The selling of seashells by the seashore is a famous profession, though generally not a lucrative one. Our seashell salesman in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was named Benjamin. (At least I think so.) He had a diversified product line: he also sold “brown sugar” and black-market shillings.
The seashells, he hawked to all who passed. The shillings, he sold quietly. The brown sugar, he sold in a whisper only to those initiated into the illicit joys of pure heroin.
I was traveling around East Africa that summer with Charles, my best friend from college. Our hostel was Luther House, as in Martin Luther, and it was strictly for the budget traveler. Anybody trying to earn a living selling to the Luther House crowd had to be selling something irresistible.
“Hear no stories, hear no lies,” my Uncle Roger had told me before I left home. This was the advice I heeded each day as I left Luther House. I spoke politely but kept walking. Charles engaged Benjamin. “How much for the shillings, bro? How much for the sugar?”
Charles had been a teenage heroin addict. He’d gone to rehab, cleaned up, finished his undergraduate degree, and was en route to Harvard’s MBA program. That summer, his 30th, he could still remember that I’ve-conquered-the-world feeling of heroin in his veins. It wouldn’t be hard to feel that way again.
AIDS was moving at a full gallop then, especially in poor countries. We had brought our own syringes in case of emergencies, because you never wanted to be at the mercy of a hospital that reused its needles. You see how easy this could be? Charles was likely thinking, I can do this. I can do this right now.
One day, as we were leaving the hostel, Charles engaged Benjamin as usual. It had become friendly banter by then, so much so that Benjamin invited his new American friends to have lunch with him on the beach. This was not a swimming beach, and lunch would be at no restaurant. This was an open-air fish market. Men sold their catch from a couple of wooden stalls. There was the usual market cacophony of prices being haggled over, fish being hacked, and small, barefoot boys running around, looking for odd jobs or handouts. Benjamin picked out a large fish that looked nothing like any variety I knew from my Gulf Coast fish market. He handed our fish to a woman who was standing over a large pot of boiling oil. He said a few words in Swahili, then beckoned for us to follow him. At another stall, he bought a plateful of rice studded with cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, and cloves. A few words later, we had a large paratha—a flaky flat bread—dripping in butter. A few more words and our fish emerged from the oil, skin bubbly and brown. We claimed one end of a wooden picnic table and sat down to eat. In my memory, the whole feast cost less than a dollar. Charles recalls three times that much.
But no matter the price, it was a magical meal, seasoned by the joy of sharing simple fare with two friends, a few market kids, and a host of flies; seasoned by lemon wedges and the hands we ate with; seasoned by the relief that Benjamin wanted nothing more than company at lunch.
For Charles, the meal was seasoned with another kind of relief, a reprieve from temptation. Back at Luther House, the syringes we’d brought with us remained undisturbed in my backpack.