Mzungu in The Mist

I’ve been fortunate enough to see a healthy slice of the world, zig-zagging up, down and all around, and for the first few years, aside from the stowaway in my backpack (The Crow), I did it on my own.  These days I’m fortunate to travel with the person I love most in this world: my girlfriend, aka, Little One.  We’re currently house-sitting and keeping a cat alive on a beautiful Greek island, having begun this trip in Israel and the Palestinian Territories in early December.  From there our rambling, improvised travel itinerary has seen us hit Rome, across the Adriatic to Albania, up through Montenegro, Serbia, slipping into Hungary and finally a cheap flight here, to Greece, residing in a rustic house halfway up a hill.  We’ve been here for three weeks.

The village is small and half of its populous seem to have fled to the mainland for the winter months – so it is quiet, our average day consisting of cooking, baking bread, and hiking to the small shop at the top of the hill to buy a bottle or two of cheap local wine.  In the evening we play cards, watch movies and drink those bottles of cheap white wine.  And feed the cat of course.  There’s not much life in the streets, day or night – it’s like a town on horse tranquilisers.  I like it a lot.  Today on the steep stone steps on our way to the grocery store we passed an old man leading a donkey loaded with firewood, and a mangy looking cat eyeballing me from a trash can. This was a busy day. Yesterday the most exciting event was a lemon falling off a tree.

I am experienced enough to appreciate these times, a handful of years ago my OCD would have filled these tranquil hours with graphic scenes of horror.  This afternoon, sipping cold juice in a garden overlooking a glorious blue sea, and grateful of the peace, I regressed to less placid days…

…I was in Uganda, scratching swollen red insect bites on my arms, watching a creeping mist curl across the forest canopy like an army of ghosts swallowing the world.  My memory took me inside its white belly, wet foliage scrapping across my face, and I remembered the thoughts that accompanied me on my trek through that drizzling rain-forest – anxiety dragging me down with moist hands, a bag of iron ball-bearings slung over my shoulders.

Those horrible, persistent images swarmed like mosquitoes.  I had told myself that I was getting better, all I had to do was throw these intrusive thoughts away and stop thinking about them – they were supposed to get weaker and fade to nothing.  I tried to ignore them, but Crow was picking at my membrane, and they flashed back, bloodier than before.

I wasn’t counting but it must have been over twenty times.

Twenty bullets exploding into her face.

Twenty pools of blood.

Twenty pieces of brain sliding down the wall.

I tried to think of where I was; the mountains, the rain forest, the village with the children I’d be playing football with later in the day.  I couldn’t get excited – the image of my girlfriend getting shot point blank in the face by a Ugandan soldier was contaminating everything.

It was this damn gorilla trek that had triggered it, the march through the Ugandan rain-forest with the trackers and the two soldiers with AK47s.  The unwanted image had flashed into my mind the moment my eyes had lingered on the battered magazine clip.  I’d fired one of those guns – twice.  Once in Vietnam, once in Cambodia.  It was the time in Cambodia that had damaged me the most.  In Vietnam the gun had been fixed to a bracket; in Cambodia, once I’d paid for the clip, the soldier had simply dropped the gun into my hands and pointed to the target against the wall. “You could turn around and shoot everyone in the room,” squawked the crow.

My girlfriend had been there too; that was the first time I’d pictured her getting blown apart by an assault rifle.

Back to Uganda, and when we’d finally come face to face with a gorilla troop in its natural habitat (literally five feet in front of our party of eight), I’d been mesmerised for a whole minute, but then I remembered the gun, and what it could do, and what that would look like.  Another thought had briefly interrupted this …”If I pushed the man standing next to me into the silverback, what would that look like?”

The trek to find the gorillas had been through the forest at sunrise. Standing on a hilltop, watching that ghostly mist float across the rich canopy beneath me, and knowing what I was soon to witness, I felt like I was an extra in a David Attenborough documentary.  Here I was in the Bwindi impregnable forest, on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and all I could think about was one of the soldiers, there to protect us against border-hopping FDLR rebels, unloading his clip into the handful of tourists unlucky enough to be there on the day he lost his mind.  If I didn’t think about it, it was like a heavy weight was dragging at my shoulders, and a wriggling sickness in my stomach like I’d swallowed live snakes – it was making the trek through the lush forest a ruthless uphill grind.  So I thought about it, because if I managed to think it out of my head, to get that ‘right’ feeling, then I could enjoy what should be a highlight of my African adventure.

“Go on,” teased the crow.  “Think about it one more time, and I promise I’ll fly away.”  Of course, every-time I pictured the scene, it wasn’t quite what the crow had in mind.  “Try a little more realism,” he smirked.

The trek had been blighted by an horrendous spike (intrusive thought); the silverback glancing at me over his shoulder, the baby gorilla waddling out of the bushes and hugging my leg, all those experiences were events I would remember forever, but the crow had been cawing in my ear all day, and he’d done his best to defile it.  If it was five years prior he’d have succeeded, but that day I’d managed to squeeze half a glass of goodness out of that bitter lemon.  The memory of the Gorilla trek stays with me, tainted by the imagined sounds of gunfire, but not ruined.

…My thoughts are back in Greece now, ruing the Crows influence, frustrated that the OCD had tarnished my adventure, but appreciating the donkey I passed on the stone steps earlier in the day – because he wasn’t surrounded by dead people.

It is the evening as I finish this post, and a headache looms over my left eye.  I blame the cheap local wine, but reliving my Ugandan gorilla trek has probably played its part.  Beneath the dull pain I am appreciative that the assault rifle that once promised to kill my girlfriend sits on a soldiers lap over two and a half thousand miles away.

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