Arrival in a Foreign Port

It is true that the place-names make up a poem here. In foreign ports our minds are suddenly expanded to allow for the possibility that a name is not just a name. If you say things out loud like "Lamu," "Malindi," "Kilifi," "Shela", "Kijani," it starts to sound as if you're reciting a spell. But this is the romance of the exotic, and often we make it up. Things which sound different allow us to create meaning in our minds, even if we are not aware that we are doing it. We all become storytellers when confronted with an unfamiliar city. Whatever the name actually means, whatever language, whatever word, it is transformed by our imaginations and expectations into something ripe and heavy with metaphor.

We're at the coast. This is the furthest east I've ever been; and then we keep flying east, along the line of the equator, to Manda Island, where we catch a boat to Lamu. The heat has stolen my tongue and even with the fresh air from the sea I only sit quietly and stare. When we arrive we peel our sweaty jeans from our legs and change, donning looser outfits to fit our looser moods. We sit on the beach, put our feet in the sea, watch the donkeys and the lithe cats with their angry eyes. Behind us, a group of men are building a boat, a dhow, which will take them two years to complete. They don't seem to be in any hurry.

We come from ice and austerity to this in a day. As if by magic. A hundred years ago this would have been a slow journey. Months, maybe. You would have to have committed yourself completely to the cause. You would cross oceans, deserts, would see every inch of the map between where you started out and where you ended up at what seems to us now to be a glacial speed. Then, too, it would have seemed amazing, though perhaps in a different way. By the time you finally arrived the act of arrival would have ceased to be such a miracle; you would be constantly arriving; at each new place, each new mile, you would accumulate a bit of journey, you would arrive again, and leave again, and arrive again.

But easier, then, perhaps, to grasp the magnitude of it. If you feel each part of a journey you can start to understand it. Now the journey, artfully, scientifically shortened over the years until it becomes this, this go-to-sleep-in-one-time-zone-and-wake-up-in-another, must be primarily in our minds. We must cause the shift ourselves, and that's a harder thing to do.

I struggle as always with the speed of it. There's a memory of a pint glass, slipping like a figure skater on the ice on a table, and I can still feel the cold in my fingers if I concentrate, and now someone brings me fresh coconut juice and a tiny lizard sunbathes on a wall.

Dhow Sail at Sunset