Friday, January 8, 2016

Mont Gothics

            This is a small story about a small moment that I had recently. I don’t often write or blog about my time spent stateside, much less when I am traveling in another country, but I will take exception here. My reasons will appear obvious, I hope, though perhaps not.
            Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of once again wandering around in Adirondacks State Park in northeastern New York state. Some friends and I found ourselves, for the second year in a row, cozied up in the gorgeous Harris family home on the southeastern shore on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, compliments of the indomitable Lucas Harris (also my roommate). The house looks out across the lake into New York and up the dramatic slopes of the Adirondacks. The past year we had visited, I was able to hike a few of its more impressive peaks, all of which are challenging in typical Adirondacks fashion, but none of which put me at or even close to the edge of my comfort zone. This year would prove somewhat different.
            With a slightly different group of us in tow this time around, the first 3 days at the lake house saw limited hiking (though we did spend one day futsing around on the Three Brothers peaks), but plenty of fine times spent around the fire, eating amazing food, and drinking delicious Vermont beers. The unusually warm temperatures this year meant that, at the time of our stay, there was no snowpack to be heard of in the Adirondacks, even among the high peaks. Of course, this does not at all mean that hiking is impossible, just that the going would be messy and wet and cold, just not cold enough for snow. In the mornings, I couldn’t help but think how different the mountains on western skyline were than I had remembered. There were no snowy crowns to adorn their alpine slopes, no white-kissed trim lining the furs and evergreens along their spines. But the day after the majority of our group departed, with just Lucas and myself left, the mountains saw their first significant snowfall of the season. We headed south, crossing into New York state along the bridge at point at Chimney Point and drove into the high peaks. We were after Mont Gothics, one of Lucas’s personal favorites but a new peak for me.
            The day started out fine with a light bed of powder under foot in a forest obviously unaware of its own unassuming beauty. Only the patter of snow melting off of trees, our own voices, and the occasional bird song populated the late morning air. It was a cold, even at the low altitude, but as we started moving up the mountains, the weather gradually began to shift. The calm of the valley--a snowy cocoon in which one could rest quite happily for hours, days even--was replaced by buffeting winds along the slopes. The approach was significantly less inviting and implored one to keep moving so to maintain a decent core body temperature. There wasn’t time for much stopping anyway--we were, after all, racing to the summit to beat the sunset. With a 14 mile round trip up and down around 3000 ft. of icy altitude, it was in the interest of safety to have the most technical parts of the climb behind us by the time we lost the sunlight for the evening. 
            Things started getting hairy as we arrived at the first major slide on the southern side of Mont Gothics. Slides are slopes that are steep enough for avalanche danger in the winter time--occasional avalanches flatten any trees that might grow leaving these sections instead as bare, treeless channels along the mountain side. During ideal snow conditions, these can provide beautiful runs for alpine skiers. At the moment, however, instead of a deep snow pack, the slide was encapsulated in a massive sheet of ice that extended perhaps a kilometer up the mountain from its base in the forest below.

The first and largest of the slides on the southern slope of Mont Gothics. Starring Lucas Harris.


            Between the two of us, our equipment was limited and would later prove rather inadequate for the mixed terrain we would encounter. I was sporting a pair of crampons, however, these were not free-standing but attached to a pair of snowshoes, which made the going tough as the snowpack, even at higher altitudes, was insufficient. Lucas had rigged himself up a pair of screw-shoes--literally, a pair of trail running shoes with screws driven through the soles to increase traction. These choices of footwear would have been ideal for both of us in different conditions, but in the mixed snowy-rocky-icy terrain in the alpine zone, they would prove almost more of a burden than a benefit.
            Once past the largest slide, we began finding ourselves facing a series of smaller ones, also covered in thick sheets of ice. Unlike the largest, whose most challenging segment was flanked by a convenient staircase that had been built for hikers such as ourselves, these smaller slides covered stair-less segments of sheer rock. There were several of these that provided absolutely no traction--faulty equipment or otherwise--and had to be managed with some more creative methods. With the combination of poor footwear, a singular ice axe, and stubborn determination, we soon found ourselves at the top of a few of these sheer drops. Mind you, this was not without a  few nearly disastrous close calls, one in which I found myself sliding at full pace down about fifty yards of ice towards the trees below, stopped only by grabbing to some unlucky roots protruding from the ice.
            Soon, the weather began to darken--our clear morning gave way to a cloudy, cold mess--as we found ourselves, no longer on ice, but facing huge runs of bare rock. For some parts of the final approach to the summit, there were cables that had been sunk into the rocks, but we were still left at various points to hand-jam along large cracks in the granite slabs. It was steep, incredibly exposed, and seemed to get more technical and difficult every few yards.

Slabs of granite towards the peak.

            At a certain point, I passed a section of ice and rock that would prove significantly more difficult for Lucas and his specific array of equipment. Instead of stopping the climb and turning back, however, he suggested that I continue to the summit on my own and bag the peak, seeing as he had previously climbed it in years past. We had come this far and it seemed a shame not to finish the climb, so I carried on alone. Above this point, at well over 4000 feet of elevation and deep into the alpine zone that graces the tops of only the highest of the High Peaks in the Adirondacks, the technicality of the climbing only increased. At a certain point, only about 100 yards in distance and 50 feet in elevation from the summit, I sat down at the base of a large boulder and took in my situation:
            Above me was another quite treacherous section of rock and ice (treacherous enough, at least, to give me significant pause, which none of the previous sections had seemed inclined to do). I was rather far past my climbing partner, who himself was stuck on a section below. If something happened to me at this point, even a small injury, the state I was in would very quickly deteriorate from a challenging climb to a potentially life-threatening situation. At this point, I was about 7 miles and 3000 feet from safety near the summit of an exposed mountain with thick clouds moving in, little food, a dwindling water supply, shitty equipment, and a shear drop in front of me.
            This was, as few other moments I can remember, one of those times when I was confronting both my mental and physical limit. And as I usually do in such circumstances, I had to talk myself through my decision making process out loud. In the end, I guess my confidence in my own ability and my desire to finish the climb was strong enough to get me on my feet again and move me past this massive slab of granite in front of me. Beyond this point, I found the summit.

At the summit by my lonesome.

            It is quite a strange feeling, but one that I will try to do some justice here without falling too conveniently into any tropes of idealism or romance. I was alone on top of a mountain surrounded by the terrifying and inspiring absolutism of alpine silence. The clouds had rolled in and enveloped the summit muffling all sound. Despite the fact that below me on all sides was a 3000 foot drop to the valley floor below, I could barely see past 50 yards. I have never felt so exposed, so isolated and alone in my life.

Lost in the clouds: the view from the summit looking down 3000 feet to the valley below. Not much to see.

            Mont Gothics, despite the beauty it shares with the rest of the Adirondacks, is hardly a world-class mountaineering destination. I can only imagine the feeling that the primere mountaineers must experience on top of the world’s greatest mountains. But still, modesty aside, there was something about being there that was supremely affective. Here I was, on top of the world, as far as I was concerned, at least for a moment, all by myself, surrounded by a sea of clouds, lost in the icy, solitary embrace of the heavens. The air felt like a vacuum that emptied my lungs and reached to my core, grabbed my heart and began pumping it like it had never pumped before. There was, of course, the corporeal high from physical exertion, the intoxication of bodily strain giving way to the calm following the climax of great effort. But there was something else less tangible, but nonetheless manifest in that place and that moment.
            I am not a believer. I am not a man of god. I despise the church, or any institution for that matter, that might see me submit my thinking and practice to a rubric. I have not prayed since I was quite young. And yet, in the hollow tomb at the top of Mont Gothics, all by my lonesome, I felt compelled to reach for something. What I muttered was not a benediction or a prayer, per se, but as I figured in the moment--fuck it, I will probably never be closer to anything like god than I am right now.
            I don’t remember all of what was said. I don’t even remember entirely what I was thinking. All I can recall is that I folded my hands together and raised them to the sky, to the diffuse sun that was pressing hopefully through the ceiling of clouds above me.
            “Keep me safe. Help me be a better person.” That’s all I remember saying.

On the decent with the sun reaching through the clouds.

            I realize that I have made a habit of sharing many intimate personal anecdotes and experiences on my blogs over the years. For a long while now, I have had the opportunity to travel many places, see many things, and experience much that must seem strange to many people, and all the while, I have felt compelled to share this. Maybe it is my age now, maybe it is the fact that I am once again in a far, far away place and that sometimes my mind and my body feels tired and just wants to rest. Perhaps things have changed enough for me in my personal life that, when I read things such as is written above, I can’t help but feel it to be contrived and silly. The life we all live feels like a cartoon sometimes and I have found it increasingly harder to maintain ruse that somehow my experience and my perspective is meaningful, significant, or important in any way. It all seems narcissistic and navel-gazing. So I apologize for that.
            Still, sometimes I don’t know what else I can do with such feelings, such experiences. In the same measure, it would seem a waste not to try and express them or share them somehow. So for what it’s worth, I will continue writing--I just arrive in a new continent and will likely have much to ponder in the coming months--but I don’t expect it to mean much to anyone.
            To continue my already-belabored analogy, perhaps writing is like my moment on top of Mont Gothics. All of us, in our own solitary worlds, living our own solitary lives, trying desperately to reach through the clouds to someone else close at hand, or to see through the fog and catch the sun. We should be modest and measured in what we might expect from such efforts, but like Sisyphus, we must stay the course regardless.




            The descent was much quicker as Lucas and I were able to irreverently and ungracefully butt-slide down the larger segment of ice. We made it out of the forest long after the sun had departed. Back at home in Vermont, we feasted upon a massive meal of mac-and-cheese, sausages and delicious New England beers in front of a roaring fire. It seemed a fitting end to an incredible day. I didn’t talk to Lucas much about my time on the summit, but we did begin recounting our excursion in classic, exaggerated mountain-lore fashion.
            I now find myself sitting at a café in Perth, Australia in temperatures flirting with the 100 degree mark. Quite the contrast. And despite the fact that I am usually a much bigger fan of the heat than the cold (and don’t really mind 100 degree days), I felt compelled to take this time to write about that snowy summit half a world away.
            What a fucking trip.


-mario

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Reflections on a week in la Habana

I am on a rooftop balcony overlooking those massive steps of the Universdad de la Habana, those steps where Fidel walked, where the words of revolución found a home, where students organized to assassinate el president Fugencio Batista in 1957--some serious student activism that was. Those steps, as wide as they are tall, reaching up to a plateau of Greek columns and palm trees in the heart of the city, one of the few on earth, that exceeds all expectations with ease. We are talking Marx and global socialism while sucking down Bucanero beers far too fast (or not fast enough) for this humid Caribbean climate. The conversation waxes and wanes with the sounds coming from the street and soon, we are onto more pressing matters: the future of Cuba in the face of changing relations with the US--that great northern Caliban--for the first time in the 60 year history of this stubborn, juvenile blockade. It’s funny--this chip on the US shoulder, the one front of the Cold War where we lost so comprehensively, is also the closest to home. And Fidel has outlived them all: Kennedy, Nixon, Johnson, and Reagan--that mother fucker Reagan. We’ll see how all this plays out, but Castro might even beat Carter and Bush (if we’re lucky, both of the Bush's).
            We talk and drink even as a storm in the east harbor brews and begins moving towards us. No one is worried; rain in Cuba is warm and sweet. I remember the stories my grandfather used to tell about his childhood in Santa Clara. About those hot Cuban days and how he and his brothers would wait with all childhood impatience and longing for the afternoon rains. After the storms, they would lay on the concrete to cool their bodies as the sun made short work of the respite. I remember these stories sometimes as if they were my own. Those stories may be the greatest gift I have ever received.

            La Habana--just the name stokes imaginations and mystery (all well-deserved). It’s not the prettiest nor the most presentable city, but it is certainly the most Cuban and, in my humble opinion, who gives two shits about the rest. Parts of it remind me of other cities I know. Like Asuncion: it is ramshackle and crumbling under the weight of its own character, the colonial architecture (like colonialism itself) almost in need of public decay before yielding to something else, something different, and utterly unrecognizable to the West. Like Cape Town: preoccupied with the sea, oriented towards the ocean with possibility, the smell of salt mixing with petrol and life through narrow avenues and alleys. But really, Havana has no equal, not even good competition. Love it or hate it (though you’d be a fool), Cuba is Cuba and it is nothing else. There is no pretense. Murals and facades of revolutionary slogans with portraits of Che and Fidel and Martí take the place of the billboards that, in the rest of the world, remind us of how inadequate we are, of the things we lack, of how incomplete our lives must be. Propaganda, the imperialists would call the prior without seeing their disgusting contradiction--isn’t the latter as well?

            Internet has come to Cuba in a big way; this is perhaps the biggest change since my last visit to the island in 2012. Access is limited, however, and people crowd on street corners to catch the signals of intermittent hotspots. Like everything else in Cuba, getting online seems a communal activity.

After an afternoon on a beach east of Havana, bottle of rum in one hand, cigar in the other, and after some hours in the waves, trading notes with a hodgepodge group of socialists, Marxists, anarchists and intellectuals from literally all over the world, I find myself in the passenger seat of 1956 Chevy Bel Aire listening to Gangster’s Paradise with a smile on my face that feels like few I have ever known before. The ocean, at first shades of turquoise well-worn in the Caribbean, has now shifted--ever so subtly--into shades of pink that don’t grace any palate anywhere else in the world. It is a pink so soft and ripe that it exists only right here, in this place, and right now, in this exact moment. And the thought in my head: does Cuba have problems--ab-so-fucking-lutely. What society does not? But if you come here, if you educate yourself, if you are willing to set aside those preconceptions of what “the good life” is supposed to be (in the capitalist world), you cannot help but appreciate what Cuba has accomplished. If nothing else, it is an island that has sat here, just 90 miles from the territorial US, and given a big fucking middle finger to those goddamn imperialists that have tried, in vain, for 60 years to undo the Cuba that is Cuba.
            I do not laud any aspect of Cuba or its history from the position of an idealist. Far from it. As I have heard myself saying many times this week--we must apply the same critical lens to socialism that we apply to capitalism. Indeed, the question is not whether to critique or not, but whether we critique against socialism, or for socialism. And in that regard, I can say I critique for the sake of furthering the struggle of the oppressed. I also speak, not as a Cuban, but as someone who has studied and worked on this for many years, someone who has spoken to Cubans on both sides of the divide, and someone who has family on both sides as well. Opinions, even within my own family, are quite divided. And while I cannot speak to the experience of living in the Cuban state except through the stories I have gathered, I can offer perhaps a slightly different perspective:
            The first time I visited Cuba was 2012. My father and I had brought my grandfather back for his first visit in almost 60 years. This was in the middle of my Peace Corps service during which I was working as an agricultural extension agent in an incredibly poor and isolated community in Paraguay. My father and grandfather arrived in Cuba from the US. Each of us was astounded by Cuba in our own ways--my father and grandfather, seemingly more for the lack. The economic differences between the lifestyle of the American middle class was significant. But I was taken, not by the lack, but by the security of the socialist model. What I thought then is what I still think today: I would rather be a Cuban, even a poor Cuban, any day than a poor Paraguayan. Life may not be ideal in Cuba--a product of history, the embargo, and undoubtedly state failure--but it is far better across the board than for the majority of poor that suffer in almost any other country married to the model of neoliberal capitalism.
            Socialism is a project.
            Capitalism is the seeds of our own destruction, the worst externalities of which are conveniently exported to those already suffering under the yoke of capitalist progress.
           
I could be quite happy in this place, methinks.


-mario

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Mamishie Rasta

*This was originally written on August 14th, but due to the laziness of the author and his general ineptitude, it is just being posted now. Get on top of your shit, Machado.


In my life, I have very few hard and fast rules, but I do have some. Most borne out of experience and yet others from premonition. People who know me well may know one such rule: if, in your wandering, you ever come across an individual smoking more than one cigarette at a time, run--there is some wild shit afoot. Whenever the invigorating power of a single smoke just won’t cut it, whenever both time and circumstance dictate such a supreme nicotine fix, perhaps you have arrived at a moment that is somewhat unmanageable. Evacuation is likely the best card to play.

And yet, despite my convictions, I instead found myself far less flight-given even as a writhing Ewe man, doused in seawater and his own sweat, stood just in front of me with two 40-centimeter blades drawn across his own abdomen and neck while he drug vigorously on two spliffs the size of cigars.

But before we get here, maybe I should offer some context:


Pops, the bartender, had been serving me plenty of beer over the past few days.

“You look skinny, Mario. You need to eat more. You need to drink more.”

Pops is the kind of doctor I need--a funny, wry, no-dread Rasta serving up drinks and a philosophy that places good ganja and good friends at the center of this quite, tropical universe. But he is right: between the diet I have maintained during fieldwork in some rural communities, the bout(s) of giardia, and the malaria that I would later learned had been swimming in my system for a few weeks (at least), I had indeed lost weight, quite a bit actually.

“I need my medicine, Pops.”

Pops giveth. A liter-bottle of Club beer manifests in front of me. I feel better already. Amen.

“You should go see Mamishie Rasta, she is very powerful.” Pops encourages me, very matter-of-factly.

I am intrigued. “Who is Mamishie Rasta?”

And this is where the tale begins: Mamishie Rasta, before she was Mamishie Rasta, was just a normal village girl who one day wandered too far into the surf and disappeared into the sea. After a fruitless search, her family held a funeral and laid her memory to rest, if not her body, which was lost to the waves. For many years, it was so, and in the silence that should be expected from the dead, there was no further word of the girl from the village. Then one day, out of the waters of the Gulf of Guinea appears a women dressed in a pure-white gown with dreadlocks that reach longingly, like roots from a banyan tree, down past her knees towards the ground.

Mamishie had been reborn. This is the second-coming, my friends.

Her family questioned, her neighbors pried, and after a careful examination, it was discovered that this mythical creature was in fact the reincarnation of their beloved. But Mamishie had returned with a purpose, with something to share. During her years of absence, she had lived in the ocean among the mer-people--a community of half-seahorse, half-humans that bestowed upon her the sacred knowledge of their gods and divine medicine. Mamishie had returned to spread this knowledge among her people.

The story is amazing and as Pops fills me in on the details (which, even as a good Christian, I can tell he completely believes), I find myself in need of no more encouragement. As a rather godless person myself, I find such a story just as plausible as any other religious narrative. Plus, I am skinny as shit and at this point, after the weeks of disease and drink, anything Mamishie might offer would really be incidental. So after a 1 cedi ($0.25) taxi ride, we find ourselves seated in a hot, windowless room in front of a woman who is even more magnificent in person (not necessarily elegant, certainly not refined, but with a distinct aura of the sea) than the stories we’ve heard.

Our consultation begins, somewhat fittingly, with strong drink: alomo bitters and palm wine, a shot a piece. The bitters don’t go down quite like the palm wine, but we can’t be rude. In my book at least, wasting good drink is a capital offense, quite socially inexcusable. So with this refined sense of maturity and respect, I graciously agree to help my friends and polish off a few more helpings. God help us all

After a brief discussion, we are led into another room with a low-hanging corrugated-tin roof. With few words exchanged, we are gestured into some plastic chairs where we are left to watch the spectacle soon to unfold before us. The room itself--more of an extended porch occupying a courtyard tucked within a labyrinth of closely-built mud and brick houses--was flanked by a series of smaller rooms acting as shrines to a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Around the small doorway leading into each structure, mythical portraits and scenes were depicted with the respective names of the gods scrawled in bold, black letters. The two I remember most vividly are Papa Tongo, a drum-playing merman riding a horse and clothed in leopard skins, and Mamiwater, the penultimate goddess who bore a surprising semblance to Mamishie Rasta herself.

But the material scene slowly and easily fades into the back of my mind. The room was populated by somewhere between 30 and 50 people (such details, as well as a specific chronology of events, remain quite elusive for reasons that will soon become clear). There was a group of shirtless, sweaty men playing a massive array of drums in the far corner while a cluster of women and young children sang rhythmically, occasionally venturing into a dance as the music took them.

This went on for quite some time, perhaps an hour or two or more. In reality, I have no idea how long we sat there watching, the scene was hypnotizing, intoxicating, and as much for the music as for the various fires being lit, joints being passed around, and piles of gunpowder being lit by a small contingency of priestly subjects. The room soon became as thick and heavy as the ocean with a cacophony of sound and smoke and we were all swimming in it--awkward white visitors and community members alike--as the evening began to thrust itself in a different (and unforeseen) direction. At this point, with bellies full of booze and lungs and heads full of earth and smoke, we were all along for the ride.

The drums, the drums, the drums, incessant like a fever and soon reaching to a pitch of madness, began pounding any sense of reason from the atmosphere. Their tempo was conducting the collective departure attained by those possessed souls around me.

I say possessed and I mean possessed.

A few men had arrived on the scene, maybe 3 in total, but it is hard to remember exactly--maybe more, maybe less. These men were quite literally possessed by spirits: spirits that lent great power, spirits that make men strong, spirits that breathe unrepentant life into a world otherwise occupied by well-dressed Sunday-morning churchgoers. Their possession threw them into an intense, almost violent sort of bodily ritual as they stormed around the entire scene from one end of the room to the other. Sometimes they crawled animal-like on all fours. Sometimes they seized rabidly on the floor. Other times, they leaped and stomped the earth in rapture, grabbing any number of various knives and machetes to press against their bodies. Some used blocks of wood to hammer the blades against their abdomens, others simply ran them (with the dull-side against their skin) like saws across their throats.

The spirits make you invincible. The spirits make you strong.

Throughout this process, these men were supplied by the various priests with a chain-supply of hefty spliffs (great hand-rolled cigarettes containing a sweet mixture of tobacco and marijuana) with which to sup their insanity. It was somewhere around this time that I found myself face-to-face with the gentlemen described at the beginning: a twenty-something fisherman whose sinewy body was playing temporary host to one of these various spirits. Swinging, sawing blades in hand and two-spliffs dangling menacingly from his mouth, he only seemed to stop smoking for the brief moments that he howled and yelled and screamed at the heavens. And if I had any lingering doubt as to the authenticity of his possession they were definitely assuaged by the supernatural capacity of the hits he drew from his herbs. They were full and deep and holy and they raced past his throat and lungs and went straight down into his abdomen which lurched forward and sunk backward in fits of hysteria and trembling.

At one point, he placed his large machete on the ground, grabbed my arms and pulled me from my chair. It was unexpected, but I felt wholly unworried, having been cruising at the same altitude as this entire room for some hours now. My only conscious thought in that moment, I remember, was that maybe I could catch a few drags from his spliff, but he had other plans. I was led--not forcefully, but certainly not with any choice to the contrary-- across the room and in front of Mamishie Rasta herself. She was seated unassumingly in the background, having spent the hours monitoring the entire scene and smoking slowly.

My new-friend, in all his possession and intention, pushed me down onto my knees in front of Mamishie. I was then somewhat shoved into a position of reverent prostration at her feet, with occasional respites in which I was expected (and obliged) to place my forehead against Mamishie’s knees. All the while, my friend was likewise placing his forehead against my shoulders and my chest and shaking violently and screaming and just carrying on as if such contact was killing him.

Mamishie looked on. She looked over me. She looked through me. I was in a moment of complete abandon, so incredibly far away from any familiarity that I could draw upon, any memory that might provide me with even a rough blueprint of how to navigate such a place and such moments. It was release on a whole new level and I was burning with something like passion or madness or the reckless singularity that exists at the edge of the cliffs of experience, understanding and knowledge itself.

During a lull in the commotion, or maybe I was just coming in and out of the present, I had a distinct thought--in my head, I heard the soothing voice of a pilot (is this what god sounds like?), and the quiet ding of the fasten-seatbelt light turning off. “We’re gonna be experiencing some turbulence….uhhhhhh, just hang tight…this might be the end. We hope you have enjoyed your flight with us and we hope to see you again soon in the afterlife.”

My last clear memory of the evening is watching my possessed friend, barefoot and glistening with sweat, standing in a bed of hot coals, smoking two spliffs like a fiend and howling into the night air. Through this all, from the beginning of the drums until the soul-rattling climax, the village children wandered in and out, sometimes dancing, sometimes singing, but otherwise treating such a setting as completely normal, even playful.

The drums gradually wound-down and the smoke cleared along with my mind. Sober thoughts rushed to my rescue and my senses became hyper-acute as soon as we stepped into the night and could smell the salt in the air yet again. We walked home slowly, talking little. It was a normally sleepy evening in the villages we passed along the coast with a silence punctuated only by the occasional passing motorcycle or nightjar flying overhead. The whole experience had lasted good 6 hours or so, although in all honesty, in the moment, time seemed quite a foolish notion altogether.

The next day I woke, bright and gleaming as the morning. I was still skinny and I still had malaria (thankfully outpaced by the daily doses of Malerone running through my blood), but I felt like a fucking king. I spent the day on the beach watching the waves without a word.


Whenever I see some manifestation of indigenous beliefs, whether nakedly displayed in its own right or covertly smuggled into the rigid framework of Christian dogma, my thought is almost always: eat shit and die colonialism, eat shit and die religious predation.

Maybe it’s because I am afflicted by a body of intensely rebellious bones, or maybe it’s because I am naïve or immature, but the forces that allow such traditions to survive despite the depraved delusions of a hegemonic modernity never cease to inspire me. As much as the exploitative powers of this world--economic, political and religious--have sought to flatten the map and assimilate diversity into their monochrome vision of a deranged world order, the capacity and endurance of the human spirit remains inextinguishable. Despite the wholescale dissolution that colonialism, the slave trade, and missionary conquest have wrought in many corners of the world, such persistence of traditional beliefs is a fact of life that no amount of violence and oppression can change.

I reflect back on the sterile church services that I endured in my youth and I can’t help but think about the demotion that such a bleached-white interpretations of spirituality offer to god. As if he/she/it were something easily consumed, like a multivitamin or a gentle laxative, during the safe, controlled suburban rituals of Sunday mornings. I place such thoughts against the incalculable insanity and zeal that I experienced during my momentary tutelage under Mamishie Rasta. There is no comparison.

In a small fishing village along the eastern Ghanaian coast close to the border with Togo, Mamishie Rasta has created something incredible--a raucous, animal-sacrificing belief system that celebrates equal parts life and death through the rousing effects of drums and plenty of drink. There is no holy book, there is no tithing, just an abundance of fervor and the liberation induced by uninhibited spiritual transcendence.

But I will stop myself before I pontificate too much upon such things (this is a long fucking blog post as is). Hopefully, this story itself will provide more by ways of explanation and understanding than any of my foolish attempts at faux-academic mumbling.

Suffice to say, I prefer my god with a little flavor. And a little bit of herb doesn't hurt either.

From Ghana,
-Mario


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

My life as of late is a gluttony with the Sea

Morning:

This coastline is wind-blown, though not by force, but by a persistent breeze conjured in the west that quietly buffets the sand and the water though an infinity of tiny particular collisions. Over millennia, it has sculpted this small stretch of coastline against the rising sun. It counts on the intermittent help of more belligerent forces such as storms and the ocean itself. But tides rise and fall, storms roll in and out, and still, there is always the breeze.

The lagoon bobs under this western fetch, its waves strolling along unhurried like the swaying of the palms, like this entire morning around them. A tern rolls and dives for fish, providing the only rupture in the otherwise unbroken surface of this small lagoon. Over the southern bank, the ocean dissents against the solitude of the deeper waters, the same waters in which the locals are preparing to sink their nets. In a pale morning, the fishermen gaze from this embankment out beyond the curvature of earth-- their slice along the Gulf of Guinea, the warm currents which entice the ships at the beginning of each day, and return them (if their luck is good) before a hot sun claims its own sky.

It takes almost an entire community to set the boats to course and haul in the nets. The surf is rough on steep sand and the skiffs heavy and water-logged. Waves boil and erupt almost immediately as one enters, conditions that mean beating the breakers requires the sinew and strength of more than a few men. It requires even more to bring those same boats ashore later in the morning. The nets, however, are another matter entirely.

Being brought to shore from over a kilometer out, these drag nets are a task for every village member. While some men and women heave, pitting their bodies against the unforgiving lines, others sit beside curling up reclaimed net and shoring-up the buoys. Some young boys, whose feet barely touch the ground, take spots along the line next to the men, grunting and chanting with all amount of earnestness and enthusiasm but providing little resistance against the tide. Behind them, young girls neatly coil the lengths of rope into piles almost as tall and slender as they. Over the din of the waves, an old man chants rhythmically, conducting the strain and pulse of both the rope and its handlers in the same stroke.

It took me a while, and though my Ewe is still elementary, the instructions within the song are quite self-explanatory. To heave in unison, the song is slow and steady, a drumbeat almost, “dun…..dun…..dun…..”. When opposing lines need to converge, as they do at intervals throughout the process, the slow drum becomes a drum-roll of “right, right, right, right…”--every man jumps over the to the inside of the lines and pulls together at their sides. Once the end of the nets enters the breakers, the instructions take their cue from the waves themselves, it’s “pull…pull…pull...” when the waves break, and “hold…hold…hold…” as the wicked undercurrents relent against relinquishing the quarry. Feet are dug and legs sunk up to the knees into the sand as hands and backs are drawn taught. As I do my tiny part in this great orchestra, as I struggle to keep my fingers wrapped around this quivering rope, I am sure that either the lines or the bodies will snap under the strain. Neither occurs and, after over an hour and a half of an exhausting fight, we are rewarded with a bounty of shrimp and sunfish and crabs and a host of exotic fish that I have never seen.

These are fishing communities--there are few lone fishermen here. You just wouldn’t catch much, or maybe you would simply never make it home going at these waters alone.


Afternoon:

I ask the bartender expectantly, already knowing his answer but wanting to hear it anyway, “Do you know if I could score some bud around here.” So far in my travels, and especially in Africa, this question almost always produces an affirmative response and by extension, a very fine evening.

He smiles discretely, “You want it tonight?”

“Eh,” I reply, “would be nice, but no worries, whenever you can.”

“How about this in the meantime…” He reaches under the bar and produces a clear bottle shaped like a skull. Inside is an alcoholic tea steeped by beautiful green sprigs of marijuana. Palm wine tincture--home-brewed with locally grown herb, its normal transparency having stained into the finest hues of seaweed and sea-foam green. He shakes it up and its contents dance and colors swirl like a tropical snow-globe from Rasta heaven. I hear the sound of the ocean rising in my ears and someone is playing a drum….things just got interesting.

It starts in your core, with the indistinct lines between the fire of the herb and the warmth of the alcohol, and washes with your blood down your limbs and into your lesser extremities. And all of a sudden, you are floating over the earth. And this is where you stay for a while and that is just fine with me.

Staring at the ocean while flying--an experience which I cannot recommend enough--induces a completely different state of being. Moments are uncounted waves and hours are the occasional passing bird. I must be quite a sight: pale legs stretched out in the sun, red-star cap pulled down over my eyes, sunglasses long forgotten at my side and salsa music playing on my radio. Between my lips rests a smoke, recently extinguished by the always-breeze, but I find no rush to relight my herbal friend. We’ll get there eventually. Oh, we will get there indeed.


Night:

After a day of deep thought, a letter written to a friend at night:
I have had exactly 1 shower in the past 10 days--the rest of the time I have been bathing in the ocean and drying by the sun. What a strange animal I am, indeed, certainly not fit for civilized society. Last night I feel asleep, bottle of wine in hand, under an open thatch shack on the banks of a lagoon with the sea rumbling just over to the south. I don't know why, but I have always found the ocean healing, and as much to the body as the soul. It's always been my escape and my refuge and I have come to attribute to it almost supernatural medicinal powers: infected bug-bite--the salt water will heal it; bad head cold--the mist off the water will clear it right up; sad and alone--there are an endless series of tempestuous waves for company. And if that fails, if you find the waves to be unruly company, nothing exudes loneliness with quite the same grace as a sea bird. You can always take solace in watching an albatross or a petrel, birds that know a solitude you can never imagine.
I have been gluttonous with the sea these past few days but I do not intend to stop. There is nothing, nothing in this world I love more than sitting quietly on the shore and listening to music while the waves dance. This song in particular I felt I would pass along:


You probably know it, but my lord, if this shit doesn't make me wanna fly. To quote the words of Joseph Campbell (some of the sweetest words ever uttered), "[Life can be] a mild, slow-burning rapture". That's what this song says to me.

"I hope I don't become a good boy, slow and strong,
minding my manners and playing along.
A pet for my dear Doe, Jane.
 I used to nip at the heels and bay at moon
now I sit and stay like the good dogs do."

A reminder to myself, but perhaps redundant at the moment, to always remain wild and unkempt and a bit rough around the edges. Like the ocean, I hope to stay deep and genuine at the core but unruly as the waves on the surface. May a suit always sit awkwardly on my shoulders, may I always make a mockery and a spectacle of diner parties, and may dirt ever welcome me and the ocean remain my fountain of youth.

Yeah, that's alright with me.

from the beach, somewhere,
-mario


Saturday, August 8, 2015

"Oh fuck, that guy is dead somewhere...and I am the last one to see him alive"

*All names in this story are pseudonyms due to the nature of the material covered. Enjoy.

Accra: capital city, modern city, one of the most modern in Africa at least. I am here for a few days staying at a hostel in Asylum Down. I have done this hostel bumming deal for long enough to know that, as far as hostel traffic is concerned, you always meet some interesting people: ex-pats of all stripes, NGO workers and the like (my people), but also some grade-A fucking characters. This time, it happens to be some grade-A characters who dabble in Ghanaian gold speculation--not the friendliest of professions and not always boasting the most reputable of individuals.

Now, in Ghana gold mining is huge, but it tends to be a very, very shady business with a lot of bad people and lot of exploitation. Still, some people do it right, although the sense I have always gotten talking to these guys is that they are not in the majority. There is just so much money flowing in this sector of the economy that it's hard to keep the industry clean (but the government certainly doesn't go out of its way to make this happen--i.e. classic bureaucratic corruption and kick-backs). So whenever I meet mining people I always have my guard up. It's nothing personal, just better safe than sorry.

At this hostel, I am staying in a shared-room with roommates that include a few French backpackers, an Italian volunteer, some American study-abroad-ers (so idealistic, so naive--it would almost be cute if they weren't so fucking loud) and a middle-aged man with a unique accent that I can't quite place who tells me he is from the states. As the others come and go, my middle-aged friend, lets call him "Doctor Django", hangs around. We begin some small conversations and alas, it turns out he is in the gold buying business in Ghana (red flag). But he seems nice enough, asks me what type of anti-malarial meds I am taking, implores me to take them on schedule:

"Malaria is no joke, my friend."

"Ok, Django. Thank you, Django."

In general, he seems like a solid dude. He spends some time complaining about the buying market, telling me in not-quite-racist-but-definitely-not-comfortable language about how 95% of the sellers he meets in Ghana are scammers, looking to be wined and dined and then never providing any product at the end. He is frustrated. He has been here some time and he wants to go home. But he also wants to make some fucking money. Gold is a buyer's market in Ghana; it is also a market for the thieves.

Over the course of the next few days, I hear him on several phone calls with sellers. The discussions are fascinating (especially to someone who is not of the business world) as they effortlessly flow from cordial and friendly, to threatening and aggressive, and back again. Doctor Django was being awfully candid, even as I was sitting in the same room. He seemed quite comfortable discussing his business in front of me. After hearing a few of these exchanges, I started getting a bit suspicious and began to transcribe some of his more colorful moments (cause fuck it, I was curious, that's why). Below is a brief excerpt from one of these to give you the gist (mind you, this is only the half--Doctor Django's half--of the conversation that I could hear):
Do you want to sell on contract?
No. Well then forget about Dubai.
My other buyer is Indian. I also have a Swiss buyer.
What?
Do I ask you where you get your product?
Well then, where is your product? Where is your fucking product?
Where is it now? Where does it come from? Who's is it?
Do I ask you these things?
No. Cause I don’t care.
You give me the product and I will give you the money, that’s it.
Stop talking. Stop talking like a baby, start talking like a business man.
But no monkey business.
You guys are always talking, talking, talking; you don’t need to talk so much.
I will call my buyer when you have the product.
I don’t see the product as of yet.
So tell me, where is your product? Who’s product is this?
When you tell me, I will call my buyer.
Don't get upset.
This is just like when you asked me, “Where is your buyer? Where is the money? What kind of money is it?”
Fucking crazy.
So Dr. D proceeded to have a few conversations to this affect in the open, on and off, all day. It was good entertainment, but I thought little more of it.

Later that day, I met a few other ex-pats at the bar, one a fun-loving Belgian NGO worker named William, the other a Malaysian named Singh who works in the gold mining industry as well (selling heavy machinery to miners) but who is much more discrete about his industry ties. They were both calidad gente, as the Paraguayans would say, so we sat and drank and shared crazy traveling stories for a while. Eventually, I relate the story of my hard-talking roommate to them and this begins a heated discussion (fueled by lots of beer and cheap cigarettes) about gold mining. Singh tells some truly insane stories about his experiences being held-up with a pistol in his face after having his car blocked by felled trees or rocks or just more people with guns. So basically, Singh wraps up these personal tales with this word of caution: if, as a gold buyer/seller you talk so openly (like Doctor Django has been doing) you are going to be killed. Period. In Nigeria, Singh assures me, this guy would already be long gone. But in Ghana, the industry is a little more forgiving, but only a little.

Later that evening, Dr. D informs me that he is heading out to meet a seller (I don't know why, but he very quickly seemed to confide greatly in me...which was worrisome) and leaves the hostel with his luggage still sitting in the room on the bed next to mine. Fast forward. After a long night with Singh and William at the bars in Osu along Oxford street--the trendy scene of ex-patriots and Ghanaian hipsters--and after far too much to drink, I finally get back to my room around mid-night.

No Doctor Django.

I wake up the next morning and still, no Django.

I didn't think much of it and went about my day--everyone has a crazy night sometimes, Dr. D being no exception. Hell, I was even on the cusp of one myself had my better, inebriated judgement not been my saving grace (also, thank you to William and Singh, those women were definitely too much for me to handle, in retrospect). Django will show up eventually.

I have a coffee in the morning, go to the library at Lagon University to dig around some archives for a few hours. Then I wander along the coast in the afternoon and have late lunch looking out over the Gulf of Guinea. It is only later that day while mulling it over on my way back to the hostel that I have a flash of worry: oh fuck, that guy is dead somewhere deep in the bush and I am the last one to see him alive. I am one of a few, maybe the only person in this entire country that knows anything about this guy. Immediately, in my mind, this becomes both an incredible responsibility and a terrible burden (does that sound selfish?--but seriously, who wants to spend their last week in Ghana at a police station being interviewed by questionably-corrupt officers instead of on a beach somewhere). Oh well, I think, if its coming, its coming and there is nothing to do about it. So I get back to the hostel and wait, either for the call to the front desk, the police cruiser at the front door, or by some miracle, for Doctor Django himself

Around mid-afternoon a taxi pulls up and, low and behold, out steps Doc D. I was seated outside having a beer and he waved to me, walked up and sat down. He did not look good, like not fucking good at all. His hair was disheveled and he was very pale, his hands were shaking and he seemed way out of it. You know when you see someone and, even if you can't point to any single aspect, you can tell from their face and their eyes that they have just been through hell. That is the look I got from the good doctor and I immediately felt this surge of empathy. These feelings were vying for dominance against the anxiety of possibly being wrapped-up in something terrible (although the beer was helping to calm the nerves a bit). I have made it an explicit point to never end up in a prison in a developing country--let's call it one of my few modest aspirations in life--and I intend to keep it that way. Still, this guy was in the shit, for sure.

"How the hell are you, doc?" I ask, half curious, half not wanting to know a fucking thing.

"Not good," he offers readily. Yeah, no shit. But this guys needs a friend, I can tell, so I sit and listen.

What I expect is a tale of some dark and shady gold deal gone awry but what emerges in the next few minutes is an entirely different, although nonetheless, incredible story. Doctor Django begins to tell me of the previous night in which, as he was on his way to meet his prospective seller, he found himself having a heart attack in the middle of a less-than-reputable part of the city. He calls his friend (in reality, a previous client and only recent acquaintance) who over the course of the next 18 hours drives him to 3 different hospitals and 2 different clinics trying to find the necessary care and treatment all while with Django basically dying in the passenger seat next to him.

"I tried to call you," he says to me, to my surprise. "I tried to call the hostel to get a hold of you but they couldn't find you."

'Fuck, really?' I think. 'What the fuck was I going to do?' I feel for the guy, sure, but my money is getting thin, I have no car here in Ghana and I am not sure what kind of help I could have offered otherwise. Still, I am flattered at the consideration although secretly glad that I didn't have to spend the evening watching this man gasping and sweating to death.

See, the way a lot of African health-care systems work is different than the US: they will not give you medicine unless you pay for it first. So Dr. D, through the fog of his own impending doom, finds himself laid up in a hospital finally, scrambling through his limited funds to see if he can afford the to pay for the medicine the doctors are holding in front of him: blood thinner to help with the heart and antibiotics to help with the vicious lung infection he finds he has been carrying around with him for some weeks (which also likely contributed to the heart attack). So close and yet, so far. What a strange ethos for a medical practice: tell your dying patient what is happening to his body, tell him all of the worst case scenarios that may befall him should he not get the appropriate medications/treatment, inform him that both are available at the hospital, but deny him any care, even life-saving care, unless he fork over some hefty bills first. Fuck man, what a trip.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't really know the kind of person Dr. D is, but he seems alright to me. Then again, I am not his business partner, just a friend. But I do know a bit about gold mining in Ghana, and from the conversations I have overheard, it wouldn't surprise me if he was involved in some shit. Maybe he is into something, maybe not. Maybe it's legal, maybe it's fucked. I can't know and I don't want to. But when you see someone in a situation, like having their heart fail in a developing country without the support (either personal or financial) that they need to see themselves though, that sort of judgment is perhaps suspended and empathy overrides apprehension.

Long story short, Doctor Django eventually made it work, but not without some arm-pulling and a hospital-escort back to the hostel to get more money while he was still technically having a heart-attack (they would not let him leave on his own, lest he skip out on his bill--its like dine-and-ditch just with your life on the line). But as he is still in pretty bad shape, he may need some looking after, so he and I are now friends. He's got my number and contact info (giving this to a potentially-illegal gold dealer may or may not have been the most prudent decision in my travels) and I have volunteered to be on call should anything else happen to him while both of us are still in the country. He is recovering slowly here at the hostel, although as he told me:

"I am stuck here until I get better, I might as well try and get some work done." (i.e. some more high-octane, blood-pressure raising exchanges with gold buyers and sellers). Jesus dude, serious? Yeah, alright.

So lesson learned: life is precious. Whether you are a good person, a bad person, or somewhere in between, no one wants to go the way of an imploding heart on the street somewhere far from home. Even the toughest, roughest of them all still face a potentially-untimely death with fear and uncertainty. Mortality: the great equalizer. But at such a precipice, with which I have had my own fleeting personal encounters, what we all want is a friend, a hand to hold, a familiar face.

I travel a lot and I have for some time now. Its great when you feel strong, healthy, independent, alert, prepared, and ready. But when you find yourself in the shit, all you want is home. And when home is far away, a friend will do.

So here I am drinking a coffee on a warm African morning across the table from my new friend, not asking too many questions, but happy with this unspoken place at which we have arrived. Here I find myself wishing that all wanderers, whether moral crusaders or opportunity seekers, will find their friends when they need it most--including Doctor Django, including myself.

From Accra,
-mario

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Murky Business

“It’s a murky business.”--the cryptic remarks of a white, middle-aged gold speculator from Phoenix as he details his latest (legal?) business dealings in Ghana. And while his industry and mine could not be more different, I feel like maybe he is speaking for both of us in some way.

I'll explain what I mean, it just might take me a while to get there...


Arriving in a developing country with a wad of crisp US dollars is an easy way to feel big in one’s britches. The stacks of local currency yielded by this foreign sum means that everyone walks into the heat and humidity with fat pockets and feeling like a high roller. But for those of us to whom such a sensation is not the normal state of affairs, this effect inevitably proves fleeting and deceptive.

Having learned my lesson several times before, I doubled the amount of cash I changed upon arrival before heading into a part of the country that I had been told was, for all intents and purposes, functionally cash-less (although I would later learn that there is in fact one working ATM in the Afram Plains where I had been working). Better safe than sorry. So I set off into the bush with my collection of neat bank envelopes, each spilling out with one colorful denomination or another.

Fast forward almost a month and a half: I am at a small hostel on a beach, far away from a lot of things, and I find myself stitching together smaller and smaller bills in order to cover a bar tab that has, in the past few days, exceeded both reason and possibly even memory.

How many of those did I have?

Really?

Good for me.

After the 50 and 20 and 10 GH cedi notes are finished, I find myself erecting piles of 5 and 1 GH cedi notes, which begins to worry me some. The bartender looks skeptical but unsurprised--I get the distinct feeling that this is not uncommon. I finish the count and am just clear with some taxi fare left over. There’s even a bit extra to buy a drink in celebration of my modest financial accomplishments.

“One Mario Special, please.”

“You’re ridiculous,” the bartender obliges.

They’ve named a drink after me, which is about as much of a compliment or an honor as I should hope to expect. It is a cocktail of home-brewed akpeteshie (palm wine) flavored with fried bananas (also local), a little bit of rum (or a lot) and some sprite (and I mean Global-South-cane-sugar-no-corn-syrup-added type Sprite, not the poor, subsidized American excuse). For the past few days, I had been sipping these concoctions slowly while watching banks of fog and storms chop the waters along a narrow coastline of mangroves and palms. To my immediate west, there was a thankless lighthouse hailing ships on a lonely peninsula. So I drank a few extras and stayed on the beach a bit longer each night to keep it company.

I’m pretty proud of that.

But my current situation does not involve so much pride, but instead, something of the opposite: pure pragmatism. I’ve still got a week and a half more, a few cities, and a few more beaches to cover before I head back to the states. I better start making friends.

Leaving Ghana, like the few other memorable times I have limped back across the border towards home, will be an inglorious event. Sometimes traveling, and especially traveling where you cross-cut several different socio-economic strata in short periods of time, can be as physically trying as it is mind-fucking. Getting back home, normalizing your brain and your body, and working through the absurdity of transcending such spaces with such ease, can be like shaking off a bad hangover. You are left with memories that, once removed from their material surrounding, feel entirely unreal and inexplicable; you would doubt they actually happened if you didn’t know better and while the moments themselves may remain clear, connecting the dots proves a different task altogether.

But maybe that is part of the reason for doing this--to get so far outside your head and so far out of your normal reality so as to enter a sort of altered state of consciousness. Sounds dramatic, I know, but maybe part of the motivation (for me at least) to get out, get out, get out and travel often and leave home behind is that I crave the novelty like a clean, clear-headed high. The perspective gained is illuminating. The things experienced become tales, like Ahab and the white leviathan, to be told and re-told as much for the thrill of reliving such things as for the entertainment of others.

This is a pure exercise in privilege, I readily admit. I can’t say if I do any good through any of this or if I make a difference, though I do try my absolute hardest and it tears me up sometimes. But I do feel myself becoming a better person through it. That’s a poor excuse, but it might be what is left after all is said and done--everything else is up for debate, this is the only thing I feel certain about.

I wish the answer were more straightforward. I wish that I could say definitively, like some college student after few weeks “living” in Kenya and building schools that “I made a difference”, but the world is just such a complicated fucking place. Such an assertion would be naïve at best, self-congratulatory and ignorant at worst. So often have people with the best of intentions done the greatest of harm (cue PSA on the history of development and aid intervention in the Global South). Maybe I am just the latest iteration of good intentions gone awry. Maybe I should just stay the fuck at home.

It is only the fools who walk around with self-righteous convictions. I may not be a good person, but at least I have enough perspective to doubt myself (but perhaps not enough to stop doubting myself before it becomes counter-productive). At least I hope I am a little less of a fool than I used to be.

So while arriving in a developing country may be an easy way to buoy your financial ego, leaving that country with loose pockets, an empty bottle of anti-malarials, and a general sense of sobering confusion feels much more like humility.

But I much prefer humility anyway. At least that shit has got some staying power.

It is a murky fucking business, but I love it desperately.

-mario

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Motorcycle Philosophy: Days on Dwarf Island

So, so many things have happened in the past few weeks that I find myself with neither the right words nor the right place to start. There have been so many moments, both big and small, profound and subtle, that I continue to reflect upon as I pass through these tropical days and nights. I am reminded of my time in Peace Corps where such a disposition was my daily routine. During those times, I led a life that, while seemingly infinite and often quiet, was always teaching me something and was always on the verge of erupting, pushing me, challenging me even further. 

It is in such times (the calm as well as the storm) that you find yourself. It is in such times that you dig to your core and uncover who you really are, underneath the bullshit and the facade that society seems to thrust upon us. Such time was this past month. I now know, even more so than before, that I am in the right line of work. It is work that I don’t think most people would choose and it is often work that I don’t think most people understand. And for good measure, it isn’t noble or sophisticated either--in fact it is quite the opposite. But still, it allows me to see things, to do things, to have experiences and more importantly, to share my time and my life with communities that most people could not even imagine.

In a way, it is my dream job--as much as you might consider pooping in a hole next to 5 strangers a dream, but also as much as you might consider fishing in the wild and warm waters of an early African dawn a dream as well. To me, the rewards far outweighs the inconsequential discomforts. If you want a Hilton, be a fucking tourist. If you want a genuine experience, you’ve gotta earn that shit.

The stories in the next couple blogs will not be in any chronological order and some may be redundant, but I have to begin typing somewhere or else my giardiasis-enfeebled mind is going to implode. Hang with me--its late here in Ghana and its hot and my typing fingers are feeling loose, so here we go…


The truck picked me up at 5 am and carried me along as it crawled through the un-ordered side streets that connect the outlying communities surrounding Donkokrom. With one more sleepy passenger in tow, we began the journey along the winding dirt road that leads to the northern banks along the southern branch of Lake Volta. When we arrived, a grey morning lay over the lake as women and children gathered buckets of water in the muddy shallows, crowded between a shore of human and animal tracks and the hollow, dead trees that inhabit the bay.

We proceeded to unload our gear: food for several people for 3 days, fuel for 4 (just in case), solar chargers, personal luggage, and two motorcycles fresh from the local mechanic. As we loaded this equipment onto the back of a 20 foot skiff with the help of the boat’s captain and two shipmates, the dark clouds which had hung promisingly over a rain-starved savannah began surrendering to the rising sun without yielding so much as a drop. As we set off with only one of our two outboard motors operating, we chased the straggling bit of clouds south until they had left the sky completely. There has been such little rain this year.

The boat ride was long. Despite assurances from the crew to take only 3 hours, some mechanical issues and a strong current helped to stretch this leg of our trip into a generous 4 hours. Our breakfast was taken on board--a feast of fried fish, Ga kenkey, and hot pepper--between communal stints of water bailing (if you recall from previous stories, many of the hand-made boats on Lake Volta, whether big or small, are anything but watertight). When we arrived at Dwarf island it was almost mid-day. The farmers working in their rice paddy fields at the edge of the waters seemed curious at our arrival: not many people wander here (a fact that will be re-visited again later) and certainly not any awkward-looking yevus (white people).

Our landing was followed by another hour or two of unloading gear and portaging it up the bare, rocky shore, though low groves of bim and acacia trees, and into the nearest community. It was here, with the family of a local school teacher, that we would make our basecamp to visit other areas along this massive island for the next few days.


Before I continue, perhaps I should briefly explain what exactly it is I am doing here, and who I am here with:

For my fieldwork, I have been working with the help and contacts of the Afram Plains Development Organization (APDO), an amazing NGO that has a stellar reputation across Ghana for working (and working well) in some of the most remote and isolated parts of this country. To explain why they pick such places to operate, Modoc--the organization’s jovial, white-haired and wizened founder/executive director--simply says, “There are people in those places too.” I had been invited on this trip by Modoc in order to accompany a small team while they monitor one of the projects they have been establishing on Dwarf island. The island itself is a chronically under-served and isolated area that is home to somewhere between 47 and 100 communities (the number is still unclear, but at anywhere from 100 to 500 people each, that is a lot of people).

The program APDO is running is called CBE, which stands for Complimentary Basic Education. The gist of the project is such: APDO identifies children in impoverished communities who are not going to school (either because they are busy helping their families to farm or because they have fallen behind and dropped-out). These kids are given a 9-month program, taught by individuals from their own community that are trained by the NGO (it is very hard to convince state-trained teachers to serve in such remote areas), in order to catch them up and re-insert them into the national educational system. The program has been incredibly successful, serving almost 1,000 children each year. At the end of its 4th year, it is to be expanded yet again, this time into other areas of the country. CBE combines community buy-in with realistic developmental goals and is supported by the amazing commitment of the APDO staff. It is grassroots; it is sustainable; it works. 


The next few days are spent on the back of a motorcycle, getting lessons in geopolitics, philosophy, and development ethics from Modoc himself. We spend hours navigating and getting lost in an maze of small footpaths that criss-cross this island in search for communities buried in the endless sea of the Africa bush. Most communities need to be found using GPS coordinates as there are no signs and no maps, only vague instructions gathered from previous visits and the memories of our two other APDO companions, Paulina and Grace. Our efforts lead us through dense vegetation, down irrigation channels and across dried river valleys. More than a few times, as we weave through the shoulder-high grasses of rolling savannah, we are greeted by a sweet smell: the hoppy, crisp aroma of marijuana fields boasting a plenty and a purple-hue that sends shivers down my legs.

“No one comes here,” offers Modoc, “If police come here, they [the farmers] will take care of them and put their bodies in the lake. No one will find them.”

This is a potentially worrisome realization, especially as we find ourselves stumbling though quite a number of these glorious fields, but my apprehension is undue: the work APDO has done here has earned them a great amount of respect and appreciation from the local people. Here on Dwarf island, the state is all but absent in regards to almost all services or support; what hypocrisy it would be for them to show up only to enforce some asinine drug policy. And once again, Modoc explains the situation best--I paraphrase his words below:

“People need to eat. They want a better future for their children. The state has forgotten them, or ignored them, or maybe doesn’t even know they exist. So they do whatever they have to in order to secure food and make a living in a harsh environment--no running water, no electricity, no roads, maybe a few schools and a medical clinic here or there but nobody to staff them. These are not criminals and it would be ignorant and shameful to treat them as such. They are honest, good people who are making the best with the few cards that they have been dealt.”

And he is right. So right. Like many peasant communities all over the world, they are occupying a tricky space between legality and illegality, but an even trickier space between life and death, nutrition and starvation. With the rains dancing always on the horizon but never visiting the soil, these are lean times--a phrase that takes on new meaning when working with people who are living in the midst of food insecurity. People need to eat and weed is a hell of a cash crop thanks to healthy demand from the developing world (let’s not forget that little detail of the story now).

But still, despite hectares of marijuana plants the size of small trees growing happily in the open, it is the people amaze me most: children walking 5 kilometers, twice a day for school only to come home and help with the farm work they missed. Men toiling in a wicked hot sun to tease life from water-less pastures. Women with babies on their backs still carrying water, caring for children suffering from malaria and working in the fields but, seemingly always with a song on their lips.

It is not idyllic or romantic, like some bucolic country life on the back of a postcard or a made for TV movie. It is a hard life. It is unforgiving. It is unimaginably challenging. But just the same, it is a testament to shear human endurance and a capacity for love and perseverance that few people (myself included) from privileged backgrounds can ever, ever begin to fucking imagine.

And so for days, this motorcycle and this forgotten island became my school as well--an educational experience that will always be lacking from the pampered classrooms at the universities (no matter how much money they spend and despite the glamorous financial gifts that rich alumni dump back into the fond memories of their youthful excess). For days, I was blessed with a living, breathing forum in which to engage with and come to appreciate a completely different part of this world. For days, I was allowed so many moments to wonder at how many untold numbers of forgotten little villages populate our world, at how many silent struggles people must endure, and yet, at how many dreams they still manage to conjure and hold close to their hearts. But also, I wondered at the dreams deferred, or forgotten, or never even realized at all.

Modoc’s philosophy is simple enough: even if these children must follow their parents into a life as peasant farmers, even if the 9-month CBE program is all the education they ever receive, at least it will help them be better farmers, or farmers with a little more knowledge in their heads. At the end of the day, it is these small changes that make a difference anyway. They don’t change the world, mind you--this world is fucked regardless and if you just wanna sit around and wait to make big change you’re only making a tiresome excuse to continue complaining and do nothing about it--but they do create fertile soil from which better things may someday grow.

And as long as there are people in this world willing to put in the effort, the energy, the love and the sacrifice to try and fertilize those grounds, whether poor farmer or development worker or otherwise, there is still a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

There is the old woman who, though she has no children of her own, walks her village daily to make sure the kids go to school so that they might make the community better.

There is the farmer risking his freedom to grow pot so he can make enough money to send his children far away to the closest secondary school.

There is the child, unable to read or write, who works the rice fields with her family all morning, studies all day in a school built from trees and thatch, and who returns to the fields at night to work again--day-in, day-out.

And there is also the community that has come together and built that schoolhouse with what little money and resources they have for their children and for their collective future as well.

These are all real people. These are all real stories. And there are millions more just like it.

So here’s to good people doing good work, not because of hardship but because life happens everyday. Here’s to APDO. Here’s to the peasant farmer.

from the island,
-mario