two days in Dubai

no longer American
just as i'm ready to go back to my country, i find out i'm not really from there anymore. at least, that's what i keep getting told: Dubai is an city of expats, so people are always asking about and guessing at where other people are from, and a main gauge of that is how they speak the international language, English. and more than ever before[1], i have been misplaced around the world. in fact, in the ten or so times i've gotten asked/guessed at, not once have they guessed the US! or even Canada. i got Germany, got Australia, got a lot of surprised looks when i said the States that indicated they were going to guess somewhere else, even got South Africa this morning from the security guy searching my luggage.

he was probably closest of all: i have an English i use for non-native speakers, and i think it's shifted this last year from being Japanese-friendly to being African-friendly. in other words, it sounds like the English an African (specifically a Ugandan: i didn't really have time to imprint how other East Africans were speaking English, though it was noticably different) speaks, and since almost all people here are non-native speakers of English, and would probably be baffled by a spout of Mmerrcininglsh (though i still see my countrymen here plugging away frustratedly), they get my African English.

in any case, i've been using my African English a lot more than my American English the last year and a half. and the four years before that, i was using Japanese-friendly Ingurishu a lot more than i was my native speaking style too. meaning, in other words, that i'm not really sure i CAN speak 'American' fluently any more. don't get me wrong: i am still totally fluent in English. but i just don't think i sound completely American anymore, even when i'm talking to a bunch of them. or rather--and this is weird--i think i can sound it, but i have to try. meaning American English has become another front i put on my language, like Japanese- or African-friendly English. maybe they aren't fronts, somehow, but separate speaking styles in my mind. either way, Dubai has made me realize i no longer naturally speak like an American.

think about that. it's pretty deep. when you live in another country, you're going to change your lifestyle a bit. you'll adapt to different foods, different medicines, different hygienic practices and social norms, etc. you'll learn some of the local language, and if needed you'll learn to speak so the folks there can understand you better. but it's a pretty far step to change the way you speak your native language so deeply you can't come back to it without trying. that's forgetting how to ride a bicycle because you've been on a trike so long. but that's where i am, five and a half years later: fluent in English, but not the English i was raised speaking. i'm a non-native native speaker, native of English but not sounding like a native of anywhere in particular (though surely i'm still closer to US English than, say, Australian). and that counts for a lot in the first impressions of people you meet: more than style of dress, behavior, etc., they base your nationality on how you speak. and since i no longer sound American, i no longer seem American to any of them, much though i guess i am, still.

is nationality something that can change? i mean, not legally, but personally? has my own identity also drifted along with my language, to be more of a world citizen than one of the US? passport aside, am i really American anymore?

i don't know. i know i have spent some time looking at my own country and its people from the outside. and i'm guessing after i go back there will be quite a few moments when i feel pretty out of place, right at home. so maybe this is best expressed like i used to say: that i've become some percent Japanese during my time there, and since have become a certain part African, and in the process have probably become a certain part simply international, a mocha-brown (like the africa-tanned shade of my white skin) mix of the colorful peoples i've been part of, the world over.

that's probably right. i am still American. just not completely. and i guess i never will be, again; the world has got into me. good--i'd hate to think i left for five years and didn't learn anything, or to hold the prejudice that speaking about what i've learned would somehow be better in one accent or another. one of the things i love about that very America whose English i've forgotten how to speak is its ideal of respect for and protection of what anyone has to say, regardless of accent. that's one thing five years of travel hasn't changed, and i guess never will. maybe i'm American after all.

[1] im forgiving Ugandans here, who consistently guessed i was from the UK, just because there is still a white man = colonist = British pattern of thinking there, though i sometimes got America or Germany.

nice line seen on an Emirates ad:
when was the last time you did something for the first time?

two days in Dubai
that's what i gave myself, a kind of bounceback time between Uganda and America, between what are sure to be two very different chapters in my life. a time to unwind one and get wound up for the next, and dilute both in the brew of a totally different place and people.

and different it is: i've never been anywhere like Dubai.

the moment i stepped out of the airport, i was reminded of Jordan: the scent of the air, a dry, mid-East air that nevertheless carries the scent and moisture of the sea. a quality to the sunlight that is a touch hazy, a touch whiter than it is in Africa or America. distinctively Middle Eastern.

that's where the comparison ends. the next closest place to it would be Singapore, which a friend of mine once described as 'the Disneyland of Asia.' i.e. richer, cleaner, newer, better organized, more unreal. if you travel in Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Laos, even Japan, life there is real. but Singapore? immaculately clean streets, new, tall buildings, everyone apparently wealthy, crime apparently non-existent, people apparently content... the kind of place where they can make chewing gum illegal.

Dubai is like that: a city too newly constructed to show any wear, a little city-state with a massive concentration of wealth, loading its square of land with skyscrapers, beautifying every little corner with a new statue, a spread of green grass and palms in a desert, totally idealistic in how far it can go. take the Burg Khalifa: opened last month, it is the tallest building in the world. by far: just look at some of the previous owners of that title, and their heights:

the Empire State Building, at 443 meters

the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, at 452m

Sears Tower in Chicago, 457m

Shanghai World Financial Center, 492m

Taipei 101, 509m

and now, the Burg Khalifa:
Burj Khalifa, Dubai, 828 meters (2,717 feet)

that's more than half again the size of the next highest, the Taipei 101. before that they were increasing by a few meters at a time, and now this thing puts them all to shame. it's amazing. it's awe-inspiring. it deserves its own section.

the Burj Khalifa
i didn't know much about Dubai as i stepped out of the airport, groggy from a sore throat and a night on the air-conditioned floor. what i did know was the tallest building had recently opened there, so tall as to be almost ridiculous. it seemed like a good place to start.

so i took the metro out, itself so new half the stations weren't finished yet, got out of the station and tried to get my bearings. only one was needed: the sharp, thin line i saw ahead, needling up into the sky. it was impossibly high: my eye followed it up and up, getting thinner as it climbed, lines reducing not only by design but by sheer distance to a top was nearly a kilometer/half a mile away, up! the morning sun was climbing behind it, giving the air a hazy quality, lightening the tower just enough that it seemed unreal, more like an artist's sketch left there in the sky, or something so close as to be mistaken for something far away.

but there can be no mistake: it's real. 828 meters/2,717 feet of steel and glass jutting up into the sky. you can never get lost in that part of town: just find the Burj Khalifa, and you've got your bearings.

i went on looking at it throughout the rest of the day. after awhile it struck me as too small, somehow: was that really most of a kilometer straight up? the distance plays tricks on you, making the regular pattern of nestled towers seem to get smaller as it goes up, til the ones at the top, which you know must be the same size as all the rest, look like little more than antennas up there.

the top doesn't move right, either: the tops of normal buildings move a bit as you move, change positions relative to you and the things behind them, as two fingers held at different distances from your eye will appear to move at different speeds when you move your head[1]. the Burj doesn't: maybe because there are no objects behind it to compare with, or simply because it is actually so far away as to be like a stationary object on the horizon, the Burj doesn't budge. this is disorienting as you walk, looking at it, like a pupil painted in the center of an eye will seem to look at you no matter where you go.

the Burj is equally inescapable: no matter where you are in Dubai, chances are if you look at the skyline, you'll see at least a few hundred meters of it jutting above everything else, a superreal needle up into the sky, somehow wrong to the eye. you get the feeling man wasn't meant to make anything that big, that it is an abomination[2]. and that brings me to another feeling i had about the place:

[1] that's called parallax, by the way.

[2] not to mention, as many might, the old correlation between towers/skyscrapers and male genitalia, and theories of masculine identity deriving therefrom. if one was to mention said theories, one would certainly have to conclude the architects, builders and owners of the Burj Khalifa are well satisfied with their display to other males, and status as 828meter alpha males the world over. one might further mention, if one was feeling rather free with words, a rambling imagination as to what sort of female genitalia might be made to match that tower, if ever there were a female need for such things as there appears to be a male. one might even imagine the two meeting in air, 828 meters up, and working their symbolic magic together, which would be rather disturbing. i'm glad i decided not to mention it.

Dubai: Babylon rebuilt being unwrapped.
giant, marvelous, half-finished towers in the desert. underwater hotels, manmade islands visible from space, a second tower of Babylon reaching for the sky. a shrine to money, a second mecca in the Middle East to the Other God, this one with near-universal following: Mammon, in the Old Testament. Money.

it is a fishing village rocketed to six-star metropolis and VVIP status through the discovery of oil and the encouraging of free trade. a place with a history so thoroughly in keeping with the American Dream that Americans are disgusted with it, jealous and somehow discontent that our mythology should have played out amongst the Arabs, that all these trappings of wealth be owned by Sheikhs with veiled wives and not the good Norm Rockwell Nuclear Family. that as we founder in economic turmoil half their city should be under construction, money and people and power pouring in, all signs pointing to success as our own signs sag towards failure.

in this light we want to mark it as evil, somehow, as wrong because we can't accept it as right when we, the chosen people[1] have not taken part. and so it is easy to go back to Daniel 9, and take this city as a sign of the end of days, because in a way it is: it is a sign of the end of our days--the US, and the West in general, that is--as undisputed global economic powers. the Arabs have taken us over. the Chinese, the Indians are likely to do the same. we are outstripped by our own ideas, by this thing we helped create, as Britain was before us, by us, their own colony. and so it continues: the building and rebuilding of Babylon, as our New York and Los Angeles once were, signs of the decline of one culture and the increase of the next, old ideas reinvented in new wealth and society.

[1] cf. the discussion in chapter nine of Joseph Campbell's Myths to Live By of the Torah, Bible and Qu'ran's mythologies of their adherents as the chosen people of God, thereby entitled to special privileges like dominance over all other peoples.

derivative: glory future
then again, i think Dubai has happened too fast: too fast to really define itself, to find a face different from those who came before. and so its malls are full of American and European stores, its lingua franca English moreso than Arabic, its basic goal unchanged from the powers before it, my own society.

surely, some things are uniquely non-Western: in the glittering new supermarket where i bought a hot round of bread covered in cheese and zaatar, there was a special gate in the wall of the meat section, with the heading PORK SHOP, and underneath, a sign: For non-Muslims. you would enter through, walk down a short hallway, and there could buy pork if your morals and desires allowed it. toilets were carefully physically separated, with attendant prayer rooms for those observant enough to pray to Allah five times a day as commanded. calls to prayer would echo over the mall loudspeakers at the right times. some architecture has distinctive Mid-Eastern influence, and old boats still ply the waterways. but for the most part, the new construction and most of the people living in it have a glittery, bland, international feel to them: you might be in London, San Diego, Taipei: there is little distinguishing the city, no idiosyncracies to fall in love with like you can in New York, or any city in Europe. it's too new: like a new car you hesitantly name, wanting a relationship but not having spent enough time together to really feel any name in particular fits. Dubai. UAE. why not?

looking through the Dubai Museum, built partially in the humble ruins of an old fort (itself not even 200 years old), with most of it in an expensive underground facility, i got the same feeling. there has been civilization in that area for a long time, but never much of one: a few people living around the sea and oases, trading and fishing and diving for pearls. 100 years ago, it was a backwater, and you can feel the pain with which this great city acknowledges its recent rise to fame, and how hard it's trying to make that history the most it can be.

no attempt can be enough: it was rags to riches, simply, and if Dubai is to be a great cultural center, it is something that will happen from here forward, with no grand old buildings to remind us of glory past. it is all glory future, if it is to be glory at all. a new Babylon still being unwrapped.

what i actually did
so, aside from random cogitations on the place, i spent my time here slowly, exhausted from quite a few nights of poor sleep and intense days at the end of my bicycle trip and time in Uganda. sleep in Dubai was no better, with hotels both prohibitively expensive and sold-out, meaning i slept on the airport floor instead (see below). the first day, i went to Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall, both massive and spanking-new complexes, and spent the daylight hours wandering through stores, eating foods i'd hadn't had in a year and some, sitting on public promenades reading or writing or watching people. i'd caught a cold/slight flu from being too tired and busy, so i pooped out quickly and spent most of the day off my feet, sitting here or there and soaking things in, but i made a good tour of the area. they weren't selling tickets to the top of the Burj, so i didn't make it up.

the second day i headed for the Dubai Museum, which wasn't amazing, then spent the rest of it wandering the streets around there, eating shwarmas and drinking fruit juice, watching grown men playing cricket in an abandoned lot, browsing through local grocery stores and peering at old mosques. i eventually found the waterfront, walked along it, laid down in some green grass under a palm tree, thought about the changes happening in my life, what good things i left and what good things i was going towards, smiling spontaneously to nothing at all. took a boat down the creek past the night lights coming out, wandered the night market, walked back to the metro station and went home (the airport).

not a very eventful two days, but that's what i wanted: a little space to clear my head, see a new place, rest up a bit to be in my best shape for coming home. some time to ease back in to the first world lifestyle, eat some good food, read and write. nice. and now, finally, i'm going home.


thoughts on the plane to dubai

one small part of my adulthood
i think, is being less willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of getting something cheaply, or for the sake of adventure.

it was a big part of my grown-up childhood: the time from entering university to returning to the States ten years later, most of my twenties, i was hitching rides on dump trucks rather than buying bus tickets, sleeping on floors instead of getting hotel rooms, cultivating relationships with strangers while traveling in the hopes of couchsurfing, getting inside tips, cheaper fares on planes, etc.

it's not over: as i write this i'm sitting on a plane to dubai, having booked the ticket via a student travel agency though i'm not formally a student, planning to sleep in the dubai airport three nights rather than get a room, waiting for a mexican airline attendant living in dubai to give me inside tips on getting around the city, wondering if i can--like a friend did--get myself a couple free nights' stay at her place.

but here's the thing: it's no longer as exciting as it used to be. not that i am now beginning to enjoy paying too much for nothing, living in comfort for its own sake, or bland experiences in general, but i think what i enjoy in life and travel is shifting: away from the adventure of doing it all on a shoestring (i am, mind you, 2000 dollars in debt and 19 months without any income--that is, hanging on a threadbare shoestring), and towards having peace of mind enough to really experience where i am and what i'm doing.

in other words, shoestring is a lot of work. it means watching for when the flight attendant is coming, it means being buddier-buddy than you'd regularly be with the guy who owns the dump truck you can hitch on, it means scanning the airport from the moment you enter for good places to bivouac, and wondering how to sweettalk your way through baggage that's 25 pounds overweight again (like i did when leaving uganda).

don't get me wrong, taking the less traveled route is lovely. clearly, from the bike trip i just finished and the events surrounding my immediate existence, it is still my modus operandi, and i have a lot of life experiences to thank it for. but i don't think i'll be trying the back doors and talking up the locals much longer: instead of being the fun part, it's starting to just be distracting. for one, i'm not as youthful as i once was, and a few nights' poor sleep translate into general tired listlessness, dampening the days. for another, i'm not as comfortable as i used to be with cultivating useful relationships: that is, acting like i normally wouldn't for the sake of getting something from someone. i think, especially in africa, i've been on the other end of it enough not to want to do it. if someone isn't offering a place to stay, wanting to go out for food, letting my bags go by naturally, i don't want to force it. i'm all grown up now. i can accept that i'm the one who got me in this situation in the first place, and it's me who bottomline should get me out.

third, and probably most important, i'm finding other parts of travel are more interesting: the beauty of the places i visit, the people i meet there, the good food they're eating, the meanderings of thought it all entails. basically, i want to be free from worry about simple things like money, where i'm sleeping, what i'm going to eat. so i'm finding myself less interested in and enjoying doing all that shoestring, not knowing where i'll sleep (or if i'll be able to stay there all night), looking for the cheapest food option not because its the best or most interesting but just because it's cheapest, etc. there's a time for that. and me, feeling a bit momentous internally as i write this, i think i'm past it.

that is, i'm ready to be past it. maybe i feel that way because i'm fully in it at the moment, heading into a few days' uncertainty and likely uncomfortability, especially in terms of where i sleep. what used to be exciting is now just a bit of a chore: finding a place to bivouac, hauling my shit around, looking for ways to do it all on the cheap because i'm broke but still want to travel. the fact that it feels like a chore, i think that's significant. it signifies my pleasures in life are changing, and along with them the most fitting nomer for myself: it may now, so help me, be adult.



the end: here - here

what i've been searching for
this whole trip i've been asked the same question: what are you searching for?

when people learn that i'm traveling through all of East Africa, a lot of it by bicycle, they ask what i'm looking for. 'are you making some kind of research?' 'do you have family or friends you are visiting?' 'what are you looking for in Burundi?' 'but i have one question, why are you making this trip?'

this whole time i haven't known what to say to them. today the answer came.

i'd been wandering the narrow streets of Stone Town, fully lost in wonder and fact, when the street opened out onto a little park bordering the sea, and a wide stone wall there called to me for sitting. i sat. the sun was just coming into its glory, hanging maybe 45 minutes above the water, at that stage when its little circle of reflection swells and stretches to a long sparkling path on the water, like if you were made of light too you could follow it all the way back to the sun.

i sat, and i smiled. i grinned, actually. it was too beautiful: this moment, with tourists wandering, kids playing, the white sand beach stretching around the nub of Stone Town peninsula, bordered in antique Arabesque houses, the sun sparkling on the water, was everything i needed. i lost awareness of myself as anything more than a part of it.

then it came to me: this is what i've been seeking. Zanzibar, on the glowing accounts of a few friends who'd visited, had been the casual goal of my journey, physically. i didn't know exactly where i was going, or what i was going to do, but i thought if i made it through Rwanda and Burundi and Tanzania to the coast and Zanzibar Island, that would probably be pretty good. and there was a time in Kigoma, waiting for Wilson and his dump truck to get arranged, when i really considered leaving it, and biking instead back up to and through Rwanda, never reaching the coast. but something called me on to Dar and zanzibar, and now here i was, many adventures later, sitting on the pier watching an amazing sunset in the very place i wanted to be.

but that's just the thing: i didn't especially want to be here. i was as easy with ending up somewhere else, as easy i'd been with not being able to bike Burundi, because of the political situation, or take the train through Tanzania because of motor problems: there was never any set course or goal for this trip. it was taken simply to let what would happen happen. and it happened. i wasn't aiming for anything in particular.

that is what i've been seeking: not a particular place, or thing, or person, but freedom from any of that seeking, period. this was a trip taken without aim, other than to be without aim. the only thing i'd wanted the whole way was to be free. and i'd done it. not only that, but i'd had a blast doing it, and ended up somewhere as beautiful as here.

the sun was lower now, was starting to do itself in orange, to make the clouds blush and the sea sing its beauty, and the moment just got lovelier. i sat there smiling, watching it sink, aware of how felicitous this moment, this day, this whole trip had been. beyond so. the beautiful things i've seen, the crazy things that've happened, the peace i've had to write and think, the freedom i've had from anything, even from an idea of myself, it all suddenly seemed like so much luck. like a gift. i hadn't had any idea what i was looking for on this trip, what i was going towards. i knew it wasn't girls, wasn't beautiful places, wasn't adventures or solitude, etc. all of those things are nice, and they all played a part. but if they hadn't been there, i would equally have been at peace.

so they say you go on a trip seeking something. you want maybe to spend some time somewhere beautiful, to escape your life or yourself, or come to a deeper understanding of those things. i did. i was doing the last right now, in realizing i did all of those things without wanting to: they happened free and naturally, because i let them. because i hadn't sought them, as so many things you seek will elude you so long as you're after them. i understood that i was happy in a deeper way than just at seeing nice things, meeting nice people, eating nice food. i was happy at being able to do any of it: happy to be alive. and i think, happy at seeing all those things as nice because they'd come as gifts, not as things sought. without seeking, without having something to seek, it came to me, and i knew it was right, a gift. this moment, right now. this is what i've been seeking: the understanding that i can live without seeking, that i can be really free, and happy in it. i didn't, don't need to be on vacation to do this. it was just simpler to see alone, with no responsibilities. but this is something down deep, something unchangeably good. i don't know if i've managed to explain it to you. but what i was seeking found me. it might not be easy to say, but i have an answer now to all the people who asked me what i was seeking:

nothing. everything. what found me. freedom from seeking, from grasping, from expecting. pure freedom.

and knowing that at least this moment that was true, i grinned a grin as big as the sun is wide.

then Dula sat down
next to me and asked if he could practice his English. at the very moment of my revelation, at the very kernel of realizing what i'd been seeking, that it was right here, he sat down and wanted to practice his English.

what would you do?

i understood he was part of it too. i said okay. i might have answered him in monosyllables, because the sun was so very beautiful and my mind was still whirring away, startled at its own reflection, but i had with him the very very normal everyday conversation you can have with any one when traveling. where i'm from, when i came to Zanzibar, how i came, when i'm leaving, where i visited before, what i'm seeking here (he didn't understand; i let it pass), what kind of music i like, etc. all the endless conversations i'd had of the same questions echoed through my mind from days of being an English teacher in Japan, the very conversations i used to avoid when i wasn't being paid to have them.

did it annoy me? no. why should it? let Dula have his life, and me mine.

then the Puppet Master we may only be projecting exists to order our lives upped things a notch: he brought my very least favorite character, the wassup-man-how-you-doin-hakuna-matata sales/conman dressed up like a rasta and pretending to be your friend long enough to get lots of money from you kind of character. they exist in plenty on Zanzibar Island.

this one came up, ignoring what Dula was saying, crouched down with the CD 'his band made' (i'd seen lots of other people selling them) called 'Jambo,' the same as his boat out there--he points to one of several boats in the bay with Jambo written on them--hakuna matata maybe you buy one of these nice CDs eh? hakuna matata.

all i said to him was 'no.' not with resentment, not with prejudice, just a peaceful 'no' from a place that was radically uninterested in his CD or his implied offer of being my friend for money. i didn't tell him to go: he was part of this moment too.

go he did, all the same, muttering loudly about how 'he doesn't want friends, doesn't want to talk, fine.' it wasn't that i didn't want to talk, but i didn't correct him. the sun was a roaring crimson inches above the water, clouds and water belting back the same hymn of scarlet violet pink and gold, and i might have been answering Dula in monosyllables as well, but was at least hearing what he was saying. it was hard to hold his very earthly conversation and hold the other very unearthly one i was having with the sunset and myself at the same time, but i did.

then, when the sun was down and Dula had mostly run out of questions to ask, i thanked him and wished him luck, said i was going to go walk on the beach, to see what would come my way.

and that's what i did.


day thirty-nine/forty: dar es salaam - uganda

this is it.
the first words in my mind waking up pulling me out of bed this morning are this is it. no more listless days on the beach, no last strolls through unfamiliar places: it's time to go home.

i was up by 4:30, had my untidy mountain of things packed clean into the panniers by 5, hung and tied them on the bike outside the Dar es Salaam YWCA, the old nervous tension about catching a booked bus train or plane in my bones. it's time to go, it's time to go. it was a morning when you know everything you do needs to be done now, because there's no other time to do it [1]. i hung my homemade panniers on the bike rack thinking how well they'd weathered the whole trip, remembering my hopes they'd last me at least out of Lukaya.

i got on the freeway out of town and rode the 10K to the bus park. it was total chaos, nothing like the quiet evening place i'd visited a week ago to book my tickets, absolutely jammed with people and buses jockeying for position, and i got well lost and in a lot of peoples' way, becoming irritible myself as i do when i'm too loaded down with stuff and have somewhere to be. eventually i paid someone to take me to the right bus, confirmed it with the conductor, stood worrying as they jammed my bike in (ignoring their attempts to get more money out of me for luggage; i'd paid), then with a sigh of relief took my seat, sweating already at 6 in the morning.

it took a moment to realize this was the end, that next i unloaded my bicycle i'd be in Uganda, having come full circle around Lake Victoria, through all things new and unfamiliar back to the familiar again. i leaned out the window, suddenly thirsty for some juice, sesame crackers, anything to give me a final bit of Tanzania, but there were only water vendors.

then the bus lurched forward and it'd begun, the end.

[1] then again, that's every moment, isn't it?

out the window, seisou:
a fibrous plant, i'm told
for the making of fabric, rope.
pale rigid leaf knives like
pineapple or aloe vera,
mature plants with delicate
oriental clusters of leaves
shooting from a tall middle stem,
a new plant borne from the old.
it is unearthly, somehow, unafrican;
even the name sounds Japanese,
and yet we roll by fields and fields.
africa is still a mystery to me.

i make friends with the passenger riding next to me, a half-Ugandan half-Zanzibarian man with a trustable smile and an innocent air about him. we talk in English, Luganda and Kiswahili, i share my cookies and he his mother's chapati, and in so doing we pass the trip more comfortably. like most african men i meet, he wants to marry a white lady.

somewhere in the afternoon, as we are still driving through a Tanzania i had no idea was so big, i see these giant green cliffs rising into the clouds on the right, walls and walls of them to the north of the highway. "what are those?" i ask him in idle curiosity.

"you don't know?" he said. "that's Kilimajaro."

Mount Kilimanjaro! The symbol of Africa! those big green cliffs are the bottom of Mount Kilimanjaro! Wow! I felt like i had on first seeing Fuji five years ago, like i'd suddenly come on the heart of the land, stumbled on to a well-kept secret. it was that unifying moment of mental image and reality that comes when you've seen countless pictures of the thing, then have it before your eyes. it's a shock somehow that it's real: Mount Kilimajaro! i was glad i'd seen it before the end of the trip, before leaving africa. i guess next time i'll have to climb it.


when we stop for vendors to assail the bus windows with bottles of water, they have plums too. little red, luscious plums like i haven't seen for more than a year. never a one in Uganda. i grin a big grin and buy a bowlful and my friend and i share them as we go down the road. there's no sweetness like one forgotten then tasted again.

is almost unseen: we roll into the border crossing at sunset, leave it after dark, stop for a half hour at the nairobi terminal, where we are not fed as i'd hoped (the bus company had sprung for a decent lunch that afternoon). more plums and chapati instead. i buy a water just to get some change in Kenyan money, get back on the bus and we drive off, doze off again. the bus comes to the Busia crossing into Uganda just as the sun is coming up, and i realize i've seen almost nothing of Kenya, arguably the most famous of the five East African countries. it doesn't bother me: i spent two days there while working on Peaceboat, took the obligatory safari and had a blast with my friends. true, i hadn't seen much, but i could say the same for Tanzania, Burundi, every country i'd been through. you could spend years seeing them, a lifetime. that's OK. it's good to leave some places unexplored. as my friend Kimuli would say, it gives you a reason to come back.

i think i will.


day thirty-eight: dar es salaam

beat ketchup.
after saying goodbye to everyone, about six thirty in the morning, riding my bike through Dar towards the YWCA, i realized i was beat. i'd spent the previous night sleeping on a plastic counter under air conditioning... and come to think of it, the night before only gotten about two hours with the late night and early morning. and the two nights before that stayed up late with lots of alcohol, and slept when i did on a concrete floor...

no wonder i was beat. the extreme heat during all daylight hours hadn't helped any. i checked into the Y, my reservations lost but another room available, thinking i'd do some writing, but after a much needed shower just fell asleep on the bed. i woke up around noon, wrote for awhile, slept some more.

around noon i went out to some Indian snack places, filled up on strange little metal trays of fried things with sauces, went back for more writing and sleep. i hadn't written a thing, or posted anything, the whole time i was in Zanzibar, a conscious choice as it was just too beautiful to spend in front of my computer. so today was a catch up day, and that's what i did. in the evening i walked to buy some Konyagi, the local brew, for Kimuli, then through the Indian district looking for a good place to eat. it seemed to be a festival of some kind, because all the temples were open and variously serving food, playing movies, having sing alongs or concerts. at one place with music, i stopped outside to listen, and someone invited me in, so i stayed for an hour or so, til my stomach got to be too much. the music was traditional, a singer with some kind of stringed instrument accompanied by two very casual-looking guys on drums, the whole crowd of African Indians swaying to the beat, clearly their own society within Dar es Salaam. around 8:30 my hunger got to be too much, and i walked to a place i'd wanted to eat at for a spicy bowl of vegetable curry and a spicier plate of masala chips, washed down with my new favorite African soda, orange Fanta.

i got home thinking again to do some writing, but after packing my things for the morning exhaustion hit me, and i was out.


day thirty-seven: nungwui - stone town

things were coming to an end. we all felt it: the last three or four days had been a blast, we'd all gotten close, and now all the guys were headed onward: Giles had a plane he was probably going to miss in Nairobi in 48 hours, Mitch the itch to move on, me a bus back to Uganda the next morning. over breakfast we chatted like old friends, and i copied everyone's pictures onto my computer (fortunate that i met people with cameras during the most scenic part of the trip).

there was also a sense of incompleteness in the sexual competition: Brad and Christine had clearly become an item, Mitch and Sandra had taken themselves out of the running, but Giles and I had both failed to get anywhere significant with Ania. today was the last day for anything to happen, but it was going to be a day of travel, from the beach to Stone Town to a night ferry for Dar es Salaam.

i also had a sense of regret, leaving that place: i'd been too caught up in the whole sex race to really get into the place, and it was easily the most beautiful i'd been on my trip. i had enjoyed it, yes, but a few more days or a week even would have been better. i think we all felt that way, for different reasons. so i'd woken up early, late night and comfy cement floor be damned, fixed my flat tire, gone for a last snorkel over the coral reefs, walked the beach picking up shells for the kids at HDCC, and packed up my stuff before breakfast. with the mix of lack of sleep--i'd gotten maybe two hours--and excess of alcohol in my system, i was kind of beat by the time we got in the van at 11. but like other high school skills, these few days on the beach seemed to have increased my tolerance for alcohol as well its after effects, and i bore through it.

the trip back was surreal: the same road i sweated up four days ago we coasted down as easily as nothing; the whole trip over in an hour. if it wasn't for the exhaust stink coming from the open back hatch, my bicycle too big to fit, it would have been quite lovely. Ania sitting next to me didn't make matters worse either.

a last day in Stone Town
so we had one day to get it all done in Stone Town. the problem is, we were six people. i learned while still on Peaceboat that traveling with more than two or three is asking for trouble: and trouble it was. we spent the first hour or so hungry, wandering around looking for guesthouses as the girls debated whether they were staying here, going back to the beach or coming to Dar. someone would go off somewhere, the rest of us would wait, they'd come back, and we'd again wallow in indecision. i put up with it because they were my friends, but couldn't have handled more than a day of it. the sexual competition being more or less over, or moot, i was starting to long for the freedom that'd marked this whole trip, being alone and going and doing exactly what i wanted. that freedom is great unless what you want is to be with someone....

and i guess that's what confused me,
because i'd been alone all trip, talking with whoever came my way but never more than a few hours here and there, and been fine with it. that was the trip i wanted: one to clear my brain, be completely free to do as i pleased, and basically get deep into the places i was going, without the distraction of any company other than my own.

the strongest opponent of that kind of free, independent spirit is romance. the two just don't mix: one desires nothing more than freedom, the other desires nothing more than possession by and of another. and i had gotten drawn into that second spirit, of sexual possession, during the last few days. now i was somewhere in between, a queasy place to be, like that after a break-up.

i had known what was happening: felt myself being drawn into the romance-driven circle of my friends on the beach, and didn't mind it. i also didn't want to take part at first, then slowly started to, but not completely, and now i was not completely not taking part in it... ick. a kind of confusing middle ground that was the best of neither: not possessed or possessing as romance wants, not really free or enjoying that freedom as independence wants. i guess i'd gotten deep enough in the sexual competition, or it'd been so long since doing so that just a little wade felt pretty deep, and i couldn't just jump out again in a flash.

after lunch Mitch and I went to buy our ferry tickets, the larger group still undecided if and how they were going back to Dar es Salaam, and i felt almost...lonely without the others. mostly without Ania, on whom my sexual target had settled[1]. i had an unfinished sense of wanting possession, something very foreign to me after a year and a half without it. it made me want to get back as soon as possible, and when we found them again at a little tea house on the beach, and Mitch was going off somewhere to travellery things and wondered if i was coming, i said no. i think at any other time in the trip, i would have said yes without hesitation, him being a backpack traveler similar to me, and two people being still an enjoyable size group to travel with, but i wanted to be in the group, be in that same sex-charged atmosphere. or maybe i was just worried Giles would get an in on Ania while i was away, old animal blood overriding more cerebral roads of thought.

i feel stupid writing this, honestly. it's nothing i've thought much about or felt like since coming to Africa, the very kind of teenage sex-only perspective i got tired of and wanted to escape. and yet, i was in it. and yet, i wasn't in it, because i knew what it was, and knew how i felt about it, and always felt a bit like laughing at how silly we all were acting. if you take just a half step back, if your animal can allow you enough to do it, a lot of sex and the things we do surrounding it look pretty silly. like seeing the courtship rituals of other animals on the Discovery channel: why go through all that work?

so i was half-in, half-out, as i'd been the whole time. but apparently more in than out, since i'd wanted to be back with them. and i guess that's what confused me, right at the tail end of a journey traveled for myself, by myself throughout, i was wanting a little group of friends and maybe even a girl to be with.

is that because it's actually better than being alone? because i'd had too much solitude on the trip? because it seemed really great after a year and a half without it? because after all that time i'm ready again to be in a relationship, and this kind of play version of it was bringing out that deeper feeling? just because the girls were so cute?

i don't know. yes. probably all of the above. most of all me being ready for a relationship again, i think. not that some cute girls from Norway seemed like prime candidates for a long term relationship, but they were more so than anyone else i'd met in a long while.

[1] this is a little uncomfortable to write, because she might be reading this, but it was all in fun, right Ania? pis mei oura.

so we went swimming, had gelato at a really nice (romantic) place on the beach, went back for showers and eventually made our way to the ferry, where we all sat around on the pier waiting for the line to go down, eating zanzibar pizza in, as Giles reminded me, another million star restaurant.

since we were foreigners, we'd had to buy the VIP tickets, but that meant having a pleather-couch lounge at our disposal, good for sleeping on an overnight ferry (we were due for departure at 10PM, arrival at 6AM). we got settled in, then as the ferry started to move i bolted for the top deck, old PeaceBoat spirit rising in me. as i later explained to Giles when he came up, on the PeaceBoat every time we'd leave a country, people would gather on the deck to wave goodbye and listen to music and basically get closure on what was usually a short, intense burst of a new culture and environment. we stood up there watching the lights of Stone Town and Zanzibar fade, talking about our lives before traveling (he'd been on the road a year, was going home in two days; me in Africa a year and a half, going home in a week), what we were going to do after, etc.

this was one nice thing about our sexual competition: it was good-natured. we were all friends, and even though it'd come down to Giles and I competing for Ania, we were still friends and had a good chat up there. Giles is a blast, one of those people who is determined to wring each moment for everything it's got, always suggesting stupid tricks or dumb games, and drawing on a wealth of random information like how to catch crabs without getting bit or to bend a spoon without touching it.

our departure ceremony never got out of the bay: apparently since we had all night to get there, the crew wasn't in a hurry to actually do more than leave the dock. so we went back inside, and everyone had laid out mattresses on the floor for sleeping. only, there wasn't enough room for everyone: just one spot beside Ania.

well, it was dumb of course, because both of us wanted to be there. and for awhile, we tried to find a way for it to work: spooning the african man to the right to make him leave (Giles' idea; ended up in us all barely suppressing laughter like a bunch of kids); squeezing together so none of us could actually lay down; rearranging couches, etc. in the end it was both him and me wanting to sleep next to Ania, and i saw it, and knew that it probably meant more to him... and went to sleep on the countertop. when i woke in the morning, they were spooning, arms and legs around each other. so i guess that means i lost the competition, or if it wasn't over, was losing. much as i knew it wasn't what i wanted, and wasn't something to take too seriously, i still felt bad, like i'd lost something pretty important. it was a badness as deep as instinct, an animal knowledge i had lost something animally important.

i told myself i hadn't been trying as hard as the other guys, that i partially chose to let it go because i didn't want to get drawn in too deeply, but they may or may not have been intellect clumsily trying to soothe disappointed instinct with something it couldn't understand. i got up and folded up my dress-blanket and filed out onto land with the rest.

Ania gave me a nice hug and long smile as we said goodbye across from the pier, which might have been just as friends, or a sign my half-hearted wooing attempts and competition with Giles had gotten somewhere[1]. i'll never know. what's certain is, i never won the prize we were running for those three days, but did run pretty far from my normal state of mind, and found between the two only confusion.

there's something to be learned from confusion, though: a few years ago, i would never even have thought twice about what we were doing, as i don't think my younger friends did. so my confusion is a sign of change: i have really removed myself, or biology has[2], from that state of perpetual sexual competition. as the ocean reminded me, it is a game, not to be taken too seriously, and as with any game--like monopoly--when taken too seriously it isn't as fun.

at the same time, some part of me was ready to take it seriously, after not having played the last year and a half, or i would never have gotten as deep and confused as i did. and that is another sign of change: a sign that i my period of waiting is over, like a mourning period after the collapse of my last relationship, and i'm ready to try again. if i wasn't ready, i would never have been taken in by this whole game to begin with.

and though i've been clearheaded this whole trip, i think the confusion has been a fitting close to it: to remind me that i don't know, haven't done, everything. that there are changing parts of me yet unknown, and how i will live will again have to change. more specifically, this trip may have been my deepest encounter with solitude and freedom, and i know those two will always be a part of who i am, and a life well lived--but they are not everything, are not enough. i've been feeling that way for a few months, the need for someone to share my life with, and these last few days highlighted it.

i am back in the game.

at least this time i know it is play, serious play but play nonetheless, and i will remember to have as much fun doing it as we did on zanzibar.

[1] see previous footnote.

[2] i will never forget, or let my friend Alice live down, what she said a few weeks before our friend David's 28th birthday (and a few months before mine): "A male is sexually active between the ages of 15 and 28." just the way she said it sounded like our sex drives would shut off on reaching 28, and we started to talk (mostly in her presence) about how we were going to be sexually shut down after 28, and thereafter how great it was to have finally escaped sexual temptation and Satan's grip. unfortunately, seems her prediction was a little premature...


day thirty-six: nungwui

what i haven't told you about yet
is sex.

the undercurrent of all this time on the beach has been sex, sexual competition, the old beat of bodies pulling for each other. how that beat comes out in human rhythms of male competition and female posturing, in our free-form courtship ceremonies and elaborate displays for each others' sake.

in a way, it was inevitable: put a group of twenty-somethings together on a beautiful beach with not much to do or wear and see what happens. to stoke that fire, make the three girls all beautiful, fun to be around, and spend most of their day laying on the beach in bikinis. make at least two of the guys in their early twenties, hormones raging, the other two old enough to add experience to testosterone. your perfect reality TV show: Zanzibar Heat, or Sexual Survivor. who would be the last one standing?

this was something almost new to me. i'd more or less forgotten about sexual competition, and the all-consuming male state of mind that engenders it. don't get me wrong, i had my day: after suffering through public education and the first few years of university without a girlfriend, raging hormones fueling doubt and angst about whether i might ever have one, i flipped the switch and started on a streak of romantic relationships. it lasted the last three years of university life, four years in Japan and into Uganda, with never more than a few months' break between one girl and the next.

at some point i realized i was with these girls for reasons less than true love[1], and that each relationship eventually fell apart because of it. but realizing that and changing it are different things.

the cycle continued: one relationship fell apart, there'd follow a time of chaos and a few different girls in the picture, then things would solidify with one, and we'd be together: maybe three months, maybe six, maybe a year. the last one was a year and a half, and easily the most painful of all. part of that pain i think was my own consciousness that i was doing something i didn't want to, and frustration at my inability even with that pain to change it. there is nothing more frustrating than repeating known mistakes.

well, i eventually stopped. when you're faced with your own failure like that, it's either change or be permanently painfully unhappy with yourself and life, and that sucks. so when i got out of the last relationship, i got serious about changing myself too: i decided to take a break from romance. i was going to focus on developing myself, and love only as in a family, treating people like brothers and sisters, parents or children. i was going to work in a christian-faith-based street children's project, no better place to do it, right?

before parting on semi-friendly terms with the last ex, i told her i was going at least four months without a girl--what would have been a 7-year record. she laughed, and inwardly i wondered if i was up to it as well.

i was. in quadruplicate: sixteen months i spent working with kids, making Ugandan friends, learning the language and culture, keeping busy with good work, with not a hand-holding or late-night smooch the whole time. it's not that there weren't eligible girls around: there were a few mzungu, and as time went on Ugandan girls started to seem better and better. but something had really changed in me after the last break-up, and i wasn't interested in having one just to have one--as a prop to my self-esteem, as a way to sexual gratification, as a guide to local culture, as a quick good friend in a new place, or any other mix of the reasons people often have for being in relationships. i wanted someone i loved, and didn't want to build that love on the shifting sands of lust, as i'd found the tide usually unsettled them in time. so i have been content to wait, and not much bothered by abstinence.

then i came to Zanzibar. i find myself on a tropical beach, in a group of guys that seemed pretty intent on building just such relationships, if only extremely temporary, and some beautiful girls who didn't seem like they had much else going on. nights were spent imbibing large quantities of alcohol, days recovering and posturing in our different ways--girls in an endless parade of bikinis (we started teasing them about how many they'd brought, and how many they wore per day), guys in feats of strength or wit.

it was fun. it was a blast. i don't think there are many forces in human life more powerful than that of sex, of the ancient dance of man and woman[2]. but it's a dance i honestly had forgotten in the year and a half since i last danced it in seriousness. i have really been unsexual, just doing charity work and focusing on my writing, enjoying time with friends without thought for anything else.

well, my beach friends changed that in short order. about a day, i think. the first day, it was fun to have girls around, and mzungu friends in general to hang out on the beach with. in the course of our alcohol bender that first night, capped with skinny dipping, the girls started to be interesting as more than friends. still, i was fairly disinterested, knowing i had just two days there, and understanding too the amount of work and doing of things other than what i really wanted to it would take to make anything physical happen (it would, of course, take even more to make anything like love happen, but no one was thinking much of that). our little society had been built on that basis, and like Americans accept the amount of sex they see in everyday media, i just accepted that's what we were doing, and went along with it. everyone else was jumping off the bridge, so i figured i'd better too. why not? the water was warm.

thus the last few days of my me-focused, solitary 6-week trip though East Africa were spent in a totally different way, always around people, swimming, singing, drinking up a storm and chasing after girls. it was disorienting. it was childish. it was a blast.

[1] now don't go asking me what that is. but if i had to answer, or explain myself, i'd say it's a gift, something you give with no expectation of return. and in those relationships, i went in wanting something (reassurance i was loveable, to be specific), and so my love came with a price. meaning, unless it fit into someone else's need like lucky puzzle pieces, it wasn't the kind that lasts.

[2] if i had to wager on one it'd be sex's old enemy, spirituality. and the biological change that comes with time, of course: i think sex goes from a strong physical want to a weaker one that is often accompanied or replaced by a created psychological want for the same, something much more tied into conceptions of self and vitality than any physical forces. in some older men, who never have the biological softening of man-woman love into familial love, i've seen it be something like an addiction. these are all things i've wanted to escape: sex has its day. let it not have my whole life. unfortunately, in the West we are constantly assaulted by a media that knows sex's power, and would keep its grip on us, that the media might exploit that grip for its own ends.

the first winners in this real-ity show
were Brad and Christine, who gradually drifted away from last night's bonfire, and by today were silently accepted by the rest of the group as a couple. they were the obvious pair, the two most beautiful among us, and Brad having worked at it the hardest of any of us. of course, their coupling only increased the pressure on the rest of us to follow suit. the days were numbered. in fact, there was only today: tomorrow we were all going to Stone Town, and from there our separate ways. the pressure was on.

the fateful Boardwalk hotels
so today we swam as usual, laid on the beach, played with someone's pet monkey Mitch was taking care of, and after a silhouette picture session at sunset all went out for dinner at a local place that fried up chips, octopus and calamari.

million star restaurant or no, it turned out to be pretty lukewarm and food-poisoning-likely, so after Mitch and I finished our food, the rest abandoned theirs, and we went to a beachfront restaurant that we knew was expensive and good. afterwards, it was decided we'd play Monopoly as a drinking game, and we all settled down to beers and the buying of properties and swindling at will.

i had a good start, getting both of the purples and putting hotels on them before anyone else had property, and things were looking good. we rolled, we drank, the music played and spirits were high. my sexual rival Giles was still feeling pretty under the weather from the amount of cheap rum he'd consumed last night before rolling through the fire (the rum, by the way, also worked well for firebreathing), so he called it quits early, leaving just Brad and Christine, and Ania and I (Mitch had passed out on a hammock nearby).

perfect, right? Brad and Christine immediately joined forces to stand a chance against me, who was at that time winning, so Ania and I followed suit (symbolic? my drunken mind wondered), and proceeded to pool our flush resources to fully hotel boardwalk and park place-- a bold move.

well, that's where the good luck ended: roll after roll we hit their expensive properties, while they skipped ours, and our wealth gradually turned to debt, as they got richer and developed more. soon we were selling those Boardwalk hotels, and getting down to bare properties again. turn after turn, we paid out, they bought in. if you've ever done it, you know there's nothing more depressing than losing after you've been winning in Monopoly, and this time it became like a curse on our union. i'd hoped, you know, ania and i'd win handily and then go wander off on the beach somewhere...

not to be. we agreed to concede after it was obvious, and wandered back to our rooms together, Brad and Christine ready to be alone, me hoping Ania would want to take a walk on the beach.

she didn't. she came out from their room a minute later ready for bed, all my smooth words lost on my lips, and everybody turned in for the night. shit.

me, i went to the ocean.

what the ocean told me
disappointed, i walked with my mostly full beer down to the beach, everything dark. i sat there and listened to the waves, the first time i'd been alone in days, trying to make sense of what was taking place. did i really like or want Ania? was this whole sexual competition that important, something worth my peace of mind, more than an exagerrated version of Monopoly?

i sat for awhile, let my questions marinate in darkness and oncoming waves.

bit by bit, the answer came: no. this is a game, has been a game, as all life is. you do the best you can, enjoy doing it, accept failure or success with an equal smile, knowing happiness is something deeper than success or failure. ania bedded or no, you are still here to witness this beauty, aren't you? you are still a miracle among miracles, are you not? yes.

so accept this failure, as you do others, enjoy and learn from it. it has been play, nothing more. only when you start to take the game seriously can it confuse you about what it is, a game. winning or losing, it's been fun, right? yes.

thanks, ocean. i needed that. i let the rest of my beer get swallowed in sand, stood, and went for sleep, content.


day thirty-five: nungwui

i woke up and regretted it,
drank some water and went back to sleep. it was already baking hot, my head felt like a broken carton of eggs, it looked like someone--maybe me--had shat in a bag on the other end of the room. i was covered in salty sand congealed in sweat, hung over. eurgh.

a lot of the day was spent in recovery, trying to eat safe foods, to variously sleep, swim, eat and wait my hangover off. the fourth proved to be the best, and by late afternoon i was starting to feel human. everyone else was in the same boat, not getting up til noon and not doing much afterward. it was my first hangover in years, i think. it might as well be the last: binge drinking is like egg nog. it loses novelty too fast to be more than a once-a-year thing.

whores and coke
were among the things Gabriel, the guy who'd helped me get my room, offered me around 11 that morning. i was still in bed, having successfully got back to sleep in the hopes my hangover would forget itself, when he knocked and then came in, crouching down to assure me if i needed anything, i could just ask him: diving tours, boat rentals, ganja, Zanzibar women, cocaine...

it was a little shocking, despite the hangover. i've never had anyone in a foreign country offer me so many illegal things so bluntly. i gave him an alcohol-diluted smile and promised if i needed anything, he'd be the first one i went to. then he left and i laid on the cement some more, hungover and wondering if maybe cocaine wasn't what i needed to get over this. it certainly seemed like a better idea than Giles' reassurance more cheap rum would do the trick.

Mossa cooked some fish
for us, and we had a nice afternoon lunch at his place of fish and chapati. Mossa, a local making his living renting canoes and doing security, befriended Brad and the group the night before I came, regaling them with stories over rice and beans. he was one of those rare Africans who can still be genuine living among constant swarms of tourists, and we had a nice little meal on his porch, him explaining to us how meals were taken and guests treated in Zanzibarian culture. he'd grilled the fish with salt and red chili, and the chapati was just the right amount of greasy to combine with the fish into a pretty decent hangover cure. afterwards we sat around on his porch chatting, watching the sun sink, and made plans for a bonfire that night.

could you?
randomly throughout the day i would look at where i was, and be overwhelmed by how peaceful and beautiful it was, and have to say so. and wonder again as i always do in beautiful places if you could ever get used to it.

the rare and fleeting sensation of being alive
late afternoon, Brad and Giles rented a harpoon gun, and we all agreed to spear some fish[1]. so we swam out as the sun was sinking and the tide calmed down, a quarter to half mile from the shore, to where the coral got thick and the fish swam in schools.

the gun was a long metal harpoon couched in a simple case with a trigger, powered by big elastic straps. it looked pretty viscious, but didn't seem to shoot straight. we cruised for fish nonetheless, masks down and snorkels up, occasionally diving down to chase after one. they were speedy little devils, and i realized what an accomplishment it'd been yesterday for Brad to harpoon the trumpet fish Mossa had grilled up for us.

Brad went first, missing another trumpet fish, then i had a go, cruising after a biggish silvery fish while Brad and Christine watched schools swimming by. the fish was faster than me, and the snorkel not really letting in enough air, so it was tiring. after awhile i shot just to be done with it, missed, and gave the harpoon to Christine. Giles and Ania swam up after a bit, and we traded off to swim back to shore, empty-handed.

the sunset was again gorgeous, and we stayed in the shallows watching it go down, enjoying the fleeting and rare sensation of being chilly after a long day of punishing sunshine, and awed.

[1] something pretty unthinkable to me a few years ago. still nothing i'd ever come up with on my own, but if i'm eating, i'm already killing it, right? if i can't stomach harpooning it, then i don't think i should be able to stomach it at all. do you?

the image of a beautiful girl underwater with a harpoon gun
will stick in my head for a long time: there was something powerful about swimming after Christine, a 25-year-old as close to the Western ideal of beauty as anyone gets, and watching the contrast of sunlight rippling through the water onto her skin and the big black harpoon gun in her hand, made for killing. it was a meeting of opposites: fresh life and machine of death, a holy symbol of purity and destruction, a Hollywood conflation of sex and violence, at once threatening and inviting. i forgot all about the Indian Ocean and its stunning display of flora and fauna: here were the deep currents of humanity put into form--life and its attendant taking of life, female fertility and male destructiveness, passivity and aggression, beauty and horror, all witnessed in surreal underwater weightlessness and light.

it was beyond words, too meaningful to understand, two opposites making something greater than themselves, an unknowable symbol. plus, she was cute.

forget the five-star restaurants
supper that night was at a local place i'd found, plates of rice and beans with sauces of tomatoey meat, coconutty bananas and local spinach served family style. the cokes Brad bought were so warm the tops champagned off them and onto neighboring roofs, carbonation burning on the way down. the meal was nice, served outside by candlelight, under Zanzibar's sea of stars. Giles was so impressed with what i said walking back that i'm going to say it again, just to establish copyright: it was a million star restaurant.

Mzungu in the Mist
by the time we got back and searched unsuccessfully for coffee, Mossa had a fire going on the beach, and we all walked over and sat around it, sound of the waves behind. Mossa is a natural story-teller, and went from explaining the symbol of the logs in the fire to stories of his father the famous fighter to how Pemba island was inhabited and later split through magic to stories of natural healing... English isn't his first language, but his stories came through, and you could tell from how seamlessly one rolled into the next that there was a wealth of them there in his head. to hear (and understand) them in his native language would have been amazing. we all sat bemused for the better part of an hour, sipping rum and listening to him talk. then someone showed up with a guitar, more beers were passed around, and we started in on improv songs and old favorites. soon we were trading traditional songs from each country represented there--about five--then composing new ones about each place (i got a lot of compliments on my South Dakota song, which was a rant in the local accent about all the reasons i left the Midwest in the first place). then Giles started on a drunkenly epic composition called 'Mzungu in the Mist' which took us well into the night, everyone contributing. Brad and Christine wandered off somewhere, the guitar's owner took it home, and out came the rum, Giles hitting it hard and going, as tipsiness increased, from walking over the hot embers to jumping in them, to rolling through them, to a very foolish coal-first headstand.

Mossa drifted off to bed and Giles, Ania and i started dancing on the beach with burning palm leaves, whirling them in fiery circles then throwing them sparks trailing into the water. when they were all burned we laid down to watch the stars, some of them shooting. as the night wound to a close we named our own constellations, then laid sand over the embers and went off to bed.