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Atlantic Abroad
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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • Brando's Birds (Marshall Jon Fisher, France, October 22, 1997).

  • Dinner at the Gostilna Novljan (Chris Berdik, Slovenia, October 8, 1997).

  • The Dacha Regime (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, September 25, 1997).

  • Blazing Telefonini (Tom Mueller, Italy, September 8, 1997).

  • French Games (John Robinson, Madagascar, August 27, 1997).

  • Heaven in a Ballotin (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, August 13, 1997).

  • The Tentative Tourist (C. Michael Curtis, Spain, July 30, 1997).

  • The Sausages of Wrath (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, July 16, 1997).

  • Classic Tricks (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, June 25, 1997).

  • Alone on the Brink (William Langewiesche, Chile, June 11, 1997).

  • Globetrotting with the Doozer (Jeffrey Tayler, Greece, May 29, 1997).

  • The Car as Social Barometer (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, May 14, 1997).

  • Of Bird Songs and Buddhas (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, April 30, 1997).

  • The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie (William Langewiesche, Chile, April 16, 1997).

  • Beware the Eighth of March (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 2, 1997).

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  • creekhd picture
    Nigeria -- November 5, 1997

    One clear day this past rainy season in Nigeria, I took the flyboat, or motorized launch, from the city of Calabar, on the country's southeastern coast, ten miles up the Calabar river to the village of Creektown. The daily arrival of the flyboat in Creektown generates the closest thing to excitement that the locals know. Children gather to peer at the debarking passengers, elders emerge from their thatched huts to see who has turned up.

    When I stepped onto the half-sunken dock, I was greeted by the portly and balding director of transportation, who meets all visitors. He took my hand and led me up the road to the town's main palm-wine bar -- a rickety porch in front of a cavernous room stacked with green bottles. Over the porch hung a sign that read PALM WINE -- 5 NAIRA (ten cents). The bar served as the informal assembly hall of the village. A soldier, a farmer, and an elderly mulatto woman were holding their daily court. Two were Efiks, the other Imbibio (the two ethnic groups of Creektown). Their lingua franca was pidgin English, though with me they tried to speak the standard language.

    The brown river flowed sluggishly through the mangrove swamps below; across the road, palms, giant ferns, and the flooded forest shimmered in the humid heat. The drowsy proprietress scuffed barefoot out of the back room, bearing a tray of unmarked bottles and ocherous calabashes which she placed on a table slapped together out of cinder blocks and driftwood. Naked toddlers snoozed in the corners.

    "Ahh, this bar, this wine, this is all we need," said the director, who passed around calabashes and filled them with white, frothy fluid from the bottles. I took a sip: the wine was pungent and sweet, but the calabash, still pliant, added a gamy bouquet. He explained how they tapped the juice into gourds from the lower branches of the palms, then left it to ferment for three days in a dark room.

    "It is pure juice from the palm. Palmy is very healthy for the body, just what you need to cure malaria. It makes you power." Smacking his lips and closing his eyes, he guzzled his wine.

    The soldier leaned forward, calabash in hand. His sunglasses began riding the beads of sweat down his nose. He arrested their slide with his forefinger.

    "I am a force man," he said, smiling and revealing his pea-green teeth. "Creektown is my original home. My posting is Lagos. Lagos! One who has been to Lagos cannot describe it to a Creektown man." Most people born in Creektown would go no farther than Calabar in a lifetime. The only regular visitors from the outside were European missionaries, whose villas stood on promontories above the river.

    "Oh ho! This palmy is stimulating me!" the transportation director declared, pulling his cardigan over his head. Sweat was dribbling down his brow. The other magistrates of the assembly were executing a rhythmic mime of raising and lowering their calabashes, slurping their wine, and wiping away their sweat. The director stretched his neck and gyrated his head, which wobbled on his round shoulders like an unsteady top in its final circumvolution.

    Pointing to each assembly member in turn, he said, "Efik, Imbibio, Efik. We are of different tribes here but we find the variety very pleasant indeed. Oh, on the contrary, very pleasant!"

    The old mulatto woman, a sharp-nosed and rail-thin teetotaler, addressed me. "My daddy was from Madrid. Mummy from here. He have gone back to Madrid and dead, and she have dead soon after. I alone but for Aunty, and Aunty is ill. Me, I have the fever."

    "Drink some palmy and cure yourself, woman!" said the director, who was sitting ramrod straight, waiting for a belch to pass. He relaxed, then straightened his spine again, wobbling his head; a soft burble parted his lips. "Oh, this palmy!"

    "Me I don't need palmy," she retorted. "I need European medicine, good God I do!"

    The palm-wine assembly roared with laughter, and the proprietress went for more bottles. We sat, sweated, imbibed, and burbled -- Imbibio, Efik, and American -- until, just before dusk, the flyboat captain left to start his outboard, and the director, on wobbly legs, led me back down to the dock.

    Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. He has recently written on Moscow, Transylvania, Siberia, and Zaire for The Atlantic Monthly. He contributes regularly to Atlantic Abroad.

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    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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