There are only a few buzzwords that always catch my fancy, capture my imagination, and leave me awed.
Unlike most of the population, they have nothing to do with good looks, fast cars and lots of money; IOW, Brad & Jen. Most times, I am hard-pressed to list them outright, one by one.
But Africa, now there’s another story.
From as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be the kind of traveling adventurer who just whipped on her backpack and got going. I’d hear of friends of friends taking off for Europe, riding the trains, stopping by ports of call at the frozen edge of Russia and most impressively, backpacking across the plains of the Serengeti of Africa.
Like that Toto song I used to hear on the radio and go all soft in the head and faraway in my eyes.
Africa, next to Asia, seemed so foreign, so exotic as to be on another planet, with not a small hint of danger attached. (Hey, I read “The Hot Zone.” I know these things.) Viruses, diseases, AIDS are born and bred on that continent, a frequent hot-bed of political and social unrest, the truest litmus test of the successful humanization of this planet, not Beverly Hills and its snobby one-negative-size-fits-only-the-anorexic clerks.
British actor Damian Lewis once did that very thing, trekking across Africa with his backpack in tow, right out of school, to explore new worlds, seek out new adventures, build on his already impressive background, an Eton-raised boy almost the caliber of a Prince William. He also nearly killed himself hitting a car with his motorbike, flying into a taxicab window and rendering his skull a nauseous, moody, angry mess. But that just adds to the mystique, the allure, the edgy cool factor, in my opinion.
When we children would gather around the playground showing off our kung fu moves, confessing our deepest crushes and wishing on the first star, the question would inevitably arise, “What are you gonna do when you grow up?” Without fail, I’d answer without thinking, trying only to beat out the others with the most daring, far-fetched picture of living on the edge I could think up from my limited imagination and even more limited experience.
I never wanted to marry (even though I really did), or have children, they’d slow me down (only who would be able to stomach my ugly face long enough to have children with?). No, I would see the world, starting with Africa, with only the clothes on my back, a weathered backpack full of candy bars, thermos filled with Kool-Aid and the freeze-dried Army packets my dad let me try once (yuck!). I’d play with the tigers and lions, race with the giraffes and zebras, discover a cure for cancer in one of the jungle rainforests, make friends with the African children from a village with huts made out of mud, banana leaves and spit and collect shiny, bi-speckled garnet rocks out in a open field of desert sand.
Maybe I’d write a book or two about the experience, before heading off to Singapore and the Philippines, to slum around, before heading back.
Only as I got older did my interest in daring exotic Africa wane, as news reports told of tribal wars, resulting in gang rapes of women and children, the rampant spread of sexual diseases, including AIDS in most of South Africa, the racial unrest between the native blacks and the visiting whites, deciding to make parts of the continent their exotic home.
The number of shots I’d had to take to ward off diseases and illnesses was also a huge turn-off. Not to mention the possibility I’d wind up with dysentery anyway no matter how scrupulous I was about drinking only bottled water and washing my hands frequently. It’s like Mexico.
After about college entry, I had this unflattering picture of Africa in my head, a third world of burning forests, bloody rivers and a chaotic governmental system where anything goes and anybody with enough military firepower can rule, until another amoral sociopath takes over. Cue tribal wars and gang rapes.
I believed if I stepped foot on African soil, I’d be dead within a week, shot to death, raped to death, bled to death from some virus, stampeded over by a herd of zebra.
The older I got, the more cautious I became about the kinds of adventures I wanted to partake of, lessening the fatal chances of daring until there was nothing left but an idealized childhood dream, replaced with a more luxurious, acceptable grown-up option: five-star resort by the ocean in the good old United States, 24-hour room service, silent, continuous air conditioning, satin and cotton sheets, goose down, Jacuzzi, Plasma screen, free pay-per-view movies, I’d never have to leave my room.
It’s not coincidence that old people harp neurotically on every possible remote way they could accidentally experience misfortune and catastrophic death, from even the faint sound of a thunderstorm in the distance, could be a killer lightning bolt, to tripping over a stick near a ditch, could be rattle snakes... the older they get, the more they wanna keep getting older without mishap.
As summer looms on the horizon, friends leave their homes empty for parts unknown, and I’m left wondering what to do with myself and where to go, thoughts of Africa taunt me, a what-if I know will never be because I’m too chicken to risk possibly the greatest challenge to my comfort zone, and the greatest adventure that may still await me, regardless of the many daunting realities. If Oprah can do it...
I’d rather try Victoria, B.C. again, it’s been two years since my last afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel. Or maybe a better hotel in the middle of Times Square, Manhattan, a decent one without roaches is nearly impossible to find on the East Coast, except maybe Mystic, Connecticut. I hear Alaska is cooler than the rest of the country this time of year... someplace with snow and a warm, cozy fire.
And 24-hour room service.
I can watch Africa unfold from the comfort of my hotel room bed on the Travel Channel. Good enough.
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