Labadi Redux

[Hi all – yeah, sorry I’ve not been posting. My new job has, in spite of best attempts, been consuming pretty much all of my brain power. But I do have some travel coming up next week, which should provide plenty of interesting fodder for Roadtrip stories. They’re going to be a bit delayed, though, much like the Liberia postings from a year and a half.  In the meantime, let me go ahead and hit ‘publish’ on this old one, written in mid-November but never published.]

“The present is not always an unwelcome guest, so long as it doesn’t stay too long and cut into our time for remembering.” – Phillip Lopate, “Against Joie de Vivre

Accra, Ghana – November 2012.  And when does “now” decide to become a memory? This time, it was only a few days back – Wednesday – sitting out on the roof with the team. Pete, Everett, Jenny, Maria-Ines and Nithya. Someone had picked up a bottle of rum, and Maria-Ines was positively wiping the rest of us out at a game of Set. We’d bailed on the sterile European fortress of the Movenpick for this trip in favor of a local hotel, the Deon, tucked around a broken asphalt sidestreet in a gritty neighborhood. It was refreshingly different. Evening noises of an urban African city washed in through the windows, and cats, dogs and an occasional herd of goats roamed the road when we set out at night (MI: “Oooooooh – baby goats!”  Pete: “No, you can’t have one.”  MI: “Just one?”  Pete: “No.”).
I think it was Everett who knew about the roof. There was a hidden staircase in the Deon, and if you carried chairs up there, you could look out over the Accra at night, playing cards in the light of the rooftop fluorescents. We had to pause conversation whenever one of the big jets coming out of Kotoka rumbled by overhead. We’d watch as it disappeared to the south, climbing out for elsewhere over the ocean’s endless darkness, then the conversation would start up again, more often than not in some entirely new direction. By now, Maria-Ines wasn’t even bothering to call “Set” when she spotted one – she’d just tap the three cards and pull them to her deck while the rest of us nodded in humbled appreciation.
At some point, Pete declared that it was reggae time. Wednesday nights apparently were always reggae time at Labadi (how does he know these things?), so we followed him downstairs and out onto the main road to find a couple of cabs.
Everett managed to get the first driver down to four cedis for the trip to the beach. Better than I could have done – comfort level be damned, I’m a pushover – but Ev wanted to hang back to the second cab to see how Nithya would do. We’d learned early on that Nithya’s Mumbai-style negotiation was brutally effective in Ghana, and we’d become eager students of her technique.

She leaned her head into the window of the next cab that pulled up and asked “How much to Labadi Beach?” – then, without waiting for an answer, threw down her offer: “Two cedis.” I think the driver had started replying that it would cost us something like 15 for the trip, but quickly regrouped and proposed ten.

“Two cedis.”
“Two cedis.”  She said it like it was fact.
“Five?” His voice was plaintive now, as if asking for mercy, but he’d barely gotten the word out of his mouth before she hammered back her unyielding response. A few more iterations and it was over; Nithya and Ev hopped in back as cheerfully as if the poor man had offered a free ride, and I strapped into the front seat. I seemed to always ride shotgun, and as we rode along, wordlessly bouncing and creaking down the stretch of road to the beach, I quietly slid two wrinkled one cedi notes out of my pocket for the fare.
I’ve been to Labadi before, but that was “before”, and it was without the team. Hawkers, hookers  and random rastamen thought they saw easy prey as we found chairs out in the sand and settled in for the evening’s entertainment. “Hey mifriend – akwaaba! Lemme give you a little gift to welcome you to Ghana….” Really?
The first ten minutes felt vaguely like one of those superhero movies, where the good guys are circled back to back, each holding off all comers with their own superpower. Pete’s was his disarming charm and feigned incomprehension; Ev’s defense was a stonewalling stare and a single authoritative “No.”  Me, I slid the fedora down low over my eyes and tried to channel a slow Clint Eastwood I-don’t-think-you-want-to-start-this-conversation bravado, and after a bit of tuning, it worked surprisingly well. And the hawkers mostly just left Nithya alone – I think somehow they already knew they should be scared of her. Paintings, carved bowls, bracelets and joints were offered and shoved in our faces and rebuffed. In the end we sat alone, cheerfully undefeated.
The music made up in energy what it lacked in quality – the band’s sound system hopelessly distorted by overdrive as they segued from Bob Marley to Lionel Ritchie, the Commodores and on to Jimmy Cliff. Fires burned from stacks of driftwood, illuminating the sand, and low, straight lines of breakers coming in from the sea. We sat and talked, we drank guava juice and Star beer. We fended off the occasional late-to-the-party intrusion. “Wait – is that a hat, or is it supposed to be her hair?”(only half whispered), as a medusa-coiffed young lady attempted to plant herself on the arm of Everett’s  beach chair. And we philosophized, as those who find themselves on a fire-lit African beach late at night are wont to do.

Later, there was a little dancing, barefoot in the sand. There were handstands and cartwheels in the shadows of the stage by – ahem – the younger members of the team and then, finally, somewhere past midnight, it was time to go. We caught a fresh set of cabs and got them hopelessly lost. As we walked the last couple of blocks back to the Deon, I paused to relish the moment, even as it settled through the sand into memory. The “now” was over, and I had already begun savoring the memory that I had been here for it. Really here.

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