My cab driver was a young man named Cornelius. He has a wife and already five kids, and lives in a patched together sheet metal shack on the wrong side of Ushanda’s perimeter beltway. Like lots of Ushandans he steals government electricity from a bootleg transformer and an extension cord. He showed me a photo of his family standing in front of their ramshackle house. He seemed eager to talk. Especially about Country Western music.
He wore a pink shirt and said he loved Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. And Kristofferson. Cornelius sang a soulful rendition of Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down as we zig-zagged our way along Mombazi Boulevard, past the foreign embassies, some now empty, and into the downtown district. He wasn’t bad. He does karaoke two nights a week in a Ushandan club.
We entered the curved and cracked asphalt driveway of the Ushanda Hilton at about 3 PM. The sunlight now slanted through the decorative palms, but the heat and humidity had become even more oppressive. Cornelius said that modern Country was just overproduced pop music now. I agreed and paid him. He seemed very happy to get American cash. Tanzanyishan paper dollars are virtually worthless.
Like the once gleaming buildings of the business district, the hotel is a reminder of better days – when foreign investment was still seen as a plausibility, and also a shabby symbol of lost hope. It is air conditioned, barely, although this God-sent amenity often relies upon a diesel generator rather than Ushanda’s over-taxed, and unpredictable power grid.
At the lobby desk some problem was not getting solved. Africa.
A well-fed, but obviously frazzled American, wearing a crumpled white linen suit and white shoes, with a wild shock of white hair, was arguing volubly with the desk clerk. A high-pitched Southern twang held forth. Nearby stood a sad, starched, yet wilting woman of indeterminate age, all too familiar with the script.
Ah have a reservation, dammit! I am sorry sir, but we do not have it here. Well you better look again, son, Ah’m from Texas, and Ah’m a doctor! Sorry sir, but I cannot find a reservation for you.
Reservation? The place was damn-near deserted. I figured out pretty quickly what was going on. Ugly American Doctor was getting jerked around by a Third World hotel clerk. He would get his room all right, but not right away. I was enjoying the performance, but I was becoming damn thirsty, too. Peeking meekly around Doctor Phogbound I gave the clerk a quick wink of approval and asked if I could check in. I had a reservation. Marlowe. Yes, sir!
In need of something cold I headed across the lobby to the hotel bar, leaving the dreadful Phogbound in drawlful fulmination.
Ah’m a colonel. By Golly, Ah’m important! Ah know a congressman!
I had an uneasy feeling our paths would cross again.