In Angola, a Dollar and a Meal

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

Correction Appended

In the last slanted softening of late afternoon light, against the squealy repeated note of one small insect's cheep, under the bird-haunted acacia tree towering over the bare trampled compound, and near Camillo's derelict-looking car, dirt footprints on its doors -- Camillo had been kicking it barefoot in fury for its refusal to start -- an old woman approached through the sunlit risen dust.

She held a chipped enamel bucket in one hand and a long pair of metal tongs in the other. Her hair was wrapped like a bowl in a yellow cloth, this turban making her an unusual presence, giving her height and dignity and a look of quiet anticipation. She wore a limp blue dress that fell to her ankles ending in a tattered hem, and an apron that had once been white. She was barefoot, but her feet -- her only indelicate feature -- were as big and battered as shoes. No one paid any attention to her or to what she was carrying. In fact, Camillo stood aside, gripping a Cuca beer bottle as though he were about to throw it. His eyes were empty, and he looked less than futile. His body seemed uninhabited.

We had come north, crossing from Cunene province into Huíla province in southwestern Angola, but what did it matter? We were stuck for the night, at least, and maybe longer. Light was leaking sideways from the sky from membranes of cloud, leaving purpled tissue just above the horizon.

The old woman made directly for me. "Old" is probably inaccurate: she was undoubtedly much younger than me, 60 or less, but had the aged face of a kindly crone. I was standing apart from the others, who were drinking, and perhaps drunk. I looked for a log to rest on, but saw nowhere to sit, and the car seemed cursed.

Holding the bucket up so I could examine its contents, the woman smiled at me and worked the jaws of her rusty tongs.

"Boa tarde," she said, but it seemed more like evening to me.

At the bottom of the bucket were three pieces of chicken -- legs attached to thighs. They were skinless, shiny-sinewed and dark as kippers, as if they'd been smoked. Each one was covered with busy black flies, and flies darted around the hollow of the bucket. It was more a bucket of flies than a bucket of chicken.

Squeezing her rusty tongs again, the woman asked, "Qual?" ("Which one?") Though I was hungry, I waved her away, retching at the thought of eating any of those chicken legs. Yet I had not eaten all day, and it had been a long and tiring journey, of harassment, of the border crossing, of the sight of misery and naked children playing in dust, flies crawling on their eyes and in the sores on their bodies. The off-road detours had been especially exhausting from the bucking and bumping of the vehicle. And the checkpoints, the shakedowns, the roadblock dictators.

The woman was smiling because I was smiling. The absurdity of "Which one?" had just struck me -- three identical pieces of chicken in the dirty bucket, each of them specked by skittering flies; an existential question to the stranger in a strange land.

"Não," I said. "Obrigado." ("Thank you.") Something in my smile encouraged her and kept her there, rocking a little, flexing her bruised toes, running her tongue against her lips to show patience. She was gaunt, and she herself looked hungry. But I said no again and, shoulders slackening in resignation, she turned away, making for the others, who were standing in a group still drinking bottles of Cuca beer.

A muscle twisted sharply in my stomach and yanked at my throat: the whip of hunger.

"Olá!" I said, and she turned to me, looking hopeful. "That one," I said, pointing at the one with the fewest flies on it. "Frango," she said in a gummy voice, as though naming a delicacy, and she wet her lips with her tongue and swallowed, as people often do when handling food. Then the word spoken all over Angola for cool, or O.K., "Fixe" -- feesh.

She folded my dollar and tucked it into her apron.

I borrowed Camillo's cigarette lighter and made a small fire of dead grass at the corner of the compound, and I passed the piece of chicken through the fire, believing like a Boy Scout that I was killing the fly-borne germs. Then I found the log I'd been looking for and sat, and slowly ate the chicken. It was like chewing leather. The straps and thongs of sinew wouldn't break down, and its toughness made it almost indigestible, my chewing turning the meat into a rubber ball.

Queasy over a meal he called a "mess of bouillabaisse," Henry James said that it was "a formidable dish, demanding a French digestion." Maybe I needed that. I was defeated by the food, and disgusted with myself for being in this position, and I mocked myself with a pompous phrase I'd heard a foodie use on a TV show: "I regret to say this dish is not fully achieved." But it was something in my stomach, and that was a victory in this hungry province.

Then I replayed my first glimpse of the bucket -- the chicken, the flies and the old woman asking "Which one?" It was the sort of choice you were faced with in Africa, but I had never seen it so stark, in the extravagant splashes of a florid sunset.

Adapted from Paul Theroux's new book of travels, "The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), out this month.

Correction: May 7, 2013, Tuesday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to Angola's location in Africa. Though the country is situated on the continent's western coast, it is not in West Africa.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here