The flames cheerfully surrounded the dry Eucalyptus logs, which made a soothing crackling noises. Dozens of monkeys encircled us, playing between the trees, their screams drawing our attention to the miraculous nature around us in its never ending shades of green, all colored in this late hour with unified black. Even the too warm beer, a local Nile Special brand, that in an ideal world would have been ice cold couldn’t defect the moment. Michael laid on the ground and blew directly into the core of the fire, making a new burst of flames lighten our faces.
Michael was our local Ugandan guide. Although a guide would be a massive underestimation of the guy’s role: He was the one making our beds every day, the one in charge of us getting breakfast at 9 o’clock sharp, 1 hour before the usual ‘African time’ delay, he was even the one that built us that very same fire, while we drank tea (which he of course made) and recuperated from another day of walking. And he did all that with an amazing sense of humor and a warm smile that you couldn’t stay indifferent to. And indeed, during those few days with him we developed a close connection, almost independent from the role he played in our trip.
He got up and restored his place on the wooden log next to me, discreetly trying to wipe the dirt remainder from his buttoned blue shirt. The conversation crossed from Mekere University, where he studied tourism management, to our work with the kids and dreams about our future in Kampala. Not a moment passes without another burst of laughter shocks as the monkeys gathered above us.
But suddenly something changed; as my eyes crossed Michael’s, I saw them lighten with a new spark, almost lost in the mayhem of the flame’s reflection. It disappeared almost immediately, as if it never existed. Michael took another sip of his beer, and I returned to play with the fire, making a pile out of the ashes. But still, I could tell something about that spark rocked a new, once stable, brick in my wall. The moment was so vivid I can swear the rest could hear the sound of my bubble violently bursting, of the coin falling with a huge clatter inside my head.
In retrospect, I can’t even remember who made that joke, the one that crossed the line. I don’t even know if it was about the refugee school we will all someday found together, or the hotel he will help us manage. What I do know is that this little spark restored me at once to reality, the one outside of our nice little trip. A reality where we are not just his customers, acquaintances, or even friends – we are his opportunity, the ‘Go’ square of his Monopoly game.
The privileges I carry, just for being me, the image I represent to some people and even the responsibility that comes with it is not new for me. It can’t be, coming from a place like Israel, like Jerusalem; a place where a person’s background, religion, nationality, gender or ethnicity can make all the difference in the world. But still, that spark crystallized it in a way I can shamefully admit I have never encountered before. And at that moment I felt something inside me break, cry, maybe even scream in light of this inherent injustice in the world, our world.
Because that feeling, the phenomenon of being someone’s opportunity, is somewhere between unbelievable and unbearable. It’s hope and despair, anger and shame, struggle and acceptance, all at the same time. And like a man at the eye of a hurricane, all one can do is let the waves of inevitability wash him, carry him to the oblivion of politics; society; economics. In reality.
The conversation continued as if nothing happened. And in some level it is true. After all, that little joke changed nothing; nothing in the real world that we all shared from the moment we met, nothing outside my head anyway. The day after, we said goodbye, tipped him generously and went on the bus back to Kampala. We kept talking about Michael after, wondering how he is until at some point he became just another memory, another part of a successful trip. But to this day, I still sometimes pick up my eyes to the sound of my ringtone just wishing to see “Michael Uganda” on my iPhone screen.