Thursday, May 20, 2010

Big Arch, Small Ambition

Over the weekend I made my fourth trip to Arches National Park in Utah.

The first trip was when I was nine years old, with my dad and my sister. I remember the hike to Delicate Arch as a forced march.

"A mile and a half! Do we have to?"

Yes, we did.

I lagged behind grudgingly, and silently mocking the English accents of the tourists behind me. I'd have slogged even more slowly if not for them. I didn't want them to pass me.

There is no view of the arch until you get to the end of the trail. When I rounded the final corner, my dad and sister were there. Wow! What a view.

Separating us from the magnificent arch were some sandstone boulders forming a natural guardrail--easily surmountable. Beyond that was a steep sandstone slope curving to the left, descending to the right, and ending at the base of the arch, maybe 50 yards away. Beyond the arch was another steep slope or cliff of unknown depth or danger.

"Can we go down to the arch?"

No, we couldn't.

Two more times I tried to get close to the arch. In 2007, my traveling companions waited in the parking lot with the engine idling and the A/C running--unwilling to walk five minutes to one of two viewpoints where the arch can be seen at a great distance. In 2009, I managed to drag my stepdaughter half-a-mile to the other unsatisfying vantage point.

Last Saturday I was in Moab, traveling alone, and short on time. But I hit the trailhead at 9 AM, and power walked to the arch in about 20 minutes. I was surprised how much of the trail I could remember from when I was nine.

When I reached the end of the trail, there it was, just as I remembered it--and my dad was nowhere around to tell me what I couldn't do. I climbed down and used my camera's timer to take this shot.

Delicate Arch

It was one of those times when I don't take being an adult for granted. I was able to just do what I wanted to do--no one telling me I can't; no one to inconvenience with my whims.

I hiked back to the car, and got on the road back to Flagstaff--back to the flip side of being being a grown up--but with my inner nine-year-old finally satisfied.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The statues die too

I'm reading Three Kilos of Coffee, the autobiography of Manu Dibango, the Cameroonian saxophonist and composer. With his 1972 international hit Soul Makossa Dibango arguably became Cameroon's most famous cultural export.

The book is plodding along chronologically. The occasional cultural and historical insights are wedged between anecdotes from his early career struggles. I was beginning to think that the things I like about this book--the cultural and historical insights--I could find elsewhere, and could find better written. Then I came across this passage:
Once an indigenous African civilization existed. By taking the trouble, we could find its trail, thanks to oral tradition. But who will make the effort? No doubt, Africa has had a bad break in its history. Since then, it is incapable of thinking of others and of its own future. Yet creating anew is the only path to health. The opportunities exist, though they arouse only disdain. Africa's wealth is its creativity: it is our "real" coffee, our "real" cocoa. Africa treats its ills so casually. It waits for rich countries to erase its debt. This is the cheat of a remedy: the people and their successive governments tell themselves it will always be this way. Both lose in this illusion, to the point of forgetting the few vestiges of the culture they had. The statues die too.
Dibango states eloquently how I have felt--and how many who have lived and worked in Africa as foreigners have felt--about Africa's potential juxtaposed to its actual progress. When these frustrations are expressed by a non-African, the risk is sounding like a scolding schoolteacher harping, "...if you'd only apply yourself."

I have heard and read these sentiments expressed by Africans as well, but perhaps never with this astute economy of words, like a soloist given only eight bars with which to touch your heart.

In my musical tastes, I'm an admirer of understatement. Don't play ten notes when one note will do.

"Africa has had a bad break in its history."

Manu Dibango: master of the understatement.

I was ten years old when Soul Makossa was a hit. If I ever heard it back then, it made no conscious impression on me. In my 20's I was in a band called Jumping Genes, who played two Manu Dibango songs--but we were unaware of the original source of the pieces. (We heard Soul Makossa via The Bonedaddys, and the song Choc 'N' Soul came to us on a mix tape made for me by a friend who didn't write any artists' names on the track list.)

Jumping Genes fulfilled my desire to, at least once in my life, be part of a gigging band. But the band dissolved when my life's next ambition became an opportunity: to serve the Peace Corps in Africa.

Coincidentally, my Peace Corps service was in Cameroon--a country about which I knew very little. Without me realizing it (and certainly without him realizing it) Manu Dibango led me there.

Here are the original versions of Soul Makossa and Choc 'N' Soul, via GrooveShark. Enjoy: