Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Gifting to the Gods

Wishes...hopes....troubles.....the animal world and their spirits are a medium to communicate with the Gods.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Dogondoutchi and the Goat--Part 2

So..as you can imagine..going back to Dogondoutchie..and staying in that hotel for one more night...as we headed down to Benin and Togo...was not something most of us looked forward to....in fact, I believe I asked Susan, the trip leader, if I could sleep outside of the room in my sleeping bag....I was that anxious....about the darkness and the TICKS and CLINKS and especially that big metal door.
When we arrived, I reluctantly put my stuff in my room. I was surprised, as my big dusty duffel bag hit the bed,.....the place didn't quite look as bad as it did the first time around..and having been through hot nights in a tent, paranoid nights on the sand..and hotel rooms where large hairy spiders fell from the ceiling....well...as I said...it didn't quite look as bad.....although the door remained ominous.
It was dinner time..so I walked over to the outdoor tavern and restaurant across the street. I carefully maneuvered around a mangy dog lying in the road, piles of trash and few large potholes. Once you entered through the arched mud doorway in a wall...there was a courtyard with a TV on a stand and a few folks sitting around it in their lawn chairs..there was a covered area in the back...with old metal chairs which is where my group was sitting. I ordered quail and couscous....for dinner and even ordered a beer. I don't drink beer but it was ice cold and the dryness and slight bitter taste seemed more refreshing than a sweet soda. Sodas bottled in Africa ....Fanta, Coke, .....all have higher sugar contents than their European counterparts.
Before dinner arrived, Alberto announced a surprise....he had checked around and found there was a fetish/voodoo ceremony in the works for tonight in town. He said....that although Niger was a Muslim country....in border areas like this...there were always groups of people who had stuck to traditional ways or who had moved into the area from places like Benin and Togo...where traditional religions like Voodoo had a large following.
After dinner, we piled into the cars again....and rode down the dark dirt streets...it wasn't very far away..you could hear the drums beating loud and rhythmically from someplace in the darkness.
We entered a large courtyard..where there was quite a crowd gathered....when my eyes acclimated to the dim light. I scowled.....there were 12 white plastic lawn chairs....the same cheapy ones you get at Wal-Mart.....arranged in a line facing the musicians. I never liked arriving at ceremonies were they expected us....it always made me think Alberto had paid them to hold the ceremony and we were not dropping in to the festivities.....but rather it was being put on for us.
I sat down in one of the chairs.....kids of various ages were standing behind us.. a few scrawny old men on the perimeter regularly charged the kids.....motioning them to step back from the chairs. I guess they didn't want them pressing down upon us....but it made me feel this was even more of a show than I wanted to believe it was......
No matter what feelings I was having .....they all seemed to be siphoned away when the drums restarted..there were three men..kneeling in the dirt.....with the weight of their bodies resting on their heels....in each hand they had a short small narrow fan of twigs..and each of them was beating a large upside down calabash bowl which was directly in front of them.......
The dirt had been raised underneath the calabashes which helped the acoustics.. the gourd drums had a surprisingly rich deep tone....with a touch of scratchiness from the twigs and a touch of hollowness ..the drum beat was powerful and loud..... you could feel the sound resonate in your chest....you could feel the beat inside you....dominating your heart and soul. I was amazed at the power of that feeling ...at the depth it sunk into you.....you couldn't help but become one with the music.
The musician's arms seemed to move with supernatural speed...their black arms and faces glistened with sweat.... and in the midst of this intensity...this heat....small flower petals.....from the enormous honey locust tree they were sitting under....drifted down from the sky....looking like soft lazy gray snowflakes
After a while, older women..moved from the edges of the courtyard..and stepped in front of the musicians....to dance....one at a time...although many of them were large women...their feet flat and wide and disfigured with age....they managed quick intricate steps...to the beat of the music.
A pattern started to emerge ....a woman would step in front of the musicians....dance.for a few minutes then the drums would beat faster and faster.....the woman would move forward towards the drum....challenged to keep up with the beat.. these large beautiful black women...in long colorful skirts and puffy white blouses...would meet the challenge with unwavering composure and lightening steps and twirls....they made it look easy.....
At one point, a few of the women pulled members of our group into the challenge .Ed was first and did surprisingly well for a white guy you would have assumed had no rhythm......Lucy, of course, Lucy was in heaven....being at the center of attention....and jumped and twirled .....and then me..ohhhhhhhhh..... I was totally aware of everyone's eyes on me.....and felt uneasy....but I pounded my feet in the red dirt and twirled as fast as I could.....and still the woman next to me......who was .perhaps in her sixties.....moved faster than I did......
I walked like a drunk back to my chair....still spinning ....and out of balance. The woman moved away from the musicians....and a young man....leap in front of the drums and started to twirl and spin. His eyes were focused and intense but he didn't seem to be looking at anyone or anything in the courtyard.... he started to speak in tongues and saliva ran from the center of his mouth down his chin as he would dash into the crowd and then at the last minute pull away before crashing into someone.
A short thin elderly man grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the chair again and then pulled Lucy and Alberto. I thought he wanted us to dance but instead he lined us up in front of the musicians....and indicated we should kneel..ohhhh I had bad feeling about this......
The three of us knelt down and the Trance man.....danced around us ...suddenly the elderly man pulled Alberto up and said something to him....he grabbed Lucy's hand...and she grabbed my hand.....the old man and another man led us away from the musicians to the back of the courtyard.....now I was getting a full bad feeling alert....
we were leaving the courtyard going into the darkness....somewhere back back back...out sight of the crowd..
The men turned and led us into a small dark room that seemed to be the entrance to house. Truly it was no bigger than a pantry or a closet .....they told us to kneel in the darkness..one of them fetched a dim flashlight and turned a large morter upside down in the dirt. Trance man entered the room..wild..sweating....glassy-eyed.....saliva pouring down his chin. One of the men pushed him to sit down on the morter and held him in place ...a musician with a middle eastern fiddle came into the room.....there were now....seven of us...crammed into the tiny room...trance man..two assistants and the musician ....and the three of us...the heat was staggering. ....literally rivers of sweat rolled down my face and down my back....my knees were starting to ache from kneeling on the hard dirt...and although the drums were silent.....trust me my heart was beating just as fast and loud as they had been in the courtyard.
It was getting harder to breathe...it seemed like all the oxygen in the room was used up..I wasn't too fond of Lucy at this point in the trip.....but I instinctively grabbed her hand and held on tight. I kept thinking about blood---blood letting....blood pouring....blood sprinkling.....was a sacrifice going to be made? Hopefully none of our blood was going to be needed..... Trance man suddenly started shouting and consequently spitting....with the force of his words....at first the assistants didn't say or interpret things for us. I had no idea what he wanted...by the light of the dim flashlight I could also see Alberto looked uncomfortable which increased my heart rate ten fold.....and my grasp on Lucy's hand.
Finally one of the assistants bent over and spoke....a wish.....a wish can be granted.....do any of you have a wish?....I was immediately relieved that blood letting and decapitation was not part of the question.
A wish
Well.....I know this may sound a bit odd.... but I went to Africa....I had a couple of wishes prepared....I knew I would see shooting stars in the desert...and I knew the landscape of Africa had magic....I wasn't going to be unprepared for lucky events. I had packed three wishes..and tucked them in my memory.
I leaned forward and in rough French told the assistant my wish.
I felt energized for a moment....unafraid.....clear and lucid....Trance man was quiet and leaning forward to listen.....then the assistant straightened up.....there was this moment of tension...of waiting.....
The assistant starting talking to the other assistant...Trance man jumped up and raced out the door.....Oh great now what have I done....I mean really it wasn't such a bad wish.
The three of us remained kneeling. Lucy whispered she was going to faint soon . Alberto had huge sweat marks on his shirt over his chest, back, and armpits.....Trance man suddenly reappeared.....with help from the assistants they forced him down to sit again.
We need an offering of a chicken for the wish
I didn't have any money. I whispered to Alberto who had his money belt on...How much does a chicken cost? Can I borrow some money?
Alberto unzipped his money belt and handed me 4CFA...which I handed to the assistant.
The second assistant......shown the flashlight on the two bills.....and held them above Trance man's head.......
I thought everything was fine.....until the assistant leaned over and in quick French started talking.......
Alberto translates.....your wish needs more power than a chicken....they will need to sacrifice a goat for your wish.
Sacrifice a goat!.. this was serious now....a chicken didn't seem serious....but a goat did....I wondered if they were going to make me sacrifice the goat out in the courtyard or even here in the room....sacrifice was common in voodoo ceremonies....and then I felt a rush of guilt....were they really going to kill a goat to communicate my wish to the gods?
I wanted to leap up and head out the door too...just like Trance man had done......this was too complicated to think about especially with my back hurt from kneeling....stale air....and every piece of clothing uncomfortable and soaked in sweat......
How much for a goat? I heard myself ask Alberto....there was a flurry of talk between him and the assistants.....but a part of me wasn't really sure I had spoken at all....or was I just thinking this.....
"12 CFA," said the assistant.
Alberto unzipped his money belt and pulled out a few more bills. He handed them to me....and again I handed them to the assistant.
Trance man now leaned over and pawed at the dirt floor....he found a few tiny rocks....made a circle with his finger in the dirt and and placed the rocks inside...he spoke to all three of us...he face was so close....he spit while he talked...interrupting that river of saliva that still flowed from his mouth.
Yyou go home and bathe tonight....you wash with the rocks....it will make you .think..be smart....the other assistant reached over him and with great precision picked up two rocks for each of us,,,and put them in a small piece of paper and folded it over to make a tiny envelope. He gathered shavings that smelled like a combination of sandalwood and lavender....and placed them on a small square of plastic and then folded all of this into a square ..and handed it to us..Trance man jumped up from his wooden seat and left..Assistant indicated we could stand up.....we were still holding hands.
We walked out of the little room. Alberto whispered to us....look serious...don't laugh...or smile. I guess that would have been an insult to the people we had been with.
It was obvious that the ceremony had ended...the musicians had stopped playing.....the courtyard was half empty....many folks in our group had headed back in the cars already....it felt so anti climatic....I was relieved not to see or hear.... a goat.
I wondered if they would really sacrifice a goat for my wish... I read that in many African ceremonies...an animal was never just killed for the sake of killing....if an animal was killed it was then used as both food and a vehicle of communication with the gods...so perhaps my wish would be tacked on to a practical need for some part of the community.....a need for a goat for a celebration or festival.
As far as my wish.....well it hasn't come true yet.....but I'll know soon enough.....
Oh and by the way....I didn't want to take any chances....I got back to my hotel room....needed a shower after the experience.....and washed with my two rocks.......why chance it?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Paying For Your Wishes--Dogondoutchi and the Goat--Part 1

Dogondoutchi. I love that name....it sounds African and exotic and lyrical.
Dogondoutchi..a name you could throw around at a hip cocktail party....I bought a lovely pair of hand carved masks in Dogondoutchi. I stayed several days and relaxed in Dogondoutchi.
Unfortunately, the only thing lyrical about Dogondoutchi is....well you guessed it...its name. Although Lonely Planet describes this as a pleasant town....I am not sure where the pleasant comes in although it's obviously a town.
On our trip, we stayed twice in Dogondoutchi....which is in the southern part of Niger...it's still savannah here....although shortly after you leave Dogondoutchi....the number of bushes and trees slowly and consistently multiply until by the time you reach Benin....perhaps a 4 hour drive.....you're shocked by the intensity and abundance of the green....especially after living in a sea of tan for weeks.
I am not sure of the name of the hotel we stayed at....whatever the official name was.....it should have been named "The Solitary Confinement Hotel," because if you ever wanted to try out a cell block..this was the place.
I don't think the hotel was very old, in fact, I think it was recently built. You passed a steel gate in a reddish brown tall mud wall and entered a parking lot. Beyond that, there were two rectangular buildings in perpendicular alignment. Between these two rectangles was a cement sidewalk. In an effort I assume to soften the atmosphere.....Bamboo was planted on each side of the walk creating a green tunnel. Every 10 feet or so.....there would be a path from the central sidewalk to a reddish steel door placed in grey cement cinderblocks.
The door was enormous.....at least 7-8 feet high.....and come to think of it.....they were probably the same type of steel doors in the mud walls at the entrance. The door was heavy and there was almost an Adams Family type feeling you felt as you pulled on this heavy metal door to get inside your room. It creaked too..so you sort of half expected Frankenstein or one of relatives to greet you.
Once you managed to get into your room....you found the switch for the one florescent light in the ceiling. The one thing I will always associate Africa with is the blue-ish gray florescent light that was ubiquitous at night. In every room... in every hotel...in every restaurant...its pale gray seemed to remind you this was a modern western invention which was cold and unnatural.
The room itself was clean but bare; there was a swirled brown and white colored tiled floor, a sink, a double bed, and a bathroom which consisted of a toilet and a shower. In Africa, you rarely have shower curtains. Instead, the floor was dropped a few inches and a drain was there so that became your shower area. There was also one picture....and one utilitarian black and white clock....on the wall....at the juncture of the ceiling and the wall. It puzzled me why these items were so high up....(the ceiling was at least 10 or more feet high)..my best guess.....theft deterrent. There were no chairs......so if you were going to steal the clock or the picture, you'd have to be either very tall or able to jump very high.
There were no windows in the room....and there was an air conditioner in the wall. The air conditioner was essential since there wasn't any other ventilation and it basically determined if and how much you slept......if you were lucky you had a moderate amount of cool air.....and only an occasional thump of the fan.....in my first room in Dogondoutchi.....I had an air conditioner that was possessed by jinns (unhappy spirits).....it thumped....it groaned... it gnashed its own metal gears.....and generally allowed me to sleep only in 30 minute increments.....I know this......because that big fricking clock on the wall....ticked so loud .....it was the equivalent of some type of audio torture....TICK.....TICK....TICK..TICK......TICK.....
When you turned out the light it was pitch black....no nite light...no outlet to plug anything into....and the door.....the door became scary.....African locks in doors are different that the ones we are used to....yes...there are normal looking keys.....but here there is a double lock system....you turn the key once and then you turn it again.....as it engages two mechanisms....you can't get out until you have opened both mechanisms....and if you don't do it right....you can just keep spinning and spinning your key in the lock and getting nowhere....because you door won't open. I never mastered the African lock.....if I got into my room it was sheer luck or because someone helped me..my African paranoia delighted in this little situation.....it was perfect for scaring yourself silly.....What if I needed to get out? What if there was a fire?......I ended up often not locking my door at night.....figuring I would take my chances versus being locked into my room with no hope of getting out.
Also the bedspread looked funky and there were no sheets..so I guess you were supposed to lie on the bedspread? I just placed my sleeping bag on top of the bed.....snuggled in.....held my flashlight in a death grip on my chest.... tried not to think of the door......closed my eyes and listened to the TICK TICK TICK and the CLINK CLINK CLINK of metal in the air conditioner.
By morning....if I had any secrets....I'd tell anybody who opened the big metal door ...everything....anything.....just get me out of here!!!!!!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Saturday, November 18, 2006

My Hips Don't Lie....Finding My Middle-Eastern Pop Diva

What can I say? My hips have always had rhythm.....and some music.....gives them life without me even thinking about it......

In Tunisia...one of the members of our group wanted to look for a pair of sandals before leaving Tunis.....shoe shopping is no problem in this city....there seems to be a store on every city block.....we stopped in an athletic-type shoe store....Nikes....Addidas....they had a great sound system....in a few minutes....another member of the group tapped me on the shoulder, "Do you know you are dancing in the middle of the shoe store?"

Well what could I say?.....I looked down and there were my hips...moving moving moving.......so I went up to the teenage sales girl.....

Qui est chante?

"Sherine," she answered. She pointed to a tv monitor with Egyptian MTV on.....a woman with henna brown hair....was twirling with scarves....and giving those coy looks Egyptian singers give the camera. I wrote her name down on a little piece of paper and stuck it in my pocket.

I found that slip of paper recently....and I searched for Sherine....except I had written down Shereen.....I spent a long time on Google with confusing results...(she's not the only Sherine).....when you translate Arabic names into English there always seems to be variations on the spelling....finally my hub got into his i tunes account....played around in the world music section and viola.....Sherine Wagdy.......queen of Middle Eastern Pop music.....and the Pied Piper to my hips.

My son downloaded the album this afternoon and I grabbed the disc and headed off on errands. At a stoplight I happened to look over and saw these two older women in the next car were staring at me......I had the sunroof open... Sherine blaring.....and was wiggling and tapping on the steering wheel. You just don't find many blondes in the south cruising in the late afternoon sun with Middle Eastern music.

At home, I popped the cd in the stereo stystem with the BIG speakers.....even my deaf dog stood at attention looking around....the floor shook.....I shimmied round the kitchen making a Mexican dinner salad.....I was so happy dancing I didn't even complain about cooking....played song no. 7..... at least 10 times.....there's a part in this song when a chorus of men...well...i guess you would say ....they wail....that soulful call to your lover......and she answers.... it's so sexy and seductive....I just wanted to keep listening to it......I even considered retriving my cheesy coin belt which I saved after taking a belly dancing class a while back.....could I still synchronize my hips to get those coins to make music again?

I felt so enthusiastic about this music I wanted to find a way to share it.....and I have.....not on this blog......but if you go to utube.com and enter....Wala Laila or El Bard into the search engine....you'll find it......click on the titles and you can hear and see a 4 minute video....but PLEASE....minimize your screen....and just listen.......trust me you don't really want to see the video...they're culturally not MTV ....and one of them is a bit confusing....(the Nutcracker turns into a bull fighter).....these are not her most energetic songs....but at least you get a feel for why my hips are moving....and hey...your hips might move too!!!!!

as Shakira sings in her hit song:

Oh, you know I am on tonight
And my hips don't lie

And I am starting to feel it's right

The attraction, the tension

Baby like this is perfection!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Peeing in the Desert

Report on the Toilet Paper Dilemma
Sue, a friend of mine since High School, and always one of those folks with an inquiring mind....sent me an email the other day asking about an update on the toilet paper dilemma. Way back in August before I went to Africa, I had a blog entry discussing my great anxiety over how much toilet paper to take for a month....and since the travel company was suggesting taking purse-sized kleenex packages....how many packages I should bring. Of course, life got complicated when I discovered at Wal- Mart-- large soft kleenex in packages looking like Dot Candy.
Yes, well the good news was I brought way too much Kleenex....so I don't have any first hand accounts of using leaves or smooth stones (which is what some dessert folks use....of course the trick is finding a stone...and then a SMOOTH one.) Although I read pre-trip about how little you pee in the desert because of rapid dehydration (the humidity in the Sahara is around 2-3%)....I can tell you it's very true......despite drinking liters and liters of water per day...three trips to the bathroom for the entire day was about max...and even then there wasn't much volume.
Sometimes it was a bit scary, I knew how much water and tea I was drinking and it was hard to believe so little was coming out! Out of the desert, in Benin and Togo, I was a human waterfall so I actually could see how much water I was losing....so again no big need for kleenex. I must admit ....on days when tummy problems struck....it was a luxury to have nice large extra soft packages of tissues to use (ahhhh.) They also came in handy for a fellow traveller who ran out of tampons and used these to make temporary tampons till we could unload the baggage in the cars.
And since we're talking bathroom matters, let me say a few things on that..... First of all, I could have won a gold medal in squatting. Don't laugh....it takes a solid set of thigh muscles and a lot of savoir faire to pee correctly out in the open. Squatting way down....is good.....Learning how to pull panties pants or skirts away....also good.......and learning just how far you have to spread your feet apart so you don't splash on your sandals.... priceless.
And just as the mantra goes in real estate....location location location. That's also the mantra for peeing ....location location location. At first, all of us girls....would leave the cars and wander off looking for that perfect bush. Problem---in the savannah there were only a few bushes....so I'd wander off only to find everyone waiting in line for the same bushes ( yes ladies even in Africa you have to wait in line to pee!) As the trip wore on, we learned the best place to go....was behind the last car.......this worked in the desert as well as other places since we were off road.
One of the odd things that happened with bathroom breaks......is that by the end of the month....you sort of accepted everyone peed and needed to do so quickly and efficiently....it was no longer such a sacred private matter.....you didn't need your own bush....and you didn't need to make sure no one was within 50 feet of you. On one of the last days of the trip, there was an ideal location to pee behind a hut.....I found myself with two other women traveling companions....squatting and actually talking as we peed.....LOLLLOL>>>>>wow....you know have become acclimated when you can pee and have a group chat!!!!
And as far as guys go.....here in the States...most guys just stand and aim....that's what most of the males did in our group......a discreet turn around.....BUT....in Muslim Africa...which was everything up above Benin.....men pee by kneeling down....or kneeling on one knee and pointing downwards.....this is a sign of modesty and respect.....so our drivers and the native population would kneel to accomplish things.....in a way....it did seem more appropriate to get closer to the grou when you didn't have trees and bushes...a bit more tidy too...especially if it was windy.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Pastis to the Rescue

One of the great things about traveling is all the new weird things you can add to your real life.

This week, I've had a copy bouts of tummy trouble. My hub, tapping into my residual African paranoia, teases me and suggests it might be the tapeworm acting up. Now, I know I don't have a tapeworm....but I guess my face registers that nanosecond of insecurity which he finds amusing.

Last night I was up late reading.... totally engrossed in a new quirky novel....by A.M. Homes called....This Book Will Save Your Life....when I finally decided to quit....my tum was a rumbling....so I thought about the bottle of Pastis I had bought and decided to try a little....and ohhhhhh.....after sipping a small glass....my tum was happy.

I was introduced to Pastis in the desert. Susan, our co-trip leader, suggested we might try a few drops in our water bottles. When you are drinking 8-10 liters of water a day....believe me.....you get "tired" of drinking water and tired of plain water. Apparently, the Foreign Legion, found that a few drops of Pastis helps fight water boredom and at 45% proof...might help you forget how hot you are.

Pastis is a famous drink from Marseille in southern France. Apparently it was created because brain stupifying absinth was banned and folks were looking for a substitute. I've never tasted absinth (although I learned there is a legal version of the stuff in Paris which we never tried) but I'll have to assume it has a spicy flavor since Pastis, depending upon the distillery, has about 25 other spices. When you open the bottle and inhale.....it's licorice and anise you smell. There's an art to drinking Pastis. You don't drink it straight...it must be diluted. You pour a small amount of Pastis in a glass....it's a clear amber liquid...and then you pour cold water on top of it. It immediately turns milky white...as in the picture and you sip it. It's touted as an aperitif.

I never liked it in the desert. I tried it in my water but licorice at 110 degrees just tasted weird. I'm not sure why I bought the bottle when I got home...I guess I was so excited to see something from my trip--- it was a classic impulse buy. I've tried it a couple times as an aperitif but found it .... odd. I tried it with ice cubes---something which people do---but the French find as reprehensible as discovering a dog turd in the middle of your living room. I remember reading some folks loved it as a soothing drink for digestive misadventures. So that's why I tried it last night.....and I can say it was just that....soothing and cool....and pleasant.

Perhaps my taste buds will always prefer wine as an aperitif......but as a pleasant after dinner drink and tummy soother it might just hit the spot.

Welcome Pastis.....and if you're traveling in Europe in the summer....and want to appear way hip.....order Pastis.....it makes you look ....so international.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The grass again!....This is the spot where I let my fellow travelers pass me on the trail.....I have a slr digital camera which I have to hold at eye level to shoot....so at this point the grass was about chin high....I got lost not far from here when the grass was past my head and created that wonderful tunnel.

The grass.....or at least the beginning of it....as I left the village....the grass here was only knee high....and the view was wonderful.

Village on a Mountain Top in Benin

Tanaka village.....This was the first village I hiked to in my mountain story. Although the pictures don't show this....there was quite a drop to the floor of the savannah.....and that breeze....oh that breeze was glorious at the top.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Serious Boy has stayed in my memory longer than many people and incidents on my trip….…certainly within the timeframe of this story on the mountain, he occupied only a small amount of space.....yet as days passed his strong little hand in my hand and the appearance of his serious duty to me…..imbedded his memory far deeper in me than I ever expected.

By evening time of the day I left the mountain, I grieved that I didn’t find out his name or his village, perhaps I could have sent him some money as a gesture of appreciation before I left Africa. I still think about it.

I guess it’s easy to get that Missionary Zeal…the hope and need to help someone and feel like you’ve made a significant difference in their life. In Africa, the economic gap is so colossal between you and the people in a village; it’s almost absurd to think how much you could change someone’s life by such an insignificant amount of money. A mere $20.00 a month and this boy’s whole life could change.

You can’t do that here in America with such a small sum of money. If you gave a homeless man $20.00 a month to feed himself…he might be able to fend for himself for a few days…but he is still left homeless and without food in a short period of time. Serious Boy’s family could easily stretch that amount of money over a month and probably have some left over.

It’s confusing and strangely powerful to think of the impact you can have with so small a gift. It’s seductive because it’s so easy. .…AND because it’s just too good to be true….I’m suspicious if an act like this remains a true gesture of generosity or does it become mere ego padding….or perhaps I am being too Catholic…the need to suffer always enters the equation.

On the other hand, I think of the lottery stories I‘ve heard….where people receive windfalls of money….and with it comes only anxiety and trouble because they haven’t learned to handle a particular level of wealth….that could happen to Serious Boy…..there could be problems with other people in the village, money could be spent on things that don’t benefit him…the list goes on and on of all the negatives that lurk at the edge of this situation.

The truth is ….there’s no crystal ball….and there’s no way to contact him. I can only hope that his generosity to me… goes forward in some way and some time through me….and that, unfortunately, will have to be Serious Boy’s gift.

Pictures coming tomorrow.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Serious Boy Part 6

I’m back in the grass again but this time I’m hiking between Jay and his wife near the head of the line. I don’t care if I have to talk shelves or pizza or what’s new on HBO, I’m determined to stay with the group —which is actually proving a bit difficult. Alberto and a couple of local boys have decided to take a short cut to the next village. There’s no path so we’re basically trailblazing through the towering green stalks. We head down a slope then up a slope. The ground is muddy, granite lumps jut out sporadically, and small streams crisscross the knolls. My white athletic shoes are slick brown from the goo and make a sucky noise when I walk. I keep one eye on the ground and one eye glued to Jay’s pants. I feel like one of the little green chameleons that sun themselves on my front steps in Arkansas-- their eyes moving in two different directions to keep everything in sight.

Someone from the end of the line yells for Alberto to stop. Lucy and Mary, the two ladies from Long Island, catch up to us and tell us that Dorothy and Ed have disappeared. Somewhere in this crazy grass, they’ve made a wrong turn and true to their personalities have either refused to double back and admit they have missed a turn or are stubbornly clinging to the idea that they are on the correct path while everybody else is wrong. Alberto’s timer must have gone off immediately with them, because he tells us to stay put while he goes back to find them. There’s a nice low-to-the ground flat rock a few feet from me and I stiffly lower myself to it. As soon as I sit down, I feel drained and exhausted.

“What time is it?” I ask anyone. It’s a stupid question because by this point in our travels-- time doesn’t matter. If you’re on a long road trip…there’s not much difference between 1pm and 2pm--morning, afternoon, evening---they’re still important markers as well as lunch and dinner. But what does 3’oclock mean on a mountain top in Africa? Time for a Starbucks? Time to tidy up your desk?

“It’s 3:30”

“African time?” I need to clarify this. Some of the men I’m traveling with have fancy watches with multiple time zones and there’s always someone who can’t let go of his indigenous time zone. You know, the guy who will say, “It’s noon,” even if the sun’s gone down because it’s noon in his hometown...where ever that might be.

“Togo time,” says Jay. This is potentially a complicated answer since we’re weaving across the borders of Benin and Togo but it’s close enough.

I count the time with my fingers and discover it's been 8 hours since I've eaten a small piece of bread. No food plus 3 hours of hiking sounds like a logical reason to feel puny. I probably have a blood sugar level of 2. It scares me to think I’m being so rational, which of course must mean something is really wrong with me.

We wait and wait and still no sign of Alberto or our lost group members. I’ve always subscribed to the philosophy that if you’re feeling bad…you might as well dredge up all your negative thoughts and have one really big feel bad experience. Why wait for random negative thoughts to spring up at odd times when you can get depressed at your own convenience?

So, I think of cadeau man and myself on that hilltop again. Disappointment over how I handled that situation presses down like an iron weight on my psyche. Why did I think the worse? Why did I get so scared? I think fear is what separates the men and women from the boys and girls when traveling. The folks who can throw a back pack on and cross any border; they have to have an enormous amount of trust in their ingenuity and in people. They have to be optimists and operate on some sort of percentage scale….where they believe at least 95% of the time everything is going to be just fine.

I guess I’m not that optimistic. I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood in Chicago where anybody that wasn’t of your own nationality was suspect--the Italians a couple of streets over….the Germans off the main street….the Irish folks that owned the convenience store…. God knows what they were up to and what kind of people they were (according to my relatives)...and just think of the big unknowns that would await you if you visited places— like Canada--- where you didn't even know people’s nationalities. I still see that attitude in my parents. The hesitation and caution if you mention travel outside of what they consider the safety zone. That’s the reason I didn’t tell them I was going to Africa. I imagined they would both end up in the ICU of the local hospital if they knew.

Dorothy and Ed come puffing up the trail with Alberto in the rear herding them. They look worse than I feel. With all the ducklings now accounted for, we head off to another village. I'm so lightheaded when we arrive, I don’t want to look around or even take pictures. A few children immediately surround us; they remind me of grasshoppers jumping up and down. They are so joyfully exuberant at seeing us; you can't help but smile. The grass is tamed here only knee high in patches and no longer an adversary so a few of us head down the well-trodden trail.

A few yards down from the village, my shoe gets snagged on a rock. My arms do this windmill thing which miraculously stops me from falling on my face. I straighten up and suddenly there's a hand in my hand. A little hand. I look down and there’s a boy about 7-8 years old with a tight grip on me. He has no shirt on and shredded thin polyster tan shorts. You can see whole section of his old blue underwear. The boys behind me are still laughing at my somersault …but not this boy. He just looks serious.


He quietly holds my hand and stands next to me. He doesn’t answer.

“What’s your name? Comment vous appelez-vous? He doesn’t say anything. Perhaps he speaks only the local dialect and not French. Since he can’t tell me his name…I mentally dub him Serious Boy.

I’m impressed how determined he is to help me down this mountain. He doesn’t smile or laugh like the other boys around us. His bare little black feet expertly step over rocks and buried roots. He watches me and walks close to me without saying a word. Again, I’m stumped by body language. He seems neither happy or sad or expectant. I tightly squeeze his hand just to see what he’ll do. He squeezes back but his facial expression never changes. I turn around to check the whereabout of my traveling companions and he stops with me. I like him and although he doesn’t smile…he makes me smile.

When we start going down the trail again-- to be silly-- I pretend to slip and make some funny sounding ohhhh’s and sway back and forth to look unsteady. The boys behind me are laughing hysterically but Serious Boy just remains serious. He seems so serious I wonder if he thinks he has an even bigger responsibility now that I’ve shown myself to be a crazy woman.

We walk together holding hands tightly.

We finally reach the last village, a conglomeration of red mud huts like the other villages but here big-leafed calabash vines twirl around some of the cone shaped roofs. The huts look quaint and picturesque…almost hobbit-like with their crown of green. We join the other members of the team who didn’t take the hike and have been waiting for us. It’s a short distance to the cars now.

I want to pay Serious Boy for his help and for his dedication. I fish in my purse and find a coin….250 CFA…50cents. I consider tapping into my money belt to find an American dollar but I remember Alberto said, that’s it’s cruel to give people money they can’t exchange and often causes confusion because people don’t understand the value of what you're giving them. We’ve encountered locals during the trip who have one or two Euros but believe it’s worth 20 dollars versus 2 dollars. Some of them have gotten angry when you tell them the real value of their coin or bill because they think you’re trying to cheat them.

I hand Serious Boy the coin and his eyes saucer. He quickly stashes the coin somewhere in his shorts. I expect he’ll run off now and join the other boys but instead he motions for my water bottle. I take a swig and give him the bottle thinking he must be thirsty. He doesn’t take a drink instead he puts the bottle under his arm and takes my hand again. I guess Serious Boy is even more serious now that he has been paid for a job.

We walk down the trail that will take us to the road and the cars. I clown around …swooning…pretending a rock or a puddle is too big to cross--- but Serious Boy just hangs in there with me and allows himself only the tiniest of grins at my shenanigans.

We emerge onto the red dirt road. I'm in the Zebra car-- the car with the silver stripes. Most of the boys are gathered around our car. Alberto bought a rack of long elegantly curved Ebu horns and taped them to the car’s grill. My group tells Alberto he’s not the first man to tape horns to a car ; in fact it’s pretty common in Texas during football season. Since Ebu cattle aren’t common this far south, people are either scared or puzzled by the sight of our horned car cruising down the highway. Here in Benin, Voodoo and fetishes are an important part of the culture. I can’t imagine how people interpret the horns on our car. I wonder if they think we’re trying to invoke some big time protection for our convoy or we’re the devil rolling down the highway.

Serious Boy hands me the water bottle but I decline and motion he should keep it. 2 liter water bottles are prized for storage in rural Africa so this will be a useful gift for his family. He mutters something but I can’t hear it nor decipher it. Still hand in hand, he walks me over to my car.

After I settle in the back seat, I look out the window and try to find him. There’s a gaggle of kids now and most are asking for cadeaux and hopping up and down. Way in the back I see Serious Boy with my water bottle. I wave as we pull away but Serious Boy doesn’t wave back…I think I see a small grin on his face ….or perhaps that is what I hoped would be there.

My next blogs will have a few thoughts on Serious Boy....and also I'm going to post some pictures of the villages, the grass, and even Serious Boy.