November 10, 2008
The sun is already heavy in the sky as I unpeel a banana so sweet it could be candy. Smoke curls up from the mud huts along the path, hidden behind the palm fronds. A woman skins cassava root, and leans over a pot of boiling water. Two kids kick at a makeshift soccer ball while the rest of the team comes to a dead stop to watch me pass by.
The mango trees will soon bear ripe fruit, and the coffee trees are beginning to show a blush of red in the berries. From every tree weaver birds as bright as lemons hang from the branches. I’m listening to my iPod, just to make my personal space a little bigger. The idea falls flat—my earphones must be invisible because still, everyone wants to chat with me and run alongside me, imitating my walk. Groups of sinewy guys, all lanky and solemn-faced edge towards me, studying me with long hard looks. When I smile, a warmth floods over their tough exteriors and they are quick to ask me how I am.
I walk a little faster, feeling the pull of the beach. At Anderita, I find the calm that I crave. The fishing boats are making their way out again as the moon becomes fuller and the fishing becomes easier. The sardines are attracted to the silver shine of the moon. Three women make their way up the hill with colourful pails of wet fish balanced on their heads. The tilapia tails hanging over the edge of the pails flop and bounce with each step the women take.
I stare out towards the islands, and the fishing boats that inch towards them. I am so distracted that I’m tripping over the uneven surface of the road. I smell tilapia grilling down at the beach, and hear the familiar clink of Tusker beers as UN workers and ex-pats begin another night of boozy stories and exaggerated tales of lives lived.
Goretti’s is largely empty, but it is still early. I see the pizza oven burning hot and bright, and the forearms of the staff working in tandem, rolling out dough in anticipation of the night’s customers. Soon they will have candles lit in brown paper bags to cast a buttery glow along the path to the beach.
Five vervet monkeys hesitate when they see me approach—they wonder if the iPod in my hand is possibly something to eat, but carry on after a nervous closer inspection. A bare-chested boy in too-big shorts and dusty flip-flops insists that I buy some of his pineapple which he has expertly cut with a machete. I decline, only because I have no shillings in my pockets.
I slow my pace once I find myself alone. I have the honeyed voices of Jann and Joni in my ears as the sun sinks before me, and clouds move and shift across the bruised sky, low to the lake. The moon is smudged, its edges are blurred—but you can actually make out a face. I notice the hot prick of two stars on the horizon—they must be planets, they are so bright.
Looking out at the lake, I think of all the lakes that have shaped my memories. As kids we couldn’t wait to pile into the Oldsmobile on a sticky July day and head to the eternal summer of Port Dover. Lake Erie always smelled like dead bodies, and the seaweed clung to you like a creepy wool sweater, no matter how deep you were. We did handstands underwater and swam until we had hiccups. Our eyes would sting with pollution, but pink shoulders and a one-piece with a crotch full of sand never felt better. We begged and pleaded our parents to stay forever, we were sure that we could live on the beach and be Robinson Crusoe-like. Finally, we would collectively cave for the promise of salty fries and footlong hotdogs as big as our kid-arms at The Arbor. The peach glow drink was the colour of piss and hardly sugary enough for a child, but we thought it was magic. Our fries looked like murder scenes with so much ketchup, and our footlongs dripped mustard and fluorescent green relish in sloppy gobs on our t-shirts. The aggressive seagulls that called The Arbor home (or heaven probably) were brave enough to pick fries right out of your hand. When my parents had had enough of the crowds and the shiny hot rods ripping along the beach strip, we’d head home. We’d be scratchy and crawly from the lake water and sand in every conceivable place, but, life was all lollipops and sunshine, that was for sure.
Red Pine and Bark Lake are embedded in my heart with stitches as tight as Port Dover. Those were golden years, when I went to summer camps in the leafy Haliburton Highlands. I was never homesick. I was the kid who would be at home, campsick, because I missed the oily black waters of northern Ontario, the fireflies and haunting loons, campfire ghost stories and root beer and Oreos for breakfast.
I have lived vicariously through dear friends who have owned cottages on dreamy lakes like Buckhorn and Go Home Lake. I think of bitter October weekends, trying to brave one more weekend on the water with those friends, and the sky spitting snow at us. Denny insisted that we have a turkey on the barbecue that Thanksgiving on Go Home lake, and by god, she braved the blizzard and pulled it off with a flask of scotch. Buckhorn summers were of reliable bliss and mosquitoes that drained us all of blood until we gave up and went inside the boat. Eventually we would reemerge because the stars in that sky above Buckhorn were like a chandelier.
But the river, I loved the glide of it, and how the seasons moved with its current. Ice flows as big as cars would push along with the flotsam of the Grand, and soon give way to the March rush of water that was the colour of chocolate milk. Spring would bring the fisherman angling trout but catching catfish, and vocal red-winged blackbirds clinging to the reeds. The fox would be so striking against the new shoots of green, his black socks pulled high on his flame orange coat. Summer days never died and I sat on that dock until my blood flowed the same as the current below me. Fall brought fog so thick that the river disappeared, and it felt like Vietnam. My life on that riverbank was a quite a chapter of sunsets, and oh, the stories that dock could tell!
I walk home from Anderita, my mind skipping across oceans from east to west—from jig-fishing in PEI to poking at purple starfish in Tofino. I turn my head to catch the last of the sun as it slips into Lake Victoria.
I walk alone, but with the world inside me.