23/07: corner – unpublished chapter.
this is a chapter that, for reasons of pacing, to better capturing how time so quickly sped up once i left abyei, was left out of the final book. i still like it, as it describes some of the rupture one feels on return. i’ll include another unpublished one in a few days.
“I’d rather be second in truth than first in beauty” – Diego Valesquez
so. it was like Marco said. the sights, the noises, the days that surrounded me so completely, they collapse. they collapse, but they don’t disappear. it is as if you have shut off an old tv and all the images and sounds are compressed into that one bright point in the middle of the screen. incandescent, it lasts and lasts, still too bright to forget.
time is different here. hours are eaten up by little tiny minutes, almost instantly. they just disappear. days too. in abyei, time felt thick like molasses. each action was deliberate, even the small ones. eating food had a slow importance to it. this is dinner. now i am done. i will go to bed.
the days since have been like water. bright, clear, diaphanous by comparison. many million mini things have happened, but their inertia is different. i don’t know how many times i have eaten today. or quite where i have been. i could tell you if i thought about it, but i am not likely to.
since i last spoke at you, i have left sudan and passed through geneva for my debriefing. i am now in amsterdam, about to end my relationship with some parasites. you have to understand, it is not them, it’s me. i’m just better on my own.
the debriefing in geneva was interesting. aside from the usual talk about objectives, accomplishments, and future plans, there was considerable discussion about my blog, and about blogs in general. there are some who feel that they hide the slipperiest of slopes, that they are akin to voyeurism, a commodification of the MSF experience. others, like myself, are convinced that its immediacy and combinations of media allow a story to be told in a new, powerful way and that there is a benefit in their telling. the more people who know about abyei the better. perhaps jane jacob’s belief that it’s the number of eyes on a street that make it safe is also true of dusty towns. the more first time volunteers who understand what it is truly like in the field, the better. the more often our family members know we are alive, who get a chance to feel like they hear from us every day, the better.
i can’t speak to all the merits and demerits of blogs, but i think i know why they work well; they are personal, immediate, and available. they make a window in the world, and when they are at their best, it is almost clean. i haven’t looked back through mine yet. not quite ready. too many little mines, memories that need to lose some of their colour before they are recalled.
I am crestfallen. And sick. I am staying at an Amsterdam apartment of a friend of mine. I have been sleeping, riding her bike around, smoking.
I spend my days by myself. I got an email from the doctor in Switzerland. I have two brands of parasites. The proper treatment for both is metronidazole which is one of the only antibiotics you cannot drink alcohol while taking. I spent yesterday afternoon doing some research online on the effectiveness of other therapies. There is no question, metronidazole is the best. Some trials suggest that one dose of tinidazole is nearly as good. I have ridden around to three pharmacies so far and it looks like tinidazole is no longer produced. A distant third is the antiparasitic drug, mebendazole. It achieves therapeutic success in 68% of cases, making it a poor alternative. It is, however, possible to drink alcohol while taking it. My backpack is full of doses that I have just purchased. I can’t see an alcohol free two weeks until late September, certainly not in the next few days. I’m going to Berlin tomorrow.
I am on my friend’s bike, pedaling back from the pharmacy. Every now and again I get a stomach cramp and have to pull over to find a bathroom. It is probably my imagination. I have likely lived in symbiosis with these guys for months. Despite the occasional intestinal spasm, I am feeling mostly like Willie Nelson. I’m sure even Willie gets sick every now and again from a bad burrito or something.
I park my bike on one of Amsterdam’s many bridges and pull up a chair at the edge of a café. It is cool. It will rain soon. Nice.
I am trying not to think about my debriefing. I left it dejected. I had walked through MSF’s sliding door feeling like I spent the last months with two jobs. One, doctoring, the second, telling the story. I thought I had done both to the limits of my ability. I was proud.
And then the fall. After all that. After being left alone in the middle of the desert, no head office, people quitting, measles, that woman with the burn, Aweil and the baby’s blue arm.
“A glass of white wine, please.”
This is nicer. A book, a glass of white wine. Noone knows me, noone looks at me. I don’t have to say anything.
“Thank you very much.”
I open a book I just purchased and start reading. I can’t focus on the words. They blur and tumble.
The light is so clear here. Must be the rain, no dust. No dust. Ha. Hahahahaha. Fucking dust. Jesus. Hahahahaha.
I look around. The woman beside me notices me laughing to myself. She smiles back.
Lady, if you only knew. About all the dust. Hahahahaha. Jesus.
I can’t read. I’ve read the same sentence four times. I turn the book over at page 3.
I am sitting at a table on a gently sloping cobblestone road. Behind me is one of Amsterdam’s many aqueducts, its boats creaking with the sway. The sun shines for a second, then twinkles out behind a cloud. On the low roof opposite me, a group of students have pulled some brown cushions from inside their apartment and are sitting on them drinking wine. A car eases past.
Across from the café patio where I am sitting is a bar, its glass doors swiveled open. Inside of it, two men in suits lean on a dark wooden bar. A woman sits beside them, tapping a message on her mobile phone, a glass of red wine in front of her. I can hear the faint 4/4 thump of house music from inside. A waitress takes my glass.
“Just the bill, please.”
I leave a handful of change on the table, and walk back towards the bike.
Wait a minute. It’s not here. Someone must have stolen it. Shit. Oh. There it is.
I pedal up across the bridge and down the other side. I have nothing but a vague idea of where the apartment is. I wonder briefly what it would be like to slam into the brick post on the corner.
Slam. Fast. Crack. Bright light. Where am I. Blink. Spin. Ohh.
I shake the thought away and keep on pedaling. The sky has grayed over.
Oh, I recognize where I am. I think.
I pass a young couple, hand in hand, on the side of the street. They’re stopped, looking at a large photograph.
There’s a series of them.
It’s an exhibition. I pull up alongside one. It is of a polar bear, swimming under water, wide legs about to beat, nose angled up towards the surface. Light filters in from the ice above and the rays balance between his large paws. The water is so piercingly blue, it makes my teeth ache.
I get off the bike, start rolling it from one picture to the other. Two impala in front of a setting African sun, a red shimmering hole hanging above an oily horizon, about to set the world on fire, the silhouettes of the animals cindered shadows. An ink black leopard. A tree frog surprised on a leaf, wide eyed.
I see a placard describing the artist. The photographer is a world famous naturalist. A quote below his biography states that, in one critic’s opinion, he “singlehandedly makes the greatest case for preservation of our planet”.
I walk back to the photos. A baby elephant huddles under his mothers legs as rain streaks down on all sides. I take a closer look. The color is astounding, the definition in each fold of the elephant’s small ears so pure, I can’t believe my eyes. Someone leans in beside me to get a closer look. Murmurs of admiration.
I walk towards the information booth. It is surrounded by books and postcards. People are queued at the cash register. I join the end of the line.
After a few minutes I reach the front. The man behind the counter slides a recently purchased calendar into a clear plastic bag, hands it to the customer, and smiles at me.
“How can I help you?”
“Do you know about the artist?”
“Does he shoot digital or film?”
“Digital, I think.”
“And does he alter the photos after he has taken them?”
The man’s smile pauses.
“I…don’t know,” he answers, then shrugs. What does it matter?
“It would help me to know. It’s important. If he’s encouraging me to care about the world, he has to show it like it is. Like he was there for a moment that I missed, you know? One that happened and is now forever gone.”
The man looks over my shoulder at the customers behind me.
“I mean, if he takes a picture, then makes the sun redder or the water bluer, then I can respect him as an artist, but then it becomes about him, and not the world. You know?”
“Sir, can I help you?” he gestures to the man behind me.
“Can you find out for me? Is there anyone here who might know?”
“I’m afraid not.”
I step to the side and a man puts down a book, the polar bear photo on the cover. Behind him five people are queued with purchases of flat animals in their hands. I walk back towards my bike.
When I was in Sudan, my translator told me that during the war, all of the animals left. They went to Kenya, or Uganda. The elephants were the first to leave. They are the smartest.
I pedal away from the exhibition thinking how much easier it would be to get these people to care about Abyei’s missing elephants than it would the stack of forgotten charts in the pharmacy.