Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors
As the cheese was brought out, things took a turn for the worse, for the Commissioner made a request we had somehow to refuse. “I wish,” he said, “I wish to buy that girl from you.” He pointed to Barbara, blonde and chesty and glowing. I didn’t blame the Commissioner a bit, but we had to get out of it-and without offending him, for a man who’d killed fifteen French during the war with guns and plastique wasn’t going to think twice if insulted by an American.
“How much will you pay for her?” I asked, following the custom.
“How much do you wish?” he countered, and I could see we were in for some Arab haggling.
Barbara had stopped glowing. I asked the Commissioner what he thought was a fair price, and he offered fifteen hundred American dollars, in either cash or gold.
“Well, that’s very generous,” I answered, “but only for an average girl. It’s not enough for her. Barbara here’s an exception.” Exceptionally pale at the moment, I noticed.
“How much do you want?”
“Well, we just couldn’t part with her for less than $3,000. I mean she’s no ordinary girl: lovely hair, nursing skills, nice disposition, and-“
“-and lots of meat,” the Commissioner smirked, a bit of spittle driveling into his dish of couscous. ”All right, I give you $2,000. It’s too much for her, but since you’re my good friend, I’ll give it to you.”
”I’m sorry, but we just couldn’t take less than $3,000, even from a good friend like you. We turned down $2,700 for her in Marrekesh from the Sultan. We have to send half the money to her mother.”
“You do not bargain, Mr. Stephens.”
“Three thousand dollars is a bargain for a girl like Barbara.”
”As you wish. All right. I take her.”
We were astounded. My trick had backfired. I couldn’t conceive of anybody paying $3,000 for a woman outside of divorce court, but there it was. Barbara looked about ready to faint, and the veiled wives were already giving her the Cinderella look when Al cut in.
“But there’s one thing Mr. Stephens forgot to mention, Commissioner. You see, we had planned to sell these girls as a group. They all go together. But since you are our friend, you can have the other two at a big discount, only $2,000 each, $7,000 for all three.”
“No, I do not want the other two. They are too skinny. Look,” he said, pinching Liz, who screamed, “No meat. All bones. I could not even get $200 for her from the nomads. I only want the other one.”
“But you see-well you see-we have to sell them together. The one you want is the prize of the flock and we need her to help us sell these other two miserable ones. Nobody will buy these scrawny chickens otherwise. Come on, special for you, as our friend, only $7,000 for all three.”
“No, no deal.”
And with a sigh of relief we moved on to Algiers, the girls sitting in the back of the Land Cruiser singing at the cop of their lungs, “Maori Battalion march co victory, Maori Battalion staunch and true, Maori Battalion march to glory…”
Algiers buzzed with all sorts of activity, none of it particularly conducive to a pleasant visit. Under Ben Bella, Algiers had become a center of anti-American propaganda and policies. All across Africa we’d picked up its radio programs denouncing Americans as “imperialists, exploiters, fascists, and colonialists.” The city was plastered with signs and billboards extolling sacrifice, praising Socialism, lauding Nasser, saluting the Soviets, thanking Red China, and damning the United States. Ben Bella had opened Algiers to international revolutionary groups, and its streets were filled with young toughs from organizations like the Mozambique Liberation Front or the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. It was a den of seedy dragons.
Behind the flags and slogans we detected unrest and discontent. High prices, low wages, half-empty stomachs, and disillusionment were everywhere. Everywhere also were guns and barbed wire; Ben Bella’s palace was a fort surrounded by concrete tank traps and a high wall manned by half a hundred troops with ugly Chinese machine guns.
We search d for the pretty campsites of the tourist folder, but they were also victims of the war which had despoiled the entire Mediterranean coast around Algiers with barbed wire, watchtowers, and mine fields; we were forced to drive twenty miles until we found a clear beach. There we pitched our camper and rushed for the water, eager to wash off the dirt and sweat of a week of driving. I plunged in first-and screamed for the others to stop. The water was alive with leeches, wriggling, slimy, ugly leeches, eight inches long-thousands of filthy, black bloodsuckers. The others ran out immediately, but I was in so far that by the time I made it back to shore there were two leeches clinging to my legs and another, big as a banana, sucking blood from my back. Al pulled them off and cleansed the wounds. We sank back to the camper, utterly dejected.
Later that night we sat around the dismal campsite getting ready for the next long stretch to Cairo. I was studying the maps, Al was editing photos for the sponsors, and Woodrow was computing our expenses. Willy and Manu had gone into town to eat at a restaurant, and the girls were packing their knapsacks, getting ready to head back home the next day. Miles across the bay, the lights of Algiers beamed steady in the clear air, but everywhere else around us was absolute darkness, broken only by the glow of our hissing gas lanterns.
Suddenly Woodrow was screaming and jumping and holding his neck. Something had bitten him hard, and blood was oozing from the wound. But what? What kind of animal would slash a man on a North African beach without being seen? As I was wondering about this and helping Al bandage Woodrow’s wound, I heard a faint warning buzz about ten yards away, like a rattlesnake, but lower in pitch.
I turned toward the sound and saw a blur of black leap from the beach at my head. It caromed off the gas lantern, and vanished. It was terrifying. On our trip we would run into everything from bull elephants in heat to tarantulas in our trousers, but we had no idea what in the world was after us then, and there’s nothing more frightening than the unknown.
We waited, tense and sweating. Two minutes, five, ten. Then another black buzz jumped at us. It grazed me on the chest and I swatted it to the beach and pinned it with my boot. It was one of the most disgusting creatures I’ve ever seen, looking more like a monster from the laboratory of some warped scientist than any creature of Nature. It was about five inches across, dark chocolate brown in color, with big front pincers and several sets of smaller side legs. It had the general shape of a crab, the hairy appearance of a spider, and some sort of rear wings that enabled it to fly or spring about five feet in the air and twenty feet forward. And it died hard: I smashed the one at my foot ten times with an entrenching tool before it was finally stilled.
Our flashlights showed the beach was crawling with these things, but not before one of them jumped and nipped my hand. It was apparent that they were attracted by light and converging on our campsite, so we extinguished our lanterns and sat in the dark until it was time to go to sleep and dream of mine fields and leeches and flying monsters. The next morning brought no relief for with it came mobs of unwashed, unruly Arab kids, all curious to see these strange foreigners who were living on the beach, and all with a touch of larceny in their hearts. With two cars and two trailers loaded with gear we had such a full time keeping an eye on things that we had to congratulate ourselves when we took inventory that evening and found we’d only lost a can opener and a stack of paper plates.