There is nothing like a foreign country to test your conceptions of reality. When you have walked around Shoprite (which is practically the Mada equivalent of Woolworths) three times and still cannot find a single bag of flour, then you know – you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
There are odd things one simply cannot find here. Usually flour is not the problem (but don’t expect stoneground, wholewheat, rye or anything similarly outlandish). But dental floss. Plain straight aqueous cream (I found an Elizabeth Anne’s baby version, which does make me smell sweet). Fineliners, for crying in a bucket. Things you never expected to miss.
More seriously, medication supply is dodgy in the extreme. One central depot does all the importing, and it is not uncommon for the entire country to run out of epilepsy meds, because an order was mislaid or overlooked. I found myself a few weeks back needing to find an emergency supply of my particular drug of choice, my three-monthly delivery from SA having been delayed by unexpected red tape (Mada it seems is a popular drug-trafficking highway, and therefore couriering legitimate medication requires a ton of paperwork and your firstborn child). By the time I managed to get my hands on a box of the stuff, I was only too happy to pay three times the home price for it. If a bidding war had broken out between me and the other local crazies (it turned out this was very possibly the last box in the entire country), I would have paid double without thinking.
Lesson learnt: obviously, this is not a place to trust with your psychotropic supply.
This is also the land of the compound fail. The confluence of small, unexpected inconveniences that can very rapidly land you in the dwang. Example: two nights back, at my lovely eco lodge, I went to the shared bathroom/ablution block with candle and torch. While I was there, the electricity (generator only) went off for the night, and simultaneously my torch batteries decided to die. No problem: feel my way back to my room in the dark and light a candle once inside. I know exactly where I put the spare batteries. But of course, I have dropped my key somewhere on the path. The wind is too strong for a candle outdoors, and it is just cloudy enough for there to be no moon or stars. Staff have gone to bed, as have the few other guests. Thankfully, the torch will still give a dim momentary red flash and it only takes crawling two or three times on hands and knees up and down the path to locate the key.
Example 2: I stop on my way home from work to buy a bottle of gin (I realise I have more than one story that starts this way). Then I realise the scooter needs petrol. Having filled up, I realise I have spent my last cash on the gin. Garage does not take cards. I begin walking up and down the nearby road to find an ATM. Of four I find, two do not take Mastercard. Another is out of order. The other (after twenty minutes in a queue) simply declines my transaction (not unusual). I get as far as the office, but just miss the last of my colleagues leaving for the night. And because a storm is brewing, cell signal is down and I cannot reach Anri for help. Just before dark, I get back to petrol station, and in extremely broken French (and far more effective tears) beg the cashier to let me leave my passport with her as security, and ride home to fetch cash. Thankfully it turns out she knows our NGO’s scooters by sight, and is happy for me to pay in the morning on my way to work. Obviously, the storm breaks as I’m heading home, and I am drenched. At least we have gin.
Oh how we take for granted our services, back-up’s and plan B’s. If I had any worries about becoming complacent and set in my ways at this stage of my life, they are laid to rest. I wrote a column for Sunday Times Travel last year on the “unpredictability index”: in any given place, the chance of things unfolding as you expect they will. Mada takes this into the fifth dimension.