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Life on the Road

Annette Noratli (past traveller) who provides a wonderful insight into what it is like to be on the road.

Recently I was sitting on a plane flying into Victoria Falls, about ready to embark on a five-week long road trip across Africa. Sitting next to me were two ladies dressed and groomed as if they certainly had not spent the last 20 hours in economy seats and numerous airports. On the other hand, I looked like a hot mess.

We started a conversation about what each of us were planning to do in Africa. They were there for a few days to see Victoria Falls and the top game parks of Zimbabwe. When I told them of my plans to spend more than one month in a 4×4 truck driving overland across Africa, a look of disbelief came across their faces. They couldn’t comprehend the idea of bumping along dusty roads for days on end. As I continued to try and explain how the overland trip was going to work, it was starting to sound a bit absurd even to me.

With sincerity filtered in with advice, one of the pretty ladies asked the obvious question, “Wouldn’t it be better to just fly from place to place?”
To be put on the spot with that question, and knowing what kind of trip they were about to embark on, I simply answered, “Well, that certainly would get me there easier!”
I disembarked off the plane and waved goodbye to the ladies in their freshly pressed safari pants and pocket vests, but their question stayed right there with me in my mind. “Wouldn’t it be better just to fly from place to place?”
I wasn’t able to adequately answer that on the plane because I knew that they were waiting for a fifteen second response. And I doubted if they would even care about any thoughtful and honest answer. They were going to be fine and dandy getting their selfie pictures with makeup adorned faces and perfect hairdos next to Victoria Falls.
However, I wanted to answer that question to myself, because I owed it to what travel in Africa is truly about.

Africa is the road. There’s no other place in the world where life and all of its existence revolves around the road as much as it does in Africa. . .

The road is a produce market. It is where every kind of fruit and vegetable is for sale. There are big stalls and outdoor tented shops and there are humble little stands with carefully stacked pyramids of excess garden crops. Whenever and wherever you stop, ladies come up to you with their food, more often than not with it perfectly balanced on their heads. It’s always a chaotic scene with each vying for your attention and money.

Windhoek Market

The road is a farm, butchery and pub…sometimes combined into one joint. You can see live chickens, pigs, goats, and cows munching beside some freshly killed meat hanging up for sale. Next to that can be a place where you grab a warm beer and perhaps play a round of pool and then disco dance with your sweetie.
The road is a bazaar. Every imaginable item needed for daily life is for sale. T-shirts, flip flops, coats, suits, fancy dresses and even undies hang in the hot African sun. Colorful plastic of every needed use sits alongside beautifully hand-made beds and tables on display. If you need to buy something, it’s going to be found alongside the road.

The road is a life source. In every village you see distant dirt paths winding down to a central gathering point which promises water for those that desperately depend on it. Ladies and children gather there with their scratched up plastic tubs all circling around the common well. They take turns pumping the water and filling their containers and then they miraculously balance the heavy pots on their heads and head back up the paths leading to home. The local well is also a central news hub, where all of the “goings on” of the village are gossiped about and embellished.

The road is a living room. Literally. All along people have couches and chairs outside, facing the road. If they don’t have a proper seat, they make do with pieces of wood or old tires. There they sit and watch with the utmost of attention. Since most of the poor do not have electricity, much less a television, the transport passing by on the road becomes the entertainment.
The road is a hub of every imaginable form of transportation. There are crowded buses with rooftops stacked to inconceivable heights with bags and boxes. Next to the buses are dusty cars full of families and motorcycles spewing out exhaust. As many people as humanly possible are crowded into pickup truck beds that seem to be at the last edge of their tipping point. Rickety bicycles with perhaps two or three sharing the seat also bump alongside huge lorry trucks carrying supplies. Then there are animal powered carts with donkeys, horses, and oxen clip-clopping along.

For the foreign traveler, the road can be a source of extreme frustration. It is slow and it is long. There are days when you think you will never get to where you are going. Whether it’s a confusing line at a border crossing, a breakdown of your truck, or road construction mayhem, hardly anything happens in a timely manner. It is bumpy and it is dusty. As you bounce along and nearly fall off your seat, your African driver will laugh and remind you that this is what’s called an “African massage.” The road is finding a place to go “bushy-bushy” because there are not any public toilets and the road is a time to dream of that bed and shower at the end of the day. Above all aggravations, the road is a lesson in patience.

The road is heart-warming and it is memorable. It’s where a cacophony of excited little children always run out to wave and yell their English “Hello!!” to you, the foreign “Mzungu”, as you pass by in your funny looking 4×4 truck. It is never tiring to wave back and light up their tiny faces with sheer delight. It is the place that you have hours of free time to listen and thoughtfully choose music that makes a personalized soundtrack to the outside passing documentary. And then the road is a place of friendship with your fellow travelers that you sit and live with for weeks. There is unending time to share laughter, conversation and emotional highs and lows together.

South-African-child

Ultimately, the African road is a never-ending story of warm-hearted people and their daily lives. It is there to become part of your story, if you want it to be. It is much, much more than the destination or the spotting of a lion or leopard on safari. It is all of the grime, humor, discomfort, adventure and frustration along the way. It is also the juxtaposition of a disturbing reality for the poor mixed in with unending examples of brave resilience and joy. The road is all of the experiences and stories you can never live through and tell, if you simply fly from place to place.

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