I woke up in time to catch the sun rise. All was silent except for the quiet chatter of unseen birds and the steady murmur of the river rapids. A handful of fishermen glided back and forth on the calmer stretches of water. Eventually I sat in the restaurant with a coffee and a book, until the sun woke everyone else up and they joined me. Not a bad start to the day.
I returned from the relative cold of Amsterdam to find Kampala gripped by an unpleasant heat wave. I guess it didn’t rain while I was gone, and without me to water them my poor plants have suffered. To think I was only gone four days!
The warm weather, especially after that little taste of cold, has switched my mind into a summer’s-almost-here mode, as if I were twelve years old and it was the last week of May and I couldn’t wait to get out of school. I was driving around town yesterday with my iPod on shuffle, and it seems my iPod agreed, because the playlist was all summer music, offering up reggae, some salsa, classic R&B, and a bunch of uptempo pop hits (a little Leonard Cohen snuck in, too, but it worked.) If Lake Victoria wasn’t infested with hippos and parasites, I would have made a beeline for the beach.
My lungs burned and my feet stung and my head reeled and my heart ached. The tall grass at least hid his shadow from us, and hopefully hid us from him as well. Julian kept pulling at me, forcing me to keep running even though my body at times felt ready to quit. Not that I wanted to die, I just wanted to stop and to make everything go away, make the whole world and everything in it—good bad natural unnatural—disappear.
The treasure pulsed with Julian’s heartbeat. Some treasure. Not rubies or diamonds or gold like in the books. A worthless piece of wood on a leather strap. He said there were things we couldn’t understand, and so I told myself that there must be more to it and I kept running even as the grass cut my face and the stones on the path cut into my feet.
The ground shook as though thunder had clapped here on the earth itself. It could have been the sound of a thousand cannons firing at once. It was the sound of Tantibus bellowing with rage. He had lost us, at least temporarily. I kept my head down and let Julian lead me further.
At a cafe I am reminded that there are many Amsterdams. Beside me are a couple of young men with bright red eyes. I am having breakfast but they are having a meal at the end of a long night, and even though neither of them are saying much they cannot stop giggling. Theirs is not the Amsterdam I am here for, but I remember my younger days when it might have been.
At a park I am momentarily mesmerized by a young girl spinning around on playground equipment. She is sitting on a chin-up bar and after taking a deep breath she drops, quickly and dramatically, and spins completely around three or four times before stopping at the top for another breath. Beside her a group of boys take turns jumping off of swings, and in a weird little playground cage a postcard-perfect group of multicultural mixed gender preteens play something that looks like dodgeball soccer. It is not clear if they are being watched by any adults; in any event, the children definitely don’t see any of the grown-ups walking past them. The spinning girl doesn’t even seem to notice that every time she whips around her ponytail drags through the dirt. Theirs is an altogether different Amsterdam, too.
A girl with pink hair and a ring in her nose; a jowly man in a very expensive coat; a baker who apologizes to his Dutch customer that he only speaks English. I love cities. I can appreciate the charms of the rural life for a weekend at most. I don’t look down on it, and respect that others can’t stand all the sounds and smells of urban spaces. But I love it. I love letting myself through these overlapping worlds. Funny then how in all my pictures there are no people present. I guess I feel the need to respect their worlds, and I only take pictures of mine.
Not that I’m actually grieving. It’s a lyric in a Steve Earle song that I’ve had in my head for the past few days.
I wanted to go somewhere cold for Christmas but I didn’t want to take too many days off or miss Christmas at home, and there are very few direct flights from Uganda to cold places, so here I am in Amsterdam, with Steve Earle in my head.
I’ve had my camera hanging around my neck this whole time, and I wish I was taking a bunch of beautiful pictures, but I guess that’s not the mode I’m in right now.
This city is beautiful, and obviously rich with culture, but except for a foray to the Rijksmuseum and a canal cruise to see the Festival of Lights, I haven’t done anything particularly touristy. I’ve walked around and looked at things; done some very boring (but satisfying) shopping at department stores; and done some more walking. Despite the multiple travel guides and apps I downloaded, I don’t feel any obligation to go see any museum, or venture out to funky neighborhood, or make reservations to one of Amsterdam’s finest restaurants.
I’m happy to just walk and watch the people. And if sometimes forget to take my camera, well, I guess I’ll have to trust my memory.
Isabelle closed the door to the other room so she could change in privacy, and Mr. Percy sat me down. He knelt in front of me; it was as if a colossus from the Temple of Rhodes was kneeling before me.
“Julian,” he said in a very grave voice. “Lord Edmonstone gave you something. I know it is true. You, or perhaps Isabelle. You must give it to me. Do you understand me?”
I did not, to be honest. I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying at all. The men outside, my mother in the house without help, and the entire ordeal of the evening. Mother had begun to panic when she heard Isabelle sing the song and I couldn’t understand why but I tried to tell Isabelle to open her eyes and see what was happening and somehow she heard me but it didn’t matter. My mind kept returning, I don’t know why, to the chest of viols on Shandos Place, and the old scorch mark on the side. Could it be cleaned? Such a strange thing to think about.
“Listen to me!” he barked suddenly and grabbed my wrists. “You have it, I know you do. It isn’t yours, it wasn’t his to give. It is mine. These are things you do not understand. There are things in this world—real things, not stories, not myths—that you cannot even begin to see. Does Isabelle have it?”
He was hurting me. I could feel the bones in my wrist turning on themselves. If he squeezed harder he could snap them.