I have a tendency to return to the same places time after time – I can tell you the best places to cross the Rio Grande, where to find black-market lobster in Havana, and which weavers make the finest Panama hats. Constantly visiting Cuba, the border, and Andean countries affords a certain expertise, but it can get tedious after a while. Africa was a refreshing challenge; I went vulnerable, open, clean slate, blank notebook. No assignments, no contract, and a flexible itinerary. Nigeria, where I accompanied my wife on a religious pilgrimage, and S. Africa, where my brother runs a horse safari outfit in the bush country of the Waterberg Mountains, proved extreme. Everything – culture, literature, corruption, scenery, animals, poverty, color, spiritualism, food, violence, the sky, economy, entertainment – was more than we bargained for. Oyo, in Nigeria, a town said to have a population of 250,000, seemed an interconnected series of small villages, each with its own marketplace resembling 19th century economies. In Johannesburg I was disoriented by businessmen speaking Zulu over their cell phones. Lagos proved the most chaotic city, with the most open bribery imaginable. Up at Equus, the place that my brother co-owns, my wife asked a group of workers if they were aware of Cuba, her country of origin, or that there were millions of blacks like them who lived in the Americas. They were not – in fact, they were only dimly aware of the Americas. In Soweto we saw homes of the rich, homes of the famous, shantytowns, and squatter camps. We were sobered up a few weeks after we returned home when we learned that a 40-year old Soweto native with whom we had established a warm friendship had been killed there in random violence. We hope to go back some day with more hopefulness, curiosity, and trepidation.
Tom Miller’s ninth book is Writing on the Edge, a collection of some of the best writing about the U.S.-Mexico border from the last hundred years. His Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink won the 2000 Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book of the Year.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.