In this chapter, Dublin spends the first night in Burkina Faso with the Norwegians, drinking and philosophizing.
Drinking with Alcoholic Norwegians
The group coasted into Ouaga well after dark. It had been quiet in the countryside as Dublin watched it go by with the window down. At night, the air was cool enough to clear the sweat away from his forehead, and he wondered if even this slight change in latitude made a difference in the temperature. By the time they reached the city, the Peugeot’s gauge hadn’t registered any gas for nearly an hour, and everyone in the car stayed quiet to focus their energies on moving the car forward for as long as possible. It whispered to a stop just outside the Hotel Proletariat. David went inside to check on rates and was back out 30 seconds later.
“Proletariat my ass! These rates are for kings and their mistresses! We go now.” Dublin sighed and got back in the car while David mumbled through the rest of his tirade. The engine wouldn’t turn over, and it took them a few minutes before remembering they had run out of gas. David pounded the steering wheel with the flat of his hand and cursed in ancient Scandinavian. Dublin actually smiled. Norwegians had funny letters in their swear words. Vegard and Dublin got out and pushed the car up onto the sidewalk with David still in the driver’s seat. He wouldn’t help out with the steering or the brake, and Vegard had to run up to the car and push down on David’s knee before the car crashed through a closed clothing store.
“Afraid I would rip a shirt, mon ami?” David laughed. Vegard whispered something into his ear, and he climbed through the window of the car and opened the trunk. “Don’t just stand there, American Boy! We have to find a hotel! No stopping. Head up. Shoulders back.” They took as much luggage as they could carry from the car and started off. David ran back and kissed the 504 on the rear bumper.
Eight blocks and a pee on the street later, they found the perfect hotel. There was a patio bar out front that seemed to take up more space than the hotel itself, and David proudly proclaimed that he had led them to the promised land. Rooms were cheap. Five nights. And are there showers? Yes, messieurs. Good. The Norwegians told Dublin to meet them downstairs at the bar for a drink, and maybe they’d go out after. One beer, one beer, then bed. They whined. Dublin submitted.
His room was at the end of the hallway and tiny, with only a bed and a desk as furniture. There was a tiny shower in the corner with no curtain, and he guessed the only toilet in the hotel was downstairs. With a sigh, he unpacked his belongings onto the desk and the floor and stared at them. A drop of sweat fell onto his journal, and he wiped it across his stomach.
He turned on the shower, testing it for hot water. Of course there wasn’t any. He wanted a cold shower anyway, but wished he could ease into it so it didn’t shock. Certain parts of his body drew in closer. His ears began to chatter.
Dublin could actually see the mahogany of Burkina dust swirling into the drain as he rinsed off. He thought and thought under his little rented waterfall, and stayed beneath it until the water that ran from his head was cool.
No towel. He got lost in his thoughts again as he dripped in the shower.
No towel. He started thinking of something else, and dripped.
No towel. He was mostly dry, except between his toes. His fingertips had prune-wrinkled in the shower. With a deep breath, he finally stepped out and glanced at his backpack. No reason to get dressed yet. He sat down at the desk and opened his journal. It had already been almost two weeks since his last entry. He picked up his pen deliberately and thought for another moment or two before writing.
Thursday, 27 February, 1998 10:56 pm. Ouagadougou
I am sitting at a small wooden desk in a small hotel room in the city of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. This is not a lie. It is, as far as I can tell with however many senses I have, Reality. Sitting with me at the desk is a large bottle of warm Burkina beer, a clock, a puka shell necklace, a lighted cigarette, fifteen thousand CFA francs, a book of Kangaroo matches, and a handkerchief. I am freshly showered and naked.
I am wondering about romanticism. I believe there are people who, should they be in precisely the same time and space environment as I am, would accept it as, well, ordinary. I am romanticizing it. I don’t believe I am here. I do not feel the impact of the idea in my soul.
Will there come a time when I feel ready? Will the time come when I can act with security and confidence that yes, I am here, and I am ready? I am ready. Still soft, not ready.
He wiped his forehead and closed the journal after reading what he had just written. The shower dew had already begun its transmutation into sweat. He lifted one butt cheek off the wooden chair and listened to it stick. Then the other one. He went back and forth until he got tired of it. He wondered when it would rain.
Some daydreams came and went, and Dublin looked around startled when he awoke from them with his head in the palm of his hand. The clock hands had moved fifteen minutes without him noticing. Sneaky African clocks. He wasn’t ready to go, but he knew David and Vegard were waiting.
“I’m never ready,” he breathed into a polyester shirt as he pulled it over his head. Vegard walked into the room without knocking.
“Ready to go?”
“Good. We got the last of the open tables in the bar. Come down.” Vegard slipped into the hallway and pulled the door slowly closed behind him. It needed oil.
Dublin looked down and realized he hadn’t put on his pants yet. He looked toward the closed door and wondered why Vegard didn’t say anything. Maybe that’s normal in Norway, he thought. He shrugged his shoulders and pulled on the only pair of pants he’d brought, still dusty from driving. After another glance at his journal entry, he felt disgusted with himself. He didn’t write again for a long time.
“There’s our boy! All clean and grown up and ready to drink with men!” David said, smirking. Dublin almost took it the wrong way.
“Yes, he’s an entire man, now,” Vegard added, and they snickered. “We have beer for you. It’s terrible. You must drink three of these to catch up.”
“Oh, I don’t feel much like drinking a whole lot tonight. You know, I’m tired from the trip and everything.”
“Yes, I used to be tired too when I was a little boy. But I got over it and fucking drank so I could someday be a man.”
“But it never really happened,” Vegard said shaking his head.
“No, no it never really happened,” agreed David. “More beer, perhaps.” He snapped his fingers and whistled.
“Is there a waitress?” Dublin asked him.
“Well, who are you trying to call?”
“The beer! It’s made by Africans, and it should damn well serve itself. They’re all servants over here.”
“OK, David,” Vegard sighed.
“You know, David, imperialism is so old-fashioned, even for Europeans,” Dublin said smirking. Vegard giggled.
“Immaturity is too long embraced by some, but I don’t throw a shoe over it,” David countered. He snapped his fingers again. “Beer, come!” Dublin stood up and walked to the bar. He returned with three liters of Star.
“That’s good for you,” Vegard said, clasping his hands together, “but couldn’t you have gotten us a bottle while you were up?”
“No, these two are for you,” he said, handing them over.
“What did I say about catching up? You can’t drink just one of these horrible potions. You’ll hate yourself. You have to get three of them going all at once, drinking from each bottle, or you’ll suffer terribly. I’ll go.”
David returned in short order with eight more bottles of beer. He set five of them in front of Dublin, who already had one, and drank one of the others before sitting down. Much of it ended up in spots and streaks on his T-shirt.
“Wait for it,” Vegard sighed.
David erupted into belching. The accent was distinctly European, not like Monday Night Football beer burps or the rumblings of a post-apocalyptic Thanksgiving that Dublin was used to. It was musty like Welsh castles and deep as the trenches in Alsace. David held one hand to his belly during the chorus before flopping into his chair with a bemused satisfaction littering his face.
“So, my friend,” he continued during the aftershocks of his beer “tell me, what do you want to do here?”
“No, I know what you’ll do in Burkina. You’ll drink the volume of the Dead Sea in hops, lose sleep, watch funky films by indigenous wackos and catch malaria. By the way, if you drink enough beer, you can keep the mosquitoes away.”
“That’s not true, is it?”
“Yes. I never lie to strangers. The mosquitos become drunk and forget to lay malaria maggots before they stagger off to some mucky pond.”
“I have started a band called Astroburger. We will be well-known in four years. I think you would like them, since you are a thinking man.”
“How’s your beer?”
“Then drink faster. Faster. It’s like a bad relationship. If you are a boyfriend to some girl that’s dumb or ugly, spend as much time with her as possible, until it ends. That way, when it’s over, it’s over.” Dublin slapped his arm. A dead mosquito bled on him with its legs spread.
“If you don’t spend a lot of time with someone who is unattractive to you, you’ll end up lingering around them. They don’t make you sick enough or bored enough to leave them. You must see them day and night, to keep from letting things carry on too long.”
“I don’t remember where we got the name, from bourbon or something, but Han made the Astroburger logo out of clay just before we left. We’ll have it on the next album cover. This one won’t sell, and neither will the one after that. Then we’ll change our sound radically, maybe more electronic. Britain will like us and then we’ll do the United States and bus around with virgins and balloons of nitrous.”
“Every child has a dream, I guess.”
“You can get anything you want, little boy. Just take it. People will hand over almost anything if they think you’re important. Look at Congress.”
Dublin fumbled for a cigarette. He needed an out, even a little one. Vegard, the quiet one, didn’t bother him at all. He wished he would talk more, in fact. Might take a little of the edge off of David.
Blue smoke, in and out. Light through brown glass. David’s words tumbled around the crowded bottles on the table. Most of them were emptying nicely. An hour, maybe more. Boredom bordering on anxiety.
The drinking helped.
Something to the right of Dublin had been tugging at his attention for awhile, and he finally looked during a break from David’s omniscience. There was a man, skinny and lighter-skinned than most West Africans, spreading batiks over the low walls of the bar patio. They were not blue.
He’d learned, from his first day in the market, that the shade of ink in a batik helped determine its value. Blue and violet batiks were for tourists. They showed elephants and djembes and villages. Africa for the white. Dublin stood up in the middle of a sentence from David.
“Are you listening little boy?”
“No.” He pushed his chair in. Vegard stood up and followed him over to the batik artist.
“I know what you want to know,” the artist said to Dublin, smiling gently.
“Do I make these batiks? Yes. I make all of them. Take a look, and see why I am fulfilling my destiny.”
World travel, it should be noted, is a hell of a cure for the tedium of meeting boring people.
Dublin turned over the corners of stacked batiks, holding up handfuls of them at a time to take a closer look at the really good ones. The man mixed burning dark yellows with greens from dead seaweed choking itself on the beach, brown and red from tree bark chewed to death by termites. There were portraits of old men huddled next to chairs, stars in the desert, an open door in a shabby home. He went through them knowing there would be just one for him. Patiently, patiently.
Vegard walked back to the table to warm up with his beer.
Sometimes Dublin asked the artist a question. He gave kind, whole answers in turn while Dublin folded and flipped and waited, staying with one, another. The night grew more night-like, longer and more quiet and thick.
A man and a woman’s face, hers turned away, hovering over large hands holding each other and an oval-shaped fruit with a large yellow seed. It was the most beautiful expression of reluctant love that Dublin had ever seen. Hesitant, but love nevertheless. The faces were almost featureless, but Dublin felt a permanence in their affection for each other, despite the turned head.
“I will not tell you what it means,” said the artist, squatting on the ground a few feet away. “You will tell yourself what it means.”
“I think it has to do with love, and I see…I don’t know.”
“Don’t tell me. Tell yourself. Tell yourself tonight and tomorrow and in seven years. Tell yourself and show it to your friends so they can whisper to themselves. It’s easy.”
“I can’t tell you. Everything is priceless and worthless when borne by the heart. Give me some money, what you think is right. There is no price. Pay for the ink, the cloth. Give my heart some peace of mind, a reward. It feels good. But there is no price.”
Warm, nighttime air moved in and out of Dublin’s mouth as he thought. Breath in, breath out. Wonderful. For a moment, he was happy. Happier than he had been at Chez Alice, happier than he had been when he was half asleep and bounced by potholes into car window glass. He reached into his pocket and gave money to the artist without counting it. The man was right. There was no price. Not knowing how much he gave kept the idea true.
“Should I frame this? Keep it safe?”
“Fold it. Hang it on walls. Cover a small table. Wrap your baby in it. Just have it. It doesn’t matter what you do. Just remember to look at it.” Silence for a few moments more together, then Dublin stood up and folded the batik over his arm. He said goodbye and returned to his friends in the bar.
David held two empty quart bottles of Star in his hands. He peered at Dublin through his glasses.
“What the hell have you done?”
“I bought this.”
“Well, I bought beer, and look what it’s done for me. How much did you pay?”
“I don’t know.”
“Hmm. You’d better learn the conversion rate, rookie, or you’ll be had for ten dollars on a bottle of water. Make sure you drink plenty of bottled water, by the way.”
Vegard stood up.
“What?” David said with his head turned up to his companion.
“Sleep, brother. And sleep, brother,” he said to Dublin. “Let’s to bed. We have films and the rest of a day to live through tomorrow. The beer will be cold when we wake up, and it will be cold after dinner. It’s the end of a night.” David clinked the two empty bottles together in a toast to himself and his diligence in consumption and stood up.
Dublin eyed the bottles still in front of him, searching for one at least a third full, something drinkable.
“It’s over, little boy. Go dream now, maybe about naked breasts and sweaty backs. We’ll get you for eggs.”
That was it. The end of a night and a day. Dublin climbed the stairs to his room and slid into his linens. Thirty or so minutes passed before he wriggled out of his shirt and pants. He turned on his side and watched the moonlight bathe his new batik before striking out for sleep.
In this chapter, Dublin wakes up the morning after his night with the Peace Corps Volunteers and meets two Norwegian travelers exploring Africa.
Hitchhiking with Alcoholic Norwegians
It was one of those mornings when the mind slowly, unwittingly, begins to pay attention to the sounds around it. Dublin’s eyes weren’t on board yet, but his ears were tracking and identifying the morning noises from the rest of the house. He heard the distinctive wet chime of orange juice glasses, sandal soles scraping up the dust off the stone floors, voices murmuring through sleepiness, and finally a shout from the front porch: “God I am freaking hungover!” Dublin laughed and crawled out from his borrowed sleeping bag. He walked barefoot into the bathroom and cleaned his mouth with his finger and somebody’s toothpaste and walked out to the front porch.
There were half a dozen volunteers stretched out in deck chairs, shielding their eyes from the bright and already scorching sun. Three of them sipped on a Bloody Mary from a fishbowl. Dublin sneezed from the scent of celery salt and hot sauce.
“Santé,” one of the girls said from underneath a cold towel draped over her face.
She took the towel off her face. “What’s your name again?”
“Oh, that’s right,” she smiled. “You were sleeping on the floor in the living room.”
Dublin smiled back and sat down on the steps with his back turned to everybody. He lit a cigarette.
“Oh, fuck vodka, and fuck all things that make me want to die!” A man screamed, walking onto the porch. Dublin looked up and saw a pudgy half-naked man with splotches of hair all over his tummy. He was scratching his head and ass at the same time. The volunteers fidgeted in their chairs. One of them got up and made room for him. Vodka Man was joined by a thin dark-haired fellow and Jason, who both sat down on the deck.
“David, Vegard, meet my friend Dublin, also from Lomé. He’ll be coming with us.” Dublin put out his hand to the thin man, who shook his head in time with the fat one.
“Coming with us?”
“Yeah, these guys are gonna take us up to Ouagadougou. They’re going straight through. It would take us another day or so to get to Ouaga by taxi or looking for a ride. We can get there in eight hours now. And there’s plenty of room for us. Get ready to go.”
Dublin’s backside already hurt from the elegant network of potholes in the Togo highway system. His mind switched back and forth from the pain down there to the one in his ears. The two Norwegians’ mouths never stopped, and they were filled with bubbling ignorance that delivered pounds of heavy oatmeal into Dublin’s head.
A little extravagant, maybe, but that’s how it felt.
The countryside delivered itself into Eden the closer they got to Dapaong in the north country. They were in the land of the Kabiyé now, “the dog-eaters,” Jason had told them. David cussed out Africa and named the exploits of Togolese cuisine. “And do you know,” he said, looking over his shoulder, “I saw some ten year old kid carrying a carcass through the market in Sokodé? I don’t even know what kind of animal it was. I saw ribs and blood and blue eyes that begged me for help. What the hell kind of people buy carcasses and bring them home for dinner? ‘Oh, look, kids, I found a real nice dead animal body for dinner tonight. Help me cut its ears off.’ Norway is more civilized. But the women aren’t as easy. That’s why I’m in a band. I make good money working for my daddy, but not enough for whores.”
The whole time he spoke, Dublin watched the road in front of them, wincing at potholes and dangerous swerves. David drove by watching the road behind them, and his turns were a little over two seconds late. The car tore up the scrubs on the side of the road.
After a hundred minutes in a hundred degree day and a hundred potholes and a hundred bad jokes about prostitutes and cripples and dead animals, Dublin finally fell asleep.
He woke up with his face stuck to the window where he’d drooled. His head hurt from knocking against the glass. Jason and David had gotten out of the car, and Vegard was asleep in the passenger seat. It had gotten hotter, and Dublin felt a change in the air, that it was somehow drier, which seemed impossible. This was the utopia of desert, empty of rain and river, empty even of sweat and saline. Dublin wiped the sleeping goop off his lips.
After a good stretch, he walked towards the building the others were standing in front of. A sign above the blue front door read “Douanes.” They were at the border.
“How long was I asleep?” Dublin asked Jason as he approached the building.
“Oh, I don’t know, four hours or so. I don’t know how you could sleep on that highway. We talked the whole time. I’m surprised we didn’t wake you up.”
“Yeah, me too.” He looked around and saw two other cars at the customs station. “What’s going on? Are we waiting for something?”
“Well, they’re trying to tell us to walk off the edge of the fucking planet is what’s going on,” David said with all his grace. “They say we don’t have the proper visas to go into Burkina. I’ve been talking to them. It’s almost time to take out the cash.”
“Why didn’t you just give them money in the first place?”
“Because I wasn’t put on this planet to be a pushover. I have to give them a good fight before I inevitably give in. What kind of person do you think I am? Some weakling?” Dublin didn’t know how to talk to this man. He wished he could get drunk. Living in Africa was like going through puberty again, a mental and emotional growth spurt that made everything uncomfortable.
“It’s hot out here,” Dublin thought out loud.
“You’re damn right it’s hot out here! Someone should tell them to move the continent a little farther north. They could park it next to Norway. Only the fishers would notice. And it’s not like anyone from Russia would care. They have enough to think about. I could piss out the Russian GDP after a good night of vodka drinking.”
“Well, can we get going? It’s really, really hot. I mean, isn’t that Burkina Faso right on the other side of that checkpoint? Wouldn’t it be nice if we were over there right now, cruising down the highway to the capital to see a film festival and get a beer and somewhere to sleep? Get your wallet out and let’s go!”
“Holy shit, American boy. I guess you weren’t put here to be a pussy either! All right, I’ll pay the man, but no more yelling until I get whiskey in me. I don’t know how to handle conflict. I’m still very young.” He winked at Dublin and made a throwing-up face at Jason and turned on his heels.
They heard bells.
Dublin started walking like a man who’d just found water in the desert. Well, he was, sort of. The bells were attached to the bicycle of a Fanmilk man who had an ice chest of frozen yogurt perched on the handlebars. He was, surely, the most admired man in the region. God could not deliver you from thirst, but Fanmilk could.
Dublin’s palms got sweaty when he saw the man had chocolate Fanyogo with him. Nobody carried that in Lomé. If he walked down to Bordertown just blocks from his house, he could hear the Fanmilk vendors on the Ghana side shout out “Chocolate!” It must been what the wall was like for Berliners, listening to Westerners calling out “Democracy!”
Dublin ate so fast he didn’t bother to stop and wipe the chocolate off his chin. David bought four and ate them all underneath the baobab tree whose shade they shared. Vegard was slumped over the dashboard, drooling onto the vinyl. He didn’t wake up when they all slammed the car doors to cross into Burkina.
David waved his middle finger and smiled at the two border guards, who watched the old Peugeot 504 pass and kick up dust, fanning their faces with the francs David gave them. When the car was gone, the guards glanced at the Fanmilk man and the trash the travelers had left under the baobab tree before heading back into the border station.