by Julie Titone
The boy is naked. To shield his groin, his mother ties a scarf around his middle. He sheds it during his dash for the ocean. She laughs, lets him run about starkers for awhile. She calls to him with words that I recognize only as German and playful.
I am impressed by the cut of the mother’s black bikini and the body that gives it shape. She rises, retrieves the crimson scarf, takes the two-year-old back to the blanket and offers him bottled water. She ties the scarf around him again.
Why doesn’t she simply sunscreen the bejesus out of the boy? Maybe she did that before they reached the beach. Or maybe no one warned her about this West African sun, how it permeates everything so deeply that you even feel it at night, radiating from the red earth. I am lathered up even though I stay under the cabana most of the time.
The scarf falls to the sand again. When the boy runs back to his mother, his cherubic private parts bounce. He’s going to be burned there.
I wince and head out for a swim, joining the two friends who brought me here. Rita is truly my friend, though a new one. The other is her colleague from the American embassy, a man with a sharp wit but a soft body. He is fond of the locally brewed Guinness. His name is Richard.
“Damned peaceful here. Hard to imagine that wars are going on anywhere,” Richard says, bobbing and squinting toward Rita, who has returned to the cabana. “When do you leave?”
Tomorrow, I say. It’s a good assignment. Good as in adventuresome. “It’ll be my first time in Central Africa.”
“No cabana beaches in the Congo,” Richard says as he dog-paddles to shallower water and anchors his feet in the sand.
“Just river beaches,” I answer, coming up to stand beside him. “Possibly mined.”
“Hard to imagine a day when Condé Nast does a spread on the latest DRC hotspot.”
Richard’s sunglasses are spotted with salty drops. He turns his ruddy face southward toward the open water.
“I’m sure you’ve talked to our people, done your homework. It’s definitely dicey there.”
“I’ve done dicey. Belgrade, Benghazi.”
“How old do you think I am?”
“Sorry. Not old at all. I jumble the dates of all those damned civil wars. I do know they’ve been going at it in the Congo since long before you or I hatched.”
“True. And just as one rebel group seems to be calling it quits, that fanatic Kony moves in from Uganda.”
“Exactly. Never-ending mayhem.”
“My story is about how the LRA is getting pushback from a network of Congolese activists. They’ve got high-frequency radios and document the abductions, the rapes, the child soldiers.”
“I’ve heard of that bunch. They pass along information to the UN and Human Rights Watch,” says Richard, whose gets paid to know something about almost everything. “Good guys in the middle of hell.”
It was that glimmer of hopeful news that got me the assignment. I convinced the editor that it wouldn’t be just another story from hell. I don’t tell Richard how pitifully the magazine is paying me and the Kenyan photographer who was going along.
“We’ll see how far the fixer and NGO contacts can get us into the countryside.”
“Maybe you’ll get lucky and be forced to sit in some worn-out conference room instead of bumping down godawful roads,” Richard says.
“Floating down a mosquito-infested river, more likely. Sitting on bags of rice.”
“Well, I’d be back in Kinsasha in whatever passes for a bar, waiting to hear tales of your exploits.”
I laugh, though a rogue wave of anxiety is hitting my gut. Typical jitters. I’ll bring back a story from whatever I find. I’m like the Ghanaian street kid I met who carves oddly shaped sticks into animals. He sold me a stick dog that is lifting its leg. The dog makes me grin, but is hard to fit into my minimal luggage.
A month of living on the Ivory Coast, and I have yet to see a thundercloud. Today there are no clouds at all. The blue-green water swells and falls, as if the horizon itself is a dragon rousing from sleep. There’s a speck out there, maybe a foreign ship that is helping to decimate the fishing industry here.
Something plastic and slick wraps around my right ankle. One of those omnipresent black shopping bags, no doubt. I shake it off. God knows what’s been in it.
I head for the cabana. Its thatched roof makes me think of jungle villages, the ones you see from the air connected by footpaths.
A waiter comes around.
“Akwaaba,” he says, putting a bowl of peanuts on the table. “What may I bring for you, madam?”
The waiter wears a pressed ivory shirt and flip-flops that haven’t been worn thin. He has a touch of white at his temples and a formal air out of sync with a beach bar. Would he know what a screwdriver is? Probably. Still, I order orange juice and vodka and resume my discreet ogling of the Germans, who are twenty-five feet away and closer to the water. The woman and her husband—I assume they are married—are thirty-ish and Teutonic blond.
Is the Speedo-wearing man a Gerhardt, or a Helmut, or a Wilhelm? He has a swimmer’s sculptured legs and strong shoulders. His wife must have a movie-star name. Ingrid.
If Ingrid were a photo, I would assume she had been digitally altered into perfection. I imagine her eyes to be as blue as the blanket beneath her. She is lying on her back now. Her tanned abdomen is so flat that it’s hard to believe it was ever swollen by pregnancy. But nearby scampers the little male version of her.
He reminds me of my own son, who learned to walk on California beaches and now spends his time flirting with college girls. This little guy’s sturdy legs pound back and forth. Are his soles made of asbestos? The buff sand is almost too hot for my feet, at least until I reach the wet rim that is lapped by the Atlantic.
The mom has given up trying to keep the boy covered with the makeshift loincloth. The dad scoops him up and they play in the surf. A few minutes later the boy is crouched at water’s edge, digging with an orange plastic shovel. I lower my sunglasses to see if his haunches are really getting as pink as it appears from behind the gray lenses. He’s going to get a bad, bad sunburn.
Rita’s gaze follows mine. She has thick auburn hair and wears a sun hat except, I think, when she’s in bed with her Togolese boyfriend.
“Can you believe she’s letting that fair-skinned kid run around naked, in the middle of the day, next to the water?,” I ask. “Good God, we’re only three degrees north of the equator.”
“It’s not the most clueless thing I’ve seen German tourists do.”
“Should I say something?”
“They might not appreciate it.”
“True. And they might not understand me.” The language barrier strikes me as a convenient reason to mind my own business.
“I saw how you handled the ambassador in that interview last week,” Rita says between sips of soda water. “You had him by the balls, in the nicest sort of way. And Frau Bikini intimidates you?”
“Domestic affairs are not my specialty.”
Rita gives me the once-over, then stands and slips on her sandals.
“Most of them speak English,” she says. “If not, I can try French.”
After making a show of swiping more SPF 30 on her arms, she saunters over to talk with Ingrid. The surf drowns out their words. Ingrid shields her eyes with her hand as she looks up at Rita, who chats for a minute before offering the yellow tube of sunscreen. Ingrid smiles and says something. She doesn’t take the tube.
Rita returns and resettles into the lounge chair.
“English,” she says. “She said the boy’s skin is sensitive to chemicals, so she thinks it’s better for him just to get the sun. She laughed it off. Obviously, the bronzed goddess doesn’t worry much about overdosing on the sun herself.”
“He has sensitive skin? This is like watching child abuse. The boy is going to be in pain. He won’t sleep tonight.”
“Which means none of them will,” Rita says.
Serves them right. Ingrid especially shouldn’t sleep. Maybe her beauty prejudices me against her. I’m irritated with myself for not being just as hard on Gerhardt/Wilhelm/Helmut.
Everything irritates me now, including the beguiling ocean with its hidden trash and all the things that must be done before my morning taxi ride to the airport. The less clothing and gear I can carry on a trip, the longer the packing seems to take.
I must get back to Accra. Rita and Richard protest the early departure from the beach, but I remind them that we’ll have to stop for every stray goat and stalled vehicle on the rutted coastal highway. Plus half a dozen police and customs roadblocks. There will be ripples of tension as we wait to see if bribes will be sought and the weary-looking officers gauge their chances of getting cash without an argument.
We head for Richard’s Range Rover. I glance over my shoulder and look past the palms that separate the road from the beach. The ship, no longer a speck, is now clearly a fishing trawler of gunmetal gray. At the shore, I see the bare backside of the boy. He is reaching up to hold his father’s hand.
Rita touches my arm.
“He’ll be fine,” she says.
In three hours the sun will turn red and make a quick exit. In six hours I’ll be twisting under a sheet, dreaming of thatched roofs and pale skin on fire.
Julie Titone’s articles and photographs have appeared in regional, national and international publications; her essays have been published in three college textbooks and two literary collections. She is co-author of the memoir Boocoo Dinky Dow: My short, crazy Vietnam War (2012) and the novel Deadline Affairs (Books in Motion, 1992). She received a Kiplinger Fellowship in Public Affairs Journalism at Ohio State University and a Ford Motor Co. Environmental Reporting Fellowship, which took her to West Africa. She lives in Everett, Washington, and works for Sno-Isle Libraries.