Thursday, April 10, 2008

On This Day Last Year...

I was thinking Oh, another bus accident.
Paul Theroux talks about swearing off mutatus (mini buses used for public transport all over the continent) as he travels around Africa in Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town.
Because he covers roughly the same path I did, with some significant exceptions, I read his book when I returned. Of course I'm not a long time acquaintance of the Prime Minister of Uganda, I didn't hang out with Nadine Gordimer in South Africa, or get a visa to travel through Sudan, but I did find some of his tales to be strangely familiar to my own. One stark contrast was Theroux's street experiences.
Perhaps because of gender, I don't think he experienced the same kind of harrassment or felt the fear that I did at times. I would have jumped at a chance to navigate the Shire River into Mozambique to the Zambezi River with two male rowers in a hand carved canoe. But that is not something you can do alone as a woman unless you have a companion. I'm not necessarily meek; I'm not talking about fear of bugs or squat toilets.
The dangers of being alone and vulnerable, without knowledge of local languages and customs can be fatal. Again and again I had to listen to my better judgement. Was I too cautious? Would I have been OK taking a ride with the crusty all male crew of a little open fishing boat up Lake Tanganyika to Bujumbura, Burundi? I'll never know. I did have some beautiful midnight horse rides in the deserts of Egypt and I did camp alone on red velvet dunes in Namibia.
Often I thought of Gertrude Bell, the famous British adventuress who is responsible for most of the early mapping of the territories that are now Iraq (yes, she was an early proponent of combining various tribal territories into one country). She would go out into the desert on months long journeys with her rifle and camel caravan and servants and fur coat and bathtub. She spoke the native languages and met with Tribal Elders before other male government representatives dared to. She and TE Lawrence knew eachother well.
Maybe with a shot gun and a contingency I would have seen more of Africa. Maybe I'll have to retool my outfit next trip.

Back to Paul Theroux: he gave up riding in mutatus and I didn't. Not after I saw that the accidents lining the roads (if you can call them roads, this photo is not representative) involved all vehicles, large and small. Sure, the big ones might be more comfortable but you do learn a lot on the small ones. I take a little pride in my local transportation stubbornness, but only because I've returned mostly in one piece, puking fellow passengers be damned.