1. She Wore White Linen
Stepping off the airplane the air was thick enough to cut with a knife. She choked on her first breath, faltering for a moment, the second one came easier. She was dressed in white linen, fitting for the tropics. Or so she thought. She had not taken the dirt and grime of an African city into consideration. She was not going to a vacation resort but one of the bustling capitals of the Dark Continent. Having never been in this part of the world before, she had no idea what she was getting herself into. She was to find a completely alien world.
As she saw everybody pushing and shoving to get through immigration, she began to realize it would be some time before she arrived at her destination. Passports were being waved in the air and the rank smell of people who were obviously unaware of soap filled her nostrils. She tried to keep her composure but decide she must stand her ground if she ever wanted to get out of the airport.
Finally the immigration man took her passport. She smiled at him using all her charm hoping it would speed up the process. It did not. He tediously filed out the necessary forms and stamped everything several times and then he leaned down and gruffly said, “Make your way to the Health Counter”.
There being no through passage, she had to fight her way back through the crowd and around to the next stop. Her vaccinations were in order and again she fought her way to the luggage area. There, young boys descended on her asking to carry her bags. Being laden down with a coat, a carry-on bag, and her purse, she agreed to let them. They had to dig through the pile but finally all her luggage was accounted for.
As she approached the gate, an official asked if she had anything to declare. She could not think what he meant and said “No”.
On the other side of the gate, a mob was stretching to see the people inside, looking for a familiar face or an easy mark. Several men asked her if she wanted a taxi but she paid no attention as she was also stretching to see a familiar face.
Her dark brown eyes relaxed as a man in khaki shorts and sandals came up to her. He kissed her on the cheek and asked about her trip.
“Long and crowded” she answered, “I am exhausted. And I can’t believe this stifling heat! How do you stand it?”
“You will get used to it, ” Ian replied.
“And the smell?” Karen asked.
“You will get used to that, too”, he said, laughing.
2. Introduction to Africa
She hadn’t seen her brother in two years. He looked well. Tan and thin. He was a little taller than she was but not much. They shared the same brown eyes but he had lighter hair. Maybe from the sun.
Ian was living in the bush, working on some contract related to the US Embassy. He was probably some kind of spy. She did not really know what he was doing. But he seemed to like it.
They piled into his rugged white Peugeot sedan and headed off into nightmare traffic. It took them five hours to reach their destination, a large village north of the city. Getting out of the airport was a challenge. The road was thick with traffic. The piles of trash along the way were fermenting in the sun and the smell of urine and rotting garbage was strong. She could see the open sewers, green with slime and naked children playing along side them. Music was blaring and people were shouting and singing. It was a noisy crowded mess of humanity.
She was glad to finally arrive at Ian’s bungalow and unwind with a glass of wine on the porch. Her time was so messed up she could not really think. She just went with the flow.
“Sorry but I have accepted an invitation for us to go out tonight.”
“What?” Karen asked, surprised.
“It is the Christmas Pantomime and then a light supper at the a friend’s house. It will be fun. You can sleep through the pantomime.”
3. What she left behind
Karen had left the Boston winter behind. It was December and she should have stayed to spend the holidays with her boyfriend, Josh, but she could not bear another day in that city. She needed a break. She had worked hard for two solid years to receive a Masters Degree in journalism. It was her dream to travel and write. Then she spent the next six months looking for a job with no luck. The market was saturated and there was no interest in somebody with no experience and no real conviction. She knew she wanted to write but she was not sure what she wanted to write about. Not politics. Not crime. Not flea markets and farmer’s markets. She wanted to write about exotic people and places. She was a dreamer.
So she told her boyfriend she needed a break and was going to Africa to visit her brother for a few weeks. He was not happy about that. He accused her of being cold and heartless. She thought he was probably right. She should have been more caring and attentive but frankly she did not care. She wanted to move on. To get on with her life. Not sit in Boston making babies the rest of her life. She had stored her few belongings with a friend and she doubted she would go back.
There was a small expat community in the village where Ian lived and many of them were British. Hence the Christmas pantomime. As a girl, she lived in India and was very familiar with the pantomime. Pantomimes were musical comedies usually based on children’s fairy tales. Expat communities around the world would write their own scripts incorporating individuals in the community in the jokes, sometimes off-color ones. She was looking forward to it. It would bring back fond memories.
They arrived just in time to take their seats before the curtain rose.
The story was Jack and the Magical Palm. It was very funny, full of twists, turn and innuendoes. Many of them, Karen did not understand but she fully enjoyed it anyway.
As they were getting up, a young man came up to greet Ian.
“This is my sister, Karen, who just arrived today from Boston for a few weeks. Karen, I would like you to meet my good friend, Alex.”
Karen stood transfixed. It was not that he was the most gorgeous man she had ever seen, although he was handsome, but he had such a presence, she was immediately drawn to him. She had to ask Ian to repeat his name.
“Hi, nice to meet you”
“Nice to meet you. I know Ian was looking forward to your visit. Will you be staying long?”
“I am not sure, a couple of weeks.”
“Good, then we will see more of each other, I am sure. Sorry but I have to run, I volunteered to help with clean up.”
Ian introduced Karen to a couple of other people who did not register with her at all and then they left for their dinner party at Ian’s next door neighbor’s house. They were a young couple with a young child and were not up to going to the pantomime. Karen and Ian arrived a little after nine and the child was sleeping so all was quiet.
“Hi, this is my sister Karen. Karen this is Sarah and Joe. Joe and I work together.”
“Welcome! It is great to meet you. We have heard a lot about you. Come in!”
Sitting on the screened-in porch, Karen enjoyed the cool evening breezes. The supper started with humus and pita bread. Karen was delighted as humus was one of her favorite foods. A comfort food. She was tired.