Perrier in a Bottle by Kathryn Brown Ramsperger
January 1991, Nairobi, Kenya
It’s good to be back. They pull up to the L-shaped hotel: a high-rise with a one-story extension. She’s never liked luxury, and a mid-range hotel will be a treat, since she’s on her way to do field work. Her future boss has sent Mohammed, his driver, to drop her off.
Annie’s packed too much as usual because she has no home base. As a humanitarian on call from mission to mission, she lives out of luggage. Three large suitcases, containing all her possessions except the clothes on her back, the gold chain around her neck, and the onyx school ring on her right hand. She rejects Mohammed’s offer of help and she drags her bags along like recalcitrant, whining children. He motions to the doorman to pick up the lighter one.
The hotel lobby buzzes with life. A certain intrigue and malice simmer just beneath all the light filling every corner. Guests—tourists, mzungus, kawajas, wanderers, European, African, Arab—bustle through to tea or out to waiting cabs. Every sort of fashion parades by: sarongs, kanga dresses, jeans, safari suits, ties, and three-piece suits.
The suits are a variation on a theme of tan, navy, or black. By contrast, the lobby is a mixture of deep, rich color: part colonial elegance and part safari comfort, half modern, half anachronism. Oriental rugs cover the polished grain of the floor that has witnessed at least half a century of people’s soles. Lush tropical plants in waist-high vases dot the corners, all under fans swishing from a beamed ceiling. An Islamic-style pass-through with iron grilling leads to a wide, steep staircase, lined with green marcasite mosaic steps. Lanterns flicker soft light even on this bright day, and cigarette smoke hangs in the air.
People relax on yellow velvet settees, while bellhops stand at the ready. Maids scrub the hotel’s tile floors and polish its fine furniture, even as undeflectable particles of dust form the moment they finish. A huge pile of luggage stands at attention in a corner. Over the piped-in music, she can hear the tin cups of beggars hitting the sidewalk outside. Tour guides with safari hats, weighed down by camping and photographic gear, shout over the din.
The guides seem ready to leave on their tour, but guests linger with their tea. It appears the verbs are trying to conquer nouns here, but the nouns, static and strong, are winning. Except for time. Time is a different element here. Neither noun nor verb, it melts and expands, like ice into water.
Mohammed sidles up to the reception desk. He motions Annie to follow him.
“This is Miss Campbell.” His tone has changed from respectful to boasting.
“She is going to work for our NGO. She has a reservation. What, Miss Campbell? For one week?”
Annie nods and steps up to the desk, fishing for her passport.
The receptionist thumbs through a file of index cards with white-gloved hands.
“Can you spell that for me, please, madam?”
She peers down at Annie over her glasses. Her smile turns to a frown as Annie reaches the second vowel in her name. She flips through the index cards again like a poker dealer.
“We have no security deposit.”
She peers over her nose at Annie’s wilted white cotton shirt and jeans.
Annie stands rooted to the spot, searching for words. She sent in the requisite form with the proper account weeks ago. She fishes again in her purse and pulls out her original registration. “Is there a problem?”
The woman continues to look at the papers before her.
Five minutes pass, and Annie asks again, “Is there a problem?”
She turns to find that Mohammed, whom she had hoped would intercede on her behalf, has silently departed. Determined to get a response, Annie places her elbows on the reception desk.
“Excuse me, miss, but can you tell me if there is a problem?”
The big smile again.
“No. No problem. Follow this man with your luggage to your room. It is right on this floor. Quite convenient.” The woman points her outside instead of toward the staircase.
Annie sighs, part relief, part disgust, and drags her satchel along behind her. All she can envision is a hot shower. They nearly bump into Mohammed outside.
“I must leave but please do not walk around your hotel alone. It is on the outskirts of a park. You never know who will show up there.”
“Excuse me, Mr.…eh…Mohammed, you just said the park was dangerous?”
Annie leans forward and enunciates every syllable. She is conscious of her slight Southern American inflection, especially in this land of Parliamentary Procedure and proper Oxford English. She’s been out on walks from the hotel before, yet always with others. This is her first time in Kenya alone. Has it always been dangerous?
“Of course, I am not one to say that Nairobi is a dangerous place, not by any stretch of the imagination.”
Mohammed tries and fails to straighten his ribbon-thin tie, coughs, clears his throat.
“But you said I should stay in the hotel?”
“Yes, that is what I would advise.” He gets into his Land Rover.
Annie and the porter troop down a narrow, darkened hallway, and then out onto a long portico, full of sunlit shadows and the smell of stale alcohol and urine. Men in shorts, bare-chested, crouch on the floor, chuckling among themselves, speaking in several derivations of several different languages. Smoke, from cigarettes, cigars, waterpipes, something much stronger, envelops her from every direction.
First, the doors they pass are only covered with dust, then peeling paint, then become more dilapidated. The door directly before the one the porter stops at has a crack down its middle. Annie’s door has a chip out of the bottom but otherwise appears intact. The porter inserts a huge, rusted key in the lock, and the door screeches open. Annie stifles a similar sound and walks in to investigate.
“This is to be my room?” she asks, and the porter nods.
She hands him a crisp dollar bill. He nods his gratitude, without meeting her gaze, and places one suitcase on a rickety luggage stand, which falls into pieces before he can secure it. He grins, shrugs, and backs out of the door, leaving it open to the fracas outside.
Annie slams the door. It shuts fast and hard, raspy like a dying witch. She fiddles with the deadbolt, but it won’t catch. She looks down and sees bright red blood spurting from her little finger. She must have torn the skin on the latch. Funny, she hasn’t felt any pain, still doesn’t. The blood drips down, forming a tiny rivulet on the tile floor; drips and drops onto a spot where the tile was ripped up, to expose another brighter floor underneath. A fly buzzes around the blood, and Annie jumps back. All these years, and she still isn’t quite comfortable with Africa’s wildlife.
She walks to her rusty, unblanketed cot with its starched white sheets. How odd to have crisp linens in such a dreary room. She picks up a rough, dingy towel and wraps it around her finger to stop the bleeding, lifts the huge black receiver of a 1920s vintage telephone with her uninjured hand, and dials the front desk.
“May I help you?”
“This is Annie Campbell in room… I’m not even certain these rooms have numbers… I am sure that you have placed me in the wrong room.”
“Is there something you find unsatisfactory about your room, madam?”
Annie twists the towel around her pinky. She knows better rooms exist in the tower. How to express her displeasure without offending the African sensibility? She doesn’t want to be a prima donna, a common American, a kawaja with attitude. A bottle shatters against her door. “It’s very noisy,” she says at last. She’s been working on faking empowerment until she truly owns it. It’s not easy when she’d rather be kind. How to display both empathy and boundaries?
“They’re cleaning outside now, madam. It will quiet down after they finish.”
She hears laughter in the background. The curtainless window next to her cot faces the street. She can see the outskirts of the large park beyond. One windowpane is missing. A grove of exotic trees sways beyond in a thin breeze. How strange to be in this hovel in the midst of such an Eden.
“I would much prefer to be on an upper floor as I am traveling alone.”
More laughter. It’s obvious it’s at her expense. They know they’ve put her in a substandard room. Annie fingers the towel, fast soaking with her blood. She crosses her legs, leans forward, uncrosses them again.
“Madam, it is simply not possible to transfer you right now. You had no reservation. We have dignitaries from Somalia. Every room is booked through tonight. We’ve put you in the best available room in our service area.”
“Service area! I did have a reservation. I gave proof,” Annie says.
“We’ll do our best to transfer you tomorrow morning,” the woman offers back.
“I suppose I can stay here for one night.” This was supposed to be an adventure, right?
“Why don’t you have a bite around the pool until your escort returns?”
“My driver? Why would he return? He just dropped me here. I’m here for a meeting.”
There is a pronounced silence, then, “A meeting?” Papers shuffle, and voices whisper.
“We’ll do our best, madam. Enjoy your stay.”
She understands now. The receptionist must have thought she was the driver’s girlfriend. Or worse. They thought he was checking her in for a rendez-vous. She shivers at the thought. Why can’t women check in to a hotel on their own without being seen as wanton? She wants to scream, but a beer bottle crashing against her door makes her decide not to call any more attention to herself.
She unpacks while she can still see. There’s no lamp in this room. The bugs seem to be behaving until nightfall, and the only insect she sees now is a moth with huge, grey-purple wings, asleep. Flies and mosquitoes have either flown the coop or are resting out of sight. She strips, throws her sweat-stained clothing in a plastic bag and into the room’s cleanest corner, and heads for the shower. A little water will work wonders.
The shower nozzle points down at the concrete floor with no hot and cold water taps. Annie hazards a hope that the water will come out lukewarm, but it sprays hard and cold onto her waiting head. She shivers, but one closer to delight than misery. She will be clean, and for a moment, cold. The water runs and pools out onto the floor in every direction, for there is no shower curtain. Annie leans out to grab the nubby towel and steadies herself on the corner of a bidet. No hot water, no shower curtain, a hard, bleached towel, certainly no heat or air-conditioning, but every bathroom must have a bidet.
She yanks on a T-shirt and shorts and lies down on the narrow cot, fidgeting to get comfortable in the sticky heat. The sun beats in, strong and constant. She tosses her legs to one side, then the other. She can’t ignore the smell of bleach-soaked mildew and the noise of traffic streaming through the broken pane. The moth flutters its iridescent wings; the sound of running water has woken it. She springs up and rummages through her smallest suitcase for her mosquito netting. Nairobi doesn’t have much malaria, but it’s an old habit for her. She spreads it on the ground to straighten it out. Then she lies down on top of it, cringes about what she could be lying on, rolls herself up like a canned crescent roll, and waddles over to the cot. Despite the sweat already forming on her newly showered body, she falls into a fitful sleep.
She wakes with a jolt. A thin coating of red dust covers the mosquito net, the moth fluttering in the window, revealing furry wings with a pattern like two eyes on either side. A watchful guardian. It must not realize its route to freedom is only a pane below.
How long has she slept? Annie checks her watch, only to realize it needs resetting. What time does dusk fall here? The sun still slants in high above her window; it gives her no hint of which meal she should be hungry for. She pulls the pin on her watch; its straps hang limp in her hand. She pushes the long hand forward, counting out hours, until the watch determines it is 14h00, Africa time. Back home they are just rising or preparing breakfast. Home: the land of freshly mopped supermarket aisles, of endless miles of pavement, of windowpanes, curtains, doors, locks, and keys, of nonstop broadcast news, of shuffling nine-to-fivers. Positives and negatives, like the opposite end of a magnet, drawing her back—still familiar, still hers.
Though she likes Africa better.
She hears a rustling outside in the shrubs, and a face appears in her window.
“Oh sorry, madam,” says the man. “Just spraying for insects.”
Not sure if he is telling the truth, she heads for the shop in the lobby. She’ll ask the shopkeeper for validation.
The shopkeeper is wiping down his boutique’s windows. He smiles and nods as she approaches. He remembers her. She returns the smile. He holds up a vividly colored wooden carving.
“Are they spraying for insects outside?” she asks him, and he nods.
“How have your travels been?” he asks her.
He is still the most nurturing person she’s met in Nairobi. His spices cured her bronchitis the first time she was here, just in time for her to be filmed on local television as she opened a development conference for southern and eastern Africa.
“Uneventful so far.”
She raises her eyes to the sky.
“We shall see. They are sending me to central Africa.”
“To teach reading.”
His gaze turns hopeful.
He looks down and begins to polish the glass. He probably doesn’t approve of reading lessons in a language not native, that no one speaks. He won’t say anything, though.
“I doubt I’ll be able to teach much.”
Instead of selling God, these humanitarians market freedom, whatever that is. In the name of education, which they control.
“Then why do you go?”
“For the children.”
She purchases a small soapstone figurine of a zebra with her baby for old time’s sake. Everything else is marked up for tourists.
“When will you leave?”
Annie is fresh out of in-staff training, a mixture of impractical facts and development rah-rah, both designed to produce assembly line “internationalists,” possessed with a cookie-cutter approach to “saving” nations in the name of saving lives, required for each field assignment.
“In the next few days. We are waiting on the paperwork and a few interviews.”
“Ah yes. We may not meet again this time then. May the heavens shine upon your travels.”
“God willing. Thank you.”
“Asante,” he says. “Be happy. Be well.”
“One last question, please,” she says. “Is it dangerous to cross the park?”
“Only at night.”
She’s beginning to distrust Mohammed. Does he not want her out alone for some reason? Or out at all?
The pool is pristine and completely out of place. Its crystal, chlorinated water bobs up and down stirred by a breeze. White wrought-iron patio tables surround the pool on every side, and guests in bikinis and tight Speedos eat and drink with gusto, in between dips. Not a hint of red dust here. The scene reminds Annie more of Florida than Africa. She sinks, thankful, into a chair and readies herself for a meal. Her last meal was juice and crackers washed down on the plane.
For an instant, she wishes she had thought to put on a swimsuit. Then she glances down at her lap, her pale thighs hidden by jeans and a crisp damask napkin, and thinks twice. She should be working instead of swimming.
A server brings a poolside snack menu, and Annie orders a hamburger, well done. No need to ruin her time here with a too-sensitive, sour stomach brought on by tap water and uncooked vegetables. In Manhattan she’d be congratulating herself on her slim body. Nothing like Africa to teach you to eat.
“What happened to your finger?”
Annie starts as she realizes the server has been standing over her with a beautiful, juicy hamburger. She blushes. The bolt has left a still-oozing gash on her right pinky; not yet scabbed over. Fatigue has made her forget it, but now it throbs with renewed ferocity.
“I just cut it open trying to lock the door.” She laughs. “It bled for a long time.”
“Oh yes.” The server laughs with her. “It is the altitude here. The air is thinner. It oxygenates the blood. Good for you in the long term. Bad for you in the short term if you injure yourself. People have bled to death on Mount Kenya from simple wounds. But here, no worries. You’ll adjust to the altitude soon enough. You have a tetanus vaccination?”
“Oh yes,” Annie answers. “Thank you. I wondered why it was bleeding with such vigor.”
“That’s something you soon discover about Kenya. It is a ‘vigorous’ place.”
His eyes dance with mirth.
Annie begins to giggle. He joins in.
“You have no bandage for your finger?”
He picks up the cola bottle, ready to pour it into her glass laden with ice. Annie puts her good hand quickly over the rim.
“I prefer the bottle,” she mumbles, hoping explanations are unnecessary.
The server smiles knowingly, a smile of benign conspiracy.
“Of course. Let me get you a bandage for your finger.”
She is almost napping again, the sun soaking into her back, when the server returns with antiseptic and a strange, one-piece, malleable bandage, which fits as though made for her finger. Such kindness. She was elated to be back in Nairobi, but the day has tried her to the core. The shopkeeper and the server turned the day around, though. People like them are the reason she loves travel, working overseas. For every person she has felt uncomfortable around today, she’s met a person she feels equally as comfortable with. With their kind support, she’ll manage just fine.
A guest at a neighboring table waves the server over.
“Is it safe to walk to town?” she asks before he can disappear.
“Of course,” he answers. “I do it all the time. Just don’t go into the park at night. There’s a bazaar on the other side of it. It has reasonable prices and authentic merchandise.”
She decides Mohammed might be trying to protect her as a single woman in a heavily populated Muslim city. She sits for another hour, savoring the scent of charbroiled beef, the hypnotic lap of shimmering blue water, and the sun and wind tickling her shoulders then changes for her walk.
She realizes too late her extra pair of jeans reek of mildew from their time in her moldy hotel room. How could a few hours of exposure to fungus cause such a pungent odor? She wishes she had brought a hat; everyone else has a scarf or a hat, although head coverings offer little shelter from the insidious, penetrating sunlight, even this late in the day. She feels the sun’s thin-needle stings in her bare upper arms.
The park is full of life. Drums reverberate out over its perimeters; women in bright printed skirts and beige or plaid sweaters—how can they wear sweaters in this heat?—bend over burlap sacks full of bright red tomatoes and round, striped watermelon. A spicy smell of cardamom and coffee beans wafts through the air. Gangly children run in every direction on the brown, grassless ground, playing and chanting. A few, their legs as thin as tree branches, run to Annie, touching her hands, asking for pencils. Their fingers feel tiny and rough. She reaches into her pocket and gives them nickels instead. “Asante. Asante sana, pretty lady!” A couple inspect her hands, pulling at the skin. She’s an oddity to them.
What’s there to worry about in such an open, happy area? Of course Central Park can seem harmless too. She keeps her right hand in her pocket, clasped tightly around her twenty-dollar bill and her American passport, while she fishes in her left pocket for more change. Every so often, she glances over her left shoulder to assure no one is following her other than the bevy of children on every side.
She passes through the park in due course and rounds a corner that leads into the city. Rush hour has set in, and the streets are walled with cars, buses, and bicycles. Buildings tower on either side of the wide, palm-lined avenue. Realizing her throat is parched with thirst and dust, Annie goes in search of bottled water. She passes a curio shop with kitenge shirts and dresses hanging outside, an American Express travel agency, an open-door food vendor wafting the scent of fried plantains. She comes upon a tiny, whitewashed grocery, its painted name peeling off its side like waxy skin off an apple. Some schoolchildren in blue uniforms with ties stand around the doorway like crossing guards. They fix a quixotic stare on her but say nothing.
She pretends to know where she’s going and what she’s looking for. The clerk behind the aged counter strikes up her lively, melodic conversation again. The customers return to their business. Annie feels their diverted glances out of corners of their eyes, though.
She wanders around the store, marveling that she has not one iota of an idea what some of the packaged items are despite their English lettering. She’s gone to the bigger market in the business district on previous trips. Some of the words are faded away. Not a single bottle of liquid in sight.
She walks to the counter and looks the cashier in the eye.
“I am looking for some Perrier.”
The woman continues to sit on her stool, unmoved by the request. She is a large woman all over—her eyes, her mouth, her head, her body. Her scarf is a paisley pattern, her orange T-shirt has horizontal stripes, and a kitenge cloth covered with orange palm trees hangs loosely at her waist. The two women stare at each other for a moment, sizing each other up.
“Perrier, in a bottle.”
“We have nothing like that, whatever it is you’re speaking of.” The woman laughs.
“Oh. Do you have cola, in a bottle?” Annie rummages in her pocket, hoping that she has enough shillings so she doesn’t need to break her twenty-dollar bill.
The woman rolls her eyes and turns around to lower the volume on the radio.
“You’ll need to repeat yourself, madam. I heard cola, but how do you want it?”
There, she’s gone and done it now. Shown the kawaja she is.
“In a bottle.”
Annie clears her throat and tries not to shift her gaze.
“How else do you think I can give it to you?”
The woman chuckles again, perhaps to herself, perhaps to the people around her. Definitely not to Annie. No one else even cracks a smile, except Annie, who really wants her cold drink.
The cashier reaches under the counter and pulls out a small, mud-encrusted glass bottle. She recognizes its design from childhood, and she reckons it to be about as old as she is. It looks as though some child has used it as a rolling pin to make mud pies.
“That’ll be thirty-five Kenya shillings.”
It’s probably an inflated price, and the safety of the soda inside the bottle is suspect, but it is sealed, and she is dying of thirst. She hands the woman her last shilling.
“Where do I open it?”
“At home,” the woman says.
She shifts from one side of the seat to the other and places her hand on her thigh. She glances toward the door to the outside, indicating it is time for Annie to take the hint and leave.
Ire and thirst prompt Annie’s next comment.
“You mean to tell me you don’t have a single bottle opener in this country?”
She immediately reddens, remembering about all the repeated warnings she’s received from her NGO debriefers about keeping a low profile, especially as an American woman, who have a reputation in Africa of being haughty and ignorant.
Yet the other woman smiles at her for the first time, and Annie returns its warmth. The clerk pries herself from her seat and trudges over to the window. She picks up a bottle opener that is wedged in between the wall and an indoor shutter and hands the opener to Annie.
“Please,” she says, and smiles again.
Annie takes the opener and wiggles the soda top. The mud has glued it in place, but she finally slings it off, and it flips across the room, clanging as it hits some dinted cans. Everyone laughs, including Annie. One elderly man with a beard and turban picks it up and hands it back to her.
“You never know when you might need something like this.” His sweet smile spreads his wrinkles out tight until his whole face is smile-shaped.
Annie shines back at him.
“Can anyone direct me to the bazaar near the park?”
The store fills with a cacophony of voices, each with a different idea of the route Annie should take and what she will find at the bazaar.
“Asante,” Annie says, bowing her head. “Asante.”
She has much more to thank these people for than a dirty, warm drink. Her venture out of her hotel has left an unexpected, sweet mood, still mixed with a tinge of her previous disequilibrium. They liked her in spite of herself, or perhaps they liked her because she was being herself.
“Come show us your wares after you shop,” the woman calls after her.
“I will!” She’s made another friend.
She’s heading toward the shop when she looks back and sees Mohammed in his Land Rover. He’s watching her. When their eyes meet, he motions her toward his vehicle.
“I thought you might need a ride back to the hotel,” he calls out his open window.
So he is following her. Quivering, she gets in the back seat.
They head in the opposite direction to the hotel, and her heart thumps.
“Why are we going this way?”
“I thought you might like to see more of the city, seeing as you were out on foot,” he says, his tone accusatory.
“I was only out for some air, to get over jet lag.”
He ignores her comment, instead pointing out sights by rote.
“You are now viewing Kenya Polytechnic.”
He points to the right.
“The railroad is another kilometer south. There, you see the Red Cross headquarters, and now we are upon the Parliament.”
She strains to hear his accent over the sound of the jeep’s engine.
“Mr. Mohammed, I am familiar with this area, thanks. Will you take me back to the hotel, please?”
He enters the roundabout without response. They’re back on Kenyatta Avenue now, heading toward the l-shaped hotel. He sucks on a split toothpick, spitting out the window every few minutes. His gaze remains straight ahead. They’re heading away from the bazaar, beyond Uhuru Park. They’ve placed her in a kawaja hotel because she’s considered a kawaja. A hotel for government official clandestine meetings, yes, but more for safari-vacationers and wealthy refugees—the ones who have enough U.S. dollars to flee conflict. And humanitarian workers. It’s a kind of holding pen, for them, and for her.
“I will pick you up tomorrow at nine a.m. sharp,” Mohammed tells her as he comes around to open the door for her.
“Have a pleasant evening. Inside your hotel.”
She strides down the noisy corridor with purpose now, unlocks the flimsy door. The moth buzzes in the window, and she knows she will not slumber any more than it will.
She stirs and stretches, surprised to have slept. She dreamt of a bazaar where women were adorning her with bright scarves of every color. She purchased one, then woke to birdsong.
She gazes out the window. No, it’s schoolchildren, not birds. Their chatter stretches across the park to her as they march two by two toward their classes.
The moth has flown the coop. He must have realized he was free after all.
A knock sounds on the door, more of a tapping, no breaking of glass or splintering of wood, and she answers. A schoolboy in uniform, a gap left from a missing front tooth, stands in front of her grinning.
“Shall I help you with your bags, then, madam?”
“My other room is ready?”
“Yes, and your driver awaits. Let me help you with the load.”
His eyes move about the room looking for luggage.
“You aren’t going to be late for school?” He shakes his head no.
She throws the stuff she used the night before into one of the bags, latches it shut. She wraps the muddy soda bottle in the bloody towel. She’ll take them with her to go along with the soapstone zebra, school ring and necklace, all souvenirs of a life well spent. Yesterday may have seemed uneventful to some, but to her they changed her perspective, from one of not belonging to one of strength in who she is and what she has to offer.
“No, madam, I am starting school next fall. I help out here until then. I shall still work the morning shift.”
He picks up a bag and throws it over his shoulder.
“This way, please, madam.”
He is so young, too young, to be lugging such a big bag.
No matter what else awaits Annie, children will be there. A new resolve fills her heart. She gives the room one last glance, then closes and locks the door behind her. She follows the boy down the hall, more light than shadow in the morning light.
Kathryn Brown Ramsperger's writing has appeared in National Geographic and Kiplinger publications, The MacGuffin and Willow Review journals, Your Tango and Thought Catalog online among many others. Her first novel The Shores of Our Souls was a DC Librarians’ Choice and a Foreword Indies winner in multicultural fiction. Her second novel, A Thousand Flying Things, to be published in 2023, is a Faulkner-Wisdom finalist and a Pulpwood Queens & Timber Guys featured book. Kathryn spent two decades as a humanitarian journalist for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent. She writes about war, peace, the human family, and the connections we all share, if we only realize it.