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Saturday, October 23, 2010

To Go Round and Round (Aimlessly)

Glenn has often said that people at home have no idea what Africa is really like. You can’t know a place until you’ve combed its beaches, driven its roads, perused its markets and met its people; and even then you’re limited to your own personal experiences. We had no idea what it would be like. No idea.

When the locals ask us what America is like, Glenn has a fairly standard reply, “It’s like another world.” And he is right. It is. But what is it about Africa, that is so different? I’ll see if I can give you an idea by recapping our day.

We woke up in Jinja, Uganda in a little campground perched a couple hundred feet above the raging White Nile River. I only had 2 eggs so I asked Glenn if he would mind getting some eggs from Omar, Jinja’s chapatti guru. Omar makes damn good chapatti and although he isn’t in the business of supplying eggs to tourists, he has good fresh eggs and doesn’t mind sharing. Omar’s stand is about 10 steps from the camp entrance and any interaction with him is delightful. We ate our breakfast under clear blue morning skies and decide to head for the Kenyan boarder.

Despite the nonsense in our overland books, border crossing - up to this point - has been a breeze; we’ve obtained all necessary visas at the borders without incident. We even set up camp in the immigration parking lot when crossing from Mozambique to Tanzania so that we didn’t have to drive after dark (a bad idea in Africa). Our books advise us to split-up, so that one person can watch the car while the other obtains the necessary visas and fills out the paperwork; otherwise (the books warn), you might be missing a few ‘parts’ when you return to your car. I even tried abiding by this advice until a kindly Burundi immigration officer assured me that I could come into his office because there were, “no teeves here.”  I had to translate that for Glenn too, no teeves, no thieves. The past 4 or so countries we have decided upon the spit-up-and-conquer strategy mainly for efficiency, not protection: Glenn heads off to clear the Carnet (our cars passport) and I get the visas. Within 15 minutes we are back in our car crossing over. Today was no exception.

With a few Kenyan Shillings in our pocket we stopped just across the border to buy air time, a new sim card and some fruit. The vendors line the streets for about a mile into each country, selling everything you could possibly want for your journey onward: flip-flops, produce, tyre repair services, spare-parts, trinkets and meat (anything from captive live chickens to various fly encrusted carcasses hangin by a leg under the hot African sun). Their makeshift stands are a bricolage of bits of this or that and scraps of whatever they could find tied or pounded together using rubber tubing, twine made from palm fronds, scraps of rusted metal, discarded plastic bags and the like. For a couple of dollars I returned to the car with an armload of booty: one pineapple, six bananas, a papaya, four lemons, six eggs, two mangoes, a bag of tomatoes, a stalk of sugarcane and two avocados.

While I am waiting for my change a small girl walks up to me, reaches out and strokes her little brown fingers down the length of my arm as she says, “Mzungu how are you?” There is a sweetness in African children that I have never experienced before and my heart melts. We were told, by a black Congoleze Mzungu, that Mzungu is a Swahili word meaning rich person or provider. Wikipedia explains the origin of the word as:

The etymology of the word stems from a contraction of words meaning "one who wanders aimlessly" (from swahili words zungu, zunguzungu, zunguka, zungusha, mzungukaji-meaning to go round and round) and was coined to describe European explorers, missionaries and slave traders who traveled through East African countries in the 18th century.

We were originally told that it meant white person, but this isn’t totally true. Many Indian merchants, missionaries and wealthy blacks are also mzungus. Mzungu is a good thing to be and even before you know the history of the word, you can tell that it is good from the way it is sang out from the mouths of the people.

Our Kenyan welcoming crew and lunch companions.
An hour or so later we stop just off the main road to have lunch. We are quickly joined by a dozen men, of all ages, who seemed to be passing by. The men are laughing, asking questions and showing us their gardens. We are asked to take photos, so we do. The men show us the hill where the Obama tribe lives, just there across the way they say pointing to a little nubbin of a hill off in the distance. We are welcomed onto their land and into their day, warmly. We eat our sandwiches and say our goodbyes.

A couple hours down the road we roll into Kisumu, Kenya looking for a place to camp. The first option we chose from our GPS Tracks for Africa program sight unseen. One lap through the dilapidated grounds and a gander at the outbuildings and we continued on our way to the next closest option. It wasn’t dark yet and we weren’t desperate. We have standards you know. The next lodge was beautifully nestled on the edge of Lake Victoria, but they wouldn’t let us sleep in our car, so GP decided to relieve himself in their driveway as a group of onlookers laughed. One of the lodge employees walked over to solicit a boat trip and ended up giving us a tip on a place to camp just down the road.

For those at home: public urination is widely accepted throughout Africa. You should see the crowds of sprayers/squatters when a bus loaded to the brim makes a pee-pee stop along the road.

We pull into our third and final destination. Glenn walks into the lobby of a small unfinished, yet dilapidated, hotel and is greeted by the staff. When he asks how much it would be to camp for the night the first lady turns to him and says that he needs to ask the receptionist. Glenn then turns to the receptionist and asks her how much it would be to camp for the night. The receptionist says that she doesn’t know, he will have to ask the Manager. Finally Glenn turns to the manager and asks a third time - since all three people were standing in the lobby together - at this third and final request all four of them bust up laughing. This is so Africa.

We set up camp and I started dinner. The cook walks over to Glenn, takes his hand in hers and asks, “ Is your wife cooking?” Yes, Glenn replies. “Can I see what she is cooking?” Sure, he says as he opens the door and she climbs into the car with me (at this point we had not met). We chatted for a few minutes and she asks me if I would like to try some of her food. “I would love to,” I reply. Within 2 minutes the cook returns with a plate of food for me: chapatti, pulau and a delightful shredded vegetable salad. In turn I give her the rundown on what I am making for dinner, and pass out tasting spoons to the three girls (in Africa groups grow quickly) who are now sharing my kitchen. We were having red pepper and shallot quesadillas, guacamole and salsa. They had never tried Mexican food before, so I gave them all a taste.

The conversation went something like this:
[Girls] Where are you from?
[Me] The United States.
[Girls] Oh. Is that where this car is from?
[Me] No. The car is from Cape Town.
[Girls] Oh, you’re from South Africa?
[Me] No. I am from the United States. The car is from South Africa.
[Girls] Oh. What are you making for dinner?
[Me] Quesadillas. It is a Mexican dish that you make with chapatti, cheese and whatever you have.
[Girls] Oh. You’re from Mexico?
[Me] No. I am from the United States. The food is Mexican.
[Girls] Oh.

I laugh as I write this. Things here are funny, simple and completely different than you would imagine given the media reports. Every day is something new, someone new and you just never know what to expect. How do you explain a complete stranger walking up to you calling you her sister while clasping your hand in greeting or a young cook taking your hand in hers and asking about your dinner. There is a gentle raw sweetness that isn’t cloaked in a veneer of ego, attitude or social distance. You are part of the tribe of Africa, wherever you go, you are greeted, welcomed and included. How do you explain such a place?

This was our day.

Sending my love from Africa,

1 comment:

  1. Wow, your trip sounds so epic! We're happy for you guys!