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The Opposite of Africa

This is how you know you are in Africa—when the houses, roads, the tires on your car, and even the soles of your feet become stained red-orange from the iron-rich soil that covers so much of this great continent. Wearing sunglasses heightens the red color so that the land just seems to glow like a live ember in a fireplace. The color stays with you—and I’m sure if you dig around your sock drawer you’ll find a bit of Tanzania still in there. — Andrew Evans

Jambo, jambo, Andrew,

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I pulled my car along the curb and took this picture looking up through the rain splattered windshield. The trees that line the broad arterial that leads into my neighborhood have not lost all of their leaves, but by the time this latest storm has passed, they’ll be gone, first carpeting the sidewalks and gutters in a checkerboard orange and yellow carpet, then turning to a slick brown mat that poses a serious risk to the few of us brave (or stupid) enough to ride a bicycle during what’s left of November.

Your letter from Tanzania made me smell the dust again. Your pictures made me think of that uneven bright stripe of road that reached out in front of and behind the truck crossing The Endless Plain. The Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is not the right color, or the cranberries in the stuffing but the last of the red orange leaves are close. Even if I could spread those leaves out in a great blanket over the asphalt, four lanes in front of me, four lanes behind me, it would not match the dry grassy smell of East Africa. Instead I have mulch, rain, the salt waters of the cold Northern Pacific that spill into Puget Sound. There is some wood smoke, and something piney, and pie, of course, because there is pie from the day before Thanksgiving until well into the following month, perhaps past Christmas. But none of this is the color, the smell, of East Africa. Only the leaves are close.

It should be that when you have been to a place, you are not wrecked with envy when someone you adore goes there. You should think, “Oh, this is the best possible thing, that my friend should get to see this place that I loved so well! This thrills me!” But I’m not that enlightened. I think, “Oh, again you are in a place I love without me! That’s not right! Why aren’t I there too?” While on safari, I stepped out of my tent in the middle of the night to hear lions roaring in the dark, to see the sky lighting up in a ring of heat lightning. I thought, “Everyone I know should be right here, right now, standing next to me in silence, to experience this moment when there is no time.” But now, when I read that you’re rushing off to the roar of lions, I think, “This is not fair, it’s not fair at all, I should be there!”

Instead, I am in the opposite of Africa, if there is such a place. While in Tanzania, each time I turned a corner it was as though I had transited from one technicolor dream to another. But in Seattle the sky is gray and wet, the light does not come up full under the storms, everything is shiny and smells like water and the thin edge of winter. It is a blur of all kinds of gray punctuated by smudgy tail lights, traffic lights; there are no hard edges. At night, the rain is loud and steady. It wakes me and I think that the water must be running somewhere. During the day, I write and drink coffee with friends and we watch the water pour from the sky in relentless, continuous strands of pewter. Days diffuse into night through a constant merging of cloud and sky and run off. What could be less like Tanzania than endless running water?

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I went to visit an old friend today and while I was driving home — and before I stopped the car to photograph these leaves, this rain on my windshield — I watched a man walk across the street. He was dark, Africa dark, and tall and skinny. He was wearing a long pale jehllubeeya, I could see it under his dark overcoat. He had black loafers on his feet and carried a black umbrella against the falling sky. I watched his leggy strides from behind my steering wheel. To see him out the window of the bus in Dar es Salaam would be nothing special, but to watch him crossing the from the corner that holds the Walgreens to the corner that holds the Minimart was disorienting, he was of another place.

I wanted to roll down the window and shout, “Tell Andrew thanks for the letter!” as though he’d disappear into a wormhole at the FedEx store and reappear on your side of the earth with my greetings to you, still wet from today’s precipitation. If only it were so easy. I would seal up a jar of Seattle rain and send it via this umbrella carrying courier. You’re in Africa, anything can happen there. Watch for a tall skinny man with a black umbrella carrying your jar of rain that smells like the Pacific Northwest. In return, I might ask for a box of that red dust that lines the roads you travel now, but …you’re almost right, I do have red dust here. It’s not in my sock drawer that the leftover shock of color lies, it’s in my veins, just like now, it’s in yours.

Never mind that our lives are anything but this, sing to the savannah, won’t you? “All I can say is that my life is pretty plain, I like watching the puddles gather rain…”

Your friend on the other side of the map,

Pam

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7 Responses to “The Opposite of Africa”
  1. Tory says:

    I’m not sure which one of your blogs I started reading first, but suffice it to say one of you led me to the other. I’ve been in hog heaven ever since, and this exchange has been truly touching. Travelers know how to speak to each other.

  2. Karen says:

    That — reading your friend’s letter, and then your response here — was AWESOME.

    My Lord, how I love your writing.

    K.

  3. Linda says:

    My god, even the comments on your blog are awesome! I’ve been silently following you for ages, but this really moved me to tell you how very much I admire your talent…..even though my words do feel inadequate, as I knew they would.

  4. I like the way you write too.

    Makes sense that you and Evans are mates because he’s one of my other favourite travel bloggers.

    Kudos to you both.

  5. Everyone, you guys are very kind. Thank you. That’s all.

  6. Anis says:

    These letters from the both of you are just lovely. Wouldn’t it be amazing if such couriers did exist, delivering bits of memories from places we’ve been to?

    Really loved this piece.

  7. Corinne says:

    You make me want to go to Africa.

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