Sep 28, 2011

Seeing in the dark

Since I seem to be on a roll with sizing up personalities in the last few posts, let me continue with another hypothesis - you can tell a lot about people by their quirks and special talents. Take my feet for example. No, not the permanent fungus and nail-bed damage from too much Africa and too small ski boots. The eyes on em.

Yup, I gots me some eyes on my toes. They see in the dark. It started at Casa Guatemala when I ran out of batteries for my cheap flashlight and couldn't be bothered to buy new ones. One of my jobs at the orphanage was to turn off the diesel generator about an hour after dark. I'd wander down the dirt path yelling out "Voy a pagar la luz" and every teacher in the compound would yell back, "No, not yet Richard" and I'd laugh and continue on behind the buildings to the generator shack. The best moment was just after turning off those noisy belching electricity-making beasts, hearing the wails of the half-made-up young teachers rise then slowly subside, and the whole world accepting that it was plunged into darkness and silence, the hidden sounds of the jungle finally emerging to take back their night domain. True true peace.

Then I'd remember that I had to get back with no light. So I learned to feel the path step by step with my bare feet, discerning the harder-tread path from the lighter dust on the side, gently sliding over tree roots, feeling for the slight sloping rise on the side of the path. Many a night I was aided by the frequent electrical storms in the sky, which would light up the whole jungle like a giant flash camera. I'd memorize the path in front of me, then run forward as far as I felt like I could remember, then stop and wait another minute or two or five for the next lightening flash to reveal the next 20 yards of path. The 2 minute walk sometimes took 20 to get back out, but there was no hurry in this jungle. Work was done, children were asleep, it was just me and my bare feet making love with the jungle track.

Four years later my house was down another lush tropical path just up from Lake Malawi in Tanzania. In finding a piece of land to build on, I'd started by walking at night as far as I could from the hospital compound until I could no longer hear their generator. The trade-off of silence for lack of electricity was more like a double-bonus - the nighttime ritual of entering my house slowly and feeling on the window ledge for the matches and lantern that would be my 4-foot sphere for the rest of the night was the instant slow-down we lack in our instant- and bright-lit world. My world was 4-feet round, keeping my focus right where I was and on what I was doing, and requiring a deliberate shifting of worlds to move to another activity or room. For fun I installed a light switch at the doorway, which fooled every visitor and even me after 3 years - a lighthearted reminder of the convenience and distraction we enjoy, suffer, and take for granted in Everything Everywhere North American life.

Once again, I had to walk down a long path to get home, this time lushly overgrown with tall grasses on both sides. I felt not only with my feet as before, but now also with my shins and thighs, gauging where the grass was bending in too much on one side. In the rainy season I'd be sloshing through the streams that formed in the well-worn path, feeling the direction and speed of the water as I navigated upstream then, upon feeling the inflow of my particular feeder stream, veering off the path toward my own home. In dry season, it was again the ruts and the slopes, the sudden feeling of roughness or vegetation to say I'd stepped too far out of line.

The common thread between Guatemala and Tanzania is more than just a Ricky too cheap to invest in a good flashlight and batteries. They were both times when I had/took time to enjoy the walk. Time to adjust, to get in-sync with nature and be part of it, let the natural world guide me. Trust in my senses other than just sight and thinking. Be open to the changing seasons - coming from a world where our roads are built to perform the same every minute of every season, living on a path that changed constantly and predictably was a fascinating learning experience.

I still love to do it, love to walk barefoot in the night and slow down enough to feel my way around. It's a reminder that I don't have to get the chickens put away in 2 minutes flat - as I feel my land under me I'm also seeing the sky above, the waving silhouettes of the giant trees that were here before me and will be here after. I'm hearing the screech owl and whooping cranes and how much louder the highway is at night, or rather how much quieter the world is that usually drowns those big trucks. I can't taste the air the way Zekiah can, but I am feeling the air on my face, in my throat, on my eyelids, sensing if there's rain on the way.

Sometimes the best way to see your path is to close your eyes.

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