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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I wrote this on Tusker lager

The mob scene outsided the Registrar's office increased on Saturday. Those officers on duty gave up by eleven a.m., ceding duties to…..um....

Beleaguered students waited in the midday heat, lips pursed, shoulders lowered. Their posture said it all… thoughts, hopes, prayers…all unanswered. Many of them had all but told me they would not be at the final, not because of malaise or fear or doubt, but rather because of money.  
Depressed as I was, unable to do anything but denounce the system and commiserate alongside, I had made a plan to see something with my Saturday. And noon time was nearing.

The smell of nile perch and sea scum penetrated my snifferers as the boda sped closer and closer toward the phalanx of hustlers on ggaba road. I could smell the lake before I saw it.  Locals in tank tops, gold bracelets and shaved heads stood idly under coffee trees, eyeing the road like hungry wolves. And those were just the women. 

You could buy anything on Ggaba road: bed frames and toasters, coffee urns and wooden upholstery lined both sides of the tarmac. Cows and goats found their niches in the cracks and intersections, grazing and scratching the flies circling them. I knew I was going to be burned five minutes after leaving kyambogo. How stupid not to bring a hat on a sunny day in east Africa. 

A boy shadowed me the minute I had de-straddled the boda. I saw sand, the bay, and a stage filled with locals carrying burlap sacks of grains and rice in between their dark legs. A few boats moved back and forth to the rhythm of the water.
“We go…let’s go.” The boy kept repeating.
'No we don't go. We don't frickin' go!
7,000 shillings became 5,000, then 3,000 the closer I got to the pontoons. Six of them were floating amidst the olive green lake muck, awash with oil and fumes and plastic bottles up and down the shore. I avoided eye contact, somehow my sixth sense sensing this kid was a little too green around the gills.
I spotted two calcium-white men climbing into a boat beside the boy. Their skin was silently crying out to turn off the sun. I waved and followed them, shrugging at my predator who had spent so much of his energy trying to hustle me. In the end, his struggle with the English language became his undoing.
“How far across?” I asked.
“Five hours. We go now. Get in. Let us go...”

I could see the opposite shoreline not more than a kilometer in the distance. Minus the crocs, stench, pollution and hippos, I might have even been able to swim it in five hours.
“My book says fifteen minutes.”
“Yes, fifteen minutes. Get in now.”
“A minute ago you said five hours.”
“Five minutes… yes five minutes.”

I waved good-bye to the boy that afternoon and sat on a plank beside calcium-enriched Eric from Wisconsin.
He and Terry were missionaries, teaching computer programming in the Congo. Both had the same receding hairline, graying temples, rosy cheeks and milky white calves. Their toes should have had socks on them. I was in the midst of a sermon before I knew it.

Fifteen minutes later we were on the shores of Murchison Bay, in Bule. Four bodas and three cows greeted us as we disembarked. I originally thought the odor was coming from the cows.  I climbed on the first boda I saw and away we went. 

We rose to a crest in the dirt road and then flew across the path, scattering pebbles and stones in our wake. We passed forests of pines, a sweeping view of the outline of the peninsula and then turned right down a dirt path toward the lagoon resort.
The rest of the scenery? Naked or near-naked toddlers, distended stomachs, mini-afros, white teeth; their pudgy little arms waving the moment I come in sight. Many of them ran after me with empty jerry cans, nothing but a rag around their waste. The heat didn’t dampen their spirit or fatigue their 
The boda’s b.o. was pretty rank. Beyond words, really. Like hot garbage mixed with a middle school locker room after wrestling practice. I leaned back to inhale the harbor breeze as best I could. Give me manure, give me rotten tilapia, anything but the guy in front of me. Luckily the ride lasted no more than ten minutes. Me and b.o.da sloped into the lagoon resort just before my nose fell off.

The resort was on a wonderful plot of land, on the south side of the bay, overlooking a bluish-green cove and grayish sandy beach. The german owner (we’ll call him Klaus) had landscaped the entrance with sprawling lawns, cute baby palms, and a tiled pathway leading to a turquoise pool. No one was swimming or laying out. 
Klaus was lanky. Yes, lanky indeed, stretched out in his work pants and unbuttoned polo, flip flops and shaggy brown hair. His lips were the only part of his face with any life to it. How did a guy like that set up camp here? I wondered.
“We have lunch for thirty.” 
“Thirty thousand?” I asked.
“Dollars. It’s three courses with dessert, ja…”

I could tell he didn’t care less whether I stayed or went. This was Bule. Woolly Bule.  
I swallowed. “Got any sandwiches?’
“Um, ja.” He signaled to the waiter behind him. “I think he can make you beef sandwich, somssing like that. You like the beef?”
“The beef would be great.”
Besides Klaus and his two, loyal german shepherds, the place was a ghost-strasse. The food was excellent though. Klaus came through. Toasted bread with succulent, tangy mustard sauce, sautéed beef, with a small salad of lettuce and baby carrots. Criss-cross fries burnt to a crisp. A cold Nile Special to wash it all down…I spent a good hour reading my book, eschewing the longing looks of dieter and helmet, and watching two fishermen cast their nets of the rickety wooden dock in the distance as a gentle breeze floated the palm leaves all around me.
B.O.da driver was asleep on the lawn when I returned from lunch. The midday had evidently baked him, filleting his torso as insects the size of harmonicas swooped down for a closer look at his pigment.

We continued on to kabanga, a town of modest dwellings made of brick and timber. More of the same really: children shouting, carrying jerry cans of water; mothers sitting in shade staring at a moving vehicle; Young couples walking hand in hand, teeth missing, heading into the forest for village hickies.

Back on campus, I hadn’t missed much. The lines hadn’t progressed in Kyambogo. In fact, they’d doubled in length. The same students were outside waiting. What had they missed? My forehead was now the color of salmon meat.

Sunday morning I stepped out the door to find paul and veronica on my porch. Were they stalking, scouting, squatting, casing?
No, they had just come to find out their marks. On Sunday morning…outside my home. My double cowlick was standing on all fours, begging for an insult.

Monday brought Seth to my doorstep. I was reading when he made a bee-line for my right hand.
‘morning, sir.’
He looked away, awkward and diffident. What did he want?     
‘I will not come to the finals, sir. I cannot pay tuition.’

On Wednesday, I got an unlisted call at dinner time. A female student needed to talk. I sensed a foreboding omen approaching the minute I saw her visage.
‘I’ve got a problem and i….don’t know if I’ll make it to your final, sir. I’ve partially paid for my tuition and they said I shouldn’t sit for yours.’
‘Who’s going to catch you?’ I asked.
‘The bursars…They come and check our examination cards.’
I racked my brain for what a bursar might be. Then I started thinking about a bursa sack, which segued into balsa wood. Then I started musing about an old friend, Robin Wood, which reminded me about Middle School Shop Class and Mr. Altheide’s loveable stutter. That got me back to a thought on trivets, wood in general, Woodrow Wilson, Woody from Cheers, Woody's girlfriend from Cheers, Woody Allen, and then a student I had in my day class named Allen.
‘These things have a way of working themselves out,’ I finally said. ‘Whatever you do, come to the exam.’

The Day before Thanksgiving
Today might have been a low point in my stay. I walked in for a meeting this morning to find out the progress of my work visa.
There had been no progress. Since my trip to the embassy for signatures, the documents had been collecting dust on my department head’s inbox. To assure me of his due-diligence, he walked me the forty yards and two flights of stairs to The Office of Legal Affairs in the Admin building.
‘Two weeks minimum.’ Winfried stated flatly. She was swatting at a fly the size of a titleist when she said it.
‘But my visa runs out Monday. Will you guy reimburse me for the re-entry permit? Will you pay for my transport to Nairobi?’
“I don’t think that is possible.”


So as of ten a.m. this morning, I was looking into Sunday morning bus fares to Nairobi, Kenya.

That’s when I met the world’s worst boda driver in the world. His upper lip scar should have given it away. I had to bring out the map to show him where he was taking me. Always a bit unnerving when you get your words repeated back to you, a nod, and then a jubilant ‘We go!’ Regardless, it didn’t stop me 
from hopping on.

We stopped six times: once for change, once because we ran out of gas, once for boda to shake hands with three of his other boda homeys, and three times for directions.
We also nearly capsized in freshly laid dirt on the right shoulder of the road. Wouldn’t have been such a big deal if people drove on the right side of the road here. He drove down two one-way streets going the wrong way, fish-tailed coming out of a pot hole, and nearly broke my right ankle re-starting the car near the Serena Hotel. When we arrived at the bus station, he ran off with my money, hollering something about directions while I stood baking in the African sun next to his pathetic boda. In the meantime I learned the bus station had moved two years before, making the trip completely useless. When he finally came back I just shook my head at him and crossed the road.

Luckily, the embassy is trying to sort things out on my behalf. I’m due there Friday for a meeting with H.R.

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