I feel alarmed, then alarmed and nauseous, hoping he won’t force me to eat it, accompanied by a lecture on nutrition and the benefits of fish eyes and fish oil. He should have been a doctor, my father. He claimed to know everything about nutrition. Raw eggs, cod liver oil, green leafy vegetables. I got to know them well as a kid. Not my best friends at mealtime but I had to get to know them well, even pretend to like them. No chance of getting up from the table ’til every trace gone from my plate, supervised relentlessly by my father only doing what was best for me.
The gulls squabble and struggle over the gills, pulling and tearing until interrupted by a cat. A stray cat. The dogs lying lifeless in the afternoon heat couldn’t care less.
No one here seems to own any pets. All the cats and dogs appear to be strays. Of course, pets are a luxury in countries like this. The cat look looks scrawny, just like all the others. Life is tough for a cat here. Always looking for a meal, sometimes it becomes the meal. Cats are a delicacy in some parts.
The gulls win again, flying off with the head. Blood, guts and skin remain for the cat.
Across the road, a line of coconut palms struggle as well. These are not like the ones I’m used to. The coconut trees of my childhood and youth were angular and cranky. Trunks bent in impossible directions by the wind. Some of them almost bent in two like the old men and women who sell the fruit. Bunches of coconuts nestled under a tropical umbrella of healthy leaves providing some shade and a measly livelihood.
Not like the ones I’m looking at now. No leaves. Just trunks. Thin sticks poking out of the ground like flagpoles from a forgotten era.
Seems like they’ve been this way for a few years. The old woman sitting nearby tells me that they weren’t always like this. That there were many more. They used to grow all over the land and even on the beach, she said.
I wipe more sweat from my forehead. I am enjoying sitting here. I like the heat, the wetness under my armpits, seeing the perspiration glisten on my brown forearms, now almost black even after only a few weeks in the African sun.
I close my eyes. I let my heat soaked mind wander aimlessly. I remember the lazy afternoons of my childhood.
The bright purple of the Bougainvillea creeper screams out to me, crawling over the archway at the front entrance to my father’s house, it’s thorny branches protruding and protecting.
The trees in my father’s garden sway in the hot afternoon breeze. The only things moving. Even the dogs lie prostrate in the shade. Too hot for the gulls, too hot for the cats.
Too hot for my father, sleeping off his boozy Sunday lunch.
Not too hot for me. Ten years old.
Me, who loves the sound of the hot tar squelching under my rubber sandals. Me, who loves to stand barefoot on the hot sand, perversely feeling the heat burn my toes. Me, who loves to feel the sun burn into my shoulders and arms. Me, who loves to feel the sticky shirt on my back.
Twenty-something years and thousands of miles away sitting under the mangos watching the dogs lie comatose and feeling the heat of the ground burn through my sandals, I feel like I’ve been here before. I feel like I know this place. Familiar, very familiar, yet it’s different. I wonder if I could live here. ‘Will I fit in? Will I ever fit in anywhere?’ I muse, but don’t really care at the moment. I’ll worry about that tomorrow.
The sun still burns my forehead.
My shirt still sticks to my body and the leafless coconut trees try valiantly to sway in the occasional huffs of wind that blow from the Atlantic coast a few minutes away.
The sea too smells familiar. A heady mix of smells and memories from my childhood.
The smell of rotting seaweed, drying fish, dead crustaceans washed up on the beach, all mixed in with that characteristic smell common to many urban beaches in undeveloped countries. A smell that I know well. One that lingers in my nostrils, sometimes barely discernible, camouflaged by the thousand smells of human toil. Sometimes overpowering and unbearable. The smell of human excrement. The smell of shit wafts across from the beach. A minefield of brown mounds laid randomly on the shiny yellow sand. A smelly silent barrier between the sweltering heat and cool relief.