Jeremy always hated this time of the day. As soon as he’d stepped out their breezy air-conditioned office lobby whose interior design was, palette for palette and wall for wall, an albeit-smaller replica of their European headquarters, and into the sweltering reality of the country he was living in, he’d in a hair of a second re-imagined his trip home and felt whatever little of his heart was left sink into his still-well-pressed dark-gray chinos. The air was thick with a bland discomfort that he could swear he couldn’t see but could feel embrace him and everyone shuffling about him. It was like a symbiote, leaping from invisible infinity and latching firmly and conclusively onto one’s face before slithering into their nostrils and tunneling its way into their lungs to furnish them with its invisible mass and suffocate them with its overbearing thickness. It always felt like a slow suffocation as he trudged the sidewalk to the unruly heap of taxis stacking voices over hoots over bags and over boots a few meters ahead. The sounds were blended so intricately that what one heard was a single consistent torrent of what could only be described as a song of agony.

As he headed toward the song of agony, he mentally prepared himself for the copious amounts of human and vehicular traffic that came with the time of day. He navigated his mental library to the box folder with files of complaints he had lodged, and skimmed through the cluster of files on public transportation, each flip of paper adding to the festering blob of angst unobtrusively lodged between his right white cotton shirt pocket and his now-moist backside layered with his off-brand vest, white cotton shirt, and laptop bag backside. His demeanor and gait buckled under the weight of his thoughts and morphed to match them since in this country, it was okay to look displeased – frustrated even – but you never ever voiced your displeasure lest you be laughed at, and never spoke about your frustration lest you be scoffed at and labeled naive.

“ah ah ah – ih ah…
ah ka wa – tih nda…
nakaWA – NTINDA…
NAKAWA NAKAWA, – NTINDA…” a reprise from the song of agony softly pierced through his ears and yanked him away from the company of his thoughts and back to the world at hand, with an urgency that was numbing to those who drifted toward political correctness, such as himself. He had, in an instant, been transported from being a human, observing a bee-hive from a safe-enough distance, to being a bee transfixed in the middle of the buzzing drama of the hive, being bumped into, and brushing up with fellow bees as everyone tried to make their way to their hexagonal abodes before sun-down. As he stood there, slowly breathing in the choking wafts of apathy, a scrawny taxi tout yanked at his arm, hoping to interest him in the last available seat in a taxi that was now enthusiastically inching back and forth between two others still stocking up on human beings, trying to make its way out of the packed parking.

“Ntinda, yes?” the tout offered, eyebrows raised and other hand pointing to the open taxi door. A muffled barrage of unpleasantries came from the direction of the taxi driver, who seemed to have managed to face the front of the taxi road-ward and was now eager to leave, but the tout stayed focused on this target he had scoped out.
Jeremy nodded. In a flash, the tout dashed ahead of him, hoisted himself into the now-slowly-gliding vehicle and double-tapped the metallic inner side-paneling that formed the door frame, and the taxi revved to a halt. By now, Jeremy had followed suit and floated toward the taxi, and was at its doorway when the tout swiveled outward from his small foldable seat to make a path for Jeremy to bend and leap into the only free adjoining seat, right next to a thick older lady who seemed to have overflowed into some of the  free seat as well. Once seated, he turned his head to the right, in her direction, and nodded – head motioning downward – at her. She nodded back. He faced forward again.

The sliding taxi door slammed shut as he sat, drastically muffling the song of agony, and the screaming in his mind lowered ever so slightly in pitch. He unconsciously rubbed repeatedly, in a unidirectional manner, above his wrist where the tout had yanked, as if to will blood to return to the previously-clamped area.

“Nakawa, lukumi mu bitaano. Ntinda biri. Lukumi mu bitaano zikoma ku stage ye’Nakawa, small gate ziba biri! {eng: Nakawa is 1500, and Ntinda is 2000.}” the tout broadcast with Jeremy’s ear being the closest to the source of the announcement and thus suffering that unnecessary auditory affliction. His heart doubly-winced, first at the tout’s lack of courtesy, and more importantly, at the absurd fare increase. 2000 shillings to Ntinda? And nobody is complaining? Wabula these taxi guys are bayaaye!

He hadn’t up-to this point realized that, in rushing to sit for the fear of potentially also being yelled at by the driver, he’d not removed his laptop bag from his back and was now planted awkwardly in his seat, his face a few centimeters from the shaky metallic horizontal guard rail that run across the width of the taxi and divided the driver, co-driver, and co-co-driver seats at the front from the rest of the passenger seats at the back. He, with as little motion as possible, both from lack of space and fear of attracting undue attention from other passengers, maneuvered about with his black faux-leather-and-textured-fabric, zipper-laced appendage until it was resting in his lap and his sweat-drenched back firmly planted into the taxi seat. He unzipped a small top-facing compartment and pulled out a small 2-foot braided wire with a plastic bump at its center and an earbud at each end. He closed the compartment, plugged in the earbuds, pressed contemplatively at the buttons on the plastic bump, and closed his eyes as he let go of it, resting both his hands on the upper carry handle of his laptop bag.

 

 

***

 

 

He wasn’t sure he was dreaming when he felt a poke at his shoulder, but the repeated words that followed it both woke him up and alerted him to the presence of a now-agitated customer seated to his right.
“Sseebboooo… I’m getting out!” she repeated, slightly louder than the previous time she’d said it. Life slowly rushed back to him. It felt like trying to fold a fist with a hand temporarily paralyzed from having sat or slept on it. As the floodgates of his ears opened, he started to pick up the reprise of the hailing tout, the percussion of activity behind him which felt like people climbing into and out of the taxi, and then the heart-numbing crescendo of yet another set of verses from the song of agony. His neighbor was now already facing him, her full chest nudging the top of his laptop bag away from its previous vertical position, and her knees pushing against his so that they yawed toward the taxi doorway. He raised and turned his head toward her, met with her murky eyes as if to confirm receipt of her requests, and motioned his body to temporarily exit the taxi so she could alight. The old gentleman that had been her neighbor, occupying the window seat, stayed. A young lady leapt into the front row and occupied the seat her senior had previously been in. Jeremy unconsciously leapt in after her, and sat back in ‘his spot’, although it felt a much more spacious now. He pressed once on the buttoned plastic bump, faced over to his right and waved at the young lady, mouthing a mute ‘hello’ and nodding his head downward a bit. Still facing forward, she moved her eyes to meet his, and moved them back to their previous location. He faced forward again and clasped his bag with both hands. Tightly.

The door shutting and the tout sitting happened almost simultaneously, him bumping into Jeremy’s left side. Jeremy did not react since he was still recovering from his failed attempt at courtesy.

“Small gate, bitaano. Ntinda lukumi. Bitaano bikoma ku small gate, Spear ziba lukumi! {eng: Small gate is 500, and Ntinda is 1000.}” the tout broadcast again, primarily into Jeremy’s ear, and secondarily to the rest of the passengers. Thankfully, this time, Jeremy’s earbuds blocked out most of the barrage, only letting in the communique. He pressed again at the plastic bump and resumed clasping his bag in both hands. He squinted his eyes and slightly craned his neck forward, as if to focus on some distant object in the darkness of night that had enveloped the town by this time.

 

 

***

 

 

As their taxi burst from a dark stretch and turned the corner toward the Ntinda town center which also doubled as the final taxi stage on this journey, harsh lights, pale figures, and blurry silhouettes formed the activity that awaited them. Now at the stage, the driver decelerated as he turned to his left-hand side and brought the vehicle to an abrupt jerk that killed both motion and engine sound, within millimeters of the bumper of another taxi. The signature sliding door slid open one last time in its dull monotone that transposed into a clicky thud as it snapped into place and created way for passengers to alight. The tout stood some four feet away from the doorway and received fare from alighting passengers that made no eye contact. Jeremy swiveled outward about his seat, and with the laptop bag in one hand, leapt out of the taxi and stood right in front of the tout.

“Ezizo, boss? {eng: Your money, boss.}” the tout stated, looking beyond Jeremy.

Jeremy pulled out with his free hand, a 1000 shilling note from his side pocket and handed it to the tout.

“Kubulako lukumi, boss. Nabagambye nkumi biri. {eng: Add another 1000, boss. I said 2000}” the tout stated, as he stretched his hand out to receive two 500-shilling coins from the young lady that had emerged from behind Jeremy.

“No! You said Ntinda is 1000 shillings!” Jeremy replied.

“No No No No No! Ntinda is 2000 boss. Sasula ssente.” the tout retorted, shaking his head rapidly. He seemed to be looking beyond Jeremy again. The old gentleman came from behind Jeremy and stood beside him, also facing the tout, with a 2000-shilling note in his open palm. The tout received the fare from him as Jeremy responded, one hand on the old man’s shoulder.

“Wama, Sir, didn’t he say it was 1000 to Ntinda?” Jeremy asked, moving his hand from the old man’s shoulder to 5-finger-point at the tout.

“He did.” the old man replied, as he turned to walk away.

“Kati yye Mzee ng’asasudde enkumi biri? Mwembi temwajilinyidde wamu? {eng: If that’s the case, why has Mzee paid the entire 2000? Didn’t you both board at the same stage?}” the tout retorted, eyes narrower and voice louder. One of the front doors on the taxi slammed shut behind Jeremy.

“Eh, if he has money to waste, that’s his choice. You said Ntinda is 1000. I’ve paid you. What do you want?” Jeremy also responded in a louder voice.

“Bano ba corporate bayaaye! Nze baantama!” the driver bellowed from behind them as he approached, his thick shadow preceding him and engulfing both Jeremy and the tout in artificial shade. Now besides both Jeremy and the tout, he turned to Jeremy and, in his best American accent declared, “Iffu you boarding befor’ Nakawa stage, ezo biri – Ntinda is 2000 sh’rings. Bw’oba walinye – iffu you boarding in Nakawa stage – Ntinda is one thousa–.”

“–Anha! You see? Even the driver has said Ntinda is 1000. Now, what?” Jeremy said as he hoisted his laptop bag back onto his back.

2 thoughts on “Impasse-able

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