"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–Rivers

I grew up close to the Farmington River in Connecticut, shanked many balls into it off the 10th tee at the Country Club when I was a teenager and went to school on its banks (Loomis Chafee).  It really wasn’t much of a river, especially in retrospect after I have seen the Mississippi, Congo, and Zambezi; but it did have its own character, particularly in the Spring when it flooded the fields around the school – so flooded in fact that one teacher buzzed over them in his hydroplane, jumping and bouncing, and making all of us students jealous.  We wanted to be like Mr. Joffrey, so cool, what a stud.  There was another teacher who did the same sort of thing on land – Mr. Worthington, the English teacher, who used to fire up his Renault Dauphine and roar around the campus roads never shifting.  He taught us how to do it – “Just listen to the revs of the engine, my boys, and she’ll slip into gear like you into wet pussy”.  These were the days before PC…way before.

Our biology teacher, Mr. Purdy, had this absolutely gorgeous young wife, not much older than us.  Loomis in those days took the best and brightest out of college, gave them some sort of orientation and let them loose in class.  Mr. Purdy’s reputation was widespread and the tops for one reason.  He gave a sex lecture once a year and brought his wife to the class.  How twisted was that?  And this was no sanitized, clinical lecture with anatomical diagrams; it was all about How to Get a Girl Hot and How to Know When a Girl is Hot and What it Feels Like When You Are in Her Vagina.  So here were 25 sophomore 16 year-old boys, all with poker hard-ons listening to Mr. Purdy and looking at his demure-looking wife.  That was about the only concession Mr. Purdy made to the Sex Education Class – Mrs. Purdy wore high neck, long sleeved blouses with long skirts; but who cared?  We knew what happened as soon as Mr. Purdy got Mrs. Purdy between the sheets.  He told us, for Christ’s sake.

I wasn’t the only teenager shanking golf balls into the Farmington River.  I caddied at the Club and watched hundreds of inept amateurs slice their balls into the hazard.  Some of the drives started off with that solid smack of driver on ball, sailed up and true towards the middle of the fairway.  Then they started to tail off, and depending on how hard they were driven, sliced either gently or violently right into the river.  “Nice shot….Way to go….Atta boy…” were the congratulations as the ball rocket off towards the green.  “That’s OK, it’ll play…..Hey, you’re only lying three…..Go get ‘em….”.  It was all I could do to stop laughing at the contortions that passed as swings off the tee.  Most of these golfers had never had a lesson in their life, and their swing was all about compensation – in order to get the ball down the fairway they had to use all arm in a violent hacking motion; or all butt and hips in a wild twisting dervish convulsion; and of course the more imperfect the swing, the sharper the slice.  In fact some balls never got more than 25 yards into the air before that wheeling turn to the right into the river.

I lived my whole life in the Eastern United States and most of that in Connecticut until I took off for India, so I was unprepared for the Ganges, the Gunga, the lifeblood and holy Goddess.  I loved the Ganges, from its source high up in the Himalayas at Hardwar to its widest at Allahabad and Varanasi.  I meditated by it, took launches and country craft down it, watched the endless parade of faithful, pilgrims, alms-givers, mourning families doing their ablutions, prayers, death ceremonies, and devotion on it.  My most vivid memory of the Ganges is Varanasi, Benares, where I visited during Diwali, the festival of light.  I had lived in Bombay for over a year at that time, and I was used to crowds, throngs, and masses of people; but I was unprepared for the devotion.  This was indeed a holy city.  I got up very early in the morning and took a small boat up and down the ghats to watch the display.  I knew nothing of the meaning of the ornate physical rituals, the arms and hands doing elaborate ballet, the dunking in the river, all done individually, no Mass or Temple. 

Allahabad was another one of India’s holy cities on the Ganges, especially holy because it was at the confluence of three rivers – the Gunga, the Yamuna, and the Saraswati.  We boated out to the spot where the three rivers met, and the swirling, turbulent mix the Gunga and the Yamuna was clear and impressive.  The colors were different (this being India, it was shades of muddy brown rather than clear blue or green and something else), but there they were whirling and whorling in one spot.  “But where is the third river?”, I asked our boatman.  “Saraswati is mythical river”, he said.  “There but not there, do you get my meaning?”

The Buriganga in Dhaka was another impressive river, and I took a small man-powered launch to view the activity on the banks as I had done in India.  The activity on this river, however, was not on the banks, but on the river itself.  In this little wooden dugout, we were navigating the same shipping lanes as the cargo ships that had come up from the Bay of Bengal.  However, the boatman was an expert, always turning exactly right and at the right moment into the wake of the ships, so we bobbed and dipped but shipped no water.

Crossing the Congo River was another unforgettable experience, more for the drama on the Kinshasa docks than the river itself which was wide, fast-flowing, and thick with water lilies.  I had quick flashes of A Bend in the River, the well-known Naipaul book about travel up the Congo to Kisangani and Lubumbashi and of course Heart of Darkness.  The trip across from Brazzaville was no more than half an hour, and as we approached, I could see the throngs on the docks.  It looked like complete chaos – after decades in Africa, I was still nervous and apprehensive of these chaotic, seemingly lawless crowds; and I had heard about the particular brutality of the Zairian police and border guards.

To make matters worse, the Zaire had been recently devalued, border crossings were closed or extremely limited.  As we arrived I could see the police with their truncheons out, beating people back to the boat and beating passengers trying to get on.  This was it, I thought, finally my number has come up, thrown in a Kinshasa prison, bread and water, Midnight Express African style; but no, there he was…..Could it be?  Yes! The American expeditor, sent by the Embassy to escort my colleague, a USAID employee with a Diplomatic passport.  Fuck all this shit about democratic principles, civil society, functioning legal and financial system, freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, entrepreneurship and individual rights.  Being an American was being saved by an American Expeditor on the Kinshasa docks.

The Niger River I have mentioned before.  I have two distinctive memories of it.  One is Mungo Park, the intrepid English explorer of Africa who was sent out by the Geographical Society in the late 1700s to determine first which way the river flowed; and second, its source.  The journals of Mungo Park are a must read (as are the many journals of English, French, and other European explorers of Africa and Arabia in the 18th and 19th centuries), and his story was a retelling of The Perils of Pauline – everything bad that could happen to him, did happen.  He was robbed, used as collateral in tribal negotiations, sold into slavery, released.  All his trinkets were gone early on as he was beset upon by tribe after tribe; and yet he survived the journey and went back! Damn.  My hero, and perhaps the most intrepid of all travellers was Sir Richard Burton who, in his search for the source of the Nile was also attacked wounded, and deaf and near blind, he struggled his way up from Mombasa towards lake Tanganyika.  I love him because he spoke about 50 languages fluently, was able to pass as a Muslim and sneak his way into Mecca and the holiest of holies, did everything that I could even hope to do.  I still resent his wife for burning most of his papers because she was pissed at him.

The other memory is simple – having the most civilized of lunches on the deck of a restaurant on the banks of the Niger, drinking chilled French white wine, eating the most delicious fish in the world – Nile Perch – or capitaine which only is found in the Nile and the Niger, although I think it has snuck its way into Lake Tanganyika as well; and overlooking the African dugout fisherman scene as I ate.  Some capitaine grow up to 5 feet long and weigh over 100 lbs., so these guys were trolling for small fry, but still, artisanal fishing, I’m all for it.

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