The right front wheel of the bus bounced into a pothole, jarring her and stealing her attention from the papers on her lap. She looked up. The driver was already braking, slowing down. The brakes squealed and the bus shuddered as it came to a stop. The driver looked back at her over his shoulder.
Maribelle stuffed the papers into her travel bag. She stood up, legs stiff, picked up her luggage from beside her and from the seat in front of her, and moved out into the aisle. The other people on the bus, a half-dozen or so, all black, watched her as she moved.
“You need some help?” the driver asked. A black man, too. He had a nice smile.
“I’ve got it, thanks,” Maribelle said, turning sideways to squeeze by him. In addition to her travel bag she had four others, a backpack on her back and three more to carry. Heavy as hell all together, but she did not want to ask for help.
“You take care out there,” the driver said.
“I will. Thanks.”
Maribelle stepped down from the bus. The heat hit her like a shower of steam. It had been hot on the bus too, of course, even with all the windows down. But at least the bus kept out the sun. She took a few steps and the bus rolled away behind her, the engine groaning, leaving her alone in the heat and the road.
Africa. The word had lost all of its romantic connotations. Now it conjured to mind dusty streets and boiling heat, shanty houses of rusted tin and old lumber, and staring black faces. These were the things she had seen most in the week since her arrival, and these were what she saw and felt now, standing in the road with the heat and her luggage bearing down on her.
“Hey! Hot stuff! Are you Maribelle Tate?”
Maribelle turned at the sound of her name. The first white man she had seen all day came walking towards her. But the color of his skin didn’t make him look any friendlier.
“You’re Mr. Hamm?” Maribelle asked.
“Give me some a’ them bags,” he said in way of an answer. His accent was hard to place, American, Canadian, maybe. But faded. “Didn’t they tell you to travel light?”
“I’m a woman,” she said. “This is traveling light.”
The man didn’t seem to appreciate the joke as he took her luggage from her, so Maribelle said: “Just two bags have my clothes in them. The rest is all equipment.”
The man grunted. He started walking so Maribelle followed him.
“You are Mr. Hamm, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Call me Phil,” he said, not sounding any friendlier.
“Thank you for being here to meet me,” she said.
“Anybody made a grab for that cherry yet?” Hamm asked.
“I beg your pardon?” Maribelle said.
“You’re too pretty,” Hamm said, “to be travelin’ alone in the land of the baboons. An’ wearin’ shorts like that, showing off them gams, I’d be surprised if you ain’t already been despoiled, if you know what I mean.”
“I haven’t, thank you,” Maribelle said, sharply. Then: “What do you mean by ‘land of the baboons,’ Mr. Hamm?”
He looked at her over his shoulder. “What? Africa has baboons, don’t it?” He grinned and winked. Maribelle decided that her first impression had been an accurate one and that no, she did not like this man. Not at all.