Friday, January 11, 2013

Culture shock

Sunrise over Africa
(at least) Eight months, six different countries, two major regions of the world. Alone.

These were the requirements of the Bonderman fellowship. The idea being, in part, that you're gone for a while, see some different things, get thrown out of your comfort zone and rely on yourself the whole time. So far I've been gone over six months, been to 10 different countries (China, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Morocco, Senegal and Cameroon), I've been mostly alone the whole time, and now that I've entered Cameroon, I'm into the second of my two official "major regions" (a vague concept in itself), Central Africa.

Everyone asks about my impressions of this area, so here are a few about Africa in general:


This is the first impression that's been on my mind. Traveling alone requires a level of trust. There's the trust in oneself and one's abilities to survivie or even thrive in new, strange and difficult circumstances. There's a trust in one's immune system that the lukewarm street-meat-wich you just ate won't haunt you later (it didn't), and there's also a necessary trust of others around you, even when they're not always trustworthy.

The producer of my questionable sandwich.
In Central Asia, I found it fairly easy to trust most of the locals I met. I would willingly hop into strangers' cars, accept invitations to raucous birthday parties (while limiting my own raucousness), sleep on the floors of people I'd met just hours before on the street, and eat their food. This trust was partly due to my being in the region for several months and starting to get a feel for the culture, partly due to the general decrease in corruption and relative lack of tourist predation in this area, and quite likely partly due to some blissful ignorance on my part.

Waiting for the local transport (kind of like Jeepneys in the Philippines)
Africa has been a different story. I don't mean to say that Africans are, as a rule, untrustworthy. In fact, I can think of a few who are the opposite. This is a common perception, however. Before arriving in Africa, I'd heard stories and read in the guidebook about all of the different cons and scams that Moroccans or Senegalese or Cameroonians could, and likely would, pull on you. Once I arrived, I watched many Moroccans and Senegalese and Cameroonians pull these exact tricks on me and other foreigners nearby.

neighborhood street in Dakar

The problem isn't the con men themselves, as I'd expected to encounter them and even derived an odd bit of pleasure from seeing through their scams and continuing on unscathed. The problem is the effect that they, and the fear of them as promoted through guidebooks and traveler lore, have on my psyche. Instead of taking the invitation to come in for tea and plov, I'm instantly suspicious of any friendly-looking face and watching my back as I sip the tea. This leads to a much more stressful existence.

Thankfully, as I said, not everyone is like this. For instance, CouchSurfing introduced me to Ouzin, my Senegalese host in Dakar. He took me all around town, introduced me to his friends and family, who in turn introduced me to various home-cooked traditional Senegalese meals (all delicious, by the way),. he spoke little to no English, forcing me to practice my incredibly rusty French, and in general provided a comfortable, interesting experience during my short stay in Dakar.

Ouzin next to some old French cannons

Here in Cameroon, my host and friend Evan introduced me to a co-worker, Michael, who knows about motorcycles. Michael has been helping me shop for bikes and answer some of my Cameroon-motorcycling questions. Although I'm still wary of trusting him fully, it's been invaluable in finding a decent bike in a reasonable amount of time in a new place

The key has been connections. With Ouzin, it was Couchsurfing. With Michael, it was a mutual trusted friend. When I'm off on my own again riding through Central Africa, we'll see what kinds of trust and hospitality I find


Whereas most Central Asians are imprinted with the Soviet mentality of not smiling unless it's absolutely necessary or warranted, you don't see many people beaming on the streets. In Africa, however, and especially Senegal and Cameroon so far, smiles, laughs and humor seem to be the currency that keeps life moving. Getting scammed? Joke with the scammer and he'll leave you alone! Salesman overcharging you? Give him a laugh and the price drops! It's quite refreshing, actually...

Ouzin's uncle jammin'


My first comment to Evan when I got off the plane in Douala and it was 80 degrees: "It's pretty hot for 5am, eh?" Very different from the frigid steppe of Central Asian in December.

Cooling off in the tree chair in Dakar

Cooling off in the Atlantic Ocean

Near the westernmost point in Africa


No more plov, no more Shorpa, no more Mante, (although they still have Shawarmas). Now there are all sorts of spicy meaty sauces over rice or with Cassava. Delicious. Best of all - still no sickness since China!


kind of like oatmeal with yogurt, but sweeter, and eaten communally. Sugar counts as a spice

Making tea. They make it super strong and carmelize the tons of sugar they add to it.


In Central Asia, politics is a bit of a non-issue. Despite being "democracies", most of those republics have had the same president for decades. Cameroon is a bit the same, but Senegal had some clear excitement and uncertainty in their election system - as evidenced by these eloquent political statements

Wade was the last president

He was voted out last year

Memorial to the end of slavery on l'Isle de Goree

The African Renaissance Monument in Dakar. It's taller than the Statue of Liberty.

1 comment:

  1. Good reflection on the issue of trust. I'm looking forward to future impressions! Enjoy time with Evan and Lisa:)