Finally, he was through. After finding his bags, he looked around trying to find the exit and reading the overcrowded directional signs.
Before long, Antonio found himself in the middle of an intense midday heat, the feeling of which he had forgotten long ago. The humid air and extreme heat hit him like a wall. A multitude standing behind an iron fence just outside waved their hands to attract the attention of those arriving. With his mind back somewhere else, for the first time since he left, he became aware that he was far away from everything familiar; no known faces waiting in the crowd; no familiar points of reference. The only familiar happening was the language, and the slang of the street sellers he had forgotten. He stopped to look around. “Welcome back to reality,” he thought.
As soon as he stood outside the airport compound, a storming crowd of children and taxi drivers surrounded him in a flash. The children were selling crafts, candies, offering to help with his bags, trying to shine his shoes, suggesting places to stay, and offering taxi rides. It was not only difficult to hear who was saying what but also to move along. No matter what he said, the mass swarmed around him. Later he would realize that there was logic to the apparent madness. They wear you down until you make a choice, like it or not.
The taxi took only a few minutes to reach the main road to downtown. Antonio had decided to stay in the main city before heading to the coast were he was born. Curiously, he remembered then that for a large part of his young life he never visited the capital, except for a couple of times before he left, because “it was too far”, although it was no more than a hundred kilometres away. Leaving this land had changed his understanding of space and distances.
Zigzagging between street holes, piles of dirt, slow-moving donkeys in some places, and free dogs and children in others, the taxi quickly found the way to the hotel. Although there was much to see and remember, Antonio had the sensation of being in the middle of an unknown place.
New buildings and lines of street shops by the side of the roads were everywhere. Women, children and old men behind makeshift stands exhibited their merchandise. Cigarettes, bottles of unknown beverages and perfumes, flowers, tables, chairs, and toys were part of an endless street market. In other places, the stands exhibited fruits and delicious looking pastries, masks resembling faces in pain brought to life from the deepest of hells, and cloth and tapestries of colourful designs; in sum, a little of everything. It was like an unregulated Wal-Mart spread all over the streets. It seemed as if everybody was prepared to sell something, even with not many customers in sight.
In some neighbourhoods, the make-up was abject poverty, brown dust, and people everywhere, as if it was a national day of resting. In other areas, in the the well-to-do districts, the added touch was a quasi-exotic and amusing environment for those walking their tiny dogs, meandering among flowerpots in the patios of cafés and local restaurants.
It did not take long to get to the side street and the hotel where Antonio had made reservations. Stepping out of the car and moving the few metres to the entrance was not easy. Once again, a crowd of children appeared from all directions. He realized that in their eyes, he was definitely a tourist now. Trying to enter the hotel was a sign to them. They hung onto his arms, held down his suitcase, and pulled his jacket, making it very difficult to move or to protect his pockets from potentially intrusive little hands.
Some offered him unknown artefacts, putting them in his hands and in his pockets, while others flagged candies in his face to attract his attention. It was impossible to hide. All of a sudden, he had become, in a way, unique. Only the help of the impeccable hotel attendant, who took his bags and guided him to the lobby, saved him..