I can confidently navigate an airport in a country whose
language I cannot speak or read. By car, by metro, by bus, by foot,
I can find my way around a congested urban metropolis. I can dive
into a new place in a developing country and figure out how to get
what I need. If I look at a map of a city, I can hold that picture
in my head and my internal compass seldom fails me. I am good with
directions and a competent explorer.
What I cannot do is find my way around an American supermarket.
Throw me into the giant aisles of endless products and you will
soon see me wandering slowly, aimlessly, seemingly blinded by the
bright fluorescent lights. Why are there thousands of varieties of
laundry soap and detergents? Where can I find a simple can of
canned tomatoes? Who are all of these giant shoppers with giant
I begin to fear that I may never find my way out of the Super
Target. Seriously. You will find my desiccated carcass crumpled on
the waxy floor near 59 varieties of pasta sauce.
There are many factors at work here, rendering the confident
world traveler a slow, bumbler in the store. Because of the
craziness of my schedule and where I live downtown, I end up doing
most of my routine shopping at CVS. Yep. Toiletries and medicines
are the bulk of my daily requirements it turns out. I stock up
before each trip, sometimes treating myself to a bit of chocolate
or a magazine or new nail polish or even a strangely alluring "As
Seen on TV" product. Amazon Prime delivers almost anything else
that I need, overnight and right to my office. I do not routinely
go grocery shopping. Green Bean Delivery drops off produce and all
manner of food supplies at the front door of the little red house.
The gourmand ruling the kitchen selects whatever items he most
wants from the fine markets of his choice (Goose the Market and
Trader Joe's being on top of the list.) And I'm afraid that the
bulk of my meals are consumed at dining establishments around the
So, I make my way to the Super Target about four times a year,
for a quarterly trip to stock up on supplies needed for my projects
in Kenya (and the cosmetics that are more readily available in the
suburbs.) Every time, I wander in baffled amazement, discovering
fascinating new inventions (Giant marshmallows! Pods of laundry
detergent!) I eventually make my way to what I need for Kenya:
children's books, colored pencils, markers, activity books, hand
sanitizer, good bandages, chocolate.
I slowly loaded up TWO carts full of supplies after hours of
torturous wandering through the Super Target. Oh, the trunks I will
be hauling across the ocean…
The foolish people who got behind me and my two carts and my
hundreds of dollars worth of supplies in the checkout line kept
asking if I was a teacher as the piles and piles of story books and
workbooks made their way down the checkout conveyance. "No, I work
on projects with children," I answered briefly. (I'm an introvert.
I don't like to talk to strangers unless someone's life is in
immediate danger.) But eventually, because I was there so long and
because people kept asking questions, I had to break my internal
rule. I explained that these colored pencils and markers and
activity books would keep HIV-infected children happily occupied
while they waited through their hours at the clinic every month in
Kenya. And for the hundreds of children in my study following how
children do with taking their HIV medicines, the exciting reward
for the children at the end of the six months is a story book,
often the first one they'll ever own. Even in the midst of this
supermarket hell, I start to get excited too.
As a final ignominious culmination to my endless hours in Super
Target, I could not figure out how to leave the store. Only
entrance doors marked with "do not exit" everywhere I looked.
Groaning with my heaping cart, I began to despair of ever leaving
the store. Oh, wait a minute, there is another set of doors
just over there…