With regards to storytelling, traveling stacks the deck. And the kind of “Choose Your Own Adventure” travel that I enjoy (and stresses me out) often provides for particularly fun tales to tell.
But what really gets me going, and the reason that I put up with the two-day old pairs of socks and leaky tents and occasional rip-offs, are the people. There is no greater assortment of vagabonds than that which you find at a hostel or campsite, and the locals that lend themselves to meeting strangers are often the most curious if not always the most savory sort. When my roommates headed back to Gaborone after five days of traveling in Botswana and Zambia, I stayed behind and got some extra face time before attempting to get to Zimbabwe. Some of the characters I met include:
Tony: After graduating college Tony told his British parents that he was going to Zambia for twelve months with his buddies. That was around 1996. Tony is now one of the most well-known guides and photographers in Southern Africa. When his father took a mokoro (boat) trip in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, the villager manning the boat said “Tony? Tony Camera? He is not like other guides. We like Tony Camera.”
Robert: A Shona Zimbabwean orphaned at five, Robert put himself through school with government help. He didn’t go to college, however, because he had no way to pay for it. It doesn’t matter, he says, because college graduates and high school dropouts alike find no jobs in Zimbabwe. I met Robert on the ride to Gaborone, to which he was traveling from Masvingo (about 500 miles) to sell handicrafts, a train ride on which Robert became my default companion and bodyguard.
Chris: After beginning his sales pitch with a traditional Zambian “Hello, my friend” volley, Chris followed me all the way to the internet cafe despite my assurances that I didn’t need any more bracelets. He waited for me there, at which point I promised I would buy him a beer if he would show me around the more local parts of Livinstone, Zambia. With stunning turnaround time, he said, “Oh, I shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach. Maybe we can just get take-out.” We compromised on the beer, for which we paid half the normal price at the local backalley bar. No bracelet.
Ruben: Though he looked about twelve, Ruben had just turned seventeen, quitting school (according to the sales pitch) in order to support his family selling trinkets to tourists. Like Chris, Ruben followed the potential sale all the way down the street despite a limp and a serious stutter. What finally got me? The kid could name the last sixteen US presidents, in backwards chronological order (in addition to Lincoln and Washington). Bracelet: $1.25.
Matthijs and Nic: No, that’s not spelled wrong: Matt is Dutch, and he met his wife Nic when they were both traveling. They’ve just quit their jobs in Australia and are moving to Holland, but decided to take three months to wander Africa before they started job hunting. The first time I’ve looked at a young married couple and though, “Hey, that might not be so bad.” Also, Matthijs is a professional Project Manager, and gave me some great Manna Project advice over the burgers which would later bed-rid the both of us. His white-water antics the day before left our entire boat in stitches (except for Nic, who looked constantly nervous about her husband’s thrillseeking).
This list does not include: the Swedish gals who gave me porridge when I was sick, or the Botswana Defence Force who fought proudly and admiringly alongside the US Marines in Somalia, or the cat who attempted to sell me weed on the train, or the American girls who talked loud enough for everyone in the hostel to hear them at all times, or my hitch hiking buddies, or the veteran traveler who has spent the last twenty months in the developing world – at the age of (best guess) thirty-five. This, for me, is “travel.”