Book Excerpt: ‘The Nomad’s Nomad’ By Luke Maguire Armstrong
The following is an excerpt from The Nomad’s Nomad by Luke Maguire Armstrong
Uganda: Skin Testing Machine
If she was trying to get me to go away, she failed. But if her intent was to entice, if she wanted my money, if this was all a big elaborate scheme to draw me in with the need to know what soul-seizing secrets awaited me in the back room, then she had me right where she wanted me.
I was in Kampala, Uganda, running the typical traveler errands: buy padlock, eat lunch, put money on cell phone. A neon sign outside a health spa advertised, “Skin Testing Machine Here.” I walked in, wondering what it tested the skin for and was curious to know what the machine looked like.
The boutique was unsurprising: glass counters with mirrors behind them stocked with imported skin care products, the expensive kind that women running from wrinkles dump disposable income on to take their face on a journey through time.
“Hello,” I said to the Ugandan woman closest to me. She looked up from her cell phone, yawned, stared at me for a bit to acknowledge my greeting and then looked back down.
“Tell me about this skin testing machine,” I said with the enthusiasm of ice cream in the second grade.
“We have a skin testing machine,” she said without looking up.
“Can you tell me about it?” I asked, suddenly floored.
“Can I see it?”
“What does it test!?”
“I cannot tell you.”
“You have to get the test to know.”
“How much does a skin test cost?”
“20,000 Shillings (about $8).”
“Can I see it?”
“Is it here?”
“Where is it?”
“. . .”
“Can I see it?”
This was very strange. My experiences in Uganda thus far had led me to conclude that Ugandans were as friendly as anyone on Sesame Street not living in a trashcan. Ugandans were oh-so-very friendly and most seemed eager to talk your ear off to tell you about everything (especially goats). They corner you, even if you’re tired, and will force a conversation out of you. But this woman and her Skin Testing Machine . . . if only she had given me a basic rundown of what it tested, what it looked like, why it warranted its own neon sign!
I left. I walked a block. The Mormons, perhaps the Scientologists, certainly the Jehovah’s Witnesses must be behind this. Surely the only thing that could save my skin would be accepting Jesus Christ as my personal lord and cosmologist. I turned to Cathy, my friend from the hostel. “I need to go back. I have to know.”
The woman nodded as I walked back in. “I’m prepared to give you 5,000 shillings just to see the Skin Testing Machine.”
“The only way to see it is to get the test for 20,000.”
“10,000 shillings just to see it.”
“Really, half the price of the test just to take a peak?”
$8 is not a lot of money. It’s worth paying when you suspect that neglecting to do so will lead to a lifetime of regret. Back in the U.S., looking out on a snow-covered world, I would look east and always wonder, “What did the Skin Testing Machine even look like? What were they hiding in the back room? Why was no one allowed to see it?”
“Fine,” I surrendered, “I will get the skin test.”
I coughed up the money — begrudgingly. The second woman, the one who had been silent, led me into the back room. “Can she come?,” I asked, pointing to my Canadian companion. No, of course she could not. No one rides the Skin Testing Machine for free!
The Skin Testing Machine was a large metal box with a tent that looked like an old photographer tent.
“Has anyone ever died in there?” I asked.
No one ever had.
“Look straight into the mirror,” she told me. “Some people are affected by the lights. If they pain you, you can close your eyes.”
What was in the mirror? Was this my soul I was looking at? The future? Those who have passed from this world?
No, it turned out just to be my face illuminated by black lights. The skin test took all of five minutes. I went behind the tent where I saw several mirrors, then black lights began illuminating the darkness. The woman went to the other side and I could see her eyes studying my face.
Afterwards, we sat at the table in the room and she wrote on a piece of official looking paper.
“Am I going to die?” I asked.
“No,” she said, making a promise I knew she would never be able to make good on in the long run. “But your skin — you have a sunburn.”
It was true. I was tired of hiding from the fact. Africa, why had you done this to me? Why had you condemned me to return to the New York winter looking tanned and awesome while everyone else looked pale and depressed?
“You also have oily skin,” she said. This was also true. My curse. Oily skin.
“But,” she said, “we can help this.” She then went on to tell me the only way to cure my sunburn and my oily skin would be to purchase 500,000 shillings in skin care products, or about the amount equal to the average monthly wage of the average Ugandan.
Luke Maguire Armstrong is the author of the intrepid travel collection The Nomad’s Nomad. When he’s not traveling or getting mauled by rodents in the jungle, he spends his time being rejected by girls in bars in Antigua, Guatemala. He broke his left ankle river dancing and his right ankle trying to impress the locals in Belize. Give Luke a guitar; he’ll sing you a song. Hand him a whiskey; he’ll tell you a tale. Give him both, and he’ll give you something to drink about.