Hundreds of black African heads moved like bubbling and boiling chocolate, oiled and polished by a noon-day tropical sun. The narrow city street had a ten-percent grade up to the base of the Malabo volcano, the edge of jungle, and from my point of view just the very top of a hundred heads could be seen. It would have made a great movie, as it is so vivid in my mind.
The sun was oppressive, as usual, and heat waves refracted in the blue haze of cooking-fire smog. It gave the illusion that the avenue-full of bobbing heads were floating in a sea of molten tar… It sounded, like the rumble and mumble of a distant equatorial storm, drifting with the smells of fresh-baked bread, urine and sour fruit, and the scent of a purple vine that stuck on the sides of every dilapidated building… and as it fermented in a hundred degree heat, it blanched your lungs with one hundred percent humidity.
This was central Africa and it’s pure breed of Negro, darkened to deep ebony by eon’s of adaptation to heat and sun, and though they seemed to be nothing like the milk-chocolate blacks I knew in The United States, Malabo was the last emerald-green their ancestors would ever see of the Ivory Coast as they filed into the hole of a slave ship…
Though I was about as tanned as my French heritage would allow, I stood out stark white in comparison… and yet I felt safe enough, as my optimistic and disillusionment would have it, but I knew the score… Just a few years ago a coupe sent the Spanish occupiers packing, and a man of my shade of pale could just as easily have been murdered in his sleep, or brazenly shot on the street. Those who are in power here are survivors and the victors of those days, and they rule the rest with an iron fist. Those who oppose them are completely obliterated, and that means their entire family, close friends, and any records too. And in the middle of this slaughter, one-third of the population ether fled, or is buried somewhere deep in the jungle. Yes I know fear, I can see it in their eyes, and it follows them like a shadow everywhere they go. The powerful others have bloody daggers in their eyes.
To my co-workers, we all seemed very vulnerable, and so they tried to adhere to a general guideline set forth by others, like us, who had come before: Travel in groups; wear insect repellent, don’t go out after midnight, don’t eat or drink after anybody, drink only bottled water, eat no raw vegetables, and bla-bla-bla, no pictures… No pictures? Sorry, no can do. And oh, remember that there is more HIV, yellow fever, hepatitis, and malaria here than any other place on earth, and the reason you are the only one with gray hair… in Africa, if you have gray hair, you are considered an ancient survivor.
And so I’m going to tell you a survival secret, a way of making yourself inaccessible while traveling, and virtually invisible to the average person. I have done this from Japan to Hong Kong, from Tunisia to Equatorial Guinea, and it works. It was a simple idea taught to me by a fellow Navy man, Gary Hammitt, who survived two West Pacific tours to Vietnam before me: Wear reflective bubble glasses.
With glasses, your eyes can not be seen, and that is the primary method people use to gauge or size you up. Without a look into your eyes, they can’t read what your next move is going to be, and if they are attempting to do you harm, they can’t tell if you are aware or not. When they can’t meet your gaze, most on the street will move aside for you to pass, and few hawkers will ever attempt to sell you anything, even falling silent. It sometimes feels, especially in the more dangerous of places, like a flashlight parting the way. And as you turn to look over your shoulder, those who might be focused on you look away and pull back… You can be a stranger in a strange land and be safe, relatively… Of course, if you act as if you belong there, with an air of confidence, you can walk just about anywhere on this earth, and it can open doors for some amazing adventures too.
So this brings me to a little story, and one I even have a hard time believing happened, but it did. It was a drunk policeman dressed in army cameo-green, with an M-16 in one hand, a pad of yellow paper in the other… and he waited in the shadows just a half block for the Pizza Place, at 03:00AM, to painfully poke me in my belly with his rifle. He couldn’t see my eyes, but I could see his, and I took his gun out of his one-handed grasp with a lucky back-swing… He jumped back like he was electrocuted, with a comical look of a fool, and ran from me into a dark alley yelling not to shoot… I held the antique by the barrel and tossed it into a dirty and dented silver trash can, and ran to my apartment for all it was worth… I shook till the sun came up, and all the way to the airport too… but I tell you true, I was lucky. It could have gone very badly, but in retrospect I suppose he came back later and found that weapon, and thought it best to keep his mouth shut.
But I have known the likes of those kinds of men, and all through my life. They would take everything you have, even your life, and justify it all on some dark and twisted out-of-date religious principle, taking orders out of fear, and some just for the fun of it. I knew that, and I accepted that as part of the experience, as in this thick mass of people, a blade in my back would have gone virtually undetected. I was braving these circumstances for one thing only, I suppose, and it wasn’t for the pictures… it was the adventure I wanted. And because of this need, overpowering and without regard for anything else, I traveled without company approval, without government license, with only my young guide Rubina, whose father was a lieutenant in the Army, …we traveled through the jungle on a tiny ribbon of road from Luba to Malabo… But I’m not entirely nuts. I trusted my instincts, and know now that they were most probably just a testosterone delusion… Ha!
Being raised in New Orleans, the murder capital of the US, I have learned to be suspicious and constantly aware to the point of absurdity anywhere I go. Out of that dilemma I found myself far safer in most of the world than the bowels of Bourbon Street, the crack-shadows of St. Ann, or the perverse decadence of the French Quarter, and in reality, I was safer in the snake-invested jungles of the Atlas people then my own home town. There are but a few who spoil this world for the rest, and bring most of the misery that plagues us, and it gave me a comfort, a safety shield, to wear my bubble glasses. And there are other shields as well, like a smile, a kind word, and something sorely lacking, respect, and with that, and the grace of God, I’m here to tell the tale.
Author’s Note: I lost a good pair of Ray Bans in Saudi last year. That day the temperature was well over a hundred and twenty, with a mere six-percent humidity. That is a lethal combination for plastic, and when I dropped them they shattered like glass. Now that sir, is adventure.