What’s that I hear? You want to read an excerpt from my book?
Sigh. You know I can never tell you no.
This scene takes place in Madagascar, during the third and final section of my book. I picked it partly because it doesn’t require much context; even though you haven’t read the book until this point, you should be able to understand what’s going on here.
(Loyal readers of my travel blog will recognize it as an adapted version of a post. It feels pretty great to begin writing a scene and realize I already have a skeleton version to work with.)
Remember, you’re lucky enough to experience this in rough-draft form. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting there.
* * *
The hotel lobby was quiet, empty at this early hour except for two women chatting at the bar. I dropped my backpack on the floor and leaned against the wall, tired from a poor night’s sleep. The slow-moving ceiling fan in my room had done little to ease the heat.
“Good morning,” the woman behind the bar greeted me as she flipped through the hotel’s guestbook. “Do you need something?”
“No, thanks,” I responded, my eyes half closed. “I’m waiting for someone.”
The South African couple I had met the night before would be here any minute. Since the birdwatchers were on my flight out of Diego, we had planned to share a taxi to the airport.
“You’re leaving?” the employee asked, gesturing toward my bag. Her friend, sitting on the other side of the bar, swiveled her high stool so she was facing me.
“Yes,” I answered, reaching into my pack to make sure my passport was easily accessible. “I’m headed to the airport. I have a flight.”
“You’re going to Sambava?”
I stood up a little straighter, slightly suspicious. How did she know? In a few hours I would take the short flight to Sambava, a small city on the northeastern tip of the island, but I could have been going anywhere in Madagascar or even home to the States. How had she guessed correctly?
“Yes, uh, Sambava,” I replied, thinking maybe she would suggest a hotel or put me in touch with someone who lived there. But she and her friend had something else in mind.
“Will you take this with you?” asked the woman on the stool, who wore jeans and a casual brown short-sleeved shirt. She held up a plastic shopping bag full of what looked like fabric.
The request caught me off guard. “Pardon? What do you mean?”
“This bag,” she clarified, patting the flimsy sack. “Will you take it with you?”
“You want me to take the bag to Sambava?” I asked apprehensively, staying in my spot against the wall.
“Yes,” the hotel employee replied, closing the guestbook so she could give me her full attention. Her friend was already on her cell phone, jabbering away in Malagasy, glancing at me as she spoke. From the movement of her eyes and subtle gestures, it looked like she was describing my appearance, my blond hair and maroon t-shirt. As she talked into her mobile, she slipped two bills, a total of 20,000 Ariary — about 10 bucks — into the bag. Then, just as abruptly as she began the phone conversation, she ended it, quietly clicking the phone shut. She tied the bag closed and slid it toward me on the bar, oblivious that I hadn’t yet agreed to serve as her delivery woman.
“What’s in it?” I asked, moving closer for a better look.
“Dresses for girls,” she said simply.
“Dresses for girls,” I repeated, still skeptical. “Okay, but how will I know who to give it to?”
“He’ll find you.”
In the States, I would never do such a thing. I would never take a bag from a stranger to transport on a plane and risk getting caught with their contraband! But I had spent enough time in Madagascar to know that was how people got packages from place to place: not via the postal service, but by an informal courier system, sending parcels or letters with whomever was traveling that way. During one of my long bush taxi trips, for example, the driver had pulled over to the side of the road and yelled toward a shack, and then handed a letter to a man who emerged. That recipient wasn’t even the person for whom the letter was intended, just another middle-man who helped the communication system to function.
So I took the bag.
Minutes later, I boarded a taxi with Hendrick and Julie, me in the front seat, the two of them in the back and our three packs barely fitting in the tiny trunk. Since the plastic sack was both in my hands and on my mind, I mentioned the errand.
“Those two women in there asked me to deliver this to Sambava,” I said, showing Julie the bag in my lap.
“That’s dodgy,” she replied in her South African accent, her expression giving away her true thoughts: that I was about to become an unknowing drug courier.
So I decided to examine the contents myself. As I untied the knots that kept the plastic closed, scenes from a movie flashed in my head, a haunting film called Brokedown Palace. The main character, played by one of my favorite actresses, Claire Danes, winds up captive in a nasty Thai prison after someone plants drugs on her and a friend before a flight. The friend is later freed, but when the movie ends, young Danes is still wasting away in the foreign jail.
I sifted carefully through the bag, examining two beautiful, white, little-girl dresses – for a wedding maybe? – even checking the seams to make sure nothing illegal was cleverly sewn in. No drugs. Just the dresses, a handwritten note and the two 10,000 Ariary bills. I was doing a favor for a Malagasy family, I reassured myself. It made sense that someone in Sambava, a small town, would look to relatives in Diego, a regional hub where more goods were available, for specialty dresses. Before stepping into the check-in line at the airport, I stuffed the plastic bag inside my backpack with the rest of my belongings.
* * *
You want to know what happens, right? Oh, but this is a tease, blog friends, a tease. For the dramatic ending, you’ve gotta read the book.