Alexis was young, well, younger than I was at least. She was nineteen, and I was twenty-two. It wasn’t that much of a gap, but back home at least I could drink, and she couldn’t. Except, Alexis was from Windsor, Canada, somewhere near Detroit she’d said, so maybe she could drink. But at least I’d traveled a bit more than her. This was her first time out of the country, aside from the US, she’d told me that. She was a sweet girl, really, that’s why we’d hit it off. Alexis was just really nice. She was a bit uptight, but I figured that was because she just hadn’t been around as much as I had. Seen stuff. She was kind of funny, too. When everyone else was partying at the end of the night, having drinks or playing cards around the table, all of the people at the hostel, the Germans and Italians and Israelis, Alexis would seek the solitude of her tent and write, almost obsessively, about the day’s happenings in her journal. She was taking the journal thing really seriously, which was fine, you know, to each her own. She said that she’d never done anything like this, and that she wanted to keep really good notes of everything she did, and who was I to stop her? So I let her do her thing at night, and I did mine.
But we really got along, too, which was nice We’d found similarities in our childhoods, divorced parents, soccer, school plays and musicals – we’d even played the same role of Fastrada in Pipin during high school. After two lazy days of strolling the beaches and getting to know each other, we’d decided to go to Zanzibar together. She was flying back to Canada in a week, and I was heading down to South Africa for another two months of volunteering at an elementary school in Rustenburg. Traveling alone is great, but sharing the road with a companion you meet along the way, no matter how brief, can be a welcomed reprieve from some of the more solitary aspects of making it alone.
It had become apparent, however, that I was a little less reserved than Alexis. I guess we just had different goals for what we wanted to take away from our travels. I wanted to experience everything, as much as I could, and, it seemed, after a few days of getting to know her, that Alexis wanted to observe. Not to say that she didn’t get involved, but even when she was she always seemed to slide a few steps behind everybody else, or step to the edges of the circle, often giving her the appearance of a vulture, circling a pack of lethargic critters, exhausted from weeks of trekking through the mid day’s heat.
On the second day of knowing her, I told her that she ought to try to break out of her shell a little bit, and when she said, “What do you mean?” I wasn’t exactly sure so I said, “I don’t know, live a little,” which is easily one of the lamest things I’ve said to anyone in recent years, like something a best friend screams at the nerdy, bookworm character with bad hair and an overbite who ends up becoming prom queen in one of those dumb, teen rom-coms that I used to love when I was twelve.
The night after I’d said what I said (the whole, “live a little,” I would’ve taken it back if I could have), Alexis hung out later than normal, for her, and had more than a few drinks with me and Tierry, John, and Eli and Mita, the other travelers from the hostel. Eli and Mita, the married couple who are so fucking cute it makes you want to throw up but are also so nice that you can’t do anything but love them, started a drinking game that took the night in a direction none of us had expected. The object of the game was to build a structure from empty beer bottles, shot glasses, and playing cards. Whoever had the tallest building, won. Needless to say, in the pursuit of architectural glory we all got way too wasted. John ended up passing out at the table before his tower was even halfway done. Eli quit shortly after John fell asleep. He’d gotten the idea that he was going to start a fire on the beach, and Mita, lovingly, followed. Tierry, who was cute but not too cute in that tall and skinny, goofy sexy kind of way, stuck around, teasing me every chance he got about my inability to balance bottles on bottles. Alexis burst up from her seat at one point and went and threw up next to her tent, which wasn’t in as secluded a location as, I’m sure, she had wished it to be, because Tierry and I kept laughing at her with every heave. I know it sounds mean, but she kept trying to catch her breath and then just before vomiting she’d yell out, “Ohh God!” We thought it was a riot.
Tierry and I walked to the beach to see what was going on with the fire. After a few minutes of trying to figure out where the hell Eli and Mita went, we saw them, having sex in the ocean, under the bright light of the moon. I’d turned to Tierry to laugh, and he put his hands to the sides of my face and kissed me. He was a good kisser, and I led him by the hand to my tent. I left my clothes in a pile outside of my tent, unzipped the door, and crawled inside. Tierry followed my lead. After a bit of kissing, I pulled out one of the few condoms I had left from the pouch conveniently located inside my tent, tore the packet open with my teeth and went to wrap him up. Based on his height, I would have guessed that Tierry would have had a big ol’ dick, so you can imagine my surprise when I came face to face with what I thought was my thumb. Oh, and for the record, I do not have big thumbs. My hands are perfectly proportional to the rest of my body. The sex, the actual intercourse part of the tryst, was lame. I had sand lodged in between my butt cheeks, and it was warm at night, so whenever we rolled around our skin would pick up sand from the floor of the tent, which, when our bodies moved and writhed created the effect that every sensation that felt wonderful was immediately followed by the lingering tinge of a sandpaper burn. It wasn’t until he went down on me that I started to have a good time, and then I had a really good fucking time. Tierry licked my vag like he’d had one his whole life. I mean it. That boy got his time card, punched in, and went to work. I stopped counting after three, and I was exhausted after a few more so I kind of lost focus, but I’m pretty sure that the night watchman came over to the tent and listened to me moan, because at one point I could see the feint traces of a flashlight through the nylon fibers of my tent, about fifteen feet away. It was either that, or through those moments of ecstasy my brain had released itself from its physical confines and elevated its way to an enlightened, ethereal state, and I’d found god. Which, in hindsight, felt like the unlikelier of the two.
The next morning, I snuck out of the tent to go brush my teeth before Tierry woke up, and Alexis was standing at the sink, brushing her teeth. I asked her how she was feeling, and she gave me a look like I was some sort of lunatic. She looked like she’d had a pretty rough night. I smiled at her, over her shoulder, into the mirror, and she said, “What?” “Nothing,” I said. “You know,” she said, “maybe I’m just the kind of person who has fun in the background. Maybe I don’t need to live like you. Maybe the path you’re on doesn’t sound fun to me. Maybe I’m not you, and maybe we have two very different definitions of what it means to live.” Alexis shut off the tap, grabbed her tube of toothpaste, and then walked away without saying another word to me for the rest of the day.
I was a little shocked at how judgmental she had been. I really didn’t expect such a severe, I don’t know, reaction, and it felt like a pretty heavy-handed thing to say to someone that you hardly knew. I mean, really, I knew that she was insinuating that she had some type of moral authority over me, as if she was a fundamentally better person, or that her self-proclaimed “righteous” decisions would take her further than me in life, or something like that. Which, if that’s what she’d been implying, was complete bullshit. But, I decided to put a positive spin on the entire thing and look at it from the perspective that she was just being a bitch because she had been sick all night and was hung over.
Later that evening, before she turned in to go write in her journal, Alexis walked over to the hammock where Tierry and I were splayed, limbs intertwined like we were in the middle of some airborne game of twister, and she told me that she was sorry for what she’d said earlier. I told her not to worry about it, and that I thought that it didn’t sound like her, anyways. She said, “Thanks,” smiled, and then she walked away. Tierry asked me what it had been all about, and as I grabbed the back of his head and gently bumped his face into my crotch, I told him that he should do less talking. In the morning, Alexis and I were going to Zanzibar.
“My name a Popeye. Mine,” he said, pointing towards the Dhow. “Captain,” Popeye said, pressing his right hand across his chest. Popeye had a wide smile, all teeth, and they were white and well cared for, which was something to note in Tanzania (it meant he had some money). Popeye pointed over to another man who was holding a rope tied to the bow of the Dhow, the man stood on the grass at the edge of the water – the Dhow bumped in time with the small waves that crashed into the five foot dirt cliff – “Silver-Man, first mate,” Popeye said. Silver-man waved us hello, “Mambo mambo,” Silver-man said. “Poa Poa,” Alexis and I said in unison (we’d been conditioned to the call and response of Swahili). Popeye pointed to another man sitting at the stern of the Dhow, next to the two motors, and he said, “He’s Rudy, cabin boy.” All three men laughed, and Alexis and I laughed too.
The sun was just beginning to rise over the Indian Ocean. The Dhow was this old little rickety thing, it was like twenty feet long and maybe five feet wide, and it had a roof over the bench seat in the middle of the boat that was no bigger than a sheet of plywood. It was all old wooden planks that looked kind of like they’d been nailed together and then taken apart and nailed together again, and then left to bake in the sun for twenty years without regard to the violent wear that salt, sun, and time might have on organic materials. But it was floating (at the moment, at least), and I took that as a good sign for Alexis and I.
All three guys, Popeye, Silver-man, and Rudy were wearing these old khaki shorts and faded T-shirts. At least they’d decided on a uniform, I thought, at least they looked like a team.
“Okay, so thirty-thousand each to go Zanzibar, okay?” Popeye said. “Three maybe four hours,” and Popeye pointed out at the open ocean, east. Alexis and I had decided, together I guess, that we were going to take the Dhow across to Zanzibar that Gregory, the hostel owner, had recommended. It was cheaper than trying to get all the way to Dar Es Salaam, and then taking the big ferry across that everyone had been talking about, and it was certainly less expensive than flying from Dar. The Dhow was like twenty US, apiece.
Alexis looked at me, and said, “Can I talk to you for a second.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out a wad of colorful bills with numbers like 5,000 and 10,000 on them, and I handed my money over to Popeye. He smiled and said, “Asante-sana.” “Can you give us a second?” I said to Popeye, and he said, “Hakuna Shida,” (no problem), and he smiled at me and then went back to, I guess, making jokes with Silver-man and Rudy.
Alexis and I walked a few feet away from the grass where Popeye was standing. “What’s up?” I asked her. The sun wasn’t even all the way up yet, and I was already sweating like a God Damn Pig. I pressed my shirt in-between my boobs to soak up the few drops of sweat that were bothering me, and then I pulled my bandana off my head and let my hair down for a second. “I’m not getting on that thing,” Alexis said, under her breath. Her gaze was fixated on the Dhow. I scratched the back of my head and ran my fingers through the base of my hair. My hair felt like it was caked with salt and sweat and sand which, of course, after two months of traveling through Eastern Africa, it was.
“What’s the problem?” I asked Alexis, “They seem like nice guys, and Gregory recommended them.” “Anyways,” I said, chuckling, “The boat’s not that bad.” Alexis didn’t find that amusing – she was being so serious. “It’s going to fall apart in the water,” Alexis said, “and we’re going to fucking drown in the middle of the fucking Indian Ocean.” It was obvious that I’d been rubbing off on her a bit more than she’d wanted, because four days ago, when we’d first met, Alexis didn’t swear at all.
“It’s going to be fine,” I said, tying my bandana back on. “No fucking way,” Alexis said. “Okay,” I said, and then I turned around to Popeye. “Popeye,” I said, “How many times a week do you go across to Zanzibar in the Dhow?” Popeye perked up, I think he liked me, because he was staring at my chest. “Maybe, three four times ev-er-y week,” Popeye said. I turned back to Alexis, “See,” I said. “Popeye,” I said, “How many times has the Dhow sunk?” Popeye looked out at Silver-Man who was holding the rope tied to the bow, and then he looked over the boat like he was really putting some thought into my question, as if it had actually sunk before and he was trying to remember exactly when that had been (which, judging from Alexis’s posture, would have been a deal-breaker, let me tell you). “This Dhow,” Popeye said, “Never. It’s a good Dhow.” “See,” I said to Alexis, “It’s a good Dhow, it’s never sunk before.” “Not even once?” I said to Popeye. “No,” Popeye said. “It’s a strong Dhow in the water.”
“Come on,” I said to Alexis, “we just have to get on that thing for three hours or whatever, and then we’ll be laying on the beach in fucking paradise. These guys literally make this trip four days a week, back and forth. I mean, seriously, this is their job. Wouldn’t you rather trust these three guys than some crazy big ferry out of Dar that depends on hundreds of people and all the shit that can go wrong with big companies in this country?
And I guess that last part settled it for her, because Alexis gave Popeye her half of the money, and then she took Silver-man’s hand and dropped down into the Dhow. I said thanks to Popeye for being patient, and he said no problem in Swahili again (apparently nothing was a problem for anybody, ever, it was crazy), and then Silver-man jumped into the boat. Rudy pulled the cord to start one of the pony-powered motors, we slowly reversed into the middle of the channel, and then we started heading out into the open water.
Rudy took our bags and rolled them into a giant tarp that he clamped shut with two long boards of wood that were jammed into the sides of the Dhow. He smiled at us and said, “Don’t want water in there,” pointing at the tarp. “Asante-sana,” I said. The sun had risen pretty quickly, and since we were going to be exposed for a few hours I figured it was time to put on some sunscreen (the shit that I’d bought in Tanga that cost me almost as much as this boat ride). Popeye, Silver-Man, and Rudy must have been watching from the stern of the Dhow as I rubbed the lotion onto my arms and neck, because they went all quiet until I was done.
There was a nice breeze coming off the water, and with every wave that the Dhow encountered, a bit of mist sprayed up off the left side and the breeze blew it into our faces. The Indian Ocean kept turning from a deep blue into a rich green, depending on the angle that it caught your eyes. Alexis wasn’t really in the mood to talk, I guess, because she sat there with her eyes closed and her arms folded across her chest. She was breathing pretty steady, so I figured she was just meditating or something – trying not to think about it.
I turned around and started watching the three guys. Popeye manned the handle of the motor and was steering the Dhow. Rudy sat on a bucket to Popeye’s right, and he was tying these small fish onto some fishing line. Silver-Man was smoking a cigarette and making Popeye and Rudy laugh. After ten minutes, Rudy threw the fishing lines and bait off the back of the Dhow. Why not fish? They were already getting paid to be out on the water – it made sense to me. The tiny outboard motor had the number 25 in big white letters on its side. I asked Popeye what the second motor was for. He smiled and Silver-Man and Rudy laughed, and then Popeye said, “Backup.”
And then I noticed a little bit of water sloshing around on the floor at the stern of the Dhow. Rudy’s bare feet were sitting in like two inches of water, and he just kept tending to the fishing lines that dragged behind the Dhow. Popeye had his eyes set dead ahead towards the sun that was lit like a fire in the Eastern sky. Silver-man just kept smoking his cigarettes and cracking jokes. Popeye and Rudy kept laughing, as Silver-Man’s antics grew more and more animated. After a few more minutes, there was even more water in the back of the boat. Rudy’s feet were completely covered and he had water up to his ankles. Silver-Man flicked his cigarette into the wind, and it flew away from the boat like a hummingbird changing directions mid-flight, and then it was gone. Siler-Man said something to the guys and nodded at me, and then he grabbed a big red bucket, like one of those buckets that paint comes in, and he started bailing water and tossing it over the side.
The noises in the stern of the Dhow had gotten louder over the past five minutes, and, as a result, Alexis came out her tiff, her meditative whatever. She turned around and looked at the crew. There was Rudy tending to the fishing lines, and there was Silver-Man, with another cigarette between his lips, bailing water from the hull of the Dhow, and there was Popeye steering straight ahead, making slight adjustments with the handle attached to the motor, as we whirred ahead into the bright yellow sun. I looked at Alexis and said, “Every decision you’ve ever made, has still led you here, with me. And regardless of what you think of me, we’re here, in this moment, together. Get it?”
Alexis didn’t respond or even acknowledge what I’d said, and after a minute of staring at the crew, she must have locked eyes with Popeye, because he turned his head slightly to his left, towards Alexis, waved, and said, “Hakuna shida. No problem.”