Day 76: A conversation with a Zimbabwean teenager

“The lights are out,” he says, gesturing to the stoplight at the intersection in front of us. The teenager in question is named Ashley. He and our taxi driver Freddie have just spent the better part of the afternoon as our tour guides of the Vumba Mountains, a range on the eastern side of Zimbabwe, practically on the border with Mozambique.

“They were out yesterday when we were walking around,” we respond. Then, our experience in Benin prompts us to ask a follow-up question: “Does this stoplight ever work?”

Ashley thinks for a second trying to recall either his memories of that particular intersection or the words in English.

“Yes,” he says. “I remember. Maybe when I was like five?”

I still trying to figure out Zimbabwe, but walking through the country, the capital, the other major cities, the small towns that border national parks, all of it, there’s a feeling that at some time, at some point, something was starting, but now, it’s stopped. A reaction that’s strongly in need of a second catalyst. A country that seems frozen in its development, almost all of which was developed in the previous millennium.

This feeling first hit me while I was walking through the streets of Bulawayo, the second largest city. In many ways, walking through the streets of Zimbabwe almost feels like walking through the streets of suburban America. But the suburban America of 1970: the fading paint, the industrial buildings, the notion of the strip mall as the ultimate destination for an area. At some point, it seems that the country decided that it had reached the point where it was going to stop trying, and it remains stuck at that moment.

This isn’t, like much of what I saw in Benin, aid gone wrong. This is development started by Zimbabweans, managed by the Zimbabwean government. Development that now passes the years counting the amount of time it has lain disarrayed and unused.

Driving out to the mountains, we passed block after block of empty industrial buildings. Businesses and enterprises that used to exist but don’t anymore. Later that night we had a conversation with another Zimbabwean, this one much older and much more affected by how the country had passed the previous fifteen years. We were comparing the country to our experience in Benin and told her that there was much more infrastructure here than there.

She tilted her head to the side and interrupted us. “There used to be,” she interjected. “But now.” She shook her head letting the end of the sentence fade into the past of a country that is declining rapidly from what it once was. “But now…”

Day 7: I don’t understand Dubai.

When my Emirates flight to Dubai had 10-inch tv screens in the back of each seat and free bloody Marys until I landed, I should have known that Dubai was going to be different.

I took the long way to Namibia. Three months ago when we were first booking tickets, my friend and I realized that there was no easy way to get to Windhoek, Namibia from Cotonou, Benin. It was just as difficult, but significantly cheaper to fly out of Accra, which set us on a booking adventure that eventually left us with a 22-hour layover in Dubai.

We had planned to act like tourists throughout most of the day. We booked our tickets to the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa before we left Benin and spent most of the day before our 6 p.m. reservation riding around on one of those bright red hop-on-hop-off tour buses of the city. We mostly stayed hopped on because there’s one word that accurately described the heat of Dubai: oppressive.

That’s the first thing you notice about the city. It’s hard not to when it slaps you in the face whenever you walk outside. As we walked out of the airport, my glasses completely fogged when we passed from air-conditioned terminal to non-climate-controlled taxi stand. I didn’t have a thermometer in Benin, so I can’t tell you if Dubai is the hottest place I’ve ever been, but never in Benin did it seem that the heat was physically grabbing me by the shoulders whenever I walked outside.

This heat, though, makes sense. Dubai is the in the middle of the desert. Temperatures are supposed to reach 113 degrees. It’s supposed to only rain 150 mm a year. It’s not supposed to be the place where there’s a mall with an indoor ski slope.

During our tour, one of the facts that we caught was that each year Dubai uses over one million liters of water to water its plants, to pump through its fountains and, I would guess, rehydrate the thousands of tourists that flow through the city. I didn’t understand why this number would be something of which to be proud. This is the desert. One million gallons of water don’t exist here.

I felt this anomaly most of the day. Few things in Dubai seem that they should be there. This is a city that drips in consumerism and extravagance, but few of the people who work at Tom Ford and Oscar de la Renta and Cartier can afford the lifestyles that they sell everyday. Every train of the 75 km metro system is air conditioned, despite the reality of what it feels like when you step outside. This by no means is a phenomenon seen only in Dubai, but the gentrification of nowhere else I’ve scene has been on such an extreme level in such an extreme competition with nature.

I can write about this seemingly defiant place that demands to be what it wants, not what nature intended it to be all I want, but this would be a different post if Dubai was at least doing it successfully. If the city had somehow used all the money that is being handed around these malls and hotels and tourist attractions to help the people who were here before the TGI Fridays, Starbucks and Pottery Barn Kids moved in, maybe this place would make more sense to me. But it’s not and it doesn’t. And that’s what I really kept thinking about during those 22 hours in Dubai: how this entire city seems to be on an endless prescription of retail therapy instead of taking a moment and thinking about the consequences to which its actions are leading. 

Thoughts from Places: Park Pendjari

Last week, in my extended training/vacation away from post, I headed to Park Pendjari, one of the two wildlife reserves in the north of Benin.

It was my first safari experience, unless you count the wildlife train that runs through the Africa section of the Kansas City zoo. At the end of our six hours in the park, we had found all the animals (except for the elusive lion) that we were promised we could find, sat on the roof of a jeep and realized soon after we got on the roof the grand mistake that was not putting on sunscreen as soon as we got on the roof.

When we were leaving the park, tired and wondering how much of the recently acquired tan was actually just dust, I thought about my students and neighbors who were 299 kilometers south of me. I thought about how they had all been and will be in this country much longer than I will, but most of the people I would be going home to the next day had probably never had the experience that I just had.

During the two days I spent in and around the park, I saw more tourists than I had seen in Benin during the past nine months in this country. What’s weird is that I was not comfortable around these people. These people who were naively willing to pay three times the actual rate from the bus station. These people who were willing to drop the same amount as my monthly paycheck on meals, a hotel room and activities for three days.

In fact, I wanted nothing to do with these people. What I thought about as we passed another group of tourists entering the park as we were leaving, was how their Benin was completely different than my Benin. This fancy hotel up north is not why I am here. These sight-seeing adventures will not be what define my time here.

My Benin is the Benin of being hot and dirty and eating the same thing four days a week. The Benin where “Tuesday” and “Thursday” are usually pronounced the same way. The Benin of dance parties with four year olds. The Benin where it takes 45 minutes to get home from school in order to talk to everyone you know on the way. The Benin 299 kilometers south.

Sit tight

We’re ready to go.

After 45 minutes waiting at the taxi stand in Parakou for other passengers, three and a half hours of sitting 8 people in a station wagon on a paved road that has seen limited maintenance, an hour and 15 minutes of sitting at the Dassa taxi stand, Dave and I are ready to start the last leg of our trip home from a weekend at the office in Parakou.

Our driver, however, is not ready to leave.

Currently, he is surrounded by a ring of people as he and a motorcycle taxi driver are wrestling in the red dirt of the taxi station. There is a festival of traditional wrestling at a village near ours next weekend; we assume this late afternoon scuffle is practice for that, but after traveling with goats eating your shoelaces, passing trucks carrying at least 30 people and loading enough baggage on the roof of the car so it is now twice as tall, this is just another voyage in Benin.

After he puts his shirt back on and drinks some water out of the metal bowl handed to him by a child on the sidelines of the match, he signals to us it’s time to leave.

Trip to post

I am the first Yovo off the bus. I wave goodbye to the group of PCTs and their work partners who have spent the last 5 and a half hours with me traveling north to our posts in Benin. This is only a temporary goodbye. I’ll see everyone again in 2 weeks in Porto Novo, but like the first Thanksgiving break of freshman year of college, we’re all not quite sure how it’s going to be not seeing the faces you’ve become accustomed to seeing on a daily basis.

This is my first time farther north than Porto Novo, which is to say, I haven’t seen much of Benin yet. I tried to spend the ride watching the scenery speed by outside the window, but those of you who know me know that car/bus/tube rides are like taking an Ambien for me. I was asleep except when I was woken up by the bus honking as it passed other vehicles.

The part of the countryside I did see was, minus the palm trees, like driving through the forested parts of the Midwest. The paved road was lined by “mountains” that aren’t tall enough to have snow at their peaks. They were covered in green trees and an occasional sharp cliff edge. I cannot verify that it was limestone, but from the bus, they looked a lot like the cliffs I used to climb in my neighbors’ backyards when I was little.

Turns out some things aren’t as different as we sometimes make them. 

Gate check

When you travel with 66 other people, it takes an hour and a half to check in at the airport. By the time you reach the American Airlines desk, the 8 pounds that your bag is over the 50-pound limit hardly fazes the clerk. There have already been bags in front of you that have topped 70 pounds. He instead keeps his eyes focused to the computer screen and slaps a “heavy” sticker on your bag without a second thought. 

There are, afterall, still 30 more of these Americans convinced they are going to Africa for the next 2 years to check in.

When you travel with 66 other people, you are always waiting in line. Security, bathrooms, boarding. There is normally 66 other people trying to do the same thing you are.

Although it doesn’t really matter if you’re late; 66 people are about two-thirds of the seats on the airplane.

Traveling with 66 other people, you are a spectacle. No matter how much you try not to be. You will take all the seats at the gate. You will take all the overhead storage. You will be the group of Americans speaking English loudly on a flight from a French-speaking country to another French-speaking country.

When you travel with 66 other people, you fast become thankful for those 66 other people. They talk you into one last American beer during a 6-hour layover. They count you three times before checking in to make sure no one has been lost between the bus stop and JFK. They yell when a red bag is left behind at the gate. They are making this up as much as you are.

Lessons from hostels

Writing doesn’t lie. If it’s not what you really want to think about, you can’t write about it.

I spent the last week in New Orleans for my last spring break as a university student. I expected good food and good drinks. What I didn’t expect was not wanting to leave the creaky, metal bunk bed in a room I shared with four people and the bathroom I shared with more at the hostel where we stayed.

Hostels are great places if they are done right. Long story short, this one was done right.

At the end of the week, a reporting project I’m working on took me to Baton Rouge. Downtown, I sat on a metal bench in that looked out over the Mississippi River trying to write about what lay in front of me. But all I could write about was what  I had learned from all the people that I had met the last week:

How to travel (all you need is time, money will fall into place), how to dance to jazz (follow the rhythm), how to tell stories (do, all the time, everyone has one), how to how to miss people (don’t, you’ll see the people you need to see again).

It was then that I realized how much you can learn when you least expect it, from a place when you least expected it. I’ll remember NOLA for the beignets, river and crab cake po'boys. But I’ll remember NOLA mainly for the people that made me unable to forget the city.