going up in smoke


I went to get my nails done – my feet – at a smart and sterile ‘international’ hotel which has wireless internet in the bar, but thankfully not in the ladies’ beauty room (do we have to work everywhere?). Beauty parlours link women the world over. Stylists stop, a hunk of hair in one hand, curlers and hair-dryer in the other, to discuss how many portions of chicken they want the receptionist to buy, or their lover’s latest errors. I feel guilty about paying to get my nails done, but it is the most enjoyable luxury I know. And I love listening to and participating in universal subjects with complete strangers. We are linked forever by our men and our stomachs. G – who did my feet today – was an absolute expert.
She hacked off all that dead skin, plucked at layers of ancient nail, snipped at overgrown cuticles and then filed and toned not just the nails but my entire foot. And then, she painted them red. I had suggested gold.
‘Isn’t gold all the rage now?’
‘It is popular, yes, but you’d be better off with a deeper colour to hide your fungi toenail here,’ she said, pointing to my left big toe. So now they are a plum-red.

G used to be a teacher. But she didn’t get paid for two years, so now she does nails.


The woman next to me was having an all-over transformation: feet, hands and hair. She was left sitting under a lamp – the sort that cacoon old women’s heads in local salons in southern France – reading a magazine.
Then all of a sudden, she was on fire. Smoke rushing out of the lamp, reminding me of a 6th form play I did at school in which our chemistry teacher, Dr Hustler, provided dry ice and fans to create fog.
‘Fogo! Fogo!’
But G didn’t bat an eye. Digging her thumbnail into my large fungal nail to which she was adding the finishing touches, she muttered something about evaporation under her breath.

Later I went for dinner with an academic and a priest. A local joint. Two parrots – one caged, one chained to a bar – flapped and squawked. A rather nice young dog kept turning in circles, then lying down, then getting up and turning in more circles before lying down in exactly the same position on the same spot. The academic ordered something sensational which he described unconvincingly as ‘cabbage’. Chunks of ginger, prawn head, banana pau, okra and cabbage. Utterly delicious. And then the rains came. Heavy heavy rains. We moved tables to the centre of the room but the winds pushed up a gear and the rains followed us to the centre of the room. A pool of water spread across the room, blue buckets were placed strategically under particularly heavy leaks. Then a small explosion and a controlled shriek. Smoke and sparks in the kitchen. All the lights went out. The parrot on the bar was particularly irritated: garbled messages and bubbled groans streamed from his corner. Neither the academic nor the priest even blinked. We carried on talking about the history of this country – me, swinging like a pendulum, on their every word, desperate to remember the detail. It struck me that maybe I should hire a parrot to help me. Forget bird brains, parrots are said to have excellent memories.

Our main dish was a sort of soup of fish, more banana and mandioc. It was equally excellent and you would never have known that it was cooked without electricity for about 45 minutes.

We drove home through lakes.

Originally published from Luanda, 18th March 2007.

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