Charles Darwin was just shy of 24 years old, his eyes open in wonder as the HMS Beagle slid along the shore of the largest island in the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. His eyes grew wider as bonfires flared along the water’s edge. “They must have lighted the fires immediately upon observing the vessel, but whether for the purpose of communicating the news or attracting our attention, we do not know,” he wrote.
These shore people called themselves Ona and Yaghan. Canoeists and fishermen adept at navigating the labyrinth of channels in these straits, in wintertime they kept fires constantly stoked for warmth. The Yaghan wore only the scantest clothing despite the cold. To fend off wind and the rain, they smeared seal fat over their bodies.
The Ona lived across the strait, on an island just visible through the spray and mist. History calls them fierce warriors who adorned themselves with necklaces of bone, shell and tendon, and who, wearing heavy furs and leather shoes, intimidated the bare-skinned Yaghan. Darwin gave them their backhanded due, calling them “wretched lords of this wretched land.” An acerbic settler once described life hereabouts as 65 unpleasant days per year complimented by 300 days of rain and storms.
The main town at Chile’s southern tip is Punta Arenas, with 145,000 people a proper town with a proper town park, which is home to a statue of Magellan and its smooth, often-rubbed toe. If you rub the toe they say you’ll be sure to come back. Twenty two hundred kilometers south of Santiago, you take what entertainment you get. So we rubbed the toe.
A band of cold rain swept over the Hotel Cabo de Hornos, churning the Strait of Magellan dirty gray. Punta Arenas’s “oldest and grandest” hotel was, well, it was just a hotel, all of its walls painted a determined shade of mustard. We and the staff watched sleety squalls spray over the strait.
By the time you reach the town of Puerto Montt in Chile’s Lakes District, the Pan American highway has long since made its point, 816 miles of Chile to the north and no fancy roads heading south. The farther you go, the more determined you’ll need to be to get all the way down to Punta Arenas, and you’ll have to be plenty determined, for there are still over 800 miles to go.
I walked to the water, stepping lightly around potentially threatening mongrels holding a Purina warehouse at siege, and I put my hand in the chilly Strait of Magellan – right there amid floating plastic bags and candy wrappers.
One passenger ship was calling just now. Across the strait, looking just about west to east, low hills rose around a town called Porvenir. It wasn’t very far but I couldn’t make out much. We’d come down to the southern tip of Chile to have a look around, to see what makes it unique.
Punta Arenas is a place where your rental Nissan Saloon sedan comes equipped with a wire screen to prevent gravel cracking its windshield, because blacktop roads end where towns do. We looked ridiculous, we thought, motoring off toward the hills. A quarter inch mesh of expanded metal surrounded the glass all around, far enough away for the wipers to operate underneath.
A foot-square hole was cut in front of both the driver and the passenger with more mesh hinged over it so that the normal position was open for ‘city’ driving, but for your serious gravel roads you could pull a string that reached inside your side window and roll the window up really fast to catch the string and bring the protective panel down. That sealed the windshield against rocks and provided you with a good, oh, thirty percent view of the world in front of you.
The bottom of the continent is a place where beyond the city blacktop there are virtually no houses and there is virtually no traffic. Except for there being roads between towns, things looked a little like summer in coastal Greenland. There were tiny white wildflowers and there were no trees.
Northbound at a place called Reubens, where stood a settlement of a few buildings, trees began to appear. The Nire, or Notofagus antarctica, a native species, grows to ten crooked and branched meters, compacted and dominated by the winds. Fields of tree trunks stood twisted and contorted by the wind. The forest presented in two shades of green – the needles and lighter clinging lichen. Rolling hills replaced the horizon-to-horizon flat. You could watch sheets of rain approach from miles away and wash overhead on their march to the other horizon. Snow topped a few low peaks.
A thousand sheep blocked the road. Gauchos and a squad of dogs marched them forward. The dogs ran and darted, responding to the mens’ whistles, and moved the sheep off the road for us. You wouldn’t need to play with these dogs at night. They’d be worn out.
Guanacos lived everywhere, grazing on cliffs like mountain goats. Maybe four feet tall at the shoulders, llama-like, brown and white, from the camel family, they may weigh 200 pounds. They live in family groups, and do this funky juke with their long necks when they run.
One other thing about far southern Chile – Punta Arenas is the home of Chile’s new president, Gabriel Boric, a descendant of South Slavs. Maybe 20,000 of Punta Arenas’s 145,000 people are of Croatian descent, and there are around 200,000 Croatians in Chile. Boric’s family, among many others, emigrated in 1897 from Ugljan, an island of vineyards and olive groves opposite the coastal city of Zadar.
By the end of the nineteenth century descendants of the Ona and Yaghan still lived in the fjords and all across the rocky outcrops of Tierra del Fuego, but once Chile and Argentina agreed on their border in 1881, the call went out for settlers. As it happened, just then the catastrophic accidental import of an insect pest to the Rhône Valley was destroying vineyards from France all the way to Dalmatia. Boric’s ancestors fled the plague, abandoning Croatia en masse for a new home in the wild, wild south.
In March, the bearded young Boric joined the historic line of left wing Latin American leaders when he assumed Chile’s presidency at age 36 years and one month; at the time he was the world’s youngest leader. His administration came to office with a rare gift: the chance to draft a new constitution.
Three years before and innocently enough, then-president Sebastián Piñera allowed a fare hike on Santiago’s metro system. A 30 peso hike, about four cents, wouldn’t be a casus belli most places, but in Santiago, protests led to 29 deaths, looting, the torching of metro stations and a state of emergency. The uprising, led by students, wasn’t about the pesos. It was about decades of neoliberalism and remnants of the Pinochet dictatorship they couldn’t shake loose.
Piñera rescinded the fare increases but birthed a new hashtag, #ChileDesperto. As the protesters said, Chile woke up. The movement gained a name, the “Estallido Social,” social explosion, leading to the drafting of the new constitution and a referendum on its adoption.
The proposed constitution was anything but conventional. It called for a national single payer health system, free education including college, the right to abortion with few restrictions in a two-thirds Catholic country and the guarantee of Indigenous rights on a continent where, as Carlos Barón has written, “the equivalency of the ‘N’ words is still the word ‘Indio.’”
To understand just how radical the proposed constitution was, a brief step back:
Salvador Allende, a lifelong Chilean politician, ran for president in 1958, 1964 and finally won in 1970. First a member of the Chamber of Deputies in 1937 and subsequently a Senator, cabinet member and party secretary, he was about as known a quantity as you’ll find.
Nevertheless, in a place as far from the daily heartbeat of the Cold War as you could be, Allende’s socialist vibes unnerved the Nixon administration. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once briefed newspapermen that Chile could be a “contagious example” that would “infect” U.S. allies in Europe. Ponder that. Chile might infect European allies.
On September 11th, 1973 at high noon, British made Hawker jets bombed the presidential palace in Santiago. Allende’s rallying cries on radio failed to summon support, military police abandoned the presidential palace and Allende was killed. General Augusto Pinochet, head of the armed forces, assumed control.
A young lawyer and right-wing ideologue named Jaime Guzmán, wrote a new constitution for the new regime. Guzmán supported free markets and authoritarianism, idolizing Frederik Hayek and Fransisco Franco. During Allende’s administration he had joined a fascist terror group.
His constitution left the government in a “subsidiary state,” subordinate to private business, reducing it to subsidizing the private sector’s efforts in basic areas like education, health and pensions. The government was unable to intervene in the economy unless explicitly allowed.
Notably, the Pinochet constitution granted the “rights of private citizens over waters,” codifying corporate confiscation of rivers for, for example, the mining industry, and rendering the government helpless to stop it. Aside from small bore reforms in 2005 under the presidency of Ricardo Lagos, this constitution, with its state subsidiarity, still stands.
By the election of Gabriel Boric the Pinochet constitution was 42 years old and showing its age. It was written to secure Pinochet’s military regime and hold the market, not the government, responsible for social services. Where the government was responsible was to ensure that mining, and natural resources, not be regulated.
Back to the present.
Since the Pinochet constitution was largely the product of one man, Guzmán, Chile determined that a new constitution would come from delegates chosen in open, democratic national elections held in 2021 that chose 155 delegates to a constitutional convention – with seventeen seats reserved for indigenous groups and gender equality. The result? The largest bloc was made up of independents, many with limited political experience. Only some 13% had held political office before; it showed.
About twenty percent of the delegates came from the right. This may or may not have been a fair snapshot of the electorate, but those numbers allowed left and center-left delegates a comfortable enough majority to ally and return an overfull document containing 388 articles, including vague and exotic declarations like “nature has rights” and animals are “subjects of special protection.”
Chile would be declared an “ecological nation” and a “plurinational country,” with at least eleven Indigenous groups given autonomy as “nations” within the country. The draft also contained the reasonable enough notion that there should be some limits on corporate confiscation of water for mining.
For all its good intentions, the convention had produced a vague and aspirational document giving entrenched interests a surfeit of targets. The draft included, for example, restitution for historically Indigenous lands.
There was another problem: a steady stream of questionable behavior by convention delegates themselves. Some tried to shout down the national anthem on opening day. One was forced to resign after falsely claiming to have cancer. Another tried to cast a vote while taking a shower.
Still and with all that, I’m mystified by all this What’s the Matter with Kansas stuff, in which working-class and poorer people vote counter to their interests. A popularly elected body offered up free education, gender parity (married couples couldn’t get divorced in Chile until 2004) and the right to decent housing. Yet this was rejected in every one of Chile’s 16 regions and 338 of 346 municipalities. What happened?
Part of the answer is the predictable, aggressive TV ad campaign run by vested interests. Anyone who has seen a television in the United States this election season will sympathize. To turn on the television on was to be implored to reject this scary, demonic document.
Opponents took to morning talk shows and the evening news to repeatedly denounce the document as “extremist” and “poorly written,” while conservative think tanks produced opinion polls of doubtful accuracy showing that most people would vote down the new draft. Social media spread disinformation, and fake copies of the draft constitution circulated, with doctored articles. A senator named Felipe Kast charged on conservative radio that the draft constitution “allowed for abortion until the ninth month of pregnancy.”
No surprise that exit polls suggested people were confused. Rechazo (Reject) partisans, it’s said, spread rumors that the new constitution would abolish home ownership and allow Indigenous communities to summarily secede. A Rechazo spokesperson, a university law student a year younger than Gabriel Boric named Fransisco Orrego, claimed the document would abolish people’s rights to own their homes if they had bought using social subsidies, a common circumstance.
For the first time ever, non-felon prisoners were allowed to vote. Here is a measure of the effectiveness of Rechazo’s campaign to muddy the waters: of fourteen prisons, only one voted to approve the draft constitution. The Tocopilla prison in Conceptión, the only one to approve the draft, was also the only prison where “physical copies of the draft constitution were actually distributed.” The other prisoners had only media to inform their vote, and they all voted no.
The defeat and consequent retention of the current constitution is an unattractive option, as meanwhile private sector actors will continue to use “state subsidiarity” to block reform. Further, the whole process led Chileans to a low opinion of the country’s new leader.
It’s a real shame to waste all that promise. After a fast start, that the draft constitution was roundly rejected has dealt a tough and possibly fatal blow to the young reformer just six months into the job. Gabriel Boric hit his all-time low approval rating in October, at 27 percent. He may already be consigned by a skeptical public to sitting out a few elections and attempting to return one day not as a firebrand from the left, but as a more properly aged traditional pol.
My monthly column for 3 Quarks Daily is up today. Read it there now and I’ll post it here on CS&W shortly. It’s called On the Road: Chile Can’t Decide.
Enjoy this walking tour of Bucharest, with lots of photos. The author says it’s “a city of the grandiose, filled with the humble.”
2022 is alive, a babe come hale and hollering to join its sisters 2020 and 2021, siblings bound by pandemic. Everybody stood to see off 2022’s older sister 2021, like we all did 2020 before her. Out with the old. Quickly, please.
2022 debuts with a striking resemblance to her sisters, just more evolved. So that by now some Americans signal their freedom by avoiding vaccination while others seek freedom by staying indoors. Meanwhile Europeans ban each other, for a moment there the whole world tried to put southern Africans out of mind entirely, and every country tortures its airlines. Hi ho the derry-o a quarantining we will go.
The Die Welt UK correspondent lamented that should she visit her homeland this holiday, she couldn’t even test her way free. Test your way free.
Consider the world in which 2022 will make her mark. Look east from Kyiv and please find Russia issuing un-agree-to-able demands and backing them with the rattling of 100,000 human sabres. It would be utterly incredible if Putin were to start a land war in Europe. But those who claim knowledge of his inner thoughts cite a deep, consistent grievance. Indeed they find it in the public record, in his 5000 word ‘Ukraine is not a real country’ article back last summer.
As far back as 2008, at a NATO-Russia Council meeting in Bucharest, Putin declared to W. Bush, “George, do you realize that Ukraine is not even a state? What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe but the greater part is a gift from us!”
That spring of 2008 Putin indicated that if Ukraine were to join NATO Russia “would then tear off Crimea and eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country. Six years later it appeared Russia was doing precisely this” without waiting for that detail about NATO membership.
The Russian president has run all that firepower up to the border to declare it is Russia under the gun. A week and a half ago Putin declared “They should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Do they think we’ll just watch idly?” He has run the temperature up to ‘blast furnace’ in eastern Ukraine, a neat trick in the snows of Luhansk and Donetsk.
The neatest scenario has a fiendish audacity: the Russian army advances from the Donbass to the Dnieper River, splitting Ukraine in half, and occupies it’s left bank south to the Black Sea, bypassing and isolating towns along the way that might offer resistance. Consolidating those gains would give the Russians a new, defensible border, the ports of Mariupol and Kherson, contiguity with Crimea, and secure the Sea of Azov.
Could something so audacious be in the cards? Russia occupied Crimea at the conclusion of the 2014 Olympic Games. The 2022 Olympics begin in one month’s time. Welcome to 2022.
Chile dodged a Pinochet-shaped bullet two weeks ago. Defying a last minute show of ill grace by the outgoing president, who shut down big city buses on election day, Chileans definitively declined to elect a baby Bolsanaro in José Antonio Kast.
Kast, son of a lieutenant in the German Nazi army, wasn’t sure if human activity had anything to do with climate change, reckoned he would only comply with international law if he felt like it, and promised to expel immigrants in Chile without judicial review. Toward that end he supported a ditch along the Bolivian border. He (and presumably his wife and nine children) opposed abortion.
He was defeated by 35 year old Gabriel Boric, a former student leader from a Croatian clan in Chile’s far southern Magallanes province whose forebears left Croatia in the late 1800s, at a time when both Chile and Argentina appealed for settlers in sparsely populated Patagonia.
Challenges lie ahead. As unsavory as is Kast, Boric’s coalition’s inclusion of Communists invites bitter criticism from those rump Pinochetties who are still alive and well. But there is opportunity. The election represents a culmination by non-violent political means of a left-inspired 2019 uprising. And to his credit (low bar these days), Kast accepted defeat.
The territorial integrity of Ethiopia, the lynchpin of East Africa, Africa’s second most populous country, has hung in the balance for a year now amid utter distrust, atrocities, cinematic battlefield reversals and the recent involvement of an entirely new cadre of foreign actors, the Turks and Emiratis, come to call with drones that pulverized the supply lines of the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), the main opposition group.
At the new year wounds are being licked all around and councils of war convened, as for the moment Ethiopia’s factions appear to be near exhausted battlefield equipoise. But a peace overture from the central government, yearned for by the international community, looks far-fetched.
Addis’s Amhara allies, who have taken the toughest losses, may be unwilling. The central government may itself be unwilling, as things appear to be personal for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Meanwhile factions with competing interests lie in every direction. A military faction within the largest ethnic group, the Oromo Liberation Front, has acquitted itself pooly in an ineffectual alliance with the breakaway TPLF. Add the all around malevolence of Elyas Afewerki’s Eritrea on Ethiopia’s northern border, and the whole situation calls out for a Nobel Prize-winning peacemaker. Oh, wait.
Hong Kongers voted two weeks ago, as China’s flouting of its 1997 treaty with the United Kingdom continued without a peep from London, or much of anyone else. Government critics could not stand on account of an edict called “Patriots administering Hong Kong.” No one is even bothering to ask who lost Hong Kong.
The U.S. Secretary of State said his country “can’t accept a situation in which Iran accelerates its nuclear program and slow-walks its nuclear diplomacy.” That, of course, is exactly what Iran has been doing.
Governments used pandemic restrictions to silence critics and suppress protests in 2021. China shut down Hong Kong protests; Russia cracked heads at opposition rallies. In Serbia, refugees and asylum-seekers have been “put under strict 24-hour quarantine, controlled by the military.” Slovenia was added to “a watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civil liberties.” And Poland continued to copy illiberal tactics” following ‘the Hungary Model.’ Freedom House counts democratic backsliding in 73 countries.
But wait, we’re here to ring in the new. What have we to look forward to?
Australia, Colombia, France, Hungary, the Philippines and South Korea hold elections this spring, Brazil and Kenya in the autumn, and there are the US midterms in November. Five U.S. states will hold Senate primaries in May. What could go wrong there?
Northern Ireland, where DUP loyalists are already near full post-Brexit froth, will elect its assembly that same month, deftly overlaid on marching season, the annual extravaganza of goodwill put on by cheerful organizations with paramilitary pasts. What could go wrong there?
It may be there will always be an England. But a United Kingdom?
And then there is the pandemic. It may also be there will always be a Covid. I’ve had a look back at things we wrote when Covid first wedged its grasping little crampons into the lungs of the world. We were certain big change was coming.
And yet as we enter year three, look at us: here we are making like just around the corner we’ll have that whole supply chain toothpaste tube tidied up, real quick we’ll get things back like they were, good as new. Don’t believe your lying eyes, inflation isn’t inflation, it’s transitory. Soon it’ll be just like the good old days.
I thought in March 2020, before the Zoom boom, that when it became apparent how many more functions could be carried out remotely, companies would wonder why they needed all those buildings. Half right. The virtues of remote work may be apparent to everybody else, but companies are still invested (1, 2, 3) in all that real estate and dying trying to bring workers back.
Here too a rear guard aims to put things back the way they were. But the masters of the universe may have more to grapple with than merely keeping the entire commercial real estate market afloat. They’ll also need a workforce.
A 2018 survey found almost 40 percent of 25-54 year olds not living with a romantic partner. As they put it here, “That does not bode well for life events like marriage, buying a first home, or having a child, which correlate closely with progress up the career ladder.”
Our pre-pandemic memories, much as we’d like to restore them, are nothing more than that – memories. The world has kept turning, things have changed and the pandemic is the agent of that change. Surely distant historians will tie the 2020 George Floyd violence in America to the pandemic, and it will be contributory, but only contributory. For there is a larger attitudinal shift afoot.
Two weeks ago 6700 conventioneers in Arizona raptured to greet, amid WWF-style pyrotechnics, an eighteen year old man found not guilty after killing people. The same day a Donald Trump supporting TV personality urged attendees to accost Dr. Anthony Fauci in (rhetorical) “ambush,” with “kill shot” questions about Wuhan. “Boom. He is dead. He is dead.” His network shrugged it off as rhetoric.
The convention organizers are a group called “Turning Point USA.” A group of people in the United States is in the mood for violence. It’s as if the arsenals in their Winchester gun safes are hankering for some aggressive self defense.
As the pandemic began Branko Milanovic thought “The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it….”
He may not have been addressing the travel industry specifically, but it’s a place where that state of affairs prevails, as a failure to coordinate policy across governments makes chaos normal for leisure travelers. And so finally, a word on travel.
History rhymes. Twenty years ago Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, changed airport security at a stroke, as suddenly we all were ordered to tug on and off our shoes for “security.”
Twenty years on, the rhyme: on December 20, 2021 the Washington Post ran the headline
Hey, I know, in the spirit of casting out the old and ringing in the new, in 2022 let’s revisit the security theatre debate.
You can gawk at the travel wasteland wherever you look. Try for one, Southeast Asia. The UN reckons regional GDP may have declined by 8.4% in 2020 as a result of reduced tourism.
So Thailand has developed a concept they call the “sandbox,” in which vaccinated tourists may visit certain resorts where residents are well vaccinated. The Thai concept is contagious, as Indonesia means to try its own version in Bali and Vietnam on Phu Quoc island. Now that they mention it, that’s what the beach vacation is, isn’t it, sending adults to play in their own grown-up sandboxes.
On Christmas weekend US airlines cancelled 6,000 flights and German airline Lufthansa has cancelled 33,000 further winter flights for lack of demand. For two years now the international airline lobby IATA has stood incoherent and mostly mute as the entire formerly bottomless air travel maw chokes into insolvency.
For every selfie stick I’ve ever yearned to seize and crack over my knee, for every cruise ship that ever debased Venice’s lagoon, for every Ibiza hen party embarrassment, for all the perils of mass tourism, for all the evils of the dilettante horde, as Henry Wismayer describes them, surely the pandemic is a more insidious danger.
Covid’s most pervasive, longest lasting effect may be this comprehensive, ongoing, panic-induced constriction of cultural exchange. Our lingering inability to mix across cultures, to enjoy what’s unique about distant ethnicities, to discover and rediscover that people everywhere are just people after all, can only stiffen prejudice and steepen the slope to intolerance.
So it takes some effort to be optimistic about the year ahead. I’m almost sure it requires averting one’s gaze from politics. But there are always things to look forward to. Here are three, all of them as far from politics as can be:
Separating meat production from animal harvesting. A recent paper explains it this way: “Lab meat, not to be confused with plant-based meat substitutes, is grown in huge steel bioreactors using a small number of stem cells taken from a real living animal—a cow, fish, chicken, pig, etc. The result is honest-to-goodness meat, … albeit grown without the animal itself involved….” By one estimate, 65 percent of all terrestrial vertebrate biomass is made up of animals grown to feed humans. That leaves 35 percent to cover humans and all the rest of the world’s vertebrate wildlife. That is incredible to me. Lab meat ought to help.
The Christmas launch of the James Webb telescope. When I looked yesterday the Webb telescope was 507,000 miles from earth, cruising another mile every two point six seconds on an entirely uplifting, humanity affirming mission. Recall your quiet pride when the Mars rover Perseverance bounced onto Mars. With a worthy successor to Hubble parked beyond the far side of the moon, who knows what wonders await? Picture are due in the summer. And no matter what, the day with the least sunlight for a year is thirteen days behind us. The northern hemisphere climbs day by day out of darkness as days get longer for the next six months. And they can’t take that away from us. Before you know it you’ll be yearning for your sandbox.
And no matter what, the day with the least sunlight for a year is thirteen days behind us. The northern hemisphere climbs day by day out of darkness as days get longer for the next six months. And they can’t take that away from us. Before you know it you’ll be yearning for your sandbox.
Happy New Year.
Here is my most recent travel column, as published (here) a couple weeks ago at 3 Quarks Daily. These columns appear once a month at 3QD, with the next one scheduled for Monday 5 December. This one is titled New Discoveries in the New World:
Consider the medieval mariner, slighted and sequestered, hard-pressed and abused, gaunt, prey to the caprice of wind and wave, confined below decks on a sailing ship. If the captain doesn’t get the respect he demands, he will impose it. So will the sea.
The sailor found solace in ritual. You get the idea he rather enjoyed taboo things. If the ship’s bell rings of its own accord the ship is doomed. Flowers are for funerals, not welcome aboard ship. Don’t bring bananas on board, or you won’t catch any fish. Don’t set sail on Fridays (In Norse myth that was the day evil witches gathered).
Helge Ingstad, an explorer we are about to meet, wrote that “Norsemen firmly believed in terrible sea trolls …. And those who sailed far out on the high seas might be confronted with the greatest danger of all: they risked sailing over the edge of the world, only to plunge into the great abyss.”
If they fell short of the abyss, what did they find? Fortunate men like Eirik the Red found safe harbors and hospitable enough terrain in Greenland to scratch out a life beyond the reach of Norwegian kings. Freedom.
No men found untold riches. More likely came calamity, hardship, deprivation. Life on an ancient sailing ship was a slippery log over a raging torrent. Yet medieval sailors pressed on, and the boundary of the world pushed ever farther west.
Fifty years ago Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne-Stein discovered remnants of a settlement in Newfoundland they suspected was the site known from Viking sagas as Vinland. The state of radiocarbon dating art a half century ago suggested the settlement was active between 990 and 1050.
We already knew certain artifacts around the Vinland site were cut down by metallic tools. This suggested the woodsmen were European, since indigenous people were not known to have metal tools. Then three years ago scientists established the “globally coherent signature” of a sunstorm in 993 CE by comparing tree rings. They compared forty four samples from five continents. This sunstorm (of a magnitude that has happened only twice in 2000 years) caused a readily detectable radioactive “spike.”
Finally, last month scientists applied their new tree ring knowledge to some of those same samples, from fir and juniper trees. Some even retained their bark, making it easy for researchers to count tree rings from the 993 “spike” outward. They conclude that an exploratory Norse mission to L’anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, chopped down those trees in precisely 1021 CE.
Helge Marcus Ingstad’s big life spanned three centuries, 1899 to 2000. A wunderkind Norwegian lawyer at twenty-three, he chucked it all to live with an indigenous Canadian tribe for three years as a trapper, returned to Norway, became a governor in east Greenland, then governor of Svalbard, where he met his wife Anne-Stine.
For successive summers Helge and Anne-Stine sailed up and down Newfoundland’s west coast searching for evidence of Vinland. Year after year, it was mind-numbing, repetitive, wearying, wet work.
Everywhere they sailed they asked the same tired and practiced question. Did anyone know of any “strange, rectangular turf ridges?”
In the summer of 1960 the Ingstads called at a village on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. They arrived by ship because there were no roads. Just thirteen families. And here, it turned out, someone did know of such ridges. On a sodden shoreline like endless others, they met George Decker, “the most prominent man in the village.”
Ingstad: “Decker took me west of the village to a beautiful place with lots of grass and a small creek and some mounds in the tall grass. It was very clear that this was a very, very old site. There were remains of sod walls. Fishermen assumed it was an old Indian site. But Indians didn’t use that kind of buildings, sod houses.”
The name of this windblown spot almost 400 miles north of St. John’s is L’Anse aux Meadows. Farley Mowat, the grand old man of Canadian adventure writing, calls this a distortion of the French L’Anse aux Méduses, or Jellyfish Bay.
The Ingstads spent that winter arranging an excavation to be led by Anne-Stine, by that time an archaeologist at the University of Oslo. It started the next summer and continued seven years.
Experts from Toronto and Trondheim collaborated to fix charcoal from the L’Anse blacksmith’s furnace, with the state of the tech at the time, as dating from 975 to 1020. The excavation revealed three stone and sod halls, five workshops, iron nails and decorative baubles consistent with the period. By 1961 they had authentic archaeological evidence that the Ingstads had found Vinland.
The team unearthed sod-and-timber halls built to sleep an entire expedition. The encampment lay tight against itself suggesting foreboding, a garrison mentality, uneasy disquiet in an alien land.
They built three halls between two bogs at the back of the beach near what they call today Black Duck Brook. Each had room for storage of turf, for what wood they found, for drying fish. A smaller area centered on an open-ended hut with a furnace for iron working, near a kiln to produce charcoal needed for ironworks.
Parks Canada has assembled replica buildings alongside the ruins, with detail down to spare blocks of peat for roof repair, turf squares stacked fifteen high like bags of potting soil on pallets at the garden center.
On a Wednesday in June, before summer has taken hold, smoke rises from a chimney in the main hall. There are four fireplaces the length of the building, fires for illumination and cooking, iron kettles for boiling stews.
The scent of wood smoke makes me eager to step inside, toward well-insulated, welcome warmth. You may shed your winter wear inside and you will be surprised how roomy is the interior space, much taller than a man.
An elaborate lattice weaves across the ceiling. The walls are extravagantly hung with ropes – coils and coils of line – a sailor’s colony. Against the back wall the length of the building run benches wide enough for sleeping, everything lined with skins.
It took twelve Parks Canada workers six months to craft that outdoor museum. Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, author of Westward Vikings, reckons that is comparable to sixty explorers working for two months of summer, or six weeks for ninety men. Surely these buildings were meant to withstand winter.
Maybe the Vinland voyages explored further south in summer. Maybe, as colder weather returned, so the men returned to L’Anse to winter, tell and embellish tales of their exploits and mainly, to stay warm. Excavations unearthed a soapstone spindle whorl that suggests spinning, possibly weaving. Perhaps the explorers brought bags of unspun wool, a worthwhile way to keep hands busy over the tedious winter.
In time the party encountered “skrælings,” local people unlike the Inuit they knew in Greenland. These were Native Americans, “short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads.” The word skrælings is translated as “small people” by scholars, “screeching wretches” by the more flamboyant.
That first group of explorers, who built their settlement in tight formation, had been right to do so. The Greenlanders’ first encounter with other people did not go well.
One day the men came upon nine strangers sheltered under upside-down skin boats and the Norse killed all but one. The escapee returned next day primed for vengeance. The men saw countless canoes advancing from the sea, and the expedition’s leader, Thorvald Eiriksson, exclaimed: “We will put out the battle-skreen, and defend ourselves as well as we can.”
Battened down, the men withstood the skrælings’ attack unharmed except, calamitously, for Thorvald: As the skrælings fled he wailed, “I have gotten a wound under the arm, for an arrow fled between the edge of the ship and the shield, in under my arm, and here is the arrow, and it will prove a mortal wound to me.”
Thorvald Eiriksson became the first European buried in the New World and, dispirited, the Greenlanders soon departed for home. According to Linderoth Wallace, “the next expedition to Vinland is said to have been mounted for the explicit purpose of bringing his body back to Greenland.”
A clash on a subsequent expedition killed two more would be settlers. The Sagas tell us that the explorers realized “despite everything the land had to offer there, they would be under constant threat of attack from its prior inhabitants.” The Vinland settlement effort stalled.
Perhaps the explorers recognized all along they didn’t have the numbers for permanent colonization. Maybe the realistic among them never planned more than temporary missions to this continent-sized storehouse of supplies. Had they intended a sustained occupation there would have been a church and a cemetery, but there were none. The explorers never farmed the fields. Neither barn nor byre for cattle, no fold or corral for sheep.
Archaeologists found three butternuts, a tree never known to grow in Newfoundland, its range from southern Quebec to northern Arkansas. Their presence suggests the explorers traveled at least as far as New Brunswick, more than 400 miles to the southwest. Down there food may have grown wild, for “that unsown crops also abound … we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relations of the Danes,” wrote a German scribe in the 1070s.
Nowadays most everyone agrees the Vinland of the Sagas was a land and not a single, specific site like L’Anse aux Meadows. Vinland perhaps comprised an area from L’Anse along the Newfoundland coast south to Nova Scotia, down the St. Lawrence to present-day Quebec City where the river narrows, then up the opposite coast in a grand arc along Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Quebec and Labrador back to L’Anse.
Today is as fine a day as we have seen in northern Newfoundland, no sun but no rain and a fresh, steady, penetrating wind. Hardscrabble ground, uneven, firm enough if you are deft, but step off the rocks and you will sink to your boot tops in the bog.
Helge Ingstad wrote of a Norse “will of iron and a character able to endure privation and pain without a murmur,” and he must surely be right. Standing out by Black Duck Brook dressed in snug twenty-first century down clothing, I can not summon to mind the impossible hardship of men dressed in skins and bad footwear who sailed from Greenland in the cold and the wet, dodging icebergs, serrating wind and jostling seas.
A foot bridge crosses the brook leading toward the ruins. We modest few visitors pick our way up and down the paths. The original shelters, slumped back to Earth, now present as mounds, the effect a gently dimpled plain. Plaques identify the dimples: Huts and halls, the boat shed, the forge, the carpentry shop, the smithy.
Twenty people make a ring around the Parks Canada man in ranger-wear, who is fit to the place, wild and outdoorsy maybe like a pirate. He spins tales with a performer’s twinkle; his audience is all in. Sometimes he must raise his voice if the wind kicks up, bearing down across the Gulf of St. Lawrence from Labrador.
But walk away, find your own place, stand still, and the sounds slide away. Trifling waves come to shore too far away to hear. The cinematic clash of icebergs proceeds in acoustic stealth, distant enough not to disturb the quiet. Seabirds’ calls soar away on the wind and we are left only with the benign rustling of the tall grass.
We stand by the brook. Helge Ingstad wrote in the 1960s, that “There is salmon in Black Duck Brook, we caught them with our bare hands.” George Decker’s grandfather told him there was considerable forest here in his younger days, but from the brook to the shoreline to Labrador this morning I am hard pressed to find a single tree.
The fog clears across the strait and Labrador emerges, brooding. Wisps of fog play up its cliff sides, snowy patches running up onshore. A peculiar lopsided iceberg, too heavy to bob, has shadowed us through the day.
In the course of an hour the fog recedes, pulling with it more character and definition from the icebergs, moving their surfaces from amorphous gray through bland white, in the end striking out toward the flamboyance of blue, even aqua.
The original European explorers stared hard into this view, wind burning their faces and blowing their beards as they ended their era of discovery one thousand years ago. Five hundred years before the European voyages that got all the good press, here at the end of their long road stood a mottled and murderous clan of northmen.
I imagine the view today is much as it was then. Expansive but spare, open to possibilities and full of challenge, but also full of promise. Two virgin continents awaiting the hand of European man. The original scruffy explorers left that promise for others to fulfill, but these rough-hewn men, standing here astride this earth wild and untamed, they had found the future.
Last month, local people drove fourteen hundred dolphins to the end of Skálafjordur Bay near the capital of the Faroe Islands and killed them. It is a tradition called the grindadráp. In Icelandic, one of the neighboring languages, “Good luck” is hvelreki, with an idea something like “may a whole whale wash up on your beach.” The Faroese don’t wait for luck to produce whales. They sail out and find them.
When a fishing boat or a ferry spies a pod of whales (dolphins in this case but usually whales), a call goes out and word races through the village. Even in the middle of a work day people drop what they are doing and muster. Fishing boats form up in a half circle behind the whales and, banging on the sides of the boats and trailing lines weighted with stones, press the whales into a shallow bay.
Townspeople wait on the beach with hooks and knives. Mandated under new regulations, two devices, a round-ended hook and a device called a spinal lance are designed to kill the whales more quickly and thus, grindadráp proponents say, more humanely.
The hunter plunges the hook attached to a rope into the whale’s blowhole. Men line up tug of war style to pull the whale onto the beach. It takes a line of men to haul them out, for pilot whales may weigh 2500 pounds. The grizzled fisherman, the mayor, the hardware clerk with a bad back, all the townspeople fuse in common cause, shoulder to shoulder on the shore, harvesting the meat, dividing the spoils.
The harvest is distributed evenly, for communal benefit. This is real, retail, hands-on constituent services for the mayor, who works out what size the shares should be and hands out tickets. People go to stand beside the whale indicated on their ticket. Those sharing each whale butcher it together, right there, right then. The municipality is mandated to clear the remains within 24 hours.
The animals are cut and pieces laid on the ground skin down, blubber up. Then the meat is cut from the whale and laid atop the blubber, the whole take is divided, and the shareholders gather up their haul and carry it home. There is no industrial processing.
Even today whale accounts for a quarter of all the Faroes’ meat consumption. Custom and tradition tip the scales against the advice of the then-Faroes’ Chief Medical Officer Dr. Høgni Debes Joensen, who declared in 2008 that no one ought to eat whale meat anymore because of the presence of DDT derivatives, PCBs and mercury in the meat.
Heðin Brú (1901-1987), perhaps the Faroes’ most important novelist, describes life in the village of Sørvágur, now adjacent to the airport on the island of Vagar, in his The Old Man and His Sons. Set in subsistence era early twentieth century Faroes, it describes the generational strains on a rural society being dragged into modernity.
Brú works to show the grindadráp (‘the grind’ for short), as vital in feeding the islanders. In 1928 a Faroese medical officer wrote, “…it cannot be emphasised enough how important this [pilot whale meat] is for the population, for whom the meat, be it fresh, dried or salted, is virtually their only source of meat.”
Once the grindadráp was a quirky cultural asset, but not anymore. In a time when people are quick to pass judgement, the grind pits the world against the Faroes. A tinge of the exotic attaches to today’s grindadráp, a summoning of vestigial heritage and pride, a suggestion that these quiet, unassuming subjects of the Danish crown fall into some bloodlust frenzy wild and savage, like Viking wildmen in helmets with horns only more authentic than horned Trump Sturmtruppen.
Now the Faroese live in a society modern in every way, right down to their efforts to find more humane ways to kill the whales, and whale meat is no longer required for the diet as it was in the days of Heðin Brú. The subsistence era was a different time. So the question arises, must the tradition continue?
Last month’s photos of the crimson harvest are revolting, and the idea of slaughtering some of the world’s most intelligent creatures is unsettling no matter who you are. But it must also be said that the Faroes’ intent is to be sustainable. The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Conservation Organization (apparently yes, that is a thing) reckons the annual Faroese slaughter takes less than 0.1 percent of the pilot whale population, the grind’s usual target.
Proponents call the grind socially adhesive, a big bundle of sport, tradition and a way of obtaining cheap food. It is also a direct link to the islanders’ past. Opponents assert that none of these justifications hold up in the 21st century. Yet in a place not very accommodating to agriculture, fishing – and pilot whales – have always been central to the Faroese diet.
You can be sure that isolated people will always mix resourcefulness with resistance to change. Pride, too. Pride in the ability to live and flourish in an outpost. Pride in the traditions that make the place unique.
Traditions like the Stakksdagur festival. Every year in spring outside the postcard-perfect village of Tjørnuvik at the far end of Streymoy, strong men drive a few rams up into the hills to roam wild. On a Saturday as autumn approaches, islanders converge, out for a bit of tradition and a day of drinking and playing Viking, carry spiked wooden poles into the mountains, find the rams and use the poles to make a pen to confine them. To fanfare, commotion, camaraderie and traditional song, they herd the rams back into Tjørnuvik for slaughter and auction.
Call it the Faroese equivalent of tailgating on a college football Saturday. It’s as vaguely exotic as Scottish pole tossing, Swedes around the Midsummer pole or the Shetland’s Up Helly Aa.
When you’ve repeatedly been to the brink of starvation, when you live on a spot of land as precarious as the obstinate Faroes cliffs of slippery basalt, when your heritage reaches to Odin and Thor, when you have come through all this and more and today you thrive, perhaps there’s room for the stout view that your culture is worth preservation.
Elin Brimheim Heinesen, a Faroese musician, sharpens the point: “What is completely natural for people in the Faroes, seems so alien to other people, who have never lived here – or in similar places – so they can’t possibly understand the Faroese way of life. And thus many of the aspects of this life provokes them. People are often provoked or disgusted by what they don’t understand.”
She wants the casual visitor to understand that life still is really different on this small archipelago in a vast ocean, “that it is necessary to interrupt your daily work when the time is ripe to bring the sheep home and slaughter them, or go bird-catching, or go hare-hunting – or participate in pilot whaling – and, additionally, to prepare and store the food you have provided for yourself and your family. This food constitutes a large part of the total food consumption and is completely indispensable for most families – especially for the 12% in the Faroe Islands who live at or below the poverty line.”
Activists battle the grind and the Faroes’ legislature battles back. The parliament, called the Løgting, briefly voted in 2014 to ban members of the marine wildlife conservation organization Sea Shepherd from sending protesters. That legislation was dropped when Denmark determined it would likely be illegal.
But try, try again; a 2016 proposal to keep anti-whaling activists out equates actively protesting for an organization with work, for which foreigners require a work permit.
Hapag-Lloyd and AIDA, two big German cruise lines, have suspended or lessened arrivals in the Faroes to protest the grind. (This may be devastating to waterfront vendors but it has its appeal for those of us who believe there is a special place in hell for the inventor of the mega-cruise ship.)
The Faroese point out that the grind is an opportunistic hunt, not commercial, the meat is not exported and is shared across the entire community. The distribution of the spoils generally happens without money, and on the spot.
In the conservative British magazine The Spectator, Heri Joensen, the lead singer of the Faroese band Tyr writes, “In the Faroes, it is not uncommon to kill your own dinner — be it sheep, fish, bird or hare. I have slaughtered many more sheep than I have cut up whales and no one seems to care. I find that strange. Why the double standards? Because whales are endangered? The ones we eat aren’t. There are an estimated 780,000 long-finned pilot whales in the Atlantic. In the Faroe Islands, we kill about 800 a year on average — or 0.1 per cent of the population. An annual harvest of 2 per cent is considered sustainable: compare that with the billions of animals bred for slaughter.” Joensen says that buying the same amount of cow meat he got in a grindadráp would have cost more than £800.
So much discourse these days is about listing things one person or another ought not do. But I think most people don’t mean it, or at least don’t mean it deeply. Passing judgement on social media is a cheap way to signal group identity.
It’s fair to say that one look at the business end of Skálafjordur Bay last month, crimson and slick with dolphin blood, turned legions of foreigners judgmental against the Faroese. The islanders counter that most of their critics, who live entirely apart from the source of their food, eat animals who suffer every bit as much as a grindadráp whale. Factory farming, they say, is an industrial scale horror for profit, while the grind has no financial motive. Who are you, they ask, to pass judgement on the people of a small group of islands far away?
Here’s my latest travel column as it ran at 3 Quarks Daily last week:
On The Road: Needing A Rest In Dakar
It is time to go home. You can pull down the window shade for some relief; then it’s only 100 degrees. An Air Burkina Fokker F28 has sidled up to join us on the tarmac in Bamako, Mali. Not quite home yet.
“Pull the strops around your west,” explains the flight attendant.
We’re leaving now though, en route to Dakar, rumbling along a bumpy, corrugated taxiway. We pull up to wait, curious about the glint of the other jet coming in. Turns out it’s full of whoever comes to Bamako on Royal Air Maroc.
Mali is scrub. It’s brush. It’s Sahel, hot as hell. We lumber into the air around eleven o’clock and we have spent one hour and seventeen minutes in Mali. Look down on Gambia and what do you see? Gambia the river glinting below the wing, Gambia the country a pelt of land on either side, itself gobbled up by Senegal, except where the river debouches to the sea.
One New York Times correspondent, on arriving in Dakar, wrote about “responding to being in a deeply unfamiliar setting.” Heard that. A less politically enlightened twenty years before she did her tour, as a young man in 1995, I hated Senegal in a rolling and keening way, but I only hated it about half as much by the time we left.
It wasn’t the Senegalese, who were most gracious. We were just worn out, buffeted by a howling, furious three month round-the-world endurance run, on which Senegal was country 23. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to leave West Africa for last.
Because what do you know? Big West African cities can be unsettling for skinny white American first-timers in white socks and preposterous khaki shorts (me), just the same as for those florid American package tourists arriving for their first package safari all tricked out in LL Bean safariwear (You know who you are. On second thought, probably no, you don’t).
My first Africa visit, in 1989, I saw a fight spill right out into traffic in downtown Nairobi. Walking back from a newsstand, I nearly stumbled over a fistfight right in the middle of Kenyatta Avenue. Pushing and shoving and a man’s shirt torn from his chest.
Fear bears no fruit, I told myself, stepping as judiciously (and quickly) as I could around the pile of people to take a perch in the famous tourist bar at the New Stanley Hotel called the Thorn Tree, a place that at the time I found the height of discernment.
Teju Cole wrote about being new in an African town, in his case Lagos: “I see another fight, at the very same bend in the road. All the touts in the vicinity join this one. It is pandemonium, but a completely normal kind, and it fizzles out after about ten minutes. End of brawl. Everyone goes back to normal business. It is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes.”
So this is life vividly lived? Well, maybe. West Africa is not East Africa and it’s not a tough town like Abidjan, Dakar is not, but I have yet to learn how to stop petty thieves, touts and thugs from sapping my enthusiasm, and they are rife here.
We booked ourselves into a fancy hotel on a point out west of Dakar on Cap Manuel near Plage de l’Anse Bernard. Senegal is the westernmost African country and we perched on its western tip.
You take your confected drink from Mister Matthew, all bowtie, girth and good humor, and walk your blistered pink American legs out to stand in the sand behind him and burn your toes on the closest sand to the Americas on the continent. Which doesn’t get you any closer to home.
In mathematics, they say, you cannot be lied to. Unlike in Dakar. The published cab rate to the city, right up there on the wall by the bell boy, declares 3000 CFA. The taxi guys all swear to Allah hell no really it’s 6000. I jawbone right back with asperity, half really perturbed, half theatrical, not wanting to get off to a patsy’s start, trying to come on like I’ve got a belly full of battery acid but weary of having to go round and round just for a ride.
(Most people think they’re smarter than average. I do too, of course. But I fell straight into a ruse the other day in the much more mercenary Côte d’Ivoire: the local boys made like officials who were going to open a new pass control lane for you, confiscated your passport straight off the plane and expedited you to a row of clerks, arrogant as barristers. Which required a tip to get your passport back.)
Our friend Nick, a Peace Corps volunteer, knows we’re coming, and we look forward to a familiar face, maybe a night on the town. Nick’s number rings in to the Peace Corps office; he has been in town but is headed back to his village by p.t. (public transport). We leave our contact details in room 105.
Room 105 is suffering from a city water strike right now, far as we can tell. A lovely, dear staff delivers buckets of water to the door. They are unfailingly kind while losing select bits of our laundry, especially my wife’s colorful shirts. It’s okay, really. If you have a business meeting and they lose your dress shirt, problem. If they lose your only pair of pants, problem. In this case, on holiday, no problem.
Worn down. Need air tickets home. Somewhere way back around Bulawayo my remaining strength crossed its arms and turned its back. Now, on emotional tiptoes, we find a travel agent on Place de l’Independence who further thumbscrews our immiseration: we can not leave today for anywhere. We can go to Casablanca Friday or Monday, Paris Sunday, and we just missed today’s Madrid flight. Et c’est tout.
Dull as ditchwater and with commensurate ambition, we commiserate at a bar around the corner where Calvin and his junior colleague from Liberia profess to be diamond smugglers. Here’s my number in Monrovia, just call my secretary.
When my wife Mirja is away, Calvin confesses he has something very confidential he’d like to talk about with me tomorrow, when I am not so busy as we obviously are today. After studying my shoes for a time, I say, give us a call. No wait … I’ll call you guys.
After we get significantly into upper lip stiffener at that bar we rise and march impromptu around the corner through the curio peddlars and tummy-trimmer (as seen on TV) vendors toward the ferry terminal. The Ministry des Affaires Étranges sort of glitters on the corner, with a late model gray sedan in front. Windshield cracked.
Five shining minutes of walking and not being accosted feels damned good. Dakar might be all right. Down this avenue to Boulevard de la Liberation you gotta juke through the Total gas station parking lot, from which bush taxis bound for all over Senegal leave, to get to the Gorée Island ferry. Through Portuguese, Dutch, English and French regimes over three hundred years, Gorée was the largest slave warehouse on all of Africa’s west coast.
Nosing out through the commercial port, the breeze feels fine in your hair but the ship’s horn causes me to jump out of my seat as we pass the fisherboys on the waterbreak. Nerves shot.
Aboard ship Mirja gains a “sister,” a woman in a colorful flowing robe whose girth invites metaphors of generosity. She is a bead merchant I’ll wager will be hard to detatch without a purchase. Ile de Gorée is only about three kilometers offshore.
In 1995 at least, Gorée Island’s 1000-odd residents lived blissfully unburdened by the weight of slave trade history, the precise weight that visitors today come to strap on their backs, lug around and hold close.
We walk across the island and back; it’s about 70 acres, doesn’t take all day. The ferry ship, the Blaise Diagne, makes another trip, returns, and we let it go yet again and sit to take it all in. A beautiful woman with a dazzling white smile wrapped in brilliant orange won’t let us take pictures unless we buy a Fanta. Fair enough.
Toubabs (white people) sun on the beach on the far side of the ferry pier where pirogues are for let. We sit at Café Restaurant le St. Germain because Mirja’s ‘sister’ grabs her by the hand and walks us over there, having spied us halfway across the island.
Oh, and we are such nefarious toubabs. Still we do not buy beads. We sit outside at little picnic tables on sand, drink Flag beers and bat flies. All cold drinks sweat into pools of water on the tables, so they come with little blue terrycloths to soak up their glasses’ sweat. The server brings additional coasters to use on top of, not under, our beers. The sun beats down but it seems it is never hot in coastal Senegal.
Five boys sit side by side, dangling a fishing line. I consider the idea that fishing is less about catching the fish than freeing the fisherman. That may speak well of fishing, unless you’re the fish. A fine commentary on Gorée, these boys appear utterly free in the first place.
Mirja buys beads from her sister on the ferry home. As part of the deal she has three strands of hair braided with two little beads at the bottom.
Time congeals, clots, won’t progress. The hotel’s “laundry factory” still hasn’t delivered our clothes. The water is off. It will not be possible to eat just now. Order a beer. Deal with it. Flush with buckets.
Rick with the Peace Corps calls to say that Nick won’t be back until tomorrow, but would we like to do something with him? This is so sweet and yes, any other time. He is new in town, needs a friend, but this time sorry, no, we’re have got to sleep.
An hour later the phone rings and it’s Nick. He is in town. He catches a cab and marvels at the hotel. Didn’t know such a thing existed in Senegal. Let’s go into town to a real restaurant.
If you walk down the street beyond the hotel you can catch a cheaper cab, at people’s prices, but it turns out there are no more cabs, and we end up walking the entire corniche through the kind of pitch darkness Burundians call “who are you” nights, when it’s so dark even your shadow won’t stand beside you.
Nick gets his bearings at Avenue Pasteur and steers us onto Soweto Square, Avenue Nelson Mandela. The national assembly is here. I think it doesn’t look bad and Nick agrees. He says it looks better at night. You can’t tell the paint is peeling.
Somewhere behind us is the President’s house but Nick isn’t sure where. He may be the tallest head of state, Nick thinks, and I guess well, that’s something. Arusha, Tanzania just then was advertising itself as the halfway point between Cairo and the Cape. In the same way, I guess that’s something too.
We say we saw one man in particular on the way to the ferry who was so tall, so fierce, he scared the hell out of us. Mighta been the president, Nick says.
These tall ethnic Wolof fellows conjure menace with their elaborate, flowing neck to floor robes, called mbubb, imported to French as boubou. The Wolof share their formidable height and these effective robe affectations, oddly, with Omanis. Emerge into Muscat international airport’s arrivals taxi rank and you will find Omanis, statuesque and inscrutable, towering above you in similar flowing robes, augmented with sabres.
The first place we go in, everybody knows Nick but tonight they don’t have the dish he wants us to try, so he promises to eat lunch there tomorrow, gives hugs around, and we move on down the street, beside Jihad Coiffures, to Restaurant VSD Plus, Chez Georges, number 91, Rue Moussé Diop.
They pour water from mineral water bottles but for sure it’s tap water. In a wan and wisened tribute Nick reckons it’s good. They recycle the bottles. Nick orders, and keeps answering, “Wow.” He isn’t overawed. Waaw is Wolof for yes.
Nick lives in Segatta, three hours by p.t., with a father, three mothers and countless brothers and sisters. His family gets a small stipend to keep him. Says he’s learned patience. Doesn’t feel he needs TV and AC like he used to. Nowadays does a lot of waiting. Reading. Is working on digging latrines for the locals.
He came here to plant things, an agricultural volunteer, but because of the ongoing drought his assigned mission is pointless. Barren as it is out there, as soon as they put a seed in the ground a bird eats it. So instead he digs latrines. His expectations are lower now. On a good day he writes a letter.
Some of his best friends are prostitutes. Usually they had child number one at 13 or 14 and now they aren’t prime wife material, just down-on-their-luck, sweet girls. They and Nick just hang out.
A few days’ beard, a little longer than average hair, blue flannel shirt and jeans and an old Atlanta Braves hat. Mirja thinks he’s good looking. Remember, it’s the 1990s. Nick doesn’t smoke in his village so the kids won’t see him. He’s setting an example. Instead he sneaks Skoal.
He’s proud of his two years in Senegal. He has learned some Wolof. He’s glad he didn’t pack it up and leave, although he wanted to lots of times. But also, unequivocally, he says he will not re-up. Terms are 27 months (the first three in training) and his tour ends in about four months.
Wants to write a book about a guy in advertising who leaves the U.S., joins the Peace Corps and moves to Senegal. At that point it becomes a novel, he says, because nothing has happened in real life that would be compelling enough for a book.
Here’s my latest travel column at 3QuarksDaily, Needing a Rest in Dakar.