Last year I really enjoyed reading Crossing The Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure, by Julian Smith. The story of two men (Julian Smith retraced the steps of Ewart Grogan, the first man to walk from the southern to the northern tip of Africa) traveling across a continent a little over 100 years apart was fascinating as much for how different both they and their experiences were, but also the similarities. I was struck in both stories by the lack of personal comfort that they both experienced in terms of the different cultures and food. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading as an escape and comfort, and so I asked Julian to share where he was able to find comfort during his extensive travels. I, of course, was particularly interested in books and food.
Traveling alone through developing countries, like I did for Crossing the Heart of Africa, can be overwhelming on almost every level. The sights, sounds, and smells—especially the smells—are different from home, of course. But one subtle thing that’s easy to overlook, until it changes completely, is our generous concept of personal space.
In most of the developed world, and America in particular, I think, we just don’t touch each other all that much. We go through life surrounded by an invisible bubble of empty space, especially when it comes to strangers. Just think—when you brush up against someone at the supermarket or on the subway, what do you do? You apologize.
In other cultures, particularly in the developing world, this hand-off approach simply doesn’t exist. People touch each other all the time, friends and strangers, both on purpose—a hand on your arm while talking, friends (male and female) casually holding hands as they walk down the street—and accidentally. When people come together in groups, they don’t carefully steer clear of each other. They often mash together, each man (or woman, or child) or him- or herself.
I can’t count the number of times I was bumped, grabbed, stomped, or hip-checked aside by complete strangers in Africa, mostly on public transport. It’s almost a Darwinian approach to space: if you don’t guard your area, someone else will take it. That’s just how it is. A mad scrum on the gangplank of a ferry. A father drops his son in your lap on a minibus without a word of explanation. Two sacks of potatoes where your feet just were a minute ago. Arms, elbow, knees, hips, shoulders, all put into action to claim space and keep it.
Whatever the cultural or socioeconomic explanation, it can take some adjustment. It seems rude at first, all this jostling, but consider how it can seem in reverse: people who steer through life hardly ever coming into contact with each other, isolated like islands.
I won’t say I ever completely got used to it, but I did notice I breathed a sigh of relief whenever I found a hotel or boarding house and was able to close the door of my room behind me. A nightly ritual of privacy: This is now my space.
Reading was another way to gain the illusion of a little privacy. Talking to strangers is the best way to get to know a place, but everyone has his limits. Used books become a sort of alternate currency; finding a good one, especially in, say, the backwoods of Burundi, was cause for celebration. Sometimes I’d catch myself unconsciously calculating if I had enough pages left for a long bus or ferry journey.
A few of the books I read on this trip couldn’t have taken me farther, mentally, from my surroundings (which was part of the point): Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey’s rollicking tale of Oregon lumberjacks; Miracle in the Andes, about the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed, forcing them to eat each other; Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s mind-bending Matryoshka doll of a sci-fi novel. One book, A Spot of Bother, by Mark Haddon, was the perfect length for a four-hour bus ride. I started it when we left, and finished it five minutes before we arrived. Perfect—now where are we?