Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Cornerstone Library, Part 1

(if you haven't read this, you might want to before continuing - if for nothing else than an embarrassing confession from my adolescence)

500 pounds of books packed into 18 cardboard boxes packed onto a single pallet do not move easily or quickly from one continent to another. And naturally, as estimated arrival dates come and go over and over again with not a box in sight, anticipation increases and often blends together with frustration until it's hard to distinguish one from the other, despite knowing that the strange amalgamation of the two has reached its boiling point.

But a single email finally arrives, heralding the arrival of that single pallet with 18 boxes containing 500 pounds of books, and like a strange alchemical reaction the frustration melts away leaving only the anticipation still threatening to bubble over.

Soon you find yourself in a wood-paneled, gleaming metal office in the heart of the warehouse district of an overlarge, overcrowded, overtrafficked African city, where an overlarge woman sitting at a desk crowded with coffee cups and glass soda bottles accepts your customs taxes and sends you out through a wrought iron gate into an industrial wasteland that looks like something out of season 2 of The Wire - with shipping containers the size of railroad cars stacked ten high and monstrous vehicles with magnetized arms picking them up and moving them around like a giant sized carnival game.

Your small van dodges these behemoths and the various tractor-trailers who have come to take shipments much larger than a single pallet, and soon you are at the mouth of a vast warehouse handing another overlarge woman a receipt. She disappears into the cardboard, wood, and plastic labyrinth, and when you see her again she's leading a forklift that's carrying a single pallet that you are seeing for the first time, and you think to yourself, "so that's what 18 boxes with 500 pounds of books in them looks like."

There is no way that the pallet fits into a small van's cargo hold - not even with both rows of passenger seats folded down - so, with the help of the driver you cut through layers of thick plastic, and place each box into whatever crevice it will fit, counting them all to make sure that there are indeed 18 there. When finally the black plastic pallet lies bare, the overlarge woman asks if you'd like to take it with you, and is utterly unfazed when you decline. Maneuvering back through the maze of shipping containers and vehicular minotaurs, your driver finds his way back to the wrought iron gate and out into the perpetual traffic, and for the first time all those books are fully in your possession.

And there is excitement - but a qualified kind of excitement that keeps reminding you that you still have to transport those 18 boxes across 200 miles of paved road, another 80 miles of unpaved road, and across a national border where you may or may not have to pay any number of people an unspecified amount of money to finally bring these 500 pounds of books home. (As it turns out, you follow the best piece of advice you've received since moving to Africa - "smile, thank people a lot, and keep doing what you mean to do" - and end up paying nothing to anyone.)

But once those 18 boxes are unloaded and carried into the room that in that moment is transformed from "room with random stuff in it" to "library" your excitement is so uninhibited that you can't help but... spend the next 4 weeks sitting in various meetings, attending to the daily needs of myriad children, taking care of your sick wife, and becoming extremely sick yourself; you never even open a single box.

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