I’m on the backseat of a motorbike. There are two people ahead of me – there’s the driver, and then there’s someone in-between us.
We’re bobbing in our seats as the motorbike navigates the sandy, bumpy darkness ahead of us. In the gleam of the yellow headlight, I can see a glimpse of the formless ground ahead.
The guy in front of me, his breath smells like alcohol. Like gin.
I think it’s gin. There’s this brand of Chelsea gin that’s extremely popular in Lagos’ roadside stalls. It’s gin in a small satchet – like the size of satchet travel toothpaste. I think it’s extremely popular because people can get a quick shot of alcohol for like fifty Naira. Which is practically the smallest denomination of the Nigerian currency you can actually buy anything with these days.
Generally whenever I come across people in the street whose breaths smell like gin, I just assume its the Chelsea satchet gin – it’s that ubiquitous. Extremely portable: Commercial bus drivers can squeeze in gin shots while they drive along the expressway, and commercial motorbike riders can sip on some quick alcohol in-between rides – In Lagos that thing shows up everywhere and in every possible situation.
So we’re here in the dark, bobbing on this motorbike as it careens about in the sand. And every now and then I get hit by this guy’s gin breath.
His breath reminds me of Grogue. Traditional Cape Verdean rum.
That’s what comes to mind whenever the whiffs hit me.
In fact, right now his gin breath is making me think of one night in particular:
It is dark.
I am drifting along a cobblestoned square somewhere in Espargos.
Espargos, Sal Island, Cape Verde.
I feel tired. Tired and listless.
I’m dragging my feet across the contours of the cobblestones – the square is quiet.
I think there’s some sort of a pop-up market thing happening here. There are rows of wooden stalls on both sides of me.
They are all empty.
I keep walking in-between the rows of quiet stalls – at some point I walk into one and sit down.
I feel directionless.
My living space was burgled earlier in the day. My things were stolen. My computer was stolen.
My phone was stolen a little over a week earlier. That incident made me relocate elsewhere. And now the new place has just been burgled.
I’ve generally been strapped for cash, and so accommodation security – that hasn’t really been something I can afford.
Gap year struggles.
Usually I just get a place with shelter and privacy. Things like security aren’t guaranteed.
And now I’ve been dealt a double-dose of worst case scenarios.
Right now I’m not angry. I’m not sad, not really.
I’m just tired. Like, spent.
I don’t even feel worried. The MacBook was my last way of conveniently connecting to the internet and communicating with people I knew before landing in this country. Losing it – that was what I was worried about.
Now that it’s been stolen, there’s no worry left in me. Like, what more can happen?
I’m looking around in the dark empty wooden stall, and I’m vaguely reminded of the Christmas markets in Europe. They have a similar vibe. Wooden stalls arranged in rows, all out in a wide open space.
Right here in the dark, the general ambience of these stalls make me feel like I might as well be somewhere in Europe right now. These markets aren’t all that different in the dark.
I leave the stall and keep drifting through the square, still dragging my feet across the contours of the cobblestones.
I am in a bar.
A local Cape Verdean bar.
Cape Verdean Creole is being spoken all around me.
The interior walls of the bar are a shade of blue – what shade exactly is difficult to tell in the dim light. Or maybe I’m just too unenthusiastic about life to care right now.
It’s a small bar. Its really just a few benches along the walls, and a chest-high platform in front where the bartenders pour drinks.
I’m seated in corner. I’m not sure what my physical posture looks like on the outside, but on the inside I’m cowering. Life has been dealing me some really hard knocks.
Opposite me there’s a group of Cape Verdean men. I’ll say they’re like late forties upwards. They’re chatting excitedly, in-between sips of grogue.
Local Cape Verdean bars will have the smell of grogue permanently emblazoned in your brain.
I envy their excitement. They seem so carefree. So playful. Excitement is an emotion that is so far away from me right now.
There are two people on the other side of the bar. Initially it was just one boy – teenage-looking, serving drinks.
He has just been joined by someone who I think is his elder sister. Light skinned, mid-to-late twenties likely.
From her dressing, the impression I get is that she works in hospitality somewhere – hotel, restaurant – somewhere. She’s here for a bit to help run the bar her family owns, right before heading for her night shift at work.
That, or she just completed her shift at work and is now here for a bit to help run the family bar.
That’s just the general impression I get from looking at her.
The sounds from the laughing Cape Verdean men are a bit different now. Now there’s some playful flirting with the teenage bartender’s older sister.
Ahaha okay 😄
I don’t completely understand what they’re saying in Creole, but they’re definitely teasing her.
She’s one female in a room of chattery tipsy men. She’s definitely the centre of attention.
I take glimpses at her from my end of the room. Through the shadowy lens of my present despair, her skin is gleaming in the dim light of the electric bulb.
She’s completely ignoring everybody. It’s like she has everyone on mute in her mind, and she can’t hear any of the loud playful teasing from the laughing group of Cape Verdean men.
She has to be just about heading for her shift. Her indifference feels fresh. I doubt anyone’d have this much resolve right after hours of work.
At some point one of the laughing Cape Verdean men orders me a drink.
I have no money. I don’t know if I was craving alcohol, but I was definitely being amused by the happenings in the bar. My posture/body language was probably conveying my emotional state, and he felt for me.
I express my appreciation to him, and obtain a glass of grogue from the unconcerned bartender who is just about to go start her shift and has absolutely no time for us.
I recede to my place on the wooden bench and begin to sip on the small glass.
I haven’t felt this in a while.
This feeling. This feeling of being taken care of.
The feeling of having someone provide for me.
I haven’t felt it in a while.
This gap year has been me thinking about practically every aspect of my life, on my own.
The kind gesture of the laughing Cape Verdean man makes me realize this, very starkly. In a way I don’t think about on a day-to-day.
For a brief moment in time, I feel safe.
The sort of safety you feel around your parents as a small child – like that. Like the world is this huge cushy blanket you’re wrapped in, and you don’t have to think too hard about anything because someone else has all of that taken care of.
Strange that this feeling would ever be something I would need to be reminded of. When it used to permeate most of my life until not that long ago.
I wonder how much more the laughing Cape Verdean man can figure out on my behalf. I wonder how much more of my problems he can automatically discern and solve. Maybe he can help me find the people who stole my computer and retrieve it from them with his mysterious laughing-Cape-Verdean-man superpowers.
I don’t know.
I keep sipping on the small glass of grogue, completely submerged in my inner listlessness, hearing the bubbling laughter and Creole conversation on the fringes of my perception.
Vroom Vroom Vroom!
We’re still bobbing in our seats as the motorbike navigates the sandy, bumpy darkness ahead of us.
I’m still getting hit by the gin-breath of the guy in front of me.
The gin breath that smells like Cape Verdean rum.
Image: People playing a roadside gambling game in the streets of Santa Maria, Sal Island, Cape Verde.