Saturday, February 24, 2007

A Few Travels

I went to the village of Ankoh, on the NorthWestern tip of the Sahara, where it is so hot and dry that they no longer worship a God but a liquid instead. When they go to church on Sundays they drink water from the cup; and when they watch the sun rise over the lake at the end of the week they cover their eyes, so as to shield themselves from the image of their Lord. They have a shrine on the edge of the village, near the church, where they lay down offerings of water, in cups and bowls of all shapes and colours, some cracked and some clean and whole, and all laid out in a shining clutter. Once in their lives they make a pilgrimage to the sea.

From Ankoh I flew to Africa, and saw (among other things) the Stone-Chiefs of Mozambique. The Stone-Chiefs cover themselves in lichen and moss and grey pigments drawn from the stone-berry, and crouch down in the middle of a vast bowl in the earth. The bowl was dug many centuries ago, but it must be continuously repaired, and the loose dirt cast out, so as the retain the shape and dimensions that were decreed by the first Stone-Chief, Makaroth, whose great-great-great-great grandson I saw crouching in the sun, perfectly still and covered in lichen and moss and grey pigments drawn from the stone berry. There is a death-sentence for anyone who disturbs the Stone-Chiefs of Mozambique: no villager has yet suffered this fate (although there are frequent near misses, as in the recent case of the man who inadvertently stepped on a poisonous Minkoh, and let out a loud cry that caused one or two stone-chiefs to shuffle about in an irritated manner.)

I saw the red bulls of outer Ghana, and the ten-fingered plant of the Ivory coast. I went to Nepal and heard stories from the people there about the people who climb the mountains and the extraordinary heights to which they climb. “Baramu my brother was one of the greatest of our climbers,” one of the men told me, “and he used to climb so far that he would break through sky and see the stars on the other side, even during the day. There is no protection up there from the sun, and if you do not wear proper clothing then cancers break out on your arms like freckles.”

I went from hot to cold then back again, and found myself in the fruit fields of Italy, where the trees are so full of fruit that the branches snap off in mid-summer, and the pickers have to move very quickly so as to rescue the fruit from under the wood, where they can easily become squashed and rotten. Because of the damage to the trees, there is only one harvest every five years; but the tress in each harvest are so heavily laden that the people never run out. I was told by a villager that the traditional preserving techniques are unmatched by modern science. “We keep fruit like we keep wine, in barrels that are kept in the ground and covered in the sap of the sickle-berry tree; we leave them there to age and mature, our plums and apricots, and we do not take them out until they are properly done.” She took me into her house in the village (a small stone cottage, with windows in the roof) and gave me a nectarine that she had harvested in 1973. It was a deep orange colour, almost brown, and tasted faintly of mint.

You cannot leave the fruit fields of Italy without passing down the Valley of Hives, and this journey was one of the highlights of my trip. “There are over a hundred thousand hives in the valley,” my guide informed me, “and a hundred million bees. Every hive has been given a name, and we care for them like they are our children.” I heard the Valley of Hives and straight-away I thought of a great choir; I saw the Valley of Hives and straight-away I thought of a great carpet, because the bees were matched in numbers by the flowers, which grow there as if none of them ever die.

I took a boat out of Italy and sailed for weeks and weeks until I came to the end of ocean-rivers. The ocean-rivers are great currents that begin at the coast, where the rivers emerge from the continent, and end for no reason whatsoever. You anchor down at a certain point in the ocean: you look to the North, and the sea is highway of streams and white rapids; you look to the South, and it is just a quiet normal sea, with one or two salmon swimming round and looking lost.

It was all very exciting, and I hope to do it all again very soon, in other exotic and dangerous parts of the world; but first I have to have eat a proper meal and get a good night’s sleep.