Saturday, April 22, 2006


Being a visible minority, like I am in Africa, is both eye opening and challenging at the same time. Unlike in Turkey and Italy where locals spoke to me in rapid foreign tongue expecting me to answer them, here there is no hiding the fact that I’m an outsider. Eric’s very sweet head of household, Christopher, won’t let Sierra and I venture downtown unescorted for fears that we’ll be mauled by “young thieves.” Two days ago he sent the gardener, Saidi, with us to the Indian shopping district. We trekked around in the sweltering heat and forced Saidi to eat Indian food with us. We saw a beached ocean liner and sitting nearby, a man with such extreme elephantitis that I had trouble making eye contact. Sometimes I forget just how privileged I am. In our lonely planet guide for our next destination, Ethiopia, there are warnings to check your mattress and the room wall for splattered blood, a sure sign that the hotel mattresses have bed-bugs. The thought frightens me, and a little voice urges me to rent a 4x4 instead of taking the bus, and spend more money to stay at fancy western style hotels.

When I tried to smile at the deformed man near the beach, my stomach churned uncomfortably. It made me remember the time when I was a 9 years old, visiting family in New York, and being overcome with sadness by streets overflowing with homeless people (before Rudy Giuliani shipped them all upstate.) I tried to put on a kind face for the badly deformed man but, it still brought into sharp focus the thin line between vacationing in the third world and taking part in what Sierra’s father calls the “pornography of poverty.”

Today I accompanied Christopher himself into town to go food shopping at the insanely busy central market. As we walked through the crowded stands, I heard sentences peppered with the word “Mazungu” (Swahili for “white man”) over and over again from many of the produce sellers and bag vendors. One insistent young fellow pushed Christopher to buy his ginger root. I could tell that something the kid had had said had offended Christopher, so I asked him to translate. The kid had rudely pressured Christopher to “buy the ginger so that you can prepare it for your white man.” Christopher admitted that my presence at his side had been steadily driving up the price of produce the entire morning. On the mini-bus home, we stopped in the pouring rain and Christopher asked the driver if he would take us a little further to a nearby taxi stand. The driver instead offered to kick out two other passengers and take Christopher and his Mazungu directly home for an additional 3 dollars. I shook my head after Christopher ran the offer past me, disquieted by the thought that this driver would happily push two of his fellow Tanzanians out into the pouring rain to get a commission from the Mazungu.

Despite these moments, I still greatly enjoyed going to market and spending time with Christopher. Traveling is one of the most inspiring and rewarding things I’ve done in my life, but sometimes it makes me pause. And sometimes it smashes me in the face.


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