Thursday, September 29, 2011

Leaving & Returning

As they say in Liberia, "I'm coming." Which could mean, of course (as I point out to Liberians when they tell me they are coming), that the person will show up in a few minutes, a few hours, or basically what in the United States we call never.

I hadn't planned to take such a long hiatus from this blog, but the very reason for my return to Liberia, the opportunity which brought me back, has since proven quite demanding. So, August stretched into October (by way of September, as it does).

I am not complaining, just explaining. I am sure I wasn't too sorely missed, anyway. But there is a particular, pit-of-the-stomach, wide-eyed, shock-down-the-spine anxiety that comes with the realization that its been yet one more week without blogging, and that it will be just that much harder to get back in the habit. So to all those who read this blog, but especially to myself, I apologize for my procrastination.

It wasn't as though I was idle. My return to Liberia was rather sudden, as a fantastic and new reason to be ex-patriated came about in a very joyful and serendipitous recruitment for a fresh role. Yet the logistical circumstances were, as soon as I could get on an airplane. This sort of scenario is both the realization of a childhood fantasy of world travel, but increasingly a bruising body-blow to my adult life, as I am forced separate myself from home and family to continue my career in Liberia.

This is not the first time, in fact, that I've more or less gotten a last-minute call, and next it seems I am driving to the airport, and not touched the ground again until greeted by the humidity and woodsmoke of a West African airport tarmac. In fact, this is usually how I have come to spend a stretch of time here.

This has meant the sudden shifts of culture shock, the quick termination of the mundane but orienting routines. No last burrito at Chipotle, nor Iced Coffee at Starbucks, no last livestream the week's Daily Show episodes. It also meant goodbyes so immediate that the pain that comes with the end of an embrace were only felt when the plane had leveled off above the cloud line.

The excitement of the opportunity of my experiences in Liberia don't temper the difficulty of leaving family behind. There is that small thought, that noticeable component of consideration, that it is not just the challenge of being absent from others, but the also real presence of danger, that is makes this particular separation so hard. Working in a 21st century African city may be a week-to-week schedule of surfing and sushi, but it is at the same time an historically harrowing territory, from slave-trading to small-boy units, a reputation which prevents so many foreigners from ever coming here.


The night before my first departure for West Africa, years ago now, before I had ever been on the continent at all, I had a dream so vivid that I can recall its details better than most waking memories.

I am treading water in the middle of a slow river, or long lagoon. The banks are bordered with palms, thick jungle behind them: it is the tropics.

I look down below me, in the dark water, my chin to my chest. A huge shape, horrible, rushes up, the space beneath my body becomes dark green, then lighter, the outline more defined even as it moves with great speed, growing enormous.

It is a crocodile, aiming at me with tremendous force, its leviathan mouth red, spiked with white.

Somehow, at a precise moment, I whip my leg back and execute a powerful kick to the snout of the animal. Its jaw snaps shut, empty. It darts down, plunges back into the water.

It is gone. I have defended myself. I am safe for the moment, but I know now that it could return, and there could be others.

Perhaps I was playing into stereotypes, but I couldn't help think that it was unusual to have such a lucid vision, featuring an African animal, the night before I fulfilled my life-long dream of traveling to Africa.

I spent most of the next two days on airplane, and arrived two nights later in Ghana. I asked some new acquaintances about any particular African symbolism of crocodiles. This was met with a mix of reluctance to discuss juju tales, either because of my foreignness, or due to a preference for Christianity. Vague responses didn't help explain whether such a dream had any meaning for me to understand.

I left for Liberia a few days later. My dream was not so much on my mind as it had been a few days before, but I was still feeling strongly like I was supposed to gain an understanding of something from it.

Therefore, what appeared out of the airplane window as I flew from Accra to Robertsfield that stormy, early dry season evening, was all the more incredible. The clouds' formation might have been remarkable for its finely articulated apparition alone, but given my haunting dream a few nights before, I was stunned to watch a formation appear in front of me.

I am not asking readers to play make-believe games. However, I hope most can watch the above video and see that the storm cloud covering the setting sun has, for a sustained duration of over two minutes, formed a gigantic crocodile's head staring straight at the viewer, with distinct skeletal eye sockets, nostrils, and, as the clip plays on, a teeth-baring snarl, with awesome bolts of lighting electrifying around its face and eyes, within its skull and snout, at one point zigzagging down the jaw line. I hope for the purposes of this post that most find that to be at least acceptable as a possible interpretation of that meteorological arrangement.

The point of me relaying all this is not to debate what is or isn't there to be seen, anyway. What I felt at the time was a very clear sense that I was supposed to be seeing it. I half expected for the shaky video that I shot to later play back with no evidence of any animal form, as if I had seen a ghost and pointlessly tried to record it.

But this was not a hesitant, brief apparition: its appearance (and reappearance since), was sustained, evident, and recordable. During my next flight to Liberia, again the sky began filling with the same distinct profile of a crocodile's head, here and there in the blankets of clouds. Some facing, some alongside, some with their backed turned. The main elements were always an elongated snout, often with bulbous nostrils at one end, and a face marked by a twin pair of spherical, proud eye sockets. Whether or not these images appear suitably reptilian to others, I unmistakably felt each time that I was supposed to be noticing them.

But if I felt sure that I was supposed to being seeing this, Why? To know that going to Africa is dangerous? In what way? For every foreigner, or particular to me? Liberia may offer more likely encounters with both malaria and machete than Massachusetts, but I am usually one to argue that someone is more likely to experience crime in Manhattan than in Monrovia, and, if anything, discredit the intrepid reputation that Americans often assign to those with extended periods of residence in sub-Saharan Africa.

These images continued to reappear in the clouds each time I flew to Liberia, and so I became more used to them. It began to seem like it wasn't so much the personal-harm, life-or-death type of danger that these shades warned of. Its hard to articulate what they did instead convey, but it seemed to me be a more prudent offer of caution: a think-before-you-act, look-before-you-step variety of wisdom.

This curious, fanciful thinking had all faded from my mind after I left Liberia last year. Back in the United States and Europe, my set return became more and more uncertain the longer I stayed out of the country. Considerations of career were much more frequent than thoughts of crocodiles. Anyway, I never noticed any clouds that had that particular, recognizable shape.


Earlier this year, a call came. A meeting was arranged, followed by an offer. I was really going back, and it had to be as soon as possible. It was a relief, but a shock, a cause for celebration but also the return of a certain, familiar anxiety and sorrow. Looking forward to a great new opportunity was also a sad occasion.

After I had accepted the offer, I drove out to a pier overlooking Boston Harbor, and looked out on the late spring clouds stretching over a waveless ocean. There, in the distance by the horizon, was a crocodile's head. I watched it hold its form in those minutes, the beast a companion in that moment that my mind began to process a mixture of emotions: happy to be returning, but sad to be leaving.

A few days later, I had left home. I passed through Europe on the way back to Africa, to enjoy the company of family before a long separation. An itinerary that covered Amsterdam, Bavaria, and Paris might seem a world away from Liberia, which it of course is in so many ways.

I was therefore slightly startled when, on my first day in Amsterdam, while paused on a bridge over the Keizergracht on Leidsestraat, I realized that I was nearly leaning up against a crocodile, facing me, lipped curled in a snarl:

There was no question in my mind that this wasn't some coincidence. I had crossed this canal on this bridge at least a dozen times over the years, and never before noticed the stonework, or stood in such proximity to it.

Days later, I was in northern Bavaria. Pine-covered, cool-aired and serene, landlocked Franconia could hardly be less like Liberia. In a Nuremberg Biergarten, I was offered a large, golden stein of Lederer Pisner. It wasn't until the warmth of the cold beer had lightened my head that I noticed the symbol of the brewery, as it had been since the 17th century, emblazoned on the glass:

It was only two days after this second coincidence that I was on an escalator, exiting an U-bahn Station in central Munich, when I had to nearly duck to avoid this placard as I passed underneath it:

By the time I got to Paris, my last days in Europe before my flight across the Sahara, I can hardly say I felt surprised to be crossing a bridge over a wide, calm Seine and notice gigantic crocodile's head careening over the Eiffel Tower. It was less than 24 hours before my family would return westward to the United States, and my plane would fly south, back to West Africa.

That whole flight down, there were crocodiles everywhere, heads proud of the waterline. Large and small, close and far. Some watched the plane glide past, others never turned to have me in view. I didn't even bother to photograph them all. It felt differently now-- it was familiar. Like the warning was also a welcome. An omen, after all, is a favor-- danger comes in to everyone's life, so all the better to have it foretold, to have a chance at defending against it, or avoiding it altogether.

I struggle to decide what, if anything, this could all possibly mean (and certainly hesitated to share this experience and thoughts in a blog). I know little of traditional West African beliefs, and whether such powers and spirits could work their affects on me. Its difficult enough to have grown up in a culture that so diminishes faith, much less the dismisses existence of augury and prophesy. Whether a local, traditional belief system could give me reference, I felt more sure that an understanding of the message had to come from within myself.

In fact, the way that this phenomenon caused me to feel a profound certainty in my mind, which is rare in my own experience, was as remarkable as any other aspect of it. I was undoubtedly meant to see these signs. They were messages of caution. Just as certainly if not more so, I felt sure that I was to return to Liberia after my last departure. Despite whatever other lives I form and live and enjoy in other places, Liberia, a unique and strange, sad and hopeful, wonderful and difficult place, is a land I am connected to for now, and where I will continue return to.

Hours into the flight from Paris, the yellow-brown desert slowly yielded to green. The sun rushed away, the sky grew too dim to make out any shapes in the mountainous rainy season clouds. The plane slowed, began lowering, and then gracefully turned. The clouds were above now. I leaned over to look down below me. The ground came into view, that unmistakable landscape: The black ocean, the crashing shoreline, then the land. Palm trees in marshy open fields, surrounded by solid black-green stretches of forest. A dark, flat ribbon--a river. Liberia came closer and faster, now rushing up underneath to meet me.

1 comment:

Joost Bonsen said...

Welcome back, so to speak! It's excellent to read your latest posts, so I thought I'd drop a line to say thanks for the updates. --Joost

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