Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mr. Donna Tracks an Elephant

For those of you keeping score at home, you'll remember that on our recent trip to Sri Lanka, I purchased a wooden elephant.  We've been lucky enough to visit countries that we had never dreamed of going to before, and I've felt compelled to bring back "a little something" as a memento of our time there.

Our visit to a wood-working shop in Matale was a bit rushed, and I'll admit that my decision-making skills may have been impaired.  I had thought that a carved, wooden elephant would be the keepsake of choice, and since I'm not much of a knick-knack-on-shelves kind of person, that would mean that my elephant would have to be large enough to sit on the floor.

And then I spotted him:  two feet tall, intricately carved dark wood, with his trunk curled upwards — good luck, I'm told.  Done.  Let's buy this baby and get out of here.  The salesperson directed us to the counter.

I'm much did you just say?

"That's with the 20 per cent discount, Madam.  We'll ship it free of charge to your nearest port, and there will be a small clearance fee once it arrives at Customs."

OK, fine.  I paid about that much for the mosaic table I bought in Jordan, and delivery went smoothly.  I can practically spit from my house to the Port of Doha.  When it comes in, I'll just whip down and throw it in the back of my car.  Easy-peasy.

That was mid-December.  Then for over two months, nothing.  Nothing, nothing, nothing.  Silence, even.  Cue the crickets chirping, the tumbleweeds rolling.  I was starting to feel a little sick about it, thinking I'd been had, so about six weeks into this silence, I picked up the phone, and with a terrible connection and the three Sinhala words I know (none of them useful in this situation), called the shop.

[Loudly] "Hello! I'm calling about an elephant I purchased in December!"  I repeated this sentence to each successive person to whom the phone was passed until ultimately being handed to a fourth who could speak English.  I was assured that it had been shipped in mid-January.

Finally, on the last day of February, I received an email from a local freight company saying it was here.  Or rather, Mr. Donna received an email.  This was a handle I was unable to shake for the remainder of the long, drawn-out transaction.  It said I owed 1100QR, and when I called Leo at the freight company, he said it would be best if I came down to his office to discuss obtaining my shipment.

Well, suddenly, things really seem to be moving along!  I'll just drive down on Saturday, talk to Leo, pay my "small clearance fee" of 1100QR, and collect my elephant.  I'll be home before my teenager is even out of bed.  Leo invited me into his office, asked me to sit down, chatted for a bit, and then surreptitiously added another four-digit number to the total of my invoice.  I looked on despondently.  This, apparently, was his company's service charge.  A service charge in addition to the 1100QR I already owed for the privilege of having this elephant arrive in the country.  As he put the final zero on that amount, I watched as the invoice transformed into a ransom note.  I envisioned my elephant in chains, blindfolded, trays of sloppy gruel and filthy water being passed through a slot at the bottom of his cell, desperate to be released.

The following two and a half weeks brought a series of phone calls, emails, and texts from Leo, each outlining more demands.  I needed a Certificate of Origin from the shop, more cash, copies of my passport and Residence Permit, a Letter of No Objection, in Arabic, from my employer (my husband's employer...and what, exactly, were they not objecting to?), even more cash, my first-born.  These instructions were doled out to me, each one like a carrot on the end of a thin strand of hope, just out of my reach.   Every additional condition diminished my purchase, and made the size of this elephant seem inversely proportional to its cost.  I felt, with certainty, that it would arrive at my house and it would stand six inches tall.

With no great fanfare, and in an anti-climactic blur, my shipment was delivered early last week, a mere 13 weeks, a confusing paper chase, and an unmentionable amount of cash later.  There was no picking it up at the port myself.  One single man carried the 50 kilo wooden box on his shoulder into my house, and then I uncrated it.  All 21 inches, or about half a metre, of elephant sit on the floor beside the piano.  Sometimes when I walk past it, my passive-aggressive side kicks it a little.  Sometimes a tusk falls out.  And sometimes, when I look at it, I recognize what a unique piece it is.  Welcome to Mr. Donna's house, Big Guy.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

True Grit

We've been overcome by beige.

I'm sitting in my beige house, looking out the window at my beige car, typing on a computer that sits on a formerly black countertop (now beige).  And no, I haven't been transported to a movie set for some monochromatic art house film.  I'm living in a dust bowl.

For the past four days, and for several days each week in the last, oh, I don't know, eternity, the wind has been blowing in Doha.  I'm not talking about a gentle ocean breeze, brought across the Gulf and carrying with it the smell of salt air and a bit of humidity.  This is a full-on, nasty wind, either blowing directly from the north, or from the west, where it has spent enough time over land to lose any moisture and gentle beach vacation memories that it may have once carried with it.  And when the wind hasn't been blowing, there is a haze that hangs in the air that would rival Toronto on a summer day.

I suppose I should be thankful that we're not under a layer of sand.  Most of the sand stayed behind.  What we get instead, coating the kids' bikes, my petunias, and any slow-moving cats wandering down our street, is what gets up and leaves after the wind beats the living daylights out of the sand:  dust.

Some aspects of this weather remind me of a good old-fashioned Canadian snowstorm:  the howling wind, the stuff being blown across roads in spidery fingers, the decreased visibility, and the desire it brings with it to stay indoors.  But even the indoors is not impervious to the dust.  A book or a piece of paper left on a table will, in a matter of hours, leave its exact shape, chalk-outline style, on the surface once removed.  Just yesterday, I lost Dan for about 15 minutes while he was having a nap on the couch.

We're all cranky.  I can tell you that it's not pleasant to have dust up your nose, and at the back of your throat, and forming a fine film of grit on your front teeth.  The novelty of using my windshield wipers to brush away a layer of dust every time I get in the car in starting to wear off, too.

It'll be 40 degrees Celsius before we know it, and the humidity will be so high we'll have to swim to our cars.  I'm going to try to get rid of all the sand in my teeth before that happens.  I know visibility is poor, but try to follow the sound of my voice:  "Pbblt.  Pwah.  Blech."