May 24, 2006

Lake Baringo

We drive north, further up the Rift Valley. We reach Baringo Lake. In the middle there's a lodge. I'm sitting there as we speak. It's 4:20 in the afternoon, hot but cooling. Behind me are two single beds, in a tall tent under a thatched roof. Banjo lake is in the middle of the valley. In front of me, perhaps 20 miles away, are the bluffs that border the northern side of the valley. Directly in front of me is a yellow weaver. I can hear the gurgling coo of a male gray dove enticing its lady love. The sounds of birds are everywhere in the bushes.

Somwhere behind me and above Marina is reading by a pool. She’s reading Aspirin, the story of how Bayer refined the process of taking salicylic acid out of willow bark and turning it into a miracle drug. Four o'clock tea is being served. The only other people at this camp are a father, an investment banker from New York, wit hhis two sons, one in his 20s, and a woman companion. Her role is unclear. She is older, with curly hair and a British accent.

In front of me the sky steches west in a way reminiscent of films made in the 1950s, in cinemascope. The clouds are scattered but they appear flattened, unnatural, surreal. To my left, all objects — mountains, sky, lake and bluff — have turned blue as indigo ink. It’s the beginning of the rainy season, small storms pass by here late every afternoon.

In a few minutes we will set out on a 25-foot skiff. Dixon, the guide will take us around the island. He will point out birds on the shore and as part of the show he’ll whistle for a fishcatcher eagle watching from a branch about a quarter mile away. Then he’ll throw a small fish over the side. The eagle will come running, circle several times, appearing both shy and wary, a reluctant performer, but then finally will tuck wings, dive and without seeming to look, snatch the fish. Then a few rain drops will multiply and the banker and his sons will propose returning to shore. The older woman whose status is unclear will open her umbrella. The boys will open an umbrella, there will be another call to see who would like to return to shore. Marina and I remain quiet, but our vote will not be enough and we will return to shore. When we reach the pier the shower will have passed and one of the boys will say, not a little defensively, that he’s worried about his digital camera getting wet. Marina and I will return to our cabin and we will continue our conversation about Paul Farmer, the icon of all those who come to the developing world, not to evangelize but to help. Farmer teaches two courses at Harvard, runs a clinic in Haiti (see Tracy Kidder’s biography), travels all over the world, answers hundreds of email messages a day himself, and occasionally stops in to see his wife and children in Paris. It’s the A personality run amok but all to the good and Marina recounts pieces of the legend including the time Farmer gave away $4,000 to a returning vet down on his luck, the time he had a boy flown by private plane for expensive surgery from one country to another, at a cost of $20,000 and when critics said, ‘the money would be better spent on prevention or serving a greater number of people,’ Farmer’s reply was to question why the pilot doesn’t give up some of his salary and why don’t all the people involved in this operation sacrifice something so the cost wouldn’t be $20,000. In essence, why is it so hard for people in the West particularly to see all children, as their own?

We will talk about that and Marina will talk about her work and her life, about the metaphorical island she lives on, and we will go to dinner, which will be unexpectedly good, and we will overhear the father at the other table recount stories about his ex-wife and about the expense of New York and one of the sons will talk about living at home. And the proprietor of the lodge, Percy Hennessey, a ‘chap’ if there ever was one, a Brit in early 50s, in full colonial regalia, the shorts, the shirt, the rascally tone, the suggestion of a man who has perhaps lived on islands too much.... he will recast his life, working for various hotels in Africa and how this is the second oldest lodge in Kenya, and then he’ll take us to see his new internet set-up and a photo of his girl friend on the desktop. And then we will go to bed and the next morning wake up just in time to see the sun rising over the bluffs on the horizon and the lake will change colors and we will go out on the skiff again and see the whole island, and crocs, and hippos and more birds, and I will become lost in the bow wave of the skiff filled with electric bolts and scratches from the light. And we will go on over mountains and to the top of the plateau, to Kitale.

But just now, in the middle of the afternoon, with everything uncomfortably still because there is nothing to do, no activity at all, which takes some doing in itself, but in memory it seems like another trait of Africa, more being than doing, listening, waiting for the heat to pass, waiting for the cool to begin and then the hunt.

And just now I notice a crocodile swimming along the shore. It looks very long, about 5 feet. Later we will hear about Shirely, a woman that lives on an adjacent island, separated by a narrow marsh, which is the home of the crocs. A few years ago she went swimming which has been her custom for the last 30 years and was attached by a croc. Her arms were all but torn off, sewn back on later. One, said Mr. Hennessy, is no good, can’t do anything with it, but the other she can still lift a fork. She’s 74 by the way. Shirley Dufrene, the wife of one of the men that originally opened the camp. But he left after a few years and she stayed on. After the crocodile bit her she had a pool built, which was filled with lake water, so it’s the color of mud and when Mr. Hennessey asked her if she wasn’t afraid of going swimming in her pool, she assured him that she always asks the gardener to go in first.

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