Dirty laundry

A simple request forces a Western woman to face her prejudices.

Published December 11, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Sometimes I think I'll never go back to the U.S. Those words are dangerously seductive, and once in a while I play them in my head, like a tantalizing refrain: Never going back. The words are all drama, because what do you fill that "never" with? You still have to spend the rest of your life somewhere.

Fleeing the site of a decaying romance, I spent a month in Spain and a month in Morocco before I finally arrived in West Africa, still trying to forget the disappointment in my lover's eyes. A con artist accosted me at the airport in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast. He was a slim, handsome African man in his early 20s, dressed in what I call "poor-country chic": some obscure brand of very dark blue jeans with bright orange stitching up the sides and a pressed T-shirt of an American baseball team. Although I knew him for what he was, I couldn't shake him.

"Let me take you to your hotel. They know me; I will help you to get a better price," he said to me in French.

"I've got no money for you, OK? No money."

"I don't want your money. They give me commission. If I bring you myself to the hotel they give me commission. I help you choose the hotel."

"I already know which hotel I'm going to."

A boozy expat on the plane had looked through my guidebook and steered me away from the hotel I'd circled in Treicheville, the "African" quarter.

"Too dangerous," he'd said. "Stay in the Central Section, or at least here, this one's right next to the Central Section. Since you're new in town. They'll sniff you out and rob you in a New York minute." He laughed.

Although I pegged him for a racist, I decided to go with his suggestion, since it was my first night. Later on my trip, I would stay in the African parts of town. I hadn't come to Africa to avoid Africans.

I got into a taxi. The con artist was by my open window, still talking.

"Please," he said. "This is how I live. I show tourists to the hotel, I get commission."

"I'm not a tourist. I'm a traveler. I'm on my way to do some volunteer work in Ghana."

"You pay nothing! The hotel, they pay."

I sighed, and taking that as a yes, he got in. The taxi took off without setting the meter or agreeing on a price.

"Wait," I said, "attend." My friend, sitting beside me, repeated the phrase in a local language. How could an airport taxi driver not speak French?

"Tell him he has to set the meter," I told the man. I'd read this in my guidebook: "In Abidjan, make sure they set the meter."

He spoke to the driver, who just kept driving. Then he turned to me.

"There is no need," he said. "He knows the price."

"There is a need," my voice grew shrill, "because if he doesn't set it, I'm getting out."

"Slow, slow." He laughed, making a calming gesture with his hand. He spoke to the driver some more. The driver barked with laughter, then slapped the meter with his hand. It came on, its digital numbers bright and reassuring. I settled back in my seat.

I was too tired to take in the spectacle of dilapidated wooden shacks and women wrapped in bright, dissonant cloth with bundles on their heads. Too weary to lean forward and appreciate the crowded markets with their expanse of tables piled high with everything from vegetables to auto parts, stretching back and back. I'd traveled enough in Central and South America that these things seemed oddly familiar to me. Even the thick tropical vegetation reminded me of someplace else. Jesus, I thought, what's happened to me? I've just arrived in Africa and already I'm bored.

I did notice the peeing, though. It seemed every man in the city had sought out the most conspicuous corner he could find to urinate. I leaned back in my seat.

The driver finally pulled into the hotel's dusty, gravely parking lot. It was just on the other side of a river that encircles central Abidjan, like a moat. I gasped when I saw the amount on the meter. This taxi ride had cost me almost 20 bucks.

My friend got out with me, and the taxi took off.

"What's your name?" I asked.


"Jean-Pierre. I'm Tanya."

The hotel was an enormous stone rectangle of a building, with a hand-painted wooden sign that said "Hotel" propped against the door. The windows on the ground floor were boarded up.

"Are you sure this place is open?" I asked Jean-Pierre.

"Yes, yes," he said, grabbing my backpack and heading through the door. "Improvements," he said, gesturing at the boarded-up windows.

We climbed two flights up a narrow stairway. It was dark after the bright
gray outdoors.

We entered a deserted lobby with dirty green carpeting, a sagging sofa and a
counter that looked as though it had once been a bar. At least it had
windows. That stairwell made me claustrophobic.

A man stood up behind the counter, as though he'd been crouched there,
waiting. He did not seem to know Jean-Pierre. I told him in French that I'd
like a room, and asked the price. Before he could answer, Jean-Pierre jumped
in, speaking to him in the local language. The man answered him briefly,
almost curtly.

"Please, the cost is 4,000 CFA [francs]," he told me. The price, roughly $13, was
exactly what the guidebook said. Expensive for a third world country, but I
was prepared to splurge my first night. He reached under the bar and got a
key and a form to fill out. I was ready to drop.

"Can I put my things in my room?" I asked. "I'll be back in a minute."

"Please," the man at the desk said. Jean-Pierre accompanied me down a short,
unlit hallway.

"See," he said proudly. "I get you a good price."

I said nothing. I dumped my things, locked the room and headed back to the
desk. I had two things on my mind: shower and laundry. I was coming direct
from Morocco, and all my clothes were stuffed in my backpack in fetid lumps.

I paid the man at the desk, whose name was Adjin, thanked Jean-Pierre and
turned toward my room.

"Excuse," said Jean-Pierre, "you have forgotten my commission."

"Jean-Pierre," I said, "you told me the hotel paid the commission."

"No! You paid the special, low price. Then you pay me commission. I got
you a good price."

I turned to Adjin.

"Did you give me a special price?" I asked him.

Adjin frowned, and Jean-Pierre burst into a string of words. Adjin ignored

"You paid the regular price," he told me.

"You see," I said to Jean-Pierre, "I don't owe you anything."

"But I have helped you to get here!"

I handed him 300 CFA. "Goodbye," I said.

"Uh!" He made a high-pitched sound of disbelief.

"Jean-Pierre, I'm tired. You said you didn't want anything from me. That is

I refused to feel guilty about the pained, vexed look in his eyes. I didn't
owe him anything. I went to my room and shut the door and locked it. It was
a basic room: a bed with a mosquito net hanging above it, suspended from the
ceiling by a rope and a wooden ring; a wooden ceiling fan; a chair. But the
bathroom had a shower with running water, albeit cold. That was more than
I'd had in a month. I showered, lay down on my bed and slept.

When I came out, in the late afternoon, I asked Adjin if he knew of a place
where I could do my laundry. I'd spent the last month digging around in the
dirt, volunteering in a public park in an ugly Moroccan city called Kenitra,
and my light-colored cotton clothes were covered with ground-in dust. I'd
scrubbed and scraped at them, but it had done nothing to lighten the dingy
gray. I figured that in Abidjan, which the guidebook called the "gleaming
high-rise capital" of the Ivory Coast, I'd treat myself to a washing machine.

Adjin told me there was a woman connected with the hotel who would take my
laundry and do it for me.

"How much will it cost?" I asked him.

"Let me see the items."

I brought out my laundry bag.

"It's not so much," I said. "A skirt, a shirt, a pair of pants ..." I pulled
the pieces out one by one. "And a bunch of little stuff." I waved my hand
toward the underwear and socks at the bottom of the bag.

Adjin looked the items over, then said, "It will cost you 500 CFA."

"Great," I said. "Shall I leave them with you?"

"Yes, she will come for them. You will have them later this evening."

"OK, great, because I may move to a different hotel tomorrow."

I decided to go downtown and look for a bank. As I walked across the bridge
I looked down and saw a man standing on the stony riverbank, peeing into the
river. I decided to leave for Ghana as soon as possible.

I walked among the rectangular high-rises, none of which gleamed. The air was
heavy and damp with heat. Raw sewage ran down the sides of the streets. Next
to it, women sat stirring large metal pots of pale mush over charcoal burners,
or roasting skewers of gristly meat. They grabbed at my arm as I went by, or
called out to me in French, "Viens, viens." Come.

I didn't want to come. I didn't want to touch their filthy food, let alone
eat it. I wanted to go home. But that was a place and a person to which I
was never going back.

If you wanted service in the bank, you had to be assertive. Crowds of
Africans and foreigners roiled around the windows with no semblance of a line.
After standing half an hour in their midst with no visible progress toward the
tellers, I realized you had to push. As I braced my body against the human
mass, a tall, handsome man next to me said in Italian-accented English, "Now
you get the idea."

His name was Alberto, and when we left the bank, he gave me the name of the
hotel where he was staying with two friends. He also offered me a ride to
Accra, the capital of Ghana.

"Don't take the bus," he said. "Oh! The buses are horrible. Filthy and
crowded. And always breaking down." They were leaving the next day.

I'd thought to take public transportation and meet locals, but there'd be
plenty of time for that in Ghana. I agreed to meet them at their hotel the
next morning.

That night the laundry wasn't done.

"She will bring it tomorrow morning."

"What time?" I asked, "because I'm meeting some friends at 10."

"Fine, fine."

The next morning, Adjin said, "She will bring it soon. Sit and wait. Small,
small." He laughed. "Give me your address now, and when you are back in your
country, we will write to each other."

I looked at him in surprise. We hadn't exchanged 10 words, and now he
wanted to write to me?

"I'll give it to you when I get the laundry," I said grimly. I decided to go meet the Italians and come back for the laundry later.

"Where do you go now?" Adjin asked.

"I told you I was meeting friends at 10." I looked at my watch. "It's

Adjin really laughed at this one. Frankly, I didn't get the joke. "You
people," he said at last, "you live by the clock."

Alberto and his friends agreed to stop by the hotel on our way out of town.
They pulled their rental car into the hotel parking lot, getting a tremendous
kick out of the boarded-up windows and the hand-painted "Hotel" sign. I felt
slightly put out by their derision.

"They're doing some repairs," I explained.

At the top of the stairs, Adjin greeted me with a beaming smile.

"The laundry is here, my friend," he said, as though this were a tremendous

"Good." I mustered a smile. "Do I get a discount for lateness? Just

He handed me an itemized bill, each piece of laundry accounted for. It said
1,700 CFA.

"Hey," I said. "This isn't what we agreed on! You said 500."

Adjin shrugged. "I didn't see everything. All the slips."

Every piece of underwear was listed by the word "slip."

"Well, I showed you what was here. This is more than three times what you
told me."

He shrugged again. This wasn't right. I had to learn to resist this stuff.
Not to give in to guilt.

"I'm going to pay what we agreed on, 500 CFA," I said at last.

"But the price, it is not up to me," said Adjin. "It is the woman who does
the laundry, and this is what I must pay her. If you don't give it to me, I
pay it to her from my own pocket."

"You should have thought of that when you quoted me a price." He just looked
at me. "I can't afford this," I said, slapping the bill. "If I'd known it
would be this much I would have washed it myself."

"Oh!" he said, with some surprise.

"I'm not rich, you know. I'm not a tourist. I'm going to volunteer."

"Why don't you stay and speak to her yourself. She will come soon."

"I can't stay," I said, exasperated. "My friends are waiting for me in the
car." I paid him the 500 CFA and turned to go. The laundry, folded and
wrapped in brown paper, was heavy in my hands.

"It's a little damp," he said. Then he called after me, "You forget."

I turned around. He had a big smile on his face.

"You have forgotten to leave me your address."

I couldn't figure this guy out. I thought he would have hated me by now. He pulled
a piece of paper from beneath the bar and handed it to me. I grouchily scrawled my address.

"Wait," he said again, as I turned to go. "You are sure you will not pay
this woman?"


I turned once at the top of the stairs. Adjin waved to me, shaking his head,
the smile still on his face.

I set the laundry beside me on the back seat as we pulled away from the
hotel. I refused to feel guilty. Seventeen hundred CFA was over $5 -- maybe not
a lot at home, but I knew it was a lot here. I didn't want to be a dumb
tourist, conned and conned again.

As we pulled out of town we saw a broad hillside, covered in laundry as far
as the eye could see, spread out on the high grasses to dry. Beside it, down
in the river, women knelt on flat rocks, wringing and scrubbing, their bodies
swaying back and forth. Suds drifted lazily downstream in the brown water.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Late that night, deep in the rain forest, in a room furnished exactly like
the one I'd stayed in the night before, I unwrapped the brown paper packages.
My light-colored cotton clothes gleamed in the dark room. They were spotless.
Every trace of Moroccan grime, dust that I'd thought was permanently ground
in, was gone. Someone must have spent hours on them, to succeed so thoroughly
where I had repeatedly failed. And every item, every sock and pair of
underwear, was spread out against the brown paper, neatly pressed, brighter
and more beautiful than when they were new.

I thought of the women bent over the rocks, Adjin's face when I told him I
couldn't afford 1,700 CFA. Even Jean-Pierre and his small-time con game. And
I thought, briefly, of that other face, hovering in the doorway of our
bedroom, brown eyes reflecting anger, then supplication, then despair, as he
watched me pack. I didn't see, I wanted to tell him, wanted to tell them all,
but here I was, in the rain forest, with three Italian strangers, on my way to
Accra. Even if I wanted to, I had no way of going back.

By Tanya Shaffer

Tanya Shaffer is a writer and actress who lives in San Francisco. Her most recent solo show is "Let My Enemy Live Long!"

MORE FROM Tanya Shaffer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Africa Travel