Finding Comfort While Crossing The Heart of Africa, by Julian Smith

Crossing the Heart of Africa

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?

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  1. I studied the concept of personal space while I was an undergrad. An entire class on it actually, and I find the whole issue fascinating. I am considered a “touchy-feely” person in our culture: I believe in hugs, even of just acquaintances. I touch people when I talk to them. Kissing is a common practice in my family for hellos and goodbyes and sometimes just because. Many Americans find it strange. And yet, when I was in Mexico, people I had just met touched me and hugged me and kissed me with no problem whatsoever. Granted that’s all the positive part of it, but still I am a big fan of human contact. I have never really thought about the negative side of that: the grabbing, hip-checking, bumping, and stomping side. 🙂

    1. Personal space is fascinating. I think I automatically hug people when I am saying goodbye, even if I have just met you for the first time, but that’s probably about it. I definitely would find them hip-checking and stuff irritating and I think in general I like people to maintain a comfortable distance unless I know them well.

  2. What an interesting post! That would definitely be very weird for me. Comfort is sort of a big deal for me even here at home. I’m always out in the community meeting with various people and I like the comfort of things that are familiar to me. The personal space thing would bother me. The book sounds very interesting.

    And I know what you mean about reading being a comfort thing. I called mine Take Me Away because I think of it as an escape, but it’s just as much a comfort thing too.

    1. As I was reading his book, all I could think about was how uncomfortable I would be with what he experienced. Reading is definitely a comfort and an escape.

  3. Yes, the issue of personal space is so fascinating! Definitely something that takes a little getting used to when traveling. Sounds like an engaging book!

    1. It’s interesting too that we think of personal space as something that is so set in stone, but it is fantastically fluid among different regions and cultures.

  4. Sometimes a Great Notion is one of all-time favorite books. Somehow the idea that it was one of the books that accompanied such an amazing journey strikes me as . . . well I don’t know. Odd is not the right word.

    People in the West do have very definite ideas of personal space. I had a similar experience (on a smaller scale) in South America.

    1. I haven’t had anything too out of the ordinary happen when I have been traveling. In Italy and old woman pushed me out of the way when she wanted to sit, but the US also has it share of rude and crotchety old women so I wasn’t too offended.

  5. I am very particular about my personal space and I like being alone most of the time. I’m also not so much of a touchy-feely person. I would like to read this book.

    1. The journey definitely sounded as if it would be on the trying side for those of us who really value alone time and personal space. I think it would have been a very wearying trip for me.