Life is filled with them. We learn, or sometimes swear we will never learn when we repeat the same stupid one. They are fertilized by haste, laziness, naivete, fog and distractions and are woven into our lives. I’ve made mistakes while thinking myself smart. I have a hunch that happens to everyone. Spoiler alert: Mistakes also have surprises, twists and alternate interpretations.

Trading dollars for Naira via the “gray market” in Nigeria in the early ’80s, I made a legal exchange on the side of a windswept hill, where I would get a distinctly favorable rate. I had worn around $500 cash in a money belt, flown into the country and now needed Nigerian money to go to market. If I’d used an official bank, I’d get 360 Naira per dollar, but on this “gray” (as contrasted with the black) market, I’d get 490. Very smart to do it this way, suggested my Nigerian colleagues.

On my first foray to the gray market, I brought half of my cash. This resulted in 122,500 Naira. I was cash rich. The huge amount had me with five or six stacks of hundreds, thousands, and more common denominations of twenties, tens, fives and even singles. It was a grocery bag full of cash.

My housing there was as assigned to visiting professors, in that I was given a sparsely furnished half-duplex in a remote part of the huge campus. (I was at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, in southern Nigeria.) Their furnished bed had impossible springs, so I decided to sleep on the mattress on the floor. Next to it was a low bookcase. Perfect spot, I figured, to store the multiple stacks of Naira till I would use them.  

I had learned that electricity would predictably black out every night, and my mattress on the floor was then lit by a low gas lantern. In my fitful sleep I registered the sound of rain.  (Not unlikely in the rainy season.)

Slowly coming awake next to my glowing lantern, I realized that where my Naira had been stacked was now an empty shelf. I got up and realized that my back door was standing wide open to the night. When my flashlight spilled out of the door, its beam revealed that what I had thought was rain was a hand pump in back of my house dripping slowly. (I was later told that the “bad guys” probably had used this sound to help cover the noise created by unpinning my back door from its hinges.) Thinking this bookcase a safe place to stack money had obviously been the mistake. But wait. 

As the sun rose, and the rain began to fall in earnest, it dawned on me that I had been totally naive to believe this house secure. The choice to leave the stacks of money in plain sight turned out to not really be a mistake. Having them out in plain sight made this “snatch and grab” so obvious and easy. No need to bash me over the head. I was blissfully asleep next to stacks of Nigerian Naira, out for the taking.

How to identify the mistakes? Exchanging $300 in a gray open market? Flaunting easy cash? Assuming a door lock secure? Hearing running water, and mistaking it for rain?

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