Walking through Sinkor in twilight, I hesitate to say it is a Magic Hour, but the throbbing fade of dusk takes some of the edge off, the cracks in the tarmac are not as desperate.  The palm trees become silhouettes, and people start to blend in with the facades of the houses, protected by shadow.  You can see the sweat drying on the brow of the boy with the wheelbarrow full of coconuts.  Circles of conversation on the corners become more muted, people look at the ground instead of at each other; eyes become eyelids when you look at them, like people in a jazz mural.  I can hear the keys on my belt clinking just underneath the roar of traffic from the distant boulevard.

Water is off again, but there is no dark stain on the bedsheet that matches my body, so I know that I have showered at least in the past few days.  Feet turned to hamburger by insect bites, forearms scored and pitted by the sun, but I know that most of the time I can cleanse the pollution in the evening.

Invisible enemies and friends you can’t touch, the darkness sometimes feels persistent.

My mind sort of twists when I speak Liberian English, I can feel my brain sort of tilting sideways (that’s what it sounds like, American English at a 45 degree angle).  I think I am getting it to where I can be understood, but speaking it requires my linguistic capacity to lean against the wind a bit.

This nurse…seeing her in the ocean is like watching leaves floating on the wind.  I want to dive into the thick wet ruby curtain of her hair and only come up when I need air.  In the kitchen, feeling the crackling static electricity of her skin close to mine, daring myself to lean in and touch my lips to her neck and shoulders.  She smells like soapberries and her hair is scented with apple blossoms, like the sharp spring air in a lakeside orchard.  She invades the senses, both tangibly and by the deep nature of her soul, to the point where I forget what to say next when I lightly put my hands on her hips.  In the dance of her movements I see indigo and violet, I imagine chiaroscuro nights in Meknes, reflections in the basmalesque fountains of Damascus, moss-covered cliffs under plump gray clouds in Svalbard, translucent sunlight crossed with the tree roots.  The soft pink lines of her lips, the gentle pomegranate-shape of her hips, her shoulders that have strained to sustain life and bring healing.  The way she laughs like a jungle waterfall.

The way she laughs like a jungle waterfall, and brushes an unruly strand of strawberry hair from her cheek while she bakes.  She talks as she stirs the batter, and then looks up at me with those big green eyes, like limpid emerald pools.   Her shoulder brushes against mine, I can feel my heartbeat jump.  I imagine walking with her at twilight somewhere near Grand Marais, barefoot in warm earth, among gnarled trees and circling nighthawks.  In the fading orange haze, her eyes are luminous and bright, her freckles barely visible on her decorous nose.  She rests her fingertips on my chest, I touch my fingers to her chin and gently tilt it up until her lips meet mine under the rosebud tree.  Her eyelashes brush against mine, and the stars begin to emerge over our heads.

So, anyway, that kind of completes what I wrote the other night.  It is Christmas Eve, and I can hear the traffic from the boulevard keeping time with the loud music.  One of our suppliers sent us a Christmas basket that included a bottle of Johnny Walker Red and Gordon’s Gin, which I intend to send to Fish Town so they can celebrate New Year’s Eve in style.


Friends to Lovers to Friends (Omnibus)

Friends to Lovers to Friends

The children of the sand struggle against the swirling wind.  I watch with shuttered eyes and labored breath, the dust and chilled morning shadows thickening around my scarred ankles.  Incense, memories of incense in a distant basmalesque boudoir.  The children pull shawls closer to their hunger-ravaged shoulders and stumble on towards the dim Saharan sunrise.  Sahara gold against a pink wall in stifling afternoon heat, tangled pale limbs at midday.  The truck driver leans over and mumbles something into my ear, his thick Bambaara accent making it near impossible to understand.  I nod my head and scratch at the bandage behind my ear.  The children of the sand lift their eyes to the lines of the horizon, where the road disappears under centuries of sediment.  I take comfort in finding my final resting place in this remote edge of the world, heading deeper into the desert.  My fingers scratch against the truck bed, trying instinctively to make some last mark before I expire.  The children of the sand look past my death throes, they laugh as the shawls and burlap fall from their shoulders as they run laughing into the crystal silence of the dunes.  Nothing hurts more than watching this vision dim, believing it to be true, believing in anything at all.  I nod to the truck driver for one last stale Gauloise.  He flashes a milky-white grin and passes the rest of the crinkled pack.  Hands are raised in farewells, including mine.  The diesel engine snorts, the truck bed rattles, and once again we are underway.

Bujumbura 0200

The breeze feels excellent against my bare torso, and for a moment I forget the fevered, throbbing pain in my left arm.  The night air is hazy and sluggish at 2am, and the lights on the hills appear as mere suggestions through the murk.  The most noise comes from a bar I can barely see, maybe a 10 minute journey on foot from the hotel.  Laughter, frantic bass beats, amenamena hey hey, this time for Africa.  A dog trots down the street like a shadow, his pawpads making a percussive click on the asphalt.  Nothing else is moving besides the dog and the wind.  The wind gathers me, blankets me, covers me.  It whispers in my ear, speaking a continuous stream of language that has no spaces, no silence, no pause.  The wind cradles me; it reaches under my ribcage and brushes against my heart.

The time when the sun made our faces golden

Bring me a string of oranges, he says with a wrinkle of his brow, a hairy arm hanging out of the window of the truck.  Domingo skips over a pile of rocks at the side of the road and pulls a string of mandarins out from under a dirty straw mat.  He hands the string up to the man in the truck, and flashes his jagged teeth.  The man in the truck grunts and hands down a crumpled note.  Domingo takes the money, stuffs it in his pocket, and taps the hollow metal of the truck as it rumbles away.

Greece (Zoe)

Agamemnon and Parnassus, these rocks and weeds where deities lie. Caught like a drop of sweat from Hera’s brow, female vengeance and masculine sloth showing no tarnish with age. Driven to madness like Medea, slipping like the tunic from Poppaea’s golden shoulder, dreams of sable and crimson.  Life itself escapes my lips, and I forever haunt those worn goat paths of Santorini, fallen from the rage of my previous epoch. The olive tumbles from my lips, and I awake from sleep.

Robert Dole eats mashed potatoes and gravy

Robert Dole sat next to his wife in a diner in Ohio. A plate of mashed potatoes and gravy was on a table before him. As he reached for a spoon and looked into all the news cameras pointed at him, his mind was suddenly taken to another plane of consciousness. He heard the voices of all other beings that had come before him; he saw visions of every moment that ever existed. He could feel a multitude of colorful universes sliding and twisting in an infinite number of realities. Robert Dole lifted his hands and touched the shimmering fabric of space, spanned his arms from one end of the scarlet cosmos to the other. He shrunk his view to the dim ghosts and subatomic particle-shadows mutely ticking and flashing from one dimension to the next. Time had stopped; his mind beheld shamans and prophets, crystals and aeries, all those who had bridged the metaphysical chasms between time and space. Robert Dole spoke in tongues ancient and unknown, let symbols and script flow from his fingers as he joined those who had dared looked inside their spirits and into the alien universe within. The next instant, when Robert Dole put his spoon into the plate of mashed potatoes and gravy, his consciousness snapped back into the present. The news cameras continued to record. His wife held her face in a frozen smile. He lifted the spoon to his lips.

In the cloudy days that followed the blizzard

In the cloudy days that followed the blizzard, the inhabitants of the tiny town of Albertshire began to see strange apparitions in the forest that banked the western part of town. In between the trees, rendered black and thin by the weeks of snow, there would appear shadows of fearsome shapes and proportions. Blood-chilling cries would pierce the gloom of the late afternoon, and at night there would be a moaning emanating from the heart of the forest that shivered the soul. At first, the reticent citizens of Albertshire let these events hang silently in their atmosphere, barring their mention from all but the most secret conversations. However, this all changed the foggy morning of February 4th, when the town awoke to find…


Late in the night, a strange bird flew onto our roof and started sobbing. At the bird’s eerie call, I could hear Isidord in the next room getting up to fetch the machete, bringing it next to his bed. At that moment a woman appeared in my room, towering over me in terrifying silence. She was dressed in black, with black wings. Her face, however, was completely white, like that of a frozen corpse.

When it’s gone, it’s gone

I kept reaching out at the sky, trying to grab the rose pink curtain falling upon the spears of the twilight-blackened pines. Something told me to take out my camera; I had to capture this image, preserve it and revisit it forever. Unfortunately, my camera had not drunk a bottle of cold wine in the last hour, so it could not capture the dizzying beauty I saw before me. It was moving, it was alive, it was crashing into the silvery waters and dying. It was something that has been repeated on every sunset since creation, yet I found this particular evening to be the one that inspired the ecstasy and melancholy that shall last me until my final breath. The photo I took sits in my collection, a dark and blurred suggestion of a dream.

The Pet Shibboleths of the Opponents of Reform

The last time I talked with Emily was the summer she spent at a farm up north.  It was late in the afternoon, and I was outside a video store in Bloomington when she called me.

These Ojibway women have asked me to go into their sweat hut with them, she said, and I’m not really sure what to tell them.

You should do it, I said, this is a unique opportunity to experience their culture, even if it is in the nude.

Ok, she said.

That was the last time I ever talked with Emily.

Thy Blood Becomes Poison

It was incredibly cold when I awoke.  The splinters of weak light around the door told me it was probably somewhere around 4 in the morning, and all the demons of the night were gone.  Another night of survival, another day of frantically trying to work my way out of this mess.  The subtle demons were becoming less subtle with every passing night, and there were more them; their confidence and audacity were growing along with their numbers.  It used to be only about 3 or 4 in a night, but now there would be as many as 16, creeping in behind the dead trees, hiding in impenetrable shadows, screaming in unison.  Last week an incredibly large loup-garou tried to take down the door; from the scratches it left, its claws must had been 3 inches long and its height well above 6 feet.  Only good sorcery and a sharp machete are keeping them away now, and those are defenses that can be easily breached, if they are given enough time.  Remember, it is also good sorcery that is keeping me in, keeping me from escaping, keeping me from seeing the paths and trails that would lead me to freedom.  There is a weakness in my knees whenever I try to take the path to the main road.  There is a panic, a gripping paranoia whenever I try to scale the steep hill that leads to the coast.  Sometimes I wonder if I really am still in this world, or maybe I’m trapped in some sort of outside of reality.  This would explain the presence of these fantastical demons, although I was already familiar with them before I was trapped here; they are indigenous to the landscape, known by native and émigré alike.  The liquor only makes it worse, it only invites them into your mind.  Oh, but it is so cold this morning, I need it, and besides the sun is almost up…

Distance, Cuisine

Halfway back from Hinche, I found myself in a grass fire consuming the hillsides around the road.  A pastor passed in his pickup, stopped a few yards in front of me, and asked if I needed a ride to Pignon.  His tone suggested that I looked very lost, but I waved him on.  My left wrist was still throbbing from the fall I had taken earlier that morning, but it was beneath my dignity to accept a ride.  The demonfire kept licking up and down the hills, emitting steady puffs of dirty smoke.  At least it wasn’t burning tires and angry faces.  I bowed my head, gingerly mounted my bicycle, and pushed ahead.  Ahead, clean air.  Ahead, twilight and peace.  It is still much too far away.  Zazi wo, zazi kay mwen.  M’ap rele lwa yo.

We were standing in about waist-deep water, among the nets and mud.  Lamine reached down and pulled a fish out of the net, and it was as if he drew a lightning bolt from the deep.  The fish was long, thin, and had smooth scales that flashed in diamond brilliance.  Camus never had to catch a fish, I thought to myself as I tried to catch my breath.

Stranger in Strange Lands

When I visited Paris, I was a sallow teenager with little common sense.  It was gray, crooked, and overwhelming, but I was still too sheltered and naive to understand what I was experiencing.

I hailed a taxi back to HLM4; I was tired and Alan was drunk.  As we skirted the dark, silent stalls of the market, the driver popped in a cassette tape and suddenly “Changes” by Tupac Shakur was rattling through the speakers.  Here was a language everyone in the taxi understood, and we all sang along until Alan and I were dropped off.  Late nights in Dakar could always shake off the bitter complications of our diurnal lives.
I remember numbing all sense of emotion with a good amount of gin, then casting myself on the bed with the TV on.  What did I see?  I’m not sure what I saw, but I remember distinctly what I heard, her voice echoing crystal-clear in my memory:
Être aimé
Nous avons tous besoin de l’amour
T’es loin de chez toi, chèrie, I said to her.

Loa and Lightning

The tattered old farmer walked by the front step where we were sitting.  He was clutching a full bottle of clairin in his hands.

Tonton, where is your conch shell?  I inquired.

He stopped and squatted next to us and we began an aimless chat.

Tonton, I said, pointing to the bottle he carried, if you drink all that clairin you’ll go blind.

No, he said, I have a very powerful loa that permits me to drink copious amounts of alcohol and suffer no ill effects.

He continued to tell me of other powers his loa granted him, and as he spoke he flipped off his dirty baseball cap to reveal a crumpled sheet of notebook paper and some dry, yellowed tobacco leaves stowed within.  He quickly tore off a shred of paper and rolled a morsel of tobacco inside.  I proffered my lighter so he could ignite his patchwork cigarette.

Mesi, he said, thank you.

After a couple of tokes, he gave the tiny cigarette to me, and I took several puffs.

Cryptic Journeys

Once in Dakar, locate a sept-place or a Ndegan-Ndiaye going to Kaolack.  Set out early in the morning, as it is a 5 hour journey.

You will get off at the depot just outside of the Grand Mosque in Kaolack, buzzing with activity.  Try to get to the depot to the south, closer to the river.  Locate a Ndegan Ndiaye going to the Gambia via Karang and climb on.  This will be a very sweaty 2-3 hour ride.
Pass through the towns of Passi and Sokone.  After Sokone, you will go through approximately 4 villages before arriving at Toubacouta.  Rap very hard on the frame of the bus so the driver and apprenti know that you want to get off at this town.
Walk down the main street in Toubacouta, past the mosque, until you reach the tailor shop.  Take a right at the tailor’s and continue.  Eventually you will pass some burned-out buildings, a kindergarten, a dispensaire, and a prenatal clinic.  There is a lady selling baignets outside of the prenatal clinic; buy some baignets from her.

The road will turn a rust-red color, and then you will find yourself out of Toubacouta.  There is a post office to the left, and next to it an Alize mobile phone tower.  Keep going, past the half-completed villas, past the grazing cows, past the shoddy military base.
After about 500m under the baking sun you will arrive in Soucouta, the last village on the road.  Take a left just past the telecentre, walk past the foosball table crowded with adolescents, walk until you come to a grand tree with a bench under it.  Ask anyone there for the house of Yande Ndaw.  Yande might be there, or else her daughter Gnima might receive you.  Whoever it is, give them the baignets you bought and ask them to show you the place where Mamadou Sarr stayed.  They will lead you past the stacks of drying fish to a derelict campement looking out over the mangroves.  Take a look around, write a note, reflect for a moment.  I can’t tell you right now what you will find, but you will know what it is once you stand there.

Kayor 1979

Sometime late that afternoon I heard Ibou’s moped buzzing down the dusty road. Sure enough, there she was, sitting on the back of the moped. She appeared like an angel in the savage jungle sun. They stopped in front of me, and Ibou flashed me a mischevious grin. She hopped off and took a look around. Ibou, still grinning, took off in a cloud of dust.

-Hello, she said, her expression bemused.

I mumbled a reply and stared at the ground. If I had known she was coming I would at least have found the time to take a shower.

-Surprised to see me? Her face broke out in a wide smile.
-Well, yes, I said, the project won’t be done for another month or so. I can’t imagine why you would want to come here so soon.

I couldn’t stop staring at her hair. Sure, it had been there all along, but here in the brutal reaches of the bush it seemed transfigured. Her hair was dark like October rain, thick and black and taunting. I wanted to dive into it…

-What are you staring at? she asked.
-Nothing, it’s just your hair, I stammered.

She laughed and put a hand on my shoulder. I wanted to kick myself.
-Come on, she said, you’ve got to show me around this place.

I turned around and we started walking down the trail to my compound. Had it really been 10 months since I last saw her? It would be like starting all over again, here in the bush. I took a deep breath.

-How long were you planning on staying?

St. Tropez (Alisa)

“Behind every disaster and tragedy in history there is a long-lashed, dark-haired woman,” he said, and then he poured himself another glass of anisette.

She rolled her eyes, thinking their situation was far from a disaster. It was just like him to exaggerate. As she sucked on the rim of her own glass, she hoped that this helping (his sixth) would finally calm him down. Perhaps he’d even take a nap. Oh, to be so lucky. She needed her hands free to clean up the place and make a few phone calls, the most important being to Papa Paulo who was a magician at erasing the past. It just so happened he owed her one.

She glanced over her shoulder and saw him flop down on the wicker loveseat, his eyes closed, smiling. The smoky liquid in the drink he was still holding teetered over the edge and dribbled onto his dusty khaki shirt. She had the urge to run and get a towel but stopped herself. Instead, she bent over and picked up the palm-tree patterned pillow he had thrown at her just 20 minutes earlier and gently placed it under his head. There was a part of her that loved the way he exaggerated, his penchant for the dramatic, the mystery, the wonder in his eyes.

The Kibuye Letters

So, here I am by myself in this enormous guesthouse overlooking the lake.  It is extremely clean with new furniture, but feels a bit like a mausoleum.  I could be the first person that has ever stayed here; there is so little trace of this house having been lived in.  The guesthouse is in the town of Kibuye, the camp is in Kiziba, which is about a 40 minute drive from town.

Kiziba is a bit of a fever dream to visit, with its permanent fog and hazy view of Lake Kivu.  The lake here has a Mobius strip coastline, sharply rising into green terraced hills.  There are a host of small islands, none of which look particularly inhabited, dripping off of the shore.

The road from Kibuye up to Kiziba is carved like a wound into the side of the hills; it is a coarse, bumpy road that still manages to provide a spectacular view with every twist and turn.

When one approaches the camp, the first thing that hits you is the strong smell of eucalyptus, mixed alternatively with wood smoke or goat manure.  There is eucalyptus everywhere, both in its standing planted form and chopped into poles and branches for building and fire, the only two things humankind has ever wanted from a tree.  The shaved bark surface of the eucalyptus gives it texture and depth, light tans mingling with ashy grays, the kelly green leaves flapping in the wind or laying listlessly on the ground in defeat, slowing turning bronze.

Kiziba has actually expanded from the last time I saw it.  When I was here in 2013, you turned a corner on the road and beheld the camp as a large mass of off-white shelter roofs crowning a hilltop.  Now, those shelter roofs extend down the side of the hill, almost reaching the valley.  The road is in a bit better condition, the surrounding agriculture appears a bit more organized.  You enter the camp through the high mists and clouds, the hard-packed dirt road scarred a thousand times with ruts and rivulets.  Past the ARC office is the central boulevard of the camp, lined with mud-and-stick buildings bearing hastily-crafted signs for various businesses.  There is even a ferry agency where you can buy a ticket to take a boat across Lake Kivu.  I stumble along with Gustave and Gentil among the steady stream of Congolese people.  There are lots of children, but also lots of older people walking with sticks, the men in leather cowboy hats and the women in tattered pagne headscarves.  We arrive at the big central market, where women sell small piles of tomatoes and pale eggplant off of torn raffia sacks.  I find one woman who is from Fizi Territory, and we manage to hold a brief conversation in Kifulero and Kibembe, two of the peculiar languages of South Kivu.  I buy some avocadoes and tomatoes (later I give them to the housekeeper to take home to her family), and we move on.

Gustave and Gentil divert us from the main road into the narrow corridors between shelters to inspect some roofing transformations.  The passage is so narrow that it only allows one person at a time between houses, past dark doorways and through puddles of mud.  The only way one does not become completely lost is by following the slope of the hill, which is what we do until we find open space and a road at the bottom of the camp.  Beyond us, there are sorghum fields and churches, beyond the confines of the camp.  The lake still appears as a gray, dreamlike band in the distance.  Beyond it lies Congo, its crocodile and okapi mystique obscuring the mokele-mbembe calling to our souls.

We wander back up the hill, past the old school buildings now barricaded and rusting, past the gleaming new brick-and-blue-paint schools, past the samurai castle walls holding back the hillside, past groups of men sitting on tree roots, past houses with rusting tin doors fashioned out of flattened USAID vegetable oil cans, back towards the neural center of the camp.

Gustave and Gentil take me to a long mud house, where an Oromo man called “Cappuccino” runs a business selling spicy tangawizi (ginger) tea, coffee, Fanta, and chapatti.  The tangawizi tea is so strong it gives me hiccups; the fluffy, warm chapatti was baked this morning and is stored in enormous black plastic containers that resemble 1960s undersea exploration submersibles.  There are gargantuan thermoses full of hot water lining the wall, and somehow a satellite TV perched on several Fanta crates showing a cycling race in Italy.  Mr. Cappuccino has been in Kiziba for 6 years, knows very little Kinyarwanda, but seems to manage with Kiswahili and a little English.

After finishing the tea, we go back to the office, which overlooks the basketball courts built a long time ago.  All the ARC logos with strange acronyms I have never heard of before, in curving fonts I have never seen before, make me feel like I have wandered back in time somehow, back when some longer-haired version of me was falling head over heels for a girl like you, except you were wearing a paisley-print dress and drove a Chevy Nova instead of a CRV.  Gustave and I finish up work to the noise of children on the basketball court.  On one side, a group of young boys play soccer.  On the left side, a group of adolescent girls play basketball.  The backboard has “ARC” written on it in big, green letters.

I think about you all the way back to Kibuye, the Land Cruiser packed to the maximum with all the staff going home for the evening.

Right now, I am listening to my favorite evening-in-the-field album (Rudiger Oppermann and Malamini Jobarteh, “Same Sun, Same Moon”), and trying to figure out how I am going to shower and slip into bed.