At some point near the beginning of the trip, a friend commented about the fun stories I was posting. His comment was something along the lines of “I sense that you are not telling us of the hardships”. Well Tom, you were right, I wasn’t. Not that there were not any hardships, but I am not naturally inclined to pay much attention to them (BTW, that is both a good and a bad personality trait;-)
I’ve been here in Africa nearly seven weeks now, and not only have the giddiness of finally getting here and the newness of the place worn off, but I have been able to settle into a routine of sorts. The strangeness has been replaced by a familiarity. And as is often the case for me, it is only once I become comfortable in a place that survival takes a back seat to reflection and observation.
This trip is unlike others in my history, combining exotic culture, a stagnant economy, and a harsh landscape with the sweetest and most open of all people I have encountered in my life. That said, though the typical Malian’s openness works well with my own, it also keeps me surfing the beauty of life and not paying much attention to the potholes around me.
A close friend once called me on my inattention to hardship and my habits of focusing on the good and the beautiful. I’ve had a good talk with her about that and have gradually realized that by not at least acknowledging the hardships, I was, to an extent greater than I thought possible, creating walls and missing opportunities for deeper connection.
To be sure, I feel the bumps, but simply see them as inconveniences to be moved through on the way to joy. That said, there have been a bunch of those inconveniences on this trip! The categories stretch from “I want my mom” all the way to a simple pain in the ass.
Being sick in Timbuktu was perhaps the worst of it. I was in a level 10 town, on the edge of nowhere, with dust and sand so thick that you can’t breathe, with bad food and a pit toilet that you could smell across the courtyard. Add to this picture, a feeling that you are about to throw up your shoe and lose 3 days of food out the other end. If there was ever a recent time when I wanted to be loved and mothered, it was then!
That being the apogee of hardship, there are other things that should be acknowledged as the pains that they are:
The food, as good and tasty as it may be, is lacking in protein, is very carb heavy, and all the vegetables are cooked in the sauce to the point where they are some limpy sons of guns. Green salads are not very typical! We are gradually getting used to this way of eating though, and amend with crunchy green vegetables where possible. You CAN build a good diet here, but it takes many, many hours to source the food, unlike the simple shopping trips we do in the US. And, although I miss my American “comfort food” less and less each day, someone will still need to warn the folks with the good beer at the Lucky Lab or Lompoc that I am soon to hit town.
It would really be nice to know the Bombaran language, or be just a tad better in French (rudimentary Spanish and high school Latin just isn’t cutting it) so as to connect better with the locals. Smiles will get you everywhere here, but I am not able to have deep conversations with anyone except my co horts.
Sanitation is a bit better here than I imagined, but, let’s just say that I’ve never been more proud to be a plumber than I am now (yes, Dad was a plumber and I worked my way through college as an apprentice). There is no denying that plumbing has probably made one of the more important contributions to world history. Regarding the toilets here, I can also say that I am now a fan of squatting rather than sitting. We really need to think about pit toilet design though, as I think that one particular pit toilet I used on this trip may have been an entry to an as-yet unclassified ring of hell.
This is the season when this is a dusty, sandy place and the air is laden with particulates. Add exhaust smoke and burning trash piles to the natural processes and the sum is some pretty nasty air. I can’t imagine that my lungs are at all pleased with this. I brought with me a few nice cigars to smoke; ain’t gonna’ happen here.
There were things that seemed hard in the beginning but no longer so. Water quality is always suspect but you simply become one with your water filter. It is hot and dry, but we all got used to it. There are also things that are not really hardships, but which I simply miss. Ice tea and hot showers come to mind. And of course, my Tempurpedic mattress.
Then there are things that are hardships, but also gifts. Like being connected via phone and internet. It is good to be able to work on my projects and run a business from anywhere in the world, but it does take away focus from the present and the local. Because I am connected, I also find myself in a place where I am easily contrasting the needs of the 1st world with the needs of the 3rd world in a very direct and somewhat disturbing way. Trying to balance project concerns back in the states with the much more basic needs and concerns of the people and projects in Africa make me wonder which world is on the right path. Though that level of thought can’t be all bad, it is a heck of a balancing act every day.
Lastly, being connected does mean that I can share this adventure with my children, family and friends in an almost real-time story. It keeps me connected in a way where I miss my children and wish everyday that they could share this experience in person with me. I will not be the same person I was when I left; and neither would they. To travel!
See? I did it again, wrote about the hardships only to end up in a fairly joyful place.