47˚ East 18˚ South 3
The smell of expensive sun cream cut through the salty tang of the sea as we sat, rocking gently in the little boat, waiting to set off to the village. Conversation was muted; an elderly Frenchwoman was complaining to her companion about the flies, which seemed to have taken a liking to her scent. Her leathery hands batted the air in a futile attempt to keep them away, her gold bangles clashing loudly against each other with every movement.
After a short while, the South African manager came out of the cabin and positioned himself at one end of the boat, in order to give us a short speech before setting off. It was blisteringly hot, and as I waited for him to start talking, I noticed the dark patches of sweat spreading across his safari shirt. My legs were sticking to the wooden bench and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and looked around, amused at the wide berth the French had given me – they were all crammed together on the other side, as if they were afraid my Englishness might rub off on them somehow. I smiled to myself, wondering how they would have reacted to Al if he’d been there. If there’s one nationality the French dislike more than the English, it’s the Americans, although they all go there in droves of course. I had asked Al if he’d like to come, but he’d been dismissive;
“Nah - what’s in it for me apart from rip off opportunities to buy overpriced tourist shit? Honey, they see me coming and the dollar signs appear on their eyeballs.”
He’d stepped, dripping, out of the shower, drying himself as he spoke. When he’d finished, he’d dropped his towel on the floor and pulled on a pair of shorts. Fumbling in the pockets and bringing out a wad of notes, he’d held them out to me:
“Here “– he’d said – “give it all to ‘em if that’s what you want. They’ll see you coming and rub their hands together”, and he’d gone off to check the Wall Street Journal online – if there was a connection today; it was always a bit of a gamble. If not, he would have something else to get angry about.
There hadn’t been any point arguing, saying I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being charged more since we had more in the first place. All that would’ve led to would have been a diatribe against – well - everyone and everything. I’d been there and done that and it didn’t bring any meaningful result apart from another tantrum and another ruined day.
I wondered for a minute how many more days we had here, and instantly hated myself for it. It was the same everywhere we went. He enjoyed haggling; it was as if he felt obliged somehow. Every sentence would start with a complaint about how much it all was in dollars. Dollars dollars dollars – who cared? Who cared that they charged us more for everything, it was still a million times cheaper than we’d have paid for the same thing in England – and we could afford it – or at least he could – so what was the problem?
I hated the way he played little games with the locals – one eyebrow raised, then the shake of the head in mock disbelief - the pigeon English “how much you say?” It all made me feel slightly sick, and I’d edge away in embarrassment, hating every second. His misery and cynicism seeped into every corner of life - everything we did, everywhere we went, sucking the joy out of it all. I wondered if he got a satisfaction from imagining he’d beaten down the price a fraction. Or was it just something to fill his life, which was otherwise so empty?
I wondered if he would meet the husband of the woman I’d met in the pool down there too, checking the stockmarket, and whether they’d have a joint tantrum or if they’d arrange to take it in turns to keep the staff on their toes. Then I felt ungrateful, but I wasn’t going to follow his example. I couldn’t. And I didn’t want to. I picked up the money, put in it my pocket, and went off feeling like shit.
The South African cleared his throat and I sat up, pushing my hair away from my face, and tried to concentrate on what he was saying.
“The people you’re going to meet are very lucky - , most of the adults work for us, and we support the whole community with various schemes – education, sustainability, healthcare initiatives … “
As he spoke, I looked at him curiously. His skin was nut brown and looked like leather, while his hair was bleached almost white by the sun. His harsh accent grated: it reminded me of apartheid on the news. I wondered why he’d come here to make a new life. I knew it was wrong of me – to be prejudiced against an accent. For all I knew he might have been the kindest man in the world, He just didn’t sound that way.
“…for all that, they have almost nothing, and when we’re at the village you’ll be offered the opportunity to buy some of the crafts they make..”
He broke off and looked up ; there was a noise of inappropriately high heels tapping their way across the deck, a gust of Chanel, and then a very English voice apologising profusely. It was the woman from the pool.
“Sorry, sorry – lord I fell asleep, excuse me.. could I possibly sit down? – oh it’s you! Lovely- we can do it together”
As she squeezed in next to me, eight elderly French people turned and glared coldly. She made a face at me, and I couldn’t help smiling back. It felt as if we were the bad ones at the back of the class.