At night, I stare into the African sky searching for the southern cross. I’ve been doing this for weeks. One evening, into the tenth hour of riding on Mr. Chen’s boat (that can’t be the right spelling…) between Nkata Bay and Ruarwe, Malawi, he lets us crawl up on top where the cargo rides. I put my head on my camera bag and stretch out in the warm breeze. The sky saturates to deep blue and gives way to a cone of sparkling light.
The sound of Mr. Chen’s motor drifts upwards, mingling with water lapping along the sides of his gently rocking boat. I ache: for Sara, for my daughters, for home.
The boat stops in a small cove of a village and I ask one of the local kids to toss me a few mangos from one of the trees. There are thousands of mangos everywhere you turn, some still green but most giving way to rich oranges and reds. I stand on the top of the boat juggling the mangos. A few minutes of entertainment as a way of saying thanks. The kids point and giggle at the enormous white man standing in shorts and a baseball hat, tossing orange mangos into the air against the deepening blue of night.
The boat continues north, past the reach of electricity, past where roads end, past where phones reach, just a night sky of an infinite stars against deep blue.
Plato felt that color was a narcotic, as dangerous to the republic as poetry. Like language, he called color a pharmakon and painters mixers of “grinders of multi-colored drugs.” Centures later, when Luther’s followers smashed the stained-glass of Europe’s great cathedrals, I wonder which they thought more idolatrous: the images or the richness of the pigments themselves?
It would be easy to lose oneself in the rich colors of an African day. To simply drift away, chasing colors until you cross the lake into Mozambique and find oblivion. For on the Mozambique side, there are no roads, but there are delicious red mangos and the deep blue of the sky and the water. A siren’s call of oblivion.
Such is what happened to Isabelle Eberhardt who left her comfortable Swiss home near the turn of the last century, wandering the deserts of North Africa dressed as a man, and losing herself among the Qadiriyya. At twenty-seven she was killed in Algeria by a flash flood, leaving behind a partial manuscript released under the title “The Oblivion Seekers,” where she writes of a road twisting towards the “bright edges of the earth.”
A week or so later, I land back in Billings to a nearly 100 degree temperature change and a kind of celestial trifecta: a full moon lunar eclipse during winer solstice, only the second such occurrence.
Sara and I wake the girls at half past midnight to welcome the solstice, the eclipse. We dress warmly and stand outside in the frigid Montana night to watch the moon travel from brilliant white to deep orange and then to red. Red, because as the earth crosses between the sun and moon, the moon reflects back to us all the sunrises and sunsets of eternity in a single moment, the bright edges of the earth awash in color.
photos from the top are: (top) Tim, Mikey, Sonia, and Mr. Chen on top of Mr. Chen’s boat just north of Usisya Malawi on Lake Malawi. (next) Full moon, winter solstice from our back porch in Billings. (next) the moon is full lunar eclipse as seen from our back porch. (video): 8 seconds of timelapse showing the moon from full into lunar eclipse.