Monday, September 27, 2010

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled bowlers...

Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk in the woods. Well, first I went for a drive to get to some semblance of woods--such is the price of suburbia, with all its convenience and cleanliness. There's a rails-to-trails project a couple miles from my house: in one direction it's well-maintained, almost sterile, but in the other direction it's rougher, and, after skirting the backsides of various industrial buildings for maybe half a mile, it edges away from a pretty dramatic ravine. Several much more primitive trails run down into these lowlands, following the power lines at first. "Wow! Are those crickets?" I wondered alloud. No, just the buzzing high-tension wires. Again, the strange hidden costs of suburbia.

One of these trails quickly disappears into fairly thick, relatively untrammeled woods. I followed it for maybe a mile as it meandered around deadfall, through half-dry creeks, and among stands of birches straight out of Ansel Adams. The whole time I walked I kept hearing what sounded like a softball game up the hill to the northwest. I'd discovered on a previous exploration that one branch of the trail led to the bottom of a vast mown hill leading up to a playground, so I wasn't too surprised by the cries.

When I took one of the trails up the hill (across the boggy bottom from the mown one), it led me out of the woods and abruptly into a softball field. But rather than a bunch of middle-aged white guys slugging it out, I saw two dozen Indian men playing a heated game of cricket--complete with regimental stripe sweaters, matching trousers, and, on a couple players, wide-brimmed hats or turbans!

To me, this was magic. I don't have a clue about cricket, but it's thrilling to see the game invented by our former masters being played by their former servants in a place with no direct connection to either. Given the recent boiling over of the immigration debate, I'm sure some would find such a scene unsettling. I can only suggest to them that it's precisely such incongruities that make this country great. I've been all over the world, and I've never seen anything anywhere else that even comes close to this degree of cultural "swirling." You'll see Chinese restaurants all over the place, and French cultural centers in those countries they once colonized, and little pockets of immigrants in major cities worldwide. But the "wrong" people playing the "wrong" game in the heartland of the "wrong" country? Only here.

Dark-skinned men with foreign accents boisterously playing an unfamiliar sport look a little strange in the quiet 21st century suburbs. But this is probably how my own ancestors looked 100 years ago, drinking their foul-smelling "barley-water," eating sausages made from god-knows-what, and dancing to their odd 3/4 time music. I can only hope that a century from now the Indians will be as well-integrated as the Germans are today, and they will get to look on in puzzlement at some other group of fresh-faced foreigners bringing some other new custom to the great American table heavy-laden with its ever-replenishing buffet of traditions.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

First impressions of the homeland

NB: This post makes obvious the fact that I'm now back "home" in the USA. One of the best parts of travelling is those first few hours or days after returning, when you can see the place you call "home" with new eyes. So here's some of what my new eyes saw. I intend to continue adding some "leftovers" from West Africa, however, so please check back.

Almost everyone seems to be in a terrible hurry, both in cars and on foot.

Anger and impatience everywhere, partly mine—I expect everything to work perfectly, and it doesn’t. Some things are actually more complicated. Two of four automatic faucets at PA Welcome Center, for example, won’t turn on. I thought maybe it was just me, but the next guy got tricked too—it starts seeming like a Candid Camera routine. At a gas station later, the automatic soap won’t turn off. Newark Airport had already reminded me that American bathrooms are not always as clean or pleasant as I expect.

Enormous RV at Flying J Travel Plaza towing enclosed trailer.

Car running, no one inside, parked in handicapped spot at OH Turnpike rest area.

Guy sitting in passenger seat of car, engine and A/C running, while wife goes inside to buy drinks or pee, presumably. He was there the whole time I stretched, checked tire pressure, sipped my Coke, procrastinated.

I was relishing the weather, which was so much cooler than West Africa—hardly even used the A/C, which I always do on the highway—and the smell of new-mown grass everywhere. Most people seemed to feel oppressed by the “heat,” yet their “solutions” were even more oppressive. In an OH rest area, the A/C was cranked so high I was nearly shivering, yet the temperature outside was perfect. A lot of people fought for the closest parking space, and then waited in the car while one family member went into the store. How do we reach the point that paralysis inside a car is more interesting than walking around outside, or in a building?

Even in central PA, ethnic diversity far outdistances what you’d find almost anywhere else in the world. My favorite gas station in Jersey Shore, PA, normally manned by various members of an Indian family, was today staffed by a young Korean(?) guy.

Late 19th- and early 20th-century houses built right up to the main road in rural PA. Still makes sense when Amish buggies pass by, but seems crazy for cars—in the old days, presumably, traffic was so slow and infrequent there was no reason not to sit on a porch right in its lap.

Passed an Amish buggy, lady with bonnet lounging in passenger seat. Can’t remember if this means married or single. She looked strong and pale, as they always do, but remarkably relaxed. Husband’s responsibility to drive the horse, of course, so this might be her most carefree moment. Very appealing order and simplicity to this lifestyle—but then there’s all that work! Passed another Amish lady, on foot, in violet blouse, in the midst of some sort of yard work. I think she waved to me, though that seems out of character. This was near Loganton, about 120 miles west of NJ, near dead-center of the state, so it’s possible so little traffic comes through that they treat cars as curiosities rather than nuisances.

So much packaging! I prob. consumed more plastic bottles and bags in one day of driving than in six weeks of travelling. Then there’s all the receipts!

The range and volume of merchandise for sale at a Flying J, or other large gas station, is greater than at the biggest supermarket in The Gambia.

Despite all the ice, Coke in the US tastes like crap after the “real thing” with sugar and a proper bottle in the rest of the world. I’m supposed to feel lucky, I guess, for getting a nickel or dime discount for bringing my own cup. No recycling bins at any gas station, so I have to carry all bottles home with me to MI, or consign them to the landfill. At Plum Market, where “going green” is a major talking point, it’s as crowded as I’ve ever seen it, but I’m the only one with my own bag. A lady in front of me with a huge order stands there and stares into space while the checker bags all her stuff, forcing me to wait even longer.

Bumper sticker on new-ish Chevy Malibu driven by fat middle-aged lady: “My life is based on a true story.”

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (book review)

I remember now why I don’t read mysteries. It’s like eating dessert without a meal, or ice-skating instead of walking—enjoyable, but it all goes by so fast, and you can’t help but race toward the end, at which point you feel almost cheated, realizing that you know little about the characters and care less—except insofar as they fulfill their roles as puzzle-pieces. That, and the fact that I have no mind for clues—though in this case, at least, I more or less guessed correctly who the murderer was, but my head continues to spin trying to follow Poirot’s elaborate reconstruction of events and motives.

On the other hand, I see now why Christie was so successful—she has a real genius for being at once so spare in detail and prose that even a slow reader finds himself turning pages with abandon while at the same time packing in an astonishing array of fine and subtle details, interesting both in building realism and, of course, in setting up the workings of the mystery.

I picked up Death on the Nile because The Lonely Planet describes the Bou El Mogdad as “like something out of Agatha Christie,” and that title, set on a boat in a different part of Africa, is as close as she came to my own trip down the Senegal River. My boat and hers may be similar, but customs sure have changed. Even the Americans, maids, and other less formal characters seem almost laughably stiff compared to my fellow passengers. My boat has no smoking room, or stewards ready to guard the dining room, or a doctor, colonel, heiress, or nobility. And Poirot himself is unimaginably fussy by today’s standards—but I’ve always taken him to be something of a self-caricature even in his own day.

This brings me to my big question. I’d read a few Christie novels before, and seen some dramatized on PBS as a boy. It never occurred to me then to question Poirot—that was just how storybook detectives were, I assumed. But now I wonder: where did Christie come up with this guy? Did she feel she had to have a male hero, because a woman would be too endangered, or perceived as insufficiently clever or bold? Why would an Englishwoman make a Frenchman the epitome of intelligence and good manners? Did she have to “earn” the right to create Miss Marple? Did she ever like her as well? Did anyone? I can’t remember reading any of the Miss Marple mysteries, though I’m sure I saw at least one on TV. Perhaps a female detective was revolutionary at the time, in which case I congratulate Christie for creating her. But it strikes me that without Poirot, there wouldn’t be much of a show. And this is what’s so vexing: he’s so stereotyped as to be laughable, yet just as irresistible for it. “C’mon, Poirot, do something ridiculously French again!” I kept thinking to myself as I read. “Be impossibly clever! Have superhuman hearing! Be everywhere at once!”

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Floatin' down the river

Loyal readers may be wondering what's become of me for the last week-plus. Well, my placement in Gambia ended, I crossed back overland to Dakar (see previous post, "Overland from Dakar to Banjul" and turn it upside-down), and on to St. Louis, where I joined Le Bou El Mogdad, a vintage cruise ship that plies the Senegal River. It's a more luxurious excursion than I tend to go for, but it was described by the Lonely Planet as "like something out of an Agatha Christie novel," which was nearly all the hook I needed. A couple times before I'd made major plans based on a colorful sentence or two in the LP, and I'd never been disappointed. My luck held this time. There's a lot to say about a week-long cruise, but I'll start with some highlights:

Children—and adults—wave to us with great excitement from the shore. They do rhythmic clapping and chants, and chase after the boat along the shore. Not clear if they know the schedule (biweekly) or hear it coming, but they’re always there waiting for us, brimming with excitement. They seem not to mind, in some cases even to crave, being photographed. Once so far there were women wading topless in the river, seemingly apathetic to being stared at or photographed. It’s common for women to go bra-less, and rare but not unheard-of topless, but both are quite practical given how much time they spend nursing or washing or gathering water. Taking people pictures from the boat reminds me a bit uncomfortably of snapping animal shots on safari—this is the first time on this trip, and one of the only other times at all, that I’ve used the long lens. I try to wave, and await a reply, before raising the camera, in hopes this signifies approval, and makes them feel less like zoo creatures. A very small thing, but I think that most of these people are so isolated, and their lives so simple, that the passing of the boat, and waving and the pointing of cameras, is one of the most exciting things liable to happen.

By my standards, the boat is certainly luxurious. But the real luxuries are hidden. For starters, the food is French—those who've been to France will understand the significance of this, but in brief, it means strong coffee for breakfast, three perfectly balanced courses for lunch and dinner, scrupulously serving ladies first,... and, to add a Senegalese touch, they roasted a whole lamb on the back of the boat! The motion of the boat creates a breeze which goes a long way toward mitigating the horrific heat. This and/or being in the middle of the river means there are no mosquitoes—so I can actually gad about in shorts and sandals at night, and not slather my arms in DEET. We always drop anchor at night, though, so the lack of breeze just about balances out the cooler temps. As on the shore, it’s far cooler outside (in the shade, with the possibility of a breeze) than inside. Locals hardly ever go inside except to sleep—which is why traditional buildings are windowless, or nearly so.

People wash everything in the river, starting with themselves. Women seem to bathe together, roughly if not strictly separated from the men, who are more likely to bathe alone. They sit on a rock, or a 5-gallon oil jug, stripped to the waist, and lather up. Only babies and toddlers get to go in the river naked. A couple times now we’ve seen a man bathing his horse, up to the withers in the river. Just now a boy stood on its bare back and waved as the boat passed. Reed mats, rugs, clothes, pots, everything short of houses gets dunked in the river, lathered up, and scrubbed down.

Since this is the low season, the boat is well under half-capacity. (The cruise director says they won't even run it at this time next year.) There’s one black family (mom from St. Louis, dad from Mauritania, pre-pubescent daughter), and one Swedish/Senegalese guy attached to a French lady. Everyone else is French, Swiss, or Belgian—or me. Apart from one French(?) cruise director, the crew is entirely black—including one older guy, the excursion director, who seems to speak practically every language on earth (Wolof, French, Spanish, English, Portuguese, and more). This is pretty much how it always goes—whites vacation while blacks work. I wonder if there’s anywhere in the world you can go where the whites serve the blacks. For me the issue has been less race than language: I'm the only one on board who isn't a fluent French speaker. The others keep asking if this doesn't bother me, but I don't know how to explain that I've spent so much time in places where I don't speak the language that it hardly seems strange anymore. Meals are a bit awkward, as I get lost in a sea of strange accents and verbiage, but at other times I'm happy for some alone time to read and journal--and watch the river go by, a surprisingly engrossing activity.

(Yes, Virginia, that's a swimming pool on the boat, which more than made up for in coolness what it lacked in size!)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Snapshots of Gambian life

Banjo asked about one of my first posts this summer, What’s the difference between seeing these things in person vs. on TV? Here are some snapshots from daily life in The Gambia that will, I hope, give some sense of what falls between the cracks of mass media coverage. Every time I go to the developing world, I'm reminded that Americans just have no idea how the majority of the world’s population lives. We’ve seen the charity appeals and the documentaries and the travel shows on TV, maybe read the horror stories in the newspaper and grim statistics in the almanac, so we think we get it, but we don’t. You have to go to a developing country and let the poverty get under your own skin a bit before you can really begin to understand it.

Three weeks into the trip, my clothes have gotten dirty in a way from which they won’t recover, because my only recourse is to clean them in the bathroom sink with cold water and bath soap. I could almost certainly find a woman to pay for laundry service, but that would consist of her standing over two basins of water on the ground, one with detergent, and scrubbing and wringing the life out of the clothes. This would probably get the dirt out, but it pains me to watch these women bent over double, wrestling the clothes as if to death. It taxes me just to keep up with my own laundry; the average woman has to tend to her own clothes as well as her husband’s and children’s—including diapers and all the vomit- and snot- and food-infested clothes babies and toddlers generate. The prospect almost constitutes contraception by itself.

Yesterday I set off for the bank, forgetting it had rained earlier. The main street itself, being tarmac, was fine, but the shoulders, where pedestrians must go, had become a series of rivers and lakes with little precarious islands of grass, dirt, and concrete. I hadn’t had to jump this carefully from dry spot to dry spot since my last wilderness excursion. I was concerned about getting my sandals dirty, yet many locals wear gorgeous, perfectly polished dress shoes.

Over the last three weeks the electricity has been off almost as much as it’s been on, so that you must do a perpetual dance of plugging and unplugging anything that needs charging, lest the surge of the power coming back on fry the circuits. For this reason you can never leave anything plugged in overnight. There’s only one outlet in my hotel room, so it takes some real juggling to keep computer, phone, and Ipod all charged (another forgotten advantage of film cameras--they never need charging). Most of the time when there’s a power outage the staff fires up the generator, but sometimes it too fails, or they need to conserve fuel and so refuse to run it. Last night the power went out just after we’d ordered dinner, and the generator failed, which meant the kitchen staff had to prepare our food in the dark. Somehow they managed it. Even in the capital, many Gambians still have no electricity at all, and would probably love to have these problems.

A woman was crouched in the sand beside the street grilling stunted ears of corn over a tiny charcoal brazier which required constant, laborious machinations—including lots of blowing, which would probably include enough smoke inhalation to lead to asthma. The cooker was much too small, and she had barely any fuel. She would have hauled the corn in on her back from some distance, and had to spend most of the day tending it, all to make a few cents per ear, of which she might only sell a handful.

Almost any woman of childbearing age is liable to be carrying a baby on her back—so casually you don’t even notice from the front. Sometimes she has two babies swaddled up—both in back, or one in front. Chances are she’s also got a huge bowl or bundle or pile of firewood or water jug on her head. This is all very picturesque, but it turns out to be murder on your back to carry heavy loads on your head. The cleaning lady at my hotel walked around one morning with two babies swaddled on; she might well have cleaned the rooms without removing them. Babies often develop asthma, apparently, while their mothers are bent over cooking fires—the mothers position their own faces away from the smoke, but inadvertently plunge the babies right into it.

Pretty much anything that comes in a package is imported—including MinuteMaid orange juice, and pineapple, passionfruit, and other tropical flavors, derived from fruits that only grow in places like The Gambia, imported from the UK. It's sobering to note that while things produced locally, like raw fruit and veg., or handwoven clothing, hand-wrought metalwork, woodwork, etc., is usually vastly cheaper than in the US, anything imported--which is almost everything--is as expensive or more so than it would be in the US. Yet the locals, of course, have far, far less money to spend than Americans.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy (book review)

This may well be the driest book I’ve ever read. Readers of McCarthy won’t find this too surprising: the guy can make Hemingway look flowery; put a piece of toast next to his book and it starts to seem juicy. What they may find surprising is how relatively un-dark this novel is. It’s supposed to be a sequel-of-sorts to All The Pretty Horses (even though none of the characters carries over), which was so bloody I felt like I needed to wear rubber gloves to read it, and in which just about everything that possibly could go wrong did. The Crossing is certainly not upbeat, but violence is more a seasoning here than a main ingredient, and chance actually smiles on the hero at least a couple times.

I doubt there’s any writer now alive (or perhaps even dead) who is as attuned to the subtleties of landscape and body language as McCarthy. At his best, he can say more in one sentence about the clouds, or the tipping of a hat, than most writers can in a whole chapter about anything. Heck, he can reveal more emotion in a horse’s ears than most can in a human’s whole body (yet there’s nothing Disney about it). This is his great strength, which allows him to indulge in what almost seems a dare at times of never discussing the internal machinations of anyone (yet he’s not averse to narrating dreams, oddly). Instead we get action, action, action, from the pulling on of a boot to the melee of a small-scale war on horseback. The trouble with The Crossing, in a nutshell, is that it’s too much of the former—tiny, inconsequential actions—and not enough of the latter—big, interpersonal actions. The novel is 400-some pages, which is long for McCarthy, and hardly a single damn thing happens. To be more strictly accurate, two or three major, not clearly connected things happen, and in between is a lot of interesting, exquisitely described, but ultimately trivial scenery.

I may harbor a slight bias against this novel insofar as it’s so much like a John Wayne movie. Not The Duke per se, really, but cowboys-and-Indians in a way that seems probably a bit outdated even for the 1930s, when it’s ostensibly set, to say nothing of the 2010s. I can’t help feeling it’s a bit of a cop-out for McCarthy to write about a world that’s so completely gone—if it ever really was—though his apparent expertise in horsemanship is certainly impressive. I liked him better in No Country for Old Men, which offered a glimpse into present-day problems, or The Road, which postulated a very, very dark future which must somehow have arisen out of present-day problems. I also liked him better in All the Pretty Horses, the “prequel” to The Crossing, simply because more happened, and there were more characters, two of whom were even women—quite a rarity in McCarthy.

I’ll certainly keep reading McCarthy, and anyone who hasn’t tried him should. But I still like The Road best (by far), followed by No Country for Old Men (almost better in movie form), followed by All the Pretty Horses, and finally, a bit distantly, The Crossing. I bought it new, which I hardly ever do, mainly so that I could move on to Cities of the Plain, the next volume in The Border Trilogy, which I bought used a year ago—I hope it proves worth the trouble.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Architectural yoga

My general strategy is to stay in the cheapest hotel I can stand, in the most central location, and spend as little time there as possible. I know there are many for whom where they stay is the most important factor in a vacation, but to me that’s anathema: travel is for streets and shops and restaurants and museums, not hotels. Nonetheless, about once per trip I stumble onto lodging so special that it forces me to upend my standard approach and enjoy where I’m staying for its own sake. Once a decade, perhaps, I come upon a place so outstanding that it becomes a highlight of the trip—indeed, a place that would be worth building an entire trip around. The last place I can think of to fulfill this claim was La Selva jungle lodge in Ecuador, which came as close as anyone is likely to come to being a seamless part of the jungle—while maintaining five-star standards.

Sandele Eco-Lodge (, in Kartong, is such a place. The rightfully proud proprietors—technically not owners, they hasten to point out, since all land and facilities will revert to the local people in twenty-five years—Geri and Maurice, wax fulsome over the various eco-friendly features of the facility, but in some ways what’s most impressive about Sandele is everything it lacks. This starts with the physical: no power lines (wind and solar on site); no flush toilets (a tiled-in composting toilet with a calabash full of sawdust adorns each lodge. "Composting toilets really separate the men from the boys in terms of low-impact living," Geri says. But they're actually quieter, simpler, and barely smellier than flush toilets). But it continues with almost anything not directly in harmony with the native environment: there are a few elegant lodges tucked among the trees, a tiny swimming pool between each pair, an open-air restaurant, a palm-frond hut down by the beach. . . and that’s it. If you came seeking any traditional beach or spa glitz, you’ll be disappointed. Sandele is where humans come to meet the ocean and the forest on an even footing, where everything other than surf and sand and birds and verdant foliage has been painstakingly tuned out. Sure, there’s excellent food and service, but that’s almost beside the point.
NB: Geri and Maurice are also the proprietors of the Safari Garden, (http://www.safarig where I've been staying for the last three weeks in Fajara, a suburb of Banjul, the Gambian capital.

The great riddle is whether it’s the overall drama—the sound of the sea just down the hill, the spacious airiness of each lodge—or the breathtaking attention to detail—the concentric circle insignia imprinted in doorjambs, cast into drape-clips, echoed by the domes—that makes the place at once so peaceful and so invigorating. Of course it’s both. Everything at Sandele conspires to get out of the way of nature just as everything at Sandele contrives to remind you how powerfully human intention can register on a place, and thus on a person. While most buildings are a hackle-raising hodge-podge of warring priorities and awkward happenstance, at Sandele everything is the way it is because someone has given it a lot of thought. Anyone who doubts that you can hear the luthier’s care in a violin, or taste the love in grandma’s bread, might become convinced by Sandele that bricks can convey compassion. The bricks are made from local sand and lime yielded by burning oyster shells, mixed with water and sun-dried, resulting in earthy gold rectangles that bypass all the high energy intake and toxic output of conventional concrete, or the forest depletion of wood.

Sandele is architectural yoga. On entering the domed lodge you feel a great sense of ease, as if your mind can suddenly stretch the way it normally only can outdoors. Here are all the protection and comfort of a building without any of the constraint. The domed space looks a bit like a temple, and there is something undeniably spiritual about the place. It’s dark inside but for eight glass blocks around the perimeter of the base of the dome, about twelve feet up, each of which casts a diffuse white light. Additionally, the peak of the dome is cut out and topped with a “lantern” of red, blue, and clear glass, which casts a bigger pool of light that moves along the interior of the dome echoing the sun’s journey. Most light, though, comes from the eight doorways cut into half of the circular walls, which let onto an outer ring, six feet farther out, composed almost entirely of French windows (which demur from lining up with the doorways). Geri admits this double ring was accidental: according to the original plans, the outer wall would have been open, but she feared the resulting room would be too small. Sometimes serendipity yields the most elegant solutions.

There’s more: the trinity of steepled bathroom areas (toilet, shower and sink, closet), the spiral staircase to the roof, the balcony running round the dome. . . but Sandele is, after all, a product of its location, and the major feature of that location is the Atlantic Ocean. “Have you ever been on a beach so unspoiled?” Geri asked me. “I think I have,” I said. “Chile comes to mind, maybe somewhere else.” The beach is extraordinarily secluded, and, no less important, extremely close: I woke shortly after dawn and, rather than shower, walked five minutes through the forest down to the water, where I bathed in waves so warm I might have only dreamed them. At the end of the day I repeated the ritual; the equilibrium in temperature between air and water, and the distance between the lodge and the surf, was so slight, I took nothing but my bathing suit. Both times I was alone save for two fisherman, half a dozen stray dogs, and a dozen cattle.

Sandele isn’t a cheap place to stay—to say nothing of getting there—which begs the question: what do you do there? If I’m shelling out top dollar on a “retreat,” I expect some activities. They do offer a an erratic rotation of pursuits, from yoga to djembe drumming to village tours. But really, like few other spots, Sandele is a place just to be. You’ll definitely want a book or two, maybe an Ipod, but the real highlight is simply lying on the bed and soaking in the world—finding endless facets of green in the leaves, deciphering bird songs and frog calls, uncoiling the long recursive symphony of the surf, feeling that your thumb has at last found the pulse of the universe.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (book review)

Most authors only have one novel in them, and it’s usually their first. The mark of a real “giant” is not so much his ability to tell many different stories, or even a particularly important story, but to tell whatever his one story is so well that it compels reading multiple times. Faulkner epitomizes this. He basically wrote the same novel over and over again, and it wasn’t about a whole heck of a lot to begin with, but he did it so incredibly well, with such focus and vividness, that he managed to repeat the trick a dozen times, and, most amazingly, the story got better and better in the re-telling, until The Sound and the Fury emerged, and there was nowhere else to go but sideways. Legion are the lesser writers who’ve failed in the same attempt—or tried futilely to do better: Ken Kesey offered a brilliant “breakout” novel in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and then produced nothing else except Sometimes a Great Notion, which fell embarrassingly short of the “original.” Ralph Ellison churned out Invisible Man and then unsuccessfully fought writer’s block the rest of his life.

Philip Roth has been failing for the last half-century to recapture the magic of Goodbye, Columbus. I can imagine his frustration: Goodbye, Columbus isn’t even a novel, so if that is to be his defining work, how can he avoid being considered second-rate? (The Great Gatsby isn’t a novel either, but that’s never stopped anyone from lauding Fitzgerald as one of the century’s greatest writers.) But Goodbye, Columbus is one of the greatest works of fiction to come out of the Fifties, and one of the tidiest, most lyrical, urgent, and vivid works of fiction of the last half-century at least. Reading Roth’s more recent works, one senses that he’s forgotten—or is resisting—what made Goodbye, Columbus great.

The only other Roth I’ve read besides Goodbye, Columbus is The Breast, which is nearly as embarrassing as the title suggests. People are always pushing this or that Roth in my direction, insisting “this one’s good” (as if they share, on some level, my skepticism). I’d certainly like to believe them; I’m in Roth’s corner. But my esteem has to be earned, and American Pastoral falls short, mainly because Roth wastes so much time and energy getting in the way of his own story. The characters are compelling, for the most part, even if they do bear an awkward similarity to those in his other novels. But the story is told in a cyclical, quasi-stream-of-consciousness fashion that is much more irritating and bloated than innovative or insight-giving (Faulker did this better almost 100 years ago). Imagery that doesn’t directly connect with the narrative comes so fast and furious that one wonders if Roth has been reading too much Whitman. And one realizes suddenly why epic poetry was invented—to prevent, through the discipline of meter, just such a logjam of tangents, irrelevancies, and stylistic grandstanding. It doesn’t help that much of this imagery constitutes rather trite, bootless sentimentalizing over the American dream—or “American pastoral.” Actually, the cyclical hyper-imagery doesn’t begin until about 100 pages in, at which point the first-person narrator, himself an awkward contrivance, abruptly disappears.

I nearly quit on American Pastoral after fifty pages—had I not been away from home, with few alternative forms of entertainment, I would have. I guess I’m glad I persisted: the novel ended better than it began. But the whole was far less than the sum of a few really good parts. I chose American Pastoral in part because it won a Pulitzer, and boasts a litany of gushing reviews. I can only assume this prize was awarded as a kind of lifetime achievement award for Roth, because American Pastoral, in and of itself, is so far from Pulitzer material that it makes a mockery of the prize. The reviews seem to have been written by people who either didn’t read the book or have forgotten how a real novel works.

I’ll give Roth another chance, because even in such a sloppy work as American Pastoral, his gifts for colloquial dialogue, lyrical description, and probing characterization are undeniable. I’m not aware of anyone else even attempting to capture the Jewish vernacular, or New Jersey provincialism, the way Roth does, apart from whatever else he may or may not manage. But much as I’d like to be convinced otherwise, I’m forced to stick with my original verdict: Roth has written a lot of mediocre novels and one outstanding novella. Read Goodbye, Columbus, and forget the rest.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Field trip! Field trip! Field trip!

I had my first real work with microfinance today—met a dozen boat-owners, part of a group that’s agreed to upgrade their boats (for safety and aesthetic reasons) with support from a grant funded by Banesto (a Spanish bank) and administered by ASSET. Present at the meeting, in addition to the boatmen and me, were Badu, the office manager at ASSET, Daouda, the project liaison, and Peter, a sixty-something Dutchman(?) who’s been living in The Gambia for twenty-eight years and helping the boatmen engineer structural upgrades for several.

The most striking thing about the meeting—and the whole process of setting up this project, which has been under negotiations for nearly a year—was how reluctant the boatmen were to take the money; how worried, even angry, they were about various restrictions and requirements. The main bones of contention were insurance, which ASSET insisted was necessary to upgrade their licenses and compete with larger boats but the boatmen felt would be too expensive, and the payback schedule. The boatmen were also concerned that ASSET might not do enough to negotiate with the “glam tour” operators to get more clients for the boatmen, so they could make enough money to pay back the loans. The meeting was mostly conducted in Wolof, the local language, so I’m making some assumptions based on body language, intonation, the bits of English sprinkled in, and the summary-translation given to me by Badu and Daouda.

It makes perfect sense that the boatmen would be apprehensive. Even without speaking their language, I could see how different their lives and perspectives are even from the ASSET representatives, let alone the bankers they’d be indirectly indebted to (no shoes, missing teeth, mismatched clothes, gnarled hands, discomfort with chairs). Taking on debt is anathema to these folks who’ve always lived hand to mouth, and for whom the last couple seasons have been particularly delicate. Yet I’d simply never thought about any of that. In the U.S., the focus is always on raising capital with which to fund microfinance, or perhaps finding local banking partners to work with. I always assumed the actual lendees would be chomping at the bit for the chance to acquire some capital. But what seem piddling sums to those of us in a position to loan ($25 is the minimum loan at mean all the world to people for whom the old Dickensian proverb applies acutely ("Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.").

Yet in a sense the boatmen are getting an even sweeter deal than they realize: Banesto is offering the money to ASSET interest-free; it’s actually a grant, but ASSET is re-packaging it as a loan (still interest-free but with a nominal administration fee) so that the boatmen have a real incentive to complete their renovations and pay the money back. In most situations microcredit is offered only with interest, either a low rate only to cover costs (as with, or, in some cases, a very high rate, to attract investors and motivate debtors (as with the groundbreaking Yasmeen Bank). Success has been achieved with both models, which suggests that the genius of microfinance lies not in the administrative details, but in the basic availability of credit to those too small to get any from traditional sources.

Just as abruptly as the boatmen raised their objections, they dropped them. (This reminded me of a meeting between government meat regulators and a group of peasant farmers I’d attended in Chile: disempowered people often don’t really want to object to offers of help so much as they want to seize the opportunity to be heard.) They agreed to nominate five amongst themselves to take a share of the money and renovate their boats; allow ASSET to negotiate a new group insurance policy on their behalf; and agree with Peter on a model design for safer, more attractive boats. By Friday or Monday, hopefully, we’ll meet again and learn who the specific lendees will be, and how the remaining financial and legal challenges will be resolved.

This is all pretty exciting to me, even though it would be easy to get discouraged by the amount of red tape and bureaucracy and politicking that threaten progress even in such a humble situation as this. But it reinforces what I already knew: just as much as the first world is clueless and selfish, and could do vastly more to help the developing world with minimal sacrifice, it’s ultimately those in the developing world themselves who must work toward change; a hundred well-intentioned, non-expert foreigners like me are no substitute for a single educated, skilled, organized, energetic, enterprising local.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Across the pond

When I was ten or twelve, I saw a PBS special on a train that ran all the way across Australia. I don't remember any shots of the ocean on the Eastern side, probably because the journey began in Sidney or some other metropolis. But I distinctly remember the end of the journey in Perth: the camera trained on the Indian Ocean for what seemed like hours, in silence, as the credits rolled. There was something very different about it, I felt, from the Jersey Shore, the only ocean I knew. I wondered then if every ocean was different somehow; if you were plopped down disoriented on an unknown shore, would you be able to tell that it was the Atlantic vs. the Indian vs. the Pacific? I'm not talking about obvious difference in shoreline, but the water itself. Australia seemed like the extreme and obvious case, since it was all the way on the other side of the world from "my" ocean, the North Atlantic. But could there be discernible differences even between less extreme contrasts, like two sides of the same ocean, or the North and South of the same ocean?

I hate beaches. Most people seem to think that's akin to saying "I hate sex," so I have to justify it by explaining that I'm not a strong swimmer, I burn at the drop of a hat (literally), I can't stand heat, and I don't enjoy lying around like a vegetable. Nonetheless, my travel habit has brought me to quite a number of beaches all over the world, so that I've had the chance, sometimes despite myself, to test my childhood question.

A week ago tomorrow I dipped my feet in the ocean here in The Gambia, and I joked to my co-worker, "Well, I guess I can go home now, I've been to both sides of the Atlantic." It felt like a big, symbolic moment. But later I began to count all the places I've met the oceans of the world, and I realized this was not quite such a first as I'd thought. (I'd already been to the "eastern" Atlantic in Ireland, Scotland, France, Portugal, Gibraltar, and Morocco, and to the "western" South Atlantic in Rio, Puerto Madryn, and Ushuaia.) But my conclusion remains the same as it was some twenty years ago when I gazed in wonder on the TV: every ocean is different, and further, every major part of every ocean is different.

So what's special about the Gambian ocean? Well it's quite a bit warmer than the Jersey Shore, or even Florida, not surprisingly, and it's a bit brackish with plant matter, but it maintains that greyness, that choppiness, those short abrupt waves, as any other part of the Atlantic. Yes, as different as it may be in weather and shoreline, it claims clear kinship with the coast of Maine, or Normandy, or Scotland--which is as far north as I've gotten. I'm not clear exactly where it changes over into the Arctic Ocean. Spinning a globe makes those boundaries seem pretty artificial, but looking at the water from various shorelines suddenly legitimizes them.

No one would dispute, I don't think, that the Indian Ocean is unique: it could impersonate the Caribbean in color and almost in calmness. I've only been to its western edge, in Zanzibar, but it looked very different from my memory of the TV footage on Australia. Someday I hope to make it to western India to complete the comparison. Nor would anyone dispute that the Arctic Ocean, half-frozen as it is, is special. (I wrote a whole essay on the uniqueness of the "Antarctic Ocean" despite official claims that there's no such thing. So perhaps we'll need a special category for extreme South Pacific and extreme South Atlantic.)

It's the Pacific, for me, that cements my theory. Though I've never been to its western shores, every part of its eastern edge I've seen, from Punta Arenas (southern Chile) to Seattle, and even Easter Island, with many stops in between, has been exciting in just the same way: the deep blue color, the rich foam, the huge waves rolling in seemingly all the way from Asia, and the gallons of fresh, brisk, invigorating air it churns up. (And then there's that vast cornucopia of seafood they haul up in Chile, compared to the relatively paltry catches in Argentina.)

So yes, I've become so jaded that I'm "ranking" oceans. I won't dispute it, but my point remains not that the Pacific is "best," but that every ocean is indeed a world of its own.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay (book review)

I'm taking a departure from my travel posts today to report, semi-relevantly, on a book I just finished: it's about Africa, and I prob. would never have picked it up if I hadn't been going to Africa, and never would have finished it if I hadn't been on "Africa time."

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a book this much. Like the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it has everything: fighting, romance, poetry, exotic setting, political undercurrents, growing up, humor. It reminds me how high a value I place on a child’s point of view, and a believable voice distinct from the author’s. It’s sad that these things are so rare, but that much more satisfying when they’re done well. It also reminds me that purple prose and direct, simple narration need not be mutually exclusive—nor do “literature” and an action-packed plot. Some might say Courtenay gets carried away with flowery lyricism at times, but, having traveled through South Africa, rightly renowned as one of the world’s most beautiful and starkly varied countries, and survived the apocalyptic-seeming turmoil of childhood, I find it not only appropriate, but imperative. Some might also complain that the book weakens its anti-racist message by letting whites dominate the cast, and even at times portraying blacks in a paternalistic fashion. But to me these potential weaknesses are more than balanced out by the great, direly underestimated finesse of telling a tale which is true on the personal level first, political second.

It is perhaps a “boy” book, though I have as little interest in boxing, or other sports, as anyone, yet I found myself engrossed by its minutiae. To me it is the novel Invisible Man should have been: vivid and compelling in particulars from which the larger themes emerge, rather than gesturing vaguely toward grand themes and coyly if not incompetently withholding real-world particulars. The fact that we never learn the narrator’s real name, for example, somehow seems quite natural in The Power of One but painfully forced in Invisible Man. And while the basic metaphorical premise of Invisible Man is plenty powerful, we never learn why that narrator should become personally obsessed with it, or how it germinated in his individual mind, whereas “the power of one” emerges naturally and directly as Peekay’s way of explaining and directing his own experience, based on real conversations we’ve seen him have with specific characters. It reminds me some of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in how it operates on two totally different levels: a thriller and a philosophical challenge at once, deftly switching from the simplest style and physical detail to the most poetic and spiritual.

As much as I didn’t want the story to be over, I’m glad we don’t quite see Peekay win in the end. The last section seems a bit tangential, but it lets the reader know that the hero has completed the full spiritual journey, even if he never beats the longest of odds to reach his personal goal—indeed, one senses that his actual, more personal but modest triumph may have finally convinced him that his goal of world champion boxer is in the end superfluous.

Of course it doesn’t hurt to be reading this book in Africa, even if The Gambia is a long way from South Africa. South Africa somehow got a great place in line when talented writers were being handed out. Of course it has a long, complicated, and tragic history to draw on, but there seems to be even more to it than that. Tragedy, turmoil, and cultural melding abound throughout the continent, but only at its southern tip has their representation in literature blossomed so. For better or worse, the writers of South Africa have become spokesmen for the whole continent—and The Power of One is as good an embodiment of their message as any I’ve yet encountered.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Overland from Dakar to Banjul

Every Peugeot station wagon in the world lives in Dakar, at a huge dirt lot called Gare Routiere. Most are 505s, 20-30 years old, and a few are 504s, 30-40 years old. They look terrible—painted over and over like front steps, missing light-covers and wheel-covers and gas tank doors—but they seem to run fine. Peugeot wagons were always oddly high-sprung in the rear, and these look jacked up even further, as if they’re waiting to pounce—or tip over. We owned a 504 and a 505 when I was a kid, and everyone thought my father was strange to buy them, prone as they were to rust and sudden breakdowns. But they were always surprisingly roomy, even more capacious than “full-size” American wagons, the careening, marshmallow-sprung Chevy Cavaliers and Buick Roadmasters. Volvos might have been sturdier, and certainly preppier, but they couldn’t begin to devour people and luggage like the funny French machines. The 505 wagon had a six inch longer wheelbase than the sedan, giving it a back seat that was positively limousine-like, in addition to a “way-back” even a family of four on a week-long camping trip struggled to fill. But I realize now that our friends were right to look askance: Peugeot wagons were not meant for American families; they were meant for African mass transit. The pale metallic blue one we traded in fifteen years ago may well be plying the roads of Senegal even now.

Africans have a way of milking more from a machine than even its original engineers imagined, and the Peugeot wagons serving as sept-place (seven place) taxis are a prime example. Fitted with a third row of seats, these erstwhile five-passenger vehicles are made to carry seven passenger plus the driver plus baggage. Quarters are more than tight, but that this carrying capacity is even possible testifies both to the roominess of the vehicle and the determination of the Senegalese. While buses and minivans commonly lash luggage to their roofs, or stow it underneath, the Peugeots coolly cache it in the back right behind the passengers. During the trip I grew weary of holding my smaller bag in my lap, so I simply reached back and stowed it atop the bigger pieces behind me—with room to spare.

I left Dakar before 6:30 am and didn’t arrive in Banjul until after 2:30 (a 97-mile distance)—most of that time was spent in the Peugeot, bouncing over small potholes and dipping off the paved road onto the dirt shoulder to circumvent bigger ones. It wasn’t too bad until my bladder filled up, after which every bump and lurch become so agonizing I prayed for a temporary stop, until a stop came and the heat intensified so much that I hoped only to start going again. It was well over 90 and humid, with the only shade coming from the roof of the car, which my head was pressed up against. We never stopped long enough to get out, so I became afraid to drink any water. The ladies in front of me refused to open their windows more than a couple inches, exacerbating the oven-like conditions. For much of the journey they engaged in a heated political argument with the man next to me in Wolof (the local language), apparently worrying the question of which was better, Gambia or Senegal. (“They always fight about that,” Mariama, the assistant director of the volunteer organization, told me later.) With my legs buckled up almost to the point of paralysis, it was sensory overload of a most unpleasant sort.

I’d been warned to demand the front seat, even if it meant waiting for the next car, or tipping the driver. But the Gare Routiere was so chaotic, and my French so clumsy, that I was afraid to negotiate, so I took the first seat offered, which turned out to be the seventh place in the seven-place. I’d always rationalized my discomfort with similar public transit contingencies in Latin America with the reminder that I’m a giant by Latin standards, so what’s cramped for me might be fairly comfortable for locals. But the Senegalese are not small people—the man next to me was about my height, and the women weren’t a whole lot shorter. Yet by the end of this journey I was a sweating, stumbling zhombie who all but leapt in the pool when I finally reached the hotel. It was one of the most uncomfortable voyages of my life—and I’ve been on quite a few—so I’m left with no choice but to affirm the cliche that the locals are somehow “just used to it.”

The sept-place dropped us at the Senegal-Gambia border, where I fended off moneychangers and followed my nose to passport control. Even compared to the no-electricity bush crossing from Uganda to Tanzania, this was a surprisingly casual affair. Scarcely any English or French was spoken; I practically had to beg to have my passport stamped, and the officer didn’t really seem to know what to do with it, simply scribbling some numbers and letters in a giant ledger and fiddling with a stamp he apparently never used. On to the Gambian side, things were about the same, except I had to spend nearly half an hour with a guy who looked no more than nineteen and claimed to be a drug enforcement officer (producing an ID card that looked like an elementary school art project) as he made me take out and open every single item in both my bags. It became clear, as he complained that my “nice shoes” couldn’t be bought in Gambia, and admired my Ipod, that he was more interested in playing with my toys than eradicating drugs. I did my best to be friendly, despite his halting English and my bursting bladder.

Next was the taxi-ride to the ferry stop, a half-hour-long relatively smooth procedure involving a subcompact car, the driver, two adults, two children, and me. The ferry itself was a breeze, both literally and figuratively, even though I had to duck under a dozen market stalls and over as many stray cats, dogs, and chickens, following my taxi-companions, to the ticket office. I’d been warned that the ferry was “pickpocket heaven” and a “crush of humanity,” but I found plenty of space on the top deck and enjoyed the grand views across the massive mouth of the Gambia River, rivaling the Rio de la Plata between Buenos Aires and Montevideo, wider by far than the Mississippi Delta or the upper Nile or Amazon.

Day trip to Lac Rose

I let Papi (my Ile de Goree guide) talk me into hiring him and a car and driver for a day trip to the pink lake and tortoise sanctuary—the former was considered a “must” by both the travel nurse and the LP; the latter I’d never heard of but sounded interesting. Mainly I wanted to get out of Dakar, which had proven short on tourist attractions and long on hassle. I expected that I was overpaying both the “real” price and my normal budget when I bargained him down to $100, and that it would be a lot less interesting than the last excursion on which I’d spent so much money for so little a time, the Aral Sea. But when you expect little, it’s hard to be disappointed—or so I told myself.

Lac Rose has an extremely high salt content, which is what makes it pink. During the rainy season, however, it gets sufficiently diluted to lose most of its signature color. When we arrived it was barely pink from shore, but pretty convincing once we got out on it in a “pirogue” (boat) with a salt-collector. We poled out to where his colleagues were standing up to their chests in water, pounding and scraping the lake bottom with six-foot-long hoes, dredging up piles of dripping salt which they passed to a partner in the boat, who sieved it through a fishing net. When full of salt, our boatman said, the boat would weigh 100 kilos. The digging process looked akin to Sisyphus rolling the boulder back up the hill: an enormous amount of pounding and scraping to produce only a few pounds of salt, much of which was water. It seemed they’d be lucky to fill the boat before dark, and the sun was remorseless. Even for these “professionals,” the work was too grueling to do every day: they worked four days a week and rested, ate, and pre-hydrated the other three. This is, of course, yet another example of the forgotten luxury of the American lifestyle: not what we have—TVs, cars, A/C—but what we don’t—backbreaking physical labor. Much of the salt wouldn’t even be high-quality enough for the table, but usable only for road-clearing and the like, meaning it would fetch only a pittance.

The shore of the lake resembled the salt-flats of Utah, but with piles and sacks of gathered salt everywhere, and colorful, ramshackle wooden boats here and there. The only sign of life, apart from a few boatmen, were men selling sand-paintings and women dressed rather like the Chiquita banana lady—whether consciously or not I wasn’t clear—all but demanding that I take their pictures, holding out slips of paper with their name and address for me to “send a copy.” This was obviously a ploy, since their head-baskets were filled with jewelry and trinkets; if they couldn’t extract a coin or two for the picture, they’d surely find a way to earn it back in beaded bracelets. They seemed rather shocked that I refused their advances so completely. I wouldn’t have minded a picture, and I don’t object to people charging for them, but I don’t like photography, which has the potential to be a form of spontaneous cultural exchange, reduced to a forced transaction. Nonetheless, the irony of the situation was not lost on me: one of the women was young and quite pretty, and I wondered when else in my life I’d be in the position to refuse to photograph, or talk to, or take the address of, an attractive woman.

Aside: Gambian women have the most wonderful posture: walking down the street in their semi-traditional garb (long batik skirts and headdresses with coordinating t-shirts), they somehow look even taller and more slender than they really are, as if the exaggeratedly long, lean figures in all the batiks and paintings aren’t exaggerated at all. Westerners slouch and swagger terribly by comparison. It’s commonly acknowledged, by Westerners at least, that “the women in Gambia do all the work,” and “if you want something done, you’d better talk to a woman.” Yet rather than bend their backs with fatigue, this labor seems to have lent women a special pride. Notwithstanding this, on the drive from Senegal I saw more than a few women stooped in the fields over ridiculously short hoes, digging away at the earth in that pose that always reminds me chillingly of slavery, the butt higher than the shoulders, the back seeming to know all too well how to bend.

The highlight of Lac Rose was swimming in it. True to legend, I floated like a feather. I’m not a naturally buoyant person, yet the salt made the water so heavy that I actually struggled to swim, much the way one does when wearing a life-jacket, or arm-floaties. It helped that the day was viciously hot, and the water so warm it wasn’t even shocking to immerse yourself, yet still cool enough to be refreshing. Afterward I paid a man to douse me with several buckets of water cold enough to make me wince, including, at his insistence, two buckets each down the front and back of my swim-trunks. All well and good to wash away the salt, I suppose, but this may be as close as I’ve ever come to paying for pain.

We had an extremely leisurely lunch of yassa poulet, broiled chicken breast with rice, onion sauce, and red chile sauce, the same thing I’d had the day before on Ile de Goree. Papi had said he always has fish for lunch and meat for dinner, but there are no fish in Lac Rose, while chicken farms surround it, thus this was the specialty. It was very good, though I don’t know that I would have guessed it had been slaughtered minutes before reaching the table.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Where's Barbaro?


Banjo reminded me that folks might like some help locating Senegal and Gambia on a map. So here's the big picture, and the close-up. Ile de Goree, the subject of my last post, is a tiny island off to the west of Dakar, which is itself squeezed onto the Cape Vert peninsula, the westernmost point of the continent.

If you've got a couple minutes to kill, have a go at the African map quiz. I play this with my students sometimes to introduce Things Fall Apart; rare is the student who can get more than 5 or 10 correct:

If The Gambia (and yes, for some reason the article is part of the name) looks like a tiny British toehold in a sea of French former colonies, that's because it is. Surprisingly, though, one of the reasons the Brits were so eager to wedge themselves into this particular corner of the continent was to enforce the abolition of slavery (against the less-compliant French, presumably). So it's not all greed and aggression, I guess. A number of freed slaves from Sierra Leone were offered a home in what's now Gambia.

Today the border may in some ways be even more important, as a great many Brits, and some people from other English-speaking countries, flock to Gambia while passing over Senegal and all its francophonic neighbors simply because English is spoken. I'm wondering about even more trivial differences, i.e. must I really buy two separate phone cards, and carry two different currencies, for these two countries?


I'm taking a breather from my habitual overland odysseys this year by joining a volunteer project in Fajara, a beach resort outside Banjul, Gambia--starting tomorrow. I'm just passing through Dakar on the way in, because it's basically impossible to fly direct to Gambia, and St. Louis, in the north of Senegal, on the way out, because it seems worth an extra week. (NB: It sure seemed impossible to book a flight into Gambia from the US, yet the flight I was on, Brussels Airlines, turns out to have been headed straight to Banjul; Dakar was only a stopover. Someday, after I've computed pi to a round number and split the atom manually, maybe I'll figure out the airline industry.)

People keep asking me, quite reasonably, what I'll be doing, but I know enough of how the developing world and volunteer organizations work to know that the only reasonable answer is "whatever I'm told." In theory, I'll be working with microfinance (If you don't know what that means, stop reading now and look up; come back after you've lent money to at least one small business!), helping administer ASSET, a consortium of small hotels, restaurants, and other tourist-oriented businesses too small to compete with international operators one by one. If I'm lucky, this will involve talking to people about their needs and goals and methods. If I'm less lucky, it will involve troubleshooting computers and office work. If I'm even less lucky, it will involve teaching English. I want to get away from teaching and computers for the summer, but I've come to help, so I'll do whatever work is most needed.

The door of no return

Today I ventured to Ile de Goree, famous as a slave-port. It's a tiny island with no cars and many bougainvillea and baobab trees, lending it an oddly serene air. One has to work pretty hard to imagine eight million humans being trafficked through buildings which to all outward appearances look lovely, much like the French quarter of New Orleans.

The picture shows the inside of "La maison des esclaves" with its infamous "door of no return," through which so many hapless Africans were made to pass. Many died of plague before even reaching the door, due to being packed into horrendously small cells doubling as latrines. Many more grew sick aboard ship, at which point they were thrown to the sharks. Men and women were imprisoned separately at Goree--hence the oddly elegant symmetry of the architecture? Everyone was weighed upon entrance; those under 60 kg were put in separate chambers and force-fed until they were big enough to sell. There was a special room for young women so that the masters could have an easy time choosing which to rape. Some women were actually acquiescent to this treatment, because favor with a master might earn them freedom. They would have already lost their husbands and children, and, as has now been made famous by Alex Haley, their names.

This information all comes from my guide, "Papi," a 62-year-old Senegalese man. He claims to be the "pope" or "chief" of guides, and to have accompanied Clinton, Mandela, and Mitterand. (True to stereotype, Mitterand gave the smallest tip.) I wonder if Clinton or Mitterand found it as strange as I did to be guided through the slave house by a black man; at one point he urged a bunch of other tourists aside so that I could pose in the door-of-no-return for a picture, and I couldn't resist feeling an uncomfortable sense of privilege. He will not take African-Americans and whites in the same group, he says, because emotions run so high. Black visitors have been known to break into inconsolable sobs, fall to the ground in rapt prayer, and bang their heads against the wall until blood comes. Mandela crouched in one of the punishment cells for fifteen minutes weeping because it reminded him so acutely of Robben Island.

Like most people in Dakar, Papi speaks Wolof and French. He also speaks English, but I asked him to speak French so I could practice. My comprehension continues to outpace my speaking by a wide margin, but vocabulary and accent pose significant challenges with both.

The tour around Goree in general, and the slave house in particular, felt very rushed to me, and the whole place is swarming with tourists and souvenir-sellers. So it goes with world-famous places, I suppose, but I would have liked to take it a little slower, soaking up both the tragic aura of the slave house and the quiet beauty of the island. You can stay at a fine hotel there for less than I'm paying in Dakar, and I was tempted to do so, but the ferry connections would make it a bit awkward. The narrow, winding streets of 18th-century buildings, their saffron, ochre, and verdigris paints worn to textured patinas, would surely be enchanting in the late afternoon and early morning light. Locals commute here to enjoy the beach, an incongruously exuberant throng.

It boggles the mind that such brutality occurred, and continued for centuries. But I remind myself not to be too secure in the greater justice and humanity of modern life. Since arriving in Dakar I've walked past several dozen beggars, and children lying in the gutter too exhausted even to hold out their hands. I like to think I'm accomplishing something by greeting them, acknowledging their humanity, even if I rarely give. On the way out of a patisserie, feeling guilty for the delicacies I was about to consume, I watched a local step right over a supplicant with no hands or feet as if he were trash. I thought about marching right back to the patisserie, buying a loaf of bread, and handing it to the beggar. Maybe tomorrow.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Why this blog has no original pictures

Last summer, my trusty Pentax Super Program, which I’ve been using faithfully for nearly twenty years, since I got it as a gift for graduating from high school, failed—as many as a third of the 600-some slides I took of the “silk road” were hopelessly underexposed, indicating that the electronic “guts” had finally given up the ghost. For about five years now I’ve been rebuffing the urgings of friends and fellow-travellers that I join the 21st century and “go digital.” This isn’t just a camera, I tell them; this is my friend: from my first trip with it through the Rockies on Outward Bound, where it suffered its first “ding,” to the trip to the forbidden island where I knocked it off a chair, to jungles and deserts and glaciers and overstuffed backpacks and X-rays and Customs inspections, it’s valiantly accompanied me on every major trip of my life. It can’t do any of the digital tricks, but it has gotten shots few computerized cameras can. But when you go literally halfway around the world for a shot, as I do, you can’t afford to lose any due to equipment failure. The most painful of last summer’s losses were my photos of the ship cemetery in the remains of the Aral Sea; it cost me a lot of money, time, and trouble, to get out there, and, since the rusting hulks are being slowly cut up for scrap metal, I’ll never duplicate those shots even if I go back. So for a year now I’ve had in mind the need to buy a new camera.

My old Pentax cost about $250 new in 1991. If you go to the fascinating and imaginatively named website, you can see that such a price would equal about $388 in today’s money. Yet “entry-level” DSLRs begin around $699, and anything “advanced” easily runs over $1000. Salesmen brush aside my cost concerns, boasting that the new cameras have far more features than my old one. Trouble is, most of these are features I don’t want, and, worse, many of them do more to get in the way than facilitate good photos. And in certain small but significant ways, modern cameras are actually worse—smaller, dimmer viewfinders, e.g., fewer direct manual controls, and, in the case of the Nikon D5000 I had my eye on, no depth-of-field preview. Then, of course, there’s the need for a recharging cord and power source, memory cards, computer connection, Biblical instruction manual, etc. Was I the only one left who appreciated the simplicity of film? Browsing lent support to my skepticism. So I started trolling the Internet for used cameras, and what should I find but my very own Pentax, body only, for $64 (I could continue using my existing lenses). Once again I’d be unable to post to this blog, email, etc., but I could buy a lot of film for the difference in cost between that and a new digital beast. This was a deal too good to pass up: the camera I’d always wanted, $200 less twenty years later!

Asking for a “physical scan” of my film at Newark airport made me doubt my decision momentarily: this took nearly ten minutes and involved wiping little swabs over my rolls of film and passing them through some malfunctioning machine, as well as patting me down manually, even though I’d already passed through the metal detector and X-rays like everyone else. “The film is the question, not me, right?” I asked the stone-faced woman in the smart blue TSA uniform. “It’s your camera, isn’t it?” she replied, as if that made some sort of sense. Gone are the days when you could reason with security officers.

But today, in Dakar, when I stopped to take a picture of several hundred women’s shoes lined up for sale on the sidewalk, two little boys begged me to snap their photo too. I agreed, but showed them the boring black back of my old camera, trying to explain in my halting French that they wouldn’t be able to see the result—I’ve learned on previous trips that some people in foreign countries have become so accustomed to digital cameras that they grow angry when shot with film. But they just smiled and nodded and urged me on. Flustered, I didn’t get exactly the exposure I wanted, but I’m pretty sure I got a workable one. I won’t know for six weeks, when I get home and develop the film. That’s the forgotten beauty of photography: enjoy the experience of taking the photo, and later, after you’ve all but fogotten the people, place, and moment, live it again.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Messing with success

I promised a list of remakes better than their originals (movies), but I confess I'm stumped: I can't think of a single one. If any of my loyal readers (or anyone at all) can, do tell.

Instead I'll offer a list of the worst remakes or sequels I can think of off the top of my head:

The Pink Panther (Steve Martin)

In one of those rare moments when I actually intended to watch TV, it was the only thing on. Oh god--it was even worse than I feared. I like Steve Martin, but come on--Peter Sellers in the original was one of the greatest comedic phenomenons ever captured on film. The new version is campy and clumsy and self-conscious and dull.

Star Wars, Episodes I-III

Here's a rare case of a movie not being campy enough. I barely made it through one of the three. The "force" comes from mitochondria in the blood?! Anakin went over to the dark side just because he was afraid his girlfriend might someday die?! Please, put away all the CGI and sanctimony and send me back to spaceships with strings attached and Harrison Ford smirking at everything.

The Lord of the Rings

The first installment almost belongs on my other list: nothing could eclipse the books, but Peter Jackson did more with Fellowship than I would have thought possible. Ian McKellan as Gandalf was almost too good to be true, and the opening sequence with poetry and the glowing ring gave me chills. And Gollum! But things foundered in Towers and Return: far too many battles, everyone racing around and shouting, New Age music, and Sam wimpering "Frodo!" until I wanted to slap him.

Not much of a list, but it's all I can think of for now...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Can a movie ever be better than the book?

People sometimes get frustrated with me for seeming always to prefer books to movies. But there are exceptions, and I thought it might be fun, maybe instructive, to list as many as I could think of. Here goes:

The Bridges of Madison County
this was on TV the other night, and thus my mind. One of the worst books I've ever read turned into a decent movie--quite a feat. Not a great movie, but worth seeing just for Meryl Streep's virtuosic accent (not just Italian, but Italian diluted by half a lifetime in Iowa).

Babette's Feast
Isak Dinesen, who wrote the story, was a master of minimalism, apparently blessed with the rare gift of more plotlines than she had time or patience to develop fully. Thus a fine but extremely short, almost "sketchy" story becomes something approximating a full novel in cinematic form. One of the tip-top movies I've ever seen.

Looking for Richard
Not really a true adaptation, this is a film about a film about Shakespeare's Richard the Second. But Pacino does more with snippets of the story than anyone else I've seen, including Ian McKellan, does with the whole thing.

Men of Respect
A lot of people have tried to translate and transplant Shakespeare, but for my taste it rarely works. This re-casting of Macbeth in the Mafia does. Lady Macbeth obsessively launders tablecloths, and the famous "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" soliloquy gets perfectly condensed to two words. Brilliant.

Hamlet (Mel Gibson)
People remember any number of famous lines from the play--it's a veritable Bartlet's all its own--but they forget that it's Shakespeare's longest by far, and thus notoriously unplayable in full form. Gibson gets a bit anachronistic in dueling with sabers instead of rapiers, but he got things exactly right in "cutting" the script. And for my money, neither Olivier nor Brannagh nor anyone else can touch his embodiment of almost-madness.

The Natural
I have a friend who seethes over this one. Maybe it depends whether you read it or saw it first. Call me sentimental (that'd be a first!), but by the time I got to the book I was fatally hooked on Redford's warmhearted version, buoyed by period costumes and all the visual loveliness that is baseball.

Like Water for Chocolate
Probably not a coincidence that Esquivel wrote both novel and screenplay. Turn-of-the-century Mexican costumes, furnishings, cars, and landscapes just don't reveal themselves well in prose. And then there's the food, and the sex. You don't realize how visual the book is until you see the movie. Nice music too.

No Country for Old Men
The most perfect adapation of a novel I've ever seen. Maybe even better than the original thanks to subtle visual plays (and ploys), and Javier Bardem bringing Shigeur to life in all his cold-blooded consistency. Maybe the most perfect movie I've ever seen--if I had to pick out a flaw, I'm not sure I could.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Road (movie review)

Nearly two years ago, I read The Road. I started late at night, home alone, sober. Three mistakes. By the time I finished I barely wanted to relinquish the quasi-fetal position I'd assumed on the floor, let alone go to sleep. Strange as it sounds, though, this is a glowing review. I can't remember the last time a book moved so much with so little.

Almost one year ago I added the novel to a class I teach. I'd never taught anything like it, and I was not at all sure it would work. I tried to strip my pedagogy down to the austerity of McCarthy's prose, posing just one question per class, the first and most persistent being "What's the difference between surviving and living?" Surprisingly, the students took the meager bait and ran farther than they had with litanies of questions on other books.

Around the same time as my teaching experiment, rumors of the movie's release began to seem serious. Then mysterious delays were announced. I waited. Summer came and went. I waited some more. Fall came, and was nearly spent before we were told, finally, definitively, that the movie would open the day before Thanksgiving--which sounded like a tasteless joke but wasn't.

About a month ago, Banjo52 offered a review of the movie, which I avoided reading lest he give something away.

Last week, I tried to see the movie with a friend while visiting family for the holidays only to find it wasn't playing anywhere nearby.

Today, finally, I saw the movie myself.

The good news: though there are several significant changes from the novel in terms of action and dialogue, and virtually no narration survives, there's nothing wrong with anything about the adaptation. There's nothing wrong with it as a movie in its own right either. I know this sounds like terminally faint praise, but 95% of movies I see have at least a couple fatal flaws in realism, consistency, subtlety, etc.

More good news: some real imagination went into the scenery and filming, including some of the best computer-generated shots (grounded ships, vacant cities) I've ever seen. In fact, much as less is more with this story, I wouldn't mind more such shots.

The pace is slow, as it should be, yet it feels a bit busy somehow, as if the director is afraid we'll get "bored" with the emptiness. But McCarthy works so hard precisely to achieve that emptiness, that fatal boredom, that banality of everything, that I think it's a mistake to make the movie world so visually stimulating. More importantly, perhaps, I wish there were more obsessiveness over physicality--which largely means pain. We see a lot of fires, for example, but we never see the man struggle to build one. We hear about his preoccupation with food and shoes, and we see filthy, haggard faces, but we don't really feel the urgency of hunger, the way it gnaws at the mind and soul as well as body. I've done a lot of camping, and I know that it's the little rituals that make or break you: cold hands rolling up a tarp, lumpy ground against hips and shoulders, stiffness of knees after sitting. So few movies do justice to these kinds of details. (Castaway came close, in the first half.) McCarthy is such a physical writer, almost to the point of self-parody at times, that I hoped for more of this from the film. Less color wouldn't hurt either. Less music, or none at all, would be a major boon.

One thing we could use more of--but don't ask me how you do this on film--is blood, brutality, cannibalism, deformity, horror. There's not a huge amount of it in the novel in terms of pages, but they are some of the most teeth-chatteringly awful scenes I've ever read, forcing my students to think twice about the question "Is anything worse than death?" The environment seems more of a threat in the movie than man, and I'm not sure that's the right balance.

Some little oddities: there's a scene in the trailer of a newscaster narrating as the world comes to an end that never appears in the movie. Prob. just as well, but I don't think I've encountered such a disjuncture before. What we do see in the movie is Viggo awake to fire out the window, get up to look, and, with laughable calm, proceed to the bathroom to fill the tub with water. This is true to the novel in letter, but silly in spirit: the pacing is much too quick, emotion flat, as if he simply said, "Huh. It's the end of the world. Guess I'll go draw some water," without any hesitation or reflection. Unrelated gripe: the piano bothers me. I love pianos, and I don't mind the addition, as it makes for a nice motif and gives Viggo a rare chance to give in to grief, but I can't see any reason why he'd take an axe to it. The one thing that doesn't seem lacking throughout the story is wood. (Besides, it would be pretty hard to attack a piano without ruining your axe.)

Somehow Charlize Theron worked for me, even though she's really far too pretty. One of my main reservations about the story is the idea that a mother would kill herself while her son lives. This remains a problem in the film, I think, but somehow Charlize's beauty causes it to make a bit more sense, as if she doesn't quite belong with the man in the first place, let alone in the hideous new world.

As for Viggo, those eyes just ruin it for me. His acting is fine, but there's this self-conscious "special-ness" about his face usually reserved for cheesy made-for-TV movies about Jesus. Of course neither he nor the boy looks nearly thin enough. The boy works very well; though decidedly too old at first, he transitions beautifully toward the end into a being somehow more responsible, sober, mature.

I had just assumed that Robert Duvall would play the rescuer at the end, to the point that I'd imagined him quite vividly and successfully into that role. His appearance as the much less important geezer earlier was therefore more a distraction than it should have been. Too good a show of acting, oddly, and far too much makeup. I sympathize with Banjo52's reservations about the ending, but it's almost exactly rendered from the book--though the man should have had a bad eye and been older, the children were excessive, and the dog just silly. (Even dedicated non-cannibals would surely have eaten the dog, which begs the question, did Viggo and Charlize eat their horse?)

The verdict: see the movie, but don't neglect reading the book. It's true that I almost always prefer the book version, but this really is a special case, because so much of the novel's power comes from its language. Written with scarcely a verb in sight, Shakespearean-style inversion and Biblical diction, it almost drove me away, but after I persisted through ten or twenty pages, I became seduced.