Fellow passengers who had boarded with us in Abu Dhabi ignored the illuminated seat belt signs, leaping to their feet as the seven-four-seven taxied to a stop. Polite appeals over the microphone to remain seated by Gulf Air staff hostesses went unheeded. We had arrived. Having been vomiting for the past ten hours, I groaned at the thought of having to leave the cocooned safety of the aeroplane cabin.
Across the aisle, a man dressed in a kanzu and sandals flung open an overhead locker while a large gentleman in billowing African robes who was seated, started shouting exuberantly into his mobile phone. Every now and then we heard a blast of his deep resonant laugh. Clank, clank, more lockers were opening like so many gaping mouths. From their dark recesses flowed brightly coloured, overstuffed bags, suitcases, plastic carriers in greens and yellows. In front of us, a woman wearing a gaudy green dress with puffed sleeves and starched headdress, gestured to squeeze into the aisle while her demure neighbour in a hijab acquiesced silently. A child cried out from somewhere near the back. I turned to look. The girl, perhaps five years old, was wearing a Sunday dress, all peach layers and frills. Her slim father, in a shiny, oversized suit scooped her up in his arms while organising carpet bags filled with luggage.
I put my head between my knees as a fresh wave of nausea washed over me. Ben squeezed into the already crowded aisle to retrieve our bags, throwing hand luggage down onto the empty seat beside me. The air-conditioning had been switched off, the plane was hot and smelled pungently of sweat. When the sick feeling passed, I looked out through the oval cabin window at a deep blue sky, coconut palms, mango trees, lush, overgrown grass and a tin roofed airport terminal beyond the tarmac apron.
Two ladies wearing pastel hooded capes pushed forward along the aisle, one resting a hennaed hand on the headrest in front of Ben’s seat. A man in a prayer cap carried a crate of chickens.
“Come on Frances. We need to move.” Ben said.
“Just a minute, let’s wait for a gap.” I said.
Ben perched on the armrest of his seat, itching to disembark.
Our journey from London had lasted an age. Shortly after the Gulf Air in-flight meal of yellow rice and okra, I’d started to throw up. Dashes to through the thick grey curtain into the business class loos had drawn disapproving glances from the stewardesses.
“Those toilets are supposed to be for business class only.” The stewardess complained.
“She’s very ill.” Ben said, unapologetic.
During the stopover in Abu Dhabi, Ben raced around the huge space shuttle airport terminal in search of a doctor while I gazed helplessly out through giant tinted windows at sand dunes, trying to get comfortable laid out across a row of unyielding plastic seats.
“I know I promised in sickness and in health but this is pushing it!” Ben said, exasperated, returning with some anti-nausea pills.
Having been married two days, there wasn’t much romance about the situation.
When the plane was almost empty. Ben persuaded me to get to my feet. Exhausted and anaemic I reached the top of the steps dressed ridiculously in dark skinny jeans, black ribbed polo neck, ankle boots and socks. February is one of the hottest months in Zanzibar and while disembarking passengers in rainbow attire blended effortlessly into landscape, I appeared woefully out of place. At the door of the plane the heat and humidity hit me bodily, like the door of an oven opening. Descending the aircraft staircase, droplets of sweat formed instantly across my upper lip and my winter clothes began to stick and cling. Juggling a bottle of drinking water and folded magazines, I scrabbled inside my green suede handbag in search of sunglasses. As objects slipped and slid in my hands, I tried weakly not to drop anything. Ben was distracted, fussing through various pockets of his rucksack, checking that passports, yellow fever certificates, money and contact phone numbers were all still there, even though we didn’t need them yet. Everything was jumbled up; honeymoon itinerary, old emails and information on his new job. I raised a hand to shield my face from the glare. It seemed hard to believe that we had arrived.
We joined the stream of passengers crossing the tarmac to the terminal building, all rushing to seek refuge from a painfully bright sun. Once inside, grateful for the shade but still sweltering, passengers were fanning their faces, pulling out handkerchiefs to dab hot brows. There was no air-conditioning, just a pair of dust covered ceiling fans rotating at a useless speed. Struggling with renewed waves of nausea, I sank down onto the concrete floor, sitting amongst the sandaled feet of the crowd. Across the shimmering tarmac our bags were being loaded manually onto carts, while Ben busied himself filling in entry forms.
After passport control we waited as the overloaded handcarts were pushed to the terminal building by sweating porters. Customs officials, hopelessly unaided by technology, were processing the bags by scrawling large blue chalk crosses on each suitcase before shoving them to another ramshackle pile. The crowd was pushing, gesturing to porters to hand over particular bags, noisily passing belongings over in a babbling, shouting language that I couldn’t understand.
Ben wedged himself to the front of the crowd on sight of our blue cases while I hung back. I watched as Ben grabbed our first suitcase. His arm elongated suddenly as it dropped heavily to the floor narrowly missing a few pairs of feet. He wheeled it over to the corner where I sat and I wondered if the chalk mark on our new case was going to be erasable.
“Here, this is your one. Why don’t you change?”
He thumbed over the combination locks, flapping the case open into two halves. The suitcase contents were compressed. I searched the flat layers before pulling out a pair of beige leather slides (half a size too small but impossible to resist in the sales), a cropped white t-shirt and long, gauzy, red skirt. Still feeling sick, I took cautious sips from a bottle of water and before summoning the energy to stand.
“It’ll be a job closing it again,” I said to Ben, summer clothes folded under one arm. “Where do you think the loo is?”
He gestured toward some blue doors, one marked “Wanaume” and another marked “Wanamake”. I dithered until a woman in niqab veils walked in through the correct door.
The ceramic hole in the floor came as a shock, as did the mysterious plastic bucket of water with a cup floating in it. The door lock didn’t work so, leaning against the cubicle door to keep it closed, I pulled off my boots and rolled the skinny jeans down round my ankles. Once changed, I hovered for an aerial wee, hanging on to the loo roll holder. The process must have taken time because when I came out there was a queue of ladies snaking out of the door, all wearing Muslim robes or African dress. There was enough of a trickle from a loosely fitted basin tap to rinse my hands and splash my face, but no soap.
“Feeling better?” Ben asked hopefully when I reappeared, still pasty white. I attempted a wan smile.
“A bit.” The humidity was oppressive and I was still suffering from waves of nausea.
Emerging from the terminal and into the bright sun, we looked for our name amid an army of taxi drivers holding scraps of paper. One man stood out, wearing white robes, short waistcoat and a red fez looking like he was from another century. He was holding a small blackboard with something close to our name chalked on it, topped by a brass bell.
“Do you think that’s us?” I asked.
“Tembo Hotel?” Ben approached the man.
“Yes sah!” The man said. “You are welcome!”
“We”re coming with you then.” Ben said pointing, “WODLNS, that’s us.”
“Hamjambo,”said the Tembo man, smiling broadly. “Wakaribishwa! Welcome.”
He grabbed hold of our heaviest case, wrestling it from Ben before Ben showed him it had had wheels. Other porters and helpers took our smaller bags and we wobbled in procession to an open sided minibus. I scrambled climbed inside, taking my place on a ripped leatherette banquette as our luggage was wedged in behind us.
“Endelea!” said Ben, climbing in beside me after it was clear no other hotel guests were coming. The minibus sputtered into life and we joined the main road into town behind a hulking, rusted truck that belched out black smoke. God is good! Inshallah! Painted in italics along the bumper.
“We’re here!” Ben said excitedly, putting an arm round me.
He was on a high. For him, memories of his childhood in Mombasa came flooding back as we drove along a wide avenue of jacaranda trees towards Stone Town. A welcome flutter of a breeze cooled us as we motored along. Warm air infused with the sound of bicycle bells, car horns, city smells and general traffic chaos.
Along the highway, a two wheeled handcart loaded with a sofa and upholstered chairs was being pulled by a man, shirt ripped open across his back. Unbelievably, a passenger was sitting precariously on the back of the cart dressed in a prayer cap and robes, legs crossed enjoying the ride. A donkey grazed on the verge, a mangy brown dog darted out, crossing the road while miraculously evading injury, ribs protruding. A dented saloon car slammed on its brakes in front of us and we jerked off our seats. Our driver let out some sort of an expletive and shook his fist.
“Pole sana,” the Tembo driver looked back at me, smiling, as Ben and I struggled back to our positions, before leaning again heavily on his horn.
A pair of African women in colourful wraps walked along the central reservation skilfully balancing yellow plastic water containers on their heads. A herd of brown cows with ox like humps and heavy horns were being driven down the inside lane by Maasai in red robes using a melodic whistle and shouts of, “Heh, hut,” as a stick gently cajoled across the cattle’s backs.
I lay down in Ben’s lap, feeling hot, queasy and very far from home. So this was the Spice Island. A far cry from our cosy Clapham basement in winter and a city in monochrome. I watched the skyline of flat roofed communist style apartment blocks that lined the highway as we drew closer to town. A call to prayer echoed from loud hailers rigged to nearby minarets as men in white kanzu robes strode purposefully along the pavements toward Stone Town’s fifty white mosques, obeying the muezzin’s call. Some hand in hand. A lady in black robes rode side saddle on the back of a bicycle, seated on a tasselled velour cushion.
“That’s a boda-boda” said Ben pointing, “a bicycle taxi.”
I looked up at Ben.
“How long ’til we get to the hotel d’you reckon?”
“Not long now.” He said, “I’m sure it’s not far. How are you feeling?”
“Not great.” I said.
“Because I’m getting quite bored of you being ill all the time.” He said with a smile.
“Me too,” I said dismally. He stroked my hair.
As we entered the old town, streets narrowed. The crumbling stonework of tall Arabic houses with rickety wooden balconies, shuttered windows and iron red roofs closed in overhead. A moped rider in a billowing shirt swerved sharply in front the minibus. As the bus screeched its brakes, I sat up to peer through heavily carved, dark doorways giving glimpses into intriguing courtyards filled with pot plants and washing lines. Power lines and cables crisscrossed the street overhead.
The minibus finally finished its journey in a tiny piazza with a central fountain inside a raised octagonal pool. The Tembo Hotel’s name was spelt out in yellow letters between two arched doorways, giant wooden doors were studded with brass studs. Cats screeched, fighting down an alley.
“It’s just like Lamu here,” said Ben, “that place was full of cats too.”
A waft of sewage was carried over us by a gust of hot breeze. As we climbed down from the bus, a hotel employee shooed away a blind beggar accompanied by a small boy who was shaking a plastic cup. I grabbed my handbag and got out of the bus, weak legged, into the reception area leaving Ben to deal with the luggage, the beggar and to tip the driver. I wanted somewhere to collapse. I really wanted to be in our room.
My swollen feet in the too-tight wood soled shoes clacked over the black and white tiled floor of reception. There was an Indian style sofa that I sat on, red velour upholstery pricking through my lightweight clothes. A taxi driver shepherded a group of khaki clad tourists out of the door, followed by porters in fezzes carrying roller bags and rucksacks. I wiped my sweaty lip and waited for Ben.
The hotel was furnished in a mix of old style Arabic with Colonial touches. Wood framed doorways, with coloured glass insets and dark, carved Indian furniture. Conical brass coffee pots were displayed in recesses in the whitewashed walls. Indian brass serving platters hung next to crackled Dutch ceramic dishes. Ferns in polished brass pots sat on top of deeply carved and brass studded Omani chests or side tables set with glazed tiles and coloured glass.
I bunched my hair into a pony tail and tied it up with the band around my wrist. Thank God I had changed out of those bloody jeans. The heat and humidity was stifling. I’d never felt anything like it. Ben, who was now stood at the reception desk, was visibly agitated. Our many bags and suitcases piled in a corner, he was rifling through his Swahili phrase book. In spite of feeling grotty, seeing him struggle made me smile.
“Mke wangu anakatupika,” he said haltingly in Swahili, finger following the wording in his book. He then looked up.
“My wife is vomiting. We need our room urgently.” We laughed about that one later. The first Swahili phrase we’d ever needed. My wife is sick. What a joke.
“Ah, pole sana, pole,” the reception man said to Ben kindly but unhurried. “First fill in these forms and we will take you to your room.”
“Can’t I do this later?” he asked. “My wife over there, you see.” He was pointing at me. “You understand, she’s very sick.”
“We will photocopy your passports,” the man said, still beaming ear to ear, impervious to Ben’s agitated state. “Then we can take you to your room directly.”
Ben tutted, biro working over the paper as he impatiently copied down passport numbers, every so often glancing at me over his shoulder at me with a concerned frown. I attempted a smile and mouthed, “I’m fine.”
Behind the reception desk the row of four clock dials read London, Frankfurt, New York, Zanzibar which was funny, since we’d arrived in what felt like the middle of nowhere. I walked weakly over to see if Ben was okay. An old black 1950s style telephone and a brass bell on the polished desk. An old German couple, sweating profusely, were enquiring about spice tours.
Two men in jellabas appeared bearing polished brass trays with glasses of fresh juice and cold flannels. Ben grabbed both.
“Jambo, jambo! Karibu Zanzibar!” one of the men said, full of enthusiasm, smiling broadly.
I smiled but waved the juice away. I’d read in one of my helpful guide books that juice might not be ‘safe’ and could be diluted with dirty water so, feeling so ill, I wasn’t willing to take the risk. The cold flannel felt good though. I wiped it over the back of my neck and forehead and felt revived for a moment.
Finally we were shown to our room. First led through to an open courtyard, almost entirely taken up by a deep swimming pool with a raised concrete edge. The water was a murky green colour and around three sides were high elevations hotel rooms with dark wood balconies. At the far end, a pair of palm trees framed an arched restaurant area with yellow and white canvas awnings. Beyond that was Shangani beach and then the sea.
“This pool, out of service,” said Juma, dangling our room key in one hand.
“That’s a shame Juma,” said Ben peering at a gold name badge pinned to his white robes, wiping the sweat from his forehead, “I was kind of looking forward to a swim. But we have a honeymoon room right? A suite?”
“Yes, yes,” Juma nodded.
We rounded a corner to be faced by a near vertical wooden staircase,
“Which floor?” Ben asked.
“Fourth.” Juma said. “Very nice room.” He said proudly.
My heart sank at the thought of the climb.
“Is there a lift? Elevator?” Ben asked.
“No, we pass here.” Juma said.
A whistle from behind prompted us to flattened ourselves against the wall as a caravan of porters passed with all of our bags balanced on shoulders. The largest case was balanced on one man’s shoulder, head tipped sideways, veins standing out on his neck as he took the strain. Others, followed in procession carrying our smaller cases.
“Surely there’s a lift?” I asked Ben.
“Probably isn’t one,” Ben whispered. He put his hand on the small of my back to propel me up the stairs. Pangs of nausea were rising again. Half way up, the porter carrying the large suitcase asked his colleagues for a rest. We all stopped. I leaned against the wall enjoying the cool of the plastered stone. The narrow, airless stairwell reminded me of school.
“God, how many more stairs?” I hissed leaning against the wall.
Ben panted, “we’re over half way there.”
When we reached our room and all the cases had been set down, Juma briefed us on how various switches worked then hung about in the doorway shuffling from foot to foot.
“What’s the matter?” I whispered urgently to Ben as we pretended to admire the view through an open window. “Why won’t he go?”
“I think he wants a tip.” Ben said, peeling off his sweat soaked money-belt, to search for a low denomination dollar note. Unable to wait and past caring, I dashed to the turquoise painted bathroom retching loudly into the loo with hardly time to shut the door, then slumped onto the lino floor cradling the pan.
“Asante sana.” I heard Ben say and the wooden door closed with a click.
“Are you okay in there?” Ben asked, concerned.
“Yeah, fine,” I croaked. My sense of humour had disappeared somewhere over the Middle East.
I emerged from the bathroom to find Ben fiddling with the settings of the old box style air conditioning unit before slamming the wood framed windows, shutting out the view of the sea and the sky.
“A/C doesn’t work as well if the windows are open.” He explained.
The air-conditioning unit made a loud droning hum and smelt of dust but gradually the room it cooled down.
I pulled myself weakly onto the high Zanzibar bed, pulling over a green, hospital coloured sheet.
“Are you really not feeling any better?” Ben asked again, a hint of desperation in his voice.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine by tomorrow.” I said. “I think I just need to rest.”
Ben sighed, crawled onto the bed beside me and we both fell asleep.
- Link to next instalment: Preparing to Leave
Preparing to Leave
“Would you be Mother?” Jonathan said with an obsequious smile.
He raised his eyebrows beneath a wide, forehead that creased into waves across speckled skin, long exposed to equatorial sun. Jonathan was visiting from Kenya to help his London colleague recruit for a regional job in East Africa.
My hackles rose at the request. Barring initial pleasantries, it was the first Simone that either of the two men had addressed me and we’d been in the meeting room for some Simone. The London partner, Andrew, seated alongside Jonathan, issued forth a smoker’s cackle which quickly turned to a throaty cough.
“Not very politically correct but if you wouldn’t mind?” said Andrew, wafting a yellow fingered hand in the direction of the tea tray.
The level of old-school testosterone in the room made me uncomfortable … and irritable. Flushing red, I poured out four cups of tea from the white teapot, shoving them across the table and pushing the milk jug alongside. My fiancé, Ben and I exchanged glances. He frowned slightly, embarrassed but keen for this meeting to go well. Behave — please, his eyes said.
“As I was saying,” a nervous Ben pressed on, attempting to smooth the atmosphere, “having grown up in Kenya, I do feel that I am well placed to take up the position. You see, I understand the African mind.”
Andrew and Jonathan burst out laughing, spluttering over their damn tea.
“Well congratulations on that, because having lived there all my life and I’m not sure I could say the same!” Said the latter.
Ben stumbled. “Well, not understand exactly, but you know what I mean. I am familiar with life there. It’s where I grew up. And I would really like the chance to prove myself. I think I could do a good job.”
He needn’t have bothered continuing. The joke was so funny that laughter drowned out his words for some minutes.
“Have you ever been to Africa before?” They asked, turning to me, eventually. “Do you want to go? Is this something you want to do?”
“Yes, of course.” I said, searching uselessly for anything more to add.
For me, Africa offered the possibility of a far flung adventure, the like of which I had never experienced before. The furthest afield I’d ever been was backpacking round the Greek islands. Perhaps my lack of worldliness showed.
“We fear she’s a bit slight…” Andrew said to Ben on the phone the next day. “I mean, we’re not sure she’ll cope. Is she really up to it?”
Ben argued that I could cope, was keen and he managed, tentatively, to secure the job in East Africa. Details to be confirmed. I was outraged at being doubted by the two old me. It hadn’t occurred to me to doubt myself.
“You have three choices. To be number two in our office in Nairobi, set up a new office in Uganda, or take over from Simon to manage the branch in Dar.”
Ben chose the last option. Dar es Salaam. Not keen on being somebody’s number two and possibly not ready for the challenge of setting up an office from scratch, it seemed the preferable option for a twenty-eight year old graduate ready to recapture his youth and escape London’s drabness.
“But we’d like you over there soon.” Andrew said, “preferably before the end of the year. You said you were planning on getting married? You’ll need to do that fast. For the paperwork you see. Otherwise we won’t be able to get a resident’s permit or dependent’s pass for Frances. Without a marriage certificate, it all gets very complicated.”
At the time, these details slid past me unnoticed. My brain was only working solely on the short term but by marrying and moving to Africa, I was signing up to the life of a trailing spouse and a ‘dependent’ on my husband’s passport. My days of independence were numbered. However, this posting would only be for a couple of years. So what could go wrong?
The excruciating interview took place in July. We discussed an autumn wedding but time was tight. We searched for and bought a small flat together to rent out. We both needed to work notice on our jobs.
“We’d like you in Africa in November.” The Africa partners said at first. Then, “January will do.” Later, “let’s fix it for March.”
A two year contract was signed and a wedding date fixed. February 13th 1999. This would give us time for a honeymoon in Zanzibar before starting work on March 1st.
“It’s best if we go over there for our honeymoon first. To find our feet. I can’t just dump you in Dar and go off to work when you’ve never been to Africa before.” Ben said.
I was perplexed. Perhaps this was going to be harder that I’d imagined.
“Sorry…where are you off to? Tasmania?” Friends and colleagues asked. The name of such an obscure country, in pre-internet days, barely registering for most people.
“No, we’re going to Tanzania. It’s in Africa. East Africa. On the coast. About half way down the continent.”
I enjoyed the questioning but, to be honest, hardly knew where Tanzania was myself and only worked it out after looking it up on an atlas. Up until that point, any knowledge of ‘Africa’ had been defined by Live Aid’s haunting television pictures of a fly blown population, starving in Ethiopia. Then in August 1998 there were US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. After those news bulletins, East Africa hit a few more people’s radar.
“But isn’t it very dangerous out there?”
Africa is dangerous.
“No, I don’t think so. We’ll probably be alright.” I said, not worried.
“But what will it be like living there?” Friends asked.
“I have no idea. Guess I’m about to find out.”
My mother-in-law painted a colourful picture of her Mombasa days as a young wife and I let the images she conjured wash over me without too much questioning. Tennis and house servants and dances and friends. Gin and bridge, beer and boats and endless sunshine. She and Ben’s dad described days as teachers spent under swaying palms on the beach, shopping at fish markets, sun-downers at the club. Endless visitors and remote beach holidays. Challenges over coping with a difficult climate, the huge disparity of wealth in a developing country and the fact that Tanzania hadn’t long emerged from a history of socialism weren’t mentioned. My main concern was whether I’d find friends.
“Oh, you’ll make friends in no time.” Angela said. And I assumed she’d be right. “We had lots of friends. Lots of parties. It was great fun.”
But of course expat life in Kenya just after independence was very different to a post-socialist Tanzania. I didn’t know that then.
While dangerous didn’t bother me, what did bother me was clothes. What would I wear in that heat? It was going to be hot and humid and I’d researched enough to know that I would have to be respectful of the Muslim culture. However, hot holidays I’d been on in Europe were liberal, where vest tops, bikinis and shorts were fine. ‘Humid’ was a new concept for me. I scoured summer sale baskets for long skirts, sandals and linen tops with sleeves. We got vaccinations. Found a flat we could just afford with a large mortgage. Returned home at weekends for wedding dress fittings while Ben was building a kit car in a friend’s garage. A project that necessarily stepped up a gear now that our leaving date was fixed. As the days grew shorter and colder, to-do lists got crazier. We spent more and more hours during evenings and weekends at Ben’s workshop, while he wheeled himself horizontally in and out from under an unpromising looking chassis.
“I think I’m on track.” He said, “Got the body almost built and then I’m fitting the gearbox. Electrics will be tricky but Ted will help me with that.”
I looked down at a cardboard box containing a mess of coloured wires. It was Saturday night and, beer in hand, I was freezing. What the hell were we doing?
We planned a wedding in February and, for the sake of ease, I was happy with a copy and paste version of my sister’s event that took place the year before.
“So what will you do living out there?” Friends asked. Intrigued by the mad cap scheme.
“Oh, I’ll have to settle in first I expect. Then I might find a job at some stage.”
“So will you have staff?” my friend Katie asked. “In the house with you? Won’t that be weird? How many?”
“I think so… probably. But we’re not moving into a house straight away. We’ll be in an apartment first.”
“How long will you be gone for?” They asked.
“Just two years. Three years at the most.” I said, believing that I’d have had enough by then.
“I just can’t bring myself to read these bloody guide books,”
I complained to Ben one dark, winter evening. TV and a glass of wine were easier distractions from the myriad tasks that needed our attention after a day at work. Plus it was hard to get information on Tanzania and Dar es Salaam in the pre-internet days. I bought a Rough Guide to Tanzania and a Guide to East Africa but had to force myself to navigate the tiny writing filled with history and places I’d never heard of, nor could pronounce. I picked up snippets of a socialist past, less developed infrastructure, conservative, predominantly Muslim coastal culture, some Second World War history, passing reference to fish and vegetable markets but nothing about expat hangouts, tips for foreigners, the cost of a car. Nothing practical at all.
Communication with Ben’s new employers was difficult and sparse. There was little in the way of detail forthcoming and Ben walked a fine line of fielding my questions but not wanting to appear too needy to his prospective bosses. After all, Andrew and Jonathan had already voiced their misgivings, not only about me but also how young Ben was, to be taking on a management role.
“The chap who’s out there now, running things, Simon, he’s got to go. Our Japanese client in Dar is the biggest client we’ve got out there but he’s now point blank refusing to work with Simon. The thing about Simon… he’s like a bull in a china shop. Not enough diplomacy.”
“Oh,” Ben said, wondering how he might fare with the tricky Japanese client. “How long has Simon been in Dar for?”
“Three years,” Andrew said, “but we should have seen it from the beginning. Was all in Simon’s psychometric test when we took him on. Typical rugby player. Those tests are quite amazing.” He chuckled. “They tell you everything about a person.”
Ben stayed quiet, wondering what the results of his psychometric test might reveal, having wrongly assumed that sitting one was simply a formality.
“But you’ll need some kind of handover period.” Andrew said, stroking his chin, still doubtful. “Bit of a risk for us sending you out there without any management experience.”
“I’ll be fine.” Ben said, with as much conviction as he could muster.
“Well, we’ll see.” Andrew said, yet to be convinced.
“I’d like to go ahead and book our flights to Tanzania if that’s okay?” Ben said as breezily as he could on the phone once the psychometric test results had come through satisfactorily and everything was fixed to go ahead.
“So do I go ahead and contact someone in your HR department?” Ben asked.
Time was running out fast. It was only weeks before Ben was due to start his new job, we’d decided to have our honeymoon in Zanzibar straight after the wedding. The only missing piece of the plan were the flights, which we assumed would be covered by the new employers. However, Ben was still waiting to receive a copy of his contract.
“I’ll get back to you on that.” Andrew said, stalling. But when he did get back in touch, his response was odd.
“The fact that you’re going to Zanzibar for your honeymoon, well, it puts a bit of a different spin on things. You see, we’re really not normally in the business of paying for people’s holidays!” His forced laugh was far from amusing.
“I assumed that flights for me and my spouse would be included in the contract?” Ben said, trying to recover from the body blow.
“Yes, but a holiday is different. I’m not sure we can cover it.”
“Right, I see.” Said Ben, having done his best to alter the trajectory of the conversation. But that evening, I exploded.
“What do you mean they are not going to pay for our flights!? We can’t possibly afford them. We haven’t got any money and we didn’t even particularly want to go to Zanzibar for our honeymoon. We’re arranging our whole wedding around them. Haven’t we already bent over backwards enough?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll sort it,” Ben said, disappointed as well. “It’s just tricky. I don’t even work for them yet.”
So Ben went to a travel agent and found a pair of cheap Gulf Air flights for us, via Abu Dhabi, which were half the cost of a single BA flight and Andrew grudgingly agreed to pay.
“It’s better this way,” Ben said, “I don’t want to piss them off even before I’ve started.”
“It just seems so incredibly mean.” The whole episode left a bitter taste.
Choosing items for our wedding list seemed like a bizarre ritual, in our case, undertaken on one rainy Saturday afternoon in John Lewis.
“This cutlery or that one?” I asked browsing displays of stainless steel knives and forks that all looked the same.
Ben barely feigned interest, wandering over to a display of suitcases.
“Why not something like this case?” He asked looking at some sturdy Samsonite suitcases. “It’s got wheels. There are inside pockets and this one even has an integrated suit carrier.”
“Very handy. I’m not sure that people put things like suitcases on their wedding list though?”
“Well, let’s give it a go.”
Along with suitcases we chose towels, a food mixer and a Denby dinner service complete with mugs and serving dishes. Practical things that wouldn’t break while in transit to Tanzania.
“This plate costs five pounds! Just for one plate! Will someone really want to buy us a plate for our wedding? They’ll think it’s a rip off.”
“I know,” I said, “it seems mercenary but everyone does this. It’s how it works. Awful isn’t it?”
We circumnavigated the cut glasses with decanters, lamps and home furnishings, settling instead on towels, bed linen and a camcorder.
Days before the wedding I packed up an old tea chest with a random collection of household things including a pair of mugs, Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery book, tea towels and a cutlery tree to tide us over the first few weeks that could be sent by air.
Ben had been putting in man hours he didn’t have to get his kit-car finished while we were still working our regular jobs until right before the big day. There was a lot of stress and pressure to get everything done. When Ben arrived on my parents’ doorstep the afternoon before the wedding, I thought he was about to weep.
“I couldn’t get the kit car down here. It didn’t pass its MOT. I knew it was going to be tight but I tried everything, it just wasn’t going to work.”
It was hard to resist saying I told you so but frankly, I was glad to see him.
“Don’t worry. It doesn’t matter.”
“I also lost my car keys, so I’m in Marcus’s car.”
“Oh God, really? Anything else?”
My father made hurried phone calls to fix up an alternative car for us to drive away in and Ben headed off to meet his parents and friends at a local pub. We had the love and support of all of our friends and family but even so, they must have thought we were mad.
The following morning my mum made scrambled eggs for breakfast at home in the kitchen, overlooking the garden and the marquee in light drizzle.
“It’s your wedding day. How do you feel?” My younger sister asked.
“Excited. I can’t believe it!” I said, unable to grasp the enormity of it all.
“And you’re really going to Africa?” She said teasingly, also a little sad.
“Yes. I guess we are going. Can’t believe that either.”
I was determined to remember every minute of the day, mindful of advice that all wedding days go too fast and the bride and groom can never remember much about it. This one was not going to slip by in a blur. In fact the day started with a wobble. I’d arranged to get wedding make-up done at a beauty shop in town. Better for the photos, I’d been told. But as the beautician caked pale foundation over my face I wasn’t sure. It felt like a mask. Making polite conversation, I moaned about the weather.
“It’s just grey out there. I hope it doesn’t rain.”
“Well what did you expect, getting married in February?” The beautician said, a little too waspishly.
“We’re moving to Africa, so there’ll be plenty of sunshine there.” I shot back.
Emerging from the salon, painted faced I wondered, was I really doing the right thing?
The wedding dress, that was made for me by a farmer’s wife, wasn’t a far cry from the designs I’d doodled as a little girl. A straight, long sleeved design with a small train in white silk. The fabric had a raised, woven flower pattern and there was a white fur trim around the sleeves and neckline with classic covered buttons all the way down the back.
My mum pulled a fine V-necked wool vest from her chest-of-drawers and insisted that I wear it. It wouldn’t show. I carried purple irises and yellow daffodils in a prematurely spring-like bouquet and the bridesmaids, Ben’s two tiny nieces, wore little navy mohair cardigans that my mum made, over cream silk dresses with a navy sashes and white, feathery Alice bands that I’d bought from Accessorize.
When everything was ready and the rest of the family had already headed to the church, the house fell silent.
“Would you like a drink?” My father asked as we stood by the front door, about to head off.
Sprigs of gypsophila were pinned in my hair and my veil was long and fine. An inspired find at a wedding hat hire shop. A small glass of sherry stood ready on the military chest waiting by the door. I downed it.
“May I have another one?” I asked.
“No.” He said. “We’d better be off.”
My mum fussed over me outside the church where the bridesmaids were waiting with their mum. Walking into the town church, packed to the rafters with friends and family, made me suddenly catch my breath. I leaned on my Dad’s arm but didn’t cry. It was good to see Ben at the end of the aisle standing by his best friend, give me a wink of encouragement as I paced slowly toward him, congregation beaming on either side. We were so lucky.
The vicar took the copy and paste format from my older sister’s wedding he’d officiated at the previous year a little far; delivering the exact same anecdote of a proposal during a fishing trip in Scotland. The fact was, we’d never been fishing, nor even been to Scotland. We got engaged on a charter plane on the way back from a cheap package to Portugal while sitting next to the loos. During the flight, Ben had taken his time to pluck up the courage, sending a previously briefed air steward back on numerous occasions, armed with a mini bottle of champagne.
“Shall I bring it now Sir?” He kept asking and Ben shooed him away.
“No, no, not yet.”
“You’re only asking me because all your friends are getting married.” I said, un-romantically when the question had been popped. It took me some time to give him an answer.
“I wanted to take you to Kenya and ask you there. But then I realised that was never going to happen. So why wait? Why not now?”
“Is that why you kept rushing to the loo when we were waiting to board? I was wondering what was wrong with you.”
“Yes! I’ve been crapping myself. Literally!” he said.
There was a smattering of applause on-board at the end of the flight when the pilot announced “congratulations to the couple who just got engaged in row thirty-two”, ramming home the slight cliche of the situation.
So when the salmon fishing proposal story was recounted in church, the congregation were confused. Ben and I giggled. My mum was in a state of fury.
“How could the vicar have got that so wrong?!” She said in disbelief.
“I never thought Ben was a fisherman.” Ben’s godfather said, shaking his head, “thought he was more in to cars?”
A quickly fading afternoon light in winter was a challenge for Gerald the photographer. Outside the church was freezing, so instead we did the group photos inside my parent’s house, herding guests in and out of the living room. Shift a bit to the left, a little to the right. The ceiling light was in the way but there was nothing we could do about that. The photographer hurried through his list with the help of Ben’s ushers; Bride’s family. Groom’s family. Ushers, bridesmaids, close friends. Gather. Disperse. Next.
“How do you feel?”
“You are really going.”
“Are you excited?”
Guests and friends asked while I sipped champagne, making the best of one-line exchanges, buoyed by a happiness that was hard to describe.
“Can’t believe we are going.”
“Very excited, yes”. I replied before being swooped off to the next person who wanted a word with the bride.
“Of course, when we lived in Malaya.” An elderly relative began.
I listened politely, glancing over his head to see my friends laughing amid a sea of faces that I didn’t know.
“I once lived in Keeenya,” Another aged guest chimed in. “just after the Mau Mau…Of course it was very different over there then.”
“Yes. But we’re going to Tanzania.” I said, “not Kenya.”
With its socialist, almost communist past, no one had stories of Tanzania.
“Come and talk to great Aunt Isabel and Aunt Francis” my mother-in-law implored, steering me toward a pair of old ladies seated in a corner, dressed in real fur. Ben and I were pulled in different directions by family wanting us to speak to their friends and politely we obliged.
“You’ll fall in love with Africa and never want to come back.” Said a kindly friend of my Mum but I wasn’t ready to think about any of this yet.
“Of course I’ll be back.” I said. “We’re only going for two years.”
After the wedding reception there was a break before a more informal evening party planned for close friends. A good device for shaking off ageing or less welcome relatives. Ben and I went to a country house hotel on the edge of town to change, then returned home to my parent’s house and back to the tent to dance to the best tunes the local DJ could muster, eat sausages and mash and try not to think about being cold. I hugged my friends and we grinned.
“You should have kept your wedding dress on!”
“I know!” I said.
Though pleased with the gold dress and jacket outfit I’d changed in to, also a little sad that the wedding dress had been cast aside too soon.
“What will Africa be like?” they asked.
“I don’t know.” I said. “I literally have no idea! Wish me luck will you?”
“Don’t tell me this is goodbye.” They said.
The evening slipped by fast and I failed to remember every minute after all. Too soon we were waving goodbye from an open topped car, that wasn’t Ben’s kit car, surrounded by a crowd assembled in the yard shouting;
and “We’ll miss you.”
Still buoyed by adrenaline, we left.
Back at the hotel, when Ben fell asleep, the reality of our situation hit me like a juggernaut. I began to cry stifled then wracking sobs. We were leaving. Feelings of loss that I’d pushed to one side to be tackled after the wedding, came rushing to the fore. Why was I going? Leaving friends? Family? Everybody? What the hell was I doing? Was this my dream or someone else’s?
I woke up the next morning exhausted, with a cracking headache and puffy face.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” Ben asked.
“I just feel so sad. All of that saying goodbye. I’ve been crying all night.”
“Well that’s not a great sign. But don’t worry. It’ll be an adventure.” He said and I rallied.
There were muted goodbyes with Ben’s family who came over coffee at the hotel before heading home. Logistics needed to be sorted. Bags to be left here, keys to be handed over, followed by promises from family members that they would come and see us in Tanzania as soon as we were settled. The two blue Samsonite suitcases from our wedding list were already packed. My Dad kneeling on the hard shell case while I shoved in corners of disobedient clothing protruding from the sides a couple of days before.
We made an appearance in the marquee for my parents’ drinks party that they’d organised for the day after the wedding, in order to make good use of the marquee. Ben looked stiff in a new blazer and chinos. The awkward attire of a husband. An adult. My godmother Maggie grabbed my arm and gave it a squeeze.
“Good luck.” She said. “You’ll be fine.”
After more drinks and polite conversation, we finally we left for the airport but the journey was far from smooth. There was heavy traffic on the M25 outside London and the taxi nearly broke down. While sitting in traffic, smoke started seeping out from under the bonnet. The engine was clearly overheating and the driver was rattled.
“I’m not sure we’ll make it,” the driver said, “I think I’m going to have to pull onto the hard shoulder.”
“Don’t stop!” Said Ben. “Switch the heaters to high. It’ll draw the heat out from the engine bay. Works every time.” He persuaded, “Keep driving! It’s not far now mate.”
There was no plan B for missing this flight. I wound down the window to escape the blast of heated air. Traffic finally eased, the temperature gauge dropped and we were on our way but time was ticking.
“What time did you say our flight was?” I asked Ben, realising that I’d left all the honeymoon planning up to him.
He kept looking at his watch. “We’ll be fine.” He said.
The taxi drew up to the Heathrow drop off point and we fell out of the car.
“Cutting it a bit fine aren’t you? We’ve been here for hours!” Exclaimed Richard when we got inside. A welcome friendly face and one of Ben’s best friends who was waiting for us at the airport as we shambled up to Departures with far too much luggage.
Richard and his wife Clare were grinning, armed with our new camcorder. Richard been tasked with taking footage of our wedding.
“I hope the tape’s alright.” Richard said, “Clare and I watched it last night and I think that I got most of it. The tape ran out just around the first dance.”
“Did you get the speeches?” Ben asked, particularly proud of his.
“Yes, got all those.” Richard said. “With Marcus’s poster of you in the gorilla suit. I got all that.”
We hugged, said goodbye hurriedly to our friends and approached the check-in desk, handing our documents to the waiting stewardess who was wearing a grey pillbox hat with a swathe of a matching chiffon scarf that tucked under her chin. There was no queue.
“It’s our honeymoon.” Said Ben, the idea only just occurring to him that we might get some special treatment.
“If we’d known that before we would have upgraded you.” The stewardess said.
“Might an upgrade still be possible?” I asked, optimistically.
“No sorry. Business class is full. You should have let us know earlier.” Even the stewardess seemed disappointed not to be able to help. “You see, you’ve checked in quite late. We’re about to close.”
“Never mind.” I said, squeezing Ben’s hand. “It doesn’t matter.”
“We can put you in the front of economy? But I’m afraid that’s the best we can do.” She said kindly.
“That’s fine.” We answered. “Thank you.”
On the other side of passport control, once I’d bought a couple of magazines, we’d phoned home and Ben had had a quick look in Dixons, we found our gate and sat down. I looked at my wedding ring feeling excited.
“It’s going to be a long journey I’m afraid.” Ben said. “We’re changing in Abu Dhabi.”
“I know but we’re going to Zanzibar! And to live in Tanzania. I can’t believe we’re really doing this!”
“Christ, I know.”
Exploring Stone Town
“Chai for you madam?” The waiter asked.
The next morning I was having breakfast alone on the open hotel terrace. I’d chosen a central table while the sun was behind a cloud. Now that it had reappeared in full force, light and heat were reflecting aggressively off the terrace slabs and I was already beginning to feel hot and sweaty. I put a hand up to shade my eyes.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Chai? Tea Madam?”
“Oh, coffee please.” I said.
“na eggsi, friedi, omeletti ama boiled?”
“Er … boiled?” Boiled being the only English word I recognise.
Two boiled eggs arrived with triangles of sweet white toast and as I stared at the anaemic yolk wondering if the eggs were safe to eat, I saw Matt approaching. Ben’s old friend from our night out the night before.
“Hi there. How are you this morning?”
“I’m fine, better, but Ben’s been sick all night. He’s not going anywhere today. Must be the same bug that I had.”
“Shit, that’s bad luck man” he said, “Look, I’ll see what Kiki is up to today. I think she’s planning to go into town later. Maybe you two could hook up?”
“Sounds good.” I said. CNN news continued to blare from the bar area.
“Well, if she doesn’t mind?” I had nothing much in common with Kiki but was also faced a boring day alone while Ben was ill.
After breakfast, scaling the flights of stairs to our room, I slid into the air-conditioned cool quietly, eyes taking a minute to adjust from the brightness outside. Ben was asleep, naked, on the bed. I pulled the sheet over him with a sigh, then searched for a guide book and our video camera. While looking through my handbag, I found tiny ants exploring up my arm and I involuntarily threw the bag across the floor. Ben stirred as I swiped to get the ants off me and found an open packet of biscuits that had taken on a life of its own. I dropped the biscuits gingerly into the plastic bin. Then as an afterthought, placed the bin outside the door, closing it firmly.
“You okay?” Ben asked weakly from the darkness.
“Yeah, how are you feeling?”
“I was sick again a few minutes ago.”
I sighed and said, “This is pretty shit for a honeymoon isn’t it?”
“I’m sure I’ll feel better later. Could you get a Coke for me from downstairs if you’re going?”
“Sure.” I said, “I’m going to go and find somewhere to read my book for a bit. Oh and I saw Matt at breakfast. He said he was sorry to hear you’re ill and Kiki might take me shopping later.”
“Oh that’s good.” Ben said, “I think you should go.”
I left the cool room armed with the video camera and guide book, descending one flight of stairs to a mid-level reception room that was brightly lit by a row of stained glass windows. Dark, heavily carved, upholstered Indian chairs and a sofa stood on a red cement floor, arranged around a coffee table. A cleaning lady in the corner was mopping the floor, liberally distributing disinfectant in arcs as she swept her mop acros the floor. She glanced at me shyly from beneath a white hijab. I said hello, then added jambo as an afterthought but she didn’t hear me, or didn’t reply.
As soon as the cleaner left, I put the book down and powered on the video camera. The battery was flashing low but I was able to peer through the view-finder to watch mini, black and white footage of our wedding with no sound. The air was still and I sweated, not thinking to switch on the ceiling fan. As I peered at the silent, black and white pictures, holding my hand over one eye in order to focus, tears pricked my eyes. The images seemed from so far away.
Shutting the film off, I steeled myself for the adventure of sourcing a Coke from the bar downstairs. After an exchange punctuated by inevitable confusion caused by the language barrier, I went back upstairs with a bottle of warm coke. Setting it beside Ben, I tried reading in the cool of the air-conditioning, grateful for a cool refuge. But after an hour had passed and bored of searching fruitlessly through the Tanzania guidebook for references to shopping in Dar or expatriate hangouts, I wondered if Kiki was going to remember to find me? At last, there was a knock at the door. I went to open it a crack. Heat and light flooded in, making me squint.
“Hey,” Kiki stood outside the door, looking beachy in a bikini top, spaghetti strap vest and sarong. I glanced at the poster on the back of the door that illustrated what was and was not suitable for tourists to wear out and about in Stone Town. You had to hand it to her, she didn’t care.
“Matt told me Ben is sick. So sorry. How’s he doing?”
There was a loud retching sound from the en-suite bathroom right on cue.
“Not great.” I replied. “He’s really not very well.”
“I think Matt told you, I’m going to town and wondered if you want to come with me?” Kiki said.
“Oh yes, I’d like that, thanks so much for asking. Are you going now?” I asked.
“Yes” she said. “Just shopping for some spices and things.”
Ben had shuffled back to bed and curled up into the foetal position. I felt keen to escape.
“Err, just one second. I’ll get my things and meet you downstairs.”
Back in the darkness of our room, a cloud of mosquitoes plumed from the open suitcase as I searched for a lightweight shirt that would better cover my shoulders, grabbed the beige money-belt, fastened it around my waist and slipped into last night’s sandals.
“Have a nice time,” Ben lifted a hand up off the mattress heroically. “Buy me something nice!”
I laughed. “Yeah right. Feel better soon. I’m sure I won’t be that long.”
It was hot as I followed Kiki as she walked fast along the narrow streets of Stone Town. The heat of the sun beat down on our heads as we wove our way through old town, exotic smells washing over us from the sea, spice kitchens and open drains. Fortunately Kiki seemed to know her way around.
We passed the Blues pontoon and the Forodhani food market which was now deserted save for blackened patches of ground littered with maize husks and strips of sugar cane. We reached the giant fig tree with twisted stems and low hanging branches, under which a dozen or so mopeds were parked up. Almost instantly we were beset by hawkers. Kiki expertly ignored the men offering spice tours, beach and boat trips and motorbike hire but I found it hard, not wanting to appear impolite.
“Hey, Wazungu! Wageni! Tourists!” they said, “come with me now, Prison Island, very nice beach. We go together. You sisters and me.”
My step quickened. I felt close to panic as one guy followed us insistently, propositioning us with tours and schemes. Kiki walked on, hips swinging provocatively, occasionally adjusting the strap of her wicker bag over a bare, tattooed shoulder. My feet were covered in dust, new shoes painful and the money belt stuck hotly around my waist as I obsessively checked that the zip was closed.
“I need to go in here,” Kiki said suddenly.
We had arrived at the Gulf Air offices but the mirrored store frontage showed no obvious sign. Inside, the office was air conditioned and while Kiki strode over to the desk, I collapsed onto a chair near the window, wiping my sweaty forehead. I realised I was still feeling weak and watched with relief through the tinted shop window as a blind beggar accompanied by a young boy who had been following us, moved on to try their luck elsewhere. Kiki wanted to change the time of her flight to Mombasa that afternoon and I could tell she was getting frustrated.
“It is not possible.” The Gulf Air lady said dismissively, fully veiled in black robes with just a glimpse of hennaed hands. “You’ll have to pay $100 for any change.”
“I don’t have to pay! You see, it says here, this is a flexible ticket.” Kiki said.
“I cannot help you. This is the rules.” The airline employee insisted.
“This is not right. You know, I work on the airlines too. There should be no charge for this. It is not difficult. Should I speak to your manager?” But the office was deserted, save for this one attendant.
Kiki’s beachy appearance and western insistence on fast and efficient service was met with a quiet and haughty resistance and eventually Kiki had to pay. When the new ticket was finally printed, Kiki snatched it without a thank you and left angrily.
“Bitch,” Kiki said when we got outside, me stumbling after her, the heat hitting me like a body blow once again. “Bloody Zanzibar. No one wants to help you. It’s better in Mombasa. They are used to tourists there. And they’re not all socialists.”
A speeding Vespa shot past, beeping its tinny horn for us to get out of the way. Two women passed veiled in full black burqas, only serving to highlight more how woefully out of place we were.
Tourist shops in the Old Town were hidden in dark, cramped spaces and I hoped we’d reached the shops Kiki was looking for. Carved doorways with heavy open doors festooned with baskets, cushion covers, colourful kikoys and kitenge cloths gave onto small, dark enclaves with more goods on shelves, hanging from the walls and ceilings. Wood carvings, soapstone dishes, dry banana leaf pouches packed with rainbow spices.
“These shops are just for tourists. The main market is better.” Kiki said, so we pressed on, further out of town and further from the hotel.
A goat with a snapped sisal tether round its neck browsed over a pile of rubbish by the crumbled ruin of a house. We kept on walking. The heat was draining and I sweated profusely. Ten minutes or so further and we hit a wide road on the outskirts of town near the port.
“We’re here,” Kiki said, triumphant, miles from the hotel now. No way could I turn back even if I wanted to.
We crossed the main road dodging cars, buses and cows to reach a sprawling, semi-covered market with goods displayed on makeshift tables, shaded by scraps of old hessian and plastic sheets. Paint tins filled with lumps of charcoal were for sale alongside tables stacked with plum tomatoes, mangoes, onions, baskets of spices. Other vendors had spread tarpaulins on the ground covered with cheap plastic toys, combs and radios from China.
“Jambo, jambo wazungu” vendors called out, crouched on their haunches or perched on plastic crates. “Come, come look, here, looking is for free!” They called.
A crocodile formation of school girls in uniform with white Muslim veils filed by. Instinctively, I put my hand on top of my head, felt the burning sun and realised I should be wearing a hat. Sun cream I’d slathered on my face earlier formed a greasy layer making me sweat more. And I’d forgotten to bring any drinking water.
Kiki turned, looking at me as if for the first time and smiled. “Are you OK?” she asked.
“Oh, fine thanks,” I lied, smiling. “Just still feeling a wiped out maybe.”
We wandered along narrow, uneven walkways between the stalls. Dry beans, coconuts, rice and coloured spices were laid out in powdery hues of red and orange arranged, filling my nostrils with the scent of spice.
“Wazungu, njo! Come and see!” the vendors entreated at every turn. “Sister, sister!”
Anything to attract our attention, they clicked, whistled and sang.
My pinching sandals slid over the compressed dirt walkways of the market. I flinched as dirt from decaying matter touched my open toes. A man frying chunks of pale cassava in hot oil, served chunks wrapped in a torn off scraps of newspaper and I wondered how anyone could contemplate eating hot food in this heat. Sweat ran down the back of my legs, between my boobs, inside my bra.
Finally we found the spice stalls that Kiki was looking for. Vanilla pods, nutmeg and cloves loose in baskets. She bargained hard with the Zanzibari stall holder and I felt the two women had met their match.
“Start below half price, then work up.” Kiki told me in confidence but I couldn’t see anything that I wanted to buy.
A pile of dried fish stacked in basket next to our feet was attracting flies. My ears started to ring. I thought I was going to faint. Kiki was a skilled at bartering but I wished she would settle the deal fast so that we could go. Finally the vendor put Kiki’s purchases into a black plastic bag, screwed the cash Kiki gave her into the waistband of her kanga, then wandered off.
“Are you ready to leave now?” I asked, somewhat desperately.
“In a minute, I have to wait for my change.” Kiki said.
A loud, urgent whistle rang out and Kiki pulled me from the path of a heavily loaded handcart pulled by a skinny man dressed in rags just in time.
“That was close.” I said, shaken.
“Are you buying something?” asked Kiki.
“Not today.” I said, feeling totally overwhelmed.
When change was finally found, we walked out of the market and into the open port area.
“Should we get a drink?” Kiki said, “it’s hot. I know a place that’s not far.”
“That would be great,” I replied, inspecting the blisters that had developed from my unbroken-in sandals.
Limping behind Kiki toward the waterfront we arrived at a place called Sunshine bar where we were the only customers. Kiki chose a table near the sea wall and I wedged a white plastic chair into an available square of shade as the sun beat down unrelentingly. Kiki ordered fresh passion juice while I asked for a cold Coke. A fly settled on the red, triangular plastic ashtray as Kiki lit up a cigarette. I flapped it away almost overturning my bottle, wondering whether to drink from that or use the glass, then stopped to enjoy a hint of warm breeze coming from the ocean.
“You look lost,” said Kiki leaning back in her chair, drawing deeply from her cigarette.
She twisted her long hair with the other hand, draping it down one side of her neck where it fell prettily next to a tattoo.
The first sip of cold Coke revived me.
“I feel lost.” I admitted, smiling. “And very far from home.”
“You’ll be OK,” said Kiki. “You know, it will get easier.”
I looked out across the water. Faced with the reality of a new life in this place, I really wasn’t sure.