A month ago, I went to Africa for vacation. It was insane and unbelievable, so unbelievable that I look back now and wonder if the whole experience actually happened. It did, and I have the pictures to prove it.
Part of the reason it all felt so unreal was because, in a way, it was. We experienced snippets of culture, stopping by a Masai village for an hour, singing and dancing with them, then returning to our hotel, a gated expanse with its own private plantation. The grounds were perfectly manicured, yet we never saw any workers in the fields. And every day, we’d drive around, searching for animals with all the other tourists, spotting elephants and leopards and beautiful birds. It was exhilarating. It was like Epcot and Animal Kingdom on steroids.
While driving from national park to national park, we’d glimpse the Masai herding their goats and cows on red, dusty plains. We’d see people milling about, perhaps looking for work, perhaps not. Women carried bundles of twigs, bunches of fruits, and other large objects on their heads. Men sat outside furniture stores, which seemed to only sell beds. We’d see these people, and for a brief moment, we’d wonder where they were going, what were they doing. And then we’d leave them in the dust.
Africa was beautiful. Everything was strange and new and incredible. Our guide, Godson, was deeply passionate about animals, describing the movements of different packs of lions, of three cheetah brothers, of the wildebeests. He knew the lions and cheetahs by sight. We searched for rhinos for two days, and long after our family had given up and fallen asleep in the back of the van, Godson and his assistant, Bohke, kept peering into the lengthening shadows of the brush.
For a while, I felt like I hadn’t experienced the true Africa. I felt like a tourist in the worst sense, like I’d just come for the animals. But that would be a disservice to all the people who’ve dedicated their lives to the tourism industry, who work incredibly hard to make sure every one of their clients has a perfect experience. When my parents forgot their luggage at the hotel, we thought we’d never see it again. Pantaleo, the manager of our hotel in Serengeti National Park, called up a friend in Arusha to make sure the luggage was transported properly from Serengeti to Arusha to Zanzibar. For these people, the tourism industry is their life. Angel, our hostess at Tarangire, told us she only was able to see her son every two months.
On one hand, we barely spent any time mingling with the populace in town, and learned about six words in Swahili. But the Africans we met in the hotels are not just some two-dimensional workers; they are people who made enormous sacrifices to enter the tourism industry and create a better life for their families.
Two weeks in Africa taught me a lot, though it took me a while to realize it. After studying abroad last year, I had come to equate cultural immersion with the real experience, as if all other experiences were somehow simply superficial. I felt superior to other “tourists” in that I had interacted with natives, spoken their language, tutored their children, even lived in the same dorm as them. But this view is just as entitled as going to a foreign country and hiding in a walled resort, believing everyone outside the safety of the hotel is a pickpocket.
There is no one real Africa. Countries and the people that populate them are multifaceted. In China, I learned to look down on all the laowai, to laugh at them as they got swindled in the markets. I owe it to Godson, to Angel, to Wilson and to all the other people who I met along the way for making me realize that by indiscriminately looking down on tourists, I was looking down on an entire sector of incredibly hardworking people. The tourism industry has heavily influenced many countries, from Greece to Africa to America. It cannot be ignored, and should not be degraded.
This lemon poppyseed scone recipe really has nothing to do with the post, but hey, it’s a tasty recipe. It’s refreshing and light, which I imagine would be a good change of pace after this wordy and somewhat heavy post.