|A Blonde in Africa
All excerpts © Laura Resnick
A pseudonymic fugitive escaping from her career as a romance novelist, the author embarks upon an overland journey across Africa, an adventure which winds up lasting nearly eight months.
When Laura Resnick set out to cross Africa, she knew it would be exciting and she knew it would be exotic. But she didn't know that she'd
* be forced to drive through a live mine field in the Sahara
Here, with the same wonderful style that has won her major awards in both the romance and the science fiction/fantasy fields, Laura Resnick recounts her eight-month journey across the Dark Continent and her remarkable return trip to a newly-freed South Africa.
The young man who beckoned me into a shop in Agdz (which we finally found the next day) didn't look like a white slaver, but when he led me into a little back room with a carpet-covered door, I decided that one can never be too careful, so I summoned Mark and Christine to join me.
...Inside the shop's back room, we exchanged formal introductions with Aziz, a gorgeous young man dressed in flowing blue and white desert robes. He explained in elegant French that I had been approached because I had been observed to speak both English and French in the street; could he impose upon me to write a letter in English to a friend in Germany? I saw no reason why not, so Mark, Christine, and I accepted Aziz's offer of some mint tea. He waved a graceful, be-robed arm and invited us to sit on the carpets.
We chatted amiably for a while, with me translating between Aziz and my... companions. When asked about his background, Aziz referred to himself as a café au lait, explaining that he had a Tuareg mother and a Berber father. As a result of this parentage, he said, he always prepared mint tea in the Tuareg manner. I was to see this elaborate method of making tea performed several more times in southern Morocco, but never more hypnotically or gracefully than it was done that day, in that cheerful little room with carpets lining the floor and walls.
Our host—who really looked like one of my more outlandish adolescent fantasies—first boiled some water in a small teapot on a brazier. Then he poured a little water into a silver teapot, to which he also added tea leaves and bits of some plantlike thing he said was absinthe. I asked about the latter, since I remembered vague, alarming stories about it from one of my French Literature courses in college. The absinthe I had read about was a green liqueur flavored with wormwood, and it apparently drove people (and especially writers) insane if they drank too much of it. I think it was even eventually outlawed in France. For some reason, I associated this information with the half-mad nineteenth century poet Paul Verlaine, who shot his lover Arthur Rimbaud. All in all, the notion of ingesting any absinthe myself made me rather uneasy.
I didn't have to recount any of this garbled recollection to Aziz. My merely asking about the absinthe made him smile knowingly and launch into a cheerful explanation about it; apparently lots of people besides me took French Lit in college. The small absinthe, he insisted, promotes good health and fights fatigue. It's the big absinthe which is no good for you; using that stuff to make their liqueur is where the French went wrong. As he spoke, he used a knife to shave slivers of absinthe off a raggedy looking little twig which didn't look particularly health-giving to me.
"Okay," I said. When in Rome (or Agdz)...
There was a silver tray with several small glasses set in a semi-circle on its shiny surface. He poured some tea into one of the glasses, then back into the pot. Then he poured lots of boiling water into the teapot and put it back on the brazier. Then he poured more tea into a glass. Then he transferred this liquid from one glass to another to another, until it had been in every glass on the tray. With a flourish, he then poured the glass of tea back into the pot and added sugar. A lot of sugar.
|The tea boiled for a little while longer, and then there was a great deal more of pouring tea from one cup to another, again and again, as gracefully as a ballet dancer, as skillfully as a magician, until this ritual of pouring and re-pouring nearly put me in a trance. As near as I could understand the explanations to my questions about it, it was done for good luck—and good tea.|
We were hiking along, our guide assuring us that we were very near to finding the gorillas. Since it's good manners among most Africans to say what you think people want to hear, I didn't believe him. Then suddenly, someone exclaimed and pointed overhead: there were two great, huge, enormous, dark, furry gorillas, clinging to tree trunks high overhead, and looking down at us somewhat curiously!
My first reaction was absolutely awed wonder. My second reaction was sheer terror. I mean, they're big. We're talking major huge! And there was basically nothing in the whole world between me and them. The guide seemed very pleased and immediately changed his direction so that we were suddenly scrambling up a steeply sloping hill, heading straight for them.
What the hell. In for a penny, in for both arms and legs. I followed, as did my companions.
One of the gorillas stayed up there, casually returning our stares. The other came down, looked at us, and playfully tumbled downhill. Seeing another gorilla on a more level patch of land, our guide led us that way.
The rest of the hour was sort of like a bar mitzvah or a really good Italian wedding. Either they all started noticing us, or else they were communicating our presence bit by bit to the entire family, which consisted of over twenty individuals. They were highly sociable and seemed very welcoming, ambling right up us, making lots of eye contact, sitting down, lying down, rolling over, clearly asking to be admired, trying to be companionable. The youngsters showed off, just like children. One baby did all sorts of swinging stunts on a little branch right above my head, stopping every ten or twenty seconds to make sure I was still watching. Other youngsters started wrestling violently, till an adult female cuffed them all.
Based on my reading, I had expected the visit to be very tense and formal. I thought we'd have to sit or stand rigidly in a circle, avoid eye contact, speak in whispers, and move very slowly. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Over the space of about a quarter acre of dense jungle, we milled around, wandered back and forth, sat down, stood up, and talked, while they milled around, too. Some of them got bored and decided to eat, but others were so sociable they followed us around the whole time. The group of wrestling youngsters moved en masse along with us, at times rolling around so violently they bumped into one of us (at which point the guide would caution us against being touched). They were remarkably gentle, too. You could see that they had no desire to harm anyone by accident and were aware of the possibility. A couple of gorillas shoved people out of the way v-e-r-y gently when they were standing in the way of a particularly tasty bush. One gorilla kept trying to find a way to get around someone without pushing her, until I said, as casually as possible, "There's a gorilla behind you, trying to get past."
The guide clearly felt that no one would be satisfied with the visit unless we could get photos of the dominant silverback. This wasn't the case, but he resolutely kept trying to get us into a good position for it. Our first glimpse of the silverback was startling. He sat inside a bush, and all I saw was this huge, enormous, GIGANTIC, REALLLLLLLLLY BIG hand reaching out, grabbing leaves, and pulling them inside this sheltering bush to eat them.
The trackers started following him as he withdrew deeper into the bush, not wanting to be bothered by us. I watched uneasily as they started chopping down the bush with their machetes. This does not, by the way, contribute to the habitat-destruction problem. A Couple of trackers hacking a small trail does so little damage in bush like that, it will grow back within a week; and a gorilla will undoubtedly soon eat whatever they cut down, anyhow.
|Getting nervous about the trackers' zeal, I suggested that maybe we should leave the silverback alone. I mean, why make him mad? They persisted, though. I had to credit the silverback's patience. He finally realized we simply weren't going to leave until we'd had a good look at him, so he resignedly came out into a tiny clearing, played with one of his babies for a couple of minutes, then clearly dismissed us and ambled off.|
...[A] sign over the desk [at the inn on Zanzibar] says they have boats here, for fishing, sailing, and snorkeling. Like a fool, I ask Mr. Haji:
"What can you tell me about this snorkeling you offer?"
"Yes, there is snorkeling..."
"Yes?" I try to look pert, interested, encouraging.
"You want to go snorkeling?"
"I don't know," I say. "I need to know more about it before I can decide if I want to go. That sign there says I should ask here for more information. So I'm asking you for more information." Surely I have made myself clear now.
Mr. Haji looks at a Swahili man hanging out in the lobby and giggles.
I sigh, realizing I was a fool to begin this, but now I feel stubborn. "How much does the snorkeling cost?"
"Free. First time is free for guests of the hotel."
"Free?" I'm easy. "Okay. I'd like to go. When is it?"
"When you want."
"Can I go now?"
"Okay. Then when can I go?"
"When you want."
I frown. "But I want to go now, and you said I can't."
"Yes..." He clearly means to ruin my miserable excuse of a life again today.
Feeling very stupid, I say, "Yes, I can go now, or yes, you just said I can't?"
Silly question, I realize. Bag that. "Can I go later this afternoon?"
"I don't know."
"Oh. When will you know?"
Mr. Haji looks at another Swahili man hanging out in the lobby and giggles. Finally, he says, "Maybe you can go this afternoon."
"And it's free?" I say, to confirm.
"No? But you just said the first snorkeling trip is free for guests of the hotel."
"So, if I go this afternoon, it's free. Right?"
"Only free in the morning."
"Ah! The snorkeling is usually in the morning?" I am pleased; I have cleverly tricked him into releasing this information to me.
"When in the morning?"
"When is breakfast?"
Mr. Haji shrugs. Then he points to the wall. There are two signs on the wall. One sign says that breakfast is from 7:45 AM to 8:45 AM. The other sign says that breakfast is from 8:30 AM to 9:30 AM.
I am not willing to get involved in that discussion. So I say, "So snorkeling is after breakfast tomorrow and it's free?"
"Do I need to book ahead? To reserve my place?" I ask, covering all contingencies, though I doubt anyone else on Zanzibar has had enough spare time to get this information out of Mr. Haji.
"Yes. Book ahead."
"Okay," I say, "let's do that."
I wait. Nothing happens. Finally, I say, "So do you need to write this down or take my name or something?"
Mr. Haji looks at a Swahili hanging out in the lobby and giggles.
"Look," I say (like a fool), "you just told me I need to book ahead for the snorkeling."
"So let's do that."
"You want to go snorkeling?"
"Yes! What do I have to do to book it?"
"You just tell me how many people you are."
"We are five people."
He stares at me.
"Do you need anything else?" I ask.
"No, you just have to say me when you want to go."
"And tell you how many people we are, right?" I don't feel well.
"I'm telling you now: we are 5 people and we want to go tomorrow after breakfast."
Exhausted, I go outside. On the beach, John has met a fisherman and offered him 4,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $8) to take us all out in his boat. In two minutes, we're on the water.So how do I manage to make everything so complicated?