Lessons Learned from a Banana

Thursday, August 17, 2006 | Pemba, Mozambique (map)

On the dhow from Ibo, at the start of a very long—but revealing—day of travel.
On Monday, Joop and Rene and I woke before dawn, packed our bags and walked to Ibo's town beach to catch the morning dhow to the mainland. After a few false starts and returns to the island to pick up stragglers, we were finally under way. Our sailboat, overloaded once again, churned through the sea, its captain carefully navigating among the mangrove labyrinth.

With little wind, the ship's sails drooped and the crossing soon slowed to a crawl. The crew used long canes to pole us slowly toward our destination as the sun burned down. A school of dolphins followed us for a few moments, their glistening fins arching up gracefully from the sea all around the wooden craft. Five long hours after we boarded, we finally hopped into the water to slog by foot through the last stretch of mud onto the shore at Tandanhangue.

Having nearly exhausted my supply of meticais on the decidedly ATM-free island, I offered my beat-
up sneakers to the boat's captain, who gleefully accepted them as payment for my passage. I scarfed down a serving of fish and rice at the shack beside the sea, then loaded my belongings into a large dump truck-like vehicle bound for Pemba, from where I would fly back to Dar es Salaam, grab my bags at Susan's house and jet home in a shockingly rapid sequence. As the truck pulled away from the shore at Tandanhangue, the captain smiled widely and waved goodbye.

From the start, my Dutch friends and I tried to carve out one corner of the truck's bed as our space, but our efforts proved futile as more and more cargo-toting locals climbed aboard at every village along the dusty road. Before long I was sitting on my backpack, no doubt smashing its contents, I worried, as Mozambicans piled all around me. We were up to our necks in goods as well—the customary mix of sacks of fish (stinking in the sun, as always), cassava roots, bananas, pots and pans, and who knows what else.

Soon a mother, baby in her arms, plopped her two young sons down in my lap as she arranged herself atop a pile of produce. As we hurtled down the road, the presence of the grimy, unwashed boys in my lap prevented me from leaning away from the acacia thorns that overhung the roadway, whipping at my shoulders, neck and face. After a few minutes I offered the boys a banana, assuming they would be terrified of this giant white person on whom they had been told to sit. When the older one took the fruit and reached to unpeel it, his mother hissed something, and he hurriedly tucked the banana into his pocket. I gave him a few more, hoping he and his brother would actually eat the fruit, but the thrifty young woman continued to insist they be conserved for later, for the family.

Throughout the long drive, Joop, Rene and I rolled our eyes at each other, disappointed at the transportation yet at the same time strangely comfortable in the knowledge that we had already survived several such grueling marathons of pain on Mozambique's roads.

Under the hot sun, I reflected: the joys and rigors, the pleasant surprises and unforeseen disasters, everything that makes travel worth leaving home for is worthless if experienced alone. As I left Mwanza that muggy July morning three weeks earlier to strike out alone, I was momentarily exhilarated at the prospect of discovering new people and sights for myself. I quickly realized, however, that without somebody with whom to reflect on experiences, commiserate at frustrations, and celebrate successes, the joy of travel is quickly lost.

Travel is, above all else, a deeply human experience.

For the most part the world's diverse sights can be captured on film, its music on CD, its cuisine in restaurants, and its thrills matched at home, all without traveling. On its most fascinating level, the world is a not a landscape of cheap thrills but a human landscape, and in traversing its contours one realizes travel's three greatest gifts.

First, more insight into people's worldviews, cultures and diverse personalities can often be gained from the offering of a banana to a child than from a library full of cultural and anthropological studies. It is also those chance encounters in daily life, rendered even more fascinating by language barriers, which form the memories of travel that ultimately endure.

The eight hours which the Dutch guys and I spent in that truck were indeed painful—my back pressed against the truck's side for the trip's duration, I soon developed an aching welt where the metal edge dug into my spine with every jolt of the truck. Joop and Rene had their own pains as well. And they were not the only ones I met along my trip. This second inimitable gift of travel lies in the bonds forged while traveling with people, by sharing in the constant process of adaptation to new environments. Whether or not I ever again meet those with whom I traveled can not detract from that shared experience. Merely the knowledge that someone, somewhere in the world, was for a brief time walking in stride with me carries a mysterious significance, and makes the whole remembered experience somehow more tangible.

Finally, in striking off into foreign lands, and in so doing leaving behind a world of family and friends, I always come to appreciate those who matter in my own life back home. Those with whom I kept in touch, and who took the time to keep in touch with me, now seem forever closer.

In ten weeks in East Africa, I learned a tremendous amount about the world and my position in it, and will continue to digest those experiences for many years. The speed and slowness, the wealth and poverty, the ignorance and intellect, the modernism and traditions, the elders and the youth, the greed and generosity, the power and vulnerability, the sickness and vitality.

The continent's invigorating rush is slow to fade.

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