Drifting in a mokoro through papyrus-fringed channels of the Okavanga Delta, I was so transfixed by the endless beauty surrounding me that I forgot the oppressive heat of the African sun. It wasn’t until I glanced back at the sweat-soaked poler, Timon, that I was reminded dehydration prevention was a top priority. Timon had no food or water with him. I held my bottle up to Timon, and he readily accepted several swigs of the lukewarm liquid. Although Timon and I had been introduced to each other as my overland trip group assembled into various mokoros, it wasn’t until I offered him my water that he began to open up to me. For the following two hours, Timon and I conversed in broken English and hand gestures. I told him about my family, what I eat for meals, how Africa differs from my home in Boston. He talked about his 5-year-old daughter, paused to point out silver-back frogs clinging to reeds, plucked a water flower and transformed it into a necklace for me, and squeezed an orange flower at its center to demonstrate nature’s equivalent of the super-soaker. We arrived at camp and I offered to help Timon set up his tent. Later, again amidst the lily studded waters, Timon stopped the mokoro and sat down at eye-level with me. “Do you like the black man?” he asked.
“I like people of all colors, some more than others based on their personalities, not their skin color,” I replied, uncertain whether he was looking to have a conversation about racial dynamics or whether he was hitting on me. He proceeded to tell me that he wants to be with a white woman, that Botswana’s national animal is the zebra for it represents the coexistence of black and white in harmony, and that he can tell I like black men because why else would I have worn short pants, shared my water with him and offered to help him with his tent. Furthermore, I was the only one that had expressed discomfort with my white group eating dinner first and the black polers eating our leftovers once we had finished. I had made a point of sharing my food and eating with them at the same time.
My experience with Timon is representative of several uncomfortable conversations I faced in Africa, and ultimately an important lesson and skill that I learned. The first lesson is obvious: it is critical to be aware of the cultural implications of what would be harmless actions in America. In this instance it was wearing shorts, and from this point on, I made an effort to research the implications of wearing certain clothing items and different actions so that I could modify my behavior appropriately. Throughout my three months in Africa, I struggled with my instinct to be friendly towards local people and the construal of my behavior as something more than friendship. Knowing the history and present state of race relations in the region, particularly in South Africa, I felt the need to prove that there are white people who respect and consider the black community as equals. Even as a backpacker, unconnected from any organization, I am an ambassador of the things I represent: a white, Jewish, American female. For many of the people I met, I am the only Jew or American they had ever encountered. This realization and conversations I’ve had with individuals from Laos to Zimbabwe to Spain have taught me a greater awareness of my own country and how it relates to the world at large. This translates into a heightened sense of self and enables me to handle tough situations diplomatically and build lasting relations.
I’ve spent time in over 20 countries and have found myself in a wide range of situations. Coupled with my work experiences, I’ve become an excellent problem solver, know when and how to take moderate risks, am capable of managing a limited budget, and appropriately show respect and sensitivity for different cultures and nationalities. Ultimately, the foundation for my success in uncertain circumstances is my confidence and willingness to communicate and relate to others.
Other lessons from my travels:
- A smile and an attempt to speak the local language – even just hello and thank you – go a long way to mitigate the hurdle of language barriers. I’ve found that individuals are willing to make a huge effort (informal sign language, alternative vocabulary) if I make an effort first. (Cambodia and Laos, 2007)
- Having an open mind and reserving judgment can lead to the most unlikely friendships and transformative conversations; it’s critical to constantly reevaluate my expectations and impressions (Israel, 2006 and Vietnam 2007)
- Throwing myself into situations that are far beyond my comfort zone is exciting and leads to great personal growth; it’s also okay to feel homesick at times. (Southeast Asia 2007 and Spain 2005) — My homesickness tends to manifest itself in my yearnings for certain comfort foods. After 3 weeks in Southeast Asia, of only eating noodle and rice dishes, all I could think about were bagels, macaroni and cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches.
- It is really important to be sensitive to my audience (including the implications of gender, age, culture, race and religion), and aware of how my actions, words and appearance may be perceived (Southeast Asia 2007 and Southern Africa 2009)
- Planning ahead is a good idea, but it’s just as important to be able to go with the flow and adapt to whatever challenges arise (Southeast Asia, 2007, Russia 2005 and Africa 2009)