The Foehn That Swept Me Up: Drinking, Writing and Africa

“There are a number of persistent malevolent winds, perhaps the best known of which are the mitral of France and the Mediterranean sirocco, but a foehn wind has distinct characteristics: it occurs on the leeward slope of a mountain range and, although the air begins as a cold mass, it is warmed as it comes down the mountain and appears finally as a hot dry wind. Whenever and wherever a foehn blows, doctors hear about headaches and nausea and allergies, about ‘nervousness,’ about ‘depression.'”

As I read this passage of Joan Didion’s essay, Los Angeles Notebook, I recognized that for the past two years I have been sailing through life with my sails filled by a foehn. It has been the best journey of my young life.

This is not easy for me to write. There is an inherent softness in what is to come. Anybody who knows me knows that softness is condemnable in the circles within which I run. That any softness existing within me is protected by a fortress of facade and veneer. Of hardwood and granite. Yes, I have a heart, but it’s enclosed in a cage of bone and lives behind a barrel-chest, coarse with hair. But as with all things, as with the sea-urchin and his spiny test, there is softness behind it. A malleable vulnerability that–no matter how protected and fortified–remains vulnerable.

I am writing of course of heartbreak and loss, but I will not directly call it so. I will not name names. This is not a pity-party. Any lovesick angsty teen can write of heartbreak and loss just as well as I, but I am here to write of what comes after: the metaphorical foehn. As with a fresh flesh wound that’s treated and becomes cicatrix–clean shiny new scar-tissue–a wound of the “heart,” really of the mind, is treated and becomes cicatrix through mourning, adventure and reckoning. And like all scars, it is looked at fondly. A story told without words, a story of the flesh, a reminder of the freshness, the heat of that cut as the knife was done making it. We will get there. First, we will write of the journey following the foehn wherever it demands to go.

Kill It With Words, Kill It With Bourbon

I am of the belief that any experience deserves to be written. With bad experiences, write until there’s nothing left to write and you will be free of the burden. With the good, write until you’ve nothing left to say, and you’ll have immortalized that goodness on the page. It will be there when memory no longer serves you.

I am also of the belief that if I begin to feel ill in any way, straight bourbon is the cure. I thank my grandfather for this wisdom, I raise my tumbler to him whenever I take my medicine.

And so I wrote and I drank. I drank and I wrote. I broke glasses. I hugged the toilet, ass naked, the porcelain cold against my pelvis, while I threw up Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Ancient Age, whatever was available. I threw things across the room. I threw things off my balcony. I smoked too many cigars. I went to the wildturkeybottle_no1strip-club, walked through the beaded threshold into the “private” room and stared blankly off into space while two of the dancers–the two reasons I steer clear of strip clubs now–demanded that I slap their asses and castigated me for my booze-induced flaccidity. It was free-fall, baby. All part of the closing up of the scar. Really, I reluctantly admit this, but all of the above can be summarized as temper tantrums and self-pity. But the key to all of it was writing. Writing and drinking.

And I do not condone this if you wish to write anything of quality. But if sex on ecstasy is the height of pleasure, writing while drunk is the ultimate low. And during dark times, that low is necessary. It’s perfect. 90% of what I wrote during this time–cringeworthy sestinas and sonnets and angry free-verse that basically just plagiarized Tyler, The Creator–was garbage. I still have the files on my computer but don’t dare open them. But one of the poems I wrote became my first publication, so clearly the foehn may be malevolent, it took me to a seedy strip club on Bascom Ave. in San Jose where my friend spent far too much money trying to cheer me up on my birthday, but it landed me a publication and set me off to earn many more.

Get Away. Unplug. Be Adventurous. Be Dangerous. 

That following summer, I went to Africa. Ghana, specifically. I wanted to “drink in the world” as they say, and since I’d been in high school Africa’d always seemed to be the place to start. I drank in the world. I learned African dance. I tore my hands on African drum sticks. I strived to live with, as one of my travel-buddies described it: “reckless abandon.” I watched a goat scream as it was about to have its throat cut at 7:00 AM. I helped fishermen haul in their nets. I weaved a basket. I walked on a rope-bridge through the canopy. I fell asleep on the beach holding a machete I’d purchased earlier that day. I rid myself of the facades and veneers that I’m so quick to hide behind. I wrote poetry in the night and swatted at mosquitos. Yes, I drank in the world. I washed it down with “shots” (a “shot glass” in the village of Kopeyia seemed to mean whatever receptacle was most readily available) of akpetexi–basically grain alcohol. Palm wine kept in empty Voltic-brand liter-sized water-bottles, sometimes infused with garlic or whatever special ingredients the person who made the bottle liked to include in his blend. No two shots of akpetexi are exactly the same.

Ain’t akpetexi, but beer on the beach in Anomabu wasn’t bad either.

Within an hour of our arrival at the village, we all took shots in a welcoming ceremony called “libation pouring.” Liquor has never gone down so easily. During the ceremony, which was conducted entirely in Ewe, they called out the names of their dead ancestors and offered akpetexi to them. After taking your shot, you’re supposed to leave some (given the size of some of the shot-glasses, this was a welcome loophole) in your glass and pour it on the ground, as an offering.

Given the fact that I’d wound up with some variety of traveler’s diarrhea or food poisoning from the okra stew I ate on the first night (Excerpt from travel journal: “7/13/14: Last night and this morning were hell. Bad okra stew. On toilet every hour. Did not sleep at all.”), and given my philosophy that bourbon is the ultimate medicine, the gentle burning of the garlicky booze was a welcome cure–and I’m not joking. It worked better than the Imodium and prescription strength anti-diahhreals I’d taken that morning before the six hour bus ride from Accra to the village. (Excerpt from journal later that day: “It [akpetexi] supposedly has healing powers. I believe it. I’ve been ailment free since the pouring of libations.”) I drank a lot while I was there, but upheld the mantra taught to me by Odartey, probably the best dancer in Kopeyia. He told me: “drink, don’t drunk.” Words to live by.

For that month I was an avid taker of notes. I brought two notebooks: a smaller lined notebook with cork for its cover–this was for day-to-day records of activities, conversations and such, e.g. the earlier record of my bowel predicament–and a larger

The symbols I copied into my notebook

blank leather-bound journal. In this, I was more comprehensive. Less of a record of events than a reflection upon them and myself. I drew, mused, wrote down Ewe words, took note of the Brekete festival (Excerpt from travel journal: “Observing these women at the village become possessed makes me question my religion–or lack thereof.” ), and let the village kids write their names and draw.

The only cell phone I had was the one I’d been given on the first night. I had the numbers of my fellow travelers and loaded cards to provide minutes to call home. I barely called

Climbing in search of scorpions.

home. I do recall one phone call I’d made where my mother claimed she did not recognize my voice. She said it was the happiest she’d ever heard me. And she was right. I had nobody to answer to. I danced, drummed, drank, and immersed myself in the culture. I doubt I will ever be so happy again as I was there.

Excerpt from travel journal: “7/21/14: I am absolutely happy…Happy. I am very lucky…I am under Emmanuel’s [chief of the village with a laugh that sounds just like Rafiki’s in The Lion King] sun hut as I write. Pitch black 7:00 PM. Flashlight refracting through water bottle. Should’ve worn more DEET. Mosquitos feasting. Also huge cockroach. I smell incredibly foul.”

But this happiness was not free of latent sadness–sadness at the knowledge of my trip’s impermanence. That every day enjoyed was a day closer to departure. That I was bound to return to, as my favorite writer (David Foster Wallace) puts it, “a homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction.” Back to the world inhabited by the things I’d been so happy to be free of for a month in Africa. And so when I found out that the tops of palm-trees were home to deadly scorpions, I did not hesitate to climb. If a scorpion got to me and I died there, happy, that didn’t seem too bad. I also harassed a crocodile in Kakum with the same thought in my mind. If this thing gets me, so be it. Put me in a death roll and watch me smile. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to die, but if something in Africa wanted to kill me I wasn’t going to try and stop it. If some dark magical African force possessed the crocodiles or the scorpions–as I’d watched the women possessed in the village–and wanted to keep me from going home. Maybe it knew what was best for me. The end scene of Blood Diamond was ingrained in my mind. There’s Leonardo DiCaprio, watching the gunmen approach his already wounded self on that rocky ledge, bleeding out. He feels like he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be. I had traces of this feeling within, and it is reflected in both of my journals.

But I did not get stung by a deadly scorpion and the crocodile did not seize my leg and drag me into the water despite my urging. And the foehn took me back to America and my iPhone and my emails and my Facebook. And the people and the hustle and the bustle and my reality. And the African progress began to come undone. Within a week I was addicted to my phone again. Within a week I was concerned with wifi passwords and drinking to drunk rather than “drink don’t drunk.” And I looked to simple tasks and solitude to help me retrace my steps to that African feeling. And I regressed a little bit–to drinking and writing–I had another poem published and then another, and I felt alright about that.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 11.29.05 AM
The croc and me.

Back to the Keyboard

I talked earlier about writing of bad feelings, pain for example, until the pain subsides. That’s what I did when my African hiatus was closed and my summer of drinking and vomiting was over. I went back to the keyboard. I put on all the songs that evoke the softest sides of me–the muted trumpet of Louis Armstrong, the soft whisper of Iron & Wine, the reverberating sorrow of “Love is a Laserquest.” And I neared the point that I knew would come if I continued to write. I neared it, not without hang-ups. Run-ins with certain parties, reminders, gentle hurtings originating within my softest self–already past my protective moat at their inception.

Pain soon subsided, numbness ensued. And I’ll take numbness over pain any day, because numbness can be usurped by joy, by something new. Pain, as long as it has its foothold, will not budge. But pain is over now, and that is okay. And I’ve ended up with a hell of an African experience and a lot of written work as a result. I’ve learned a lot, grown a lot, and let my foehn take me where it willed me to go.

But like any cicatrix, the scar I have from tumbling down an 0ff-trail hill in Santa Cruz and catching my arm on the jagged edge of a rock, the click in my jaw from taking a punch with an open mouth–this internal pain leaves its vestige. And though it is large and palpable, not something that wishes to or is able to be ignored, it is benign. I’ve grown fond of it. And I am thankful to have it as a part of me, just as I am thankful for the scar from Santa Cruz and the click in my jaw. Because without them, well, life would be boring. And then what would I write about? Who would want to read anything I have to say?

And so, I guess the point here (I’ll admit I’ve let this get away from me a bit, I’ve lost sight of the point on the horizon I set out towards initially) is that when you endure something internal, something painful ,be it heartbreak or loss, and really I don’t know what the difference is between those words, let the ensuing foehn sweep you up and take you somewhere. Because what we learn when we’re broken, what we’re driven to do, is necessary for us to become whole again. Whole in ourselves.

The slightly abused quote by Hemingway goes: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” You’ve probably read that somewhere. Possibly not in the book from which it originates (A Farewell to Arms), but you’ve probably heard it. And notice he says “the world,” because while the impetus behind my foehn was heartbreak, to a degree, your foehn may come from somewhere entirely foreign to love. The important thing is to let it carry you. Endure the symptoms that Didion notes in her essay: nausea, headaches, depression, the like. Because the lows are what make us what we are. The lows are what drive us to pursue the things we truly want, see the things we want to see, go where we want to go. Sailing with the foehn may land you on a circuitous route, but it will be the best route. The right one.


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