It’s the only thing I can think of.
The blur of time. Blurry recollections. The blur of everyday life streaking across my field of vision at 160 kmh on a perilous African highway.
Just two days ago, five people were killed on a stretch of road I was on only last week. A tire blew, and with no margin of error on Zambian roads carved narrower and potted by heavy rains, poor maintenance, and Congolese trucks, the minibus left the road. Destroyed, with all of that life inside.
For two weeks I’ve been in the passenger seat, speeding across vast expanses of raw, rich African earth. With my primary assignment focused on field visits, it gave me a chance to get away from Lusaka’s dust and noise (and amenities) and see other parts of Zambia. The sometimes rough, sometimes frustrating, always fascinating rural Africa I love. We’ve passed through trading posts, grass-roofed villages, river towns, receding flash floods, trucking depots, tourist hubs, nature preserves, provincial capitals and thunderstorms. All blurred, yet keeping me alert and attentive. Attentive to all of that life. All that is life. This beautiful, blurry life.
* * *
“Oh my gosh! Big boss! How are you doing?”
If I had to calculate, I would estimate that no less than 90% of my time in Zambia has been spent as the single, solitary white person within sight. Anywhere. And I don’t mention this as a triviality or in an effort to paint myself as a curiosity. And I certainly don’t present it here as a complaint, surprise, or concern. I bring it up only as a simple fact, and for what it’s compelled me to consider along the way: all those knots and kinks and frays of my own, personal, intimate investigation into the point of all of this, and within that sphere of thought all of the elements that contribute to our clarifications and distortions of one another as spirits and souls – unique, singular, remarkably fragile lives being carried out in plain sight of one another. Why must we act like strangers?
And there is perhaps no place other than Africa that could provide the ideal context to test these themes. Obvious themes like race, poverty, status, power, creed, faith, disposition and trust are always handy. But for the bold (because otherwise, what truly is the point?), there are subtle themes. The delicate, translucent, weightless, quick to vanish sparks that dart into and out of our consciousness like fireflies. It’s all right there. Right there with that big white guy standing in the midst of a dusty red dirt lot outside of the bus station a few kilometers from the Congolese border. Brown and beige and salt-and-pepper speckled village chickens are either crated in fours and fives, or being held arm-high by a ten-year-old standing on the side of the road. Brooms – of all things – are everywhere. Plastic bristled, multi-colored push brooms, brush-side up leaning against shops and stands and men. It’s tomato season. My Dad would love the tomatoes. Not because they’re big, or even all that red. But because they serve as a plentiful and intense backdrop. Mothers and babies, wrapped in golds and greens and purples. School children in violet or mint or pink or plaid. Men in orange or yellow or brown or blue. All of these saturated tapestries, mixing and mingling, starting and stopping, and blurring. And me. The white man standing in a dust cloud.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed. My “smile you’re a** off” travel advice has proven useful as I’ve entered shops, asked for directions, opened doors for people, flirted with cashiers, humored curious little kids and shaken hands the Zambian way (palm to palm, pivot to locking thumbs, back to palm to palm and a short squeeze). And I suppose that between “muzungu” and “boss”, I’d choose muzungu. It sounds more endearing. Like a character of some kind. An oddity, even. That, I not only can accept, but even embrace. But “boss” – well, come on. Who likes bosses? And then when “big boss” got handed to me by a man right before telling me to open my mouth so he could feed me a sample of his garlic sauce on a french fry, things turned uncomfortable. And then it happened again.
“Well, you are big,” my roommate later offered, in an eloquent English accent. “It’s really just a way to show respect.”
“Yeah, but it just doesn’t sit well because I know it’s most certainly rooted in something not very pleasant.”
“Well, probably. But just take it for what it’s intended.”
My concession on this matter, clearly not required.
* * *
Without question, the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had as a traveler have been when fully occupying that dynamic of separateness, and bowing in humility to my hosts for allowing me in. My first three days in Seville, Spain, 23 years ago – my first experience ever as a foreigner – were the most knot-in-my-gut terrifying days of my life. And then, either out of necessity or adaptability, I finally found myself opening strange doors, boarding a bus to somewhere, and thinking in Spanish. My life, suddenly, folded into someone else’s. Just me. Yet surely there I was, an unexpected guest appearing inside another’s late-September blur.
Three weeks have passed so quickly. I don’t exactly remember not being here. Maybe it’s because I’ve become much more practiced and efficient at the letting go part since those nervous nights in Andalusia. Maybe comfort hastens the pace. And so it makes me wonder if I’ve become so accustomed (too accustomed?) that I unknowingly douse the sparks that can only be created by friction. So these days, speeding passed their lives behind dirty glass jostling over washboard roads, I began to miss the discomfort.
So get out of the car. Stand just over there. There. In the dust.
Different, and alone.
It will help slow the blur.