Saturday, September 17, 2011

Chapter Eight: Drinking


[Chapter Seven can be found here.]

That first binge in Africa, one of his first anywhere, started inauspiciously and almost innocently there in the Buzz Bar.  In the long run, it provided Paul with nothing more than a series of vivid and lasting images of Lomé, a city he never visited again, but that he always remembered fondly.  It brought him a slanted view, certainly, but it also became his real African starting place.  It gave him his own push, one might even say, towards finding an Africa for himself and, in the process, providing the beginning of what would prove to be something of an understanding of certain of the lesser parts of West Africa, its bars.  In the short run, it provided him with a break, a means of splitting himself away from what could have been in favor of what now was.  It provided him room for decision making.
He saw them all that night, the bars, that is.  From the cafés on the boulevard circulaire such as Café des Arts with its draft beer, English-speaking owner, and seating on the street, to the “Jungle Bar”—so named by Peace Corps Volunteers for its plants and the noises of the birds caged across the front, to Mami Wata courtyard bar, to the chicken lady, where they ate on low benches and drank beer from a hole-in-the-wall next door while watching traffic go by, to nameless joints catering to Togolese, for the most part, where the beer was warm and the clientele sparse, and to the boits, the nightclubs where foreigners and local bureaucrats danced and eyed the prostitutes whose less prosperous sisters roamed the streets outside. 
As they wandered, Paul, avoiding thinking about his own loss or El’s much greater one, concentrated on the city, and alternately fell in love with Africa and wished he were back in a snug Midwestern bedroom.  Sometimes he felt so alone he only wanted to crawl into a corner where he could wait for daylight and the first plane to anywhere else.  At other times, he hoped he would never have to leave, so exhilarating and fresh was the place.  The Africa he was seeing was daunting and enticing both, scarily open for things he had hardly imagined.  For one moment he would stare about him, drinking in as much as he could.  Then he would find he could focus on no more than the beer bottle before him. 
No matter which way he was feeling, he nodded and smiled as El talked and talked more.  Talked to Paul, and to the rotating group of companions, most of whom were little more than blurs to Paul.  El talked about everything he could think of, telling Paul about Peace Corps, about people in Africa, both local and expatriate, about places in Togo.  About everything in the world, almost, but not about his dead friend.  Or about Paul’s absent friend, for that matter.  Those were the only two topics off limits.
El told Paul about having wanted to be a minister once, of attending a seminary in Tennessee, but finding that he really could not face even the idea of the official responsibilities of guiding a flock—though, unofficially, he still knew it was his calling.  He spoke of the teaching he had done, and the wandering, of a communal farm where he had learned enough about large animals so that Togo’s animal traction program had grabbed him, once he’d gotten around to applying for Peace Corps.
“Animal traction?”  By that time Paul was a little unsure of his tongue, so spoke the words slowly.  They were sitting on a bench in front of a street bar within sight of the Ghana border.
“Yeah.  Using oxen for plowing.  In this case.  Could be horses.  Most plowing is done by hand, here, with a small hoe.  They’ve started a program, producing plows in Kara, and selling them and oxen to farmers.  Trouble is, it forces farmers to plant cotton, a cash crop, so they can repay the loan.”
“Whassa matter with cotton?”
“Depletes the soil.  Should at least be rotated with a nitrogen-fixing… ah, hell, who cares about that?  Development, Paul, all development programs are like that, ultimately.”
“Like what?”
“Like a waste of time.”
“Huh?  Then… ”
“Then what am I, what are we, the people in development, even Peace Corps, doing here?  Good question.”  He took another long drink of beer.  “But I can’t answer it.  Different answer for each of us.”
“So what are you, then?  Why are you here?  Why do you continue?”
“Oh, sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we’re doing good or, at least, not hurting anyone.  That’s true for Peace Corps, at least.  They don’t give us enough money to do much damage.  Maybe we even do a bit of good, in the human-relations department.  But, for all our talk, we’re the ones who eventually go to work for USAID and all the other development NGO’s.  Maybe all we really want is easy careers a long way from home.”
“Come on.  Can it be that bad?”
“If you stay here, you’ll see.  This is a playground for us, this place that’s home and life for the Africans.  If they wanted, they could do most anything for themselves that we flatter we are doing for them.  There are plenty of African doctors, physicists, mathematicians, engineers.  The best, though, leave.  They’re working in America, while we, who know nothing about Africa, come over here and play jungle.”
“You shouldn’t be saying things like that to me, you know.  I want to be here, to get to know it here.  At least, I think I do.”
“Why?  You came for a woman, not for Africa, not to get away.  Look at it as a vacation.  Stay a month, go back, and have some stories to tell.”
They finished their beers and, by tacit agreement, moved on.  One drink in each place was the pattern they’d stumbled upon without dissent in the haze of the much earlier evening. 
At one point a little later, Paul threw up in the street.  He hadn’t the stamina of El, nor the history of concentrated drinking.  Still, he stumbled on, matching each of his guide’s bottles with one of his own.
“If you were me, what would you do now?”  They had arrived at a bar catering to Europeans traveling on the cheap, next door to one of the hotels such vacationers frequented.  Across the road, only sand and a row of palms separated them from the ocean.  Far out, they could see the lights of a slow-moving freighter.
“Do what you planned.”  Paul had earlier laid out the details of the trip he and his girlfriend had once imagined, up to the desert and back down.  El spread his arms.  “Why not?  You guys had put together a neat vacation.  You don’t need her to take it with you.”
“I don’t know.  I don’t feel like traveling alone.  And this is the only time I’ve even been out of the US.  What do I know about a trip like that?”
“All you’ve got to do is look out for Peace Corps Volunteers, just like happened here.  We’re a good bunch, really, if a little drunken, a little naïve.  I’ll get you directions to the maisons de passage in Dapaong, Ouaga, and Niamey.  And you can come north with me at first, at least as far as Lama-Kara.”  He paused for a moment, having suddenly realized what might prove a bit of a problem.  “Uh, I don’t mean to be impolite by bringing up the obvious, but you do have your visas, don’t you?”
Paul laughed.  “Those, at least, I got.”
El grunted.
As they continued on their path from bar to bar, El kept on talking about Paul’s trip, fleshing out the possibilities for him, mentioning people he could get him in contact with, places he could see, types of beer he could drink.  Though he was drunk and not really thinking clearly, he did know he wanted to give Paul the idea of a future, at least, something to look forward to—at least, partially.  He was trying to be nice, but his efforts only seemed to be depressing Paul.  Still, he couldn’t help keeping on, even when talking about the down side.
“But none of it’s any good, though.  The beer, I mean.  Not after this.”  He pointed to his Biere du Benin.  “Togo, you gotta remember, is the only of these places that was a German colony.  The French, of all people, taught them how to make beer in most of these countries!”  He laughed.
“The English in some, I guess.”
“Yeah, but even their beer can’t match this good German stock.”  He drained his bottle and got up, ready to move to the next bar.  Paul struggled to his feet, swaying a bit.
“Your ticket out, does it follow the same route we took coming in?”  They were sitting under a paiotte, a round, open-sided structure with a thatched roof that sat on the beach itself.  The same freighter they’d seen earlier, or one just like it, struggled silently away across the water.
“Yeah, it does.”
“That’s good.  That means you can pick up your flight in Niamey.  Just have to tell them at the airline’s office there.  It’ll confuse them at first and they won’t want to let you do it until you make it clear you don’t want any money back.  Then they’ll arrange it so your seat will be held.”
“But then I won’t be coming back here.  I’m getting to like it here.  Well, for the moment, at least.”
El shook his head.  “I forget: you’ve never yet been on a bush taxi.  It’s three days by bush taxi, at best, to Ouaga, maybe four if you go to Niamey instead.  You don’t want to do that back again just to catch a plane.  Plus, you’ll have that much more time to wander around in the Sahel.”
“What’s ‘Sahel’?”
“Huh?  Oh.”  He grinned, shook his head.  “Sounded like you said ‘What the hell.’”  He stopped for a moment, stifling a drunken laugh, realizing how stupid he had just sounded.  “The Sahel is the edge of the desert that isn’t quite desert.  It’s the beach around the Sahara, so to speak.”
“And that’s what Upper Volta, or Brubiba Faiso or whatever the hell its name is now, is part of?” 
“Burkina Faso: the land of upright men, Captain Thomas Sankara commanding, with Lieutenant Blaise Campaoré at his side, thanks to the most recent coup.  Yup.”
“But is it stable enough for someone like me, someone new, to go wandering around in it?  I don’t really want to be shot.”
“Sure.  Peace Corp’s still there.  They haul us out in an instant if they think there’ll be trouble.  No, Sankara may talk big talk, may like to pal around with Gaddafi, but that’s a country with really nothing, nothing but laterite and people.  I don’t see how it could get too crazy.”
This time, El had to steady Paul as he got up from the table.  “Maybe we ought to wander back to Peace Corps,” El said, giving Paul a little push but keeping his arms out in case he fell.  “You look like you are finally ready for some sleep.”
“What about you?”  Paul did stumble, but caught himself.  Or El did.  He wasn’t quite sure.  They set off toward the maison.  “Don’t you ever sleep?  Don’t you ever stop?”
“Not recently,” El shook his head.  “Not recently.  What I need is something to distract me, right now.”
“Like what?”
“Like you.  Like what I found tonight.  Like someone who can keep my mind off, well, off of Joan.”
“You’ll tell me about that, though, sometime, when you can?”
“When I can.”  He looked at the stars.  “When I can.”  They stumbled off toward sleep.  Toward sleep for Paul, at least.
The eastern sky was starting to lighten as El gently knocked on the compound door.  The night watchman helped him get Paul, who was already nearly passed out, inside and onto his bunk.
El grabbed the bottles of beer he’d stuck in the cooler earlier and went outside to sit on the sand, to think, to remember, to avoid remembering, and to wait for day.


[Chapter Nine can be found here.]

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