I remember this one summer, way back…. This was in the very beginning, maybe in the late eighties. Every summer we lived in Abidjan we went to the beach for three weeks with the whole mission—the Ames and the Danylaks. We’d drive to a town down the coast, San-Pedro, and stay in the Guest House. In the beginning there wasn’t a coastal highway so we had to drive four hours north-west and then four hours south-west. And right about the half way point we would stop at this creepy resort in the middle of nowhere, desolate and probably haunted. We would buy lunch here—icy cokes and grilled meat and steaming salty fries—and sit out on the patio, a deck three stories up above sprawling grassy lawns surrounded on all sides by dark and close, towering, vine-y jungle. The kind that is nearly as dark in full sunlight as it is at night; the kind that makes you feel like you have to protect your front because somehow and with relentless persistence it tries to grab you by the wrist or around your middle and drag-suck you into its monstrous mouth of oblivion and unknown horror, its heart of darkness, where you’d be all alone forever.
The cracked marble and grimy halls of the hotel between the main lobby and the patio were lined with glass cages. Most of them were vacant of animal life although they carried signs, shadows and echoes and trampled earth floors, of what might have once lived under the planted rocks, on the trees and logs, and around other carefully placed props. In our imaginations these empty glass cells were frequented by the smells and hoots and howls and faces of Africa’s wildest wild—a monkey with one-hand swinging on a vine, the other grabbing an armpit, hooting and staring at us, daring us; a big cat lounging half under the fat log chunk with about a hundred rings I’d have said, yawning and ignoring everything especially us, feeling only the sun streaming in dusty streaks down from the sunroof above onto its pallid yellow once golden mane. There was one cage, however, that still had life in it. As you entered the narrow passage leading to the open restaurant and patio, on the right, a glass wall looked down four feet onto three huge alligators, almost invisible in their apathy, lying under logs near a dirty green scum fake lagoon.
After lunch, after eleven sets of little legs run wild, explore and breathe, and six sets of adult legs lounge, stretch in the open air free of the enclosed child noises that large full cars on long rides magnify to the nearly unbearable, we all pile back into our caravan of three once white old station wagons and off we go, anticipation brimming at its boiling point until post-lunch slumber silently picks us off one by one. Once again, mom and dad in the front seat get to quietly and with secret relish pull out the book they’d been reading together and let their imaginations unfurl on the open road before and around them; the story, passing as the countryside beyond the car windows, enhanced inside by the drone cruise zone warm sleeping bodies and a humming car create together.
I remember I always wanted to ride in the car with mom and dad, no matter who else was there with me. I didn’t care if my friends or sisters rode in another car, I only wanted to be in our 7-seater Peugeot 504. The front two seats were normal, the middle seats were three individual chairs like maybe miniature van chairs with lap belts, and the back seat was a bench where two of us would sit, we could stretch a little more and usually we didn’t wear seat belts if we could get away without my dad noticing. I liked this car the best because mom always packed snacks. Not just a bag of popcorn or something, but a huge bag of popcorn heavily salted to perfection, MnMs if we happened to have any on hand from a package some church or other sent us, apples and oranges, ham and mayo and mustard French bread sandwiches (my favorite), a glass bottle of African-salted peanuts, bags of onion-fried banana chips we got from the Doumbouyas (no one else’s compared), water, kool-aid (yick), and any other treat my mom could fit into her plastic shopping basket she always packed for long road trips. But it wasn’t only the food either. My mom loved to read to us out loud. We were usually halfway through some book we had been reading at home out loud together and so if I opted to ride in another car I’d miss some of the story. And then there was the simple mom and dad part. I liked to be with them on the road more than anyone else. I guess all parents get antsy, anxious, impatient and I didn’t like dealing with the trips and histories and baggage of other families, even if they were like second families. Plus, mom and dad knew me and they were warm and home.
I think in all the years we drove out to San-Pedro, whether the trip took us eight hours or four after they built the coastal highway, there was only one year we did not have a flat tire and/or break down on the way there. Somehow I have no memory of the way home, but the trip there always seemed endless and the inevitable flat tire eventually over the years made me feel unbalanced feelings of rage, as though I were the brunt of someone’s cruel conspiracy. So, about an hour out of San-Pedro, usually, the car would start to click and hiss and wobble and that was the telltale sign that my dad’d better pull over fast. We’d all pile out of the car and hover along the side of the pot-holed road cutting a gash through the plantations farther out, the red-dirt jungle closer in to San-Pedro. Luckily my dad usually led the caravans and so the Ames and Danylaks would pop into view behind us on the winding remote road, slow to a crawl, then stop a car length or two back. And their cars would all dump their contents onto the pavement also. All the kids would reconnect, tell whatever stories there might be to tell during the two-three hours of separation, or run in circles or punch or pinch each other or whine at the general trees and sky. Once, even, we had a temporary teacher, young and naïve and crazy fun Stephanie, with us and she and the kids all took off on this path through the jungle. It went straight up and in, red dirt packed under a layer of dust, roots and rocks making the climb feel more treacherous, the adventure more serious. The farther we got from the cars, the more afraid I felt. Of jungle demons, I think. And then we heard a buzzing. We all stopped to listen, strewn along the trail with our ears pricked upward. The buzz grew louder and louder till I started to stutter about the killer bees from Africa I’d heard of and maybe we stumbled on one of their domains and god knows what the others thought. Finally, as the buzzing reached a height that made my knees start to knock, through the folliage very close to us and slightly to the right we saw the whitish square box of a semi-truck lumber by. How disappointing…that we weren’t deep in the wild jungle and that the bees were just a truck.
To be continued…