Over the Curvature of the Earth

As I sit with what amounts to a sundowner in these parts–a cold beer–I can’t help but reflect on the five-night safari I endured last week standing guard in the husk that was our house.

I’ve been on a real safari, and it was a much easier enterprise.

Of course, we were cosseted and driven every “step” of the way, and the accommodations–even the tented camps–were magnificent. It was not your great grandfather’s safari. Still, I doubt I’ve ever sustained such a high level of sheer terror for so long a time. My mother-in-law wanted to take my wife, myself and the kids on a trip they’d always remember her by.

Sounds great, right?

Not to my wife. She opted to stay home with our last toddler. Her only words to me were to the effect that if anything untoward happened to any of our four older children I should not consider any homecoming. “Wherever you are,” she said, “you just keep on going.”

We were in Kenya and Tanzania. In fairly short order I discovered that everything there is either starving or venomous–or else festooned with enormous thorns. A black mamba slithered its way into one of our hotels. The night sounds at the tented camps–in particular the chuffing of lions–made me think of the infamous man-eaters of Tsavo. We were not too far removed from there. And then there was the time I came around a corner to find our youngest son, who was all of eight years old, about to enter into an earnest exchange of views with a male baboon whose incisors, I swear, must have been four inches long. Both our son and the baboon were beaming like ambassadors–at least, our son was; the baboon, I think it’s fair to say, could not have been described as smiling.

In a nutshell, then, our two weeks in the bush. And there were many, many more such incidents–so many that during the second week I began to search mentally for which locale, in the future, I’d be calling “home.”

But before departing for the bush we did call home–emailed, more correctly–from the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi. As I sat with our youngest son in the internet cubicle it occurred to me just how far over the curvature of the earth I was. Not, strictly speaking, geographically–but alone with a great responsibility. By the time we came home I deeply needed a vacation.

In my lexicon, someone’s having a “high orbit” means that person is delusional–like our former landlord, who, despite burning a third of the place down on 8 July and  ten days later  severing power and water, still believes that his property is in prime condition and ready for sale at a top price. I have news for you, Eric: Your corner-cutting has made your place a fixer-upper. But he insisted on a walk through to see for himself about our security deposit. Can you imagine?

“Over the curvature of the earth” has long been my expression for any kind of isolation–not quite incommunicado, necessarily, but gone.

For five nights–from the 19th to the 23rd of last month–I was again over the curvature of the earth, standing guard over Eric’s property and our belongings. Water had been restored, but there was no electricity. Appallingly, I was too stupid to so much as procure a transistor radio. Then again, with the Giants on such a downslide since the All-Star break, I look back and am thankful to have missed it all.

Somehow, during the 18th and 19th, we put the last edition of the Valley Voice through layout. A big thanks to Tony Maldonado for that. Somehow, on the 20th, I found another house. A big thanks to Julia Jimenez for that. Then there was distribution, and all the logistics of an impending move. So much happened that week I can scarcely remember it all.

But nothing happened at night.

Here’s the routine: At about 6pm it starts to get dark in the house; there’s nothing to do, but you still have to navigate your way through it to, say, the bathroom. So between 6pm and 7pm all the candles are lit, even though there is a last gasp of late afternoon and dusk yet to experience. This is when the dread sets in. And then you sit and experience it. That’s all.

After a number of hours dread becomes boredom–except for the night sounds, as at a tented camp. Nighttime in an isolated, rural house that everyone and his brother knows is abandoned. Which is why I stood guard.

The antidote to ennui is chardonnay–but then it always is, under any circumstances. Candle light doesn’t necessarily enhance the wine. In fact, candle light now holds no romance for me whatsoever. It’s dim, smoky, guttering and undependable. It plays hell with the cerebellum. Here’s to the incandescent light bulb!

And a big thanks to Thomas Edison for that.

— Joseph Oldenbourg

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