I glide along with the chaos in the streets from the back seat of an aged, corroded Toyota sedan. No matter how much the taxi jerks and weaves, how many horns fight for auditory supremacy, how many rogue animals decide without warning that this instant, right now, is the perfect time for them to walk out into unruly traffic, I manage to find a sense of stillness being stuck inside my metal shell between checkpoints.
I’m certain that the International Conference on Taxi Driver Etiquette must insist that any self-respecting taxi driver’s second order of business is to engage in jilted small talk surrounding geography and weather.
“Where ah you from?” His kind eyes twinkle in the rearview mirror awaiting a response.
“Ahhh, Ca-Na-Da. Very cold now, yes?” His Rs lick at the cusp of an L sound.
“Yes, very cold,” I affirm without adding too much complexity to my vocabulary. “Lots of snow.”
“Ahhh, yes,” he says, processing this foreign concept. “Very cold.”
I try to add a few extra words in an attempt to be less curt with my deliberately stunted English, but I find no solace in this kind of inane chit-chat with strangers even in my native land. Especially the kinds of strangers who are notorious for taking advantage of foreigners. (The first order of business at their Conference is to remind all taxi drivers that priority number one is screwing over the naive tourist whenever possible.) But you see, I’m no longer a naive tourist. At least, I try not to be. I’ve learned my lesson—more than once—with many a shady taxi driver in the past. So naturally, I’ve already done my homework. This ride should cost me no more than 500 shillings. He did not argue with me when I had confirmed this price.
“Mm,” was all he had said back, concluding the exchange.
The rose-gold-dusted sidewalks are alive with a cacophonous mosaic of human moments.
An endless row of vendor tables—and the people minding them—hide best as they can beneath the limited shade of giant beach umbrellas boasting the names of common brands: Coca Cola, Heineken, Airtel… They sell everything from used shoes and old luggage to SIM cards and electrical parts to piles of fresh picks of the day, which include pyramids of mangoes and apples, buckets of tomatoes and onions and potatoes, and entire truckbeds full of pineapples.
Men dressed in knock-off brand name athletic wear, men wearing simple dress shirts and freshly pressed slacks; women in long flowing kanga robes and patterned headwraps, women in fitted pencil skirts and expertly crafted short-cropped wigs, women in plain tank tops and tight-fitting jeans with long braids pulled back in a thick, high ponytail.
Two men wrapped in traditional Masai blankets walk along the side of the road. Their bright thatched patterns of reds and blues always catch my eye first. They block the glare of the sun from their cellphone screens as they stroll next to each other.
One woman in an emerald green dress, which is long enough to tickle the tops of her sandalled toes, walks tall on the other side of the street. She has an infant slung up on her back in a toto wrap made of yellow and purple kanga and balances a tarp-blue bucket of water on her head—without spilling a drop—while carrying her impossibly pink handbag in one hand, and chirping into her cellphone in the other. She moves more slowly than the others around her; not because she is weighed down, but because she chooses her pace with intent. The pink handbag hangs loose, brushing at the suggestion of her lower leg under her dress as she walks, poised and proud, with goddess-like grace along her path.
Next to a stall adorned with assorted mannequins—all with appropriately wide hips to sport the latest in local ladies’ fashion—are three lanky young men in a dusty clearing between shacks. They stand watch over several wooden crates akin to oversized lobster traps all stuffed full of frantic chickens, waiting to be fetched by… whomever might need a bursting crate full of live chickens.
A man with the tone of an over-zealous radio personality waggles on in Swahili over a loudspeaker. Following him on his moving perch on the back of a truck are the sounds of popped up reggaeton beats, transposed ever downward as we move away in opposite directions from each other in the road.
The most brazen of hawkers walk along the middle of the streets, offering roasted nuts, current local periodicals, and gummy, grilled ears of corn dry-rubbed with lime and chili up to the people in the raised windows of passing buses. One gentleman thrusts his newspapers towards my window. I smile and politely shake my head as we scoot past him.
Once past the busy intersection, I roll the window all the way down, inviting an aromatic bouquet of heavy black exhaust, barbecued street meats, and dry dust in with the breeze. I lean back into the headrest and smile into the smell of local life.
We come to another standstill in the road while big imposing trucks and buses painted in rainbow prayers honk at each other in another language. A man walks along the sidewalk next to me, mere meters away, just to my right. He is tall and proud as he passes by, blissfully unfazed by the chaos; he is one with the madness. Slim and strong, he wears a light blue button-up shirt with his sleeves rolled neatly halfway up his forearms. A striking contrast to the skin underneath, which is the shade of fresh ground coffee. I watch the hypnotic oscillating dip of his broad shoulders as he continues on his trajectory away from me.
The bus in front of me lurches slowly forward; my taxi driver follows. We run parallel to the path of this very tall, very dark, and very handsome type whom I now can’t seem to take my eyes off. A light brown leather messenger bag is slung over his shoulder, jostling lightly against this thigh with every step. His hand rests over the flap of the bag, dark fingers and pink nails drumming to the beat streaming from his snow-white earbud headphones. His other hand sways loose from his wrist, bound to his body by the shining band of his silver watch.
I study the roll of his footfall from heel to toe as we approach him yet again. And for the fleeting moment that my car lines up with him and matches his gait, he turns suddenly to look at me. Though mine are hidden behind sunglasses, we lock eyes.
I’m startled by their clarity; I had not expected the irises to match the crystalline-blue of his shirt. His gaze, framed by a strong, serious brow, is searing, welding us together. Without planning my movements, I lower my sunglasses down the slope of my nose. To get a better look, perhaps, or to assure him that I see him too. The soldered alloys binding our pupils pulls my field of vision back behind the car as we continue to move past him to keep our gaze fused. His full, stern lips curl upward to one side, flashing the slightest glint of shimmering pearl at the corner of his angled jaw.
The withdrawal does not go unnoticed as my taxi drags me through the intersection. I slump under the weight of it as we turn down another street entirely.
I sit alone at my table. My pretty young server brings me a frothy cappuccino and a large bottle of water. I decide to read for fun before I dig into the responsibilities waiting for in the virtual world.
But I can’t seem focus on the words. Maybe it’s the dusty heat, but my mind is abuzz with everything and nothing. I close the book and wrap both hands around the mug of hot coffee as I look out to the sidewalk traffic from my table on the covered terrace of the city cafe.
My surprise inhale is sharp and I nearly choke on the milk froth when I see him. The diamond-eyed man I’d spotted on the street last week is walking up the road in this very moment. Today he wears a plain grey t-shirt and dark form-fitting denim jeans. The wind presses any loose fabric tight to his defined ledges of sinew and bone.
Shamelessly staring in his direction, I hope to catch his eye. But when we make contact, I realize that this as far as my plan went. My mouth goes dry when he slows and crosses the street, beelining towards me.
He treads deliberately up the cafe’s veranda steps and into the shadow of its awning, prying the buds from his ears, rolling the cord around his fingers, placing them gently into his messenger bag.
“Mambo.” His voice is as deep as his complexion.
“Poa.” Nearly a sigh, awestruck by this incredible coincidence.
We exchange shy smiles and look away—to the side, down to the ground, under our fingernails—searching for the next step. He stands at the edge of my table, fingers lying still on the flap of his bag, looking to the seat across me, then back at me.
“Karibu,” I say, welcoming him.
“Asanti.” he says in thanks. “You speak Swahili?”
“A little,” I say. “Still learning.”
The pause is broken by the server. Her look is undoubtedly questioning as if to ask Is everything is okay here? I smile, assuring her, Yes, it is.
He exchanges customary pleasantries with the girl and orders a coffee for himself.
When he turns back to me, he uses the same typical ice-breaker as my taxi driver. “Where are you from?”
“Canada,” I offer—intentionally vague. “Where are you from? You speak Swahili, but I do not think you are from the coast.”
He says nothing, waiting for me to continue.
“I think…” I add, squinting through the sides of my eyes at him, “you are from Botswana.”
His eyes twinkle between the shadow of his brow and the high ridge of his chiseled cheekbones. “Why do you think Botswana?”
“Because,”—(fermata)—“your eyes are like diamonds.”
For my talk of sparkling gems, he exposes his pearls to me again.
“You are very beautiful lady,” he says, grinning wide.
“Asanti sana,” I say, accepting his compliment with genuine grace.
“I saw you in your car the other day, I think.”
“I know. I saw you walking first.”
His name is Marcel. He is a doctor. A surgeon, actually. Specializing in gastrointestinal cancers and disorders. Our dialogue is simple, stunted by the frequent requests for repeats in shifting tongues, trying to simplify complex thoughts and navigate mistranslated words and phrases. But the exchange is agreeable all the same, filled with blips of silence and grins full of unrestrained curiosity. It feels as though we’ve known each other for much longer than this cup of coffee.
He checks his wristwatch. It seems he has somewhere he was supposed to be and is likely late now.
“Thank you for sharing with me your time, ah?” he says, gathering his bag to sling it over his shoulder again.
“Karibu sana,” I say, looking all the way up the brilliant shadow that is him.
He reaches out to me—his hand is rubbed smooth and pink, as if daily life has sanded away some of the pigment. He takes my hand in his, wrapping his fingers gently, precisely around the bones of my hand. Looking down as he strokes his thumb over each ridge, he says, “Jayne. May I see you again?”
“I would like that very much.”
I pull my hand away from his only to rummage through my bag for a pen. I scrawl my new local number on the dry edge of my napkin and pass it to him.
“Supper,” he says, examining the piece of paper he has just accepted from me, tracing the feminine loop of my 3’s. “Maybe tomorrow is okay?”
“Tomorrow is perfect.”
“Good.” His vowels are as long as his smile is wide.
Marcel takes two steps backwards, smiles his goodbye and turns to head away, down the steps and out to the street. He looks back at me only once as he plugs his headphones back into place, grinning even wider until he finally keeps his gleaming eyes towards the direction in which he is walking. The cotton of his t-shirt wisps and billows on his back like it too is desperate to hold him closer.
In a crowd where most stand tall, I can still see the light grey cuff of his collar peeking through the sea of dark bobbing heads and rainbow kanga patterns until he rounds a corner.