Waiting for the Mango Rains (Central African Republic) (CAR)

book coverby Jon White

It’s 1974. Nixon has just resigned. Before the American in this book has even left the plane to embark in the Central African Republic, he falls victim to a scam. Having traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia, *I* saw it coming a kilometer away. It’s the old “oh dear, I’ve left my purse on the plane, if only some nice, naïve American would carry it through customs for me” ploy. Never, never, never, pick up someone’s frog bag. Remember Bridget Jones in Thailand!

When our hero is promptly detained for diamond smuggling, I was not surprised.

Blood Diamonds

I must rant for a moment, my apologizes. Diamonds are bad. Diamonds are shamefully bad. I highly recommend that you, dear reader, watch the documentary Blood Diamonds. You will learn how diamonds, one of the most common minerals ever, had their value artificially inflated by the de Beers company in South Africa. How diamond mines have a history of Colonialism and abuse. But most of all, how diamonds are used as currency in human trafficking and drugs and arms deals. They enable warlords to do terrible things. Every bad guy ever loves to deal in uncut diamonds because they’re virtually untraceable, unlike money. I got so upset after watching this that I had my engagement ring created from purple Montana sapphires. No diamonds, no, no, no! Not ever. Read more about conflict diamonds here.

But, Back to the Book

map of the CARFinally realizing that he is in real trouble in a central African republic, facing grumpy immigration officials with assault rifles, our hero asks for the American Embassy. The army officer who has been interrogating him tells him, “It’s closed. Why don’t you know that? You must be lying to us about who you are.”

Our hero, who has just graduated from college and landed a job as a fisheries biologist with USAID, an arm of the U.S. State Department, is floored. Why didn’t anyone tell him? He’s been on a plane for two days.

Horrified and scared, he asks for the French Embassy. (A good bet that it is open, since the French colonized the CAR and support Bokassa, the President for Life.) OK, our American is told, but the Embassy is closed now. So we’re going to have to hold you overnight. In jail.

ancient CAR villageIn a squalid cell, with no mosquito net, he huddles under a stifling hot Army blanket all night. In the morning, he is horrified to see that one of his arms has flopped outside the makeshift barrier and his hand and wrist are covered in hundreds of tiny bites. Hello, malaria.

With a surprising amount of moxie, at dawn he breaks out of his cell and hikes five miles through the jungle back to the city he arrived in. There, in a cafe, he finds a friendly Belgian expat who treats him to breakfast. He waits for the embassy to open. The expat tells him that he’s been scammed AGAIN. That the men who held him were not the legitimate officials, but a gang that operates out of the city. They got his suitcases, his wallet, and his Breitling watch which was a graduation gift from his parents.

Ubangi River

the Ubangi River

Our hero gets terribly upset, and the Belgian laughs at him, explaining that most Africans are lucky to make $200 a year and that the privileged American has no idea what it is like to go hungry or see his children go hungry. That there are no jobs. That the President takes all the wealth for  himself. The Belgian makes our hero feel ashamed. The only thing that is really irreplaceable is his watch, and it is for sentimental reasons. (In addition to his $4,000 per month living allowance, Nick is making $45,000 per year in 1974.)

It’s a Novel

Fula women

Women of the Fula tribe

It was at this point, when he introduces himself as Nick D’Amato, that I finally realized I was reading a work of fiction! Yes, up until now, I was thoroughly engrossed in the tale as I would be in a memoir. I bought this book used, you see, and there was an inscription in it: “To Ron and Margot, Tales from my misspent youth. Enjoy! Love, the author.” And so I thought…especially as our hero is not named for chapters and chapters except one time in which he is called Nick and I thought it was strange but possibly a nickname…Well, I guess it just shows how engagingly well-written this book is.

Don’t be put off by its self-published appearance–it’s a page turner.

Africans dancingNick is a great hero–the opposite of the ugly American abroad. He wants to help people. He falls in love with Africa, and the gentle, generous Africans, and ends up “going native”–moving in with his girlfriend Veronique, adopting her two little sisters, eating African food and drinking the local Mocaf beer that the other expats scorn as “panther piss”. The others huddle together in white residences, drinking imported Bud Light, refusing to learn the local languages, and playing tennis and swimming all day. Nick becomes more and more estranged from them. Five years go by.

People have been living in Central Africa for thousands of years before Christ

People have been living in Central Africa for thousands of years before Christ

Nick occasionally runs afoul of the local juju men–sorcerers who increasingly enforce the President’s will. President for Life Bokassa is utterly corrupt, and a member of a minority tribe called the M’Baka.(Most of them are just as much his victims as the rest of the tribes.) This is the same tribe that Nick’s girlfriend Veronique belongs to. In the village where they live, people are afraid that if the President falls, they will be attacked by other tribes. Nick, who has eaten around the cooking fires of many area tribes, and has learned the Songa and M’Baka languages, just can’t believe his gentle and courteous friends would turn on each other.

Tribes of the CAR:

There are more than 80 ethnic groups in the CAR, each with its own language. According to Wiki, about 50% are Baya-Mandija, 40% are Banda, and only  7% are M’Baka. In the book we also run into one “Arab, who works at the slaughterhouse”, and two Portuguese trader families who have been in Africa for 3 generations.

Genocide Countdown

Of course, as modern-day readers, we are screaming in our heads, “You’re an idiot. Get out! Get out while you can!” Everybody is warning Nick, from the CIA agent in the Embassy to the Belgian in the café to the French priest who has fathered a half-African son. With my own knowledge of the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi, happening in my own lifetime, I was just waiting for something terrible to happen and stewing over Nick’s willful ignorance. (Something else he is willfully ignorant of is his chances of getting an STD or worse from his girlfriend. One night she tells him her husband gave her “a disease” that he picked up from a prostitute, and it caused her to become sterile, and then he left her because she couldn’t have children. Nick then starts having sex with her and never uses a condom! Is it too early for AIDS?)

Ancient stone monoliths

Ancient stone monoliths

Eventually the State Department decides the political situation is too dangerous–Bokassa is accused of locking up school children from a rival tribe for refusing to wear uniforms with his picture on them–and then clubbing them to death. At the same time, he’s preparing to crown himself Emperor.

To avoid a forcible evacuation, Nick ends up quitting USAID. He’s now a private citizen running amuck in Africa, with civil war likely to break out at any minute.

The question becomes: Will the U.S. Embassy still send the Marines to extract Nick when the worst happens? Or is he on his own? What about his family? What about their extended family? And will the juju men take this opportunity to pounce?

I couldn’t put this book down. Through Nick’s eyes I fell in love with Central Africa too. The way the people love children. Really, really love them. The way that everyone has brothers and mothers everywhere. The delicious indigenous food. (Peanuts and bananas feature heavily.) The palm wine enjoyed by all. The way that old women run things, but let the old men think that they do. Ha ha! The animism that is practiced along with Christianity–the M’Baka in the village go out one night to pray to a tree spirit around a bonfire. The complete lack of materialism.

Oh, there are bad things too. It’s true of every culture. Nick hires a lame man to help him in the fish ponds, and is saddened to find that most of the rest of the people shun him. Many people see having a physical or mental disability as a punishment for something your ancestors did. (It is the same in some Chinese areas, only there lots of folks fear that your bad luck might be catching.)

Another bad thing is that when men go to jail for stealing, the prison does not feed them. Their families have to, and if the prisoner has no family, he depends on the other prisoners to share their meager food. Or he will starve. Most of the men are there for stealing food in the first place.

Nick is horrified by this (just one of the reasons we like him) and begins hiring a dozen prisoners to help him in the fish ponds and giving them meals twice daily. This was very satisfying.

I could go on and on, but I will stop now. Suffice it to say that the CAR has undergone even more trauma and turmoil since this book was written in 2009. It will make your heart ache for the people.

Rating: Five shy green mambas, in a tree far, far away.

PARASITE WARNING

PS–The juju men who have cursed the fish station claim to be able to sicken people they don’t like. They attack Nick’s houseboy Armande. Nick thinks the man has gotten hepatitis from parasites in the river. Armande’s wife washes Nicks clothes in that water, and then Armande has to use a hot iron on them to kill the parasite larvae. UGH, UGH, UGH. You see a pretty river and think oh boy, I’d like to go for a swim. Only, don’t.

A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise (FSM) (Yap) (Pig) (Palau) (Anguar)

book coverby Alex Sheshunoff (a.k.a. Eric)
courtesy of a special order from ABE

This book is a memoir about the author’s time on various islands in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM); with particular attention to the islands of Yap, Pig, and Palau. Also Anguar. (Alex also visits Guam but since I’ve already done Guam on this blog I left it out. As the author didn’t go to Star Sand Beach or encounter any sea snakes but did patronize the McDonald’s, you really haven’t missed much.)

Almost Paradise

Do you have a screen saver of a beach with palm trees on your work computer? I did. Alex did too. He started an Internet start-up in New York and ran it for five years. He wasn’t happy. He quit, broke up with his girlfriend, stopped seeing his pretentious college roommate and moved to a very sparsely populated island in search of Paradise. But, as Jon Kabat-Zinn is fond of saying, wherever you go, there you are. Alex still wasn’t happy.

Federated States of Micronesia mapThe people he meets have few possessions. But they seem content, or at least more content than Alex. When a Palauan named Gibson takes Alex fishing, Alex asks if Gibson ever wants a bigger boat or a newer motor, and the man looks at him as if he’s sprouted two heads. No, he says. Duh.

One of the reasons I wanted to read this particular ex-pat story is that Alex has taken 100 books with him to read in the islands–100 of the books he feels the most guilty about never having read, such as Moby Dick–and he next reads a tract by a professor who believes that happiness can be calculated by the following equation:

material possessions (divided by)
desire for material possessions

FSM mapSo you can either increase your material possessions or decrease your desire for them or both, and voila! You’re happy. And of course, if you have more material possessions than the people around you, then you are happier. And I thought to myself as I read, um yes, bullshit. This is the problem with Capitalism.

Compared to the Palauans, Alex is very wealthy–able to travel halfway around the world to live on a whim–and yet…he isn’t happy. He knows almost nobody in the islands and has few social interactions. He is so lonely that he schedules himself to speak to strangers at least once per day, including topless middle-aged women at the laundromat. Even when all his clothes are clean. When Alex finally begins forming friendships, life gets better for him. HMMMM

island seen from the waterThe people in the islands seem to love Americans. One man tells him that during WWII, the Japanese had put his grandfather and many of his relatives to work building a huge tunnel. Right before it was completed, the Americans liberated the islands, and it was only then that they discovered that the Japanese had planned to herd all 3,000+ Palauans into the tunnel and blow it up with dynamite.

Yap

About 60 people seem to live on Yap, but there are no beaches. The liquor store sells two things–beer, and vodka. Alex applies to the Council of Chiefs, who think his name is Eric, for permission to visit the even less populated island of Pig. It is touch and go for awhile, until he jokingly asks if the chiefs of the other islands would like him to bring gifts of women or cigarettes. This cracks them up, and they encourage him to take smokes as gifts.

Pig

Stone money

Ancient stone money used in the islands, quarried from Palau and brought to other islands by canoe

Alex arrives with 50 packs of Lucky Strikes and 50 packages of strawberry pop tarts. He is very popular. He retires to the Men’s Hut with Chief Paul and about 40 others, and they relax, smoke, and talk. Chief Paul tells him that they have run out of cigarettes six months previously. Alex is introduced to the one Republican on the island, who listens to Rush Limbaugh on his radio. All the others are Democrats. They ask him to explain how the Americans ended Communism. They watch the one video they possess–a US Army training exercise on how to put on a gas mask.

Palau

beach in FSMAlex gets his scuba diving certification from a very dodgy company and will probably die underwater. There is a famously strong ocean current on his first dive, and you have to jam a rod into a rock and hold on, or you’ll be swept off the other side and your dive is over. Alex makes it but two other people on his dive miss the rock and flash by him up, up, and away.

Coming back, he sees a group of people about to go for a midnight kayak paddle and is invited to join. That’s how he meets…Sarah. Quickly realizing that they share the same sardonic sense of humor, they decide to paddle away from the others, slip into the water, swim up to one of the other kayaks, and tip it over. They do this in the dark. Sarah is not wearing her glasses. From under the water, the other kayak is surprisingly stable. They push with all their might, but nothing happens. They burst out of the water shouting ARRRRRRGH and discover they have been trying to tip over…a rock.

Gomez, the adorable baby monkey

Gomez, the adorable baby monkey

The real formula for happiness becomes apparent, and Alex now has a friend. An upgrade to girlfriend would surely upgrade his happiness, I think, and sure enough, the two begin dating. What will happen on the island of Angaur?

  • Will the two try to build a house together?
  • How will they take care of the baby monkey they are gifted? Will they be able to return him to his family in the jungle, or is it already too late?
  • Since lawyer Sarah’s contract with the Palauan Supreme Court is up, and she is returning to California, can she and Alex possibly have a future together?
  • What does Alex want to do with the rest of his life? Will he figure it out in time?
Yap island

Yap island

I enjoyed the author’s self-deprecating humor, learning facts about the islands such as, due to everyone’s chewing betel nut and spitting on the floor, the walls and floor of the courthouse are painted red. I particularly enjoyed the way each chapter starts, like a school textbook, with the words: What You Can Expect to Learn in This Chapter: followed by two questions like:

  1. While jogging with the president of Palau, is it appreciated to bring up a movie about a fictional small country that invades the United States only to find its invasion ignored?
  2. What might the president have hidden in his exercise towel?

(The answer to the second question is a tape recorder.) The President is a savvy man who, while trusting, also protects his own interests. And the answer to the first question is: laughter from the Pres.

Every Town Has Its Ups And Downs

Endangered leatherback turtle

Endangered leatherback turtle

While I read the book wanting a vicarious Paradise experience of warmth, swimming in clear water with tropical fish, beauty, and feasts of lobster and mangos and pina coladas at the bar, etc., and I got some of that, it was great to be reminded that even Paradise has the good AND the bad. Alex is constantly plagued by sand flies, flies, mosquitos, and other horrid insects. He gets bored a lot. On Pig, the inhabitants cruelly butcher an endangered leatherback turtle and when Alex eats the grilled meat, he gets firehose diarrhea. The monkey that he and his girlfriend adopt comes to them because a Philippine hunter has shot its mother for a $10 bounty–the macaques eat betel nuts, apparently. One day while hiking, Alex grabs the trunk of a tree for support and gets a welt on his hand that lasts for a week. And of course, there are the ugly Americans who think Palauans are lazy and stupid. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–if you don’t like foreign countries, why  not stay  home?!

JellyfishOne of the most beautiful parts of the book is when Alex and Sarah go to swim in Jellyfish Lake. It’s a tea-colored lake in the middle of one of Palau’s Rock Islands. It’s home to six million golden medusa jellyfish which have been isolated from predators for millennia and lost their ability to sting. Every day, they migrate across the lake, following the sun and returning overnight. They range from the size of a pea to the size of a cantaloupe. In the colder water below, live moon jellyfish, the very ones which gave swimmer Diana Nyad such trouble as she attempted her historic swims from Cuba to the US. Here, they are also stingless.

“I made a mental note: if I ever felt that all was not quite right in the universe, I’d just think that at this very moment, six million friendly cantaloupes in pink tutus were slowly pulsing their way across a small, tea-colored lake in the middle of a remote island in the Western Pacific.”

YES. That.

Rating: Five coconuts with straws!

 

 

 

Cities of Salt (Saudi Arabia)

Book CoverCities of Salt
by Abdelrahmen Munif

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

Fiction

THIS BOOK HAS BEEN BANNED

If the novels of William Faulkner were set in the Hellishly hot desert, in an Islamic country, and didn’t make near unintelligible use of local dialect, they might be half as good as this book. (Apologies to Faulkner enthusiasts–I’m not.)

This novel is an easy read, though it is thick, and only the first in a trilogy exploring how a largely Bedouin society changes into an oil extraction emirate. It is banned in several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. (This is why I wanted to read it. The author was born to a Saudi father and an Iraqi mother. He was eventually stripped of his Saudi citizenship by the al-Sauds because they were afraid of his novels–so I wanted to find out what, exactly, was so offensive to them. I wanted to know which truths the author had spoken to power. I wanted to know what the al-Sauds are trying to hide.)

map of Saudi ArabiaProtagonists: And Then There Were None

  1. The book starts with a man called Miteb al-Hathal, a member of the Atoum tribe who lives on a hill overlooking an oasis. The arrival of caravans to the oasis is eagerly expected, for travelers bring news, sugar, flour, bolts of cloth, and long-lost sons. In the desert, everything is the reverse of (my patch in north Idaho). Winter is the good season. The oasis provides water, shade, and greenery. Life is hard and people are poor, but life is still good.
Ancient city of Harran

The ancient Mesopotamian city of Harran was famous for its beehive adobe houses

Then, under the auspices of a man called Ibn Rashid, some foreign devils (Americans) arrive. Miteb al-Hathal is immediately suspicious and rides out with his gun. His son Fawaz “said to himself, If he opens fire he’ll set the whole wadi ablaze; we won’t be alone. The people of the wadi wouldn’t let a man fight by himself, they’d fight with him to the end. After the battle they’d ask why he was fighting. Fawaz had heard of such things many times.”

This is what it is to be a member of a desert tribe. But Ibn Rashid betrays them, aiding and abetting the infidels as they destroy the wadi with bulldozers, frightening the men and the camels equally. There is oil and gold beneath the sands, and the Americans and Ibn Rashid are greedy for all of it. The Emir is complicit–Ibn Hathal says that “the emir is kin, but he’s useless.”

Inside a beehive home

Inside a beehive home

2) Ibn Hathal disappears from the narrative now, and we ride with his son Fawaz and his cousin to a new village by the sea, a city called Harran. Ibn Rashid pulls his old tricks in this place, telling the people who live there: “all the land belongs to the government; it is the government’s privilege to take and give out land” and that “they couldn’t eat or drink land, so they had better take what was being offered them now, because someday the land might be taken from them, and then they would be no better than refugees.”

A new and newly-divided city arises–American Harran with swimming pools, gardens and air-conditioning and Arab Harran with mud huts, a new mosque and a fancy Emirate building for guess who (a different useless one). Fawaz and his cousin now disappear from the narrative and Harran itself becomes a character. The rest of the book is devoted to how Harran changes and develops.

Saudi beachI must admit, I was praying to Allah the whole time that something bad would happen to Ibn Rashid, that he would come to a sticky end. SPOILER ALERT: I was not disappointed! From time to time, scantily clad American women are unloaded at the port and the local men think they are sluts. However, back at the oasis in Wadi al-Oyoun, when it still existed, the American oil workers used to lay about in the heat clad only in short trousers and caps and the men of the wadi were equally scandalized and some complained to the Emir that it wasn’t decent. Of course this was because their women had to walk past these bodies on their way to the brook to fetch water.

I don’t agree with or approve of the fixation on controlling women’s bodies.

Neither a Farsi nor a Farce

Camels in the desertIn the hands of a different writer, such as the author of Dear Uncle Napoleon, this novel could have been a farce–he could easily have tweaked it into extreme sarcasm. He chose not to. I think the writer felt the topic was too serious. The comic bits are still delightful. The Emir of Harran, for example, is given a telescope that he can’t stop playing with. He’s invited to a wedding, but delays giving an answer, because he secretly wants to stay home and train his telescope on the event, as it will be well-lit in the darkness. Obsession (in fiction) is nearly always amusing.

Crowded modern cityThere is a diving accident that renders one of the workers “imbecilic” and his uncle comes to Harran, seeking compensation from Ibn Rashid. The villain shows his cowardice by hiding, and is tormented by small boys shouting, “The Bedouin! The Bedouin!” to frighten him from then on. Sometimes he jumps and hides, and sometimes he lets off his gun.

When I looked up the author, after reading this book, I was saddened to find that he has passed away. I wanted to contact him and say how much I enjoyed his book. He had a degree in oil economics, had worked for oil companies, and so really knew how to get inside the heads of these men and the politicians who work for them. The book is immensely engaging and entertaining while being a powerful political statement. It is a portrait of a hugely changing time in society.

Saudi flag is green with white Arabic writing and a swordWas the author born at the time the novel takes place? He was not. The al-Sauds came to power in Saudi Arabia by consolidating many smaller tribes, and this happened in 1932. The author was born in 1931. But this time must have been very alive in his father’s mind. And heart.

Interestingly enough, the author went to Iraq for a time and joined Saddam Hussein’s Bath party, but left when he could no longer ignore what the regime was doing. He was very against it, and against the U.S. invasion. No doubt if Saddam Hussein had lived, he would have revoked the author’s Iraqi citizenship as well.

Rating: Five Stars in the Desert Sky Above an Oasis!

Death and the Penguin (Ukraine)

by Andrey Kurkov

Courtesy of a special order through Auntie’s Bookstore

Map of UkraineFiction.

I have been engrossed in a series with a pet penguin before. In Japan. But never like this. Viktor’s pet Misha came to him when the zoo in Kiev, Ukraine, was unable to afford to feed all its animals following the post-Soviet collapse. They were giving them away to anyone who promised to feed and take care of them. So Viktor got a King Penguin. Misha is his only friend, the only one the socially awkward Viktor can relate to. Like Viktor, Misha often seems depressed.

Viktor longs to get short stories and novels published, but often lacks the motivation to write them. While working for a newspaper, he lands a job writing obelisks–obituaries. Now, in the West, it is common for major newspapers to keep a running file of a few dozen royalty and celebrity obituaries in advance, in case these people die, so they can scoop the competition. (I know this from having worked in newspapers. Queen Elizabeth is one. Angelina Jolie is another.) So Viktor is asked to start an obelisk file on some notables in his country, just in case.

book coverBut something sinister starts happening–the people he writes about start dying. Often just after he writes an obelisk. And he isn’t choosing who to write about anymore, he’s being told. When he asks the Chief of the newspaper he works for what is going on, the man tells him he doesn’t want to know. And that when he does know, his usefulness, his job, and even his existence will no longer be needed.

So Viktor goes along to stay alive, churning out hundreds of these things, rationalizing to himself the whole time. Meanwhile, Misha the penguin is dragging him into life and connection with the world. One evening Viktor is visited by a sinister man called Misha Non-Penguin who delivers obelisk requests to him. The stranger’s 4-year-old daughter falls in love with the penguin, and soon Misha Non-Penguin drops Sonja off to stay with Viktor while he lays low somewhere, waiting for the dust to settle.

Having nobody to penguin-sit Misha when Viktor has to go away on assignment, Viktor calls up the military post and gets a random soldier to watch him. Luckily, Sergey Fishbein is a nice guy and makes friends with Viktor. His niece Nina later comes to babysit Sonja and be her nanny.

Five Bowls of Frozen Salmon

King Penguin

King Penguin

Even though this is a dryly funny dark comic novel, the characters are very real and you can’t help but root for them. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as thoroughly as I did had it been bleak or depressing. It wasn’t.

I got the strong feeling that Viktor was a mish-mash of all the people in Ukraine who were living their daily lives, keeping their heads down, just trying to enjoy their lives and maintain a sense of inner peace while all around them corruption on a massive scale was taking place. Corruption in which they themselves were unknowing or knowing players.

Viktor talks quite often about how he feels helpless, he has no choice but to do as he’s told, how the 118+ deaths don’t affect him and his cobbled-together family, how things are not right in the city or in the country as a whole and the times are bad, but that people have gotten used to it and now it is the status quo.

One of the great things about this powerful little novel is that you get a strong social critique exclusively through the frame of the plot. No preachiness here.

KievDespite Viktor’s complicity in the murders of the notables–and none of them are blameless–you like him. Despite his poor treatment of Nina, who eventually becomes a girlfriend he neither desires nor loves; despite his lack of love for Sonja, you like him. You like him because he does love his penguin. You like him because he is unexpectedly kind to the old man who used to look after the penguins at the zoo. This old man is just as isolated as Viktor, and when he phones Viktor with stomach pains, Viktor goes around to his flat, rings for an ambulance, and pays the attendants $50 to take the man to a hospital.

Ukraine countrysideConditions in the hospital are shocking and the old man is given no medicine even when they discover his stomach cancer. Viktor is outraged. There is no medicine. All the hospital can offer is bed rest.

The end of the book was neat and tied up the expectations I had in the beginning into a delicious present. Apparently there is a sequel called Penguin Lost, which I would be delighted to get my hands on.

Rating: Five bowls of frozen plaice and a bite of banana!

Postscript:

In one scene, Nina scolds Viktor for giving money to a charity collecting for scientists in Antarctica, telling him it’s a scam. “Remember when they were collecting for a children’s hospital because of Chernobyl?”

In another, some pilots tell him they are flying on “May 9, Victory Day as was.”

A little recent history for you!

A Glimpse of Eternal Snows (Nepal)

by (Dr.) Jane Wilson-Howarth

Courtesy of a special order via http://www.abebooks.com

Coming to you as the former property of the Cumbria Council Library in England

Non-fiction. An easy read that took me right back to my days in northern India, although it is about an English family’s adventures in southern Nepal. I loved this book and wanted to stay in its world forever.

MD Jane Wilson-Howarth and her water engineer husband Simon are living in Nepal as he works for Asia Bank. His job is to help improve irrigation in Nepal, and he’s based alternatively in Kathmandu and in very rural Rajapur, an island on the Indian border. Their small son Alexander is soon fluent in Nepali and Tharu. Trouble begins when Jane gives birth to a second son, David, who is born with all sorts of problems. David has two holes in his heart, only one kidney, an oversized head, and is missing the ganglia that normally connect the two halves of your brain. (Jane wonders if the pesticides and chemicals she was exposed to in Pakistan could have caused this.)

Rajapur Island mapAs a doctor, Jane knows that giving birth in the U.K., with  its high-tech machines, high standards of cleanliness, and plentiful pain-relieving medications and antibiotics has probably saved her life, and the life of her son. (In Nepali hospitals, doctors and nurses will not deal with bodily fluids–it is beneath their high-caste status. And drugs are hard to come by.)

But soon Western medicine reaches the limits of what it can do for David. Doctors want to keep taking his blood and testing, testing, testing. Eventually Jane says “Is this going to improve David’s quality of life, or make him feel better? Can you stop him from vomiting all the time?” When they can’t tell her yes, she disconnects the tubes from her unhappy baby and flies back to Nepal.

Dr JaneAlthough Jane sees that Nepaliis don’t always treat the disabled well, she prefers their blunt straightforwardness to the awkward avoidance of Westerners, who stare at David but don’t interact with him. In Nepal, most people coo and ah over his baby cuteness and his curly blonde hair first, then ask why he isn’t standing up on his own legs yet or talking.

The family does a lot of trekking and taking David about in a basket, and he seems to enjoy the different sights and particularly the sounds. At one festival dedicated to the goddess Laxmi, where all sorts of fireworks are set off, Jane says that David is the only child who enjoys the noise.

There is a caste systRajapur island photoem in Nepal and it’s quite unfair (perhaps not as much if you believe in reincarnation). If you’re born an untouchable, you can only escape by converting to being a Christian or a Muslim, and even then, people will know. In the book we meet Simon’s coworkers, all of whom are upper castes and most of whom are very dismissive of the “ignorant” village people and especially the indigenous Tharus. Jane employs one Tharu lady to keep house for her and then ends up hiring her husband as a gardener and her daughters too. Because of this, the family is eventually able to buy themselves out of bondage to their Brahmin landlord and build their very own house on a narrow strip of land.

Tharu peopleThroughout the book though, Jane is frustrated at not being able to make a medical difference to the people. Many Nepaliis of all castes come to her door looking for medical advice. Like people everywhere, many of them want a pill to solve their problems. Many of them are intestinal. Upon being told to stop smoking, stop chewing betel nuts or drinking alcohol, and avoid the spicy chilies Nepallis love, almost everyone ignores her advice and begs for an endoscopy, some pills, or an X-Ray.

Know-It-Alls are Annoying

Tharu map of originsI fell in love with charming baby David and bristled right along with his mother when she meets an obnoxious Indian medical professional who announces at once, “There is something wrong with your baby!” (As if she hadn’t noticed.) “He has some sort of…syndrome. He is severely mentally retarded!” It reminded me of the obnoxious Indian lawyer that we met while staying at a government bungalow between Delhi and Jaipur. He made pronouncements as if from on high, with no apparent realization that they were quite rude. For example, he told me: “There are 2 religions in America. Protestant and Catholic. Which are you?” Neither, is the answer!

carrying firewoodIn the book, “Dabid,” as the porters call him, cycles often from being well and thriving, to being sickly and not doing so well. Alexander achieves developmental milestones almost painfully in contrast and starts school. He is a sweet little boy who loves his little brother and his Nepalli friends and longs to grow up to be a driver, like the man called Moti who drives the family around. Endearingly, he calls David “Dawid.” Soon the family is joined by another baby boy, Sebastien. In an especially humorous bit, Jane is relieved to see David stealing Sebastien’s blanket on purpose, because he is not too damaged to feel–and act on–sibling rivalry. She says David thinks Sebastien is evil!

How Do We Know We’re In Nepal?

Himalayas in NepalAnother way in which Nepal is different from the West is that when one of the babies cries, all the Nepalii women urge Jane to “feed the baby” immediately. Everybody breast-feeds in public and it’s just fine. Nepal is a poor country, but it is rich in love, at least for children and babies. Women are often treated poorly, however, and Jane eventually takes on a servant girl named Ganga, whose own mother tried to sell her into prostitution in India. Ganga, however, ran away and was lucky enough to find Westerners (with money and a different outlook) who were willing to employ her. Eventually, despite Jane’s protests, Ganga becomes the second wife of a rich old Brahmin and bears him a child. To Jane, this existence seems appalling, all the more so because the first wife and the mother-in-law treat Ganga like dirt because she’s lower-class. But compared to the life she would have had as a prostitute? Yeah.

tigerThere are hints of unrest in the book–Maoist gangs–but little crime. And the wildlife is fantastic. At one point the family is trekking through the jungle on elephants and Simon and Alexander see not one, not two, but THREE tigers! I was so jealous. Julia and I and Gary, my British friends who worked with me in Japan, well, we heard a tiger coughing in the bush near Saristi, on a safari via Land Rover, but we never saw one.

Dr. Jane’s undergraduate degree is in zoology, so she is very interested in animals and in plants too. I loved reading her descriptions of them. Even the bits where she describes the scenery (which I usually skip) and the mountains, I devoured.

I wanted to stay in the world of the book, and this family, forever.

Rating: FIVE (hundred) stars in the clear mountain air of the Himals. (Yes, himals.)

The Storyteller (Peru)

by Mario Vargas Llosa
“Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature”
Courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore

PREFACE: The Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”. For a body of work, not for this particular novel. I feel the medal icon atop this book is misleading, most likely on purpose.

OK, let’s tell the story! The protagonist of this novel is a Perunvian Jewish man of Central European ancestry named Saul Zaratas, who was born with a huge strawberry-colored birthmark on his face and calls everyone “pal”. Because of the birthmark, they call him “Mascarita” or The Mask. The narrator is his college roommate, who is trying to find him after a few decades of having lost touch. The novel opens in an art gallery in Florence, where the narrator has gone to try and forget about Peru for awhile. But there, in this gallery, is a series of photographs, one of whom features a group of Native Peruvians known as the Machiguenga tribe, gathered around a storyteller.

An agouti paca, or "royal rat", a main source of protein for the Machiguenga.

An agouti paca, or “royal rat”, a main source of protein for the Machiguenga.

Having never read any Vargos Llosa, I decided to try this particular novel because I too am a storyteller.

The importance of stories to the Machiguenga is undeniable. Stories from the basis of their religion, their oral history, their medicine, and their culture. Stories keep alive the atrocities of the “tree-bleeding” time in their recent history, known to the colonizers of Peru as “rubber-tapping” in which they played off the tribes against one another. Slaves were told that if they captured 3 enemies and delivered them to the Viracochas (whites) of the plantation, they themselves could take their families and go back to the jungle. UGH

I found some of the transitions jarring–it wasn’t always clear at first who was speaking–and the Spanish and Machiguenga terms, plus unfamiliar plants and animals that are thrown into the text without so much as an italic needed footnotes–thank goodness for Google. It also would have been nice to have known, as Vargos Llosa obviously does, that the Machiguenga don’t use personal names. For a bit I was quite confused as to why every Machiguenga was called Tasurinchi. Were they all the same person? No. Also, the narrator says that his friend “defended his thesis for his bachelor’s degree in his fifth year” at San Marcos–that isn’t the way it works in the English speaking world, pal, so we need a bit of explanation we don’t get. (Most likely these areas of the book are not Vargos Llosa’s fault but rather bad choices on the parts of the translator and publisher.)

The writing was pretty stellar. I got a little tired of the long-winded stories of the Machiguenga mythology, wanting in my Western reader way to focus more on reality, science, rational thought, and actual history. Still, the search for Mascarita was interesting, his evolution inevitable. Although as a reader, I would have liked a more conclusive ending. Because as is, it kind of reads like, “there was this Gringo/outsider/deformed person who abandoned his white lifestyle to go live with primitive peoples in the interior. The end.”

I love learning names. Names are so important. I am still learning the names of many of the native peoples of what is now the USA. But these names I had never heard before. Although Wikipedia lists around 60 tribes in Peru, some of names that crop up in the book, either as neighbors or traditional enemies of the Machiguenga are:

  • Shipibos
  • Huambisas
  • Aguarunas
  • Yaguasas
  • Shapras
  • Campas
  • Mashcos
  • Boras
  • Piros

Exotic, Not Erotic

Quillabamba

Quillabamba

The names of the South American Indians and places resonated like flute music in my ear as I read. Quillabamba, a city. Kashuri, the moon. Kientibakori, the major evil spirit. But Vargos Llosa doesn’t make the mistake of romanticizing The Men Who Walk, or to my great relief, fetishizing the native women (I find this tendency in male writers to be super icky). Mascarita mentions the problematic customs. He admires the tribes greatly, but he sees traditions in their society that he doesn’t like. And he makes no bones about it. He says he is not an Indigenist, like those of the 1930s, although he thinks the tribes should not be Westernized any further, that they should be left alone, pal.

Early on we are introduced to the Machiguenga idea that The Men Who Walk (and indeed, all humans) should control their emotions and not give way to negative outbursts. “A man throwing a fit can make a river overflow, and a murder makes lightning burn down the village,” Saul explains to his white friend. I immediately connected the dots to the Tibetan Buddhist idea of Tulpas, or beings created from emotional energy. And also to the ancient Greek idea found in Oedipus Rex, that if humans misbehave, that chaos bounces back to us in the form of natural disasters.

I was also intrigued by the idea that you can outstay your welcome in one place in the natural world, and need to walk on so that the sun does not fall from the sky. It makes sense in terms of resource use, and reminds me of the Yellow Leaf People in Thailand, a hill tribe that practices slash-and-burn agriculture like the Machiguenga. When the leaves they used to build their huts turn yellow, they know it is time to walk on.

Magical Realism–I Don’t Like It
And SPOILER ALERT

Masato, an alcoholic native Peruvian drink fermented by chewing and spitting out cassava.

Masato, an alcoholic native Peruvian drink fermented by chewing and spitting out cassava.

I liked parts of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude in college, but I felt frustrated at the lack of linear storytelling and a rational worldview. I didn’t understand half of what he was alluding to. I’m too much a product of Western rational thought to be happy with this form of a novel; too educated in the North American school system to “get” a lot of the history and culture that might be obvious to South Americans; and I notice most of the others in my book group at Auntie’s seem to be the same. If I spoke Spanish and lived in South America I would probably love magical realism. But, I don’t. Ironically because I read a lot of science fiction/fantasy novels, I am MORE tolerant than most Americans of this form. I haven’t even tried to tackle Jorge Luis Borges.

If I were editing this novel, I’d have chopped it in half, tightened up and condensed the rambling Machiguenga teaching tales and creation myths, and forced the narrative into a plot structure where things happen. I might have also suggested in the end that there are consequences, whether emotional or physical to Mascarita for throwing his lot in with the tribes of the interior, or that there is a showdown or confrontation between the narrator and his old friend. Or that there are stakes in the events for any of the people, anywhere, at any time.

Rating: Three stars beneath Kashiri, the moon.

A Long Way Gone Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Sierra Leone)

book coverby Ishmael Beah

Courtesy of a purchase from Banana Books in Long Beach, Washington

This was a hard book to read. I had to take a few breaks from it. It’s well-written and riveting, of course. (Part of why it was hard to put down, too.) At times the main character becomes so sad his bones ache.

Sierra Leone MapWhen Ishmael Beah was 12 years old, he left home with his brother Junior and some friends to go to a talent show in another town. They were amateur rappers and kept cassettes of Run DMC and other popular American groups in their pockets. They had no way of knowing that this talent show and those tapes were about to save their lives.

Young Ishmael had already been through some trauma–his parents had divorced and he was living with his father. But there was worse to come. Much, much worse.

tribes of Sierra Leone

Tribes of Sierra Leone: Ishmael and his friends know all the 18 languages spoken in their country

While the group of kids was walking to the next town, murder, rape and civil war were breaking out right behind them. Literally. They arrived to find that school and the talent show had been cancelled. Their hometown had been attacked and their parents and little brother, who lived with the mother, had fled. The town was on fire. They had nothing to go back to, but they tried anyway. After seeing the refugees on the road, however, they realized if they went back they would just die too. So they had to flee forward.

beach

This beach is calm, but Ishmael came to one where the waves hit the sand so hard, they threw particles of sand high into the sky.

They ran from the civil war, but it followed them. After several encounters with hostile and suspicious villagers who tried to kill them before realizing they were just little boys, Ishmael and his brother got separated.

Ishmael kept running. The rap tapes in his pocket and his ability to moonwalk convinced many a murderous village headman that he was, in fact, a child. But finally the tapes were taken from him and burned as he was captured by government forces and made into a soldier. A child soldier. He was forced to torture and kill many rebels, some his age or younger. He was fed marijuana and cocaine daily and of course became addicted.

Ishmael's village

Ishmael’s village

“We were on our way to attack a small town that had ammunition and food. As soon as we left the coffee farm, we unexpectedly ran into another armed group at a soccer field adjoining the ruins of what had once been a village. We opened fire until the last living being in the other group fell to the ground. We walked toward the dead bodies, giving each other high fives. The group had also consisted of young boys like us, but we didn’t care about them. We took their ammunition, sat on their bodies, and started eating the cooked food they had been carrying. All around us, fresh blood leaked from the bullet holes in their bodies.”

FreetownEventually UNICEF got ahold of him and freed him from the army. He was deprogrammed and detoxified, a painful and lengthy process. Of course, he was still traumatized. I don’t know if I could get over something like that. But Ishmael was lucky. He had a living half-uncle who cared, and who took him in as a member of his family. This uncle was a kind man, who treated Ishmael as his own son.

the Tree in FreetownBut then the war came to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and his uncle got very sick…all the hospitals were closed and it became impossible to get medicine or even food. After his uncle died, Ishmael realized he had to get out of Sierra Leone. It wasn’t just the famine and the civil war. If he were recaptured by government soldiers and he refused to rejoin them, he would be killed. If the rebels got ahold of him and discovered he’d been a government soldier, he would be killed. I think he was 16 years old at this point.

village with round hutsWhy. WHY would adults, the descendants of slaves from all over Africa, make slaves of children? It is cruel and barbaric and evil and it makes no sense. But it happened, and is no doubt happening today. I hate this. I know you hate it too.

Well, Ishmael survived to write this memoir, of course. And he was eventually rescued by a woman in New York who adopted him. She had met him when he came to the U.S. to speak to the United Nations about the war and what it was doing to the country’s children. If I had a criticism about this book, it would be that it ends abruptly. You’re with Ishmael through some hair-raising horror, and with him on the bus to Guinea, the only safe country around Sierra Leone at that time (Charles Taylor was doing terrible things in Liberia) and you don’t know if he’s even gonna make it out, and then suddenly he gets to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, where the Sierra Leone ambassador lets SL refugees sleep in the Embassy if they have nowhere else to go, and you breathe a sigh of relief and–THE END.

Conakry in Guinea

Conakry, Guinea

There’s no mention of how, having entered Guinea illegally, which he mentions will turn out to be a big problem later, he makes it to the U.S. Or about his mother adopting him, beating the pants off American kids at paintball after having been a child soldier, about his troubles being a child again, or as he says, enjoying the little childhood he has left.

I guess my problem with the book is that I didn’t want it to end! So, not really a problem. (A first world problem?) There are a few scenes in the first chapters of the book about Ishmael having flashbacks and nightmares in New York, but at that point you haven’t lived through the bad stuff yet so I couldn’t really appreciate them.

Anyway, hats off to Ishmael Beah for surviving. I am so sorry that all this happened to you, kid. Maybe the reason Ishmael alone, out of all his family, lived, is because he was supposed to tell his story. Our job is to bear witness, and do what we can to help from far away. Even when it hurts to watch.

Five bowls of fish stew.