reverse culture shock

i’ve become more and more aware of just how different my experience of africa is from that of other foreigners here. of course i got an inkling in rwanda, where the mazungu population ranges from tourists in rental cars to diplomats living in ex-pat compounds to aid-workers in borderline mansions who look at me wide-eyed when i say i don’t have a fridge. i knew that vso was the only organization in rwanda with volunteers riding local buses and living in villages (with the exception of a japanese group i’ve just recalled) and that it wasn’t much of a destination for budget travellers. but i sorta thought kenya might be different. here’s a taste of some of the mazungus i’ve met here:

my fellow safari-goers from germany and poland who thought we were roughing it on our budget-camping trip where we had our own vehicle, overhead showers, mattresses in our tents, and meat at least once a day. ok it was cold water and there were mosquitos and the road was bumpy. but to me it was luxury. when we stopped en route for gas and water and some kids came up and asked for candy, one of the germans said oh, i’m sorry, i don’t have any candy but here’s some money.(!) as i explained my travel plans for the rest of my trip – matatu (taxi-bus) to park entrance, walk or hitch to campsite, rent a tent from a local, reverse, matatu to nairobi, overnight bus to mombasa – he looked at me, this supposed budget traveller like myself, as if either i was bending over backwards to save a buck or taking unnecessary risks. ‘you know those local buses aren’t very comfortable.’ don’t i know it. ‘you should take the train to mombasa.’ but the train is four times the price and takes longer. ‘just watch your bag.’ oh i will.

the hippies i met in lamu, some of whom have been there on and off for years. independently wealthy, herbert from germany has just bought a house he plans to use four months out of the year and rent out the rest of the time. osama (not bin laden) from the u.s. runs a safari boat to the islands for snorkelling and camping on the beach, just married a local woman ten years his junior and is expecting. tommy from sweden has retired there, katie from holland hopes to. sort of reminded me of the hippies in the virgin islands minus the musicians.

also in lamu, i met three backpacking volunteers working in nairobi. here were kindred spirits, washing their laundry in a bucket with me on the roof of the hotel – two german social workers and one brazilian working in a refugee camp. except with these guys, the tables had flipped and i was the one with the sweet deal. they had all paid their own way – flight, housing, food – plus raised money to donate to their organizations, in the brazilian’s case $8000 all told.

now i’m in watamu, in a swanky hotel surrounded by beautiful italians and feeling like a bit of an imposter. i arrived on a bus (natch) smelling pretty nasty and my pack covered in dust. the security guard didn’t want to let me in. after several calls to reception, i was finally permitted to carry my dusty pack past lush sprinkler-minded gardens into the open-air hardwood-floored reception building to where i had to explain that yes i was a guest but no i didn’t have a voucher or the credit card to pay for anything. my white skin pulled some strings and i was shown to my room on the promise that a fax from mom would ensue to sort everything out. after a shower and change of clothes i felt a bit more acceptable, and battling massive culture shock went into the grandiose dining hall just before they closed the kitchen for lunch. as i wolfed down a gourmet meal like i hadn’t tasted in over ten months, the maitre d’ sat down to chat. i explained i was headed out the door to collect my friend in mombasa. ‘from the airport?’ no he’s on a bus. ‘can i hire you a cab?’ no i’ll take a matatu. silence. ‘are you sure?’ yeah but thanks. leaving the hotel and walking past rickety vegetable stalls toward the matatu stand, i had an odd-feeling of having glimpsed another world, one in which i had been comfortable in times past and would relax into after a few days, but which at the time didn’t quite sit well. it was almost a relief to squish back into that smelly uncomfortable taxi-bus, chat with the driver while the ticket-taker fit more and more people in, made them duck between the seats to dodge police checkpoints, passengers piling in and out down the long beach road to mombasa.

is this what i’ll feel when i finally go home to new york? will i miss the discomforts that the italians here snub their noses at ? now that i’m back in the hotel, more at ease and relishing hot water showers, stunning beaches, and good food, i still don’t really fit in with the clientele, but i don’t really care. i have an experience of africa that they may never appreciate, but one that i’ll always treasure.

blue bay hotel in watamu beauty on the beach camel for hire

~ by aliciawolcott on December 3, 2007.

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