Monrovia

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.

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Mid-Century Modern

There was perhaps another time before this, when we both found ourselves stuck in a small town on a lake, the Studebaker overheated and broken down until down.  We were on our way to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, for a wedding, but now found ourselves delayed in a place that barely deserved a name.  The roadside motel we lodged in advertised a television in every room, but the Admiral set in ours remained switched off as we laid out suitcases on one bed and studied the faux wood paneling on the wall.  The room felt too small after long hours driving down the highway, so we head down the street to the 24 hour diner (Plato’s).  It is surprisingly busy at this late hour, the waitress craning her head towards the back to see if a booth is open.  The rotund Greek behind the counter in the paper hat, presumably the owner, resembles Pan a bit, with a little sleepy Hades mixed in for dark effect.  Nonetheless, the black and white tile floor is clean, the seabreeze green Formica table of the booth is sparkling, the tableside jukebox is shiny and polished.

The day was spent driving through cacti-pocked desert that turned into alfalfa fields, so we feel ready for a chocolate shake and a cherry phosphate.  You pick out some Eddie Cochrane on the jukebox, and we hold hands while we debate how to make up the lost time tomorrow.  I look out the window and study the cars in the gravel lot: a few old Ford pickups, a Thunderbird, and a Galaxy.  It is a Ford town, I mumble.  You shake your ponytail to the beat of the song, and it ends right when our refreshing confections arrive.

Hmmm, meatloaf sandwich? I inquire, looking at the menu.

Nope, you respond after a slurp of your chocolate shake.

We linger for a bit, then wander back to the motel to shower and turn out the lights.  Headlights illuminate the drapes throughout the night.

The next morning, I walk to the garage next door and recover the Studebaker.  We load up the suitcases in the trunk, grab a cup of coffee from Plato’s, and drive out of town past the lake.

We get to Carlisle just before the rehearsal dinner, but manage to climb into our semi-formal attire beforehand and arrive with fresh smiles on our faces.  It is good to see old friends, the ballroom where the reception is held is coral pink, the band’s tuxedos are blindingly white.

However, it still feels good when we roll home a few days later, unpack the suitcases, and collapse into bed.  We wake up late the next day.  Fortunately, it is a Saturday, with warm ocean breezes through the open bedroom window.

Tiki bar or bowling alley?  you inquire.

Why not both? I respond, and then roll out of bed for a shower and a shave.

However, before all of that cosmic amusement, we need to climb on the bicycles and ride for the hills. I close the garage door as you fix your sunglasses on your face, and we roll down the asphalt until we get to the Las Cruces Mountain Trail.  The pine wrens fly above our heads as we sweat and pedal our way to the top of the hill, your polka-dot scarf holding up your hair, your thighs in denim shorts glistening with sweat.  At the top of the hill, we behold the Pacific Ocean and the winding ribbon of highway below, a solitary black Lincoln nosing through the curves

Race you to the bottom? I inquire.

Nope, you respond with a shake of your head.

I set out down the hill, working my brakes as I round the corners and brush past the dogwood branches.  Halfway to the bottom, I hear a rushing sound, turn my head, and see a blurred figure in denim shorts rush past me.

WOOOOOO, I WIN! you shout, your fine rear end racing away from me.

Once I get to the bottom, you are inspecting a grease stain on your cheek, just below your eye, using your pocket compact mirror.

I’m better than you, you snicker.

I respond with a rockabilly growl, and we coast back home on the asphalt, laughing.

Once home, we drink iced tea with lemon and read paperbacks on the patio, the sweat drying in the breeze.  Your paperback is called THE BEEKEEPER’S DAUGHTER, mine is titled LAST STAND ON NEPTUNE.  You rest your feet on my legs, and I gently massage your thighs between turning pages.  The pitcher of tea finished, we go inside for a steamy shower.  You get in first, and I decide I don’t feel like waiting.  I open the frosted glass door to behold your figure like a shot of tequila with lime.

May I join you? I inquire.

Yup, you respond.

After the shower, we have to pick out which tiki bar to go to (Tiki Atomic or Natalie Zea’s) and which bowling alley to lace up at (Airport Bowl or Laguna Lanes).  However, for now, we have a moment where we can find each other in this little cabin of steam, speaking in the poetry of touches and kisses, finding the center of the universe in your body and mine.

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.

Mawlamyaing Stories, Part II

20 observations from Burma:

  • I don’t think I was ever out of sight of a pagoda once we left Yangon.  There is literally a pagoda every few feet, some tiny, some enormous.  Some are next to rice paddies, some are on the tops of mountains.

 

  • In Yangon, I began seeing people wearing t-shirts with swastikas on them, and I thought “oh, Indian symbol”.  Then, I began seeing more and more people with t-shirts that just said NAZI on them.  Hmmmm…

 

  • Mawlamyaing used to have a big Anglo community, and it is clear from all the old churches and colonial-style buildings.  Still, it feels like a city that is slowly disappearing back into the jungle.  The sunset over the river was stunning.

 

  • Myanmar smells like a mixture of incense, fried noodles, sewage, and sandalwood.

 

  • Mawlamyaing is derived from the Mon words for “damaged eye”, because a king lost sight in his powerful eye many years ago.  Rice demons, dragon pythons, and giant, rampaging tigers.

 

  • There are 3 animals I see represented everywhere in Myanmar: the Chinde (mythical lion that guards pagodas), the Hamsa (mythical bird that is somewhere between a peacock and a chicken), and the Elephant (not mythical actually, just an animal that the emperor used to execute people by stomping).

 

  • You will see (mostly) women walking around with what appears to be a golden paste smeared on their cheeks.  This paste, called thanaka, is supposed to be cooling and rejuvenating on the skin, like sunscreen and clearasil all wrapped into one.  You make thanaka by grinding a certain tree branch on a stone, mix with water, and apply the paste to the skin.  I find it to be the most distinctive thing that I see everyday Burmese people doing, and I kind of want to try it myself.

 

  • I find the best way to wear my longyi (the man-skirt) is to wear it with my gym shorts underneath; this way I still have some hidden pockets to keep my passport/wallet in.

 

  • There is somebody frying something (rice, vegetables, noodles, etc) next to a bunch of tables/chairs about every 10 feet in Myanmar.

 

  • The Burmese countryside from Yangon to Mawlamyaing is quite stunning, filled with jungles, towns, mountains, rubber plantations, and ricepaddies.  Dr. Aye Aye (who used to work for IOM) told me about the migration cycles, where people from Mon and Taninthiaryi regions migrate to Thailand for work (where they can earn more), and people from the poorer, less agriculturally-rich regions of Burma migrate down to work in the rubber plantations and rice paddies.  They come from areas where malaria is not endemic, and therefore they lack the knowledge to prevent malaria.  Hence, our work in these regions with migrant workers.

 

  • I went to the pagoda at the top of the hill for a short visit, and prayed in front of the Jade Buddha.  Dr. Nant and Nang, however, after praying, got really excited about a animatronic singing, dancing kitten at a merchandise booth inside the pagoda.  Very interesting.

 

  • There seems to be a nice park/garden wherever I go in either Yangon or Mawlamyaing, and they are all filled with teenage couples sitting or walking together, sometimes under trees where they make out in a surprisingly chaste manner.

 

  • Speaking of feeling randy, the ancient artwork that you see reproduced everywhere is very sensual, featuring dancing and courtship, usually involving curvaceous, scantily-clad figures.  It seems like every range of emotion is captured in the frescoes, tapestries, and sculpture.  This is a bit incongruous with every day Burmese life that I see; it seems that the culture has lost something along the way.

 

  • Mawlamyaing sits at the mouth of the Thanlwin river, which starts somewhere in China.  According to Kotou (the driver), I could take a boat here all the way into China.

 

  • Apparently, the Karen have about 15 different sub-ethnic groups with 15 different languages, and none of them really sound alike.

 

  • Before bed, I have been reading up on Burma’s martial history, which is quite extensive.  The Kingdoms of Burma have been invaded or fought with the Mongols, the Chinese, Siam, and finally fell to the British in the 1800s.  Apparently, the British are the ones who looted Shwedagon Pagoda upon picking apart the fading Konbaung Dynasty.  Asshats.

 

  • Tonight, I went on a walk along the river, managed to climb on a few boats and attempt to talk to the sailors.  The boats are like something out of “Apocalypse Now”, and each one has a Buddha shrine in the pilot house.  There were a few times I felt like they were going to stuff me in the hold and sell me somewhere up the river.

 

  • I went to Hpa-an today to look over several properties that we may rent as offices.  Hpa-an is the capital of Karen State, and the countryside is made of up rice paddies punctuated with sheer-sided mountains.  Absolutely stunning.  At one point I observed a rooster running across a dry paddy, and I thought to myself, heh, chicken and rice, delicious.

 

  • I have kind of found my “place” for a quick dinner in Mawlamyaing, a little outdoor establishment run by an ethnic Chinese Muslim and a bunch of teenage boys as servers.  They have yummy, spicy prawns for very cheap, and it is a pretty clean joint compared to some of the other places I’ve seen.

 

  • I feel like I am rotting away from the inside, but that seems to be the condition of everything in this humid land.

Mawlamyaing Stories, Part I

Querida,

I hope you are well.  Outside on the balcony, I can see the pagoda on the mountain all lit up against the indigo sky.

I met two very different gentlemen tonight as I took a walk down by the river, and had interesting conversations with both of them.  In Myanmar, often people will say “hello” and then ask “which country do you come from”?  This is what happened when I met Mr. Kye Win, who told me he owned several shops in the marketplace.  He spoke very good English, and was eager to share about Mawlamyaing and the area around it.

Mr. Kye Win kind of looked like an older schoolteacher, and he certainly had lots of stories to tell.  He told me about a graveyard close toMawlamyaing where they buried the POWs that worked on the Japanese railway during World War II.  During World War II, the Japanese tried building a railroad to connect Burma and Thailand, and thousands of POWs and conscripted locals died in the process, something like 80,000 people total.  The Japanese wanted to connect Southeast Asia for their planned conquest of India.  I have read up a bit on WWII in the Burma Theatre, and it is quite sad and interesting.  The American military sent a commando force (known as Merrill’s Marauders) into Burma to disrupt the Japanese military, which is another interesting story.

Kye Win also told me more about the Thalwin river that flows past Mawlamyaing.  It originates high up in the mountains of Tibet, passes through China, Thailand, and Myanmar before it reaches the ocean.  It is a river of many names: Thanlwin in Burmese, San Lon in the Mon language, Nu Jiang in Chinese, Nam Kong in the Shan language, Salawin in Thai, and Gyalmo Ngulchu in Tibetan.  In Mawlamyaing, it is only 30 km from the ocean, and thus it is broad and impassive as it flows past the city.

Kye Win recounted a story about the Siamese and Burmese empires, which at one point occupied opposite sides of the river at Mawlamyaing.  They tried having a contest to see who could erect a tall pagoda faster.  When the Burmese king saw that he would probably lose, he instructed his builders to build a fake temple out of scaffolding and white painted canvass, so it appeared a pagoda was built overnight.  The Siamese, looking at the fake pagoda across the river, believed they had been beaten and thus retreated, giving over the territory to the Burmese.  There was also a Mon king of Mawlamyaing who had a powerful third eye on the back of his head, so he was able to see any danger that approached from behind.

There is an island in the river called “Shampoo Island”.  Kye Win told me that long ago, upon instructions from an oracle, a king fetched water from a spring on this island and washed his hair with it, and then defeated his enemies in battle.  Since then, all the Mon Kings would wash their hair from this spring before going into battle.  I wonder if the Mon Kings also used Aveda shampoo…

I really enjoyed talking to Mr. Kye Win, he had interesting stories and was very friendly.  I bid him farewell; he said to come back tomorrow if I wanted to talk more, as he sat at that spot by the river each evening to take in the air.

As I walked back down the river, a man with long hair and wearing a dirty shirt and longyi said “hello” and asked me which country I was from.  He was smoking a cheroot, and when he found out I was from the USA he proceeded to tell me about all the countries he had visited as a sailor, when he was a younger man.  He told me his name was Mr. Lwin.

Mr. Lwin listed off the countries of the world he had been to: the USA, Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, India, South Africa, Morocco, Kuwait, Russia, and Germany.  He said he left the life at sea because it was work 24 hours a day in rough weather at sea.  The sea journeys to the US would take a month.  He mentioned 4 places in the USA he had been to:  Houston, Mobile, Chickasaw, and Albany.  These are all cities/towns in Alabama on the Gulf of Mexico, and it is an interesting mental picture to imagine a Burmese sailor from Mawlamyaing being in this hot, humid port cities.  For Mr. Lwin, his favorite country is the Philippines, because of the “muchas senoritas”, because the girls there will even do your laundry for you, “very cheap”.  He did not like Russia because he got searched too many times, and Kuwait had bad weather, rough seas, and too many ships trying to get through a small place.  He also did not like India and South Africa because of too many beggars, and he was once robbed in Morocco so he did not have a good impression of that place either.  Mr. Lwin says that he left his life at sea to become an engineer, and hopefully that has agreed with him much more.  I bid Mr. Lwin farewell and continued on to find my favorite noodle shop.

I wish I could find words to describe the sunset I saw over the river tonight.  I will save that for another time.  I am heading out to the bush tomorrow, and I don’t think I will have internet access until next Tuesday.  There is so much more I could write about Mawlamyaing.  I have visited Bagan, seen the desolate and mystical landscape of temples, yet this city is still my favorite spot, my Burmese lover, if you will.  There is something rather intimate about it, it rains unpredictably, and the river is always there for a pleasant walk.  The pagodas are ancient and beautiful, and it is not as busy as Yangon or touristy as Bagan.