How to Travel in Africa

To be painfully frank, I do not consider myself to be particularly good, anymore, at traveling. I regret that I have been unable to maintain the earnest awe that I felt when I first came to Africa ten years ago. It is hot, and I am tired and lazy, but I am still here and nearly every day I remember to remind myself to try to be curious again.

Distilled to three maxims, I believe it is important to: Be cool. Be adaptable. And be forever curious.

***

Be cool. With the exception of the very instant I step from the shower, I am always coated in a gross film of sweat, dust, and automobile exhaust. In dry locations, I have black, crusty boogers. In moist locations, I have black, blotchy snot. I am always grimy behind the ears.

When I feel especially dirty I like to remember the excitement I feel when reading the travelogues of African explorers or the awe I feel when hearing the tales of my uncles, a few of whom were once wandering teenage vagabonds drifting back and forth across the globe. Authors and uncles do not talk about how dirty they were because in hindsight it is forgettable. The griminess is nothing worse than what I feel after a long series of economy class flights. Much more remarkable are all of the things that happen when I let myself wander away from running water far enough and long enough to get really dirty.

Nighttime in an African city is a blinding, groping darkness akin to the dazzling black you see against the back of your eyelids when you squeeze your eyes tightly shut or the disorienting darkness you would see if you turned the lights off and shined a flashlight in your eyes. Africa is not metaphorically dark in any way that represents the evil instincts of uncivilized men or the color of native skin. It is literally dark, and it can be unnerving, but the darkness is only so disturbing because it is obscuring what is already unfamiliar.

For most travelers to Africa, diarrhea is as normal, but awkward, as having pimples or a bad back. It is a different kind of diarrhea, incomparable to anything familiar except perhaps a faucet left running.

When it hits, you will jump to attention with an urgency that drill sergeants only wish they could teach new recruits. The nearest toilet, no matter how dingy, will look as comforting and inviting as your favorite chair. Though you may have fastidiously selected and disinfected every toilet you have so far used, this time you will not be able to sit your bare, unprotected ass down fast enough. You will explode, and you will wonder if you are going to lift off with the force of it.

You will not care that there is no toilet paper. In fact it will not even occur to you to look until you are able to pause long enough wipe your sweaty brow and wonder how you are ever going to clean yourself up. You will be disgusted to find that you are pleased to see a wastebasket full of used scraps of toilet paper, standard in Africa where paper products frequently clog the cheap plumbing. Repulsion firmly etched on your face, you will pick through the scraps looking for one with a clean corner large enough to pinch between your thumb and forefinger, and then you will reuse someone else’s used toilet paper, thankful that at least you have something.

If it is nighttime and you are lucky enough to be at home, you will force yourself back to bed hoping that maybe you will fall back to sleep before your bowels start to rumble again, but it will be a matter of seconds before you dash back to the toilet. The same pattern will repeat itself all night long, until morning when you will realize that you have spent hours sitting on the toilet and still your digestive juices are sloshing inside you. You will feel spent, in the same way you do after vomiting violently or breaking a high fever. You will take a shower and scrub yourself more thoroughly than you ever have before, wishing that you had a bucket of turpentine and a square of sandpaper to finish the job.

With a smile on your face, it will occur to you that at least you are not the guy who shit his pants on the tiny safari flight. Tragically, he was traveling with his fiancée’s family, the first time he had ever met them. There was no toilet, and he could not hold it. Everyone knew exactly what was happening. You will be just as pleased to remember that you are not the guy who thought he was supposed to sit, not squat, on the inhumanly filthy floor of the public outhouse.

There is little that can be done to combat the inevitable bout of diarrhea. Cipromyocin is the nuclear bomb of gastrointestinal medicine, killing everything in your system, friend and foe alike. You will happily sacrifice the allied bacteria in order to be rid of the axis germs so ravaging you. Counterintuitive though it may seem, being dirty may be your best strategy. When you bite your fingernails, you are giving your digestive track small doses of the germs which may later overwhelm it. When later they attack, your immune system will be prepared. It is the cheap traveler’s active inoculation.

Obviously, it is important to drink a lot of water whenever you are sick. Diarrhea, even cholera, will not kill you. The associated dehydration will.

Surprising though it may be, Africa is not a cheap place to be a tourist. Tourism in America is subsidized in the form of free museums and cheap national parks. Tourism in Africa, on the other hand, is one of the primary sources of job creation and foreign exchange income. Prices are kept deliberately high, and consequently most of the continent’s best attractions are too pricey for anyone trying to travel on a shoestring budget. Many places are so remote and inaccessible that the cost of just getting there can be daunting. Thankfully Africa is a cheap place to live, which provides a handy strategy for anyone staying for a few months or more: live cheaply to tour comfortably.

White shoppers in Africa are the equivalent of a customer who pays sticker price at the car dealership in America: suckers. We are poor bargainers poorly informed about the real cost of goods and services. We make the mistake of assuming that the quoted price is at least somewhat indicative of the actual price, when often it is tens of times higher. We make the additional mistake of assuming it is rude to make a lowball offer. When our counteroffer should be slashing the original price by ninety percent, we hesitantly suggest half of what was asked fearing even that may cause offense. After a little more bargaining we pay eighty percent of the quoted price, or eight times the actual cost. Consequently, the seasoned shopper, ever fearful of being made a fool, is hypervigilant about costs – I am embarrassed to report I have let many deals fold over a few pennies.

Grace and patience do not come naturally to me. I lose my temper often, and I am ashamed every time.

In many places Africans are instinctively deferential to whites. Colonialism instilled the idea that whites are to be obliged or even obeyed. Draconian teachers demand respect and they are willing to beat their students for it. Students quickly learn to start or end every sentence spoken in English with sir or madame. It starts to make you feel like a boss, like everything you say is a command. You start saying less and wanting to hear even less in return. Once you are so curt, it is easy to become rude, rolling your eyes and huffing when a conversation takes longer than expected. Even friendly banter can become difficult, simply because it requires more effort than you are used to putting into your average conversation.

Dialogue frequently derails, making it frustrating or even impossible to get the simplest tasks done, like booking a seat on the next bus out of town or uncovering all the hidden fees for renewing your visa. My natural reaction is a cold sweat, an involuntary muscle twitch, and the cartoonish feeling of steam rising up my neck and out my ears. I can feel my face turn red.

I brace myself before many conversations, anticipating aggravation. My goal is often to get to the end of the exchange as quickly as possible, but the expectation that the conversation will be difficult colors my tone from the start. Often, it is only because I am so gruff that the conversation is so stressful.

Frequently, the difference between a good day and a bad one is whether I have kept my cool despite whatever frustrations I may have encountered. It is never the frustrations themselves that ruin my day, only my poor reaction to them. I am pleased that I have had this opportunity to practice my patience, although I am saddened by how little I have improved.

Counterintuitively, both bureaucratic inefficiency and the bribes that cut through it – the post office clerk who insists on filling all the forms in quadruplicate and the police officer who says there is no need to write a ticket because you can just pay him in cash – are equally frustrating. It is the double standard of an expatriate who is really only looking for life to be like it is at home, where government is probably only marginally slow and corrupt. It is a failure to recognize that there is something interesting about a country that functions despite its government rather than because of it.

Poor government is often likened to a disease, in which case it is similar to sickle cell anemia in that it has an upside. As sickle cell anemia bestows an immunity to malaria, a little lawlessness makes it feel as though anyone with some ingenuity and drive can get rich. Business in Nairobi whirs and hums like a Wild West town during the Gold Rush. It feels like the New York described by Horatio Algiers. Unfortunately, the lawlessness also means that those who do not get rich are more likely than residents of other cities to die trying. When compared to the obscene and terrifying violence that stalks everyone in Nairobi, governmental inefficiency and corruption are tolerable, even cute. No traveler to Africa wants to take home a story about carjacking and kidnapping, but despite all the complaining everyone wants to have a story about rebuking a useless bureaucrat or bribing a dirty cop. The listless post office clerk and the opportunistic police officer can be thought of as characteristics of a quirky national personality, one that is an exciting, if a little dangerous, to get to know.

A passing white person rarely fails to elicit a strong, loud reaction. Every language in Africa has a word that used to mean “visitor” or “foreigner” but now simply means “white person.” In Madagascar it is vazaha; in Bantu languages it is some variation on mzungu; in Ethiopia it is faranji. Whatever the word, it echoes in the wake of every white person in Africa. Children shout it with glee and horror the moment they see white skin. Quickly the shout becomes a rhythmic chant, a siren song calling all the children in the area. The passing white person is now followed by a parade of singing children, a silent, smiling Pied Piper serenaded by his followers. In turn you will find it cute, funny, pleasant, repetitive, grating, annoying, and, finally, maddening.

It is not only the children who react so hysterically. For many African adults, a passing white person is free, easy entertainment, a freak show come to town. They hoot and jeer, shouting incomprehensible jokes into the air as though heckling the bearded lady in pig latin. Beggars will queue in your path; drunks will stagger in your wake. Street children will race to get to you first.

Ignoring all the attention has become second nature to me, partially for practical reasons – preventing a sore neck, for example – but partially because I have become so hardened that the world does not always crack the defensive barrier of my senses to reach my mind. One day recently, a persistent voice was calling mzungu to my back as I walked down the street. As though waking from a dream, the voice breached my consciousness by degree. Finally an arm grabbed my shoulder and spun me around; the server at the restaurant I had just left handed me my wallet.

Tellingly, a new word is replacing the one for “white person” in some parts of Africa: “China.” In an excellent example of how we see differences within our own population so much better than we see differences across other populations, in these places even white people are now called “China.”

I constantly feel like I am missing something at home, but it is not a particular event that I wish I were there to enjoy; rather, it is the sum of all the non events, the conversations and dramas and jokes that happen over time and that add up to being a part of someone’s life. It is easy enough to call or email or even order a gift online for a friend’s birthday, and my friends have been very good about finding me on my birthday. It is impossible to be there to help your sister move into her new home, to follow the college basketball season, to play the occasional game of cards, or to have a beer at the end of a tough day. Being close to someone is the sum of simple, little interactions, not just remembering to say happy birthday and merry christmas. On a good day, living abroad feels like I’m putting these bonds on hold; on other days it feels like I’m missing them entirely.

***

Be adaptable. When I came home after two years in Madagascar, my friends laughed at the way I enunciated so slowly and deliberately. As a former French colony, Madagascar is not a country where many people speak English, and most of those who do speak it are just learning. I had to tailor my speaking style to meet their listening ability. It was not a conscious process but an organic adaptation of language. Even on the continent, where most of my travels have been in former British colonies, my English is always picking up local idiosyncrasies. I “take” alcohol. I don’t say “let’s go,” I say “you come, we go.” Everyone is “my friend.” I am not me, I am “even me.”

While many linguistic adaptations happen largely involuntarily, others require conscious effort. With strangers, people whose English level I do not know, my mind is always working to simplify my speech. I try to use only simple verb tenses. Questions can be grammatically tricky, so I phrase most of mine as statements and use a tonal uptick at the end to signify that I am asking a question. Either/or questions are useless; the answer will invariably be yes or no. If the subject of my sentence is a pronoun, I precede it with the noun it is modifying, as in “the day, it is hot” or “the driver, he is crazy.”

It is a skill to be able to modify your language to meet the level of your listener. It takes effort and I am proud to have learned to do it well. But it is a skill that can be embarrassing when inadvertently used in the wrong context, like when you are home from Africa and you see an old friend at the grocery store. “How is you?” I asked.

Some miscommunication is the product of a cultural gap that cannot be bridged by the use of simple grammar and vocabulary. Getting reliable information can be confounding, especially when asking about time or distance. Americans learn to measure time in minutes and distance in miles and kilometers. Many Africans learn very different measurements.

In Madagascar, distance is measured in the time it takes for rice to cook. A destination is so many pots away, meaning that it should take about as long to walk there as it would take to cook that many pots of rice. It is a timekeeping system that suggests an island full of unhappy marriages, the overworked wife saying to her useless husband, “I could cook five dinners in the time it’ll take you to walk your lazy ass down the road and come back home with the greens.” Remarkably, it suggests an understanding of the relationship between space and time that physicists struggle to teach to university students. The concept is the same whether you are measuring the distance light travels in a year or the distance an idle man can walk in a rice pot.

The miscommunication is compounded if you are driving and asking a pedestrian how long it will take to reach your destination. It is possible that whoever you are speaking to has rarely ridden in a car and has little concept of how fast they travel. The length of a kilometer is similarly hard to understand unless you have traveled a lot of them. It is a useless measurement for people who live their whole lives not far from where they were born.

It is often nearly as difficult to get an accurate menu at the restaurant where you are eating. Printed menus are merely suggestive, listing what the establishment would choose to serve if all the food in the world were locally available. I have seen lobster on the menu at a restaurant miles from either the sea or refrigeration. When I ordered it, I was simply told, “that one, no.” My second choice was the steak with mushroom sauce. Again, “no.” The pork chops? “No.” Pizza? “No.” Finally, I did as I should have in the beginning and asked what the restaurant had to offer. “Chicken and goat.”

I like to wake in the morning with a plan for how I want the day to progress. Though I am willing and even pleased to admit a certain degree of spontaneity, I prefer that it happens only during those few hours of the day that I have not scheduled. Like an old jalopy stalling exactly when the hero of the film needs to escape or like a child demanding attention when you want your freedom, Africa persistently thwarts my best laid plans. It is hard to remember that many of my favorite travel moments happened only because I had to scrap my previous plans.

In Madagascar, my boss happened to be vacationing in the same town where I was taking an unauthorized holiday. My friend and I abandoned our plans at the beach and retreated to a nearby national park. We had scrambled out of town so quickly that we had no food with us. Local villagers sold us unripe fruit and lent us a pot so we could boil it and minimize any health problems that might develop from eating produce not yet fit for consumption. But for a dubious trio of one old white man and two young black men sharing a very small tent, we had the campsite to ourselves. In the park, a small river plunges over a series of short waterfalls, and at the bottom of each is a perfect natural swimming pool. We have pictures of us following the course of the river, diving from one pool to the next all the way down.

In Ethiopia, I tried to book a flight to Lalibela, the site of a complex of monolithic churches chiseled from the mountainside. First I was number one on the waiting list, and I was told I would undoubtedly get a seat. The next day when I checked I was number five on the waiting list. The following day I was number twelve. I was angry and incredulous, and I vented uselessly at the unfortunate sales clerk who had no control over what the computer told him but who happened to be the unlucky guy who called my number. Finally I recognized that I was doing nothing but needlessly ruining my day and his. I abandoned my plans for Lalibela and booked a seat on a bus to the Simien Mountains, the highest range in a country famed for its heights, and one of the highest in all of Africa. For fifty dollars a day I hired a guide, a cook, a donkey and its driver, an armed escort, and all the food and equipment I needed for four days in the park. I saw the rare red wolf, the endemic gelada baboon, and the nearly extinct walia ibex, one of which my guide could have killed when he threw a rock at it from several hundred feet up a cliff to try to make it move. I made it to Lalibela on my next trip to Ethiopia.

For our Christmas holiday in 2008, my girlfriend and I planned a rough road trip through the dusty tracks of the Laikipia plateau in Kenya, but we (or more accurately, I) forced the car beyond its offroad capabilities at our first stop in the Ngare Ndare forest on the northern foothills of Mount Kenya. Rather than push further into the wild, where assistance would have been slow and costly, we retreated to the soft and scenic campsite at Kentrout, very near the town of Nanyuki. The food was fresh, as the name suggests, and the scenery, on the fantastically forested slopes of the mountain, encouraged adventure and exploration. To this day it is the only place where we have seen the flashy red and green feathers of the narina trogon, a perfect Christmas treat.

***

Be forever curious. In Deep Survival the author speculates that it is those people who remain curious even in fear who are most likely to survive an emergency. The lingering curiosity is an indication that you have remained calm, that you are still surveying your surroundings despite your instinct to panic, and therefore that you are more likely than most to find a way to safety. As an example, the author cites a woman who survived a plane crash and who happened to notice on the way down that the trees of the forest that should have been her grave looked like a carpet of broccoli. The author fails to acknowledge that her observation could not possibly have helped her survive the actual impact, which was surely nothing but pure luck, but he makes a convincing argument that she was only able to find her way out of the forest because she had continued to see, appraise, and even appreciate her environment when others with her were surely panicking.

Africa is nothing to fear, of course, but on a daily basis it tests my ability to be curious, or at least to act on my curiosity. It is not that I am never intrigued; on the country, nearly everything I see begs investigation, but I constantly struggle to muster the energy to engage my environment mentally and socially. I sigh in anticipated frustration when imagining the conversations and all the repeated and rephrased questions it is likely to take to extract whatever information I am itching to know. It is so much easier to retreat to whatever is familiar, for example my house or the same neighborhood pub or restaurant, where I tend to sit alone and, perhaps ironically, read about Africa. Reading has become my penance, my way of moderating the guilt I feel for being so socially lazy.

For example, I have always wondered how it is that the face of nearly every small building in nearly every town is painted like an advertisement, all of them for large international corporations. Are Coca Cola and Vodacom really paying millions of rural Africans to paint their storefronts like billboards? Are the merchants themselves opting to doing so as an advertisement for their wares? Who does the actual painting, many of which are impressively accurate reproductions of corporate logos? Similar questions could be asked about the names and designs stenciled on to minibuses in so many African cities.

The answers to my questions are no more than a few conversations away, but I have stopped talking to people and even worse I have stopped listening to them. I used to learn by engaging, by asking Kenyans about tribe and Rwandans about genocide. Now I learn by disengaging, by reading my books on corruption and war. My time in Africa will be less memorable for my failure.

Obviously, reading the newspaper is a good way to get a feel for the local dialogue, but I have noticed that over time the news has retrained my focus from what I like most about Africa to what I like least about it.

Mass market newspapers in Africa are like tabloid rags and thanks to their wealth, power, and high public profile, politicians are the sleazy celebrities readers love to scorn. Scandals blip across the public radar with the speed, frequency, and recklessness of the menacing matatu that careen through Nairobi’s streets. The moment one safely turns the next corner, another bounds down the highway with the careless fury of an avalanche and bowls over and aside thousands more people. Reading the newspaper is like rubbernecking, gawking at the wreckage even though there is something indecent about it and even though you have seen it all before, most recently in yesterday’s newspaper. Like childish Hollywood starlets, the guilty politicians preserve a shameless state of denial.

I used to see Africa primarily as a place of grace, humor, and spirit; now I can’t help but see it also as a land of scandal. The persistent corruption, whether small and local or grand and international, is the filter that colors the way I see the continent. Where I used to see only the big, bright smiles of my friends, now I also see the scornful smirk of a greedy big man. I worry about the consequences of the frustration and impotence my friends must feel. It must be so deflating, even heartbreaking.

My mother has had the same house in Kentucky for over twenty years, yet I would have to think about it to point north from anywhere in the yard. For reasons I have never been able to explain, when I am in Africa my sense of place is more acute and I am more aware of the cycle of the day and the seasons. I know exactly when and where the sun will rise and set today and in six months. I can look at a shadow and ascertain the direction I am facing. In urban America, place is not tied to the land but to a network of roads. In rural Africa, place is defined in terms of hills and valleys and forest clearings. Time is reckoned in shadows.

This sense of time and place is one of the reasons I enjoy living in Africa. It is not that I feel a communion with nature or anything else so mystical. Rather, I feel like an engineer starting to understand the workings of a complex physical system. Cinemas are rare and television is limited, so the earth itself is entertainment. Hobbies seemingly cultivate themselves: photography, ornithology, orienteering, gardening.

Europe’s past can be relived in books and in museums. Africa, uniquely, must be experienced in the present, on its streets, in its markets, and in its pubs. Other than a handful of notable exceptions – Ethiopia, Timbuktu, the Swahili coast of East Africa – indigenous African history is hard to uncover. The only historical sights likely to be marked on a map are geographical features named after European explorers – like Baker’s Point in Uganda – or towns still bearing their colonial names – Brazzaville in Congo. Indeed, it is easy to get the sense that, like a tree falling in the forest, African history did not begin until there was an outside observer present to record it. The best introductory source for information on precolonial African history is the truly magisterial “biography” of the continent written by John Reader, but an even better way to get to know the continent is to walk it and talk it, to sing it and dance it.

Africa’s pulse can be felt in its inescapable music; song is everywhere, and it is catchy. Walking or driving down the road in the early evening, it sometimes seems that shops use music to try to lure their customers, as though browsers are listening not looking. In a market in which it is not uncommon to find an entire city block of stores all selling the same goods, the musical reach of a pounding boombox broadcasts a shop’s style far better than a stenciled sign, no matter how creative. A friend in Nairobi once told me she would never choose to ride one of the city’s staid, quiet, undecorated matatu if one of the loud, bouncing, flashy alternatives was available. Style is marketing, and in Africa music is the mark of style.

African superstars are crowned by international opinion, but in every country there are local heroes who are equally adored. The continent has indomitable lions, global icons like Fela Kuti, Mariam Makeba, Papa Wemba, and Ali Farka Touré, and it has buzzing creative engines comparable to Seattle, Austin, or Nashville, places like Mali, Congo, and Ethiopia, but radio stations tend to ignore the giants and the labels in favor of local players singing hits in the local tongue, singable danceable music that makes hips shake and shoulders roll. Thumping clubs can be found in thousands of cities and small towns across the continent. They are dark, hot, sweaty places with dirty carpets and mirrors on all the walls. They are empty at midnight and packed at dawn. Dizzy dancers go home to morning radio programs replaying the night’s highlights.

Dusk is the liveliest time of day in any African town. The sun, so bright and stifling when directly overhead, is soft and golden hanging over the acacia trees on the horizon. For the first time since early morning, it is cool enough to enjoy being outside. Maybe there is even a breeze, and maybe it carries the thick, hopeful scent of rain. The day’s workers are on their way home, tired and dusty. Most are on foot, like a long line of safari ants marching one way in the morning and the other way in the evening. The lucky have secondhand bicycles, originally imported from China. The night’s players are on their way out, impossibly clean and polished. The men drive motorcycles and the women ride side saddle on the back. For others, work is just starting. Resourceful old ladies and industrious young men are setting up their roadside snack stands. They carry plastic basins full of meat on their heads and bags of charcoal on their backs. They push shaky grills in front of them, homemade boxes of thin scrap metal with long legs and wobbly wheels. They have a few small, plastic stools, which they arrange haphazardly upwind of the grill. They are all selling the same menu, grilled meat and warm beer. The hawkers do not fight for business, but instead enjoy each other’s company while waiting for the next customer to stop. They make change for each other, as though they are all working from one communal cash register. The smell of the cooking meat temporarily overcomes the usually dominant odor of auto exhaust. The scene is almost reminiscent of a popular street in Paris, lined with sidewalk bistros; the food is almost as good as pad thai along the canals of Bangkok. More than anywhere, it is like a small county fair in rural America, friendly people turning commerce into a social event.

***

It is the ubiquitous and infectious spirit of Africa that makes me excited to be here. The continent has a soul that seems to beat and breathe from the hardwood forests to the ocean waters, from the coastal islands to the desert sands, and from the city streets to the village farms. The people are boisterous and occasionally even raunchy. The land is open, expansive, and it still feels uncharted.

At parties, I used to be the guy standing by the punch bowl having a night of serial small talk. On weekends, I used to prefer dinner and a movie. In Africa, I have become a dancer and an explorer. The continent does not make you feel the world is your oyster; it makes you feel it is your playground.

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