Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Last Breath

Most people believe that your last breath marks your transition from life to death. That may be so, I don't want to get into a philosophical discussion about what is living and what is dead, but I do want to point out that sometimes there is another breath, long after death, that people tend not to know about. I'm going to start by saying that dead things smell bad. And big dead things smell really bad. And if you've caught me in a particular mood here you've probably heard me complain about how awful it is to pass by a dead cow. The smell is repulsive. Unfortunately, this being the starving season, so far from the rains of last year, cows are now regularly dying from lack of food and water. It's disappointing to see farmers loose such a valuable resource, that and it smells gross.

I can't figure out if cows usually just die on the outskirts of villages, in the now dry ephemeral streams where they can spend their last moments envisioning lifesaving torrents of water, or if farmers carry them there so that the cows aren't dead in the middle of villages. Probably a mixture of both. Either way, right now there are two dead cows right next to the master farmer garden where I have my big tree pepiniere. The one cow has been decomposing there now for over two weeks and although it still smells, I can now at least venture into the corner closest to where it lies if necessary. The other one is fresh, one or two days old. It's bad, the curdling smell of rotting flesh distracts me while I try to water. My stomach shrinks up and reminds me painfully that I do not want to eat. My nose feels like it's been a little damaged by the putrid air it has to filter. But that's nothing compared to the last breath that is about to come.

When I get to the garden the cow is bloated. It's stomach is huge and disproportionate and reminds me of a blister. But when the breeze suddenly carries with it a scent that is too audacious to ignore, the stomach is back to a normal size. The final breath has dropped.

What exactly was in that stomach, I'm not sure, but what escaped it was stench. Stench so awful that Souleman and I gave up watering. The already disgusting smell of death mixed with what you might imagine the farts of a room full of sweaty overweight men with compromised digestive tracts from eating nothing except beer, beans, and Cheetos while they stay up all night playing video games. Picture the lowest tide, but for some reason a steamy layer of dead fish lines the hot and humid beach, the stench sticking to your body, carried on flies who try to get in to your ears and eyes. As if you opened a fridge full of only rotting leftovers and spoiled milk after cracking two dozen bad eggs in your kitchen where you've recently eaten a package of strong French cheese. It was bad. Thankfully I believe that sigh of sulfurous doom was the true last breath that this cow will ever exhale.


The bugs are out again. I've accumulated a few more bug stories throughout the year, here they are:

One day I noticed a line of tiny black ants crawling across my floor. I sweep my room every morning, so I know they weren't there earlier. They followed an invisible path to my trunk, which they disappeared underneath. Maybe I should have been tipped off since the road was one way. I lifted up the trunk to see where they all might be headed. A perfect outline of the trunk was filled in with black. But not a solid black, a moving, swarming, bustling black that, even though it stayed within bounds and was solid in color, did not appear stationary. A shadow of ants. With their roof suddenly relocated they began to search for it. Imagine thousands of ants suddenly and simultaneously leaving their previous parallelogram boundaries in search of some other arbitrary spot. I call it diaspora of the rectangle. They each chose a random trajectory and immediately set out. Up my walls, in every direction, over my feet. Imagine watching a shadow come to life and then, since normal laws of physics are already broken, you become fearful it will envelop the entire room. It kind of overwhelmed me and I didn't know what to do, or how to get rid of the ants. I couldn't even imagine where to start. I called my host uncle, who came in and, much more pragmatically, grabbed a broom and just started sweeping. It obviously didn't matter where you started, they were everywhere, just that you start. I followed suit and the two of us were able to clean away most of the ants within 10 minutes.
I still can't imagine why they were there, food can't really get underneath a trunk, and although it was next to my water filter, I hadn't spilled water there recently. And how did so many get there so fast. The whole thing is kind of mysterious to me, even though when I tell other Senegalese people about it, the only mystery they find is why I would bother recounting this boring story, “And...?”. Hopefully American blog readers will find it a little more interesting.

Another day I heard a buzzing noise that decidedly wasn't my cell phone. I followed the noise and found a fly trapped in a spider web. The spider was approaching but the fly was making no progress escaping. Then the spider started spinning it's web around the fly. It's legs were moving so fast and you wouldn't be able to tell what it was doing except for the fly slowly became covered in a white layer. The fly kept buzzing, but as time went on it became less energetic. Then the fly came in for a bite, I guess one laced with poison. More weaving, more biting, weaving, biting, and the whole time the fly is becoming more and more subdued, until the spider won, leaving only a marked silence behind.

Another day I had just woken up and was sitting in bed, for some reason staring at a stink bug that was walking along in the dirt near my door; apparently I was not the only one watching. The door was open wide so I couldn't see the other side. Just as the bug began to walk underneath the door, a fat purple tongue shot down and the bug was gone. Lizard breakfast.

And then the other night I saw the biggest spider I've ever seen inside a room. It was skinny, but that only helped to exaggerate the already disproportionally fat pincers. And it was extremely fast. I've never seen such a fast spider and can't figure out why they need to be fast. The fact that I had just read a short story by Stephen King probably only made me more jumpy. The spider was so big that I could hear it brushing up against things when it sprinted behind my table. I tried to kill it but was too slow. Spider at large. I definitely had trouble sleeping that night.

Fruit Drier Saga Continued

Sometimes you just have to recognize that a relationship is over and cut the ties cleanly. Sometimes you have to learn that the hard way.

I let my solar fruit drier sit for almost a year. We needed time apart to let things cool off. To come so close to successful assembly, only to fail once again, is an exhausting emotional ride. Then one day out of the blue, a farmer that I've worked with in the past expressed interest in using the drier in his orchard. He had a plethora of cashew apples and mangoes and a French tourist had convinced him that there was a large market for dried fruit. I jumped at the chance and we got the fruit drier working in just two days! It's amazing how much easier things are to do here when you have an invested local helping you out. We immediately stared drying things: cashew apples galore, tomatoes, and were excited to try mangoes. We held an appropriate technology open field day where we displayed the fruit drier and gave everyone dried cashew apples, which were gone by the end of the day (delicious). The local food transformation organization expressed interest, asking for pictures of the drier and for a sack of dried cashew apples that they could experiment with. Another Senegalese development agency asked for plans for the drier. I was excited and was beginning to count this as a success. It really seemed like people were interested.

Grafted mangoes were finally beginning to ripen, which are the only kind you can really dry here since the local varieties are too fibrous to cut appropriately. I saw the farmer I had given the drier to in my road town and told him I was going to buy a bunch of these grafted mangoes so we could test them out in the drier the next day. He was just as excited as I was. He wasn't going to be in his orchard then but told me his son would be willing to help me. The next day after lunch I cut up a whole bowl full of mangoes to bring to the garden. The whole time I daydreamed about dried mango treats being sold on the side of the road, exporting bags of Senegalese dried mango, and letting my friends try this fruit I had worked throughout two years to create! When I got to the garden with my full bowl, carefully protected from the flies, I saw the fruit drier, but in a peculiar state. Instead of how I had left it, it was in 4 different pieces, scattered on the ground where it had once stood. I left.

I talked to the farmer later, what happened? Why didn't you at least tell me when I saw you? He said that a wind tunnel had broken it and that he wasn't aware that it was broken when he saw me. Call me jaded but I don't actually believe him on either account. In reality the only thing I'm surprised about is how little I was actually upset at failing again.