I will be working on a major upgrade to the Budget and Expenditures application for the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance during most of 2009 (I have been in Ethiopia since October, 2008). What follows are some somewhat random thoughts about life on a new continent.
"What is your name?": "Arthur, king of the Britons"
"What is your quest?": "To find the holy grail, no, to find cream of mushroom soup, no, to find a measuring cup, no, to find bubble wrap"
"What is your favorite color?": oh, never mind...
I'm not much of a cook. Most of the things I can cook that taste sort of OK involve Campbell's cream of mushroom soup so, shortly after I got to Addis Ababa, I decided to find some cream of mushroom soup. Doesn't sound too difficult, right? You just go to the grocery store find the soup aisle and put some in your shopping cart, go to the check out counter, pay for it, and head home... Well, first, I had to find the grocery store. Places to buy food-like substances here range from from eucalyptus pole and tarp sheds at the side of the street selling vegetables to "souks" (small spaces stuffed with cereal to diapers to soft drinks) in the middle of a block of shops or other businesses, to smallish grocery stores, to... that's about it. No Super Wall Marts, no Costco, no monster grocery stores with thousands of items.
Then I had to figure out what was available: normal kinds of seasonal fruits and vegetables, bags of flour, beans, and rice, lots of candy and cookies, odd dehydrated stuff from Italy or the Middle East, some meat and dairy products, and some frozen stuff. (But I'm not too sure about frozen things like ice cream because the power is inconsistent so I do not know if things have thawed and refrozen while in the store.) (The grocery stores also sell small household appliances, dishes, knives, office supplies, and furniture but that is "the measuring cup quest" and a different story...)
To make a long introduction shorter, I spent a couple of weeks looking for cream of mushroom soup in a can at every food shop I went into and finally settled for some powdered stuff from Italy. It kinda-sorta worked in my recipe. The other lesson learned in my various shopping trips is that if you find something you like buy a bunch of it because it is likely to not be there the next time you go looking for it. Stock seems to come and go on a very unpredictable schedule.
But back to my current quest... I need to ship some things back to the US. I need a box or two, some packing materials like tape and bubble wrap, and a place to drop things off for shipping. Doesn't sound too difficult, right? My quest for bubble wrap was something like my quest for cream of mushroom soup...
The first thing I tend to do when looking for something specific is ask around. "Do you know where I can find bubble wrap?". Generally, I got blank stares and "No idea...maybe in the Merkato?" so I guess I'm on my own. Here is my day-long search for bubble-wrap last Saturday...(It was a pretty good day generally. I only got reminded that I was "ferenge!" about six times, asked for money about twelve times (at least that I counted), and had one pick pocket attempt as I went across town and back.)
My first stop was the "Home Depot" near my house. As it turns out, this is a reasonably complete home store as we think of them in the US. It is about one quarter the size of the typical Home Depot in the United States with tools, building materials, appliances, and furniture. But, no packing supplies.
So I hoped a minivan to Mexico Square and hiked up the hill to the Merkato. Now, the Merkato is purported to be the one of the largest permanent markets in Africa. I can believe that easily. It it is least one hundred blocks of single-car garage size and smaller shops stuffed with everything you can image. Everything from food, electronics, building supplies, spices, soft drinks, plastic ware, fabric, clothes, leather goods, and more. The trick is to know what you are looking for and have some vague idea of where it may be. Occasionally, someone will point you in the right direction (for a Birr or two). But, after wandering around for as long as I was willing to, and having a young man try to put his hand in my pocket and take my wallet, I decided to give up on bubble wrap at the Merkato. (The oddest thing about the encounter with the pickpocket was that he spoke very good English.)
The next possibility was the Piazza area of town. (Where the Italians hung out when they were in charge.) There are tool and heavy equipment shops there mixed in with jewelery and clothing shops. No bubblewrap joy but I did find an entire street of butcher shops.
My plan is to ship the stuff using the "Ethiopian Mail Service" small package service. (Kind of like Priority Mail in the US.) I know they require shippers to use their boxes so I figure I will go to the post office and get a couple of boxes and ask if they know where I can find packing materials. (The other annoying thing is that have to "inspect" everything you ship so you have to bring your stuff to the counter, watch while they rifle through it, and then seal up the boxes.)
After a stop at my office for a while, I hop on another minivan headed by the Post Office. After checking my camera at the guard shack (No idea why they do not allow cameras in the post office.) I find the right counter and buy a couple boxes. I ask about packing materials and they say "Stationery shops". Ok, makes sense. That is where office supplies come from.
So I start hiking toward Mexico Square with my shipping boxes checking stationery shops. The first shop has office supplies on one side and baby clothes on the other side. No packing supplies according to the nice young lady behind the counter. (Maybe I can use baby clothes?). Several shops and lots of blank stares later I am still without bubble wrap...
So, by now, I'm tired of being the "ferenge on the street", and I have my boxes to contend with, so I head back to my house. I've invested most of the day in my quest and I'm thinking bubble wrap may be some mythical product only found in a parallel universe. I guess I will have to use crumpled up newspaper after all.
Here's hoping the stuff I'm shipping actually makes it out of the country and arrives more or less intact.