Monday, February 28, 2011

The Shadow of the Sun

When I talk with people from back home the most common question I get is "what do you experience on a day to day basis?". I never really have felt like I totally answer this question to the best of my ability. I love talking about my work, my village, my Ugandan and PCV friends, but what I always am lacking is the ability to put the most basic of sensory experiences into words for friends and family back home that does Uganda justice. I realized this about a couple of days ago when I started reading my new book entitled The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life by Ryszard Kapuscinski. I'm currently about half way done with the book and it is probably my favorite story that I have read since being in country. However, the point to this post is that in the beginning of this book there is a discription of the smells and people of village/town life in Africa and to me represents the wonderful culture I'm exposed to every day. Upon reading this I thought it would be nice to share it with you all because it is said more eloquently then I could ever do. This is only a segment of the description, but hopefully someday you might pick the book up and read it all!

"...Something else strikes the new arrival even as he descends the steps of the airplane: the smell of the tropics. Perhaps he's had intimations of it. It is the scent that permeated Mr. Kanzman's little shop, Colonial and Other Gods, on Perec Street in my hometown of Pinsk. Almonds, cloves, dates, and cocoa. Vanilla and laurel leaves, oranges and bananas, cardamom and saffron. And Drohobych. The interiors of Bruno Schulz's cinnamon shops? Didn't their "dimly lit, dark, and solemn interiors" smell intensely of paints, lacquer, incense, the aroma of faraway countries and rare substances? Yet the actual smell of the tropics is somewhat different. We instantly recognize its weight, its sticky materiality. The smell makes us at once aware that we are at the point on earth where an exuberant and indefatigable nature labors, incessantly reproducing itself, spreading and blooming, even as it sickens, disintegrates, festers, and decays.

It is the smell of a sweating body and drying fish, of spoiling meat and roasting cassava, of fresh flowers and putrid algae - in short, of everything that is a at once pleasant and irritating, that attracts and repels, seduces and disgusts. This odor will reach us from nearby palm groves, will escape from the hot soil, will waft above stagnant city sewers. It will not leave us; it is integral to the tropics.

And finally, the most important discovery - the people. The locals. How they fit this landscape, this light, these smells. How they are as one with them. How man and environment are bound in an indissoluble, complementary, and harmonious whole. I am struck by how firmly each race is grounded in the terrain in which it lives, in its climate. We shape our landscape, and it, in turn, molds our physiognomy. Among these palm trees and vines, in this bush and jungle, the white man is a sort of outlandish and unseemly intruder. Pale, weak, his shirt drenched with sweat, his hair pasted down on his head, he is continually tormented by thirst, and feels impotent, melancholic. He is ever afraid: of mosquitoes, amoebas, scorpions, snakes - everything that moves fills him with fear, terror, panic.

With their strength, grace, and endurance, the indigenous move about naturally, freely, at a tempo determined by climate and tradition, somewhat languid, unhurried, knowing one can never achieve everything in life anyway, and besides, if one did, what would be left over for others?..."

1 comment:

  1. that's beautiful bec! that passage made me want to hop a flight.... such a rich and life-changing experience, i hope you are soaking in every moment of it. i'm still fantasizing about a time when i could come and visit.... and this post only enforced it!