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Saying No to No

Recently during lunch with a co-worker, Mighty* – we’ve bonded in our search for sanity in the crazytown that is our work environment – she exclaimed, “Keisha, I have to tell you! Something you told me really helped me!”

A few weeks earlier, on our way back from lunch, dodging poo on the sidewalk (dog? human? who knows), sidestepping a disheveled-looking man angrily muttering to himself and quickly breezing past a urine-scented staircase, – in other words, a not atypical walk in certain parts of San Francisco – Mighty told me how she’d fallen victim to a scam on a popular website – a website which began as a consumer-to-consumer auction site, we’ll call it, “eCray”.

She sold an expensive electronic item to someone who conned her out of four figures. Distraught and poorer, she complained to eCray’s customer service who told her due to some loophole, “Sorry for ya, but you screwed yourself. Sucks for you though, we get that. Maybe call a lawyer? Ok, bye! Please shop again!”

Refer-a-friend.001 (1)Clearly exasperated and frustrated, she concluded, “I guess I’m just out all of that money! It was stupid! I can’t believe they won’t do anything!”

I recounted to her the tale of my great battle against the big online bookstore that put many baby bookstores out of business. But, I didn’t buy a book from them, I bought something else, because they sell other stuff too, everything actually, it’s pretty amazing. Let’s call that company, “Jungle.”

Due to a botched transaction with a reseller (they have stuff for resale too!), I was owed a refund which I never received. At the time, Jungle’s customer service that was so bad and it angered me so much I wondered if I needed therapy, after all, it wasn’t all that much money. But, THEY messed up and THEY needed to give me back my money. It’s the principle of the thing. So, when Jungle’s customer service hit me with:

“We are sorry for your inconvenience, but our policy states that we must be money-hoarding automatons with fake names – because you know and know my name isn’t really ‘Brad’ or ‘George’ or ‘Angelina’, but something less easy for the average American to pronounce – and we can’t give you a refund. But, sorry, that sucks ma’am. Ok, bye! Please shop again!”

photo cr: Ryan Li
Don’t mess with my money! photo cr: Ryan Li, flickr.com

Screw that. I drafted a letter and an email – old school and new school – to “whom it may concern”, about the small amount I was owed, why it was owed to me and the amount of ridiculous shenanigans and fuckery that ensued when I tried to reclaim my money thanks to their blood-pressure raising, script-reading, customer service. In summary, I added how I’m not going to be shopping there anymore because they’ve left a bad taste in my mouth and I will never be the same. Ever.

Letter stamped, dropped in the mail and email sent to the VP of Customer Service, the VP of Marketing and the VP of VPness. That should about reach at least one person high enough who will care that a customer is so upset she’ll take her fight up the ladder and tell the whole damn neighborhood about it.

A few weeks later, I received a lovely email from a VP expressing intense regret at the unfortunate experiences I’d endured at Jungle’s hands along with a refund for the full amount owed and a gift card to buy anything I like (you can buy Q-tips! Q-tips delivered to your doorstep in two days!).

When I finished the story about my battle against the giant Jungle, Mighty let out a big breath: “Wow, I didn’t think of that. You’re right; I should do that, because I am so angry! That is so wrong, they should be protecting their customers!”

At lunch, she recalled the telling of that anecdote and being marveled by my perseverance. I offered as explanation:

photo cr: Kari Sullivan, flickr.com
photo cr: Kari Sullivan, flickr.com

“I guess I just never take ‘no’ for an answer. I never really thought about it, but I think I just figure there’s always a way around most things. There’s almost always someone higher up who can get you what you need or another solution around a roadblock.

I just keep trying until I decide either it’s no longer worth it or I’ve exhausted my solutions. I ask myself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ and decide if it’s worth it.”

I added, “I think it’s a family thing.”

Ready for another story within a story?

I shared with her how Last Christmas, back in Texas to visit the family, I went to the movies with my mom and younger sister to see the film Mandela. Unfortunately, an older version of Martha and the Vandellas were there too, gossiping like church ladies. Now this is Man.de.la, a movie about a man of great historical importance, who, along with his fellow South African supporters, suffered through much violence and debasement as demonstrated in evocative scenes. Imagine having your stream of emotions interrupted by obnoxious braying:

“Honeyyyyyyyy, I couldn’t!”

“Hahahaha, I know!

These heifers.

My mom and sister periodically turned around presumably to mean-mug them. A few other patrons in the mostly empty theatre attempted to shush them, but they’d start right back up again, clucking away like plump hens freed from their pen.

Ordinarily, this is exactly the kind of shit that sticks in my craw. I have paid damn near the price of a concert ticket to sit in this dark theatre with strangers and my family, eating overpriced artery-clogging popcorn because the stuff is addictive, and these women here, these women here, are bleating their way through Mandela. Mandela!

However, I was more fascinated with my mom and sister and their fascination with Rude, Ruder & Rudest.

My sister huffed. Then she stood up. She is 22 and has more confidence and self-assuredness at her age than I had my entire high school experience. She whispered, “I’m going to find the manager.”

Oh snap.

451744-phone-and-cinema-and-genericA long 10 minutes later, my sister returned, shortly followed by a young usher, who looked like he’s capable of nothing more than wrestling a stuffed tiger, peered toward the back of the theatre where the three assmigas have caught on and were silently behaving themselves.

He stood in place for a beat, probably sizing up the women, shrugged – I’m sure he realized they could take him and the stuffed tiger he wrestled – and he exited the theatre without a word to them.

We were not impressed.

For a blissful half an hour, the women remained largely silent, shuffling and shifting weight periodically, almost as though the pain of holding back their witty commentary might eat them up from inside, until finally bits of conversation, varying in volume from a whisper to audible travel-level and worked its way toward us:

“and then…yeah, uh huh…right, so then…and he…”

Gah!. We did our best to ignore their voices as they chittered intermittently during the movie.

After the film, my mom approached the useless usher and requested to speak to the manager.

“Yes, ma’am!” He immediately turned and headed for a private door.

I think he would have flown to the manager to get there faster if he could. My mom’s tone indicated, “I mean business. You better get moving! Nobody’s playing here!”

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When the manager arrived, my mom and sister calmly explained to the him the pain we suffered through having our Mandela experience ruined: Do you know how much movie tickets are these days? And my sister/daughter is in town all the way from California! and this is what she has to go through? I just find this unacceptable. We did not enjoy ourselves.

I stood silently in awe trying to avoid breaking out in a full smile of pride.

In less than five minutes, we emerged from the theatre having received an apology and 8 passes to see any movie we like.

“I wrote to the Vice President of Customer Service at eCray like you suggested,” Mighty said, “and I got it resolved! It was so fast! They refunded all my money! I have to remember this! Thank you for your help!”

Sometimes it pays not to take no for an answer.

* Name changed for the sake of making my life easier

Adios California, Jambo Tanzania!

The Departure

Knowing I’m leaving the country makes flying out of awful LAX more tolerable. I enjoy seeing the different colored passport covers in the security line. The family in front of me hold maroon passports and are speaking Italian. Another family nearby speaks in French. I spot a navy-blue American passport and see its American owner scratching his balls. Yeah, I see you dude.

On the plane, the pilot says something in English. Her Dutch accent is so thick, all I can hear are phlegmy-sounding words. I have no idea what she’s saying. As long as it isn’t: “The plane is crashing”, we should all be fine.

The 747 is giant with two levels. I’m seated in the middle section in a non-aisle seat and feel trapped. To my left is an older woman, with a heavy accent of unidentifiable origin. I would later notice she is flying to Tehran. She seems to know how to speak some English, but doesn’t appear to understand the English I speak. We are about to take off and a giant tote bag sits in her lap. The flight attendant asks her to put it underneath the seat. “I’m fine,” she says. The flight attendant laughs lightly, “It’s actually not fine. You have to put it underneath the seat.” “Thank you,” says the woman, “but, I am fine.” With mild frustration the flight attendant says, “No, you MUST put it underneath the seat.” The woman acquiesces, puts the tote at her feet and begrudgingly pushes it under the seat in front of her. As soon as the flight attendant walks away ,she uses her feet to inch the purse closer to her. I’m not usually a stickler for rules. But, I don’t mess around on airplanes. I’m not trying to die or be maimed. If there’s turbulence and that giant sack hits me in my face…. As we take off, the woman grasps a rosary.

On my left is an older Asian couple; they sound British. The male half of the couple looks at me as if he wants to say something. He gives me that curious, “I wonder if this person speaks English” look and perhaps decides I don’t as he closes his mouth before any words make it out.

Each seat is equipped with a private TV. The display is currently showing our flight path. It occurs to me as I look at the map, my eyes lighting up: “Holy fuck, I am going to Africa!” The screen displays the distance to Amsterdam, in kilometers, where I have a short layover. I don’t know what the hell a kilometer is. I have tried many, many times to learn the metric system, but my brain seems have a block when it comes to that particular information.

KLM’s service is excellent. The flight attendants are attentive and welcoming. They feed us so often it feels like I’m constantly eating. They even provide warm towels to wipe our hands between meals! The selection of free movies, recent and classic is not shabby. I watch American Reunion (it was alright), Safe House (meh), and Friends with Kids (I fell asleep toward the end and have no interest in picking it up from where I left it). United, American Airlines, Delta – please take note: this is service.

The Arrival

18 hours later I arrive at the Kilimanjaro airport. I am informed that Americans must purchase visas at the airport before exiting. The lines are long, but fast-moving. When I make my way to the window I am told the visa is US $100. I hand the agent my credit card. “We only accept cash,” she says. My eyes widen. I have US $20 on me. I’d intended to withdraw cash at LAX, but the terminal I was in wasn’t flush with Bank of America ATMs like others.

I tell the agent, “I don’t have any cash.” She stares at me briefly and then repeats, “You need cash,” and sends me over to her colleague. I am now his problem. He repeats, “You need cash.” I know, I know, I need cash, let’s move on from this. “What can I do?” I ask him. He tells me that I can leave my passport there and come back the next day with the cash. Is he kidding? Leave my passport?! Every international traveler knows you never part with your passport. But, I have no other option. I have to find the volunteer coordinator who is meeting me at the airport. She’ll know what to do.

I walk out of the immigration corral into the baggage claim area. Only passengers are allowed in the baggage claim. I walk by an older African woman who says “Hello” with a tone that sounds like a threat: “Hello, I will kill you with my eyes.” I am distracted and her greeting doesn’t immediately register with me, so I don’t return it. She says “Hello” with even more malice this time. I say “Hi” back and she gives me a look that seems to say, “Damn right you say hello!” I guess she works there?

I can feel tears starting to pool in my eyes. I feel the burning in my throat that accompanies a crying jag.

Do not cry, I will myself. Do not fucking cry! You are stronger than this and have been through much worse. It’ll work out. But, I have no passport and I can’t grab my luggage. Is this the beginning of some Locked up Abroad shit? My imagination is sometimes too active for my own good. Of all things, I think of The Amazing Race. Fans of the show speak of the “killer fatigue” that often strikes contestants, causing them to freak out over the smallest of things: “My hair is oily. I can’t speak the language! My life is over. We’re going to lose!!!”

I do not like the way murderous “hello” woman is looking at me. I ignore her and walk up to a kind-looking younger woman. I begin, “I…I…passport…I…” Oh god, I’m crying. “It’s okay,” she offers, “What’s wrong?” I am so thankful she speaks English. “Passport…no cash…(deep breath)…I don’t…he won’t give me my passport…” Stop crying and just spit it out! “Ok, who is meeting you?” she asks. “Volunteer…I’m…volunteering…I don’t know where she is!” She tells me, “Go find your friend and you can go drive to get cash and come back.” There is, of course, no ATM in the airport. How convenient.

I walk out of the baggage claim fearing that it’s the last time I’ll see my passport and luggage again. I scan the waiting crowd for a sign with my name. I see a petite woman with short, curly hair holding a sign with the name of the organization I’m volunteering with in African colors, green yellow and red, on a poster board shaped like the Continent. Thank God! Her name is V_. I learn later that she is from New Jersey. She sounds a bit like Bethenny Frankel.  Actually, she kind of looks like her too.

This is not the impression I want to make: “Hi, I’m the girl who said in her application that she travels a lot, doesn’t stress easily and goes with the flow. I am also an idiot who doesn’t have any cash, left her passport with a strange man in a foreign airport and cannot speak a full sentence without stopping to compose myself so I don’t cry.”  She assures me it’s okay. She has seen it all. One of the current volunteers didn’t realize he didn’t have any blank pages left in his passport when he attempted to cross into Tanzania from Kenya. He ended up stranded in Kenya for a week while he waited to get more pages. That makes me feel a little better. I apologize for being a hot mess. She says soothingly, “It’s okay. There’s no need to dwell on it. We’ll get you cash and come back.”

The cab driver is incredibly cooperative and drives 20 minutes away from the airport to the nearest ATM. It’s out of cash. Of course. Thankfully, the next ATM works. Cash obtained, we head back to the airport. On the way back to the airport, I learn that V_ lived in Madrid for 13 years and France for nine. She first volunteered with Give A Heart to Africa in 2010. She loved the experience so much she decided to take a year off and volunteer here full-time. I’m awed. 

Back at the airport, I again ignore the murderous “hello” woman and head back to the visa window. The man with my passport grins broadly at me and says, “I knew you’d be back tonight.” “Yes, I’m here! Thank you so much for being kind to me.” “You too,” he replies with a warm smile. He takes care of the paperwork and sends me over to get my photo taken. I smile and fix my hair for the picture and one of the women at the booth giggles at my primping. I don’t like not smiling in photos whether they are for visas or not. A young man hands me my visa, grins at me and declares triumphantly, “Welcome to Tanzania! It is a beautiful country. Maybe you will come back to stay one day!”

My bedroom in Moshi
My room in Moshi

The house where I’m staying is about 45-minutes from the airport. There is a heavily gated door with an electrified barbed wire fence atop it. A security guard is inside the gate for our protection. We arrive to a pitch black house. The power is out. I’d been warned that the power and hot water are spotty. The house is small, but comfortable. There’s a bunk bed in my room, but I will not have to share it just yet. A mosquito net drapes the bed like a canopy. V_ says to me, “This is your home for the next three weeks.” I like the sound of that. Welcome to Tanzania.