Reality can be so much stranger than fiction.
Take this unidentified jungle fruit that Kris picked up on one of his exploratory walks around the island next to which we are moored. The thing is unbelievable.
The size of a grapefruit, it smells faintly of crushed flowers. The bright orange pulp in the center is wet and sticky, and carries numerous little oval seeds. The fruit, a smooth white ball when unripe, splits open into 15 clean segments, each one tipped with a black unguis. It’s like a glowing jewel protected by fierce talons. Something out of a sci-fi movie.
These watercolour postcards of the fruit are very different from my collection of safe little floral sprigs and predictable foliage, no? Simultaneously more authentic, and yet improbably fantastic. Surreal.
The variety of trees, all growing together on one small island, was wonderful to behold…so many different kinds of leaves, seed pods, flowers, all growing willy-nilly. We didn’t see any animals (we were probably making too much noise, or it was the wrong time of day) but have been told by the people on Baganara Island that there are howler monkeys, sloths, toucans, yellow-headed vultures, and labba on the island. We’ll definitely go exploring the island on foot over the coming weeks, hoping to catch sight of some of these creatures!
I was calling it ‘jungle’, but we have since realised that all this dense wilderness—the towering trees, these massive buttress tree roots—around us is already secondary-growth forest.
When Kris went hitchhiking for three days into the interior of the country (he was trying to reach Kaieteur, and got to within 10 miles of the famous waterfall, but had to turn back because the boatmen at the last outpost wanted US$200 to take him that small distance. One way. Well, it’s $250 to take a small plane out there and back, so he’s decided to book a flight, instead.) the roads took him past jungle where the trees were three times the height of the ones we see growing around Bartica. Aerial roots as thick as a man’s leg hung down in dense curtains from the tops of these giants, and dozens of other trees had taken root in these aerial tangles, so that swaying groves of trees were thriving in mid-air. If you stepped a few metres to either side of the potholed logging and mining roads, the light among the trees faded, and the snarl of jungle stretched away in perpetual gloom. That there are still places like this in the world!
Along one stretch of road, their Bedford truck passed a couple of Amerindian men, walking along. Wearing jeans and wristwatches, but bare-chested, each one carried a hunting bow and small bundle of arrows.
The mind does somersaults in excitement.
In case you weren’t aware of it, I keep images of most of my recent sketchbook pages on another blog, schizzograffia.
I haven’t been taking many photos or doing much in the way of deep thinking, lately (LOL) but Kris and I have been going out to sketch things in the towns to our left and right (João Pessoa and Cabedelo) pretty much every other day. Full-sized images are on there…you can click the mosaic of pages, too.
You can be physically present in a new country, yet find yourself completely cut-off from anything real by several invisible barriers. Language is always the first hurdle…years of studying Spanish didn’t help me in Brazil, where too many words are dissimilar, and the few that are similar are often pronounced differently, mean something else, or are conjugated differently. It soon became clear that we were going to have to learn Portuguese.
After a week in Jacaré I was feeling very depressed: there was no one to talk to but Kris, and I was too nervous to venture into the town on my own. I was too vain to use the few words I’d learned at home in actual encounters with locals…self-conscious of the way I was sure to mutilate and mispronounce their musical, sibilant language…terrified that no one would understand a word I was saying.
Then something broke inside me…I was miserable inside this cage of my own fear, and I simply had to make contact with another human being. So I set off on my own for a day, to buy some clothes better suited to the tropics, and I armed myself with a dozen words for things I needed, and the life-saving sentence “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese.”
I imposed one rule on myself: I was not allowed to ask the question “Do you speak English?” Even though it’s possible that some people do, there’s no reason why they should. I am the one who has presumed to visit their country, after all, and it is for me to speak their language (or make a fool of myself, trying).
I had a fantastic time. People were so patient with me, and corrected my pronunciation, or taught me how to say things better. They encouraged me, and tried different ways of saying something when I didn’t, at first, get their meaning. I accepted that I would sound like an idiot, banished my fear of blurting things out, and gave myself up to learning from others, instead of trying to come across as someone who knew what she was doing. I tried on and bought clothes, found some wonderful art books, a couple of drawing pens and ink, a map of the city. I got a crash course on local music from a taxi driver. I felt a little more like a normal human being (then I went to Olinda the next weekend, got happily drunk, and couldn’t be made to shut up!)
The experience filled me with hope, and I have thrown myself into studying the language with renewed enthusiasm. Most days in Jacaré are uneventful…we don’t run around doing tours or ticking all the tourist must-see-spots off a guidebook list. We do the groceries, the laundry, check the internet, cook our meals on the boat, write a few letters, and then hunker down for 2 hours of language study every day.
I split my study time between studying grammar (regular verb conjugations), vocabulary (memorizing 10 words for everyday things like the names of vegetables), and pronunciation (one Pimsleur Brazilian Portuguese audio lesson per day…mainly because Portuguese has many nasal and throaty sounds that are unfamiliar to me)
I know a lot of you won’t believe me, and will think I’m being humble, but I have the worst natural handwriting in the world. In primary school, I and a mischievous boy called Francisco (incidentally, my childhood nemesis…when I was 7, I chased him with a knife and got into a lot of trouble) were held up to the class as examples of incorrigible, unreadable scribes. Never stated, but plenty implied, was that our penmanship indicated psychotic tendencies.
I could not have cared less about penmanship when I was 7, but as I reached the end of high school my terrible handwriting distressed me. I had fallen in love with literature, and was nursing small dreams of becoming a writer, but the cheap notebooks filled with my first essays, poems, and stories—written in my demented, unlovely hand—fell woefully short of my belletrist ambitions to pen flourishing and graceful pages, worthy of the British Museum’s archives…
I taught myself how to write. I bought a dip pen and a set of roundhand nibs, and used them every day…even at university. I probably presented a ridiculous image, sitting in the library, writing notes in italic with a dip pen and a bottle of burgundy ink…there must have been sniggers, and lots of eye-rolling. *sigh* Whatever. We are so affected when we’re young. But my college notes are fabulous; I have them still.
Using a dip pen has become second nature to me, so it’s not such an affectation, anymore. This doesn’t mean that my real handwriting has changed, though. Give me a ballpoint or a felt tip pen, and my handwriting is as illegible, psychotic, demonic as ever. It hasn’t been transformed, only concealed.
It was always the kind of pen that made the difference. Fussy pens, like dip pens with calligraphic nibs, or those very fine, delicate points on expensive technical drawing pens, have to be held a certain way, manipulated slowly to avoid damaging them, have to be used correctly or they won’t work at all. Their finicky temperaments impose order upon my handwriting.
Now I am teaching myself Copperplate script. I bought the strange-looking Mitchell’s Copperplate Elbow oblique nib at work, and have been using it at every opportunity…copperplate To Do lists, copperplate journal entries, copperplate appointments in my datebook, copperplate letters to friends (and their addresses on envelopes)…
I have barely started, and already I can see that I will need an oblique nib holder, because the Mitchell’s Copperplate Elbow, while set at the right angle for Copperplate, is not as flexible as I’d like it to be. I have a Gillott’s 303 and 404 nib, they’re so springy-sproingy that it’s like writing with cat’s whiskers (and it’s the difference between the superfine point of the nib, and how far apart the tines will spread when you apply pressure, that make for some of my favorite Copperplate examples on the internet) but the nib has to held at an oblique angle to the lines on the page to get the thick-and-thin areas in the right places.
I probably wouldn’t pick Copperplate to begin using dip pens and nibs…go for Roundhand, or Italic, first, and when you’re comfortable with using a nib, you can venture into the fancier scripts. It will be many years of writing in ‘plain vanilla Copperplate’ before I will feel game enough to tackle the sort of scrolling and ornamental work you see in this video:
I have wanted to do something about this stack of large, heavy-duty brown paper bags—the kind that you get your bok choy and bananas in, at a farmer’s market—that I carried home from some yard sale ages ago.
Today I cut the bottoms off, leaving a kind of paper ‘tube'; I then slit the tube with a large kitchen knife at the side folds into two pieces, cut the resulting two sheets in half once more, and then folded the sheets, ten at a time, to form signatures or sections. A few quick stitches using heavy linen upholstery thread, some cloth tapes cut from a scrap of printed cotton, some glue and half an hour under the press. Just like that, I have two brown paper books, a hundred leaves (200 pages) in each. I may, or may not, worry about covers (I’m a bookbinder. That means most of my own books spend their lives half-finished and coverless…)
I have a lot of good art papers, and at least a dozen hand-bound drawing and watercolor sketchbooks, to take on my travels…but I needed some scribbling-and-doodling books that didn’t feel precious; made of the cheapest possible paper and roughly sewn together, so that I wouldn’t be afraid to waste the pages, to draw and write utter garbage, to jot down phone numbers and shopping lists. I like that the pages in these two books are creased. There are some stains and spots where the bags got rained on last year. I even left the double-thick strip—where one side of the bag was glued to the other—to form a margin on some pages.
Often, it is in such cheap and accessible books that the best work gets done. The mind is so strange.
I began to test various dip pen nibs on the rough, hairy paper, trying to figure out which nib would work best. This random line from an audio book—Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives—I was listening to as I began to write appeared on the first page. I guess I have unwittingly named one of the books…