by John Edwards
I was in Cote d'Ivoire, working for a financial mag covering the African Development Bank in West Africa, when some co-workers and I set off on a trip to nowhere in particular: specifically, somewhere in Ghana. At the Ghanaian embassy, they informed us: “No journalists allowed!” When we told them we were editors, not journalists, they lightened up a little. “If you say you are computer programmers, maybe we can let you in to Ghana.”
The only rhythm I noticed so far, however, was the knocking and swaying of the crowded bush taxi–crammed with Christian iconography and blasting Highlife music–as we took off into the hair-raising hinterlands. We decided to bypass Accra and head to the beach, a place called Dixcove, which had an old fort that was a site in the past for the infamous Gold Coast slave trade.
When we finally arrived, a small boy led us past groups of sweaty shouting men waving maniacally at us to stay in their makeshift “hotels” (which featured no beds). We were wading through some sludgy water from a slow-moving stream on the beach, obviously drainage from toilet facilities, hoping that it didn't contain the dreaded “guinea worm,” which can wrap and coil itself in your body for reputedly miles and miles.
“There is a place on the beach where you can also get something to eat,” the boy quothed in the Queen's English. He led us to what looked like a large concrete bunker right on the beach, with a bar filled with tattered Guinness posters. An old man wearing clothing stitched from burlap sacks, who looked a little like Geoffrey Holder with a hangover, gladly accepted our business.
That night he asked us what we wanted for dinner, and one of the more imaginative of our group (jokingly) said, “lobsters.” And lo and behold, the old man did indeed barter with fishermen and cook us lobsters with a creole tomato sauce, and we began to wonder what was up with this so-called rudimentary hotel in paradise, where we were savaged by insects in our sleep and where huge waves broke on the shores of the end of the world.
What would a postcard home from here sound like? “News from Nowhere: Wish you were here…”
Morning. “Fresh orangajuice! Fresh orangajuice! Half anana, half fresh orangajuice!” cried the hawker, as reliable an alarm clock as a fighting cock in a henhouse. I asked Mr. Holder (I forget his real name) to do some laundry for me. Here in this part of equatorial Africa, you must iron your clothes to kill all the “chiggers” that lay eggs in the fabric, their spawn leaping off the lapels to burrow into your skin, which is a fine piece of nastiness.
“Remember to iron the clothes,” I reiterated for the umpteenth time.
Holder nodded his head again sagely, as if he were indeed wise in the ways of the world.
But when the clothes were finished, I noticed they looked a little sundried and rumpled.
“You didn't iron them, did you?” I commented.
He looked confused, then shook his head no sadly. I guess an iron was wishful thinking, considering such amenities as the hotel “showers” were rainwater scooped out of rusty oil drums. It had been a close call, but we were to remain blessedly chigger-free for the rest of our trip.
We were there for about a week, battling the powerful waves and letting the local populace rub our suntan lotion into their black skin, when the Brits arrived in their Jeep. Two tough-looking, sunburnt travelers were being ordered around by a very short pallid man, almost a midget, with zinc cream on his nose, named Tim. He told us they were all taking a short trip before returning to work on the Nigerian oil fields.
We suspected they were SAS. They thought we were CIA. We all got along famously.
We drank round after round of beer (only Guinness). Then my friend, Erik, got out his tequila and all hell broke loose. Arguing about politics is not recommended for inebriated travelers. We discovered we were as left wing as the Brits were right.
When Erik made a disparaging comment about Bush, the mood turned ugly. “You're wet! You're wet!” one of the Brits accused us, pointing his forefinger inches from Erik's nose, looking as if he were going to start a fight.
“They're Democrats,” one Brit sneered.
“That makes me very sad,” Tim commented. “Very sad. Very sad.”
Eric countered with a lie: “I met Margaret Thatcher once!” This seemed to calm them down.
“Ah, she was great in her time,” one of the Brits reminisced with a dreamlike smile.
“Yes, and what about those Falklands!” I placated, trying to defuse the situation.
Then Tim launched into a strange and harrowing tale, which, in our tequilaed-up state, had us on the edge of our seats. An insect the size of a golf ball, the gangsta rapper of bugs, flew into the side of my head. What what? I struggled to catch every word.
Apparently, on their way to Dixcove, the Brits had met an English traveler in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle who had been kidnapped in Mauretania, an unknowable antique land where they say that slavery is still practiced. The English traveler (let's call him “The English Patient”) had been driving along with a French hitchhiker he had picked up, when the engine conked out. They saw a boat coming to shore and waved it down. Then they were kidnapped and taken to a small island ruled by a woman matriarch who ordered them buried up to their necks in sand. She demanded to know where their money was hidden.
When the English Patient's exposed sunburnt head with sand-encrusted lips at last mouthed the words that the money was hidden in the glove compartment of his vehicle, the two travelers were eventually unburied, released, and taken back to the 4-wheel-drive, now minus the cash. After leaving Mauretania, the Frenchman lost his marbles and began mumbling to himself, like a raspy Serge Gainsbourg record played backwards. So The Brit perfunctorily deposited him on the side of the road in a village. Then promptly fled. He didn't know what he was going to do until he reached a major city, such as Accra, where money could be wired to him. After telling his tale to the Brits he drove off, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake.
A couple of days later, a 4-wheel drive breezed in to Dixcove. A man, literally shaking, got out and signed the guest registry. “That's him! That's the guy!” Tim told me excitedly, pointing at none other than the English Patient himself. I couldn't resist seeing what he had written in the registry. So I walked over and glanced down. In the “Coming From” and “Going To” columns he had written the same word: Hell!
Nobody said traveling in nowhere was easy.
John M. Edwards has traveled five continents plus. His work has appeared in Salon.com, Escape, Grand Tour, Islands, and North American Review. He has just written a novella, Move, and is working on a travel book, Fluid Borders.