Following The Sun
There he is, walking under a white hot Kalahari sun. He is me, and I am not used to this role of laconic explorer. The sizzling white burns my ears, makes the blood gush through the folds like air roaring through a shell on a Zanzibar beach. Immediately – seeing the speck of life that represents me on the massive ochre Petri-dish – immediately you get a sense of proportion. I am dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of this place. The distances to food, water and shelter in these parts of Africa are staggering. The temperatures are life threatening. The vistas are full of the dry yellow grass, and crystal sky heartbreakingly blue. Is this where the life will thaw from my bones, like water from ice?
None of these thoughts occurred to me that first day, when my helicopter fell out of the sky, and landed hard on a red sand dune in the Kalahari Desert, at least a hundred kilometers west of my destination – Orapa – the world’s largest diamond mine. Yes, that guy walking in the Kalahari was me. But a different me to the one sitting here writing. I was worried. Strictly speaking, I had contravened, and could lose my job. Not only had I flown the Mi18 without it’s full crew, I had crashed it. Instead of being paid for the work I was doing, I might find myself in debt to Debswana*, maybe in jail. I was trying to not think about that. Meanwhile, the simple reality was I was a man with a lot of frozen yoghurt in an expensive stainless steel refrigerator in an upmarket townhouse complex in High Cape, above Cape Town’s harbor. That was me. Not a flea-bitten hitchhiker, needing water, stumbling over hot sand, searching for a ride out of the desert. I was a pilot, and I was used to sitting above the world in air conditioned comfort. This jobless, wanderer routine didn’t suit me at all.
The sun burned into my skin. I touched the tip of my nose. A red blister was beginning to form. I rolled down my white shirt sleeves to protect my arms from the sun. I could feel the heat of the sand through the soles of my shoes. But more than anything, deafening, drowning out everything else, swallowing even my half thoughts about contraventions and defenses, was the silence. It wasn’t even a silence exactly. It was a yawning silence, like a wave stretching open, a mouth gaping over a tiny morsel. Yes, the sky. My playground now swelled giant blue above me and its king, the sun, wheeled slowly, wheeling as tires do when they race across a road – making a thin jet like roar. I swear I could hear the sun shining at me.
That was my first moment. That was the first of many awakenings. I squinted up at the sun. Yes, looked directly at it for a fraction of a second, and was blinded by the white hot glare flashing full on my liquid squirming onion eyes. Colors swam, and bounced back to normal.
I was in a mess, and I couldn’t see how to do anything about it.
A wise bank robber, when his bag of cash rips open, leaves it, and walks away. I wasn’t walking in that sort of clarity yet, but I was beginning to withdraw from my life. The helicopter, which seemed, I decided later, to symbolize my innocence, was badly damaged. Am I to be punished for making this brave effort to get their shipment to them a little ahead of schedule? This did not seem like justice. And the helicopter, lying as it was, stricken in the dust – it made me feel ill. I wanted to get away from it. I wanted to move.
That’s why I walked away. I walked towards the sun because I knew in a desert, when the afternoon slips away, it gets cold. It doesn’t really seem logical when you really think about it, but I suppose the sun was some sort of companion, or some sort of revealer of the truth, and I wanted it on my face. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. Maybe that’s just how it seemed to me. But that’s the best I can come up with. It was so dark for me, and the harsh glare seemed to be a light that illuminated the walls of the dark gallows where I found myself. For it was not just the crash that made my way a valley of darkness. I was jolted out of my illusions; the impact on my constitution was enough to tear open container loads of lost and buried pain. The crash had unearthed these frozen fossils, and here, in the stillness, the consistent heat, the aloneness, the icy seals locked deep within my chest, were beginning to melt. There was no running away. Just more and more facing up to me being in the world – to the reality of that. Like ice hewn into rock, breaking the mountain, but also holding it, I felt the ice that held me together, held me rigid, was turning to mush, and releasing the poisons of the past to haunt the Now. And my entire constitution was beginning to rumble. Would I explode or collapse, like Ngorongoro or Mount St Helens? Long dead ghosts from Cape Town Christmases past and recent funerals drifted across the stony chasms before me. Memories of the dead surfaced and danced in the heat. I saw my mother. I saw white Acacia thorns dancing. It was a gradual process, in retrospect, but the reality in the desert was that it all crept up on me, like an ice age creeping over a world addicted to reality shows that have less and less to do with reality.
Here the desert whittles the world down to sun and sky, and sand and dune. And you plod your way through, hoping for nothing more than survival, some shade, something to quench the thirst or feed upon. These are the bare essentials, however complicated the world may seem, I think. There is no greed, no fussing about appearance, just everyday, but essential living. Though the day was still crisp and bright, I walked, facing the sun, and with my back to the huge black glinting machine lying shipwrecked behind me.
I walked in silence for a few hours, something I had not done in years, and what’s more, had been alone – without distraction.
The longer I walked, the more I wondered what were my own thoughts, my original thoughts, and what were those foisted on me, second hand, by all manner of media, and the masses of people that surround us who are swept up in second hand information. I began to see that very few of us have firsthand experience. Those of us, who do have firsthand experience, quickly convert it into secondhand experience. I am doing that right now, by writing about it. Thus I am distorting the original. And if you tell someone about what I have written, you will distort it some more, getting further and further away from the original. And this was what I was wondering. How far have I gone from my own firsthand experience, my own original spirit? What are all the areas in my life without original experience? I realized there was a lot. My feet shuffled over the hot sand, and with each step, I saw the sharp light shine on the sand.
Reading newspapers, I realized, hearing people talk, watching television, movies – all these things are second hand or worse experiences. And with that came a sickening realization. That not only are television and movies secondhand, but they are contrived, acted, false and thus essentially useless. Entertainment – is entertainment useless? Entertainment literally means amusement, diversion, or distraction. If you want to be entertained it means you want to escape from the reality of your life. The more you want to be entertained the more you are purposefully doing that. That is not healthy. I was starting to see that. I already saw that after two or three hours on my own, walking vicariously through the Kalahari thirst land. I still wasn’t really there, but I was starting to learn.
Is entertainment useless? It’s useful to give you a sense of pleasure in the loss of your self and your ability to live your life. If that is useful then it is. It is a useful way to make some people very wealthy. People who pretend the world is a certain way, when it isn’t. Beautiful people who pretend to be heartbroken or lonely and then find other beautiful people who are also alone, or struggling in some way. Obviously, the reality of the people who pretend for the cameras is very very different. They are concerned more about how much they are earning, and whether their appearance is still noteworthy, and what image they are projecting.
Every time we pay our money to see, to vote for, to adore, to worship, to acquiesce, to expose, to support, to defer to, to admire, to escape, to be entertained, we forfeit our money, our time spent earning the money, and the time spent during that entertainment. We come out ‘entertained’. What does that mean? It means we have a feeling. A feeling has been rubbed up that was latent before the time. Is it a feeling of satisfaction? Do we really know how to live with the hours that lie before us? Are we able to stand, or sit simply, and observe the walls, the grains on the floor, the hairs on our arms, the way a leaf is rolling along the sidewalk?
I have seen more in 3 hours walking in the desert, than in years walking through the city. I have seen ants – termites to be sure, racing around with strawy husks in their beaks. I have already noticed some of their towering mounds. I have seen lots of snakes, and spiders, and wasps. I have seen birds circling in the sky, but not above me. Perhaps they can see something that I can’t. They seem to know I am not about to die.
When the sun is quite low, I am joyful and excited, and a little delirious. A rebellious, addictive part of me wonders, analyses me. Wonders whether I hit my head and am behaving out of character. Am I being reckless, leaving my charge like that?
I am tending to my spirit, I argue.
Stop this craziness!
I’m not crazy. I’m finally seeing myself in this world I have helped create. I see I can help uncreate some of the parts I see I don’t believe.
Do your job. Go back and stop acting crazy.
I’ll never go back. Not after what I’ve seen.
You don’t know what you are saying. Once you start to suffer, once you get really lost and uncomfortable, you’ll come running back. Just you wait.
I’m sure you’re right.
Well make it easier for yourself. Turn back sooner rather than later.
I’m sure you’re right that I’m going to suffer, and feel lost. But that’s okay, because at least I am waking up to a true state of affairs. Now shut up!
It is as the sun sinks, and the sky darkens that my internal dialogue fades and I begin to slowly be drawn towards the Original Spirit. I mean the spirit that is in all things. The First Light. The deepest parts of space shine over me, and the desert suddenly seems wet with stars. I stand and stare for I don’t know how long. I don’t know how long it was since I looked at the stars like this? When I was a small boy? It is all just a mystery. But it is real. And what magic is this? How can this be, where every prick of light is a giant ball of fire that is many times the size of this Earth, but infinitesimally far away? All that power, doing a delicate and beautiful dance through our own light and breathable heavens. How is it that we can not be overwhelmed by the perfection of our own world, our own creation? How is it that people watch boxes and screens instead of the stars, and the faces of those they love? Why do they use time, and banks, and products for other products we don’t need? Where did it all go wrong?
Was it because we looked up one day in fear? We thought of those pinpricks as harboring hell, even though we were staring up at the heavens? Was it because some of us decided they didn’t want to share, and they were clever enough to trick us, to make fools of us, and that greed, that cruelty was their enduring strength? They made us buy things we didn’t need, and vote for things that would help them get their way, not ours.
Streaks of light bounced and left fairy dust trailing in thin lines and quickly dissolving. Then more sparks as space rocks bounced against the airy plumage guarding our planet. I swear I heard the crayon scrawl of the air tearing the rocks to vapor. I swear I can hear it all the time, a dull seaside roar, of space debris being shorn as the Earth flies through it and it through the earth. How much of this desert, is Space dust?
It seems whimsical, the shower of sparks and it seems proper to invent a fairy tale around it – to make a wish upon that falling the star. But the original is far more compelling. An object from the deep roar of the universe, frozen and dead, feels the warm tug of Earth, and is pulled out of its giant ellipse, diving into the vault, and turning blue white as oxygen bites heat into the frozen chunks, dismembering it into powder. Why would you want to make a wish when you have such a sight to behold?
All night I watched the stars. I had no fire. Man has had that technology for millennia, but I was incapable of making. I was a man who could not make fire. I looked for sticks, and I worked feverishly, but intermittently, until the nuclear fire burned under the horizon and heralded the dawn of a new day.
As the first rays speared over the blood red dunes, my stomach growled with hunger. My brow was wet, and cold with the perspiration of rocking and rubbing sticks together.
If I was in my white walled world in Cape Town, with Table Bay glinting blue and full of ships under my kitchen window – I would be filling an orange bowl with All Bran Flakes. Have you noticed how expensive cereal is becoming? We pay a lot for what is little more than sugar flavored popcorn. What is the difference between popcorn and cocoa puffs? The biggest difference that I can see – I am no dietician – is that you can buy popcorn seeds in transparent plastic packets, whereas with cereal you buy the big rectangular box, with it’s almost cinematic colors, and movie poster cum magazine appearance. Title, with articles/actors. You pay for the box and when you look inside there is a half filled bag. Why can they not sell us just the half filled bag? The box is something we buy that we don’t need. It is one of those instantly disposable purchases we don’t think about. Another one is toothpaste. If you really think about it, it’s not the toothpaste that we use that prevents tooth decay; it’s the food we are eating that causes it. The sugars in coffee, in candy, in sodas. How did the cavemen cope for hundreds of thousands of years without toothpaste? How come dogs and cats, sharks and rats, seem to get along without it? If we ate what we were supposed to – fruit, and vegetables, and a few morsels of meat, we wouldn’t have yellow grime growing in our teeth all the time.
As I grow hungrier, and thirstier, I seem to see my life more clearly. It seems absurd and ridiculous, and I feel a faint sense of tragedy – because I have realized this so late, and maybe I will die here. And what will happen to me. What happens to my corpus when I die? Is that it? I came here, into this world, tossing and throwing like grass in the wind, only to know, before the fire swept over the field, that I was part of the field, and the earth and it was never my destiny to be a golf course, but simply to grow and flourish and feel the sun.
There is always the sun. Always I come back to the sun, which blasts the simple but brilliant light, and heat, and radiance, at me. I walk. I stumble. I see some rocks on the sand. Some rises in the lie of the land are small hills. I am curious; I am drawn to the hills. This is what I do on this last day of my life. I go and look at some hills.
And it is while I make my way to the hills that the land begins to speak to me for the first time. It is not much. It is barely a whisper. But that it is speaking to me at all, and that I am listening, this is a powerful realization. I feel my power swell. And I feel the size of the land, I feel its scars, I feel its coffee soils, and milk powder sands. There are the hot percolating rivers, the silver arteries, slicing down the mountainsides. And within those muscles of magma, inside these striations is the stress. I can feel its pain. It hits me in a magnetic, metallic wave of dizziness. My brain throbs with the vague yet steady drumbeat of destruction. It rings with the eerie clashing of cymbals. The land says that even out here, it is not real. It has been changed. I am doubtful of this, but I say nothing, I listen. The breeze lifts again over the land. It is a trick of the light, but for a second an alluvial dune beside a thirsty riverbed fills with stars. A veil of dust covers them, and the lights, like diamonds, are gone.
I begin to see that once the lands on this world had diamonds in all its great rivers, and gold, laid bare for feet to walk on. Those days are gone. Now the ground is stripped and lackluster. The Original Spirit has gone. Even in a desert, the natural is gone. Its absence leaves one lonely and morbid and suffering from the onset of sudden, unquenchable thirst.
The hills that seemed to be beckoning to me, come no closer, despite another thousand footfalls. Instead they seem to be floating away.