Friday, July 18, 2008

Rafiki and Safari

(the "type at home, email at the office" plan is nothing short of genius. here is the first of 3 that i haven't been able to post until today, friday. it's been an amazing trip, crazy every day!)

thanks for the posts--i look forward to them every time i get an internet chance.
melanie. there should be plenty of words for you to burn coco county tax dollars with on fri/mon in the office.
cath. wish i would have read your last post--cant believe they live in arusha. will keep that in mind in case i go the wrong way heading back.
roy. because the internet is SO slow, i doubt i'll be able to get any pics, but i'll try in the next couple days.
joseph. congrats on the anniversary, exciting. dont ever read my blog in your boxers, again.
JT. happy 6 month to the young stallion, joshua lawrence! what's he eating these days?
angela. asante for the key phrases. i should memorize the "i'm lost" one.

Rafiki and Safari

Could anybody do this? Travel in the third world, I mean. When experiencing the lack of luxuries and abundance of inefficiencies and inconveniences, I think of my sister, or some girls I’ve dated, or my roommates, and I wonder if they could survive. Cold showers, bland food, long bus rides on rocky dirt roads. Sometimes I think, “Allie could do this.” And other times…well. Not so much. Sorry sister. You know I love you.

My 2 day bus ride from Nairobi to Shirati makes a convincing argument that unfortunately, third world travel is not for everyone.

To be blunt, the bus rides sucked. It took 27 hours on 3 buses and 3 taxis, and if I would have gone the way they told me to go in the email, I would have arrived Friday night. Instead, I went the opposite direction, and then took a major detour. Ouch. Salt in a wound? Try dunking your finger in hydrochloric acid. Ok, awright, it wasn’t that bad. But instead of going from San Fran to LA, I went from San Fran to Tahoe to Phoenix to Tijuana then LA.

And then there were the actual bus rides. (No, I’m not done complaining). Packed. Hot. No A/C, but plenty of B.O. On one, I sat in something wet. THE WHOLE TIME—it was my assigned seat, and I wasn’t going to wait who knows how many hours for the next bus. That was my seat in the back of the bus, which, as you know from minivan physics, when the bus hits a bump, you fly. Once, I get vertical (seat to butt distance) 2 feet, hit the seat, and bounced up for another 6 inches.

I BOUNCED, PEOPLE—IT KNOCKED THE WIND OUT OF ME! Definitely needed more junk in that trunk for that ride.

Again, if my little theme above wasn’t clear, the bus trip sucked.

But it’s the happiest I’ve been in a long time. I was on vacation—if I’m a day or two late, would anybody really care? No. Not worth getting upset about. I was on a new continent, talking with people in a new language, off to do some good in a hospital. I even thought, I might die on this bus (third world bus driving = death ride), and that would be ok. No regrets. I’m ready, right where I should be.

Tanzanians rule, and I owe much of the awesome experience of the horrible bus ride to them. The first was Jeremiah, a 35 year old guy who made the 12 hour ride to sell t-shirts. He had a wife. That info—took me about 4 hours to get out of him. Again, 3 ½ hours of audio Swahili in the Civic didn’t exactly go so far in the bush. Fate placed him in the window seat next to me, no doubt to teach me how to treat a stranger. On one of the first stops, we went to the bathroom, and he chipped in the dime for me without even asking. I almost cried. This peasant African graciously paid for a stranger. I immediately tried to pay him back, he refused. He was taking care of me. Very impressive. Later, at lunch, I gave him money to get us both food. He came back with the food, and handed me back my money. He bought me lunch, too. In Swahili, Rafiki means friend. Jeremiah was my first, but I had a feeling not my last. He got off just before I did. I was sad to see him go.

This experience of friendship with him, where he really looked out for me a foreigner, was reason to reflect. Genuine goodwill. The man had the spirit. He wasn’t religious or political. He didn’t have a mission statement. But he had some of the real thing, the deep inside stuff. That I believe in, and connect with. I’m thankful to the universe, that on a shitty bus ride, I was given this lesson from a Rafiki.

Numerous others—Gilbert the cabbie, my other bus rafiki—were quite hospitable. They all had this value of taking care of me—when I needed something, they would walk me to the hotel, find me the right bus, or leave me in the care of someone who could.

Makes me think about how busy I am at home and how stupid that is. More on this later. Slowing life down, which necessarily happens here.

Another one of my favorite things: the random conversations. My M.O. for learning languages has been to start random conversations as much as possible. Most people are happy to humor you, and even enjoy teaching. Tanzanians are no different. Here’s what my first conversations went:

ME: Jambo (“hello,” which I always say with a goofy, and I hope charming, smile).

THEM: SiJambo (“hello back”, usually laughing at me and my feeble attempt).

ME: Habari gani. (“how are you”)

THEM: Nzuri. (“fine”, with more laughter, since a monkey can ask these questions)

ME: Unasema wapi? (“where are you from,” as I press on with the basics).

THEM: Nasema…

Then I just open the English –Swahili conversation books and pick out random questions. Once I asked somebody how old he was, but it wasn’t until after he answered that I realized I hadn’t even glanced at the numbers yet, so I had no clue what he was saying. That was brilliant. Or what they do for work, if they are married, have kids, etc. By then, I usually understand nothing of what they are saying, and we both get frustrated. Sometimes, I’ll turn to writing, and ask them to write down what they are saying, and then I can look it up. That will get another couple questions out of them, and then even their well of goodwill dries up.

But I really want to know these guys. I want to know what they think about Tanzania, what’s important to them, what they think about AIDS, the UN and the US in Iraq, if they’ve heard of Just Friends or Kate Hudson, and if they think I should grow my hair long again. And the language is this bridge. With Spanish, I’ve found it’s really a key that unlocks a whole new world, an entire experience that cannot be had by the simple tourist. Making friends, understanding from their mouth—not a book or TV documentary—what it’s like to live in one of the poorest countries in the world. Communication, language is key, and I’m passionate about it.

In this process, I’ve realized some basics about human communication. A smile and a genuine desire to learn another’s language can get you quite far. That much of communication is nonverbal—I agree with. In that sense, there are some international languages. Eye contact, smiling.

Other quickies:

Transportation is a commodity in Tanzania. Buses are always full, and not cheap. And roads…developing to say the least. Half are still dirt.

Is “development” really a good thing? Would it be better to live simpler and shorter lives? Should we really be trying to develop Africa? Big discussion here, later.

There seems to be little concern of violence, theft. Very interesting. No guns. Although I’m sure they worked me on the price of some of these bus rides and cab fares. The guy that sells the bus ticket is equivalent to the car salesman in the US. Very crafty, they are.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


We are so much more alike than you know. What you have so eloquently expressed in this post is how I feel about travel in Africa, and how I approach it, which is why I love it so. Getting to know the people, what they hold dear, how they feel, even their stories about the stars (which do not include the greco-roman myths - theirs are much older).

And yes, being treated as an honored guest in their country is another part of the cultural charm.

Thank you for reminding me of how I miss it there. The last time I was in east Africa, I was told I needed to live there, and just to bring my clothes, they have everything else I need. Ah, well. Maybe someday.

Aunt Cath

P.S. It's been 11 days and counting.....