I wrote last week about our local shopping choices, or more specifically, our lack of them. Feeding ourselves here can be challenging at times, but there is a bright side to this scenario. Three, actually. The first is that since meals here don’t come from a box or a drive-thru window, I’ve finally had to learn how to cook. The second is that since cooking here means “from scratch” and relies a lot on locally grown fresh veg, our diets have improved a bit. And the third is that since our local options are so limited, the company occasionally lets us bum a ride on their Beechcraft just to restock our pantries in the big city, which is hugely fun.
Shopping by plane! I often forget how strange that sounds. Yet it was so overwhelming at the beginning that I didn’t even know how to write about it. Each time I tried, it felt like trying to recall and describe a really bizarre dream. With repetition our excursions became more familiar but no less exciting — those trips were the highlight of our month (or quarter, however often we got to go). Now that they’re largely a thing of the past, I regret not capturing more of the details as they unfolded. A lot about those trips has changed, and I’m already having trouble remembering the earliest ones. I’d better jot some things down before more is lost.
So here’s how it works. (A caricature if you will, from maybe mid-2012.) All of us expat wives onsite — sometimes two, sometimes ten — meet up at the mess hall around 6am for a bus to take us to the airstrip 30 minutes away. We wait for our little charter plane to land with its passengers from Lubumbashi. We board and settle into leather seats, including two that face backwards where we can even get a quick bridge game for four going, before the plane returns to Lubumbashi a half-hour later. We move on to the “business class lounge” where we might grab a coffee and be lucky enough to encounter running water for the day’s sometimes-singular bathroom break. A bus is waiting for us outside. We pile in with our stash of reusable shopping bags, coolers, hand sanitizers, and stacks of brand-new $100 dollar bills. The bus takes us into town, a scenic and bumpy ride, and then we descend onto Centreville like maniacs. We hit four stores downtown and one or two outside it, if we have enough time. People see us coming and get out of our way. At the end of the day, our guys at the airport somehow manage to squeeze all of our purchases into the cargo hold and we fly home delirious, chatty, high on endorphins and seriously annoying everyone else doomed to share the plane with us. More guys at the airport unload our precious cargo and we load it onto another waiting bus, which then delivers us, one by one, to our respective homes. Usually that last bus ride is when the fatigue sets in. There’s most likely not going to be a homemade dinner that night; I’ll be lucky to unload all my groceries, run items to the neighbors that were accidentally mixed with mine, and wash off all the grime of the day before crashing on the couch for the night. Good thing I found one or two “cheats” like a can of cassoulet, cause that’s what’s for dinner. Just wish I could find an Old El Paso enchilada kit.
What’s so exhausting about grocery shopping?? Well, it’s hard to explain. I guess it’s largely the culture shock of shopping in a place that is foreign, chaotic, and extremely dirty. Many of the shops… well, they stink. Kind of like a fish market, or a place that’s had too many power outages for their freezers to handle. The products, the carts, and the money are all grimy. After just one shop we’ll pass around a box of Wet Wipes for our hands and turn them dark brown with dirt and dust. Some ladies even give their cans and jars a bath after getting them home, and the fresh produce definitely gets a bleach rinse in my house.
Then there’s the foreign bit. Many of the products are unrecognizable without some translation assistance, or trial and error. There’s French, of course, but also a lot of Dutch or Afrikaans, Arabic, Indian or Chinese. We’ve been known to holler over the aisles at each other or even use our telephones to ask “Hey have you seen any tuna?” or “What’s French for bacon again?” The prices are in Congolese francs so we’re constantly trying to divide by 900 and add everything up, lest we run out of money at the checkout (happens to me often). This is a cash-only economy; credit cards will not bail us out of a sticky situation.
And the chaos. We often close our eyes while our driver navigates the streets, especially the “parking” situation which never fails to amaze us. These guys know exactly how many millimeters of space exist on all sides of them. Inside the shops, the aisles are just as narrow and crowded, so we keep checking our purses and pockets. The checkout process is intense — we have to keep an eye on the prices, the bagging, the exchange rate, our change, and all our belongings at the same time. (We also have to watch out for people sneaking in line in front of us.) Very little of this is done in English. If we insist on speaking English to the checkout clerk, they may not be very nice. Also, we’re always a little anxious about being left behind, keeping a constant eye on each other and the door. It’s exhausting being on high alert all day, looking here, there, everywhere. It can be whiplash-inducing.
Back in the early days, at least, we had all day. Our flight landed around 8am and left mid to late afternoon. We had time to stop for lunch, and could always squeeze in some arts & crafts shopping. But still, I remember it as incredibly intense — probably because I was new, and after my first trip in which I wandered the aisles dazed and confused, I came back determined to learn what and where everything was. Studying French at home helped. Over time, my curiosity paid off as I began finding little gems that surprised the girls back on the bus. In the freezer section I found quail! Duck breast! Rabbit! In the fridge, cottage cheese and foie gras! Some amazing things, I wish I’d kept track of it all. One time I came across a green leafy bundle labeled “methi” and knew it sounded familiar. I bought it on faith and later made the connection back to Aarti Sequeria from the Food Network. (It’s Indian, also known as fresh fenugreek.) It’s delicious; now I buy it every time I see it.
It’s probably one of those things you have to experience to understand. Finding something edible and tasty in a foreign language in a crappy, dirty store when you’ve been so desperate for food that the thought of broccoli makes your mouth water, is a feeling that must be akin to the early explorers spotting land after weeks at sea, or a prospector finding gold after months digging in the desert. It’s an addictive high.
Ah, those early all-day trips seem so leisurely in retrospect. Over the last two years or so, our trips have been getting squeezed and compressed to the point where there’s no more time for lunch, no more arts & crafts. The flight schedules have changed; the airport added a ridiculous, completely paper-based immigration check, mandatory even for domestic flights; the company built a new office down the road where we must stop to change drivers and vehicles (which sometimes aren’t fueled up); the city’s roads were upgraded and so was the traffic — anyway, for multiple reasons we ended up with only three hours to hit our five favorite stores. And we must hit them all because they’re completely different. Only one carries actual bread flour, a different one has the only decent butcher counter, a third has our best dairy options, a fourth sometimes has produce flown in from Europe. Yet these are extremely broad generalizations; sometimes we’ve reached our favorite dairy shop to see there is no more dairy. “It’s finished,” the workers always tell us when we ask, without ever checking in the back. “Maybe tomorrow,” they usually add.
Three hours is not a lot of time to hit five grocery stores. We don’t have time to double back to the first shop when we’ve held out for good dairy at the second. We’ve learned very well the expression “bird in hand,” as a good friend used to always say. If we see something we think we might want, even it’s cheaper or better elsewhere, buy it. Better yet, buy five. There is no such thing as reliable inventory here in Congo, which we’ve learned the hard way. One time a shop had quinoa (quinoa!) and we bought all of it. Each time we went back and asked for it, they told us “it’s coming” and to check next month. That was three years ago.
But whatever we buy, we must buy it quickly. We have seconds to make each decision. This has led to some rather unfortunate purchases — such as the small bag of fish that cost me $100 because I didn’t take the time to check the price, the spoiled sesame paste, the moldy bread, the rarely-spotted tortilla chips I bought in bulk that arrived home in crumbs. The more our time has shrunk, the more haphazardly we shop, racing our carts through the aisles and semi-randomly throwing stuff in. (Which is why my pantry looks as it does.)
After too many of these rushed, stressful experiences in a row, we’ll decide it’s time for a slumber party. We’ll pack our bags and stay a night or two at the company’s guesthouse, thus dividing the shopping into multiple days. Sometimes we fly, or sometimes we take the 3-hour road trip one or both directions. But we always have a good time, full of laughter. I remember one particularly rowdy evening in July 2011, when six of us spent two nights at the guesthouse. We found a brand-new very chic very modern restaurant around the corner — a chain called Lattélicious from South Africa — and kept pinching ourselves, unable to believe we were still in Congo and that someone else was going to cook for us. We were so giddy we behaved like teenagers straight off the farm who’d never been to the big city before. Management was tempted to throw us out we were so disruptive. (There was a bodybuilding gym next door, and we may have whistled inappropriately at a fella or two after partaking in a few too many clever cocktails.) But boy, was that a fun dinner.
So here’s to the good old times, and here’s hoping we’ll have a few more. To all the ladies who’ve been on these trips in the past, I love you and cherish the memories. To the future ladies, bon courage!