Gin Confessions, Tip Taps and How to Make Your Life’s Documentary

October 20, 2008
Gin is the perfect stimulant for late night confessions. In fact, it wasn’t even that late, but the gin was warm in our heads as we sat on the veranda of the Kaniyo-Pabidi Eco-Tourist lodge in the Budongo Forest. We had covered Obama, chimp sex (in graphic detail) and Brian’s travels as a freelance documentary film producer from the Arctic to Guatemala. Crickets were trying to outdo each other with volume levels, and a hyrax (a strange guniea pig/groundhog cross) was screaming like a damsel in distress from the dark depths of the forest.
Jacques,the Roots & Shoots program coordinator at the Jane Goodall Institute, admitted she needed to cut back on her coffee and Coca-Cola addictions. She was confident that she could kick the habit, after all, she had stopped eating clay four years ago. Clay? Her eyes glazed over as she reminisced about the fights she had with her sister over the termite hill close to their home. This was where she found the freshest, finest, powdery clay to eat. Clay? I had heard of pica—a medical disorder where individuals crave coal, soil, chalk, glass and soap. It’s most commonly seen with autism, brain injured children, epileptics and some pregnant women (when dill pickles and dulce de leche Haagen Dazs just aren’t cutting it). Pica cravings also include paint chips, burnt match heads, cornstarch, coffee grounds and buttons. Everyone loves a good button now and again!
The clay confession had me on a Google search as soon as we reached an Internet café in Masindi. I simply typed in “people who eat clay” and discovered that Jacques and her sister fighting over a termite hill was commonplace in places like Africa and the southern United States, and that the clay fetish was better known as “geophagy.” Apparently clay and chalk provide a slam-dunk source of zinc, sulphur, potassium, magnesium, copper and calcium. In some places vendors actually sell earth for consumption. Aboriginals in California and Peru ate earth with acorns and potatoes to help neutralize harmful akaloids (I would choose a syrah with nice legs).Even Italians in Sardinia were incorporating it into their loaves of freshly baked acorn bread.
Mary Lou, who manages the Budongo lodge, told me that pregnant women in the local village often lick the walls of their mud homes. It suddenly seems odd that in North America we moan about our cravings for lime Tostitos, Big Macs with salty fries, butter-saturated movie theatre popcorn and sticky chicken wings at the pub. I wonder if I can create a dirt wave of popularity when I return home? Why haven’t the protein bar makers capitalized on this? Clif bars could reach a whole new market with a Clif Dirt bar. Really, who would want unoriginal flavours like carrot cake and oatmeal raisin when you could bite into genuine African Rift Valley earth?
Naturally, Jacques had to endure our non-stop clay comments for the rest of the week as we would muse over a breakfast of banana muffins and granola, “these muffins are good, but, if they had a little clay in them…”
I seized the opportunity to return to the Budongo Forest (and lodge with the best hot rainwater showers) with Jacques and Brian Knappenberger who was filming a piece for the Discovery Channel on “Eco-Heroes.” A teacher in the Masindi District had created quite a stir when he introduced the concept of the “tiptap” to his school and community after seeing a similar practice in another part of Uganda. The tiptap is a hands-free hand-washing system that is constructed from two sticks, a jerry can and rope. In this area, typhoid, cholera and malaria are rampant, and sanitation is an ever-present issue. At St. Mary’s Biisu Primary School where we would be filming, the “toilets” were pit latrines, which are holes in the ground that you squat and hover over. Toilet paper? Hah, such a luxury. There’s not even enough paper for the kids to do schoolwork assignments. The stench of urine from boys still practicing their aim is the kind that doubles you over.
At St. Mary’s, many of the children walk 5km (one way) to school. They suck on sugarcane for lunch (if anything), or, if they do go home on their lunch break, they often don’t come back. This school of six grades has 688 enrolled students. The classrooms are dark and tired with graffiti on the walls and beat-up desks. There are no text books, no colourful maps of the world, no posters reminding kids of hot dog day on Friday. At recess (which they seem to be on all day), 75 kids chase after a soccer ball made of knotted up banana fiber. There are no swings or hop-scotch or basketball nets. At one point I watch about 20 kids cutting swaths of grass with machetes under a teacher’s supervision.Visiting this school makes me want to tour Canada and visit every elementary school with photos to tell any little unappreciative buggers how good they have it. I watch as barefoot kids line up to drink from a rain barrel with a communal plastic cup. The tiptap is a step forward, but 688 kids sharing the same cup is about five steps back.
Brian interviews five of the most outspoken kids, while a hundred others stand on their tiptoes trying to peer into the classroom windows to see what the mizungos with cameras are doing. Brian and I are like zoo animals. When I step outside the classroom I am stared at by 600 blank eyes, unsure what to make of me and my tattoos. I laugh now thinking of the job interview I had at the Fairmont Royal York where I shared my profound moment of volunteering in the jungles of Costa Rica for three months. I said to Heidi, the health club manager, “the kids in this Alto Cuen village had never seen a person with blue hair and blonde eyes.” Remarkably, I landed the job, despite my blue hair faux pas. However, in the middle of this village, the experience was identical, and I really did feel like my hair was blue and my eyes were blonde! By day’s end, the kids had warmed to us and stampeded Brian (or took off in terror, it was a mixed reaction), whenever he lifted his camera lens.
I am curious to see how Brian will refine three full days of filming into three minutes. But, I suppose this is what we do in life. The places and faces that we meet are constantly condensed into an cell phone call, email, a photograph or a postcard. We live for 80 years (if we are so lucky) and can really only take the very best moments with us. The golden stories that we repeat, those shiver moments (Oprah has aha! moments, I have shiver moments –where the emotional and physical thrill of the moment makes your blood as fizzy as shook-up champagne, and goosepimples race across your skin like fast-moving snakes).
I have four distinct shiver moments that I can instantly define — where I was standing, the smells in my nose, and the pounding of my heart in my ribcage can’t be forgotten. You know that feeling, when you are so stunned with what you see and feel that your eyes burn with hot tears? I was 18 and standing on the dusty logging road of Clayoquot Sound when the logging trucks started their slow grind towards the protesters, headlights and shadows like ghosts in heavy blanket of dark before dawn. Walking into the Monteverde Cloud forest in Costa Rica, toucans shrill above my head as I left the world I knew and stepped into the dripping green of a humming rainforest for the first time. Flying 1,000 km west into the Pacific to touch down on the Galapagos Islands, the place I had dreamed of since I was six: blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, barking seals and tortoises as big as coffee tables. And then, the first scream and pant-hoot of a chimp community, their voices ringing in my ears, the thumping of a chimp as he pounds on an ironwood tree and the canopies above my head swaying with chimpanzees. Their smell, so primal and distinct will stay with me forever.
Africa is certainly taking up a lot of my life’s documentary minutes and I’m okay with that. I haven’t even mentioned the sugarcane fields and the expanse of the Rift Valley that stretches so far my eyes strain to see the other side of the world. Have I described the bruised sky at night with fine veins of lightning splitting the atmosphere between the heavens and earth? Or, hearing the sound of Puvel’s illadopses, a tiny bird that is only found in the Budongo forest? For some birders, the illadopses is their pinnacle. This is their life’s documentary coming to a tidy, satisfied close.
As I let Africa rub its way into deep into my skin, I feel a raw ache for those I wish I could share these moments with. As we drove through the sugarcane fields to Masindi, I imagined my grandfather, his soiled hat tipped to the side, hand on his tired hip as he looked out at the crop. He would talk to the farmer about fertilizers, the desperate need for rain that year, the soil. The life of a farmer is universal, a tug-of-war toil with the weather with years that offer reassurance, and seasons that end in disappointment. My grandmother would love the birds, the brilliant bee-eaters and sunbirds. She would marvel at the spider lilies and sausage trees. I will show her my Africa in photos when I return, but, if only for a day she could walk beside me.
My mother should be here, drinking a warm beer on the verandah overlooking Lake Victoria. She would have binoculars permanently trained on the treetops for colobus and vervet monkeys… and we’d send my dad to the Entebbe Golf Club.
My sister Kiley will see Africa, because she has the incessant travel bugs that bite away at me too. I hope my brother does. I know Dax all too well, he would be up early, drinking black coffee outside and then quietly sneaking off to paddle a kayak around the lake alone. He would come back as the sun was going down, ravenous and exploding with stories.
Wanda will arrive in December to share this world with me, and this brings me comfort. I think of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild (spoiler here) about 22-year-old Christopher McCandless bravely deciding to walk into the woods of Alaska, away from civilization and the ills of society. He survived a harsh winter of solitude in the North, but realized as he was dying of starvation that “Happiness is best shared.” He carved his last tragic words into the permanency of wood with his knife.
And this is the responsibility I have, to share. Go out and create the documentary that will leave you sitting in the audience (because you are the audience) stunned with what you have seen and done with your life.
Artwork by Tuguinie Sharon whose work will appear in the book The Tribes and Totems of Uganda, the project I have been working on inbetween chimp treks and eating termites.
Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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