Friday, February 18, 2005

Out of Africa... Edited

I've finished the book, and now that I know the ending I just have to change this blog.

Every chance I get, I try to finish a few pages of Anita Shreve's "The Last Time They Met" (thanks, Shy). The critics have been effusive in their praise of Shreve-and rightly so. When I read the final page, it sent shivers through me. After the initial tingling came awe; it was as if someone knocked the wind out of me. Not really because of the underlying suspense, or the surprise ending. Mostly I just marvelled at a love so strong, a memory so intense, it literally stands the test of time. I mourned the hearbreaking loss and the iron will that attaches every event to a single, beloved moment.

But what I love best is the way Africa (Kenya in particular) is cast, like a place no one can ever imagine exists, God's playground in this vast world of artifice. Suddenly, living in HK with its skyscrapers, efficient modes of transportation, shopping malls, urbanites dressed to the nines seems so... for lack of a better word, fake. After gasping over the raw landscape of Rhodesia in "Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight" (thanks Maya) and longing for the ascetic beauty of Bhutan in "Beyond the Earth and the Sky" (recommended reading!) -- the dull gray skies overhead, uncertain whether to let the sun peep out or tickle the earth with the slightest of drizzles -- gets me beyond depressed. The perpetual mist/haze? doesn't help any.

Although I feed on the energy and verve of HK, and, like all expats, appreciate its modernity, efficiency, choice of restaurants (heaven for a chowhound like me!), fresh grocery displays, lavish parties, clean restrooms and paved streets; sometimes my bare feet longs for a muddy field or grassy patch, my eyes ache to see just trees and sky. A bare expanse of heaven, dotted not with city lights or building towers but a multitude of glinting stars. The way the sun shines in Africa is ferocious, books say, and when it rains, it pours. Is this true, Shy? Maya? The purity and mystery of everything there fascinates me, from the color of the landscape, caprices of nature, personality of the people, cruelty of animals. It all makes me feel tinier than a grain of sand, but not as insignificant. It's a conundrum why, in the continent where God shows Himself the most, there can be so much suffering. But that's another story.

Can I live in a hut? Can I walk miles to the nearest dry goods store? Can I sleep soundly at night, knowing there are no gates, guard dogs or security guards around? Can I stand getting sick when the hospital is ages down the road and filled to capacity with people more in need of their services and attention than I do? Can I do my thing in a hole in the ground? Maybe for a month. Certainly not for years. Provincial life I can manage (gentlewoman farmer sounds good), living with the birds and the beasts with no hot water and a non-existent bookstore I cannot. Yet something in me makes me want to live in Africa (not the modern-day cities but the wilder outskirts) for a while. To experience and feel daily miracles and masterpeices. Am I in love with an idea? Authors just make these remote, untouched places sound so bare, so real, so filled with spirit and soul.


Blogger shyguy said...

Dawn...Africa is all that and more! While I can't really say that I've lived the life of a farmer; it's such an awe-inspiring, magical place. There's just no place else like it. All I can say is hope that one day you and Derrick will be able to take the time to visit as words simply cannot justify Africa's beauty and bounty. I know I can't wait to go back in May and in August. It might sound too excessive for some but it's simply not enough for me! And, the only thing I dread the most about every visit is the fact that I have to leave it again.

10:04 PM, February 18, 2005  
Blogger mayapapaya said...

i read a long feature article a long time ago about south african poet -- and i think, nobel prize winner -- breyten breytenbach, who became some sort of anti-apartheid activist after his vietnamese wife was denied entry into south africa. the author of the article made a comment that in all african literature, the land -- geography, landscape -- plays a vital role; it's actually a living character.

during his trial, passages of his poetry were read aloud in the courtroom -- those that described the land -- and there wasn't a dry eye in the room.

that description completely intrigued me and stayed with me for years. when i finally saw africa a year and a half ago, i understood completely. for another shameless plug, check this out: down to the "two weeks in africa" post (shy's read this already), which i wrote for a magazine mickey's friend used to run. i "illustrated" it with pictures we took on that trip. i'm imagining that my impressions are typical of a first-time visitor, who's there only as a tourist.

one of mickey's officemates however, just came back from an 8-day church mission trip to swaziland. his group of 350 americans (and himself, a korean expat in hong kong) planted 35,000 vegetable plots as a means of fighting both starvation and aids (the crops boost the immune system). he plunged right into the thick of the poverty. people have literally nothing, he said. you come over with a regular sized suitcase, and go home empty-handed, because by the end of the trip you've given away everything in your suitcase: even your filthiest clothing is a boon to someone. the trip was a life-changing experience, he said, and that africa will break your heart.

i don't know if those two realities will always be the defining characteristics of africa: extreme poverty and extreme beauty. i also don't know how well a transplanted urbanite would fare, especially one born and raised in this part of the world.

if you're making a list of places to visit in this lifetime, however, as opposed to places to move to, africa should definitely be high on your list. it's a completely singular experience.

11:40 PM, February 18, 2005  

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