"Somehow: Living on Uganda Time,” Douglas Cruickshank's weighty miracle of a book, is about the 2 1/2 years he spent living in Africa. When the author was 56 years old, a time when many are beginning to say the word “retirement” with grim resignation, he joined the Peace Corps. He was sent to Uganda to help develop a coffee business in a village called Kyarumba in the Rwenzori Mountains, and he fell into some serious love.
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This book not only makes you feel like you've been to Uganda, but that you have been there in a privileged, undeniably cool and entirely unforgettable way. It's as if you've been grabbed by the arm and put in the cab for the perilous ride up roads that are roads in name only.
You feel you're sitting next to the author when he has a conversation in a funky old motel with a British expat who has three wives, or with a cabdriver who tells Cruickshank to call him "Steven Taxi." You feel you, too, are standing before an elephant who is in his own way advising you none too subtly not to take one more step forward. Cruickshank imagines the beast saying, "You want to go home in a manila envelope?"
You can almost feel the damp of the mist rising up from the valleys, or hear the singing and preaching at a funeral. You swear you see the breathing of the iridescent, 14-inch-long agama lizard. The lizard is eating ants on the wall outside Cruickshank's window, inspiring the five-star entertaining writing that pervades this book:
I approach him. He keeps one eye on me and the other on the ants. Occasionally he pops one in his mouth the way I used to eat Junior Mints at the movies. I watch him, he watches me…Then, like a man forced to leave a banquet at the first course, he takes a last sorrowful glance at the ants and disappears over the wall.
"Somehow" lets you become an intimate witness to the goings-on of the ordinary days in this Oregon-sized country in the heart of Africa. There is a photo-story about 5-year-old Madeline, who one day spent "at least three hours exhausting every possibility of what can be done with two metal jar lids." There is a wedding, and early morning light that turns a single tree rose gold. There is a description of the dogs who howl at night, which Cruickshank dubs "the Uganda Philharmonic Dog Choir"; he says about one nightly offering, "My ear is not what it once was, but I believe the UPDC was attempting a Bach chorale piece … though it could have been 'In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.'"
I was transported by this book. Partly it was the strength of the writing. It is often laugh-out-loud funny — and believe me when I tell you it takes a lot to make me laugh out loud at something I read. It is also intelligent, affectionate, wry, perceptive, occasionally poignant and often beautiful, as in this description of rain:
It's torrid, extravagant, Rubenesque rain, not the … rain that comes from drier climates, stingier clouds. And its coffee berry-size drops have bent the landscape … to its will.
Equally outstanding is the author's photography. Page after page of dazzlingly high-quality, full-color images offer glances of life in Uganda. They document its hardships and glories without a scintilla judgment and without that scrim of "poor Africa" that undercuts lesser works on the subject. The book offers images of the people, the land, the water, the animals, the trees and the mountains as well as the interior of cars that run less on gas than on grace. There are day-by-day photos of a hut being erected, a photo of a road blocked by Ankole cows, and one of a little boy clearly thrilled with the red Band-Aid on his forehead.
What is it that we long for when we travel, whether in our minds or in our bodies? We want a sense of what a place is. Our question is: What's it like being there, not as a tourist, but really?
This gorgeous book proves that in the hands of a writer and photographer as gifted as Douglas Cruickshank, you don't have to go somewhere to be there; and you don't have to meet someone to see them through the eyes of love. Somehow.
Elizabeth Berg is a best-selling author whose latest book is "Tapestry of Fortunes." She divides her time between Chicago and San Francisco.
By Douglas Cruickshank, self-published, 420 pages, $60. Half of each book's purchase price will be donated to humanitarian projects in Kyarumba. Visit douglascruickshank.com.