“Shibboleth” – Third Part

November 12, 2008 at 10:59 pm (Ríta)

The icebox needed frequent replenishing, as was inevitable on all excursions of this nature, in which the European intellectual tradition felt it simply could not stampede through barbaric territory without a constant supply of aperitifs. I am not ashamed to say I drank my share of quinine, although now I can’t bear gin: this tongue curls up and spits when confronted with juniper. It was not exactly normal for a lady to drink such uncouth, soldier’s fare, but everyone agreed that it was better I not contract malaria. This suited me quite well, and I took to sitting on the deck swirling my ice, staring glassily into the paradise spread before me, pretending to dislike my drink, pretending I could live under a palm tree.
Due to the letters and the ice and other such niceties of civilization – Maraña was partial to lamb cutlets and fresh pears – we were forced to be quite tethered to well-used waterways, at least until the very end of the journey. There was not much “exploration for the good of humanity” to be had as late as the 1920’s; the telos of our journey, and dare I say, of all human exploration was only that we were brought face to face with something unfamiliar.
We were to stop the dahabeeyah at the mouth of an interesting tributary, or, if it was very deep, carry on until it became clear we would not be able to return if we continued further, and then strike out in little canopied canoes, until we found a place of interest, and set up camp. The boy from the Cairo household would be instructed to hold our letters for a few days and to send extra cargo to the boat, ready for us upon our return.
There were several canoes; we would only occupy three, and our luggage and supplies the other two. We took the decision of which tributary to choose very seriously, and would spend at least half-an-hour at the mouth of even the smallest streams, discussing our options over coffee, formulating opinions based on the local landscape, foliage, weather, quality of the water, fauna, and so forth. It soon became apparent that Maraña chose us quite carefully; we had diverse interests and, taken as a whole, far-reaching expertise. Even Chema, who at first seemed but a stand-in for his mother, was revealed to be an avid lepidopterist, and could tell us in great detail what we could expect upstream based on the habits of his bobbing subjects.
We were so pleasantly occupied that we passed over a great many tributaries before Maraña cast the deciding vote. “It is,” said he, “my boat. I suggest that if you wish to avoid a very long walk home, you will agree with whatever opinion I might choose to espouse; and that is: that we have been dallying for far too long and had better start exploring, else we will have to refer to our trip henceforth as the Not Particularly Exploratory At All Exploration of Soudan.” We laughed. “Onward!” somebody cried.
We departed immediately, for we had already packed our bags. In a fit of discomfort and foreboding, I slipped a flask of extremely strong malt whiskey in the breast pocket of the safari jacket I had borrowed from the boat’s steward.
I rode with Maraña; Chema kept to himself. I haven’t mentioned Sir Richard S– , a sardonic man who fancied himself a Byronic hero; he took to playing his fingers in the deeply olive water. Nor have I mentioned his cousin, Ivan G–, born of an Ukrainian father, who made up the fifth member of our group, a thoroughly unremarkable man except for his reputation as a superb physician, attaining his stature in the medical community with a facility that could be called prodigious.
Sir Richard enjoyed calling out the names of wildlife to our canoes, usually frightening away the animal in question. His cousin occupied himself with a sketchbook and a fine charcoal pencil. Chema, unusually jovial, would respond to Sir Richard’s cheerful pronouncements with remarks, such as “and what an enormous wingspan,” or “I seem to recall that alligators grow throughout their lives,” or similar companionable nonsense.
We were completely indifferent to each pleasant inlet, to each sandy bank; we were simply there to enjoy ourselves. But Maraña – I shudder thinking of Maraña’s perfect mask of indifference, whilst he led us, with fingers of steel, to our inevitable destination.
It was, as it turned out, a small beach, lapped by a space of still water, which seemed quite harmless but was in reality deadly for anyone who might decide to explore the boundary between it and the swift current of the river. We had some difficulty steering the canoes past where the moving water hit the standing; there were deathly strong chaotic whorls and whirlpools and eddies, and a space of several minutes, before the canoes broke through to water only ruffled by the breeze.
We did not of course have to set up camp ourselves. We would pick up pet projects; Sir Richard, for example, set about lighting a fire, while Ivan and Chema fell into deep discussion about a novel way to set up the tents so that we might have something of a covered “verandah” by means of extra canvas and a few sturdy branches. I drank coffee with Alberto Olmedo, and discussed the weather.
Such was the foolishness of the idle rich! So unfamiliar with a life of toil! We reduced the labour of the poor to a plaything, assuming we could simply take over and not only be successful at our tasks, but more successful than they. Whether or not we were justified is unimportant; what matters here is the audacity to do what we did in front of those we paid to perform tasks they had no hope of escaping.
That this sort of behaviour persisted into the twentieth century slows my modern heart. Did I partake in this? It is a difficult question, one fraught with others: what is this “I”? These days, I eat snacks and watch sports. I like Chopin. I play the piano. As I write this, I eat salted monkey nuts. I crush them in my palm by curling my fingers, then delicately fish each pair of peanuts from the wreckage. I only eat one neatly split half at a time. This gesture is too intricate for my thick hands with their blunt nails, but I persist, because I do not like the sticky feeling of salt, and so like to keep it confined to my fingertips.

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