The Six Thousand Shilling Ungulate Pyramid
Five friends and I were on vacation, in (on?) Lamu, that shiny Kenyan coastal island. And what does one do on vacation in Lamu? Drink shakes made with entire anthills of powdered milk and coconut. Walk to the beach and take too many pictures. Same as any other place. We were very, very good at it, but we lacked one thing: the necessary stamp of the foreign-vacationer. We hadn't gotten our henna tattoos yet.
Nasra pointed this out to us first. She’d found us on our first day, walking the beachside street, gaping at the dhows, trying to find a place to swim. She fell in step beside us, all whirling veil and bright teeth. She laughed at everything anyone said and brought us to a seaweed- and garbage-plastered place where the water was warm like soup, and while some of us ventured in she taught the rest of us how to pray toward Mecca. She never stopped laughing, even while praying, and soon we were all giggles too, it was like a virus, and then she snuck in her sales pitch: “you know what you students need, you need henna. I do very good henna, I do flowers for the girls, suns for the boys, you’ll look so so good, mzuri sana! And I’ll do your hair . . . “ She said this to me. “I’ll do it like a Rasta!” We laughed, because it was the thing to do and we couldn’t stop, and she played Ricky Martin on her cell phone and she danced us through the darkening alleyways and back to our hotel.
We didn’t really see her again (while we were there, friends were like mirages, lovely and fleeting), but the seed was planted. We wouldn’t really be in Lamu until we were branded. We wanted to look so so good, mzuri sana. We were going sun-crazy and needed a way to express it. And we were students, not tourists; we’d been in the country for a long time, we deserved some mark of that and we knew how to get what we wanted. Another new quick friend, Fahreeda, offered up her inking hands, themselves inked. She’d cooked us a traditional Swahili dinner – fish, curry, rice, fruit juice, absolutely killer fruit juice. We wished water tasted like that fruit juice. We would pay good money, we told her, to have that fruit juice every day. Or at least tomorrow.
Fahreeda smiled. “I make you fruit juice,” she said. “And I make you curry and rice, to bring to the beach, for lunch.”
No, no, we said. Just fruit juice.
Slightly smaller smile. “I make you fruit juice, and I make you chapati.”
Just the juice will be fine, we assured her.
“I make you fruit juice and I draw you henna.”
There was an idea. And it was the low season, and she wasn’t ever going to give up, so we had to, we indulged her little game. We planned our designs, ridiculous on purpose: I wanted a certain nonexistent word, in tattoo-script, in a scroll. Amanda wanted a dinosaur. Ryan wanted a marlin jumping over his shoulder. Max was told he couldn’t get a cobra fighting a shark, because, Fahreeda explained, “that would never happen in real life, they would never meet.” He opted instead for mouse footprints, forming a strap across his chest.
Lia knew what she wanted immediately - a dikdik standing on a goat standing on a donkey. An ungulate pyramid. That way she could look down and see her favorite animals all stacked up. We set a date for the next day and returned to our hotel. Our skin got ready to get better, breathed the sticky air in harder.
The next morning we met Fahreeda on the balcony of our hotel, where she asked if we’d done our homework. We pulled out drawings of our designs, and she went to work. Brush stroke after brush stroke. I stared down at the pigeons catwalking on the roof of our neighbor’s house. She was using too much ink. The word wasn’t going to fit. She licked her finger and erased some, started over, it looked as good as I could have expected. I moved back to the other side of the balcony and concentrated, felt the ink tighten into a scab on my ankle. Fahreeda accused Amanda of wobbling. Sun-craziness is barely cured by shade. I went downstairs to get a drink of water.
When I came back up, Fahreeda was drawing on Lauren’s foot. No one seemed to remember how she’d gotten there; Lauren had sworn up and down she didn’t want one. “Come, come see” Fahreeda said. It was a wheel of a sun, rolled in triangles and with an upsidedown-coathanger smile. “I do not see her smiling this whole morning!” Fahreeda laughed, and I could suddenly imagine why she saw Lauren’s seriousness as a thing that should be cured. “Now she can look down at her feet and smile all day.”
I went downstairs again. A man was sitting on the stoop in front of the garden in the middle of the hotel lobby, grown and fortified by the shaft of sunlight that blazed through the open roof. He stretched backwards into the glossy plants, like someone on a new green leather couch. “Hey, where you from,” he asked me.
“America,” I answered. “Massachusetts.” It was true.
“Hey, no way. I’m in Vermont. I’m eating breakfast. It’s breakfast time in Vermont.” I checked my watch. It was 2 AM in Vermont, but who was I to argue? Lumberjacks probably get hungry late at night.
“Have a good breakfast,” I told him, heading back up.
“It’s pancakes,” he shouted after me.
I came through the top of the stairway into an argument. Fahreeda looked stern, Lia’s face was red, Ryan was smirking uncomfortably, and everyone else looked confused. I asked what was going on.
“I think there’s got to be some mistake. She’s trying to charge me six thousand shillings for this tattoo!” Lia answered. “There is no way.”
I did some calculations. My head was fuzzy. Six thousand Kenyan shillings is about seventy dollars. Seventy dollars. Was that reasonable? I hoped not. I had figured on more like ten. Shoot, was she going to charge me that much, too? There really was no way. There had to be a misunderstanding. I got ready to sort it out.
Then Ryan stepped in. “It is fair, you know, Lia. You asked for a really unusual design.”
“And you didn’t? How much are you going to charge him, Fahreeda?”
Ryan had gotten a swordfish drawn on his shoulder. I haven’t seen any in Lamu, but they’re tied up with it, as with most coastal spots that need some associated imagery. “That is Marlin, marlin I draw always! Those American soldiers, they want marlin always. I am used to marlin. I give him fair price, 200 shillings. Just like I give you fair price, six thousand.”
I was confused. I stood up to join in. I thought I saw Fahreeda wink at me, but I couldn’t be sure. Ryan, though, was definitely smirking.
We had met Fahreeda’s son the night before. Now he walked up the stairs with a bag of Kudos Corn Puffs (cheese and onion flavor) from the duka down the street. He was carrying a baby sheep, and a bottle. Lia squealed.
“See, we calm you down and we talk this over like people” Fahreeda said. Her son handed Lia the goat and the bottle. My eyes checked in with my brain. Here was Lia, bottle-feeding a baby sheep on a balcony in order to not have a nervous breakdown over being charged too much for a temporary ankle tattoo of three hoofed mammals standing on top of each other. Fahreeda was definitely winking. Was this . . . was this a joke? Was it ALL a joke? Could that possibly explain things?
It was a joke. Fahreeda drew everyone in on it, slowly, until we had Lia convinced that she was getting a good deal. We told her she should have set a price beforehand, that the tattoo would cost ten times as much in Nairobi. We let her bargain the price down and then got more and more wide-eyed as we named things that would raise it – the intricacy of the donkey’s inked-in fur, the two colors, the size. Even the baby sheep was eventually turned against her, cited as a perk. We tricked the living daylights out of our friend. Fahreeda made Lia pay up smiling, and show true verbal gratitude (it took a few tries, but she finally accepted “thank you for drawing a 70 dollar henna tattoo on me”) before she let her off the hook. And when that happened, and we all laughed, it was like Nasra’s with an edge, unstoppable and a little panicked. It had been funny, but I’d also seen things in Lia’s eyes over the course of the joke that I’d secretly felt during my whole stay - what if I didn’t know things I was supposed to? What if I had missed some giant memo, some warning that logic worked differently here, that it would affect me, and that I should have been paying attention? Because I knew it did work differently. That was obvious. There was a baby sheep falling asleep on the bed and the man at the front desk was in Vermont.
As Fahreeda left, she explained herself, using a variation on what she had said to Lauren – “When I come here at 9:30, everyone is so tired. So I shock you awake. Also, I am a politician. You guys have a nice journey.” She and her son and her baby sheep left. We heard them laughing all down the street, but we didn’t see her after that day. She’d gotten what she wanted. My tattoo began to represent, for me, the opposite of street smarts. Maybe we should have let her make us that curry.