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peru

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1977

POSTMARK:  Peru

By COLLEEN and TOM McGUIRE

Undoubtedly one of the most charismatic cities in all of South America has got to be Cuzco, Peru, once the capital of the Inca empire. In the Indian language of Quechua, Cuzco means “navel,” and at one time the natives believed that Cuzco was situated in the exact center of the world.

Arriving in the city, we were instantly struck by Cuzco’s enchanting personality. Few places have the ability to charm so quickly, but Cuzco is unique and It immediately won our affections. For two weeks we were prisoners of the magical spell of this old Inca citadel.

The heart of the small city (120,000 people) Is the Plaza de Armas. This attractive square is rich In history, for it is in this plaza where the decisive turning point of the fall of the Inca empire took place. In 1833, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro betrayed the Inca ruler Atahualpa by executing him where the church of Santo Domingo now stands.

Cuzco still boasts amazingly well-preserved masonry which is the original stonework built by the skilled Inca artisans. One Just can’t believe how perfect those ancient masons pieced together huge chiseled rocks with such mathematical precision that nothing was needed to hold it together.

Other less important walls were constructed by haphazardly placing different sized stones together and filling in the spaces with mud. The result was as coherent and appealing a pattern as a patchwork quilt.

Ordinarily we don’t go around observing wall formations, but the ancient Inca stonework was too amazing to ignore. One day when we were strolling through Calle Triunfo, a narrow alleyway in Cuzco renowned for Its impeccable stone walls (Including the well-known carved stone of 12 angles), we came upon a sight that left us transfixed with wonder.

Two decrepit street musicians, one blind, the other legless, were playing their instruments to an audience that included only the two of us. The stocky blind man, wearing almost surrealistic pink sunglasses, plucked away on a battered harp. His little partner played a steel flute, and like the blind man’s, his hollow eyes never changed direction.

Although they were performing for alms, very few people walked by while we were there. Obviously the
pair preferred the mystical setting of Calle Triunfo to the more populated Plaza de Armas which could have earned them more money.

Their native music was beautiful In its simplicity and close resemblance to the hypnotic music of the Orient. We stood there awed by the bewitching sounds echoing against the stone walls, feeling profound compassion for two handicapped individuals endowed with a talent for creating beauty.

Just outside Cuzco, within walking distance, is the ruined fortress of Sacsahuaman. Three huge walls run parallel, yet In a zigzag fashion, for more than 360 meters. Every Inca wall inclines perfectly toward the center, from top to bottom. This design is supposedly earthquake proof. All corners are smoothly rounded, but ironically with all these circular finishes to the hard rock walls, the Incas were oblivious to arches. Instead, ail doors, entrances and niches in walls are squared.

Sitting on top of the fortress, we admired the precision of the stonework. The walls markedly resemble huge Jigsaw puzzles. We were amazed at the perfect engineering feats they accomplished with their primitive implements.

At the foot of the fortress roam numerous llamas with black, brown or white fur. The animals are so docile we were able to walk near them, but not close enough for petting. When we saw llamas in Chicago zoos, they weren’t that striking. But grazing freely in their native territory with the ancient ruins in the background, the Peruvian llamas presented a lovely scene.

Included in the admission to Sacsahuaman are visits to the Temple of the Sun at Kkenkko (Quenco in Spanish). We descended into a large cave. In the middle Is a huge flat stone big enough for a person to lie on. Presumably the subterranean room was used for sacrificial purposes. Further on is another Inca fortress called Puka Pukara. Perhaps It was installed to guard the nearby baths at Tambo Machay.

Tambo in the Quechua vocabulary refers to a resting place along an Inca route, sort of like truck stops. Tarmbos offered food, drink and rest from the rigors of traveling on foot in rugged Andean terrain, and centuries later the Tambo at Machay served its original purpose for us, two weary hikers.

Cuzco rests in a valley at 3,500 meters above sea level. To reach the surrounding ruins, we had to climb towering hills. We discovered it’s no myth that altitude markedly affects one’s breathing. We were forced to move slower, take frequent rests and at times experienced difficulty in digesting food. Despite two weeks to acclimatize ourselves, we never fully adapted to those tremendous heights.

It was a distance of three miles between Sacsahuaman and Tambo Machay and in between the ruins, we found scattered adobe huts inhabited by Indian families. Most of these people were farmers and since we were walking we had the opportunity to stop and observe them at work.

A group of five or six peasants (including women) were necessary to cultivate the soil. They were using tools Identical to those archaeologists describe ancient Indians as using. A wooden apparatus with a steel curved blade on the end is still used by the natives to turn the earth by hand.

Two farmers wielding the crude instruments would simultaneously one…two…three dig into the soil working on the same row. They were followed by another peasant carrying a sack of seeds and depositing them in the earth upturned by the dual diggers. This tedious method of farming wasn’t helped by the steep incline of the hill they were cultivating.

Potatoes seem to be the primary crop which is not surprising since the potato is indigenous to this area. The “papa,” as it’s called here, is one of the few crops able to withstand the high altitude and rocky terrain of the Cuzco area. Indiana farmers can’t imagine how easy their work is in comparison to all the energy Peruvian farmers must devote to their land and the meager results these peasants receive.

We spent the entire day exploring the ruins on the outskirts of Cuzco. By the time we arrived back in the city, it was approaching dusk and thus getting cool.

Cuzco’s weather is such that if you stand under the hot sun in the day, you sweat. Move several paces to shade and you shiver. So with no sun the nights get really brisk.

We ran downhill to our hotel as the sun set behind the mountain on which Peruvian soldiers in 1819 inscribed in gigantic letters “Viva Peru.”

mp

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, April 3, 1977

POSTMARK: Peru

By COLLEEN and TOM MCGUIRE

Throughout our southbound journey, whenever we were asked where we were headed, we would reply “Peru.” “Ah,” would be the normal response, “you’re going to Machu Picchu.”

Machu Picchu, the prime tourist attraction in Peru, is an ancient Inca city situated 76 miles northwest of Cuzco and rests at an elevation of 8,000 feet above sea level. These incredible ruins lay hidden from the modem world for nearly 500 years until Dr. Hiram Bingham of Yale University discovered this legendary lost city in 1911.

Most tourists take the five-hour train from Cuzco, spend several hours at the ruins, then retreat back to civilization in the evening. We decided to approach Machu Picchu in a quite unconventional manner — hiking for three days on the original Inca trail to reach our destination.

Our exciting odyssey commenced on a rather chaotic note. To arrive at the Inca trail we had to take the train from Cuzco to Kilometer 88 (Machu Picchu is at Kilometer 112) and departure time was 5 a.m. So an hour beforehand we staggered out of our beds and ambled over to the station where a horde of Indians were already waiting at the entrance gate.

When the man opened the gates, people began stampeding in the darkness for seats for themselves and all their cumbersome belongings. We pushed and shoved just like everyone else.

The train stopped just long enough to deposit the four of us in the middle of nowhere, so-called Kilometer 88. The only activity in sight consisted of several Indian women who were squatting near the tracks like colorful statues.

To reach our trail we first had to cross a crude manmade bridge spanning the turbulent Urubamba River. There was one hut on the other side and its apparent resident approached us. We chatted for awhile about our journey, gave him a cigarette, and in exchange he gave us brittle green leaves and an object that resembled a long slender stone.

The Indian demonstrated to us how to use his gift. Take a fistful of the leaves and wrap them around the small chunk of the stone which is actually concentrated ashes and breaks fairly easily. Put this wad in the side of your mouth and just chew it casually like tobacco. He explained that all natives participated in this age old custom and its effect is good for hiking in the high altitude.

Immediately we realized that he was giving us coca leaves, the stimulant that in its further state produces cocaine. We had seen many Indians chewing the cud that turns your saliva and teeth a fungus green and we knew that the ancient Indians also regularly indulged in the habit. And we figured that since we were doing the Inca trail, we should do it the native way.

The first half day of hiking we were all chomping away on the Indian present. It numbed the entire side of our mouths and made us feel extremely energetic. However, the sensation soon died away, leaving a rancid taste. We abandoned the coca leaves thinking aloud what poor Indians we would make.
The hike through the imposing Andes Mountains was breathtaking — literally. The vista of towering snow capped peaks in the distance was phenomenal.

The entire Inca trail is strewn with forgotten ruins which are appreciated only by those who undertake such an unorthodox approach to Machu Picchu. The second day we stumbled upon a petrified fortress called Sayacmarca (meaning elevated town in Quechua). This remote ruin is perched high atop a protruding cliff overlooking a stupendous abyss. The stonework at Sayacmarca is moss encrusted with age, and the grounds are smothered by unkempt jungle growth. Its desolation was haunting, perhaps because swarms of camera toting tourists haven’t yet scared off the ghosts of the eternal Inca spirit.

Our last night we camped at the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, the Inca baths. Crystal clear water still flows through narrow channels carved in the rocks. Here was one of the few places in Peru where we enjoyed the luxury of cold, uncontaminated water. Instead of sleeping in a nearby damp cave, we found a simple straw hut erected inside the ruins, a dwelling we were amazed, yet relieved, to find.

The next morning when the clouds lifted we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu atop a mountain six hours away. We didn’t see the vacant city again until the last hour of our hike, as the remainder of our trek led us through a tropical rain forest.

Towards the end of the hike, we had to grope to relocate the obliterated path. Operating with complete disregard for nature and the priceless Inca stone trail, the Peruvian government is foolishly raping the land to construct a fancy hotel at Machu Picchu’s back door. The engineers detained us for an hour while they heedlessly dynamited their own beautiful wilderness.

Oblivious to the perpetual drizzle, we were ecstatic upon arriving at Machu Picchu. However, we were too weary to explore the ruins immediately, despite the inviting temptation they offered.

After a rejuvenating night’s sleep in a warm bed, we were ready for the ruins the next day. Machu Picchu stands as a fossilized testament to the ingenuity and cultural superiority of a long vanquished race of enigmatic Indians. It completely baffles us how this city in the clouds was constructed without the aid of modern technological devices. If you could see the astounding engineering and exquisite craftsmanship that went into making Machu Picchu a reality, then you could well understand our amazement and the many, many questions that flooded our minds.

After walking around the magical ruins, we realized that we were confronted with one of mankind’s oddities that must be seen — not written about — to fully absorb the staggering beauty of this fantasyland

bolivia

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1976

POSTMARK:  Bolivia

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

In Indian language, Titicaca means jaguar, and from the air Titicaca Lake on the border of Bolivia resembles a jaguar.

Yet how did the ancient Indians, lacking aerial transportation or sizeable mountains to climb, conceive of this design? It’s another of the innumerable mysteries we have encountered in South America.

Traveling nearly 20 hours overland from Cuzco, Peru, to Titicaca, the highest navigable body of water in the world, we stopped at a small village called Copacabana, situated on a peninsula that juts out into the lake.

On sunny days the beauty of the area is stupendous. The crystal waters sparkle with a blinding blue effervescence, and miniature waves combine with an infinite horizon to create the impression that Lake Titicaca is a sea. Native dugout canoes drifted by as we lounge on the boulders along the shore.

The Indian women, with their toothless grins, were amiable and frequently engaged in conversation with us. In our first chat with a native Indian we committed a faux pas: They prefer to be called campesinos (peasants) rather than indios (Indians), the latter being an offensive title to Bolivians. Thereafter we referred to them as campesinos.

Because of the high altitude, the sun at Copacabana is extremely intense. Our thirsts were satisfied when we discovered a peasant women with a makeshift stand set up in front of the lakeshore. Her product instantly enticed us — fresh peach juice. Like the surprise packages in a Crackerjack box, much to our delight we found a genuine peeled peach at the bottom of the glass.

As we were about to leave, 15 men marched by, decked out in neat blue uniforms. The campesina proudly informed us that they were her country’s navy. We found this rather humorous, considering that Bolivia is a land-locked nation. But the campesina pointed to the vast lake, proclaiming “Bolivia does have water!'”

Fresh Titicaca trout is Copacabana’s kitchen specialty. But surprisingly the price is high ($1.29) for a good filet with trimmings, because the supply has been drastically depleted over the years and the people have unwittingly failed to give the fish enough time to regenerate.

From Copacabana we moved on to La Paz, distinguished as being the world’s highest capital. The seven hour bus ride to La Paz was unusual, since the bus was jammed with peasants transporting contraband from Peru into Bolivia to sell on the La Paz streets for a reasonable profit.

At two check points along the route we were detained by “aduana” or custom agents. Naturally the smugglers didn’t want to be caught with an overabundance of outlawed goods, so we were asked to conceal in our backpacks such unlikely items as soap, underpants and tennis shoes.

We willingly complied with their request, taking it more or less as a joke. The Bolivian police ignored us, but a poor peasant woman fought viciously to retain an inconsequential product which would have earned her money in La Paz. From the bus window we watched the tragic drama unfold.

First the agents removed her box from the bus to their jeep. At this point, she jumped on the moving vehicle and, clinging steadfastly, she desperately pleaded with them to give her a break. Tears streamed down her face and her baby dangled from her papoose while the agents mercilessly shoved her off the jeep into the mud. The entire affair was absurd when we learned her “crime” was transporting toilet paper.

We arrived in La Paz during the midst of Carnival.  Although Rio de Janeiro is the Mardi Gras capital of the world, every town in South America celebrates its own version of Carnival.  Throwing water balloons is a characteristic of Carnival and the streets were hopping with high-spirited pranksters.  No on escapes without getting wet, either from a balloon or from a bucket of water upended by a sniper on a rooftop.

Two hours by bus from La Paz lies another one of South America’s mysteries — Tiahuanaco.  This obscure archaeological site consists of only several intact ruins; nothing else has been reconstructed or restored.  Chunks of rock are strewn througout the fenced-in area.  We calculated that if put together like pieces of a puzzle archaeologists could surely provide some answer or hypotheses to the hundredsof unanswered questions concerning this place with no known recorded history.  The rocks look natural just lying there on the ground, but we suspect they used to be part of some magnificent formation. 

The most impressive ecavation is the so-called subterranean room.  It’s an extremely large perfectly symmetrical pit with walled stonework reminiscent of that at Machu Picchu.  On all four sides of the quadrangle are sculpted heads representing various races from all over the world, including Oriental, Negroid and Caucasion features.

Another spectacle which awed us was “La Puerta del Sol” or the Gate of the Sun.  It’s a megalithic doorway carvedout of a 50-ton rock, complete with intridcate designs of birdmen engraved in the stone.   Above the door’s entrance is a man crying because, as oral history has it, his people left for the stars.  Tears spotting his cheeks are clearly visible.

First publsihed in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, October 3,1976

POSTMARK:  Argentina

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

Visions of terror danced in my head whenever I used to try to imagine what Argentina was like after reading countless newspaper accounts of terrorist shootouts.

But it’s a pity that the media seem only concerned with the political shakeups for Argentina has far more to offer. The country is fantastic due exclusively to the nature of the Argentine people.  They aren’t friendly; they are overly friendly; They are cheerful, always smiling, helpful, noticeably sophisticated and enjoyable to talk to. Except for my experiences with the Greeks, Argentina has the finest nation of citizens I’ve ever met.

If Argentina didn’t have a military government, I would find it ideal. However, the military is a reality. Within 100 miles of crossing the Bolivian border my brother and I were searched three times on a first-class southbound bus — one that served free refreshments.

One passenger had the boldness to complain when soldiers ransacked his luggage. He had nothing of contraband, but because he protested, and mildly at that, the soldiers detained him. As the bus pulled away I caught a glimpse of the victim and was spooked to see such trepidation and terror in a grown man and such pompous wrath on the face of the uniformed officer.

On two occasions, I witnessed the military’s drilling procedures, and they caused me to shudder, The 7 soldiers weren’t merely marching, but were goose-stepping, just like I’d seen in war documentaries of Nazi soldiers.

Basically the government is unconcerned with backpackers and tourists, and doesn’t bother us at all. From Jujuy, way in the north, my brother Tom and I boarded a train for Buenos Aires about 1,700 kilometers away (forget hitchhiking; people are too afraid to pick up any road-side strangers)

After previous rides on other South American trains, the Argentine train was a relief. It was so clean you could actually sleep on the floor — which I did because it was a 36-hour ride to the capital. The train speeds down the tracks instead of ambling along. There’s no oversale of tickets, so that everyone has a seat, and crowds don’t block the aisles.

Since everyone here was so decent, we had no worries about robbers. Tom had placed his hand-made Peruvian bag above us on the luggage rack. Suddenly it fell off the rack, ricocheted off my back and flew out the open window. We looked at each other in horror, knowing that inside the purse was his passport, all his travelers’ checks, health certificate, $15, all identification, plus an open plane ticket worth $75.

The train made a stop about five kilometers later in a little village called Frias. We disembarked, backtracked up the rails for seven kilometers, but due to the summer’s high grass could find no sight of the precious bag. Disappointed, we returned to Frias to report the loss to the police, since, traveling around Argentina without any documents is worse than getting in a car wreck and not having a driver’s license.

The people of Frias were tremendous. Lelia, a widow with four young children who works at the train station took us to the police to help explain the incredulous event to the officers. After a fatiguing amount of questions — also directed at me, who had lost nothing — Tom finally got a paper which served as a temporary passport.

Lelia then insisted we spend the night at her house, where she fed us and mothered us tenderly. The next day we were going to leave, but about five men urged us to stay. These kind men took time off from their work to help us for a second day to scour the tracks. But, unfortunately the little Peruvian bag did not turn up.

For a second night Lelia took us into her home and fed us well. I had showed her the various coins I’ve been collecting of each country I pass through, and she and her neighbors bestowed on me a variety of obsolete Argentine coins. Tom and I left Frias the next day, touched by everyone’s generosity.

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, April 3, 1977

POSTMARK: The Gambia

By COLLEEN and TOM McGUIRE

While attending Indiana University in 1975-76 we became close friends with an African named Ebou Camara. After studying for seven years in America, Ebou returned to his homeland, Gambia, at the same time we left for South America. Our departing words to Ebou were, “See you in Africa’ — and now, months later, as promised, here we are.

Ebou welcomed us into his family’s home where he lives with some of his 10 brothers and sisters and his widowed mother. But at any given time it is impossible to determine the precise number of people under the Camara roof. Like a motel, relatives filter in and out, staying a week or a month or indefinitely. No matter how distant the relative is, his visit is always accepted, for this sort of hospitality is reciprocal.

At one time the Mandinka was essentially a rural tribe. Ebou’s father, like many Mandinka peasants, left his countryside village in an exodus to the capital city area where today’s Mandinka generation now rivals the indigenous Wolof tribe. Even though many Mandinka are now urbanized, most still retain their rural cultural roots.

The Camaras live in a spacious cement house with a big sandy front yard full of mango trees and squawking chickens. Unlike most families, they have running water, a refrigerator (displayed in the living room), a toilet and other luxuries normally considered Western comforts. Despite these Western appliances, the Camaras are truly Mandinka in culture.

The domineering force at the Camaras’ is Ebou’s mother, Fanta Darba. Like many African women, she did not adopt her husband’s last name at marriage. Everyone calls her Ma (the M is heavily emphasized) and she graces her home with all the majestic grandeur of motherhood. Her children range in age from 14 to 37, yet she also attends to her flock of grandchildren.

Fanta Darba decorated her arms heavily with thin silver bracelets that clang musically whenever she walks. She also dyes her palms and feet with fudano.  At first we asked Ebou if Ma had accidentally burnt her hands cooking or something. But no, she often wraps her hands and feet in plastic with red dye taken from the leaves of the fudano tree to darken her skin. This is considered a beauty trait as well as a natural softener against dry winds.

Maternal duties for Gambian women extend even to grandmothers. Ebou’s grandmother, affectionately called Musukeba (old woman) is equally active in child care. She’s a sprite old woman of about 90, and it’s not unusual to see her pacing around with an infant tied in a cloth to her back or thrashing a naughty youngster with a bundle of twigs.

Many of the women help with the cooking, but Ma is the undisputed queen of the kitchen. The Camaras could easily afford a stove, but Ma doesn’t want such a complicated contraption in her outdoor kitchen. She prefers to stick with her traditional log fire because she knows precisely how to regulate the burning flames to simmer or boil a dish to perfection. Breakfast is routine. Each previous evening, rice and peanuts are pulverized with a pestle as large as a baseball bat in a mortar as big as an urn. The crushed millet is called tiachulo and resembles lumpy oatmeal. The family giggled at our awkward attempts to pound the grains. We were astonished at the amount of energy entailed in preparing a simple breakfast and pondered on how Quaker Oats has made mornings easy for many Americans.

One of the most fascinating aspects of living with a typical, African family is watching them pray. The Camaras are Muslim in faith and very devout at that. Each day the adults congregate outside to pray five times at separate intervals. The intriguing ritual is begun by taking a pot of water and carefully washing the hands, mouth, nose, head, eyes and feet.

Once they are cleansed, they move to their prayer mats and face east toward Mecca. Even old Musukeba and Fatou, who’s eight months pregnant, perform the sequence of standing, kneeling and bowing while reciting cryptic Arabic verses from the Koran, the Muslim bible. When the normal five-minute prayer session is over, we can resume conversation with the family.

However, for some of the elder and more devoted Muslims, the homage is not complete. They lapse into additional Arabic verses while lingering a tasabayo. This is a rosary with 100 beads entailing 100 extra recitals to their god, Allah. These devout men have a more comprehensive knowledge of Arabic than the average African Muslim, who simply parrots the language in the same way many Catholics used to chant Latin at mass without understanding it.

One of the obligations of the Islamic religion is to make a “haj” at least once in a Muslim’s lifetime. A haj is a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Ebou’s mother recently had the thrill of her life when she and a group of Gambian Muslims chartered a jet to Mecca.

One night after the evening prayers, Ma presented Colleen with a ring she had brought back as a souvenir from the holy city. Inscribed on the ring was an Arabic passage. We had to wait for the Tetsabayo prayers to end before an elderly uncle could decipher the message. His erudite interpretation hinted at pleasure in life.

The Camaras lead a simple, tranquil traditional life. We share many relaxing evenings with them lounging on straw mats in their front yard. Often they question us about our American lifestyle and we in turn are so curious about the countless unusual facets of their culture. In living with the Camaras, we are receiving an authentic taste of black Africa, and this experience is fantastically delicious.

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1977

POSTMARK: The Gambia

By COLLEEN MCGUIRE

The advantages of staying with an African family range from sheer enjoyment of the experience to the profound educational opportunities involved, such as the Saturday when the Camara clan invited me to a Moslem ceremony that was the equivalent of a Christian child’s baptism.

To attend the ceremony, we drove 112 miles into the hot African countryside to Mansakonko, where Fanta Camara’s eldest daughter, Ramatou, lived with her husband and five children, plus her husband’s second wife. Ramatou’s latest child was a week old, the age when a child is named.

When we arrived, there was a huge crowd on the lawn and beautiful music in the air, Ramatou’s husband is a high official so his family resides in a huge British colonial house.

I found it ludicrous that past British residents installed a fireplace in the house, probably to remind them of England, but totally useless in tropical Gambia.

All the women were found inside, lounging on beds in the bedroom, dressed up in beautiful African gowns and adorned in their finest jewelry. However, I couldn’t understand the women’s Mandika conversation and felt claustrophobic inside with so many eyes on me.

Even though it is traditional at weddings and funerals for all the women to congregate inside and the men outside, I preferred to be outdoors in the fresh air, and close to the vibrant music.

Nobody invited the musicians to the ceremony. They are known as griots, and show up at special occasions on their own, in the hopes people will bestow money on them.

They sang in raspy voices songs of the past that told a story about their ancestors. The two male griots were strumming koras, instruments similar to the guitar except the base is made of a huge round gourd larger than a basketball. The female griots rhythmically tapped metal tubes on the sides of the kora and seemingly tried to outchant their male partners.

From childhood African women wear earrings of solid gold that weigh heavily on their lobes.  The griot women had the biggest gold earrings 1 had ever seen and the holes in their ear lobes seemed large enough to slide a pencil through. The griots wanted money from me, but all I had was a grapefruit in my hand. They accepted it, and they probably would accept just about anything that was free.

Soon, Ramatou stepped outside, cradling her newborn baby. A bit of the child’s hair was cut for the mother to save and the little girl was named Aja Dalbo after a friend. (The friend has been to Mecca and women who complete the Moslem obligation of visiting the Holy City are given the title “Aja”).

After the hair was cut, all the men lapsed into a monotone chanting of verses from the Koran. They were praying that the child would endure a long life. The next thing I knew, everyone was getting up to go home. On their way, many slipped Ramatou’s husband some money. Others presented him with live chickens.  At a child naming rite, the family is obligated to slaughter some sort of animal, depending on the family’s wealth. Poor people might kill a chicken, while rich people would offer an entire cow.

At this ceremony I witnessed a ram’s throat being slit — a thoroughly gruesome sight. I was the only person grimacing, as everyone else seemed to enjoy it.

Later Ramatou served dinner to the 30 or so guests. About five or six large bowls were filled with benechin, a spicy dish composed of rice and the freshly slaughtered meat. People broke up into groups of five or six, and each group had its own bowl. Some groups ate on the porch, others in the kitchen, and others in the bedroom.

All of them sat on the floor and scooped up the rice with their hands. I was the only person given a spoon, but I refused it when 1 saw I would be the oddball.

Eating their way was fun and a novel experience for me, but due to my inexpertise in molding rice in the hand, I ended up with a pretty messy mouth. The important thing was that my stomach was full and content.

Soon after dinner, the Camaras and I went through endless handshakes and Mandika farewell greetings. Finally we departed.

On the way home we stopped at Worokang to visit other Camara relatives, and as we entered the family compound, I realized that I was probably the first white person to visit this family. All the children came running up to me, yelling “toubob” and forming a circle around me as if I were on exhibit in a circus. Some of them boldly touched me, then yanked their hands back rapidly, as if they had been given an electric shock.

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, May 15, 1977

POSTMARK: The Gambia

By COLLEEN and TOM McGUIRE

“Roots” has raised the small West African Republic of The Gambia out of obscurity to become a household word in America.

While visiting friends here, we knew we had to see the now famous ancestral village of Alex Haley, the author of “Roots,” who painstakingly traced his geneology back to slavery days to the Kunte Kinte clan of Jeffure.

We rented a dilapidated taxi and traveled to the remote village via a bumpy, dusty, narrow road. At each small settlement we passed throngs of children came running up to the car, shouting “toubob, toubob,” the native word for white man. The excitement we aroused as toubob in the African bush was a prelude to the elaborate fanfare awaiting us at Jeffure.

When we finally arrived in Jeffure, a Mandinka village with no stores, running water or electricity, our
presence shattered the midday tranquility. A crowd of children was ready to greet us with huge smiles and outstretched arms as we stepped from the cab. They surrounded us, eagerly competing for the thrill of our handshakes.

Suddenly an old Muslim wearing a flowing gown and a red fez broke through the cordon with a ledger held reverently in his hands as if it were the holy Koran. He indicated for us to register as guests. There still weren’t many entries in the book, but among the signatures we spotted were the American ambassador to Gambia as well as reporters from Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times. We signed in proudly, as Journal & Courier correspondents.

After these initial amenities we found ourselves being escorted straight to Kunte Kinte’s compound. As we approached his home, like magnets we attracted more and more villagers until our enormous contingent overflowed into Kunte Kinte’s compound The Kintes welcomed us as if we were two long-lost relatives!

We were given seats on old wooden benches and introduced to all the Kinte clan. The sea of black bodies drowned us with smiling faces that glowed at us as if we were celebrity superstars.

Kinte was a tall man dressed in colorful native apparel. He didn’t speak English, but his glistening eyes communicated efficiently with us. He had a good set of reddish teeth that lined his mouth as firm as kernels on a cob of autumn Indian corn — the stain due to years of chewing the bitter kola nuts.
Momentarily the crowd parted to allow the “Akalo” to enter. This chief of Jeffure was an ancient man with crooked fingers and a body shaped like a question mark. He requested our autographs, then recopied our names in Arabic script.

Kinte and the chief next showed us various newspaper clippings, calling cards and photographs donated by previous guests. We had nothing to add to the collection, but decided to share a package of cookies with the group. At first only a few bold bands reached out for the rare treat, but with increasing speed more and more hands plunged into the package like attacking pitchforks. This frantic outburst subsided only after the cookies had been crushed to crumbs. The human explosion left us thoroughly dumbfounded and even a little frightened.

Like calm after an unexpected storm, the people regained their mellow composure and the incident was ignored. Before we could analyze the incredibly scene, Kinte asked us through a translator if we would enjoy native dancing.

Immediately the natives formed an orderly circle and a hollow calabash gourd was upturned in a
tub of water to serve as a drum. As soon as the baritone tempo struck the air, the women (men don’t dance to drums) began their unique ho-down. Like stationary birds in air, they fluttered their arms back and forth while stomping up and down as if the ground were on fire.

When they invited Colleen to join them, she was reluctant at first to compete with such impeccable performers. But at their insistence she was thrust into the center of the circle. As the audience cheered jubilantly and clapped enthusiastically, she released ail inhibitions and lapsed into the wild dancing as if she had been born a Mandinka.

After the dance ended, the women hugged Colleen and one of the Kintes presented her with a safo, a square leather locket containing verses from the Koran.

The festivities continued until someone advised us that transportation was scarce and we should head back to the road before dark. After a lengthy series of goodbyes and blistering handshakes, the Kintes remained at home while the other villagers accompanied us back with all the zeal of ants converging on two sugar cubes.

One woman gave us two wild fowl’s eggs, because toubobs are “supposed” to like eggs, just as the Mandinka believe that twins are “supposed” to like black-eyed peas.

On the way home we reflected on the lavish attention devoted to us as visitors. Undoubtedly, due to the “Roots” phenomenon, more and more toubobs will flock to Jeffure, making us wonder if the villagers will continue to receive all tourists as enthusiastically as they greeted us. We chuckled at their naive assumption that as Americans we were naturally good friends with Alex Haley.

But looking at it from their perspective, it’s not really so naive. Gambia is a very small country with population of less than 500,000. Coming from a county much smaller than Indiana, they probably can’t fathom the masses of people inhabiting our colossal nation. Perhaps in their limited view, Haley lives only several villages from our native village.

Less than a week after our excursion to Jeffure, Alex Haley popped up in Gambia. Accompanied by his brother, an architect, his prime mission was to present the Jeffure people with a mosque.
Another feature of Haley’s visit was a public screening of “Roots” in McCarthy Square, an outdoor grassy stadium. The movie was free, but hardly worth attending. Besides frequent film breakdowns, it was impossible to see or hear “Roots” in the same private comfort that most Americans enjoyed.
It is absurd that the human roots of “Roots” are denied a proper viewing of the film, especially since the book is still not available in Gambia.

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, June 26, 1977

POSTMARK: The Gambia

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

I lived with the Camara family in Serrekunda, the Gambia, for two months. During that time I had the marvelous opportunity to take part in two important African ceremonies. The first was the christening (called “kulio” in their Mandinka language) of a newborn child. The second and far more elaborate ceremony was Abdoulie Camara’s wedding.

Actually the occasion was not really a wedding. Abdoulie and his wife had already been married for five months, but traditionally the wife continues to live with her parents while the husband resides with his family for several months. The big occasion arrives when the wife’s family officially brings her to live with her husband’s family. This ceremony is called “manyo bito” in Mandinka; the literal translation being “cover the bride.”

Preparations for the huge party began several days earlier when about 20 neighbor women came to the Camara compound to start cooking all the food that at least 100 people would be eating for several days.

The first day was devoted to pounding an unfamiliar grain that would comprise the dish called “jeri.” It made quite a commotion in the Camara compound, what with all the huge wooden pestles hitting the wooden mortars, plus the chatting of a flock of women.

The second day was far from quiet, too. The Camara’s rural Mandinka relatives arrived from the countryside. The compound was overflowing with babies, children, teenagers, adults and old folks. It seemed like every one of them wanted to talk with me, the only toubob (white person) present. I was exhausted from so much socializing. But most of them, after a day that began before dawn, still were talking strong at midnight when I dropped off to sleep.

The ceremonies began on the third day. The guests started coming to the compound about noon and stayed at least until 2 a.m. Naturally all had to be fed lunch and dinner. Meanwhile, over at the bride’s family’s compound, similar celebrations were taking place on an equally large scale. Abdoulie had wanted a small, quiet manyo bito, but his wife is of the Wolof tribe and the Wolof are famous for their extravagant manyo bitos.

At about 4 p.m., the bride’s female family members paraded into the Camara compound, balancing on their heads large woven straw baskets containing everything necessary to prepare the bride’s bedroom. They also brought a huge bowl of food, enough to feed all the Camara’s guests. Likewise, the Camaras gave the bride’s family enough food to feed their guests.

The Wolof women took over Abdoulie’s bedroom, decorating it with new curtains, a bedspread and floor mats. They lighted incense which smelled much like that used in special Catholic masses. Then they welcomed all the groom’s relatives into the bedroom.

I also marched in to view the bed, smiling brightly at the Wolof women to compensate for my total lack of Wolof vocabulary. But behind my smile, I was puzzled as to how the custom of inspecting the married couple’s bed evolved, when in our society the bedroom is so utterly private.

At dusk, the griots (musicians) arrived with their long drums. African drummings are spectacular. Only men are drummers and they perform standing, holding the instrument between their legs. Only the women dance. They form a circle and one, two, or three women jump into the circle, shake wildly for only a minute, then jump back into the crowd and let other women have their go.

The drumming was still going on when I collapsed into bed at midnight. Later I was furious for falling asleep, because the highlight of the ceremony came at about 2 a.m. when the bride’s family officially brought her to Abdoulie. I was informed that she was dressed all in white with a black sort of turban around her head. She sat with the village elders, who chanted Muslim verses for her while everyone else gazed on happily.

The fourth day of the ceremony was wildest. A huge black bull was slaughtered in the yard. All the meat from the bull was used to make “benechin” that was cooked in a gigantic black pot big enough for several people to stand in.

On this day the women wore their “asobi” dresses. Fatou Camara had an asobi made for me, so that on the special day I was recognized by the distinctive material of my asobi as belonging to the Camara clan.  I was touched. She’s my age, 23, and when she had her fourth child last month, she named the baby Colleen.

The drummings on this day took place in the afternoon. As I joined the clapping spectators, the ladies urged me to get in the circle and dance.

I really wanted to dance because I felt energetic in response to the pounding of the drums. But I was shy because so many people I knew were watching. Fatou told the griots my name and they started singing about me. Then a neighbor woman forcefully took my hand and led me into the vacant circle. With my back bent forward, arms outstretched, I imitated their beautiful dancing style as best I could. Although I felt self-conscious, I enjoyed my outburst immensely. Some of the ladies ran up to me and put money in my hand as is the custom when someone performs well.

While we were all having such a fantastic time, the bride was in her bedroom where she had been since the night before and where she was to remain for three more days. People could come visit her, which I did. I promptly asked why she wasn’t outside where all the action was. I doubt if she had been asked that question by anyone else. She hesitated, then simply replied, “tradition.”

On her third day of confinement “tradition” has her come out of her room specifically to shed her clothes. On that day more drummings take place and thereafter she mingles normally with the folks in the compound.

I left Gambia the day before she was “released,” so I didn’t partake in the final ceremonies. Everything else I witnessed at the manyo bito made a great impression on me. In fact my entire two months at the Camara’s was an invaluable experience. It will forever remain my most intriguing insight into a culture so radically foreign to my own.

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1977

POSTMARK: Senegal

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

Formerly the capital of French West Africa, Dakar is undoubtably one of Africa’s most modern cities. The capital of Senegal is a miniature version of Paris with its tree lined boulevards, sidewalk cafes and chic women.

And like Paris, Dakar is a cosmopolitan melting pot composed of several African tribes, Frenchmen, Vietnamese, Lebanese and Indians resulting in a hodgepodge of shades of people strolling the clean downtown streets.

Similarities with Paris continue as both capitals are highly cultured. In fact, Senegal was the first African country to install a minister of culture in its government. The arts flourish in Senegal due primarily to Leopold Senghor, president of the Republic from the time of its independence from France in 1960. Senghor himself is a prolific poet with several books to his credit. The government lavishly supports native music, art and dance projects.

One of the first places I visited in Dakar was Gorée Island. About a 20-minute boat ride from the mainland, Gorée is famous as the site where African slaves were housed before their departure to the new world.

Gorée is absolutely charming. Formerly owned by the Portuguese, all the buildings are in the old colonial Portuguese style. They need restoration, but perhaps I liked them so much because the yellow and pink paint was faded and the cracked walls still evident.

The most chilling experience on Gorée was a visit to the slave house. I entered the dirt floor cells with an explosive imagination. As I looked out the tiny iron-barred windows and smelled the musty odor of the claustrophobic rooms, I vicariously felt the desperation and defeat that a black African slave might have felt. Fortunately there were no chains on my wrists or ankles as the Gorée museum pictures depicted.

On the ground level, centrally located, is a door. Separated by about 10 feet of rocky beach, I stood gazing into the infinity of the Atlantic Ocean. It was through this door that the slaves momentarily glimpsed the glorious blue horizon before being hastily shoved into a boat, forced into an unknown destiny.

The next day I was to take the train to Mali. However, that Tuesday there arose a strike by the workers. After travelling extensively I’ve learned to just sigh heavily when exterior forces abruptly alter my plans. It’s useless to break out into fits of rage or depression.

So I went to Dakar’s brand new American Embassy in search of Sering, a Gambian electrical engineer whom I had met while in Gambia. He recognized me, welcomed me warmly, and immediately took me to where he was staying in Dakar.

As I wrote once before, the extended family is very strong in Africa. Sering was staying at his uncle’s in the suburb of Sicap Amitié along with an undetermined amount of other relatives. Mr. Diop, a Muslim, had three wives, all of whom had a multitude of children. I could never keep track of who belonged to which parent or even if they were the uncle’s actual children.

The Diops were of the Wolof tribe, Senegal’s prime ethnic group. It was quite an experience staying with that family for 10 days because it was my first encounter with wealthy Africans.

Mr. Diop was in the shipping business but despite the family’s high standard of living, they still lived as traditional Wolofs. At mealtimes they ate outside, crowded around two huge bowls of benechin or mafe, scooping up the rice by hand. There was a nice stove in the kitchen but the women preferred to cook over a log fire.

Like other Africans the Diops would suck on a chewing stick. This is a small branch of a special African tree. Africans of all classes rub the stick up and down their teeth spitting out the green saliva and small bits of wood. I used the organic toothbrush and it really did leave my mouth as fresh as Colgate would.

The Diop women dyed their palms and feet with fudano. They lounged on mats on the ground. They played their fortunes by scrambling small sea shells. I observed that they carried the traditional lifestyle just as poor and middle class Woiofs do, except the Diops did it in finer surroundings.

Sering is half Mandinka and half Wolof. He also is “yaradal.” This means his mother had lost several children before him, so when Sering was born, as traditional Mandinkas do in such cases, she had his ear pierced to ensure (in her belief) his survival.

Even in Africa, a boy with an earring arouses ridicule from his young peers. Perhaps from this situation Sering cultivated his defiant personality. It was Sering who exposed me to the various levels of existence in Dakar.

He had acquaintances in Dakar’s ghetto areas where he purposely took me to visit so that I could closely see Senegal’s urban poverty. Believe me, it was sad. Families must go to the corner pump for water. None of them in that wretched area known as Grand Dakar have toilets. The walls are ugly aluminum siding. I even saw people scavenging in the garbage for food. This pitiful lifestyle is flourishing a mere block or two from the Diops fancy villa.

However, Sering also introduced me to Dakar’s finer aspects. We went to the modern African Art museum on the Corniche. He took me to a nightclub to hear native African music modernized by electric guitars.

The contradictions of Africa are immense. By the time the train strike was over 10 days later, I was more fond of Dakar, but I was also acutely aware of the city’s disparities.

I said goodbye to Sering at the train station, but I wasn’t sad. I know that I’ll be returning to Senegal before I leave Africa. I found Dakar so exciting.

mali

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, July 24, 1977

POSTMARK: Mali

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

The Republic of Mali is a sub-Saharan country so impoverished that it doesn’t even fall under the Third World category. Mali is probably a fifth world country. People are starving here, evidenced by malnourished children with bloated bellies.

Upon remarking that a particular long-legged bird was beautiful, one man replied matter-of-factly, “Yes, but we can’t eat them.”

Despite the poverty, Mali is rich in culture. Unlike other French colonized countries, Mali has retained almost a pure African environment. There are at least 10 different ethnic groups, all of them speaking unrelated languages and practicing their own customs.

The various tribes are distinguished mainly by the number of scarred notches they have and where these slashes are located. For example, the Kassonke have three small marks on the side of their faces, whereas the Bambara have three long scars down their foreheads.

Many say Mali’s finest market lies in Djenné, only three hours away, but it is necessary to leave the day before. Road transportation in Africa is so loose, that the question, “What time are we leaving?” is downright irrelevant A vehicle doesn’t depart until it is full. The bachee from Mopti, holding 15 passengers, took four hours to fill from the time I bought my ticket. Patience is the key work in Africa.

On arrival Sunday, Djenné’s large open square was virtually empty, allowing the 13th century mosque to majestically dominate the village square. The grey mosque is made of mud and straw like other buildings, but it stands out due to its size, its multitude of minarets and the large white ostrich eggs on the three towers.

Monday morning I turned the comer from the only hotel in town and gasped at the intense activity taking place in yesterday’s quiet square. The sights seemed to be straight out of a National Geographic movie. I penetrated the bizarre colorful crowd as if I had just stepped into a fantasy. Only in books had I seen anything as marvelous as the Peul women.

A typical Peul woman had at least 15 small pure gold hoops lining each ear. Another single loop pierced the bridge of her nose. Her hair was plaited into circles on her scalp with pieces of yellow amber strung through the braids. Some ladies had rows of amber stones on their heads as a sign of wealth. Often silver coins dangled from the braids, clinking against huge gold earrings. Those heavy earrings were bigger than a man’s fist, causing the lobes to droop deeply.

The Peul women somehow dyed the area about an inch all the way around their mouths darker than their already black skin, They frequently smiled, revealing their likewise dyed gums.

In giant calabash gourds, they sold yellow dust, green powder and small wilted leaves. I presumed they were spices. What looked like balls of mud to me turned out to be soap. What I thought to be a pile of garbage was sold as shrunken fish heads.

The food and faces were so foreign that my first African market really stunned me. Also, the poverty saddened me. The only vegetable sold was onions. The only fruit sold was mangos. There was no cheese and meat was almost non-existent.

To walk through the Djenné market was like being swirled through a colorful kaleidoscope. The activity would collide marvelously until I would pause to focus on a particular sight. During one “moment of focus” i! stopped to watch a leather worker make a leather necklace cord.  Working with unusual, yet practical wooden tools, he transformed a long strip of animal skin, about an inch wide, into a thin string-size necklace cord. His skill was superb, evident in his final touch of making a leather apparatus to open and close the cord when taking it on and off.

The leather stand was just one of the many stops I made to scrutinize a typical native at work. While cruising through the market, hundreds of foreign sights danced past my eyes.

Boys with heads shaved in patchwork tufts, young girls balancing five-foot branches of firewood horizontally on their heads; noble old men in wide, triangular Asian style hats, beggar boys with gourds hanging from their necks to collect discarded chicken bones; men puffing tobacco out of goat’s horn pipes.  Lepers extending their hands for money, but minus any fingers to handle the coins; baby girls with a row of tiny twigs piercing their ears to later be replaced by genuine earrings; children with belly buttons hideously jutting out outward several inches due to an improperly cut umbilical cord.

On and on and on, anywhere I looked was a sight or even a detail that astounded me or repulsed me, yet undeniably aroused me. The foreign stimuli was so intense that I took refuge in Djenné’s grand mosque, one of the few in Mali that women could enter.

I was required to leave my sandals outside which was just as well since the mosque’s floor was thickly
covered with sand. Unlike Levantine mosques I had previously entered, this mosque had no open central praying area. It was more individual oriented due to the 100 geometrically spaced columns occupying most of the mosque’s space. Wild bats zoomed through the many arched aisles.

I climbed a steep circular stairway which led to the mosque’s roof. There I had an aerial view of the bubbling Djenné market. It occurred to me that with a few minor exceptions the commodities, clothing and culture of the people were no doubt identical 1,000 years ago. 

I observed the lifestyle at length from the roof. It was better than a movie because it was reality. And; because it was reality, I descended the winding stairs with just a touch of anxiety at having to deal with that mind-blowing world.