2004

I’ve been thinking about America lately. Not the America that’s on TV, or the political America, but my own personal one, the one that I’m kind of intrigued by but certainly don’t want to get too close to. My impression of America is not the pristine one that I saw so many times as a kid in the late 80s and mid 90s, but the one I saw in 2003 and 2004 the last time I was there until now, and forever.

2004 was for me the lost year, where I lived in the past (I was trying to re-do the magic of 2003 but it had dissipated), was alone, had people to see but who didn’t care so much if they saw me. I took walks alone, was tense and sad but happy that I was free, free to not have to associate with people, free to not have to work, free to not have to do anything except soak up my solitude. For if 2003 was the year that travelling worked, then 2004 was the year that it didn’t. I wanted a girl to give a shit about my presence, and I looked for it from past memories and moments that were gone baby, gone, girls who had moved on and hadn’t forgotten but I was a memory to them like they were to me, even as I briefly saw each of them again in the flesh.

I got sidetracked. I arrived in America in late May 2004, right as the impossible had happened on the soccer field (Porto European Champion 2004), and once there I ran into a bunch of people who lived in the rich country but dealt with the tension of its less-publicised lack: they were struggling, getting into and out of relationships and avoiding the African-Americans and having abortions and having to drop out of college for lack of money and get real jobs. It wasn’t ghetto, and I got a slight taste of ghetto that existed in its own world nearby, but it was something, and I felt that I would not want to do this, be American, have to fight for everything, be this fucked up. Because to some extent they were: their parents hadn’t really known how to raise them without them all turning into little emos ten years along the path, teens and twenty-somethings who never learnt how to control their emotions, who took pills, who grew up very fast but never matured, they never took that final emotional step into adulthood at any stages of their lives, wearing their hats backward as they visited bars and strip clubs well into their thirties.

My mission was a black girl named Ashlee.  Wait, that’s wrongly worded. I loved Ashlee. I loved her without even knowing her, not really. Her face was not attractive and if I hadn’t seen her face-to-face in 2004 I might have thought it was hormones, but I took a walk around a forest preserve with her and found that I loved her dearly, even though she repeatedly screwed me around by not showing up to whatever place we agreed to meet at.  I don’t know if I can say I love her anymore; she’s just an idea now, and to some extent even Lizeth the goddess of Paradise Lost fame (see blog title) is just an idea now too. Ashlee lived in dire straits, she scraped money where she could, by fair means or foul, and I was just some naïve white boy from Australia who had only had his first kiss the year before. She was my first kiss, and I’m happy it was her. That doesn’t mean a whole lot now, but still, Ashlee had a certain dignity, faith, kindness and soul amid the rubble, that other women just don’t have. She was fucked up too, but show me a person who isn’t, deep down.

I don’t know what I could have done with her. I couldn’t save her from the sordidness of her circumstances. I couldn’t form anything with her. Her mood was weird, and mostly she was exasperated with me, but we had that one talk in person and one talk by telephone in 2004, a year after we had spent a week together in 2003, pre-dissipation of magic. I am sure that I loved her, in a te amo sense in Spanish, the major one, not just the te quiero that you throw around willy nilly. But why? I don’t know, I just did. I wanted to save her. But she’s still kicking on somewhere out there in Chicago and it turned out that she didn’t need saving. I caused a tear to fall from her cheek, and when I said goodbye to her I placed my hand on one side of her face while kissing the other cheek, like a woman would do. To some extent I probably would have been a better chick than I am a dude.

In the last month I walked around aimlessly as the country got colder and time wound down. I was immobile, hanging out with a guy that had recently turned gay, whose sister went for the blacks and whose father drank, but who gave me a free place to stay and who I became fond of despite my original reservations. I stayed there in the middle of their parents getting a divorce, in the middle of everything. I was a prisoner of my physical placing, of my circumstance, of my unrequited love, of my despair, of my lack of friends. Yet I delayed going home, hoping against hope. I spent one evening at the house of a fantasy, Liesl. I was five years older than her and she was illegal. I charmed her parents though. She was beautiful, huge eyes, long blond hair, and I was stunned. But I left America in disappointment with Liesl and Ashlee on my mind a few days later, and I don’t believe I ever want to go back again. I got out just in time, on November 16, right before the snow fell and dusk was already happening at 4:45pm (!). I had spent months walking around alone on roads that went nowhere, thinking that I was on the frontier (but the place was really a meaningless nothing in hindsight), eating ice-cream Blizzards alone, taking long-distance bus trips alone, racking up the hours staring out the window, comfortable in my solitude but I had always known that something was missing, and that I had found it in 2003 but it was gone in 2004.

I discovered: I have a passport to this country, but this is not my country. I was lost there, chasing ghosts. I had no idea. I had to get out, start again, even if I went to Bolivia rather than Australia to find it, postponing real life once more. At least Bolivia was new, it wasn’t America yet again, that land of vagueness, not of sadness but of something-ness nonetheless. That is my America. And America will stay that way for me, because I will not do it again. I am not afraid of America, nor even have negative feelings against it, but I will never go back there.

Mali of my heart

Given the tumbleweeds that drift through this blog these days, I’m abandoning all pretence of being relevant and will just write about what is in my head, what I think about, and I might even hit the snooze button soon. This piece is a rambling, rolling fantasy and if it sounds like demented dream, that’s because it partially is.

Mali, Mali. It’s a country dead in the centre of Africa, one of the Sahara Desert nations, without a coastline. For me Mali is the end of the Earth, now that we know that the world is circular and we can’t fall off its extremities; as far as we could go towards the nothingness and away from the mundanity of our streamlined Western societies. Mali is the beginning of black Africa as one heads south away from Europe and the Arab north, although the Malians, diversely black as their ethnic groups are, are almost all Muslims and as I once saw written on an internet forum, the Bambaras of Mali would probably have a tad more in common with the Arabs to the north than with black ethnic groups in, say, Kenya or South Africa.

I became interested when a bunch of their kids (Under 23s) won a series of manic soccer matches against Portugal, Uruguay, Cameroon and Nigeria to get the bronze medal in the World Youth Cup of 1999, kids with names like Seydou Keita, Mahamadou Diarra, and other Malian surnames like Cissoko, Diakite, Touré, Coulibaly and all the rest.

Mali on the surface is the worst of everything: one of the hottest places in the world, where the Sahara Desert from the north invades ever-increasingly, where the plants die and there is never enough food for all, nor enough money to pay for the food that is left nor jobs to get money, where to survive people sell junk to each other “in a circle of increasingly dwindling returns”. The country is at the bottom of Human Development Indices, and I suspect the stats don’t lie in this case. Immigrants from Ghana and Nigeria find themselves there on their way to the miracle life in Spain and get stuck there with their money run out, alone and forced to cut hair for pennies or some similarly meaningless shit. (But I’m reading a book about science by Bill Bryson – atoms, the universe and all that – and it seems that life simply exists to exist, without ambition, simply for the purpose of survival.)

Malians are black, a shade that for unknown reasons finds itself at the bottom of the pecking order and a nationality that is either ignored or looked down on, for its lack of personal resources, for its AIDS, for its inability to succeed. Externally it is weak, but like Bolivia, Paraguay or whatever else, is a world within its world, rich in culture, in difference, not exactly rich in solidarity but as solid as such a poor country can be. The President is given the nickname ‘A.T.T.’ by a people that saw him liberate the country from dictatorship and in 1991 hand it over to what observers say are always free elections. Malian music, dancing and flowery traditional clothing are becoming somewhat better known now, taking over from what Cuba and Latin America once were before their New World exoticism was discovered, overdone and made cliché.

It is a country that is sprinkled with numerous black ethnic groups who traditionally had their callings: the Bambara were the farmers (and are Mali’s current-day majority population), the Fulani were the cattle herders, the Somono were the fishermen. Their languages are mostly related and when they don’t match the country is very loosely linked by the colonialist French language, a language that in War and Peace times was a symbol of refinement for the Russian aristocracy but whose future now relies on being transposed and Africanised into rolling ‘R’s, used to express frustrations of poverty, abjection, closed doors and migration.

What do Malians feel? I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. From birth they get trapped in a country that offers its citizens no purpose besides child-rearing propagation (say what you will about the chase for money but at least it’s a mission). Money is power, it is ability to alter things, and they have none, they drift from jobs to unemployment and if they can, find themselves in Paris or New York City, looked down on for being African and on the world’s bottom rung, working every day of their lives there without a day off. Back in Mali, Malians contract AIDS, they get malaria but it’s just par for the course there and they shrug it off, or else they die from it but that happens too with regularity and to some extent even death is to be moved on from, they get diseases that no longer exist here. They study by writing in workbooks but don’t have anywhere to apply their knowledge and they ask themselves: we have to study our culture as well as Shakespeare and European culture, so we know both, while Europeans know nothing about Mali, wouldn’t that mean that we are better? They dance, they play Beyoncé in their clubs, they get laid, same as us. A Tanzanian girl I knew in Australia told me, “Just go there. You’ll see that it’s not so different to anywhere else.” It’ll be the same as Australia, as Bolivia, as France, as Tanzania, just a bunch of people going about their day-to-day business. They support their extended families and are supported by others: socialism beats capitalism for the moment, whereas a month unemployed in New York and you’re done for, you won’t get a helping hand from anyone.

This is more about my idea of Mali, my imaginary emotions that it inspires, than about the country itself. It is so close to France and Spain and all the rest, so close to humdrum civilisation and yet so isolated, such a new world only a thousand kilometres away. I could tell you about the mosques made of earth standing strong in the middle of the desert, or the ‘bush’ feel that even the sprawling capital city of more than a million people still exudes, or the freakish River Niger that finds a way through the desert, curving inward against all logic, or Timbuktu, or their music that has not been commercialised just yet despite the wishes of the hippie set, or the fact that in Africa people die with regularity and the world couldn’t care less about Africa’s existence but that they are still standing and still find something to laugh about, and despite the fact they have the most reason to be bitter they just get on with it.

And then in my mind I evaluate which is more important, exotic curiosity and subsequent euphoria (but all the same, loneliness) or everlasting companionship, regular sex and a special person to talk to and look at all my life, and it is probably the latter. I couldn’t lose that for a few months bumming around Mali in heat and various states of composure, head up in the uncertainly of the early days, amused joy as I talk French to young women and dance with them (I suspect I would absolutely love African clubs), or the lack of composure as problems mount in the blistering heat amid the danger of living rich surrounded by poverty and I realise that however fun the whole endeavour would be in patches, there isn’t anybody there that I can depend on. Mali is so in tune with life but also so in tune with death, and if I go there I might die, either from a tropical disease or through violence. I don’t want Mali to be my graveyard.

There is so much to say about Mali and a thousand words have flown by without me having said anything, but I long for Mali against all hope and reason. I probably will not get there, and would not know what to do with myself once there. But even if I didn’t have a mission once I got there, a temporary purpose, I would have a moment when I stand there, breathe and say to myself in utter disbelief that right now, I am in Mali, I am at the end of the Earth. And I would know that a dream can be dreamt forever but the moment it hits us that it has come true is utterly indescribable, a feeling of complete disbelief. But if I get married it won’t happen, because what is real is what is real, and real happiness is better than imaginary happiness, but on the off chance that one in a thousand delivers itself then in those moments life becomes extraordinary, the impossible has unbelievably been made true, and that is where magic occurs.