The secret of every frontier man

August 28, 2016

No! I don’t for one moment imagine anyone aspires to be a frontier man…not ever. Some may secret harbor illicit dreams about being a fireman or even a lion trainer in a traveling circus. But even so that’s pushing the envelop of most people’s sense and sensibilities.

People really slip into the frontier way of life when all bets are off: that’s to say, it’s their way of running away and hiding in the forest like a wounded animal – a reputation in ruins, a love gone wrong….a scandal?…an epic fall from great heights of expectations.

When they need to save their sorry souls, folks head for the frontier….of course you will never know the real reason. You can speculate and that’s that, that’s because it’s a bit like joining the French Foreign a legion…one never seems to be able to recall the life last lived or for that matter even one’s real name…..the frontier wipes it all away like dust taken by the wanton winds.

———————————————————–

He certainly did – trade coffee that is.

He bought low. Or what at least he thought to be low. For most the time, Mr Koreana managed to sell high or at worst break even. Mr Koreana was adept at playing the game of caprice against the vagaries of the coffee commodities trade….he was exceedingly good at the game.

So good that he much preferred to deal directly. At source as he liked to call it, which required him to travel by schooner along the neckline of the bay of Guinea shaped like a shoulder of a sleeping woman every year – he bought only between the months of November and December just before the dreaded Harmattan descended from the North when humidity drops to less than 15%, when weights and scales are truest.

In the curelean evenings when an almost paraffin blue sunset renders the Sierra in Leone ablaze, Mr Koreana knows that presages the arrival of the ochre winds that will blow relentless from North Africa to the cape of Guinea, sailors in the Coite de noire cursed – the sea of blood.

In West Africa, Mr Koreana buys only from the Parsees gypsies who caravan salt cones deep into the interior of Africa in April when the sun is at it’s highest usually on moonless. He considered them well mannered and considerate as they never ever took any exception to the shoulder holstered pistol he frequently wore with his creme suit,

With beans in hand for the rest of the year like how De Beers corners the diamond trade to keep the price of diamonds artificially high thru the successful marketing illusion of creating scarcity when there was more than enough to go around – that’s how Mr Koreana squared off the lousy odds when the market dealt him a curve ball from time to time.

During the hard years when it’s impossible to beacon out the murk of Mother Nature’s design. She can’t help it Mr Koreana would often murmur on deck only for the capricious wind to steal his words as if even she feared the sea herself would hear it…usually, he made allowances for that siaow charbor (crazy woman..the weather..he much to call caprice) often recounting – she can’t help it, the bloody moon affects her – when the loses mount while his wins dwindle and Mr Koreana makes do with maggi mee and one egg. He always instructs his secretary to send his Savile Row khaki linen suit to the dry cleaners along with a Panama, changes out his a wafer thin Constantin for a Rolex submariner – he was a man who always like to go to the very source for produce….only in the lean times, Mr Koreana went much deeper than most other men – just like the man from Del Monte – that’s what they called him Dumon only because in Creole Francaise along the Congo, a failing common to the coreoleans was their inability to curl the tongue at the ridge, which made Dumon much easier to pronounce than Del Monte. In the Congo at the prestigious Shamagh which doubled as the blue fin nightclub overlooking the river that separates Zaire from Brazaville. The regularly patrons considered him an honorary Le Sapuer de Extraordinaire Afrique who even had his own horse shoe table….Mr Koreana the man who only wears a well pressed khaki suit, chequered maroon cravat, Panama complete with spectator shoes and downs Campari on the rocks – but the man who likes nothing better than to refer to himself as Mr I trade coffee, wasn’t you regular foreign businessman in Africa prospecting for new markets or in search of the highest quality coffee beans.

He knew Africa as only someone who had lived another life in Africa could. Knew it so well that he never ever stopped whenever he came across corpse lying in the middle of the road in Lagos, because the moment, one bends over and touches it – one is expected to pay for the man’s funeral that typically last for seven days and nights and involves the entire village and probably includes free flowing nooch…he knew Africa with that sardonic bitter sweet condescending grin like how during an internal flight once from Nairobi to Uganda, when the starboard engine burst into flames all he could manage was a look of amusement mixed with curiosity. A trait one only really acquires after Africa itself permeates a man till it’s very pathos saturates the marrow of his bones. He knew Africa well enough to make out the odds of whether to call off his bets or double his bets on a ticket. To either walk away with his winnings on the magnetic rigged roulette table at the Metropole in the french quarter when the oily émigré proprietor took out his silk hanky. Or to continue playing thru the night. Knew like knowingness herself – strange don’t you think so for man who seems to be able to just manage to blurt out whenever the conversation turns to work – I trade coffee.

I trade coffee…..nothing else it seems follows thereafter…only the finality of….I trade coffee.

Knew Africa so well that when coffee supplies thinned out as they sometimes do. It had to be the work of the Amsterdam cartels cornering the market by snapping up all the bean futures – knew even then, the bazaars of the clove paradise – Zanzibar would always have a surplus of contraband beans hijacked by the Kaia pirates. Knew even how they much prefer to regard their piracy as their version of free trade African style which they refereed too as ‘Shimah’

Mr I trade coffee even knew when the sun hangs highest in Zanzibar in September. Somewhere in the tiny Arab quarter where the streets are so narrow that only one person can walk thru at a time – when everyone is content to lounge like lizards with a hookah laced with hashis and speaks in murmurs and sip cardamom laced tea as if they all wished their had necks as long as giraffes to savor every drop – There in the wide open court yard known as Kafur. He could always bid for contraband beans even when there was none in the market along side the Omani Kiswahili merchants whose Ma’ai negro bodyguards armed with gold plated a-47’s guard over their masters. In the square north east of the Arab quarter where the third minaret of the Masjid stands like the leaning tower of Pisa and perhaps no where else on this planet – bids for illicit beans are conducted by strange shapes one makes with fingers like how slaves were once sold and bought during the heady days of the Atlantic wars – Mr Koreana installs himself in a rattan chair to the east facing balcony that was once the preserve of the Medici’s, who once prospered thru slavery and the clove trade in East Africa – a young boy holds out the earthen bowl with beans. He picks only one and rolls it between his thumb and index finger and brings it to his nose. For a moment his eyes glisten with interest only to wane to feign disinterest. Beneath him the rest of the traders jostle in a human swirl of frantic hands making a field of strange gestures like plants that eat and when it seemed the bid could no go higher, the whizhar (auctioneer) looked up expectantly at the man seated at the balcony….who incidentally just happens to be the man who the world knows to be Mr I trade in coffee, responds with a casual jab of the index finger followed by three flips of last three fingers..in a dead and forgotten language that only those who once traded in slaves could understand…’his teeth were bad, but I bought him nonetheless, this would make up for the three guineas less than what I am supposed to pay you! The elders seated in the West balcony, turn to each other and begin murmuring, while the traders beneath still in anticipation…then slowly the elders begin to raise their white canes…it’s sold.

But tell me my dearest perceptive reader – what really was sold? Mr Koreana would of course insist – I trade coffee. The absence of a prefunctionary ‘only’ to complete the sentence might have suggested finality…but it’s omission is deliberate as it leaves plenty of room for improvisation.

Truth usually lies at so many levels of lies – when a man responds with a casual jab of the index finger followed by three quick flips of last three fingers at the auctions in Zanzibar….it could mean one of either things…it could mean exactly what it meant as I just describe with not the slightest variation or embellishment…but that day in the crowded courtyard of the bazaar when the sun hung highest and the seagulls plied inland…as even they had sensed lean pickings in the rough seas – it could only mean, he was willing to pay for his consignment in what Africans term white gold – ivory.

It seems Mr Koreana doesn’t just trade coffee…

Maybe that could be the reason why Mr Koreana smiled wryly like a fox two weeks later when he returned back in Singapore – perhaps that’s why the girl whose different from all other girls was seized by an inexplicable compulsion to pause during their delightful dinner at the Compass Rose. Put her knife and fork down only to turn and ask of him…

‘Do you really just trade in coffee?’

To which Mr Koreana placed his knife and fork gently down, looked up at the woman seated before him only to express in a whispering rush, ‘I trade coffee.’

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