Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cultural Crossovers, Sort-of

I got my first glimpses of Jalalabad proper over the last two days, and it is every bit of the cluster- I thought it would be. Much was totally foreign, like the shoemaker sitting in a little pile of leather on the sidewalk making shoes, the deep open sewer troughs, or the storefronts selling nothing but mostly broken mirrors (talk about bad luck), but there were some things that we can all relate to, for instance the five 20-somethings sitting around the bike-shop in January with nothing to do while one guy does the day's only tune-up: the only difference here is that here there's five guys with nothing to do ALL YEAR in EVERY shop. There are so many people without jobs there's a running joke among security folk that collecting rocks is the national pastime. I asked Mehrab, our Afghan house manager, what they do with all the rocks and he just laughed... Anyway, with all that extra labor literally lying around your store, the need for streamlining the order fulfillment process is largely absent:

The mission of the day today was to find plywood. Given the obvious lack of Home Depot locations within driving distance, Mehrab and I set out to the market in the pickup (which happens to be heavily armored, not that it's really necessary in JBad). First we go to the money changing shop, which is fronted, at least, by a couple guys on the sidewalk with little 3'x2' display case style glass tables full of afghanis (the local bling). The guy from the table walks up to our ride, Murab slips him a Benjamin, and a couple of minutes later he comes back with roughly 5000 afghanis.

With cash in hand we search through a couple of shops specializing in 4'x8' sheets of whatever (mostly particle board and masonite) until we find a place that has what we need, but it's not at the shop, it's at the "warehouse", so a couple guys from the shop jump in the pickup with us and we roll off the main drag into this little walled courtyard about 10min drive away. To be honest, I wasn't super comfortable with this turn of events--one doesn't have to be a security operative to know that driving your armored truck into an enclosed space where the exit is easily blocked by one car is not exactly a superb strategic move--but who you know is a big deal out here and nobody screws with Mehrab so I figured we were good to go.

Thanks to some less-than-proper storage and the fact that, well, we're in Afghanistan, finding product that wasn't totally trashed was somewhat challenging. Our search eventually took us into a dingy half-open basement that we had to walk over a mountain of raw cotton to enter. (the cotton gin in the basement is pictured to the right. Sorry for the bad photo but I didn't want to screw up our deal by acting like a tourist) Once inside we sorted through about 50 sheets of ply in the dark to find 5 reasonble pieces. We then proceeded to watch as six, yes SIX guys clustered around the truck arguing about how best to load it. Meanwhile I got to meet one seriously doped out of his mind older Afghan who wanted to shake hands because he was presumably the boss, or father thereof, and I was the tall white dude (you get a lot of points for being the tall white dude). Sooner or later they all get sorted and I jump back in the truck with Mehrab and the two guys from before. We drive them back to the end of their street and pull over where Mehrab then starts to bargain, arriving ultimately at a price of 750 afghanis/sheet ($15), with which he was very satisfied (it can often cost $40, especially if you're from out of town).

...and now we have five sheets of plywood.


dacey said...

wait, 5 sheets of plywood cost you how much? 100 bucks?

Unknown said...

$75. It's about what you would pay in the US, except this stuff has had the crap beaten out of it.

Anonymous said...

There is no Home Depot in Afghanistan ;) This is hilarious!

I know nothing about plywood in A but it also strikes me as quite expensive, given the general income level. Whatever. But what I really wanted to ask is why did you not directly pay with $?


Unknown said...

As in most developing countries, you pay a premium when you walk around with dollars because everyone then automatically assumes you're rich. ere especially, prices aren't so much related to what the thing is worth but what they think you can pay.

As far as prices go, it's actually somewhat surprising that it didn't cost more. Afghanistan has effectively 0 heavy industry, so the vast majority of industrial products, laminated building material in this case, are imported, at a fairly high premium, from places like Pakistan. In my quick internet search, Lowe's was selling comparable stuff for $12-17 a sheet so we're right on par with retail in the developed world. I would expect to pay a lot less here for anything that can be made in-country.

The Pedal said...

It's hard to imagine how much of an argument one could have about putting plywood in a pickup. But if that's the highlight of your day it's understandable that you would try to make the most of it, maybe with a round of betting even.