My time in Africa was abruptly shortened by Sarah getting sick... we had to medivac her out... but here are my writings while it lasted. All are letters. I have another long story I wrote about our time in Dogon Country, but I never typed it in. Maybe I will someday. Anyway, here's what I have:







Segou, 8.oct.miiim

Hanky -

It's mid-day, and the mosque has just disgorged itself of all the faithful, who are now flowing through the dust-river of a road, a kaleidoscope of patterned robes and Muslim hats... and for a moment, just until the tide of people ebbs and stems, it almost looks as if Segou werea busy place, full of direction, motion, inhabitants with somewhere to go. And then, not a minute later, the street returns to its quiet, baking,almost deserted state of normalcy. Segou is absolutely a medium-sized town, situated by the banks of the big river, which intrudes itself into the vastness of the great dessert. The Niger arcs up through the land, infiltrating the emptiness with crocodiles and trees, and of course villages, before curving to descend southward through Nigeria, to the sea,as if the ocean and the dessert had been sleeping side by side and the ocean, perhaps in a fit of dreaming, perhaps as a response to the warmth of the sand, had thrown her leg over the continent's soft body, a splashof life trickling through the heat.

And sitting on the jetty, watching the wide and powerful river course its way across the distance with the rushless, deliberate force of genuine strength -- strength with no glitz, no need of evidencing itself too obviously -- as though the low-slung trees and scrub along its mud-sandy banks should be obvious enough -- I am struck by the majesty and grandeur of not only this river, but of all the great waterways, deliverers of nourishment, bringers of access, openers of the interiors of the great continents of Earth. I've seen a few of their number: the Yangtse, the Mekong, the vast and rolling Mississippi, but even upon first glance the Niger feels, is, a hero among Titans. For it, along with its twin sisters Nile and Congo, bring their wet message to the remotest interiors, to the least hospitable environments, to the last ground anyone could expect agreat river to tread.

But despite the trees, despite the gleaming water which quietly allows this town and so many others to succeed in being, there is still a deep and forced acquiescence here to the drier elements of terrain, to the dust, and the sun, and the flies. A uniform tone of arid earth encompasses all things, the adobe buildings, the streets of billowing clay, the organic dyes used in the local fabrics which, like the drifts of dust and the pacing of the river, flow loosely around the forms of the people here, beautiful people, tall, strong, people who live always within the dichotomy of dessert and river and whose skin, so dark, so rich, makes them seem more of a place, more of their place, than any people I've ever seen. All here is seamlessly welded together, a continuous product and progression, of the Earth, by the Earth, from the Earth, in color, in composition, in feel, a collusion between the eternal reddish-brown dirt baked for millennia beneath the heat of the sun, and the cool, shocking spark of life from the great and fertile river.

The Greek Anaxagoras thought that everything was composed of earth, air, fire and water. What he didn't realize is that the fire is part of the air, is within the earth, is surrounding the water, there are only three genuine elements, and where they meet most forcefully, where the truest balance is achieved, where earth, air and water combine with fire with more natural grace than anywhere else, is a town called Segou.

Take care, Hanky.

Segou, 9.oct.miiim


Life is so fast, and so slow. In the Philippines, during a comfortable week of diving and drinking, crystalline water and palm forests, it was hard for me to imagine that one week later -- now -- I'd be in a small town in sub-Saharan Africa, a place with dust for streets and donkeys for cars. And now here, conversely, I have the feeling that there's no way I really could have been on that diving boat, in that water... it's so far away, not just in a different time zone, but in another mind zone as well, a different world, separated from me by a few hours, a few days, and by everything I see, hear, smell around me, perceptions whose impacts preclude any possibility of otherness, deny any alternative world. Yet still, I maintain living memories of my past planets, my other lives, my good friends, and so I think of you, and I write.

The pace here, where things seem to happen without happening, is so comfortable to me. Here, along the banks of the great Niger river, where the life-force of water cuts the harsh desert, all is space. The land and sky, both so flat and broad, somehow make room for time, the flattest, broadest space of the all. Nothing here jostles, nothing crowds; if I interrupt this letter to light a cigarette, or to take a walk, all will be as before the moment I once again sit before this page with your name atthe top, pen in hand. It's difficult to lose an opportunity here. Everything is old, new, unchanging, the minutes merge with the hours, which fall from the sky and bleed into the dust. My friend and sit writing, pausing, watching the donkeys, the goats, the mud buildings. We've been joined by a boy named Babou, whom we met yesterday. He's fourteen, he has nothing to do, and more importantly, he seems to want nothing to do. Such a nice feeling. He sits with us, content with mere being, only occasionally moving his chair a bit to see a different mud building for a while, or to watch a different donkey. Sometimes he rises to catch a lizard, and bringing it to me, returns to his seat. From somewhere I can hear someone hammering something. Impatience, it seems, is learned... but it's not learned here. Here, impatience behaves like the rain, like the hours, simply soaking into the dust, and into the horizon.

But even here, Tigerlady, I think about you. So unlike the life here, your life in Taipei was in such flux. A new house, a new man, a growing relationship with your daughter. It's all so big, and not unhealthily so. Change, like the placidity of desert time, can be so refreshing, so proper in its place. All that is necessary is some broader awareness of what should go, of hat should stay. I think that's why I like towns like Segou: in my life, which is so fluctual, so ever-shifting, a bit of routine is often something I crave. And I can create a routine wherever I am, to be sure; but there's something so comforting, so very relaxing, in finding a place like Segou, where life is so far beyond routine; routine is a linear sequence, a progression. Segou takes that en extra step: here, the routine is a constant, eternal condition, a point, rather than a line. To simply sit, to be, is to take part in its pattern, in its speed. Here, where the fastest motion comes from the flies, and the lizards who eat them; where the fiercest power belongs o the twin intensities of the burning sun and the flowing river, the fact of existence is a process unto itself. After a week here in Mali I have yet to see an African person wear a watch. And if they did, it would seem more appropriate that the mechanism not tick, that the hands not turn about the face, that the numbers be obscured, a timepiece more of jewelry than watch, more about stasis than motion, marking the passage of trees, of the sky, of the dust, and the constant, eternal flickering of the lizards, and the flies.

Take care, Tigerlady.

Segou, 12.oct.miiim


Sunday feels like Sunday no matter where you go. Even in Muslim Mali, the Christian colonizers have left their legacy of Sunday sloth. I woke up early today, at 6:50. Yesterday (Saturday: an active day) I met a Peace Corps volunteer from Kentucky, who invited me fishing with him. And despite the contra habitual horror of rising at an hour I feel is better reserved for going to bed -- after dancing, of course -- the prospect of fishing in the Niger at dawn was powerful enough to get me out of bed, to tear myself away from Sarah's sleeping body, the soothing fan, the quiet darkness of our room, and propel myself into the dusty street to await my new friend's arrival on his powerful, US-tax-provided motorcycle.

Still dreaming (for some unexplorable reason I had Paperback Writer stuck in my head), I installed myself on a boulder, my back leaning against the bare steel pole of a streetlamp to wait.

I lit a cigarette and quietly regarded the day.

At 7:15 the air was already clear and brilliant, the three colors of Segou -- reddish-brown dust, green leaves, the blue cloudless sky -- vivid and crisp, sharply attacking my residual sleepiness, blowing away the mist of dreamtime with the fresh vibrance of early morning. The heat, a force here so daily overpowering as to make the simple syllable "heat" seem altogether to meager to accurately describe -- the local term "chaleur" really does a much better job -- had not yet risen enough to reinvoke a somnolescent haze of caloric fatigue, or to stir up the breeze-blown haze of billowing streets. I sat, alert, waiting, watching the day form itself around me, the opaque, stifling claustrophobic gelatin of afternoon air still in its transparent liquid phase.

From alleyways and small roads always just out of sight I began to hear the occasional buzz of mopeds on their way to somewhere. I accepted this as the next petal in the blooming of the day. A cart, pulled by a donkey and driven by a stick-wielding Malien wrapped head to ankles in viridescent cloth clopped around a corner, passed in front of me, and turned the next corner again. Somehow each new noise that intruded itself upon the day only seemed to continue the silence of the world around within itself, seemed to contribute to the stillness. And I felt part of it too, as I sat on my rock, leaning against my lamppost, in the dirt road sandwiched between the mud buildings.

I lit another cigarette.

The sound of the steel lighter-wheel grating against the flint seemed altogether too loud, and remained in my ears for longer than I would have expected, but I expected nothing. I simply occupied the space, on the rock, against the pole.

I smoked my cigarette.

I watched the light.

I smelled the road.

I wondered why my friend hadn't arrived yet. A man in dusty grey pants and a loose white shirt walked past, the smacking of his sandals against his heels giving a slow rhythm to the increasing hum of distant mopeds. As he passed, he turned his head toward me. "Ca va?" His voice blended quietly in with everything else. "Ca va," I whispered. When he had gone, I reflected that no other greeting, in any language, could be so appropriate, could so define so completely the only fundamental truth of the moment, asked and repeated, interrogation and declaration: "It goes?" "It goes."

I sat with the world, feeling, and being.

After a while a boy of perhaps eight appeared, as if from nowhere, on a bicycle. He sat on it motionlessly, beside me, tacit. We eventually talked, but sparsely, letting periods of silence inform our conversation, allowing the stillness to swallow our words.

When he ultimately rode away, I lit another cigarette, and in the course of its consumption came to the conclusion that, in fact, I would not be going fishing today. Those were plans made on a Saturday, an active day, but now at 8 o'clock Sunday morning, I knew that my friend was at home, asleep, fishing for dreams, not fish. And I knew that he was right, in a way, to be so, because regardless of what might have been said in the spirit of a Saturday afternoon, this is Sunday, and Sunday feels like Sunday, no matter where you go.

I finished my cigarette, slowly rose from my rock, returned calmly to my room, and climbing into bed next to Sarah's still sleeping body, let myself fall back into my dreams.

Take care with time, you guys... it's all we have.

author's note: the following letter was written in white ink on black paper.

Sevare, 15.oct.miiim

Bikerdjl -

I must apologize in advance if this page, or any of the words on it, are soggy, or smeared, or bear traces of dried salt upon them. It's just that I find it difficult to do much of anything here in Mali without sweating profusely. Standing up makes me sweat profusely. Sitting, or lying, down makes me sweat profusely. Even sweating profusely seems to make me sweat. I wander the streets during the day, and suffer the thick dust of the roads -- the roads here, billowing masses of drifiting, almost colloidal red-clay particulates, are a phenomenon one must walk through, rather than upon -- and each afternoon I find myself encased in dirt, which, like iron filings to magnets, clings in streaked patterns to my saline-moist skin. This is easily handled with a shower, of course, but somehow even the actof bathing seems to make me sweat all the more. At night the situation doesn't really improve. The staggering heat of this place holds sway independently of the presence of the sun. Even now, at 11:20 pm as I sit with pen in hand, my thermometer reads a shocking 33 celcius... this with noon almost as far away as possible, this in the tranquil countryside, this under a fan. In fact, I don't actually think that fans help so much here; they seem to merely circulate more hot air against my skin. At night that's not such a big deal, but in the blazing shock of full afternoon, when my skin is actually quite a bit cooler than the atmosphere, to use a fan feels like blowing on coals, helping me cook more quickly. And besides, the action required, a practised back-and-forth forearm pivot, to generate any kind of breeze from the still still heat, makes me sweat, possibly more than if I were not fanning myself at all, although it's really hard to tell. Showering is useful, like I said, but truly only while it's going on, only while the cool water is flowing from above... and the moment it stops, the shocking painful air presses down, the dust resumes its ambint barrage, and the intercutaneous cascades continue flowing, as steady -- and nearly as voluminous -- as the Niger River which, ever near, mocks us with its cool unswimmability. "Come on in," it beckons, "I've got some goodies for you." Goodies indeed. Worms that live in your skin. Worms that inhabit the humours of your ees, worms that thrive in your intestinal sepses, and all maner of amoebae, bacteria, and microbial nasties. The great river is too powerful for me, thanks, I think I'll just sit here and sweat. Of course, I can't begrudge the sun its influence; it's done a marvelous job of keeping Mali dry, and of wilting the few stubborn shrubs and trees it has allowed to grow here. But more than that, it illuminates the clothing. Maliens wear the brightest concoctions of color and pattern I have ever seen, and with the constant blue sky, and the eternity of scarlet-brown dust, and the mud buildings which seem almost as though huge bubbles of air swam their way to the surface from the center of the earth and then stuck there unpopped-- save for a solitary door in each -- the rich fabric dyes and spectrally intricate motifs provide a startling foreground to the underlying earthtone of the broad, flat world. These colors seem especially rare in that thy don't wilt in the desolate oven of day. The colors, and the spinal columns of the girls who wear them, who stand tall, proudly, despite the tremendous masses of the goods and materials the comfortably wear, like huge hats, on their heads, balanced with antigravitational, almost supernatural, grace. Piles of cloth, bundles of wood, enormous containers of water drawn and transported from some faroff well: these girls -- and their vertebrae -- work so hard, despite the heat. In this country of poverty and acetylene climate, so many young Malien men have told me of their dreams of marrying a European woman, to escape thed estitution, and the scorch of the day. Except one... one of my friends here, named Mamadou, wants only to marry a Malienne someday; European women, although he finds them beautiful, are not to his taste. They don't know how to work. "No white girl," he told me, "will wake up at 4:30 and go carry water from the well on her head so I can have tea when I get up each morning." And he's right: I know I sure as hell wouldn't; I'm not a good person in the mornings, and I doubt my spine could handle the weight. And it'd likely be a pointless journey besides: upon my return home, I'd doubtless need to drink all that hard-earned water immediaely, to make up for the torrents of sweat from the journey. At least I have the small comfort, though, in seeing that it's not just me: the local people sweat too, their black skin shiny and glowing. Everyone sweats here. It's a sweaty place. So again I apologize if I've gotten sweat on your letter in the process of its composition. I hope it remains legible, and I trust that if you detect any white marks anywhere on this page, you'll do your best to ignore them. Life is good.

Take care, bikerdave.

Sevare, 25.oct.miiim

Mom and Claude (& Sophie) --

Luxury, it strikes me more and more, is so much a state of mind. And what a small thing it can be! Where some people might require choice bits of rare animals to dine upon, or troops of silk-bedraped girls flinging basketsful of rose petals before their advancing feet, I feel at the moment both content and fortunate to be able to sit without being beset by buzzing grey clouds of tickle-footed flies.

For the past week, trekking from mud village to mud village through the rocky plains of Dogon country, I felt permanently atwitch throughout the daylight hours, warding off, with calculated and unconscious spasms of muscle, each insect in turn which sees in my surface a suitable landing pad. At times I reminded myself of a horse, whose switching tail acts as a swatter by pure reflex, independent of the animal's foreground thinking. And I got quite good at it, really. By the journey's end I found myself in minute control of obscure and previously unpracticed muscles in my face, arms and legs, able to evict a presumptuous fly almost at the instant it alights with slightest perceptible flinch of an upper-central cheek, or a mid-ventral tricep.

Of course, they pose no actual threat, only a continual annoyance, but on such a scale as would move a Zen master to utter exasperation. Like blackened stormclouds, they move as a unit but with an intractable internal fast-slow shifting swirl, each using the others as a tool of confused distraction. And with extraordinary sharpness of eye and swiftness of wing they seem uniformly able to escape any attempt at extermination, with infuriating ease, truly passing like a gas through my fingers.

To approach the hole-cum-toilet in the Dogon villages is as much as to put the flies on Defcon-1 alert; they fly out in squadron formation, fixed waves in organized units, issuing forth from the latrine portal like drops of water from a geyser, filling the small chamber and making an ordeal of even the most basic bodily needs.

At the end of daylight hours, however, the flies at once and mercifully disappear (to where? I wonder), leaving the air clear and open for the arrival of the mosquitoes. And to be fair, in Dogon country, the mosquitoes posed only the slightest discomfort, nothing like the winged leeches that prowl the windcurrents of Bamako at night! For in that capital city, upon first inspection of the mosquito net in our room, I had noticed that it was of a rather coarse mesh, more like a net for fishing than anything else, but that was before I discovered that what the Maliens call a mosquito would, in other parts of the world, be considered some kind of bird, or airborne rodents of some variety. Truly beasts of prey, seemingly directly descended from the great Pterodactyls, there could be no way for them to squeeze their girthful bodies through the well-spaced pores of our net. Of course, to be outside the net (an occasional necessity at night) was an absolute terror, what with those insect vampire vultures swooping and swerving in orbit around my head, feinting and dodging, their vast wings aflutter, or else plummeting skinward with kamikaze intensity, arterial drills cocked and loaded, slapping against my skin like pigeons against plate windows.

But even safely ensconced within our diaphanous haven, having securely tucked the netted shielding hospital-style around the thin mattress, danger still lurked at every turn. For the blood-sucking brutes, those venal voleurs, clung to the netting itself, which, though preventing their bodily passage, was powerless against the intrusion of their beaks, beaks like I-V sticks, practically dripping with malarial venom, forcing us ever and ever more toward the center of the bed, as the walls seemed ever closer, and ever more densely studded with vascular vacuums...

But for now, I need not worry. I'm not in Bamako, I've returned from le Pays Dogon, and despite the heat, I sit comfortably, unmolested by anything with wings.What a luxury!

Take care, you guys. (I will if you will).

Bobo-dialassou, 19.nov.miiim

Benj --

Walking today, we passed where a river would be if there were any water which, in this part of the year, there isn't. People had therefore taken advantage of the flat, uncanopied rocks of the river-bed and -basin to dry their laundry in, open to the sky and the uninterrupted blasting of the sun. It made a very brilliant three-dimensional mix, since some clothes hung from lines stretched between trees while others lay spread on the rocks, a bright tessellation of color and pattern, glowing nearly shadowless in the force of afternoon light.

And then, standing before us as we approached and passed, was a naked man, turned to left profile, gazing down at the declivity full of cloth. He didn't look well-kempt, and his rich brown skin was greyed with a layer of long-accumulated dust. He remained motionless as we walked past him, simply lost in his head as hey surveyed the laundry-lines blowing, the flattened clothes baking.

Bobo is a big city of as many as 500,000 people, and though some are visibly rich, most are, if not visibly poor, at least visibly not-rich. But unlike in Mali, where the poverty takes a more obvious form, most Burkinabes, even the poorest dress themselves in something, even if only a shred of patterned cloth. They're much more self-conscious about nudity here, for in Mali it's common to see topless women and girls who go about thus deshabillees as a response as much to the heat as to want, without a thought of inhibitionism. So here, it made all the more shocking a sight to behold this lone nude pedestrian, an image so sure of the poorest ofthe poor.

And although it's true that African clothing is a delight to behold, tailored dresses and gowns, knee-length shirts and cotton pants all bedraped in pattern and color, it's equally true that cultural jet-lag tends to dump a huge mass of second-hand t-shirts and out-of-vogue clothes into places like Burkina. The nicer clothes of finer fabrics are of course very carefully handled, leaving the other articles, the lesser-quality stuff, to be beaten on rocks and then set out to dry, in the hot riverbed.

So he stood, ogling old t-shirts bearing the logos of defunct companies and bell-bottom corduroy lycra pants, quietly, gazing, wishing, or perhaps lost in a long series of tangentially connected thoughts completely unconnected from his condition, the clothes, the sun, or us. Or, perhaps he was their owner, an entirely thorough man who, when he does wash his clothes, washes them all, and then stands there, as quiet guardian, waiting for his wardrobe to dry.

Take care, Benj.