Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Leaving Africa, acclimatizing in London, and bringing it all home: Days 14-17

I am back home now.
Everything is familiar again – perhaps too familiar.  I feel as if I had a dream of Africa, but did not actually go there.  I carry lions and elephants and zebras with me now; I carry endless, endless plains.  But they do not fit.  Not here.  In the dizzying speed of vehicles on highway 401.  In the bright, bright lights of the city.  Everywhere there are buildings, and cars.  I do not see how the plains could ever fit here, in the world I know.
But yet I’ve seen them.  If I close my eyes I am still there, in my dream of Africa.  The giraffe ambles behind the trees.  Purple and pink lizards, as if coloured by a Western school-child and not nature, sun themselves on rocks.  I type with eyes closed.  I breathe in.  I still see the elephants, splashing in the water and bathing themselves with their trunks.  I still hear the sounds of Mosi-Oa-Tunya (for isn’t that what we should really call it?).  The smoke that thunders.  I still feel the hot Zambian sun and the cooling mist from the falls.
Hyenas run across the plains.  A buffalo falls.
A lioness emerges from the tall dry grasses with a zebra leg.  Little cubs eat and bounce, licking blood off their faces.  Snuggling against each other.
My phone blinks at me.  I hear car horns.  The dim, ever-present noise of city life.  I shut my eyes again.  My eyes seem to filling with tears.  I reach my hand up to wipe them away, and suddenly my arm is an elephant’s trunk.  Wiping away mud. I remember you, elephant.  You will always be with me.
Here, in these city walls, I am the one in a cage. 
Tower Bridge
London was exhilarating.  After 13 days in rural, third world countries, I immersed myself in everything Western.  The red, double decker buses thrilled me.  I could not get enough of the also red phone booths strewn about the city, with their charming appearance and actual phones inside.  The glow of Big Ben and the London Eye were magical apparitions, a city of dreams and modern fairy-tales suddenly come alive.  I was in it.  Harry Potter, Doctor Who, every fantasy world I have loved seemed to be set here, in this United Kingdom, and I could not be more in love.

Soap that smelled wonderful, consistent running water, toilet seats, doors that locked, heating, electricity, internet.  The Western world came rushing back into view in full force and I was enamoured, grateful. 
View of the city from Tower Bridge
We walked around London during the day, viewing the beautiful architecture of the city from the ground and then from atop the Tower Bridge.  The river Thames bustled with boat traffic.  Long gone was the hot Zambian sun, as we pulled our toques down snugger and wrapped our sweaters around us more warmly.  This weather, I knew.  This weather was familiar.
We walked around again at night, immersing ourselves in the sights and sounds of the city, walking over bridges, seeing the sparkle of city lights on the river, Big Ben’s glowing clock a fascinating reminder that I was really here, a city so unlike yet like my own.  London.
London Eye

We ate excellent food; celebrated with wine.  We had survived the African wilderness. 
Our 2 and a half days in London are a blur.  We walked around so much, for I couldn’t get enough. Camden Market with its bustling, intricate crafts on display, delicious food from all over the world, all set in a unique old stable.  Giant lion statues guarding the fountains of Trafalgar Square with its delicate floating poppies; Westminster Abbey and the hundreds of small wooden crosses remembering fallen soldiers – Remembrance Day.  We walked more slowly here, sobered by the sheer amount of names.  Madness, war is.  “They fought for our freedom,” we were told as children, and the message wants to stay, despite knowing better.  It is an attempt to glorify war, make meaning out of the meaningless.  But that’s ok.  We can still grieve.  And remember to do better.  Are our lives really any better than the ones in the small villages in Africa that sped by us on the roads?  I don’t know.
I don’t want to romanticize it, either.  We certainly encountered a lot of poverty; people begging us for money; children and adults who would appear out of nowhere (even staff in an airport) and calmly ask you for money or food.  We encountered religious and cultural ideas that we knew were not accepting of certain types of relationships; we felt that uncomfortable back drop, and knew to keep our feelings and ideas on the back burner.  We drove by countless piles of plastic and garbage that has literally nowhere to go.
Big Ben
But I don’t know Africa.  I know it as one who has picked up a book off the shelf, skimmed the back page, maybe read a sentence or two here and there out of context.  But it was enough to want to know more.  I carry in me whispers of African countries, tiny pockets of wonder amidst an impossibly huge continent.
Africa is so big.  And it is not one entity.  That is perhaps what impressed me most.  A map of the continent now reveals to me places and images, voices, rivers.  I can trace the path of the Zambezi river now; I know how to find the Serengeti, the Maasai-Mara.  I can see Nairobi’s dot on the map and trace our route with our finger.  I see the point where four countries meet near Victoria Falls and I can close my eyes and see the riverbanks where we use a boat to cross the river.  These things leap off the map; it is no longer one solid mass.
The French call us “les fous d’Afrique” – those who become mad about Africa.  I’ve caught it.  There was no vaccine for it, and it seems to be incurable.  We met so many travelers on our route who had spent months traveling the continent, or who were about to.  I understand them now.  It is a vast, unexplored set of countries, peoples, landscapes that I can’t believe have been hidden from me all this time.  It is a new world opened up to me.
I did not dream Africa.  I carry small reflections with me.
When you see me next, ask me for stories.  Ask me to tell you about the time lions walked through our campsite, or to describe the elephants of Botswana playing in the river.  Ask me what it’s like to see a giraffe for the very first time, or to spot herds of zebra from high up in a silently floating balloon.  Don’t ask me for the photos, though I have those, too.  Let me somehow give you a little piece of this passionate madness.  Let me spread it here, right here, within the four walls of our city, so we can all know together how huge and beautiful the world is.  How connected we are.
Ask me for the heart of Africa, and listen.  

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