Post Road Magazine #11

Four Ways of Trying to Hold onto It

Paul Salopek

Editor's Note: Paul Salopek, a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, sent these e-mails to a friend between 2002 and 2004. In his words: "Like many of the missives I've sent to friends over the years, they often describe travels between wars, leading up to wars, during wars, and after wars. About the only thread running through them is the ongoing struggle to keep a grip on what is good, and to avert loneliness."

Sunday, December 22, 2002 2:18 AM

Re: one way of trying to hold onto it (South Africa)

I was the first one at the chicken house that morning and since nobody else was there I stripped to my t-shirt and started digging alone in the cold, gray half-light of dawn, gripping the shovel just behind its tangs with one hand while holding the plastic sacks open with the other. Enormous piles of chicken shit were radiating a furnace-like warmth from their cores, the musky heat of organic decay. By the time the Zulu crew arrived an hour or so later I had only 30 bags filled and was drenched with sweat. It was a tough slog.

Workers paired up. My bagger was a young woman strangely attired. She wore a flowered mini-skirt over a dingy red track suit. She was very pretty and very black. Her job was to hold open the mouths of the bags while I filled them spadeful by spadeful with dry, crumbly chicken shit. She bent to work and launched into song immediately. Some sweet Zulu tune like water in a mountain stream. The others responded in chain gang fashion with a melancholy refrain that ended with a loud, metronomic click. It was beautiful and sad and mesmerizing. Then Graham Griffin roared up on his motorbike and everyone fell silent.

"Ask her what she was singing," I said to Graham.

Graham asked her. A brisk exchange in Zulu followed. The woman clammed up. Several of the crew made what appeared to be humorous comments. A couple of the older men guffawed. "She says she doesn't know what you're talking about," Graham said. "She says they weren't singing." He quickly appraised the growing hill of bagged guano and drove away.

"Please let us switch," the woman said five minutes later. She seemed miffed. I handed her the shovel.

"Sorry, I didn't know you spoke English," I said, holding open a bag. "What's your name?"

"It is too difficult," she replied sulkily.

"Pleased to meet you, Too Difficult," I said. "My name is Paul." She didn't get the joke. Actually, the black staff at the farm didn't call me Paul. They called me Al-short for "Albino."

"You can call me 'Cindy,'" my partner announced loftily. "Would you like me to sing for you?"

"I'd like that very much, Cindy. It was pretty."

But she didn't sing. Instead, she started hacking away at the dung as if there were gold hiding deep in that cloacal muck. And that's when I realized that she wasn't a woman at all; she was a swaggering teen, a pert, impertinent kid. After a good deal of prodding she admitted she was 17. She was the only member of her farm laborer family to reach high school. She wanted to become an engineer. She pronounced the word regally, with a capital letter: "En-chi-neah." She was demonstrating to me that she was a tough customer; someone not to be trifled with.

"You are a millionaire," Cindy informed me matter-of-factly a little later. We'd swapped the shovel again.

I laughed. "Would I be digging chicken shit if I were a millionaire?"

"You sit in your cottage all night eating too many biscuits," she insisted. "You are always playing on your computer."

These details of my private life, announced so casually by a stranger, didn't surprise me in the least. Africa's a village and there are few secrets here. They probably knew I read in the tub. "I'm writing a book," I responded tetchily.

"Ha," Cindy snorted. "Where are these books? I want to read them."

"This is my first one."


"I thought you were going to sing for me."

"Maybe I will," she said smiling with mock sweetness, "maybe I will not."

"And maybe you should be a politician instead of an engineer," I muttered, mopping my face on a shirtsleeve. "You could be the next Mrs. Mobutu."

"What is it?"

"Winnie Mandela."

She laughed for the first time. And I was caught off-guard by its effect-like a clean, shivery little breeze puffing through that abysmal chicken house clogged with birdshit dating back to the Verwoerd era. Most of the crew were now stealing glances at me and Cindy. The men pokerfaced. With the tops of their blue overalls unzipped and cinched around their skinny waists. The women sniggering in gumboots. I decided to concentrate on shoveling. We bagged seven metric tons that day. At five o'clock we downed shovels and Cindy didn't even say goodbye. She sashayed away with the rest of the women on the footpath back to the farm, one harlequin bird amid a parti-colored flock. She waggled her gym-suited and mini-skirted bum excessively, I thought. Loneliness is a terrible thing.

The next day I swept out my cottage. I packed my laptop into a duffle bag and walked to the main house, where Graham and Vicky Griffin, the great-great-grandchildren of settlers, were waiting to say goodbye. (Graham, a veteran of Angola, had proudly lugged out a live tank shell at one of his braais-a souvenir that rolled around under the picnic table, bumping people's toes. I had commented that the shell looked live. Graham had said, "Yaw, but she's not primed.")

Shouldering my bag, I hopped onto the rear bumper of the farm's vegetable truck, making its daily run to the Howick markets. I leaped off two kilometers later, at the juncture with the tarmac road. I was waiting there for a taxi when I encountered my young and too-difficult partner once again. It wasn't hard picking her out in a nearby spinach field; she was toiling among a team of workers, wearing the same silly outfit as the day before. I was sure it was her because she suddenly started to sing. Her song unspooled lovely and strong over the dark furrows, crossing the emptiness of the asphalt road, rolling right through me, on up into the haunting green hills of the Midlands, the land of the Nguni, as the Zulu call themselves; the People of Heaven.

I smiled, and raised an arm in salute. She lifted both of hers in reply. A young girl waving in a field. A simple thing never forgotten. Then the other workers, who had stood watching like scarecrows, bent again to their task, cutting leaves. A micro-bus taxi with "Ghetto Tragedy" painted on the side pulled up in a cloud of dust and gravel, and its grinning driver, sucking on a huge joint, said, "Merry Christmas, my brada," and drove me away to another war.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003 3:25 AM

Re: anatolia (Turkey)

Mahmut and I followed the Tigris out of the Kurdish hill country and down to the Mesopotamian plain.

The hills ended at Mardin, a Silk Road town carved into a yellow escarpment that was topped by a Byzantine castle. The town was made of pale yellow stones and the castle was occupied by the Turkish army. On the dusty outskirts was a 6th-century Jacobite monastery. Its last, dying handful of monks spoke Aramaic and still meditated in caves.

Mahmut drove quickly through Turkish sentry posts to the Syrian border. We passed blocky little villages built on gentle rises, like overturned saucers, on the flat brown plain. The humps were rubble from earlier settlements dating back to the Bronze Age. Shepherds dig into them today and pull out stone necklaces buried with the dead-dead so old and unloved and forgotten they don't even seem human anymore. The ashes of twenty-six successive civilizations lie intermingled on the plain. That's what Mahmut says.

We were going to Habur Gate to talk to Turkish truckers hauling sanctions-busting crude out of Iraq. We found them easily. The line of tankers at the border crossing was six miles long. I had never seen anything like it in my life. Almost 2,000 trucks waiting five days to cross into Iraq. The drivers warmed us tea in kettles set atop stones beside the road. Fistfights broke out whenever a truck jumped the line. One man gave me a handful of candy and told me life was hell.

All along the highway were abandoned trucks. Thousands upon thousands of them, idled by the UN sanctions against Iraq. The biggest truck graveyard was in a town called Cizre, where the Kurds say Noah is buried. The ark is supposed to lie somewhere up in the white snows of Mount Cudi, where the borders of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran meet. A wild place. The Kurds are still nomads there, and not beaten-down townsmen.

Mahmut, my translator, is a Kurdish nationalist. He looks like Rudolph Valentino and smokes nearly 90 cigarettes a day. When we returned to the hill country it was nighttime and Turkish armored cars were prowling the medieval streets of Diyarbakir, keeping a lid on separatist anger there. It was the first time troops had patrolled the streets in three years. Mahmut hated them. He hated all Turks. He started crying bitterly in the car.

I have no idea where I am.

I walk the narrow alleys of this ancient, blood-soaked town, buying apricots that are piled a meter high in pushcarts-delicious mountains of golden sunlight. I eat "panned meat in its ownfat" at the restaurant while a Turk hammers through Nat King Cole's "Autumn Leaves" on a synthesizer beneath a spinning mirrored ball. And I sit quietly in my room after dark with the windows open. Listening to the muezzin calling out into the oldest of nights. Cupping my hands in my lap like an empty bowl.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004 3:52 PM

Re: among ghosts, in a country of light (New England)

The country looks the same. The frozen-over rivers running like cold wax down to the sea. The winter-dead forests the color of used-up teabags. The blocky little fishermen's houses thrown up like detritus on the shore. The kielbasa. The sisterly whores. The dirty snow.

My old boat is gone. She ran aground last year on a reef in Fiji in pursuit of albacore. For two seasons in the 90s I worked her decks on the Northern Ledge, the infamous, stormy scalloping grounds off Halifax. She nearly killed me then. A rogue wave knocked four thousand pounds of steel dredge over the side with me standing on it. I dived for the rail and dangled there, rattled, from a crooked elbow. I remember looking down at all that tonnage vanishing beneath the cold sea without so much as a bubble. And I left the fishery soon after. I guess a part of my heart was dragged

under that day, because the hollow it left inside my chest-a place filled by the solitary, backbreaking, gorgeous labor of working at sea-has never really vanished. I've seen a line of tuna four miles long, breaching across the ocean like an endless, cresting wave. I've ridden out hurricanes strapped to my bunk. I've listened to the metallic screech of dolphins talking through the ship's steel bulkhead. But mostly I remember the almost hallucinatory stillness of certain mornings: waking up after a typical 20-hour day, seeing the north Atlantic spreading like a sheet of cold black marble to the yellowing horizons, and the silhouette of the engineer welding alone and silently on deck, spraying a dazzling white shower of sparks up into the fading Arctic stars, as if challenging their perfect beauty, a Promethean scene.

I spent Sunday morning mending gear on the Act IV, the boat of a friend.

The New England sunlight was white, watery. "Ey, caray, so you goin' to live in Angola?" cried Two-Fingered Manny, also known as Nosepicker. "I thought that was some kinda sheep." Stan the Man was there. So was Dogfucker, and Knute the Norseman. They had new stories to tell, almost all of them sad. And it was as if I had never left: the secret society of fishermen, bound by the merciless sacrament of the chase-the last society of hunters in the post-industrial world.

A man from the Fishermen's Assistance Center was handing out free key-chains on the New Bedford docks that day. His welfare program was attempting to turn the burgeoning ranks of unemployed fishermen into accountants, plumbers, and truck drivers. The key-chains were fancy- but my old shipmates threw them angrily away.

Hours later, back in my clean, soulless hotel room, I realized why. The fobs on the chains were composed of a tiny compass and a whistle. The keychains floated. These were features of doom. Of loss. They were designed for a man washed overboard. For somebody abandoned, hopelessly, at sea.

Monday, March 29, 2004 5:17 PM

Re: I so rarely get to write about women (South Africa)

Alone with my malaria in a hotel in Cape Town, puking and trying to finish a story. I have been at sea most of the past month, and it is depressing to be run aground, sick, struggling with my pathetic fund of words. Somedays I feel so light I could float off the street, and disappear without a fucking trace. •

Paul Salopek is a Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent who has covered Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, in 1998 for coverage of the Human Genome Diversity Project, and in 2001 for his work in Africa, including his coverage of the civil war in Congo.

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