NOTE: You can hear a radio-story version of this essay here.
For months after I returned from Cyrene I felt sick, but I didn’t know why.
I went to the doctor. He told me I was overworked. So I went to the internet instead and ordered jars and jars of vitamins delivered by post.
My father tells me vitamins are more pig-foot gelatin than anything nourishing, which is probably true, and my girlfriend says I choose which vitamins to take, based more the attractiveness of each bouncy blonde model running on the labels, than on any weight of scientific evidence, which is also true.
It was a hovering kind of sickness, one that I just couldn’t shake.
It reminded me of a neurological study of tinnitus I once read. It talked about how, if a sufferer managed to distract themselves from the ringing in their ears, then it almost disappeared - but if their focus returned to it, well, it could become quite unbearable.
And this was my Cyrenian sickness. If I managed to avoid thinking about it, it didn’t exist, but then when I thought about it, I felt quite awful.
The first time I came to Cyrene was with a bucks party for an old school friend. Carry on baggage included thongs, condoms and a youth moulded by Hollywood.
I remember sitting at the airport while our group assembled.
There was a sense that something exciting, something dangerous, was going to happen. That it should happen. That if it was not happening, it was our collective duty to make it so. One of the party leaned over and confessed to me: “I’m actually quite nervous”.
Straight after customs, direct to the airport convenience store, we each bought a carton of cigarettes, and twelve cartoon sized cans of beer. I cracked a lid with a well practiced thumb. That satisfying Coke can sound. “Ahhh”. A sound byte I imagine was engineered with pain staking precision by a chemist, a marketer and a sales executive, way back in the glory days of the 1980’s in a gleaming lab somewhere in the American midwest. But that shiny time was long ago and far away. This beer was warm and I swilled it with a wince.
My memory of the following days becomes blurred from here on in.
Drinking can be, depending on how British you grow up, a sort of Olympic event. An endurance marathon whose conclusion is, finally, unconsciousness.
Our party bundled into tuk-tuk cabs, no air conditioning, and we sweated and occasionally paid attention to the outside world. Mostly we discussed work and the relative sizes of our salaries and laughed about the quaint system of hoots and over-taking that constituted traffic rules here. We drank our warm beer and began our marathon, headed towards that exotic destination, unconsciousness.
This was in the town of Siduri, which is one of Cyrene’s premiere party towns.
There have been party towns before Siduri. Kuma for example. But like a brightly burning star will exhaust itself more quickly than the dimmer ones, so it is with party towns. They destroy themselves in direct proportion to their popularity.
Partying, insofar as we’ve inherited the notion from American film and television, is variously described as “going crazy”, “letting loose”, “going wild”, “blowing off steam”. That is: breaking out of the conventions and etiquette of our daily lives. But contained in this attitude towards partying is the very kiss of death for a party town. Because, as the act of partying becomes codified, condoned and even expected - the party value is equally and oppositely eroded. Like a bar where it is widely known that people will dance on the tables and so the staff and venue make affordances for that fact.
Its just no fun. Permission is the opposite of a party.
So, much like cancer or a fresh crop of art school graduates, a party needs new and culturally unblemished places to spread to, so that it can become again, outrageous and rule breaking. A place permission hasn’t yet colonised, where there are conventions to be trampled and good citizens still to be outraged.
Arriving at our accomodation - a long row of identical villas. we pile out and race to claim rooms, playing scissor-paper-rock to settle contests. Like lions in the jungle fighting over a kill except, with scissor paper rock.
I win a top floor room and lay on the bed, in the blessed cool of the air conditioning, and wonder about Siduri. Whether it elected to become a Party Town, or if that was something forced upon it. I wonder if the local elders and businesspeople got together, held a roundtable, discussing it as an option for economic growth. Were there speeches made then. For and Against. Some impassioned words about protecting local culture, and others more hard nosed, more clinical, with colourful charts describing the price elasticity of street drugs, night clubs and identical rows of air conditioned villa accomodation. “Economies of scale” I can see one fat councilman in a brown shirt, crying out to the others. Is that how it happened?
No, probably not. I imagine, like most of the truly important things in human history and civilisation, it got started mostly by chance, gathering an angular momentum as it went. And then the logic of it all declared in retrospect.
As we wandered the streets that night, I saw what it means to become a Party Town.
On the one hand, the town does get it’s lucrative influx of tourists. We arrive on a merry go-round of airplanes, armed with a currency strength disparity bordering on the insane - one to one thousand for me at the time of this writing.
At a lane-way stall I pay a week’s local wages for a pair of sunglasses and greedily exclaim to my friends: “haggled him down for half what he asked, what a bargain”.
This foreign air lifted cash pours in, dry season and wet, and economic stations change rapidly. I can see that fat councilman in the brown shirt, roaming through the streets with his arms above his head, singing like he was in a Bollywood musical: “Shops, bars, hotels, airports, minivans, air-conditioned everything!”.
On the other hand though… to balance this economic growth, there is an equal and opposite erosion. The town is first bull dozed in the literal sense, with the shanties and lean-tos being knocked down to make way for convenience stores and night clubs. But then later on, the town is erased again, but this time in a less visible and more insidious sense.
You see: before arriving in Siduri, I have to confess, egomaniac that I am, I was rather anxious about how we would all look. A wolf pack of Westerners, drunk and somewhat obnoxious, not aggressive, but loud and loutish, entirely insensitive to THE VOLUME OF OURS VOICES. Overstuffed and elephantine lurching into someone else’s ancient china shop.
But after I arrived and took in the place, I realised I really needn’t have worried - because for a Party Town like Siduri, the place has already transitioned. It has become almost entirely fictional now. It has ceased to be a real place in the conventional sense and become more of a simulation of a place. A fantasy playground and amusement park done in Cyrenian style, staffed by Cyrenians, but not really Cyrenian at all.
Locals arrive in the morning to clean up, to serve, to transport and then, I imagine, I hope, with some relief to leave in the evenings, for a real place, where their actual lives unfold, unencumbered by us.
Each morning the bottles and the garbage is collected, the blood mopped away, the disarray of the previous night tidied up and put back into place. A broken vase is replaced by a carbon copy of itself from a warehouse shelf. All so that the same game can be played over again, every evening. What fun.
I leave a bar in the early morning, drained from too much drink and my mind blunted by some locally cooked version of speed and sold to me as Great-Time-MDMA, and I head back to my identically cut villa. I lie in the pool on a plastic inflatable monkey and look at the Cyrenian stars. There is a tropical storm brewing somewhere up there and the sky occasionally flickers with lightning.
I can feel a blackout coming on. I don’t want to drown. Not in this place anyway. There’s just no poetry drowning in an over-chlorinated pool splayed on an inflatable monkey. So I stumble out of the water and pass out on a deck chair instead.
I awake in the hurtful bright light to a shrunken old Cyrenian woman, the villa’s cleaner, who has let herself in, cleaned up after me, made my bed, folded my clothes, folded my underwear even into neat little packages and is now, to my further and deeper shame, holding out a can of soft drink to me and asking, cooing like a kindly grandmother: “Coca Cola sir? Coca Cola? Feel better”.
Yes, Siduri is their Chernobyl - and we are its nuclear fall out.
That night, as the wolf pack wanders between more restaurants and more bars, I see a wizened old Cyrenian man sitting on his haunches by the side of the road. He watches us pass by with disinterest. Like he is watching a river flow. I try to see what’s in his eyes. Is there disdain? But I cannot tell. The eyes are glassy and reflective, opaque as a mirror. If I looked closely I think I would only see myself and so I look away.
I imagine the time before this place transitioned. Before it metamorphosed from village, to destination, to hot spot, and finally to party town.
I squint in the sun and think I can just make out some withered old Cyrenian man, maybe this same one on the side of the road, wrapped in a hand-woven sarong, leaning on a walking stick, probably a grandson entwined about his leg, standing on a far off grassy hill top, trying to explain to the boy: “Boy, where once our village stood…” - but his grandson isn’t listening, either he doesn’t understand or he doesn’t care, he’s wearing a tiny red Coke T-shirt with a hole at the shoulder and already mouthing the words to the English pop songs he hears blaring out of the speakers in the tightly packed rows of bars and restaurants in the valley, he swivels his narrow hips and gurgles something about “her booty”, and “the club”, and “my rides”.
A year later and I am here again in Cyrene. This time with my girlfriend, Claire. She is an associate professor of philosophy at KNU - and so we’ve come, inevitably, to Ulgawa.
This place emerges from the mountains. The stuff of the city, its concrete, and stairs and ATMs all seem to be carved directly into, or perhaps, maybe, rather out of, the natural channels in the moss-clad stone. The contours of the mountain are the veins of the city - and vice versa.
In the high mountains of Ulgawa the Unconscious of the Party Towns are replaced by the Conscious. They seem to be drawn here from every corner of the world. Swedes, French, Australians, Americans. Like migratory birds, flocking in for the nesting season.
The Conscious. I hadn’t heard of them till now - but Claire explained it to me on the plane trip over. “The conscious movement” she said “conscious of what goes in their bodies, conscious of their health, of wellness”.
I nod and say nothing, but secretly I hate the word. I have to confess. I hate “wellness”. I hate seeing it printed and I hate hearing it spoken. Though in fairness, let it be known, if it is not yet abundantly clear, that I am an unassailable grouch and a misanthrope and there is really very little ever left above water in the vast oceans of my disapproval.
In the Party Towns, The Unconscious are thick muscled, they are round calved and heavy breasted - this übermensch stature stemming from a diet rich in protein and all kinds of pornography (lifestyle accessories, business attire, body alteration, internet porn, cars, watches, handbags and more internet porn).
The Conscious however are all slim and fine-boned - not sexless exactly, but pornless. These are whole foods and plants only people. They aren’t coconut oil brown, but a lighter shade of activated almond. And compared to the single mindedness of the Party People, who are quite confident in their twin idealogical goals of drink and fornication, the Conscious seem to me a very unsure group. Timorous and questioning: what to eat? Does it have wheat in it? Do I need to breathe more deeply or less?
“They’re searchers” Claire says to me “they’re looking inside”. And that makes sense to then - why they seem so unsure. Because the more one looks inside and the more closely one looks there, the less sure of things you become. Human intuition always erodes outside of human scale. So we should be careful where we look.
Claire takes us to a whole-foods, plants-only cafe. I don’t know what to order. The menu is in English, but I just can’t seem to understand it. So Claire orders for me and I am thankful.
She goes to find some pamphlets on Vedic meditation and I overhear a guy next to me, saying to a pretty girl in a pink headband: “You know… I’m just… I’m looking for something… something beyond materialism you know?”.
And a little voice inside me, my Inner Shithead, bristles like a cactus. Because I am not against this ambition, I endorse it in fact, I’m a bonafide card carrying member, but how can I abide such a sentiment actually being vocalised? And in such earnest? In this whole-foods, plants-only cafe across a bowl of fair-trade quinoa.
Its one of those uncharitable thoughts you don’t want to be thinking, but there it is, nonetheless. My Inner Shithead has that quality. It’s is like water. I can bury it underground, fill up the reservoirs with its excess vitriol, but eventually, once enough pressure builds up, it just springs out through fissures of my mind like Old Faithful at Yosemite National Park.
And water is a powerful thing. Kung Fu masters talk about it. How elegantly it moves from place to place. Using the minimal energy necessary. Absorbing blows and then radiating them outward.
And so I am a black-belt master of Shithead Kung Fu and when these well intentioned comments fall into the lake of my mind, acidic and cynical thoughts radiate outward, quite without effort. Sometimes, regrettably, even escaping as words out of my mouth.
But lucky for me, Claire, and those who came before her, have helped me realise this about myself. Women have always improved me.
But the Inner Shithead continues: noting the fellow has his glistening laptop open in front of him. Exactly the same model as mine. That beautiful dusted metal finish (product pornography), the handy work of a nation of tiny and economically indentured little fingers, in some far off factory of a kind that he and I will never see or set foot in. And the question that arises then: these seekers of the soul, searching for a way out of the rat race of late-stage capitalism, are they not exploiting their own material advantage by being here in this still developing nation?
Though this fellow is Conscious of himself, and what he eats, and the lubrication of his fascia, and the homunculus of his own mind, is he conscious enough of the impact his presence and his wallet are having on the culture and economy of this place? Has he gone so far in, that he is no longer seeing out?
Claire pokes me - “drink your Ginger snap dickhead, its getting warm”. Love’s keen sting.
The last resort we visit is set inside a deep valley of the Siduri jungle. The impressive main building rises up beside a brown river and the villas are dotted throughout the surrounding valley. They are quiet and isolated from one another in a way that thrills me.
The first thing you notice here is the army of gardeners. They work all day. Snipping and cutting and bonzai-ing the place. Manicuring paths from villa to pool, and from spa to restaurant, and cutting the shoots in the faux rice paddies to a very specific height. I napkin calculate a ratio of four gardeners to one guest. Claire is deeply, deeply disinterested by this realisation. “Can’t you just be here?” she asks over dinner, “can’t you just be?”. She has been reading her Vedic pamphlet, my associate professor of philosophy.
But at night after Claire goes to sleep, I start to wonder again why do they need so many gardeners? I suppose it is primarily to keep the jungle at bay. The actual jungle I mean. The unbridled and vital thing that throbs around the fences and walls of the resort. And when I think about all the time and energy expended to keep that jungle from closing back in on itself as skin healing over a wound, and the speed with which, if the gardeners put their tools down, the careful order of this place would be all undone - well it makes the jungle seem very, very powerful, and me very, very small.
The next morning a public relations lady called Glenda takes us on a driving tour of the resort, in an electric golf buggy. The resort doesn’t seem so large that one would need a buggy. But they seem to have droves of them.
As we climb the path to reception, Glenda calls over her shoulder: “the resort is all about experiences, the guests can really experience the Siduri jungle here”. The Inner Shithead raises it’s hackles.
Standing on certain stairwells, from certain angles, its true, you can just, just see the jungle. The Actual Jungle. It’s thick and rabid with storks and trunks and entwined walls of climbers. Inside the borders of the resort, we, the guests, are like demi-gods, but out there, we would be made merely mortal, and I fear, pathetically so.
Every morning I breakfast at the extravagant buffet. I must eat, at least, two of everything. Like a modern Noah I think, as I tenderly load two almond croissants onto my arc. Claire frowns as I place my plate on the table.
Later, in the heat of the day, I step in and out of the variously heated plunge pools, which are arrayed on a balcony, three levels up in the main building, and watch the army of gardeners at work. They each have a well worn scythe. Rusted almost black. They crouch and cut. Squatting down on lean frames, in a pose I could sustain only for a short time and with great effort and would stand up too quickly and pull something in my lower back.
I have a modern kind of scurvy you see. That late capitalist kind. A body bent, crippled and atrophied from a life of ease. The excess of sitting and texting and typing and endless, circular talk.
So instead, I watch the gardeners at their work from the lip of the plunge pool.
That was months ago now. But I must have caught something, because I feel sick. I must have contracted some kind of brain worm.
When I manage not to think about it, I feel quite well, optimistic even: ready for the challenge of modern living, for the bulk purchase of different coloured vitamin waters, and a better body in one month, and better sex, and a better salary - but when my thoughts return to it, to that sickness, then I feel the dread rise up in the pit of my stomach.
I can’t decide which is better and which is worse. Being awake to it is an awful thing, but being asleep to it, well, that seems like an awful waste of being awake.