Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mozambique, Getting Localized

“What time does the bus leave?” I ask, first in English, then in Portuguese.

The woman behind the counter shrugs. “You want a ticket?”

The bus depot at the entrance to the market.

She hands a scrap of paper to me through the open window. My misspelled name and the number 3 are written on it. This is my ticket. No one will ever ask to see it. “Yellow bus. Over there.”

I follow the direction she’s pointing in and see that my backpack is already climbing aboard—so much of my time travelling is spent chasing after my luggage.

Splashing through the sloppy grey muck into the barefoot crowd, I follow my bag. When I reach the bus, the driver holds open the passenger door for me.

“Please,” he indicates, offering the coveted shotgun seat, “Please, it is raining.”

“What time do we leave?” They strap my backpack to the roof, covering it up cozy under a waterproof tarp next to a basket of chickens.

He shrugs as well. “When the bus is full.”

I never get a straight answer about how many tickets there are left to sell. We could be waiting on one; we could be waiting on sixteen. We could be waiting here in the gray marketplace all day and into tomorrow. A wait of no less than an hour (and probably no less than five) seems likely, so I wander off into the muck in search of something to eat.

This isn’t my first time in this town. The gloomy streets carry a familiarity; a sense of coming home. I’d arrived in the country a month earlier and set up camp for the first time on the other side of that big red and white building. This was where I first braved street food (it was midnight, I was wasted) and where I slid behind some boxes and into some benevolent stranger’s home to watch the football match on an eight inch black and white TV. I’d felt welcomed here. I couldn’t have picked a better jumping off point for this strange new land. Perfect but for the mud.
That red and white building, there.

It doesn’t often go a day without rain in this part of the country. It’s a cold misty rain, too, like back home on the ever wintery slopes of Mauna Kea. Neither the vibrant paint slapped up on leaning shacks nor the eclectic cloth the women wrapped themselves in could put a dent in the gray. When it rained, the colors melted.

I try to find the hole in the wall I ate at last month, the one with spicy, boiled egg soup. I remember giving directions to a friend who’d lingered in the market that day: “Walk towards the hotel. Okay. Now, look for a green door. No, there isn’t a name. There’s no sign. A green door, yes. Turn into the alley and come in through the opening in the wall. Okay, I see you.” How had I even stumbled inside?

Up and down the familiar foreign street I walk and yet no sign of soup. I slip inside another unmarked restaurant and order up a bowl of what they have.

I call the waitress-chef-owner-mother back once more. “And a beer?”

She laughs at me, a strange woman drinking alone, and happily delivers what I need to fend off the rain.

To say that time does not exist in this place is incorrect. There is a rhythm to life here that escapes me because I am too stupidly dependent on a watch to tick the seconds of my life away. Technology has superseded my heartbeat.

I sit and eat a bowl of rice, dipping into my small allotment beans every few bites. I try to slow down to Africa Time as I do on every visit to this continent. The beer helps. It dulls the sharp edges of my otherness.

From somewhere deep within me: How long has it been? I should check on the bus.

Relax. You’re on Africa Time now. Have another beer.
It really does taste good.

I listen to the second set of instructions and ponder the cookbook I’ll write for my favorite chef back at home. I even snap a few photos of the meal in between swigs of beer.

It strikes me as odd that a people so small in stature should only bottle alcohol in extra-large, village-sized containers. Are they hiding giants?

Beside me, a young man about my age starts chattering in English. How many houses do I own? How many cars? How many servants do I have? How much money do I make? The myth that American streets are paved with gold persists. It’s our own fault: tourists arrive, reach into magical pockets and pull out handfuls of money and candy and pens: wizardry.

I ask him to teach me the names of the animals and he laughs uproariously each time I try. He could be telling me the words wrong, telling me that the word for leopard is lion or suitcase or sex, but I think he just sees it as yet another magic trick. Step right up, step right up, fifty cents to view the woman with white skin who speaks Swahili. Genuine, real live, Swahili speaking American.

What time is it?


I take his picture; show it to him. He wants me to come back and give him a copy. I lie and tell him I’ll try.

Finally, full to the brim with two beers that equal five, I slosh my way back outside, spilling lager from my joints.

The bus has left.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Kiribati: Getting Back

Hector is an SUV: sporty, tough, powerful and a fuel-guzzler. He gulps his power drink by the gallon and seems to keep going strong no matter how much of the hard stuff he has in his system. Shot for shot he has no rival. Hector is either drinking or sleeping.
I turned to reply but he was gone.

I teetered atop my stool, empty basket of shark tacos still in front of me. Cannon fire  blasted across the midline of my brain. The heat and the hangover played tricks on my eyes, splitting the Mai Tai before me into two wavering cups of alcohol.

“You’d better catch up,” Hector chastised, sucking down his own second drink and heading off to pee in the ocean, still wrapped in the bloodstained sail.

There really were two drinks sitting before me.

“You’ve really done some job on that boat,” announced the man who mounted the stool next to mine. It was the same gold-skinned beach-frolicker Hector and I had tried to flag down that morning while we drifted helplessly in the center of a pack of sharks. The man’s skin glowed through the fabric of his white swim shorts and I did my best to pretend I couldn’t see the shadow of his penis through them. Once you’ve noticed a penis, it’s all but impossible to unnotice it.

I picked up the Mai Tai with a renewed interest, both for the something it gave me to do with my hands and the excuse to stare down into it. “I don’t know what happened,” I said into the ice cubes, sneaking a quick leftward glance (yup, that’s his penis), “It’s hard to remember yesterday.”

His laugh was a quick burst of sound so loud it made me jump. “Ha! You don’t know how you busted your mast in half? Crack! Straight through! Pow!”

“Nope,” I replied. Was there a clearly marked escape route? Last thing I needed with this headache was to get trapped in a conversation that utilized sound effects.

“Well, Bunnie and I are headed back the main island in an hour or so. We can give you a lift, and tow you’re boat in. We woulda helped if we’d have known you were actually in trouble. You know, I could really go for a scotch. They got scotch here. Hey, barkeep. You got Chivas? Yeah? Get me one: on the rocks. Bam! What a beautiful day.”

I need to escape from this vacation.

“Hey, hey, hey, Bunnie, baby, this is that girl with that boat we saw. What’d you say your name was?”

“Uh, Crystal.” I turned back to him. A woman who could have passed as an anime character draped her twig-arms around his bare chest. She too was clad in white and her nipples poked out at me through the three-inch triangles of bikini she must have taped to them. Why bother, people?

“Name’s Paul Ketner, Venture Capitalist. This is Bunnie. She’s a model. What is it that you do?”

 “I’m a writer. Fiction and travel narrative, mostly. Occasionally film and television scripts.”

Bunnie sucked on her teeth and used Paul’s glasses as a mirror.

Grabbing on to his drink, Paul leaned back and  scratched his crotch, nodded at me. “So you’ll let us give you a lift?”

Bunnie and Paul or one last, long swim. I wanted to live. I really did.

“Hey, man, your balls are showing,” Hector announced, slapping Paul on the shoulder.

Paul laughed like a maniac. “I know it! WOO! South Pacific! You wearing a toga? What’s that? Blood? Fuck man! Awesome!”

Paul led us aboard his yacht and proceeded to give us the extended tour. There were many details and histories I won’t trouble you with now. It was worse than watching video of other people’s kids on an iPhone.
The good ship Venture Capitalist
Eventually, our broken shell of boat was tied to the stallion yacht and we were on our way, sailing away from a sinking sun and into the darkness of yet another night voyage. I let the evening wash over me thought back over the last few days and my incredible knack for getting into every sort of trouble with my swarthy man-friends. Hector had a knack for chaos. It was the reason that I despised traveling with him and the reason that I kept calling him up time and again. There is something exotic about him, something magnetic the way—


Wait a minute.

Where’s Hector?


I climbed the ladder to the bridge but Paul and the Bunnie were utilizing all the available space. This ship has autopilot right? Is that the word for it on a boat?

“Hector?” I repeated, opening the door to the lounge and stepping across the threshold.

Inside, the lights twinkled like a thousand stars in the glass of the fully stocked bar. Hector, now dressed in one of Paul’s suits, spun on top of one of the bar stools, grinning that crazed smile of his. I swallowed the urge to collapse into a panic attack and approached. That's when I saw that Hector sat in front of a pile of white powder.

“What the fuck?” The words flew out of my mouth like an autonomic reflex.

Hector slid down from the stool, pushing his fingers into my lips. “Sh. Sh, sh, sh sh,” the shooshing teetered on the edge of laugher for a moment, but then regained its composure, “Shhhhh. They have blow.” He whispered loudly into my face, his mouth incapable of closing. It was like staring down a lion.

“Yes, I can see that.”

“You totally have to do a line. Oh my god. Best idea ever. Come on, I'll get it ready for you.”

“Are you out of your mind? Did they share? Do they know you're down here?”

“Let me just get this nice and straight for you and then, whoosh, you can come to the party. Snort this cocaine. Do it. Best idea ever.”

“They're gonna come back down here. That guy say he was a venture capitalist? What the fuck does that mean?”

“Best. Idea. Ever.”

“Isn't a venture capitalist like a modern day gangster.  Is that an entire duffel bag full of coke? Holy shit. Are they trafficking? Put it back.”

Hector's teeth gleamed out at me from behind lips pulled too tight. A ring of white sparkled around his dark irises. He might have fallen out of a horror film and straight into my life. “Dude, you gotta do this blow with me.”

“Give me that,” I squeaked, snatching the duffel from the bar top and sliding the loose powder into it. “The last thing we need right now is for the two of them to come down here and realize you're stealing their coke.” I looked around for a place to stash the bag, now zipped up tight. Over in the corner next to the other couple dozen seemed like a good place for it. “Damn it, Hector.”

“No, I'm serious. I'm totally serious. Look at me. Am I serious? Yes. Snort that.”

“Fuck me.”

“If you don't do this line of coke, nobody will and then they really will come down here and know that we stole their drugs and kill us and have sex with our skulls.” He laughed, more hyena than man and balled and unballed his hands in the neurotic need to continue moving. “That's why you totally gotta do that coke.”

“You make a compelling argument,” I lied, but I knew I’d have to humor him.

“Can I tell you something?”


I leaned over the edge of the bar and stared down at the line of cocaine. I’d seen it done once before, and even then the jester who attempted it failed. That wouldn’t stop me, though. I blew at the line with my mouth while pretending to snort it into my nose. Definitely not as easy as it sounds. About half of the drug ended up in my face, and though I jumped up and tried to wipe it away, it was too late. My nose was going numb.

“Ha ha ha ha ha!!!” the hyena cackled.

I quickly brushed the rest of the powder from the counter and, grabbing Hector by the arm, fled the scene of the crime.

In the soft glow of evening, Hector put his arms around me, more half-Nelson than hug. “You're my best friend ever,” he said, “I just want you to know that.”

“I sincerely hope not.” I couldn't seem to stop brushing my face off. Would they see the telltale dust littering my skin, confessing in my stead? There’s still more on me. Still more drugs. Have to get them off.

“We should go swimming.”


“Not now. Later.”

“Okay, later.”

A few hours later, safe in the hotel lobby, Hector and I returned what was left of the catamaran. Hector kept dipping his fingers into his pockets, rubbing them against his gums each time and sucking powder out from under his nails.

“I’m really sorry about this,” I told the man who held my credit card as collateral, “I’ll pay for whatever repairs you need to make.”

“She’ll pay for it,” Hector confirmed, “The mast is broken. She’ll pay for it.”

“I’m really sorry. I’m not sure what happened.”

“The mast broke,” Hector reminded me.

“I’m sorry.”

I signed the credit card slip and agreed again to pay for all the repairs. When I looked up, Hector was gone.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Kenya: Getting Sleepy

Most of the animals in the zoo are asleep. This isn't just because zoos are boring; animals in the wild are all asleep too. Even at home the animals are sleeping. They say you're never more than three feet from a spider at any given time. Well, that may be true but chances are the spider is sleeping.
Shhh. Do not disturb.

This is the lion I eventually woke up. I do not recommend trying such a thing at home, though, I guess if you have a lion at home to awaken you have bigger problems.

The lion snoozed on, oblivious to my attempts to bother him. Only five meters away, I sat on top of a land rover (yes, on top) being the biggest jerk in the history of the universe. I roared. I imitated prey animals. I insulted the lion's intelligence, talent and breeding. If he wanted to, he could have jumped over to me in one easy leap. He could have swiped me from the roof and eaten my head, which is why I almost called this story, "Kenya: Getting Stupid."

A bus full of German tourists pulled up alongside us, whispering in hushed awe of the majesty of nature. I used the telephoto lens to get an extreme close-up of the lion's balls and then made baboon sounds at him. Beneath me, safe in the car, my driver was cracking up. I asked him to join me on the roof but he valued his life.

"What exactly is it that you want to see happen?" one of the Germans asked, doing nothing to hide the disgust in his voice. His subtext clearly read, "Shut the hell up, you stupid American."

"I don't know," I replied, bored, bored, bored, "Wake up, fight another lion, eat a zebra. Anything really."

Then I learned that lions do not appreciate Indiana Jones references. I reached my hand out towards his heart. "Kalima," I told him, "KALIMA!"

But he didn't use the traditional response of om nom shabai, no, he turned his head, and opened his yellow eyes, piercing through skin and heart and soul with them. I slunk into the car, adrenaline gushing over me. It seems that our histories are intertwined somewhere deep inside my DNA. He has eaten me and I have run my spear through his heart countless times. I see our past in his eyes.

80% of our time on safari

The Germans drove away, laughing.

Shaking in the car, I knew I had seen the eyes of the hunter and lived to tell the tale. I felt a connection to my ancestry that I have not felt since; an awe at the power history holds over me.

But Africa is a sleepy place, and inspired or not, after our lunch on the banks of the crocodile infested waters, we had no choice but to do as the lions do.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Any Western Facing Beach: Reality Check

Despite claims by certain pirates that the green flash is a phenomenon so powerful it can bring Orlando Bloom back to life, the reality of the blaze lacks the luster of its myth. For one thing, the process of witnessing it requires such a carefully calibrated evening that years of western-facing beach-hopping had yet to yield even one sighting. While the green flash can, apparently, be observed from any sunset oriented beach, the following criteria must first be met:
Photo Copyright 2010 to Corey Pargee

1.     1. It is sunset. 

2.      2. It is a clear day.

3.      3. You have consumed the proper amount of rum.

4.      4. You are actually looking towards the setting sun (preferably staring unblinking into it).

One would think that criterion four would be obvious but I can’t count the number of times I’ve stood facing west, lined up shoulder to shoulder with other expectant watchers. We would hold a collective breath, dizzy with the surge of a racing heart, and at the last possible moment I would inevitably turn to someone to say, “Did I ever tell you about the time…” The OOoooo…… trailing away in the voices of those around me let me know I’d missed it once again. That, or entire towns have been playing elaborate practical jokes on me. Blast! Foiled again by my need for more attention. 

I took to telling this story on green flash nights when other travelers would ask what it was like. “I’m not supposed to see it” I’d say, “It would disrupt the natural balance of the universe.” Finally, sick of my tale, a tourist grabbed my face and pointed me at the sun. I saw it, I really did. A tiny green spot where there was once an orange sun. It was not a luminescent blaze rushing out in either direction along the long line of the horizon. More of a green splotch; a green color-shift; a green meh.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Cameroon: Crossing the Street

Cars have the right of way here and it’s no surprise. They’re bigger, heavier and traveling way faster than you are. Face it: in a fight between you and a car, you’re totally fucked.

I tried my best to avoid crossing the street but there came a time when where I needed to be was on the other side of a line of angry vehicles. Danger be damned. I was getting to that cookie shop. 

Taking my cue from the locals, I darted in front of two stopped cars. They seemed to be lined up in front of some invisible or implied red light. In-between cars two and three the imaginary light turned green and that’s how I found myself trapped in the middle of an intersection, dodging death and feeling more than a little like Frogger. I never believed this sign until I was in it, I mean, what kind of person would actually plow down a pedestrian?

Amazingly, an SUV aimed itself directly at me. I was about to become that stick figure: arms flailing, blood starburst explosion at the contact point. Do I dive under? Leap the hood ninja style? Pull a Gandalf? I opted for choice three and turned to face the maniac driver, scowling my best shall-not-pass face. But he kept coming; I lacked the power. At the last moment, I sucked my stomach in and turned sideways allowing the SUV to barrel recklessly through the space I had just been standing in. Until now, I always thought the 10 points game was just for kicks. Here, they’re playing to win.

Caution! Crossing is prohibited. And we really mean it.