Yesterday, I started to read Leah McClaren’s article in the Globe and Mail about her two weeks on the Tour D’Afrique cycle tour. Thankfully my reading was interrupted because the article was really getting under my skin. Frankly, these types of “adventure travel” articles always irk me. They make me anxious and I tend to regard the authors with a kind of spiteful contempt.
The fact that this particular article was written by Leah McClaren made it all the worse.
So the interruption was a welcome one and I spent the rest of the day thinking about my reaction.
Why do I turn my nose up at these people and their “adventures”?
Maybe because they’re soooooo manufactured?
I am EXTREMELY ENVIOUS), I find these organized “racing” tours ridiculous.
For God’s sake, why go all the way to Africa to spend your days racing against others and yourself – head down and grunting the entire way, ignoring once-in-a-lifetime scenery and human interaction. Then your nights are spent fixing and cleaning your bike and “blogging”. Sure the terrain, weather, and supply shortages would offer challenges that you wouldn’t encounter anywhere else, but you’re missing the big picture folks!
Here’s the part of McClaren’s article that really got me worked up. She had just mentioned that a bunch of locals had come to watch them set up camp one night…
The other riders are completely used to it. The tour is sufficiently physically taxing that constant interaction with hordes of strangers who gather becomes a dangerous energy drain. Once in camp, riders get on with the business of eating dinner, cleaning their bikes, with minimal interaction, while some of the staff play a bit of ball with the children or give away leftovers. The situation is strange, but seemingly unavoidable.
“It’s terrible,” Jenn says. “We eat these enormous dinners in front of all these hungry children. But what are you going to do?”
What are you going to do?!?! How about next time you decide to travel in a part of the world that is desperately poor, you think about someone other than yourself? (Now I should mention that Jenn was doing the “tour” to raise money for The Stephen Lewis Foundation, which I commend, but something feels wrong here.)
I spent about a year backpacking across and down Africa in 1991-92. It was a tough but exciting year and since then, I’ve tended to think of Africa as “mine“. I met more than my fair share of wonderfully generous people, and truth be told, I took more than I gave on that trip. I have a mountain of African memories that frequent my mind, like:
- picking up a hitch-hiking Samburu man and spending several hours communicating with sign language and facial expressions before dropping him off at his family’s village
- successfully chasing down a monkey who had stolen my last loaf of bread
- watching women in Burkas and high-heels walk past bikini wearing “westerners” on the beaches of Morocco
- finding out while walking through shit-laden tall grass that hippo bum holes are about neck or chest height on me
- hitch-hiking solo from Durban to Johannesburg (stupid! but exciting)
- BBQ-ing eel bits and drinking ice-cold milk straight from the bag with kids in Malawi
- drinking Tusker with the prostitutes at the 24 Hour Day and Night Bar
- being tear-gassed along with the demonstrators in the streets of Nairobi
- making friends with a seamstress in Uganda and exchanging clothing (poor her, lucky me)
- hearing the first gunshots of the Algerian Civil War and being quickly escorted from the country
- filling the gas tank of a car by hand from a barrel with a pitcher
- buying a round of HOT Cokes for a bunch of men at a roadside stand in the middle of nowhere and laughing with them as the foamy, sticky drink bubbled up and out of the bottle and all over our hands and arms, knowing full well that none of us would be seeing a shower or water for days
- being invited to a family reunion on the shores of Lake Naivasha
- “sneaking” into the Democratic Republic of the Congo by crossing Lake Albert from Uganda in a VERY crowded motor boat to hit the weekly fruit and veg market and entertaining the local kids by ordering a cup of tea in the “cafe”
- listening to truckloads of soldiers sing the “so happy to be alive” song at the end of the day along the Rwanda/Uganda border
- waking up early and crawling out of the tent just in time to see the top of Kilimanjaro before the clouds covered it for the day
- joyfully eating a meat stick – purchased from a basket on a woman’s head while waiting on a bus – and hours later hanging my white butt over the side of a barge and not-so-joyfully liquid poo-ing into the middle of Lake Victoria
- being greeted at the hotel gate at 3:30 am by the smiling face of my friend Moses who was anxious to see my safe return to Nairobi from Uganda
- punching a guy in the face in Nairobi for trying to steal my new sneakers (I had already promised my old ones to Moses – see previous bullet – and there was no way I was letting him down)
For these experiences and memories, I left behind some clothing, a few books, a couple of cooked meals, and some treats for kids. While I often recall my daily conversations and interactions with Africans, I doubt any of them are remembering the white girl that intruded into their lives.
So perhaps it’s guilt that prevents me from reading those articles?
I left Africa feeling indebted to it and with aspirations to go back and help in any way I could. I went so far as to get an engineering degree so I could help to provide clean water…
Almost 20 years later, I sit in my comfortable home, enjoying daily showers and bountiful meals, and occasionally writing cheques to African Relief agencies in an attempt to relieve my guilt. But the cheques only offer temporary relief and I continue to feel that I’ve let my “friends” in Africa down.
So perhaps those egocentric cyclists are on to something. Why not go to Africa, spend weeks or months with your head up your arse trying to get from Point A to Point B with minimal contact or interest in the local people and culture? You challenge yourself, have a somewhat interesting story to tell – and you’ll love telling it -, and you get back to your nice and clean air-conditioned home with running water and huge supermarkets full of food with absolutely no regrets – except perhaps that your front suspension is broken (poor you, Ms. McClaren) and your cycling times were slower than you had hoped. And if you’re lucky, someone paid for your trip and your story.