The road barely existed (the desert, like the sea, washes away all traces of the past), and our tour bus threatened to die on us from the moment we had entered the country, driving through the heart of the Sudd of Southern Sudan surrounded by the heat, the great above and beyond, a sweltering presence unending.
I was new to the travelling experience, an 18 month veteran. I didn’t know it then, but I could never stop. By that stage though, I had already mastered a few tricks of the modern gypsy, ways in and out of places, and attaining the work skills for temporary manual labour. I was riding on the last of my savings from 3 years of office work, still doe-eyed at 24 and living like a cat: eat twice a day, watch your back and always travel light. 2 years on the road taught me that two pairs of jeans, an indigo sarong and 6 t-shirts can go a long way.
It was early afternoon, the sun already beginning its slow decent to night, when we arrived to a place called RED SANDS lodge. Its ambience was weather beaten faded peeling colours on stone walls; rickety wooden windows, a single television blaring Fela Kuti’s song ‘suffering and Smiling’. The Front desk operator Vis-à-vis the porter, chef and security shuffled to unload the bags.
“Pool. There,” he said. The other passengers needed no further instruction. I jumped off last. To the left of the building was a wire fence with some attempt at greenery, but in this heat it was near impossible. Beyond it was the startling blue pool which everyone else was jumping into with whoops and shouts of joy. I looked towards the town, 2 or 3 kilometres down the road. We were only there for a day so it was my plan to see whatever sights available.
The town was bustling with clay buildings, bright coloured tents, nomads on camels, a central market full of exotic paraphernalia, stalls with coloured cloths held up by pillars of carved wood; Fruits and vegetables were being sold by traders who could tell at a glance that I possessed American dollars.
I chose rather to have a large orange juice at a corner café with an ice water as a chaser. A Radio blares out local music, next to a rickety old fan blowing hot air.
It’s then that I heard a whining sound, distinct above the verbal film that covers any market place. From the outskirts of town a small billow of dust rapidly drew closer revealing a wild young man screeching down the road on a beat up Kawasaki motor bike. Aviator glasses hid his eyes as he rode up, popping a wheelie, beeping his horn. He parked across the road.
This Young man stood, pausing to gaze around at the stalls. His skin looked as if it was made of 70% dark chocolate. Then he began, like all the others around him, to haggle and bid for the prices of goods. Fruits, vegetables, spices. Coca cola.
My eyes began to travel the contours of his body. There were scars on either side of his temples, an arrow shape crossing three bows, a branding. His head was shaven except for the back, which was braided down to the nape of his neck drawing attention to the turquoise necklace; on his arms coils of copper or bronze wound so tight it caused his biceps to stand out. I travelled down the worn jeans to leather sandals before rising up back to his face. He was staring directly at me, his sunglasses in his hands.
Embarrassed, I looked away. I glanced back. He hadn’t moved, just stood there looking at me. He walked up to the café sat down at my table. For a moment I did not know what to do with myself. His audacity left me unnerved but I composed myself and held his gaze.
“You not from here.” He said.
“Lady would like another drink?”
“I’ll buy one if I want another. Do ya always sit at other people’s tables?”
“Only of persons who int’rest me.”
He glanced down at the bracelets on my pale arms.
“We off the same kindr’d spirit.” He smiled.
“Oh really?”
“yes, we like beautiful things.”
“now you’re trying too hard my friend.”
“If we friends then let us go together.”
I laughed at how forward he was. He laughed, hesitating, perhaps worried that I was amused by his broken English. Reaching into his bag of goods, he held out a dark fruit.
“With you? No, I don’t think so.” I laughed again putting the date in my mouth. Now he was feeling unnerved, absentmindedly fingering his ebony ring. A fleeting look at it by me prompted him to take it off. He took my hand, slipped the ring on.
“It’s too big for me.”
“It is not for woman, but it is nice, the ebony and you.” He held my hand tenderly, turning it over in his own, tracing the life lines. A shiver ran up my spine despite the heat. I pulled away, gathered my things.
“well I must go,” I said,” it’s a long walk and I—“
“I take you.”
“No thanks.”
“On my bike. Kawasaki, very fast—“
“I’m sure—“
“—and safe. Safe with bike, safe with me.”
I hesitated. That dangerously adventurous side of me emerged unbidden; he grabbed my hand, dragged me towards his bike. I stiffened and forcibly pulled away.
“Hey! I said no!”
He stood there unsure as I left. Just keep walking. The Kawasaki started up again. It annoyed me that he did not come after. Not that I wanted anything to happen. And what was I doing out here when there was a lodge with a pool, drinks and my worn copy of The Magus to reread? The problem with adventure is it does not distinguish between happy enterprise and harrowing peril. I shouldn’t take the chance.
The Kawasaki whizzed past; the man looped round, a helmet in his hand held out to me. I kept walking. Again he circled in front of me, as people began to shout at him over the dust he was raising up. He waved just as the front wheel slipped, sending him flying over the handle bars landing on his back, fruit everywhere. The coke bottle exploded amidst the uproar of people laughing.
Rushing over to see if he’s broken his reckless neck, I took off his helmet. Slowly he opened his eyes, groaned then smiled.
“You must ride with me,” he said, ”or I looking at you, not road.”
I accepted a ride with this man who didn’t follow the road, but zigzagged across the sand, scaring me with his reckless roaming, diving down dunes until he could no longer stand the beating of my fists against his back.
He slowed down, pointing out at the desert, speaking his own language. Clueless to what he was saying I just stared out at the vastness of Africa, his voice rising, fading in the textured sound of wind upon wind.
“We should head back!” I shouted. He nodded. Closing my eyes, I considered it had been a great adventure, well worth the risk.
The Kawasaki slowed down, and I sat up smiling… until I noticed that we were in the middle of nowhere with a large tent as company. He waved to a group of girls in flowing gowns. They came to carry the goods that he had brought, as they looked at me giggling, asking questions, touching my clothes and hair.
“Listen I have to go back, this.. this isn’t—“ I never finished since a large powerful woman came out of the tent. Ivory rings on her arms, necklaces covered her neck, a long pipe hung from her mouth as she shouted with a commanding voice. The young man answered her back. The Woman laughed. He pointed to me. She clapped her hands. I was ushered into the tent.
They spoke no English which was the start of my disorientation. They revealed ivory arm bracelets, bronze and copper smoking pipes. They made jewellery for trade. At some point I was offered slightly sweetened cool water. I don’t know when the young man left or how long I sat with the women, communicating by gesture. It was as if I had discovered another language, one that needed no words. What I recall with absolute clarity are the beaded corsets. The old woman was especially proud of them. She spoke trying to make me understand.
“I don’t understand what you’re sayin’.”
“She say it was her child cloth.”
I turned to see my wild young man. He’d changed, washed and dressed in beautiful attire—a mix of African beadwork, cloths and Chino pants.
“she say she wore that until she was of age.”
“Of age?” I asked.
“You mean marriage?”
“What is word?”
“Uh well it’s when a man and a woman—“
A single knowing look crossed his face and suddenly I had countless hints that I was over my head in a predicament made worse by the setting sun, its red light following into the tent causing me to stand abruptly, and edge towards the door, feigning friendliness.
“Well it’s been fun… very late you know, haha, should head back.”
‘YES! Now.” The sun was setting fast now, and terror began to grip me. The young man argues with the older woman. The girls have gone quiet. “It’s time” I said, demanding to be taken home, NOW. The man nodded.
As we rode away, I looked back to see the entire family watching. The relief was enormous. Soon night blanketed the desert.
The bike came to a stop. But there was no lodge. No town. Only a large tent that looked like the one we just left. But now the tent is silent containing flickering light of a fire.
“What are we doing back here?”
“It is rude to leave without food eaten.”
I shook my head, as hot anger began to consume me.
“I never see anyone so beautiful,” he said, ”and so afraid.” He smiled, coaxing me inside the tent. I know now, sensuality combined with fear is a temptation few can resist.
Warm and well lit. Incense burned. A low lying table, laden with food, most of which I had never seen before. And total silence found only in the desert.
I sit on cushions as he washes my hands, my feet, with a bowel of sweet smelling water. He talks, saying I had ivory skin and eyes of sapphire; that my lips were red as plums; that he worried I would vanish like a desert mirage as you get close to it, a phantom oasis. Writing these words now, I can’t help but laugh; yet it was intoxicating, the scents in the air, the strength of his hands. His words. I did not know what to do with myself. And I feared and desired to know what he intended to do.
“What do you want from me?” I quietly asked.
“Do you smell the Jasmine—” he quipped, countering the question.
“—sandalwood, Rose, ylang ylang.”
“It’s.. nice.”
He takes some food in his hands and holds it up to my mouth. We stared at each other for a moment. I tasted it. His hand brushes against my lips.
“Good..” I say weakly, ”but I must go.”
“Yes… after we eat.“
We tasted sweet dishes, a collection of flavours found along the trade routes that crossed through Northern Africa. An hour rolled by. In my defence, I tried once more:
“I think its time.”
“Yes. You can’t keep me here.”
He lifts a dark maroon cloth, placing it on his lap.
“Here. Something for you. Remember my mother’s child cloth. That is for wear during time of child. But when woman grows—she given cloth that worn once, for day. Very special.”
He unfolded the dark cloth to reveal an alluring bead bodice, mainly red beads, lined with cowrie shells and polished ivory that he said caressed a woman’s body for one time in her life… He held it up against my chest; When I look up he’s leaning so close I can smell the scented musk of his skin. A lingering kiss on the lid of my eye stills me, a hand along the neck, just a tender brush that unleashed goose bumps.
I returned to the lodge the next day. We never saw each other again. I never even got his name. Another experience embraced once and never felt again. Only a beaded corset, prized amongst my possessions, and a scorching memory of the heart of the Sudan remain as evidence of Africa’s seduction of me.

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