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From Kenya to Peru, India to Korea, sunrise brings with it different kinds of beginnings—across rainforests, ...
2023-05-31 09:00:00

Before It All Begins
Life at the Crack of Dawn

The island of Upolu in Samoa is one of the places where the sun rises first each day. But it is equally stunning at every latitude, as is evident in this image from Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Photo by Ray in Manila (CC BY 2.0)
Before It All Begins
Before It All Begins

Sunrise in Kenya is like a bloodstained ribbon. In Peru, dawn is a time of great silence. In India, morning is a fleeting moment of freshness. In Seoul, there’s no real morning at all.

Read in 9 minutes

The chief says the city’s dangerous. Unlike the land we are crossing now—which for him holds no secrets. He says that boys from his tribe head out into the bush for months at a time, only returning to the village once they’ve learned how to cope with dangers—big and small. “Don’t be afraid of a herd of stampeding wildebeest. But be afraid of this tiny spider. If it bites you, you’re done for.” He pushes the bug away with a stick, as it scrambles across the uneven, still cool earth. I barely register it before it disappears into darkness. The light from my headlamp carves out a small circle amid the absolute black. Night descended upon Maasai Mara yesterday in a blink of an eye, without mercy. I barely had time to notice the approaching Maasai people wearing red, patterned kangas; the fabric reflected the rapidly fading light making them look as though they were glowing from within. After a moment, all was gone. As we sat around the fire, darkness enveloped us like a heavy, pitch-black coat.

The chief gives the wake-up call when all is still shrouded in darkness. I couldn’t sleep anyway. Every now and again, termites dropped out of the straw roof onto my face and hair. Hyenas made raucous noise in the distance. I’m relieved to break the tense stillness, to distract my wild imagination at last. We walk for an hour through the still-dark savannah, among sparse scrubland, with soil crunching underfoot, climbing across smooth rock. Enclosed by the bright beam of my headlamp, I follow the chief, with several Maasai behind. They can’t see in the dark, of course, but are able to navigate it easily. We walk quickly to reach the summit at the first light of dawn. 

Here, so close to the equator, the shift from night and day takes just a brief moment. The darkness bursts, the sky bleeds as red light starts to spill over it. It’s alive, almost unbelievable, fiery orange tongues emerging. I scrabble over the cold, dry rock. We gather pace, a few steep steps and we’re at the summit. And just in time. We can still barely see anything around or below us, but I can sense the vast space—seemingly infinite. It’s as though we are standing at the edge of a map, at the very beginning of a path. Everything is just beginning. Dawning. The sun emerges from beyond the horizon all of a sudden, and the redness is replaced by a pale blue day. The mysteries dissolve, rapidly revealing a landscape of gently rolling hills and the promise of vast plateaus, at this time of year covered with dry grass, spiky shrubs, and occasional clumps of low trees.

“We will bathe there.” Slender and focused, wearing sandals made of scraps of tires, the chief indicates a coppice with his staff. It conceals hot springs—a true miracle surrounded by tens of thousands of miles of arid emptiness, the finest thermal baths I will ever experience. But not until after dark. Now, at dawn, the chief performs the most important ritual: he climbs a rock the shape of a sharp spearhead, straightens up, and intones a prayer for rain.

Selva’s Breath

At dawn, the rainforest falls quiet and starts to steam. Although to my eyes the day is just beginning, heralded by crimson streaks among the clouds, daylight brings a time of rest for most large animals. At night the forest teemed with life. Invisible yet noisy, it filled the tangled vegetation with drama: hunts, fights, feasts. The party is now over, and it’s time to relax and digest: predators take a well-earned rest. The guide and I sit on a wooden bench. A lake glistens below. We swam in it after dusk yesterday among gamboling otters, with crocodiles huddled already among the muddy banks in anticipation of nighttime prey, and raucous families of monkeys cavorting in the trees. Now the water is calm. Hundreds of bats, no larger than a child’s hand, are clustered in an imposing tree. A ripe avocado tumbles from a branch. We’ll have it for breakfast. 

Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, Peru. Photo by Layne Kennedy/Getty Images
Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, Peru. Photo by Layne Kennedy/Getty Images

The guide and his family live here, in this Peruvian forest, where they grow a small orchard. The wooden huts are for guests, including me. My host invites me for a morning walk in the forest, but not before I cover myself up properly. Thigh-high waders, a thin jacket fully covering my body and arms, a hat with fabric protecting the back of my neck. Amazonia’s tiny inhabitants bite mercilessly regardless of the time of day, and the ground is boggy. My boots squelch in the beige mud. We follow a barely visible path weaving through tangled growth. The guide uses his machete to clear tendrils and branches expanding in all directions: up and down, side to side. He shows me walking trees, with roots resembling a splayed broom allowing them to move towards light and water. He picks up a giant ant on a leaf: its pincers could be used to suture a wound, but the venom is as painful as a gunshot. The creatures scuttle along branches, leaves and fallen trunks, indifferent to the growing heat and humidity. 

My breathing is already heavy and I am soaked with sweat even though it’s still early. I feel as though in a trance, trying to convince myself the exuberant images and smells are real. Anthills the size of cars, flowers suspended over my head like chalices, baby tarantulas stamping behind their mother’s back to hide away in the thick canopy; the guide picks fat and nutritious suri grubs out of tree bark and urges me to have a taste. Red and yellow parrots in their dozens, flocking to a favorite tree to feast on ripe fruit. Enormous plants I’d only ever seen in miniature potted versions. It’s like a psychedelic dream, fueled by the rapidly growing heat and sweat soaking into my eyes. Selva at dawn is like a cauldron over a slow fire. Everything is soaked with moisture, glistening and slithery, and growing hotter still. I’m struggling to catch my breath and survive in this thicket as it traps and strangles me. There is no room in the rainforest, where every space and surface is taken up by life: wet, microscopic, piercing, crowded. As the air heats up, the life grows ever more frantic: buzzing, yelling, squeaking, crackling, singing, haunting, calling. Silence slips away like a guest who only rested briefly at the banqueting table. Amazonia abhors a vacuum.

It’s not even noon and the sweltering heat and humidity are unbearable. I slip off my waders as we get into a boat. We seek relief on the lake—finally we can see the tangle of trees from a distance and gain a sense of perspective of its vastness filled with infinite life. The vapor given off by the morning forest comes streaming back down. Our boat glides along, the oars emerging from the surface to be bathed in the warm rain. The morning pours out and melts away.

A Missed Dawn

Two men jump overboard and hit the salty waves feet first. A third remains onboard. He holds the rudder but barely has control of the heavy wooden boat, laden with the day’s catch. The choppy water makes it yaw and roll. Eight men are already running down the beach to drag the vessel onto the shore. The fishermen push it closer towards the beach with each wave. They grab its sides and stabilize the long wooden arm, chanting all the while as they maneuver it onto the wooden log, glistening with grease, then another and another as two nimble lads lay them down in front of the bow, building a makeshift landing platform on the sand. Ancient methods, yes, but as effective as ever. Once the white boat, decorated with an image of the Virgin Mary, is positioned neatly along others, the fishermen start pulling out netting: red, dense, tens of feet wide and long. Plenty of nimble hands are needed to untangle the fish and crabs. The men move the net along as they empty it and throw their catch into wicker baskets, organized by species. In a few minutes, the hampers will be carried to the nearby village where the women will take over. In the meantime the fishermen examine the nets carefully, mend any breaks and snags, and fold them neatly on a corrugated metal sheet. It’s still cool enough to touch, but it will scorch before noon.

Colva Beach, Goa, India. Photo by Rawdon Wyatt/Alamy Stock Photo
Colva Beach, Goa, India. Photo by Rawdon Wyatt/Alamy Stock Photo

The sun rose an hour ago, not that anyone took any notice. It didn’t light up the sky; it slipped behind clouds as soon as it emerged from beyond the horizon and brought a blue tint to the sky. The day awoke reluctantly, and with it the people who needed to. Here, in this Goan village on India’s shore of the Arabian Sea, people sleep in longer these days. Many of their livelihoods now rely on tourism and night-time entertainment. Only a few still work and fish following the rhythm of nature. So, as the British pensioners wintering here, the Russian couples holidaying in Goa (instead of Crimea, as planned), and the wealthy Indian families enjoying the high life in brand-new resorts are still deeply asleep, local women, their skin nearly black from working in the sun, sit by the roadside and get on with cleaning the day’s catch. 

Tiny blades, blood-covered hands and white teeth glint in the sun; the morning’s work is the perfect time for gossip, jokes and laughter. The women sit in a circle, the sun gently warming their backs before it reaches full heat. Entrails land in one basket, fish to be salted in another; those to be dried are arranged in neat patterns on mats according to size and shape. Protected against voracious birds with taut wires, the fishy mosaics lie in the sun all day, turned over occasionally, eventually to become delicacies sold at markets from Mumbai to Kochi. The little restaurant at the crossroads of country lanes teems with men arriving on dusty mopeds. They slurp sweet milky tea, dip their biscuits, and eat deep-fried bread filled with stewed vegetables. Their next meal will be after dusk. Three girls in high school uniform squeeze onto a moped seat, holding tightly onto one another as their father drops them off at the school bus stop. The vehicles nip among rice paddies and lines of shaggy palm trees. A mobile gardener slowly turns the pedals of his bicycle, pulling a trailer filled with potted plants. He is greeted by women in front of a house painted bright violet; they inspect the flowers, chat for a long time, but buy nothing. No matter—in India, a chat counts for more than money.

A pig and six of her fuzzy offspring wag their tails as they burrow in a nearby field. Water buffalo graze in the next meadow along. Each is accompanied by a white egret—a trusted companion feeding on irritating insects. Both benefit, and the bucolic sight of such pairs can be admired in the early hours from Kanyakumari to the Himalayas. The morning will be over before beasts and people notice and hide from the scorching sun under a bush or in cool mud, or under a slowly rotating fan, to wait out the worst. So those who sleep in too long won’t have the chance to welcome the day or earn any money before noon. They won’t even fully waken before the heat lulls them into lazy slumber again. India wakes up and falls asleep twice every day, but there is only one morning—the fleeting moment of freshness, resounding with water splashing from pumps and buckets, the sizzling of the first drops of ghee announcing breakfast, and the brief illusion that the mild, cool air won’t soon be replaced by unbearable heat. Brief mornings pass by every day. They belong only to those who don’t sleep through them.

Universal Oblivion

The silent, smartly dressed bodies sway in harmony. The carriage rocks from side to side, the figures respond with delayed motion. No one says a word. Gazing at their phone screens, the people neither smile nor frown. We travel crowded together, without expression. For me, a European woman, this impassive morning ballet of Seoul commuters packing the metro carriages seems almost like  a simulation. The passengers are there, but it’s as though they’re not. Neatly pressed, immaculately dressed, not a hair out of place, they are nothing like their selves from just a few hours ago. Then, the city roared with laughter, danced, shouted, bought, and sold, sated by late evening dinners eaten solo and in groups, driven by strong liquor, the electric lighting and pumping music of gigs, machines, and apps, encouraged by announcements in shops and clubs. The city was filled with crowds, nebulas of chattering and gesticulating people still wanting more. The vast metropolis constantly pushes for something and offers stimulation at all hours. Except now, in the morning, it issues the bill to pay for the unslept hours. For the consumed toxins. For the ecstasy of dazzling colors.

Sunrise in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Sungjin Kim/Getty Images
Sunrise in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Sungjin Kim/Getty Images

This commuting hour, spent in a communal silence of exhausted bodies and minds, is a period of deactivation. This is the time of an unwritten agreement, that before the train reaches its destination we communally forget what came before. We will recharge; we will be revitalized. The gently rocking morning train serves as a kind of a purgatory; it erases the events from the previous day and builds a barrier between yesterday and today. There are no mornings in Seoul, just like there is no dusk or twilight. It is a world which has renounced dawns and beginnings for the sake of a perpetual existence. It has renounced sunrises for an underground darkness in day and night. A city which is never fully rested never truly wakes up to start afresh. And so from morning onwards it works on erasure: it orchestrates a universal oblivion.

Returning Home

Europe, meanwhile, is tidying up. Rubbish trucks trundle around Budapest, Berlin, Porto, beeping in reverse gear, bottles clattering in huge drums. Boat engines idle on Venice’s canals; brakes hiss as trucks stop and start along narrow streets of London, waiting for men in reflective overalls to throw in sacks filled with proof of our prosperity. In this world, widely believed to be the best of the best, early mornings are accompanied by the tune of refuse collection mixed with hissing espresso machines, the coffee downed in one gulp or brandished like a ticket to an active day. Here, success is seen as having reason to hurry. In the early hours, sparrows peck at croissant crumbs and dogs bark at cyclists and runners as they attempt to carve out a healthy lifestyle amid the commotion. Nicotine is deeply inhaled while standing in the back doors to shops and at the entrances to office buildings. A last moment to yourself, a perverse substitute for meditation. Before everything kicks off. Before we see what the day will bring.


Translated from the Polish by Daniel J. Sax

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Paulina Wilk

Paulina Wilk

is Editor of the Culture & Society section, as well as a writer and journalist focusing on global development. Among others, she has published the non-fiction books “Lalki w ogniu” (Dolls on Fire: Stories from Modern India) and “Pojutrze. O miastach przyszłości (After Tomorrow: On Future Cities). She has also written a series of fairy-tales about a teddy bear called Kazimierz. She is the co-creator of the “Kultura nie boli” foundation, the bookshop, café and literary space Big Book Café, and the Big Book Festival.