Content warning: If for some freaky reason you can’t handle or don’t appreciate indigenous nudity, then this post is not for you.
One of Earth’s most glorious and ancient geologic creations is the diamond. Before plants had even crept their roots up onto the dry land outside the salty womb of the Pre-Cambrian era, the mantle of our molten planet was already crushing minerals in the middle of its stable continental plates with terrifically immense pressure and heat, forming the most perfect of crystals – diamonds. (Usually they make their way nearer to the surface via tubes formed during periods of deep volcanic activity.) That most beautiful of stones has been held and cradled in the Earth for so very long, before she ever even dreamed up the wild notion of humanity.
The indigenous people who eventually staked their lives on top of these gems, as if all forms of ancientness must be cradled in the same space, are the San people of southern Africa – perhaps the oldest ancestral tribe on the planet. A study of African genetic diversity indicated the San to be one of the five populations with the highest levels … meaning they are among the oldest surviving people on our planet – the seed, the tiny seed that much of African population and culture grew their roots from and spread. Imagine a 70,000-year old tree, it’s height and girth and root system, and one tribe nestled, still alive, in the middle. Where the planet’s oldest gems lie, so do humanity’s – a cultural gem which has withstood the pressure of time like few others.
A sign pointed down some sandy tracks directing visitors to “the reception area.” We pulled up to a large tree, parked and waited as per the instructions nailed to the tree. The tree was, in fact, the reception desk for the Ju/'Hoansi-San Living Museum. (like all living museums, it’s a place for this tribe to preserve their ancient traditions and share them with visitors) Surprisingly quickly, a guide/translator came to the car and took our “order” from the list of options available for tourists, which was nailed to the reception tree … we could choose to see craft and tool-making, or singing and dancing, or a full day witnessing many different activities, etc., there were 5 or 6 options. We arrived late in the afternoon and had only a couple hours, so we chose to see craft and tool-making. We were pointed down a sandy path through some dry, scrubby bushes, and soon we came into a clearing.
Here women sat making jewelry and purses (which are for sale in a sort of outdoor gallery near the reception tree), made from natural materials such as seeds and stones, stitched with twine ... really lovely and high-quality creations. The first woman below could hardly be a better model for one of her necklaces.
Men were preparing materials for traditional tool making. Dressed in traditional loincloths, the men’s bodies were tall, slim, taught and impossibly lithe. The San are traditionally a hunter-gatherer society, and have lived with little modification to their traditional ways until the last century. The hunters used poison arrows to shoot their prey, following it sometimes for miles while the poison worked into its system and the animal finally collapsed. The men at the living museum made a bow and arrows from scratch right there on the spot for us. I was amazed at how little time it took to construct them, and then we got a demonstration and were allowed to try shooting an arrow if we wished. Knowing without question what a spectacular failure I would be, I suppose I should have tried it purely for the amusement of the San, but I was timid, and refrained.
The San are keepers of humanity's most ancient knowledge ... they can still recreate the most sacred of our discoveries, those that transformed us, elevated us and led us to transcend. They maintain the roots of culture. Some of the most ancient thoughts have been thought there -- the most ancient words spoken and listened to, growing into many eventual languages. These people are like the crocodiles … incredible survivalists from whom other cultures have gone on to evolve, but they were so perfect that they stayed, the kernel, largely unchanged for so long. They were efficient, proficient, champions of cultural evolution. I said in my first thoughts on Namibia (in my post, "Size") that the curtain of time feels thin here, the past profoundly tangible. But on further reflection, maybe that quiet feeling of the profound isn’t because the curtain is thin, rather, in fact, the issue is that it’s so thick -- there’s just so much that has happened in this space where the same core of humans have lived for tens of thousands of years, all of it has stacked up until you just can’t help but walk through some of it. Existence here doesn’t have the light weight and texture of air; instead it’s like wading through water. Below, men start a fire by hand with a stick and kindling.
Other authors have spoken of transcendental experiences, witnessing the past literally before their eyes, for example Tom Brown Jr. of Native Americans in The Tracker and James Stephenson of another ancestral African tribe, the Hadza, in The Language of the Land. They claim there are special sacred places where you can sit still and the ancestors will appear ... not to communicate with you, but they are simply kind of like ghosts, going about their activities doing what they did in the past and you can sit in silent witness. They say it's like pulling back a curtain in these places, but maybe it’s just that time is not an arrow that has moved forward, as we often imagine, but perhaps it's more like a series of slides -- each second is a slide and you can insert yourself at any point in the slide show. Maybe some spaces on earth are more accessible for sitting further back in the show, maybe where the space is so thick with human history.
The beauty of a diamond is its complex refraction. One ray of light hits it, and the light refracts into many beams directed back out into the world. The San children who roamed around in the clearing seemed so carefree and infectiously joyous. It was as if the sunlight pierced the men and women in the clearing all the way through to the ancestor spirits of that long ago mother tribe, refracted and came back through the wide eyes and shining smiles of the children, projecting that deep history up and forward through their plump little bodies. Growing up in the living museum gives them the opportunity to carry the ancestral traditions and spirits in their hearts and keep them alive for the whole world to hold.
This photo below happens to be my favorite of all the photos I took at the Ju/'Hoansi-San Living Museum. I love the expression on the face of the kid on the left (click on pic to see larger) and the way the children are accented in the lighting.
I mentioned in the previous post that even the moon was remarkable in the vast country of Namibia, that it seemed so close to Earth we could drive right into it, as it rose, for a picnic. And so here we are. You probably didn’t know that scrubby little trees grow on the moon and that parts of it are red.
Nah, I’m just kidding. We were really on an alien planet. Well, OK, it just looks like one, anyway … a wonderfully strange and surreal landscape inside Sossusvlei National Park. Because I was on a fixed safari, I didn’t do a whole lot of research into where we were going, it’s not like I could make any decisions about my itinerary. So when I was told we were going to see the Dead Vlei, I was intrigued but didn’t know what to expect. Any place with “dead” in the title is going to appeal to my curiosity. More so than someplace with “vivacious” or “joyful” in the title. Perhaps I’m just a generally morbid person … death and darkness have a special tunnel into my little soul. The Dead Vlei, however, is anything but dark.
We’d spent the early morning among the graceful red Sossusvlei dunes. Did I mention they were red?? I’ll show you more in an upcoming post. We were told the best approach to the Dead Vlei was to climb up a particular dune and slide down into it. The view from the dune top was interesting if not wholly compelling to me.
But down, down into the vlei I romped. I sank into the sand up to my knees with each step, creating little avalanches. It would have been way too messy to log roll and deal with being suffused with sand (as was my true desire to do), so I settled for running as fast as I could. Given as how with each step I post-holed up to my knees, I wasn’t exactly The Flash, but it was fun to go as fast as my little ol’ body would take me into this renowned place of death.
The Dead Vlei is a white clay pan in the middle of the dunes. Vlei is an Afrikaans word for a flat area, kind of like a valley. The dead things in this vlei are trees. Once there was water for their roots to drink, but now it’s so dry in the vlei the trees have not only died, they can’t even decompose … there isn't enough moisture to support the organisms that break down the flora to recycle and rebirth it into new life. The trees are bereft of life, sap, leaves, but not of skeleton – their dry bones have remained here for hundreds of years.
Once on the bottom inside the Vlei of the Dead, it was an eerie world. I thought how strange it would be to have been lost wandering the desert one dark and moonless night and finally stumble into this hard, flat area where it was easy to lie down. You sleep. And you wake up in this stark land of tree bones. You’re in a ghost town, but the wooden structures are the raw trees rather than processed timber nailed together. Abandoned, the desiccated trunks and limbs stand testament to those heady days of life – a raucous age when things grew, and therefore each day was unpredictable … the dawn never knew which limbs would grow that day, by how much, or in what shape.
I try to imagine standing there when the last leaf fell, fluttering poignantly to the ground, unaware that its journey was more poetic than most, heralding a new age of sterility with its gentle repose upon the ground, lying solitary as if the green days were just a geologic dream. Then the breeze solemnly carried it away on its shoulders like the coffin in a funeral.
One of my favorite Annie Dillard lines is, “The sea is a cup of death.” So much biologic drama that results in battles and dead organisms. The Dead Vlei is a plate of death. But unlike the ocean, a writer of complex nail-biting plot, the earth down here is a more literary and pensive writer – introspective, a student of detail, exploring the slow heartbreak of being abandoned by time, as the energy and motion that are its expression gradually grow cold and distant, and finally leave like a faithless lover.
I wonder what events those trees have stood sentinel over through the centuries. But actually, upon further consideration, since they dried out, the place hasn’t exactly been a social hub for nature. The tourists, and there were plenty, are likely the things of most interest. For example, me. :)
We traveled north from the hills of the red desert. Through more desert, miles upon miles of tan sand in small undulating dunes like wavelets of sand.
Eventually the land gains topography again. Nearing the Angolan border, rocky hills spring up from the plains. It is an ancient land, purple, red and weathered. Green begins to leak into the landscape in scrubby brush and acacia trees. The vegetation has been splattered across the landscape like droplets of paint, or planted as in a new garden, where the gardener has spaced the bushes with the expectation they will grow to fill in the empty stretches. The Kunene River runs through the dark dirt and sparse vegetation like a line of saliva in a parched and yawning land. Flanking it, a dense and verdant carpet covers the valley floor … so many trees, like a migrating flock of birds landing for the night.
After crossing so much arid desert land, Epupa Falls erupts from the landscape as if a great vein has been punctured beneath the surface. Water spills and tumbles and roars and sprays, spread so widely across a shelf of land, it seems like it could be fatal … maybe it’s the femoral artery and will bleed out, leaving the surface to shrivel and desiccate like a mummy, another vlei of death.
We got up before dawn to watch the sun create a new day behind the falls.
It did a splendid job, but with my little amateur camera and feeble amateur skills, shooting into the sun without a tripod or particularly wide angle lens, I couldn’t capture the morning water’s silk. Nonetheless, no moment spent at a waterfall is ever wasted … these geologic sculptures are liberators of the soul, the tumbling of life’s essence, the freefall of the little molecules most crucial to our existence.
And here next to the glorious falls, the tree trunks are carved with names of people, tourists and locals, who meet their inglorious demise via the most ancient creatures of the river … the crocodiles.
And here are some creatures neatly reflected in the Kunene River: (1) A portly pig belonging to a local villager, probably of the Himba tribe.
(2) A rather unkempt Shara belonging to nobody in particular, nowhere in particular. A wandering soul … some tell me they think I am lost – a lost soul. But look … here I am, right here!
Africa is a huge continent. The United States could fit inside a fraction of it; the Sahara Desert alone is the size of the U.S., and below it unfolds the enormous territory of Sub-Saharan Africa – the iconic Africa of elephants and lions, gorillas and chimpanzees, and the roots of human evolution.
My third trip to Sub-Saharan Africa I spent in Namibia … once part of the country of South Africa, now its own large and desolate country; I read somewhere it’s the second-least populated on the planet (after Mongolia). Much of it lies flat and nearly barren, other areas are covered in deep red sand dunes and desiccated like an earthen mummy, and I can't remember now if I ever saw clouds in the sky or not.
Even the moon seemed disproportionately large. One time when we were driving toward it, the entire horizon was a moon; it seemed as though we were going to drive right into it – we’d be eating lunch in a crater. Turns out parts of Namibia in fact conjure the word "moonscape" in one’s mind. (see my post on the dead vlei ...)
Watching the sun set there is like watching it set on the ocean – you can watch the sun be swallowed by the horizon, like a snake swallowing a rat. During the day if you stare at the sun you can’t depict its movement, it’s like watching a starfish cross the ocean floor. But when it contacts a perfectly flat horizon, you feel you are seeing the inner workings of the universe, like the gears of a watch have been exposed. Do you know what 950 miles per hour looks like? It looks like a sunset in Namibia. It’s weird to think it’s our planet spinning – nay, whirling like a dervish – that pulls the sun down. (Roughly 950 mph was calculated with the approximate median latitude of Namibia)
But there are the sizable oases, patches and hills and terraces of green when the water table rises closer to the surface, where wildlife finds refuge and humans have lived for a vast stretch of time. A crowded waterhole, a San bushman …..
Namibia feels to me like a sacred place, a place that compels one to contemplate size in relative terms along both axes of dimension – space and time. You know that peculiar feeling you get at the back of your neck when you are on the edge of something profound … that’s how I often felt. Humans and animals have co-existed throughout Africa since the advent of humanity, so there is nothing unique about Namibia in that regard. But somehow in this particular shared space, this shared length of time, the curtain is thin – the past doesn’t fall into a void behind you but waivers all around you. As much as your body penetrates the space in which you stand and move, time penetrates your body as though it is the corporeal entity moving through the space of your body.
In the wide open spaces of Etosha National Park I found a contradiction in feelings of size. Sometimes the landscape dwarfed the animals and painted a portrait of aloneness – somewhat sad, somewhat heroic.
Other times the large mammals loomed –magnified by the lack of other landscape features for context. Where I saw them in Uganda and South Africa, they typically shared their space with the topography of trees and bushes in close proximity. But in much of Etosha there was just flat land, sometimes all the way to the horizon, or only a tree or two to break it up. In the other countries, elephants could suddenly pop out of the bushes, or even suddenly disappear into them, but in Etosha they often materialized slowly, perhaps a cloud of dust foretelling their arrival as they mosey closer.
This slow “materialization” was a fun feature in Etosha. It must be even more pronounced on the great savannas in Kenya and Tanzania, but I (sadly) haven’t been there to witness it. So in other places I’ve been, the animals emerge from the thickets fully sized, fully formed, but here they start as a mystery and evolve slowly from a spot on the horizon, growing larger and larger. Sometimes the dot grows until it is towering above you.
But sometimes the dot grows only as big as a sweet little rhino – a youngster playing in a waterhole at sunset.
And sometimes a dot in a sand dune that you have to squint your eyes to see it wiggling and wonder at first if it is really moving closer to you, climbing uphill, turns out to be a child of poison in the sterile pile of sand.
And among this all, the modest size of humans. Technically, we can measure up to some of the antelope species, to jackals, lion cubs, a number of birds. But mostly, such tiny creatures we are in the African theater … entering the world to fit in the mere footprint of an elephant.
But our tiny little feet grow. They grew long ago to walk vast distances driven by need or by curiosity, we’ll never really know. They walked, so to speak, all the way to where I live in Colorado. It feels good to fly back to that ancient birthing ground of species large and small, returning like a boomerang thrown long, long ago, to bask in the sun and bathe in the moon, my long brown hair fluttering in the breeze behind me.
While most people probably think of a “ghost town” as something from the 1800s or early 1900s, really it’s any town that has been wholesale abandoned by living people so that essentially only ghosts remain. Or zombies, or whatever. When we first visited Gilman, Colorado, close to fifteen years ago, the place felt like the residents had left only a week before. In fact, they had been evicted about fifteen years earlier, in 1984, when the EPA mandated the evacuation due to toxic pollutants as a result of the mining operations. Something like 8 million tons of mining waste was bestowed Superfund designation. So this year marks 30 years since Gilman was abandoned.
It would have been a beautiful town to live in … surrounded by and embedded in swaths of golden aspen, perched on a shelf on the side of Battle Mountain smack dab in the middle of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. There were still daisies in bloom, even among patches of snow recently fallen; I imagine in spring there are lovely fields of mountain flowers. The first photo below is taken from the train station in the valley, looking up ... you can just make out some of the town buildings at the top.
Lots of other cryptic office equipment takes up floor space in the abandoned buildings and curiosity space in my head. Also file cabinets by the dozens and log books, bins of machinery parts, etc. -- in short, tons of random stuff from domestic items to office items to industrial items. Some more shots below of some of the buildings and areas in town. The little wooden structure seen out the window is a fire hydrant/hose house. Lots of these dot the grounds of the town. Sometimes the copious graffiti seemed to ruin a shot, but then you realize it just adds to the bizarre-ness of this modern ghost town.
Along the way, there were numerous ruins of old mining contraptions and buildings, of an era that pre-dates most of the buildings perched on top at the townsite or at the train station. Can you pick out the tiny old wooden building along the mountainside? :)
And so at last, my dear readers, we have come to the end of our unique and amazing experience through an ancient, beautiful and hospitable land. A few last pics for you. First of all, the Imam Square, formerly known, of course, as the King's Square before the revolution. This public square, they say, is second in size only to China's Tianenmen Square (Beijing). As the second-largest public square, it is now used largely by picnickers, for arts and crafts festivals, concerts, and other public events. It is surrounded by the bazaar and Imam mosque and Imam palace. In the old days of kings, when Isfahan was their capital, this square was used to play polo. You can still see the stone goal posts standing near the ends. The king looked out from his balcony to watch the sport below. (Undoubtedly drinking the finest wine from Shiraz ... :) Yes, in case you've wondered, before the strictures of Islam outlawed alcohol, Shiraz, Iran, was the city in which Shiraz wine was "invented," refined and renowned.)
Now the Imam square is still full of horses, but they merely take visitors for rides around the square in carriages. And if cars drive terrifyingly fast on the roads, the horse cart drivers spur their horses on with similar maniacal zest and disregard for the pedestrians. I laugh to imagine a horse-drawn carriage moving at that speed through the pedestrian malls in Colorado, or even through the market square in Krakow or Italian plazas. The horses stick to the cement paths around the outer edge and the picnickers to the grassy interior where colorful flowers accent the lawn.
I had asked Reza if we could have a picnic one night. So on our last one in Isfahan, we hooked up with Arash, his best friend we met in Kerman, and Mohammad, his friend we met in Shiraz and along the highway. Let me now illustrate for you the Iranian dedication to tea and picnic: Reza and Mohammad had determined through phone conversations that they would be passing each other on the highway at a certain point, heading in opposite directions. So they set up a meeting point and time calculated on their relative traveling speeds. We pulled off the highway and soon Mohammad's car crossed the highway and came over to park behind ours. Reza got out, opened the trunk of our car to produce a thermos of hot tea, cups, and some snacks. They stood there and had a sort of picnic on the side of the highway. One of the funnier scenes I’ve witness while traveling was when we parted ways, in a gesture of familiarity, Mohammad started to give Erik the same traditional farewell as he gave Reza, as most friends do, which was three kisses on the cheek. Reza told Erik he was supposed to return the kisses on Mohammad's cheek. It's not like this is the only place in the world men embrace each other this way, but fortunately we don't live in any of those places because I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Erik squirm in his boots like he did when he had to kiss a man he barely knew. This is true and lasting humor to me.
Anyway ... back to the picnic in the square ... we bought the typical picnic fare and, along with a family of Spanish tourists who were currently in Arash's care, we had a little picnic. A selfie composed and executed by Mohammad:
One afternoon we drove to the outskirts of the city to see some very ancient ruins, Atashgah, perched high on a hilltop. It's also known as the Marbin fortress. Following us up were a Saudi Arabian couple, the woman dressed in full black chador and dainty pink tennis shoe-esque footwear (note "-esque"). She seemed to have no problem climbing up. She hesitantly admired the view from the top. But when it came time to walk back down, fear overwhelmed her. Her face drained of blood and she went white as a sheet. It hadn't occurred to her she must walk back down the same steep slope. As I started to scamper down, she said to me, "You are so brave!" I tried to give her some encouragement, but she was so scared holding her husband's hand, it was clear she needed more help than that, and Reza stepped up to bat, taking her other hand. To me, the most amusing part of the scene was that, even though she was grateful, being from a country with far more strict and draconian codes of Islamic conduct, she couldn't bring herself even in a time of need to hold a strange man's hand. She pulled her sleeve down over her hand in order to grasp Reza's with a fabric barrier between their skin. The whole way down as the two men walked beside her she prayed out loud in a chanting prayer. Poor thing was truly frightened to death. Near the bottom, the slope relaxed and Reza left her to catch up to us. At the very bottom we stopped to talk amongst our three selves, and the Saudi lady and her husband arrived as well. She thanked us from her heart and then had her husband take a photo of her with us. The next night we ran into the couple in the square in Isfahan and waved at each other. Just one of those little episodes that will stick in my mind.
I will leave you now with one of the more beautiful and interesting places we visited, but probably the most unexpected ... a Christian church. This was inside the Armenian Quarter of Isfahan, known as Jolfa, where Armenian refugees from the Turkish genocide early in the 20th century have resided in relative peace. If you were part of a Christian community before the 1979 revolution, you were/are allowed to remain so. The interior of the Vank cathedral is covered in lush, vibrant paintings. The architecture is an interesting mix of traditional Islamic and Christian.
The ex-pat we met several times at the coffee shop in Isfahan said he likes to attend church service here. I think the reason why he attends is hilarious, yet after having lived in America for 40 years, I can see his point of view: he goes so that he can see women's bare heads ... their hair and neck. It must feel weird to come back to your native country after all that time and, as a single man, never see these natural features of women he has seen every day for 40 years.
As part of the church complex there is a museum about the Armenian genocide. Something I didn't really know about. There were some really graphic photographs of dead bodies in one of the first exhibits, and school kids were nonchalantly passing by. Kind of weird. But some interesting artifacts were on display, items the refugees brought with them from their churches and homes in Turkey.
We came home with boatloads of souvenirs. We came home from Iceland with a rock and a magnet, and a postcard picture of the latest volcano eruption ... we couldn't afford anything else! Similarly, from Barcelona, only a Dali tee-shirt and a Gaudi tea cup ... too pricey. But our luggage was laden on the way home from Iran with all kind of signature crafts including a Persian carpet! (pretty much the smallest, cheapest one the dealer had, but it's still pretty cool) Everything was quite affordable. We even bought some decorative tiles ... we knew that sometime this year we needed to replace/re-tile our steam shower and bathroom. Which we did this summer with some lovely Persian tiles to display. This is the tile shop with the modest kiln from which we bought them.
If you want to travel to Iran now that you've seen how awesome it is, be sure to contact me (with the blue contact button above) for information on how to contact our guide, as I would love to recommend our guide and friend, Reza, to anybody. A couple books I read about Iran which I would recommend to anyone with an interest: The Cypress Tree by Kamin Mohammadi, a nonfiction book about a family displaced by the 1979 revolution ... very interesting first hand perspective of these tumultuous events. Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour, a fiction novel which also provides heaps of cultural insight into Iranian society. Hope you have enjoyed your vicarious journey with me through Iran.