My most recent flurry of travels included flying from Somalia to Calcutta with a layover in Kenya, permitting me to revisit a favorite haunt.

The vast, sprawling city of Nairobi, and both of its airports, butt right up against a premier game reserve, Nairobi National Park, the splendid legacy of a time when the city was little more than a tiny high plains retreat for British colonials. Imagine if New York's Central Park was the size of Queens, and roamed by herds of wild game. The park holds all of the so-called "Big Five," the animals on the "must see" most-wanted list: elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, lion and leopard.

As the city expands, the pressure on this real estate must be significant, but so far the park survives, ringed by dozens of miles of electrified fence, minimizing contact between urban human and dangerous wild game. The insensate Buffalo is the most dangerous; it will rear and charge and trample you under its mighty hooves before it has even evaluated what sort of threat you might pose. The hippo, separated from its offspring, or rushing back to the safety of the water, will flatten you like a diesel road roller. In East Africa, the elephant, a genial creature by nature, has had too many unpleasant experiences with humans. It does not trust you, and the rogue, lone male will sometimes attack even your vehicle. For all these reasons and more, it is prohibited to descend from the car in many African game reserves.

But this regulation makes birdwatching difficult. One wants, always, to follow that elusive call into the bush, to peer deep into shrubs, to get out of the car and stroll in the forest. I cautiously ignore regulations against walking in Africa. After all, millions of carless Africans have been living in relative harmony with all these animals for years. If someone is occasionally munched, or flattened, that is the way of things. I accept that. In Rwanda's Akagera National Park I have camped, alone, where I liked, hiked into the acacia forests, startled giant crocodiles at the edges of the swamp, and even skirted herds of elephant on foot. Always keeping a healthy distance dictated by respect, but not paranoia.

On my last trip to Nairobi National Park I had therefore fearlessly gotten out of my hired taxi whenever I spotted a bird, which is to say, almost constantly. But on this visit, within minutes of pulling through the front gates, I was embarrassed  to be busted by a park ranger, who pulled up short in his green Toyota Landcruiser when he saw me standing in the road, some fifty yards from my van and driver. "What you are doing is very dangerous. And it is not permitted," he said, in crisp, officious, post-colonial English. "Yes, sir," I said.

"Return to your vehicle at once." After I complied, the ranger drove up and held a brief conference in Swahili with my driver, the excellent George Olukuye. Then he sped off, and George and I wrestled open the safari pop-top of the van. "He said that if he sees you out of the car again, you will be fined," George told me. I fumed. Birding out of a van, even a convertible one, was not what I had had in mind.

Tourists in game reserves demonstrate a herd mentality, as if eager to prove they are not so very different from the animals they are watching. Pause for a few moments looking out of the top of a van through binoculars, and every other van within sight will hurriedly u-turn its way back to your patch of track, fearful of missing something. "Een ornitholoog," I heard one disgusted dutchman tell his family, after they sped over, only to realize that I was looking at a small, nondescript bird.

An Ostrich might get a pause and a glance, but what most visitors really want to see are the Big Five. Two drivers passing in the track pause and ask each other if there have been any rhino sightings. "Simba?," they ask, in hushed tones. The lion is king. It is possible, but difficult to see. It is perhaps at the top of the list for most visitors. (You could spent twenty days of layovers here and never see a leopard, so that spectacular cat generally remains in the realm of fantasy).

Imagine our joy, then, as we were driving slowly up the track, to come upon a lioness, drinking from a puddle in the road.

In the natural state of things, unless startled, harassed, or abnormally hungry, the lion does not attack we humans. Like bullies, they prefer prey smaller than themselves. The phenomenon of the man-eater, of the lion that has tasted human flesh and found it to his liking, gives one pause, but the presence of lions is not normally enough to keep me in the car. (However, I would never get out of a car in the presence of a lion).

Where there is one lion, there are generally more, and as we sat, parked in the track, watching and waiting, another one appeared from an insignificant shrub beside the road, just the sort in which on another day I might have searched for a singing bird. If they are unlikely to attack humans, they also care little about them. Simba is not scared of you, and he will walk languidly across the road and examine your car with a slow twist of his powerful neck.

Soon, three lions had settled into the shade of the only shrub found on our patch of savannah. Had you told me that the lone bush, above, provided sufficient cover for three lions, I would have laughed at you, but I saw the lions go in to it and become invisible. Had I not seen them I must admit that here I would happily have gotten out of the car after looking around, certain that there was no big game, no threat, just open bush. A lesson learned.

Half an hour later, when we passed back that way, they were still there.


Geography Quiz

You don't have to be very specific to win this one, folks. I'll accept anything within 500 miles as a correct answer...


The Greening of Brooklyn

The heartwarming sight of a truck fulla landscape, crossing the Gowanus Canal today on Hamilton Ave.

Photo: courtesy Laura Harmon


Auspiciousness Maximization Strategies

Any country as large as India has profound regional variations that are manifested in culture and politics, tugging and teasing at the fabric of national unity. Kashmir is only the most obvious example. Around Darjeeling, in the Himalayan foothills, the original citizens of the mountains have more in common with the Nepalese and Bhutanese they are sandwiched between than they do even with the other residents of their own state of West Bengal. They want autonomy, and a state, to be called Gurkhaland. One senses that independence from India itself would be just fine with them. In the vast south, over much of peninsular India, the people speak Tamil, militantly avoiding Hindi in the manner of Barcelonans refusing to speak Castillian. They enjoy the most progressively vegetarian cuisine on earth (meat-serving restaurants are labeled "non-veg"). They are darker skinned, and have their own burgeoning movie industry, threatening the supremacy of Bollywood. It's called Tollywood. T for Tamil.

My friend and sister-in-law, Melanie Dean, speaks Tamil, and she is an expert on much of what is distinct in the region. Her doctoral dissertation, recently completed, and which she will be defending before the august sages of the Uni of Penna tomorrow,  discusses Tamil Nadu superstitions related to the concept of the "evil eye." In Tamil culture, an excess of admiration is often interpreted as a possible threat to the thing admired. For instance, it is considered very bad form to goo and gush over a newborn, complimenting it on its good looks, chubby cheeks and overall deliciousness. Your envy is showing, and you likely mean the child harm. (I wish a bit of this would rub off in Brooklyn, where the abundance of children one is all but required to lavish with praise quickly becomes exhausting).

I'm a sucker for whatever bits of voodoo and hoo-hah survive into our more and more culturally homogenous iPad age, and while in Tamil Nadu recently (I'm just back as of three days ago) I kept my eyes peeled for manifestations of popular belief. I wasn't really sure what I was looking for, so I just snapped photos of things I don't see in Red Hook every day. I then sent the snaps along to Melanie. Knowing she was in the mad crush of preparing for her dissertation defense, I didn't have high hopes that she would have time to share the knowledge, but on the other hand, it isn't every day that the illustrious antarcticiana offers outsiders the one-way ticket to fame and glory represented by a guest post in these pages. Within hours the hot copy was on my screen:

You've taken pictures of just the very things that sent me down the road of this crazy dissertation I just completed. They are all apotropaic in the sense that they attract auspiciousness (in the case of the kolams or rice flour designs drawn on the ground), or they repel inauspiciousness (in the case of the other items you photographed which are evil eye or drishti amulets). The threshold of the home (or business), as a liminal space, is the most vulnerable to evil influences and energies. So, as you have no doubt noticed, it is at the entrance to homes and businesses that you find the greatest concentration of such evil-eye repellent forms.
The rice-flour designs on the ground are called kolam in Tamil and are drawn only by women and girls, usually at the crack of dawn. These types of patterns have mathematical properties that computer programmers are actually quite interested in. They can get very complicated and are drawn freehand by women. These skills are passed down from mothers to daughters. Kolams are a sign that everything in the home is well. They invite auspiciousness into the home, and especially the goddess of prosperity: Lakshmi. They are ephemeral art forms, akin to sand mandalas. They are meant to be trampled and dispersed, and it looks like you have a pic of one in just this state. 

The two Kolams above and below were photographed on the same threshhold, one in front of each of two metal gates giving access to the courtyard. They appear to have matched before one of them was mussed by pedestrians.

Some people say that putting out a kolam is like feeding a thousand souls, because ants take away the rice flour and eat it. Kolams, with their lines that have no beginning and no end, are understood to confuse evil spirits, who are baffled by them. 

The famous anthropologist Alfred Gell called such designs (like kolams and Celtic knots) "demonic fly-paper" for their ability to "trap" and distract the attentions of wayward spirits. (A great video on kolams can be found here.)

 Veve for Ogoun, scanned without permission from Maya Deren's Divine Horsemen:The Living Gods of Haiti

An interesting aside: Above and below are veve, ritual drawings of Haitian vodou, which, coincidentally or not, share a number of attributes with kolam. Both are "drawn" on the ground by carefully allowing a trail of flour or meal to escape from between the thumb and forefinger. Both invoke the supernatural. Both are ephemeral artworks which may begin to be dispersed almost as soon as they are finished. "The veve is not a permanent record," wrote Harold Courlander. "It is made as an act of supplication or veneration, and once it is finished it has no further value. In the ensuing ritual and dance, the veve is obliterated by the feet that pass across it."*

And, from Alfred Métraux: "These emblematic drawings have a magical nature. Merely by tracing them out a priest puts pressure on the loa [spirits] and compels them to appear.... (T)he loa will be irresistibly attracted by the magic of the veve...."**
Veve for Legba, perceived as the guardian of portals and doorways--the "liminal space" and threshold of the spirit world. Also taken from Divine Horsemen.
Your pic of the amulet dangling down is a classic "evil eye" or drishti amulet. It consists of a rope of human hair (grotesque and chosen for just this reason!) which holds a conch shell, a palm fruit (?) wrapped in yellow, turmeric smeared cotton string, and a chunk of alum. Alum in particular has interesting evil eye repellent properties. When you burn it, it pops and makes a lot of loud noises which are said to be evidence of drishti. This combination of the hair rope with the conch shell, etc., is quite popular.

Finally, you've got a very nice pic of an evil eye-repellent coconut demon head! Demon heads are made from papier-mache, they are painted on pumpkins, and they are also-somewhat more rarely-painted on dried out coconuts. These demons (called butam in Tamil) usually have horns, big mustaches, and a tongue sticking out with a scorpion on it. Such scary and ugly amulets are supposed to draw the attentions of onlookers (and potential evil eye casters) who will then be frightened or disgusted by the amulet and look away--their evil eye averted. This one appears to be hanging outside a shop. Places of business are protected from evil eye just like homes.

The shopkeeper of the store adjacent to this spectacular coconut-head saw me photographing it, and I struck up a conversation with him that went something like this:

Me: What on earth is that?

Shopkeeper: We have a strong belief here, that if you have something very beautiful, someone can come and admire that thing, and somehow take something away from it. We call it drishti. That coconut relates to that.

M: Make it less beautiful?

S: Yes. perhaps damage it, in some way. And our ancestors, you know, they were not such fools as we may think, so there may be something in that. To prevent it, you must hang something hideous, something ugly there. To guard against that.

M: But I rather like the coconut. What I'm enviously admiring is the very amulet that is supposed to repel me. Story of my life.

*Courlander, Harold, The Drum and the Hoe, Berkeley, 1960, The University of California Press, pg. 125.
**Métraux, Alfred, Voodoo, New York, 1959, Oxford University Press, pg. 165.

(All italicized text courtesy of Melanie Dean, to whom I am extraordinarily grateful for this erudite and illuminating contribution. Best wishes to her on the eve of her doctoral dissertation defense. She cannot but emerge diplomaed and victorious even if she brings to it only a fraction of the clarity and concision demonstrated in this post.)


Curb Yourself

Today's Semiotic Malfunction is also from Ooty, in Tamil Nadu, India. However, given the way cars are driven through the streets here, this may not be an error; perhaps it is meant as a warning to pedestrians rather than to would-be parkers.