WRITER: Writing samples
A sample of my writing below, excerpts from my recently released second book, Politically Homeless.
The Crocodile Dinner
Since I was at UN Headquarters, I took the opportunity to drop by Angel’s office to bid her good bye. As we shook hands she asked me if I had experienced my assignment to the fullest.
“I think I did,” I said, “I explored the jungle, took a trip on the Congo river, crossed over to Brazzaville several times, and admired their beautiful church that seems to rise from the earth to blend with nature. I made the acquaintance of several interesting individuals at WHO‘s (World Health Organization) regional headquarters there. I did not care to try cured monkey, but I had a sumptuous dinner with snails and garlic sauce, though I couldn’t keep it down very long.” Right then I remembered my violent reaction to it. “And oh! I forgot. My houseboy’s Moambe was delicious.”
“Did you try crocodile meat?” she asked.
“I considered but I couldn’t bring myself to try it. Besides, I wouldn’t know where they serve a crocodile meal.”
“My houseboy is very good at cooking it. Would you like to try?”
“I’m leaving the day after tomorrow, on a commuter flight, for a week in Bukavu. I’m all packed except for final touches. Tomorrow is my last day in Leo. I’ll leave immediately upon my return.”
“Why don’t you come for dinner tomorrow then? We‘ll have a good chat before you leave.”
It sounded like a good idea but what if it interfered with my digestive system, on the eve of my trip?
“Have you ever eaten crocodile?” I asked.”What does it taste like?”
“It’s like veal,” she said.”You wouldn’t know the difference.” On a second thought she added: “It’s somewhat heavier than veal.”
My ex-roommate, Miss Lisette, a veteran of nursing in the Congo, had told me that crocodiles were stripped of their skin and cut to size while still alive. “In the absence of proper refrigeration there was no other way to keep the meat fresh,” she had told me, “they have cold blood, you know. They don’t feel as much pain as other animals.” How did she know? I chose not to believe her. It was certainly a cruel method, if true, but then, in a country where human life was treated with little value the way massacres went, butchering a crocodile was of no consequence.
I hesitated for a moment. Opportunity strikes only once.
“Sounds good. Thank you for the invitation.”
“Call me at the office tomorrow morning,” she said. “Sometimes the meat is not readily available. I’ll know for sure then. Come anyway.”
I felt guilty. I wouldn’t be sorry if the meat were unavailable. Do I really have to do this? Well, since I’m here and it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity . . . turn that voice down! I’ll call it off tomorrow. No . . . tomorrow is too late!
The next morning I lingered somewhat. I waited for a reasonable time to place the call. When I finally did from my neighbor’s telephone Angel confirmed the dinner plan. It was too late to pull back. Reluctantly I retrieved a dress from my tightly packed suitcase for the occasion.
I had misgivings all day. I was not a great animal-lover but the idea of skinning a live crocodile repelled me. Angel had gone to great lengths at short notice to please my palate. I hoped Miss Lisette was wrong but she usually made sense. Cattle were one of the casualties of independence, totally consumed without provisions for reproduction. Goat, chicken and fish were still available. We could purchase frozen beef at the UN Commissary in hunks, but without a label I could not tell from which part of the body the meat came, or even if it did belong to the beef family, or how long it had been frozen. In comparison, crocodile meat rated higher, fresh from the beach. I tried to concentrate more on the experience aspect of it, rather than the consumption, to appease my guilty conscience.
The table was set when I arrived at Angel’s house, elegantly casual for a temporary abode. Leopoldville had remained relatively safe during the secession war in Katanga in the East. Life went on as usual with the regular civilities, white tablecloth, shining silverware, clean glasses and impeccable napkins. The fact that our insecure situation might turn fiery any minute was not given a second thought. One cannot live forever in fear otherwise he/she should not venture out.
We had a drink with appetizers and chatted about the future. Angel was three months pregnant, an occasional hazard in the Congo where reality is somewhat blurred. She would go to England for her delivery.
I was going to my assignment in Togo and who knows where else? In the meantime I helped myself to appetizers amply, to make sure I wouldn’t go hungry if the crocodile meat did not suit my taste.
Finally we sat down at the table, my heart pounding until the chef brought in the “pièce de resistance.” I thought it would jump off the serving plate. Instead the meat looked like an ordinary roast for all I knew. The chef served me three slices, then piled mashed potato and boiled vegetables on my plate, mentioning that we would have cheese and fresh fruit later.
I took a bite. It did indeed taste like veal except that the meal was tarnished with thoughts of the carnivore’s behavior, along with the way it was butchered. Much as I tried I could not forget that this animal is cruel, given half a chance. I recalled the popular “you are what you eat” aphorism. I was raised on lamb, goat and chicken, pretty harmless domesticated animals. Would I become aggressive like a crocodile from now on? Wine pushed my meal down. I could not go beyond one slice. I preferred to concentrate on the mashed potatoes and the vegetables on my plate.
My “chef’s delight” was a memorable dinner in every other respect. We sailed through the cheese and fruit to the coffee and I opted to forego the “pousse-café” because my tolerance of alcohol was weak. Angel knew how to put company at ease. Time slid away. It was getting late. I made sure I had her address for future correspondence. I did not have a definite address myself because I was moving to Togo and would have to get established before arranging to have mail sent to my home.
Even though my taste buds and my conscience were forever tainted with the taste of crocodile meat that evening, I tried to forget the main course and looked forward to another adventure awaiting me - travel to Bukavu on a UN commuter plane.
. . .
Keeping Fowl Company
(on a commuter plane from Leopoldville to Goma)
I looked at the toy sitting in the middle of the tarmac. Could I trust my security to its wings?
I started my ascent on the rope ladder clumsily, hoping to meet the stewardess at the top. Wishful thinking! Barely an inch inside the door, my carry-on bag followed me in a half arch orbit. The cabin was a little rugged, with four dusty seats. I sat down on the front seat by the door. Some boxes had already been placed on the stretch in front of me. I was having second thoughts about my flight.
The mail bundles came in first, thrown in from the tarmac, basketball style. Then the vegetable crates, some containing fresh radishes and cabbages, were carried up the ladder, to avoid the impact of a breakage in case they fell down. Paperwork followed, packed in cardboard boxes, addressees clearly marked. Finally the young man came up the ladder to put some order in it all. He made a reasonably neat pile in the center. He asked if I was comfortable and said I would have company. I beamed back with great expectations. Soon I heard some cackles that sounded like a foreign language. It didn’t matter who they were as long as there would be a human sitting across from me.
The man leaned out the door to take a dozen chickens bound together around their feet. He placed them on top of the pile, like the icing on a cake. A second down was taken in. By the third dozen I was ready to fly out of the plane, but the bundles were in my way. I was a captive passenger already. The man exited. A few minutes later the pilot climbed into the cockpit and we took off unceremoniously, without so much as an introduction. Was he aware that there was another person on his flight?
Breakfast was obviously foregone, and lunch would certainly not be served during our five-hour flight, unless I picked a live bird. Oh, did they cackle, these loud chicks, looking straight at each other with bulging eyes, beaks open, ready to fight for territorial rights! Each pushed the other to gain an iota of breathing space, shrilling nasty messages to their captive companions. I’m not sure if I wanted to laugh or cry at my predicament. I wanted to lend a deaf ear. I might as well try shutting off the sun blazing right at me through the window.
As we gained more mileage the heat in the cabin mounted. Pungent odors emanating from the radishes and cabbages, combined with those emitted from the fowls, overpowered my perfume already worn thin with profuse sweating. An occasional feather flew in my direction. I followed its trajectory, hoping it would not land on my hair. I diverted my attention to counting the banana trees in the plantations below, anxious to reach my destination before we used up all the oxygen in the cabin. I was hungry, disillusioned and a bit apprehensive about the wisdom of throwing myself into space. Did anybody know, back in the office, that I was on this plane?
Two hours into the flight, the disputes were still hot and the voices no less shrill, when a deep, white fog enveloped the plane. Lightning beams were followed by rumbles of thunder a few seconds thereafter. For a split second the fowls stopped their negotiations, stupefied by the flashes of light. Then, as the torrential tropical rain relentlessly pounded the window panes, the fowls screeched in unison with each roar of thunder, a thirty-six member chorus of chicks. In the absence of a maestro to conduct this celestial cacophony, I was tempted to unbuckle from my seat. I had to bring some order into this chaos. My good intentions vanished the moment I took a step forward. Though I had the benefit of height for once, I lacked equilibrium. I fell back and buried myself deeper and deeper into my seat, dreading the moment they might break loose into the cabin.
I prayed for “peace on earth” but we were in the skies. Would the prayer hold? “Chicken, chicken, everywhere and not a bite to eat!” Hunger roared in my chest, making last night’s crocodile dinner look like a luscious meal.” Lord, give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses for thinking of eating a live chicken.”
I must have fallen asleep from heat exhaustion. A few jolts warned me that we were slowing down. Outside the window the earth looked closer by the second.
Dignitaries from the Eastern Office of UN operations were waiting at the deserted end of the tarmac. After we came to a stop I waited impatiently, until the cargo was unloaded. The chickens were taken out first but their din buzzed in my ears for a long time, to the point of making me dizzy. The vegetables followed, leaving behind a trail of pungency mixed with chicken sweat, magnified to the nth degree in the heat. Gravity helped in throwing out the bundles on the tarmac. I must have looked like a ghost from another planet, probably reeking with cabin odor, when I appeared in the doorway, dressed in a flared skirt and high heels.
“Bienvenue, Mlle. Terzian!” called out the supervisor of the operations, waving for me to come down.
My feet trembled. I started to go down the rope ladder slowly, manipulating the ropes with dexterity under six pairs of watching eyes, until one of my heels became entangled three rungs away from the ground. In my efforts to hold on to my purse, and free my twisted leg from the rope I let go of it and slid out with a spectacular back dive onto the tarmac, skirt flaring like a parachute, exposing me more than I cared to, to the top brass of the organization.
One of the gentlemen rushed forward to lend me a hand.
“Welcome to Goma,” he beamed, pulling me up.
I learned the meaning of “commuter plane” the hard way. Of course, by now the gentlemen were “intimately acquainted” with me. There was no need for introductions.
. . .