Archive for October 2011
This may lose something in the retelling but we discovered (I’d like to say invented but that might be overstating things slightly) a funny game this weekend. Phone calls with nursery rhyme characters.
It goes something like this.
Pink plastic disney princess phone starts ringing
“Hello? Who’s that?… Oh Little Miss Muffet! How lovely to hear from you. Where are you?….
“… Sitting on your Tuffet? That’s nice… are you eating something?…”
“… your curds and whey? Mmm yum yum…”
“… oh… what’s happening… calm down Little Miss Muffet, what’s going on?…”
“…what!… a spider – you say!”
“… what!… it’s sat down beside you???”
“… hello… hello… Little Miss Muffet… are you there??”
“Oh dear, the spider has frightened Little Miss Muffet away”
End of phone call.
Pink plastic disney princess phone starts ring again.
“Hello?… Oh hi, Jack, where are you?… you’re with Jill?…. you’re climbing up a hill?!? What are you doing that for”
“You’re fetching a pale of water?”
“Oh… what’s happened, Jack, are you there, are you OK?”
“You fell down?… and you broke your crown?… well, where’s Jill?”
“She’s fallen down as well???”
The story went on through calling for an ambulance, going to hospital, getting your crown fixed, recuperating in a house made of spiders webs (we were really freestyling at this point).
And then we continued on; the three little pigs and their lamentable house building techniques, Bo Peep and her scatterbrain approach to shepherding, the hapless king’s men and their inability to reconstruct Mr. Dumpty, that infamous burglar-cum-squatter, Goldilocks, and the frightful parenting skills of the woman living in the shoe.
We covered them all. They’re a rum bunch, these nursery rhyme characters, when you really get down to it.
Relating to my previous post on Things like other things, this picture either proves or disproves my theory. I will leave it up to you to decide.
Funny thing I discovered the other week. If you lie in a dark room and press the palms of your hands into your eye sockets (not too hard, mind, if you’re trying this at home) the interior world of your eye starts to transmogrify into elements of the exterior world around.
So for example, the landscape of the iris, with its myriad of networked capillaries starts to resemble the cracked earth of Bolivian salt flats or the arid clay of a drought ridden river bed. The soft tissue around the pupil becomes a breathing anemone or spongy, multicoloured moss. The star spangled tingling cause by minor blood loss to the brain begins to look like constellations in the night sky.
(honestly, the more I write this, the more bonkers I think I sound – there were no drugs involved I can assure you)
Anyway, it got me thinking about how nature reflects back elements of ourselves in unexpected places as well as reflecting other seemingly unrelated things. I found myself exploring this notion a little bit whilst in Malawi. How elephant skin magnifies the patterns in our own skin but also resembles the texture of ancient tree bark. How the branches of a leafless tree can look like a map of our own spaghetti arteries and veins.
How a monolithic baobab face planted itself in the ground somehow somewhere down the ages and continues to grow upside down for ever more – roots becoming branches, branches becoming roots.
Well you get the picture…
And if you don’t, I’ll post a couple more pictures that may or may not make me make sense…
I had a dream the other night that I spotted what I thought at first was a bed bug on the duvet (why I had bed bugs on my mind we won’t go into). But it was travelling at such speed across the duvet, I realised it couldn’t be a bed bug and must be a tiny money spider instead.
When I looked more closely at it though, I realised it was a tiny monkey, the same size as a money spider, galloping (do monkeys gallop?) across the bed. However, there was something odd about its feet. It looked like it had little puffs of white cotton wool attached to each of them.
When I looked even more closely though, I realised that tiny little puffs of cartoon smoke or clouds were appearing each time one of its feet touched the duvet.
I like this picture I took in Malawi of a monkey and her baby a lot. She was sneaking down a hotel corridor trying to make her way to the breakfast buffet without being spotted by the staff. I liked her cool stare, getting the measure of me before deciding that she could probably still make a run for the cereal and fresh fruit despite my proximity. She didn’t make it. Not this time anyway. No doubt she’d come back and try again. It was a daily battle of wills between man and monkey up on the Zomba plateau.
These women were stood on the back of a flatbed truck in the grounds of the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre singing the most beautiful music.
The grounds of the hospital are busy – large groups of ‘guardians’ are crowded together on every spare grassy area there is in the hospital grounds – sleeping, eating, washing and cooking on the verges. Patients rely on their guardians to wash, feed and care for them as this level of care isn’t ordinarily provided by hospital staff. Can’t be provided by hospital staff – there just isn’t the manpower or resources for this type of care.
And death is so desperately prevalent that each time one of the wards dies, the guardians all gather together and sing the most beautiful songs as they escort the body to the morgue. It’s very moving to see. And to hear.
I remember when I got back from my first trip to India when I was eighteen, the first thing a friend said to me was,
‘Did you find yourself?’
To which my knee jerk response was,
‘I didn’t know I was missing?’
I was thinking, while I was in Malawi, about that other great cliche that ‘Travel broadens the mind’. Essentially, as with all cliches there is a kernel of truth in this. If nothing more than the fact that travel, when done right, expands the reach of your experience, introduces you to people with cultures, traditions, habits, attitudes, beliefs that are like mirrors tilted at different angles to the ones you are accustomed to.
You can learn a great deal from this, mostly about yourself and a little bit about others. When you tilt the mirrors back to the way they were, life is different because of what you now more broadly know and is enriched by the experience.
Travel should be like taking in a great big inhalation of pure oxygen – expansive and heady – the mind broadening experience of the cliche.
But every great inhalation of fresh air requires some kind of subsequent exhalation of stale air. And it occurred to me how shrunken it is possible to become about places and people, especially amongst those who you could argue have just ‘stayed too long in a place’. The broadening of the mind becomes little more than a much larger library of sticky labels with which you can apply to people.
The funniest thing someone said to me on this trip was: ‘You know you’re being very British about this and actually also very Pakistani’.
Your catalogue of stereotyping stretches wider but your shutters can remain firmly locked down.
You risk becoming the person in the back of a Cairo taxi.
I worked in Cairo for a couple of years teaching at the British Council and each day I took a two pound taxi ride to work in the morning and a two pound taxi ride back home in the evening. Generally speaking taxi drivers were happy that this was the going rate, but every so often you would find yourself face to face with a hostile driver demanding double or even triple this amount.
One evening I got in a taxi for my journey home. The taxi driver was really friendly, asking me a lot of questions about my time in Egypt, my experiences in the place, welcoming me to his city. I was wary, to be honest. My experience had been that the friendlier the driver, the more likely there was to be a hideous confrontation at the end of the journey over money. So I was curt. Polite but disengaged in my responses, bracing myself for the fight that was likely to ensure.
When we reached my drop off point, I had my two pounds ready to hand over. But to my surprise and to my great shame, the driver refused to take any money from me. ‘You’re a guest in my country and I want you to know that you are very welcome here.’ My house was on his way home anyway and he didn’t want anything for the trip.
I felt utterly terrible. For having prejudged his kindness as a ruse, for having been so unresponsive and unengaged by a simple gesture of friendliness. This was the moment, in the back of that Cairo taxi, that I realised that it was probably time for me to leave Egypt.
When you find yourself exhaling rather than inhaling, that you’ve lost that sense of wonderment, then it’s probably time to move on. Africa, and more specifically Malawi, is still such an unknown and curious place that for me it is a two week gulp of neat oxygen – long may that continue.