Up early with the bats in a soft rain, I’m walking down a steep path to the climate station we’ve set up at the river. The forest is silent except for some restless insects and one or two birds.
I raise the kerosene lantern high to take the readings of temperature and humidity. Droplets of water hiss as they strike the glass.
Back up the hill, I shrug my way into the kitchen area and set the lantern down. A deck of cards in order by suits and an empty gin bottle sit on the table.
Not my doing.
I detect the odor of cigarette smoke. Looking around the camp I see a rectangle of yellow light. Simon, smoking in bed. No doubt he’s staring at the ceiling of his tent and worrying about the construction budget.
Flipping through the project logbook I note it’s been three months to the day since I’ve seen the chimpanzees. We’re in the midst of a drought. When the rains come, the trees will bear fruit, and when there is enough fruit the chimps will gather in numbers large enough to soothe their fear of the unknown, and they will let me see them.
I have been telling myself this every day for at least two months. Every day it sounds less rational and more desperate.
In the meantime, there’s nothing to do but continue going to the forest. The chimps see me, even if I don’t see them. It’s helping, even if the data don’t show it. Which is why every morning I put on my boots and, after logging the climate data and packing a lunch, I walk the forest trails until nightfall, noting nests and knuckle prints and the occasional call.
Maybe it’s fatigue.
Maybe it’s because this reserve is located near the equator and the sun comes up over the same notch in the hills every morning.
Whatever it is, after days and weeks of walking the same trails over and over with the same null result, I am beginning to wonder if time is even passing.
Glancing through the logbook one last time — perhaps seeking to convince myself that this morning I am, in fact, starting a new day — I see I failed to record the night I stopped dreaming about sex and instead started dreaming about simply being hugged by someone I love.
Semiliki Note # 2 — Rainy Season
The rains have come, but the trees have not yet fruited. The chimpanzees remain elusive.
Not satisfied with pouring down from the sky and blowing in through the windows, rainwater seeps up from the ground and through the floor of my tent.
In the forest, searching for the chimps, I try not to touch the tree trunks because the slightest contact releases water droplets clinging to the undersides of the leaves. Despite my efforts, I’m constantly slipping in the mud and ooze of the trail and lurching into the trees, soaking myself further.
On top of that, our palm-trunk bridges are washed out more often than not, so the choices are either wade the creeks or force ourway through the dripping, ant-snarled vegetation in search of a shallower place to cross.
There is no way to get less wet, let alone dry.
Today, wading down the trail, I break branches unnecessarily and swat the biting flies more viciously than usual, as if this violence will somehow atone for killing the lizard that surprised me in my tent last night. His head and tail were a bright, cobalt blue, and his body and legs were a delicate silvery white.
He was harmless and beautiful.
I was dozing when he dropped from who-knows-where to the table beside my cot, landing inches from my face.
I snatched up an empty Sprite bottle and crushed his head between the green bottle glass and the hardwood tabletop.
His body fell, twitching, to the mud-soaked mats on the tent floor.
I stood and watched his final, inverted quiverings, my guilty conscience searching for a way to make it his fault.
Semliki Note #3 — Combs
On the higher parts of the trail, where the water is shallow, I can see yesterday’s current engraved in the sand through water as still and clear as museum glass.
The bridge at the first river crossing is washed out, so I wade.
The water has receded and the river, though higher than my rubber boots, is below my knees. Water wicks up my socks and through the thin, high-tech fabric of my quick-drying pants, wetting them above the river’s reach.
After regaining the trail on the other side, I hike for hours through the forest, seeing black and white hornbills and colobus monkeys, but no chimpanzees.
While I hike I daydream of sending my brother letters on the insides of envelopes ripped carefully apart at the seams.
I imagine writing in ink a shade darker than the bewildering confidentiality pattern so that the text is next to impossible to decipher and reading gives way to approximating. I imagine he answers me in the same manner and that our correspondence, characterized by genial unintelligibility, lasts for years.
Coming to a trail junction I turn uphill and walk out of the forest onto a sun-kilned hillside where I sit down and remove my boots and socks.
Looking through pant legs made translucent by moisture I see my leg hair has been slicked down and neatly parted, as if the water was made of hundreds of tiny combs.
Three six-foot-plus Samburu warriors sat at the bar, their left hands curled around half-liter bottles of Tusker. Their right hands caressed the shafts of long, lion-killing spears.
The bar was in Maralal, Kenya, which is where the pavement ended — about a days drive out of Nairobi. It was August and hot. The radio was playing Christmas songs by old country singers like Big Jim Reeves.
I hadn’t expected that, and I hadn’t expected the bar to feature a ping pong table with the Tusker logo.
We tourists walked in and found at a table. I went to the bar to get beers and nodded to the Samburu. I received solemn nods in return.
A couple beers later, one of the warriors leaned his spear against the wall and picked up two ping pong paddles. He offered me one, handle first.
I wondered if he would be upset if a snot-nosed white kid won. I would hate to get speared over ping pong.
I needn’t have worried. His reach and reflexes far surpassed mine. After a few games and a few beers he surprised me again by knowing the words to Marty Robins’ El Paso. So we sang along together.
In addition to being better at table tennis, he had a better voice.
My fins were in my left hand and my mask was on my face. The Red Sea was so warm I could barely feel it against my skin.
Straight ahead across the turquoise waves the low hills of Saudi Arabia shimmered in the heat haze.
I picked up my feet and floated, weightless.
There was no neoprene between the water and me. I learned to dive in the frigid waters of the North Pacific, wearing three layers totaling twenty-one millimeters of rubbery discomfort over my torso. All that plus a hood, gloves, booties. It was a chore.
None of that to bother with this day, though. I wore swim trunks and a t-shirt — the t-shirt so my BC wouldn’t scratch my back.
I bent my knees and slipped my fins on. Ready.
I rolled forward and submerged in water so clear I could barely see it, water so clear it nearly ceased to exist.
The seafloor — sand and pebbles — sloped away to the edge of the wall. Beyond that, nothing but blue. Down the wall, where I couldn’t see, waited the reef, the fish, the bigger animals.
I swam forward. Swimming turned into twisting; twisting morphed into turning underwater somersaults.
All this fun before the dive had properly started, before swimming through fish swarming in numbers that would shame mosquitoes — tiny black fish with bone-white tails, fish built of bits of flame cast in molten glass, menacing scorpion fish, the full-color-spectrum riot of reef fish.
Before weaving my way through giant boulders resting 150 feet below the surface and lolling onto my back to watch my bubbles festoon upwards toward the sun.
Yes, it was before all that, but even then, even before all that, I was drowning in joy and aware of only one thought:
Names change colors when you are dusty around the eyes. Watch a gerenuk at sunset while listening to a Walkman.
These two odd sentences are mnemonics I constructed to remind myself of chains of thought that occurred to me while learning to do anthropological fieldwork in East Africa. Searching the forests of the Semliki Valley in western Uganda for chimpanzees spawned the first sentence. Hiking the deserts of northern Kenya hoping to cross paths with a fossil sparked the second.
In both cases, I planned to record my captured thoughts in a journal. But the day’s work and the number of steps I took before I made it back to camp erased whatever thought-trains the words referred to, and now, two decades and change later, after iPods have vanquished Walkmans and I hardly remember laying eyes on the gerenuk, I sift through memories to conjure meaning from cryptic sentences.
I remember a slender antelope backlit by the setting sun as it stood on its hind legs on a dry ridge top, stretching for something edible amidst the thorny branches of an acacia tree. I don’t honestly know any longer if it was an acacia tree, but I don’t remember anything else growing in that desert.
I remember wetting the canvas water bags and hanging them from tree branches so the water could be cooled by passing breezes.
I remember an unlikely storm, the riverbeds flooding, the blue glow of a lightning bolt against low, gray clouds. I remember the sound of rain and no motors running for hundreds of miles and wondering if my tent would hold.
It wasn’t encoded in a sentence, but I remember flying out of Entebbe in a Cessna and spotting something sparkling alongside the tarmac as we sped down the runway. After take off, when the plane banked to find its heading, I looked down at the swarms of insects rising in our wake, so dense in their millions they seemed columns of smoke.
Months later, after the rains had arrived in Semliki, I watched from the opposite shore as the river tore the last of the soil from the grasping roots of an enormous fig tree. The bank collapsed and the tree tumbled down, sparking an eruption of dragonflies, their bodies a shifting metallic blue, their wings by turns iridescent and invisible as they darted back and forth over the suddenly muddy water.
And I remember the small, yellow worlds created by kerosene lanterns.
I remember walking from camp to the incomplete lodge along the dirt road in the rainy season, the road scarred by the passage of trucks carrying construction materials and the ruts full of muddy water from the rains, the clouds sprawling overhead in great sheets, then lightning leaping from cloud to ground and its reflection racing along the mirrored surface of the road to bury itself in my feet.
I remember entering the forest, red-tailed monkeys sprinting through the trees above and in front of me, their limbs stretched to the fullest, their feet and hands splayed, ready to grasp and release.
I remember standing in camp watching the nightjars snatch insects from a sky turning from blue to blue-gray in preparation for the darker colors of evening, and I remember looking upward one night while sitting on the rock walls of the ruined hotel that formed the foundation of our camp and saying to nobody in particular: when lightning bugs fly high enough, they look like shooting stars.
When I arrived in Fort Portal, Uganda, Jackson’s samosas ruled supreme over the street food scene. He peddled two flavors from the three-wheeled cart he pushed around the town’s potholed streets: potato curry and beef and peas.
I was working on a chimpanzee project not far from Fort Portal and always bought a samosa or three from Jackson when I was in town for supplies.
No fan of peas, I stuck with potato curry. It was a good thing I did.
As the months rolled by, I was never disappointed by the spicy, savory filling and the perfect crusty shell.
Then, one day like any other, I came into town and Jackson was nowhere to be found. I made a few extra loops, walking in the rain and fantasizing about the fragrant steam that would rise from the samosa after I took the first bite.
I looked over by the market. Couldn’t find him. I looked out past the post office. He wasn’t there either.
Eventually, I gave up and stopped by a restaurant run by an expat Welshman for a plate of chips and a beer before heading back to the chimps.
I asked the waitress, a Ugandan lady, about Jackson. She wouldn’t say a word. She shook her head and made a beeline for the kitchen after taking my order.
I sipped my beer and wondered what was going on. Watching a soft rain refill the potholes, I tried to imagine what in the world of samosa selling would merit such a reaction.
Eddie came out to deliver the chips and the scoop.
Turns out there’d been a mishap at a funeral the week before. Two pallbearers slipped and dropped the coffin. The lid popped open and the corpse flopped out, coming to rest face down on the wet grass.
Horrified friends and family members couldn’t help but notice that his buttocks were missing.
I swallowed beer and looked at Eddie. “What does this have to do with Jackson?”
Eddie smiled a wicked smile. “Let me ask you this, Bud. What flavor of samosa do you favor?”
“Potato. I don’t like the peas.” I popped a chip in my mouth. “Your chips are the next best thing to Jackson’s samosas.”
“Good for you,” Eddie said. “Good for you.” He knocked a knuckle on the table. “The missing piece here is that the funeral director is Jackson’s brother. Folks put two and two together in a twinkling and figured out that Jackson’s ground round wasn’t beef, if you know what I mean.”
I stopped chewing. “You mean…” I didn’t want to say it.
Eddie nodded. “Jackson and his brother left town in a hurry.”
I washed the chip down with the last of my beer. “Well this will give me something to tell the boys back in camp.”
Eddie smiled his wicked smile again. “Especially Simon. He never could get enough of beef and peas.”