Friday, February 01, 2008

I Tell Myself Lies, Lies, and More Lies

Have you ever tried to imagine the color of a smell? If you've watched that movie about the life of Helen Keller (a better writer would be looking up the name of the movie, but I'm on an abacus of a computer), you'll remember that scene where Keller's teacher puts a burning hot pan on her hand very briefly and explains that that sensation is the color red. In Africa, it's not sensations that describes colors, but powerful smells.

As we drove from Tanzania over the Malawi border, we crossed lush tea plantations, leaves heavy with rain, mist rising from the craggy and moody hillsides. It smelled dark green. Young boys and women on rickety bikes pedaled up the hillside with long reeds of straw strapped across the back of their bikes. "Hello, muzungu!" shouted the children by the roadside, greeting the "ghosts" as we waved from the bus. They ran from their thatched mud houses and smoldering smoky fires that they were attending. The smell was all dark brown and shades of grey.

Our caravan stopped for lunch on the side of the road next to one of the tea plantations. A tiny dirt road led from the main road to a village school. A sign advertising the school urged anyone who could read to "Fight Ignorance!" Four little local boys watched us eat our lunch of olive-flavored bologna, stale bread, and salad and laughed as we offered them the salad. Apparently they, too, know what dangers fresh vegetables bring.

"I think I've caught your diarrhea bug," George the guide said to the group. I pondered the nature of the word "caught" which specifically indicated to me that George the guide was abdicating any responsibility for the source of the illness, namely the food, and was instead suggesting that there was a flu going around. Never mind no one had a fever, and the one person who hadn't eaten vegetables was fine (me!). One of the Australians in our group offered the little local boys a tiny stuffed koala. She taught them how to pronounce it, "Kohh-ahhh-lahhh," and they erupted in shrieks of laughter. We packed our lunch dishes just as it began to heavily rain, and made our way for the Malawi border crossing.

Although we were instructed to not take any photos at the border, a friendly hello from a blonde woman seemed to get me what I wanted, which was a picture of the "Welcome to Malawi" traffic sign. As I returned to our truck to meet the group, a young boy selling soda, about 12 or 13 years old, was sobbing. His boss or father was ridiculing him for crying. I felt so sad looking at him that I bought him an orange Fanta, and he stopped crying immediately. A woman (his mother? boss?) praised him, making me wonder if I'd been set up. But just to see him stop crying was relief enough. His father tried to sell us more bootlegged cold drinks, but was caught by a border guard who chased him off attempting to beat him with a large wooden stick. The guard missed his backside with the stick, but did manage to steal the case of orange Fanta. The guard helped himself to a cold soda and smirked at the father and son who now had nothing to sell. At least the little boy finally did have something to cry about.

Chitimba Camp in the Chitimba Village is owned by a Dutch couple who emigrated from Holland to Malawi in January. They are renowned for their not-warm beer and their generator which works every afternoon. As I unpacked in my wooden hut, I noticed an absolutely enormous blue and red centipede on my porch. My throat went dry, my intestines tightened. "It's just a sweet little caterpillar," said I to my intestines. Having overcome that mental hurdle, I made straight for the bar where I ordered a not-warm local beer called Kuche Kuche, which has a hint of maple flavor and is "likable enough", in the words of Barack Obama. I sipped it, contemplating how much bigger everything else could be if a centipede was the size of my hand. I'd soon find out.

"And the parasite swam up into his willy, attached its claws to the sides if his urethra, and ix-ploded!" I'd walked into a conversation I wished I hadn't. "The doctors had to slice his penis open and remove the leetle feller." I wanted to walk out of the conversation that I'd walked into. But I was hungry and dinner was being served. I poured myself a bowl of delicious beef stew and tried to concentrate on eating while the group discussed the various types of parasites one can catch while traveling.

I made my excuses and headed off to the bar for a shot of coconut rum before bed. I needed to actually sedate myself in preparation for sharing my room with countless local creatures. At the bar, a couple of local Malawians were discussing in English the ubiquitous presence of snakes. In fact, they marveled, they'd just caught a pair of deadly mambo snakes!

"What," I quavered as I asked, "does one do when one wakes up and is staring at a mambo snake in one of these huts?"

"Well," the local man said, "Ask him to pay the bill for your room."

I unraveled my mosquito net, sprayed the exterior with industrial strength DEET, and gingerly stepped inside. As I peered out of my cocoon with my flashlight, an enormous bulbous cockroach ambled by. "No no that's not a cockroach I told myself, it's just an exotic beetle." Somehow beetles were better than cockroaches, and caterpillars were more palatable than centipedes. I laid down, slept a fitful sweaty sleep, dreamed of tarantulas, and woke up at 4am. I gave up on getting any more rest, crawled out of my bed, turned on my flashlight, and promptly dropped and broke it. I was now alone in the pitch black with all the local creatures in the heart of darkness.

Stay tuned tomorrow for my adventures with the fishermen, with a couple of woodcarvers and a farmer named "Richard Nixon, Mr Sweet Tokka, and Vin D Zo". And I discover the color red in a very unexpected way...


Meg said...

I love living vicariously through you. So glad you are traveling, great writing - I am thoroughly enjoying reading.

hamsterpenis said...

I think the colour of the smell in the minicab I just took to work this morning was...brown.