Monday, October 24, 2005

Mopti, Mali 2002

Several months after 9/11/2001, Kate and I were sitting in a cafe by the Niger River in Mopti, Mali. Workers on the shore were unloading blocks of salt from boats that had sailed down the Niger from Timbuktu. Fine particles of sand from the Sahara were suspended in the air by the harmattan breeze. Kate asked our Dogon country guide, Ali, who sat with us, if he thought it dangerous for two American tourists in this Moslem land.

"Yes," answered Ali, in an even tone.

Did he hear us correctly? Did he understand what we meant? Was he just saying "yes" to please us, as was not uncommon in West Africa?

When we had planned our Mali trip from Accra, we had not thought about the events of 9/11 or the war in Afghanistan. It took a lot of focus just to get our Ghana Air tickets to Bamako. We had visited several travel agents and airline offices in Osu and at the airport. At some places, they would look at us in slow, surprised shock when we asked about tickets to Bamako, and would refer us to another airline, which would then refer us back to the office of the airline we had just come from. Another travel agent promised a great deal on a ticket to Bamako via Addis Ababa, but when it came down to it there was no ticket to be had. Finally, Ghana Air sold us two tickets from Accra to Bamako, and we were on our way.

In Ghana, where many people had relatives living in New York, there was great sympathy for what the Americans were going through. I had received hugs from my co-workers as we watched an airplane crash into the World Trade Center on CNN, and the next day in Osu a giant banner hung off a building: "We are with you America." At one rooftop party, when an airplane flew low in the sky, a bunch of drunk young men started waving their fists and chanting gleefully, "Osama! Osama!", but overall the spate of memorial services around Accra showed the sympathy of the Ghanaians.

But here in Mali? People from Tuareg nomads to goat herders to drummers to Dogon dancers seemed friendly enough, if not always completely welcoming like we were used to in Ghana. But every market sold t-shirts celebrating Osama bin Laden, who after all had donated a lot of money to poor areas in Africa for public works projects.

"There are many Taliban who are running away and come through Mali," Ali told us.

We could imagine with a turban or two it'd be easy to hide your identity in this place. Here, turbans were commonly wrapped around people's entire faces to protect the eyes, nose, and mouth from the fine desert sand. It was the season of the harmattan, and a dull haze of sand particles hung over everything.

Ali was a Dogon man in his early 20's who guided tourists through the Dogon villages in the southern part of Mali. He was Moslem, and happy about that, since he was different than a lot of Dogon people who still practiced traditional religion. To him, being Moslem meant he was part of a bigger world.

"Is there really a tribe of desert elephants in Gao?" I asked Ali.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Portola Valley, 2005

Yesterday we went to Snowy Bee's third birthday party. Snowy has a wide, doll-like face, straight bangs, and huge wideset eyes. Her favorite animal is elephant and she is good at throwing up her trunk and trumpeting.

For the party, her dad Joe created a big-top from big strips of red and green and blue tablecloths hoisted with a rope to the top of an old oak tree. A red sign with a grey elephant painted on it welcomed us to the circus. There was a rocket ride for the little ones, made of plywood and inside a little seat with arm straps, a rocket ride that whizzed down a cable as if it were a miniature gondola.

On the lawn there were horseshoes and a wading pool and a tent with plastic balls and a toy wooden kitchenette with Admit One tickets in great rolls sitting on top. Scout, a pit bull mix, wandered about. Orange pumpkins rolled in the dirt. Snowy remained dressed in her elephant costume even though it was hot.

Her friend Kayla was a sheep. Kayla's birth-mother is from a country on the African tectonic plate which moves about twenty-five millimeters per year. Her adoptive father was a NASA scientist for twenty years and is now a stay-at-home dad, while her adoptive mother practices plastic surgery.

The great San Andreas Fault runs through the heart of Portola Valley. The average price of a home is $1.5 million dollars. Once a woodsy, hippy hideaway, Portola Valley is now a desirable neighborhood for Silicon Valley success stories. Houses are tucked on curvy mountain roads, hidden in groves of bigleaf maples and monterey pines. At the top of Los Trancos Road is a path where you can sway on a tree swing or sit on a wooden bench or lie in a hammock and gaze at the rolling hills, the Santa Cruz Mountains, at Palo Alto beyond.

Snowy's dad Joe is an architect. He gutted the cabin that his wife Jane's sister Nancy and her CEO husband bought them when they received a stock option windfall. He put in a bamboo floor and cut giant windows in the wall. When you look out the windows you see the tops of trees and it's as if you're perched in a big treehouse.

In Portola Valley, the San Andreas fault zone divides into the Woodside and Trancos traces. The Woodside trace is located on the southwest side of the rift valley, and the Trancos trace is located on the northeast side, adjacent to Portola Road. The Woodside trace ruptured the ground surface during the 1906 earthquake.

We go inside. The cupcakes have strawberry icing and hardly any sugar. The pesto lasagna is vegetarian. The adults chat about housing prices, and Halloween plans, and the next meeting of their preschool coop. Snowy opens a present, a story about an elephant living on an island that doesn't really exist. The adults stand on the yellow bamboo floor, their feet braced as the leaves of the trees wave outside, watching the little girl open her gifts. They watch Snowy grow so slowly and so quickly that she appears to be unchanging, as the plates of her bones are shifting, shifting, transforming underneath her elephant suit, until one day, we will recognize nothing.

Lovina, 1981

Pasek was seventeen when his father walked him down from the mountains to the beach. In their bamboo hut on an arid ridge, the beds were turned so the pillows faced towards the holy peaks, and the bottom of the mattress toward the sea, full of black magic, where people could hit their heads on the coral and never come up again. It was dry up in the mountains but the green bean and corn grew well and the pigs found enough to eat and chickens pecked in the dust until they unearthed grains.

Pasek walked down from the kubu in the mountains where the banana trees and the coffee bushes brushed against his face, walked down with his feet firmly planted on the trail between the rocks, his heels digging into the mud. He looked at the view across the gorge, then down to where the house with so many children was, past his cousin climbing a coconut tree, another cousin weeding the green beans, and the spring shooting up through the paddy. There was his aunt offering him a young coconut to drink, there the well where his mother would get her water to carry uphill, balancing a bucket on her head, there his grandmother's warung in the jungle where all the plastic-wrapped mung bean cakes were stale, but people still bought them so they could sit and talk to her. Further down were the cement houses with red tile roofs, closer to the beach.

Down the mountains he came, a boy, his hand in his father's. He and his bapak always tooks the back way to Singaraja, bringing the cattle to market. The back way was up the hills through the mud paths laced with geckos, past the village on the other side of the gorge, past the rice and the corn and the tangerines, up the hills and down the sides. It was always hot up in the hills but not as hot as in the town. He wanted to stay in school, but he was herding cows.

Today he ached to fight crickets, open the doors to their bamboo cylinders and pit them against each other, he wanted to fight crickets but it was time to bring the cows to market and at the end of the walk, the walk for ten kilometers with cows, the city-owner of the cows would sit down with him and his father and he'd have to sip tea and chat first about the cows but really he could smell the lemongrass and garlic from the next room and when Pak Tut's wife came out with bowls of steaming rice he was glad, and he sat with his hands folded in his lap but his eyes followed the rice, the little bowls of fried dried fish, the red mounds of sambal, his eyes followed the food until it was set down before him, and then he thought about nothing else until it was finished.

The journey was down the mountains, but this time he didn't go the side route -- this time he went straight down the mountains and across the main road to the beach. Mbok Made with her swatch of white hair wrapped into a bun was there, by the side of the road, wearing a pink eyelet kebaya, squatting in her brown and tan sarong from Solo. She balanced a tray of boiled orange sweet potato, papaya, and pineapple that she held out to tourists and the man with knobby knees selling mung bean and coconut porridge from his cart, to the boys on their bikes on the way to the beach. She was chewing a piece of sweet potato.

When she saw him walk by with his father, he who used to catch dragonflies near her house in Bhuana Sari, he who was practically a boy, she offered him a piece of papaya.

Here, Sek, she said to the boy with his neatly ironed shirt, his wide dusty feet. She held out the dripping orange papaya.

He looked hungrily at the fruit, his throat dry, and almost leaned forward. His chin lifted into the air and his jaw moved, but he didn't make a sound.

Take it.

No, thank you, he said, flushing, his hands firmly planted on his thighs.

Mbok Made waved the papaya under his nose.


His mouth watered. The sun shone brightly. He stared at the papaya, sliding a hand into his pocket, slowly drawing out a fifty-rupiah coin.

Mbok Made shook her head vigorously.

No, no!

The boy held out the coin, his slender arm firm, trembling slightly. When Mbok Made didn't reach for it, he looked at her, then tossed it into her tray. She tilted her head as if to tell him take it back, but he wouldn't, and only then took the papaya slice and brought it to his dry lips.

And he had taken his hand from his father's when he reached for the coin and there was the beach and when he turned around to look his father was gone, and there he was, shy and on the beach and not knowing where he'd go next. He wiped the papaya juice from his chin with the back of his hand and looked out at the Java Sea, the calm clear water, the purple peaks fading into the horizon, and the bare-chested young men in their sampans rowing tourists out to the reef.

And he was walking quickly on the hot black sand and then he was sailing out to the coral in his friend's sampan and the wind came and it was as if he were flying through the sea, he was flying over the sea, and at funerals the priest would say all life is an illusion, so don't be greedy, and there he was flying over the sea to a world where because people had airplanes they doubted there was a god.