July 2022


Untitled 35


The Art of David Wiley


Addis Ababa/Barcelona

It's a cliché that Africa can get into your blood after you have lived there for some time, and as in the case of most clichés there is some truth to this.  In Africa the deeper realities of life become much clearer.   You may feel your creatureness there, that you are one of the infinite living things on the planet.  You find that ancient ways of living still prevail in a setting largely devoid of the accoutrements of modern civilization, and this "primitivism" along with the raw natural grandeur of the place makes Africa seductive to some outsiders, repellant to others.   For those like myself who are seduced, departing the continent, perhaps never to return, produces a certain wistfulness, as if you were leaving a place that had only begun to reveal its many secrets, a place where understanding might be found if you could only stay and look long enough.  

I had lived in Africa for two years, teaching English at a provincial school in the Middle Kingdom of Ethiopia, in the highlands just above the Great Rift Valley, and now I was leaving.   Recently I had been fantasizing a little about the charms of Europe, and in July of 1964 it seemed that these daydreams were about to come true. I had booked passage on a freighter I was to board at Djibouti.   The ship would stop at Suez and Port Said, then Barcelona for a day before going on to Marseilles, its destination, where I had made plans to meet friends.   My idea was to take the train from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa, then go up to Harar on a bus and spend a few days walking the streets in the footsteps of Rimbaud, who had lived his last years there.   All went according to plan, and I did stay in Harar for a while, looking at the city and soaking up the lingering spirit of the poet, marveling at the strangeness of the place, which had once been the fourth holiest city of Islam.

Having caught something of the presence of Rimbaud, I decided to prolong the sensation by following his final path from Harar to Djibouti.   It had been necessary to carry him on a litter most of the way, some of it through the Danakil Desert, hottest place on Earth.  Aided by a Frenchman, I had befriended in Harar I managed to join a camel caravan for the first part of the trip.   During my time in East Africa I had occasionally wondered what it would be like to ride a camel, and now I found out.  Eventually you get used to the rhythm of the camels' walk.   It was the heat and time considerations that forced me to abandon the adventure.   I picked up a bus, and then, for the second time, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti train.

The day after arriving in Djibouti I found out that the Ferdinand de Lesseps was a week behind schedule.  So I would have to stay in Djibouti for eight days.   There was no air-conditioning anywhere, only some slow moving ceiling fans.   I might as well have stayed with the camel caravan.  There was another problem.   I was low on money and needed to cash a U.S. Treasury check, which I didn't think would present much difficulty.  However, when I went to the U.S. Consulate the man told me they could not cash it, and he didn't know if the bank there would cash it or not, banking practices being somewhat erratic in French Somalia.   This fellow had a table fan, the only one I had seen, going full blast on top of his desk, and just for a moment I envied him a little.   That afternoon I found out that the Banque de Djibouti would not honor the check.   Counting up what I had I figured it was just enough to stay at the Hotel Europa for ten days if I were careful about food and drink.   On my third day in this oven at the bottom of the Red Sea the electricity went out, which meant that all the overhead fans stopped turning, all the ice melted, and cold drinks of any kind were no longer available.   This continued for four days during which time I could do little other than lie in bed in my darkened hotel room, sweating and continuously drinking tepid water, just to keep from dehydrating, dozing now and then on sheets completely saturated with sweat.   There were no thermometers anywhere, so I didn't know exactly how hot it was.   The citizens of Djibouti probably didn't want to know at what temperature they were being slowly roasted.   The American at the consulate had told me it was not very unusual for the temperature to rise to 130 degrees.   When the electricity finally came back on I spent a couple of evenings nursing a cold drink in one of the bars that had a decent ceiling fan.   A few times I wandered around the marketplace, admiring the colors and patterns of the Somali garb.   In the bright sunlight, if there are enough people in close proximity, the effect is kaleidoscopic.

When the Ferdinand de Lesseps finally arrived and began taking on passengers, I settled my bill with the Hotel Europa, thinking I had just enough to pay it.   The bill was more than I had counted on, and after some dispute I gave the manager everything I had and explained that I could give him no more until I had cashed my check, which I could not do in Djibouti.   The amount I owed was not great, and eventually I persuaded the man, in my very awkward French, that when I got to Barcelona I would send him an international money order for what I owed.   We both knew there were several bogus items on the bill, and the solution I offered seemed good enough to save face, so it was agreed upon.

When I boarded the freighter I was directed to a bunk in third class.   The other bunks in my vicinity were occupied by five French Foreign Legionnaires from Madagascar on the way to rejoin their company in Morocco.   There was a bar on the ship, but neither the Legionnaires nor I had any money to spend, the purser having politely refused to cash my check, so we all stayed below decks a lot, teaching eachother English and French, and reading.   I did, however, spend some time on deck, looking at the little islands in the Red Sea, some of which were sprinkled with ancient Roman ruins.  On my third trip to the dining room I discovered that a friend of mine, an Indian teacher from my school, was also on the Ferdinand de Lesseps, in steerage like myself only in a different part of the ship.   When the captain announced that we would be stopping at Suez for a day and a half, and we could disembark if we wished, I asked Mukergee if I could borrow bus fare to Cairo and Giza and pay him back when we got to Barcelona.   He agreed it would be a shame to miss such an opportunity for lack of a few dollars.   So when we arrived in Suez the two of us went off to see the sights.   It was a piece of luck for me that Mukergee had happened to be on board.   Otherwise, close as they were, I would not have been able to visit the pyramids.  My last view of Africa was the minaretted skyline of Cairo, an image that makes an indelible stamp on the memory.  After two or three days sailing on the Mediterranean we reached Barcelona one morning about 8 am.   The captain announced that we could disembark but we had to be back on board by 8 P.M., as the ship was sailing for Marseilles at nine.

I had fallen for Africa, in my way, but now that I was in a beautiful European city on a fine summer day an immense wave of relief swept over me, as I realized that I was now truly out of the embrace of that exotic and sometimes dangerous lover.   Suddenly I felt like a European who has returned after a long journey to faraway places.   As I began walking the streets of Barcelona a feeling came over me such as I had never had before.   It was love of some sort, having to do with an all-embracing happiness.   Is there any doubt that happiness is a spiritual condition?   This kind of happiness precludes the usual human weaknesses, greed, ambition, prejudice, malice, pride, fear, competitiveness, all the things that lead us inevitably to war.  Vanquished by love and happiness, all these faults disappear.   They may be lurking somewhere, asleep and hidden, but so long as this state of grace exists they are of no account.   I felt like a butterfly that has just emerged from its cocoon to discover not only light but that it can fly in this light, absorbing all the glories around it.  Just to be walking the streets of Barcelona was so exhilarating, so exalting, that nothing else mattered.  I felt I was in paradise, that I had, like the dervish, forgotten myself and become the universe.   Then I saw my first example of Gaudi's architecture, and my ecstasy doubled.   And as I walked I encountered more of the products of Gaudi's genius.   No artist has left a greater imprint on a city than Antoni Gaudi.   As I walked it occurred to me that it might be nice to sit down at a sidewalk cafe, bask in the ambience, and write a poem about what was happening.   I had spent the few dollars Mukergee had lent me for the trip to the pyramids, so I began asking directions to the American Express, and when I found someone who knew where it was I set my winged feet in that direction.   I walked for miles, it seemed.   No problem.  I was in good shape for walking, having trekked around Africa for two years.   Then I came upon the Sagrada  Familia and a delirium of joy possessed me.  I stood and stared at it for a long time in a rapture of wonderment.  My thought was that as soon as I had cashed my check I would return here and sit in one of the cafes facing the cathedral.   With this in mind, and still floating like a butterfly, I went on to the American Express where I was informed that they could not cash a U.S. Treasury check.   I asked if there were any banks nearby that might be able to.   They suggested a bank twelve blocks away.  I walked hurriedly to this bank, only to be turned down again.   I tried another bank.   No luck.   I was beginning to think a U.S. Treasury check was worth about as much as a rubber nickel.   Under other circumstances these rejections would have had the effect of making me frustrated, despondent, and perhaps angry.   But today was not a normal day.   Each of my setbacks only served to reinforce my happiness.   When the bank officials turned me down I would smile, a genuine smile, as if to say "Aha!  So much the better!"  They must have thought I was not all there.

It was getting to be time when the banks closed, and not only was I still broke, I was by now a long way from the Ferdinand de Lesseps.  So I began heading back toward the harbor.  How strange, I began to think as I walked, that on this happiest of days I should be alone and penniless in a foreign city.  Perhaps that was why I felt I had come to know the city itself and something of its soul, which of course had to do with Gaudi.   Would it have made me happier if I had been able to cash the check?   I did not see how my mood could have been improved.   Still the question nagged at me a little.  How would I repay Mukergee?   Then, rounding a corner, I came upon a small bank where a man was holding the door open for a woman who was leaving.   I rushed up to the man and asked if it was too late to make a transaction.   He seemed amused by my Spanish, and maybe by my exuberance.   He asked what kind of transaction, and when I answered, without really meaning to I began telling my story.   He invited me to come into the bank, and after he had looked at the check and my passport asked me how I would like the money.   I could hardly believe my ears.   Was it possible?   I asked for pesetas, francs, and dollars, and after he had given me the money I told him how grateful I was, and would he allow me to buy him a drink somewhere?  Felipe, as I learned was his name, expressed an interest in my travels and said he knew a "perfect" sidewalk café.   And when we arrived I could see that indeed it was a perfect sidewalk café. 

There were trees, beautiful women, who all seemed to be smiling at me, music, laughter, wonderful aromas.   We ordered a pitcher of sangria and I told Felipe, as best I could, the history of my journey.   He was quite fascinated, and eventually asked if I would like to have dinner with him and his wife and teenage son and daughter.   He was certain they would like to hear the story.   His son was especially interested in Africa. Regrettably, I told him, I had to be back on the ship by 8 o'clock, but I said, I had fallen in love at first sight with Barcelona and intended to return soon to live for as long as I could.  I asked Felipe about the city, about Gaudi and Picasso and Miro and Dali, all of whom had lived in Catalonia.  He spoke very warmly of Gaudi, and when he told me that Gaudi, who could have had a life of luxury had chosen to live like a monk because he believed in poverty and that a simple creative life was the path to happiness, I laughed out loud.   Felipe looked at me quizzically, upon which I explained that I was laughing in agreement with Gaudi, that because of the circumstances of the day he could not have given me any more welcome information.   When Felipe had to leave I promised to call him when I got back and we would have that dinner.

There were still a couple of hours before I had to be back at the harbor, so I thought that since I had had money now I could take a taxi to the Sagrada Familia and fulfill the promise I had made to myself.  I found a taxi and soon I was back at the cathedral sitting in the sidewalk café I had eyed before.   As I gazed at Gaudi's masterpiece my meditations on him and my day in Barcelona together made quite a mix, full of tidbits and rarities.   Only years later did I begin to understand what it had meant to me as an artist.  Discovering Gaudi's creations on the same day that conditions had conspired to produce in me a kind of ecstasy complete with revelations had taken hold forever in my blood and bone.  It was the first step, and a giant one, in my evolution as a painter of joyfulness.  Perhaps in some way I have always  been trying to recapture that glorious day in Barcelona, the first day of a new life.   If I have enough lives maybe one day I will be able to paint the indescribable sensations of those twelve hours.

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Scene4 Magazine - David Wiley | www.scene4.com

David Wiley painter-poet: graduate of U. Kansas; studied at Mexico City College and with artist Ignacio Belen in Barcelona. Widely traveled, he exhibits throughout California and abroad. Wiley has published two volumes of poetry: Designs for a Utopian Zoo (1992) and The Face of Creation (1996). Since 2005, Wiley has received large mural commissions in Arizona, Mexico and California. Wiley is a longtime contributor to Scene4: paintings, poems, meditations on art, creative non-fiction.
To inquire about his paintings, click here.
For more of his paintings, poetry and writings, check the Archives.

©2022 David Wiley
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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