New Years

I’m just back from north-central Virginia, where I took a break from writing, made minimal use of the internet and saw no television.

Although it was a very quick trip, getting away from my little 10 blocks of Manhattan scrubbed my eyes and gave me some fresh country energy — the kind you get from open spaces, and sere, fallow fields and star-crowded skies.

There is no end, meanwhile, to one’s sense of wonder about the directional flight of time.

This time last year, I was in the far northern reaches of Namibia pursuing the research for  my current book project. I’d rented a car and driven deep into the night with my brother James to Ondangwa reaching our destination in eight or ten hours from Windhoek under  skies that alternated between sumptuous views of a glittering universe and downpours of biblical intensity.

That was the 30th. We spent the next day and into New Year’s eve evening with partying Chinese traders in their comptoir in Oshikango, hard by the border with Angola, listening to tales of all manner of enrichment, both licit and illicit and trying to avoid drinking to too many of their endless toasts, as they carved up and devoured pigs roasted on slowly turning spits.

I’d ruptured and nearly blown out a tire during a long, bumpy and winding drive over an unmarked trail to get to Oshikango, and we proceeded gingerly into the night from there to Oshikati to what turned out to be one of the best New Year’s celebrations I’ve seen in recent memory. The little town put on an incredibly thumping party that drew young people, all dressed in their best, by the hundreds from all over the Owambo region, with live music, a beauty contest, dancing, fireworks and much excitement.

That Namibia visit came early in my book’s research, and would be followed by visits to a dozen or so other African countries spread out over the remainder of that trip, and two subsequent trips, including my summer marathon, when I spent four months continuously on the move.

Although I endured truly great hardships now and then, my overall experience was extremely positive, and this travel alone would have made  2011 an especially memorable year for me. I have been even further blessed, though, with an energetic start to my book, whose theme is China and Africa, and as I wade knee deep through a rare and momentary spell of writing doldrums, I take comfort in knowing that I’m in a good position to finish on schedule, which is to say by early spring. I’m also happy to say that Disappearing Shanghai, a long-due book of my photography about that city will be coming out right about then.

I plan to begin posting galleries of photography from my recent African travels over the next few weeks. I’ll also round out my best 2011 reads in the next few days. There are just a few more to go.

Speaking of China, this has been the first year since 1998 that I haven’t been to East Asia, and that has felt strange to me all year. I toyed here and there with contriving a quick trip to avoid breaking this happy streak, but the requirements of researching my current book meant travel in Africa, while the demands of writing it meant planting myself at my desk for long hours each day.

I’ve already made plans to go to China early in 2012, though, and will likely return in the summer. I’ve also got a medium range project that involves all of northeast Asia. More on that later.

My brother James is due in Manhattan any minute from Joburg via the SF Bay area and a quick stop in DC. The year has time for one last party.

Happy New Years to one and all.

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