Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Saying goodbye to paradise

Carlos left yesterday.
We spent his last 4 days in Africa together as luckily he missed his flight home on Friday. Convincing himself that his flight was at 3.45 pm rather than 2.15 , he came to work with me at Kenyatta hospital on Fri am. When he finally arrived at the airport at 2 pm, his flight had left and there was nothing left to do but stay with me 4 more days.
I am reminded of a book called "a woman's world", edited by the great Irish travel writer Dervila Murphy, who wrote about the relationships women encounter when they travel alone on their journey.
First of all, women share relationships with local women due to common bonds of children, and family. Often I been invited to a family home by a woman in a shared taxi or in the back of a horse drawn cart. Passing through markets, I brush arms with other women looking for the best deal on clothes or vegetables.
An invite from a woman is less threatening and for the most part, I accept as I get a rare glimpse into the household of a local family. Usually I offer to cook, but I am often ushered into a reception room as a guest and not allowed to help. I haven't a clue how to cook Ugali or chapati anyway and would make a mess.
Then there are the relationships with children. This I love most of all.
Today, I spent the morning in a Special Unit for children with intellectual disabilities in Nairobi. I was touched by one affectionate child, who hugged me every few minutes, proclaiming I was his new rafiki (friend) and when snack time came around, he shared every bite of food he had with me. First mandazi (donut), then chapati... he wasn't the only one. Every child in the room naturally shared their food with the child sitting beside him.
I couldn't help comparing them to the spoilt brats I have worked with in the past, who have tantrums when asked to share their toys.
As for the relationships with men, these are the most complicated for women travelling alone. Often I find though, men in otherwise hostile terrain, view a lone western woman as vulnerable and go out of their way to assist and help in a rather macho but welcoming manner. In Pakistan I have experienced a barrage of questions about why my father or brother allow me to travel in such a manner but usually this is accompanied by an invite to their home to meet their wives or children. Women in Pakistan are usually accompanied by males even to the market and are never out alone.
There are always unwanted advances as one would encounter at home. Travel has taught me to be alert and friendly where ever possible as even a hostile situation can be defused with patience and compassion. If someone says "hello", I reply, even if he wants me to buy a pair of socks I don't need or an expensive Dhow trip that I cant afford. Friendliness doesn't cost anything and creates a better atmosphere when travelling alone. Plus you can glean very useful information about the region with a quick exchange on the side of a street, information you will not find in any "Lonely Planet"
The worst thing about travel is the goodbyes. I have had more intense 4 or 9 day relationships than 9 year relationships. Days spent with travel buddies amount to weeks or months at home as we fit our friends and family in at weekends and around busy schedules. You can get to know someone very well on the back of a 10 hour bus, bumping along unpaved roads, with a chicken on your lap, laughing or enduring loss or theft as is the case in Africa also.
Everything is intensified and maybe thats why I travel so much. I need to intensify my life, to put a frame around my life and say this is it. I only get one chance and I am going to enjoy all of it.
The goodbyes are still hard but I have learned to mellow with travel. I have learned that you must let people go and not hold on to them.
So as the swans come to drink at your palm, they must also be allowed to fly away again (woman's world ref)
You say goodbye often and hello even more times. Eventually it balances itself out and the result is an interesting mix of friends from all over the world, many on facebook.
Hello to all of you I have met on the road
till we meet again...
As for you women out there who comment that you would love to travel as I do but do not have the courage to travel, its 2010 afterall. Decades of feminism and still I hear this.
Would you ever hear a man say " I dont have the courage to do x, y or z". Rather "I want to go to x,y or z, what is the best way..."
Get off the couch girls, take out the lonely planet, rucksack, antimalarials and get travelling. Escape the recession!


  1. Excellent update Marie..not sure about the title though...saying see you later to paradise perhaps. In Nbi this weekend if you are around for a cheeky one.

  2. Nice blog Marie, I agree with all of it! You can tell it is from someone who has been travelling for a while as it is not overly excited or critical, but accepting, the sign of a true traveller! ;) I hope we will meet again next year.
    Rachel xxxxxxxxxxxxx