“How are you, ma’am?”
This is how the nights here go:
I recognize him, vaguely maybe, he has a mustache and he is shining a flashlight in my face. I blink at him and I do not answer and the torch beam slides to the innards of my dark room, under my bed, across my desk.
“Just checking for squatters, ma’am. Thank you, none here, good morning!”
It is 2 a.m. on a Wednesday, and I have no squatters.
I fell into a hard dreamless REM two hours ago and now there are sirens, red with blaring sound, ripping through my head and my room and my sleep, and voices on megaphones, and I sit up the way they tell you not to in yoga, in savasana, you’re supposed to roll over right fetal up slow eyes closed but no, I fly, awake before I am aware, out of bed clothes on and it’s a fire drill.
I knock on Leigh’s door, and then I knock on Funeka’s, and they both stare at me blankly as though they have never heard of a megaphone or a siren or even a fire. We walk outside and there are lights flashing, blinking, people running by in dark pajama’d blurs, and we stand until Funeka sighs and locks the door and starts for the stairs, and we follow, and I am blazingly awake, and I notice the robes and the towels on heads and the negligees and I laugh because what ridiculous creatures we are, and our children aren’t even born yet to show their incredulity at what we use to cover our bodies.
This is what I think about when I am jolted out of bed for a fire that does not exist.
And then we go downstairs and This Is Africa: fourteen minutes for 500 people to escape a fictional fire, now stand in a never-ending clump of pushing grumpy people and sign your name or we will fine you. I am on the top of the world, giddy, maybe I am drunk, I love this and I am the only one.
Funeka signs my name.
Or last night:
Some number that is meaningless, someone said forty and attached to that a degree, and I shrugged, but what it means is windows thrown open and not a chance of a breeze in the hottest night you can imagine. So there are no covers and I stare at the ceiling and then I get up and wet a washcloth and sponge myself off, and it’s cool for a minute, but it dries quickly and as it dries it itches, and once it’s dried it still itches, and then I hear a high sharp bzzzzzz, and I realize I have thirty-four mosquito bites on my body, and so when you are sticky and salty and itchy and hot and you are on your back and then on your left side and then on your right and you’re considering venturing into the unexplored terrain of your stomach, you turn on the lights.
I take a 4 a.m. bath.
Or most nights:
I sleep straight through, and maybe something happens but I am unaware and I wake up with a solid barrier guarding the day before and all the days preceding.
One night the mountain was on fire.
We galloped to a friend’s room and hung out the window, watching like it was a movie, the orange burn across the mountain behind our university. We could smell it, and the next day too, and as I rode the bus and went to class and turned in my paper I thought, the mountain is on fire.
These are things that happen at night in Africa, but also in everywhere, and that is what is in my head: I am everywhere.
Things are normal.
We ride on the left side of the road and we drink soda out of tiny tin cans and we get sick and we get healthy and we go rafting and we go visiting, and we are in Africa, but we are also everywhere.
We are tourists and we are students and people sleep in Africa like they sleep everywhere else, Americans and Africans and Everywherians. And when you are awake because of the squatter inspectors or the mosquito or the heat or the fictional fire or the real fire and you you stare into the hard gaze of a flashlight, you are aware suddenly in a way you cannot be anytime else of the bizarre juxtaposition of humanity and non-American.
There is a moment, which you do not remember and you cannot later identify, when you slip from Being In A Foreign Country to just Being.