Fleeced in Donkey Town

Somehow, I ended up in a three-way betting war with a foul-mouthed bar owner and an alcoholic thatch farmer. The King of Spades is on the table, and it complements the pair of kings in my hand. It probably won’t matter. I’m getting fleeced. In Maun, Botswana – a place commonly referred to as donkey town - I can’t shake the feeling that I’m the donkey.

This poker game is usually a locals-only affair in a tourist town, but it seems they make an exception when they recognise an inept Aussie who is loose with his cards and looser with his wallet.

The red-faced South African senior in the corner is called Weasel. His ruddy cheeks and trembling hands suggest he has lived most of his life with a few stiff drinks in his system. Geno is spitting four-letter combinations at Weasel. It’s not clear if that is because Weasel is taking too long to play again, or if Geno objects to cleaning up the beer that Weasel knocked off the table. Weasel is weathering the salvos thrown his way with one bleary eye on his cards and the lecherous other on the ladies hockey tournament on TV. Geno’s barbs are falling off him like rain off a thatch roof.

Geno owns this bar. A tall, dark Greek man, he is gruff but shrewd. Like a man and his dog entered in one of those pet/owner look-alike competitions, this bar and Geno were made for each other: each of them slightly dinghy, maybe a little rundown, with beer on every internal surface.

Basil seems the most threatening player at the table. Fortunately, he is still shell-shocked. Whilst having a magnificent time out on the town the night before, he bought six mokoros (traditional canoes) that, at the time - apparently – seemed an absolute bargain. In the light of day they look like firewood.

There is something instantly likeable about Basil; he is a mix of eccentricities and dignity, the type of character you’d get if Sir Ian McKellan had played Captain Jack Sparrow in place of Johnny Depp.

There are some encouraging murmurs as Basil outlines his plan to offload his dilapidated canoes, but the laughter that echoes around the table every time Basil visits the bathroom suggests that these plans won’t float either.

This kind of thing isn’t unique in Maun. “It’s a safari town with a drinking problem, or a drinking town with a safari problem, or something”, Weasel trails off. “I have a four card straight”, he announces.

“I swear you are retarded”, Geno mutters. He turns his attention to me. “Three of a kind – kings.” I’m almost apologetic.

Geno looks at me thoughtfully before pushing the chips my way. “Basil”, he asks, “if it’s tourist season again, why can’t we shoot them?”

I’m pretty sure he’s joking, and there is no need to flee town just yet. It’s an unexpected sentiment for a place called donkey town, but I don’t want to leave.

S Cartwright

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