27 July 2011

Speaking of..

..ghosts, monsters, Africa, and 30 Rock: this quote from 30 Rock made me laugh and describes occasionally-eerie rural Uganda pretty accurately.
Africa's great. We have juju monsters, gum gum trees, and horsicorns, which is a unicorn with a horse's head.
All true. It's a magical, mystical place, this Africa.

26 July 2011


I was lying around my house for a few days this past weekend, sick and not feeling all that awesome. I can only watch so many episodes of 30 Rock -- so many being, approximately, twenty -- in a row, and so this is what came after that.

(Please ignore all the silly British spellings in this blog post. I was finally able to download a Microsoft Word substitute after my copy expired since I lost or never had the code to enter, and, being where I am, the spellcheck is set to British English, I can't figure out how to change the default settings, and so, typing blog posts on that, we end up with everything being auto-corrected to include a u after every other o and spell maneuver manoeuvre. Oh well. Maybe it will add a certain refinement to my normal inanities. Anyway.)

People here are, well, a lot of – let's not generalise; I am in the PC, after all – people here are fairly superstitious. There are witches and wizards (no joke, they call them wizards, which is awesome), witchdoctors – though I think we're calling them 'traditional healers' these days – who, for an often-extortionate price will 'cause' a woman's female rival to have a miscarriage or – all Haha, how quaint! thoughts aside – still have been known to sacrifice – no, let's say 'murder' instead; spade a spade and all that – children for who knows what reasons. But people, and I think it'd be fair to say the majority of people, at least to some extent, still – and I say 'still' as in 'it's a belief system as old as, maybe older than, depending on who you ask, Christianity that, despite the fact that the population in the area of the belief system was always relatively small, has still persisted, in some form, to 2011 (also, still, despite missionary work by Catholics, Protestants, Muslims that sought to rid people of such 'savage' ideas; though some of those missionaries were, undoubtedly, Irish, coming from a country where some people still believe in faeries and, more commonly, banshees)', not 'still' as in 'I can't believe they, those people, them, not us, still believe such things despite science!' while using an index finger on the bridge of my glasses to slide them back up my nose (because what do I know? I'm not a potion scientist. And, while I do feel confident enough in my in-born Western scepticism that I feel like getting cursed by a witchdoctor would just be a cool story, I'm still probably not going to try my luck.) – believe in the abilities of witches and wizards, fear the curses of witchdoctors, and would be terrified to find human faeces on their doorstep or a beheaded and defeathered hen outside their hut one morning (but who wouldn't be a little freaked out by that?), and believe in the effects of potions like dokiyo, which will make you fall so in love with the person who gave it to you that you weep uncontrollably until you agree to be with them.

Phew. Now that I've claused any sense out of those three sentences and got my don't-offend-anyone, don't-generalise-everyone bases covered (right? we're good? we're PC enough?), there is a point to all of this.

The point being: I believe.

If Fox Mulder had a picture of a witchdoctor instead of a UFO on that poster of his, I would be him.

Ok, I'm mostly kidding. The part of me that says I believe facetiously is walking around town, going to the market, pretending like Goal 2 – of the three main goals of the Peace Corps: number one being doing actual work, numbers two and three being about cultural exchange – is actually work, all in the bright hot crystalline equatorial daylight. The part of me that is not kidding is running a couple miles from town – fine, let's be honest: more like a kilometre and a half; I can't run that far, I'm not one of those volunteers – deep into the village at 5:30 on a cool misty pitch-black starless moonless morning with nothing but the three-foot-wide halo of light from my phone-torch between me and the witches and wizards and beheaded, defeathered hens and ancestral ghosts swirling in and out of the mist and the darkness. Aw, yeah: this is a ghost story. It is also completely true, and all happened in the span of, like, forty minutes, because, like I said, I can't run that far.

(Note: this story may make it seem like I'm afraid of the dark. That may or may not be entirely true. If it is true, though – which it might not be, remember? – then I blame Mom – hi, Mom! – for letting us watch Arachnophobia when I was, like, seven. I also blame the cable channel TBS for letting me watch The Exorcist when I was, like, twelve. No, TBS, I don't care if it was edited for television. Also, Paranormal Activity. Enough said. I'm not afraid of the dark anyway. Don't judge me.)

I got up at 5:04 the other morning Рdue to my affinity for never setting my alarm for x:15 or y:30 or some time like that Рto go on a run. Since I've somehow developed the World's Smallest Bladder since being in country, I had to pee like a [clich̩]. I pulled on shorts and a t-shirt and, tapping the up-arrow key on my phone to switch on the torch, headed out to the latrine, stepping outside into total darkness, clouds like a black velvet blanket Рis that a thing? a velvet blanket? Рblocking all of the stars and the sliver of a waxing moon, tendrils of swirling mist wrapping around through into above under the stunted beam of the torch, a fine Seattle-esque mist that floated down onto exposed skin to prick up goosebumps wherever it landed, and I shivered, like someone had just walked on my grave Рor like I really had to go.

Cold water from the rainstorm during the night sprayed my feet and ankles as I hurried across the grass to the long, narrow latrine structure I share with the neighbours and a breeze slowly swung one of the doors shut with a groan like an old man who's tired of waiting to die and then with a creak like a Halloween CD of haunted house noises and then, the breeze gusting just a little harder, swirling the mist just a little more, with a final emphatic slam. I rounded the outer wall of the latrine area to go down to mine, Door No. 3, and half-leapt, half-stumbled backwards – or was I pushed? – in the World's Worst Defensive Manoeuvre as a calamitous death-rattle shattered the morning's quiet from behind Door No. 4, bony fists pounding the corrugated metal begging trying to force their way out to disappear into the mist and darkness, and just as suddenly as they started, the bony fists stopped, leaving a hole in the silence, until the silence returned, somehow thicker than it had been before, echoing with the cacophony though the sound had been sucked away by a cold wind.

I didn't move. I didn't move, I just stared at Door No. 4 and shivered again. Then Door No. 1, at my back, the door to my bathing area, the one that had just groaned creaked slammed shut, groaned back open against the breeze the breeze was blowing the other way the breeze should've pushed the door shut except that the door had already been closed what the what – and I thought all of these things, a hurried stream that ran across the front of my brain in half a second until I was launched out of my paralysis by a thunderous bony-fisted punch to the metal of Door No. 4 – did that..? I swear that dent in the metal wasn't there just a second ago – and leapt to the door of my latrine as the death-rattle pounded and I deftly unlocked the padlock and swung the door open swung myself inside swung the door shut in one quick motion and the heavy silence made heavier by the absence of sound returned.

I held the torch in my mouth as I – oh, thank God – 'watered' the seething mass of cockroaches I was sure was making the ground shimmer and slither twenty-five feet below me (like, have you seen the caves episode of Planet Earth?, with that one cave where there's a hundred-foot mountain of bat guano only you can't see it because it is literally covered in cockroaches?, like that), and the silence was broken again by the insistent buzzing of a fat bluebottle fly that made strafing flights across my face, attracted to the light in my mouth – easily, easily, easily the most disgusting thing that happens to me on a fairly regular basis – and I clamped down on the phone with my teeth and shook my head to get the fly away from my mouth and then caught the fly in the torchlight again as it buzzed lazily towards the corner then buzzed insistently as it found itself stuck in a spider web and then the buzzing reached panicked levels, echoing off the metal door, off the metal roof, echoing down into the brick-walled pit under my feet, as a spider the size of a small goat – exaggeration? Maybe. But, also... maybe not! – lowered itself down from the shadows of the roof, its long, hairy legs pin-wheeling in eager anticipation, and I watched as the spider reached its breakfast and twirled the fly in circles in a macabre ballroom dance and then, satisfied that its prey wouldn't escape, it ascended, slowly, silently, back up into the shadows – stopping only so that I could give it a high-five and remind it that that's why I allow it to live.

With the reverberations of the fly's last words slowly dying down and with my bladder emptied – which, being a Guinness World Record holder like it is, only takes about five seconds, fortunate on mornings like this – I slowly pushed open the latrine door with both hands, torch still getting slobbery in my mouth, just in case I had to shove someone something away and make my escape. But it was quiet. I could see that Doors No. 1 and 2 were shut. There was only the breeze and the mist that wrapped itself around me, somehow comforting despite its chill, as I stepped outside and pushed the door shut and put the padlock back into place and began to think, again, about how cold I'm going to be in the Great PNW in December and I felt my shoulders slump a bit and relax, there were no ghosts here, no angry spirits who died in the pit latrine and now want to get out, and I squeezed the little padlock closed, not realising that the small metallic click somehow both dampened by the mist and amplified into a gunshot by the cool wind was a cue, and I leapt sprinted stumbled almost swallowed or spit out my phone as, barely missing a heartbeat – or desperately, desperately missing the feeling of a heartbeat – after the click of the lock, bony fists beat a tympanic solo on Door No. 4, thunderous and metallic and angry and desperate and beseeching, and the wind found some small aperture to whistle and howl over, and I kicked cold water off blades of grass and swung my front door open swung myself inside swung the door shut in one quick motion and was back inside, less than three minutes after getting out of bed.

I took a moment, reminded – or tried to convince – myself that I am a man, and then pulled on socks and my running shoes and stepped back outside, the swirling mist curling around the beam of the torch like fingers beckoning me to come with them somewhere I knew I didn't want to go as I closed the lock on my door with a heavy click. I walked out onto the road leading away from town. Silence whirled as thickly as the mist. The only lights I could see were the four globe fixtures at the corners of the brick wall surrounding the other white family's compound, the yellowish light reflecting, refracting, bouncing off the mist until the globes were as large as full moons. I walked for a minute to warm my legs up, away from the full moon security lights, away from the sleeping town, and as the glow of the lights surrendered to blackness, I switched on the torch and started to run, unable to see anything but the three-foot circle of road lit up at my feet and the dim silhouettes of trees where that blackness gave way to the sky's blackness, unable to hear anything but my feet pounding the packed dirt, a quick scuff as I scraped over a bump that hadn't been lit well enough by the torch, the sound of my own too-heavy breathing and too-rapid heartbeat and, in the silence all around me, these quiet sounds gathered together like a wave, a white-noise crescendo, a Sonic Youth song, or a heavy rain on a tin roof and they filled my ears and made my eyes glaze over in daydreams and suddenly I wanted to run without the torch, I wanted to see or not see how dark it really was, and, feet pounding, heart thumping, I switched off the torch and there was nothing, it was black, totally, there was nothing except me, I was running on nothing, I was running past nothing, I was running nowhere, there was absolutely nothing but the faint uneven line across the division of land and sky, the division of darkness filled with all the things you can't see and darkness filled with nothing but the absence of light, and a gust of wind swept down the road towards me and turned the beads of sweat running down my temples and soaking into the chest of my shirt into droplets of ice water and teasing out goosebumps on my arms.

I switched the torch back on with an involuntary shudder, and my heart double beat its already-quick pace, I gasped in an extra breath – two figures were lit up right in front of me on the side of the road, two figures I hadn't seen, hadn't heard, hadn't sensed, two black shapes, barely more than ripples in the darkness, and I suddenly knew that if ghosts existed this is what they would look like – shapes that move the air without moving through it, shapes that you can stare at when you see them, stare at until you can't see them anymore, until you can see them again because they never left, did they? – they had no faces but I knew they had arms and they were close enough to reach out and grab me by the arm, close enough to rake claw-like fingernails down my back, they had no faces but I knew they had arms but they didn't move as I ran past, pretending not to have noticed them, they had no faces but I felt their eyes grab onto my shoulders as I ran past, yank at my arms, pull me by the wrist into the darkness filled with all of the things you can't see, I ran past, I heard the shuffle of feet behind me as I ran past, they were gone or I was, their eyes released their hold on me, they were gone or I couldn't see them anymore, I was alone again, I told myself that I was alone again.

I told myself that I was alone again. I kept running. I sped up. I left or tried to leave the two figures, the ghosts, behind me. The pounding of my feet grew louder. My breathing grew heavier. The faint jagged line of the division of trees and sky rose up ahead of me, grew higher until I had to look up to see it. I was running through the forest. I knew it from the daylight: the forest before the flat, empty, swampy plains that continued on for another ten or twelve kilometres to the lake. I kept running. I sped up. I was running through the forest and the pounding of my feet grew louder, it echoed off the tree trunks, sent out from where my feet hit the packed dirt into the wood and back, amplified once and again and a hundred times more off of a hundred tree trunks until it wasn't the pounding of my feet, not anymore, it was a tribal drum, a hundred tribal drums, carved out of the tree trunks, thundering the start of war, thundering to call down rain or fire. I kept running. I sped up. My breathing grew heavier and the breaths escaping my lungs twisted through the branches, wound back to my ears on the mist, swirled and crescendoed and echoed until they weren't breaths, they were whispers, they were words, I couldn't understand them but I knew what they were, the murmurs of a witchdoctor in the forest, off somewhere reciting incantations, sim sala bim on his tongue – and that's not my line, I know, but I like it – sending curses on the cool breeze, bringing my goosebumps back, whispering words that I couldn't understand, words that became louder than the drums, and war and rain and fire and curses and incantations swallowed everything else and then, one more step forward, went silent. I was out of the forest. I kept running.

The drums stopped crying for war and the curses evaporated into the mist and it was suddenly flat and empty. I couldn't see it, but I knew it was completely empty. I knew I could run for miles in any direction without hitting a hill, without hitting anything – unless I kept running straight, in which case I'd end up in a lake, but still.

The silence after the drums and the whispers was the same silence that had settled in after bony fists had stopped pounding on the latrine door. It was heavy. It swallowed up the pounding of my feet and the breaths that left my lungs. There was nothing anymore except the halo of light in front of me and I ran towards the halo of light and sped up but never reached it, but I'm easily amused so it was fun to play that game for a second and my mind went off somewhere or nowhere and there was nothing except running to catch the halo of light. At this point, on this morning, in this darkness and mist and chill, I should have known that nothing would become something and suddenly. My mind was brought back from nowhere in an instant, the feet-pounding breath-escaping sounds that had been dampened came roaring back on the mournful scream of a child, the mournful screams of children, at least a dozen of them, a dozen howls, lonely and sad and just feet away from me on either side of the road, they wailed, banshees, their cries so loud and long and mournful that I could see them, I convinced myself I could see them, their mouths open, sucking in the blackness and wailing it back out, mouths open so wide their jaws unhinged as they howled as they stood half hidden in the stalks of maize and millet and watched me and reached out to me and wailed at me, to me, crying to me, long skinny bodies between tall stalks, mouths open, eyes clear and full of confusion and sadness and an anger that they felt but couldn't identify because they could only cry out, long piercing notes, howling, wailing, drowning out the sounds of my running, clear eyes and unhinged jaws, I saw all of these things like in broad daylight or at least like in the trailer for Children of the Corn, the children were wailing, my feet were pounding, the children were bleating their cries into the darkness, they were bleating, bleating – wait. Bleating? 

They weren't children. 
They were goats.

I stopped running. It was time to turn around.

I started running back towards town. I ran back past the mournful wails of the children of the corn. I ran past the thundering war drums and the whispered incantations. I ran past where the two figures had been standing at the side of the road, the ripples in the darkness, the faceless shapes with clawing eyes. I ran and formulated this blog post in my head, telling myself ghost stories until I believed them. I kept running. I sped up. I heard footsteps. I kept running. I looked behind me and there was a flash of light. Someone had switched on a torch, just like mine, then switched it off, like they'd seen me see them. But I'd seen them. I knew. They were going to follow me, they'd be faster than me, they'd run me down, I sped up, I looked over my shoulder, the torch flicked on and then off again, closer. I kept running. The torch flicked on, off, right behind me. I kept running. I looked over my shoulder. Nothing. I ran. I looked over my shoulder. Nothing. They'd given up – because I am the fastest man alive!

I kept running. My feet were still pounding on the road. I kept running, pounding, and then the earth shook, it rumbled and swallowed my pounding feet and then I was bathed in two beams of yellow light, they swallowed my torch, I was bathed in yellow light and blinded by it and I kept running, blindly. Earlier, I'd switched off the torch and ran blindly in the dark, now I was running blindly in the light. A lorry engine roared to life with the lights just behind me to my left – why was there a lorry in the middle of nowhere? in the middle of the village? just sitting in the dark? – and I knew. They were coming for me. They knew they couldn't run me down, I was too fast, faster than them, but they were coming for me, they weren't giving up yet, they had a lorry now. It swung out into the road behind me, I was running just beyond the furthest reach of the headlights, but it still made the ground rumble, the engine roared, they'd be on top of me, over top of me, in seconds, I sped up, my feet pounded the ground, the lights brushed my back, I sped up, I was sprinting now, and my foot scuffed over a rock and I pitched forward, stumbling, I stayed on my feet but I was out of control, I wouldn't stay up for long, I was bent forward and my arms windmilled at my sides, the torchlight shining erratically on the ground then the trees then the sky then the ditch then the trees then the sky and the lorry pulled closer, I found my balance and kept running, I stayed at the furthest edge of the headlights, I could feel the yellow light grabbing at my heels and my back, it was trying to swallow me, it wanted to blind me, they wanted to crush me in the rumbling earth, I ran, I could see the faint line of the horizon, the faint line separating this darkness full of everything from that darkness full of nothing, and the line took the shape of buildings, squat squared angles, and I knew I was almost there, I knew the turn for my house was coming up and I pounded the road, I ran, I sped up, the lorry sped up, the earth rumbled, the headlights burned my back, the yellow light swallowed my torch, the rumbling of the earth swallowed my footsteps, the squared angles of town grew closer, my turn was closer now, I ran, I sped up, I outran the yellow light, the heat, I outran the rumbling earth, I cut to the right and leapt over the ditch and was on my own road, and the lorry roared by, the yellow light didn't swallow my torch, they couldn't run me down, I was too fast, I was faster than them on foot, I was faster than them in a lorry, but my back was still hot from the headlights, my feet were still swallowed in the rumbling earth so I kept running, I wasn't home yet, but I knew they wouldn't catch me now, they never could, they knew it, they kept driving, farther, the rumbling died off, the yellow light of the headlights was replaced by yellow full moon security lights and fingers of mist beckoned me and this time I followed, I kicked cold water off of blades of grass and I swung my front door open swung myself inside swung the door shut in one quick motion and I was back inside, I was breathing heavily, my feet were still pounding even though I wasn't moving, I was back home, I'd outrun them all, they knew they would never be able to catch me, I was home, and I believed.

So, yeah. No beheaded, defeathered hens, and I've still never met a witch or a wizard or a witchdoctor, but I (mostly-facetiously) believe.

(The morals of the story – 1: Being chased by ghosts and children of the corn and demon lorries makes running way more fun. 2: I still have no idea what was pounding on the latrine door or who was running behind me with the torch. 3: Ok, fine, I do. It was a couple of those giant beetles battering themselves against the door, and the torch was a few fireflies that happened to light up in order so they kept getting closer. Don't you wish you didn't know, though?)