The Juice You Choose
The English language in Nigeria has a life of its own. Especially when spoken to an outsider. I’ve heard them speak to each other, and it doesn’t have the same awkward twists and turns they employ when they speak to me. The difference, I noticed, is the way they pace the words. The accent is always thick, but when they speak to each other, the words flow smooth and free, like a seasoned driver going on a smooth highway. On the other hand, when they speak to an outsider – or maybe it’s just me – they suddenly become daredevils, twisting and turning, brakes screeching as they halt between words, going slow for a minute, and racing the next.
When they understand that you’re having trouble following them, they start talking slow; the first few words are spit out word by word, and suddenly, towards the end, the words are bunched together as if they have a specific quota of time to fill. Short words like ‘and’ and ”you’ are stretched out like a cheap rubber band.
For example, the sentence “Would you like to have some more sugar for your coffee?”, when directed at me, would get translated to, roughly, “Would… y-o-u… like.. to.. have. somemore sugarforyourcoffee?”.
And it’s even worse on the phone. Which is why room service is not an easy call. I had just placed an order for fried rice; it was an experiment, of course. I am an adventurous maverick when it comes to food; I can whip up a fried chicken from the table as easily as Indiana Jones can whip on to a jungle branch. But I had already discovered that the definition of food is surprisingly subjective. I had tried the Chicken Caesar Salad the night before. And what I received was a bowlful of half baked chicken pieces tossed along with lettuce and tomatoes. Caesar would have cringed at the unfamiliar dish, but I had it anyway. I was wondering what their version of ‘fried rice’ would look like. Just before they hung up, I decided I could do with some juice as well…
“And I’d also like some juice, please.”
I was quite confident that the technology of juicing fruits… or at least of opening packaged fruit drinks would be available even in Nigeria. However, as I spoke into the phone, I could detect some sense of confusion. The person on the line went off for a while, talking to someone else on the other end… maybe the chef. There were some muffled discussions going on in the background. Maybe my accent threw them off, maybe they call juices something else – like fruit water. I didn’t know, but I decided to wait.
“Do you want juice, sir?”
Well, if she didn’t just read my mind…
“Yes, I would like some juice.”
“Which juice you want, sir?”
“What do you have?”
“Which juice you want, sir?”
(sigh) “Ok. I’ll err… I’ll have mango juice.”
Here, we had a much longer silence. I suppose this is the part where she went to check whether they had mango juice.
“Sorry, sir. We don’t have mango juice.”
“Ok, so what juices do you have?”
“Hmm… orange, lemon, grapefruit, tangerine, and lime…”
That sounded like a rather odd list, but then again, I reminded myself this was a different country; that I had no idea which were the popular fruits around these parts.
“Ok, I’ll have orange juice then”
And that was that. Actually, it went off much smoother than I expected. Which is why I shouldn’t have been surprised when the lady at the telephone appeared at my door about 15 minutes later, saying
“Sir, I am sorry, but we don’t have juice”
“Eh? I spoke with you on the phone. You said…”
“No, sir. No pineapple juice.”
“Pinea..?? I’m sorry. I never ordered for pineapple juice.”
“No, sir. No pineapple juice”, she said apologetically. I could see that she was sincere in her apology, but that didn’t help me any.
“Listen to me. I don’t WANT pineapple juice”
“No juice. Ok, sir”, she said and started to leave.
I was about to stop her; to try to tell her that I DID want juice; that any juice would do. But then I caught myself. No juice was worth the hassle. Not by a long shot. And as I was resigning myself to my juiceless fate, I saw that the lady had paused. Apparently, she had a stroke of brilliance, cos she turned around and said…
“Sir. No pineapple juice. But we have orange juice. You want orange juice?”
I’m pretty sure my eyes were wide and my mouth agape. But I managed to regain composure before I spoke –
“Yes, YES, YES! Orange juice. I would like some orange juice. Give me orange juice. Orange juice is fine. Orange juice is great.”
Ok, fine. So I didn’t exactly regain composure, but let me point out that I could have continued with “For the love of God, give me some orange juice”, and maybe “My kingdom for some orange juice”, but I didn’t. I didn’t, because she already probably thought I had an unhealthy addiction to oranges, and adding more drama would possibly have given rise to her asking questions, and by this time, I had already decided that the best course of action would be to minimize conversation. So I sealed my lips shut, praying that she would have gotten the gist of what I said, mainly – “Yes, I want orange juice”.
With that, the lady walked away, probably thinking that I must come from a country where oranges are REALLY rare.
It took another 15 minutes before I got my drink. It was a long cylindrical tetra-pack which I immediately attacked. I was halfway through my first glass before I read the label. It took me another five seconds before I realized… this wasn’t orange juice after all!
It was a brand called ‘5 Alive’, a popular brand, where each variety/ variant is a combination of five fruit juices. The variant I got was ‘The Original Citrus’ version, and the fruits in it were… orange, lemon, grapefruit, tangerine and lime.
It was a simple order. Juice. Plain and simple, it had seemed to me. Not the kind you would have expected to create so many complications. I was beginning to wonder what would have happened if I had asked for something more foodlike, like… fried rice! Wait a minute… I HAD asked for fried rice! I started to wonder what strange behind-the-scenes bloopers were happening at that very moment. I took a big long swig at the ‘orange’ juice, wishing I had something to spike it with.