The river that connects Siem Riep to Phnom Penh is one of the few – possibly the only – that seasonally changes direction, depending on which end of it is being rained on at any given moment. Or so Lonely Planet told me the time. Jumping between the two cities that afternoon – now years ago – were a handful of multiple-engine boats that were an equal measure of speed and bone-grinding noise and dark exhaust grit. Or at least they were is you sat on the top to watch life go by.
Clear, clear skies with those faint smears of white mist that you get high up when the clouds aren’t really trying, but feel obliged to defy the possibility of there ever being a completely cloudless sky. I’ve counted skies over the years. Over the places. And you would be surprised how seldom they are actually a perfect blue. There’s a cloud, somewhere, defying your impulse to ever write ‘cloudless sky’ with any degree of sincerity.
Below that sky, the palm trees. Like we don’t ever see in South Africa. The ones where the leaves are more of a spiky ball instead of the flat umbrella shape that I’d known growing up. The kind I’d only ever seen in war movies where American planes would burn them, and the ants of people that Hollywood casually mentioned lived in them, dead from on high in spectacular flashes of napalm. Where you’d be guaranteed to receive at least one scene of a heroic marine running to a waiting huey, trying not to be left behind.
It made for an odd sort of moment, watching that southeast Asia in my mind and the southeast Asia skimming past the boat superimposed on one another, separated in time, though joined by a river that in all probability flowed then as it flows now. Possibly in a different direction, and with different boats – of men intent on killing. But on some broader level, the same basic river as it had always been and would likely continue to be.
It was an odd thought. That I’d somehow stepped (or bone grindingly speed-boated) into history. Into a place where important things in the life of the western world had happened. It was a first encounter with the realisation that history and politics, and the stories that were their sinews were living, leviathan things that threw men and monuments around on landscapes that those later – those like me – would come through in naivety. Even the landscape was the product of politics and history’s taste for rearranging, as South Africa – for example – knows all too well when it looks.
Only the mountains, and some rivers, know what it is to be free of the stories of men. And even then only to escape being deformed by them. Never from the process of being named, being appropriated as symbols in story worlds to be fought over. On some vague level of reflection, these were the ideas beginning to find me on that boat, looking out on a history that was nowhere and all around me.
Names and ideas, and the power they held would become something I’d begin to understand only later. A door that would open as I sat in a plastic chair on a Kitgum roadside reading Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Re-membering Africa.
Its talk of the names of Africa’s lakes, names foundational in worlds of stories, were an epiphany. Taken together, those stories are culture. Are more than culture – they are a literal second-order reality. A world on top of the physical and sensational. Those names changed by white fiat to Lake Victoria, Lake Albert, Lake My-Language. A foreigner’s literal reality and declaration of war. As the words of the places by which stories are told disappear, so too might those stories finally die.
Years later on a steel and wood bridge over another river. One that turns the most beautiful violet in the last light of the Ituri forest. Either the Belgians never assaulted the Epulu river with their names, or the people in whose stories it lived simply succeeded in forgetting the Belgians.
In the late evening, handfuls of clouds keep the last of the absent sun’s light before burning out from their visceral reds into cool greys. The final stages of some invisible flame washing through sky-borne steel wool. The Epulu, unconcerned, simply washed over the children of the rocks it had been jostling with since before any people named it. Hiding, somewhere, the sons and daughters of the first crocodiles to have come here. Animals who could, if they had wanted, given the river names of their own, then fought the people for them. Except that the crocodiles – as far as anyone has asked – have no use for names. No second world of stories.
The river is simply the river. And the people simply the people. It was only the men who came later who would decide to call the river Epulu. Call themselves Batwa or Belgian or whatever. Name their nations. Name each other, and name things that no crocodile could suspect ever were. Good, evil, god, soul.
They would even name the crocodiles themselves.
But the second world of names remains for men as real as anything the crocodile knows. Ideas and stories flowing between the children of generations, concepts and physical places. Carrying the best and the worst of men’s politics and men’s histories.
As for the crocodiles, they know only the river and its surrounds for what they are. Naked of stories and their tanglesome work.
The river knows but that it is. Ignorant of crocodile knowledge and the knowledge of men. Or whether it should be purple or any other colour at the end of any day under a cloud-spoiled sky.