Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Two Weeks from Today

If all goes according to plan, two weeks from today I land in Africa — first in Ethiopia, where I board a connecting flight, and then in Cotonou, Benin. It's a trip I've wanted to take for three years, since Suzanne learned she'd be joining the Peace Corps.

I've tried to imagine it, but I get only as far as stepping out of the airport into a steamy, tropical afternoon. The sights and smells and sounds — I've heard about them, but they're abstractions. So I've turned to ... a book, of course.

In The Shadow of the Sun, the late journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski writes that three things struck him on his first arrival in Africa: the heat, the odor and the people. Here's what he says about the aroma:

It is the smell of a sweating body and drying fish, of spoiling meat and roasting cassava, of fresh flowers and putrid algae — in short, of everything that is at once pleasant and irritating, that attracts and repels, seduces and disgusts. This odor will reach us from nearby palm groves, will escape from the hot soil, will wait above stagnant city sewers. It will not leave us; it is integral to the tropics.
 And here's how he describes the people:
How they fit this landscape, this light, these smells. How they are at one with them. How man and environment are bound in an indissoluble, complementary, and harmonious whole. ...  [They] move about naturally, freely, at a tempo determined by climate and tradition, somewhat languid, unhurried, knowing one can never achieve everything in life anyway, and besides, if one did, what would be left over for others?

I will have 19 days to meet the people, see the sights, sample the pace. To get a taste — just a taste — of a continent.

(Photo: Katie Esselburn)


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