Writing should speak for itself. Good writing does. But with this piece, I feel a brief primer is in order.

I recently undertook the Sisyphean task of typing up a collection of journal entries that encompasses the nearly ten months I lived and traveled in southern Africa. This is a task made difficult not only by the sheer volume of words (close to 200,000, I suspect), but by the at-times illegible, roughly-hewn writing, which as often as not was written on the road, in a chemically-altered state, or some combination of the two.

Jack Kerouac wrote by the principle “first thought, best thought,” although even the master of the road manuscript learned that he was not above editing. In putting together this piece, I sought to retain the raw, visceral reflections that poured out of me while encountering such a spectacular and challenging part of the world.At the same time, I was fully cognizant of the fact that in its original form, much of what I wrote made sense only to me (and sometimes, not even to me). In order to form a more cohesive narrative, I moved individual passages around, inserted punctuation, and changed the odd word for the sake of clarity. But otherwise, what you read is straight from the heart, the gut, the ass, or whatever part of me it is that demands the words be written.

February 13, 2009

All of life is a waiting game—a preparation for the grand tomorrow on which day all demons shall be banished…

…There are many tomorrows on a trans-continental flight, but scarcely any todays.This pilgrimage at 32,000 feet is indicative of the human condition: the cramped and bored masses, wishing the moment away.And what awaits but uncertainty, unknown joys and terrors…every man yearns for a prophet, a taste of the supernatural, because it relieves the angst of making choices…

…At 32,000 feet all conversations feel a bit forced.Why am I going to South Africa?Where to begin…

…Every man at some point looks upon his life with the eyes of a distant stranger.What could be: the twisted half life of what is, always shimmering on the horizon, briefly igniting a spark to throw it all away and embark on some damn fool’s errand.It is a rebuke of the sensibilities we harness each day, those bricks out of which we’ve built our personal empires, the bedrock of those things that fill our lives…

…For all of the wisdom of our fathers they never once said to us, “You will build a life and afterwards always wonder what could have been.”…

…How can I hope to explain to a stranger in business casual what I have trouble myself understanding?What words will I string together to describe all the passion that’s been put aside, the yearnings that have been marginalized, a mental tickle that says things should be different?Instead I use language he can understand: I tell him I fell in love, which is true, only not the whole truth.In loving her I have merely recaptured the ability to love—and a man in love believes all things are possible—he is a glutton, eating everything before him but never full—he belches; defecates and rolls in it.To be in love is to have boundless energy.I love her madly, but not only her—I want to make love to the world, lay back with a sigh, satisfied, but thinking always of more, more, more…

…What awaits as I step off this plane and walk into her arms?Is it love I feel or love I seek?Infidelity already lurks in my heart, for it is Africa that I truly lust for… a place where beasts and chaos reign supreme…

… Oh Africa!How I long for you!Oh Africa!I lust for thee!Oh Africa!Give me a reprieve! …

…Let me hear the sounds of lions at night and roam among the sun-bleached bones of those fate did not favor in the morning…

…..I want to be surrounded by the possibility of death, because living in a cage of logic is already dying…

…I seek mayhem…upheaval…bring on earthquakes and hurricanes…sweep my old life away into the sea…leave me naked on the ruins of what I’ve built…

…It’s not often that one can see a new chapter of their life unfolding, but that is precisely the view before me as the plane makes its descent into Johannesburg. The African continent comes into view, conjuring up a wealth of imagery as varied and twisted as the mind that tries to make sense of it.Of all the places to start over, Africa seems to be the best …

… The Africa of my mind is a picture of an old, faded map with an unfolding line marking my travels.I will make it to Kilimanjaro, stand atop the roof of Africa, stare out across the continent and have a view similar to what God must have had when his work was at last done and he could rest…

…Starting over…what is it like?At 10,000 feet and descending, I know not, but I know the pure adrenaline in my gut is enough. If this ecstatic doubt is an indicator, then I’ve been living my whole life asleep.To start over, in Africa, in love…

…Love and Africa.Now, this is all I know.The plane touches down.I pass through the required checkpoints and collect my bags.I step into a lobby, baggage in tow.She rises to greet me.I am in her arms again.Love and Africa.Now, this is all I need…

…I am better than fate.I am stronger than the universe.I am a man.

February 14, 2009

I have scarcely a night to dream big African dreams before we are on the road. Up by 4:00, casting a shadow on the still-cool tarmac by 6:00…

…nothing is set or decided, but for now we set a rough course down to Cape Town and from there up to Namibia, where we shall be swept up and away into The Heart of Africa…

…She holds my hand as she drives and I love her. We are together, our lives condensed down to a small white Toyota…

…driving through the Cradle of Humankind we pass a lone hitchhiker, his dark features reflecting under the bright sun—in his single, outstretched thumb I see the history of humanity laid bare—starting here, wending its way northward to new lands—the growth of many races from one—he still in the birthplace of man and I, returning in an automobile—here, in the plains of Southern Africa, history has formed a strange circle…

…We stop to refuel in the kinds of small towns that make ghosts out of men. A worker finishes pumping dinosaur bones into the tank and I tell him to have a nice day, but what I really mean is, “I’m sorry.I don’t know how things came to be like this either.”…

…We drive all day and make the town of Nieu Bethesda just as dusk is beginning to break.To get there we follow a long, winding dirt road that picks its way through the rocky, crumbling remains of mountains…

…The first day of the journey calls for a bottle of wine and we share it in the common room of the hostel with a Canadian woman who says she has come to Africa to save the lions, but who I suspect has really come to save herself.No 35 year old insurance salesman from Calgary sits up in the dead of night knowing her mission in life is to protect a creature 10,000 miles away.Lions are a symbol of her discontent, of a longing for something more out of life than cold-calling strangers and trying to get them to buy a new policy…

February 16, 2009

The sun is nearly down when we reach the town of Uniondale.We find the name of a youth hostel and head there.She is scorched and exhausted, wants to go to bed.I, in a similar state, oblige.But as I lay there, the desert night calls to me.Restless, I rise to sit alone outside….

…The proprietor, a man of about 60, sits on the stoop, smoking slowly, each long inhale seeming to encompass a universe of silent rumination. He at first seems aloof and rude but turns out to be the type of man who finds no value in senseless chatter.He offers me a cigarette.I don’t smoke but I accept.We puff away in silence; the sound of the paper burning is clearly audible among the cricket chirps and nighttime rustling of unseen creatures….

…He is a counterpoint to my youthful restlessness; where I flounder he is fixed; where nothing ahead is known for me he lives in this familiar world…

…He rises wordlessly and enters the house, reappearing with a fiddle.The case opens with a click that resounds in the darkness.The instrument is old but the strings look fresh and strong.He raises it to his shoulder and draws back the bow.I lay back, smoking, propped up on one elbow in the cool grass.I imagine he plays for me, but this is not the truth.He plays for himself.I am merely a witness to his strange blues. He stops occasionally to take a drag off of the cigarette that lies smoldering at his side.Several of them burn down to the filter…

… He finishes, packs the fiddle away, rises and enters the house.I remain, in silence, but I can still hear the music, telling me everything I need to know, filing the spaces between my thoughts with a wordless chorus…

…He has killed me softly with his strange blues.His song speaks to the road ahead.

February 17, 2009

We drive downtown to the main church.The Boer Farmers who migrated north from the Cape to escape the rule of the English built their newly-founded towns around these places of worship, the detailed craftsmanship of this building reflecting their ambitions for a good life, a beautiful life, a peaceful life…

…I walk around it, snapping pictures.I’ve not had any use for God since I refused to return to Sunday school at the age of nine, but churches always instill in me the sense that without myth, the world would be a very ugly place…

…I look at the small white car, the steed that carries me and Emily through the wasteland—we are together against the world, but also separate; horribly alone in our own quests…

… Everybody needs their own church, squat, solid and beautiful, built in the center of the vast, perilous wilderness of their own mind….

…I gaze through the fence at the well-kept grass and handsome stone work.A woman approaches from behind and says something in Afrikaans. She is the cleaning lady, old and toothless, her hair in a handkerchief.I beg her pardon that I only speak English.

“Would you like to have a look inside?” she translates.

“Yes, very much so,” I say….

…She unlocks a back door and I climb a set of stairs up past the bell to the very height of the church.From there it is a tentative walk up a ladder that is leaned against a shuddered window.I push it open and step down onto a circular terrace that surrounds the tower…

… A church is built to make people feel humble.The towering roof, the detailed craftwork, the stern-faced biblical figures, all are bent towards reminding people of a higher power in whose presence we are hopelessly small. To that end, I say let the people of Uniondale congregate up here on Sundays, rather than suffer under the heaviness of stone and wood…

… Let them be accompanied up the rickety staircase by the cleaning lady who has spent decades inside this hallowed building and has nothing to show for it but stubborn pride and arthritic fingers…

… Let them climb the wobbling stairs past the cobwebbed gears and levers of a massive bell, the booming metallic voice of god, which summons them to worship each Sunday….

…Let them stand on this terrace where with one glance they can size up their entire sleepy town, where they live and will die, where the great expanse of the Karoo is overtaken by mountains to the south and where beyond that, mountains fall into the sea.The view from here can make one feel smaller than any preacher’s words…

…Let the people see pigeons perched on stone crosses, roosting in the eaves of the highest point of the holiest building, defecating wherever they please, years of shit accumulated upon the House of God.Then, they will be humbled, truly.

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BRIAN ECKERT recently gave up his SUV and life in an idyllic New England seaside town for a single speed bicycle and the smog of Beijing, China is back from China and living in Denver, Colorado. Check out more at his website.

13 responses to “Love and Death in Africa (The Journal Entries, Volume I)”

  1. I think you’ve captured what travel feels like. A sort of fragmentary, confusing, fast-paced blur. Even when you spend 24 hrs in an airport, you look back after a day or two and you don’t remember a sequence of connected events, you remember these moments and thoughts that you’re not sure how exactly to fit together. I look back sometimes and can barely remember the various parts; just images, thoughts, bits of speech.

  2. Brian Eckert says:

    I agree. Bringing back a cohesive narrative from the road is sometimes as challenging as bringing one back from a drug experience. Both have a momentary power that, once gone, leaves you wondering if it all actually happened.

    BTW, got a job offer in Baotou, China (inner Mongolia). Giving it some thought. It’s at a teacher’s college, endowing young minds with “oral english” (which I suspect means, “Just speak english to them, monkey man”), and, more promisingly, “Literature.”

    • China’s great, I can’t recommend it enough. Except the pollution, obviously. And I hear that most jobs are shit. But if you get lucky, like me, it’s a great place.

      Cohesive narrative can be a fine goal, but sometimes it’s better to reflect reality as you’ve done above. They both have their benefits.

  3. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    Very interesting piece, Brian. I’ve always wondered about the “first thought, best thought” idea, perhaps out of awe for writers like Kerouac who can pull it off. I do a lot of editing when I write, but often the passages I’m finally most satisfied with are the ones that spilled out, without any help from my brain.

    I like “those bricks out of which we’ve built our personal empires, the bedrock of those things that fill our lives” and your thoughts on the woman who’s comes to save the lions. You’ve reminded me to exercise that first instinct more often.

    • Brian Eckert says:

      Thanks for taking a look, Nathaniel. I agree with you about those lines that just “spill out.” For me, writing is about finding a balance between polishing, but not overdoing it, so the raw, visceral emotion remains intact. Sometimes I over-edit, and what I end up with is totally different than what I started out with, and often not for the better. Or, I’ll wrestle for hours (days…?) with a passage, trying to perfect it, only to realize that what I initially spat out really was the best. I often free-write by hand as a sort of sorting-out process…I take inventory of those thoughts that are there, refine the incoherent ones, and leave the stand-alone heavyweights as anchors around which all the other passages coalesce.

  4. JoAnn says:

    Good piece, Brian. I do both, write longhand in my journal with no editing, and compose carefully crafted pieces on my computer, only to find that the sentence or two I blurted out without much thought is more concise and profound than the paragraphs I wrestled with. Or not. Sometimes I have to work and rework in order to understand what my point really is. It really is a balance.

    I also think that the ease of editing on a computer makes it TOO easy to think reworking will improve writing. It becomes a form of mental whittling, really, until there’s nothing left of the original intent.

    I also agree with David, that you’ve captured the essence of travel. It’s so intense, yet mindless at the same time, and when it’s over, there’s barely any coherent thread at all, just a series of moments and observations. Any of them may trigger thoughts, or may just appear then disappear.

    I’m impressed that you’d undertake to edit your journals. A Sisyphean task, indeed, but well worth it, judging by this piece.

    Thanks for this!

  5. Brian Eckert says:

    Thanks for reading, JoAnn.

    I find that when I write in my journal, even if I end up bumbling and stumbling for the first few paragraphs, or pages even, I work myself into a rhythm that I compare to being hypnotized…or meditating. When I’m operating within this more subconscious, intuitive level, I find that I get to the point of what it is that set me out writing in the first place, almost as if I’m talking things out with myself. Although I may not use much of what comes out in this “altered state” I typically find there are some great individual lines and passage that I can take back and work into a more refined piece.

    It’s strange, though, because I can’t always take my mind to this place. And it comes much more often while writing by hand. Really, typing and writing are two totally different acts. When writing by hand I’m more inclined to let go and let whatever comes out come out. But when typing, for some reason, I can agonize over each line, overthinking, typing and backspacing endlessly.

    I also think it has something to do with the fact that I perceive writing by hand as a much more private act, and thus I’m more apt to let it all out. By contrast, when working straight with the computer, everything seems so much more final, like it has to be perfect. It’s hard to explain. Maybe if you’ve also experienced this you know what I mean.

    My hope is to try and work all of the journal entries into a novel-length piece. Not sure if many people can palate work of this kind at any length, however, so it remains a serious work in progress.

  6. “Would you like to have a look inside?” she translates.

    You know those one-sentence novel contests?

    This is a clear winner, I think.

  7. Brian Eckert says:

    Interesting comment, Sean. I’ve never heard of a one-sentence novel contest. I’d probably nominate your line about “The Donald Trump of anal.”

  8. Joe Daly says:

    Very very cool travelogue.

    Here’s my fave:

    >>How can I hope to explain to a stranger in business casual what I have trouble myself understanding?<<

    Only someone in the throes of a strange trip like yours would find themselves asking such a question.

    You’ve captured the manic and meditative rhythms of travel. Sounds like a savage trip. Glad you remembered to keep a journal!

    • Brian Eckert says:

      Thanks, Joe. I’m encouraged that people are finding this readable, at least in excerpt form. I’ve toyed with the idea of adapting all of my journals from this trip into a novel-length travelogue. I think that if it was mixed in with more typical prose, people would be able to get through it. 250 pages of the above, however, might be asking too much of a poor reader’s attention span.

  9. M.J. Fievre says:

    “Every man yearns for a prophet, a taste of the supernatural, because it relieves the angst of making choices..” Yes, indeed. Well put.

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