Archive | August, 2011

Africa revisited.

31 Aug

When the British explorer David Livingstone died in 1873 in Rhodesia, the British government sent a request to the African tribe he was with when he died for his body, in order to give it a full burial in Westminster Abbey with full honours. After a period of refusal, the tribe ultimately relented after cutting out his heart, and the body went back to Britain with the note:

‘You can have his body, but his heart belongs in Africa.’

It’s been nearly a year since I left Africa, and I understand the sentiment. A little of a year ago, I was in a hospital bed with a bout of malaria and dysentery, feeding wild monkeys, teaching Ghanaians proper condom use, eating banku and fufu, surfing poorly in the Gulf of Guinea, showering in waterfalls, doing practically everything I ever dreamed of, and since I left I have thought of little else. I’m travelling to other places, New York, Sydney, the Far East, but I doubt that these places, whilst fantastic in their own right, will hold a candle to Africa.

I even plan which African countries I want to go to next: Sierra Leone, Senegal, Tanzania, Dem. Rep. Congo, Zimbabwe…

I’m not going to try to describe the best continent on earth. My words would be fruitless. Just, make sure you manage to visit this place, but make sure you visit the heart of Africa, the places with the beating red soil south of the Sahara, where you drink palm wine and listen to folklore from wise elders, where electricity is a luxury and bucket showers and pit toilets the norm, and you’ll get my point. I promise.

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Scars

18 Aug

It’s late on a Sunday evening, and Scott and I venture into the Patriot bar for a six-dollar pitcher. We’re tired, but we justify spending the six dollars on the cheap beer, and listen to the stiff American country and blues that is blaring out of the jukebox. At some point, an elderly man complains to us that he put in too much money and can’t choose any more songs, and asks us to pick. We oblige. Chatting to the bartender, we notice she has a tattoo of the outline of New Jersey, her home state. I mention the possibility of getting a tattoo in some of the places I travel, mementoes that won’t weigh me down.

A drunken man stumbles over, and murmurs something about ‘tattoos’ and ‘travelling’. His breath is sickly, acidic and very alcoholic.

‘You know what yer should get?’ he bleats. ‘Yer tattoo.’

‘What?’

‘The Twin Towers.’

It takes me a little while to digest this. Politics aside, it would make an ugly tattoo.

‘Why should I get that?’ I ask him, politely.

‘Because. Because, on the day, on nahn-eleven, ever’body wen’ dahn there. Ever’body helped. Y’all should ‘member this. People came from all over, from Jersey, upstate, Long Island, and came down and helped.’

Now, I would never think about getting a tattoo commemorating 9/11. I wasn’t there, it would be ugly, and it’s a little more difficult for me to understand than a seasoned New Yorker who spent the days afterwards scraping his way through rubble, finding bodies, but no survivors.

But 9/11 does sum up New York, in a way. It is a bloated scar on its history, a terrible event that literally changed the way New Yorkers, Americans and the Western World think. But the thousands of people that died are honoured in such a way. Fire trucks have the names of the firemen they personally lost emblazoned on their doors, and the fire station literally next door to Ground Zero proudly displays their new motto: ‘Still Here.’ They are building reflecting pools (Americans love reflecting pools) where the old towers stood, and a 9/11 memorial and museum, and the new ‘Freedom Tower’ (which will conveniently stand at 1,776 feet high). Each police precinct has pictures of all the policemen who died, and there are murals all over, with captions like ‘Never Forget’, and ‘With Us ‘Til We Die’.

So, I won’t get a tattoo of the World Trade Center. Ever. But it will stick with me, in as permanent a way as a tattoo ever could.