Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Thanksgiving was not a good day for me.
I crossed the border from The Gambia into Senegal. And I just had one of those days when somehow I was doing everything wrong. I have been traveling nonstop for nearly three-and-half years, besides many other solo trips taken before that. I have been to some of the most difficult or remote corners of the world. But on this day, I behaved like a rube. A sucker. An amateur. A college sophomore on his first trip abroad, flustered because he can’t find a Burger King within two miles.
I have crossed numerous borders, both in Africa and elsewhere, even in unsavory or dangerous places. I knew all about corrupt border officials. They’re a dime a dozen in Africa. On this day, as I tried to exit the Gambia, the border official demanded a bribe from me, dressing it up as a “departure fee.” What I should have done, what any seasoned traveler worth his salt should have done, was to stand my ground and tell him no, and nein, and nyet, and fuhgeddaboudit. But somehow, on this day, maybe because I’d gotten up at five, maybe because I had a headache, after a few minutes of resistance, I sighed and handed over the money.
Of course I instantly regretted it. But there was no way to turn back the clock now, unless I wanted to physically wrestle him to the ground and pry the cash out of his greedy, grubby grip.
On the other side the border, I immediately made a second rookie mistake.
In many developing countries, public or quasi-public modes of transportation have no fixed schedules but only depart when the vehicles are full. This means that you must ascertain that the vehicle that you throw your lot in with is close to being full; best case scenario is that you’re the final passenger they need. Otherwise you can be in for an indefinite wait.
Again, I knew this. I’d dealt with this issue a hundred times before. But again, on this day I acted like a rube. The most common mode of transportation to get from the border to Dakar, Senegal’s capital, is the sept-place — a car with its space maximized so that it can squeeze in a total of seven passengers beside the driver. Seven seats — sept-place. This was what I should have gone for right away. But instead I allowed myself to be waylaid by a man selling tickets for a big bus. I paid him for a ticket then got on the bus to find that, out of perhaps fifty seats, five were taken. Another passenger suggested to me that — this was at 9:30 in the morning — we’d be on our way by two or three in the afternoon. I went back to find the ticket man to try to get my money back to buy a seat on the sept-place that I should have gone with from the beginning. By the time I half coaxed and half threatened him into allowing me to leave with both my cash and my luggage, it was 11:30.
“Lesson learned,” we like to say after a SNAFU. But is it really? Look at me, failing to learn my lessons, even after years of experience. Look at all of us: we all know — let’s face it — that the character flaws formed in us from an early age are typically never rectified. The narcissist remains a narcissist. The miser, a miser. The chip on the shoulder usually stays there. We admire those among us who can identify the flaws in themselves and work to ameliorate them, precisely because they are the exception. All the rest of us carry our foibles to our graves.
And look at us as a species. It’s staring us in the face, what we’re doing to this planet. But are we going to change? Almost certainly not. In Saint-Louis on the Senegalese-Mauritanian border, I was saw an indication of this climate change and its consequence: the Atlantic shore from which the local fishermen used to launch their boats has been so eroded in recent years and they are now forced to use the interior inlet instead. Meanwhile, much of the town is drowning in trash, because the residents throw their garbage just anywhere. And as they’ve always done this, why should they throw it anywhere else now?
One thing I have been trying to learn is to be thankful, to be zen, to “love failure.” It was Thanksgiving, after all. So I told myself after that border crossing that I should just be grateful that I got a lot more money where that came from, where as this poor bastard of an immigration officer didn’t. But, after years of trying, I have also found that learning to celebrate one’s failure is extremely difficult. And now I’m upset with myself for failing to learn that
So we go on doing the same things we always do, intentionally or not. It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. Well, we certainly do the same things over and over, because we don’t learn.
And also, what else can we do? What can a starving actress do except to keep going to auditions, hoping that one miraculous afternoon her big break will come? What can a man unlucky in love do except to keep going out on enervating dates, hoping that one impossible evening he will find the one?
And so, as Camus had it, life makes us all into Sisyphus.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."