Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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The Sea
"Close, stand close to me, Starbuck! Let me look into a human eye – it is better than to gaze upon sea and sky. It is better than to gaze upon God."
        - Ahab, Melville's Moby Dick

    Last stop in Zambia: the hamlet of Chipata, where the Great White Hunter of Connectivity is on safari – gunning for the elusive Net Cafe. None have been spotted on the hoof in these wilds – but the scent is on the air. Moreover, the Great White Hunter is a week (and three dispatches) behind. He must fell prey today – or go hungry for days more. Trekking into town (the truck is parked out at the local grocery shack), he is one part of a triumvirate of hunters – representing the Three Ages of Communication. Andy saw a post office, and is keen to post a letter. Laura must find a phone – today is her 10-month anniversary with Katy. And yours truly must get online. However, Paul has given us only 30 minutes to get in and out – and it took us 12 to get into town. Ultimately, all three of us were successful – or so it seemed. With the clock ticking in overtime, the GWH had dug up a pair of net-connected machines in a back room, and was wrestling them to the ground – installing drivers for his USB drive, uploading files on three FTP sessions, posting to the dispatch list, &c. The three of us sprinted back onto the main drag, where Paul was rolling Sid through a dragnet to round us up. We leapt onto the moving truck – "We didn't even have to walk back!" – and high fives all around.

Premature ones, as we all learned. In my haste (and hubris) I uploaded the story files to the wrong directory, meaning all of it was effectively not there. And I wasn't able to fix the problem for several days. But, in the meantime, Lake Malawi awaited.

We roll into Malawi under a perfect Renee Magritte sky, happy as clams (in part to be leaving Zambia). Laura said that my hair is growing, and I realize she's right. Now that my head is soft and fuzzy (rather than bristly), my self-amusement in rubbing it seems inexhaustible. I stroke myself as the terrain grows more mountainous, and we watch the shopping districts of various hamlets roll past. I think of University Avenue in Palo Alto – just the same as these main drags, and utterly different. Observation: In the main, the vast majority of people bear no responsibility for where they are in the world; they just end up somewhere, by the conduit of birth. This theme comes up a lot, in the context of the massive socio-economic inequality which lays like a blanket over each of our interactions with people here.

I had a nice conversation, by the by, with Jamie, as we waited for the handcrank ferry, the other day. I sometimes feel bad that I've gotten to know Laura much better than Jamie, when they both seem to be quite worth getting to know. It turns out that Jamie's parents separated in January – so, he's had something to get away from for awhile, just as Laura has. He's coped well enough, though his 13-year old sister Tess is having a rather harder time of it. I opined that it's sure nice that Laura has him to go around the world with her, and to look after her. It seems manifest to me that he is a good man for that job. I further shared with him my speculation that having little sisters is (or at least can be) a deeply formative experience for a man – leaving big, wide protective streaks. I didn't make so bold as to share with him my other impression: that he definitely is a man – something that can rarely be said, in my experience, of 18-year old boys.

After a moderate drive, we arrive at our first camp site (of three as it would turn out) on Lake Malawi. We stagger out onto the beach, well impressed. Ever been to Chicago – and looked out on Lake Michigan? It just doesn't feel much like a lake, when you can't see the other side. Lake Malawi is the 3rd largest in Africa (behind Tanganyika (Burton's discovery) and Victoria), and the 9th largest in the world. It is 580km long, and believed to be 750m at its deepest point. Moreover, due to it's waves, winds, tides, and unpredictable weather, it is officially classified as "the sea." Mark, Sid, and I lounge on beach chairs in the dusk, watching some of the manly men climb the nearby rocks. Laura rolls up:

L: You've got a great big lounger there, all to yourself. Scoot over.
M: With pleasure.
J: Ah – it's a couples chair, then, I see.
M: That's right, Jamie. Laura and I are a hot item. Your days of being mistaken for her beau are over. Laura, I'm your faux-boyfriend now.

     Paul rolls up, soliciting opinions about whether we should stay at this site for multiple days – or roll north up to the storied Kande Beach, tomorrow.

L: Let's go to Kande. Let's try it all!
M: You're certainly full of life.
L: I like being me today. And I've never liked being me before . . . I feel like running around shouting.

     After dinner that night, sitting in camp chairs around the fire, I gain some great perspective from the South Africans, Stephen and Allison. Recounting their trip to San Francisco, they mention Alcatraz. I admit that I've never understood why people come to (arguably) the world's most beautiful city – and then want to be taken to a prison. However, I'm forced to eat a little crow, as I just visited Cape Town (another real looker) – and spent a day at Robben Island prison! This leads to a discussion of the fall of apartheid – and the first multiracial elections, in 1994. Stephen said that the majority had been waiting anxiously for the change – and breathed a big, collective sigh of relief when it happened. On the day of elections, he stood in line with everyone all together: Afrikaners, poor township blacks, prosperous black businessmen, rich white housewives – the full racial and socioeconomic spectrum. When people came out with food, or drinks, they were shared all around, and equally. Stephen said he was so proud in that moment. And friends of theirs who were living out of the country were distressed to miss the big day. (Which actually extended into a second day, and national holiday.) The next year, South Africa hosted – and won – the Rugby World Cup. There was dancing in the street, again all races arm in arm.

I share my admiration – and my sense that where South Africa used to be a symbol of injustice and oppression (I was in college during the divestment marches), they are now a world light of racial harmony and reconciliation. Though, apparently they've still got a ways to go – whites still have most of the money and opportunity. This seems to be one of a number of parallels between their experience of ending apartheid, and ours in the U.S. (the civil rights movement): First comes equality under the law, then (hopefully) equality of opportunity and prosperity. Stephen has a unique perspective: he was raised on a farm that was owned by his family, and mainly worked by blacks. So he worked closely with blacks, and knew (and liked and respected) them as people; but the inequality – he went off to a nice school, while the black children went off to a piss-poor one – was drilled into them. In his architecture work, he's also worked on a number of civic projects in townships – and worked closely with black concillors (which he was more comfortable doing than many of the heads of his firm).

Dawn, and I grab a workout on a patch of sandy grass, amongst ants and baboons – the former assailing me, and the latter threatening to. We break camp, and cast our lot with the next camp site up the coast – the one you hear so much about.

* * *

     "Kande Beach is every bit as bad as you might reasonably expect, knowing that it's pronounced Candy Beach. Dirty, hot, annoying, schmaltzy – precisely like where high school kids go when they die on spring break. Foosball and ping pong are provided so fratboys from around the world can while away the drunken hours in accustomed comfort. There's dirty, muddy, trash-strewn sand to pitch your tents on – and almost no shade, so you can't go in your broiling tent in any case. There's a thriving and friendly fly population, no Internet, no power, numerous seemingly dead dogs lying around in the sand, and rather a lot of people, by the looks of whom – multiple tatoos, piercing, dreadlocks, sarongs for the women, shirtlessness for the men – I feel keenly interested in not talking to. They have a restaurant that's out of everything, and a beachside bar with bad beer (and out of everything else). The inside of that structure is decorated with t-shirts donated by the sort of overland tour crews wont to proclaim 'We won't go down in history, but we will go down on your daughter.' (Also, there's an ebola t-shirt, featuring a human figure as bleeding out red smear – a seminal find, and a trenchant and apt commentary on the sensibilities of this place.) The Kande Beach t-shirt itself features a skinny guy in silhouette sitting under a palm tree smoking a huge spliff, with the tagline 'The bits you remember, you'll never forget.' Yes, it may well be time for me to start drinking again."

     Normally, I jot very terse and cryptic little notelets – just memory ticklers, really – as I go, and then write later on the laptop; but the above comes almost verbatim from my notebook. It was an exercise in therapy, and it worked. I was markedly less cranky (as Mark will attest) after that few minutes of acid scribbling. Then the two of us sat in the bar reading, writing – and monitoring the clock.

We played darts for two hours. Laura showed up, and we thumb wrestled. We played pool. We learned of the attacks (on Jews) in Kenya – and tried to figure out whether Laura and Jamie could still go to Mombassa. I ventured outside the guarded and locked gate (yes, this place is actually a compound), and got unsubtly threatened by curio hawkers. The day ultimately went away. But we had a whole second one to get through. Most folks awoke quite late, because they could – for a bit, anyway. Ultimately, Paul employed his signature technique for dealing with late risers. And thusly did we square off against the remaining 24 hours.

It's not that the beach isn't pretty. It has nice late afternoon light, altogether decent sunsets – and even surf. It's just that – along with adrenaline sports – this is another thing Mark and I emphatically did not come to Africa for. We could have gone to the beach in Florida (or South Carolina, or North Carolina, or Virginia . . .). But, I suppose everyone can't like every stop; as Mark pointed out, some people probably hated Spitzkoppe. Moreover, we soon found two things we liked about Kande.

The first was what I dubbed "the Sleepy Pavilion." Initially, we were annoyed that we could never sit in it – due to every couch being fully occupied, length-wise, by a non-conscious person. When we finally did score spots, we figured out why: with the dim light, cool ocean breeze, and white-noise loop of the lapping surf, this pavilion was the Ultimate Napping Machine. Moreover, you can't even really sit up on the couches; they are for prone passengers only.

The second was Sean Dwyer. He is South African, twenty-three, a sixth-year medical student in Cape Town, soft-spoken, thoughtful, seemingly deeply compassionate and concerned, smart somewhere between bright and brilliant – and physically beautiful (the picture doesn't do him justice – I need a hidden camera to keep people from smiling and disguising their souls), with a serious recreational weightlifter's body. He had just finished a stint of working and training at the hospital in nearby Nkhata Bay, and had a couple of days to unwind before heading back to Cape Town. He happened to wander over to our table as Mark and I were having another very abstruse discussion about the effects of genetic hardwiring on character and temperment. Not only was Sean able to hop right into this one – but he did so umprompted, by some coincidence sort of raising the issue himself within a couple of minutes. From there, our discussion ranged over ethics; the possibility of fairness or justice in the universe; relatedly, how we should be relating to people here in Africa, especially in the face of constant hustling and manipulation; the fundamental nature of physical reality; the question of whether we're still in the dark ages of medicine; and other happy and rarefied topics. Mark and I spoke with him for about two hours, before he headed off to swim out to the offshore island.

In the morning, after a dawn so lovely it sent me running from my workout to grab my camera, Sean happened by our outdoor breakfast nook, took a seat, and he and I talked for another hour or so. We discussed life in university towns, exercise regimens (including running, cycling, stretching, and yoga), and relationships. He's been with a woman his age, a graduate student named Leslie, for 3.5 years. (It was only this that cleared up for me that he wasn't gay – it's not easy to tell with a man that pretty, and gentle-mannered.) They are approaching the hotly-debated, but generally-agreed-to-exist, statute of limitations on dating without getting married; and he's not sure he's not too young to tie the knot. Ultimately, he ambles off to gallantly help some very attractive young women break down a tent – an act of chivalry I trust his significant other would endorse. ;^)

* * *

"Ah – my two favorite bits of Kande Beach in one place: the Napping Pavilion, and Sean Dwyer." I'm killing a last painful hour before departure, in half-slumber on a couch, when Sean wanders by again. We spend another 45 minutes discussing our shared devotion to sport, his recent severe knee injury, and a few other topics. Then Paul is honking Sid's horn, and I must run. Sean and I exchange a strong handshake, sincere best wishes, and e-mail addresses. When I take my seat, I tell Mark sincerely that the experience of meeting Sean may have made the whole sordid Kande Beach episode worthwhile for me. As I've been going on about a lot in regard to travel: viewing architecture is great, dramatic scenery's fine; ditto arts, culture, food, languages, history, etc. But for sheer power of being interesting, complex, and compelling, nothing can hold a candle to good ole homo sapiens. (See opening quote.) As ever, it's all about the people.

Limp Bizkit seems to be our theme music whenever we are emphatically getting out of Dodge. We pause in the market outside the gates to change a leaky tire (couldn't jack the truck in the sand), then hit the road, blazing north. Ultimately, we stop at one last beach-side camp site on the ubiquitous lake. That one next time, then on into Tanzania – the beginning of the home stretch.

Next: The Mountain-Humping Hike to Manchewe Falls.

  rants     people     music     africa     camping     dftre     exercise     freedom     pitely  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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