It becomes a thought that consumes me. I try to distract myself by taking photographs of the thirsty plains, by eating the chalky fruit of the baobab tree, by singing songs of my youth, but my mind returns to it, stuck like a needle in a record groove. There is nothing in the world but this one thought - nothing more important, more tantalizing, more delicious.
TALCUM POWDER ON MY BOTTOM.
TALCUM POWDER ON MY LEFT ASS CHEEK.
Something isn't right. I squirm. I wiggle. I readjust. No relief. My ass cheek is on fire. And I still have ten miles to cover. Even worse, my brain has fastened on Starship as a means of distraction. I soon realize that "We Built This City" was voted "#1 Worst Song Ever" by Blender magazine because of its uncanny ability to bore itself into the skull like a botfly.
Stop being such a puss, I say to myself. It's just a little sand in your pants, that's all. Just a little...
WE BUILT THIS CITY!
It's just a little chafing - no big deal.
WE BUILT THIS CITY!
Jesus H., has all the effing skin been abraded from my ass cheek? What the hell is going...
WE BUILT! WE BUILT THIS CITY ON ROCK AND ROOOOOOOLL!
And so on, and so on for approximately three days of my trek through the Dogon country of Mali.
My mind goes haywire, firing off visions of talc, of emerging from a warm bath, of being wrapped in a fluffy white bath sheet, of being dried and powdered. Not only am I filthy and covered in dust, hair stiff with sand from the Harmattan, but I haven't changed my clothes in a week.
Sure, I "wash" - if you count standing over a squatter and dumping a bucket of dirty suds over my head. Sure, I "launder my clothes in a calabash bowl" - of course I do! Every night! But by the end of the second day, I am walking bull-legged and grimacing with every step.
Occasionally, Rasta and Adi stop and check on me as I limp along behind them.
"Older sister!" Rasta, calls out. "Are you well?"
"Oh yes!" I say, pretending to fiddle with my camera. "Very well."
"Ta-taaaaaaaa! Are you strong?" I can hear the smile in his voice.
"Yes, Rasta! Strong as a camel." (What?)
"Good. Because today we are going far - we will do two days in one."
"Oh good," I say weakly, muffling the silent scream.
In the distance I see women coming home from the market, climbing up the steep escarpment with fifty pound baskets balanced on their heads. Young girls follow behind, carrying loads so heavy that I am overcome with shame.
* * *
We stop to eat in a tiny village and sit at a table covered in faded indigo cotton. Nearby a naked toddler plays contentedly with a bright bead necklace while scrawny chickens peck around him. A woman brings us a calabash bowl with a warm soup made of millet and baobab fruit and turns around in time to see the baby fall head first into the dirt. I watch her stride across the yard to scoop him up to her breast.
The woman shows me the baby's upper lip which is badly cut and bleeding. "Do you have medicine?" Rasta asks.
I had nothing except a tube of lip balm, which I apply to the baby's lip. I hand it to the mother, feeling impotent and phony despite my years of training at pretend medical school.
"How stoic that little baby was," I marvel. "He didn't even cry when I touched his lip."
"Malian babies don't cry," Rasta replies. "Watch and you will see that what I say is true."
I see babies playing, babies sleeping, babies at the breast. I never once see a baby crying.
* * *
But there are plenty of babies to go around. At every village we are greeted by phalanxes of children, many carrying snoozing babies on their backs. The kids are playful and curious and want to hold my hands. I am the Pied Piper of Mali.
"It's so white!" exclaims a little girl, her hand in mine. She leads me to a large hut where the village elders live, and we peak inside to say hello. An old woman comes to the entryway bare breasted and smiling, graciously motioning me to sit by the door. She reemerges a minute later dressed in a vibrant pattern and introduces us to her granddaughter, who is nursing her newborn baby.
"What a sweet girl," I coo as the granddaughter hands me her swaddled babe. We are unable to communicate but we sit together, happily sharing the universal bond of birthing and babies.
Rasta returns from smoking with the boys and greets the two women.
"They would like to know if you have children," he says.
"No..." I say, embarrassed for reasons I don't understand.
"They want to know if you would like the baby."
"A baby?" I clarify. "Would I like a baby?"
"No - would you like this baby," he says, pointing to the newborn.
I am utterly baffled. "Do you mean, do I want this baby to keep?"
"Yes," he says simply. I look at Rasta and the two woman, searching their faces in vain for hints of a joke.
"You see, they have so many..."