All along the water tower

10 March 2011

so little water.  it hasn't rained here for two years.  we get ours from boreholes dug deep in the dirt, metres down where hidden lakes hover between layers of clay.  we bring them to the top, hold them in tanks, high in the air and let them fall, chlorinated, into our cups, onto our hot backs.  one of the tanks is down so that its platform might be rustproofed, and last evening, at dusk, i climbed it and  watched wind whip dust into tight swirling dervishes until there were ten at one time, scattered and spinning across the horizon.

i sat there, smoking, and thinking about smoking, watching my breath trail away with the wind. i had started by having a cigarette only on saturdays. wednesdays and saturdays. and since fridays were pretty much little saturday, those too. now, at the end of each day, i buy one "sportsman" cigarette from the canteen, climb the steel ladder, dangle my legs through the aluminum bars, and gape at the wide outside beyond our barbed walls.

children play football, their kicking scrum disappears in a cloud of sand until the ball emerges with a pock, and the players race after it, their footstrikes smoking on the flat ground. in the trees, their bright clothes hang on branches, swatches of color caught in a sharp needled net.

beyond, camels amble through the barren trees, bend their long knees to take a single leaf that the other may have missed. goats move past, sweeping the ground for the same mistake, moving in mass past our gate, a bleating army, the cloud of dust settling with their trailing yells.

a car in the distance bumps between trees and past donkey carts, filled to bursting with lucky passengers, destination unknown. above, a sliver of a moon, and near it, a glinting planet, hundreds of thousand kilometers distant. the wind reaches me, finally, and the red of my cigarette glares harshly.

pling.....pling.....pling.  someone on the steel ladder.

a hand, then a head, then a hope-you-weren't-looking-for-some-quiet-time, look. of course not, come on up. the more the merrier.

the thing about the deep desert heat is the true pleasure you take from the laziest breeze, a tingle of delight spreading from the hairs on your arm to the nape of your neck. such full experience of things that might otherwise be ignored when your familiar register is taken away. the slightest wind, a piece of orange, or 30 seconds of quiet, watching the world.

soon, there are seven of us, starfished on our backs, watching the stars blink into black patches of sky. someone brings up a tray of cheese left behind by some journalists, another some chocolate. we talk, and smoke, and wonder what to say next that is not about work when here, that is all there is.

I wrote this for my parents who said that I should spend some time describing for young doctors what life is like here. it is like that. you find ways to get through, and even though they might not seem particularly special at the time, they are, and they keep you coming back.

the rest are details (room four metres by four metres on whose walls I've drawn pictures of birds, more than a hundred people in similar rooms, some sharing, it's never quiet, food's made for you, camel every dinner, breakfast always thin pancakes and fried dough, your clothes are washed and dry in the sun, squat latrines, shared showers, radios crackle all over the compound, and you live for your work, and outside of your room, you never get a moment of privacy except, sometimes for those 30 seconds, watching the wind whip the earth into spiral shapes all along the water tower).