For my Spanish homework this week my maestra, Edith, asked that I write a true story – in Spanish, of course – about a strange (extraño) incident I’d experienced.

Piece of cake, I thought. In a life that has spanned seventy-four years and countless miles so far, I felt I have a lot of material to draw from. But the strangest stories of all for me have come from my eight-or-so years lived on the ground in Africa.

One incident in particular stands out. I gave it only two paragraphs in my Peace Corps memoir, How to Cook a Crocodile, but in my memory it’s as vivid as a full-length feature film.

I was taking the ten-hour train ride — on the country’s one and only train — from Lastoursville, my Peace Corps post in the thickly rainforested interior of Gabon, to the capital city Libreville on the Atlantic coast, to attend a Peace Corps conference.

On the train I happened to sit next to a large, barefooted middle-age Gabonese woman in traditional African dress and head wrap who was using a cellular phone to call her travel agent in Libreville about a flight to Rome.

The first strange thing about this scene was that I’d never before seen anyone use a cell phone in Gabon. This was more than twenty years ago in a country where most barefooted people couldn’t even afford decent food, much less a cell phone. And call their travel agent? About a flight to Rome?

As a Peace Corps volunteer then, I certainly didn’t have a cell phone. Or any other kind of phone, for that matter. In emergencies I used the one pay phone in my town — which was loosely attached to the exterior of the town’s tumbledown post office — on the rare occasions when that phone was working.

When my seatmate finished her call, she turned to me to chat in fast, Gabonese French. Smiling warmly, she explained that she was heading to Rome to see an exorcist affiliated with the Vatican in order to heal one of her eight children, who had been possessed by evil spirits ever since she was eight years old. The girl (the African mother pointed to her daughter sitting behind us) was now twenty-two.

I looked over at the young woman, who seemed to be placidly enjoying the view from the fast-moving train’s window – a jungly blur of greens and browns. I didn’t sense any evil spirits in her. Did she know where she was headed? And why? Who was the crazy one here?

Then the mother did the strangest thing of all. She took an unopened bottle of orange Fanta soda from her bag and proceeded to remove the cap on it with her teeth. Perhaps there are people all over the world, I thought in that moment, whose teeth are strong enough to accomplish this feat, but I’d never seen it done.

I tried to hide my amazement.

She took a big swig straight from the bottle and offered the bottle to me. I politely declined.

C’est triste,” she said, and I agreed it was sad, that her daughter was so ill. And then we talked about other things.

She told me she was forty-six, and she asked me my age.

Cinquante et un,” I said. She looked me up and down and nodded approvingly.

“You look really good for fifty-one,” she said. In Gabon at that time few people lived much beyond fifty.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Language is a bridge that spans the whole spectrum, from beautiful to bizarre experiences. If that unforgettable Gabonese mother and I had not had a shared language, we would never have connected. I would have never learned her story. She would not still be living in my mind.

In the two-plus years I lived in Gabon, I managed to learn how to communicate in Gabonese French. Here and now in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, after more than three-and-a-half years, I’m still struggling to grasp Mexican Spanish.

But I refuse to give up! With the help of Google Translate (don’t tell Edith), I’ve just done my Spanish homework. I translated the two short paragraphs about this incident from my Peace Corps memoir. I’m hoping Edith finds my story suficientemente extraño.


20 thoughts on “Strange”

  1. What an amazing story Bonnie. Having visited Africa many times I could totally picture it. I like the point you make about how language is a bridge to other world’s we might never know. It’s easy when you get our age to give up on learning another language. You inspire me to dust off my French tapes I bought over 5 years ago…and get cracking!

    1. Elizabeth! What a joy to hear from you and to know you — as someone who’s visited Africa many times — could picture it all happening. Yes, dust off your French tapes; but don’t forget to study your Spanish tapes, too, for when you come back to SMA to visit me and your many fans here. Pronto, espero!

    1. I’ve often wondered that, too, Te! Whatever happened when they got to the Vatican?! Why don’t you come down here to SMA to visit me and we can look for an extrana story together? 🙂

  2. Bonnie, your experiences remind me of my time in Ghana, luckily for me, most people speak some English. Right now I am in Bu-San Korea and even though I adopted my Korean daughter when she was 15, my grasp of Korean is beyond pitiful and I know I am going to miss some incredible experiences because of that. By the way, my husband who is West African, can also open up bottle with his teeth! It amazes me and makes me cringe at the same time.

    1. Wow, Barbara! Thanks so much for your input. Yes, I, too, cringed at the thought of your husband opening a bottle with his teeth! But Africans are so strong and sturdy, in every way. Enjoy your time in Korea. Maybe your language skills will improve a tad! — BB xx

  3. Your strange story was such a wonderful and poignant connection to humanity. The woman on the train welcomed you into her world of cell phones and evil spirits and women sizing up and appreciating each other in the lovely way we do. I wonder if my mother might have thought I was possessed by evil spirits – or the American equivalent.

    1. Thank you, Helaine! Yes, that Gabonese woman is still so vivid to me. I’m thankful we connected. Now I feel I must buckle down and apply myself to Spanish so I might connect with more fascinating Mexican women!

  4. Bonnie this one took me right to the train! I saw the woman and experienced you looking on in disbelief. I wNted more! You are a superb writer!

    1. Thank you, dear Kate! There IS more in both of my Africa memoirs (“How to Cook a Crocodile” as well as “How to Make an African Quilt”). Life in Africa provides lots of material for good stories — if only American readers were interested in more than Africa’s wild animals.

  5. That was a great story but you left me hanging… I also remembered one time when this lady ran into me at the Taos Middle school and she was trying to ask me a question in her language. I didn’t know what she was saying and I felt so bad because I couldn’t help her. She was expressing language using her hands and trying to draw something square but I just couldn’t understand.
    Then, when I went to Spain and I thought my Spanish was fluent… but everything was written and dialogued in Spanish and did I ever realize, I’m really not that fluent. I couldn’t understand instructions on a pay phone, washing machine or ingredients on my groceries!
    A good writer like you can share memories from places you’ve been to. You have a way of making the “reader” feel immersed…

    1. Thank you, dearest Annette, for sharing your similar experiences… As for leaving you hanging — well, I guess you’ll just have to read the book (if you haven’t already). 🙂

  6. Your story brings me back to Dec 2000 taking the train from Libreville to Franceville with PCV daughter Katrinka Hibler. Very few passengers so we would move to other seats to view points of interest. However, every time the conductor walked through and saw us not in our assigned seats, he said, “Get back to your places.” Katrinka was posted in Coco Beach, extreme NW corner, 2000-2001.
    What years did you serve?

  7. Dear Bon,

    What a story. Using modern technology to schedule primitive technology. But I’m not laughing. I can imagine something similar happening here in the current political climate. I hope it was a success with your teacher.


    1. Ah, what a fascinating take on it, Paul dear! And so true. On Monday when I have my lesson with Edith I’ll find out what she thinks of the story. Vamos a ver! — xx

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.