Thursday, 31 January 2013

Arterial Walls: part 3

There is something unsettling about your first time drinking large quantities of local tap water in one of the world’s less mechanically-obsessed nations.  Uganda is better than most, as we’ve heard from longtime residents; there isn’t even giardia here (take that, Russia!), much less cholera.  However, our sources DID mention that, as our bodies haven’t been acquainted with some of the friendly neighborhood bacteria yet, we should probably take it slow to avoid getting the P.O.o.P.S. (Pressurized Output of Putrescence Syndrome).  One of my greatest fears in life is the P.O.o.P.S.  Especially when I have to spend four hours cramped in a taxi the next day to get home for an important meeting.  Brrrrrrrr…unsettling.
The sun was burning at a sharp angle on our way back into downtown Jinja, and I had to stop every twenty minutes to sip on some nervous tap water.  We had left the “park” along a road that skirted the western side of the city, turned to wrap around its southern border with Lake Victoria and eventually came up along the eastern edge.  Besides keeping a wary eye out for potential P.O.o.P-ing sights, we figured we’d scan the downtown from a few angles and then decide the best plan of attack, eventually hunting down some food and a throne from which to enjoy the sunset.         
Our walk took us first through a wealthy part of town that seemed primarily South Asian in demographics; you could hear the dawn-bird cacophony of an Indian daycare from a full block away.  Soon thereafter we passed by the Jinja Town Hall and a series of large, once-ornate old public buildings, decaying reminders of Uganda’s hectic reinvention since the British left.  The road curved around into an industrial district, strewn about with massive containers and all the swooping and grasping apparati of a bustling port.  Then the pavement stopped, petering out into a dirt road that squeaked through rows of concrete barracks.  Our necks were developing a rosy heat, so we decided to make our way inwards.
As we moved towards the city center we encountered an exponential growth of sidewalking Ugandans.  More and more people surrounded us until, in the heart of the bustle, we noticed a classy little South Indian restaurant set in from the street a bit, aloof from the overwhelming turbulence streetside.  The outdoor seating and curried smells were absolutely delectable, but the sun was still too high to eat on the patio and not go blind, so we marked the spot on our map and keep moving to find a cool drink before dinner. 
Two blocks away our quest was fulfilled: a sunless little hole-in-the-wall bar with three stools, four chairs, and a pool table; walls splatter-painted pink and orange and yellow on a deep black background.   We stepped in and ordered a Nile Special, then found two spots in the corner.  A television above the pool table was playing music videos—we recognized our friend Jose Chameleone on screen.  Alex’s face was glowing, whether from exertion or emotion I could not say.  Always hard to tell with that kid…
The woman tending bar started playing pool with a man many times her size.  He seemed impossibly sloppy, she was slightly better; Alex and I watched intermittently and let the bottles’ condensation roll down our knuckles.  A few people walked up to the door or lingered outside, but not many stepped all the way in, except for one woman who started to enter with a big friendly smile and then saw us—at which point the smile straight Houdini-d—and spat a rapid-fire round of hellos before turning back out the door.  She stood with the sidewalk crowd for a while before moving north again.
The music from the T.V. was loud, punctuated arrhythmicly by the neanderthal clack of pool balls knocking together.  The three workers not playing pool had stopped speaking when we walked in, and hadn’t started back up yet.  Alex and I were trying to talk without disturbing the not-our-environment, but we couldn’t hear any type of low decibels over the racket; the resulting exchange was conducted entirely in a kind of apologetic stage whisper.

‘I feel like we’re breaking something here.’  ‘Yeah yeah, right?  Like we stepped into the middle of a Medieval dance or something, started doing the Shopping Cart.’  ‘I don’t even feel like we could ask in on a game of pool; is that a line for next game?  Do you ask to play winner?  Who pays?  I don’t think anyone here plays doubles.’

            ‘Look, it’s silly to worry like this, how can we know? And if we aren’t doing anything outright disruptive—we’re not being hella “Americans” anyway, yelling and grabbing the table and changing the music and whatever—if we aren’t doing anything stupid then what’s the issue?  I mean, we’re trying to figure out the local customs, trying to be a part of things as much as we can—’ ‘But look, Sam, this isn’t exactly a place where tourists go, right?  I mean, this isn’t Kampala, they don’t really see whites here outside of the resorts and raft places.  This is the kind of little local place that has patterns and customs, the kindof place locals go to unwind, not to think about acting the right way.’ ‘Right, so we break that, we stick our pale selves in the corner and create a self-consciousness.  Ain’t no one want a couple of white self-consciousnesses in their corner…’
‘Alright, but maybe it could be something like engaging with nature, right?  Like, when you hike down a trail all the local life disappears because what the hell is this loud gangly ape thing doing here?  Then you sit for even half an hour and things start moving again, become, like, acclimated to the palest of presences,’ ‘I dunno man—’ ‘Nah but look, it certainly won’t ever be the way it normally is, on a normal night, with us being here now.  But I feel like if we prove ourselves to be unassuming and generally harmless characters things will start to slip back towards the regular.  Anyways, people here don’t seem mad or hostile, right?’ ‘Yeah, okay, maybe.  Anyways I’m enjoying the music and the cold drinks and the bad pool.  Another beer?’

‘Alright, cheers my friend.  To the banks of the Nile, to learning a new place—to strangers.’

We sat there for the rest of a Guinness (the Foreign Extra Special, brewed in Port Bell right next to Luzira, waaaaaay sharper and hoppier than American Guinness, a truly surprising and beautiful thing), listening and watching and occasionally speaking.  We didn’t get to the root of why some people are happier to have you in their local spaces than others, but we concluded it was a beautiful thing that even here, which wasn’t ‘our’ here, there wasn’t a single person who looked like they were too pissed at our presence.  The last drops warming in the bottom of the bottle we got up to leave, receiving a chorus of “goodbye!” in response to our own. 
The patio of the Indian place was in full shade by the time we found it again.
Mushroom masala on perfectly steamed rice, with hot golden naan and a little plate of fresh carrot, cucumber, and lime on the side.  The coriander and cardamom and cumin and butter coated the inside of my mouth like midsummer air, hot and thick and endless.  Alex made little noises as though reading a great poem for the first time.  We felt good, out there alone on a dark patio above the street.  Once the bill was settled we stopped at another little roadside place to sit off the meal, then we walked back the hostel to play a game of pool before bed.
The air was a sponge bath as we traced our steps back through the fortified mansions to the hostel; damp but light, and slightly invasive. 
The hostel’s bar had two walls and open space leading out into a tight lawn.  Four or five European-sounding individuals sat around in the couches or on the computers, mostly silent.  A loud British woman spoke with an African man, sitting too close to him on a barstool.  We slipped 500 shillings into the pool table and out popped the balls, conveniently bifurcated into red and yellow, rather than the Stateside-standard numbered Technicolor.  Hitting around a bit for warmups we realized that suddenly we, too, were awful at this game, this game we played a whole lot of this summer.  The Guinness wasn’t that strong, was it?
Turned out, at close inspection, that the balls here are smaller than in Wisconsin.  The simplest of combinations sent a sphere ricocheting in some untoward direction—even the trusty ol’ cue ball would slip away from your stick like a wet bar of soap.  We felt self-conscious what with all the people around us we didn’t know; kept noticing little smirks when we shanked a simple shot, or the British woman’s eyes turning quickly away when we looked over.
After a long tick of failure and some soul-searching I finally realized the trick: keep your mind focused real intent on the exact middle of the pocket, brush off everything that isn’t right there in front of you.  Pretend that you’re the only one in the room—no others, unknowns, no strangers anywhere—and somehow things take care of themselves.
We played another game that went a heulluvalot better than the first, and then fell asleep as soon as heads hit pillows.

To be Continued, for the last time, I promise!

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