AN AFRICA MEMORY

In the early 1970’s I spent nearly a year bumming around North and West Africa. I had never been out of the United States and I abruptly went from East Tennessee to Marrakesh, from college campus to real world, from 20th century Christian to 16th century Muslim, from English speaking to Arabic/French speaking, from 1st world to 3rd world and all this transition was done on one short airplane ride. After suffering severe culture shock for about a week, I recovered. And proceeded to learn more about the world and myself during that short time on the African continent than any time since.

Life and travel is not easy in Africa. The joke among the free‑spirited travelers (AKA hippies) at the time was about the couple from New York who arrived in Dakar, Senegal and asked when the next train left for Kenya. Yea, right. In order to get from point A to point B in Africa, you have to travel by every method available and be incredibly patient. Sometimes you might wait for a week to cross a swollen river. Once a sand storm had just wiped out the highway I wanted to take. You learn acceptance. If you have money, it’s no problem you just fly. But the trick was to make your funds last as long as possible. Because when you were broke, you had to go home.

I and my friend were trying to get to Ethiopia and Kenya. We managed to get to Tunisia and were waiting for a ship to take us to Cairo (even in 1973 you skipped Libya). Word reached us that the Egyptians had attacked Israel and one of the tensest spots on the planet was exploding. The stability of our world was shaken to the core. Suddenly I did not want to be an American; I wanted to be Canadian. Oh, if I only had a maple leaf to sew on my pack! We began rapidly backtracking. Late one night on a darkened street I was accused by a hostile Algerian of being Jewish. I replied, “Non, non, Je suis Methodist!” He shrugged his shoulders and left me alone.

Back in Morocco we traveled north to Spain and from Spain hopped on a ship bound for the Canary Islands. We met a couple of Canadian girls on the boat and that made hanging out in the Canaries waiting for the world to cool down much more enjoyable. We heard rumors that in the United States they were rationing fuel, the freeways were empty, and there were long lines at the gas stations. But we were far away from that. Everything was calm and peaceful in the Islands. I learned to listen to the sea for perspective.

Finally we headed back to Africa on a Spanish troop ship that was taking soldiers to a remote outpost in the Spanish Sahara. After landing we crossed the border into the neighboring country of Mauritania. We were a couple of dozen young travelers of all nationalities and we were promptly “arrested” by a young policeman. In retrospect it was a comic scene. This mangy bunch of hippies refused to give up their passports and he didn’t know how to handle us, so he let us go. Our plan was to jump into empty hopper cars on a French-run iron ore train that traveled to a mine deep in the Sahara. As we were boarding the policeman returned with some buddies and stopped us again. They said we could not ride the train for free. We argued with them but to no avail. So we got out and when the policemen left we quietly hopped back on the train. I learned that good friends are the best support in uncertain times.

Finally after several false starts the train began to move. I will never forget the smell and taste of the iron ore dust that soon dyed us completely red. Soon twenty gritty heads popped up out of the railroad cars like red Jack-in-the Boxes. The sun was a squashed orange ball settling into the haze and along the tracks the village was full of life. Veiled women with loads on their heads and children at their feet walked alongside burdened camels. Turbaned men huddled and laughed. As our speed increased these strange and different humans slowly disappeared. The stars appeared and it got very cold as we plunged straight into the desert darkness.

We traveled all night and into the next day before we finally reached the mine. Waiting for us were tall Tureg tribesmen. Their distant ancestors had once run the extensive caravans from Arabic Africa south into Black Africa. Now these so‑called Blue Men of the Desert had traded their camels for Toyota Land Cruisers and still took travelers and merchandise across the forbidding Sahara. After sharing the traditional mint tea, we settled the financial arrangements and started our journey. It was already dark as we headed south for Senegal traveling through the greatest desert on Earth. I learned trust that night; my life was in the hands of total strangers.

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Skills

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August 22, 2009