Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Street Life Lessons Santo Domingo

The problem with being poor is that it takes up all your time. The problem with living in a poor country is that getting anything done also takes up all your time, even if you have the money.

I am testy. Yesterday was my first 10 hour black out. The phone company arrived on schedule (amazing) to install the internet, and said that of course there would be no problem. As soon as the electricity came back on, it would work.

It did not. Few things work here on the first try.

There were three phone calls to the service center, clearly operators working from their homes as one answered from within his home discotheque. The last answer, last night. was "It has just been installed. They are still working on it. It will be working tomorrow."

It is tomorrow. It is not working. Another call to the service center. "When will you be available for a service technician to visit? Today? Tomorrow?" I will be available all day. Every day. I have nothing to do but wait.

"We will call you."

Why did I expect it to be any different?

Customer service here is a reverse game. The first attempt is to get you to go away. The second attempt is to convince you that whatever you said was wrong - is not wrong. The third attempt is get you to call someone else.

The fourth and final attempt, when it is clear that you are "one of the determined" is to deal with you and the issue at hand. You will never get your money back here. Sales people make you wait while they finish their cell phone calls. The notable exceptions are when you are dealing with the street vendors, the self-employed, the informal sector.

Does this habit come from Spain? From the oppression of a dictatorship? From the incredibly low wages and long hours on the paid jobs?

How is it that these people remain so apparently content? Is it the trytophan in the plantains they eat at breakfast or just their low expectations?

The little old lady followed me around the supermarket. She is one of the "permitted" beggars in the neighborhood. Certainly there must be some sort of unspoken policing of the sidewalks, of the public spaces; otherwise this middle class neighborhood would be filled with beggars.

Here we have just a few, mostly older women, poorly dressed, one with a very swollen leg. I make it a practice to give them something when I pass. Any one of them could have been my mother, or me, but for a fortunate birth. This particular one had made me angry once as she had found her way to my apartment door and knocked. Establishing boundaries is difficult here. I spoke sharply to her not to come to my home.

Today I have no change. I know that in my wallet are two $1000 peso notes, each worth about $28. but I have no change. Change has been hard to find for the past year. Some say the government has not paid the mint in Canada for the new order of coins. Even the smaller bills are in short supply - the $50 peso note ($1.50) is scarce; the $100 is hard to find. Perhaps all the small money is circulating in the poor barrios, from fruit vendor to colmado owner, never making it to the pharmacies and groceries.

I tell her "No, I have nothing."

I am wealthy by street standards - many people work two weeks to earn what I have in my purse- but I cannot maneuver on the street, cannot buy a banana or a paper or give to the beggars.

It nags me., my lie to the old lady. Clearly it is not true for I am wheeling my cart around filling it with fresh vegetables, and cheese and bread. I have been living here under the adage of "give a little to every one who asks for it" - applied to all except the shoe shine boys when they ask for money, lest they turn from workers to beggars. At times I have just bent down and dropped some coins next to someone sleeping on the sidewalk.

Ours is not the finest neighborhood.

I go to find her. She is standing by the checkout counters.
"Tell me what you want and I will buy it for you."
She rubs the indentation of her stomach and says:" I am hungry."
"Rice?" I say. "Beans?"
"No. I would like coffee, please."

My inner Protestant protests. It is the voice of the "One Who Knows Best." I have ongoing arguments with her. Coffee, I know, will ease the hunger. Quiet thy criticism.

We walk to the coffee aisle. I put my hand on the largest bag of local ground coffee.

She protests: "No. Not that one, it is too expensive. A half pound will be fine."

I am shocked. But of course, she is in this for the long haul, knows that I can be a temperamental donor.

"But then, I will get some milk, yes?"

"Yes." She has negotiated my generosity.

She thus reminds that I, too, need milk for my coffee.

We proceed to the milk aisle.

I pick up my two liters in boxes. But she, wise in the ways of the poor, hands me over two packs of powdered milk.

There is much yet for me to learn here.

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