Friday, January 26, 2007

Week 1, Part Deux

Continuing with the bad news theme (see previous post), I must discuss the way men in Abuja are treating women. Now, I've always known that respect and equality do not come easily to the females in this country, but the Abuja Big Boys are taking it to a whole new level. I'm not sure who to blame. It would be easiest to say that these men are callous, badly raised, ignorant, disdainful mysogynists, but I dare say it wouldn't be accurate. There are also the women - the golddiggers, the prostitutes, the university girls who might as well be prostitutes - who are giving other women - the intellectuals, the hard-working entrepreneurs, the creative artists - a bad name. I cannot walk into a single establishment in Abuja and be taken seriously as a respectable individual, by men or women alike. Because I'm young and moderately attractive, they assume I'm on the prowl to snatch someone's husband/boyfriend for monetary gain. It's simply unfair.

Take what happened to me the other day, at the Hilton. In any other country, a hotel of this caliber would be a respectable location, where people of taste and some sophistication go to relax and take in some sun by the sparkling pool. Not in Nigeria. Yes, you do find those people and they do do those things, but you also find milling in the lobby "businessmen" of all races and levels, making deals and exchanging business cards. They're working, but out of the corners of their eye, they are on the lookout for their newest "catch" of the day, each of them waiting and ready to pounce on the best-looking (or cheapest-looking) girl that walks past. On this particular day, I was with my brother, who had a meeting with someone in the hotel. I was going to wait for him in the lobby and work on my interview questions (though, at the time, I still had no one to interview). As we walked in, we were greeted by a gentleman in a fancy Italian suit. Let's call him Basil. He was Igbo, and you'll understand why I made this distinction soon enough. When he spotted Basil in the distance, my brother said to me, "This is the man I was telling you about that speaks fluent Italian." I braced myself to be impressed. When my brother shook his hand and playfully said, "Buon giorno," Basil said, with some degree of stuffiness, "You don't speak Italian!" Each of those four words was coated with the unique twang that distinguishes my Igbo brethren from the rest of the world. So thick was Basil's Igbo accent that I was hard pressed to believe that the man had even inhaled the smog in Rome, not to talk of having lived there long enough to pick up the language. At any rate, I was soon too angry to be interested in whether or not he could speak his language, and here's why.

My brother introduced me as his sister, to which Basil responded, with an angry,dismissive flick of his hand, "Oh, come on! There's no need for such pretenses, I know what you mean by sister!" I was still trying to pick up my jaw when my brother, trying really hard to convince Basil, said, "No, really, she's my sister!" Basil said, "Are you sure?" He looked at me. "Are you sure you're his sister?" Trying to smile, I said, "Yeah, I'm pretty sure we're related." Basil again looked at my brother, breathless with shock, "You don't mean it!" His gaze flashed back to me. "You're his sister. You? So pretty!" My brother recounted with a "As pretty as she is, am I not handsome?" Basil just looked at me, his 32 individually-spaced multi-colored teeth grinning with admiration.

At this point, I expected that we would all go our separate ways: my brother to his meeting, me to the lobby, Basil to his lair. So you can imagine my subsequent shock when, in the middle of my cheery "It was nice to meet you," my brother said to Basil, "Why don't you buy her a drink?" I don't think either of them noticed the dismay on my face as Basil cheerily intoned, "Oh, why not!" He ushered me forward with a "Segnora" and began to ask me about what I do. With as much haughtiness as I could muster, I said as loudly as I could without being obnoxious, "I'm a graduate student at Yale. I'm here doing research for my thesis." It was crucial that I sound self-important for a number of reasons. One, neither Basil nor any man within earshot could think of me as a hotel call girl or I would kill someone. The Hilton is a notorious hotspot for female escorts looking for cash. In fact, young women are frequently harrassed by hotel security just in case they are prostitutes because guests have been known to complain about women knocking on their doors, asking if anyone would be interested in "a bit of sex". Two, I wanted the surrounding clientele to know that, even if I wasn't a call girl, I certainly wasn't just one of those chicks who loafs around doing nothing. And by nothing, I mean, waiting around for some guy with money to spend it all on me. I have a brain, and I use it! Lastly, I wanted to make sure that Basil, if he dared to hit on me, would know that I was not going to make it easy. He would definitely have his work cut out for him if he tried to tackle this "princess".

Basil was pleased to hear that I was getting an education at Yale, but he was not about to be one-upped by "this small girl". He began to spout of a list of his credentials including the fact that he went to Harvard and MIT, some other school in Italy, bla bla bla. I must admit that I was impressed; it's not often that I meet an Igbo guy with a whole bunch of advanced degrees like that. (I'm not trying to insult Igbo men o! I'm just speaking from my own experience.) As we approached the lobby, I was struck by the overwhelming number of men just sitting around. Some of them were discussing business with their foreign associates (greasy-looking, pot-bellied white men who looked like they could use a shower); others were watching TV or reading a newspaper. As Basil and I descended the short flight of stairs into the lobby, I noticed how each and everyone one of them stared at me, hungrily. I imagined them all thinking that Basil had paid for my time, which would be easy to believe the way he was strutting with his chest stuck out. I wanted to yell out, angrily, "I don't even want to sit with this man!" But that would have been inappropriate. I just simmered in silence.

We sat. "What do you want to drink?" Basil asked me.

"Just water, thanks." If I had ordered anything else, I would definitely have looked like the cheap hooker everyone thought I was pretending not to be.

"Only water?! Why don't you get soft drink, or stout? Do you drink stout?"

Jehovah! So upon all my yans about being a Yalie, this idiot was still intent on treating me like a common prostitute! It was time to pull out my spare ammunition: my foneh.

"No, I'll just have the wah-der. It's so haht in this country, and I get dehydray-ded so quickly!"

"Ah, ok, no problem. I'm going to have coffee," he pronounced. Good for you, I thought. "Don't you want anything to chew?"

"Anything to what?" For the first time, I was dying to laugh, but by some miracle, I was able to control myself.

"To chew, to chew! I mean, to eat. Do you want to eat something? Why not order something from the bar, like meatpie, or scotch egg, or even salad?" He pronounced "salad", sah-LAHD.

It was too much for me. I had to let myself smile at least as I again refused his offer. Anyone who knows me knows that holding back the laughter was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. We then proceeded to have a conversation about the state of the nation, giving me yet another opportunity to show him that I had some intellectual capacity. But Basil managed to turn this conversation into a pseudo-interview, as he tried to ascertain whether I was the wife he has been looking for his whole life. That was when I learned that he was about 50 years old, and apparently very picky. According to him, he was looking for a wife whose presence beside him on the streets of NEW York wouldn't be an embarrassment. My brother's meeting couldn't have ended soon enough; I don't think Basil even heard my "goodbye" as I fled the Hilton lobby.

I have several stories similar to this, to denote how little respect men accord women here. I won't tell them all, but I must talk about Chief and Ada. Chief is one of my brother's business associates, also Igbo. He came to the house to talk about something with my brother and he brought Ada with him. My brother isn't sure whether or not Chief brought Ada for him, as a sort of gift to smooth their business deal. If he did, Chief must really re-evaluate his tastes. Ada is a masquerade, a truly terrifying specimen of female. She towers about six feet tall, and must weigh about 180 pounds of pure tits-and-ass. She sauntered into our living room, and scared me from across the room when she turned around to greet me and exposed her warpaint makeup. The reddest lipstick coated the thickest lips I have ever seen; her eyes were outlined with black eyeliner, the same eyeliner which she used to paint on her thick devilish eyebrows. Her man-like, beefy hands were tipped with red acrylic claws, and as she sank into my brother's couch, I remember being fearful that it would not be able to hold her up. She made me feel tiny and plain, and I could not take my eyes off her.

I sat behind the couch, working at my laptop as I always do when I'm at home. My brother pointed in my general direction, said to Chief, "That's my sister." I waved, "Hello, good evening." Chief looked at me and decided that he already knew what was going on. "Hello, good eefnin," he answered. Then he gestured at Ada and said, "Ehn, dats my sister too." I couldn't even be upset. For the umpteenth time, nobody was prepared to believe that I could actually be related to my own brother, but the flippancy with which Chief expressed himself was borderline hilarious. Me, with my linen pants and natural face, was now on the same level as the Adas of Nigeria. It's not their fault.

to be continued...

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Week 1

I have achieved absolutely nothing. After one whole week in this town, I have not talked to a single person (other than to schedule meetings - meetings that have consistently been put off until "tomorrow"), nor read a single pertinent document about the Nigerian tourism industry. But for the social horrors of this place - which makes for great stories - I would feel like I have completely wasted my time in this place. But luckily for you, I have stories to tell.

Now, there's good news and there's bad news when it comes to discussing this city. The good news is: Yakuza Suya Spot. Chineke God of Allah, when I say that Hausa men are making FANTASTIC suya and kilishi in Abuja, you berra believe it! As the name suggests, the beef in this small, slightly grimy outlet really hits the spot and makes you go begging for more. I bought N2000 (about $15) worth of kilishi two days ago, enough to feed a battalion of starving children, and only N500 worth remains in my fridge today. I would be ashamed, but I have not eaten kilishi for almost 4 years, and I make no apologies. I also managed to come across some succulent agbalumo/udala at Millennium Park, where I sucked on their tangy juices while being serenaded by a two-man Hausa band, who kept insisting that I give my "husband" - my friend, Mustapha, who introduced me to Yakuza - a "kiss/no be su-mall kiss/give am real kiss!" I got home, all hot and sweaty from the day, took a quick dip in the icy-cold pool out back, then chilled on the couch with a cranberry vodka and Africa Magic. All in all, that was the best day of this trip.

Now, the bad news abounds. Let's start with Tukano, the uppity lounge whose name should be changed to reflect what it is: a pickup joint. My brother took me there in a bid to entertain me, lest I grow bored sitting in the house all day. Little does he know that all I need is a working internet connection (which I have) and cable, the odd alcoholic beverage, and I'm set. No matter, I thought it'd be fun. The moment he said they played house music, there was no changing my mind: I was going to Tukano to see Nigerians dancing to techno, and I wasn't taking no for an answer. It's a members-only club, but apparently, you only have to prove your membership if you look broke or young. It was there that I got my first taste of what it now means to be female in Nigeria: apparently, people - and by "people", I mean men - no longer deem it necessary to practice manners in your presence. They will walk up to you and your crew, greet all the men, and ignore your curvy ass. At first I thought it was because I looked comparatively busted. I've made it a point to look as unattractive as possible before I step out of this house, so as to stave off unwanted attention. And Abuja Big Boys, as they are called, are arrogant pricks who only chase after the prettiest girls. In the following days, however, I realized that it has nothing whatsoever to do with my appearance. They just don't think they should have to say hello to women, because to them all women are hookers and gold diggers and should not be accorded respect, or indeed even common courtesy.

Past that display of inhospitality, you walk into Tukano and the first thing that greets you is the bar, and the pair of giant Arab tits behind it. The tits belong to an auburn-haired stripper, who is dancing on a huge flatscreen in plain view, with or without another well-endowed partner. I might have known that the night wouldn't bode well once I saw that, but I was too shocked to register premonitory feelings. As we slowly made our way through the darkness to the very back where it was hard to see even my white tank top, I remember being somewhat impressed with the decor. At least, I had somewhat forgotten that I was in Nigeria, so they did a pretty good job. Then the waiter came to take our drinks, and it was all pretty much downhill from there. I was encouraged, nay, tricked, into being comfortable enough to ask him, "Do you serve martinis?"

"Yes," he said.

"Excellent! I'd like an apple martini, please."

"No, we only have bweorijwer and roiwerwoe."


"I say, we only have bweroier and roeiroweirh."

"Sorry, I don't underst--"

"Red or white!"

Oh, blanco or rosso. But wait: red or white? I was confused: did I order Kool-Aid or a martini? I decided to gamble. "I guess I'll try red."

He came back with a martini glass that looked like someone forgot to put any drink in it. As he turned to leave, I tapped his arm, and said, "Sorry, I asked for a martini."

"Dis is mah-tini. One shot. You want one shot or two?"

It was clear that I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Lately, I have prided myself on becoming something of a cocktail connoisseur; I thought perhaps I had jumped the gun. It was only midnight, but I was already weary. I said, weakly, "It's OK. Thank you."

The first sip was deadly. This so-called martini tasted like pounded ugwu leaf. I turned to my brother in dismay. "Taste it!" He took a sip and squirmed in his seat. "It tastes like...basil...or something, I dunno. That's disgusting!" I was, however, still determined to get tipsy as it was clear that I was going to have to lose some consciousness to make it through the night. For example, the house music was blaring so loudly that I had to holler at the top of my voice to be heard by the person pressed up right next to me. That required energy and a steady flow of drinks. But by the third sip, I decided I couldn't take it anymore. I went to talk to the bartender, who turned out to be four bartenders, each more incompetent than the last. They all ignored me. Eventually, my waiter stood beside me and said, "Yes, what do you want?"

I ignored the rudeness, and spoke with full Yankee foneh, lest they make any mistake about my status (I'll explain why this is important in subsequent blogs): "This isn't a martini. I don't know what it is, but it's not a martini."

"Ees mah-tini."

"No, it can't be. Look, the glass is not even full!"

"Ees mah-tini. See it there." He pointed behind the bar, where I saw two bottles plainly labeled "Martini: blanco" and "Martini: rosso".

"Ohhh," I sighed.

"Ehen, you see?"

"Yes, I see." I wanted to explain to him that the bottles were merely full of a liquer meant to accompany a martini. I wanted to explain to him that my martini was incomplete. I wanted to explain to him that it was unacceptable to serve me pounded ugwu and try to pass it off an alcoholic beverage. Instead, I again said, "OK, thank you," and went back to my dark corner to choke off the rest of it. I only ordered wine after that, which also turned out to only be available in "white or red".

to be continued...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Au Abuja

At 4:20am, the New Haven train station seems to be caught somewhere between reality and the land of dreams. It is quiet, except for the muted laughter of two janitors on the far end, exchanging jokes and cigarettes in the darkness of morning. What few passengers there are in the station are sitting on the bench closest to the schedule board, staring up at the glowing red numbers of the digital clock. 4:21. I had been at the station for three minutes at this point, and was struggling to stay awake so as not to miss my 4:42 train to New York. When I looked around at my fellow travelers, we all seemed to be blinking in unison, and very slowly. I looked back up at the clock. The "1" swelled and twisted around itself, transformed into a "2". 4:22.

I was on my way to Nigeria. Abuja, to be specific. I had planned to be excited about it, but I was now too exhausted to care. Though I meant to go to bed at 9 the night before, giving myself six hours' of sleep by the time I woke up at 3, I ended up sleeping by 12:30am. By the time 3 o'clock rolled around, I opened my eyes, realizing that I had never really fallen asleep the whole time. My red eyes burned with fatigue, but I struggled to my feet and into the shower. I woke up a little when the warm water touched my body; by the time the taxi came, adrenaline kicked in as I rushed down the porch stairs to meet it, my extra-large duffel bag stuffed with two weeks' worth of clothes. And now, I waited.

4:26. In ten minutes, I would head to the platform. To keep my heavy eyelids from closing shut, I pulled out a People magazine that I'd found on a plane a few days earlier and pretended to be interested in the inane articles within. Brad and Angelina seen together in public for the first time, Lindsay Lohan clubbing just one day after her appendectomy. Cute accessories every woman must have. I looked at the words, but let my mind drift to more relevant matters: if I stay awake on the train, I can sleep on the flight to London, but not for long, because I have to save enough sleep for the flight to Abuja, so I don't get jetlagged. Important matters. Then I started thinking about the work that prompted this trip in the first place: my master's thesis. Over the next two weeks, I have to collect enough data and conduct enough interviews about Nigeria's tourism industry to bolster what little work I've done so far and create a research masterpiece (insert "Evil Genius" laughter here). I mentally went over the list of people I had to talk to: Omotayo Omotosho (former DG of the National Tourism Development Corporation), Femi Fani-Kayode (if I could find him), bla bla bla at the Ministry of Information and bla bla bla somewhere else. Got a lot to do, but in the words of Joe Nigeria, I am "up to de tax".

The entire trip was pretty uneventful. I had interesting seat partners on both legs: the first, a beefy English man reminiscent of every British mob movie ever made. He looked like his nickname was Boxer and he pounded Carlsberg lagers throughout the flight. The beer cans were dwarfed by his large, meaty fingers, which were equally dwarfed by the enormous gold twisted-metal rings that adorned them. They looked sturdy. Good for punching someone's teeth out. My seat partner on the flight from London to Abuja was also on the chubby side, but squat. And smelly. Before I saw him, I was greeted by his very striking body odor, which was only outshone by the fecal scent that oozed from his mouth when he opened it to speak. I still believe the flight would have been tolerable, if he hadn't insisted on falling asleep with his fat arms halfway into my chair. Twice, I lambasted him for infringing on my personal space: "Excuse me, you're in my space. You're in my space!" As if I didn't pay the same money as him to fly on that plane. Nonsense.

The toasting started pretty much as soon as we disembarked from the plane. Waiting for my bag, praying that it made it, I was approached by this man in a wide-brimmed hat. He needed a pen to fill out the immigration form that we were handed as we walked through customs. Go figure. Only in Nigeria are you expected to fill out immigration forms after you're cleared through customs. I gave him the pen, noticed that he didn't offer it back even though he was done writing. An inexperienced person might have assumed that he was just trying to find a way to escape with my pen; after all, it's a nice pen. But I knew. When, out of the blue, he asked me if I saw my bag, I was certain. This man was going to toast me. I was immediately irritated. Why do I always get the freaks and the losers? It's 2007. Who the hell wears a wide-brimmed hat in 2007? At least he planned his moves right, so as not to "embarrass" himself (embarrassment being the worst fate that can befall a Nigerian. If you don't believe me, just watch Sharon Stone in Abuja, where she had a gun pointed in her face and was threatening the gun bearer with embarrassment if he should pull the trigger). He accosted me outside, where I stood waiting for Mtama, my uncle/cousin/brother, hand-in-hand with another woman named Jane (really - her name was actually Jane).

I have to give it to Nigerian men - they are relentless. And they have absolutely no understanding of sarcasm, which is my favorite weapon but sadly useless within these borders. I won't bore you with all the details, but we went back and forth for about five minutes, him asking me for my name, me cleaning my teeth, him asking me again for my name, me scrutinizing my nails. Suddenly, he noticed that Jane was attached to his hand, at which point he introduced her saying, "Oh, are you shy because of her? Don't worry, she's just a friend. She works here. On your way back, you can talk to her, she'll help you get through customs and everything." I wanted to tell him that I had been through customs many times without anyone's help, but that would have encouraged him, so I shut up. Not that ignoring him was helping. I literally had to tell him that my silence meant that I wasn't going to tell him my name. That didn't help either. Then Jane, grinning, said, "Just leave her, maybe she's shy because of me. Maybe next time, she will come around." They walked off laughing. I was fuming and incredulous. Shy? I was doing my very best to be stupendously rude, and those morons were calling me shy?? And who the hell did Jane think she was, acting like my pimp? She is what is wrong with Nigerian women today, the ones who make it OK for men to behave like panting dogs, moronic assholes, blind mysogynists, oblivious to their own unacceptable behavior.

But whatever, pretty soon Mtama came and got me, and I have spent the past couple of days catching up to my jetlag (I slept all the way to London, and not a wink between London and Abuja on a flight that landed at 5:40am). It's been dusty and hazy, and I'm getting used to constantly having dry skin since I didn't think to bring or buy Vaseline, the only remedy for harmattan. Despite the fact that Abuja is supposedly "more civilized" than the rest of the country, I find that I'm clutching my seatbelt in every vehicle I enter, afraid of what I imagine will be certain death on roads where every driver seems to think he's driving a Dodgem car. It's nice to be back, though. My brother has wireless internet that actually works (!!), I get to watch Nigerian movies whenever I want (thank you, DSTV!), and Grace (the house help - why are they always named Grace?) is very attentive. Gawd, I have missed being asked what I want to eat! Imagine, I've spent so many years making my own food, when I could have had a Grace! Grace makes most of my meals, Grace prepares all the ingredients when I want to cook for myself so I don't have to do anything but mix, Grace makes my bed, and Grace takes my plate back to the kitchen when I don't want to. And she calls me Aunty. I officially love and will miss Grace terribly. I choose this over New Haven any day!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Drinking Seawater II

By the time my partner returned from his reef exploring, I was beside myself with sadness. He looked at the tears streaming down my face with a shade of disbelief and a heavy dose of confusion. He asked, "Are you OK??" I couldn't even muster the energy to answer; I shook my head, morosely. Too embarrassed to look him in the eye, I kept my gaze downwards and focused intently on the yellow fibers of the salt-stained raft. He said, "Are you ready to swim back?" An inexplicable shudder ran through my body when I pictured myself entering the deep blue sea, and a fresh batch of tears poured from my eyes. At this time, I looked him dead in the eye, pleading as loudly as I could: "Please don't make me. I can't. I can't. Can't you swim back and tell the guy with the boat to come and get me?"

My partner was trying to be sensitive, but I was bordering on ludicrous now. He shook his head, closed his eyes - perhaps looking at me would have made him burst out laughing - and said, "No, come on, you can do it." We proceeded to spend the next five or ten minutes in a battle of wills, which he eventually won despite the fact that I had to attempt to get into the water three times. Each time, I would get thigh-deep in ocean water, become overwhelmed by the fear, and scramble back onto the raft, howling. The last time, he grabbed me by the ankles and dragged me into the water, so I had no choice but to swim. But I refused to look back down, and good thing too. He told me later that there was a giant barracuda swimming right under us, with a huge scar running down its back where it had been attacked by something. His fervent prayers to Providence, begging Him to keep my head above water, were answered. And my life was spared...for the meantime.

The tide was coming in, and the water was getting rougher. Remember the horrific flippers? Well, this was not a good time to have them on our feet. I'm panicky and out of shape. My partner was out of shape and this was making him panic, but at least he kept it a secret lest I freak out and die. You see, he had told me that I could hold his hand the whole way back as well, so I had to see him as a rock, a point of stability in this cold, wet, deep world of waves. Alas, our lack of cardio activity was about to bite us in the ass. Halfway to the first rest station we'd stopped at previously, I felt my lungs giving up. All this time, I had been breathing through my mouth, which is surprisingly exhausting. Suddenly, I couldn't breathe anymore. And because the flippers weren't really doing anything to propel me forward, my legs were tired as well. I tried to float, but I was too scared to concentrate and anyway, the sun was directly in my eyes, which I couldn't take. I knew then that this is how I was going to die, and I absolutely could not believe it. In my distress, I contemplated climbing on my partner's back, having flashbacks of a time when I was four years old and riding on my eleven-year-old sister's back in a pool. Of course, then I weighed about an eighth of what I weigh now, but I was too frantic to reason. I placed a heavy hand on my partner's shoulder in preparation for my leap onto his back, and pushed him underwater. He came up sputtering and angry. Bless his heart, he was still being very kind to me, so he didn't give me the slap I deserved. All he said was, "STOP THAT!"

I didn't even apologize, asshole that I am. I just kept saying, "I can't swim anymore, I can't swim anymore," over and over. He was trying to save himself from drowning, given that he was also exhausted, but the poor guy had to keep reassuring me that I would be fine. Soon he stopped to float and encouraged me to do the same, but every time I noticed him standing still in the water, I would just try to clamber up to his head, falsely assuming that he was standing on the ocean bed. And every time I tried to do this, he dipped a foot underwater. After my third attempt to kill him, he pushed me away - which was very wise - so I decided that it was time to get Hitler's attention. Forget what he said, he was gonna come get me! The frontal lobes of my brain were still running on fear, however, so while one arm was waving for rescue, the other arm was still attempting to grab my partner's shoulder - and effectively drown him. Repeatedly, he would rise up from under the water, see me waving for help, and slap my hand down, saying "Stop doing that!" Because he knew what I refused to comprehend: we were not too far away from the shallow water, I would soon be able to stand on my own, and it would absolutely mortifying, breathtakingly embarrassing for Hitler to bring his boat to where we were. But I could not be stopped. I kept waving, kept getting my hand smacked down, and I was too out of breath to even yell at him what my brain was screaming at me: I'M DROWNING AND I AM GOING TO DIE IN THIS OCEAN IF THAT MAN DOESN'T COME AND GET ME!!!

Eventually, however, I realized that I have been swimming since I was three and that I didn't have to rely solely on the flippers to propel myself through the water. So I gave my arms a break from waving and used them to swim to the shallow water, where I began to walk as soon as I could. I stomped to the beach, swearing and cursing the Bahama reef, the flippers, the fish, the snorkeling gear - everything. When we got close to Hitler, he said jovially, "So how did you enjoy your trip?" I shrieked, "I was drowning and you didn't even notice!" He looked at me, puzzled, and said, "Well, then, you should have waved." I was weak. To avert what would have probably ended in an argument, I just said, "You're right. I forgot," and walked off to rinse the salt out of my hair.

Snorkeling. Bah!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Drinking Seawater

Tourism is the most important industry in the Bahamas; it's their moneymaker. You wouldn't know it to look at Freeport, but this is what they claim. I'm not in the moneymaking business, but even I could recognize how many dollars they were letting slip through their fingers due to bad management. At any rate, they are making a little bit of money, which they're taking from the rednecks who leave North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia to max out their credit cards and "live it up" at the Sheraton and the Westin resorts on Lucaya Beach. The result is a carnival-esque atmosphere, comprising a massive grilling operation serving cheeseburgers (why leave America just to do the same things you do when you're in your own backyard?) and watery beers; a major section of the beach dedicated to every watersport you can imagine (jet skiing, parasailing, windsurfing, kayaking); this huge grotesque water slide built to resemble a castle turret; bahamian women cornrowing white girls' hair for $120; a LOUD man with an equally loud sound system blasting random soca jams and teaching burly white women in too-small swimsuits how to dance; all topped off with the one-man band struggling to be heard over the madness as he performed for drunken white men drinking rum punch out of coconuts. I quickly realized that, if I were to have any fun whatsoever on that island, I would have to find a place where these people did not go.

Soon, my partner and I rented a car and proceeded to spend the next couple of days exploring Grand Bahama Island, looking for - and finding - remote, secluded beaches where we were the only ones around for miles. We lay on the sand, gazed out over the sun-brighted, blue blue ocean, talked only when it was absolutely necessary. We found a restaurant that few people seemed to know about where the best banana bread is baked, ate conch and drank the best Bahamian beer - Lucaya, it's called. Originality is not important over there, apparently. We let the cool breezes whip through our clothes and hair and soothe the harshness of the sun's rays on our skin. There were very few people around, and they were equally blissful and oblivious to anyone else's presence. We were pleased to be relatively alone and in the Bahamas, with no cacophonic drivel disturbing our peace. I was so happy.

But apparently, I was not content. When my partner suggested we go snorkeling, I pictured myself calmly drifting through shallow clear water, observing sea life, pointing at interesting creatures, smiling. It was an attractive picture, and so I agreed; I just knew it would be great fun. I didn't realize that I was not actually the person smiling and pointing in my imagination; rather, I was visualizing the small white child - the snorkel model, if you will - that appeared in the Bahamas guide book I purchased before the trip. I suppose it doesn't matter that I didn't notice what my subconscious was doing. Either way, I was ignorant of what the activity entailed and gravely mistaken when I assumed it would be "great fun". I was about to realize that the guide book was a liar, and that I was going to be in for a hell of a time.

We drove our rickety Island-mobile to Paradise Cove, where a very tan, gruff instructor gave us curt instructions about how to snorkel in his equipment. "Don't walk on the grass, don't kick up sand, don't touch the coral or you'll kill it. If there's an emergency, wave your hands and I will come in my boat and get you. Don't wave if you're scared because you see a big fish. And don't walk in my flippers. Enjoy yourselves!" My partner and I walked away from ol' Hitler, and entered the water. It was the first time I'd ever snorkeled, and I was excited about it, but also scared. Now, this is why I don't do anything too new: because I cannot be trusted to take care of myself properly. There's too much going on for me to think about everything that should concern me and I inevitably leave something out. In this instance, I was too busy thinking about Hitler's equipment and breathing properly to remember the following:

1) I had never swam in the ocean before
2) I am scared of heights, and in the ocean, depth = height
3) I hate wildlife, especially fish
4) I don't like the way things look underwater

It wasn't until I took my first step in the water and realized that I was surrounded by hundreds of tiny fish - at which point I took a flying leap back onto the sand - that I remembered points 3 and 4. With my partner coaxing me back into the water, I tried again and stepped on squishy grass, which grossed me out so thoroughly that I turned to run back to shore again. My partner quickly grabbed my arm and gave me a good talking-to. "Don't worry, you'll be fine. None of the fish will ever touch you or swim too close. I'll hold your hand the whole time."

"The whole time?" I asked, incredulously.

"The whole time. I promise."

"You swear?"

"I swear."

"You'll hold my hand the whole time?"

"Yes! Come on, let's go."

And so, I went. I had a couple of false starts: the water was too cold, seeing grass growing on the ocean floor was so disgusting, everything was brownish-gray and eerie...even now, I'm getting chills thinking about it. Also, it was a bit weird listening to myself breathe through the snorkel tube, and I had to keep reminding myself not to breathe so fast lest I make myself dizzy. But eventually, I made it and started swimming and observing. When I saw my first fish, it was silver, thin and ugly, but I only jumped a little bit. I began to believe that I would indeed be all right, that I was even a bit excited by what I was doing. I hadn't begun to think about points 1 and 2, yet. About 50 or 60 meters away from shore, we got to the first rest station, a giant floating round raft. My partner had begun to worry about the quality of our flippers, which didn't seem to be doing much to propel us forward in the water, but he never said anything about it. I can't yet decide if that was smart or stupid, because had he voiced his concern, I probably would not have swum the next 60 meters to the next rest stop, where the water was deeper. On the other hand, I might have continued on and then I would have been even more mentally fucked when the katakata bust. And God knows it bust, right out of the water.

We resumed swimming, and the water was becoming a deeper shade of blue. My breathing was quickening, as my anticipation of what would come next grew. However, I began to notice that the water was becoming more and more choppy, the waves stronger as we swam...and we also weren't moving forward as fast as we had been before. In fact, we seemed to be standing still most of the time, no matter how much we paddled our legs and I was growing tired. I still wasn't seeing much sea life, and every time I looked up, I saw that we weren't that much closer to the rest station. I was beginning to worry, but only ever so slightly, when suddenly the ocean floor plummeted to 40ft, and I was looking down at tons of fish. Points 1 and 2 immediately flashed to the forefront of my mind, and I panicked.

What the HELL am I doing swimming in the ocean? My mother - rest her soul - nearly lost her mind at Bar Beach in 1987 when she saw me at the water's edge, and then me I brought myself to the deepest of the deep to look at ordinary fish?? Chineke, this water deep o! Why is it so dark?? Where is that fucking rest station????

In my state of panic, I forgot to breathe through my mouth and somehow I ended up swallowing sea water. It was just a little bit, but enough to remind me that people get dehydrated when there is too much salt in their system. I lost it. I started frantically thrashing towards the rest station, abandoned my partner's hand and kicked him in the face for good measure, screaming through my snorkel tube. Ten hours later when I got to the rest station, I used my newly-acquired superhuman strength to hoist myself on top of it, where I tried to catch my breath and gain some inner peace. My partner eventually reached me, with deep worry etched on his face, asking me if I was all right. I shook my head, too weary to talk. He asked if I wanted to go back. Realizing that this was his vacation too, I (very selflessly) said, "No, no. You go ahead and snorkel. I'll stay here and try to calm down." He reassured me that he would be back soon, and went exploring the reef. The big, ugly reef, with waves crashing violently against it. I lay on the raft, too afraid to sit up because I was suddenly aware that I might as well be on top of a building waiting to plummet to my death below where fish would eat me, bit by bit.

With every passing minute, I became more aware of my surroundings. With every passing minute, I became more of a basket case. I was floating on a fucking raft, over 100 meters away from the safety of the beach and over 40 feet above land. (In a mind where depth translates to height, it wasn't that the ocean was 40ft deep; it was that my feet 40ft were too high from the ground and had to stay that way unless I wanted to die a slow, painful death.) I was surrounded by all manner of fish that I didn't even recognize and which were scaring me with their beady eyes and emotionless faces, and I knew that there were barracudas around because the other snorkelers kept talking about the ones they had seen. You know what a barracuda is? A shark! Ok, they wouldn't eat me, but what the hell was that supposed to mean to me at that point in time? A shark is a shark is a shark. When I realized that this was the hostile environment I had to swim through to get back to shore, when I realized that I had willingly put myself in this predicament, when I realized that Hitler would not come and get me simply because I was afraid - I began to cry. Like a scared little kulutempa puppy, I sobbed and lamented my fate and wondered what would become of me.

(to be continued...)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Glorious Sunshine!

Just in from a sunny vacation in Freeport, Grand Bahama Island.

Grand Bahama Island is a most interesting place, and I hope not to go back any time soon. Ok, that's unfair. Like every other place in the world, it had its plusses and minuses. I almost drowned in the ocean, but there were no mosquitoes. There were too many rednecks with too much money, but the food was spectacular. All the rednecks assumed that I was Bahamian and therefore an employee everywhere I happened to be at the time. Because, you know, all the Bahamians are there to serve the visiting whiteys. In the course of 5 days, I have been a waitress, hotel receptionist, janitor and the girlfriend of a dwarf gas station attendant all because I am black. I don't blame them; na me carry myself go Bahamas.

It was still great fun, though. And I would go back again. I snorkeled for the first time, I gambled for the first time, I was given free drinks by a very handsome bartender for the first time in a long time...all in all, it was a fruitful vacation. This post will just be of a couple of my favorite pictures; later, I'll tell you how I nearly drowned without anyone noticing, a drowning which would most certainly have occurred if I had looked into the water and seen the giant barracuda that was apparently swimming right under me. God is good!
Happy New Year, everybody!