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Nostalgic


I stood outside the monolithic social sciences building, at the end of Manor Road. It is an imposing thing, a commanding structure of glass, steel and concrete. Its devotion to right-angles and relative dearth of texture gives it a sense of aged calm, like a forgotten statue enduring the millennium. Its insides are maintained with a tomb-like regularity, climate-controlled, logically crafted and endlessly utilitarian.

I looked over my shoulder at the wet asphalt and at the dripping trees waving in the wind. The deepening autumn weather had broken for a spell, on a day I planned to study and work at Manor Road.   I walked in through the revolving door in a whoosh of air, as my ears adjusted from the breezy orchestra outside to the steady vibration of the air ducts.

Normally the building is actually quiet pleasant, it’s large slabbed frame echoes with the conversation of students and faculty. On a Saturday though it is nearly silent, save the footfall of the steady stream of undergraduates funnelling into the library on the bottom floor.

I ascended the wide concrete staircase to the economics department, which was locked during the weekend. I swiped my student card and walked in. It was silent. Narry a tap of a keyboard nor the whispering of procrastinates. In the back I could spot one graduate student at his desk. The others were empty. Unusual, even for a Saturday morning.

I walked to my desk in the back of the department, a computer terminal seated in a large table shared by six. I dropped my stuff and listened again, but only the distant hum of the copy machine could be heard. I shrugged and, picking up a used plastic bottle from my desk, walked across the department to the water cooler.

I pressed the option for cold water and misjudging the task of getting it in the bottle, managed to spill some on my hands. It was surprisingly cold, not bound by tepidity like much of what can be found in an economics department. I stopped for a moment and thought. The cold water awakened a memory.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

I stood there stripped to the waist in the icy water, my shoulder bag held over my head. I looked at the three children, perched on a rock above the stream.

“What is it you are worried about?” asked Vera, standing nearby, looking hesitantly at the cold water.

I looked around for somewhere to set my bag.

“I’m not totally comfortable leaving my stuff on the shore.”

“Gah!” exclaimed Ann as she stepped into the water.

The three Malawian children who had followed us on the half-hour hike up the stream, looked back at me.

“My bag has the rest of the money I’ve got for the next few days in it.” They should be ok, but I’m just worried leaving it by those kids.

Vera considered the water again.

“I’ll stay here and watch over it if you want, I don’t think I’ll go in.

We were in Dzalanyama, a forest reserve near the border of Mozambique. South of Lilongwe. It was my last weekend in Malawi and, as a communal goodbye to me and several friends who were leaving soon, everyone showed up for a relaxed weekend away. We stopped to visit the waterfall on our way back. The children had followed us from a nearby village. Children often did that, either out of boredom, or hoping for the chance to earn a guide salary.

I handed Vera the bag and slowly sank into the frigid water. The others were laughing and splashing around, although with less vigour than they had displayed earlier that day. Several had climbed up onto the ridge to warm up a bit.

I clambered up to join the others, shivering in the breeze. We chatted for a bit as some of the other men took it in turns jumping off a low ledge. There wasn’t much room for landing.

We waded ashore. Most were shivering. The sun had begun to sink behind the tree line. That close to the equator, the sun would retreat with surprising enthusiasm at dusk. We didn’t have much time. I borrowed Alex’s towel to dry off a bit, then pulled on my shorts over my soggy trunks.We checked the area for anything left behind, then set off.

The path to this part of the stream was narrow, and we had to climb up a steep, earthy incline. To accomplish this, we had to proceed in single file. The three children followed as the sun continued to set.

That eerily recognizable ‘thump-thump-thump-thump’ accompanied my car’s shudder as I pulled off the road. A car full of beer, gin, snacks and party accessories, and I had a flat tire.

Luckily I was in my neighborhood, and with Andy’s help we got the car’s spare on and we limped it home. Tonight was going to be a big night; I had thrown big parties before, but I couldn’t really predict the scale of this one.

The theme was simple: come in disguise. I had the usual fro/pilot glasses/handlebar moustache costume planned, complete with a kitchen sink strainer as my medallion. Invitations went out to everyone we had even known. Little did I know that some of my friends, led by the sneaky Cynthia, were planning to surprise me.

On Friday morning I accidentally received an e-mail detailing their plans: it had been sent to everyone, suggesting that instead of going for a variety of costumes, that everyone…. everyone should dress up as a ninja, and act like it was a coincidence. I considered blowing the plan wide open… but then thought that no one would take it seriously, and it would be fun having ninjas on the dance floor.

Saturday night came. I dressed up as the 70s stallion. Dave a redneck. Andy as practically Shinobi himself. Then came the atendees. First was Ann, who came with a cake to surprise Cynthia with (her birthday had just passed) and also to “reprogram” attendees who did not come in costume.

Then came the first batch of close friends. All dressed as ninjas. Predictable. One was wearing pink and used stilettos as a weapon which attached to the back of her mask. Cynthia and Phil were sporting ninja stars.

Then came some more friends, also as ninja.

Then came more ninjas.

And more.

And more.

My doctor and his wife came, as a black and white ninja, her with a sculpted white mask over her face and him with sunglasses, with real swords. They didn’t even speak!

Another friend, Alex came as a cowboy. Ann reprogrammed him into a Geisha girl within seconds.

More ninjas came.

As usual, I had speakers and lights set up in the garage to make the ultimate dance floor, which was soon flooded by ninjas.

Usually there is just one crowd at my parties. It moves from outside, to the dance floor, to the living room, to the snack room. But that night, there was a crowd for every room.

Cynthia gathered everyone onto the dance floor for a photo, and we surprised her with the cake. When the tunes cut on, everyone stayed there, and we continued to dance until around 11:30, when we were hit by a horribly timed power cut. It lasted around six or seven minutes, and we lost around 1/3 of the attendees, but the rest of the crowd stayed for a few more hours, and the last of us thrashed out our frustrations to some metal at the night.

Even in my days of shooting ninja films, I’ve never seen so many. And dancing too! Here are more photos (thanks to Dave):

This will make much more sense to those who have always been restless.

There is much to be gained through the foray into the unknown. You leap onto that boat or train that takes you east, towards your dreams, towards uncertainty. You know people who have gone away to distant lands for holiday, and they come back the same. Maybe one can remain static for short periods of time, but for any longer it doesn’t work that way. You change in ways you can’t quite put your finger on.

Over the weekend, in an attempt to make up for my absence at a wedding, I called some of my friends from undergraduate school, some of the best I ever had, who were gathered for the union. The line was poor and some of blame for the lack of conversation can be attributed to it, but to a great extent, I couldn’t think of anything to say. What do you say? I’ve been gone for only two years, but what do I say? …”I’m sorry I couldn’t come back,” when you aren’t sure if you ever will?

It goes like the story:

[The dog] has this bone.. it’s the most important thing in the world… carries it everywhere he goes and, uh… one day he goes down to the water and he sees another dog with a bone, reflected on the surface. It’s identical and he wants that bone too. So… he opens his mouth to grab it… and his bone falls in the water and it disappears. It’s gone. And he’s left standing there. . . looking at himself. . . and he has nothing.

The line is from my favourite television show, one that I have often bored my friends raving about.When I first began watching Farscape with my Dad, I was attracted by the sci-fi elements of the show. But as I’ve watched the scant four seasons of the series a few more times, I’ve become entranced by the changes the main character undergoes, which are subtle episode by episode, but add up to a great deal. A brief recap for the uninitiated will help.

Farscape is the story of a US astronaut named John Crichton. At the start of the series, he is undergoing a test flight in Earth orbit, when he is swallowed by a wormhole and deposited at the other end of the galaxy. He ends up joining a group of escaped prisoners on a living ship, spending most of his time running from a totalitarian mercenary army known as the Peacekeepers.

The most obvious change that occurs over the first few seasons is the growing friendship between the ex-prisoners, first very wary of each other, eventually hardening to unwavering trust. At the same time, John and an ex-Peacekeeper named Aeyrn begin to fall in love. The more interesting change though, is in John’s demeanor as the series continues. The first season, often dubbed the season of innocence, documents his attempts to come to grip with his new surroundings. It is the season that is closest to the conventions of science fiction: hero collides with alien culture and tries to fix it based on his perception of what culture should be.

Yet as the series moves on, John begins to accept his surroundings, and the lifestyle of being on the run begins to seep into him. He moves slowly towards the ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ mentality, always on his guard against external forces. Aeyrn, being both dangerous and beautiful, becomes the living tribute to this new life he inhabits. As the alien body count rises, he actually begins to show signs of remorse. Something that Kirk or Skywalker never quite accomplished.

Near the end of the third season, John realizes that he may be able to find a way back to Earth, to home. Yet this new found life, especially Aeyrn, is not compatible. It is the dog-with-two-bones dilemma and he mulls over it. Another character replies:

If the dog… could have had only one bone… which would it have wanted?

It is a bit of a spoiler, but John eventually does return home. When he does, he clearly no longer fits in, and is more comfortable in his combat-ready leather and gun holster, even though he had longed so much to be home. Such estrangement symptoms are not new territory for fantasy fiction. The fact that you can never return home and make things the same was well covered in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It reminds me of something a friend said a few days ago:

I used to, and sometimes still do, get these pangs that I thought were cases of home sickness. But they never went away when I went home. I realized then that it was more a feeling of nostalgia, of an environment that has come and gone, and no matter what you do, you can’t make it the same. Just being there doesn’t help.

At the end of the series, one that takes its hero through innocence, madness, death, ends with a sense of melancholy. He is denied the pleasure of returning home unchanged, and instead must settle for something else.

It’s a concept that is almost best described by a term in economics: opportunity cost.

“The cost of something is what you give up to get it.”

That in itself is both life-affirming and off-putting. On one hand, to think of what you have left behind to get to where you are, makes one wonder if it has been worth it. On the other hand, sacrifice somehow gives value. John gives up Earth for what he loves more, once he figures out what that thing is.

It’s a fantastic show to watch if you like long story arcs and complex character development, and even more poignant for those who have also left their home to head off into alien lands, and sometimes wonder what they are doing there.

Approaching the six month mark on my two-year placement in Malawi, I decided it would be a good time to post some of the notes I made during my trip out here and first few days. Water damage has made my already hampered comprehension of my handwriting more difficult, so bear with me.

Jo’burg airport, Tuesday, the 26th of September, time unknown:Â

I tend to think of travel as a segmented circuit, with any delay representing a break in that circuit… a discontinuity. What I have learned while waiting in the Jo’burg airport is my first realization about ravel: Lilongwe is inevitable, and you can not interrupt an inevitability.

Tuesday, the 26th of September, some time later that evening:

It’s only a little time later that I find myself on the Sapitwa, a decrepit 737 named after the highest point in the country. This of course brings me back about ten years, back when a plane like this would have had me worried. Now it just seems to fit the picture.

The lights just OK— as I wrote that the power just flickered, so now I’m pretty fucking scared. The pilot and air hostess–OK now they’ve turned out all the lights in the cabin, part of a safety procedure.ÂIt makes it hard to write – the instructions were in Chichewa before they were English. Two New Zealanders Afrikaners are sitting by me, having met up by chance. They seem unphased about being plunged into darkness. I can only shrug as I move into the 36th hour of my travels.

The plane taxis down the runway for far too long. After finally taking off, the sea of lights that is Jo’burg blinks its farewell. The plane banks a sharp left, leaving my stomach lurching and finally, for the first time, pointing me towards Malawi

Blantyre, Malawi, Wednesday, the 27th of September, morning.

“All things work together for good to them that love God.” Rom. 8:28

The sign hands to the left in the large tiled room which houses breakfast. I am, of course, the only one sitting here, my red hair and fair skin the source of some attention. Despite my protests that a banana some peanut buttered toast are plenty, I am served up a full meal of chips, vegetarian sausage, and beans and fried toast. Not the world’s healthiest of dishes, but surprisingly good and filling.

All of a sudden someone starts playing Johnny cash on the stereo. “Across the bridge” followed by songs about Jesus….

Some time later:

I am waiting at the front of the hotel for Shabbir to pick me up. Last night is a bit of a blur, but landing at Blantyre was immensely scary. Africa shows no sign of life from the sky at night. Landing a plane on a hardly-lit landscape is nerve-wracking. I was beginning to wonder if it was time to descend yet, when I saw a tree go by my window!

Like the take-off, the touch-down was drawn out. The first thing I sensed when I stepped out on the tarmac as a sense of the enormous space.

Customs and immigration initially seemed like it would be a problem –> there was an official every five-feet stopping me and demanding to look in my things.

My writing then ended, presumably because Shabbir picked me up at that point.

Sometimes in the deadly serious world of international development and government administration, where everyone is a little too convinced that what they are doing is paramount (and haven’t considered that it might not even be effective), I like to think back to a time where I did things that, admittedly, weren’t very useful at all, but were pretty bloody fun.

I remember all the headaches we must have caused for our Residential Director (RD) at Holmes Hall, my residence for my first three years at Clemson University. For the first two years, almost all of my friends were in the same building (that is probably how we all became friends in the first place) . Two of our oddest hobbies involved Nerf Gun wars and dressing up as ninjas. Twice were these hobbies observed by our RD and both times were quite hilarious.

Yes we played with Nerf guns, the plastic toys that would launch foam darts down Holme’s hallways. Every so often on a weekend, the casual observer would see a group of around ten men on the cusp of boyhood yelling out orders and taking cover while firing at each other. Variations on the usual theme of “kill the other team” involved setting the hall’s microwave on a countdown, and having one team forced to hit cancel (the equivalent of defusing a bomb).

However, sometimes our antics were a little too loud, and as it got later and later, we’d opt to move to the basement, where no one lived and the humm of the laundry room would cover our noise. The only way to the basement was via elevator, so we’d just pile in with our guns and descend.

I recall one particularly large game, where our posse’ piled into the elevator and hit B for basement. However, for some reason someone on the ground floor had hit down, and the elevator stopped and opened on the ground floor, where there is always a RA (residential assistant) on post. The doors opened, and not only was the RA there, but so was the RD, who gave an extremely puzzled look to this heavily armed group of young men.

Muttered expletives followed along with the mashing of the “close doors” button, and we were away from her scrutiny.

As if that wasn’t incriminating enough, not long after we decided to have a game of hide-and-go-seek outside. Feeling that the wide-open space of Bowman field might make it a little difficult, even at night, we decided that everyone should be wearing black to maximize their hiding potential. The men of the group, all very fond of dressing up as ninjas (a ninja mask can easily be made using a regular t-shirt) added the mask to their repertoire.

Again we took the elevator down to the ground floor so we could walk out to Bowman field. However, the RD was there again, so she saw, accompanied by several women dressed in, about eight ninjas walk out of the elevator, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, unfortunately unable to hide in the well-lit entrance to Holmes Hall.

I’m not sure what was more fun, enjoying being absolutely ridiculous when I was in undergrad, or having other people discover that we were, in fact, being absolute ridiculous.