January 8, 2008

Afro-trippin'

It’s the first day back to work after the holiday break, and the place is dead quiet. Besides the birds (and their chicks) that have slowly been building a nest in my office and the swishing of the pool outside the door, there’s a beautifully reflective silence. “I wish it could be this relaxing everyday,” my lone co-worker muses over lunch.

I agree. After blitzing through Southeast Africa for the past three weeks, all I want is peace. Since arriving back in Lusaka last Thursday – sick, stinky and nursing a festering foot sore – I have only left the house for food, internet and to rent the first season of 24. With the rainy season in full effect in Zambia, every cool downpour washes away a layer of mental fatigue and refreshes the soul. The fever broke, the foot is healing and I definitely smell better; I’m ready to reflect on the Afro-trip.

One of the things you have to respect about Africa is its size. Everything is immense. From its distances and poor governance to its heat and natural beauty, it can make you feel impossibly small. Going from Zambia to Tanzania to Mozambique and back again, I covered at least 6000km and only saw portions of a small corner of the continent.

Even within that relatively small slice, there was incredible diversity. The temperate highlands of central Africa gave way to the infernal heat of the east coast; Nyanja and Bemba became Swahili and Makua; mostly Christian places turned mostly Muslim; the thriving port of Dar-es-Salaam contrasted with the economic depravity of northern Mozambique; the black Bantu peoples of the interior diversified into myriad shades of brown as they mingled with Arabs and Asians on the coast. You would even swear there was a twinge of European blood in some of the fairer-skinned Mozambicans.

Maybe it’s a good thing that most African countries are enormous, because one of the miseries of traveling here is crossing borders. Not only do you get hit with gratuitous visa fees and unnecessary waits on the way in, but you have to pay the even more medieval ‘departure tax’ when you leave. Just like living in Zambia, on my trip I ended up paying more for visas than I did accommodation. Again, money that should have been recycled into local economies was being sent somewhere where it was unlikely to help anyone who actually needed it. The benefit of being repeatedly gouged, if there ever was one, was seeing a myopic pattern emerge from the top on down.

In Mozambique, it’s what aid workers call the ‘orphan spirit’. Working with children whose parents have died or are unable to look after them, it’s a struggle to get them to think long-term about anything. When you’re used to fighting only to survive and there might not be a tomorrow, there’s no use investing time, money or effort in anything that doesn’t bring immediate reward, or so the theory goes. As a result, stealing, cheating and general malfeasance ensue.

Since many in the government came out of similarly desperate circumstances, and most African countries were hastily abandoned after colonialism, politicians exhibit the same ‘survive first, ask questions later’ attitude. Even the hospitality industry, which should be based on customer service and satisfaction, is shockingly near-sighted. In heavily touristed Zanzibar, an hour’s wait for food was normal, the hotel staff lost bookings, security deposits and treated paying guests as more of a nuisance than the source of their livelihoods.

As a casual traveler with enough money to pay the fees and time to wait for my food, it only amounted to a small annoyance that added a layer of exhaustion to a long trip. Contrary to what I think is popular belief, travel in Africa (at least where I’ve been) is neither cheap nor that difficult, but you need to be patient and understanding. Perhaps it finally helped me come to terms with the visa fees I feel I’ve been exhorted to pay for the past six months. The more frustrating thing is seeing places like war-scarred northern Mozambique, with its coral reefs, endless sunshine and friendly people, not investing or even believing in the future.

4 comments:

Scott said...

It sounds like you had an excellent run through a part of the world that not too many folks are interested in. Do you think it likely that university students would ever take a trip through Africa instead of the customary post-graduation European jaunt?

B. Scott Currie said...

Yeah, it was a good run.

I think logistically, unless they have traveled before, coming to Africa for a hedonist backpacking trip is probably too expensive and frustrating for first-time travelers. Europe is just so compact, easy to navigate and already has the budget-travel infrastructure in place. Most people that I met who are gallavanting about the continent are late 20s, early 30s at least.

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Jessica said...

Brandon, I've been away from it for a while, but I see your blog remains a pleasure to read. What you posted about the hospitality industry surprised me (I would've thought the employees would be desperate for tips). The idea of the departure tax is scary and makes me feel trapped! Please take good care of your foot wound. I look forward to seeing you when you get back.

Jess