“I want to be your friend.”
Christian was tall and skinny. I was drunk. Swaying about the dance floor of a ramshackle bar. In a tiny port town where trade winds covered everything in fine Saharan sand.
The first few days in the village I spent in my room, or out walking along the coast on sandy tracks that wiggled amongst ancient lava. Reading, exploring , avoiding. In my room and by the sea’s edge things were familiar. Elsewhere, I was out of place. The one visiting surfer in a village with no visiting surfers. A very strange stranger. A guy who’d turned up dragging an oversized bag filled with boards, wetsuits and a leaking ding repair kit. A self-conscious traveller with thinning sun-blond hair, frayed blue jeans and a purple hooded sweatshirt. A young man struggling to separate the Africa of his slightly frightened imagination from the Africa he was actually in.
Not a lot of language, a shyness which travelled with me as reliably as my passport, an exaggerated sense of my own difference, and just a little fear. It left me solitary at first – I spent my birthday alone – but in time it ebbed. Slowly I started to socialise: starting with the kids who watched as I fixed the dings on my boards. And then the teenagers, and curious families who came to look at the tent I’d set up to keep the ants off me at night. Day by day my interactions grew, culminating with an invite to the disco.
I can’t have seemed a particularly promising friend that night, babbling in badly broken Portuguese. But Christian persisted. We were neighbours, living in the same rectangular row of half-built concrete flats.
“I want to be your friend.” My memory of his voice on that night is as clear as everything else is blurry. The start of our story.
Over the following weeks, on the days I didn’t disappear down the coast chasing Atlantic groundswells, we’d hang out and chat. Drinking beer in the evenings or smoking spindly little joints, sometimes with other friends of Christian’s, sometimes alone. I paid for it all but it was cheap.
With the help of my small green dictionary, and his slow, patient Portuguese, Christian deciphered village life for me. Who worked on the fishing boats. Who didn’t work. Stories about the slender, beautiful girls who danced elusively every Friday at the discos. About his father, who’d lost his legs in a motorcycle accident. About his sister who lived with cousins. About an old guy in the village whose local celebrity stemmed from his claim to have once gotten stoned with Bob Marley. About the woman in the room next to mine. The woman who talked to herself day and night in agitated, muttered bursts that carried through the gaps between the concrete walls of our apartments and their corrugated iron roves, forcing me to sleep listening to my Walkman.
“Quien e a mulher que sempre falar?” (Who is that woman, who always talks?) I asked Christian, with unconcealed exasperation, one afternoon.
“A minha mae.” My mother.
My exasperation fled. Retreating amongst an army of a thousand jerks.
“I’m sorry. I’m…um…sorry. Que paso?” I’m sorry. I’m a fucking idiot. I am sorry. What happened?
“Nao estava por causo de deus. Estava por causo do homme. It is not because of God. It is because of man.” He translated this one into English to make sure I got it.
As a young woman his mother had gone to work in Italy as a maid. She had come back insane. Not God, man.
A few days later he showed me a photo of her. On the beach with friends in Italy. The paper was curled, the sky and sea were fading. She was young, pretty and laughing.
A week or so later he took me in to visit her. They shared a room. Sleeping in beds on opposite walls.
My visit was a short one. She lay in bed. Her hair was un-brushed. Her skin was pale. African brown still, but overlaid with the dusty pallor of the sun deprived. When he introduced us she didn’t acknowledge me, but started an agitated mutter instead.
If there was an ounce of justice in this world this story would become hers. And it would tell you what god-awful things some powerful Italian man (not God, man) had inflicted on a poor immigrant African maid. Or, at the very least, the story would be of how Christian and I talked and talked of her situation. And how I tried to help. But that’s not what happened. Instead, I left the room that day shocked and sad, and with a better appreciation of Christian’s lot, but beyond that nothing much changed. Christian and I continued on our previous course of hanging out and talking and laughing, with the ease life affords young men.
I kept paying for the beer and we kept enjoying the evenings socialising, while I chased waves in the day. And my story of Christian ends up being about a more mundane dilemma.
At the other end of the island I ran into Benjamin, a French surfing buddy and we hatched a plot to head off to another part of the archipelago in search of undiscovered waves. We booked our ferry tickets and I bade my farewells to Christian. And that was when he hit me up for money.
“Um, yeah, um, ok. Mais eu nao posso dar te muito. Nao tenho muito.” (I can’t give you much, I don’t have much).
“Eu sei.” (I know.) Whether he thought I was lying I’ll never know.
“Ok here’s um $100, ta bem?”(is that ok)
“Ok well nao uso para comprar ceveja” I was starting to flail inside and so added the obligatory line about not spending money on beer. I’d paid for things before but he’d never asked. He assured me he would just spend the money on food for him and his sister.
I don’t think I told Benjamin about the incident. Instead, that night as we chugged out to sea on the rusty old freight ferry I chased it round and round in my head.
First I started to doubt Christian. Was he really my friend? Or was the whole point of his befriending me simply a plan to get money from me? Was any of that real?
Then, mercifully, providing at least a little bit of evidence that I wasn’t a terminally shallow person, I started doubting myself. Oh come on. I can’t even believe you are worrying about this. You saw his life. You mightn’t have a lot of money, but he will likely struggle with next to nothing forever.
But what if he just spends the money on beer?
What would have you spent it on?
What if I see him again? He’ll ask me again. I don’t have much money.
And he has none.
Benjamin, who was an infinitely better traveller than me, was already asleep on the hard wooden bench.
I felt bad, and then I felt bad about feeling bad, and then I felt ridiculous for the way my thoughts kept coming back to things. I lay down. I sat up again.
Over the ship’s stern our port of departure vanished into the dark. There was no moon, but a star or planet was shining bright enough to lay a swaying silver path across the water.
Waves came and went. Thoughts came and went. And eventually, the two sides to my self-torment wearied, their voices grew quiet, I stopped thinking about things, and fell into uncomfortable sleep.