Saturday, 19 January 2013

Islands in the Sun

            I am sure it’s obvious to all of you that Canada and Africa are not particularly similar,[1] but I was overwhelmed with a feeling of deja-vu yesterday as we crossed from Port Bell to a small island in Lake Victoria.  It might have been that I spent two very important weeks of my summer living on islands in Quetico Provincial Park,[2] and that this was my first time heading towards a patch of green-on-blue since; or perhaps that any little chunk of trees rising from a lake will look similar from a long distance, I don’t know.   I just couldn’t shake the blatantly misplaced (Canafrican?) familiarity that was Guineau-worming its way through my head.
            Thankfully this pleasantish but bothersome feeling was soon shaken out from me, like a ripe popo[3], by the violently resolving shoreline; no Canadian banks ever looked so tangled and Impressionist.  Captain Dixon, our chauffeur d’eau, pulled his vessel up to the low point in the island’s middle[4] and allowed us to disembark.  The next twenty minutes were very much not like Canada, except inasmuch as they were my first time alone in a wilderness environment since my trips this summer.
              I will not say that I pretended I was Henry Morton Stanley the whole time I trekked through the brush, because I hope not to act as precursor to a number of years of Ugandan colonization; however, I DID keep twirling an invisible mustache and speaking to myself in a British accent—and in the end I could not but think back to the stories you hear as a kid about machete-wielding men hacking their way through the stifling African foliage.  From the second you put a foot anywhere near shore these plants are thicker than Oprah holding a copy of Infinite Jest.
            Anyways, in case you, like my friend David, are confused about the geographic relationship between islands in Ontario and Kampala, here is—
 [1] Unless perhaps you are our construction friend David, who thought that all of North America was owned by the U.S.A.
[2] By which I mean I spent two weeks canoing about the Quetico, as it’s known.
[3] Papaya, as they call the watery little orange squash-fruits here.
[4] The island is long and thin, with a hill on each end and a small flat spot in the middle, like a half-submerged number 8.

An Elucidation of the Differences Between an Island in Lake Victoria and an Island in the Quetico

1)  Birds
            Now, the Quetico has birds, but in this city (and even more so on this island) birds serve a dual function as both native animals and landed aristocracy. Much of the terrain surrounding Lake Victoria at the Kampala hillbottoms comprises something that the locals call Nunaviku, which we assume translates as “terrible snake-infested Smeagol-guide-necessary swamp[5].”  Thing about swamps is, flying critters love ‘em.  Thus, waterfowl of all types are endemic to every inch of this city (even the particularly dry parts), and the cream of the avian crop seems to have chosen this prime ape-free real estate as their summer[6] abode.  Cream-white egrets, circling hawks, a dark cormorant-looking bird, and a squadron of swinging, diving kingfishers—silver and black feathers resplendent in the midday sun—perch on every available rock and root over the water.  Inside the tangled forest this diversity suddenly ceases—methinks ‘tis too dense for maneuvering—but the borders all around thrum with a net of crossing flight-paths.  You are hemmed in by birds, and where the birds cannot reach the spiders reign.

2)    Spiders, good Jesus spiders.
            Again, Canada has spiders.  But nowhere on earth could possibly have as many spiders[7] as the underbrush of this island.  And not just spiders, no no no, that would be too pleasant—these guys are about the size of your slack-jawed mouth, and dressed in the colors of what must be the Hell’s Angels of spider gangs.  Which would make this particular island Sturgis, North Dakota[8] , except not for just the weekend (I assume?).  Hiking up one of the hills I must have disturbed 30 or 40 webs a meter, and as I couldn’t avoid this density no matter where I stepped I spent most of this time praying to Anansi to keep my tender white meat safe from prying mandibles.  A spider check after the ascent revealed only a few passengers; that didn’t stop the boat trip back from being a particularly itchy-feeling one…

3)    Density
The forests of the Quetico are exactly what Walt Disney pictured when he imagined how the average school child would want to imagine a North American wilderness.  Plenty of bare rock and empty space between pines for a surprisingly Caucasian-featured American Indian woman to frolic through, talking pets in tow; large and majestic thick-furred mammals to stumble across (they can talk too?!?), thick beds of fallen pine needles to lay your weary head upon when all that frolicking and interracial-tension-reducing tuckers you out—the whole scene rather moving-ly picture-sque, if you will.[9] 
Ugandan forests won’t take any of that crap.  They are too dang busy.  The sheer numeric quantity of plants and animals that directly contacted my person at all times was unbelievable, and that is just the organisms I could see.  The weight of all that life was incredible; the air was heavy and oxygen rich, a Wall of Smell Phil Spektor-style that hit your face like the first chords of Born to Run.  In the Quetico each individual smell presents itself neatly for examination like daintily-perfumed soldiers at inspection— here they gang up on you in more of an anarchist black blox kinda way .  I am sure that some of this amalgamationing was due to my ignorance and lack of local knowledge, but it would take a helluva sergeant’s eye (nose?) to pick apart this particular bouquet.

4)   Snakes
            Okay, fine, so I didn’t see any, but the whole place just had this sorta…snake-y…feeling.  You know, like there are just probably snakes everywhere, watching, waiting, eating bird’s eggs and giant spiders and plotting your demise.  I’m not crazy, the place felt like snakes!

            I realized that I might be going crazy as I stood alone for a moment on top of the hill.[10]   The sense of being completely unimportant in an environment so busy and moving (and probably full of snakes) was at once too much and perfect; this is nature when it has all the resources it needs in abundance, nature that can divide and multiply nearly without limit; this is the mothersunning equator.  I love the ruggedness of Canada, the creatures who can take so little and survive—even turn off for six months if necessary—but this is a whole new type of life altogether.  Now all I want is to see what would happen if you could put the two islands next to each other for a little bit to talk about their respective life experiences.
            “Wait, you die every year and then come back to life?  But that makes you… ZOMBIES!!!!”
            Undead Canadian Pineapple Trees.  Perhaps even scarier than invisible snakes.

[5] Really though, don’t follow the lights, precious.
[6] Which is, may I remind you, every season here for the last 10,000 years
[7] Cross your fingers, knock on wood, say a rosary—do whatever you need to do short of research to insure that this fact is true.
[8] Which, come to think of it, isn’t really that far from The Quetico!
[9] Alex won’t.
[10] Alex didn’t come that far because he’s scared of widdle spidy-widies*
*Okay, terrifyingwy huge spidy-wides.

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