By Gabrielle Margonelli

It was 1987, I was in Niger and it was hot as hell. I mean that. Very hot. I was in Niamey studying Hausa, a language I had studied in college on a whim. I was supposed to leave the country at the end of the summer, but I had figured out a scheme to stay longer. Every afternoon for a week I shoved a large wad of cotton in my ear and made a pilgrimage to the UTA office to explain in wildly emotional Hausa that my earache prevented me from flying home and I'd need to stay on the ground for exactly 2.5 more weeks. This was long enough to speed the 500 km to Zinder and then to a tiny village named Droum, where my college roommate, Ned, was stationed in the Peace Corps. I was 22 and I had lots of faith in my ability to pull off scams purely because they were ludicrous. I had a persistent, bird dog approach to adventure which hadn't let me down so far. At the last possible moment, just hours before my flight left, the ruse worked.

The next day I got on an old school bus at the bus market and took off, four to a seat and one in the middle, across the country. I forgot to get more water in Birnin' Konni. (I was distracted by the people running around with water bottles filled with pinkish black market gasoline), so I nearly fainted when the bus stopped for prayer. Then I drank three orange sodas really fast in Maradi and thought I would faint again. I put a piece of cloth over my head and pretended I wasn't there.

The child next to me started to cry. His mother tried to shut him up by feeding him a mixture of fermented milk, hot pepper, and pounded millet. The baby only became crankier. So the mother told him that this white woman was going to beat the shit out of him. Literally "ta ba shi kashi." An explosive phrase that sounds like what it is. I said aloud that I was not going to beat the shit out of anyone. And this should have been pretty clear to her anyway because I kept half fainting and gasping for air. But the baby couldn't get the thought out of his head and spent the rest of the afternoon looking at me and whimpering. Again, the cloth over the head sort of helped. It was decorated with blue kerosene lamps – a symbol of knowledge.

Somewhere along the way the bus broke down with a hiss like a gigantic snake. The mechanic, who traveled standing in the stepwell, grabbed hold of a ring in the floor to open a trap door. He jumped back from the hole as though there was really a snake inside the engine. For the rest of the trip, I couldn't shake the thought that we'd been attacked by some kind of electric snake. (Like the baby, I was trapped in a feverish world where anything I could imagine must be true. We were both surrounded by dangers of our own invention.) I caught one bus after another all night long (I was afraid to stop arriving – who knew what dangers lurked for single women traveling alone in these small towns. Better to stay on a bus, any bus. Arriving. Arriving. Not here.)

I finally landed in Zinder at 4 or 5 in the morning when there was nothing moving except a pack of wild dogs with ribs that glowed in the cottony light. A while later I was lucky to catch a ride in a little truck filled with sheep and chickens squeezed among the bony knees of old ladies.

Droum was all red dirt – red mud houses, red dirt fields. Each individual hillock of millet was surrounded by red dirt. The well was stained with red dirt. Everyone's clothes had red dirt on the hems. Once the forest around Droum had been so thick that people were afraid to walk through it. Now it was all red dirt. Some people blamed the drought, others blamed goats. Landsat photos showed the desert moving southward at seven kilometers per year – no one's fault in particular. NGO's blamed deforestation and overpopulation, officious words that obliquely pointed the finger at the people of Droum.

When the truck pulled into Droum, a thin kid in a t-shirt and gray pants came up to me and said he knew exactly where I wanted to go. I followed him. He took me to Ned's hut, but Ned was on his way to an errand and I was in that hallucinatory up-all-night-travelling state. I fell asleep on a rope bed in the courtyard. Ned's dog Max dropped a rotten, slimy goat's head next to my face. I woke up staring into the iridescent eye socket, shuddering in the heat, and at that moment realized that I was there, and had already passed through the moment of arriving. Some young guys were standing nearby making woven chicken wire on a loom made of nails. I washed my hands with Lux shampoo and thought the perfume smelled very nice. Later in the day I went on hands and knees through the king's house – the fine sand floor was freshly raked by one of his wives – to greet the king. He sat in an armchair wearing powder blue robes. I was officially in Droum.

The village accommodated my strangeness so quickly I lost track of what was new and strange and what was not. Ned and I told everyone we were brother and sister though the neighbors probably heard our lovemaking, which was inspired more by lack of other entertainment than lust. (Everyone heard everything in Droum, despite the mud walls around the compounds.) People seemed willing to believe or pretend to believe that Ned had a sister who arrived magically speaking Hausa. Someone offered Ned some camels for my hand in marriage and Ned tried to bargain for more camels. Nothing was exotic.

Every morning started with pounding noises – a rhythm all over the village as women lifted and dropped the heavy pestles in hollowed out tree trunk mortars to grind millet. When I listened carefully I thought I could hear their breasts flap too. The process seemed painful and the rhythm followed me all day, making me restless. Later in the morning, people walked toward the fields carrying buckets made of stitched-up inner tubes. Drawing murky water from wells near the fields, they tended each individual stalk of millet.

The king's youngest wife brought us soup every evening in welcome until it became a routine and we stopped cooking, helplessly lamenting the lack of vegetables in her soup. Ned said you hadn't been in Africa until you'd shit your pants at least once and I had gotten used to diarrhea, too.

On quiet afternoons the "king of lifting"-- whose job was lifting the heavy packages on top of buses on market day – would come by to sit under the baobab tree. He was a huge man with a superhero's chest and biceps visible under his cotton robes. He liked to look at my Hausa-English dictionary, especially the picture of the elevator. Ned and I explained that some buildings were 20 stories high. You could see him thinking about the lifting involved.

After a while it was time for me to go home – back to the elevators. I haven't seen Ned since. The entire arrival in Droum remains for me in a box, separate from the rest of my life. It is a discontinued story. A cut thread. Just there. I hardly ever talk about it. It's too hard to explain to people where I was and what I was doing there and that somewhere, half a world away, there is a man named "the king of lifting." That was there, this is here. The bus trip was the only halfway point between the two worlds. When I think of Droum, I taste red dirt and the salty bullion of the king's youngest wife's soup.