Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Farmers’ Market

Every last Saturday of the month, a farmers' market pops up in Lilongwe at one of the Safari lodges. The lodge is nestled in a quiet knoll of Lilongwe, tucked down a bumpy dirt path through a copse that opens to a clean, grass filled meadow. The lodge boasts a pool, and a bar, and nice restaurant onsite.

During the Saturdays in question, there’s always a brunch buffet on the veranda, which opens into the meadow area where booths are set up, carnival style. If the buffet isn’t your thing, there are usually some school fundraising booths making pancakes or sausage rolls. Booths range from the usual Farmer’s Market fare - fresh produce, home-made salsa, hummus and jam - to knitted scarves, beautifully carved wood furniture and locally made handicrafts. 

All in all, it makes for a nice festive Saturday morning (or, as my college roommate would say “beats a poke in the eye with a dirty stick.”) It’s all very well-organized, booths are spaced out evenly, and you’ll likely have a leisurely chat with some of the vendors about their organic products and run into a few people you know. After a few Saturdays, you tend to note the same vendors, the same scarves and the same handicrafts, but hey, that happens anywhere.

I generally go if I'm around, because it’s something to do (and there is a particular vendor that makes really great homemade hummus.)

The thing that just slays me though, is that up the street there is an actual farmers' market, filled with actual farmers that occurs every day, rain or shine (not just on the last Saturday of the month). It’s loud, dusty, jumbled and right off the highway, overlooking a trash-filled stream. Park your car there, and you’ll be immediately surrounded by hawkers with peddling homemade mops, windshield shiner, and DVDs (ahem, none of them organic).

Walk into the maze of ramshackle vendor stalls and it’s like being sucked into a living organism.  More often than not, I’m swarmed by vendors shouting out their wares, asking what I'm looking for. They either run off and try to find it or, ignoring my shopping list, continue to wave whatever random produce they have to sell. This hassling and hustling is all done while keeping an eye on my purse, squeezing tomatoes, looking for bugs on the cauliflower and testing the pineapples for ripeness (or over-ripeness). Once I’ve found what I’m looking for, next is trying to negotiate a fair price while calculating my desire for the good balanced with its quality. I’ve had some interesting conversations with Malawians in this market, witnessed the ebb and flow of what is seasonally available, and learned about the global fruit trade (much of it comes up from South Africa; I suspect it “falls off a truck” somewhere).

It’s equally fun, but in a much, much different way.

I find it interesting that the two markets could be so close together in proximity and intent, but so far apart in execution. There are obviously many types of marketplaces (Let’s hear it for malls! I am a child of the 80’s after all). But it serves as a reminder to me that we Americans have taken the idea of a marketplace – the very soul of trade – and spun it so far that for most of us, it exists merely as an abstract or virtual concept. We've reduced this age old transaction to the click of a mouse by the aseptic glow of machine that will never know our true desires.

In truth I’ve probably been to the Saturday Farmers' market more times than the other, but I find the local one more exhilarating (and exhausting). Every time I visit that market, I plunge myself into the heart of commerce; jostle, barter and bumble until I emerge, victorious, with something I needed that I did not have before. I've not only purchased my good, I have won it. Now that's shopping!

Monday, May 05, 2014

Customer Service, Malawian Style

Today was one of those days; the kind that can only be ameliorated by meeting a good friend directly after work for a stiff drink.  My friend Elizabeth and I decide on a pub, and show up around 5:30. We can’t decide if it’s open or not, as it’s still early for the dinner crowd, but the light is on and the doors are open. We briefly discuss going to the lively bar next door, but commit ourselves to trying something new and seat ourselves at the empty bar.  There was some movement at the back, so we were reasonably assured that the place was staffed.

Sure enough, soon a short, worried looking Malawian barman scurries over.

“I’m sorry, we have no change.” No pleasantries,no hello. Just: We have no change.

“Huh?” I muster. Then it sinks in. “Uh, yeah, that’s ok,” I say. “We’re just here for a drink.”

He looks at me like I’ve got two heads. “But we have no change,” He insists.

“That’s all right, perhaps we have the exact amount.” I smile at him like he’s a small child and  grab my purse, not knowing what exact notes I might be lurking at the bottom.

A strange look passes his face. He tries again.  “But, the manager has all the change, and he is not here.” He looks very uncomfortable.

Elizabeth and I exchange glances, trying not to laugh. His distress over our possible overpayment is thoughtful…and unnecessary. Any other barman would take our money and pocket the difference. It's sweet, but it looks like we’re going to have to do some serious work to get this guy over onto our side. We’ve committed ourselves to this bar, there is no backing down now. The full bar glows like Brigadoon before us. After a beat, Elizabeth proposes an ingenious idea. “How about we order and perhaps by the time the manager gets here there will be change?”

Sadly, this only confuses the poor chap even more. He is clearly in distress. Why won’t these pushy white women go away? Can’t we see that he’s trying to help us but that there is NO CHANGE? He pauses for a moment before mustering his own solution.

“How about you go next door?”

We laugh. Perhaps he’s right, but once plopped down on the bar stool, I’m too tired to move. Plus, now I’m here for the challenge of getting this guy to serve us. Doesn’t he want our money? After much cajoling, we finally get him to give us a menu, where we see the usual: whiskey, gin, vodka, soda water, tonic and sprite or coke. We decide on a gin and tonic.

Magically, Elizabeth has exact change.

The gentleman is visibly relieved…until five minutes later. He comes back with a grave look on his face.
“Madams,” he intones, “We have no tonic.”

“You’re kidding!” Incredulous, I peer behind the bar. “Let me back there, I’ll help you look.” I’m halfway scrambling over the counter, desperate for a buzz, when he pulls out three mixers from the tepid refrigerator. He can make us a gin and sprite, gin and ginger ale or gin and soda water, but no gin and tonic.

“Bloody hell,” mumbles Elizabeth, and I start laughing. It seems we have committed ourselves to an insane asylum. Game as ever, she looks at me and sighs: “Gin and ginger ale?”

“Blech.” I was desperate, but not that desperate.  “I’ll do a vodka and soda.”

Another long conversation ensues wherein Elizabeth tries to ascertain the price for the imported vodka (to ensure we have correct change), we finally get our drinks. They have the largest single pour of vodka I’ve ever seen, but at this point, I feel like I kind of earned it. 

Later, the manager comes in (with change!). He’s a lovely guy, and the staff clearly adore him. Shortly thereafter, a complimentary basket of deliciously buttered popcorn appears. We left a nice tip for hassling the poor guy so much, but still had to laugh. Such a strange juxtaposition from the market guys who will try to get you to pay for anything! At least I can say, he was very thoughtful about our finances, even if he wasn’t the world’s best businessman. No wonder why the bar was empty!