Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What You See May Not Be What You Think

While sitting one evening around the fire with a group of Tuareg men, Sahara nomads bound from Niger to Lybia with camels and sheep to sell there, a man walked into the edge of the circle of light. Tuareg men veil their faces, but in our intimacy some had lowered them somewhat. At the sight of the man, they immediately raised them back to their eyes.

Now the man felt confident to move forward. We saw that he was a stranger. Politely he exchanged greetings with us. Finally he said that his water bag was empty and that he had been thirsty for a very long time. A bowlful of water was poured, and he gulped it down after pronouncing the Moslem ritual praise to God.

“Since sunset,” he said. “I have been following sounds of pestles hitting mortars and of children crying, but every time I thought I was reaching an encampment, the sound stopped suddenly—only to start somewhere else.”

Djinnen,” the men murmured, and the man nodded.

Though I do not believe in evil spirits, I was not in the least skeptical of the dangers our guest faced while he was lost. A Djinn could have got me killed too some weeks earlier.

At that time I was sharing the daily lives of a large Tuareg encampment of the noble Iullimiden tribe and the people of lower castes employed by them. One evening, I brought water in my collapsible canvas bucket to a thicket, away from Tuareg families, to bathe. I put the bucket down in the dark at the foot of a thorn tree, and as I did so, saw the vague shape of a man squat 15 paces away. He watched me intensely as I undressed and hung my clothes on a branch above my head, washed, and dried myself.

As I turned around to grab my clothes, a heavy branch hit my head, nearly knocking me out. There was no big branch that I could have brought down with my clothes, and the man had disappeared. He had obviously thrown the branch at me, though for what reason I could not fathom. I decided to tell Radwane, the Chief’s son, about that voyeur and his aggressive behavior.

“Let’s find him and beat him up,” Radwane said.

“Victor!” we suddenly heard from a terrified voice. “You gave me the fright of my life. I was passing through the scrub when I descried that tall unearthly silhouette (in the darkness the clothes above my head had added to my height) moving under a tree. Fear paralyzed me, and when I heard water running where there had never been any, I knew I was facing a djinn. At last, summoning my courage, I grabbed a thick branch and threw it at what had to be a djinn with all the strength I could muster.”

He concluded that to dare to dwell in dark thickets at night without absolute necessity I either had to be a super amahar (noble warrior) or be protected by powerful gris-gris.

“But do not laugh, Victor,” he scolded “Had I had a spear, you would be dead now.”

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Not all Honey is Easy to Get

My wife hates to go to the supermarket. “It’s so boring,” she complains. Yes, but how convenient!

Martha did not always feel like that. When we moved here from Colombia, her country, 12 years ago, walking through a supermarket made her actually very happy. Somewhat like a kid walking through Toys R’ Us. At least a Colombian kid. She had used supermarkets before of course, but never that filled with so many small wonders. However, time wore off the novelty.

“Don’t be ungrateful,” I tell her.” Think instead of all the people worldwide who still have to hunt to get meat. Those who spend as much as a day to get a little firewood and dirty drinking water.

My mother herself, when I was growing up in my native Belgium, lost a whole morning every day getting our fresh food from the baker, the butcher, the charcutier, the fish shop, the vegetable and fruit shop, and the milk and cheese shop. And she had to lug her purchases on foot from place to place. And wait in line while some other customers engaged in small talk with the vendors.

Having shared the lives of more than 30 indigenous peoples in every kind of environment, from Africa to Asia and South America, I know why those people, who are as intelligent and resourceful as we are, have developed so slowly. They lose way too much time meeting their most basic needs.

Take for instance that old Yanomami Indian, about 65, of the Amazon rain forest. He craved the honey he had spotted about 40 meters up a tree perhaps 50 times as thick as he was.

”When you want honey,” Martha, “you make a trip to the supermarket. And you get the rest of the food you need right there. But that man literally risked his life to get his honey.”

First he cut two thick 30-feet saplings and rid them of their branches and tendrils. Then he yanked down some lianas, and tied them to the ends of the saplings and to a long heavy logger's ax to pull them after him as he climbed a thinner tree nearby. Some 30 meters up that tree, he placed one sapling against a fork of the forest giant, tied the bottom of the improvised ladder to the thinner tree, and pulled himself up on the sapling. Once at the fork of the big tree, he repeated the operation using the second sapling that he pulled up after him with the ax.

Now, standing at that scary height on top of the thick branch that held the bees’ nest, and using both hands to swing his heavy ax on that very branch, he got it down with the honey without falling down himself. The branch made such a racket crashing to the ones below that I briefly thought that it was him falling. But he got down fast enough.
Once on the ground, he and a grandson that had accompanied him stuck their arms inside the hollow branch and pulled from it handfuls of honey on which they gorged greedily. Living a life of constant exercise, those people can eat as much honey as they want without ever gaining a pound.

Are they happy? I swear that I never saw happier people, except among some other indigenous people.

Back from Colombia

I’m back from Colombia. Had a great trip. Better than I expected. The country is back to better times. And the people are as friendly as ever. But in that country you can never discount the bad guys, as I have learned firsthand several times.

Many years ago, on a December 26, I lived one of my most unpleasant Colombian experiences. The Cali Fair starts on that day, and at that time lasted two weeks. For the length of the fair, people worked only half days. They celebrated at the bullring, and later at outdoor cafes. It was a chaotic time of booze and irresponsible behavior.

The fair opens every year with a cabalgata, a cavalcade. Hundreds of people ride horseback across town. They stop here and there to greet family and friends among the thousands of people that line the avenues to watch the spectacle. Many of the riders keep drinking from bottles of aguardiente as they move along. Sometimes, too drunk to stick to the saddle, one drops to the ground.

Standing in the middle of the avenue, I photographed the oncoming procession of riders, all dressed up to look like South American cowboys and cowgirls. As I pointed my lens at two men, one of them leaning on the shoulder of the other as they rode side by side, all hell broke loose. Before I understood what was happening to me, four men had come galloping to surround and crush me between their horses from all sides while shouting obscenities at me.

“Give me your camera!” one of the men ordered. Only the powerful drug mafia could act so arrogantly, and I knew that I was in deep trouble. But I could not hand my camera to the first person who ordered it. It would make me feel like a worm.

“Why?” I asked, fearing the worst.

“Because you took our picture, idiot. That’s why. Give me your camera!”

“Let’s do it differently,” I said, striving to look as stupid as he said I was. “Give me your address, and I’ll send you prints.” That threw the man into a fit of worse rage.

“Gringo de mierda! Shitty gringo!” he shouted as he spat on me, immediately imitated by the other men, while they tightened their circle against me again.

Two policemen ran to my rescue. They were carrying machine guns.

“What’s going on here?” one of them asked.

“Hijos de putas! Sons of whores!’ the man who had been leaning on an aide and was drunk now shouted at the policemen. “Do you know who I am?”

The policemen looked up at him, lowered their heads, and turned away, leaving me alone to face those bandits.

“Bueno,” I said. “Here is my film.” And I pulled it out of my flat little Leica, which was fitted with a small wide-angle lens, and out of its cassette. I wanted the film to veil because it was the wrong film, and I did not want them to learn it later if they sent it to a photo lab for processing.

The mafia picture was inside my other camera, a bulkier Nikon, on which protruded a long lens. Not that I wanted to keep that picture and run into any any more troubles. But there were many other pictures on that film that I wanted to save. The Leica film had just been changed and had no more than five pictures on it. The man, who did not notice the deception, pulled the film out of my hands and signaled his minions to follow him as he rode away.

The good people who had watched the attack from the sidelines immediately came forward to lament it and make sure that I was all right. One teenager even wanted to give me his own pictures of the event. But I can’t use amateur pictures. Anyway, I was not finished doing my job, though I would be more careful now.

An hour later, as the horse riders stopped constantly to say hello along the way, I found myself ahead of the mafiosos again. As they passed by, their leader, the one who had been leaning on his lieutenant, saw me in the crowd and lifted his poncho to his eyes while staring at me for a long time, but he rode on.

Days later, having got my film back from processing, I showed the picture that had put me in trouble to a Colombian friend.

“Jesus!” he said. This guy could have killed you. He is the head of the North Cauca Valley cartel, the one responsible for all the corpses floating down the Cauca River with vultures riding on their bellies. He must have thought that you worked for the DEA.

The man ended up behind bars, where he got killed eventually. Fortunately, I'm still alive.