Monday, February 18, 2013

Returning a Water Bottle

I had forgotten about this story until I was catching up in my journal and it came back to mind. Incidentally, this happened the same day as my Moto Ride Through Port-au-Prince

I was thirsty and hot. I paid the moto driver and then asked one of the nearby street vendors for a water bottle. It cost me 25 gourdes, and I asked if they had another one. They didn’t, but they went to get one from another vendor.

While they were gone, I opened the one I had. I tore off the plastic shrink wrap and opened the cap. The cap opened without ripping away from the little ring that is supposed to stay below the plastic lip at the bottom part of the lip of the bottle, and I thought, “Oh great. This is one of those bottles that they warned me about.” Joanne’s interpreter, Dony, had warned me that sometimes they took these bottles and refilled with them with different water which wasn’t safe to drink. When the vendor came back with another water bottle, I noticed that it was filled to a different level than the one I had. Without removing the shrink wrap, I twisted the cap slightly. I could see that it, too, was going to be able to unscrew without punching off the little safety ring. “Yep,” I thought. “These are bogus…not from the factory that the label says.” I had already paid for the second bottle, too, and I asked for my money back for both of them. I explained quite nicely and calmly that this bottle looked like it had been opened before, and I couldn’t drink that water, because it would make me sick. It made me sad to do it, because I was extremely thirsty, and I really, really wanted water, but I couldn’t drink water that was going to make me sick.

The guy gave me my money back for the second bottle, but not for the first. The reason for this, which I didn’t understand at the time, was that I had removed the plastic shrink wrap from the first bottle, and everyone had seen me do it. I could barely understand the Creole spoken around me, but I could gather bits and pieces of phrases here and there. I asked again, calmly and a bit beseechingly, for him to give me my money back. A crowd of people gathered around, and they all started speaking loudly with each other in Creole. One man came, as it were, to my defense, and I thought for a minute that I was going to get my money back. 25 gourdes is about 60 cents, so it wasn’t a huge deal, but I thought it was perfectly reasonable to expect to return something that showed obvious signs of being opened before and refilled. The man seemed to be demanding that the vendor return my money back to me. However, several people stepped in and said something I didn’t understand, which I afterward surmised must have been them reporting that they saw me take the plastic shrink wrap off, which, in their minds, meant that it certainly had not been opened before I touched it. The man shrugged his shoulders and disappeared into the crowd.

Another man shouldered his way forward, picked up the water bottle, and set it down with a decisive thump on the top of the cooler. “Take this bottle, and go away,” he said.

In that instant, something in the back of my mind told me that I ought to take his advice, go away, and just drop it. However, I didn’t obey my instincts.

“No, I want my money back,” I said, still calm, unruffled, and unafraid. “I can’t drink that water. It will make me sick.”

“Then take it and throw it away,” he said in exasperation. “You’ve lost it.”

That didn’t make any sense to me. Why had I lost it? Only afterward did I realize that in their minds, the presence or absence of the plastic shrink wrap (which I had taken off myself) formed the definition of “opened before,” while to me, it was the plastic cap itself, and the water level, and the whole aspect of this bottle being a “re-bottled” water. We were talking about two different things, and I didn’t know it, and they didn’t bother to understand my point of view. “No, I want my money back,” I repeated. I stood there, almost like a Haitian approaches an American, with my hand out, standing there without speaking.

More conversation ensued, more heated discussion in Creole by all the bystanders. Another person commanded me to take the bottle and go away. The voice in my head told me I’d better listen. I sighed. “Okay,” I agreed. I picked up the bottle and walked away.

Later, motivated by my extreme thirst, I drank the water. It didn’t ever make me sick.

But after that, whenever I walked by those vendors, someone would make a comment about a water bottle and 25 gourdes, and the whole crowd would burst out laughing. The first time it happened, I apologized humbly in my broken Creole for my role in that whole drama, but that caused another burst of laughter. It was somewhat intimidating to walk by there after that, because I felt that I had unwittingly made enemies, simply because I didn’t understand.

Aside: It’s interesting how one comes to understand things here. Having gone through this experience, I understand that it’s not quite as simple a matter as it is in America to make a return of a simple item. There is no such rule as “the customer is always right.” There is no allowance made for the defectiveness of an item being grounds for a return. Now I understand—but if some seasoned missionary had tried to tell me as much (which no one ever did, because there are so many of these things, no one could possibly keep track of them all to tell the newcomers), I would have believed it, but I wouldn’t have understood.

1 comment:

  1. haha...oh Rebekah. I know I shouldn't but I can't help but smile/giggle/laugh at this story. It's just so utterly you to stand there determined to get your 60 cents back. Next time you walk by you should be the first one to make a joke about the water bottle and 25 gourdes :) Just to prove that they aren't your enemies.


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