EXPAT ADVENTURE: SAHARA SAGA

by missfootloose on November 11, 2009 · 15 comments

in adventure, Africa, Food, The Dutch

When you travel the world and live in alien places one thing becomes clear very soon: You cannot get away from Dutch people. Not that you’d want to necessarily; they can be loads of fun once in a while. It’s just that they are everywhere. The Netherlands is a tiny nation that claims some 16 million citizens and half of them appear to be roaming the globe outside its borders at any given time. You find them in every nook and cranny, as well as in wide open spaces such as the Sahara Desert.

Photo by Blueguy / CC BY-SA

Being Dutch, I have found, to my chagrin, that my people do not universally enjoy a stellar reputation. The Dutch are judged to be opinionated, blunt, bullheaded and sometimes (it hurts to say it) cocky.

Our American friend Max tells a story of what he considered a typical Dutch incident which occurred while he lived and labored in Mali, West Africa. At the time Max was working on a water project with one other American aid worker and two Dutch ones. The story goes like this:

The four of them one early evening were trekking through the desert on camels in search of nutritional fortification after a day of toil.

Can you see them? Four good-looking, rugged guys with deep tans and meters of cloth wrapped around their heads to protect against sand and sun — dusty, dirty and starving. Straight out of the movies I tell you.

Photo by Wonker / CC BY

They finally arrived in a small desert village–sand, mud huts, donkeys, camels, you get the picture–and went foraging for beer and food.

There are no restaurants of a recognizable sort in remote Malian hamlets, the kind that have stocked refrigerators and freezers and pantries, the kind that can produce a plate of artificially flavored, colored and chemically preserved victuals within minutes.

However, there are eating places where you tell them what you want and someone will go off into the wild yonder and catch it, slaughter it, cook it over an open fire and serve it to you. In the mean time you enjoy the local brew and fight off the flies.

The exhausted foursome located such an enterprise, the only one in the village, and parked themselves on the rickety wooden benches. They discussed the dinner possibilities. Lobster not being one of them, they decided on sharing a sheep, a selection heartily recommended by the owner of the eating establishment.

Now, a whole sheep might seem to you like a lot of food for four guys, even four hungry guys, but that’s only because you’ve never seen a Malian sheep.

Photo by Melanie Nelson / CC BY-NC-SA

So, this decided, the next step was to negotiate a price for the unfortunate animal not yet caught and butchered.

Not surprisingly, the price mentioned by the proprietor was exorbitant by local standards. The Malian knew an opportunity when he saw one: These blokes were foreigners, which meant they had lots of money; so why not relieve them of some of it?

Having resided in the area for some time, the four were quite aware of the local standard. The two Dutchmen were outraged. They did not take well to being cheated. That’s just how the Dutch are. It’s not that we’re cheap, mind you, it’s just that we don’t like to be swindled. It’s a matter of Dutch pride.

The Americans were not burdened by Dutch pride. They were hungry. They figured that under the circumstances being cheated was a given, a fact of life. They didn’t particularly care what they paid as long as they were going to see some food before their blood sugar sank to coma levels. They made some appropriate and expected noises about the price being too high and the Malian generously offered a slightly lower one.

The Dutchmen were incensed. The Americans were starving. The Malian was stubborn. He had a captive audience and he knew it. Smart man. The Americans tried valiantly to make the Dutchmen see the error of their ways, which was a futile endeavor. That’s another thing about Dutch people: We don’t like to be told we are wrong, and certainly not by Americans.

The Dutchmen were not about to give in. They professed to rather starve than be defrauded. They wanted to pay what the locals paid. Period. The Americans were losing their patience and ordered more beer. The Malian scratched himself and stuck to his price. The haggling went on for another hour, while the four kept downing the millet beer and getting progressively more wiped out and hungry.

Millet Beer
Photo courtesy Michael Stein


Finally, surprisingly, the Malian caved in. Okay, all right, they could have the sheep for a price low enough not to wound the pride of the Dutchmen.

You must understand, dear reader, that the Dutch have a long history of sailing the high seas and buying, selling and negotiating prices in the world market: Sugar, spices, slaves, you name it. It’s in our genes; we’re good at it. Even in the desert haggling over a sheep with a native.

So, the deal was made. The Americans were relieved. The Dutchmen were smug. The Malian went off in search of a sheep.

Hours later, the night in its final throes, our starving Development Cowboys were finally presented with their meal of roasted mutton.

It must have been quite a sheep: It had only two legs, and some other choice parts were missing.

The Malian looked smug. The Americans attacked the food. The Nederlanders followed suit. That’s another thing about the Dutch: Sometimes we lose, but we’ll never admit it.

* * *
Now, I hope I have not offended my fellow Dutchies (niet de bedoeling). Here’s a question for the rest of you: What are some national characteristics or idiosyncrasies you have discovered about your own people, or the ones you now live with? All in good fun, of course. Humor appreciated!

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Typ0 November 14, 2009 at 9:03 am

Great story as always! LOL

It’s funny you mentioned you always find Dutch people on your travels. We always find Germans. In fact one time we almost caused an international incident with them.

We were in Namibia and had stopped for the night at a small hotel outside Etosha National Park. At the bar inside we met dozens of Germans. They asked where we were from and Hubby replied that *he* was American. They asked where our large touring bus was. “We drove ourselves,” we replied and pointed at our car. One German lady said she was surprised because she thought Americans only traveled in large tour buses.

“We tried but were told all the seats were taken by German tourists.” My remark was met with silence except from Hubby who was trying not to laugh and drag me away at the same time. Later that night we were sat far, far away from that lady and her husband at dinner.

False expectations of how travelers behave go both ways. LOL

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Turquoise Diaries November 14, 2009 at 9:20 am

I didnt know this characteristic of Dutch its funny.. I love the story…

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Mara November 15, 2009 at 6:05 pm

I always try to avoid other Dutch people when I’m abroad. But you really do see them e-very-where!

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Julie November 17, 2009 at 1:32 am

like your blog. just came across it. 🙂

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Mireille November 17, 2009 at 5:48 am

Yeah.. the Dutch are everywhere, also and especially here in South Africa! Great story and I also loved the one you’ve sent me from the fabrics!!

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Heather November 17, 2009 at 11:16 am

I just found you and am thoroughly pleased I did. Having worked as a holiday rep for several years I now go to great lengths to avoid all British tourists if I can.

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Mary Witzl November 17, 2009 at 6:42 pm

I always love your stories. I know I’ll be entertained when I come here, and intelligently entertained, moreover.

You’ve been upfront about the Dutch (and boy, do I agree — you would not believe the haggling I’ve witnessed). So I want to be just as upfront about my fellow Americans. Although I hate to generalize, I do cringe whenever I run into the loud, proud, pontificating type who act like nothing they find in the country they’re in is as good as they had back in the States. Who seek out McDonalds and KFC instead of sampling the local fare, raise their voices when they can’t make themselves understood, and generally give us a bad name, thus undoing all the good efforts I’ve gone to such pains to make. I’m always thrilled to meet Americans who aren’t like that. My husband (who is British) is hypersensitive about the Brits we meet. He’s a lot harder on them than he is on Americans.

Now I’m going to get out of here before I get roasted by angry Americans. (Oddly enough, I’d go wild if I heard someone who wasn’t American say all that about Americans. I figure I can get away with it because I AM American.)

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Jungle Mom November 17, 2009 at 8:09 pm

I think that Malian has a cousin in South America. And my husband must be Dutch!

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expatriatelife November 18, 2009 at 12:47 pm

Ha, ha, great post! As a Canadian I’m usually not at all hesitant to tell people my nationality as we are generally seen as a polite and friendly nation. Indeed many Americans pass themselves off as Canadian in places not so friendly to our American cousins. So imagine my horror when a taxi driver in Dubai asked me where I was from, only to inform me that he was from Afghanistan and why was my country bombing his relatives – yikes!

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Anna November 18, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Love the story – I am sending the link to my sister in Holland… You know what? I think compared to Dutch, Armenians are not much different.

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gabber November 18, 2009 at 5:15 pm

oh ja we are cheap.. that’s why the country is so rich, My hysband is always irritated when I buy something nice and than within seconds let him know with pride that it was sooooo cheap! He thinks the Dutch are the only people that brag that they found something cheap. I don’t care… I make it up when I fly and just buy a business class ticket without even blinking. Somethings are worth their high price.

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Marja November 18, 2009 at 8:53 pm

great story and yes here in NZ we often meet Dutch tourists. We have an opinion about everything. After being used to the Kiwies for such a long time I am a bit in the middle now which is the best way I think I don’t like the style here either. If kiwies don’t agree with you or if they have to dissappoint you they just completely ignore you so that you have no idea were you’re at. When you’ve done something wrong you have no idea what. You just feel it there is something. Doesn’t really move you forward. Therefore the directness of the Dutch if done in a nice way is preferable to me

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GutsyWriter November 19, 2009 at 4:09 am

OK, so this must be what is said of all Europeans as I keep meeting Danes, even in Belize on an island of 11,000, Ambergris Caye, there were 4 Danes. There are only about 6 million in Denmark. Enjoyed your story and the photo of the shadows, fabulous.

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Miss Footloose November 19, 2009 at 7:51 pm

@ Cairo Typo, what a great story! You gave me the first laugh of the day!

@ Mara, yes, I’ll be in some off the beaten track place and hear someone speak Dutch. Amazing.

@ Julie, keep reading 😉

@ Mereille, well there is some history with the Dutch in SA!

@ Heather, welcome, hope you’ll keep checking in!

@ Mary Witzl, thank you for your input! I notice what you’re noticing about Americans. However, as with all nationalities, the calm, polite, culturally sensitive ones don’t get noticed. It’s the obnoxious ones of any nationality that draw the attention.

@ Jungle Mom, thanks for the laugh. My Malian hero has cousins everywhere!

@ Expatriatelife, yes, indeed, you don’t want to be mistaken for another nationality if it means they don’t think well of you!

@ Gabber, are you who I think you are? My former buurvrouw in Armenia?

@ Anna-jan, let me know what your sister in Holland says about my story!

@ Marja, that is very interesting about the character/behavior of the kiwis in New Zealand. A very blunt and outspoken Dutch cousin of mine immigrated to NZ a few years ago. I’m surprised they haven’t kicked her out yet!

Thanks everyone!

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American in Norway November 20, 2009 at 9:49 am

Great blog! I have to agree with Mary…I try to stay away from LOUD AMERICANS aborad who have to tell you HOW GREAT everythig is in America… Don’t get me wrong… I am VERY PROUD to be American but come one… lets try to BLEND in just a little while we are abroad..
Found you through Cairo

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