Sunday, April 18, 2010

Prague: Getting Wasted

I had always believed that swinging on a chandelier was a saying; something only done in metaphor. It's such a bizarre Tarzanian feat that even though the phrasing is as ordinary as any cliché no real person could be that nutsy-gutsy. And then there are the logistical problems: How do you get up there? When do you let go? How do you keep the thin metal chain from snapping in two or the ceiling from collapsing in on you?
Myself, I've swung on my fair share of rope-swings, memorizing the sensation of the parabola's focus; learning to let go at the exact moment that would maximize one's flight time. But I'm also well versed in the hazards. My second day on Kauai I sprained my ankle so bad crashing down into shallow water that I was out of commission for the rest of the trip. Perhaps a chandelier strung up over the deep end of a pool might be swingable, but you can't count on such an unlikely placement for this most elegant of lighting fixtures. Surely "to swing on a chandelier" couldn't be based in reality.
My copy of Young Torless crammed under my arm, I left my hotel that first morning in Prague to seek out a quiet place to enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry. I was traveling alone this time, unburdened by busy American friends who always seemed to want to visit every museum, every castle, every point of interest mentioned in their guidebooks. I was determined to enjoy the city from its peaceful sidelines, appearing to the untrained eye to be nothing more than a local.
This book required the perfect spot. I'd only pretended to read it in my former life as an English major, and I believed I owed it to my degree to finish the dry, unheard of and somehow influential text. So I scoped out the cafe situation. Nope, that cafe won't do: too busy. That one over there? Too quiet. Too beautiful, too quaint, too charming. I was turning into Goldilocks; a ditzy blonde wandering around someone else's home judging all their stuff as unsuitable. I stopped, frowned at Torless and agreed that the next cafe would be the one.
So I strolled into the Irish pub, ordered a pint of Guinness, and broke out my novel, staring intently down at it from my usual position, tucked into the last barstool against the wall. Behind me, seated on long wooden benches around a table a raucous group of Welsh men had already started to sing an unintelligible drinking song at the top of their lungs. It must have been, like, ten in the morning.
I turned the page after the appropriate amount of time had passed, eavesdropping with all my heart on the six young men behind me. Or, at least, I was trying to eavesdrop because it was impossible to understand a word they were saying. It took about twenty minutes of pretending to read before the band manager sidled up next to me.
Wasted isn't nearly a strong enough term. Eyes crossed, he shouted, inches from my face, "Thas myband. Dyu wanna joinis?"
I was seated between the bassist and one of the roadies before he hit the question mark.
Somewhere between the third round of Jaeger and the fourth of Guinness it happened. The drummer, a man only known by the large North American animal he'd adopted as his name, jumped up onto the table. His long, emaciated frame fit his heavy metal persona perfectly and, shouting something about dead, he launched himself from the table to the chandelier, ten feet above us. All eyes locked onto him despite it being it the fourth quarter of a World Cup match. He swung with the practiced grace of an aerial acrobat, and released his grip on the chandelier to land atop the bar. I couldn't decide whether to hold up an Olympic score card or find some way to distance myself from this unruly group of foreigners. The last thing I needed was to get myself arrested on my first day in Europe.
When he began to dance, I slid under the table and fled to the bathroom.
By the time I'd returned, the band had been ejected. I crawled back to my seat, head spinning with booze, feeling that I needed to sober up a bit before trying to figure out first: where am I, and second: how do I get back to my hotel.
It was midday by then and the bar was packed. The stools and small tables were all taken up, and it wasn't long before new arrivals to the pub slid onto the long benches beside me. I scooted over at one point to accommodate a friendly Italian man that had just wandered in. I tried to say a few words to him, but he shrugged indicating that he didn't speak English.
The Italian ordered a beer and opened his coat, revealing a crumpled brown paper bag. Waiting for his drink, he unwrapped the package and held it out to me to sample first. Inside was a large container of semi-dried long-stemmed mushrooms. I knew the variety well, and immediately shot up one hand, shaking my head, no. That was a recipe for disaster.
He shrugged and dug in. I got up to get a refill on my water, losing the illusion that my head had begun to clear the moment I stood up.
By the time I returned, the Italian had finished his snack. I snuck a glance over in his direction. He had eaten every bit of a 12oz container of psychedelic fungi. I turned my attention to the new soccer match on the TV and waited for the copious amount of water I was downing to thin out the alcohol in my blood.
More bar patrons arrived. We squeezed closer together. Out of nowhere, the Italian turned to face me; he didn't have far to turn.
"Mia fotographica!"
His eyes flashed. His breath wrapped around my head like a smothering scarf. I fell back against a French couple but his fingers had clasped tight around the edges of my shirt and he pulled me back against his face.
"Mia macchina fotographica."
"I don't speak Italian."
"Mia fotographica! Mia fotographica!"
He kept pulling me closer, though there was no closer to be. My fingernails dug into the wooden bench, scraping holes in the wood in my effort to pull away.
"Dove è elasticità."
His grip was like iron. I wasn't going anywhere but closer to his wild eyes and white flashing teeth.
"No," I began to plead, "No I don't have your camera. No photo-camera."
He had me by the hair, pulling me out of the booth, out of the bar, out of the safety of the crowd, who should have been coming to my rescue by then. Come on French couple, are you really going to let this drugged-out lunatic kill me right in front of you.
"Mia fotographica! Essa a me!" He let out a low growl, like a grizzly bear, and lifted me the rest of the way off my seat, throwing me towards the door.
It was his friends who came to my rescue. Two of them accosted him from behind, gasping each of his arms in two of theirs, holding him fast but leaving him snarling all too close to me, an attack dog on a leash.
"He says you have his camera."
"Mia fotographica."
"I don't have his camera."
"Mia fotographica."
"He says you do."
"He's on mushrooms."
"Yeah, he ate like a whole box of them."
The Italian man who had been talking to me turned now to his deranged friend and said something to him in their language. He turned to me again. "I think he left it in the hotel."
"Can you tell him that?"
"He does not believe me. He says you stole it."
"But you believe me?"
He shrugged.
I looked up at the chandelier, wondering if I could use it to swing to safety.
"I don't have his camera," I whispered.
He shrugged again.
Nobody moved, so I took a tentative step backwards, toward the door. Another.
In a moment I found myself out in the crisp air of freedom and I didn't look back.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Kenya: Getting Hungry?

Rats do not like pepper spray.
Growing up in the sterile shine of a stainless-steel suburban society, rats were never the odious underworld creatures of dark subconscious fear. No, rats were whiskery playmates with hilariously large balls. They entertained us for hours with their surprising intelligence and we would sneak them to school in our coat pockets, passing them back and forth under our desks with sticky hands.
Cockroaches once shared a similar dismissal from the realm of the repulsive. Though never cute or pet-like, roaches were not loathsome. We remained cordial.
"It's just a beetle," I told my new roommate as I trapped the first living roach I'd ever seen under a pint glass and tossed him out into the yard.
But he returned and invited his friends and they invited theirs and the compassion I once believed I felt for all creatures slipped away. I developed a pathological bloodlust for the insects and for the pop of a soft body squeezing out through an exoskeleton. Nights find me creeping like a ninja through my darkened kitchen, dual-wielding bug spray. I slam on the lights and open fire on the fleeing legions that flicker across my granite countertop. I watch them twitch upside-down. I witness each death with a grim unbreakable gaze. They're more afraid of me than I am of them, I've always heard.
They should be.
My first night on the African continent and my dreams had come unhinged. The malaria pills hauled a series of inane images before my closed eyes. I could not fight the lunacy. When I woke, which was frequent, the dreams refused to fade and in the darkness of the room the man with the elephant trunk still stood before me, reaching out for me with his proboscis like a sex offender.
I shifted between sleeping and waking dreams in a feverish state. Rex, a friend who had graciously offered to let me stay with him, slept on, blissfully unaware of the plethora of sideshow freaks that paraded through my vision. I placed my hand against his back and drifted back to sleep.
In my dream, I lay on a plate on the surface of a thick, red ocean, clicking my fingernails against the porcelain. There was no rhythm to my song: click click click-click scratch click-clack. A deep instinct stirred within me; this was no dream-scape sound. The clicking came from somewhere in the wild African-Out-There.
I shot up, fully awake and the hallucinations evaporated. The click-scratch-tick-clunk continued on from somewhere beyond the ring of mosquito netting.
"What's that?" The words erupted from my throat.
Rex turned over onto his face. He was not a light sleeper.
"Rex." I brought my hand down against his thigh. He swatted me back. "Rex!" This time louder; a more forceful smack.
"What is that sound? "
He listened into the darkness. My fingers squeezed around his arm. I was glad to have this strong, savvy, valiant specimen lying only a few inches away. Through his extensive Peace Corps training, Rex would have learned how to fight off hungry leopards and what to do in case of attack by giant Sub-Saharan spiders. They would have taught him these things. He would know.
We listened. The noises did not subside and even though I was fully grown, the only creature I could imagine making all of those sounds was one with long clacking yellow claws and grinding, irregular teeth. It crept around the outside of the hut and sniffed and snarled at us through the banana-leaf roof. Unearthly.
Still we listened.
No, Rex had fallen back asleep.
"Rex," I hissed, "What is that sound?"
I poked my finger into his eye. I was fast-tracking my expulsion from his bed.
Rex did his best to disentangle himself from the wild claws and gnashing teeth I had become. I was all fear. "Rats," he grumbled at last, throwing me to the far side of the bed and promptly falling back asleep.
Beyond the soft ring of mosquito netting, my headlamp dangled off the edge of the nightstand. I reached one shaky hand past the netted safe-zone and pulled it over to me, illuminating at first only the world encapsulated by white cloth. Bravely, audaciously, without pants, I exited the bed and turned the corner into the kitchen.
Dozens of flat, black eyes turned for a moment to meet my gaze. The sticky, nauseous rush of adrenaline oozed out from my pores. The rats stared unblinking and then returned to their task of lifting the lid from the pot and scooping out handfuls of our leftovers. Rex had promised them to me for breakfast. The rats would dine first.
One large male strolled lazily across the room, dragging his testicles over the same floor I stood on with my bare feet. Two leaps returned me to the bed and shuddering, I tried to burrow under Rex. I preferred the imaginary monster that lurked around the edge of my mind.
In the morning, we discovered the large pot on its side, covered with greasy rat-prints. They hadn't left any breakfast for us, but we would have passed regardless. Scooping up the pot and portioning out only the tiniest droplet of soap, Rex rinsed the rat feet away. Were it my house and my kitchenware, the thing would have been declared infected and discarded in the dumpster. It had permanent rat cooties. Circle-circle, dot-dot wasn't cutting it.
Rex teased me and invented ways to make me jump. I wasn't displeased to see him off to work and I headed out into the village on my own. But everywhere I saw rat-shaped shadows. They followed me into the shops, their button-eyes staring pupiless out from behind wooden masks. They invited themselves along for lunch, dining just beyond the reach of my peripheral vision. At a liquor store I bought a fifth of vodka and a can of mace.
I was already drunk when Rex came home. He tried to regale me with stories of humanitarian projects but I heard only the squeaking of rodents. At dinner I stirred my food without bringing it to my lips. At bedtime I lay rigid on top of the sheet.
The malaria pills kicked in and conjured up beasts equipped with buckteeth and snaking worm-tails. I rolled onto my side, still wearing my headlamp, feverishly clutching my pepper spray. I wanted to leave: cross the border and on to my Kilimanjaro climb. Surely the rats would not find me there.
I must have dozed off for I awoke once again to tiny fingernails scraping against the dinner I lacked the courage or sense of propriety to choke down. Rex had his head under the pillow. I switched on my lamp and stole away, this time armored with socks against the rat-testicle-defiled floor.
There they were, two of them only: a young female, and Big-Balls himself. He looked at me, curling his black lips back into a snarl. She worked on the lid, this time held down by a large leather-bound atlas. I drew forth my pepper spray. The rat turned away and resumed his examination of this new puzzle.
"Go away," I warned. It was only fair.
He turned back to me once more but did not withdraw.
I maced the rat. I don't know what I expected to happen. Perhaps that he would slink away into the night, his floozy girlfriend following. Perhaps that he would flip over to his back like the roaches, legs twitching for a minute as his brain misfired in the last throes of death.
But the rat let out a pit-bull-sized snarl and shook his face at me, his teeth glinting in the beam from my torch, his eyes point singularities sucking me in. I maced him again, but still he came towards me, spitting, frothing, nearly breathing fire. I let him back me up in an arc until I was only inches away from the girl rat who seemed to shake her head sadly at me as if she knew. What had I done? I swept the book off the top of the pot and grabbed the lid but its handle, holding it out in front of me to shield my naked legs from the steady advance of the rat.
I sprayed him again; he lunged. I deflected his attack with a side swipe of my shield, sending him flying across the room, and used the opportunity to dive back into the bed.
Rex spoke to me from beneath the pillow. "Let's get you a hotel for tomorrow night, okay?"