Monday, August 24, 2009

New Orleans to Natchez IV: Ricky Goes to Africa

Though it took almost a month, Ricky and his crew had delivered the vessels safely to the African shore. It seemed like everyone in the fishing village turned national port had come out to greet them.

“There was a crowd of people who had come out see our ships, it was like a hero’s welcome,” Ricky said.

They were a spectacle, if not exactly heroes. The businessman who had purchased the boats from Thibodeaux was in fact a chief. He was the leader of one of Ghana’s ethnic minorities involved in a slow burning dispute in the north of the country. The people crowding onto the docks were there in protest. It was rumored that the chief had bought boats in the United States in order to smuggle arms to fuel the conflict.

Ricky nor anyone aboard his boats could fathom what was going on. A detachment of the Ghanan army boarded the ship for the customs inspection, and Ricky walked them through the ship’s log and declared the contents of the hold.

The chief sent emissaries to bid Ricky and crew to disembark and took him to meet the businessman. Though he did not explain the situation that was unfolding, the chief assigned a shadow to Ricky, as he explained that this man would be able to help him with whatever he needed. He treated Ricky to an elaborate lunch of fresh seafood, grilled meats, and French wine. He promised Ricky would live like a king as long as he chose to stay in Ghana and all would go smoothly with the training of the new crew.

After the long lunch, Ricky and his new shadow went back to port to fetch his belongings from the boat. They were stopped by the same army detachment that had performed the customs inspection that morning. There had been a second search that afternoon, and this time they had found contraband in the ships’ holds. Ricky was now an arms smuggler.

Ricky steamed. They hadn’t found anything that morning, and with none of his crew was aboard the ship the army had suddenly found the rumored contraband.

Ricky was arrested on the spot and taken to the port’s jail. He hadn’t seen any of his crew before he was carted away, and all of his documents including his passport were on board the now impounded ship. He hadn’t checked in with the embassy, so there was no one who could account for his whereabouts. For a second time in a fortnight, Ricky knew he was fucked.

He wasn’t told anything further about his ship or his men. At least he was given his own cell. The door was solid, but he did have a single barred window set just above eye level that let in light from an interior courtyard. Ricky sat on the mattress they provided—no doubt as a luxury for the foreigner—and listened to coming and goings in the prison and to the birds in the tree near his window. Not counting his detour in Jamaica and unexpected detention in Barbados, this was Ricky’s first and what he vowed to be his last experience on foreign soil. He prayed that he’d survive to tell the story. Long after dark, when the jail settled down and last neighborhood radio switched off its rumbling bass, Ricky could hear the faint sound of surf in the distance..

At dawn of the following morning a pebbled skittered across his floor. Then another. He looked up at the window and whispered, “who’s there?”

In another moment he spotted young man the chief had appointed to be his shadow pulling himself up onto a branch in the tree near his window.

“I have no idea how he got inside that jail,” Ricky said.

Perhaps he bribed someone. In any case, this dedicated body servant, hired by the man who was likely responsible for Ricky’s imprisonment, wanted to know how he could be of assistance.

Ricky needed him to get his passport to the embassy so that someone in a position to help would at least know his whereabouts. The problem was that his passport was on the boat impounded by the Ghanan army. Still, he explained to the young man where the passport could be found in his cabin. It was the only thing Ricky could think of that might help.

Ricky had no idea how long they planned to detain him, what the official charges were, or whether his crew had also been detained. He had no one to talk to and nothing to do other than watch the shadows move across the floor. A guard came to fetch him in the afternoon. He was taken out into the courtyard and across to another room for his meal before being returned to his cell. Someone would have to figure out he’d gone missing before too long, he kept thinking to himself. If his shadow could get inside the jail to talk to him, surely he’d be able to get word to the right people.

Ricky spent another night alone in his cell. He had been too nervous to sleep the previous night, but on his second night he was tired enough and bored enough to get a good night’s sleep. He woke up to the sound of the key rattling in his cell door. The guard marched him to where he had lunch the previous day. At least he was now on the breakfast schedule. But this time the guard walked him past the canteen and into the jail’s office, where a suited official greeted him with a handshake and a smile and explained there had been a small misunderstanding. Ricky credited his new body servant.

“Somehow that bugger got my passport to the embassy,” he said.
There was no more mention of arms smuggling, so either the original accusations were bogus, or the chief had paid off the appropriate officials.

His shadow brought him to the chief, who apologized for the misunderstanding. They had another lavish meal together. After dinner, cognac and cigars, the chief offered Ricky one of his women.

“I think I insulted him by not taking her,” Ricky said.

But his head was still spinning was from almost disappearing on his first trip abroad, how could he be expected to pick up on the finer points of African etiquette? He and the chief could call it even.

Ricky agreed to follow through with training the chief’s new shrimp boat crews. They did things a little differently in Africa. The Ghanans managed to fit 25 people on a boat designed for a five-man crew. At night they set up hammocks in every cranny of usable space on the boat. And the crew worked almost for nothing. They were paid in trash fish, the bycatch that got scooped up along with the shrimp. They would trade their trash fish at the market for other goods.

Back in port from training the crews, Ricky had another run in with the same army officer who had arrested him on his first evening in Ghana. The officer accused of Ricky of not having the correct papers, and threatened him again with detention. This time Ricky snapped.

“Hell if I’m going back to jail in this country. I’m an American.” Ricky said, “I’ll take your biggest guy and your next biggest on, right here, right now.”

Ricky went back to jail. Apparently the officer had no appreciation for his John Wayne impression. This time Ricky did not get the VIP treatment—there was no mattress on the floor or courtyard window for his next five more nights in jail.

Though they hassled him at customs, Ricky did manage to get back home. In the end, tre trip was not a total disaster, he got some good stories and his father managed to break even on the deal.

That was 20 years ago. Ricky has no plans for leaving US shores again. He his happy running up and down the inland waterways, occasionally telling his tales of adventure on the open sea.

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