Sunday, September 05, 2010

A ghost in your own life

Yesterday we returned to ‘Backpackers’ – the hostel in Kampala where the two of us met way back in November 1998,* when I looked a bit like this: (and yes, that I was allowed to teach French to a group of 80 young Ugandans is possibly the greatest travesty to strike the country since Idi Amin...)

And he looked a bit like this:

Neither of us has been there, or indeed to Uganda, since that time twelve years ago. It’s a strange course that has brought us back. As it's the place in the world we were both independently drawn to, and where we then met each other, and where we again find ourselves, I can’t help but wonder if the country has always somehow existed in our subconscious minds, waiting for us to recognise it and then find a way to return. (A bit like when six of the characters from Lost finally get off the island after spending about three series trying desperately to do so, only to realise in series four that that their realities back home feel false now, that they belonged out of time and out of place, that they were destined to be lost, and that by whatever means available they must spend the rest of the series finding a way to return so that they can get on with series five back where they belong, on the island).**

Also like Lost, there’s something nightmarish about the return to places that hold special, personal meaning. There are too many uncontrollable factors. It’s as if you can’t trust the ground you’re walking on: it feels unstable, as if in walking in on your own history you have broken some laws of time and space and have destabilized reality. Or the ground itself is real enough, but it’s you who are unreliable. You are a ghost – a ghost from the future – watching yourself in the past, with no ability to speak, no ability to change the destiny that has already unfolded behind you, no means with which to warn or arm yourself.

The entrance into Backpackers had been moved, though the sign itself was the same one. The grounds felt denser, the bushes thicker, the trees taller. The main building that had stood in open ground was almost completely shrouded in trees. This made it dingier than I remember inside. So much internal re-structuring had taken place that at first I thought the entire building had been demolished and rebuilt from the ground up.

Then I gradually began to recognise the shapes of the building’s outlines, and to understand how parts had been relocated. Bits and pieces started to make sense. It’s like this fragment of your own past is a maze with moving walls. You stand on the original land, but you have to move things around and push them out of the way in order to get your bearings.

Eventually, between us, we worked out that the bar is now where the reception used to be, that there are more dormitories and where the bar and terrace once were there is now additional private accommodation. But considering the amount of work that must have been done to it in recent years, the whole place looked seedier and shabbier than I remember it.

One thing that hadn’t changed much was the clientele: batches of eighteen-year-old boys just out of school dominating the bar and pool area, high on themselves and the weed they buy off the local Rastas that always did haunt the place. Apparently Backpackers still depends heavily upon these scruffy, rangy, inflated and space-consuming egos to stay standing on its own scruffy (bare) feet.

I’m glad we went, but I don’t intend to go again. I hadn’t expected it to be so strangely painful. After all, I met my future husband there. I read his palm seated on a bench on the terrace and later we sat on its wall and discussed Star Wars. His English wasn’t very good. The banda where he sliced us pineapple with his leatherman is still there; one thing that was almost entirely unchanged.

There are tents on the same ground where I sat in his tent and played him this song (a song we were to play at our wedding) on a cassette on my Sony Walkman (in 1998 I didn’t have an email address and hadn’t even progressed to CD walkmans. The past really is another country!).

Björk - Isobel
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I suppose feeling sad is a natural response to the whole passage of time/nostalgia thing, but I think there was more to it. I think it was probably because that time was difficult for me: at eighteen-years-old, it proved one of the hardest periods in my life so far. I felt I’d been misled and deceived into something that was nothing like what I’d expected. I was angry, I didn’t fit in at all, and without any maturity or life experience to call on, I dealt with it all very badly.

At the same time, shooting through that general semi-fixed state of unhappiness, from a totally unforeseen and un-looked-for direction, like some kind of wild-haired, dark, exotic meteor, crashed a wily Israeli, and with him came meaning, purpose: the reason I was meant to be in Uganda at that particular moment, in that particular place. I imagine a two-tone piece of fabric: a dark, matt base, shot through with metallic, electric thread. The threads are separate – they are their own bounded entities – but they exist simultaneously, interwoven, inextricable from one another. The overall colour and effect created, the two-tone, is the result of the combination, of the crash.

I think it was also the realisation that you can take ownership of so little in this life. We walk around a place we inhabit, wherever it is, we make it home and in doing so we think of it as ours. Certainly the boys swaggering round the pool table, being all floppy-haired and bare-footed all over everywhere, were behaving as if they owned the place. Just as they did twelve years ago. Just as they will twelve years from now, if the place still exists then. But we can’t own spaces and we don’t own history. We certainly don’t own memory - it is not a place - just an illusion of a place - and if you return to a memory, to a place of significant meaning, you must accept relinquishment of ownership over that memory, because you will never be able to experience it in quite the same way again.

And you realise that, in turn, place owes you nothing. Your history is your own problem, and not the responsibility of the place it happened in. All that meaning, all that significance that you applied to that place was done only by you and means nothing to anyone or anything else. It means nothing to the place itself, nothing at all to the people who inhabit that space now and call it theirs and are, right this minute, busy making their own memories, and it means nothing in the broader scheme of things - it means nothing to the universe. Perhaps this seems like stating the obvious, but being directly confronted by it still comes as a shock. It leaves you wondering if all this meaning and purpose we grapple with finding in, and for, our lives is itself meaningless; an indulgent pastime of humans. Perhaps the narratives we make out of our lives are nothing more than elaborate, complex disguises we weave across an indifferent void – the opposite of meaning – like a beautiful, dense tapestry hung to veil a drafty crack in a wall.

Following along behind us with a dustpan and brush, the past is busy sweeping up our trail of footprints, busy undoing everything we thought we’d set in stone. For while you aren’t looking, time changes the composition of the environment in which your memory took place, it moves its walls, shifts its boundaries, and rearranges the furniture, never again to be what it was. Your past then exists only in your mind.

*Little Known and Possibly Surprising Fact About Us: my husband also met his previous girlfriend – the one he was still with when he met me – at Backpackers in Kampala a few years previous. This is absolutely true.
**I know, I know, Lost ended 4 months ago. It’s time to move on. But it’s hard, you know, it’s just so hard…

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