[Chapter Six can be found here.]
Bandiagara, Sam saw as the taxi finally pulled into town after five stomach-churning hours of rocking and bumping—and several more of sitting at stops while papers were checked to no purpose he could discern aside from emphasizing just who had the power—had no formal taxi gare, nothing like Mopti’s, at least. On reaching the town, the bachet quickly turned left into a wide space between a row of zinc-roofed cinderblock buildings containing a couple of shops selling packaged items next to a restaurant of sorts and, on the other side, the town’s marketplace, a series of low, rickety wood-and-thatch structures packed with goods and people. As they climbed out, Paul shooed away a couple of beggar children—they were on the edge of a tourist area, the Dogon heights, and many there had learned to beg for change—and led Sam over to the restaurant and a table under its porch roof.
“You ought to see yourself,” he laughed as he sat, motioning Sam into the chair opposite, “you’re turning into a real bush traveler.”
Sam started to dust himself off a bit then looked at his hand, which was caked with dirt, and gave up. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so jolted about, so rattled like some sort of marble in a can. I can still feel it.”
“You will, for a while. You’ll be happy to know that the road turns almost to sand from here on, so no more rattling, but, unhappily, if we are to get across the border, we will have to be up and out of here very early tomorrow. So don’t get too comfortable.” He motioned for the waiter, who was hovering close by. “What would you like?”
“Something wet. What are you having?”
“A beer. Want one?”
“No, just get me a lot of something. But tell me how you know we have to be up and out of here early tomorrow.”
“How about a lemonade? They probably have bottled lemonade. It’s bubbly, not like American, but it goes down, even warm. And you’ll just have to trust me. Remember, I’ve been here before.”
“Sure.” Sam really wanted only the moisture and didn’t feel like arguing or fishing for information. He looked at his hands and wished he could wash them.
When the bottles and glasses came, and the waiter had opened the drinks, leaving the caps loosely sitting on them, Paul rinsed each glass with splashes from the bottles, then poured their drinks, placed cardboard coasters over each glass, and replaced the caps on the bottles.
“Why did you do all that?”
“Makes sure they are reasonably clean. And keeps the flies out.” Paul removed the coaster and drank his whole glass.
Before Sam was halfway through his lemonade, Paul had finished the rest of his bottle. He stood.
“Look, I have to find us a place to stay. The campement here is going to be too expensive. I’d better do it alone, though. If I take you along, they will charge us way too much. I mean, they’ll think I’m trying to get a room for a rich tourist. You OK to sit here a bit?”
Instead of answering, Sam shifted and stared over at the marketplace. Filled with stalls of onions, tomatoes, a wide variety of cloth, and a myriad of items he could make no sense of, it looked completely alien and impenetrable. Its gnarled posts holding simple thatch coverings even seemed a little threatening. More than a little, actually. He stared down the dusty road where a couple of taxis were parked, apparently at random, loading or unloading; at the people, many barefoot, strolling about, talking and arguing or laughing; at the strange small shops with their piles of Omo brand soap, plastic buckets, rope, and condensed milk. He hesitated. This was no place for him, certainly no place for him to be alone. He didn’t want Paul to leave, but knew that was irrational. So he said nothing.
“Look,” Paul had an idea of what he was thinking, and tried to reassure him, “just stay here. Order another lemonade, if you want to—all you need to do is point to the bottle when you catch the waiter’s eye—and try to relax, to get over the shaking of the ride. There’s not much that can happen to you here.”
“All right.” Sam returned his gaze to the table and the simple items upon it, doubting the truth of Paul’s words, but knowing that any argument would sound silly. He nodded, but without looking at Paul. “You go, find us rooms. I’m just tired. It’s been a rough couple of days.”
So, Paul left him sitting there, hunched over his drink, shooing away flies and looking worried, his pack wedged between his feet. As long as he just stayed right there, Paul assured himself, nothing much could happen to him.
A series of questions quickly led Paul around a couple of corners to a compound where, for a few hundred francs, he secured a room with two mats for the night. He dropped his pack inside and walked back to the marketplace to fetch Sam. It was getting on to dusk, and he wanted to get Sam installed and back out for dinner before he had to discover new places in the town by the light of hurricane lanterns, for there was little electric light, here.
“Uh-oh.” He rounded the last corner to the restaurant. Sam was still there, but perhaps twenty children surrounded him, all with hands stretched towards him, all pleading. The waiter, lounging in the doorway, was making no move to help him. The expression on Sam’s face was one of bewilderment, almost of fright. Paul ran the last few meters to him and shooed the children away. He turned to the waiter and berated him for not protecting his customer. The man, looking upset, shrugged and disappeared inside.
Sam, when Paul looked at him once again, turned his hands out in a surrender position. “I just gave one a small coin, and then this.” Sweat was creating runnels down the dust that was still caked on his face.
“My fault. Look,” Paul sat down again and the waiter apologetically brought him a beer, “you stand out here; you’re different. Hell, I stand out, and, compared to you, I’m part of the scenery.” He paused. “I’ll tell you something that might help, and example.” Paul took a long drink from his beer, directly from the bottle this time. “Imagine that, I don’t know, some famous movie star, or the President of the United States, moves in right next door to you and then starts lolling around in the front yard. What do you think would happen?”
“A crowd would gather, you mean?”
“Exactly. So, here, you are the movie star, and you have to take precautions. Otherwise you’re going to be inundated with people asking for things, offering services, pestering you.” Paul looked about them, trying to see as Sam did, trying to remember how impermeable this scene would have once seemed to him. Those children, in their rags, their filth, piteous looks on their faces, would have destroyed his equilibrium too, or nearly. At least they would have brought him, too, close to tears. Now, he knew more about them, knew that their situations, while often bleak, were rarely as horrific as they made them seem. The looks were tailored for white tourists, not from reality. Life was hard, for the people whose homes and families were here, but it wasn’t completely desolate.
Four years he had now spent in Africa, much of it within a few hundred kilometers of where they sat. Four years of learning. Looking around, he could accurately guess, almost, what each person he saw did for a living. He could tell whether they were farmers (as most everyone was: even those with another career had a field or two) or carpenters, merchants, mechanics or teachers. He could see the drunks and the ne’er-do-wells, the students and the strivers. This was a world he had learned to negotiate, if not to understand—that, he knew, would take decades. Still, it was easy to forget just how much he had learned, how far someone else might have to go. He looked at Sam more compassionately than he had before. He took another drink and then told Sam about the place they would be staying.
“Let’s go and drop off your bag when I’ve finished this beer. Our lodgings aren’t exactly stellar, but the room is relatively clean and there is running water at the end of the building, so the shower buckets can be filled easily. We’ll come back in a bit and eat, but you need a chance to shower, to clean up a bit first.”
“Sure.” To Sam, the table itself had become a bit of a haven, a strange sensation but nonetheless true. Since Paul had returned, at least. But, relieved at the idea that he might soon be able to clean up, he stood and followed Paul who, draining the bottle, had stood and now looked down, waiting for him. Sam followed close to his side until they arrived at the entrance to the compound where they would stay. Paul ushered him into the courtyard and took him around to their room, where Sam looked skeptically at the two mats lying half-unrolled on the floor. At least, as Paul had promised, it wasn’t filthy.
The “shower” Paul next showed him was also much less than he had expected and looked forward to, being merely a large earthen urn with a wooden cover and a calabash dipper. A number of galvanized buckets for refilling it sat in a corner. The shower room itself was set within a brown banco brick circular wall with an open doorway cut into its most discrete facing. There was no roof. At least there was water, and Sam had soap and a towel in his pack.
Paul led Sam back to the room and left him seated on one of the mats with the door closed while he went back out and showered himself. Afterwards, while Sam was showering, Paul sat on a bench in the compound yard, drinking a beer he’d sent a kid to fetch and smoking cigarettes, waiting while watching dusk approach and gently enfold the town.
“Dust, dust gets into everything.” Sam came out just of the stall just as dark became dominate, reasonably scrubbed, but still trying to get remains of road dust off of the ‘clean’ shirt he had pulled from his bag. “I can’t understand how it penetrated so far into my pack.” Paul laughed, studying him, satisfying himself that the shower had indeed added a little life to this man he know thought of as his charge.
“As I said, you won’t get away from it for days, now. Dust is, well, ubiquitous around here.” Paul stood up. “Come on. You need to eat.”
The sky, as they walked back to the restaurant, showed no moon, just a deep blue-black behind a showing of stars more magnificent than any Sam had seen—ever. He stopped for a moment just for the wonder of it, almost forgetting where he was. Then, when his neck forced him to bring his head back into position, he looked around at the town, now dotted with stars itself, kerosene lanterns, some manufactured in China, others locally made from a can and a strip of cloth. He caught his breath as he looked up again and saw, for the first time in his life, the real strength of the Milky Way as seen from an earth darkened to night just as it had been before electricity’s now eternal shine.
“Have you ever seen anything like it?” Paul had followed Sam’s gaze.
Sam shook his head.
“We’re seeing the sky, here, the way mankind saw it always, until just a century ago, until Edison changed the sky forever by changing the night. We’re seeing something special that once was commonplace even in America, something vanishing. Even in Africa.” He paused for a moment, continuing softly after they both had stared up for a moment longer in silence, “It’s one of the reasons I haven’t gone back home.”
Sam nodded. This, as he looked around at the flickering lights under the trees and the bright, authoritative tableau above, this he could understand. It made him feel comfortable for the first time since he found himself stuck in Mopti; it made him feel safe, though clearly, as he could not forget, still the alien in someone else’s land.
As Sam reluctantly lowered his sight and followed Paul again, he realized that Paul had started explaining something, telling him what he could expect to eat safely, and how, no matter what he did, he could get dysentery. He listened, then more and more carefully. “E-coli can be carried by the very air you breathe.”
“So, you are saying, I am going to get sick?” Sam had temporarily forgotten the stars.
“No, if you take care, you will likely not. If you were staying longer, you certainly would. But chances for getting dysentery are always around. So be as careful as you can.” They were finally in sight of the restaurant, now (like all of the little shops) lighted by hurricane lanterns. “Once I realized I would be staying here for years, I decided to make myself get used to the food and water as fast as I could. I’ve had every sort of dysentery you can imagine, many of them a number of times. I would not suggest that, though, not for a short-term visitor.” He laughed.
“Thanks.” Sam almost looked amused, Paul noted with relief as he stepped onto the porch and into the seat he had occupied before.
There were no other customers. The waiter reappeared, a beer and a lemonade in his hands. When Paul asked him if he had any meat dishes, the waiter replied that the beef was finished, but that there was a chicken. Paul ordered it, along with green beans and a salad.
“You’d best not eat any of the salad, but the green beans will be fine, as will the chicken,” he explained after he had translated the transaction. Sam nodded, though not paying close attention any longer; evidently, Paul thought, he had decided, sometime since the kids had surrounded him, just to do what he was told, for the moment, at least. “We’ll buy some bottled water in one of the Lebanese shops before we leave in the morning, to make sure you have something to drink in the taxi to Ouahiagouya—me, too.” He drained his glass and refilled it from the bottle. Sam watched him, sipping at lemonade he had poured in a glass he had rinsed in the manner Paul had shown him.
Paul was in no hurry to leave the restaurant after they had eaten, though he had finished off another beer and sat spinning on the table the coaster he’d been using to protect his drink from flies. Sam had merely picked at his beans and chicken while Paul had wolfed his food. There was still plenty in front of him, but it was clear it wasn’t going to be eaten—not at the table, at least. The beer was reasonably cold, though, and Paul could think of nothing else that he’d rather do than continue to drink it, so he raised his hand for the waiter and ordered another. Having no choice, Sam stayed with him, fingering his glass of lemonade and watching as Paul made his way through that bottle and then another still.
After a while, still curious as to why Paul had made him deal with the gendarmes, Sam asked about it. Paul, after all, had said he would explain further. What he had said earlier, hurriedly, just didn’t make that much sense.
“Oh, it’s not really important and I was probably over-reacting,” Paul responded to the question while wiping foam from the hair on his upper lip. “As I said, I wanted them to think of us as tourists, keeping us away from problems.”
“What sort? Could it cause us any problems to not be here as tourists?”
Paul laughed. “I hope not. Look, it really doesn’t matter what it was. Like I said, I was probably being a little over-cautious back there.”
“Well… ” Sam looked over at Paul for a moment, considered, and decided not to pursue it. They sat in silence, both feeling a little awkward.
Paul, finally, relented. “Look, if they had thought we were trying to get into Burkina Faso, they would have stopped us from getting here, would probably have taken us off the taxi and forced us to remain in Mopti. Look, I didn’t tell you this, but what we are doing is extremely irregular.”
“Well, I had had it with Mopti. You could have told me earlier, if this is risky. I would have come anyway. Probably.”
Paul nodded and reached for his beer. Sam turned his eyes back to the sky.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” he asked Paul after a while. He was starting to get bored, and wanted to get Paul talking about something, anything. The silence, from the town and at the table, was just too deep. And there was no one else around he could understand.
“I don’t really know.” Paul took another drink from his bottle before continuing, speaking slowly. “I came over four years ago to visit a girlfriend in Peace Corps and just stayed.”
“You must have some reason, something you are doing? What is your work?”
“I pick up things here and there. Occasional contracts with aid organizations. It doesn’t take much to get by here.”
“And that’s enough? There’s nothing you are trying to do, are aiming for?”“Just this.” Paul tapped the side of his now-empty bottle. He motioned to the waiter for a full one. “And more of it. Beer is my avocation.” He laughed and changed the subject.
[Chapter Eight can be found here.]