Come Clean

Alright, the votes are in, the discussion didn’t materialize like I hoped, and I’m here to blow the lid off my Seven Truths and One Lie. But first a few prefatory remarks.

First. Overall, I don’t think I accomplished exactly what I had hoped to. I sought to pull the wool over my own eyes and generate at least one micro-short story. Unfortunately, the problem that dogs my writing – and other parts of my life – came to the fore. I’m a profoundly passive person, who finds observation, description, and analysis more interesting than any kind of action.

In my anecdotes I found it interesting that there is exactly one active character, my father, who in two stories variously drags me fearlessly into the middle of the Mexican desert to La Cantina or perilously pulls an imperialist prank on a hapless East African. Although I wrote in first person, there is never any interaction, and in three of the stories my seeking solitude is the primary motivation of the observations that comprise the bulk of the tales.

Certain persons who know me well in real life – *cough* Eric and Ken – will probably find themselves bemused by this. Ken’s followed me into an active riot zone, clouds of tear gas brilliant white against the night sky, illuminated by banks of playfield lights as bright as day. This was at my initiative, following a boisterously contentious dinner among activists and residents of Seattle during the WTO events here. “Bang!” went the grenades in the distance, and I had to be physically restrained from charging off to the scene.

Eric’s not only heard my travel tales but my many misadventures as a callow yoot, some of which I should probably develop. There’s the time a certain person (a convicted murderer on the lam from Florida, the grapevine later insisted) held a kid out the second story apartment window by his feet in a dispute over drug monies said to be owed, for example (I was nether present nor involved, may I hasten to add).

I was surprised to see themes emerge with such clarity: imperialism and colonialism, war and military might, solitude, the desert, and flight are clearly the things I have been thinking about ever since I was a child.

My personal favorite – and the piece which is most fully developed – is The Wind and Rain. Still, the piece is just the setting for a short story, the armature and stage on which persons might sing their little songs of mating and death. And that’s the problem with all these pieces. There’s no actor, just a setting.

That said, you people elected The Tumor head of the class. This story is not the lie. Each observation in the piece is factually a part of my memories of Japan. I do have recollections of the outdoors in Japan – usually in the context of a visit to a tourist destination, such as the temple complex at Nara – but because the memory of that man’s face was so stark and uncomfortable, I deliberately chose to write about what I perceived then as the Great Indoors. To this day when the SF trope of the world-city passes under my eyes in reading, it is the endless layer-cake of under Japan I visualize.

Felicity, bless her book lovin’ soul, fingered the ringer, but was buffaloed by what she visualized as a Deltawinged dive-bomber screaming down at my family by their car. In fact, the bomber was simply flying as low to the ground as possible – possibly approaching us from below the crest of the hill on which we’d parked, at a potential altitude of as low as 25 feet. Which is why we heard it so long before we saw it. The plane had probably begun to pull up a bit when he saw us, before clawing his way back up to the sky just after.

The lie, dear hearts? Well, it’s two-fold. I was frankly disappointed that no-one noticed my giant sign, planted in the Ethiopian highlands on the road to Axum. The sign? My father, after all, told the collector of The Toll a sort of lie with his crazy, dominant jabbering. That lie, as all good lies, encapsulated the truth: white men who gesture angrily on dusty third world roads are best heeded, as history has shown. Unspeakable violence may ensue.

My own lie, however, is of a different order. My parents lived and worked in Addis Ababa in the early 1960s, before I was born. The story as I wrote it here is almost exactly as my father can still tell it, to great comedic effect, amazing, pseudo-linguistic jabbering included. The details of my mother’s distress, and the need to keep the car from bursting into a storm of questions are my own fabricated contributions.

So, thanks again to those of you who dropped by and registered a vote or a thought on these, and thanks also to those of you who were interested enough to link over. I will be conducting more exercises in fictioneering here; I’m far from ready to discuss the techniques and goals I want to pursue, however.

The Verdict


I hope you enjoyed my travel stories.

To review: last Saturday I announced a weeklong special, Seven Truths and One Lie, in which I proposed a fiction-writing excersise for myself that you were invited to observe and comment on. Specifically, I was hoping to fool myself into crafting some fiction based on one of my many travel experiences.

Unfortunately, the name of the event led more than one person to expect that I would write eight essays, one crafted from whole cloth. I had never intended to do so, but by the time I realized I’d confused some readers, I was deep into the project and didn’t wish to explain here.

At any rate, now you know: there are only seven tales. So where’s the lie? It’s there; but to be sure, each of the seven tales is also a true and factual account. In a way, I’m disappointed in myself for not being able to get fictional enough, but as I noted at the beginning of the project, I freeze when I think I’m going to “write fiction,” absurdly enough for the man who chronicled the history of Kensapoppin’.

So here’s what I’d like you to do.

Look over the list, with my one-sentence summaries, and compare the stories in your mind. Was there one in particular that felt different or rang false in some way? Feel free to ask questions in the comments section, preferably in this entry so that everyone can benefit. I’ll answer in the comments section, truthfully, and with reasonable helpfulness.

At the same time, feel free to vote in the poll, just below. Currently I have not activated the poll’s lock-out, so those of you who’d like to indulge in the great American tradition of stuffing the ballot box may fire away. The poll also links to the entries. I just set it up; and while the code is straightforward enough it’s, uh, rather tersely documented, so if it blows up real good, I may disappear it.

La Cantina:
In the Nayarit desert, a cinder-block hut serves cold drinks.

In the Sahara, I stand outside the walls of Ghardaïa, Algeria.

An RAF bomber roars past us on a road near Wales.

The Toll:
My father exhibits initiative in dealing with a toll collector.

The Tumor:
A man walks through an urban subway station in Japan, his face disfigured.

Shell craters mark the green hills of France.

The Wind and Rain:
North Carolina’s Outer Banks reiterate the history of anglo North America.


The Wind and Rain

(near the Outer Banks, North Carolina)

The day after Christmas we drove out to the coast, the countryside slouching to card-table flats, tin-roof tobacco barns dotting the plain. An angry-looking white man in a rust-specked Cutlass insistently refused to let a black family in a late-model Ford pass, changing lanes with vitriolic swerves. We came across the first of the many coastal inlets that add hours to any coastal drive in the Carolinas and I eagerly examined the maps to learn if it was this inlet that held Teach’s Hole, where Blackbeard met his end. We were far afield.

We drove on through the quiet, bare-limbed landscape, ancient cemeteries flashing in the slanting winter sun, to arrive at the colonial capital of North Carolina, a Georgian mansion dressed in holiday finery, wreaths of real fruit and evergreen atop the locked gates and fences. We strolled through the herb garden, cold, considering our options.

We determined to head north, passing by the site of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, near the location of Teach’s Hole, before seeking a hotel on one of the Outer Banks themselves. By late afternoon we’d reached the first of these destinations. Pulling into the park, we were taken by surprise to note that we were the only people about. It was a holiday, after all.

We wandered around the park, noting the signage and general lack of reconstructions and archeological digs common in such places, before coming to a surprising edifice partially cantilevered out beyond the rocky shore of the island itself. It was an elaborate stage set, constructed solidly of wood, designed to give the impression of a pioneer stockade and blockhouse. We clambered about it, peeking backstage, bemused by the irony of finding the Lost Colony abandoned, no mysterious “Croatan”, no “McDonald’s,” no “Wal-Mart” carved into the wood of the stage. The moment of my culture’s troubled birth enveloped me.

The park itself came into being as a result of a summer-stock drama reimagining the story of the vanished colony on the very spot where the 1500-odd colonists lived, and vanished. In respect of the heritage of the production, the park co-exists with the play.

As I trod the boards, musing on the theatrical fertility of Elizabethan England, I gazed north and west to see the low, sandy line of the Outer Banks wink in the unseasonably bright sunlight. As I looked, I saw a white tower blink as clouds scudded by the sun. I took it for a lighthouse, but then reconsidered: the object did not sport the iconic striping of the Banks’ lighthouses, familiar from menus, signs, rural mailboxes, windsocks, bumper-stickers, and so forth. It was a pale cream color, not quite the yellowish tone of sand.

With a start I realized I was looking at the 60-foot granite monument erected at Kill Devil Hills to commemorate the first flight of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, 96 years and nine days prior. As I stood on the empty stage of the Lost Colony, the very birthplace of the Twentieth Century was visible across a few miles and five hundred years.

The next day, the unseasonable weather was gone and the more usual spitty, wind-blown conditions prevailed. We parked in the lot and noted that the park was open, and filed into the interpretive center to observe the Wrights’ memorabilia, including a full-scale operational reconstruction of a 1902-season glider. A park docent demonstrated what the Wrights’ guidance technique of wing warping truly meant. The wings twisted organically as he slipped his hips from side to side, bowing like giant cupped hands with a great woody chunk.

The grounds about the center were empty due to the wind and rain, chilly and strong, pinking the greetings of the winter Atlantic into my face. I leaned into the wind, working my miserable way down from the 90-foot hill on which the monument stood, supposed by the builders to be the very place that the first flight took place. The information at the park, however, claimed the dune had migrated by the time the pylon was raised in the 1930’s and that the tiny canvas-and-wood shack visible to the seaward of the great dune was the most probable location of the Wright’s winter camp and first flight. From the height, I had been unable to spy the stage on which I’d stood the day before, my peerings defeated by the misty white lashings of the weather.

Gratefully, I stepped out of the wind and rain into the careful recreation of the 1903 cabin, each item neatly stocked and ranked with the appropriate precision of the engineer. Turning to look back into the blow, I noted a short, metal-topped wooden rail a few feet beyond the door of the cabin, about an inch wide along the top surface and about two-and-one half inches tall, running for fifteen feet or so in the sandy scrub. I took it for a path boundary from an earlier landscaping effort, overlooked by strapped groundskeepers.

For no particular reason I walked out to the rail. I began to teeter my way along it, balancing arms out, leaning into the wind.

The wind caught me and steadied me as I moved down the rail; I raised my head and the rain spattered my glasses and stung my face. Suddenly, I realized this rail was a recreation, as the cabin, of the rail the Wrights rode into the sky on December 17, 1903. The river of wind I faced and leaned on was the wind that launched us to the sky. Since earliest childhood, I’d ridden its’ tributaries around the world. The rushing sound of it ouside the portholed cabin remains a drowsy lullaby for me to this day.

I let the wind take my arms and raise them above my head.


(Along the border of France and Germany, on the way to Calais)

As we drove through the countryside, the green of high summer on the rolling hills, glistening like jewels in the sunlight, I noticed odd, rounded depressions in the verdant slopes. As we continued along, I began to realize they were everywhere.

The plantings on these hills appeared to be primarily grasses, and here and there farm equipment and picturesquely abandoned stone houses stood marooned in the fields. The frequency of the mysterious bowls increased as we moved further north and east, toward the Channel crossing between Calais and Dover.

Around a bend and off across a couple of fields stood not a single house, but a cluster of buildings, tumbled into ruin. With a start I realized that the tallest of the buildings was the remnant of a church, and the rest of the buildings about it had once formed a village center.

The meaning of the circular depressions surrounding us came into focus. These were shellholes, huge divots of earth from bombardments past. Romantically, I thought to associate them with the first World War. When one of the abandoned examples of farm gear proved to be a Sherman tank, slumping into rust amid the waving leaves of grass, I realized the unlikelihood of that.

It’s possible, however, that the battle whose traces I was seeing was indeed from the first war, and not the second, despite my recollection of the tank. There are memorial parks in France in which Great War shell holes remain visible, around the site of the great battle of the Somme.

I don’t recall any further discussion of this at the time. We drove on through the peaceful, prosperous landscape.

(I’ve violated my word count rule, apologies. The anecdote was thematically appropriate to follow yesterday’s; and after all, brevity is good, right?)

The Tumor

(under Japan, geography uncertain)

The fantastic subterranean cities we passed through amazed me. Countless levels, each side of the corridor packed with every conceivable kind of business, from barber shops and restaurants to toy stores and pet emporiums, the streaming crowds of Japanese seemed, to me, to live their lives in the future, in the ground, in space.

Some of the wide, low-ceilinged corridors even sported a slight concave curve, the rushing crowds of transiting people appearing from beneath the ceiling’s corresponding outbow, the curve appearing to me like a prophecy of a great wheel in space.

It was common practice for restaurants in the transit warrens to feature, in their window or near the entrance, full-scale, elaborately realistic sculptures of the food that they serve inside. Not, mind you, one or two dishes, but more or less every single item on the menu is reproduced in plastic and shellac.

So common was this practice that among the haberdashers and tobacco stores and stationers and hardware merchants we eventually noticed entire stores devoted to selling these models of food – the individual items could be purchased singly or in lots. Twelve-piece sushi assortment, 700 yen. Single scoop of rice, 150 yen. One egg, 50 yen. Seven gyoza, 450 yen.

I carried my rubber egg about with me, thrilled with the incipient gag. Hey Dad! Catch. Ha-ha! Look out! Eventually begrimed, a molding seam appeared; the model lost its’ veracity and I lost interest.

Elsewhere hundreds of thick, black-and-white comic books were inexpensively available. Often stores that carried the books also offerred merchandise that featured characters from these books. At the time, I didn’t know they were manga, or much about them. I recall Captain Harlock‘s greatcoat flaring against the blackness of the interstellar reaches of a child’s lunchbox. The striking image of a Second World War battleship refit as a starcruiser voyaging among the nebulae and and planetary systems of deep space, available as models and on posters. A slender, automatic-toting fellow with skinny tie and square sideburns who appeared to be a spy of some sort was clearly the star of the moment, however, despite my own interest in the space opera material.

Curious, I picked up one of the books (probably a Golgo 13 book) featuring the gun-wielding man, and was shocked and titillated by the violence, sex, and misogyny displayed within. Quickly, I was overcome by guilt and fear that my mother would come across me flipping the pages of the magazine, clearly not age-appropriate for me at 12, and put it down.

Not only were the Japanese sending battlecruisers to the stars and living in enormous experimental space stations, the country had experienced the use of atomic weaponry. The future and the war were everywhere, just beneath the surface of Japan’s cacophonously ordered society. When I held my head at the right angle, I could see it, feel it, practically smell it. This way, the past; that, the future.

The image of the Yamato is a compelling vision of renascence. I was already familiar with the disturbingly casual use of nuclear weapons as plot devices in imported after-school anime fare such as Battle of the Planets. Orange fireballs crop up as predictably as Scooby-snacks, at 20 minutes in, end of act two.

So when our travels brought us through one of the two nuked cities for a train connection, I was hypervigilant. What does an atomic city look like? How do the people who live there act? Is it still radioactive? Will we be safe there, as citizens of the nation that bombed the place? A host of questions raged in my mind, some ignorant, others not. I could tell that my folks were uncomfortable under the onslaught and so I subsided into silence, many questions unanswered.

For many years I have placed this memory in Nagasaki. In preparing for this essay I have concluded that if it ever actually took place in one of the two cities, it must have been Hiroshima. My parents certainly do not retain a recollection of having passed through either of these locales, at least not on that trip. Wherever it is that it occurred, I know that I made the experience into something about the bomb on my own.

From the sea of bobbing heads, the old man hove into view, moving slowly, his grizzled, round face neutral, yet seeming happy. He was not dressed in rags, but he was clearly impoverished.

At first I had a hard time understanding what I saw as I looked at the side of his head. Maybe something, like a small monkey, was seated on his shoulder. I considered that perhaps it was a hat or a hood, or even something behind him that distance and a quirk of perspective had misled me into seeing as an element of his body.

There was no mistake of perception on my part. The man moved by, slowly, age and a lack of urgency marking him as surely as his disfigurement. On the right side of his face, an enormous black tumor clung, the size and shape of a matte-black summer eggplant, malignant-seeming and menacing.

I stared and tugged my mother’s arm, who, noting my wide-eyed gaze and concern, gently scolded me and directed me to keep from staring. As the old man passed behind us, I immediately opened up with my many questions about the use of atomic weaponry and wanted to know if such a growth could result from the use of the bombs. My mother, of course, was unable to answer these questions and again urged me to keep these questions to my self, at least right then.

After all, if my memory is correct, answering your American twelve-year-old son’s questions about the bombing of Hiroshima while within that city’s subway network as her citizenry stream by on the way to their lives is probably one of parenthood’s rarer, less-coveted experiences.

The Toll

(pre-revolutionary Ethiopia, on the road from Addis Ababa to destination unknown)

The rutted one lane road outside Addis wrenched the wheel of the four-wheel drive travellall, bucking and jouncing along as we headed somewhere that I was too small to understand. In hindsight, I suppose we were headed for Axum. My father was working with Ethiopia Airlines as an aeronautics and business consultant on sabbatical from Purdue University. I believe the car was either an International Harvester or a Land Rover, those proto-SUVs we all know from countless Wild Kingdoms – at any rate, there was room for my mother and father and a pair of colleagues as well.

No-one had been in the country long enough to have developed a good command of Amharic. While there were as yet no rumblings of the 1974 revolt that would displace Hailie Selassie, the hinterlands were a place that my parents recall to me as little seen.

At any rate we were some distance out from the precincts reckoned as safe. My mother was somewhat nervous, concerned about the advisability of this drive out into the unknown. The fascinating reality of Ethiopia’s relationship to both the Christian and Judaic cultures of Europe was too powerful a draw, overcoming her concern with curiosity.

Within Ethiopia, it’s long been a point of pride of the Christian kings to claim custody of no less a relic than the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets of the law. Archeological evidence has come to light that at least makes a possible case for the presence of this relic – or stand-ins for it of genuine ancient heritage – in the town of Axum, in northern Ethiopia.

The theoretical provenance of the Ark begins in the Old Testament, when the contents of the Holy of Holies in the temple at Jerusalem were removed for safekeeping, probably not from the Romans but from an earlier conqueror.

The Old Testament story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (I Kings, 18-19; 2 Chronicles 9) is held in Ethiopia to recount a historical event which led to the founding of an Ethiopian Judaic kingdom under Menelik, the son of Solomon. The descendants of just such a culture group were largely evacuated to Israel both in the 1980’s and again in the wake of the collapse of the Ethiopian revolutionary government in the early 1990’s. The oral traditions of the Ethiopian Jews recount that the Ark came to Ethiopia through Egypt.

Sometime thereafter, A Christian kingdom arose in northern Ethiopia. The Christian Ethiopians defeated the Ethiopian Jews militarily, and both peoples agree that this is how the Ark came to be in Axum, under the protection of Ethiopian Copts.

As I recall my parents explaining this to me, they politely withheld judgement of the possibility that the Ark might factually have become part of the patrimony of contemporary Ethiopia. Yet, they always carefully noted to me that the narrative is of crucial import to the idea and cultural identity of Ethiopianness, and made it clear to me that the tale deserves the respect due to oral histories and religious beliefs.

The intricate, fascinating wall hanging depicting Solomon and Sheba, and Menelik’s visit to Solomon and return home which returned with us to our home fascinated me. Using figures and a layout strategy drawn from eastern Christian traditions and anticipating comics in the use of captioned serial narrative, I longed to be able to read the Amharic words under the feet of the persons depicted in golden, brown, brick, and coffee colors.

Of course as we jounced along the track, none of this information was available to me, small as I was. We came to a halt. A tree lay across the road. A man emerged from cover by the side of the road, carrying a weapon, a rifle of some sort.

Through the lowered window, he made it quite clear he intended to collect a toll.

My father left the car, and went around the front of the hood to speak to the man. Pulling out his wallet, he cascaded an accordion-folded document out for the man to inspect. Festooned with ribbons, stamps, and signatures, the document measured a good foot-and-a-half in length, six or seven folds zig-zagging in the African sun.

My father began to jabber, angrily, poking his finger abruptly at the document, then at the car, then the road, then the man with the gun. His tone of voice was outraged, commanding.

My mother’s hands flew to her face, and she went pale as the blood left her cheeks. The interior of the car was deadly silent, the only sounds my father’s bewildering stream of incomprehensible syllables through the window and the engine of the auto.

With a final flourish, my father gestured angrily at the tree.

As my father had spoken, the man with gun had listened with growing amazement, his eyes widening in concern and alarm. He shouldered his weapon and moved quickly to move the tree out of the road as my father got back into the car, shushing the passengers curtly as he seated himself again.

As we drove by the baffled, worried toll-collector, the man snapped a salute to the car. A salute! As we sped away, someone naturally thought to ask what my father had showed the man. He pulled out his wallet, and with a huge grin, displayed his Ethiopian driver’s license and travel passes, multiply endorsed, stamped, sealed, and signed.

And what had he told the man? “I told him to move the tree,” my father said, his tone of voice implying how obvious that was. Yes, but in what language? No one in the car had been able to understand it.

“Oh, that?” he said, “I just made it up.”

Whereupon he began to chatter and jabber away, demonstrating his ability to do just that. Laughter filled the car as it continued down the road, rooster tail of dust marking its’ passage.


(Llanberis Pass, Snowdonia National Park, on the border of England and Wales, near the northern edge of the boundary)

We’d pulled the car over to read the sign which marked the border – there were no other cars around and the extremely broad valley through which the road ran didn’t seem so much like a mountain pass as a hill-pass or something. Of course, the mountain passes we’d been driving through all year are those in Switzerland and environs, so my misapprehension of the pass is an error of degree.

It was cool and grey, probably a result of altitude. Sadly I can’t recall the information on the sign – I suspect it may have been an appropriately tricky Welsh name that caught our attention. I recall my mom and Suzy staying in the car, possibly erroneously. There may have been a stream and or a railbed all running parallel to the road. I clearly recall striated gravel next to the road, more than the shoulder accounts for.

As my father and I stood, car running, we heard a noise, like a large thunderstorm in the far distance, but unaccountably sustained, and growing rapidly louder. We looked around in confusion – it was impossible to tell which direction the sound was coming from. It continued to grow louder and louder, until we could feel it through the ground, still with no associated source. Was it an avalanche?

There were no peaks visibly near enough to provide for the rapid approach of the rumble. An earthquake, high in the mountains between Wales and England, seemed such an absurdity that it didn’t merit consideration.

My memories of the May 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens – or rather of the impact that the eruption had on relatives living in Washington State – led me to directly ask my father if the mountains we were in were volcanic or contained volcanically active features. Of course, I suspect my question was rather briefer than this description, and possibly less accurate.

The sound continuing to build, my father considered briefly, frowning, and then began to allay that possibility. Just as he began to say, “No, I don’t think so,” the noise increased to the point it was impossible to hear what he was saying, and hearts racing we turned to see a dinosaur of the sky racing toward, then above us. My father dove behind a rock. He says today, “It scared the whiskers off me.”

As the delta-winged jet scraped by less than 100 feet above us, the hammer of sound and wind that marked its passage hit us, releasing a great tidal wave of testosterone into my body. The Avro Vulcan climbed and banked in acknowledgement of the pilot’s prank. Grey and green stripes of midaltitude camo became visible as the top surface of the great wings inclined above us. I burst into the capering, leaping dance of the excited hominid, screeching and whooping in excitement, even joy. I tossed my arms above my head as language and culture fell away.

Just the experience of writing that paragraph charged me up again with the adrenaline rush of the moment. For a peacenik, I sure do love my flying military hardware, and I always have, ever since I was a child. I don’t recall my father’s reaction, but he helped design planes of the same generation as the Vulcan as a young man.

(My mother, who keeps detailed notes about more or less everything – love to see her blog – reports that there were two planes. I considered a rewrite, but I honestly don’t recall two planes. Is that a lie? Her notes, taken that day, are almost certainly correct.)

The Vulcan was the most prominent true delta plan aircraft ever placed in production, by virtue of the numbers produced. The nearly triangular plane is an ancestor of the just retired Concorde, also a true delta, a plane design with no independent tailplanes. In researching this piece I learned something that makes the fleeting experience of this anecdote that much more savory – between the June of 1982 and 1983, the RAF’s Vulcans were removed from active service, and as far as I can tell, the airbases used for their decommissioning are the RAF bases in Wales.

The delta that hotdogged us on the road that day was flying towards Wales, from somewhere else in England. In the mid-80’s, while Maggie was firmly entrenched in 10 Downing Street, there were incredibly huge protests all over Europe and England regarding the installation of U. S. Pershing missles, and in such a climate, it was unusual to see military gear employed with the sort of swagger that might cause spilt tea and noise complaints.

Returning to the car, my father noted, above my excited babbling, that he had been about to suggest that mountains that contain substantial coal deposits such as these were unlikely to be volcanic in nature. We then wondered, without resolution, how and why the pilot of that plane had felt empowered to pull a flyboy stunt like that. As we motored on, we were not to resolve that question at the time, the summer of 1982.

My hypothesis, freshly half-baked as I write this, is that we happened to see that bird’s final flight, and Group-Captain Hawley Reefer-Botch was wringing the old girl out once more as a salute and farewell. I was happy to see it at the time, and choosing to believe this latest bit of conjecture casts the whole thing into a new, even tastier light.


(Ghardaïa, Algeria, at the northern edge of the Sahara, 300 miles south of Algiers.)

ghar02.jpgWe arrived after what seemed an endless drive through mountainous dunes, reddish gold and impossibly huge on either side of the blacktop. As usual I wandered away, avoiding social interaction, and came upon a door, weatherbeaten and green. It hung loosely, and peering through the gap between the frame and the plywood itself I was startled. I stepped back, and without thinking about it, opened the door and stepped through.

To one side, the wall I now stood beyond angled in, defining a corner. To the other, it stretched away, marking an organic boundary. In that direction, several hundred yards away, a few palms nodded in the breeze. Turning back and craning my head I saw the top of the wall well above me, fifteen or twenty feet high. The irregularly-shaped crown of the wall looked rounded and human: regular projections and depressions bespoke fortification.

Looking again before me and around, I saw rubber tire tracks in the dust at the base of the wall, where I stood; near the palms in the distance I could make out evidence of other people. Here and there in the tire tracks dates lay, covered or squashed, some with flies on them. I can still taste the incredibly rich and complex flavor of the dates I ate while in Algeria. It’s a powerfully concentrated sweetness, very different from the bright, juice-filled flavors of oranges or pears; there’s a pastry-like quality to the depth of the flavors in the soft, oblong fruits.

ghar01.jpgWe’d traveled to Ghardaïa with a pleasant and social man who had the peculiar mannerism of smacking the palm of his hand against his forehead with great force to emphasize a rhetorical point. “SMACK!” would echo in the car as he exclaimed, “My GOD!”, his dee-sounds sharpening into tees. He’d recounted the tale of his unfortunate cousin, who, on seeing a date lying in the dust as I was then, picked it up, brushed it off, and took a bite.

SMACK! He exclaimed, of course, “My GOD! It was the leavings of a donkey!” The car filled with laughter. Recalling this tale I did not pick up the dates for closer examination.

Mohammed (our companion’s name) may have been a government-sponsored guide and translator for the trip – I can’t recall. Algeria in 1982 was not the civil-war scarred country it is today, although it retained deep wounds from the early 1960’s war of independence against France. The post-colonial government in place was like that of many African and Midlle-eastern post colonial governments – modeled on socialist ideals, with close economic ties to the former colonial power, and with a very troubled economy challenged by many, many factors.

Ghardaïa, as I recall, was where Mohammed’s family was, and were to visit them for a day before driving back north to visit close family friends, Berbers, in their home in the mountains. I was fascinated by the visit, and in contrast to my time in Mexico, spoke one of the major languages of the country, French. We’d spent a day or two in Algiers with our Berber friend (and, yes, we spent an afternoon wandering the mazelike streets of the Casbah, one of the cradles of Algeria’s revolution and a neighborhood that may date back to the time of the Islamic conquest) before embarking on the drive south.

We stopped, probably for lunch, at an oil refinery. We visited with some of the people who worked there. They very proudly showed us their house, a very nice modern place. The particular, indelible image I retain from that visit was a young man excitedly showing me his bright-red electric guitar.

Somewhere between the oil refinery and Ghardaïa we’d stopped to climb the dunes and gaze upon the sea of sand. We’d laboriously made our way up the dune and looked out at the desert, dunes rippling to the horizon. My sister and I, and I think our mother, filled small bottles with the pinkish sand, long since lost but for one small canister currently in the hands of my friend Spencer. Entertainingly, he’s not sure how he came to have it.

I stood beyond the city wall, reflecting on these matters, smelling the winter wind off the desert, and turned to go back into the city.

La Cantina

(Outside of Guadalajara, in Nayarit, in western central Mexico)

Every day that week I would wander out behind the edge of the garden’s irrigated area to stand on a narrow strip of dry, reddish-gold dirt at the edge of the whitewashed stucco. The wall of the building – indeed, the entire area of the compound – defined the crest of the high, steep hill. If the compound had been built to face outward, it would have commanded a sweeping view of the rugged desert terrain on all sides. Instead, the brick, tile, and stucco of the buildings and walls faced in, to the cool and watered restful gardens, fertile and green under the hot Mexican sun.

Each day, standing on the edge of the desert landscape, I would make my way to a little patch of crumbling adobe-brick wall to sit on the dusty, sun warmed bricks. I’d sit and study the scrubby hills, well-grown with a mix of desert plants. I recall prickly pear cactus; small, spiny bushes; the sage I knew from my father’s home of Yakima, Washington; dry and brittle pale-yellow tumbleweeds, still anchored to the earth; the spiny urchins of yucca, arrow-leafed explosions in the dust.

The hills – nearly mesas – overlooked a basin, angling, arroyoed, steeply down. Eventually, I had to show this special place to my father, this little corner of a gringo’s idea of Mexico. We were staying at this place because he was teaching at a conference with one of his colleagues, a man whose family I later lived with for a month in the city, in Guadalajara. My father, it should be noted, speaks Spanish fluently and in my youth his professional relationships with colleagues in several locations of Latin America brought our family to many places in that part of the world. Reflecting, I think it’s possible I had already lived with them in their lovely house on the heights overlooking the city – but I don’t know for certain. Perhaps this conference and that visit took place the same summer.

At any rate, my father indulged my desire to show him the corner overlook and expressed his appreciation and admiration for the view as I’d hoped he would. To my surprise, and possibly to my concern, he suggested we should climb down the steep and rugged slope through the desert flora, and with that, he began to navigate down the near-vertical hill. I have an image in my mind of his short-sleeved white button-down shining in the sun, as he carefully stepped down the scree and dust amid the cactus and brush.

Sadly, I cannot recall with any accuracy my emotional state right then, but I sure did follow him. My dad’s innocent and adventurous curiosity has always frightened me a little bit so I think it’s possible that I was feeling some filial embarrassment as I worked my way down the slope in the hot, hot sun. My father’s physical vigor and appreciation for exertion and exercise have never been traits I shared with him, and so I believe I probably became cranky as we worked our way down into the valley. I’m certain, for one thing, that we had no water.

I don’t recall the details of the descent beyond the start. Eventually we arrived in the valley, a broad floor in which substantial numbers of small to midsize rocks had gathered. I think there must have been a road, but I don’t recall it in my visual memories of the scene. What I do recall with unusual clarity was the surreally isolated cinderblock building a few feet up the other side of the broad bowl of the valley. In my mind’s eye, it’s a perfect cube, unpainted and windowless, slanting upward in perspective from my vantage point below it. I don’t see a sign or any indication of the building’s purpose. There are no cars or indication of human habitance other than the building itself and its’ closed door.

Terrifying me, my father walked up to the building’s door, and with me right behind him, opened it and walked into the fluorescent-lit space within.

My reluctance and fear were wholly overcome as the building’s refrigerated chill spilled out on me at my father’s side. We walked into the spare construction, and I collapsed into a metal folding chair at a metal folding table. The building’s minimal decor consisted of posters and vinyl pennants advertising varieties of Mexican beer. There were five to ten of the lightweight metal table-and-chair sets I currently occupied ranged widely around the sparsely populated room. My father was gleeful to have stumbled on a cantina like this in the middle of the desert – I was grateful for the air conditioning and the possibility of some cold mineral water or a Fanta or Coke.

He was mildly perturbed at my peevishness and went off to the bar to get a beer for him and my drink, whatever it might be. Understandably in hindsight he took his time at the bar, speaking amiably with the barman and a customer or two and thoroughly enjoying himself. I, of course, was ever-more irritated, as only a preteen on the verge of adolescence can be, my thirst certainly adding to the edge of my emotions. In the end, he finally returned with something for me, for which I’m certain I did not express appropriate gratitude. I don’t remember the walk back to the compound, or however we got back.

Over time in my memory this has become one of my favorite experiences, one for which I am deeply indebted to my father. I find a great deal to admire in his actions in this anecdote, even as I might wish we had actually brought along water for a hike in the desert rather than trusting in fate’s providence.