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Meghan Hicks learns that certain elements of human nature are universal, and communicable across cultural boundaries – like love, lust, and a lack thereof.

“You’re my brown-eyed girl,” he coos, his hands fluttering around mine with nervous energy. These lines from Van Morrison’s love ballad, funneled through an East African accent and the linguistic limbo of singing in a second language, still present themselves as an invitation for sex. His hips send the same message, swaying as if he’s picturing himself in the coital act. The night sky is city-din orange from our rooftop vantage point, glowing with the lights and campfires of millions of Dar es Salaam inhabitants. My words come out more like a question, “But I have blue eyes?”

He moves closer, whispering more Van Morrison into my ear: “Whatever happened, to Tuesday and so slow?” The equatorial heat and humidity are as persistent as he is, and along my back, two beads of sweat loose themselves and make a ticklish descent into the waistband of my skirt. Persistent, also, are the odors of a developing country. We are five stories above the earth, on top of my university campus dorms, and can still smell the burning trash and the cooking pots filled with stewed vegetables and goat meat. When his fingers grip my chin, I turn my head sharply to the side and sputter, “Ulikuwa ndugu yangu – You were like a brother.”

Photo by Marc Veraart

Yesterday he was my friend, and we’d high five-d each other in passing between our university classes. He’d flashed a warm, bright smile that made me feel included in this foreign world. Tonight, he wants more than my friendship, and the previous form of our relationship is as distant as a cargo ship on the Indian Ocean.

Body frozen, his eyes dart, searching. “But, nakupenda – I love you. I thought you loved me.” Now it’s my eyes flitting fast, as I sift through my limited Kiswahili vocabulary for how to start, where to start. He sighs, “Well, do you?” The question fires in my brain instead as, “Could I love him?”

It could be a romantic story fit for some future travel writer’s memoir: young, white woman falls deeply in love with not only a foreign place, but also an exotic man. I could live a fantasy life of white sand beaches and fresh pineapple, lusty tropical nights with this beautiful, dark skinned man. I can imagine the gritted teeth of my mom’s smile, an expression I saw many times during my early twenties when I told her the questionable, young-person decisions I’d made.

Sure, I could love him like this. But the truth is, I do not.

Perhaps it’s a cliché, but I am not in love with this man, though I do possess love for him. I arrived at the university campus two months ago and he befriended me right away, when others still treated me with caution. On my second week in school, he slipped a note under my dorm room door that asked me to meet for a run the next morning. I went, and we became good workout buddies. His family, who live nearby in a string of rooms made of concrete block walls and a corrugated metal roof, have welcomed me warmly. I spend weekend evenings sitting on the hard floor of their home, holding his sweating little sister and trying to learn Kiswahili from the family banter. He is a familiar face in a strange land. Of course I have love for him.

Photo by author.

And now he’s standing there, looking at me with a firm gaze and lips pursed into a prim line. His face is a picture of courage, but his hunched shoulders betray his true feelings. He is hurt, real hurt.

I want him to know about my love for him, but how can I bridge the continent of cultural difference? I’m a young American woman in the “free” stage of my life; he’s a young Tanzanian man actively seeking a wife. How do I explain the difference between the love of friends and lovers? I’ve got nothing, and I’m blowing this big time. I return his gaze with desperate eyes and meet his body in a stiff, awkward hug. “Ndugu yangu – you’re my brother,” I say. His body goes lax inside my hug, and his arms remain at his side. He breaks our embrace and leaves.

The next morning, he slips an envelope under my door. When I wake, I pull back my bed’s mosquito netting and reach for it. The envelope is blue, paper thin, and nearly transparent. The card is almost soft porn: a white woman in a lavender negligee leaning with a chiseled, shirtless white man against a kitchen counter, each holding a coffee cup. It portrays a romantic morning after, probably what he hoped we would be doing. It’s funny – hilarious, actually – out of context. But I’ve often seen Tanzanian men and women buying these types of cards from street vendors, and it doesn’t surprise me.

I can tell I was supposed to have read the card on the rooftop last night, right after his serenade, right before our romance would begin. Now, in the bright light of morning, while a warm Indian Ocean breeze blows through the room, I see he has scratched changes into the card. I am now his blue-eyed girl, and his sister.

COMMUNITY CONNECTION

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? How did you deal with it? Share your stories in the comments.

And if you enjoyed this story, make sure to check out our other Love in the Time of Matador articles.

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About The Author

Meghan Hicks

Meghan is a writer, educator, athlete, environmentalist, and adventurer based in Park City, Utah.

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  • http://www.holisticwithhumor.com Christine Garvin

    Beautiful.

    • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

      Christine, thanks!

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/nickrowlands Nick Rowlands

    Love the trajectory of this story. Kind of wondering how it turned out, though. Were you able to remain friends?

    Thanks for sharing!

    • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

      Nick, thank you, and we did remain friends. Awkward, itchy interactions first. Morning runs and group dinners later. Then, a letter and email friendship across continents last. Over the years we’ve lost touch, but not because of this hitch.

    • Danielle

      Very well written! Yes, are you still friends all these years later?

      • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

        We remained friends for years, but have, over time, lost touch. Thank you for your comment!

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/candicew86 Candice Walsh

    Agree with Nick, would love to know this turned out. Lovely story, Meghan. Being in that position is a tough one.

    • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

      Candice, thanks! All ended well, with some time. While this was a trying introduction to building (or not building) relationships of various kinds in other cultures, it made for fast learning for the 20 year old version of myself. I was an American tomboy, acclimated to the friendship of men in athletic endeavoring, unaware that this type of male-female interaction rarely occurred outside of my culture.

  • Juliane Huang

    Incredible writing.

    • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

      Juliane, I take your comment to heart, and thank you!

  • http://sleepinginthemountains.blogspot.com Tim Patterson

    One of the best stories I’ve read at Matador. Beautiful.

    • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

      Oh Tim, you make my lil’ writer’s heart flutter. Thank you for the niceties!

  • Theresa

    lovely piece!!! seriously great.
    weird that he still gave you a changed version of the card. almost like he brought it and couldn’t bear to throw it away.

    • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

      Theresa, would you find it equally strange to know that I still have the card all these years later? Thank you for the compliment!

  • Gabe

    WOW! Moving! Brought the sting of tears to my eyes with its ending. I felt his pain but also completely understand your position…BEEN THERE! Great writing. Interesting to see two people in the same age group but different places in their lives: He wants a wife and you on the cusp of the journey into the world.

    • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

      Gabe, thank you for the comment! Over the years, it seems, we all find ourselves on both sides of unrequited love. It stings either way, doesn’t it? I’ve noticed from my time in developing countries that life in them is sped up. You find a mate and have babies sooner, garner health conditions younger, and die sooner. Have you, too, noticed that?

  • Amanda

    I’ve experienced that and have given in to it, thinking it was love. But discovered it was an ideal that I loved more, like the picture you painted: “I could live a fantasy life of white sand beaches and fresh pineapple, lusty tropical nights with this beautiful, dark skinned man.” The lust of being accepted into a place, my life there validated by my partner’s nationality, the idea of me being exotic to him. It didn’t work out, ideals are not love.

    • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

      Amanda, I appreciate your story of trying it out a relationship whilst the exotic foreigner. I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you, and that it was hard.

  • http://expatheather.com Heather

    Really enjoyed this piece Meghan. Your details and the way you incorporated the local language brought me right in – I love the final image of the card.

    • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

      Heather, thank you!

  • http://crystalaplace.com Crystal Place

    I enjoyed reading this. Just thought I’d say so. :) A little true piece of humanity is always so nice to read, (even if the outcome was not so great for your sweet friend). :(

    • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

      Crystal Place, thank you for your comment! I’m grateful for his friendship, as he colored my time in Tanzania a bright palette.

  • Mo

    You have some writing skills! And also beautifully describing the arc of such easy cultural and gender misunderstandings.

    • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

      Mo, your comment makes me feel great, kind thanks to you! Gosh, sometimes travel is just making your way from one cultural misunderstanding to the next. :)

  • steph

    Amanda’s comment could have been my own. Thanks for this piece, Meghan. As others have said, it is very beautifully written.

    • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

      Steph, thanks for the kind compliment. International-style relationships, I suppose like all others, are sometimes kind of hard to navigate. Thanks again!

  • http://shantiwallah.com Marie

    I really had a sense of my own awkward early, uh… ‘intercultural encounters’ flooding back as I read your words. You’ve really captured the feeling in that moment when the curtain goes back and you see things as they really are.

    • http://www.meghanmhicks.com Meghan

      Marie, gosh how things were so awkward at first, weren’t they? :) Thanks for your comment!

  • http://whatsnewtodayed.info/forum/feed.php Lupe Ciriello

    This is really one of many better content articles involving those that I have read on this specific topic as of late. Excellent work.

  • http://www.robinwang.co.uk Robin

    The story was told in such a beautiful way.Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.nehasweb.com neha

    Beautiful writing Meghan! You translate the awkwardness of the exchange with such tender care. I also loved that he scratched out the original writing on the card to make it more fitting, a good sport, no?

  • Aloma Duhart

    “It could be a romantic story fit for some future travel writer’s memoir: young, white woman falls deeply in love with not only a foreign place, but also an exotic man.” You write beautifully yet I sense so many undertones of…Something. This man is/was NOT exotic he is/was a person like you and me. I am jealous about your Kiswahili knowledge though! :)

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