Sunday, June 15, 2008

Whaddaya do wit da junk?

Yesterday I was humbled. (O.K.,…in truth I was humiliated, but it is so humiliating to say “I was humiliated.” Just how much of this stuff can I take?)

I left the Bank Saturday evening. The streets were quiet. I did not really need to, but I decided to change some money at the ForEx. (Translation: “Foreign Exchange”,… not a bank, but a legitimate storefront business authorized to change foreign currency. Not long ago, there were many “money changers” on the streets of Rwanda, but that was unregulated and cheating was common, so it was outlawed, and I knew it and I knew why.)

As I walked up to the ForEx, three young men were upon me before I could even discover that the ForEx was closed.

“You want to change money?”

“Yes I do,… right in here,… oops, they’re closed”

“No problem. We can do it for you.”

“At what rate?”

“545” (Rwandan Francs per dollar.)

“They will give me 546 in there.” (Like it really matters, but nobody takes ME for a chump.)

“O.K., 546”

I gave one of the young men a $100 bill, and he started peeling off the Rwandan bills, including the appropriate ten 500 Rwandan Franc bills and some smaller stuff. I watched VERY carefully. As he handed me the wad, I had noticed that he was giving me too much. Shouldn’t I mention this? But before I could, he complained that I had given him an “old” $100 bill printed before 2002. I knew the issue (it is a common one and his complaint was justified according to the practice in Rwanda), but I was no longer comfortable with the vibe. We had stepped into a narrow passage out of sight. I had my MacBook and other goodies in a briefcase that I necessarily set on the ground to use both hands. There were three of them and one of me, with nobody else in sight. I sensed that my judgment was considerably below the “prudent” level. So I took my $100 bill out of the guys shirt pocket and handed him back his money and stated:

“Forget it. I don’t really even need to change money. I will do it on Monday.”

“No, no, its O.K. We take it." And he counted his bills again. Again I watched VERY carefully. This time he discovered his error and corrected it,… as I watched VERY carefully. The deal was done and I was glad to have my MacBook firmly in my grip as I walked to my car less than 20 yards away. (I am not writing this with the artful skill necessary for surprise. You know where it's going.)

I got in my car. I do not know why, but before I started my engine, I felt compelled to count my money, really just to again ponder the correct “conversion rate” (which is an issue of pennies, nickels at most). I froze, except for my trembling fingers which quickly recounted. How did ten 500 Rwandan Franc bills turn into seven?!!!!!!? I counted a third time before I jumped out of my car and charged back across the street to wring three necks (certain that my present rage somehow endowed me with superhuman strength.)

I had been gone from “the scene of the crime” less than 60 seconds, but when I returned there were only two young men, not three, and they looked a bit different, and one was holding a broom which was not present before. Most importantly, they looked innocent and nonplused. Seeing the slightly crazed look on my face (… I do not know how we had this conversation, because they did not speak hardly any English, and I speak almost no Kinyarwanda, but we DID somehow communicate):

"Where are those guys?!!!?"

"What guys?"

[I could almost hear Rod Serling's voice: "You have entered the Twilight Zone". Creepy.]

"Those three guys that just changed money for me!"

"Is something wrong?"

"Yes, they cheated me!"

"Well, there were some boys here that went around the corner" (as they, with genuine concern, lead me to look down the cross street, but no one was in sight).

I put my tail between my legs and left. As I drove off, I did indeed feel “humiliated”. These kids had beat me out of $30. They had outsmarted me. But much worse than humiliation (which can be healthful in small doses), I felt rage,… and that is not a good thing to indulge.

Sometimes when I struggle for the proper response to a difficult situation or what to do with a negative emotion, my thoughts gravitate to somebody whom I admire and respect, and that persona in abstentia provides guidance. (Yes, this is a slight modification of the WWJD approach, appropriate ONLY when I have too much difficulty imagining WJWD.) Well, suffering rage for too long following this episode, and knowing that I had to do something with it, my thoughts gravitated to Craig Black (as they often do). I could see and hear him as clearly as if I were watching a movie, and he was telling (and experiencing) my personal misfortune as his own:

Craig felt the loss and was frustrated,… mostly with himself. He shook his head in disbelief. He told his (my) story in Craig’s inimitable self-deprecating manner. And moments into it, Craig Black starts laughing with amusement at the situation and his own folly. “It was like magic. It was magic! This guy was a GREAT magician. I’d pay $30 for entertainment that good. Well, I guess I did. The kid earned it. But there’s NOT gonna be a re-run,… once is enough.”

Craig Black, Home School Professor of five children (and Mentor of many), HAPPY FATHER'S DAY, and Thank You for the guidance (again). You are a great inspiration to me.