Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wu Chao Ying

Ahh I see I have been remiss – and after being so good for two whole weeks! Well, fret not my loyal, if small, following. Have I got a treat for you. I do so hope you will accept it as a humble offering for my degenerate failure to post last week.

If you’ve been here a time or two, you may have surmised that I am a bit of a fan of coffee. I am confident enough to admit that some nights I climb into bed and shut my eyes tightly and tell myself if I am good and fall asleep quickly, then I can get up and have coffee first thing in the morning. No seriously, I’m like a child on Christmas Eve when I realise that there is a bag of beans wrapped in a shiny package nestled under the cupboard in my kitchen.

You can imagine how I felt when I moved into company housing with a cafeteria that, while happily offering soft bacon and a solid salad bar, had the traditional cafeteria sludge that can only be made from ground up coffee branches instead of beans. There is a vending-style espresso machine that offers a selection of beverages that are quite drinkable, but regardless, the fact remains that both of these options are a six minute walk from my housing and only available during concise eating hours and I need a steady drip rather than a one-shot betty each morning.

Something had to be done.

Concurrently, I had a hankering last weekend, as one does, to do a bit of shopping. I didn’t really need anything, but I thought it would be nice on a Saturday afternoon to go do a bit of window shopping, visit the butcher, get something tasty to nibble on Saturday night and maybe find a new kitchen tool or book to treat myself. The answer to this in Vancouver would be a toodle down to Granville Island, or an hour’s stroll on Broadway.

The answer to this in Tamatave is a $4200 ticket purchased electronically on back to Vancouver. That was not the kind of money I was looking to spend (and you thought translink tickets were atrocious). Happily, there is one magical place where both my desire to peruse the latest merchandise and answer the more long term and disconcerting issue of coffee supply is a little place I like to call Wu Chao Ying’s (because that’s what the owner named it – it’s painted on the sign).

How can I describe Wu Chao’s? Let me count the ways… there are not many that I think will do it justice, so allow me to use my humble words and when all else fails, defer to a photo.

Wu Chao is like no other place you’ve shopped at – unless you are 102 and then you probably have, but when you patronized such an establishment, it was called “ye old general store” (kudos to you for making it this far, by the way).

Now, the more astute of my readers (or the Vancouver ones at least) will notice that the name is not particularly Malagasy, but has distinct Asian undertones. You are correct. There is, of course, a Chinese business presence in Madagascar. We’ve all heard tales of the Chinese diaspora growing in Africa and perhaps you are curious about their strategy for ingratiating themselves locally. Direct military intervention? Diplomatic manoeuvring? Land acquisition? Bold faced flag planting? None of these things. The way I see it, they are doing it the same way they did it in North America: Sell the unsuspecting fools every possible dazzling item that can be manufactured so they are desperate for more.

And do they ever. Wu Chao has a veritable smorgasbord of items on offer: plastic basins, gadgets and utensils, rice cookers, soap – laundry, dish, hand – treats and booze and pickles and pasta. There are rain slickers and tools and widgets and wing-nuts. I bought a very stylish pair of white rubber boots and kettle when I was there last. Today I was after the prized coffee maker.

I decided upon a sleek, understated and modern affair from a trusted name and at the right price. These qualities are all quite exceptional, because at the other appliance merchants in Tamatave, you are either paying through the nose for something far fancier than you ever wanted or you are getting something that will most likely spontaneously combust. Case in point, I bought a $10 toaster at the grocery store a few weeks ago and the shop assistant prepared to do the typical “look it works madame!” plugin test before I was allowed to take it home, but this time he wouldn’t actually plug it in until he had actually replaced the plug part. I chose to overlook that. It did, after all, work.

At Wu Chao, I was confident I was getting quality. And quality service. Wowee! Now, should you ever be in Tamatave and wishing to purchase … um, anything… let me just brief you before your maiden Wu Chao voyage. They have a system. It’s unlike any other system you will encounter. It’s a delightful system, once you get used to it.

The system you are used to probably goes something like this: you pick up your shopping cart at the front entrance. The finer establishments will let you have it for free because there is a mutual respect and regard between you and the proprietor, though some places must take the silly precaution that you may want to keep the useless, cow-sized buggy for free and insist on you giving them a whole quarter as a guarantee you’ll replace it in the appropriate receptacle when you are done. Now, I wouldn’t know from experience, having not really led much of a life of crime to speak of, but I do secretly doubt that a quarter would be sufficient deterrent for those hell-bent on keeping the cart, but I trust there is plenty of market research to support this business policy. So we progress – you take your cart and you proceed inside and you wander aimlessly the aisles lined in a similar fashion, the world over: dairy, fresh produce, meat and baked goods along the outer walls and packaged items, such as but not limited to: dry goods, chips and pop, salad dressing, paper towels and other sundries, on the parallel inside aisles. You are pretty much left to your own devices to peruse at your leisure. In fact, you’ll be damned if you can’t ever find a stock boy, a manager, anyone! who can help you locate molasses. They do, of course, move them on a quarterly basis as a matter of policy. Once you find your items and give up hope on the molasses, you proceed to the check-out counters. These are also in neat rows and, if you are at Walmart, will number about 24 stands, with only number 2 and number 18 open. Of course, you had the misfortune of putting toilet bowl cleaner last on your list, which would conveniently spit you out of aisle 12, just in front of checkout stand 18, which is inconveniently preceded by a mass queue snaking in front of it. You naturally look for another checkout, and start making your way to #2, but since it’s a football field’s distance away by the time you make it there, it has also grown a line and you are no better off.

At Wu Chao, it’s a brave, old world. The first time I – and anyone else I know who has ever shopped there – came, it was a startling experience. We all did as we normally do, minus the cow-sized cart, which were nowhere to be found. We entered and proceeded to wander the aisles and peruse the merchandise. Everything seemed normal, until you reached out to take your first item off the shelf. Even if you were just meaning to read the label, you wouldn’t get that far, because every time – Every. Time. – there is a shop assistant that will materialize out of thin air and gently supersede your reach, taking the item down for you, gingerly showing you and asking the pre-requisite “c’est bon madame?” prior to adding it to your list.

Oh yes, you have a list.

You have a list and you’re not allowed to see it. That’s right, they hold the list. And all your items. No cow-sized carts, just the heavily laden arms of your new friend.

The slogan written over the door at Wu Chao is, after all, “Vous trouverez de tout… meme un ami!” And they guarantee that you do indeed find everything, including that friend, by providing one, and then a few extras in stock just in case. Of course, you can’t take them home with you, because they have to finish their shift, but they’ll be here for you when you need a helping hand. Wu Chao is single-handedly employing more than half the city – and who can fault them for that? They have one person to follow you around and write your items down on a draft list. They have another person who then transfers that list to the real good receipt paper and adds it up at the front desk. Then down the long bench you go to the person who adds it up again for verification and takes your payment. Incidentally, they sell cash registers, but they don’t use them. After paying, you, naturally, return back down to the end of the long table and benches to where your goods were originally tallied. What ensues is usually a complex dance with the person who tallies and the shop handyman/assistant and your driver. Eventually, after a few uncoordinated steps to the left and left again with the bag, without the bag, you will be in your car with your new goodies and on your way.

Yes, Wu Chao is an experience to be sipped slowly, methodically and without question. You want to carry your own shampoo selection? You can’t. That is interdit. You want that boot in size 9? Try 6… just try it. Go on. You wish to pay? Right away madame, in 35 agonizingly long minutes, we will have you on your way. It’s not a place for the independent power shop of the average North American woman. But Wu Chao, I feel, is somehow good for me. It forces me to do things in someone else’s mind-boggling way. Too often, I know my way is best. And that may be, but it’s not always about having things my way. And the side benefit is a funny, simple pleasure from doing things someone else's completely different way.

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Sunday, March 04, 2012


One of the little luxuries that life abroad afords me is fabulous nail care. I was a loyal and frequent customer of a salon called Cocooning in Tana. Aside from the strange verb form of the name, it is a bit appropriate in another sense. Inside Cocooning are the real ex-pat and local elite wives of Antananarivo, getting their nails done or bringing their children in for a most unwanted haircut. There is the normal assortment of beauty magazines – Glamour, Marie Claire, Paris Match – and it’s clear and bright with fresh orchids accenting the chrome and white leather décor. In Tana, I got a pedicure almost every two weeks – why not, it was a ludicrous fraction of the price back home? I would walk over from my apartment on a Sunday afternoon and sit and have my feet massaged and primped and painted by a middle-aged Malagasy woman who had a spark of glamour and smoker’s cough. I would flip through the fashion magazines and pretend for a moment that there was realistic scenario on this planet in which I would actually consider picking up that $2000 purse on my next trip home.

One particular day a few months ago, I walked back home, up the drive past the chain link fence with roses stubbornly, defiantly pushing through the metal, pick my way across the world’s 7th most terrifying intersection and walked back down towards my gated community. I crossed the Jovenna petrol station parking lot and was as usual joined on the other side by the horde of street kids who walked in step for a few meters, madaming me, only to peel off when I proved impervious. After this I came out on the narrow road and try to simultaneously avoid garbage and speeding cars. I remember as I turned onto the street a mother and daughter with a small baby in tow turn kitty corner towards me from a the opposite cross street. They weren’t the poorest Tana has to offer, but they were bad enough off. They have nothing to do with the $2000 purse, I thought. It may as well not even exist.

This is the life of an expat. Regardless of whether we are talking missionary, aid worker, diplomat or someone who is working for a foreign company, we all have vestiges of this experience. Maybe many don’t experience the ultimate extremes of this, but there is usually this baffling dichotomy that they walk between daily when living in a developing country. They see this type of poverty daily, a good lot of them working hard to improve things, and often they take an evening to go for drinks at the one nice restaurant in town or a pedicure to keep their sanity.

This post isn't an apology for my pedicures. We all have treats and these just happen to be one that I can afford here and not so often at home. I was reminded of this scene in my head today and it got me thinking a bit. I walked down to the beach on this leisurely Sunday afternoon, because, after all, I said to myself, how often is the Indian Ocean just a 6 minute walk away? The beach is luxurious no matter where it is and the best part is, it’s free. This particular stretch of Indian Ocean was near-deserted with a handful of fishermen down on the jetty and three other foreign workers strolling in the distance. The sand is golden and fine and the waves roar impressively. I found that, similar to our annual vacation to Cannon Beach, I am glued to the waves, always watching to see if the next wave that starts can beat the last one for height and sound and spray.

As I walked back there was a beat-up old blue mini-van with some kids scampering around on the path up from the beach. They were much better off than the ones that madame me in Tana, and they were enjoying the afternoon at the beach as heartily as I was. For some reason I was struck by a moment of free luxury in the simplicity of it all.

I have given up wine for lent. It was a decision that was made retroactively (as I realised Lent started about 4 days earlier, but the Lord isn’t known to be picky about these things). Aside from the primary reason of foregoing something in order to enter into a deeper understanding of what was foregone for me, and to enter into the discipline it must have taken to stand there and take it all, there is another side-benefit that hinges on something I’ve been mulling over lately.

My people (as in, Canadians, westerners, young 20- and 30-somethings, redheads, Vancouverites, etc.) aren’t really known for the virtue of discipline and simplicity. Sure, I know many people who discipline their bodies, pushing them hard to excel in some sport or other, doing cockamamie things like sleeping in the snow or running for days on end. Those are all impressive and good, but they aren’t quite what I mean. We aren’t known for depriving ourselves of anything we truly, or even marginally, want. What’s more, I don’t think we’re known for being any more satisfied that any other segment of society. Now, I will certainly give the caveat that until I’ve had to scrounge for food in a rubbish heap, I probably can’t fully comment on what satisfies and what doesn’t. However, this post is not about getting into a debate on the lavish excess of the west and the virtue of the poor. As a good friend of mine once quoted, poverty isn’t itself a virtue.

But being content and satisfied with your gift is.

I gave up wine, because it’s something I genuinely enjoy – not in a desperate, can’t-function alcoholic way, but in a slow sip taken in front of a wide view that washes around your tongue at the end of a well-earned day way and because it’s my other little cheap luxury treat here. I can find fine South African and French wines that I would otherwise not get to taste back home; they are rich and satisfying, just like a nice foot massage during a pedicure. There is nothing inherently wrong with these treats. If you read Robert Ferrar Capon’s chapter on wine in The Supper of the Lamb you will know how heartily good they can be. The point is not what treat I picked to forego – it could have been any number of things – it’s what I do with it this time without the treat. The challenge of Lent is to dig my toes into the luxury that has been given me. It is to gain satisfaction not from the treats that life gives me, but the fact that I have been given life itself.

“For when I gaze at his crucifixion, I see my death indeed – but my death done! His death is the death of the selfish one, whom I called ugly and hated to look upon.
And resurrection is another me.”

-Walter Wangerin, “In Mirrors” in Bread and Wine.