As we approached our destination, the bus driver began to decelerate in anticipation of a break, some chai, perhaps a cigarette, and prayers. The bus’s lack of adequate suspension became even more apparent, as we bumped and ground our way over the ruts of an undoubtedly ancient highway. By all accounts, it certainly felt ancient.
Some women across the aisle from me adjusted the headscarves wrapped completely around their heads and faces, hiding all but the glimmer in their eyes. One of their babies woke, and searched amongst annoying folds of cloth for its next meal. Objects on the horizon continued to juggle through a cracked grime-covered windscreen, as they’d been doing for many hours now.
I felt an excruciating itch on my shoulder, but could barely raise the energy needed to extract my arm from between the several other occupants of my seat in order to scratch it. I shivered, even though it was like a furnace in the cramped bus. Only a slight fever though, I reckoned. I’d recovered well from severe malaria the previous week.
My sudden involuntary movement woke the toddler I’d been nursing on my lap since the last stop. I wondered how it could sleep through all the tossing and turning caused by the bus, yet awaken at such a relatively minor movement. Its eyes looked up, glazed from more than sleepiness, and closed again when I placed my hand on its forehead.
Eventually the bus drew to a halt, and gradually began to empty as passengers collected their bundles, baskets, mats, babies, and my toddler friend. A chicken, unceremoniously held upside down, flapped a wing in my face as its owner pushed past along the passageway. I felt rather weak and stiff as I followed towards the door, my pack dangling over one shoulder, but the thought of some dust free air invigorated me.
There was still so much apparently abandoned luggage lying around on the floor of the bus, especially beside the driver’s seat, that everyone had to clamber over several bags and boxes to get out. Just as I reached the door, and was looking for a suitable foothold to jump down from, the man in front, still clasping his chicken, stumbled on the bottom step. He threw out his free hand and grasped my rucksack, but his momentum carried us both rapidly down the steps until we toppled headlong onto the ground. Bags, chicken, rucksack, and two bodies all in a heap. A couple of helping hands reached out from some waiting passengers, but I stood up unaided, more concerned about my camera bag than a slight pain I felt in my hand.
The chicken owner was none the worse for wear. He stood up, repeated some words in Arabic, and attempted to place his hands together. His chicken flapped again, and so instead he smiled at me and walked a few paces away.
I dusted myself off a little, looked up, and took in my new surroundings. A sizeable collection of one and two storey buildings made up the settlement, similar to many I had passed in the last two days since Niamey, except that it seemed a bit busier. A couple of offices, blinds drawn against the dust and sun, looked a little more official than their neighbouring verandah-fronted shops, and a notice outside one looked promising, so I made my way towards them, anticipating the inevitable confrontation with tiresome bureaucracy or border guards full of their own importance and power.
Before I could enter the door of the first one, a uniformed man stepped towards me, and rather threateningly held his hand out. I couldn’t believe he could be looking for baksheesh so openly in front of many people milling around, so I reached into my camera bag, drew out my passport, and dutifully handed it over. He gave the document a perfunctory look, flicking through its pages until he spotted my photograph, and then furiously studied it, glancing up at me several times. I stood there waiting, motionless.
Satisfied with my identity he handed back my passport, and I made as if to enter the office behind. His hand darted out again, barring my advance. He waived it backwards and forwards, looked me in the face, pointed to my wristwatch, and then shook his head. The door to the office was still open, but I then realised that none of my fellow passengers, most of whom would be hoping to cross the border, had attempted to go through passport control. Running through the options, I realised that the officer was not just being obstructive. Most likely the control was closed either because the border itself was closed, due to some political development I had not heard about, or more likely it had something to do with the fact that Ramadan had just started.
I’d have to find someone who spoke a little English in order to find out.
I turned back and walked down the dirt track. The sun was now so low in the sky that it shone through settling clouds of dust almost like a laser beam. I noticed a group of about a dozen people standing about fifty yards away beside a Landrover which was parked outside a slightly less dilapidated building with a wide verandah. Scattered outside the building were some tables and benches. I approached the group and was relieved to see three westerners amongst the djellaba clothed locals. Maybe they would have some information about the passport office, I thought.
The three looked rather strange as I got closer. One was quite hunched, and looked uninterested in the proceedings. Another had what I took to be a pullover wrapped around his head, and I was surprised to see long golden hair fall around the shoulders of the third as she uncoiled her European style headscarf and shook her head free. A couple of the locals murmured appreciatively. I could see their point, the girl was remarkably attractive, and her presence contrasted strongly with the dour surroundings.
“High there.” I said when I got within a couple of metres. The locals had already noticed my approach, but now the three westerners turned towards me. We exchanged pleasantries, and I noticed vaguely European accents when the girl, and pullover-head, spoke. The third one remained silent.
“Do you know when the border control is likely to open up again?” I asked them.
“We have same problem.” replied pullover-head, “Is closed when we arrive one hour ago, and I think not open until tomorrow morning, but no-one seems to know. We stay here for tonight anyway. Cheap rooms.” he continued, motioning somewhere behind him.
It was no trouble to stay the night, I thought. Frontier settlements were usually interesting places anyway, with activity, expectation amongst travellers, and people from other areas. I looked round and fixed my bearings. From an outhouse a thin trail of smoke snaked into the sky, lit up from below, and as the smell of something cooking wafted over I became aware of how hungry I was. There was an increasing bustle around us, and I noticed that most of the benches were now occupied. I turned back to my three new acquaintances.
“This is a restaurant, yes? Are you going to eat?”
“Yes, we would like to,” replied the girl, “but we have not enough moneys. The visa for Mali we know is 2000 francs and that’s all we have each, apart from travel cheques, but no-one here will change them. They only take currency.”
“You have only TC’s?” I asked.
“Yes. Our dollars were stolen in Lagos.” She replied. “We have some food in the 4-wheel though, or maybe we can trade a T-shirt or something.”
At this, the third one, still hunched, looked up slowly. I could see from his eyes alone that he was very sick. They were bloodshot and yellowed at the same time, and seemed to have retreated behind sunken cheeks. He carefully withdrew his hand from the pocket of his baggy trousers, and proffered the contents, which I saw were a few coins, towards us. As he did so he weakly muttered the only word I ever heard him say… “Klonkers.”
“Oh Jorge, they’re no use.” The girl said in a caring voice, “They are from Cameroun. Give them away to someone.”
The contrast between Jorge and the girl was startling. He looked shabby, ill, and beaten. She was vibrant and aware, and although her clothes were dusty, their quality and style showed through. I had to admit to myself how attractive she looked.
I had an idea. “Listen,” I said, “I have plenty francs. I got a good rate in Niamey and there’s been nothing much to buy. As long as a room here is less than 1000 I can pay for all of us.”
“A room is only 800 francs. Are you sure, though?” the girl replied.
The immediate problem solved, I picked up my sack and the four of us turned towards the tables. The restaurant had become very busy, a hive of activity with about thirty local men sitting, standing, talking, and moving benches.
A lad with an apron darted in front of us and quickly shooed some men to one end of a long table and motioned us to sit, giving the table a perfunctory swipe with his stained cloth. Jorge slumped down at one end. I hesitated a moment as the girl stepped over the bench. She patted the table toher right, in a space between her and an overweight local with an enormous hooked nose and filthy djellaba, and looked towards me.
“By the way, I’m Itta,” she said as I joined her, “and this is Santhy, and Jorge.”
Jorge didn’t turn, but Santhy raised one hand as he unwrapped the pullover from his head with the other, and said, by way of explanation, “For sun.”
“Itta and Santhy!” I said with a laugh, “What sort of names are those?”
“Itta. There’s nothing wrong with Itta. Its short for Bergitta. Its quite common in Sweden.” the girl said with mock hurt. “And Santhy, his real name is Kris, but he’s such a flower. Arn’t you?” she continued, blowing him a kiss. Santhy looked embarrassed.
“So what is your name then?” she said, straightening up and looking at me as her eyes rolled. I was so taken with her and her little performance that I almost forgot to answer.
“Jim.” I said eventually.
“Jeem!” she announced, “That’s boring. Have you no, what do you say, fun-name…no, nickname, Jeem?”
“Not really.” I answered, but seeing her disappointment, and wanting to continue the spirit of the conversation, I added, “Except, well, a couple of my friends at home sometimes call me Lone.”
“Lone?” Itta enquired.
“Yes, Lone. Its supposed to be short for Lonesome Traveller, because I’m always taking off by myself to places like this.”
“Hmmm. I prefer Jeem.” She said, abruptly turning to the others and continuing in Swedish. I loved the way she had said my name though.
There was an air of increasing expectancy at the tables. The lad with the apron brought out a large tray cluttered with steaming bowls and placed them one by one on the table in front of him. The bowls, containing a deliciously smelling concoction of what looked like beans and thick minestrone soup, were individually passed down and across tables from hand to hand until one sat in front of each person.
I glanced towards hook-nose on my right as he fiddled with his djellaba and produced a slightly squashed cigarette which he delicately placed beside his bowl. Next, he produced a dirty matchbox from which he took one match, placing it on the box, which in turn he positioned carefully to the right of the cigarette.
He did not seem to be satisfied with the arrangement at first, and moved the box and match to the top of the cigarette, but then, scratching his stubble, reached out and returned it to its original position.
I was enthralled, and wondered what was going to come next, as he lifted a greasy paper bag from his lap, examined the contents, folded back its flaps, and placed it to the bowl’s left, beside my hand. Finally, he signalled to the lad, who passed him some tea in a glass. This he rolled in his small hands, before placing it between bowl and bag. Picking up a spoon, he began to stir the contents of the bowl with such concentration that it looked like a religious ceremony.
I noticed that some of the other locals were also stirring their bowls, but no-one was eating.
A coupleof them looked over to our group, and when they saw that we too were waiting, nodded to us in appreciation. The discussion in Swedish between Itta and Santhy had stopped. Itta turned towards me.
“Listen Jeem. Have you been travelling by bus?” She asked.
“Well, we are going to Gao tomorrow. Jorge is going to fly home from there. He is quite sick, as you can see. After Gao we hope to try for Tamanrassat, but it depends on the track. The 4-wheel is already battered a bit. I spoke to the others, and as you’ve been good and are paying for the food, if you like we can give you a lift for some of the way. It will be crowded until Gao, but after that if things work out, you could perhaps take Jorge’s place.”
I thought for a moment. It was quite an invitation. I’d been travelling by myself happily for two months but a recent bout of malaria and three days alone in a room recovering had made me feel a little isolated. After days of bumpy buses the relative comfort of a 4-wheel drive, and companions I could talk to easily, certainly appealed. And also there was the added attraction of Itta.
I made up my mind.
“Great!” I said, “Except that after Gao I’m not sure. I may spend a little time there.”
“O.K. We’ll see how it goes.” She said smiling, and then continued,”When do you think we can eat? I am hun-g-ry.”
“It must be like torture for them.” I said, nodding at the locals. “You know, some of them try not to even swallow during the day during Ramadan. I didn’t expect to find Islam so strong this far south though. But the sun is down, and this food is beginning to cool, so it can’t be long now.”
As if in answer, the hoary wailing of a muezzin started up somewhere in the near distance. I couldn’t tell whether it was a recording, or a natural voice, but decided on the latter, as it continued to half cajole, half berate, the faithful in a calling to prayer. Two figures in the street hurried off in the direction of the noise.
Hook-nose gave an enormous sigh, somewhat startling me. As the last tones of the muezzin drifted away, the locals, almost in unison, lifted their spoons to their mouths and began to eat. Hook-nose waited a few seconds longer, mumbling some words of prayer to himself, before he too joined in the feast. The harira soup was good, delicious, and filling.
Even though the locals must have been extremely hungry, none of them gulped their food. They ate, instead, slowly and with purpose, until the last drops were scraped from their bowls. No one said a word, so intense was the concentration on swallowing. His bowl empty, hook-nose wiped his mouth with his sleeve, adding another to its collection of stains. He took a breath and belched, all in one movement.
Replacing his spoon on the table, he took up his cigarette and deftly lit it, inhaling deeply. Then he relaxed with a further sigh onto the bench. The cigarette tip glowed in the semi-dark, as he rapidly drained it into his lungs in little more than four of five breaths. Once finished, he discarded it beneath the table, and reached over and took a sip from his tea glass. He saw that I was watching him, and gave me a toothy smile.
I couldn’t help staring at the deep brown stains between his lower front teeth. Then he reached into his paper bag, produced two shrivelled dates, ate one, and almost as an afterthought, offered me the other one which I accepted with a “Shukran”.
At my attempt at Arabic he gurgled. I had been so intent on hook-nose that I’d been neglecting the other participants in the feast. Everyone had finished their harira. Itta sipped her tea, quite daintily I thought, but probably only because it was still quite hot. Somehow the glasses used here seemed to retain their heat longer than china.
I decide I wanted to make some notes for posterity about hook-nose, and reached into my camera bag and brought out my notebook and pencil. I cleared some space in front of me, and placed them on the table.
“A journal?” Itta questioned.
“No, just some notes.” I answered.
“Notes about what?” She continued.
“Just about the little things that happen on the road.” I said, and as I seemed to have her attention, I added, “Little things that you forget about later on, so I write them down to remind me. For example…” I thought for amoment, “Like the sudden heat I felt today when I got off the bus and walked in front of its engine. It hit me before the smell of burning oil did.”
I thought again. She seemed genuinely interested, “Or maybe the sweet clear sounds of children’s voices when they get excited and follow Westerners around.”
I flicked back a page in my notebook, looking for more inspiration, “Here’s some notes about the different smells you get in toilets in this part of the world.” I continued, “But smells are really difficult to describe.”
“You like smelling toilets?” said Itta, screwing up her face, and laughing.
“Not exactly, but you can hardly miss them here, can you?” I continued, demonstrating by sniffing the air.
Itta laughed again, throwing back her hair, and looking quite beautiful in the light from the oil lamp. She reached over towards the notebook for a better look. As I lifted my hand to give her a view, she grasped it for a second, and then quickly pulled away, frowning.
I wondered what had happened.
“What have you done? Look at the bottom of your hand!”
I looked down and discovered a graze I hadn’t noticed before, with a crusting scab on it. I must have done it when I fell off the bus. Itta said I should put something on it and asked if I had any gentian violet. Although I protested that it was only a scratch, she said it was important to be careful about any cut or bruise when travelling.
Then she stood up, arched her back and carefully took my hand, and led me off towards the Landrover, saying she had some there.
It was quite stuffy in the Landrover, so we left the door open and got in the back. Itta lit a small gas lamp and searched around in a box until she found the right bottle and some cotton wool, and then proceeded to dab the purple staining liquid on my wound.
She had soft delicate hands, and I enjoyed her touch and concern.
“There you are. A new purple hand.” She said, patting my wrist, but still holding my hand.
I hesitated, and then gently closed my fingers around hers. She didn’t pull away, but instead squeezed mine in return. We both looked up from my hand at the same time and our eyes met.
With my free arm I reached over and touched her hair. She moved slightly closer, tilted her head a little, and soon we were kissing.
Travelling for so long by myself, I’d forgotten how soft a girl could be. We kissed for some time, until Itta slowly lifted her head away. She reached up and placed her finger beneath my chin, as if to make sure she had my attention.
Then she smiled, and quietly but deliberately said, “Well, Jeem…maybe now you wont be so lonesome.”