and So", who in turn refers them to Mr. Such and Such, who refers them to Mr. Upper Muckity Muck who - of course - is "away on business."