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Al Martinez

I understand now why Hemingway loved Africa. : Come Back, Roter

October 22, 1987|Al Martinez

We were bouncing over roads so potholed and rutted that I was even beginning to miss the Hollywood Freeway when our driver turned to me and said, "You a roter?"

I smiled and nodded because by then I realized that if I asked what he meant it would just get complicated and we'd never understand each other anyhow.

I, you see, speak mostly English and the driver was speaking mostly Swahili. I felt like a Mexican housekeeper trying to understand the lady of the house.

"What did he say?" my wife asked.

"I don't know," I said.

"Then why did you nod yes?"

"It's an ethnic trait," I said. "When in doubt, smile and nod. Go ahead, test me. Ask me to dust the furniture."

We were in Tanzania.

I realize that's difficult to understand since my column has appeared regularly during my absence, but some things, like astral projection and metaphysical writing, are not meant for mortal comprehension.

Trust me.

We spent three weeks in Africa and, contrary to my own dire predictions, I loved it.

There is no place I have ever been, with the possible exception of an Oakland bar called the Hollow Leg, that is more surreal in its beauty.

Sunsets are not simply sunsets, they are fire in the sky, with burning reds so brilliant they hurt the eye.

Lions are not merely lions, they are absolute masters of their environment, striding through the Masai Mara with all the magnificence of storied royalty.

When a lion hunts, even the wind stops blowing.

The Serengeti. Kilimanjaro. I see them in my dreams. I understand now why Hemingway loved Africa so. It glows. Gleams. A diamond in the sun. Causing short sentences. Few nouns. Occasional verbs.

The toughest part was getting into Tanzania.

Passing through customs is a little like trying to deliver pizza to the Kremlin. The very air shimmered with suspicion.

To begin with, there were four different lines at the Kilimanjaro Airport and no one readily available to direct us to the right one.

When I was finally able to locate someone to ask which line we ought to be in, he said, "All of them."

Oh.

I feel guilty whenever confronted by authority, regardless of its national origin. By the time I got to the guy who checked suitcases for contraband, I was in a cold sweat.

"I know he's going to strip-search me," I whispered to my wife.

"I don't think they do that at airports," she said. "Anyhow, why should he?"

"Because I look suspicious."

"Relax," she said, "you're a tourist, not a rhino poacher."

"Occupation?" the customs officer asked.

"Tourist!" I said, quick as a wink.

My wife cast her eyes heavenward. She was grateful that at least I hadn't said I was a rhino poacher. I tend to crack under stress.

"You work as a tourist?" the customs officer asked, surprised.

"Well no," I said, falling completely apart, "I'm a, er, journal . . . that is, I'm a real estate agent."

He stared at me. My mouth twitched. It always twitches when I lie.

I had been told not to say I was a journalist because in Africa they believe journalists are only a notch above people who tear tusks off living elephants.

"A real estate agent?" the customs officer said.

I nodded too eagerly.

"Passport!" he commanded.

"Gladly!" My hand shook.

He looked at my passport and then he looked at me and I was thinking Dear God, I'm going to die in Africa tied to an acacia tree and eaten alive by red ants.

"I'm a personal friend of Alex Haley," I said. My voice quavered.

"You know," he finally said, handing me back the passport, "you ought to try and get some rest. You look pale."

"I can go?"

"Go, go," he said good-naturedly.

My wife took my arm. "I'm not sure you're going to make it out of the airport," she said.

Africa.

First Tanzania, then Kenya. There was nothing I didn't like about it. The people. The culture. The weather.

I even liked the lesser kudus. Not as much as the greater kudus, of course, but they were all swift and free and grand in the sweep of mountains and meadows.

"I knew you'd like it," my wife said.

It was her idea to go in the first place. I whined and objected and fell to the floor when she first mentioned it. Now I can't remember why. It is the nature of the writer, I suppose, not to go gentle anywhere.

Our driver in Tanzania was named Shabani and he was special.

We were saying goodby at the airport. He must have determined that I hadn't understood his question back on the road, so he asked it again.

"You a roter?"

I answered once more with a smile and a nod.

But this time he persisted: "What do you rote?"

"Oh," I said, realizing, " that kind of wroter!"

The tourist agency had found me out, I guess, and had informed Shabani.

"Well," I said, "I wrote a column. I mean I write a column. But," I added quickly, "not a very important one."

He smiled and shook my hand.

"Come back to Africa, roter."

Count on it.

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