Chauvin’s Travels: Chapter 2

Ibrahim Waheed “Ogaru”, Kalaavehi (writing with tongue positioned resolutely in one cheek)

As mentioned previously, I was slightly taken aback when I disembarked at Male’ International Airport. It was the 25th day of April in the year of My Lord 2001. I had expected a troupe of dancing girls with grass skirts around their loins and frangipani in their hair to welcome me. But obviously my employer had forgotten to send them.

I managed to hide my disappointment. Then I also gave up trying to spot the monkeys, which should have been up every coconut tree. Maybe the locals ate them here. So I shrugged my shoulders and steeled myself for what could happen.

I hid my sense of wonder at the obvious inability of the inhabitants of this small island country. They did not understand how an airport worked, But I proceeded towards a board that said ‘IMMIGRATION’. At least my predecessors had obviously taught these natives something!

The young man at the counter was all smiles. He was as brown as a nut and had perfect teeth. I also found out that he could have showed some of those young pups at Charles de Gaulle a thing or two about courtesy. He knew how to respect his betters. He smiled his winsome smile and welcomed me to his land. I also noticed, with a pleasant jolt of surprise, that despite a quaint soupcon of an innate Asian lilt, his English was exceptionally good. Yes, someone had taught these people good European civilization.

The young man stamped my passport. I went to look for my luggage at the carousel. Now that was another piece of very sensible equipment I had not expected here. I told myself that this was a very primitive land after French colonization.

I retrieved my luggage. I had only seven pieces. Now, that was a small number for a French educator coming to a native land. But some people looked at me like I was some creature! Not minding that, I piled my bags gratefully on three of the trolleys provided. Then I set off in the direction indicated by the exit signs, keeping a sharp lookout for coolies. I did not intend to carry my luggage all the way to the water taxi!

Suddenly, I felt a firm hand on my elbow. A very polite young man was asking me, in amazingly grammatical English for a native, to kindly stop and accompany him. I jumped in surprise. His arm badge immediately identified him as a customs official. I had completely forgotten about customs. I had forgotten that these days how the UN mollycoddled some of these very small and insignificant countries. I had forgotten that these small counties also had the power to pry into the private luggage of citizens of powerful countries. This young man was obviously showing that to me now.

The young man insisted. I tried to palm fifty francs to him and whispered to him that I was in a hurry to catch a water taxi to go and meet Jacques, the powerful resort owner. The young man looked insulted, and insisted on my opening cases for inspection. He took out from his pocket a mobile phone. A mobile phone! Obviously, if the man was rich enough to afford one in this poor nation, my tip had not been large enough! Therefore, I tried pacifying him with more baksheesh. That did not work either. I was soon sweating in my safari jacket and under my pitch helmet. So, I resigned myself to fate, and settled down to what I knew was going to be a long inspection.

The first trunk I opened contained my supply of canned food. I had been sensible enough to bring with some decent, civilized food. Such food was rare and dear in these parts of the world.

The customs inspectors looked in obvious confusion at the profusion of jars and cans inside the trunk. They were quick with the ones that had pictures on them. They dismissed the recognizable tomato paste, the pineapples and the peaches. They fixated on the Kraft cheese I had brought along for emergencies. They asked me to open a can.

I tried to avoid opening the can of cheese. I explained to them how good cheese was made. But they insisted. So, using the opener on my Swiss army knife, I reluctantly opened a can. The young man and his friend sniffed at the cheese, poked it, removed a piece, and gingerly tested it on the tip of his tongue. They say that cheese is an acquired taste. Luckily for me, the young man had never acquired the taste. He quickly lost interest in it, shaking his head. I saved the opened can for use later on in the day.

Then they turned to my corned beef. My precious corned beef, which I had brought all the way with me because I had heard enough about Asian beef. I knew that Asian farmers fed their livestock on anything they could lay their hands on cheaply. Their butchers had a near-perfect ignorance of basic hygiene. Nothing but good, disease-free, scientifically-raised, healthy beef from Britain for me! Luck was still with me after all. After the boys had had their play at my beef, I had a full can to save for later use as well.

My other trunks did not fare well either. The customs boys opened every one of them. They shook their heads at the rolls of toilet paper and raised their eyebrows at the Perrier. They prodded my soaps and shampoos. They sifted through my all-inclusive first aid kit in wonder. They finally pounced on my supply of Stella Artois beer. Obviously, the boys knew a good beer when they saw one. They insisted on keeping the three cases I had brought with me. I tried to bargain with them, offering to trade some of my Cadbury chocolates for one case of beer. But the boys kept saying something about religion and law. I gave up, intending to write a strong letter of protest to my embassy.

It took me two hours to finally escape from the customs boys. By that time, my fellow passengers had all disappeared. So had my beer and my Playboy collection. So had the coolies. That, however, did not stop me. I knew that there was always a coolie in any Asian country when you needed one.

So I went under the last exit sign, straightened my pitch helmet, patted down the creases on my safari jacket, drew myself to my full height, whistled hard, and in the most authoritative baritone I could summon, yelled, “Coolie! Here, coolie, I say!”

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