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Such contrast, such excess: real ice cream, for starters, followed by the badge of officialdom, time for things as email, finding good pens... Cotonou is home to the things from home; I surprised myself at the fervor with which I embraced them. Today is International AIDS Day: we passed out condoms on the streets. Happy AIDS day, would you like me to demonstrate with this wooden penis? School children belong to AIDS clubs; inspiring if not so tragic.
Every once in a while a breeze blows through, cooling my forehead and thoughts into one humid hue of sleep.
There are white people everywhere here, and it's hard not to turn and gape. And suddenly of how it begins: this definition of the other, the drawing of lines between Me and You. Were we to dig it back to the beginning, we'd find these eyes staring back before words could form. I watch you watching me and try to mimic your blank regard--you are no more like me than you are different, so why should we give a shit about each other?
But in this blankness I invariably search for recognition, a nod in my direction.
Last day in Cotonou; mixed feelings: while the comfort of luxury and proximity are nice, I keep on tripping over myself here. Email access hand in hand with nostalgia, a telephone line with prior versions of myself. I almost want to get back to village if only to forget that I existed somewhere else: homesickness doesn't affect me when I know I am in it for the long haul. But here in Cotonou is V's handwriting, my mother's voice, even mirrors that reflect familiarity. It doesn't disturb so much as surprise, like wearing a cost with sleeves of different lengths.
It is a strange thing, coming back to whatever it is I call home now: my room was an absolute wreck, covered in soot and crawling with lizards. Back home, I could have opened my door after two weeks of travel to find everything exactly the same, untouched and unmoved; but here, nothing is isolated. Man-made constructions and perceptions are obligated to interact with nature and each other, resulting in this sort of constant reminder that you do not call the shots on this spinning chunk of rock. You just count yourself lucky to be witnessing the game, sister.
The brush fires added a foggy haze to the evenings, sending the sun spinning into orange hugeness, confusing the boundary between horizon and sky. Waiting by the post office late afternoon, an unseen scare woke a herd (?) of bats from its daytime slumber into frenzy. I have heard that they are mostly blind in bright light, but they somehow still flew in waves of black strangity, screaming and flapping before finally back into their starting points. Such panic, such noise, all over an invisible threat.
(We all end up back to our starting points; all our threats are invisible.)
Q: So Jewels here we are again, is it everything you had dreamed of?
A: You know I am not scared of anything I can handle it all
Q: That was not exactly the question what I said was
A: And this stuff yeah hell it can be mind-blowing at times but dude it's a piece of cake
Q: But the point of the matter was the dreaming do you still dream have you
A: Yeah some fucked up mefloquin dreams sure
Q: But Jewels
A: But mostly I don't sleep I've become an insomniac so no then
Been running in the mornings these days but my cold prevented me from doing more than 30 minutes today--just enough to get to the garden to water it and back home. After being up all night, Orion was finally laying down to sleep, and the water felt surprisingly warm in contrast to the crisp air. The mornings and evenings are actually quite cool at this time of year--I dug out one of my long sleeves to wear during my AM Dendi session. Not so much because I
to, but because I
, which is close enough for me.
The party tonight was cancelled because we think Alice has malaria. We are trying to organize something anyways--apparently the dude who works at the post office also sells chicken hot dogs (gross) and Francie bought some Heinz 57. There's a lady in town that bleaches her vegetables when making salads, so all of the above combined with a grand Beninoise at our bar should suffice this Saturday evening. I just roasted up some soy beans to give to my protein-deficient comrade vegetarians--a regular feast awaits. The weather change gave me a cold; I barely have a voice left.
am slowly turning into a flake, I imagine: spending an hour and a half this morning doing yoga. Then going for a walk where I force myself to concentrate on breathing and each step I took. Visualizing a line that connected the center of the earth to the nearest star passing straight through me. My voice is almost completely gone, leaving me entirely within my own head. The thoughts are on the edge of grasping something big, but the cold is muddling articulation. Been thinking of Walt Whitman and his leaves of grass--does everything truly exist in each moment?
Saw tinsel and a wave of nostalgia pummeled me until I could not breath; then left, silently as it came. The things I miss confound me--things I never knew I noticed, let alone liked, and somehow they can make me ache in the hollows of my bones. This is what being alive is, I suppose, this attachment business. Wrote letters until late, all going home thru the US mail tomorrow. Will I ever be attached to this place, the Self asks, listening to noises on the roof. I know this: I'll never be pummeled by nostalgia for the mice.
Exhibit A: What do you do?
Q. If your youth, you were a clandestine political activist working against the Marxist/Leninist dictatorship that held the country by its balls. You were arrested, thrown in prison, tortured. You escaped narrowly with your life intact and, incredibly, you choose to devote whatever's left of it to development and change. You meet some wealthy Americans over the next 10 years, one of whom writes to invite you, your wife, and your three kids to emigrate to a life of health and relative ease, leaving your life and its work behind.
(See Exhibit A)
Exhibit B: What do you say to that?
Q. In the course of it all, you come across a traditional healer. He wows you with holistic cures, with teas and ointments made from baobab trees and guavas. With charms and bracelets, even, shown to bring good luck and health. Then he tells you he had a healer friend who cured AIDS with voodoo and was subsequently killed by the French pharmaceutical companies for threatening their profits. He further tells you that condoms are just a capitalistic, money-making ploy Westerners invented to take advantage of the Africans.
(See Exhibit B)
Exhibit C: How do you fix this one, jewels?
Q. Then we come to the question of work. You are reading a book that scares the shit out of you (
And the Band Played On
). You rush to organize AIDS sensitivizators amongst at-risk populations, starting by going to the store and buying condoms for demonstrators. Upon closer examination, you notice that these condoms (and the others in the store) have surpassed their expiration dates by at least 3 years. The store owner looks blankly over your shoulder while you explain why this fact upsets you.
(See Exhibit C)
Woke up to a scene from
The Poisonwood Bible
, an army of red ants like one waving ribbon in a direct path towards my bed. Escaped (almost) unscathed, thanks to a well-timed bout with insomnia and some sexually active lizards procreating on my tin roof. Have been slugging through this unseasonably hot day with my eyes pointed to the rare two-day weekend awaiting me come 18:00. V's latest letter sits on my desk--he spelled Cotonou wrong--keeps asking unanswerable questions. I guess that's why I liked him in the first place, but the game has since changed.
Sometimes I just want to throttle people. Francie and I just got back from our bike ride where she made a point of how she didn't eat any lunch--again. She's already lost a bunch of weight since being here--we all have--but she's so goddamned proud of it. Don't you see? I want to scream, we
, I don't want to hear about how little you're eating because those social rules don't fucking APPLY here. And anyways, that's probably why I kicked your ass on the ride, why you can't keep up with any of us. Jesus.
brought out the camera and everyone went nuts, clamoring to get in each shot, neighbor kids materializing from everywhere. I tried at first to separate my "host family" from everyone else, before throwing up my hands in futility and snapping away. One girl insisted I take one of "moi seule," a note of desperation ringing in her voice. I don't know exactly why--do we cling to these images to prove that we exist? Do we exist to cling to these images?
In other news, cucumbers are coming along smashingly--a harvest (and a salad) is soon to follow.
"Why is it that's frustrating you so much?"
"I just don't understand. Africa has all of the resources for a rich developed continent--jewels everywhere, oil, fertile land--but she struggles so much. Her children die. Her countries lock in civil war. And when I think of where all her trouble comes from, there is one common denominator--white skin. The slave trade. Colonialism. Economic exploitation. Political manipulation. And yet she has welcomed me into her soil with open arms."
"Kantos, why don't you hate me?"
"Because, Zuwehrath, at the bottom of all life lies something other than hate."
(letter to Rodrigo)
...shit, I'm writing to you a lot. Or if I'm not, I'm composing these consciousness-barrages and putting out in the universe. It's just that--remind me sometime, when I wax poetic about the economic challenges that this continent faces or the fundamental human injustices wrought and played out here--remind me that I once wrote this: That this country is simultaneously fucking hilarious. I taught a class today--100 students--12-year olds putting condoms on wooden dildoes... Sang songs about abstinence... And on the way home, I almost hit a goat with my bike...
Counting down the days until Saturday, when we pack up towels and cheap bottles of rum and head for the beach for Christmas. I feel like we ate Christmas dinner today--a huge feast where chickens were killed, vegetables chopped, and enormous amounts of food were eaten by all. We sprawled out and yawned under mango trees to digest; looked up through interlocking leaves; realized that "blue" equals "future" in African--wide and tangible and whole and all-encompassing. As this year ticks away, so does this phase of my life: on the other side lies the sapphire unknown; beautiful.
"Doucement on the ride home, eh?"
am drunk as I've been in this country--realized the hilarity in needing to conserve enough hand-eye coordination to bike home. Hope I can count after this pen rests. Maybe it's the Beninoise, but a realization struck me upon my unpleasant discovery@home: maybe the problem with my hatred of mice lies more with the hatred than with the mice. Although the fuckers
ugly as shit... Hmm... no profundity here. Only this hot hot stickiness, Haricot prowling my room, and the crescent moon on the other side of the screen window.
There is not a word for "week" in Dendi--the closest approximation is "market-to-market" which can span from 4-6 days. Likewise, words for the different months are lacking--just descriptions of seasons. The word for "businessman" literally means "he who does the white man's labor". There is a word for "co-spouse," describing women's relationships to their husbands' other wives. It's all so very fascinating, and the fact that training's almost over makes me nervous--there's so much left to learn.
Travelling tomorrow--I am frantically packing and closing up my room. Preparations take so much longer here.
the travels have begun, and the dehydration of the voyage plus the beer have made this a very drunk week. I am in Alada, am tired and full and feeling ready to face Christmas in this strange land. While waiting for the taxi, though, felt torn between two worlds, holding piles of letters from home and mountains of documents from here: feeling divorced from my direction and myself in this moment surrounded by people I have known for two months. This is family because there is no one else; this mixture of choice and circumstance, of loneliness and togetherness.
images from today: green lushness of the south, where flowers literally fall from the trees. the atlantic, that which separates and hold me--winking under this humid sky. dolphins at sunset, rolling twos, threes, fours. salt on my lips; dizziness from this newest digestorial battle. smoked pot for the first time in ages; this is "the toughest job I will ever love," this drunken stoned diaherreal debauchery. This is Christmas Eve Eve, and I have no idea where the fuck I am. I hear ocean, I hear Backstreet Boys. I do not hear the toilet--a five minute walk away.
"woah, jewels, don't let that thought get away."
trying (trying trying am always trying) to get these thoughts sorted out, to define articulates and articulate definites until I get back to their sources; and ended up staring at the moon, hypothesizing about the relative importance of light sources. Until I realize that the thought is as drunk as we all are, and just as transitory--that no matter what we decide, the moon will shine just as it had before. This is Christmas, this eggplant and rice, thus humidity and ocean? These people, these eyes, staring at all that is new?
("...A rare non-altered appearance for me in these pages, apparently, this Christmas morning looking out over a sunrise that must have inspired Monet. It is so beautiful here---here being the beach of Grand Pop--surely the strangest Christmas I have ever spent... It's strange--even though
--a land unknown and new and exciting--I find myself wondering what would be going on at home right now--a scene I have played out so many times before. Would I be waking up, padding upstairs to the kitchen, where coffee and scones would be waiting--")
The strangest thing just happened: I sat down to write when I heard drums and music outside my door--a group of young boys, going from house to house, dancing and looking for money. The kids went nuts--everyone started dancing so much that the air was thick with dust. I succeeded in invisibility for a while, but once they saw the "peau blanche" they surrounded me and held out their hands. I'd come out empty-handed too; could only give them a shrug and applause. They left: onto the next house: I can still hear them in the distance.
All these endings choreographed their intersections, j'en suis sure. 2001 and training, double-helixed and spinning, until I am left in the middle of my cement floor, wondering how it was possible that I accumulated so much JUNK over the course of 3 months. I'm about to have a permanent address for the first time since my teenage years--who woulda think stability and West Africa coulda shared a bed in the life of jewels? It's all that we talk about, forgetting that we gotta plow through another week first. On the other side, though, lies a great blank expanse.
Haricot's big as anything now, although still too small to really hunt yet. Strange that my perceptions of pets have shifted from companionship to a dual role of utility: In this regard I find that I'm also more distant from the little guy--maybe just hesitant to invest feelings in such a temporary creature.
We gave out thank-you presents to our facilitators today and I choked up a little--I will miss them all, especially Kantos, so much. It feels so much like June now, approaching graduation. It's uncanny. So much to do, but will read
Things I love here: brushing my teeth outside, a cold Fanta after a bike ride, full moons, hearing kids laugh, savannah sunsets, taking a shower, beignets, franglais, 80¢ American stamps, learning Dendi, talking to Kantos, my Tevas, the garden, morning runs, the fabric, mangoes, sleeping through the night, beurre de karite, mudstoves and moringa trees, explaining myself successfully, drums drums drums everywhere, Haricot the kitten, breathing deeply, chocolate cookies, shortwave radios, bandannas, finishing laundry, reading under the grapefruit tree, helping Rigobert with his English homework, the stars the stars the stars the stars the stars the
Ridiculously full day, so much of it remarkable: full orange moon on the AM run-to-the-garden; bike ride and mountain climb onto a rock that could have been another planet, overlooking a land that could only be Africa; a funeral for Claire's host-grandmother, with singing and dancing and so much food (when I die, I want people to fete like this); popcorn and
in French; practicing a song we're supposed to sing tomorrow night (what the fuck?); and now, a meaningful conversation with my mouse-roommate (politics discussed, lines drawn).
Is this really my life?
We hiked out to a rock to see a sun set, a red moon rise; eating cucumbers and tapioca; heading the church (yes, really: I wouldn't make that part up) to sing (or that part). Ducked out early; went to Chris'; drank tea and lit sparklers, dancing around the water pump as the clock struck midnight. We toasted to the next in Africa, to friendship and peace, to life to life in this crazy world. looking up at the stars, we wished the same across the ocean, hoping the wind would take our thoughts where they need to go.
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