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:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhCpNmMFfbM

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 na├»ve 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