Losing the Center
In this chapter, Dublin, a student who has traveled to Africa to learn the meaning of life, is just getting to know his new home.
Losing the Center
The next few days passed out of memory as soon as they happened. With nothing to reference, Dublin’s mind could anchor only a few sounds and smells, feelings and sights. There were short taxi rides, and spectacular clothing, certain large baobab trees and rotting homes, the smell of gasoline and garbage. He tried to record some of his experiences on a micro cassette recorder, but on later review, they did little to color in the black and white line drawings of those first few days.
The first morning at the American Recreation Center, he left his comfortable room and walked down a hallway with lime green floor tiles to the yard, where there was a pool, tennis courts, and a man selling hamburgers and Snickers bars. The Center was rarely used; Togo’s golden years of tourism had atrophied with every violent election. A few Peace Corps Volunteers wandered in from time to time, some diplomats with their children on the weekends. A concrete wall surrounded the compound, topped by a line of broken glass to keep out intruders. Dublin had never seen anything like it. He wanted to try climbing over it.
After three days of drinking Cokes and writing journal entries, with no sign of the woman who had picked him up at the airport, Dublin asked the guard to find him a taxi. He had walked around the outside of the Center that morning but was intimidated by the stares he got. By mid afternoon he was feeling braver. He took the taxi down to the ocean to take a look around and found a hotel just off the beach that served sandwiches and cold beer. The rooms were small, but cheaper than those at the Center by a few dollars, so he decided to move. The guard at the Center warned him about wandering the beach after dark and wished him well.
Dublin had plenty of time to daydream at the hotel. A middle-aged man, half French and half Vietnamese, owned the hotel with his wife. She had given it the name Hotel Galion. They rented an empty lot across the street for live music on Saturday nights. Business was slow, despite clean rooms and incredible beef and carrot sandwiches for less than 1600 CFA.
There are 100 African francs for every French franc. There are five or six French francs to the dollar. Dublin had done the conversion wrong in his head at first. He thought cigarettes cost sixteen dollars per pack. I should quit, he thought. Then he realized they were only a quarter a pack. I should get some smokes, he reconsidered. Marlboros were more expensive, but he found British cigarettes for as little as fifteen cents. At that discovery, he felt like Columbus.
Nicotine would prove essential for him there. Many moments call for tobacco, and he was determined to conquer every single one. Besides, he was too young to appreciate the costs of tobacco. He classified his entire experience in Africa as a special occasion, his loophole for smoking whenever the voice told him to quit. He had lots of literary evidence backing him up. Ayn Rand had written something about the fire of imagination invoking itself in the ember at the end of a cigarette, just inches from the human mind. How can the case for smoking be broken with such powerful advocacy?