I’ve been thinking about Africa a lot lately. Partially because my brother just moved to Cameroon, a little because I’ve been thinking about going back, and another bit because I want my kids to know what it was like.
For me, Africa was intense. First of all, I didn’t fit in, which was interesting. My dad is black and Native American, and my mom is white; I got a blend of both which comes in handy all over the globe. With my “can’t-quite-place-it” look, I blend in completely in Morocco, Egypt, India, and much of South America. It’s liberating. But in Africa, I stood out. I was too light, my hair was too slippery.
I traveled through West Africa for four months. They didn’t really know what to think of me. I got a lot of questions and curious stares. I also got some overt preferential treatment. Normally this treatment came in the form of a good price at the market, or a bigger piece of fish at a restaurant. However, once it nearly killed me (not literally, although at the time I certainly felt like I would die from fright).
My husband Josh and I were staying at a great spot on the beach in Ghana called Big Milly’s Backyard, which is a hotel made up of a group of about a dozen small, thatched-roof huts. In concept, this is awesome. In practice, for me, it was terrible, because I am violently allergic to mold, and the thatched roofs were literally slathered with it. Since getting to Big Milly’s had been a multi-bus journey, we were planning on staying for awhile. So each night was a challenge. We finally came up with the bright idea to simply leave our doors and windows open while we slept.
Unbeknownst to us, the hotel had recently been hit with a spate of robberies. Guests would come back to their rooms and find that all of their valuables had been stolen. The hotel didn’t publicize the robberies, instead they just increased security on the grounds.
One night, round about three o’clock in the morning, I had to pee. I quietly crept out of bed and made my way out of the back door, but was stopped in my tracks when a buttery soft voice near my ankles whispered, “Hello, my friend!” My blood froze in my veins and I screamed a blood-curdling scream and ran back into the room, my arms stretched up towards the ceiling.
From Josh’s perspective, he was wakened from a deep sleep by a menacing figure waving its arms and screaming. So he yelled at the top of his lungs.
In the meantime, the buttery soft voice raised itself to a crackling, cackling voice. “It’s me!” the voice yelled. “It’s me!”
For many long seconds, utter pandemonium filled the hut. Finally, someone clicked on a flashlight and shone a light on the chaos. What had happened was simple, and actually very sweet. During our stay, we had befriended one of the security guards. During his rounds that night, he had noticed that our doors and windows were open, so he had silently stationed himself outside, to prevent us from being victims of a robbery. When I walked out the door, he had happily greeted me, not thinking that I would be completely terrified by his genuine salutation. Josh’s explanation for losing it was simple: he “saw” a figure rushing towards him “with a knife.” (Still not exactly sure where the knife came from).
This story always makes me think about perception, both how I perceive others and how they perceive me. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m a traveler: the blend of perceptions intrigues me. Life is much more interesting when you can look at it through a different lens.