Monday, May 29, 2017

Rashid & Mukisa Celebrate Ramadan

A couple days ago, on the first day of Ramadan, our good friend Rashid, who happens to be Muslim, came by to take out Mukisa for the day. Rashid is in his early 20s, just graduated university, and loves Mukisa as much as Mukisa loves him.

"Where are you taking him?" I asked.

"Just to hang out," Rashid replied. "Acacia Mall, see some friends. That kind of thing."

Mukisa said, "Eeeeeeee," clapped his hands and drooled excitedly.

We gave Rashid some Muki supplies -- milk, yogurt, clean diapers -- and off they went.

Rashid has a way with young kids and he and Mukisa have been friends ever since Mukisa landed on this planet -- about 10 months ago. They departed at 11:30 and returned home around 5:30. They had a great time, Rashid reported. Muki got chips (French fries) at Cafeserrie, though Rashid didn't partake, it being Ramadan. This is the second time Rashid has taken out Mukisa for most of a day and Muki always returns glowing and laughing. I held Muki on our balcony as Rashid departed. Mukisa watched him and squealed and screamed and did his version of a wave. Rashid waved back, then slipped out the gate.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Mekong Delta Blues

Travellers, come and drop in and see me,
The Mekong Delta, land of fruit of variety
What you’ve lost will be made up for.
Come and you’ll be welcomed heartily.”
-- Brochure from Vietnamese tour company

Your head,” he says, “is a heavy head, and you have a hard time relaxing.”

He means there are many things in your head, there is a lot going on inside it,” Tam explains. “It is all filled up inside, maybe with thoughts.” Maybe. One can hope.

And you have tension in your back,” he continues. “When you get up in the morning your heels might hurt.” For the last 10 minutes we’ve sat casually chatting as he’s taken the pulses – three of them – in my left wrist: stomach, heart, kidneys. “You might get up to the bathroom too much at night,” he continues, “but your heart is strong.”

Tam and I are talking with the local pharmacist whom we happened to meet here, sitting on a low platform, inside Quan Thanh De Pagoda in the Mekong Delta city of Long Xuyen, Vietnam. It’s a disconcerting conversation because he seems to know the most intimate details of my life yet I’ve never laid eyes on the man.

I usually get up only once at night,” I say defensively. “Sometimes not at all.” He shrugs, purses his lips, raises his black eyebrows.

When we entered the temple, the pharmacist was dispensing herbal remedies out of a paper sack to a very old woman. I walked over to see what he was doing. Tam joined us after a short prayer at the altar, incense held over her head as she bowed, and so did a small curious girl dressed in purple pants and shirt. The old woman asked if I had any illness, and the pharmacist took my wrist, positioning his three middle fingers on it as if he were finding a note on a flute. The little girl in purple stared at me and raised her hand to my chin.

I have a shop in town,” the pharmacist says. “But this old woman has bad arthritis in her back and hands, so it is easier for her if I meet her here.” The old woman smiles with betel nut teeth the color of pomegranate, touches my hand and squeezes my forearm several times as if testing a melon. The girl strokes my beard, giggles and says something to Tam. “She thinks you would make a good photograph,” Tam explains. I look at the girl, make a goofy face and she laughs again.

I’ve gotten used to all the touching, even fond of it. Everywhere we go in the Mekong Delta people greet me, laugh when they hear me speak, ask how tall I am, touch my hands, my arms, my hair. It’s all friendly, playful, actually rather pleasant. “They think you’re from Mars,” Tam says. This far from home, constantly being touched and given reassuring pats on the back, having my hand shaken, being smiled at, and waved to is a soothing remedy for the sporadic pulse of vagabond loneliness.

But I’m not really alone. Tam, my guide and translator, and Jim, our driver, accompany me most everywhere. A couple of days ago they picked me up when I arrived by ship from Singapore in Ho Chi Minh City, the less melodic, though no less evocative, new name for Saigon – new since what Tam refers to as “The Liberation.” Both natives and foreign visitors use the names interchangeably.

That first day Vietnam overtakes me. As soon as I step ashore it conquers me. The place is rich, vivid, happening now, not later; the life is loud, lush and unpartitioned, the culture multi-layered, multi-coded. Wherever you go, you’re surrounded. Always. A marriage to the left, a funeral to the right (crimson and red coffins sail past on the river), a vendor of five-snake wine straight ahead, nearby firecrackers crackle to launch a new boat, its prow freshly painted with black and white cross-eyes, five men on one groaning Honda approach quickly from the rear, the killing of a pig here, children having a water fight there. And then it rains, the clouds break, and the sun explodes over a pond, shines on a blue water buffalo on the other shore with a woman reclining on its back, asleep. I can’t take it in fast enough, can’t make adequate notes; photographs can’t possibly do it justice, because they freeze movement; everything’s moving here. To really get it, you’d have to have some kind of real-time, total-immersion motion picture camera that produced spherical movies you could climb inside of. But even that wouldn’t do it. You’d have to be able to reproduce the climate, the smells. Finally, you must give in, surrender, relax, “go with it,” as they say, which, as luck would have it, is what I’m worst at.

For hours (indeed, days), on either side of the highway, we pass glowing green rice paddies; an endless plain of chartreuse neon plush with rangy, swaying hedges of coco palms, and with raised white tombs scattered over the fields. “The ancestors,” Tam explains, “are buried on the property to watch over and protect it.” Rice is harvested twice a year; when the stalks turn yellow it’s ready. “It’s been a very good harvest, very big,” Tam says, pointing out the yellow hulled grain laid out along the highway to dry in the sun.

The roadsides are paved with carpets of rice. Men and women rake it, sweep it; children walk arm in arm through it, scuffling the wet grains, turning them to the sun with their small bare feet. The sky is the color of cement. Though it’s 85 degrees, it’s the rainy season, and when the clouds burst everyone rushes to cover the drying rice with big blue plastic tarps. We pass three men lifting a huge shrieking pig tied to a pole out of a small motorbike-pickup. “The rice is like money,” Tam tells me. “If the person needs a pig or a boat or whatever, they pay with bags of rice.” After driving past it and over it for miles and miles, I’m craving rice. I want big mouthfuls of it.

In My Tho we hire a boat to take us across the great river, the Mekong, also known as Cuulong (Nine Dragons) by the Vietnamese. The Mekong, like the Mississippi or the Amazon, or the Rio de la Plata, which meets the Atlantic Ocean at Buenos Aires, is great in its massive, swift, gently undulating flatness. Sometimes, around dusk or dawn, it seems without current. With the possible exception of an Arctic ice plain, or an especially windless day in the doldrums, there is no other flatness on earth quite like it. The Mekong River Delta, recipient of centuries worth of rich alluvial soil, is one of the earth’s most productive rice-growing areas. But our first stop, Tan Long Island, is covered with longan orchards. Tam calls it Unicorn Island.

There are four islands around here. They are named after the four miraculous animals,” she says, “dragon, turtle, phoenix, unicorn.”

All but one of the beasts are mythological.”

Why do you say that?” Tam asks me.

Along Tan Long’s banks we pass men up to their necks in the caramel water, repairing the submerged split bamboo fences of shrimp traps. Boats go by loaded with coconut hulls, bananas. Two boys in a small canoe hold one side of a fishnet while their mother, walking chest deep in the river, holds the other side. Water hyacinths bounce on our wake. “They keep the hyacinths in the canals,” Tam tells me, “so the shrimp can’t get out.” We dock at a small wooden pier, clamber ashore, and find a narrow, stone walkway that takes us through Tan Long’s garden interior of orchards, hibiscus, bougainvillea, dragon fruit, succulents.

Every now and then we pass a house, each porch outfitted with a noisy, short-haired dog with a head like a fox, and a low-slung hammock holding a sleeping baby. When the sprinkling rain turns to downpour we simply walk through the open door of a nearby home. The young children stare and smile and their mother brings us tea and a bowl of fruit – longan, mangosteen, rambutan. The dog stops barking, distracted by a flea running toward his tail. We sit down around the table, mostly silent, watching the rain. At this point I’ve been on Vietnamese soil for less than four hours and the difference between the tempo of my life and that of the people I’m sitting with is awkwardly apparent.

I gulp my tea, get up, walk around the room, look at the photo portraits of the family ancestors that hang above a small altar. I sit down, pick up a longan, wonder what we’re going to do next. And what, by the way, are we doing now? “Sometimes,” Tam says in answer to my unasked question, “we like to sit for awhile.” And so we sit for awhile, because it is, after all, one of the most peaceful, pleasant, beautiful and dry spots anyone could hope for.

The fruit of the longan tree is slightly smaller than a ping-pong ball, with a tough skin and a large seed in the middle surrounded by refreshing, translucent pulp that tastes something like honeydew melon only not as sweet. I’m not sure what to do with my first longan, not certain how to open it, so I hold it just below table level and squeeze it between my thumb and forefinger. We’re a serene, unself-conscious bunch (except me), the children playing around our feet, the dog on the porch, the rain spattering the mud. Occasionally someone says something in the music of the Vietnamese language; more tea is poured; the dog barks at a falling leaf.

And then, KERSPLAT! I squeeze the longan so hard it explodes all over the front of my shirt turning me into something Jackson Pollock might have produced if he’d done his work in tropical fruit on cotton T-shirts. The laughter and the rain subside at about the same time. We thank our hostess and head back to our boat. As we walk I try unsuccessfully to wipe my shirt clean. The way to get at the meat of the longan, I’m later instructed, is to gently bite through the skin and then suck out the pulp.

On the way into town we pass a parade of colorfully dressed people holding red and white umbrellas. Leading the group is a bride wearing a lime green ao dai. “The astrologer picks the best days for the wedding,” Tam explains. “So maybe we see many weddings.” And we do. Over five days we see at least a dozen. The traditional ao dai, such as the bride sometimes wears, is an amazing article of clothing. Its high-necked, long-sleeved frock, split at the hips, creates an apron in front and a train behind that is constantly teased and tugged and twirled by the breeze; it follows after its owner like a pet wing. The pants worn underneath go to the ankle. A woman in an ao dai levitates.

October and November on the lunar calendar are favorite months to marry,” Tam tells me. “The people like to get married then so they can have more money to celebrate Tet, also because it’s cold at night.”

Because it’s cold at night?”

Yes, because then they have to sleep closer together to stay warm.”

As we drive, Tam occasionally pulls out a notebook and writes poetry. “In Saigon,” she explains, “it’s hard to find time to think of the beautiful verse. But I promise myself I will find time somehow.” Other times she sings. “When I was a little girl,” she says, “they told me that if I sang around the house so much I would marry an old man. But it’s not true because my husband is not old.” Tam’s husband also works in the burgeoning Vietnamese travel business, she later tells me. They have two young daughters.

In My Tho, during lunch, Tam and I are in an open-air restaurant watching a bride and groom posing for a photographer in the garden. The bride changes gowns several times. She’s brought along a selection from a gown rental shop packed in red plastic cases. Tam thinks the groom looks too old for the bride and I agree. Nearby, from a cage under a banana tree, a gibbon with flaxen hair is also watching. He agrees too. A Coca-Cola sign hangs near his cage. Coke’s new marketing slogan for Vietnam is “Happy to meet you again!” An odd choice, some would say, given that it almost begs for the prospective consumer to recall the circumstances of the previous meeting.

We share a whole elephant ear fish for lunch, picking at it with our chopsticks and filling tortilla-size rounds of rice paper with the soft white meat. The food is exquisite, as it always is in Vietnam. If you can find ice in the Yukon, collect sand in the Sahara, you’ll have no problem discovering extraordinary cuisine in the Mekong Delta, from cobra stew and caramelized fish to the million varieties of pho, the addictive national soup, and of course the world’s most satisfying rice.

That night in My Tho the motorbikes are massing, their white and red firefly-like running lights swarming through the dust haze, past the cafes and the groups of people gathered around televisions. I stop in a cafe and order roast shrimp, rice and tea. After bringing the food, the young waitress sits down with me. She watches me for awhile, and then pitches in, helping to take the shrimp out of their shells and ladling sauce onto my rice.

No,” she whispers shyly. She hasn’t heard of San Francisco, or of California. “I want to go with you to Can Tho,” she says. “I need to learn more English.” It’s not a come-on, she’s little more than a schoolgirl, a country girl. I sit and talk with her, tell her about my family, where I live, where I’m going.

Why are you traveling alone?” she wonders.

This is my job,” I answer. “I travel to write about it.” She smiles and then laughs as if she’s just caught me in a big lie. “Really,” I say sincerely. She laughs again.

I walk back to the Song Tien hotel and up to my turquoise room with its turquoise lace curtains, black vinyl furniture, and a single original oil painting of a mother nursing a baby next to an open window. It’s a terrible painting but I like it. Late into the night I’m by turns lulled to sleep and awakened by the endless mechanical lullaby of My Tho, the putt-putt of the motorbikes in combination with the sputter of boat engines.

One night in Can Tho I hire a woman to take me out on the river for an hour just after sunset. She asks for 5,000 dong. I give her a 10,000 dong note (equivalent to about $1). She looks it over carefully, shows it to a friend, smiles and pulls the boat against the dock. I step in.

Most of the boats on the river are handled by women. If they’re well off, their boat has a motor, but usually they row, standing up, staring at the horizon, pushing with their whole body. Each cycle of the oars takes one forceful, graceful, slow motion. It starts at the feet and like a wave flows up the legs, across the trunk, grips the shoulders, then breaks over the forearms, causing the hands to tighten as the oars push through the silty water. Sometimes she will stop and shake an oar that has collected a hyacinth. As she rows, we do our best to have a conversation. I speak almost no Vietnamese, she speaks little English.

Aren’t you the one that took me rowing last night?” I ask.

No,” she answers. “That was my sister.”

Where are you coming from now?” she asks me.

San Francisco, California,” I reply. She looks perplexed. “USA,” I add.

Ahhh,” she says. “Number one!” And then points at a small something flying just above the surface of the water.


No, sparrow,” she answers.

Which, if it is, makes it one of just three wild birds I see in the Mekong Delta. The reasons for this are both natural and unnatural. The unnatural ones have been exhaustively reported on elsewhere. The natural ones, I’m told, may include the popularity of small birds as food, a habit shared with the French.

The Delta was once part of the Khmer kingdom and is still home to a large Cambodian population. Near Soc Trang we stop at a Khmer temple outside of town. The head student monk, a young man named Lam Tu Linh, dressed in a saffron robe, invites us in for tea. We sit, sometimes talking, sometimes not. He tells us of the annual canoe race the temple sponsors and takes us out to see the temple’s old, elaborately painted Kampuchean war canoe, one of the boats used in the annual competition. “This one is more than 200 years old,” Lam Tu Linh says. “The winner of the race gets a television or farm equipment.”

As we walk around the temple grounds, Lam Tu Linh points out hundreds of large fruit bats hanging upside down in the surrounding trees.

Who are they?” I ask him.

The young monk giggles. “Those are the bats who live here too. But they go away from here to eat. They don’t eat the fruit from our trees, they leave it for the monks.”

On our last day in Chau Doc, near the Cambodian border, we go out on the river in the afternoon. Chau Doc is home to a thriving fish farm industry. What appear to be your standard Vietnamese floating ranch houses are supported not only by water but by thousands of fish living beneath them in submerged cages the size of basements. Chau Doc’s fish farmers feed their finned herds through large trapdoors in the floors of the houseboats.

We stop at one owned and operated by a lovely woman and her seven young children. It’s feeding time. The children sit on the floor at the edge of two 3-by-3-foot portals, dangling their feet in the fish-filled water. All around them are large balls of fish food made of rice hulls and other vegetable matter. For two hours every day they break off pieces of the wet brown stuff and toss it to the fish. They also fall in the water, push in their siblings, splash one another, throw clumps of the muck at each other, and generally fool around as much as possible. However, they get the job done. The entire operation, the woman tells us, including two houses and a third devoted to manufacturing the fish meal, is worth about $200,000, a monolithic fortune in Vietnam.

Rowing back to Chau Doc the boatman takes us along the opposite riverbank lined with thatched-roof houses on stilts. The sun is descending into the pink Delta haze, men are bathing in the Mekong, women prepare food on the high porches. Everyone waves, they think it’s very funny when I take a snapshot. Children and parents make binoculars with their hands and yell to me, “Take my picture!” “How long have you been here?” “What’s your name?” “Hello, hello, goodbye.”

I’m sitting cross-legged on the bow. A few feet behind me Tam lies on her stomach, resting her head on the side of the boat. The breeze makes her black hair a veil. She’s dragging a water hyacinth in the river, softly singing a bluesy Vietnamese ballad. The light turns everything orange. I suppose I could ask about the song, make notes of her remarks in my pocket-size Mead Memo Book, and end this thing with a couple of lyrical lines – us drifting across the Mekong into the apricot Indochine dusk. Or I could ask her what we’re going to do next, where to from here? How can we make the most effective use of our remaining waking hours? But that would require moving, speaking, linear thinking. And sometimes we just like to sit for awhile.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Blues Highways

"It was Muddy Waters who took the Delta blues north to Chicago, electrified the sound, and changed the course of popular music as we know it. That's pretty much the judgment of history, and it is mine as well." -- Tim Cahill

It’s a natural feature of this place, a renewable resource. It oozes up out of the cracked dirt furrows of the cotton fields, underneath a lizard’s heel, and all around the trumpet-trunked cypresses in the chartreuse swamps. Then it streams beneath the cars parked at odd angles in front of the cinder-block juke joints before surging over the levee in a great slow wave. And when it hits the flat caramel river, there’s no stopping it, just like there’s been no stopping it for a century or more. It goes south to New Orleans, north to Memphis, west to San Francisco – and it fills the cars and streets and buildings of those cities, and the ones beyond them and the ones beyond them. And from there, the Blues flows all over the world.

The Mississippi Delta is to blues music what the Comstock Lode once was to precious metals, and what Africa is to humanity itself: the source, the fountainhead, the place where it all began. The Delta is the kind of country you can get homesick for even if it’s not your home; a smoky, comforting corner of the heart more than a precise geographic definition. Still, if it must be located, David Cohn’s oft-quoted drawing of its borders can’t be improved upon: “The Mississippi Delta,” Cohn wrote in his book, “Where I Was Born and Raised,” “begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” And everywhere in between is lively, affecting country – bittersweet and often poignantly beautiful.

On a gray day, when the cloud ceiling just clears the tops of the windbreaks and the breeze rattles the seared, burnt-sienna cotton plants, the countryside is desolate and haunting at the same time as it’s pastoral. On clear days, the sun turns the lush green of the cottonwoods and the kudzu to verdant fluorescence as it lights up the lacquer-red dragonflies that fill the air. And every few miles another narrow, white church building emphasizes how important the adhesive of religion is to the Delta’s families and small towns. The familiar imagery of blues music is everywhere: isolated crossroads and shotgun shacks, swamps, lonely highways and railroad tracks; and, of course, people who, like people everywhere, are each walking novels, every face a table of contents. If you subscribe to the notion that art emerges from the landscape as much as from the soul, then being in the Mississippi Delta is being deep in the blues – and like home, that’s not a bad place to be.

The Delta’s rich, distinctive culture almost makes it a country within a country. The capital of such a nation would probably have to be somewhere between Greenville, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn. Indeed, if you were to describe a 150-mile diameter circle with Greenville at its center, that circle would include the birthplace or one-time home of most every significant blues artist born over the last 120 years – from Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, who’ve become near mythological characters in blues lore, to Son House, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Albert King, John Lee Hooker, W.C. Handy, Koko Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Memphis Minnie and a legion of others.

On a cold morning, about 10 miles east of Greenville, I’m following a dirt road out to the town of Holly Ridge as the wind moans at a pair of hawks tracing circles in the concrete sky. I’m stopping at as many blues sites as I can, while taking a circuitous drive to Memphis. I’ve got Son House, “Father of the Delta Blues,” on the stereo – turned way up. Several times, as if to demonstrate the music’s restorative power, House’s voice and the crying wind fall into harmony, brightening this otherwise dreary day. I’ve come here to see if I can find the grave of Charley Patton.

Patton, born in 1891, was a seminal figure in the creation of Delta blues, and almost certainly Mississippi’s first celebrity musician. He lived the archetypal blues life – playing at juke joints, at house “frolics” and on street corners, living with numerous women, staying where he could until he was kicked out, dying young in 1934. Along the way he developed a compelling style of music whose influence is heard to this day in the playing of a multitude of contemporary blues artists, including Robert Cray, Eric Clapton and Keb’ Mo’.

At Holly Ridge – just a farm headquarters, really – I turn left at the crossroads by the old grocery store. Two gray-haired men in denim overalls sitting on a bench out front slowly turn their heads as I pass. Patton probably performed in front of that store, and those same gentlemen were probably sitting there when he did. I drive past wagons filled with cotton and the big, yellow Holly Ridge Gin building, and then pull over at a ragged, grassy field with a single, perfectly shaped black oak tree in the middle and a few crooked tombstones here and there. Along one side of the cemetery is a railroad track, next to which two blond dogs are walking shoulder to shoulder toward Greenville. Off in the distance, a green and yellow John Deere tractor is trailed by small thunderheads of red dust as it plows a field. This may be the loneliest place in Mississippi.

After searching the cemetery for 20 minutes or so, I find the granite marker in the southeast corner: “Charley Patton,” it reads, “The Voice of the Delta. The foremost performer of early Mississippi blues whose songs became cornerstones of American music.” Above the inscription is an oval photo portrait, taken in 1929 when Patton was an artist for Paramount’s “race” records, when he recorded songs like “Moon Goin’ Down,” “Pony Blues” and “When Your Way Gets Dark.”

There’s no sunshine on Charley’s grave. But there’s a Gibson medium guitar pick, a rusty capo and some yellow plastic roses left behind by blues devotees. There’s even a Japanese coin tucked in the dirt at the base of the headstone. I don’t have anything to leave – I didn’t think to bring flowers – but I pull the car near, open the door, and put Son House on the stereo, turning up the volume as loud as possible. And House, who was a friend of Patton’s, chants across the cemetery for a good long time.

Son House is singing so loud that the John Deere tractor driver, on his way back from plowing, stops and stares at me quizzically. I wave and point to Patton’s trinket-littered grave and the tractor man nods, waves back and pulls away. Son House keeps singling and playing his National steel-body guitar. Maybe Charley hears and maybe he doesn’t. Who can say for sure? But Son House’s lion-like voice does warm up the place. I lean against the front fender of the car, digging a hole in the dirt with the toe of my shoe, letting both sides of the cassette play as an informal memorial service for Charley Patton. When I drive away, I pass the grocery store where the two gray-haired men in denim overalls sitting on the bench out front wave and smile at me as if I’m a long lost cousin.

Those smiles stay with me until I’m distracted by an overflowing plate of pork ribs at Abe’s Barbecue in Clarksdale, located 75 miles north of Greenville near the legendary intersection of the two great blues highways: 49 and 61. According to some, it was at this very crossroads that Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil: Johnson was endowed with a yet-to-be-equaled musical genius, and in return Lucifer received the blues man’s soul. If it’s so, then there is some poetic justice to the fact that Abe’s, a temple of devilishly good barbecue, now memorializes the spot.

But the place’s historical aura is not going to help me eat the ribs and keep my white shirt pristine, much less my hands and face (this is a trip, by the way, during which moist towelettes take on disproportionate significance). Abe’s – bless ‘em – is yet another Delta institution where the concept of “light eating” has not yet taken hold. The thick, tender meat of the barbecued ribs, slathered in a rich, pungent sauce, falls obligingly off the bone, and after a while my shirt resembles a Jackson Pollock canvas, but who cares?

Though it’s a relatively new genre, blues music is deeply rooted in African-American cultural traditions and syncopated rhythms that originated centuries ago in West Africa - rhythms that many whites heard for the first time in the early 1800s during the Sunday afternoon slave gatherings held in New Orleans’ Congo Square (now Louis Armstrong Park’s Beauregard Square). In the last three decades there has been a massive resurgence of interest in the blues both here and abroad, bringing with it a proliferation of blues festivals and clubs, a wealth of new and reissued recordings and a vast number of new books on the subject.

While some may associate blues music with “feeling blue,” in fact, the content of blues songs spans the range of human emotion from sorrow to joy, with an abundance of humor and irony. It is musical storytelling drawn from the essential elements of human experience, which explains its worldwide appeal. “Blues is sad music and it’s happy music. Also secret-language music,” Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder and chairman of Atlantic Records once observed. “It has two things. By the fact that it’s a lament, it has the dignified beauty of black people expressed in it. And because of its obvious innocence and sincerity, it captivated the world. It isn’t because it’s got a drum that came from Africa, but because it has a soul that comes from suffering.”

Rich in blues history, Clarksdale, with its broad, lazy streets, low brick buildings, and the docile Sunflower River shambling through, is my favorite Delta town. Once the home of Tennessee Williams and W.C. Handy, the first men to transcribe the blues to written form, it’s also the birthplace of John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner and Sam Cooke and the place where the life of Bessie Smith – one of the most influential blues singers who ever stepped on a stage – came to a tragic end. Robert Johnson spent much of his youth around nearby Robinsville, but Clarksdale is perhaps most well known among blues lovers as the one-time home of a man who grew up seven miles away on the Stovall Plantation. By leaving town on a northbound train in 1943 he would become one of the blues’ most celebrated figures. Born McKinley Morganfield, he took the raw emotional power of the Delta sound out of the country and into the city, where he plugged it in, turned it up, and became famous as Muddy Waters.

As great Americans once did with regularity, Muddy Waters lived in a log cabin during his youth. On my first trip to Mississippi, part of the pre-Civil War structure was still in its original location a few miles northwest of the town, its windows looking out at the cotton fields where young McKinley started working at the age of 10. There were a few old photos and a short explanatory text attached to one wall. And a typed note from Howard Stovall, owner of the plantation, pleading with visitors not to deface the site and ending with the imprecation, “We will lay a BIG NASTY MOJO on you if you take anything.”

On that same trip I also visited Clarksdale’s Riverside Hotel. Sitting on a sloping bank above the Sunflower River, the modest brick-front building with a Coke machine outside and red and white aluminum awnings has been a hotel ever since Mrs. Z.L. Hill turned it into one more than 50 years ago. Before that it was the hospital where Bessie Smith was brought on the September night in 1937 when the car she was riding in crashed on Highway 61.

As I approached the Riverside’s screen door a voice from behind it said, “Please, come on in.” Inside, Mrs. Hill, a chatty, gracious woman of incandescent sweetness, was sitting in a large lounge chair to the right of the door. “Yes, I was here that night working at the hospital when they towed Bessie’s car – left it right outside. I could tell by her condition she wasn’t going to live – one arm was near torn clean off and she was bleeding terrible. She died in that first room on your right.”

Mrs. Hill then called for Clarence Powell, her maintenance man, to show me around. He opened the door to “Bessie’s Room” first – there was a wreath of white cloth flowers on the dark blue bedspread – then took me all through the atmospheric old hotel that’s been home at one time or another to most every blues performer who’s passed through Clarksdale.

Before I left, I stopped to say goodbye to Mrs. Hill. “Oh, all kinds of people come by here,” she said. “Not long ago, I had a very special visitor, meant a lot to me. Do you recognize him?” She showed me a snapshot taken in front of the Riverside of her standing beside John F. Kennedy Jr. I said I sure did recognize him and she laughed and put the picture in her pocket and made me promise to visit again the next time I was in Clarksdale, but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance. (Mrs. Hill passed on not long ago. Her son now operates the hotel.)

The diaspora of African-Americans from the Delta in the 1940s resulted in the emergence of urban blues – the taproot of rock ‘n’ roll – in a number of northern cities, notably Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo. But many Mississippi emigrants – black and white – went no farther than Memphis, which, for decades, was the blusiest of American cities, and is no slouch now. B.B. King and Bobbie “Blue” Bland started here, as did Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Slim, Memphis Minnie and Big Joe Williams. And it was in Memphis where, as Muddy Waters sang, “the blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.” The personification of that metaphorical baby, as everyone knows, was a polite, soft-spoken white boy from East Tupelo, Miss., who couldn’t stand still. He started out singing gospel and blues, and some believe he always remained a blues singer at heart. His name was Elvis Presley.

On a Sunday morning I’m at Graceland. I’ve gotten myself prepared to hate the place – problem is, I love it, starting with the shuttle from the ticket office. The shuttle has a video monitor mounted up front. There’s young Elvis onstage, all lips, hips and felony eyes. Images of Presley during his unfortunate Las Vegas white jumpsuit period have become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget just how fresh, exciting and funny he was when he first hit. As the vehicle passes through the gates and climbs the long, curving driveway, Presley’s rubber legs vibrate impossibly as he chokes up on the mic. “Since my baby left me,” he shouts, with the sulky voice that redeemed the ‘50s, “I found a new place to dwell … it’s down at the end of Lonely Street, called Heartbreak Hotel.”

The shuttle stops at the front door and I climb out. The surprising thing about Graceland is how modest it is: The rooms are not vast; the kidney-shaped pool is what you’d expect to find at a small motel. Overall, it lacks grandness. But that’s what’s so appealing about Graceland. To the 22-year-old who bought it for $100,000 the place must have looked like the White House. Much has been made of Elvis’ taste in interior decoration, but to me the rooms of Graceland look less like kitsch than naive art. He was, after all, the eternal boy, frozen in lip-curling, pompadoured adolescence for his entire adult life. Despite his post-‘50s misadventures in show business vapidity, one can’t help feeling Presley’s unaffected charm and exuberance as expressed in Graceland’s almost whimsical decorations and furnishings. This, he must have imagined, is how rich people live. Or maybe he was just putting us on.

That night I walk the few blocks from the Peabody Hotel down to Beale Street. In the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, Beale Street was the very heartbeat of African-American music, lined with nightclubs, saloons and shadier enterprises that throbbed with jazz and blues. Rufus Thomas, performer, disc jockey, father of singer Carla Thomas and a veritable institution in the Memphis music scene, once described to a white acquaintance the infectious vitality of Beale Street at its peak. “If you’d been black for one Saturday night on Beale,” he said, “you’d never want to be white again.”

Today, after decades of decline, the street is revitalized. While it may be a self-conscious shadow of its former self – like New Orleans' Bourbon Street, a little too theme-parky – on any given night there is plenty of exceptional live blues music wailing out of a half-dozen or more inviting nightclubs. In one of the best, B.B. King’s Blues Club and Restaurant, a wall-to-wall crowd is waiting for Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets with Sam Myers to blast off. But I’m hanging out in the men’s restroom, listening to the trumpet player who’s stationed himself just inside the door. As I lean against a sink I tell a fellow named Alex how earlier I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life.

I was in the old A. Schwab’s general store a few doors down the street. It’s been a fixture on Beale since 1876. On three antiquated floors, A. Schwab’s carries everything from long johns and 44 kinds of suspenders to Masonic supplies, incense and men’s pants up to size 74. It also has several bins of old blues 78 rpm records. Its motto is, “If you can’t find it at A. Schwab’s, you are better off without it.”

“You what?” Alex is stunned when I tell him.

“That’s right,” I reply. “I found an original Decca 78 of Louis Jordan’s ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’ in the $5 crate at Schwab’s.”

“And you left it there? You’re not gonna find anything better to do with that fiver.”

I nod. Alex shakes his head and looks at the trumpet player. The trumpet player looks disgusted but doesn’t stop playing.

“Is it still there?” Alex asks.

“Probably,” I say, and walk out.

Not surprisingly, B.B. King’s is the ideal venue for listening to blues: roomy, but not too roomy, superb sound system, attentive waitresses and bartenders, enthusiastic crowd and a better than average menu of Southern cooking (though the chef should be ashamed for omitting King’s favorite, sweet potato pie).

The band’s onstage now and Sam Myers is finishing his drink at a front table. Anson Funderburgh looks disturbingly wholesome for this line of work but his guitar cuts a hot, nasty swath through the club’s cool atmosphere. After Funderburgh gets things warmed up, Myers, a formidable singer and harmonica player, joins him and the rest of the band onstage.

A big man, Myers has been on the blues scene for years. Originally based in Jackson, Miss., he started out as a drummer for guitar virtuoso Elmore James, who made Robert Johnson’s “Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” into a blues standard. Myers is wearing obsidian sunglasses and a navy blue double-breasted suit. A fully loaded bandolier of harmonicas crosses his chest. He looks over the audience, reaches into his jacket pocket, takes out a silver case and carefully selects a cigarette. He puts the cigarette in his mouth, pulls out a lighter, holds it up and suddenly out shoots a flame about 8 inches high. Several people in the audience gasp, but Myers doesn’t seem to notice. He touches the torch to his cigarette, inhales, lets his hand fall to his side and steps to the microphone, where he unleashes the smooth, deep voice of a world-weary dragon. And in no time, up and down Beale Street, and all through the Delta – from Congo Square to the front porch of Graceland – the blues, once again, is on fire.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Finding Mrs. Experience

I’ve liked hanging out with dead people ever since I was a child. It must be because one of my mother’s favorite places for a picnic was the local graveyard. She’d pack sandwiches, deviled eggs, chips, drinks and one or more of her children, and we’d go dine among the headstones. We’d then spend the rest of the afternoon walking up and down the rows, reading the granite and marble markers. The ones with photographs – where the rain had seeped under the glass oval covering the image and left its moldy commentary – we prized above all others.

For me, strolling around graveyards has turned into a decades-long diversion. It’s a good one, too. It can be practiced almost anywhere and, like golf, it requires a certain amount of walking and gets you outdoors on a regular basis. But unlike golf it requires no expensive equipment, embarrassing apparel or exorbitant fees. Come to think of it, a hybrid facility would offer endless commercial potential. Why some enterprising soul hasn’t opened a chain of 18-hole cemeteries is one of entrepreneurial capitalism’s great mysteries.

Haunting graveyards is not a lonely hobby, either. Many people like nothing better than to spend weekends or part of a vacation roving the local burial ground. And for those hesitant to stray far from a cathode ray tube, the dead now have nearly as great an online presence as the living. Googling for cemeteries or trolling the grand archives of is a perfectly fine way to fritter away hours, if not days.

I’ve also traveled, non-virtually, to graveyards around the world, from Paris to New Orleans, Vietnam to Hawaii, Yucatan to Brazil, London and Spain. I’ve rarely gone on a trip that didn’t include a stop at the local bone pasture. In the case of Paris, the first time I went, I visited the city’s three largest cemeteries, a few small ones, the Catacombs and the Pantheon. My memory of those clammy August days among the subterranean and horizontal at Pere Lachaise, Montparnasse and Montmartre still retains a preternatural glow, maybe because my two traveling companions and I were never entirely sober.

I like the egalitarian atmosphere of cemeteries. At Pere Lachaise, which is the Sistine Chapel of graveyards, one can sit within a few feet of Edith Piaf or Sarah Bernhardt (or Jim Morrison, if you must, and if you can wade through the backpackers and bourbon bottles) without a backstage pass. The great emasculated sphinx that perpetually hovers over Oscar Wilde will hover over you, too, if you take a seat at the base of the extravagant one’s extravaganza of a monument. (It’s illegal, by the way, to leave lipstick traces on his tomb, but dozens have ignored that statute. I believe he will forgive them.) Or you and your lover can neck as Abelard and Heloise recline nearby; their stone effigies lie side by side, hand in hand, day and night. Always.

I roam cemeteries for the obvious reasons: their quietness and their peculiarity as places and architectural conglomerations, but as a small kid, drunk on life, unable to grasp the idea of it ever stopping, I was fascinated by the alien mood of the places. The oppressive quietness creeped me out a little, yet I found them strangely comforting. I still do. (Another cemetery fan, Eudora Welty, who took wonderfully evocative photographs of Mississippi graveyards, once said the places had a “sinister appeal.”) Cemetery connoisseurs appreciate the big showy ones such as Pere Lachaise, but like any connoisseur, the secret treasures they find by accident are what they live for. One of my favorites is a predominantly Japanese graveyard in a remote corner of Hawaii in an area that was inundated by lava from the eruption of Kilauea in 1960. The molten stuff oozed through the Big Island’s Kapoho cemetery, embracing and upending tombstones, freezing others at odd angles and leaving one group completely untouched. I’ve been there several times, and the only company I’ve ever had is a few gaudy cardinals who look like they belong in a Ukiyo-e woodcut.

One Sunday, driving through the Connecticut countryside, I bounced and chugged down a dirt lane in the woods and came across a small overgrown graveyard. Some of the headstones had toppled; a decorative cast-iron perimeter fence was falling to pieces. The dates on the markers, the ones that were still readable, went back to the 1700s. In one corner was a simple stone, streaked black by rainwater and mottled in lichen, inscribed with a bittersweet name I’ve never forgotten. Of all the grand graves I’ve laid eyes on, I’ve never found one with a name that compares. There is nothing in the outlandish cemeteries of Paris or New Orleans that comes close. It was the grave of a woman with nothing special about it except her name, which is not to say that she wasn’t special. She may have been; she must have been. She’s there still, I suppose, alone in the woods in the lush summer and the snowy wind, rediscovered every now and then, provoking dozens of questions and hundreds of fantasies with her miraculous moniker. No first name, just the common honorific of a married woman and the surname that trumps all others.

“Mrs. Experience,” the tombstone read. Mrs. Experience all by herself. No sign of a Mr. Experience, but what a couple they must have been. I stood there and stared for a good long while, wondering if there were ever any little Experiences. And if so, did she take them on picnics?

I Am Not Worthy: In Which I Hold Forth on the Photography of Manuel Alvarez Bravo

The second most refreshing thing about Manuel Alvarez Bravo is that he’s not Ansel Adams. The first is his photographs — they are dreamy, literally. But that’s not news. Bravo has had his work described as dreamlike for much of the last century. Adams was a master landscape photographer, but Bravo, whose contributions to 20th century art are at least as significant as Adams’, is a master at chronicling the interior, making photographs that illustrate the subconscious landscape.

This is especially true of “Nudes: The Blue House,” a new book of photographs by Bravo, some taken as recently as the ’90s, some dating back to the 1930s, with an introduction by Carlos Fuentes. It’s a small book of about three dozen images of women — Bravo likes women — all nude or partially so, and all, it seems, captured while in the middle of some sort of implied narrative.

That’s Bravo: He’s always telling the story without a plot, the story that never stops — the tightly constructed tale of whatever is going on at the moment he takes the picture. Like a dream, it makes perfect sense while you’re in it. If Cartier-Bresson was champion of the decisive moment, Bravo’s pictures have made the indecisive moment iconic.

Though he worked with models (not professional ones) to produce the images in “Nudes: The Blue House,” often he has not captured poses so much as anti-poses, the evocative moments between those self-conscious instances when model and photographer conceptually come together. “My work is completely natural and spontaneous,” he once told Florida’s Sun-Sentinel newspaper. It is also unnatural and carefully planned, albeit instinctively, not consciously.

Our tendency is to look at photographs slowly, to amble through the gallery or page through the book, pausing at each new image, taking it all in, but Bravo’s nudes should be flashed on a wall, seen as a flipbook, perceived subliminally, run past furtively, then back again. There’s a longing in his images that’s better experienced by glancing at them than studying them pensively. “I don’t look for anything,” Bravo told the New York Times, “I discover things.”

One of the things he seems to have discovered over and over during the seven or eight decades of his career is the exhilaration of discovery. But the leap Bravo made that has always given his work a perpetually modern, fresh spirit is that his photos are not about him, they’re not even about their subject — they’re about the person who’s discovering them.

When I was a college student, I was lucky enough to work as a teaching assistant for film director Alexander Mackendrick (“The Ladykillers,” “The Man in the White Suit,” “The Sweet Smell of Success”). He used to say that movies take place in a theater located inside the head of each person in the audience. Bravo hangs his pictures in a gallery at that same location.

The classic narrative hook of a quest, or of longing, is one of the themes that runs through “Nudes.” The women are often looking at something, as if for the first time, or seeking something or on their way somewhere.

In “Vertical Panoramic Nude,” Bravo tips his hat to Duchamp as a nude woman ascends a short staircase to a drape that’s just blowing open. In “Between White Walls” another woman looks downward as she approaches the top of a curving staircase. “With Architecture II” gives us a naked woman walking away from us, down the sidewalk. And in one of the book’s most elegant images, “The Feet on the Ground,” a blonde, wearing only low-heeled pumps, turns away to walk up a desert road bordered on one side by a large tangle of swordlike agave plants.

Where are these women headed? They’re all going to the same place. They’ll be going with you. You’ll take them along to have coffee, or to the bar or to have dinner or to meet with friends. Or they’ll come to you later, after you fall asleep — that’s when the drape will blow all the way open; that’s when the woman will reach the top of the staircase, look at you and speak; that’s when the agave plants and the lady in the pumps will resolve whatever it is they’re conversing about. And you won’t be able to get any of them out of your mind.

Bravo was embraced by surrealism at its beginnings, and embraced it back, but he is a Bravoist more than a surrealist; he’s not a trickster. He’s also not humorless. The last photo of a woman in the book is “Lucy.” She faces us, we see her from the shoulders down, she holds a small tray just below her navel. On the tray are two artificial eyes. Now Bravo’s got us. We must look at her nipples, but we can’t take our eyes off those eyes, either. The picture is the first thing Fuentes mentions in his introduction: “We experience a shiver, just the kind we feel in the sliced-eye scene in Luis Buñuel’s ‘Le Chien Andalou.’ In this photograph of ‘Lucy,’ the ambiguities of the gaze become a triple challenge for us. We must wonder: is it our privilege to see ‘Lucy’ with no eyes other than the nipples of a decapitated body? Or are the eyes on the platter looking at us? But the woman’s breasts: don’t they have a gaze? Doesn’t the body have its own way of seeing and being seen?”

Bravo’s career has spanned almost the whole of what’s called modern art while not losing relevance. He’s nearly always found his subjects near his home in Coyoacan, south of Mexico City. He’s shown with Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Imogene Cunningham and Dorothea Lange and has been the subject of one-man shows and the recipient of myriad awards across the globe. In his own small Mexico City gallery, Bravo was showing the work of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo and Jose Clemente Orozco as early as 1927, three years after he bought his first camera. Just three years later he was cameraman on Sergei Eisenstein’s film “Que Viva México.”

By 1938 he had met the bull goose surrealist André Breton, who asked him to take part in a Mexico City exhibition of surrealist art. It was for that show that Bravo created one of his most famous and startling images, “Good Reputation Sleeping,” which is included in “Nudes.” It’s a picture of a woman, wrapped in bandages at the ankles, hips and wrists, lying on a blanket outdoors next to a wall. Four prickly cactus buds lie next to her. Her pubic hair peeks through a gap in the bandages. It’s quintessential Bravo, an image of divine tension, carnal, but also religious, casual and ethereal. But then the jolting juxtapositions in dreams are often what wake us up.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Stalking the Dewey-Eyed Platypus

When I told a friend that one of the main reasons I was going to Australia was to try to find a platypus, he said, “Aren’t they mythological or extinct or something?” They are not. In fact, platypuses are surprisingly abundant, though the odd, duck-billed creatures are also a shy, elusive evolutionary anomaly that few Australians – to say nothing of foreigners – have ever laid eyes upon. Some consider seeing one in the wilderness tantamount to bumping into a mermaid or a unicorn. When the first platypus skin arrived in London in 1798, many thought it was a hoax, and the poor thing has never entirely shaken the stigma. What could it expect given its looks?

The platypus safari commences with a flight out of Brisbane’s Archer Field in a blue and white, 10-seat, twin-engine airplane cruising over a parquet of flat green farmland and eucalypt forests. It is early fall – that is, April – in Queensland, warm and a little humid.

After an hour and a half, and an in-flight picnic of cheesecake and orange juice, we land on a grassy airstrip near Carnarvon National Park. Once I’m out of the plane, dozens of grasshoppers – the kangaroos of the insect world – hurdle over my feet and crash into my ankles as three yellow and blue pale-headed rosellas – small parrots – slalom between the polished trunks of the nearby gum trees. Within a few minutes the hot weight of the outback sun has caused my bald scalp to get as overheated as my prose, and I’m thankful that I’ve brought along an old tan Borsalino and a pair of cheap sunglasses. I put both on my head, where they stay for the remainder of the expedition, and we drive off toward Carnarvon Gorge, home of the platypus.

The man driving is John Stoddart, who, along with Linda Stoddart, his wife, manages the Oasis Lodge adjacent to Carnarvon National Park. They are both former high school teachers, and like many Australians, they seem to find wry humor in both the nature of reality and the reality of nature. Stoddart, I find out, knows a lot about platypuses. During the next few days’ conversations he gives me a short course in Beginning Platypusology 1A.

To start with, he says, they’re smaller than most people assume. The average adult is a foot to 18 inches long. The heaviest one on record weighed less than 5½ pounds. They have a birdlike snout that resembles a duck’s, but the grayish bill is soft, not hard. They are mammals of the order called Monotremata (the only other member is the equally bizarre, hedgehog-like echidna, also a native of Australia), characterized by their egg-laying and the cloaca, a single orifice for excretion and reproduction.

Monotremes are also the only mammals known to react to electrical fields. Platypuses have electrosensitive pores in their bills used to detect the electrical currents generated by the muscle activity of their prey – shrimps and insect larvae. (They have a tremendous appetite complemented by “a metabolic rate like a blast furnace,” according to “The Fatal Shore,” Robert Hughes’ definitive history of Australia’s founding.) It is believed that they may also use their electrosensitivity – a true “sixth sense” – for “seeing” stationary objects under water.

The platypus has beautiful, thick, waterproof fur and a plump tail something like a beaver’s, the top of which is covered with fur. They were hunted for their luxuriant pelts until 1912, when legislation was enacted to protect them nationwide.

Much like birds, they have a single functioning ovary, the second one being poorly developed. The females lay eggs but suckle their young with extraordinarily rich milk. Platypuses have webbed feet and the males have a venomous spur on each rear leg that can deliver a nasty sting. Stoddart tells me the story of a man he knew who managed to get spurred in the finger by a male platypus. “The poor bloke’s finger was no good after that,” he says. “It turned blood red and shriveled to a point like an old carrot.”

Aborigines knew the platypus as Mallangong, Boonaburra or Tambreet, and it figures in some of their myths. In one – a moral tale – the platypus’s origin is attributed to a wayward duck who disobeys its elders, wanders away from its pond and is imprisoned and raped by a randy old water rat. The child this coupling produces is a platypus. This is no less solid an explanation of the platypus’s beginnings than most modern researchers have provided.

Platypuses are found in deep burrows along the muddy banks or feeding among the shoreline reeds of rivers, streams and ponds in eastern Australia, on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia (where they were introduced by a naturalist in 1940) and in Tasmania. Just one pair – named Jack and Jill – successfully bred in captivity, and that was 50 years ago. On the official Australian wildlife cuteness scale the platypus rates second only to the koala and just slightly ahead of the wombat. The palm-size baby platypus is too cute to discuss in rational terms.

While Carnarvon Gorge is a platypus stronghold, John Stoddart tells me, I shouldn’t get my hopes up about actually seeing one, but if I want to try, dawn or dusk are the best times to seek out Australia’s duck-billed irregularity.

As intent as I am on satiating my desire to meet a platypus, like every other first-time visitor to Australia, I also hope to see a wild kangaroo as soon as possible, and shortly after arriving at the Oasis Lodge I get to – they’re all over the place.

The lodge consists of a central reception building, which houses the dining room, a library where gatherings and nature talks are held, and a number of luxurious “tent cabins” that evoke camping without actually immersing you in its often romanticized but typically uncomfortable specifics. The buildings are scattered over several acres of lawn, with palms and gum trees to provide shade. Scattered over the lawn are kangaroos, looking so much like giant prehistoric mice I’m inclined to offer them a piece of cheese.

When they aren’t lollygagging around on the lawns – their usual midday activity – they are grazing or bounding or battling with each other, or staring at the guests. The lodge asks guests not to feed the kangaroos, which has kept them untamed, so you can’t approach any closer than about 10 feet. That’s good, because the rebounding beasts can get to be a nuisance.

Indeed, in some places tourists find that they must apply popular aerosol kangaroo repellents, such as “Roo-quat” and “Roo-Be-Gone” as frequently as sunscreen. And if you absent-mindedly leave your door open, making it possible for one of the large marsupials to sneak in and jump on the bed (they’re worse than young Homo sapiens when it comes to this activity), they can destroy a box spring in mere minutes, play hell with a goose down comforter and make an expensive duvet history in a matter of seconds. It is no coincidence, then, that neither pogo sticks nor trampolines have ever been marketed in Australia.

At one point I ask Stoddart what the word “kangaroo” means. “Joseph Banks,” he replies, “was the naturalist that sailed to Australia with Capt. Cook. The story’s told that when Banks came ashore and first glimpsed the hopping creature, he asked a native what it was, and the aboriginal said something that sounded like ‘kangaroo.’ Later Banks asked another aboriginal what the word meant. ‘Kangaroo,’ the native told him, means ‘Hell if I know.’”

Curiously, I find no verification of this report in the literature. But in “The Fatal Impact,” Alan Moorehead’s elegant account of Cook’s “invasion” of the South Pacific, Banks is quoted and he does sound perplexed. The naturalist accurately describes the gray kangaroo as “of a mouse-colour and very swift,” and then remarks, “What to liken him to I cannot tell.”

Fortunately for Joseph Banks, his powers or description were not further taxed by the platypus. It would be another 27 years before a European (not Banks) first stumbled upon the fur-bearing duckoid, foolishly sending the hide off to London where he was ridiculed mercilessly. (There are certain discoveries it’s best not to reveal.)

Carnarvon Gorge itself looks like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon with forest poured into it. The massive rock cliffs are composed mostly of sandstone capped by a layer of basalt. The forest below is light and airy, home to a variety of tall eucalypts – the slick-barked Sydney bluegum is the most prevalent – with macrozamia and other palms, native hibiscus and the sandpaper fig growing beneath the silver-green foliage of the gum trees.

Extravagantly painted parrots (splashed with crimson, chartreuse, deep yellow, electric blue), large white cockatoos with an ear-splitting shriek, and jug-headed kookaburras (like our kingfisher, but with a taunting cackle as their song) are plentiful. The wealth of butterflies is a poignant reminder of how scarce they’ve become in much of the United States.

The sun-mottled forest floor is carpeted with high grass and bracken ferns. It is common to see eastern gray kangaroos, wallabies (a smaller kangaroo) and the occasional dark-coated rock wallabies (a shy kangaroo that behaves like a mountain goat) either nibbling at the ground cover or bounding through the brush. There are also ibis, heron, blue-faced honeyeaters and pied cormorants. And a smallish python known as a carpet snake – because of the pattern of its scales – in addition to bearded dragon lizards, turtles and monitor lizards, called goannas, that can reach 4 feet in length.

At night the Carnarvon sky is ink-black felt speckled with white paint. Nocturnal animals are ubiquitous, including an assortment of possums and a sweet-faced, big-eyed creature known as the sugar glider – so called because, like a flying squirrel, it uses the webbing between its front and rear legs to sail from tree to tree where it feeds on the eucalypt’s sugary sap.

At the bottom of the gorge runs Carnarvon Creek. Along its banks grow wispy Casuarina trees and the weeping red bottlebrush. Near the water’s edge are found green tree-frogs, which are preyed on by the creek’s freshwater keelback snakes. And if you’re extremely quiet and very still (and don’t wear bright-colored clothing) and patiently watch for the telltale shivering of the reeds, you may catch sight of a platypus. But, as I’m often told, “It ain’t too bloody likely.”

From April through November, staff members of the Oasis Lodge lead daily hikes, some of them fairly arduous, throughout the gorge and up to its more spectacular vistas, like Boolimba Bluff. (I hiked to the bluff on a Sunday. As I stood at the top looking down to the camping area from hundreds of feet above, a hymn being sung by the small congregation attending an outdoor Anglican service – which I could not see – came wafting up out of the gum forest. The effect was reminiscent of a scene from “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.”)

You can go hiking on your own, of course, but the young, dauntingly vigorous staff members make good company. They’re also knowledgeable about the terrain and the gorge’s flora and fauna, not to mention the fact that they carry a big backpack full of tea and snacks, which they prepare and serve during a rest stop along the way. One of the least strenuous walks is geared specifically to those desperately seeking platypuses.

On the appointed day we get up before sunrise and drive a mile or two to the Carnarvon Gorge trailhead. I keep the window down as we drive through the dawn forest so I can listen to the bird songs and other noises – the archetypal “jungle sounds” we’ve heard all our lives in Hollywood movies. The caustic laugh of the kookaburra is especially familiar. (One of the many perverse satisfactions of living in the media-besotted world, I’m ashamed to admit, is visiting the real thing and finding it exactly as depicted in a motion picture or on television – the twisted pleasure of having reality validated by illusion.)

As instructed, our small group has worn dull-hued clothing. The platypus has keen vision (and conservative taste in apparel), and it is put off by loud outfits. We’re also told not to speak, which certain of us find particularly onerous.

We enter the forest and walk over the creek on stones to reach the start of the Nature Trail. We follow the creekside path with nothing but cackling kookaburras and beeping Nikons to puncture the primeval silence. Across the creek, a wallaby and its offspring are having breakfast, which gets me to thinking: When God created Australia’s animals, perhaps he somewhat overestimated his abilities. At the very least the deity exhibited peculiar taste, if not a perverse sense of humor.

First of all, most of the beasts’ proportions are screwy; they look like a design experiment gone wrong or a rough sketch for an animated character that should have been canceled by the cartoon committee before it could see the light of day.

Consider the kangaroo – it is essentially a fur-upholstered pear with spring-loaded rear legs. Its creator apparently ran out of steam about waist level because, except for its well-developed biceps, the upper trunk, arms and head of the venerable kangaroo don’t amount to much when compared to its substantial lower body. Fortunately, the beasts seem to have little or no self-consciousness about having such a preposterous appearance, as that could only generate complex neurosis that would be no help whatsoever to a creature that must focus most of its attention on dodging boomerangs, bullets and dingoes in a natural environment that can be harsh on the best of days.

The Australian people, on the other hand, are quick and funny, gregarious and natural-born raconteurs. As testament to their bountiful good humor, they have courageously put the kangaroo, and the equally illogical emu, on their national crest, and the platypus on their 20-cent piece. A race less comfortable with irony might have downplayed such a collection of ridiculous faunae, but the Australians are proud of their continent’s curious beasts, and on average, more knowledgeable about them than we are about our more banal assortment.

When you ask Australians a question, they’ll often give a well-informed answer or, if they don’t know the answer, they’ll make up something that either sounds like the truth or actually improves on the truth. In either case you come away satisfied.

The Nikons are beeping excitedly as we approach the platypus viewing overlook. We make a few detours to the creek bank, but the guide shakes her head and motions us onward. Finally she stops at a clearing atop a small embankment and indicates that we should form a line. It’s about 20 feet to the other side of the creek where tall reeds wander into the slow-moving water, creating a perfect feeding area for the platypus.

The sun hasn’t yet ascended above the walls of the gorge, but the sky is the color of a morning glory blossom and the sandstone cliffs are either changing from orange to pink or from pink to orange. We stare intently at the reeds and the nearly still, black water. Nothing. A Nikon beeps. Nothing. A couple of people move off down the trail, impatient. Nothing. Then the guide points emphatically and whispers, “There.”

Something is moving through the reeds, jostling them as it goes, something underwater. And then, just clear of the reeds and out in the open, no more than 4 yards away, it comes to the surface. First the legendary bill, followed by a slick, furry back. It’s a great brute of a platypus, easily 12 inches long, maybe 14. It takes a breath, quickly glances at us with its small, dewy eyes, and disappears into the dark creek with a kick of its back feet. The reeds jiggle a little. And again nothing. And a Nikon beeps as the morning sun drools through the eucalyptus leaves. And we walk on.

Later, back at the lodge, I tell John Stoddart of our luck. “Was it a good-size one then?” he asks.

“Probably about 8 feet,” I say. And for a brief moment his eyes widen before he explodes with a kookaburra chortle, which makes me think that for a second or two, I just may have had him going.