travelers-talesBy Angelique Stevens

Grand Prize Gold winner of the Twelfth Annual Solas Awards

It was a full moon, which meant from my vantage point, I could see his naked silhouette shining blue as he washed his body behind the big lorry. I was naked too, behind the Land Rover.  The body was so familiar, that wiry frame, those graceful hands, the shaven head and the point of his beard. We had both gone, separately, to bathe behind the circle of vehicles that surrounded our camp. I had been so careful about choosing a spot farther away from the men sitting around the fire that I hadn’t realized I moved myself closer to the place where the crew washed. At some point, mid-bath, I turned my head and there he was, no more than 20 feet away bent double scooping water from his basin and splashing it on his chest.

He was the driver for our small group evaluating the water wells we had drilled over the last ten years. I had already spent two months with him and two other people, a cook, and the Africa Director who translated for me. But on this night, his naked form under that moonlight was much different—the outline of his thin legs against the amber glow from the fire on the other side, the curve at his shoulders where he bent over the washbasin facing the lorry, the cup of his palm as he splashed water onto his mid-section. I squatted closer to the Land Rover, my back against the tire, my tan body more visible at night than his jet-black skin. I put my fingers on the wet ground near my feet to steady myself and watched him in silence.

I remembered the day a few weeks earlier when I watched his hand sling pants over the bathroom fence in the compound in Wau and relished the sound of the nylon loofah coursing over rough skin. He was taking a rare daytime shower so that he could attend Friday prayers in town. He was different from the others, maybe because he was Muslim or maybe because he was, like me, also not from South Sudan. He was from Uganda. He didn’t walk around in basketball shorts after his nightly showers like the other guys. He didn’t shower behind the Land Rover when it was just the four of us in the field. He went off into the bush with his little jug of water before his prayers. He didn’t wash his face or his hands or change his clothes or wipe his feet in front of anyone. It seemed so private to me, so opposite from what I had experienced since my arrival in South Sudan. I had felt so exposed as the only westerner in our crew and the only female in many places I went. Seeing his shadowed silhouette a truck length away strangely comforted me.

Earlier that evening, when I said I didn’t want to take a shower, one of the guys on the crew looked at me as if I were crazy to go to bed dirty. But I was in a place where no matter what I did, or how well I cleaned, sand found its way into the tiniest crevices: my belly button, my underwear, my hair. I’d take my feet out of boots I’d worn all day and there’d be sand between my toes. I’d get into my tent after an evening bath and still drag in dirt. I’d roll around on it in my sleeping bag, wipe it from exposed skin. It was useless during the day to try to stop it, to wash or to clean knowing that wet skin only attracted more. The earth has a distinct iron smell in South Sudan that pervades everything, sun-seared clay, centuries-old struggles pouring out of sweat-soaked skin—life commingled with nature. When I first arrived, I smelled it pungent on people fresh from the bush. I kept it out—held my breath or turned my head. But it had started soaking into my clothes and into my gear no matter how hard I scrubbed them. The sun baked it onto my limbs during the day. Sometimes I resigned myself knowing it would force its way through my pores and deep into my veins.

In the villages where women pounded grain, girls cut wood, and families built their own thatched roof and mud huts every year, the constant dirt seemed natural; but when it breached even the western-style buildings like those in our fenced-in compound with lovely tiled floors and wooden desks and generator-powered computers, it felt as if progress were just a façade. Inside western-style buildings, earthen silt layered everything. We’d keep the doors closed during the day, turn the fans on above when the generator was working, but each morning, again the dirt had discovered even the smallest of crevices, inside drawers, underneath lamp covers, in between the cracks of the computer keyboard. Constantly we fought against ancient South Sudanese sand.

Inside the compound, we didn’t have showers; we had a three-sided fence and a basin for washing. As the only female in the compound, I never walked around in shorts after bathing either. When we were out in the field camping in the villages, I didn’t wear a towel between the wash and the tent either. I had learned to be vigilant behind the Land Rover with my back against the vehicle, crouched below the windows watching for walkers on the path behind us. I hung all of my clothes on the mirror, and then put them on in the dark. I’m not sure what I was trying to hide when bathing under the moon like that was the most natural thing I’d ever done.

Maybe I was just trying to salvage what was left of my anonymity. I was unmistakably the only foreigner everywhere I went in South Sudan. I was coffee skin and long straight hair in a sea of stick thin and purple black bodies. Everywhere I went I had become a curiosity. Even in the darkness under the moonlight, my skin did not blend in. Since I had arrived two months earlier, we had put on over fifteen hundred miles travelling to villages in Western Bahr El Ghazal and Warrap States evaluating water wells and the only time I ever saw another westerner was inside the city-sized walled compound of the UN in Wau. Still reeling from decades of civil war and ethnic strife, South Sudan was not a place for tourists

In the villages, children, stick thin and expectant, stared up at me, adults moved closer. I knew for some I was a novelty; and for others, especially the small ones, I was an object of uncertainty. In each new village, dozens of voices spoke to me in Dinka as if I could comprehend. Every time I stepped out of the Land Rover in a new place, the scene was the same. I’d turn toward the breeze and force one foot in front of the other into the curious crowd gathering around me. Calloused bare feet stepped back. Little faces sneezed uncovered into the wind, and wafting in that same breeze: sour diarrhea, weeks old sweat, dried iron clay, dust and skin. A small toddler might peer out from behind his brother’s shirt. I might smile at him, he might scream and run.

In one village, an old man in a blue jellaba moved toward me, his flowing blue linen keeping him cool. His right eye, cataract milk; his left, black blue; his whites, a mixture of sun yellow and clay red. The alcohol on his breath came in waves. His voice bellowed. His leg grazed mine as he moved his hand up towards my neck. Instinctively, I turned and blocked him. My face reddened for a second. I projected myself into the crowd looking at me looking back at them. I saw myself, my light brown skin, my curved edges, the breeze pressing my blouse against my chest. I was keenly aware of my difference, my silhouette, my obvious prosperity—the soft round of my belly, the D-cup above it pressing against white sheer polyester.

In another village, a lady wearing a tattered men’s button-down shirt as a dress stepped toward me as I moved closer to the well. Her feet, like leather, made her immune to earthen thorns. She had already lost her right pinky toe. Her toes grazed against mine.  The clefts of her aged body emitted the smell of iron compounded by sweat, the smoke of last night’s fire, cow manure. Both of her arms reached out to rest on my shoulders. She took a strand of my hair in her left hand and held it between her fingertips and moved it around so she could feel the texture of it, soft, smooth, and straight so unlike hers which was razored close to her head. With both of her thumbs, she shifted the hair on both sides of my shoulders toward the back behind my neck like a hairdresser might. Braver still, she reached through my hair, so that she could comb it, or feel it between her fingers like one does with sand at the beach. She was so close to me I saw the pores on her face, the etched scars on her forehead—the telltale signs of her tribe and her age. I wondered what she saw on my face.

At some point, maybe around six weeks in, I understood that if I looked closely, I could read the story of life written in the callouses, the scars, the lost limbs, the sagging breasts. Life had etched itself into the lines of their bodies and they wore those marks like a map through their past—either purposefully or incidentally—in the ritualistic scarring of foreheads, or in the dung-ashing of faces, or the circumcising of toddlers under a fig tree; in the long and slender black shiny bodies bathing in swamps; the top-naked women pumping water at wells.

I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was with this lifestyle, with making my own stories so vulnerable, my scars so visible—the inch-long stab line under my left shoulder from a fight with bottles in the sixth grade; the two screw holes on either side of my right knee where the doctor drilled to set my leg after a car accident, the blue triangle shape under my bottom lip that I got when my face slammed into the steps by those three girls after school. If I had not spent so many years hiding, I might have chosen my own marks to tell the story of my life: above my lip, a diamond pattern, perhaps, for my first kiss; maybe a slit in each of my thumbs for the time I first smoked a joint; a pattern of dots like a V burned onto my belly—for when, at age 16, I had sex with that boy I liked, two slashes on both of my calves for the time I ran away.

During my first week in the bush, I had mastered bathing with a scarf like a towel around my body. That way, I would never get caught naked and vulnerable. But I got tired of washing and wringing out the scarf every night along with my underwear, then maneuvering dry clothes and muddy feet underneath it. Life was already hard enough in Africa, so by the second week I had shed the scarf and bathed naked under the moon like everyone else.

I can’t explain how I felt that night under the moonlight though. Squatting by the Land Rover in the dark, watching that silhouette less than twenty feet away washing away the layers—both of us barefoot and naked on brambled dirt, the water dripping off our legs into a muddy mess at our feet, hyenas howling in the darkness—our vulnerability coalesced underneath a singular moon. It lit up my insides: the life we had endured together over the last two months. In that instance, I felt communion: flesh and full.

It was like one of those dreams where you’re filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have had, because you live in another world that doesn’t allow you to commune so naturally, a world filled with walls and steel and wood and constructions to close you in, to clothe you, to shelter you, to hide your imperfections, your calluses, your dirt. It doesn’t matter that you’re also feeling guilty because he doesn’t see you watching him, because you have made yourself so small against the tire of the Land Rover. Because you forgot even to take a breath, you’re no longer cupping your own hands to splash water over your naked midsection to rinse the bubbles sliding down your shiny tan skin. Instead, you’re squatting close enough to the tire of the Land Rover that you can feel its tread press against your back, one hand down, five fingers touching the wet dirt stopping you from falling over into the mud.

And then you wonder. Did he see you already? You were here first, slowly feeling your way through the dark, taking off your clothes, placing each piece carefully on the resin chair beside you, waiting until the soap was in a place so you could find it in the dark like a blind person, the basin on the ground in between your feet, your back an inch away from the passenger door so you could see facing the dark. Finally, you took off your panties while your bra was still on. Then you slipped your hands behind your back and separated the bra’s clasp and placed both garments on the top of the pile, and not until everything was in place did you stand up, lay the towel over the chair’s back and begin to pour water over your head, over your skin under that full moon and scrubbed the hardened callouses, the smoothed over scars, soaped the earth-blackened patches—a baptismal, a cleansing of all the grains of sand, of all the infinitesimal uncertainties.

Angelique Stevens’s non-fiction can be found in The Chattahoochee Review, Cleaver, Shark Reef, and a number of anthologies. Her essay, “Exposure,” won silver in the Solas Awards for Best Women’s Travel Writing in 2013, and her experimental essay, “Spiral,” was published in the anthology, Friend Follow, Text, which was nominated by Foreword Review for Best Anthology of the Year. She holds an MFA from Bennington College and she finds her inspiration in wandering, being in places that push the boundaries of comfort, experience, knowledge, and hunger. She is currently writing a travel memoir about her trip to South Sudan.