Tag Archives: Travel

Tanzanian Dust on a Trini’s Travelling Shoes

By Chike Pilgrim

Dust covers my shoes as I walk the city center. The city of Arusha, in northern Tanzania, has its share of high rise buildings, and is well paved, complete with concrete sidewalks. But I’ve walked an hour now, in the cool weather, from Njiro, and that part of Arusha is typical of much of eastern Africa, which means that pedestrians like me are battling dust or mud depending on the time of year.

Dust on my shoes and on the lower part of my jeans immediately classify me as a man without a car, and even without a piki-piki, the name for the motorbikes that buzz around the town like so many enormous flies. My dusty appearance may mean some trouble when I step into a more high-end store, until I open my mouth and speak my halting Kiswahili, effectively identifying myself as a foreigner and therefore someone who can most likely afford to buy the store’s items.

A Maasai, in full traditional clothing, strides past me. He may be on some sort of business. He may be headed to the part of the city where Maasai men gather to examine tanzanite, the extremely rare bluish-purple precious stone that Arusha is famous for. He may be on his way to work as a security guard for one of the wealthy United Nations expatriates that operate in Arusha. These “expats” usually work at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, a UN operation that houses many lawyers and technical staff. He may be selling nuts and cigarettes for all I know.

The Maasai have become part of the everyday experience for me, although in the first few months of my stay in Arusha, I was awe-struck every time I saw Maasai. With staffs, swords, ear-piercings, shaved heads and brightly colored Maasai clothing, Maasai seem to me to be defiant time-travelers from a long lost, Africa I romanticized. However cell-phones and cars mark them as regular inhabitants of the 21st century.

Most Maasai seem to walk though, to prefer walking, as I do. I have heard of those that would walk from Arusha to the neighboring city of Nairobi in Kenya during the period of one week – over one hundred and fifty miles. Their sandals, made from the rubber of used car tires, facilitate these treks, as do their physical endurance and how accustomed they have become to the relatively harsh landscape and the cold.

And Arusha gets cold for a Caribbean man like myself; twenty degrees centigrade in the day, falling even to eight and six degrees at night. Freezing really. Although close to the equator, this area is cold because of its elevation, and that is understandable. In addition, the highest free-standing mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro, is quite close to Arusha.

Kili, as she is affectionately called, hides herself in fog most of the time, and I had to take an hour’s drive just to see her. She’s beautiful and breathtaking, but she is not to be underestimated; attempting to climb her can cost you your life. Even the wind that blows down from her is no joke.

A middle-aged Chinese couple and a young European man with a huge beard pass me on the sidewalk, stopping to buy pineapple slices at the side of the road. Their Kiswahili is not bad. In fact, it’s better than mine. Maybe they took lessons before they left their countries. Maybe they live and work here.

My experience here has taught me that judging people based on appearance is misleading, even harmful. My first guess would be that they are tourists though. Arusha does see more than its share of visitors. Some come to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Some come to visit the Serengeti and watch the animal migrations. Some have come to Olduvai Gorge, one of the oldest archaeological sites in the world, made famous by the Leakys. Some have no clear aim, like myself: kizunguzungu, dizzy voyagers who have come to see “Africa” or for whom Arusha is simply another stop on a global sojourn.

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Chike Pilgrim is a writer and historian from Trinidad and Tobago. He’s recently completed an MPhil at the University of the West Indies St. Augustine entitled “Black Helix: The 1970 Black Power Movement in the light of Pan Africanism.” He’s deeply interested in ancient History, particularly that of East Africa and the ‘Middle East’.

My Challenge: Composing Travel Narratives when Edward Said’s Ghost is Looking Over My Shoulder :(

I really hate Edward Said.  May he rest in peace.

I love his work.

Orientalism is one of those books, after which you’re never the same again.  As a thinker, I am hugely indebted to it.  But as a travel writer, Said and Orientalism are a bit like disapproving parents, watching me carefully, with my fear of disappointing them sometimes preventing me from speaking at all.

Every time I think about writing or about starting a post about a place I’ve been, or an experience I’ve had while travelling, I have a mini-heart attack.

‘Do I sound like an orientalist?’  I worry.  And stop writing.

I am black, so I didn’t simply understand Orientalism as Said detailed it, I felt it.

Having grown up black in a white space in which everyone is constantly bombarded with images of your blackness as a negative, I know what it means to be defined by people who don’t know you.  Or don’t like you.  And don’t know what they’re talking about.   Who leave you to deal with the consequences.

I know the frustration, the pain, and bristle at the injustice.

So I can write about travel from time to time, but I can’t be an Orientalist.  O the shame if I were!

I’m still idealistic enough that I believe that I can write interestingly about travel while keeping ‘them’ and ‘us’ binaries out of my work.  I can refuse to bow to that still-popular discourse of difference.  It is not required that I fetishise or exoticise the places I visit and the people I meet. And it does matter that I try.  Right?

Where is the Orient anyway?  I once asked.  Geographically, I meant. It was a legitimate question.  Does it include Turkey?  China? Iraq?  Japan? Morcocco?  Mali?  Egypt?  Lebanon? Vietnam? The orient and the occident.  East and West.  Geographical opposites.  Ideological binaries in a spinning spherical world.

What I learned from Edward Said is that there is no such place as ‘the orient’.  It’s not a continent.  It’s not a country.  It’s not even a region.  It’s an entirely imaginary space.  People (yes, nineteenth century Europeans primarily) wanted to describe some cultures and customs more similar to each others’ than to their own – in the Europeans’ version of events – and thus came up with a way of describing them: The orient aka the other.

Among the Europeans themselves there was no consensus of what exactly constituted The Orient.  For the French it included Mali, and Morocco, for the British it sometimes included India and China, but no place in Africa.  They both usually included Turkey, but not always, and the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Prussians, and Italians all had their own versions of the orient presumably.  It was and remains, all very imprecise and rather unclear. Yet the concept remained useful so somehow, it stuck.

Orientalism was all the rage in nineteenth century Europe; learning languages with ‘different’ alphabets, trying out ‘different’ dress modes, learning about ‘different’ customs and religions, this was the height of cool.

This fashion coincided of course with the period of imperial expansion/consolidation of the colonial powers of the day:  thus Orientalists were on the scene as the good guys, enthusiastically learning about the cultures and lifestyles their fellow countryfolk were in the process of dismantling, often quite consciously and for ‘their’ own good ‘they’ liked to say.  A rather interesting marriage from this vantage point.

What Said explained is that The Orient is a euphemism for difference.  A space which is absolutely different, it was never supposed to be real.  It’s a projection of fears and fantasies, a diametrical opposite of all that is presupposed as European, and an authoritative interpretation of someone else’s reality.

Tell that to the news anchors talking about ‘the Middle East’ (le moyen orient in French).  I’m always tempted to ask, so is that east of the middle? Or middle of the East?  Can a spinning sphere even be said to have an ‘East’ and ‘West’?  Cos surely, from say, Sri Lanka, Syria is definitely west?    And from these parts (the Caribbean)  it’s halfway across the world, and as much North East as it is North West.

That’s it’s so hard to define geographically, and ideologically f*cked up, is why I hate to use the words ‘them’ and ‘us’ in my writing.  It’s why I can’t hack the term ‘Western civilisation’ or ‘Western’ anything that’s not tied to a specific geographical entity on my Peter’s Projection map.  It’s why I don’t write ‘from the road’, hesitate before writing about a place I spent a couple of weeks in, and it’s why I sometimes struggle to write at all.

Cos I’d hate to be an orientalist.

Today’s orientalist is a lot like yesteryear’s; someone who becomes an expert on somebody else’s country/culture/customs/language.  And somehow ends up having a louder voice than people who claim the country/culture/customs/language as their own.

Cos that’s the problem with orientalism:  it’s also about power.  It’s not just about one random person spouting off highly debatable ‘truisms’.  It’s about how one narrative is reinforced by other fellow foreigners, until it becomes The Narrative about that place or those people etc etc.

Those people.

Cos that’s what orientalists do.  They specialise in difference.  They highlight how ‘they’ are not like ‘us’ and it’s rarely done from a place of equality.  Where difference is valuable, interesting even; proof of the ability of humans to adapt to their surroundings and realities and be infinitely creative.  ‘Difference’ tends, in the world of orientalists, to be exotic.  Exciting.  For ‘our’ benefit.

Rarely is difference mere evidence of fellow humans occupying another space and organising themselves how they see fit.

Too often, Difference is to be highlighted, prodded at, giggled at, ridiculed, judged, experienced, consumed.  Cos where it suits us, difference offers a space to escape the norms we don’t like in our own societies.

Similarity does not get a second glance in the world of the orientalists.  Poor bugger.

So even though I’ve been up and down of late,  I’ve been struggling to put pen to paper, cos I’m trying to avoid being an orientalist.  It’s also why I don’t write reams about Martinique despite my current perma-foreigner status and the many adventures that brings.

But life has been as exhilarating and chaotic as usual, so as soon I find a way to relay my adventures in a way that doesn’t stamp on the dignity of the people I share them with, you’ll read them here first!

xxx

NB If you think Orientalism sounds interesting, but don’t fancy reading the book, you can check out Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk The Danger of a Single Story on youtube.  I think she’s kinda saying the same thing.

Mesi anchay, Thanks a bunch, Merci beaucoup

Thank you for reading movingblack.

Whether you just fell upon this blog today or you’ve been reading since the first posts I published, if you’ve read more than 2 posts, thank you.  The more you’ve read here, the higher the likelihood you’ve waded through the better, worse, more and less clumsy and longer and shorter of my attempts at articulating what makes perfect sense in my head.   Sometimes.  I therefore salute you. Continue reading

Trouble in Paradise? Travelling Through Protests in Martinique, St Lucia and London

I’ve been travelling a lot this summer.  I’ve been magnificently blessed.  I’ve also travelled with my eyes open, and something unusual has caught my attention:  Quite separately from my natural antenna keenly tuned to signs of social upheaval, it seems that every place I’ve visited has been in the throes of a political drama.

Seriously!

I’m not expert in international political analysis, but I swear every stop involved someone explaining that something wasn’t working normally as a result of protests.

Before you write me off as some leftwing fantasist seeing the revolution everywhere I go, here’s what I mean:

1) Martinique:  Petrol Strike.

Firstly there was the question of whether I could leave for my adventures in the first place.  A week before my anticipated departure, there were talks of yet another petrol strike.  Two days later it was confirmed and began.

As usual in Martinique, the petrol stations were blockaded and the island came to a swift, choked standstill.  In a petrol strike, business meetings are postponed, schools lack teachers and pupils or close, services – including health and police – effectively shut down because key personnel can’t get to work. The state doesn’t appear to have reserves in these eventualities/make provisions for ‘key’ staff.  Riots don’t break out because the would-be opportunists/discontented are also conserving whatever petrol they have left.  Thus it was that all movement in the country halted days – hours really – before I hoped to begin the adventure of a lifetime.  ‘Off island,’

C’est pas possible! I fumed.

No one knows how long it will last.  Although the petrol strikes in the last year have always lasted five days or fewer, everyone remembers how it was a ‘mere’ petrol strike that started the historic 40 day national strike/protest of 2009.  The discontent which fuelled that moment remains widespread – particularly the social complaints – so I’ve often heard Martinicans say they expect another such outbreak, with some rather apocalyptic predictions of a violence which will be markedly different from the last period of protest.

On the Friday before I was due to leave, the worst happened.  My ride to the airport phoned me to say she’d run out of petrol; if Coralie couldn’t get some the following day, I’d need to try and find somebody who still had petrol, and who loved me enough to use the little remaining petrol they had on me.  She might be able to take me the 10 mins to the port with what little petrol they had left, but not the 30 min drive to the airport.  Boats and planes had the fuel to get me off Martinique to St Lucia, where a flight would take me to London and my summer adventure would begin.  But could I get to the port or airport to board? Continue reading

Five Reasons to be Ridiculously Excited about Going to Ghana

Personally, I think travel is supposed to be fun.  I therefore also don’t think you have to have a ‘sensible’ reason to go anywhere.  Surely what you choose do in your free time should simply be, as you choose it to be?  For example, I’ve always wanted to go to Sri Lanka cos there’s a city called Kandy.  I found it spinning a globe for fun as a kid and it caught my attention and imagination.  Spelled with a K admittedly, but a city that sounds like a sweet shop sounds like my kinda place!  I haven’t gotten there yet but it’s totes on my list.  I pick places to visit for the randomest of reasons as my DC to DC road trip notes will confirm for you.  As will my unrestrainable excitement ahead of visiting Haiti.  So with no further ado, here’s a list of reasons why I think Ghana in West Africa would make for a fabulous holiday destination! Continue reading

Listening in on Young People in South Africa

I often reference books I like, or which made me think, or which taught me something I think might prove useful to know sooner or later.  Memoirs of a Born Free, about a young woman activist growing up in post-apartheid South Africa, is one of those books.

This review,  on the Steve Biko Foundation’s Frank Talk blog, discusses the book and it’s Eastern Cape launch event in Ginsberg, and sums up why I think it’s a must-read for you.

 

Dream to Reality : A Black Brit Plans An African Roadtrip

The trip I’ve planned traversing the African continent should contain just enough adventure to be considered an appropriate remedy to an extraordinarily long summer break. I’m not complaining, you understand, I just want it to be clear that I’m not skiving off normal life.  On the contrary, I’m trying to live it to the fullest!  In case you’re still undecided on what to do this summer and in need of some inspiration, here’s how I prepared my summer adventure.

What I hope to do:

It’s always best I find to start the adventure with a daydream.  What do you think would be a single awesome thing to be able to say at the end?  Before my epic adventure is complete I’ll have dipped my toes from North to South Africa and from East to West.  I’ll have gotten a little acquainted with some incredible capital cities, taken in awesome landscapes to set my heart a flutter, and then at peace all over again.  I’ll have sampled unimaginable amounts of scrumptious African cuisine, decimated (okay dented, I still have to eat when I get home) my savings in AfroChic, and caught up with some beautiful people I have the honour to call friends.  I’ll also get to see the hometowns they recalled so vividly and lovingly when we were young people in the UK together.

Why Africa?

thingfallapart

Warning: this book will make your life better

Caramel

An awesome film about sisterhood, Beirut and a beauty shop…I’ve been desperate to visit Lebanon ever since.

Where in the world excites your imagination and why?  Is there someplace that you’ve always wanted to go for a really random reason?  Or because of a book you read once?  A scene in a film?  Act on that impulse! Continue reading