After six months of working in a developing nation, I have been exposed to true human suffering. I’ve witnessed hardship and felt compassion like I never have before. When it came time to board a flight to Paris to visit my family for Christmas, my happiness was conflicted. On my way to the airport we drove through slums; I struggled to reconcile the happy anticipation of traveling with what was happening outside my car window. It didn’t seem fair. How could I fly away from this to the land of milk and honey conscience-free? In a weak moment, I missed the guiltlessness of life before Africa the way one misses childhood – but not for long.
Since I had arrived here by ship, this was my first time flying in this part of Africa. It was 8:45 pm when we took off from Conakry’s 3-terminal airport. I have become accustomed to the nightly power outtages and unreliable electricity here. It isn’t uncommon to be enjoying fish and chips beachside on a Friday night when the power goes off. Flashlights, matches and candles come out, and the live music carries on without so much as a pause.
So maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me, as we flew low over Conakry, how few lights there were among such a densely populated peninsula. From an airplane the city looked rural even though Conakry has a population of 2 million people, as estimated by the U.S. Bureau of African Affairs. It was astonishing. I flew away from Conakry finally understanding something I already knew: most of my neighbors were at home in the dark.
Eight hours later I landed in the City of Light. Over the next week of my stay there, I couldn’t help myself: it was all relative. I listened to French accents, observing how different they sounded. I chatted with a Senegalese man under the Eiffel Tower who was selling souvenirs (he was delighted to encounter someone familiar with his part of the world). It turned out that Africa was with me everywhere I went: I smelled it when I walked along the Seine. I overheard it when the group of West African men argued in Trocadero. It found me when I came across a copy of Mr. Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa in Shakespeare & Co. I shared it with my family in the generous amount of plantain chips I brought in my carry-on. I sat in a cafe in St. Germain and daydreamed myself back to Africa.
I marveled at how tall buildings seemed in Paris and how taxis had meters. Not once did I have to bargain in broken French or decline a marriage proposal. No one called me “Foté! Foté!” In fact, Paris ignored me completely. I wandered quietly through the city without so much as clicking on cobblestone. I used a credit card for the first time since July. I brushed my teeth with water from a hotel faucet. There was no scary neighborhood pet monkey like in the port. Everything smelled divine. I was allowed to show my knees…even if only to put my layers back on before freezing. There were no rats. I wore no bug spray…
…And no one shook my hand with the special handshake I know. No one smiled at me or gave me sesame candy. Not a single woman thrust their newborn baby into my arms and approximately zero Parisians broke out into song for no reason. For all my love of magical Paris, which remains my favorite city, it was now new to me in ways neither good nor bad…just different.
On the left: the scary neighborhood pet monkey. On the right: my aunt’s dog in Paris. I learned yesterday that the monkey is named Pascale…coincidentally, that’s her dog’s name too. Life has a way of catching my attention with peculiar parallels.
Paris was a luxury, yes, but not only because of the generous serving of Berthillon pistachio ice cream I allowed myself on my last night or the conveniences of the developed world. Paris was a luxury in education, because it allowed me to see two cities in two new ways.
So from my last trip of 2012, I will share with you my epiphany: if I can, whenever I can – I will leave the place I’m in so long as it enlightens me when I return. From Freetown, to Fortaleza, to Fort Worth – count me in, and I’ll eagerly jump at the opportunity to see it all, guilt-free.
I hope that in 2013 you see everything in a new light, too, and that you come tell me about it sometime. Perhaps over a seaside candlelit dinner, while we listen to the acoustic soundtrack that is Africa.