New Travel Column at 3QD

My monthly travel column, about southwest Africa is live now at 3QuarksDaily. Read it at 3QD now, and I’ll put it up here on CSW in a few days. It’s a consideration of dodgy and disastrous colonialism in Southwest Africa, with a little flying adventure on the side.

Oops

I never posted last month’s 3QD column here at CSW. Here it is:

On The Road: Sri Lanka Part Two by Bill Murray

Politics as the family business works out better for some than for others. Last year Turkish President Erdogan had to fire his son-in-law Finance Minister. And the Trumps, well … you know. But things are working out pretty well for the Rajapaksas of Sri Lanka.

The President is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, nickname “the terminator.” The Prime Minister is Mahinda Rajapaksa, his older brother. Basil Rajapaksa, “Mr. Ten Percent,” their younger brother, is a former MP. Their other brother Chamal, a former speaker of Parliament, is a cabinet minister, and Namal Rajapaksa, Mahindra’s son, is an MP and Minister of Sports, representing the next Rajapaksa generation.

When we left our story (Read part 1 here) it was six o’clock in the morning, election day 1999 in Nuwara Eliya, a highland tea-picking town south of Kandy, Sri Lanka. Two loudspeakers played the call to prayer, mounted atop a glass-enclosed Buddha statue just by the traffic circle. The sun hadn’t cleared the hills but it was set to be a glorious morning, birds and dew run riot.

At this hour, Nuwara Eliya served mostly as a regional bus station. People queued for rides and a few stores pushed open their doors. At a milk bar (that’s a name for convenience stores, here to New Zealand) I bought toothpaste and remarked how it would be a nice day. Dazzling smile: “It is election day, sir!”

People walked, made a day of walking, walking into town, walking to polling stations. They got time off from work to vote. Tyrone said all the drivers expected a curfew (they all stayed at a compound next to the hotel, like on African package safaris). When the announcement came, they’d go together to the police station in Nuwara Eliya town center and get travel permits for carrying foreigners. 

When the sun beat down and the hills gleamed and blinded you clear out to the horizon, there was a cure for that. The St. Andrews Inn offered all the to-the-bone dankness of late winter on the River Tay. Just what you wanted in a tourist hotel.

Its snooker tables, they said, were a century old. The St Andrews Inn grew its own carrots, beets, beans, broccoli, cabbage, horse mint, peppermint, coriander and parsley. They were proud of their garden, where guests could pick their own salad. Except there was no sign of guests.

While we were inside clouds closed above a full blanket of mist that hung down and draped across Nuwara Eliya. Before you knew it the dripping sweat of Columbo, only 120 miles back up the road, was a distant memory.

We bought a mango and tiny peanuts. My wife Mirja liked them better than the big ones back home, the way Roma tomatoes are tastier than fat round factory-grown ones. The guy fashioned a bag from a folded sheet of newspaper and scooped it full for thirty rupees. Which is, roughly, free.

A beaming boy (photo up top), sleeves rolled onto his forearms, stood before a videotape and chocolate store chopping garlic and spring onions on an ancient stovetop. It smelled delicious.

This was a real vacation day, way out on a trip, not coming or going, no travel, no agenda, no problem. Chased inside by the dampness, we banged on the heater in our room in mid-afternoon until it showed life and I turned on the shortwave, as just now was NATO’s thirteenth night of bombing Serbia. In 1999, the internet hadn’t quite yet supplanted the shortwave, at least in Sri Lanka.

•••••

Chair won. The ruling alliance represented by a chair gained ground, losing seats only in Colombo and the suburbs. Tyrone told us the results but I already knew because a little animated chair did a little jig on morning TV. Later, the BBC World Service called it a muddle, no clear victor, no mandate for either side.

The vote: People’s Alliance 2,105,546, United National Party 1,979,546, making up 70 per cent of registered voters. “No deaths have been reported…. The majority of the complaints were of a minor nature, bordering on threats, abuse and cases of simple hurt….” as the paper put it.

There was some violence in Matale, north of Kandy, but the curfew the drivers had expected would last only from eleven at night to five a.m. Still, at a police checkpoint at the edge of Nuwara Eliya town, the cop wanted us to go way around the other way. Tyrone lied that he didn’t know that way.

Tyrone didn’t do bags. He’d call a bell boy. He’d let Mirja and me haul them. Whatever, he wouldn’t touch ‘em. He’d spend fifteen minutes guarding them in the lobby instead of loading them up.

But what a gorgeous day! Tyrone in his British driving cap, the air crisp and fresh, we set off at 7:30 sharp, down from the highlands, and drove five and a half hours to cover 160 kilometers. Five and a half hours, a hundred miles.

Mist filtered the sunlight way up in the hills around Lake Gregory as we drove alongside orchids grown for export, alongside the old British horse racing track on the east side of town, and then down toward Bandarawela.

Mirja had a cold, started a week before. What better way to chase it than an herbal massage at the reknowned Suwa Madhu Indigenous, Eight-fold Ayurvedic Treatment and Manufacturers of Herbal Medicine and Beauty Cream Institute of Sri Lanka, just on the far side of Bandarawela town?

While the institute did its magic I wandered down the street to a communal spring and watched babies washed by laughing kids, scarcely older, everybody splashing and playing in the pool. The oldest girl invited me home for tea. They placed a tiny cup in my lap and the whole family of eight watched me drink from it. I showed them postcards of home and they showed me their pride and joy, the oldest boy, away at the police academy, as photographed in his class picture.

Green double doors with a tassel of string instead of a door knob led to an anteroom that may have begun as the color of peach. The plaster had long ago cracked and smudged. Three framed photos, all askance, decorated the otherwise bare walls. Mama, in sandals and a print skirt, graying at the temples, sat in a high, straight-backed chair, her hands clasped in her lap, smiling, surrounded by her brood.

The youngest, a precious brown-eyed beauty, took shy refuge behind a hand-carved chair, only her head and hands visible. I may have been a stranger, but she offered a ready, open smile.

Meanwhile the Suwa Madhu Institute seemed to do the trick. Mirja came out hair up, oily and grinning.

Now rolling across the flats bound for the coast, lushness from every vantage point, endless gardens of paradise. Buildings, painted over with ads, hawked Sunlight, Astra, Vim, Signal, Rinso and Lifebuoy household products, and “Curd & Hunny.”

In monastery towns monks climbed on and off the buses. There were branches of Peoples Bank – “The Bank with a Heart” – and here was Triple Star Services – “A New Meaning to Cleaning.” Once we found ourselves trapped for a while by the Chirpy Chip truck – “From the House of Uswatte.”

We passed a truck labeled on each side, simply, “Retort.”

Bikes hauling bananas plied the roadway, now alongside cactus and sawgrass. Marsh and wetland, salt pans, lagoons and windmills covered the Sri Lankan south.

We just beat a tour bus into the otherwise empty Oasis Hotel at a place called Hambantota. Walking into the lobby, Tyrone gleamed, “How do you like it?” We turned to look around and he said, “My father was project manager for this entire complex. But he died before grand opening.” We told him we liked it real well.

They played bad disco at lunch, and the waiters tried proper, formal serving techniques, barefoot. They smiled sweet as the day is long pouring Carlsbergs that foamed up, over and out of the glass.

Two fellows named Nandiga and Chaminda showed up in what once may have passed for a jeep. Here was our afternoon safari team, and away we went to look for elephants.

Nandiga wore a funny shirt with stripes and curlycues, and smoked cigarettes like French people do in movies, forefinger and thumb, as he hurtled us, one hand on the wheel, back down roads we’d crossed more carefully earlier in the day. At the park entrance, Chaminda moved from the front seat to stand upon the back benches, and took the canvas top off.

We bumped along near the shore, sometimes coming right alongside it, and saw more elephants than you’d think, six or seven, but they all looked cornered by the inevitable convergence of rapacious jeeps like ours. We came upon a pair and gave them distance as they watered themselves, nuzzled and played, but it still felt as though we were imposing.

Paul Bowles wrote about the same thing in the 1950s: “You feel as though you were in a tremendous zoo whose inmates had been placed there for your amusement. Perhaps it is because a few miles outside the sanctuary you see what look like the same buffaloes working placidly in the paddy-fields, and very similar elephants moving slowly along the roads, tinkling their bells….”

Elephants, iguanas, monkeys, but this safari was mainly about birds – over 20,000 in the park at any given time, Chaminda said. Migratory wild ducks from Siberia, sandpipers, jungle fowl, peacocks, peahens, gulls, plovers, terns, a few green parrots, egrets, pelicans, herons and storks. And one crocodile (Chaminda knew where to look).

Nandiga too. At 22, he’d already been working here nine years, a helper before he got his drivers license, then as a safari master. He drove like 20 year olds do the world over, but we made it home. The Yala Preserve wasn’t Africa but it was fun, and this safari only cost $26.50. 

•••••

A hint of the absurd hung over all our Sri Lankan affairs. Barefoot servers decanted Carlsbergs like fine wine, holding the bottles at the bottom, towels draped across their forearms.

“When does the monsoon come?” I asked Tyrone. “End of April, sir.”

“Is it ever late?”

“It is always late, sir.”

Paul Bowles told a story: he was “stripped naked by customs inspectors while their assistants fingered the seams of my garments. In the first instance they told me I was suspected of being an international spy. ‘But spying for whom?’ I insisted. ‘Spying for international.’”

•••••

A sunny dawn, but by mid-morning a silver cast covered the sky and storm clouds scudded up in the west. Surf crashed against the shore so determinedly that it chased off the stilt fishermen at Talpe, whose stilts swayed bare in the waves.

It’s terribly photogenic, stilt fishing. As far as I know it’s utterly unduplicated elsewhere. It’s unique like those leg-rowing, net fishing sailors on Myanmar’s Inle Lake. 

Stilt fishing looks like something the ancients have been doing since the days of mastodons, but it turns out to be less than a hundred years old. It’s a simple idea. Two or three fishermen drive a pole into the reef. They keep the distance between stilts enough that the lines of adjacent fishermen don’t get entangled and that’s it; hold the stilt with one hand, sit on a cross bar called a “petta,” go fish.

•••••

Matara, twenty miles shy of Galle, bottom left of the island, two miles past the lighthouse at Dondra Head. An imposing market of more or less identical stalls. Spices, powders, potions in jars, root vegetables in piles, bags of rice on hooks (some looking potentially fatal if they fell). One shirtless stallholder showed artistic flair, making a lattice display of galangal. Others built pyramid cities of onions, ginger hills and cane sugar towers.

The railway station bled into a massive tuk tuk lot and bus terminal, where people jumped on and off buses that merely slowed down. I saw this about thirty years ago in Mubarak’s Egypt when Tahrir Square was still a bus station. Local buses would slow but never stop.

Matara was busy but it didn’t share in Cairo’s seethe. In spite of one or two modern glass buildings, livestock retained some pride of place. At the southern tip of Sri Lanka bullock carts ruled.

•••••

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to intrude on Ceylon and stay. Buoyed by their brutal pillage of India’s west coast at the beginning of the 16th century (brutal as in: after the battle of Diu in 1509, the Portuguese collected heads and hands of their victims and sailed south, catapulting body parts into waterfront villages as calling cards), the Portuguese rounded the southern tip of India, and built a fort at Galle.

The Europeans terrorized the coast but never captured the inland Kingdom of Kandy. In time, the Sinhalese King invited the Dutch to help fight the Portuguese. The Portuguese finally left Ceylon to the Dutch, who finished and fortified the Portuguese built fort. Inside the ramparts of the old fort even now, a few streets still hung on to their Dutch names.

Every little village along the coast was like the last, hardscrabble, vendors selling only the things you need to live. No luxury. People, bicycles, buses, tuk-tuks, bullock carts and us – all sharing the lane and a half of blacktop.

Famous mask factories made special masks for exorcisms at the town of Ambalangoda. An engaging merchant there explained ancient legends and fairy tales, and displayed masks of each of the eighteen Sanni Demons.

“These demons are very powerful and dangerous. They can make people sick by looking at them.”

There they all were, one by one, causing “diseases of the bile, stomach pain, measles, mumps, diarrhea, poison like cobra poison in the body, and blister.”

Up the road Spice Garden Number 100 (“private but approved by the tourist board”) complimented the work of the mask makers in fending off maladies. It provided a complete regime of 22 remedies, with documentation, including for example #3 cinnamon oil against tooth pain: “Put a drop into the cavity of the tooth, when saliva acumulates spite it out again put one drop into the cavity repeat four times.” Or #13 kamayogi bon-bon: “Indicated in pre-ejaculation, the 1/2 teaspoon ful paste of kamayogi bon-bon eat before sexual affinity to control the pre-ejaculation and other debilities. Better before twenty minutes the sex and have some milk more.”

•••••

A train blocked the road in Bentota town. There a man’s all-day job was to stand alongside the track and open and close the gates for the five trains a day.

An elephant walking to work at a wedding ceremony blocked our way for a time, but by mid-afternoon we inhabited a bungalow at Kasgoda beach. The surf crashed hard forty meters away. I rented a fridge for $3 a day and cooled an armful of Heinekens.

A day at the beach. Chipmunks, cows and coconut palms shared the shore. Southbound geese (next landfall due south, Antarctica, 5000 miles). I’d gotten into a little Glenfiddich the night before and woke slow, had a curative Thai chilli-laced omelet and retired to the porch to read The Teaching of Buddha, supplied in the room along with the New Testament in French, English and German.

The sea sounded a dull roar and palm fronds caused a wind-whipped tempest. Still, blue sky peeked through here and there offshore. Now and then manic low clouds came through, raking the manicured lawn with water-fire. We put on a Sri Lanka music channel and Mirja did a long walk, on which she found a turtle hatchery down the beach.

A chipmunk climbed down the palm tree beside the porch and stared at me from three feet away. The wind blew things around inside our room. I felt sympathy for those who had come all this way for a beach vacation in the sun, but I loved it. The earth was vividly, furiously alive. Wind, thunder, fury.

New Column at 3QD

Part two of a two-column series on a visit to Sri Lanka is up on 3QuarksDaily now. Read it there now, and I’ll post it here to CS&W next week.

And there are a few more Sri Lanka photos like this in the Sri Lanka Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Africa Vignette #12: Gorilla Trek

For this week’s vignette, a mostly previously-published review of two day-long gorilla treks in Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans, including some photography tips:

A silverback

The first day we visited the 12-strong Hirwu (“Good Luck”) group, the second the 18 member Amahoro (“Peace”) group. Here’s a little about how the treks work, and some things we learned about taking gorilla pictures.

Both days started the same way, as all the trekkers mustered at the park headquarters in the 7:00 hour. There were pots of coffee and tea, and it was one of those mildly awkward moments, when a few dozen strangers speaking different languages attempt to mingle, with nothing really to say.

Out front on the grass, a display measured off seven meters, with a pair of boots on one end and a painting of a gorilla on the other, graphically illustrating that we were to go no closer to the gorillas than that. The reality, both days, wasn’t so simple.

ORTPN, the Rwandan tourism body, put on a thoroughly professional operation, and for good reason. From the Kampala Monitor:

“Revenue receipts collected from the tourism industry have increased by 15 per cent with a collection of $80m in just six months. According to officials in Kigali this figure has surpassed the $68m target that was envisaged for the year 2008.

Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), Rwanda’s agency that regulates the tourism industry and the country’s national parks said last week that the collected revenue now officially makes the tourism industry the number one foreign exchange earner contributing about 3.7 per cent to Rwanda’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”

Also from the Kampala Monitor: “Gorilla tourism alone – that has seen vast numbers of tourists heading to northern Rwanda for a view of the rare mountain gorillas – brought in $7million.”

Everyone’s guides/drivers took their permits to meet with the administrators, who put individuals in groups of eight. We all divided into these groups for a brief orientation talk with our respective trackers, then adjourned to our vehicles to ride maybe forty minutes to our respective trek starting points.

The rules mandated that we would have one hour with the gorillas. Once we got to them we would stop a hundred meters or so shy and drop everything except what we could carry, which meant, realistically, a camera and/or a water bottle.

Our first-day tracker, Eugene, explained this is principally for the gorillas’ benefit. One of the reasons was that we weren’t to put anything down, so that the gorillas wouldn’t be tempted to come over and pick it up and potentially get human germs.

The second day one man brought a huge backpack full of both video and SLR camera gear, really way more than he needed, and argued strenuously to be allowed to bring it to the gorillas, but the guides stood absolutely firm. They explained (another reason) that such a big pack made this man, to the gorillas, not the shape of a human to whom they had been habituated.

At the start point, porters were available for ten dollars. They would take in your day pack, water bottle, lunch, anything you might have, and watch your things while you were actually with the gorillas.

Apart from the fact that that was useful, we also felt like it was a good way to leave behind just a little something in the local community, and we hired two porters each day and gave them each $15. You’ve paid to come all this way and then paid $500 for your permit. This is no time to go frugal.

Each group of eight trekkers and their guide and porters was led and trailed by Rwandan soldiers with rifles. They mainly remained discreetly out ahead and back behind the group.

Each gorilla family in Rwanda is tracked dawn to dusk. Trackers, who know the gorillas individually, go in each morning and find their family based on the previous night’s position. As we set out each day, our tracker/guide talked by cell phone with the trackers who were already with the gorillas, and learned where to take us.

The first day’s trek in was as hard as anything I’ve done in maybe ten years. The second day was opposite in every way, and we were in, had our hour and out by 11:30 a.m.

The group adjusts its pace to the slowest person. The first day a substantially unfit woman slowed the group so much that by the time we arrived where the trackers expected us to see them, the gorillas had moved. Unfortunately, they had moved straight down a sheer ravine and back up the opposite size.

Forced to create our own path, one of the trackers walked ahead of us with a panga, a curved, two-sided machete, literally hacking the jungle footstep by footstep, straight down then back up the far side of a ravine. There was nowhere amid the dense vines, really, to put your feet. We let ourselves down and moved upward more by grasping vines hand over hand, and each handful was packed with stinging nettles.

The less fit lady never made it any closer to the gorillas.

But we did, we finally found them, and in doing so saw how the seven meter rule back at the ranger station is really more of a theory than a rule. We came over a small rise and there we were. The gorillas were arrayed before us, some not two feet away, and it wasn’t as if we could assemble in a neat semi-circle around them. Over the course of our hour several gorillas, including the huge 36 year old silverback, walked by within touching distance.

Over the course of the hour each day, members of the group largely ignored the humans. They’d eat, climb trees, get up and walk a short distance and plop back down to eat some more. Once in a while a youngster would jump up and just go rolling and tumbling down the hill. They ate most of the time.

Kids

Continue reading

Book Excerpt: Iceland’s Thousand Year Old Parliament

In a recent article I posted a couple of photos taken along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, where the North American and Eurasian Plates are moving apart. The Þingvellir plain was home to Iceland’s parliament a thousand years ago. In this excerpt from my most recent book, Out in the Cold, we visit the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the site of the parliament.

THOUSAND-YEAR-OLD PARLIAMENT

An hour’s drive east of Reykjavik family sedans fill a parking lot. Sven seems to think our Super Jeep needs more room, for he scoffs at that lot and aims for an empty one that looms ahead. We spin to a stop and scatter some rock and the monster asserts our arrival.

We set out along a footpath over one of the more remarkable bits of land on earth, the boundary between two tectonic plates. The bulk of the mid-Atlantic ridge lies beneath the ocean, so along almost all of its reach, standing in witness to its downright remarkableness is impossible.

It is the longest mountain range in the world, here separating the diverging Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. As manifest in Iceland, to the east rides a raised lava ridge, the Eurasian plate, from which the North American plate, to the west, pulls up from the Earth and apart.

Its width varies. Just here it presents as a three foot deep grass covered crevasse just wider than your arms can reach. You can jump inside and stand on the spot where the Earth is coming apart.

Elsewhere the crevasse deepens to twice the height of a man and fills with icy, transparent-as-the-ether water.

We stop along the path.

“Now we are on the Eurasian plate.”

With a hop, “Now the North American.”

Hop. Europe. Hop. North America. You can change continents in Istanbul too, but you have to drive across a bridge.

Here is the earth pulling itself apart

•••••

Most places, a morning walk along a fault line would make your day right there at breakfast. Here in Iceland, two for the price of one, you get epic geography and epic history too, for on this spot lies the heart and soul of the Icelandic nation.

Sven stops farther along the path. Just … HERE, he thinks, this may be the spot where was held the world’s original Parliamentary meeting in 930.

•••••

A WORD ABOUT WORDS, AND TALKING ABOUT TALKING

“Parliament” derives from the eleventh century Old French “parlement,” and every schoolchild knows “parlez-vous Français” means “do you speak French?” so quite literally, a Parliament is a talking shop.

Turns out, even before they worked out a word for it in French, way up here the real thing existed. “Thing” in Old Norse and Icelandic translates as “assembly,” and it is spelled “Þing” in Faroese and Icelandic. Resist the natural inclination to pronounce the letter (called “thorn”), written “Þ,” as “p.” Rather it is pronounced as an unvoiced “th.”

In modern Scandinavian tongues “thing” has become “ting.” The Faroes’ assembly began life as the Althing, a “general assembly of all free men,” and was later renamed the Løgting, “law assembly”. It began on the Tinganes peninsula in Torshavn, still the seat of Parliament and the city’s pride.

The Faroese Løgting and Iceland’s Althing carry on a rivalry to the claim of “world’s oldest Parliament.” The Faroese might logically claim the crown since expansion from the Norse mainland reached the Faroes before Iceland, but memory gets hazy when you gaze so far into the past.

Iceland claims its Althing was the world’s first, established here where we stand on the Þhingvellur plain in the specific year of 930. There are other “oldest” claims. The Tynwald on the Isle of Man claims to be the oldest “continuous” Parliament at over age one thousand, but without a great deal of evidence. And the Jamtamót, the Parliamentary assembly of a Swedish province claims, like the Althing, to have been created in the first half of the tenth century.

Whoever convened first, we know that each year at the summer solstice, leaders, village chiefs from around Iceland, convened on this spot to discuss common interests, and make policy. Though this plain was a more or less central spot, those from farthest east Iceland traveled as long as seventeen days around mountain and glacier.

The base of a cliff served as a natural amplifier for a speaker’s voice, allowing him to address the assembled. Each year, for two weeks in high summer laws were made, disputes settled, foreign VIPs petitioned.

Site of the Þingvellir

History played out for centuries at this place they called Þingvellir, the “Parliament Plain.” After that first meeting in 930 the Goði, or chieftains, convened on the same spot each year until 1798.

At one particularly fateful meeting in 1000, 39 Goði met under pressure, for Olaf, the king of Norway, had issued a threat. The wrath of his kingdom, and the most fearsome fleet of war-fighting longboats in the Atlantic hung poised to hammer the island if the Goði failed to accept Christianity. This was the king’s demand.

Iceland’s founding some seven decades before came about in flight from the tyranny – and taxes – of Harald Fairhair of Norway. The Goði meant for their new country to be a land of laws and not kings. That was why they were here, assembled at Þingvellir to make their own laws in the absence of a king.

Now, these elders were reasonably confident the king wouldn’t risk his fleet in a peril-fraught adventure to Iceland. As Frans G. Bengtsson wrote in The Long Ships, “… in the border country, few men’s authority extended beyond the limit of their right arm.”

Their grandfathers hadn’t been wrong fleeing Harald for the island (in fact, Icelanders specifically and knowingly benefitted from the lack of taxation needed for defense). Still, the Norwegian fleet could block Iceland’s tenuous European lifeline. King Olaf held the sons of some Goði hostage even as they met.

Legend tells us that as the men debated, a messenger arrived with word that an eruption had sent lava toward the farm of one of the attendees. That put a little bit of the fear of (Norse) gods into the assembly. Message: The gods won’t stand for this changing religion nonsense.

Christianity had come to Norway after most of these pagan Icelanders left. Some learned of Jesus while passing through the British Isles, many absconding with wives. Synecretism led some to worship both the Christian and pagan gods, but in hard times Thor was still the go-to god.

What to do?

Heads turned to a wise man called Snorri Þhorgrímsson, a chieftain from the west of the island. The Sagas reckoned him “… a very shrewd man with unusual foresight,” and “… the wisest man in Iceland not counting those who were prescient.”

Snorri asked, “What angered the gods when the lava burnt which we are standing on now?” He meant that eruptions were just part of life on their blasted isle, gods or no gods. The attendees saw his point. A vote was held and the Þing adopted Christianity as Iceland’s religion.

Besides, in accepting Christianity the most powerful men in Iceland surmised – correctly – that an appreciative hierarchy of Christian bishops and officials from Norway would look favorably on the Goðis’ power and rule.

In the event, the Þing had opted for the best of both worlds. Hoping to hold Harald at bay, the Goði proclaimed “one faith and one law” – the faith would be Christianity, but anyone wishing to worship the pagan gods were free to do so in private. Snorri had a church built at Helgafell, his farmstead on the western Snæfellsnes peninsula.

•••••

Everyone with power and influence attended the Þing. Crimes would be adjudicated, laws recorded, marriage alliances arranged. But besides the chance to forge and strengthen ties among the Goði, beyond their heavy responsibilities, most marvelous of all, the Þing was a flourishing Nordic medieval bazaar.

I try to conjure the spectacle of a Þing in progress a millennium ago; a governing experiment, societal pageant, a kind of grand plenum and Icelandic Burning Man, all tossed together and served on the volcanic plain:

Having come from far and wide, the villages chiefs have brought an entourage of family, competitive athletes and horsemen, traders and cattle. Over the years they have built structures of boulders and turf (ruins exist today) and each year they cover them with temporary roofs of wood and turf.

The Þingvellir is utterly unlike the attendees’ home villages. Just a few months ago back home, the silence was unrelenting (save for the howl when the wind got going, and the raking sleet across the roof; the nights went on and on, with stimulation scarcely more potent than the strength of a candle.

Now, in high summer, headmen are free from home affairs, laborers from the dismal croft, to a man exhilarated in the runaway intoxication of it all. News of the welfare of kin. Gossip from the farthest ends of the island. Intrigue at time-worn lies told over mead. Barely mediated chaos.

Every kind of merchant, sword-sharpeners and brewers, coopers and tanners and peat-cutters, clowns and tale-tellers, holding forth while itinerant farmhands seek seasonal work and traders probe for deals, some coming from abroad in search of exotic exports.

Villagers delight at the smell of grilling meat until they encounter the pungent atrocity of the tannery. Everywhere, in every direction, for days, Icelanders august and modest share in the spectacle.

Athletes astound. Ropes are tugged, cabers heaved, sheaves hurled, dice tossed and fortunes lost, challenges taken and gauntlets thrown, blood feuds resolved and new ones begun, all in a mad fervor to drink in life and all of it, here in high summer, on this lovely spot, softened by greenery and painted by wildflowers with waterfalls and cascading rapids in the river Öxará swaying across the plain.

Stories are humans’ most enduring possessions. Since the campfire and the cave we are a narrative species, and the tales we tell shape the people we become. The tales of this country’s founding were told and retold year after year at the Parliament Plain, the hardships of the earliest settlers, the privation, the fights for survival.

Stories told at the Þing traveled home to every corner of the land, and over the years and through the retelling, a common heritage was born and the people’s allegiance was bound to the nation, which duly bound itself back to Þingvellir. By a 1928 law Þingvellir, by the river Öxará, shall remain the protected property of the Icelandic nation.

The river Öxará on the Parliament Plain.

•••••

Get Out in the Cold via Amazon here in the U.S., or at your country-specific Amazon site in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, India, Canada, Brazil, Mexico or Australia. And have a look at the photos in the Iceland Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Vignette: Côte d’Ivoire

Some years ago:

“On the northwest edge of town near the beginning of the road to Dabou is the Parc du Banco. Several hundred meters beyond the dirt road entrance to the park you’ll see … Africa’s largest outdoor laundrette – some 750 fanicos (washermen), mostly Burkinabé and none Ivorian, jammed together … in the middle of a small stream frantically rubbing clothes on huge stones held in place by old car tyres.”

Some days are more freighted than others, and today ranks low on the portent scale, for today our only mission is to photograph a laundrette.

Abidjan lies steaming at dawn. The business district they call Plateau is not a geographic plateau like Harare, not an elevated place of extended sight lines and bracing air. Abidjan squats at sea level, sticky and claustral, flat and dense with eyes on the Atlantic Ocean along the west African Cote d’Ivoire.

A lead-footed swelter grinds down; the scent of ill will drifts close. When the sun takes hold and the work day begins, languor and sloth set the pace: commerce with little vigor, exertion with reluctance, the humdrum jostle of a poor city.

Yet long before the sun, before the city stirred, a stealth army of rail-thin, ragged-dressed foreign boys fanned out across Abidjan. Their mission: to collect dirty laundry. They brought ten thousand sweaty shirts and dirty socks to the River Banco and set about sudsing, well before the sun would crest the hill.

Unlikely as it seems, determined young foreigners yearn and scramble for this work, here, where the future shines down bright as the equatorial sun. Here, take-home pay is more than double back up the road in Burkina Faso. In the Ivorian laundry trade there is a trade union and there are union dues. You can be fired.

If young Burkinabé are determined to work, if they come and collect the sweat-caked shirts and socks, suds and pound them all on rocks, deliver them back and do it right, they’ll pocket a hundred bucks a week.

•••••

You can’t take pictures if you don’t go early. Too late and all you’ll see is clothes drying in the grass. This haste forces a rookie mistake.

New in town, brash, we bound straight out of bed traipsing, with not even a look in the mirror. Brush our teeth, put back on yesterday’s clothes, get a cab, no questions asked or answered, out and gone. With no counsel or good sense.

Cabs all fiery orange here, might be any kind of car. Open up and climb in. This one even has a meter. Just kind of sitting out there idling on the curb. He’s not exactly fired with passion for the new day, is he? Could we be his last fare of last night?

First, to find a common language: Shona speakers in Zimbabwe, Setswana speakers in Botswana, the Swahili-speaking Maasai, pretty much everybody will try – except French colonial officialdom, we noted at immigration, and, as we find out now, Ivorian cabbies. This will be done in either French, or French.

So we’ve got this guy right off the jump, off and rolling between buildings the sun hasn’t yet cleared. Angling to hustle out to Banco Park before shirt hits stone we explain, “Parc du Banco sur l’autoroute à Dabou.” The Banco Park out on the Dabou Road. We point at a map but he’s already driving. He nods and says he’ll need trente mille Francs (30,000 CFA).

It takes important minutes to find out, but as it happens, this most uncheerful gentleman seized on the word Dabou, which is a town 37 kilometers west of Abidjan along the coast. Heard nothing before or after, and he is heading out of town fast as if he were leaving work for the day and Dabou was his home.

We work this out at the point when we can look forward and back and see nothing resembling a park to either cooking smoke-filled horizon, and hardly another car, besides.

We shake our heads, pose as forceful. He poses back wounded, as if he’s never heard of any Parc du Banco and relents to something we’re not asking, okay okay then, only 20,000, then, as we hurtle along the coast.

Non non non, NON Dabou-ville!

This pains him in a theatrical way, but we match his drama with scowls and when we get back to Abidjan, to the hotel where we started, we pay him for his trouble.

And so we do what we should have done in the first place – inquire at the man-cave of a front desk. There we find one gentleman getting a jump on his daily torpor in the dark toward the back. Pinched and full of regret, he will have to speak some English now, because it’s his job.

He sets us up with a guy named Simeon, a graying older chap, who drives for the hotel. He knows all about Parc du Banco, of course. It will take about an hour and he quotes 3500. Progress.

Simeon heads back north out of town. At the junction where we went wrong the first time, there’s a big sign off to the right, “Tampon Express.” Maybe that means something else here?

Serried ranks of sellers are forming along the verge, rattling around staking out patches of gravel, setting up shop for another day of peddling folding fans and drinks and vegetables coated brown by traffic dust. We didn’t have much to do today, yet we fear we have already failed before 8:00 a.m., but Simeon makes a turn onto at a dirt track, motors over a hill and here we are.

The laundry has come back to life. Color returns with the sun. The birds have been here all along. A pretty wildflower. Butterflies. Gnats en pirouette in a random shaft of sunbeam. Close to the water like this, it’s an agreeable time of the morning, heat not stifling, sweat yet to incite insects.

You can smell the mud from heavily trod paths along the riverbank. At this remove, the rush of current makes a jumble of the many dozen voices.

The river brims with industry and purpose, spread out ahead and below. The frenetic, clothes-beating fanicos, the laundrymen, have spawned subordinate industries of sorters and pickers and haulers and folders and food suppliers and cooks, and the odd lone fellow out in midstream lathering up for a bath because there’s no need to waste a perfectly good bar of soap.

Shirtless men hoist bundled clothing onto their heads, bundles that reach higher than they can stretch their arms. Women scrub shirts just beyond the shore, careful to move just far enough out so there is no silt. Boom boxes blast soukous pop. Freshly washed garments hang across half submerged truck tires. Other tires, anchored to boulders farther into the current, hold laundry to be washed, and blocks of soap to wash them.

I cannot see around a crook in the river but I wonder if there is a sort of goalie down there, on duty to stop the runaway pair of socks or bar of soap.

Every last soul is soaking wet, splashing and singing, and two more boys take the opportunity to lather themselves up. An impromptu market has spontaneously lit up alongside. Baguettes and nuts are on offer for now, and more women approach crowned with fruit.

A blond girl and a white guy, the only non-Africans in the park. About as likely as a knife fight at the poetry fair. We draw a crowd fast as Mother Teresa became a saint.

(Back then, which was in the days of guidebooks, they wrote things like “anybody who looks wealthy is at greatest risk,” meaning if you are not African and you are carrying something, you probably won’t have it by the end of the day.)

We climb out and walk to the crest of the hill. Simeon, God bless him, puts on a hangdog look and trails us. The first wave of challengers is just curious kids. The second we stymie by saying in English, really fast, things like, “We don’t speak French and if we did we wouldn’t speak to you and Ouagadougou, Rangoon and Vietnam.”

They are bewildered but they won’t be put off for long. We understand Simeon explaining in French that we don’t know any. They counter with a menacing Anglophone, brawny and imposing.

He proposes that we have no right to take pictures without paying him money. I explain that when he shows me his badge that says tourist police we can talk, while I snap more photos.

For a moment he is befuddled and scowls, “You want to see my badge?”

Simeon comes up close to stand with us, his expression like he has just found a sore inside his mouth. We hold the high ground there on the hill for a few more minutes, under siege, then retreat before pushing too hard on our luck. And all these years later we’ve lost all the photos except this one.

•••••

Got time to buy me a cup of coffee?

Out in the Cold Audiobook Available Now

Get yourself a copy of this just-published audiobook, written and narrated by me. I am not the actor with the same name. Get it: On Audible. On Amazon.

Here are several written and spoken excerpts.

Get the written version of Out in the Cold on Amazon, here, and the audiobook versions of my other books here:

Common Sense and Whiskey on Audible.
Visiting Chernobyl on Audible.

Stranded


The Royal Mail Ship St. Helena is under repairs in Capetown, South Africa. For a normal ship that wouldn’t generate any headlines. But the RMS St. Helena serves as a literal lifeline and the only means of transportation for the inhabitants of St. Helena Island, a speck of land way out in the South Atlantic ocean. This document, attempting to address questions from stranded and potential passengers and businesses, shows the RMS St. Helena’s importance to St. Helena Island and also to Ascension Island, where the RMS usually calls on it’s regular itinerary. It’s interesting to follow this link and read about the trouble caused by the possible dry-docking of the Royal Mail Ship.

You can feel the remoteness of these places when you take the three day journey out from the African mainland to St. Helena and the overnight journey onward to Ascension. But that just became way more immediate for the unfortunate subject of an article headlined British woman mauled by shark near Ascension Island saved after husband punched it. The only way off Ascension Island is the RMS St. Helena or via the British Ministry of Defense’s “airbridge,” used to shuttle troops between the Falkland Islands, the military base at Ascension and the Brize Norton base near Oxford, England. The airbridge, it turns out to the ill fortune of our shark attack victim, is temporarily not calling at Ascension either, as you can see from the question and answer sheet.

As a result,

the family found themselves “pretty stuck” by travel chaos across the South Atlantic. 

St Helena’s airport, built with the help of £285 million from the Department of International Development, was due to open last May but flights have been postponed indefinitely as it is too windy for commercial aircraft to land safely.

As a result, people normally get the island’s ageing supply ship, the RMS St Helena, to Ascension Island, but it broke down near South Africa in late March and it remains there having repairs to its propellor.

Furthermore, flights have stopped touching down on the military runway on Ascension for safety reasons, reportedly because of cracks in the runway.

Here is an idea of a bit of the other-worldliness of Ascension Island:

See more photos of both islands in the Ascension Island and Saint Helena Island galleries at EarthPhotos.com. More of my stories about St. Helena and Ascension here.

Brexit Shock in London on the Morning After

VotingSmall

Friends and others I talked with here felt gently optimistic about the prospects for Remain this time yesterday. Even as British TV coverage started up at 10:00 last night, BBC1 entered the fray with a wink and a nudge, ‘we think we’ve got this remain thing in the bag’ kind of undertone.

The Brexit vote saw the highest UK-wide turnout of the past two decades and the people we know told us just about all their friends and most of the people they know favored Remain, convincing them that the Leave camp was, as was the popular view, made up mostly of older people who remembered a ‘good old days’ that never existed.

The solid Leave result reinforces a couple of ideas.

First, it adds weight to the emerging consensus that in today’s atomized, web-driven information seeking, we really do get information that tends to reinforce our beliefs. It was obvious to my entire cadre that the only correct-thinking way to vote was Remain, but we only turned up with 48 per cent of the vote.

Second, this is a real and tenacious revolution against the establishment that may well spread across west. Just yesterday we were joking that with a leave vote the U.K. could have the honor of kicking off Donald Tusk’s ‘end of western civilization,’ which could then be followed by Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, the end of the EU and shortly after surely the apocalypse. Yesterday, that was a joke.

Will the EU or the UK be the first to pull apart? As to the UK, politicians were staking out their positions before the last votes were counted. Here is Nicola Sturgeon on the Scottish vote: “Scotland has delivered a strong, unequivocal vote to remain in the EU, and I welcome that endorsement of our European status.”

And from Wales, Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood: “With Scotland voting to remain and a second independence referendum now on the cards, it is clear that the UK cannot continue in its current form. Wales, its economy and its communities will soon be at the full mercy of the Westminster elite and robust action must be taken to mitigate the impact of this.”

The centrifuge spins within the parties too. Labour’s leader is widely derided and it was the Tories’ slow motion disintegration kicked the whole thing off in the first place. The Prime Minister has resigned, not so much the honorable choice as the only one after driving the bus over the cliff. 

It’s the 10:00 hour on the morning after and London has awoken to market shock, reassurances from the central bank and, as from one of my friends, “I despair! I really fear for the future of my children and their generation.”

Let’s hold that thought for now. I’m going to wander down to Westminster and see what I can see.

Do Animals Think?

My last African visit set me thinking about humans’ and animals’ place in the world. This is an early bit from my upcoming book on travel in Africa, due in early 2017.

gorilla

During Europeans’ first blunderbuss intrusions onto the African continent they denigrated the natives and abused wildlife. With the human superiority we’ve all been taught most of us still fail to consider the astonishing abilities other living things have.

Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, gives some examples:

  • Bacteria compare sugars, a food source, and move toward higher concentrations using a flagellum, a microscopic tentacle, to propel themselves.
  • The cataglyphis ant uses an internal odometer to keep track of outbound steps to then find its way home.
  • Honeybees, on finding a food source, perform a “waggle dance” to give directions to other bees.
  • Rats seem capable of creating maps, triangulating through their environment. Certain cells fire corresponding to points on a grid, others fire according to the direction the rat is facing and then a third neuron fires as a rat moves through an area it recognizes.
  • Albatrosses, petrels and other seabirds seem to sniff their way across oceans to  return to the obscure rock they call home.
  • Some migratory birds seem to navigate by the pole point, the due north spot in the sky around which the sky rotates.
  • And most remarkably to me, green turtles seem to use their own internal maps of the Atlantic Ocean. We will talk about a magical night we spent with egg-laying turtles on Ascension Island later in the book.

•••••

“Cogito ergo sum,” declared Rene Descartes, and that was that. “I think, therefore I am.”

Those three Latin words made the French philosopher sound so smart that the term Cartesian Logic has survived him by 400 years. But Descartes also thought language was a requirement for thought.

He wrote, “There has never been an animal so perfect as to use a sign to make other animals understand something which bore no relation to its passions; and there is no human being so imperfect as not to do so. . . . The reason animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts. It cannot be said that they speak to each other but we cannot understand them; for since dogs and some other animals express their passions to us, they would express their thoughts also if they had them. (CSMK 575)”

Cogito ergo sum for humans but not for animals.

That is not so smart.

•••••

vervet

In 1967 Thomas Struhsaker, then of the University of California, Berkeley, discovered that vervet monkeys have different calls with different meanings for different situations. In Stanford University professor of biology and neurology Robert Sapolsky’s example, they use different sounds to mean “Aiiiiii!, predator on the ground, run up the tree,” and “Aiiiiii!, predator in the air, run down the tree.”

Carl Safina has written a beautiful book called Beyond Words, exploring what animals think and feel. In it he writes that the vervets of Amboseli park have words for leopard, eagle, snake, baboon, other predatory mammal and unfamiliar human, among others.

Safina wonders why “… we maintain a certain insecure insistence that ‘animals’ are not like us – though we are animals.” When researchers played a recording of a family or bond group member,” Safina says, “elephants would return the call and move to the sound, but when they heard the recorded sound of strangers they “bunched defensively, raising their trunks to smell.” He thinks “Each elephant in Amboseli probably knows every other adult in the population.”

•••••

To biologist and author E. O. Wilson, “The human mind did not evolve as an externally guided progression toward either pure reason or emotional fulfillment. It remains as it has always been, an instrument of survival that employs both reason and emotion.”

If the mind evolved as an instrument of survival for humans why would evolution be different for animals? Why are chattering baboons not expressing fear of the lion down below as a way to further their survival?  Why is not the entwining of elephant trunks expressive of the emotions involved in friendship?

•••••

elephant

We say that humans have the capability for “complex symbolic thought … because showing … concern for the dead reveals the value placed on social-group members, as well as the cognitive ability to represent group members even after they have died.”

Elephants, too, have been seen to bury their dead. There are stories of elephants standing vigil over their dead mates, kicking and prodding them as if trying to bring them back to life, as if they wish their mates to hold on to life no less than humans.

To Safina beliefs like heaven, hell and reincarnation are “devices for keeping the deceased undead. The main thing humans seem to believe about death is: you never really die.”

Safina intuits some things backed up by research.

Natalie Emmons, a researcher at Boston University, writes that it appears people everywhere view death as a transition:

“belief in eternal life goes back tens of thousands of years. Some of the oldest documented evidence shows that modern humans were intentionally burying their dead with animal bones and shell beads in the caves of ancient Israel 100,000 years ago.

To which physicist Alan Lightman says,

“We humans living on our one planet wring our hands about the brevity of our lives and our mortal restraints, but we do not often think about how improbable it is to be alive at all. Of all the zillions of atoms and molecules in the universe, we have the privilege of being composed of those very, very few atoms that have joined together in the special arrangement to make living matter. We exist in that one-billionth of one-billionth. We are that one grain of sand on the desert.”

•••••

warrior

In The Old Way, A Story of the First People, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas considers where humans rank in the elemental hierarchy of protecting oneself in the animal world. “Our fists and feet are too soft to deliver meaningful blows, we have no claws, and over time our teeth have become too small to act as a deterrent.”

Safina seconds the notion. “Human senses have evidently dulled during civilization.” Meanwhile, “Many animals are superhumanly alert.”

The poet Amit Majmudar writes that “Animals are routinely superhuman in one way or another. They outstrip us in this or that perceptual or physical ability, and we think nothing of it.”

He hopes the time comes when we no longer regard animals as “inferior, preliminary iterations of the human—with the human thought of as the pinnacle of evolution so far—and instead regard all forms of life as fugue-like elaborations of a single musical theme.”

•••••

Photos from EarthPhotos.com.

My two previous books are:

Common Sense and Whiskey: Modest Adventures Far from Home and Visiting Chernobyl