Wednesday, July 17, 2002

South Bound

My backpack is packed again. Three months until I'll be back. Back in Germany, at the community I've come to think of as home. I guess I'll miss it, as much as I miss anywhere. Working in the darkroom, learning to make ceramic bowls on the potters wheel, cooking meals for any number of the nine people who live in the apartment, setting up and helping tend the bar at a party at the coffee shop downstairs...all nice memories, little immersions from which I learned a new skill or experienced a new joy. For me it's been really great to be here. I wouldn't call it a utopia, if by that label you would expect a lack of problems, dirt, annoyances, and people as lava lamps of happiness and unhappiness. It's not a utopia in terms of altering human nature. It's merely an environment, created by some individuals with a strong vision of people living together, and maintained by people who appreciate that vision in their own way. Out of this environment grew a well-equiped communal photography dark room, a ceramics studio, a woodshop, an organic food co-op, and a coffee shop. These things weren't created by the people who created the environment, they were a result of the environment. I'm fascinated by pondering what it means to create an environment where these things are natural results. When I leave Susi, I'm surprised by how strange the people look in their suits and fashionable clothes. Where are their dreadlocks, and why is everyone wearing shoes? Why is everyone talking on a telephone while they walk? Why is it that the less people have, the more generous they are?

So today is the last day here, for a while. Juliette and I will be traveling together for the duration of her Summer break. I say "will be" with a stutter, knowing that my will is merely a finger on the steering wheel of the future. With the same small will, I say we will be going through south France and Spain, then cross the Strait of Gibralter to enter Africa at Morocco. I'm almost afraid to even assert my will in the face of this mysterious continent, it looks so insignificant and naive. But I accept its insignificance like a dutiful voter, and forge ahead with my master plan as if I'm making all the decisions. From Morocco we'll go through the Sahara desert by way of Mauritania, which might be characterized by a choice between getting stuck in the sand and driving over a land mine. Assuming we choose correctly, we'll come out the other side of the desert in Senegal, where the risks are less man-made; there, the question of whether one might get malaria doesn't arise -- rather, how many times?

With such dangers and risks, why go? Do I have a death wish, or am I a thrill seeker, or am I trying to prove something? Perhaps a hint of the last is perceptible, when I closely scrutinize my motives. What I'm trying to prove has to do with fear. Once, I went skydiving, because I wanted to do something I was afraid of. Africa is scary. Malaria is scary. Death is scary. I don't have any desire to get malaria or to die, but I suppose both will happen at some point whether I desire it or not. The point, for me, is not to be a slave to that fear. To choose to jump out of an airplane by force of personal will, in spite of the overwhelming voices saying run run run. There is nowhere to run to; the fear follows you, because it's in your head.

But this is really secondary. I'm not going to Africa because I'm afraid of it, I'm going because I'm interested in it...interested in finding out for myself what it's like. I'm not going because of the fear, but in spite of it. I know from India that having an experience is completely different from hearing a description, no matter how comprehensive and accurate the description may be. Africa is a mysterious place; it evokes images of prehistoric culture, before technology, before security. Africa has been called the dark continent. Perhaps it's like the dark side of my mind; if I hide from it, I am its slave -- but if I accept it, and explore it, it can become a powerful tool.

Those are some romantic notions of danger and mystery, but perhaps a dose of reality is appropriate for balance. Though Africa in general is not heavily touristed by world standards, many people do explore the entire continent independently, as evidenced by the multitude of "Africa Overland" travel web sites. Juliette and I are planning to visit a mere three of the more than fifty African countries. Morocco, being a ferry ride from Spain, is probably the most touristed country of them all, and Senegal isn't unpopular either. Mauritania isn't on everyone's list because there's not much there besides desert, but it's also not one of the countries experiencing civil war. So overall we're planning a safe trip, by African standards.

So once again I become a turtle, carrying my home on my back, plodding gently forward to see what I can see.