Out of body diving & sleeping in strange rooms in Tanzania reading Damon Galgut
Flew from Addis to Dar on j's birthday. On the plane i read most of In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut, another South African writer, compadre to J.M. Coetzee, who i read on the last leg in Ethiopia. The title of Galgut's book comes from a line he borrowed from Faulkner:
Applicable to not only the book, but also to our current travel, living in hotels as we do, never permanently occupying a place or calling anywhere home. Like Galgut, i can't help but to think of all the past occupants, those who have slept in the same beds, emptied themselves in the rooms we now occupy (at this moment room 42 of the Slipaway hotel, looking out over Dar es Salaam bay). And how we empty ourselves & then move on, like ghosts, or hermit crabs.
Unlike Coetzee, i wouldn't exactly call Galgut Faulkneresque. His writing is sparse & direct, fairly straight-forward narrative, except that he jumps back & forth between first & third person, within the same paragraph, or even in the same sentence. Almost like he is observing himself as he moves around in the world.
You could call it a travel book & is a good read as such, especially being as his travels in the book intersect my past & current travels. But more than anything it's about the melodramas of travelers—the relationships. Not your ordinary relationships, but Brokeback Mountain type relationships, only never consummated & where the repression is self-imposed, not really from cultural pressure. There are 3 stories, journeys & 2 of them are tales of unrequited love as such (the last was about him taking care of his drugged out crazy friend in India—probably the best of the 3). In the other two stories Galgut follows other guys, or they follow him, on wild goose chases, as their peregrinations intersect in Greece & then all over southern & eastern Africa & then back to Europe—always on the verge of hooking up, but never quite (& suspense-building as such). And he never speaks of his feelings in direct terms, so he relates these affections & feelings through the language of travel, through the landscape they are in. And by travel it's that type of i-don't-know-what-else-to-do-with-my-life backpacker travel, or even more akin to hobo-trekking.
It's a sad form of travel, always longing, always waiting, searching for something not knowing what it is.
This tied to that same sort of feeling of inevitable hypocrisy i/he often feels, that any traveler should feel, that is privileged enough to travel just for the sake of it:
Wandering aimlessly through places where all the destinations get jumbled together in the night-time processing:
As i discovered when i used to do more back-packing/youth-hostel type of travel in my youth, these sorts of travelers are often more concerned with intrapersonal dramas than the countries they are traveling in. More often than not they fixate on the baggage they bring from home & are not able to relate much to the non-western cultures they travel in. They travel as an escape, to meet other fellow like-minded travelers & just be bums, hanging out in exotic places because they have nothing going on at home.
The part where Galgut enters Tanzania (by train) i was reading just as we were landing in Dar by plane. He basically did the reverse trip i did, through Tanzania to Lake Malawi. The whole part with the border crossing brought back memories—the strange, detached boda-boda trips into no man's land, the frontier between Tanzania & Malawi.
We got to Dar last night, stayed at this place i think north of Dar, on the peninsula where all the ex-pat mzungus live. Had a nice dinner looking out over the bay at sunset (j's birthday). This morning got up early & i went back to the airport where i am now. J stayed back at the hotel as she is working, but he needs to go to Mtwara a day early so he could dive & then have a day to equilibrate before getting back in a plane (otherwise the excess nitrogen in my blood would bubble out).
Arrived in Mtwara & got some cheap room. Met up with some colleagues of j's who were already there, then went to the ECO2 diveshop & geared up & went to the boat. First we did a pinnacle dive, down to a freestanding tower which we descended down & around, to about 25 meters. Saw all sorts of fish—angels, wrasses, moorish idols, puffers, parrot fish, lion fish, clown fish, eels—& coral, including big patches of cabbage coral which i have never really seen. Besides an impromptu dive in Thailand (we were snorkeling on a boat full of divers & one of the divers needed a buddy) he hadn't been for years. It's like riding a bicycle though.
For our surface interval, we went to this ramshackle fish camp. Had some fried fish & chapati cooked right on the beach where the fishermen come in, amidst a backdrop of baobabs. Then we just did a shore dive from there, a bit murky but lots of fish scavenging off what the fishermen throw back. Lots of ghost shrimps, some morays, scorpion fish, a big grouper, etc. All of a sudden, i started feeling funny. Not sure if the mixture was bad or i was narced (though we weren't so deep), but he felt strangely euphoric, almost out of body. It hit me all of a sudden, as if he had been asleep & suddenly woke up to find myself in this strange underwater world, unsure of how he got there. The fact that he was with people he didn't know too well (& was paired up with the dive master's wife, who was quiet & socially awkward like him) probably didn't help. That & literally jumping right into it after not diving for years. And he was feeling a bit queasy because of the rough seas. I guess you could even call it a panic attack of sorts, especially when he looked up at all the water above him, not even able to see the surface above.
He rode it out & turned it into something «trippy». It was murky & hard to see & he was trying to keep my eye on my buddy & also the others (& my air & depth etc.), but his buddy kept veering off so we got separated from the group (something i got blamed for later). For these reasons he is usually not so keen on diving—too much shit to worry about. Most divers spend more time bragging about technical shit & how deep or how many times they've dived, rather than what they see. He likes the freedom of snorkeling where it's just you & the fish. Not to mention snorkeling is much cheaper.
After diving & dinner of calamari & prawns, he went to his room, a rather dingy room with no running water & no j to share it with. He was again swept with the same feeling Galgut has in such strange rooms. And feeling strange & sort of nauseous after the rough boat trip & my out-of-body panic attack.
Even though he had a mosquito net, they somehow managed to find their way in. So he pulled the sheet over his body up around his neck, but then they'd bit me in the face. So he pulled the sheet over his face with just his nose sticking out, but then it became too hot & hard to breath so he'd invariably wake up with the sheet thrown off. Even though it's not technically malaria season, it still persists. In fact, the woman who served him dinner left her shift early because her son was sick with malaria.
But because it is not built up, or lacks the comforts of home, this is what makes it idyllic, a paradise. There is a scene in In a Strange Room, where «if the air is disturbed even now and then by the death-screams of a pig, well, there is slaughter even in paradise,» that reminded me of a detail i forgot to mention in my Cambodia post, when we were waiting outside a temple complex in one of those podunk camps & coming from the dark jungle was a shrieking pig-noise, a sound he knows well, having lived across the street from a slaughterhouse in Mexico. The sound of a pig being led to slaughter. But when we remarked on it to our tuk-tuk driver or some of the other locals, they acted like they didn't know what we were talking about. They wouldn't even acknowledge the sound's existence even as we heard it. As if they were so used to it, it simply became background noise. Either that, or they were repressing it.
Went diving again, this time to a marine park a good ways off, almost to the border of Mozambique (the Mnazi Bay Ruvuma Estuary Marine Park)—over an hour by boat. The first dive we went down (20-30 meters) around more free-standing pinnacles. It was spectacular. He felt a lot more relaxed than the first day & was able to just soak it all in & not worry so much about the technicalities or the others. Nothing to brag about as far as big things, more than anything it was about the overall ambience, such an alien world to our own, so full of life in every crevice, so much color, so much variety. He wasn't able to take photos obviously, as we were too deep. He has a camera that goes down 10 meters, but even still you need special lighting to get decent photos. But he did jump in after the dive, in shallower waters & got this photo to give you the general idea.
Went to some desolate stretch of beach to decompress (literally) & have lunch. He climbed a coconut tree & got a coconut, then husked it with my bare hands to get the milk. Drank it then opened it & these chickens came out of the bushes to eat the meat. Very funny chickens here, they are by no means «chicken» (afraid) but are brave & crafty & will steal food from off your plate if you turn away for two seconds.
Explored the pristine beach & snorkeled off the shore & found these huge clam shells, like the ones in the cartoons with wavy grooved edges. But even if he smuggled them out of the marine park, he probably would have problems taking them out of the country.
Did another dive after that, right off the beach. A drift dive past various coral formations. We drifted so fast with the current & it was all so spectacular that when we got to the end we decided to do it again. The boat was called & everyone took off their gear but he thought it was too much of a pain so he paddled the few hundred meters back to the beginning (he also needed the exercise).
Then the long trip back. He perched himself wedged between some tanks as we flew over the waves, watching the sunset & passing dhows & flying fish.
When we got to shore & to the road, j coincidentally drove by with the driver & donor she was escorting (the purpose of this trip). They saw us & stopped & j & i were reunited. One of us divers was also here to court this donor & here he was in his wet underwear when he met her for the first time. Switched to the Old Boma hotel—a 100 year old historic fort that has been converted into a hotel. That is where i am writing from now, not from a strange room but down by the pool with monkeys climbing around in the trees above.
This morning they went off to «work» & he decided to go for a long walk. Earlier j & i had gone for a walk around the town of Mikindani & down to the shore.
But now it was low tide so he kept walking along the exposed beach. He saw more jellyfish (the morning before he waded out into swarms of them), some still pulsing even up on the sand.
He walked around to the point he saw the day before when our dive boat passed & he became fixated on going there for the big stand of baobobs.He slogged through the mud & thick wet stand, through mangrovey flats, under the hot sun.
When he got to the sandy spit on the tip of the peninsula, i saw these things that at first out of the corner of my eye thought were mango seeds. But then i noticed them moving. By the way they were moving, burrowing into the sand, he thought maybe they were a type of horseshoe crab. But they had red feathery spines, not in circular pin-cushion formation like a sea urchin, but kind of combed back (some with bald spots). I flipped one of these strange creatures over & sure enough seems like a type of sea urchin (& googling now it seems is an Elongate Heart Urchin (Lovenia elongata)). He was surprised at how fast-moving they were for a sea urchin & that they were coming up out of the water onto the dry sand under the scorching sun.
He got to the baobab grove & found a fallen fruit which he husked open & ate—or not really ate but chewed on for the hour or so while he was walking back. They have a nice chalky tangy taste that quenches your thirst.
On the way back he heard an explosion & out of the corner of his eye a plume of water shooting up—dynamite fisherman. The folks at the dive shop were talking about the destruction the dynamite fishermen were causing & now i was seeing it first hand. They don't use dynamite actually (too expensive) but rather crude homemade bombs made from gas or fertilizer & battery acid. Saw a few guys earlier in town with missing hands—victims (deservedly or not) of dynamite fishing. After the explosion, 3 or 4 canoes converged on the scene to see what stunned fish they could scoop off the surface (seemed they didn't get much). Right after he saw some police at a road checkpoint who must've heard it (dynamite fishing is illegal), but didn't do anything about it (evidently they are bribed to keep quiet). Seems like a lot of trouble to go through when you can just use a net.
Went back & watched the monkeys in the tree outside our room then we we had dinner back at 10 degrees (next to the diveshop, where he stayed the first night), joined by other peace corps types.
We were all on the same flight the next morning (j, her colleagues & the donor) but as we were driving to the airport it became known that the driver was going to drive the car (a big Landcruiser) back to Dar by himself. I always feel strange psychogeographically flying between point A & point B without seeing the landscape in between, so driving back seemed more appealing to me, a way to connect the dots & provide closure. This way, he will have traveled by land to essentially every corner of Tanzania.
We (Rega & i) dropped them off at the dinky airport then went into town to pick up his buddy Sayid. Then had breakfast (chapati & chai) & stopped at some strange place where Rega proceeded to barter with a man clutching some live chickens for a bag full of eggs, which he then packed all 20 or 30 of them embedded all in his clothes.
The southern region is fairly dry & has a lot of baobabs. We passed through various regions specializing in various foods or crops & would stop & haggle with almost every roadside merchant. Rega & Sayid were super picky & demanded the best price or they would just put it in gear & drive off with a dismissing hand gesture. They picked up bags & bags of cashews, some sort of skinny cassava-like tuber, coconuts, charcoal, fried fish & dried fish, which stunk up the loaded car. Rega blared rocking Tanzanian pop music the whole way. Stopped for lunch of fried fish (what else) & ugali.
It was meant to be like a 8 hour drive, on mostly good roads, though there was some long stretches on pretty heinous roads. It was probably 8 hours to the outskirts of Dar, but then it was like 3-4 hours in standstill traffic with mobs of people on either side just walking, a never-ending stream like an exodus of refugees, all going who knows where.