“The Train to Kampala” by Philip Kelly, Newport Beach CA

Connected November 13, 2011 15:24

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I thought this morning of the three of us. I put us together again—our faces, our books, our bells—on that African train. I thought of the three of us again, three different people funneled into the cauldron that was Idi Amin’s Uganda; the falling into the unknown that is traveling. I had as my well-heeled guide Peter Matthiessen, and I fell as the others.

Jewett O’Connor was my traveling companion—stovepipe pants and white button-up shirts, “narrow shoulders, long arms and legs…his whole frame loosely hung together.”—as Irving wrote of his Ichabod Crane. On the crowded trains and buses we traveled on, south from Cairo, Jewett’s legs sought freedom in the aisles as he slept, and I watched with sleepy eyes the dashikis of passengers lifted to ford his stretched bones.

He was of a great humor, and of a great kindness. The discomfort and the disquiet of travel seemed to give Jewett a secret pleasure. He was, above all, calm. Jewett wore a corn-yellow straw hat, and over a shoulder, a leather satchel containing the four-volume set of Winston Churchill’s A History of the English- Speaking Peoples.

He had a face angular as the rest of him; a long chin sported the bristly beginnings of a youthful and reddish beard. And on that train to Kampala, he pulled on it, suddenly watchful. Jewett put Winston down, and breathed to me an “Uh-oh.” He flickered his eyes in the direction of a young woman bearing down on us. I could  hear the sound of bells tinkling.

In travelers there exists an assumed hierarchy of innocence, a ladder rung with experience; the savvy one knows immediately the ‘babes in the woods’ and the jaded ones yawn at the knowingness of the savvy travelers. The innocent, traveling babes pour over their books and gaze hopefully out the window. The lower the rungs on this hierarchy of experience, it may be said, the lesser the view, the greater the innocence. But this hierarchy, this ladder stepped in worldly knowledge—and innocence—is at best rickety.

In the spring of 1976 there was no CNN to update and pinion ones’ world. BBC World News lived, and spoke to an island. The lemon-colored covers of National Geographic showed the traveler the world but twelve times a year. There was no Lonely Plane in the spring of 1976; no Rough Guide nor Michelin guide to Africa. Fodor’s was offering a walking tour of Florence. The age of exacting care in guidebooks for the world south of Europe was still over the horizon. One traveled to Africa on a wing and a prayer—and the tales of remote journeyers of the 19th Century; and of other, ever so ancient guides.

These traveling books were passed among the Western readers—the long boat rides and tedious train rides ideal for page turning, and the endless conversation brought—the innocents tumbling together, south into a continent. I carried Peter Matthiessen’s The Tree Where Man was Born. Jewett had Churchill.

I saw a traveler with The Odyssey, another with Don Quixote. The closest book resembling a ‘guide’, and a book discovered over and over with joy, was Alan Moorehead’s The White Nile. The worn blue and white cover showing desert minarets and distant goods-laden camels was handed hand over hand like an illuminated manuscript. The treasure of the book was not only the tale telling of the journeys of a Stanley and Livingston, a Burton, Baker, and Speke; hidden in the pages were hungered after maps.

These maps were skeletal at best, black and white renderings of the routes of distant adventurers—a heavy black line drew Henry Morton Stanley’s 1871 search for a Dr. David Livingstone; a dotted line followed Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke’s tottering trip inland from Zanzibar to Lake Tanganyika in 1857. In a ghostly gray, on a page to itself lay the teardrop that was Ptolemy’s map of Africa.

Yet here were the cities, desert, and mountains we would pass through—Juba, Ujiji, Wadi Halfa, The Mountains of the Moon—and one would wait and wonder—had a hundred years erased a place? —And wait still, and then: Could this ochre and mallow stumble of huts be Wadi Halfa?

So most knowledge was gained first hand; books fed dreams on the long journey south. The rungs on the ladder of experience lost their definition, all learning became immediate, as the jaded and the babes watched out the windows. In Khartoum, Jewett and I slept in an outdoor, low-walled courtyard, dotted with cots. A young man, hard and brown as a thorn, lay in a cot next to us. It was unbearably hot; stars crowded the sky. It cost a quarter a night to sleep. Our cot-mate was making his way back north. He was a wealth of information—where to stay in Nairobi, the price of a dhow to Zanzibar, whether the Leakeys were at Olduvai. We scribbled with pencils in the covers of our books by starlight.

Jewett carried Churchill. I had my Peter Matthiessen. It was, in the spring of 1976, a hierarchy of innocence built on a much-handled paperback, a hunch on the way to turn, a nod and a tip from a traveler heading the other way. One woman we briefly met—red-haired and of an unforgotten question—adorned her knapsack with a folly of silver bells against the tide of the unknown.

In the spring of 1969, on an invitation from John Owen, director of Tanzania National Parks, Peter Mattiessen journeyed through East Africa. In the Serengeti, Dr. George Schaller was his guide on the track of lions. In and about Lake Manyara, Mattiessen traveled with elephant expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton; and he wandered with the keen eye of photographer Eliot Porter, dropping in on Richard Leakey’s base camp east of Lake Rudolph, in the north of Kenya.

I carried Peter Mattiessen as my guide. I had, second-hand guides in Schaller and Douglas-Hamilton and Richard Leakey—like pieces of furniture to touch in the dark and darkening room that was Africa.

I carried Peter Mattiessen’s Africa, and years later came to the observations on Africa by the late Ryszard Kapuscinski in his The Shadow of the Sun. Kapuscinski was the first African correspondent of Poland’s state newspaper, a nascent and impoverished daily. He was a writer not as positioned, and much less well-connected than Peter Mattiessen. We three were traveling in the Africa of the late ‘60’s and early 70’s. Of his four decades of journeys to the continent, Kapuscinski writes: “Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist”.

The bright-eyed child on the road is the most innocent. On our way to Uganda from Kenya, Jewett and I had spent a day in Eldoret, a small country town surrounded by low, green hills. Jewett, born of Peace Corps parents here in East Africa, spent his earliest years on the dairy farm they had bought in quiet, rolling Eldoret. With Jewett shouldering his books we walked up and down the dusty roads outside of town looking for hints of his African childhood.

‘ So much has changed, so much has changed.’ I hiked along with Jewett in the midday sun. ‘This might have been the schoolhouse. This may have been our mailbox, the gravel path to a house, the tree I swung from.’ But it was further down. There were dairies now, and a cheese factory. We stopped for an ice cream, and Jewett asked vague and hopeful directions. His parents’ long-ago farm had gone kaput— a change of government and policies to foreigners—and they wandered home to Boston with little Jewett. ‘So much has changed.’

We walked Eldoret till our shadows grew long before us and found our way back to the train station. We slept on the planked platform that night. I read Peter Matthiessen. Jewett read Churchill. We looked out to the green hills in the twilight, watching for our Africas.

A foot-long, gray-green slug sprawled across my tent door held me captive my first night sleeping ‘wild’ in Africa. It was Aberdare National Park in Kenya. I waited on the slug and read my guide Peter Matthiessen, read the Africa I was awaiting: “Squatted by a pool of rain that baboons had not yet found and fouled, I studied my surroundings. By the korongo, spurfowl nodded through rank grass inset with a blue spiderwort, crimson hibiscus, a bindweed flower the color of bamboo.” I had gotten malaria in the Sudan, fainted, recovered, fainted again and woke to nuns as nurses with white-winged habits. “Soon a reedbuck, crouched near the stream edge until the intruder should depart, sprang away like an arrow as its nerves released it, scattering the water with high bounding silver splashes.” Peter Matthiessen, my guide, knew every African plant, tree, every bird that flew African skies. He knew every tribe and their every myth. My Africa came with green slugs and the unknown.

I was at a craps table in Cairo seven years after Matthiessen visited his Africa— seven years after Peter Matthiessen tracked wild dogs with George Shaller in the Serengeti, and slept with the Hadza people in their ancient, painted caves—seven years later I was rolling sevens, drunk as a skunk, trying to win money to continue south on my journey in Africa; throwing dice into the unknowable. And from my tent I read: “Where it had lain, golden-backed weavers swayed and dangled from stalks of purple amaranth. A frog chorus rose and died, and a bush shrike, chestnut-winged, climbed about in low bushes.” In my East Africa, there were no golden-backed weavers. In my East Africa, I kept waking up in whorehouses I was led to believe were inexpensive hotels, and sneaking my way out past a dozing Madame. When that gray-green slug finally set me free, I found leopard prints at my tent pegs—Africa tiptoeing past me in a soft-rained night.

The countryside outside of Kampala was low and lush. We bumped to a halt at every village station. The platforms across the tracks leading east to Kenya were thronged with travelers and their belongings. Heavy cotton bags and suitcases rose in lumpy pyramids. Soldiers in sunglasses shouldered their way through the crowds. Military jeeps parked on the perimeters. The villagers, travelers now, perched on their parcels like birds, watched like birds as others brushed by shouldering their lives’ collections.

It looked as though, in 1976, that Uganda was leaving itself. Suitcases. In the foyer of Mrs. Reed’s Teahouse the suitcases waited. Weeks before, when I left that Cairo casino craps game, my pockets lined with folded hundreds, a traveler said in passing, in a small voice: “If you get to Kampala, change it at Mrs. Reed’s Teahouse—black market money”. Jewett and I were led past the waiting suitcases to a richly furnished, dimly lit dining room. Tea was poured from a pot painted in blue lotuses. The napkins were linen; the tablecloth was embroidered damask. The silence was broken only by the sound of our cups touching their saucers. Beneath my cup I pressed my gambling dollars. A slim young man in a pressed white shirt disappeared with the tea servings. In short order, a woman returned with a pastry dessert. She was a bit plumped and middle-aged. She wore a royal blue and sequined sari and pinned gray hair. I took this to be Mrs. Reed. She pressed her hands and bowed to us with eyes closed. She mouthed a thank you, and was gone. Beneath the dessert plate was a wad of Ugandan shillings. And we sat in that cordial dining room as unaware as the suitcases sitting heavily in the silent hall—as unaware of the history of that home and the family, unaware of the meaning of the tensioned silence. Jewett and I sat with our books and black market money in Mrs. Reed’s Teahouse, in Kampala, waiting, suddenly guideless, to be carried off to our next destination.

Jewett feigned sleep; I read Matthiessen—In June, 1970, I accompanied the photographer Eliot Porter, his two sons, and a daughter-in-law on a journey to Lake Rudolf by way of Mt. Marsabit—the girl closed in on us, navigating the narrow train’s aisle.

It was most certainly a navigation, for the young woman had the imposing physique of an opera diva and filled the aisle, yet stepped with a bright elan over the scattered burlap bags and belt-tied suitcases. Everything about her seemed to jiggle and bounce. In the heat and lurch of that train car she shimmered as a mirage in a cotton blouse of turquoise and loose cotton pants of rose. She had hair as red as one of Matthiessen’s fire finches. The African children clutched mommies’ hands and stared wide-eyed. Soldiers’ guns glinted through the slowing train’s windows. Bullet-holed white signs reading Kampala hung from chains on the station’s rafters.

The black berets of the army grew numerous on the platform outside; orders were barked in lilting African-English. The train passengers straightened at the train’s slowing. Hands held children and belongings tightly. No one spoke. On the young woman’s backpack were sewn tens of tiny tinkling silver bells that sung with her every movement. The merry, high sound filled the quiet cabin. Down the aisle she came, her arms raised, the baggy sleeves of her blouse floating; her fingers touching tops of railway seats as piano keys—the fingers playing, or pondering.

Jewett and I marked her approach with sidelong glances. Finally she was upon us. The brakes of the train clutched and hissed. Soldiers peered through the smudged and streaked windows. Red hair and a full figure we couldn’t finally ignore. She leaned musically to us with a quick smile, a glance about and in a tossing manner, asked: “Could you blokes help me hide some dope?” Jewett and I shrunk into our frayed-green train seats.

“Last night, when the man came between the hippo and the baby hippo, the hippo ate the man.” A park ranger in a rag-tag park ranger outfit cautioned Jewett and I. We stood together in waist-high emerald green grass. A flock of pink flamingoes pebbled the sky above us. He was an older man with a bright gold tooth and a rifle with a polished wooden stock over his shoulder. On his head was a field hat that read Uganda National Park. His eyes moved along the tops of the surrounding grass. “The hippo ate the man.”

That night, Jewett and I read to each other from our books—my Peter Mattiessen, Jewett’s Sir Winston—our tents side by side on the shores of Lake Edward. That night, across the lake in mist-covered mountains, Dian Fossey slept another sleep amongst mountain gorillas. That night, in a not too distant Entebbe, a team of twenty-nine Israelis commandos raided the airport and freed one hundred hostages, killing forty-five Ugandan soldiers and six hijackers.

In My African Journey, Winston Churchill wrote about Uganda: “It must be too good to be true”. Jewett and I both dreamed of man-eating hippos that African night. “Sorry, no”—“Sorry, no.” We looked to our books and then to the soldiers marshalling the crowds on the platform. We watched the girl moving away down the aisle over the burlap bags and suitcases, her bells tolling, the train lugging and lurching into the Kampala station; and her moving, chiming through the slide of the carriage doors, the doors clicking shut, the young woman with silver bells sewn to her knapsack walking brightly out into her Africa.

We never saw her, nor heard her, again—though white travelers in Uganda in the summer of 1976 were few and very far between. Jewett and I moved about the country on jolting public buses from the north and Murchison Falls, along the lengthy blue of the lakes Albert and Edward, south, even into Rwanda. We kept an eye open for our Australian ‘Belle’ in the crowded open-air depots and the souk-like markets of the cities. I remember the native women of Uganda as being tall, tall as Jewett, and elegant as palms, dressed in cotton gowns of broad stripes—brown and yellow, red and green—and heads coiffed in bright colored calicos; women, graceful as clouds, waiting on buses in dusty, dirt lots. Jewett and I were solitary males in this company of women, the men seemingly all gone to soldiering, sunglasses, and weaponry. We waited with the women for gaudy painted buses, and slipped past the men in silence. No sign of the girl with the bells from the Ugandan train.

There were three of us on a train bound for Kampala. I regret to this day my “Sorry, no”.

The bright-eyed child on the road is the most innocent.

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