Right now, at this precise instant, the jungle is blue—rinsed the color of indigo ink diluted in water, its shadows deep as the bluing on a gun.
Musa Yambuka's glistening eyes are stained pale blue. The sweat on his face sparkles star blue. He's an Mbuti Pygmy, a small, perfectly muscled man, crouched with a spear behind the roots of a fig tree, waiting to ambush a forest antelope. (These animals, too, are smoky blue, a fact noted in their Western name, blue duiker.) The moment is a thousand or more years old. The beaters come yodeling through the forest, driving the game before them. Musa tenses, digs in his toes, ready to spring, to slice something's throat. In the canopy, the monkeys grow still, fall silent. I hear an invisible bird flap away.
I have seen this scene 20, maybe 30 times now. We have been traveling together for days, the Mbuti and I, through the jungle of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Pygmies do things that most humans forgot a long time ago. Like drive cat-size antelope into nets. Or live in adult accord with pain and sudden death. Or mold soccer balls out of the sap from a certain liana. All of this, of course, is interesting. But what distracts me more than ever, what's got me disoriented, even a little spooked—my eyes, these days, seem like borrowed things—isn't what these people do as much as the light they do it in: this miraculous and enigmatic empire of color that only the Mbuti know.
It shifts again.
Musa's ferocious grin shines aquamarine. The drivers approach through a white-hot slab of brilliance that could burn diamonds. Dazzled, I look down at what, apparently, are my hands. In the bottom-of-the-sea sheen of the forest, the skin looks insubstantial. Almost translucent. The hands of a ghost.
I hold my breath.
Maybe birth is like this.
The road Isabella Rossellini could fix (if only she knew about it)
To reach the land of the Mbuti—a 23,000-square-mile (59,000-square-kilometer) greenhouse called the Ituri forest—you must follow men who push bicycles.
This isn't difficult. You will find them trudging, antlike, across the wilds of eastern Congo. Jackknifed at the waist, generally emaciated, their eyes glazed with exhaustion, they manhandle bikes that sag under mountains of goods: bundles of rice and gold dust, women's underwear and bullets, live goats and coffins, jugs of gasoline and cases of Coca-Cola. Some of these cargoes tilt and spill into the mud. Others bounce wildly down steep hills and explode across jungle trails. No matter. Slowly, with stupefying patience, the cyclists stoop and gather up their battered merchandise; they plod onward, advancing at the pace of a convict's shuffle, rolling their burdens over the belly of a continent.