Thursday, August 28, 2014

the mud. THE MUD

the first time i cried in front of a boy it was when i was 8 and my neighbor from across the pond, sean york, invited me over to watch a movie. it was "the neverending story." at one point the little hero and his horse are walking through the forest, and the horse, artax gets caught in quicksand. you can see terror in the acting horse's eyes, and at one point, the horse just gives up and resigns to his death and Atreyu starts crying, tugging on the reins, like no, don't give up don't leave me alone. i still get choked up thinking about it. during the movie, even though i had seen it before (!) i tried my best to hide my sniffles and when the first credits rolled i just ran home in a train of tears. the next time i saw sean york he concussed me with a 6-inch thick piece of ice from the lake. totally in love with me. 
anyway, in the zambezi delta they seem to have never come up with the idea of a pier or dock. you realize how much you take these things for granted in the rest of world, particularly when the camp, which we left at a delightful high tide is now 10m above water level, resting on the blackest, slickest, deepest mud you have every seen in your life. 
docks are for losers

to get to terra firma the boat is essentially launched at full speed into the thick of it. you don't need to brace yourself or anything, the mud slowly, delicately receives our vessel like the welcoming bosom of your grandma. from there, you can take the one approach, which is to run as fast as you can and hope your weight doesn't let you sink. the downside is that any slip up and your are face first in it. the second approach is to just accept the mud, be one with it, and deliberately strategically place your feet not too far apart so that even when they are hip deep you can pull it out and keep your balance. almost like walking on awkward stilts. 
the first day, people were notably impressed by my fancy sport sandals, which kept me comfortably above the mud. "woah, i need a pair of those!" yells semo, who until now has been leading the pack with his brilliant scuba neoprene booties. helga says braggingly, "yeah well i would have brought those too if they weren't so terribly hideous." 
as i walk confidently to the boat, my lunch in one hand, the satellite phone in the other, i feel an unworldly being delicately unfasten one of my fancy sport sandals. the suction of the mud holds the sandal firm and out comes my foot. fuck! i try to slip my foot back into the straps, and pull it out but it's no use. my hands are full, i hold my lunch with my teeth and place my sandal-less foot aside. it sinks, it sinks. the mud seeps through my toes. nothing has ever touched me there like that. i tell myself "you're at the spa. mud bath. fancy mud. minerals. age defying." i reach my hand deep into the  hole where my sandal is. i take hold, my whole shoulder and now my chin, in the mud. it's like i'm playing twister. i am breathing through my nose, trying not to let my lunch bag fall from my mouth.
eureka! i pull the sandal up, as a huge sucking noise is the angry scream of the mud, losing this battle.  i flick a wave of mud at the boat, the passengers mildly unhappy about having their faces streaked with brown. yeah, i didn't wear those sandals anymore after that. the mud won.    
those are my feet

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

not even a little abrigado?

so every day upon our return from field work, a waiting line of sorts would greet us at our camp. women and their babies, young kids from the village, all in a line with their big droopy eyes just staring. it was their version of going to the movies. they would follow me to my tent and stare at me as i gathered my towel and bath products to head for the little privacy wall that hid our shower.
at the movies
 when i come back out, i am wrapped in my tiny sports towel, screaming and flailing my arms and running in a benny hill zig-zag as a futile attemp to trick the angry mosquitos, they are still there. and no, they don't even pick up a shoe i dropped or anything, nor would they beg for anything, i guess. but the way they would turn the breast sucking baby in my direction, his mouth taking the saggy boob with him as he turns around, and now i see his distended belly, he might as well have had a cardboard sign on him that read "will stare blankly for food." and so yeah, the only thing that would make them go away would be a prize from my goody bag. my imported individually wrapped 100 calorie packs of trader joes nut mix, beef jerky from south africa, gummies, organic granola bars...these were part of my "emergency food" stockpile to thwart hunger on those days on the boat when i couldn't handle the canned sardines anymore. so the only way to disperse the audience was to hand off some stuff. by the end of the trip, i didn't have anything left, so they stayed longer, after the sun set, the hungry whites of their eyes ambushing me on the way to the toilet. whenever kunat would give them anything as they walked ambivelently away he would say, like to pre-schoolers "and what do we say when someone gives us something? tttttthaaaaank. you!" and they would mumble and walk away. 
and i'm not asking anybody to kiss my feet but yeah, a thank you would be nice?
it was so weird because just earlier in the day, we would be at one of these villages, scavenging for anything edible or drinkable to buy so we could diversify from the sardines and mango juice. ok, yes, we ran out of whiskey on the second night so anything alcoholic, no matter how home made or bad smelling was a hot ticket item. that was usually semo's job, no sooner had we tied up the boat that he was already scheming something with some disheveled fisherman. but what was crazy was that more than half of the time people wouldn't let us pay for anything. it was crazy, this guy is standing here in tattered rags, barefoot in front his hut which is swaying in the wind, with three kids and skinny dogs running around, and he's all, "nah it's ok, just take this 5kg of scrimp." or manioc. and we'd insist, no, really, let us pay, or give you something. how about this mango juice? and he would inspect the juicebox, smelling it like it was a dead animal and they say, nah, it's ok. in the rare occasion he would toss it to the dog. you can imagine we would be profusely thanking them. you really don't need to do this, we can give you cash! this situation was so reversed and weird. but ok. one guy was smoking a huge spliff, rolled out of a receipt or something. jackpot. semo is all, ok we'll take a little little bit. ok, a little more. how about that whole pile, we have no whiskey. i pull out a few meticai bills. he says "it's illegal to sell marijuana, you must give it to you. here." um, ok!
back at the camp, i am taking all my clothes down from the "drying tree" where they have been hanging all day. they have all been poorly washed, despite my cool expensive organic camping soap, what with the dirty mud water, everything is all crunchy and flat like newspaper or shark skin or something.
the women are still staring, i ask kunat if we can't pay them to do something, a lot of women have been bringing us super clean water on 20l jugs on their heads every day, maybe these ones want to wash our clothes or something? 
kunat laughs, "you can try, but they will just complain. that the clothes are too dirty, that the soap isn't the right soap...women. all they do is complain. that is their job!" ok. noted.  
so i take a t-shirt and hand it to an old woman wearing some sort of baby jumper as a tank top. i have no more food to give away. take this t-shirt, it's a lost cause. it's a she looks at it, holds it up to her chest and something like "it's not my size." 
you're wearing a baby jumper, i'm a fat european next to your tiny skeleton build, trust me, this is your size.
"do you have anything smaller?"
let me check in the back. no, this is all we have. take it or leave it. or give it your sister, i don't know.
"i have 5 sisters. i will need 5 shirts."
then she starts gesturing all grumpy, storms off. 

you're welcome!! i look over to kunat who raises his cup of coconut beer, "see, i told you so! women!! number 1 complainers!"    

Monday, August 25, 2014

setting up camp in the mangroves

the next morning we wake up early to pack the bago-bago, which would bring our supplies to the campsite. the bago-bago is the lifeline of the Delta region, it brings goods up and down the river...albeit at a snails pace (we gave it a two-hour head start but still caught up with it midway). it's called the bago-bago because you can hear ist rusty engine from a mile away bagobagobagobagobagobago, it sounds like a coughing lawnmower.
so we packed our little speedboat boat at this little beach where women and children were bathing and washing dishes and clothes with sand.

we pack the bago-bago, arrange our own motorboat, load it up, go back to town to get whiskey and cigarettes (this is important - you always want to stand next to a smoker when there are mosquitos), trying not to get stuck in the presidential motorcade and madness, and finally we're off. we wear our smelly and uncomfortable lifevests, the outboard engine finally starts (the cord which you pull to the start the motor has come up so kunat needs to open the lid, wrap the cord around, pull, start again...). it's been hours since we have been up and we are finally ready to go! i am settling in my seat, everyone is getting comfortable and kunat asks
"anyone hungry? let's stop for lunch" doh! we go maybe 20 m upriver and dock at the same place we had dinner the night before. after all this work and waiting and loading it's like we've gone full circle back to the beginning. the men order beers and here we go. we still catch up with the bago-bago, and yes, we arrive at camp when it's already night, cold, and plenty mosquito-ey.
there are a few huts lit up by the moon sitting beyond a field of mud. there is a fire in one hut which we quickly huddle around. it's super smokey and stings our eyes, but that is way more bearable than the mosquitos. a bunch of blank eyed fisherman are standing around in puffy winter jackets, sucking on plastic bags of gin. Helga looks at me, like, is this seriously how we will spend the next 8 days? i pretend to ignore her and we sip on whiskey from the bottle and eventually, we hear the sound of the bago-bago. everyone helps unload, but the women are allowed to sit and do nothing, not bad.
we set up a few tents and try to sleep. in the morning we see what the place looks like. huts, tents, amid a pile of supplies and a wafting stench of fish.  kunat is wearing an awesome t-shirt that says "Trouble finds me, even in camouflage." and here is where we will be for the next 8 days.