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tearing the rag off the bush again
from The True Life Adventures of Dr. Sendroiu PDF E-mail
Special to the Corpse from the High Seas, with links to Dr. Sendroiu's Romanian language dispatches

The Fresh Fish Face

by Ionut Sendroiu

translated from Romanian by Andrada Bodiu


The contract I signed to work as a doctor in Africa was bulky and written in very small characters. I needed two coffees to read the first five pages, and then I began to read it diagonally. The coffee was watered down, and there was no smoking in the recruitment agency office. I skipped the last 3 pages; it was something about insurance in case of death during mission and details on body repatriation.


I signed quickly and left. When you read documents like this, you get very thirsty. Even before I was out of the building, I called this girl I fancied and then a few of my friends I knew would go out for a beer. I told the cab driver to step on it as I was in quite a hurry. Obviously, it was a euphoric night, extended with an unexpected end, but extremely pleasant. The morning was confusing.


About Murtala Muhammed, eating tripe soup


There are moments in life when a tripe soup and a beer make wonders. That morning was exactly it. And by morning I don’t mean too early. It was around noon.


The waiter was just asking if I wanted sour cream and peepers with my soup, when the phone rang. It was someone from the recruiting company.

            - Mr. Şendroiu, I sent you the flight details by e-mail. You’ll land at Muhammed Murtala Airport in Lagos at 20:45 local time. We want to prevent you this is one of the most unsecure airports in the world and we advise you not to leave the airport without being identified by our contact person. Our company takes no responsibility in case …


You need vodka to deal with certain information, such as landing at the Muhammed Murtala airport, at dusk. I ordered two vodkas just in case. The conversation with the female company representative announced to be full of interesting details.


-       Yes, sir, I wrote it down: two vodkas. What about some sour cream or a small pepper?

-       “ -Are you still there, Mr. Şendroiu? The voice on the phone was feeling neglected. I sent you via e-mail, together with the flight details, the photos of Mr. Chucks and Mr. Dayo. One of them will wait for you at the airport. Please note that the lighting in the airport may be sometimes not so good, so please make sure that you’ll be contacted by the right person before following him outside the airport. We remind you that we strongly recommend you not to leave the airport premises …


I took a mouth of vodka and lightened a cigarette. I had the eerie feeling that I was listening to the CNN news on the phone.


-       …we also have a very tasty sour cream, Sir. Fermented. And the peppers are extraordinary, Sir. All the customers want one, at least …

-       Ok. One pepper and sour cream it is. And one more vodka, please.

-       …also, for your safety, our company recommends you not to wear jewelries, watches or cameras and other valuables objects…so they can be seen. Ideally is to wear clothes as ... hmmm… unattractive as possible.


I imagined the woman from the company reading a fashion magazine, while reciting the text above. I asked her to send me the rest of the recommendations by e-mail.

My soup was about to be served, together with the sour cream and my pepper and therefore required my undivided attention…. and it was too early to enjoy the vodka. Actually the reason I was there was just for some beers and serious thinking. Suddenly life seemed too short.


Espresso, beer and Dengue fever


After checking my e-mail, I felt the need to restart the computer. The photos of the two gentlemen I’d have to recognize on the Lagos airport were some scanned copies of identity card type black and white photos. Both of them had very poor resolution. The only thing I understood from those pics was that both men were almost identically black, and that the one named Chucks was a chubby guy.


I did got the basic idea thought: although it was considered the most unsecure airport in the world, Murtala Muhammed seemed to be the safer place in Nigeria. Fact that I wasn't planning to question anyhow.

I took off for Nigeria at 5 am, with stopover in Milan. The Malpensa airport in Milan looks like a giant mall, with customers coming by airplane. It was local time 07:00 when I landed, and the Lagos flight was scheduled for 15:30.

I ordered an espresso. It was incredibly tasty, so I ordered another one before finishing the first one. I sat at a table and took out a tropical diseases treaty. I opened it directly to the chapter on the Dengue fever, which I wanted to read before checking in for the Nigeria flight. Shortly after the third espresso, I ordered a beer. I was studying a photo of a man suffering of Dengue fever, in crisis, with bloody gums and red eyes, when a beer wave flooded the page. The waitress was staring at the picture and seemed to make efforts not to throw up. The beer glass was still trembling on the table and by now was about half full. The rest of the beer was wallowing right in the middle of the page, nicely reflecting the neon spots on the ceiling.


-       Excuse me, please, she said, gesticulating in the Italian way while holding the tray in her hands, but “non e posibile “ with such pictures in “ristorante”. Our customers are eating.


I asked her to bring me the next beer bottled and leave it to me to open it. What I like in Milan, is that in every pub you can find lots of napkins on the table. I placed some napkins between the pages of the book, hoping to be able to dry them before leaving. No luck with that. Meanwhile the waitress came back with a bottle of beer, accompanied by a lady wearing intense-colored lipstick. I guessed she was the supervisor, which she proved she was, in a matter of seconds. They asked me to close the book and to put it back in my backpack, as I’m spoiling the customer’s appetite.

The waitress put the bottle opener and the beer on the table, then she stepped back two meters. The supervisor was staring at me as if I were a sexual pervert about to act. If I’d have done a sudden move, she would have probably called the carabinieri, the local law enforcements.

The only thing left to do was to leave what I owned on the table, taking my beer, my book and my luggage in one swift move and to exit to the front platform.

Outside fresh air, the Alps on the horizon, a long row of white cabs and about a dozen cab drivers speaking at the same time. It was not quite the university library, but at least I could smoke. I sat on a border stone and reopened the treaty at the napkins page. A few meters away from me, two cab drivers and three carabinieri were flicking through a Hustler magazine.


Anti-malaria drug

Around two and a half, the boarding started. I noticed that I wasn't the only white guy on the plane, but the other three ones were quite a treat for sore eyes. They seemed sculpted with a pickax and alcohol-infused. One of them had a female bust with an anchor in each nipple, tattooed on the forearm. I wasn’t too eager to find out what he had tattooed on his shoulders.

I had window seat, next to a lady whose layers of shiny fat seemed to try to occupy the seats around her, including mine. She asked me abruptly what the hell I was looking in Lagos. I answered with a smile that I was working for a petrol oil company.


-       You don't look like the type, she told me, nodding towards the tattooed guy. Meanwhile, the guy had his shirt unbuttoned and proudly showing up this tattoo on the chest: a woman in gynecological position, looking like she was giving birth to a ship anchor.

-       Probably the gentleman is working in this field for a longer time, I said resigned in front of the obvious

-       Ahahahahaha! The lady burst out in laughter, shaking her mauve turban and the ivory earrings, as big as a coffee cup. Got it! You are a fresh fish! (In Nigerian slang, “fresh fish” means greenhorn, beginner). It shows on you!


The flight lasted 5 hours. Sahara was like a huge apple pie. As the sun went down, it got the color of burnt sugar cream. The night came suddenly, and immediately after the sky became completely red for a few minutes.

Shortly after, the film presented in the plane stopped and the screen showed the flight parameters. We were vertiginously deplaning. “Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts. We’ll be landing in Lagos in one our.” A flight attendant began to spray insecticide against mosquitoes. From somewhere in the dark, popped below us the lights of a city. My mouth got instantly dry. I forgot whether I took my anti-malaria drug. I put the bloody pill on the espresso coffee plate, in Milan, I was sure of that. But I couldn’t remember whether I took it or not.


The most unsafe airport in the world

“It is local time 21:00, external temperature 37°C, humidity 96%, welcome to Lagos!”. The airport building looked like a transatlantic leaned on a field full with tiny lights. The pleated tube made a muffled sound when it hit the plane wall and the doors opened. The flock that rushed towards the exit carried me out too. I found myself in the corridor leading to the terminal, looking quite anxiously for the Malarone tablets pack. I still couldn’t remember whether I took the damn pill, and the word malaria was scratching my brain. I found the pack and immediately swallowed a pill, which obviously got stuck in my throat. The tattooed guy was passing by and I followed him, instinctively. We were going to work in the same field and he seemed to be pretty accustomed with the whole thing. 


For a while, we walked in the same direction with the luggage collection and passport control indicators, but at a given moment, the guy suddenly took a sharp, unexpected turn to a hallway on the left. A cheap pub smell strokes me straight in the nose. Tattooed guys were talking dirty, smoking and shaking whiskey glasses and beer bottles. The waitresses, as thin as black panthers, were making slalom between the hands trying to touch their buttocks. The floor was full of cigarettes butts, broken glasses, spilled drinks and smashed peanuts. Everybody was yelling in a sort of English, broken by accents from around the world.

It was the famous smokers bar in the Lagos airport. The guy I was following went straight at the bar and ordered a whiskey. I got next to him.


-       Another one, he shouted at the bartender. Then he turned to me: You gonna need it! We got a double, by default. In Nigeria, you have to specify if you don’t want it double.

-       Fresh fish, huh? It seemed that it was really written on my face that I was a newbie around those places.


Checking the passport, the emigration papers and the vaccination certificate against yellow fever took another hour. The immigration officer gave me a condescending smile while slapping the stamp on my passport. He was wearing the Nigerian border police uniform and orange slippers. His boots were resting near the desk made of winding wood.


I recovered my luggage and exited to the waiting room. The smell of sweat, smelly feet and fruits in various stages of putrefaction shut down upon me immediately. A guy with a name tag from our company got next to me. He probably was looking like the one in the photo received by e-mail. He was holding a cardboard with the word DOCTOR scribbled on it.

- Are you the doctor?

- That’s me. How did you guess?

- Well, you’re the only fresh fish face coming with this flight. I'm Chucks, the driver. Follow me.



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