Living on Uganda Time
Somehow Cruickshank fell into Uganda, found it his favorite place in the world, with his favorite people. And animals.
His favorite animal --- above all the others --- was the blue-headed agama. [See Fig. 5 below]. Agamas eat ants, and I wish I had one with me right now. My office has become headquarters of the 25,000,000,000 Argentine ants that have taken over this part of America. They like nesting in the garden, under the stairs, in the walls, and, for some reason, in my computer keyboard. When I start typing, they spring out like --- well, like ants hidden in a computer keyboard.
I think if I had an agama, I could not only be done with these little bastards, but have something colorful to look at too. Cruickshank says that seeing an agama for the first time is "startling to an almost psychedelic degree." He wonders if it is flashback.
Will this hallucinatory reptile now stand on its brilliant cobalt blue tail and address me in Latin? Or am I looking at a computer graphic concoction that has slipped its tether and leapt from the digital universe into this one?
The writer is apparently also fond of the Marabou stork, big when standing (five feet tall), huge when flying (nine-foot wingspan) (is he making all this up ... is this guy some kind of con artist?) with a hunger, like that of the author, for, well, anything ... a mirror-image of the famous Cruickshank appetite: "they eat carrion, and most anything else that will fit in their enormous beaks."How in the world did he --- photographer, movie-maker, collector of oddments, writer (and editor for salon.com for several years) --- get to East Central Africa, there on the equator? He tells us he got bored of living in California writing prospectuses for American corporations (they're called "Red Herrings;" they are --- and they're a bitch to write) so one winter he gave away almost all of his possessions and got signed on with a NGO and they sent him to Uganda and he fell in love. With the whole goddamn country.
Which, he tells us, is about the size of Oregon, has 35,000,000 people, along with several dozen jillion thousand dogs, rhinos, crocodiles, cape buffalo, storks, and dog-nosed monkeys. He and a friend ran across a crowd of these last when they passing through the brush, the monkeys doing what were "some things done only in private by most Homo sapiens [but who] had no compunction about doing it in the road." He says that if you are ever bored, and it's Christmas, and you have nothing to do, spend some time in the outskirts of Kerala watching an army of dog-faced monkeys making whoopee. You won't need anything else, like egg-nog or presents or your family together pretending to be happy with each other.
In his wanderings in Uganda he also encounters goats, Ankole cows, elephants, and hippos. He spends a day with some hippos bumming around on the Kazinga Channel; he calls it a "Hippopalooza."
If you spend your days as an elephant or hippo, hauling around a body that weighs more than an SUV, it must feel exquisite to slip into the water and let natural buoyancy take over for an hour or two or 12 ... even hippos have to work on their tans.
Finally, most of us who live in self-imposed exile in other countries will be familiar with a talented musical group that Cruickshank discovered just outside Kyarumba. He calls it "The Uganda Philharmonic Dog Choir." No animal control gestapo here. The doggies start tuning up around 1 A. M.
The first howl went up right under my window and then, like a precision relay, the song passed from hilltop to hilltop, alley to alley, tin roof to tin roof. An exquisite fading echoplex effect was produced as every hound from Kampala to Khartoum joined the choir. The howls drifted into the distance in every direction --- north toward Sudan, east to Kenya, west to the Congo, south toward Rwanda and Tanzania.But it isn't the dogs or pachyderms that he wants to capture; it's the people of Kyarumba. And here they are, the ones he caught with more than three hundred deliriously fine photographs ... some of them spread fullbody across the double page (the book, spread wide, has the wingspan of a Marabou, and weighs in at three or four stone; don't drop it on your tootsies). Cruickshank admits at the beginning that he doesn't believe in captions, which is fine by me because he lets his sweet short essays do all the footnoting. We learn here that we don't need the kind of busyness that cloys what they call coffee-table books.
As if there were any comparison. For Somehow is decidedly not arty. It has a friendly sprawl, comes on much like a let's-take-a-beer visit with a man who not only knows how to set the visuals, but also can, in a paragraph or two, reveal the singularity of the countryside about him.
He lets his pictures do the walking, lets them carry us over the hills and into the vistas and down in the valleys into the heart of the Kyarumba. Since Cruickshank is a friendly old sot, he's apparently willing to talk to anyone and set it down here ... the taxi-drivers, the hotel people, the villagers, the kids, the women washing their clothes outside, carrying things on their heads, the families who gather for the weddings, the people who invite him to dinner, the Bukonzos who can't get enough of staring at this big pale gringo with the camera around his neck.
The kids --- especially the kids: almost a quarter of the photographs are of the children from age six months to near-adult, clowning for the camera, solemn, funny, fretful, smiling, mostly wonderfully curious about this pale guy with the urge to capture everything.
For it's everything that elicits Cruckshanks's curiosity. The people, what they eat, what they drink, what they find funny (especially about him), what they prize, how they live their days, what they carry on their heads: "In some parts of the world, Africa, South America, Asia -- people commonly walk around with all sorts of things balanced on their heads. In other parts of the world they don't. You won't see an elderly, nicely dressed woman walking through Denver with a machete teetering on her noggin. Or an ax. Or a 10-foot-long plank." Yet, he says, there in Kyarumba, he has seen men, women, and children with "most anything you can imagine balanced on their heads."
The other day it was a woman with a classic, old black and gold Singer sewing machine. Then there are purses, jackfruit, giant bunches of green plantains, a stack of chapatis, neatly folded linens, shovels, hoes, bundles of firewood, bags of charcoal and, perhaps, one of my best sightings, a soldier, obviously on his way home, with his automatic rifle riding atop his felt beret.
The only thing I caught missing from Somehow was a picture of the author. I mean there's a painting on one page by a local artist that doesn't quite do him justice. It doesn't miss his sheer bulk, exactly ... but the eyes ... the eyes. One of Cruickshank's friends said that if you study his eyes you'll see nothing but a blur, whirring pinwheels.He does tend to bore in when he gets interested in something. He goes, for the first time in his life, to a brand new country in another continent, where he hangs around for twenty-seven months and then he just has to put it all together in The Big Book form, get it published, somehow, hoping that by sheer beauty and art alone the book gods will pay attention to his favorite place over there some 11,000 miles to the east, in the middle of nowhere.
Since I know Cruickshank and have known him for, it seems, about 200 years, I can tell you that one of the most interesting things that happened to him when he was putting together this book was that he up and had an old-fashioned stab-you-in-the-chest heart-attack. The usual six in the morning wham! Just out of bed, staggering around his room over there in Marin County (I told him afterward do it my way: never get out of the sack before noon) --- and yet (such luck!) he got to a friend next door who drove him to the local fire station and within minutes he was on his way to a hospital which just happened to have one of the best heart resuscitation centers in the world. Within days, complete with four brand new engraved chromium-plated stents (his was always a class act) Cruickshank was back home again.
The people in the hospital told him that if he had been in Uganda (no chrome-plated stents there) or even thirty minutes later arriving, this would not be a review but a memento mori. And you and I would not have a chance to be wondering at this spacious tribute to the people he loves. But, somehow, somehow, with the luck given only to the mad and the driven (and the ocular pinwheelers) --- Cruickshank could and did survive to give birth to this baby: pretty as an agama, huge as a hippo, funny (and playful) like a bunch of dog-nosed monkeys, hearty and yet as gentle as his devoted friends in Kyarumba.